The publication of the findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland has aroused much public comment. I would like to make a few comments about the findings and, in the process, hopefully clear up some misinformation that surrounded the reaction to it.
It is most unusual for the Pope to send in a high powered delegation of cardinals to investigate a national church. It shows how seriously Pope Benedict takes the situation in the Irish Church. A visitation is a bit like a whole school evaluation: its intention is to find out what is happening on the ground and to see, in particular, how certain critical issues are being addressed. The visitors seemed to focus on three areas: safeguarding children, the formation of seminarians and, thirdly, the extent to which the Irish Church is adhering to Catholic teaching.
On the first count, the cardinals found – not surprisingly – that safeguarding issues are now being dealt with in a proper way. They acknowledge the failures of the past and they are confident that every diocese and religious order is following guidelines that are as good as is humanly possible at this time. The implementation of the guidelines is monitored on an ongoing basis by the National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC), under the leadership of Ian Elliott, a Presbyterian from Northern Ireland, a man who is hugely respected by all sectors of society.
The second area investigated by the visitors was seminary training. Surprisingly, this aspect of the findings got huge time on the airwaves. This is where misinformation was most evident. It was reported that seminarians would now be cut off from lay people in Maynooth. I know Maynooth very well and I am completely up to date with the changes that are being implemented. Students are sitting at lectures every day side by side with their lay counterparts. If they are taking a degree in the NUI they leave the seminary early in the morning and return in the evening. That is hardly the lifestyle of someone cut off from the world. After the degree they move into theology. There are seven times as many lay people studying theology in Maynooth as there are seminarians. Lectures are common to all. Then again, seminarians who play hurling, football, soccer or rugby do so with their counterparts in the secular university, the NUI. So it is a total myth to say that seminarians are cut off from the world.
What has taken place is that the seminarians’ residential quarters are out of bounds to the public, as they should be. Maynooth is a very open place and people can wander through the seminary corridors as they wish. It seems logical to me that the access should surely stop short of the living quarters of students. We don’t open our homes to the public or even to our neighbours. Everyone is entitled to and needs a modicum of privacy. The second change is that seminarians will have their own refectory. Up to now they ate in a huge hall which was open to everyone: I thought it was like a train station; this is a good move. Seminarians will still be there for coffee breaks and are totally free to have their meals in that area if they wish. So there: you can’t believe everything you hear on the airwaves.
The third area of the findings that received attention during the week was the question of the teaching of the Church. Big words, like magisterium and orthodoxy were dismissed by some commentators as if they were infectious diseases. Those who carried out the investigation of the Irish Church expressed the view that there was confusion about the teaching of the church and that some priests and lay people were deciding on their own teaching. It is obvious that this is a serious problem. The Church is obliged to follow the teaching of Christ and he commissioned the Church to do so:
‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
These words were spoken by Jesus to the fledging Church. We look to the Church to find out what is true teaching and what is false. The body that ensures right teaching is called the magisterium. Orthodoxy is simply right teaching. The Church has made mistakes in the past but not about right teaching. The magisterium is a great gift to the Church enabling all of us to find out the truth. It is easily accessed in the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, which was published in English in 1994. Courses are available in this diocese on the catechism and are advertised regularly in the parish.
This is an occasion to welcome the high priority that is being given to the Irish Church by Pope Benedict. Investigations and audits are a necessary part of every area of life and the Church should be no exception. But the findings should be honestly appraised and not used as fodder to knock the Church which we all hold dear.
Fr. Noel O’Sullivan