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Larry Donnelly: 'Why are we going to see the pope? We are part of a rich tapestry'

‘Personal faith, separate from the institution, unwavering respect for those who educated me, and the comfort of community’.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THESE ARE NOT easy days to be a Catholic, here in Ireland or anywhere else in the
world. Last week’s release of the report of a Pennsylvania grand jury revealed the abuse of more than 1,000 children and young people by some 300 priests over 70 years.

The report makes for horrifying reading – both with respect to the depraved sexual acts of the clergy carried out on vulnerable boys and girls it bluntly spells out in lurid detail and the systematic fashion in which the Church subsequently and repeatedly sought to cover it all up.

The report – as well as the consequent rage which was palpable in the physical expression and language used by that state’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, at a stunning press conference – has justifiably engendered further condemnations of the institutional Roman Catholic Church.

I am speechless, devastated, furious

Writing from within, I am once again left speechless, devastated and furious at the latest revelations. The “few bad apples” line of defence often trotted out previously by the Church’s defenders (this one included) just doesn’t cut it anymore. There is no defending the indefensible.

A papal letter authored by Pope Francis, published in the report’s wake and ahead of the World Meeting of Families taking place in Dublin this week, has been praised by some survivors of sexual abuse and Catholic clergy alike for using stronger language than ever before, yet equally attacked for calling prominently for penance, prayer and fasting as remedies.

It seems likely that this widely beloved Pope will be pressured by individuals and groups inside and outside the flock to take concrete steps to limit the potential for horrific crimes to occur in future and, when and if they do, to ensure those who commit them will be dealt with swiftly and certainly.

That said, there remain elements of the institutional Church who refuse to accept responsibility for what has happened or even try to pretend that it hasn’t and will urge a more defensive posture. While they are wrong at every level conceivable, their power and influence in an organisation that thinks in millennia can’t be underestimated.

We have lots of reasons for going to see the pope

It is in the midst of this profoundly disturbing milieu that hundreds of thousands of us Catholics are making preparations to see the pope celebrate Mass in the Phoenix Park on
Sunday. In reality, we probably have lots of reasons for going and these reasons often
overlap. It is a spiritual occasion, a cultural expression and a novelty at the same time.

Notwithstanding our collective approval for Pope Francis and the myriad ways in
which he represents a break from the past, some provocative points have been raised about him and about our Church that are incumbent on us to consider, even if we would prefer not to.

Writing in The Irish Times from a decidedly non-Catholic perspective, Una Mullally posits that “attending papal events this week is an endorsement of an organisation, led by this pope, that has done nowhere near enough to atone for or to make right – financially, but also much deeper than that – the trauma they have inflicted, the lives that were destroyed or near-destroyed, the sorrow they caused.”

This is a challenging assertion because, reject it as we may, there is truth to it.

The Church has fallen short

Although in one sense the Church can never do enough to atone for these misdeeds, it has, to date, fallen short by any objective measure.

Why, then, are so many of us going to see the Pope and, even more importantly, why do we continue to actively practise our faith?

I have offered my own multi-part explanation before – personal faith, separate from the institution, as a bedrock in my life; my unwavering respect and admiration for the nuns of several orders and Jesuit priests who educated and formed me; the comfort I take from the familiarity of ritual and the sense of solidarity so manifest among Mass goers, especially in light of our new found minority status; the simple, selfish fact that receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist makes me feel better – but it was heartening to hear similar sentiments from two young women recently.

United by our Catholic faith

On the newspaper panel with me on Marian Finucane’s radio programme, Olivia Buckley, communications director of the Irish Tax Institute, and Maria Walsh, businesswomen, 2014 Rose of Tralee and LGBT advocate, also identified themselves as practising Catholics. Olivia cited the vibrancy of her parish community. Maria mentioned the close relationship she has with a priest. When questioned how she reconciles her sexuality with Catholic teaching, Maria noted that, while she disagrees, it is not something that comes up at Mass, nor has she ever been made to feel unwelcome.

We are three young (relatively, in my case) people who are very different, yet united by our Catholic faith. Indeed, our global Church comprises a rich tapestry of diverse men
and women, boys and girls. While many non-Catholics envisage a congregation of mainly
elderly, not particularly well-educated followers, this rich tapestry is sometimes evident at Mass and will be on display for the world to see on Sunday.

It will definitely not be a “creepy right-wing rallying of homophobes and bigots,” as one commentator has alleged.

The 1979 visit

This papal visit to Ireland has a special resonance for many here who saw Pope John Paul II when he drew massive crowds to events around the country in 1979. Fast forwarding 39 years is poignant for me, too, in that John Paul’s next stop was my home city where I, as a four-year-old boy, attended a Mass he celebrated on Boston Common with my family. It may be 3,000 miles away, but I am still here.

Nonetheless, we who have stayed want more from our Church. And saying so doesn’t make us bad Catholics. We want Pope Francis to commit to a reformed Church that far more closely mirrors the extraordinary message of Jesus Christ.

Our demand must be pursued and achieved in the name of all survivors of the horrendous abuse perpetrated by members of a clergy we were taught to revere.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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