A Personal Account of how this year was for me.

At my age a person should not be wishing their life away, but I am writing this just a few days before the end of a year that I think a lot of us will be glad to see the back of. What I want to do here is to reflect a little on what the year was life for me personally. (A blog like mine gives me, I like to think, the right every once in a while, to be a little self-indulgent!}

I like to think I have a fairly wide range of interests, current affairs, politics, sport, and of course matters to do with Church and religion. So there were periods when I was absorbed with the goings-on of British politics, and the antics of the Westminister parliament. I avidly followed the swings and fortunes of our own election in the summer. And then we had the U.S. election, and the endless antics of Trump. Accompanying all these was the ever present pandemic, greatly effecting all our lives. A difficult year in many ways, but never boring.

For myself too it was eventful. In the early part of the year a group of lay people, linking with the leadership of the ACP, and eventually also with the governing council of the Irish Redemptorists, worked together, determined to find a way of alleviating my situation and having me returned to active ministry. I appreciated what they were doing, without having any great confidence that it would achieve its objective.

Sometime in the month of June, without any warning, except an advance phone call from my Provincial, and seemingly without apparent cause, a document arrived in my inbox, having come in the usual roundabout way from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. I had heard nothing from them for almost eight years, since they had first laid down the law about my future as a priest. So much had happened in those eight years in Rome, with the election of. Pope Francis and an apparent opening up of things in the Vatican, that the tone and content of the document I received were a big surprise to me. It was basically a demand that I sign four propositions, and having done so I might be gradually allowed to minister as a priest again, on condition that I kept my mouth shut on any contentious issue. I have already gone public on this document, so there is no need to repeat it here. I couldn’t sign it. In fact I think that very few priests, or even bishops, could sign it with complete integrity, and without some form of what DeValera and Des Connell called mental reservation. In the first stage of my dealings with the Vatican almost nine years ago, and when I was faced with a somewhat similar document to sign, my Superior General as much as asked me to exercise mental reservation for the sake of all the good I could do in ministry, and all the Masses I would celebrate. I know some people believe that there is some validity in that way of thinking when you are dealing with institutions, but it is not  something I could do.

So I responded again as I have consistently done since the beginning of this saga. I decided to make it public. At this stage I have got to know most of the top international correspondents on Catholic matters, so I consulted one or two of them and we agreed to hold it until September, when the Vatican would be back from their summer break. And that is what happened. It got enormous coverage in all the main international English language Catholic newspapers and magazines. What really caught the attention was the contrast between the tone and content of this document and what Pope Francis had been saying and doing since he became pope. Commentators wondered what it meant. Was it a sign of the CDF trying to reclaim their authority, and using this case to show that they hadn’t gone away? Some even suggested that my case may have got caught up in the power struggle going on in the Church between the reform minded and the restorationists. I don’t know, but this engaged my attention for a good part of the second half of the year. 

There was one thing that really annoyed me. Shortly after the publicity surrounding my case, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, Joshua McElwee used the occasion of a press conference on some other issue to ask the head of the CDF, Luis Ladaria, if he had anything to say about my case. He responded by saying that the CDF had tried consistently to dialogue with me, but that it had been very difficult. This was so blatantly untrue that even the most elastic form of ‘mental reservation’ could not justify it. In all the years of my dealings with the CDF they have never once corresponded directly with me. And that is surely the first essential of any form of dialogue. At this stage nothing would surprise me about the CDF. But the Superior General of my own congregation would have known perfectly well that this was a false statement. I waited for him to publicly correct the record, and when he didn’t I twice wrote to him requesting him to do so. On both occasions, while responding to my emails, he ignored my request. What Ladaria said, along with it being false, was defamatory. I still wait for that to be rectified.

During the years of my suspension I have given a lot of thought, reading and study to the Christian message and to Church structures and doctrine. The curtailment of our movement by the pandemic for the greater part of the year helped me to put my thoughts together in the form of a book, which was eventually published in late October — From the Outside; Rethinking Church Doctrine. Despite bookshops being closed, and it being impossible to travel around to shops and do signings, it has gone well. I am getting a great deal of very positive response from precisely the type of people I had in mind when writing it – the ‘wise elders’ or the ‘seekers’, the people who grew up in the faith, and while still holding on to belief in the essentials, were increasing unhappy with aspects of Church doctrine and governance. This was my tenth book to publish, and I think it is maybe the most important of them all. I am pleased that I produced it.

November saw the death of my eldest brother Peter, the first of my siblings to go. Peter was a Redemptorist like myself, and, being the eldest, was the one who had led the way for the rest of us. He had dementia for a number of years, so that in a sense the Peter we knew had left us for a good while before he died. His actual death was a relief, and the fact that I was allowed to celebrate the funeral Mass was good. But as time goes by I remember him for what he was in his prime, and I miss him. His going also brings home the reality of death for all of us, and for myself. 

The pandemic has more and more dominated our lives this past year. Two aspects of it I will briefly touch on. Our Redemptorist monasteries, and indeed almost all the monasteries and convents around the country, largely closed up to the outside world. They had very good reason to do so, since they were mostly inhabited by older and frail members. There is hope of some alleviation when the vaccine is eventually circulated around the country, but the question about the future of religious life as we know it here in Ireland has been brought into more stark relief.

Secondly, our churches have been closed for a good part of the year, and even when opened numbers were limited. This means that people who normally attended church have spent most of this year not doing so. How many of them will return to regular attendance? It is hard to say, but the general feeling of those I speak to is that many won’t. If that is the case, then the decline of the Irish Church, which has been happening for many years, will be greatly accelerated by Covid-19. Apart from empty churches, this will also cause a major financial problem for the Church.

We have certainly lived through an interesting year, and there is more to come.