For what we have failed to do; Kyrie Eleison

“Let’s face it clearly; something has been dying in our Church for a long time, of which the child abuse scandals were only a recent manifestation,” writes Garry O’Sullivan.

It is interesting to recall the Irish lay group Pobal De who campaigned so decently for change in the Church in the 1980s and 1990s, so decent in fact that the bishops never even bothered to meet them, are no more and yet their energy and love of the Church is sorely missed in Ireland in this time of Synodality.

Pope Francis wanted the Church to reach out to all Catholics which it has failed to do in this Synodal process for a myriad of reasons. But it really sticks in my craw when we look back over the last 20 years, some would say 40 years, which were absolutely squandered and all the talent, like that in the Pobal De movement, lost to a Church now catching up as it always is.

Stripping away what is rotten

Let’s face it clearly; something has been dying in our Church for a long time, of which the child abuse scandals were only a recent manifestation. A bishop I know says that the rot set in long before the abuse of children came to light. It started he says even before the Church we know now was built as part of the ultramontane project back in the 1800s.

It started when a small energetic new religion based on the teachings of a carpenter’s son got subsumed into an empire. The Community of Jesus Christ – meek and humble and flawed too – where people came and asked to join up to a brotherhood and sisterhood. We lost that for an empire, where people were then forced to join up. God who Jesus wanted us to call ‘papa’ or ‘daddy’ was now an emperor God who looked after the powerful.

 But this Church lost one of its lungs when the Eastern Church split and left, the Eastern mind/ mystical mind of the Church was gone. On one lung the Church survived – but the oxygen levels going to the brain weren’t so good and the Reformation happened and robbed half of the remaining lung – the Protestants ran away with the Bible and we ran off with the Blessed Sacrament.

Now they’re surviving on half a lung, but not enough oxygen is getting to the brain. Then the corruption comes along in the form of abuse, widespread and systematic abuse and the oxygen starved brain thinks cover-up is the best way forward!

So now, rocked to their core by abuse and clericalism, they are left living on a quarter of a lung and breathing is difficult and the body is breaking down. I think the positive ‘why’ of our need to rebuild, put at its most essential and pure form, is also that each one of us knows in our hearts that we were told we needed to be a light to the world, a salt to the palate.

The Church cannot be a partner to darkness; we are called to be its light. We were told that we have the power inside of us to change the world, inside of us there is a power, God given, and that power is a belief, a belief that the world can be better and that we should never settle for less.

That belief leads all the way to the hill of Calvary where the voice of belief in better, a voice that promised that life was given to be lived to the fullness, where that voice was silenced by hate.

Our idea which is to change our world is a big idea, and we will be crucified for it – but did Jesus not warn them when he sent them out two by two that they would be cursed and beaten, etc? And who was doing this to them? The Jews, their own people, their own religious leaders. 

Our idea of change still burns inside our hearts – like the disciples on the road to Emmaus – but we’re afraid that when we communicate that idea we will be cursed, beaten, not listened to like so many before us. That’s why we want to rebuild our Church. We have a hope, we have a baptismal duty. 

Change however, has not and will not come from the top …. Period 

I recall Irish bishop Joseph Duffy, (a gentleman) who on resigning had the decency to say that one of his regrets was that the bishops didn’t bother with Vatican II all that much!!! What an admission! They didn’t even bother, as bishops, to implement Vatican II! WOW!

Our bishops essentially ignored a Council of the Church which in Catholic teaching is the supreme infallible vehicle– they should have resigned immediately en masse. And all the time they ignored people like Pobal De and many, many others who were actually following Vatican II and pressing for its reforms. Are you beginning to understand what Jesus meant when he said ‘leave the dead, to bury the dead?’

To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Catholics have been given a bad cheque by their leadership – a cheque that comes back marked insufficient funds. We have had a largely bankrupt leadership, a leadership that says we want to discuss your role in our Church on our terms and conditions. No thanks!

Yes under Francis things have started to turn. We have some new young bishops who themselves as clerics were eager for change and reform. But they have yet to prove themselves and their unavoidable preoccupation with a structure that sucks the life out of clergy and bishops leaves little time for vision or reform. They are prisoners of ‘keeping the show on the road’.

But a lack of synodality in the Bishops’ Conference, or a lack of collective vision among our leaders, should not allow our dream to be pushed down and die, why should we allow our dream to be killed by people many of whom have no dream, no ideas but only the failure of the past

Such and such archbishop is a lovely person they say – and they so often are – but I don’t want lovely people running my Church, I want real competent leadership in my Church. I don’t want wounded healers – Give me real men, real women, psychologically healthy, strong compassionate and on fire with Jesus Christ!

Firstly here’s what we’re not rebuilding….

There is no place, in any Church I’m going to help rebuild, for clericalism. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, ‘That is out’. Clericalism in the Church is something like the pattern in the wallpaper; it’s been there so long you don’t see it anymore.

But, visible or not, clericalism and the clericalist culture were at the heart of the sex abuse scandal, or to give it its fuller name, the power abuse scandal. By “clericalist” I mean an elitist mind-set, together with structures and patterns of behaviour corresponding to it, that take it for granted that clerics are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference.

Passivity and dependency are the laity’s lot. This is not to create opposition to priests or the priesthood, but, rather against an attitude present in some clerics – and lay people. The Church itself returns clerics to the lay state when they offend greatly, they are laymen given a special ministry which can be taken away. It’s time to end the dualism.


In the years since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the exercise of pastoral authority in the Church has repeatedly been called a form of service. And so it is. But honesty and openness are necessary if the exercise of authority is not to degenerate into paternalistic authoritarianism with a smiling “pastoral” face.

Ending the abuse of secrecy for the sake of clerical manipulation and control is essential to that. The mishandling of sex abuse by priests in the past is hardly the only example of the abuse of secrecy in the Church.

Consider what is known – and what is not – about the process by which men get to be bishops. There is an urgent need for reform in this field so that Catholics can have some involvement and ownership in the process of how their leaders are selected.

The abuse of secrecy in the Catholic Church and its accompanying behaviour – lying, stonewalling, half-truths, happy-talk, mental reservation, failure to consult and the rest, are still evident in so much of how the Church operates.

So secrecy, that is also out! Another attitude we don’t want in our rebuilding project is the persistence of ecclesiastical spin. Often this reflects the well-intentioned but paternalistic mind-set of persons in official positions who, if truth were told, consider lay people unqualified to participate in serious discussions of Church issues and have no interest in supplying them with information and ideas to bring them up to speed.

Instead of engaging in candid communication, they engage in spin. In the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council, diocesan and parish councils were the great hope for a more open, participatory and de-clericalised approach to internal communication and decision making in the Church.

After Vatican II, it appeared that shared responsibility was on the way to becoming an accepted fact in the Church, and most people assumed that that was a good thing. But the enthusiasm has diminished in recent years. Where they exist, not much is expected from these struggling vehicles of shared responsibility now.

Many priests and bishops are openly hostile to the idea of a parish pastoral council; others have descended into a simple rubberstamping mechanism or spending hours deciding what type of biscuits to have after the parish mission.

Parish assemblies and parish councils are back in as some great new step in reform; but again we’re just catching up and even now many would say the time has passed for parish councils who have ultimately no rights of decision making under Canon Law.

So ecclesiastical spin is also out… Clericalism is out, secrecy is… Out out out! Karl Rahner has written: “It is strange that we Christians…have incurred the suspicion both in the minds of others and in our own that so far as we are concerned the will to guard and preserve is the basic virtue of life.

In reality, however, the sole ‘tradition’, which Christianity precisely as the people of God on pilgrimage, has acquired on the way, is the command to hope in the absolute promise and – in order that this task may not remain merely a facile ideology of ideas – to set out ever anew from social structures which have become petrified, old and empty”.

I think we need to remember and remind others that we are not agitating for something that is not our right, we are not sticking our noses in where they don’t belong; by virtue of our baptism, we are called, mandated to take responsibility and ownership of the Church.

Baptism, not ordination, is the sacrament par excellence, and through it we believe that the Holy Spirit moves and speaks through us and not solely to those in holy orders. We are not attacking anyone either, we are trying to understand.

As Fr Timothy Radcliffe has written, this is a crisis of the Tridentine Church which formed after the crisis of the Reformation, otherwise Catholicism would have collapsed. He says it was what was needed at the time but that time is passing; we need a humbler, simpler and more humane Church.

There will be fighting and division in the days ahead. We already have fear mongering about schism in Germany. When we read ‘1 Corinthians, Divisions and Scandals – Factions in the Corinthian Church’ we see even the early Church had its problems.

But I don’t think any of us are expecting to build a perfect Church – isn’t that the problem with the past? “Our dreadful idea of perfection’ – Jean Paul Cassaude calls it. 

Resistance to change

Ask any behavioural psychologist and they’ll tell you that people don’t want change at all! As W.H. Auden has written “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die.” Perhaps we as laity too must die to some of our illusions before we can climb the cross of the present and rebuild something sound and solid.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, one of the high points is Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech to his troops who are despairing of the lack of reinforcements (lack of vocations) and likely death. To prevent disaster he has to do two things: present a compelling vision and build a community, a sense that they are all in it together.

The king reminds them that tomorrow is St Crispin’s Day and he paints a picture of a future where they have lived to old age and the old soldier will show his scars and “remember with advantages/ What feats they did that day.”

He continues the heroic picture and the morale of the troops begins to rise and he says: “And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by/ From this day to the ending of the world/but we in it shall be remembered/ we few, we happy few, we band of brothers – / For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother….and gentlemen in England now abed/ Shall think themselves accurs’d that they were not here / and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/ That fought with us upon St . Crispin’s Day”. The King ends his speech with the line; “All things are ready, if our minds be so”. Perhaps we can add: “all things are ready, if our minds and spirits be so”.

I would like to give the last words to Pobal’s own Sean McReamoin, here recalling in 1987 memories of the opening ceremony of Vatican II. “Pope John aroused us from our torpor, bade us cast off fear, listen to the lessons of history, stop moaning and condemning, and go out into the world in the hope of the Holy Spirit – into his world and ours, and let our light shine before men. It was the end of an age, the beginning of an age, a revolution, a leap into the future, a new call to faith and hope and love…For what we have failed to do, Kyrie eleison.”

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