The Catholic Church in its current form will not survive, former president Mary McAleese said in Rome on Thursday.
“The clericalised church will not survive and that will be good. Just how long it might take or whether I’ll be around to see, or whether my children will be still Catholics, my grandchildren, that I don’t know.
“But frankly I did my best and the people who let me down in the job that I was given, the vocation as a Catholic mother and a Catholic woman, the people who let me down are not very far from here (in the Vatican),” shesaid.
Speaking in a question and answers session following her address to the Voices of Faith conference in Rome, she told delegates that next May in Dublin she was keynote speaker at a conference on the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Hosted by the Columba Press the theme of the conference, suggested by Sr Stanilaus Kennedy and Dom Mark Patrick Hederman, is "the Catholic Church has five years left in Ireland to reform or die", she said.
In Ireland “our church became an empire. We’re only now seeing the final dismantling of that patriarchal, misogynistic empire. So we’ve actually never seen our church fully flourish in the way that I think Christ intended,” Ms McAleese said.
“So we’re now at a moment when the most educated generation in the history of Ireland is demanding that that’s the church they want and if it’s not the church that is available, well, they’ll walk away.”
The “gravitational pull of patriarchy, empire and misogyny and of homophobia has drained, in many ways, respect not just for the church. The danger is that it could drain it for the gospel itself. That’s what keeps me in the church, really,” she said.
Outlining her own background, she said she was “born and raised a Catholic in Belfast, one of the eldest of nine children. Because we were Catholics we lost our home, my parents lost their business, my father lost his sanity, my brother was almost murdered.
“On the morning that we were married two of our wedding guests, Catholics, were murdered in sectarian attacks. We lived in the area of Belfast with the highest density (of sectarian attacks) bar none. So that’s my hinterland.”
Out of that history, she had to ask herself “what values did I want to bring to my lived life”. She and her husband Martin decided “that our values were the values of the gospel that we learned through the Catholic Church”.
It was what they were taught by parents and teachers that “the wonderful commandment to love one another, no matter what, was actually capable of transforming and healing even the worst hurts, even the greatest hurts, the murders, the killings, the bombings, the inter-communal conflict. That’s where the theme of building bridges came from when I became president,” she said.
Asked why she remained Catholic, she said “I stay now because I choose. I choose to be one of 1.2 billion people spread across five continents, part of an institution that has no equal on the planet in terms of its outreach to the poor, the dispossessed, to the marginalised, part of an institution (that can be) the hands of God’s work in the world.
“No NGO does what that Catholic Church does through ordinary people They’re the people who inspire me, it’s their work that drives me on and gives me hope for the future,” she said.
‘Not being listened to’
One of those attending the event at the Jesuit Aula in Rome was former TV3 political editor and now journalist-in-residence at DCU, Ursula Halligan.
She said she was speaking as a committed Catholic “absolutely, and I’m not leaving the church. We just want to get our church back. We are the church, the people are the church. We’re not being heard. We’re not being listened to”.
A member of the We Are Church Ireland group she said “there’s such a great energy here today, channelled a lot by Mary’s (McAleese’s) presence and the fact that the conference went ahead with the original line up of speakers. I think everybody is really energised and excited at what’s happening.
“There’s momentum and we’re not going to stop here... We’re not taking it anymore.”
She expressed amazement that Pope Francis had yet to reply to Ms McAleese's letter asking why she had been barred from taking part in the conference when it was scheduled to take place in the Vatican.
Sr Claire Sykes, superior general of the Faithful Companions of Jesus congregation, lives in London. "This is my very first conference. I find it totally inspiring. Lots of boundaries being pushed forward, inspiring speakers, very clear messages, something to work for," she said.
“I’m a cradle Catholic, I love my church but I want change,” she said.
It was great to hear so many “very very committed Catholic women,” she said.
Ordination was not something that concerned her personally but she called for women to be “used much more closely in decision making in the church. I’ve had a very happy life as a religious woman. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever longed to be ordained but I do know others who would like to be ordained.
“Having women heard, having their creative voices heard is something that I long for,” she said.
Voices of Faith founder Chantal Goetz said the controversy over the barring of Ms McAleese "gave us a good positive promotion." However their dialogue with the Curia at the Vatican "will go on" and she was hopeful about that.
As to whether the conference marking International Women’s Day would be in the Vatican next year she said: “I’m not even sure anymore that it’s a priority. We also realise now we are more free. It gave us a kind of positive profile.”
She stressed what they wished to do about women in the Church “should go beyond this (annual) event.”