Ireland has seen two nasty extremes: fawning over and hatred of priests. The solution lies in rediscovering what the priesthood is about

There is such hunger at the Congress to speak to priests about healing. Fr Timothy Radcliffe is one leading light – he was scheduled to hold a workshop on the “spirituality of healing” to 280 people. But well over 560 showed up. He has since given the workshop twice in person – and throughout yesterday afternoon there were thousands assembled on the green to watch an enormous screen with a recording of his workshop. Fr Kevin Doran, the general secretary of the Congress, told me there was “great surprise” that each day the workshops were designed to cater for 4,000 people (the number that they hoped would attend). But so far – every day – there has been an average of well over 8,000 people seeking places in the workshops. Many of the workshops have hot discussions on the interrelation between making the Eucharist available to the public and the role of the priest. It’s not a burning issue for nothing. Restoring the true responsibility of the priest will cause the restoration of Irish Catholicism.

The groups of priests taking part in the Congress are the salt of the earth. They might be 38 or 80 but they are spending night and day circling the crowds – allowing pilgrims to share their faith difficulties and asking pilgrims if they have faith in their faith. Handsome, young and full of verve African priests are telling us about the “essential work” that the Catholic Church is doing in Africa, especially with Aids victims. Graham Greene would be inspired to write a novel about these priests. They give a new perspective to native Irish Catholics, who have been pessimistic for too long. The Congress is opening up Ireland’s eyes to the global good works of the Catholic Church.

The worried faithful may speak to a wide variety of priests about their concerns that the abuse crisis is choking the life out of their parish life because “things have gone dead” and “priests are hiding for fear of an abuse claim”. It is a two-way process, and good priests are being encouraged by thousands of faithful who congratulate them for giving their lives for the celebration of the Eucharist. Cardinal Brady is stopped repeatedly by pilgrims who want to explain to him why they think he took the brunt of the blame for the Norbertine Order’s utter failure to deal with “that monster” Smyth.

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But will encouragement from a few well-meaning people be enough to inspire Ireland’s priests? Bishop Davies is showing that actions are as important as verbal encouragement. The kindly bishop has said that he is bringing the heart of St John Vianney to tour England to bring into focus the life of such a holy priest, so other priests may follow St John Vianney’s example.

Do Ireland’s priests need inspiration or do they need us – the laity – to change our attitude? I am in my 20s, but in my life I have witnessed the switch from sycophancy for priests to hatred of priests. When I started Catholic primary school, parish priests would cheerfully wander into our classrooms and tell us stories about why they became priests. It was the 90s, and teachers smiled toothily and gushed over the priests. As the abuse cases became public knowledge, slowly priests came less and less to visit the pupils in our school which was 60 metres from their church. When I was preparing to make my Confirmation, the parish priest would barely come to the door of the classroom. On the two occasions he did visit us, he looked apoplectic with anxiety. And before I started full-time journalism, for a few years in my early 20s I was teaching, and no priest ever darkened the door of my classroom.

It does seem here at the Congress that every Irish priest is apologising for the abuse crisis. While they may be lamenting the vile predilections of abuser priests and the cover-ups, is there not something inappropriate about innocent priests constantly saying sorry for heinous crimes that they personally did not commit? Is there not some sort of misallocation of blame going on? Why are so many excellent priests allowing themselves to be tarred with the same brush that is reserved for criminals?

It’s not just to do with the abuse crisis. The country is recession-ruined, and many are of the opinion that the Catholic Church is lining the pockets of ordinary priests or that priests are living comfortably while everyone else is broke. The attitude in Ireland is very much “make priests pay”. One could say that this is all justified anger, but which priests are paying? Off the top of my head, I can think of 40 priests who have been intimidated, sometimes to the point of ill health, by irate parishioners. Irish priests are going to England for respite. It’s ironic that in previous centuries Irish priests were persecuted during the penal laws when the Mass was driven underground, but some are now seeking refuge in England.

One case involves a gentle, timid priest that I have known for 10 years. He had been serving in an Irish country parish but the locals resented that he had a nice, smart house. Their attitude was that after all the scandals, no priest should have a decent house. It got to the stage where he was having heart trouble after one too many nasty encounters. Now having spent some time recuperating in England, he has not recovered from his health problems. He’s quite a young priest, but not in active ministry. This is a waste of youth. And it’s also abuse of priests.

Ireland has experienced two nasty extremes: toadying and fawning over priests and now the acceptable abuse of priests. The answer is in the middle. And it’s also in the rediscovery that the highest role of the priest is not to be a status symbol for an Irish family (“oh, that’s a good family, it produced a priest”) or as a ladder for social climbing (“the parish priest sat with me during morning tea, so I’m the more important person in the village”). But the priest is the person who goes into Persona Christi, standing in the place of Christ so he may offer the Eucharist. If the Congress can redefine the responsibility of the priest in the minds of the people – than there is hope that the Congress will be the game-changer for Irish Catholicism.

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