The Irish church I love is falling apart


Factions, scandals and a chilling code of silence are killing all credibility on faith and morality, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

LAST MONTH, I went to see Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Vietnamese Buddhist, in an auditorium holding 2,000 people. I had the great privilege of being close enough to see his serene and extraordinarily youthful face.

Thay, as he is known, says very simple things. He tells us to pay deep and reverent attention to every small detail of our day, to be thankful, to look at how we can change ourselves first before we try to change others. At a certain point in his talk, he began to talk about Jesus and the kingdom of God. He spoke with such love, and such a profound understanding of the message of the gospel, that I began to feel tears prickle at the corners of my eyes.

I realise now those tears were in part for the church to which I belong. I am not suggesting he was speaking as a Christian, but because of who he is, and the life that he lives, Thay was able to speak with credibility about Jesus to a very diverse audience, in a way in which virtually no Irish Christian leader would be able to do.

The Irish church that I love is falling apart. It is riven with internal divisions and rancour. It is dogged with scandal, which festers and then erupts with devastating consequences.

I was listening earlier to someone on the radio who had been sexually abused. He said that every time the name of his abuser is broadcast, he is tossed once again into despair. He was literally begging the church to get its house in order, to allow him to go on with his life.

I don’t know Seán Brady well, but I have spoken to him a couple of times. He is a gentle, humble man. In his own diocese, he is adored. For years now, he has been facilitating lay people to take genuine and active roles in their church. I imagine the child safeguarding protocols there are second to none.

But he is not articulate, and when doorstepped, he sounds flustered and evasive. When sent out with a line to stick to, he sounds worse. There are few less welcome things than someone sitting safely behind a word processor giving unwanted advice, but imagine if, when he was asked about becoming Archbishop of Armagh, he had said that he would consent on one condition – that he could explain to the people he hoped to lead what had happened in 1975, and that if the people still wanted him, only then would he accept the role as leader.

Supposing he had then given an interview revealing that he had known about Brendan Smyth and his horrible, criminal, predatory activities, and that he thought he had done everything he could. Imagine if he had said that he was haunted daily by the fact that his own church, in which he trusted, had failed to act to protect the children. Imagine if he said that his failure, as he now fully recognised it to be, would make him work without rest to prevent such a thing happening to any other child.

He might have been rejected. People might have been appalled and unforgiving. But he might not have been. Either way, we would be in a better place.

But the church that I love doesn’t do things that way. Instead, it waits for journalists to do their job, and then responds defensively.

You might wonder what kind of an eejit could still speak about the church she loves. But I am not a Utopian. I never expected to be part of a perfect society, because I wouldn’t qualify for entry.

Jesus surrounded himself with a rum lot. One of them routinely defrauded his own people while collecting taxes on behalf of a brutal, colonising empire. One of them may have been a former terrorist. One of them would betray him. But Jesus cajoled most of them into being people of love and courage.

I teach young people. They are great young people, but many of them are closer to benign agnostics with a bit of holy water thrown over them than Christians. So many of them have never really encountered the Christian message. So many of them are searching for meaning.

To what church can I invite them? Factions in the church can barely speak civilly to each other. The lack of trust within the church, and the mutual excommunication of each other by so-called dissidents and traditionalists is frightening.

Meanwhile, Rome engages in silencing, while also remaining entirely silent about why it is doing so, and signally fails to communicate any rationale that would even vaguely make sense to a modern world. And the leader of the Irish Episcopal Conference is irrevocably tainted.

There are parishes that are good places to be, and communities that are vibrant. But they are weak and hidden in comparison to the tsunami of scandal and division.

I couldn’t give a stuff about the church losing power in the political sense. But I care deeply about the church losing the ability to speak credibly on issues of faith and morality. Can we please, please, once and for all reveal all that is known about clerical sexual abuse? Can we please also have a moratorium on internal disputes, so that we can begin to focus on what we hold in common, and humbly offer that to a generation thirsty for meaning?