Reflecting on the road not taken


RITE AND REASON:PRIESTS WHO abused children must wonder, “How did I end up like this?” I’m sure we all had the same enthusiasm and commitment as we entered religious life, more than 50 years ago in my case, writes SEÁN Ó RIAIN

That first year was one of the happiest in my life. Not because of the beauty of the countryside or the excellence of monastic cooking or the soaring novelty of the liturgy. It was my companions of that year – priests, lay brothers and my 13 fellow students – who brought me such happiness. People living together in peace and prayer, trying to know God – that for me was happiness.

After three years I left. A brave decision, people said. It didn’t seem so to me but maybe their opinion showed the pressure on people not to leave. One source of today’s worrying problems?

Spirituality was largely devotional; books that might have encouraged a more fulfilling spirituality were scarce. The saddest thing was being told that as students for the priesthood we were different from the lay brothers and should not become too friendly with them. I rejected that advice as soon as I heard it.

We were warned against what were called “special friendships”. I also rejected that advice. The warning was never articulated, homosexuality was never mentioned. Of course I had a special friendship – it would have been unnatural not to have somebody special to trust, even to love.

There was no advice about how to deal with celibacy. I have no memory of sexual difficulties being mentioned. I do remember the offhand remark that the most difficult vow was obedience. Small comfort.

What amazes me is not the number who left the priesthood since the 1960s but the number who made it to ordination. How did they do it – in spite of what was, in my limited experience, totally inadequate training?

Last year when I met those of my group who became priests, I was amazed at their conviction and deep spirituality. I knew that had I become a priest, I would be proud today to be among their number. They had a very deep faith even when they were just 18.

Occasionally I wonder what sort of priest I would have been. Once I thought I would like to help people in Confession – the poor man’s therapy – and help restore a sense of their inner beauty to people who thought they had sinned. I remember as a monk going on a country walk in winter. We came on a Traveller encampment where a young boy lay shivering under a frozen canvas. I thought the Traveller cause would be a good apostolate but now I realise it has probably been easier for me to show practical solidarity with the Travelling people as a lay person than it would have been as a priest.

Last month in a poor Dublin parish at a funeral Mass for a young man, I heard the best funeral homily I ever heard. The quiet priest hardly mentioned God, yet God was written all over his homily. Could I as a priest have matched his affirmation of poor people?

Last year I visited a priest as he served prison time for child abuse. We spoke of this and that across the barrier that separated prisoners from visitors and eventually the talk came around to when we were young. We are about the same age. I said that, long ago, nobody told us anything, or explained anything.

He said his father never really talked to him. I hope that communication, training and education have improved since my time for the hundreds of young men who are now flocking to the religious life in parts of the Asian and African continents.

Seán Ó Riain is the author of Condemned Letters from Death Row(Liberties Press, €12.99)