A troubling question: am I to be denied absolution on my deathbed?
Jody Corcoran ponders the participation of the divorced and separated in the Catholic church after making his first confession in 30 years while on a visit to the Vatican
Last Saturday, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin expressed disappointment that so much media coverage of The Joy of Love - a document on love in the family published by Pope Francis six months ago - focused exclusively on discussions about the ban on giving Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
As it happened, I was on a personal visit to Rome that weekend and on Sunday attended the Vatican where, for the first time in almost 30 years, I sought what is called the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation - or what is more commonly referred to as Confession at St Peter's Basilica.
Dr Martin made the comment above, and further remarks, in his capacity as president and host of the World Meeting of Families 2018, which will be held in Dublin and will be attended by Pope Francis.
Also, as it happened, the Sunday Independent reported last weekend that Enda Kenny was said to want to still be Taoiseach when Pope Francis visits Ireland.
This weekend, I do not intend to write about the continued leadership intentions of Kenny, other than to remark that he has shown leadership qualities at their finest on the issue of child sex abuse within the Roman Catholic church here, Ireland's relationship with the Vatican, and on related issues, such as the treatment of the women of the Magdalene laundries.
Other than to say, if Enda Kenny were still to be Taoiseach for the visit of Pope Francis, at a time that may for some, and may not for others, herald the beginning of reconciliation between church and State here, or between the people and the Roman Catholic church, it could be reasonably argued that there would be no more fitting Taoiseach when his leadership to date on this issue is fully taken into account.
Instead, this weekend I would like to write in a more personal capacity on that comment by Dr Martin related to divorced and separated people in the Catholic church. To do so, it will be necessary to go into some personal aspects of my life which are relevant to the topic. This is something I no longer feel comfortable doing. However, the issue of marriage and family, - or what we might call modern family life - is important and will become more widely discussed as the visit of Pope Francis approaches.
I should say at the outset that on reading an account of Dr Martin's address in Drumcondra last Saturday, I sought out the Pope's post-Synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, or rather a detailed summary which was published by the Vatican last April, which I intend to quote from later in this article. I should also say at this stage that I found the document to be well considered, indeed wise, to be compassionate, comforting and hopeful, but ultimately I am left with this thought to consider: am I to be denied absolution on my deathbed?
Before I get into something of a description of my confession at St Peter's, it might also be useful to give a little background of my upbringing in a Catholic household, aspects of which will be familiar to most people, including many of the 130,000 or so divorced and 120,000 or so separated people in Ireland; that is, the quarter of a million denied full access to the sacraments of the church in which they are brought up.
At home, we attended Mass every Sunday and on what are called Holy Days of Obligation; we attended throughout Easter week, at Christmas and for the early part of my life on what was called 'First Fridays', that is the first Friday of each month, a practice which seems to have generally waned.
We also attended when 'The Missions' came to town, usually the fire and brimstone Redemptorists, and on all other occasions when it was deemed necessary. I was also an altar boy for two years, which involved service at Mass every day for a full week every six weeks or so, including Devotions on Sunday evenings, another practice which seems to have waned. At a young age, we attended confession every Saturday, but less so as we got older. There were also occasional Rosaries at home, and the Angelus was recited at 6pm every evening, although we did not always stand upright for that. We were educated by both the Carmelites and the Christian Brothers. My brother is a Catholic priest. All of this may seem excessive to some readers, and perhaps it was, but it was expected at the time and was not uncommon throughout Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s.
For all that, or perhaps because of that, I became a less frequent practising Catholic when I moved from home, to the point that, as I have said, I have not attended Confession for almost 30 years. Again, that is not necessarily uncommon among people now aged around 50, but I would say that I had moved further from the church than did most of my contemporaries, although I still occasionally attended, usually for specific events such as funerals and weddings.
I was also married in the Church, almost 20 years ago and 11 years ago, that marriage ended in a legal separation but as of yet not divorce. In chapter six of The Joy of Love Pope Francis deals with the preparation of the engaged for marriage; with the accompaniment of couples in the first years of married life, including the issue of responsible parenthood; and also with certain complex situations and crises, knowing that "each crisis has a lesson to teach us; we need to learn how to listen for it with the ear of the heart".
He also analyses some causes of crisis, among them a "delay in maturing affectively". I have found much of what he has to say in this regard to have a certain resonance.
More recently, I have been attending Mass again - related to the preparation of a young girl for her First Holy Communion next year - and have found that experience to be personally rewarding. Like many, my distance from the church coincided with revelations of child sex abuse, but I could not truthfully say that was the sole reason.
I drifted away is the best way to put it, and stayed away. I would also say that the recent recession, and the impact that it has had on people I know and more generally on society, has brought me back somewhat to the church, which culminated at one point in contact with the St Vincent de Paul to act as a volunteer. The effects of the recession have undoubtedly shifted my political views, and perhaps also - come to think of it now - may also somewhat account for my tentative return to the church.
St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is an impressive sight from a distance, and even more so when you enter the building, which I did on Sunday with my partner, whose marital situation closely resembles that of my own.
We had organised the break last summer, the intention not necessarily to attend the Vatican, but the fuller sights of Rome during a romantic weekend away, which happened to coincide with Archbishop Martin's speech on Saturday which referred to the Pope's The Joy of Love document. That document expressly does not refer to the so-called "nuclear family" because, it states, it is "very aware of the family as a wider network of many relationships" but it does refer to the "irregular" situations, of which there are many. For the purpose of this article, I will continue to concentrate on what the summary document refers to as "divorced and separated persons."
The Pope states: "There is a need 'to avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations' and 'to be attentive, by necessity, to how people experience distress because of their condition'". And he continues: "It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community, and thus to experience being touched by an 'unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous' mercy". And further: "The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment".
In his document, the Pope also regrets "that ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families". However, I found the opposite to be the case when I attended confession at the Vatican last Sunday.
Around 50 people had gathered in a section of the Basilica at 3.15pm for confessions which were due to begin at 3.30pm. We attended St Peter's that day, not knowing whether we would actually go to confession, but having discussed it beforehand, not ruling out the possibility either.
On reflection, it was always inevitable that we would attend. Confessions are heard in different languages, and as it happened we found ourselves at the head of the queue at the 'English' box. So I was the first in.
Having been relatively calm until that moment, I found myself to be most anxious when I realised I was about to enter the confession box. I knelt down and looked through the grill in the stand alone confession box. There was a young priest inside, younger than I, with perfect English. I began: "Bless me Father for I have sinned. It is around 30 years since my last confession...so this is difficult for me."
I am told I emerged 30 minutes later, blinking into the light and looking slightly disorientated. I found it to be an utterly exhausting experience, but also a positive one. I did not fully know what to expect, but when the priest said he would be unable to give me absolution, while not unexpected, still came as something of a blow. He was a kind and generous man, however, and seemed to be moved by my presence: "It is a miracle," he repeated three times of my attendance throughout the half hour. In my disorientation I forgot to ask, specifically, why I was to be denied absolution, but imagine it related to my marital separation and subsequent relationship. A sizeable portion of the confession also consisted of sound practical advice from this most excellent, non-judgmental priest.
I find myself to be in agreement with Pope Francis when he states that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time he has also said, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.
He also states that the "divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal"; "Their participation can be expressed in different ecclesial services…Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the church…"
That is well and good, but on reflection since the weekend, I believe this still may not bring much comfort on a deathbed.
However, the debate has begun in earnest and I look forward to the visit of Pope Francis in 2018.