Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Under Visitation

Nearly a year in the making, the Vatican's most extensive intervention into the life of an abuse-rocked local church is now underway as this week sees the Apostolic Visitation of Irish Catholicism step into full gear.

Announced by Pope Benedict in his Letter to the Irish church last March, the names of the top-flight team of investigators -- all foreign-born A-list prelates of Irish descent, each assigned to one of the country's four provinces -- were revealed by the Holy See on last May's feast of the Visitation. Following their briefing on Rome's areas of interest and concern, in November the Vatican released a fairly extensive statement detailing the nature and scope of the study, noting that each Visitor's conclusions and recommendations would be expected in Rome sometime around Easter.

While Cardinal Sean O'Malley began his part of the process with a week in Dublin in mid-November, the Boston prelate returned to the Irish capital last weekend to delve into the bulk of the work there. At the same time, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor of Westminster arrived in the primatial church of Armagh on Sunday, Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto takes up in the archdiocese of Cashel and Emly for three weeks beginning tomorrow, and before the weekend Archbishop Timothy Dolan will start his two-stage examination of the five Irish seminaries, with his predecessor as rector of the North American College, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of Baltimore -- the head of the 2005-6 Visitation of the Stateside seminaries -- heading along as his assistant. Another team, led by US Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Sharon Holland, will probe the country's religious communities.

(While this week sees the look-in begin in earnest, Archbishop Terence Prendergast SJ of Ottawa made the first stage of his Visit to the archdiocese of Tuam in mid-December, and is slated to return in March.)

Above all in the Vatican's mind, the Visitors to the local churches are under orders to "make themselves available to meet with those who have been deeply wounded by abuse and who wish to be met and heard, beginning with the victims themselves and their families." From there, the teams have been asked to assess how the Irish bishops' 2009 guidelines on cases "are functioning and how they may be better implemented and improved."

Beyond taking soundings from the local clergy and religious, and any other constituencies which seek to provide input, Rome has called upon each archdiocese to arrange a Service of Penitence for the whole community, led by the respective Visitor -- but with the pointed implication that, at least in some cases, the presence of the diocesan bishop might not be the most advisable course of action.

To date, just one of the repentance rites has taken place, led by Prendergast in Tuam cathedral in mid-December. In his homily, the Ottawa prelate said the following:
We see in the gospel read this evening, that the chosen disciples of Jesus had to be rebuked—as they often are in Mark’s gospel on other issues—for their improper use of authority.

The disciples had to be taught by Jesus about the danger of riches, the need for humble service and so many other things. In the gospel we have just heard and on which we need to carry out the five steps of lectio divina: reading, meditating, praying, contemplating for a conversion of heart, and acting upon as the Holy Spirit will guide us, we are challenged to learn to welcome children—the little and vulnerable ones—so as to bless them and not do them any kind of harm whatsoever.

Jesus, as the evangelist Mark presents him in his gospel, had many reasons to reject, out of frustration, the Twelve, his chosen apostles, the antecedents of his bishops and priests of today, but he does not do this. Rather he constantly takes them aside to teach them and, through them, he teaches us his followers. As in the gospel he urged his disciples, so also to us he says “come, let us go” (Mark 1:38; 14:42), right through the experience of betrayal, denial and disgrace into the new life in a place called “Galilee” (somewhere not unlike Galway and Tuam), with sins forgiven, because we are contrite and ready to make amends, and thus with hope for the future.

That, too, is the message of the prophet Zephaniah, the passage for the Mass of this Advent day liturgy. It speaks of how, despite the chosen people’s arrogance mentioned in the opening words, God intends to renew his people. What God has done in the past, he intends to do again in the present, here and now for us. And that promise holds true, however long it may take and with whatever new forms he will show us....

I have come here to listen and to learn, to see how the Spirit of our God is moving you to share with us your pain, your hopes, your insights and suggestions, ways in which we can find possibilities and options to recommend to the Holy Father and his associates in the Vatican for the renewal that we all wish for God’s Church.

This new way of living our mission as Church must begin by every effort being made to heal the victims of abuse, with the assumption of responsibility for sin and malfeasance committed, with the begging of forgiveness wherever needed, and ultimately, with the receiving of the reconciliation which God offers and the acceptance of divinely-ordained reasons for hope.

Apostolic Visitators come not with answers ready made, but with attentive ears and discerning hearts, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the local churches that we are privileged to visit. We come with the desire to manifest a ministry of encouragement, a zeal for reconciliation, a hope that, as Pope Benedict mentioned in his letter to Ireland, the Irish Church, as a source of blessing rather than an occasion for shame, may come to the fore again.
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From the metropolitan churches, it's conceivable that each Visitor could be called in to examine difficult situations that come to light in the suffragan sees of their respective provinces. In that light, while the Visitation was initiated by Rome amid the incandescent fallout from 2009's Murphy Report -- the state inquiry into abuse and cover-up in the Dublin church -- another "bomb" looms in the short-range future: the government's findings on a similar inquest into the diocese of Cloyne were delivered to the Cabinet last month, and are being prepared for release sometime over the coming months.

The report on the Cork diocese could shake out to be a particularly delicate matter for the Vatican, even if solely by association; much of the inquiry's findings will inevitably involve the tenure of Bishop John Magee, the diocese's head since 1987 until his forced retirement last year. Until his transfer home, Magee served three Popes as private secretary and liturgical Master of Ceremonies.

In the meanwhile, along with two other dioceses whose bishops resigned in the post-Murphy fury, the Cloyne seat remains vacant, and the Visitation's findings in Armagh will likely help guide the selection of an expected coadjutor to the Isle's embattled primate, Cardinal Sean Brady, whose part in a 1970s canonical investigation into one of the country's most notorious predator priests has earned him the ire of victim-survivors and a widespread lack of confidence. Though the process in question -- for which the now-cardinal, then a young priest, served as a notary -- removed Norbertine Fr Brendan Smyth from ministry, his abuse was not reported to the civil authorities for another decade-plus.

Looming over it all, a key open question remains: the distinct prospect of a papal visit to Ireland in June next year for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which was awarded to Dublin in 2008.

On an editorial note, these pages will likewise be on Visitation to the Sacred Sod later this month... but, no, not the Roman one. Given the confluence of the Vatican inquest with a reporter's long-planned speaking tour, stay tuned for updates over the weeks ahead.

PHOTO: St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh