Article in today’s Independent on the Maynooth saga

This article was published in today’s Irish Independent.

The current dispute over certain ‘goings on’ in the national seminary in Maynooth raises serious questions for and about the Church, questions that will not be resolved by simply changing personnel, or by adjusting the type of spiritual or theological formation being taught there. These questions are not peculiar to Maynooth, but are common to seminaries in Europe, North America and other places.
Reading the reflections of people who have worked in seminaries in the last twenty years or so, it appears that applicants for admission to seminaries came largely from one or other of two categories of young men. Many are of homosexual orientation, or are young and confused or uncertain about their sexuality. This is due in part to the enormous change that has taken place in society’s view of sexuality, and consequently much less value being put on a life of celibacy. Church teaching and attitudes have also become much more positive in this area. The modern young heterosexual male is much less inclined to sacrifice marriage, sexuality and intimacy than previous generations. There is absolutely no reason why a gay man should not be a priest, but if a particular profession is attracting a far higher percentage than is present in the general population then questions need to be asked about the nature of the profession.

The second significant group applying for entry to seminaries comes from a small section of young men who are very traditional in their faith, who are looking for certainties and who seem to hanker back to the church of the early part of the last century. These create a big challenge for the seminary system. If a young man’s inclination is to dress in traditional garb, to hold rigid theological positions with black and white answers to every question, and to be more happy in the church building that among the people, it is obvious that there is going to be a chasm between him and the people. I have seen many examples of the difficulties created by this type of situation in my travels over the past few years.
A fairly acerbic friend of mine, living in Rome, and disturbed by the sight of seminarians and young priests there, sent me this description of one man she met on the street.
‘The young man appeared exclusive and superior, in a designer suit, perfumed, coiffed and with designer sunglasses. He was like a model or a high-level diplomat. He appeared to me to be very full of himself, part of a separate caste’.
Many visitors to Rome, especially to the Vatican, may have seen similar sights.

So the question for seminaries is: what type of priest is needed in today’s world, and what type of spiritual and theological formation should they be given? Is it possible that the seminary is not the place for priestly formation? Diarmaid Martin, speaking on the radio, suggested that it is not, that those who wish to be priests should be assigned to a parish on an apprenticeship basis with built-in periods for theological study? I think that is an excellent idea. But there are no simple answers, and the job of a seminary professor or spiritual guide to students is not an easy one.

I believe that the present malaise has much deeper roots. The solution would have to involve a radical revision of our understanding of ministry and the requirements necessary to become a priest. So, rather than just tinkering around with Maynooth, the Irish church needs to initiate a process of discussion at all levels to discern what type of ministry is best suited for the Church of the future. We need to take a hard look at clericalism, that culture that exists within the priesthood, and has been regularly highlighted by Pope Francis as a cancer within the church. I believe that the negative influence of clericalism will never be eradicated while priesthood is confined to male celibates. So the question of women in ministry has to be faced and openly discussed. We need to look in an open and imaginative way at our parish structure, to see how best the faith can be nourished and promoted within this basic unit. It would be absolutely essential that this discussion would take place first and foremost at parish/pastoral council level, because I believe that our laity are more farsighted in their thinking than our clerical leaders. And lastly we need courage. The problems in seminaries is only one part of a much greater malaise in the church. Trying to re-create the past is not the answer. Significant change is needed. After a period of discussion at all levels, and when clear direction emerges, the leaders of the Irish church will need to face down those in the Vatican who are trying to hold back the necessary developments. Various forms of listening exercises have taken place in some dioceses, but little has happened as a result through the absence of this final, essential step.

Tony Flannery.