Fr Kevin Hegarty
I want to begin this column by making a correction to my last contribution a fortnight ago. writing on the controversy that erupted recently about Maynooth Seminary. I stated that many of the present students for the priesthood believe that liberal reforms of the second Vatican Council should be “rescinded”. Unfortunately, due to a typographical error the word “rescinded” was replaced by “recognised”. They, and other conservative Catholics, advocate what they call “a reform of the reforms”, which effectively means a return to the Tridentine past. May I make three further observations on the controversy. One of the official Church responses was that episcopal trustees of Maynooth would discuss what had arisen at a meeting in five weeks time, a pace of response that only a tortoise would consider rapid.
Secondly, according to the current issue on “Intercom”, the official bulletin of the Irish Catholic hierarchy, the bishops, at their June meeting, had a lengthy discussion on encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and on seminary formation. They decided to undertake a major national vocations initiative in 2017. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has stated that he informed his colleagues, at this meeting, that he was transferring the three Dublin students from Maynooth to Rome because of his unhappiness at the training offered in the Kildare College. There is no mention of this decision in the official communique.
The statement gives the impression of unanimity on vocation matters, where it is now clear that there was serious division. Finally I sense that in the recent debate, Church leaders dodged the real issue. The huge decline in priestly ordinations means that shortly, Irish Catholic communities will be deprived of the regular celebration of the Eucharist. This decline has been the elephant in the room for some time. As priests retire and die, the elephant is now trampling on the furniture. If as it seems that the Archdiocese of Dublin has only three student priests now, how will it provide for its vast number of parishes in the near future.
The debate over where Ireland’s small flock of seminarians might be best trained reminds me of a comment of the novelist ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ on the war between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands in 1982. It was he said, “like two bald men fighting over a comb”.
In the midst of this depressing controversy, there was a chink of light for those of us who believe that the Catholic priesthood would be enriched by the admission of married men and women. Last November, I and eleven other priests called for an open discussion on the need for the equality of women in all aspects of church life, including priestly ministry.
Such discussion has been considered anathema in official church circles. Both of Pope Francis’s predecessors sought to prevent discussion on the ordination of women. Pope Benedict went so far as to state that the decision was definitive and that all Catholics had to assent to it. Pope Francis has felt bound by their views, saying that they have closed the door on female ordinations.
Now, it seems ‘after intense prayer and mature reflection’ he is opening the door a little. He has set up a commission of 12, equally divided between women and men, to discern what role female deacons had in the early church and what are the possibilities for today. Deacons are clergy members who undertake ministerial duties like officiating at baptisims or weddings or preaching homilies. They cannot celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick. For several centuries the diaconate has been reserved for men. For male celibates it is often the final step before priestly ordination.
If the Commission recommends that women should be admitted to the diaconate, as it seems they were in the early church, priestly ministry will surely follow. As the poet Shelley put it: “If winter comes can spring be far behind.”