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The Disappearing Priest

Eamon Maher

The Irish priest risks become something of an anachronism over the coming years, given that the average age of the diocesan clergy is currently sixty-five, a stark statistic that forms the basis of a recent book by Brendan Hoban entitled Who Will Break the Bread for Us? Hoban is one of the founding members of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) and has been very forthright in his questioning of the absence of forward planning among the Irish hierarchy. Listening to Denis Crosby, the parish priest of Liscannor, at a meeting of the ACP in 2012, Hoban was struck by the way in which his confrere “unpeeled the layers of pretension and presumption that seek to minimise and sometimes deny the prevailing crisis in the Irish Catholic Church” by asking who will actually say Mass for the people in another decade or two:

Suddenly there it was, like a pearl glistening in a clearance, demanding our attention. It isn’t, of course, the only question that needs to be asked as our Church faces a difficult future, but it is of immediate and critical concern. For, at most, we have a window of a decade or so to come to terms with this imminent crisis. And unless we do a Eucharist famine will prevail in Ireland as parishes without Mass will lose their focus and their resilience. Without priests we have no Mass and without Mass we have no Church. It’s as simple as that.

It is indeed a very stark scenario. As the number of priests diminishes and the workload on those still in ministry increases exponentially, we are going to reach the stage relatively quickly where the Eucharist will be celebrated less frequently, and in far fewer venues. So what is the plan to make up for the shortfall of priests that is being formulated by the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland? If we are to go by recent pronouncements, it would appear that they have been more concerned with trying to get their flock to vote against same sex marriage than with ensuring the survival of Catholicism as a vibrant force within Irish society. Ever since the clerical abuse scandals revealed the Church leadership to be preoccupied with the survival of the institution to which they had pledged their loyalty and on which they had pinned all their hopes, rather than with ensuring the safety of children, the Irish public has drifted steadily from the religious space. It wasn’t just the scandals that caused such disenchantment either: since the 1960s, with the advent of enhanced educational opportunities and increased material prosperity, secular values were taking a hold in Ireland in much the same way as they had done years previously on continental Europe. It was the fear of the secular contagion that partly explains the motivation behind the visit by John Paul II to these shores in 1979. At that point, the decrease in the numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life was quite marked and the Vatican was concerned to reverse the move away from religious values.

Rather than rehashing the whole debate about the various reports into the handling of clerical abuse in the dioceses of Ferns, Dublin and Cloyne and the fallout that resulted from same, this article will instead deal with two very different publications that appeared in the same year, one a sociological study conducted by John A Weafer, Thirty-Three Good Men: Celibacy, Obedience and Identity. A Sociological Study of the Lived Experience of Irish Diocesan Priests in Modern Ireland, 1960-2010 (Columba Press, 2014) and the other a work of fiction, John Boyne’s novel A History of Loneliness (Doubleday, 2014). Weafer’s study is based on interviews he conducted with thirty-three men, the majority of whom are still active in ministry, and eight of whom left the priesthood for various reasons, be it as a result of problems with celibacy or through loss of faith, or, in certain instances, because of a desire to live out their homosexuality in a more open and fulfilling manner. The men interviewed fall into three distinct categories ‑ pre-Vatican II priests, Vatican II priests and post-Vatican II priests – and the methodology employed is referred to in sociology as “conversations with a purpose”. When it came to the issues of celibacy, obedience and identity, the interviewees corresponded more or less to this reader’s expectations, with the oldest group displaying an acceptance that these rules had to be obeyed, albeit with a certain degree of reluctance, the middle group having serious issues with them, and the youngest group seeing them as a vital part of their priestly vocation. Weafer acknowledges the way in which the second Vatican Council transformed the Catholic Church:

The new model of Church that emerged from Vatican II emphasised collegiality, ecumenism, community and the enhanced participation of the ‘People of God’. It was a more open, optimistic and democratic vision of Church, albeit still hierarchical, where dialogue was encouraged.

Those priests who were in the seminaries in the 1960s and early 1970s (Brendan Hoban would fall into this category) were in general enthusiastic about the changes wrought by Vatican II and were keen to make a difference when they arrived in parishes after ordination. They often encountered parish priests and older clergy who had their own way of doing things and who were initially resistant to change. Young priests were left in no doubt about what their role was to be: follow the orders of their superiors and toe the party line. The idea of sharing power with the laity through parish councils and other such mechanisms that lay at the core of the concept whereby the Church would henceforth be viewed as the “People of God”, Mass in the vernacular, a more forgiving and tolerant attitude to sin, especially in the area of sexuality, all these changes frightened the older generation of priests, who had been trained to lay down the law and to be treated in a deferential manner by their congregations.

John McGahern’s classic short story “Oldfashioned” captures the rapidity with which Irish society changed in these decades. The boy in the story, Johnny, whose experiences mirror those of McGahern himself, runs into difficulty with his father when he is befriended by a Protestant couple, the Sinclairs, who are anxious to help him get on in the world by arranging for him to enlist for training in the British army – Mr. Sinclair had been a colonel and the couple had lost their son during World War II. Johnny’s father, a Garda sergeant, while happy initially to allow his son spend time with the Sinclairs, will have nothing to do with this suggestion, seeing it as an attack on his patriarchal domination and a betrayal of his republican ideals. In the end, Johnny is forbidden to visit the elderly couple, which saddens him as he had come to enjoy their company and appreciate their sophistication. He ends up becoming a producer and returns to his native village some years later to film a documentary. He is struck by the demise of the Protestant gentry in the locality and harks back to the time when the church “was so crowded for both Masses on Sundays that often children and old people would faint in the bad air and have to be carried outside”. Equally, the presbytery had seen heavy traffic as people “came for references, for birth certificates, to arrange for calls for the sick or dying, for baptism, marriages, churchings, to report their neighbours: they brought offerings and payments of dues”. This busy passage of people is now down to a dribble and the politician’s clinic is where most people now go to get their problems sorted. The Catholic priest appears to have been reduced to an almost comical figure within the local community: “He is a young priest and tells them that God is on their side and wants them to want children, bungalow bliss, a car and colour television […] [H]e plays the guitar and sings at local hotels where he is a hit with the tourists.”

What McGahern captures here is the passing of the old guard of authoritarian priests, who instilled fear in their congregations by ruling with an iron fist and accepting no challenge to their authority, to be replaced by a softer, gentler form of man whose vocation revolves around playing a pastoral role in the parish as an equal. However, the rural society which McGahern evoked in his writings was not that keen on change and looks with a somewhat jaundiced eye at the guitar-playing priest with the long hair who attempts to be just another member of the community. The fortress Church that dominated McGahern’s youth did not meet with the writer’s approval, particularly with regard to its pronouncements on sexuality, which made something he considered to be beautiful and natural into something sinful and damaging. In the classic essay “The Church and its Spire”, McGahern noted:

Faith and obedience were demanded, mostly taking the form of empty outward observances and a busy interest that other people do likewise, which cannot be described as anything other than coercive.

The parish missions were described with particular relish, with Redemptorist priests instilling terror in the congregation with their pulpit-thumping antics and their dire warnings about hell and purgatory. It was the theatre associated with these performances that appealed to McGahern. What remained with him in a special way, however, were memories of the beautiful rituals of the Church that were the language of his youth: the smell of incense, the Corpus Christi processions, the sense of mystery during the Mass, the priest in his ornate vestments, the incantation of the Latin hymns, the strong conviction of being part of a community of shared values. It is noticeable that McGahern is generally sympathetic in his depiction of clerical figures – the priest in “The Wine Breath” and Fr Conroy in That They May Face the Rising Sun are particularly positive portrayals – and he manages to capture something of the lived experience of priests, something I find lacking in John Weafer’s study, although that is allegedly one of its objectives. His second chapter shows a good knowledge of the literature on the topic, relying heavily (as one might expect from a sociologist) on the pioneering work of Tom Inglis. At the end of the chapter, Weafer comments on how “the socio-religious landscape within which Irish diocesan priests live and work has changed significantly and often for the worse, during the past fifty years or so”. Few, if any of us, could disagree with such an assessment. He goes on to remark on the widening gap between the institutional Church and the people, the loss of trust in the wake of the clerical abuse scandals, which revealed that many Church leaders did not practice what they taught, and were victims of a group think mentality that was a by-product of clericalism. But it is the last lines of the chapter that captured my attention especially:

Conversely, anecdotal evidence and empirical research suggests (sic) that priests are still highly regarded by some sections of Irish society and that their image has not been as severely tarnished as the institutional Church.

The evidence is perhaps more than “anecdotal” in supporting the view that priests working on the ground have somehow managed to retain the affection and admiration of the people to whom they minister. Much of this has to do with the fact that the priest is often the first point of contact for the happiest and saddest moments in people’s lives: weddings, baptisms, first communions, funerals. In the vast majority of cases, the tact, compassion and professionalism of priests when performing these functions are admirable. This is especially evident when the circumstances are tragic, such as when a young person loses his or her life through an accident, terminal illness or suicide. The emotions run high on such occasions and one false note, one implied judgemental comment, one thoughtless observation, can shower even more pain on the bereaved family and community. By and large, priests are wonderful in bringing comfort and succour to those left to pick up the pieces after such painful interludes. People know and appreciate this fact and although they may have serious issues with the Church on many levels, they tend to view the priest as an intermediary who helps them to cope with their loss and to point to the possibility of there being a life after death.

The three areas dealt with by Weafer in his book ‑ celibacy, obedience and identity – are definitely of serious concern to diocesan priests, but they are far less important to the laity, most of whom would welcome the ending of mandatory celibacy, which they associate, rightly or wrongly, with the thorny issue of paedophilia. There is, of course, no guarantee that the removal of celibacy or the ban on priests marrying would result in a clerical caste that was better adjusted in terms of its sexuality. Marie Keenan, a leading expert on child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, remarks that the formation men received in Irish seminaries in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s instilled in them the belief that they had become part of a privileged caste as a result of their ordination, a cut above the laity to whom they would minister. There were other problems too:

Within the seminary environment, those men who were to become the abuse perpetrators were rule-keepers by and large, who in some cases had histories of personal vulnerability by virtue of histories of childhood sexual abuse and childhood traumas and struggles relating to sexual orientation. They were also likely to adapt to seminary life by losing voice and sublimating self in an attempt to embody clerical perfection and become what they believed the institution required.

These observations will prove particularly useful when it comes to discussing John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness. Men in seminaries were traditionally taught to view the body with suspicion, as being “the temple of the Devil”, a source of temptation and sin. By embracing celibacy, many priests believed that they were distinguishing themselves from ordinary men and women, that they were in some way superior to them. Clericalism is a strange phenomenon, but the dangers associated with it stem precisely from the tendency to place priests on a pedestal, to instil in them the conviction that normal rules and values do not apply to them. Thomas R Whelan provides the following definition:

“Clericalism” refers to how the internal structures of Church can serve to establish or maintain a relationship of power. The terms can also name attitudes of superiority, privilege and elitism of one group (clergy) over others, sometimes supported by canonical and theological rhetoric. The term nearly always implies an abuse of position. Typically, authority (legitimate or otherwise) is appealed to on the basis of the fact of being in this position rather than on the grounds of merit or election, but it rarely is accountable to those who are presumed to be served by this authority.

The link between priesthood and celibacy meant that the celibate state was promulgated as being the ideal, the prerequisite for the model Christian life. Small wonder then that sexuality should become the target for so much vitriol or that those men who could not remain celibate should view themselves in a negative light. The testimonies of victims in the Ryan Report describe how many of the Brothers who raped them in the Industrial Schools often inflicted vicious beatings on them afterwards, claiming that they were intrinsically evil, instruments of the devil, a source of temptation. The fault was nearly always perceived to lie with the victims and not the perpetrators. The tendency to view celibacy as being at the core of priesthood and religious life, rather than prayerfulness, honesty, integrity, compassion, resulted in the emergence of a warped and unhealthy view of sexuality among many priests and members of religious orders. Weafer cites the Dublin priest Fr Martin Tierney, who said he regarded sex to be like a “nuclear cauldron within which lay explosive possibilities for sinning”. Subtle ways of controlling homosexual behaviour among seminarians included a ban on entering other students’ rooms, or on the cultivation of “special friendships”. This did not succeed in eradicating the sexual urges of seminarians or their superiors, however, which is clear from the testimony of one former Vatican II priest among Weafer’s interviewees who describes how he got a “terrible shock” when he was sexually assaulted by a priest on the seminary staff and how nothing happened when he reported the priest to his spiritual director. “He was simply told that the priest concerned had ‘gone a little cracked’.”

Homosexuality was and is a serious problem within the priesthood. Fr C became a priest in the 1980s and is a homosexual. The following observation is quite stark: “While he believes that ‘well over half’ of his class in the seminary were gay, the subject was ‘never touched upon’ by the college authorities and only rarely by students. It was as if homosexuality would cease to exist if it wasn’t discussed.” It is difficult to ascertain the actual proportion of priests and seminarians who are gay, but what comes out most strongly from Weafer’s study is the failure among the authorities within the Catholic Church to face up to the reality that a good number of its priests are homosexual in their orientation and that some seek a refuge in a celibate priesthood from what they view as their unnatural (or sinful) inclinations. Your sexuality does not suddenly disappear once you are ordained and life outside the seminary demands interaction with a laity (male and female) who are in general no longer willing to adopt a submissive attitude to priests, who will, in fact, regularly challenge them on many fronts and oversee their every move, especially in relation to children. There are many fascinating aspects to Weafer’s Thirty-Three Good Men, but its main problem is that the sample (thirty-three interviewees) is far too small for it to give an accurate reflection of attitudes among the diocesan clergy. It also supplies a good counterbalance to the fictional representation of some priests’ lives as seen in John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness.

The main character in Boyne’s novel, Fr Odran Yates, is not a particularly nasty creation. A priest who works in a well-known Dublin rugby school, Terenure College , a slightly effete, intellectual man whose main duty consists of looking after the college library, Yates is presented as quite a benign figure. His fatal fault is in remaining silent about the actions of a friend from the seminary, Tom Cardle, whom he suspected of committing crimes against young boys, one of them Yates’s own nephew. Cardle had tried to leave the seminary early in his training but was driven back to Clonliffe by his father in a tractor, still bearing the external signs of the beating he had been given at home for leaving without permission. Subsequently, there was nothing for it but to continue his training through to ordination. Yates remarked on the lack of fervour in his friend’s approach to religion and the noises emanating from his cubicle at night revealed that Cardle was struggling with what would have been referred to at the time as his “sexual demons”. Yates himself had been attracted to the priesthood for many good reasons:

I believed in God, in the Church, in the power of Christianity to promote a better world. I believed that the priesthood was a noble calling, a profession filled by decent men who wanted to propagate kindness and charity. I believed that the Lord had chosen me for a reason. I didn’t have to search for this faith, it was simply a part of me. And I thought it would never change.

His mother was particularly keen on his vocation and took fright when her son became attracted to a young girl in the neighbourhood. She prevailed upon a local priest to speak to Odran and, in so doing, exposed him to a predatory paedophile who interrogated the young boy about his behaviour: “‘Did she touch you. Did she touch you down there?’ He nodded at my crotch. ‘Tell me what she did, Odran. Did she touch you? Did you touch yourself? Did you show her what you’ve got? Are you a dirty boy, Odran, are you? I’d say you are. I’d say you get up to all sorts in this room, do you, Odran?’” The discomfort the boy feels is justified and later in the novel it is revealed that the priest abused him. The trauma of the incident never dissipated, which could in some way account for why he remained silent about the proclivities of Cardle: he learned from personal experience that it was safer to say nothing about such matters. However, remaining silent does not mean that the trauma goes away, as is clear from the nightmarish flashbacks that intermittently occur about what that priest inflicted on him:

There he was; he was standing next to me now, his foul breath in my ear, his arm around my shoulder, pulling me to him, his hands tugging at my pants, reaching inside. I pressed my hands against my ears. He was there. He was all over me.

In an interview conducted with The Irish Times (online version), John Boyne shared his negative experiences of sadistic priests, whose brutal beatings were not as bad as the negative attitudes they instilled in him and others about their sexuality: “It’s not easy to be a young, gay teenager and to be told that you’re sick, mentally disordered or in need of electroshock therapy, particularly when you hear it from someone who groped you on the way to class the day before.” This sort of double standard from priests left Boyne bewildered at how a religion that emphasises such admirable qualities as love of God and one’s neighbour, justice for all, compassion, could also stand over a regime of bewildering oppression and repression when it came to sex. In portraying a monster like Tom Cardle, Boyne claims he was not seeking to compose an outright on the Catholic Church and its priests for being responsible for all the ills of Irish society. Notwithstanding, there are telltale signs of an anti-Church agenda at work. Odran Yates appears to have little or no moral backbone and even less awareness of the changed circumstances in which he finds himself. I find it hard to imagine that a priest in 2011 would follow a child out of a department store, where he had become separated from his mother, buy him an ice-cream and not expect that people would suspect the worst, as indeed they do. After all, some years previously Yates had been forced to postpone a catechism class until an adult arrived. He reflects afterwards: “And for this level of distrust, I had all my old friends to thank. Was it any wonder that I went home every Friday night overcome with shame?” Wearing a Roman collar in public opens the wearer to the risk of being subjected to crude comments about sexual orientation and the safety of children.

It equally strikes me as incongruous that Fr Yates, on the night that he buries his mother, would not do something to protect his nephew when his sister offers a bed to Tom Cardle for the night. The latter had been befriending the child all evening and the danger posed to the young boy by the priest’s presence is clear. Then there is the exchange at the end of the novel, when Cardle is released from prison and Yates goes to collect him. The paedophile priest seeks to blame his perversions on the training received in Clonliffe:

They twisted me and distorted me, they made sure that I had no release for any of the natural desires that a human being has, and then they didn’t give a damn if I didn’t know how to live a decent life.

What about free will, I wonder? Surely they covered that in the seminary. It is certain that there was collusion in silence among priests in relation to the issue of child abuse. Those who did not share their suspicions with the authorities and the police have a huge burden to carry where the consequences of their inaction resulted in the ruin of a number of lives. Fr Yates knows that he was culpable, but it should also be acknowledged that members of local communities, politicians and members of An Garda Síochána similarly ignored complaints against priests, Christian Brothers and others, because of a feeling of deference towards such respected members of society. It is easy to judge the reactions and actions of people a number of decades ago by today’s standards. Hence I find Tom Cardle’s outburst towards his friend at the end of A History of Loneliness unbelievable:

I think you’re like everyone else, even though you’ve played the holier-than-thou your whole life. You knew it, you kept it secret and this whole conspiracy that everyone talks about, the one that goes to the top of the Church, well it goes to the bottom of it too, to the nobodies like you […] You can blame me all you like, Odran, and you’d be right to, because I’ve done some terrible things in my life. But do you ever think of taking a look at yourself? At your own actions? At the Grand Silence that you’ve maintained from the very first day?

The first thing that is implausible here is Cardle’s acceptance of the evil he has done. We are told that he was not remorseful when released from prison, that he was still unrepentant for his actions, blaming them on his time in Clonliffe. Whence then comes the insight? Nor do his comments conform to any of the previous exchanges between the two priests. Cardle seems rather to be used as a mouthpiece for what Boyne thinks ‑ and about which he is undoubtedly correct. But what works in a newspaper article will not necessarily work in a novel. This is one of the reasons why I find that John Boyne, a really talented novelist, does not quite manage to come to terms with the figure of the priest in this novel. In a fine short story by William Trevor, “Justina’s Priest”, the main character, Fr Clohessy reflects how “the times they are a-changing” and the priest is no longer the influential figure he once was:

The grandeur might have gone from the church, his congregations dwindling, his influence fallen away to nothing, but there was money where there’d been poverty, ambition where there’s been humility. These were liberated people who stood about in ways that generations before them had not. They wore what they wished to wear, they said what they wished to say, they stayed or went away.

Clohessy sees that the power once wielded by priests in rural Ireland has long since vanished and that people, even those who remain loyal to a type of cultural Catholicism, have been “liberated” from a certain Church and priesthood that revolved around power. It is clear that Trevor’s priest does not necessarily see this as a negative development. Being a priest in Ireland today cannot be a particularly uplifting experience, particularly if there is no genuine interaction between him and a parish community. In response to Boyne’s comments on his novel, Fr Martin Boland made the point in the pages of The Irish Times that Fr Yates was never allowed “to mature into a fully rounded person”, a point with which I am in full agreement. But I part company somewhat with Boland on the following assessment:

As a priest character he (Yates) is spiritually stunted. There is no sense that this man has a vocation, that he is a priest who, in all his human frailty, is nevertheless sustained by the imperceptible movements of grace. If only his psychological character had borne at least some of these spiritual hallmarks, then we may have been blessed with a truly great “priest” novel.

If asked to comment on this, it is likely that Boyne would have retorted that his plan was never to write a great “priest” novel. He is evidently not a Georges Bernanos or a Graham Greene, two renowned Catholic novelists who wrote movingly, and convincingly, about the inner lives of priests. Perhaps Fr Boland might do well to consider that many priests do not have the luxury of “imperceptible movements of grace” to sustain them, that their prayerful life is sometimes negligible and that they go about their lives struggling to keep things together as best they can. It is arguable that the spiritual lives of priests can make for great literature, but not every novelist is equipped, or anxious, to probe these depths. It might also be useful to consider the kind of Irish Church in which diocesan priests operate and the difficulties it poses to the men working on the ground. Weafer quotes a parish priest who was ordained in the 1980s:

The sense of Church that was promoted over the years, to pay up, pray up and shut up, is still a good description of how the Church operates. I am really disappointed with the failure of Vatican II, it just hasn’t happened. The past forty years is a failed opportunity in the Church because the Church went back on itself.

A younger priest, inspired by the papacies of John Paul II or Benedict XVI, would probably argue that Vatican II was the source of, and not the solution to, the Church’s present woes. There are certainly fault lines within the Church and within priesthood that make it difficult to make out where fact ends and fiction begins. Weafer and Boyne produce some compelling, thought-provoking material, but they fall a little short when it comes to capturing the figure of the priest in all his beguiling intricacy.


Eamon Maher is Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght. He is currently working on a collection of essays with Eugene O’Brien entitled, From Galway to Cloyne, and Beyond: Tracing the Cultural Legacy of Irish Catholicism.



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