Rome begins planning for Irish visitation


PREPARATIONS FOR the forthcoming Apostolic Visitation to Ireland begin in earnest this week in the Holy See.

The visitation, a highly unusual step when applied to almost an entire local church, was announced by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter to the Irish faithful last March.

It is to "assist the local church on her path of renewal" following publication of reports outlining the scale of clerical sex abuse in Ireland.

Given that the visitation will begin in the four metropolitan archdioceses of Ireland (Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Emly, and Tuam), the bishops of those same archdioceses - Cardinal Seán Brady, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop Dermot Clifford and Archbishop Michael Neary - will be in Rome this week to help with the planning.

Various Vatican departments including the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are expected to be involved in the planning of the visitation which will be co-ordinated by the Congregation of Bishops.

In a three-way process, the Vatican Curia will most likely meet separately with the visitors and the Irish bishops, while the visitors may well take the opportunity to meet with the bishops to whose diocese they have been assigned.

While the visitation has obviously been prompted by the Irish Catholic Church's child sex abuse crisis, especially in the light of the revelations of last year's Ryan and Murphy reports, Vatican commentators suggest it would be reductive to see the visitation as concerned only with the sex abuse issue.

In a broader sense, the visitation is intended to "offer assistance" to the Irish bishops as they set about a process of "desired spiritual and moral renewal" in the wake of the profound damage inflicted by the sex abuse scandals not only on the victims but also on ordinary Irish Catholics.

The offers of "assistance" may take many different forms but what is clear is that while the visitors will be expected to ask many awkward and embarrassing questions of their fellow bishops, they will also be called on to do a lot of listening.

To a certain extent, the visitation is equivalent to HQ at a multi-national sending a taskforce delegation of trouble shooters to check out what went wrong at the local branch.

Inevitably, the visitation will be closely monitored as commentators assess just how far Pope Benedict wants to push what one commentator calls "the process of renewal and concrete clean-up".

In Vatican terms, too, the visitation represents the first major test of the new Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a man already being tipped as a possible successor to Benedict.