Church must view decline of outdated seminaries as a chance for renewal
The trustees of Maynooth - the 17 most-senior Catholic bishops - agreed this week to work on a new policy to protect whistle-blowers at the national seminary. It comes after a wave of allegations, many of them anonymous, of homosexual relationships between seminarians.
Further allegations were made that the college authorities did not treat such allegations with sufficient gravity. Critics of the college quickly seized on the controversy as evidence of a corrupt underbelly, while defenders of Maynooth rounded on the detractors and insisted that anonymous allegations should be treated with contempt.
Now, there are broadly two reasons why people make anonymous allegations: either they are bitterly spiteful, or they are petrified about the consequences of raising their concerns. A coherent policy that protects people who raise legitimate concerns is a must for every institution.
But, whistle-blowing aside, perhaps, in time, the bishops' pledge to review what sort of training would-be priests should undertake in 21st Century Ireland will prove more important. What emerges could kickstart an authentic reform and renewal of Irish Catholicism.
Necessity is said to be the mother of invention. And so it was when seminaries to train priests began to spring up all over counter-reformation Europe. It was an attempt by the Papacy to address the fact that many parish priests were woefully uneducated and ill-equipped to deal with the complex pastoral needs of their flock. In the new dispensation, seminaries would act as training grounds for future priests and guarantee a uniformity of approach. Their success was phenomenal and soon almost every diocese in continental Europe had its own seminary.
Industrious bishops added to this web what would became known as junior seminaries, where boys as young as 10 considering the life-encompassing commitment of priesthood would go to be prepared for entering the senior seminary.
As well as ensuring uniformity in terms of theological outlook, liturgical tastes and clerical dominance of the Church, these seminaries provoked fierce loyalty in the students they formed.
In Ireland, it created an unrivalled old boys' network. But also a petty snobbery that now beggars belief. Maynooth-trained clerics thought themselves superior to priests who studied at seminaries in Carlow, Thurles, Waterford, Wexford or Kilkenny. At the same time, men trained in Rome took particular delight in looking down on what they described as "domestically trained" clergy from the colleges at home.
It also bred a nostalgia that can manifest itself in clinging on to institutions long after they have outlived their usefulness.
The world has changed and the way that Irish priests are educated needs to change to meet the needs of the modern world. Pope Francis - that great herald of Church reform - recently observed that Catholicism is not living in an era of change, but a change of era. He's right, of course, and perhaps nowhere is this more keenly felt than in Ireland.
Nostalgia is one of the characteristics of Catholicism Irish-style, and there is plenty of nostalgia about Maynooth. Which is why Archbishop Diarmuid Martin (pictured) was roundly criticised by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) for making public his concerns about the seminary there. His fellow bishops were quickly forced into backing the college. But many of the trustees have privately been advocating the need for reform for quite some time.
Seminaries were a great idea in the 17th and 18th Centuries. But, the idea of training young men for the challenge of ministry in an environment more akin to a boarding school than a thriving parish in the 21st Century is just not credible. Seminarians do undertake pastoral work, but this is often only an hour or two a week. A more realistic approach would be to place student priests in smaller groups in parish settings, shadowing priests of proven depth and ability. This apprenticeship model - alongside the necessary theological and philosophical studies in a university - would give seminarians a greater sense of ministry at the coal face. It would also guard a culture of gossip that permeates too many seminaries. Maynooth today is a shadow of its former self. When St John Paul II visited the seminary in 1979, the college chapel was thronged with men soon-to-be-ordained. At the time, the seminarians lived surrounding two gothic quadrangles - first years even had to share a room, so great were the numbers. Now, almost 40 years later, there are just 41 resident seminarians in Maynooth and the seminary has retreated in to a small corner of the vast campus it shares with Maynooth University.
Some are predicting that the college is in terminal decline. It's a far cry from the 1930s when Fr Neil Kevin, a priest who both studied and worked in the seminary, wrote in almost mythical terms about his alma mater when he said that "this Maynooth that we have inherited will be passed on until the end of time with a certainty as great as governs the work of human hands".
Perhaps he's right, maybe Maynooth will continue to the end of time. But right now, I wouldn't put a bet on it.