Breda O’Brien: Negativity around Irish church not the norm worldwide

World Youth Day showcases the other side of catholicism and religous life

A nun looks on as pilgrims sleep at the Campus Misericordiae during World Youth Day in Brzegi near Krakow, Poland. Photograph: Agencja Gazeta/Kuba Ociepa

A nun looks on as pilgrims sleep at the Campus Misericordiae during World Youth Day in Brzegi near Krakow, Poland. Photograph: Agencja Gazeta/Kuba Ociepa

 

World Youth Day (WYD), an event instituted by St John Paul II as a regular gathering of young people, had about two million participants this year. In the US, more than one-third of seminarians in training cite attendance at a WYD as an influence on their vocation.

You could say it’s because anyone attending a World Youth Day (oddly named because the official programme is six days long) is likely to be open to the idea of a religious vocation, but pilgrims are a very varied bunch. They range from those who are at best not actively antagonistic to the church, to those who have a very deep Catholic commitment.

However, at WYD, vocations are sparked in part because they will see and interact with lots and lots of young religious and priests, the majority of whom seem very happy and fulfilled.

Most young people will be drawn to marriage rather than a religious or other vocation, but for the minority who have a different calling it must be so discouraging to come home from WYD to be greeted by another alleged scandal in Maynooth.

When Archbishop Diarmuid Martin gave Maynooth a vote of no confidence by withdrawing his three clerical students, presumably it was after trying to effect reforms along with his episcopal colleagues. Ironically, the students will be going instead to the Pontifical College in Rome, which was itself the subject of a heavily critical report in 2012 after what is called an apostolic visitation, in this case headed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Enriching experience

I found no evidence of any lack of orthodoxy among the staff, and instead, a great desire to make the experience in the seminary as enriching as possible for the men preparing for the priesthood.

The Catholic Church cannot credibly preach justice unless its own procedures are open and just, and people who are accused have a right to reply and to their good names.

Not that balancing the rights of those making allegations with the rights of those against whom allegations are made is ever easy. Anonymous complaints, or ones where people have no chance to defend themselves, should not be entertained.

However, in order for justice to prevail, there have to be robust safeguards both for whistleblowers who are willing to go on the record, and those against whom allegations are being made.

It is never easy to balance these rights, but in order for people to have confidence in an organisation, they need to be able to believe that the best possible efforts are being made. I feel particularly sorry for those in Maynooth, both staff and students, who are utterly blameless. They are all tainted by the allegations. The only solution is a robust and credible external enquiry.

It is such a pity that after a really successful WYD attended by 2,000 young Irish people, they have to return to another rumbling scandal in the Irish church.

Test of stamina

As Paddy Agnew wryly noted, WYD is not for softies. This year’s meeting in Krakow was physically demanding, involving long treks on foot, some extreme weather and very high temperatures, and culminating in one of the world’s biggest sleepouts, when close to a million young people slept in a field in advance of the closing Mass.

Maybe the Irish church could learn something from that. Young people welcome a challenge.

I fully expected the pilgrims to fall through the sliding doors of arrivals in Dublin Airport, completely worn-out. Instead, they looked better than when they left.

Sure, they were exhausted, but they had also had one of the best experiences of their lives. First, they did not just see an inspirational pope, but learned about figures like Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, beaten to death by three agents of the Polish communist security services because he was a fearless witness to Gospel values.

They also met young people from all over the world who care about their faith, and realised that the negativity surrounding the Irish church is not the norm everywhere.

Finally, it was really, really fun. There are so many videos on social media of the Irish groups wending their way through the metro and the streets, singing their hearts out.

They even got the Polish police and army, somewhat grim-faced given the security challenges presented by the ever-present threat of terrorism, to unbend and smile.

WYD ignites a spark, but it is a fragile spark unless, when they come home, young people see a church that wants to make space for and nurture them, not a church riven by divisions and apparently unable to tackle the challenges facing it.

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