Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Reflections on a Reunion of Former Priests


The Catholic Church is a sinking ship. So are its orders of priests and nuns. The “reforms” presaged by the election of Pope Francis are like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They’re busy work for those whom history has rendered superfluous.

Similarly, for all the good will behind them, efforts at reforming orders, congregations and societies of priests and religious are doomed from the start. Typically they endorse the hierarchy’s negligence by failing to address the substantive causes of the crises that afflict the sinking church and its semi-submerged sub-organizations.

These are the conclusions I drew after attending a joyous reunion of priests and former priests (and their wives) belonging to the Society of St. Columban. That’s the Irish-founded missionary group I joined in 1954 (when I entered the minor seminary at the age of 14) and which I left in 1976. I had been ordained in 1966 (ordination photo above — taken by my classmate, Tom Shaugnessy).

The reunion took place in Bristol, Rhode Island over a three-day period just last week (July 21st-23rd). It was great getting together with friends, colleagues, teachers, former priests and their spouses. It was wonderful to see so many of my one-time missionary friends with their beautiful wives from Ireland as well as Japan, Korea, Chile and other “fields afar” (as the title of one missionary magazine used to put it). Several men’s spouses were former nuns. I can only imagine the wonderful love stories each of those couples might tell.

As with all reunions, there were the usual reminiscences from years long past. We made wisecracks about how all of us have aged, and observations about how quickly time has flown. There was catching up to do about retirement, children, grandchildren, illnesses, deaths of former colleagues, and plans for our declining years – and always in a light-hearted spirit. We even went for a cruise around the Newport Harbor. Great fun!

On the final day, things turned more serious. The newly-elected Regional Director of the Columbans spoke to us about the Society of St. Columban today. After introducing himself, this comparative youngster of 51 years informed his appreciative audience of recent efforts to update the Society in the face of zero vocations over the last number of years in Ireland, the U.S., England, and Australia. The situation is aggravated by the advancing ages of the 400 or so priests who remain in the Society – so many of them over the age of 75.

In response, we were told, the Columbans have made efforts at recruiting seminarians from the “mission” territories. As a result, Columban ordinations have taken place in the Pacific Rim – in Korea, Fiji, the Philippines, and also in Latin America. The Society’s directorate has changed accordingly. With its headquarters now located in Hong Kong instead of Ireland, the current directing council is a rainbow blend of Irish, Latin American, and Philippine “superiors.” Additionally lay associates, both men and women have become more prominent in the Columban scheme of things.

Besides such developments, there have been efforts at dialog with Muslims, especially in Pakistan and the Philippines. Social justice for the poor and ecological concerns have become central themes of documents recently authored by Society “chapters” or long-range planning sessions. Above all continued emphasis on brotherly love and legendary Columban hospitality continue as hallmarks of this group about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding as the “Maynooth Mission to China” in 1918. (“Maynooth” was the name of the Irish National Seminary back then.) With China now open, Columbans are currently making efforts to reintroduce themselves into that continent-sized country thus reclaiming the Society’s original focus.

All of that seemed encouraging. Such updating demonstrates the good will, generosity and continued vitality of men and women still intent on doing good in the world and serving the God their faith envisions. Columbans remain for me the most inspiring community of its kind I’ve ever known.

However questions surfaced for me about the reforms just mentioned. And unfortunately there was little time to raise – much less probe – them during the discussion period that followed the new Regional Director’s fine presentation. For instance:

• What does it mean that Pacific Rim Catholics are more open to the priesthood and mission than Europeans and North Americans? Is faith stronger in the former colonies? Are candidates European wannabes? Or has a pre-Vatican II brand of Christianity been introduced in the Pacific Rim that avoids the crises of the celibate priesthood that emerged following that historic Council whose 50th anniversary we’re currently celebrating?
• Does the incorporation of women and laymen as associates give them equal voice and vote in Society matters? Will there soon be a woman Superior General governing the Society of St. Columban?
• What is the point of Columban-Muslim dialog? Is it conversion of the Muslim dialog partners? Is it enrichment of all conversation participants? Is it collaboration and cooperation? If so, what is the shared project?
• For that matter, what’s the point of missionary work itself? After all, Vatican II recognized the value in God’s eyes of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths. Are missionaries still trying to convert faithful people whose culture seems so distant from a Christianity so long and fatally associated with empire and exploitation?
• What specifically are Columbans doing about ecology and care for the planet? It’s easy for organizations nowadays to claim “green” commitment, but where does the rubber meet the road? Are Columbans encouraging vegetarianism as spiritual and ecological discipline? Are they cutting back on air-conditioning? Are they mandating that their cars be hybrids or have targeted miles-per-gallon ranges? Are they mounting campaigns focused on global warming and the introduction of genetically modified seeds in Latin America and Asia?

Those are some key questions that necessarily remained un-discussed at our Columban reunion. But I did get the opportunity to pose one whose answer led me to draw the conclusions I shared at the beginning – about the Columbans, organizations like them, and the Catholic Church itself being sinking ships. I asked:

• The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, has observed that the Holy Eucharist is constitutive of the church. Without Mass, he said, there simply can be no church. Therefore it is positively sinful on the part of church leadership to deprive Catholics of Eucharist because of an artificial priest shortage caused by blind commitment to mandatory celibacy and an all-male clergy. What are the Columbans doing to lobby for fundamental change in the church to make the Eucharist more available to the communities Columbans serve?

Understandably, the Regional Director gave the expected answer – the only one possible, I think. “Of course,” he said, “where 2 or 3 Columbans get together those questions are always discussed. However, we’re such a small and relatively insignificant organization, we have so little clout. So, no, we haven’t discussed petitions or protests on those matters.”

In other words, the sin of mandatory celibacy for priests, the sin of an all-male clergy will continue until the Vatican repents. But even Francis I is not about to don sack cloth and ashes in that regard.

That institutional obstinacy was underlined for me in the Mass that concluded our magnificent reunion. Two male priests stood before a congregation of “priests forever” – the latter adopting subservient positions in the pews instead of concelebrating. No woman had any role in the Mass. Additionally, the recently mandated pre-Vatican II Latinisms reminded me that the church is actually regressing:

• “Consubstantial” (instead of “one in being”)
• “And with thy spirit” (rather than “also with you”)
• “Shed for you and for many” (not “all”)
• “It is right and just” (instead of “fitting”)
• “Come under my roof” (rather than “receive you”)

The Latinisms are not trivial. They represent subtle messages that the signature liturgical reform of Vatican II is over. In the context of the Columban reunion, they demonstrated how hemmed in good people are by decisions from above.

Talk about rearranging deck chairs . . . . I could almost hear the water bursting through the Ship’s gaping hull.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic: Reflections on a Reunion of Former Priests”

  1. Hi Mike

    Nostalgic stuff. What memorable years. The Blue Hills, Howies and my first banana split, the Swamps in winter hockey. The summers in Philly. The friends.
    I well remember you now, no beard and some 50 years younger.
    I make a few comments, some reminiscing, some repetitive and some personal.

    I agree with much of what you say but in fact the Columbans have in Sean McDonagh a well know influential voice in European environmental maters and recipient of the a prestigious EU Justice Award.
    (At one point it seems he connected GMOs and transgenic wheat with Canon Law. Because the bread used in the Eucharist needs to be wheaten only, which I thought interesting!)
    I also agree it is too much to ask the Columban leadership to take on some of the items you mention, like married priests, which Francis 1 reinforced just the other day, and women priests. They will need wait in line behind quitters and abusers. SSC seem to admit to that themselves honestly. It is neither in their remit or competence. As my oft quoted mother used say “if you have a complaint about the quality of the meat, talk to the butcher, not the block.”
    The same brave woman by the way around 1969 accompanies by a giant in Columban history – Father Christy Cary on holidays from Japan to Aghada, our parish, attended (clerical collar on) the Sunday Presbyterian Service in their Church in our village, in solidarity with my leaving – and John the 23rd call to ecumenism. It was a first and last local Catholic initiative.
    Most of the surprised Presbyterian faithful were good people even though mainly descendants of the recipients of land grabbed by Cromwell in the late 1600s and given to his infamous Ironsides. Christy a couple of years later while he was a lecturer in a Japanese Catholic university left the priesthood to marry and start a family, and was dismissed – by the ignominious Roman Rescript – from his teaching post, weeks after he announced his departure from the Order of Melchizedek.
    The crippling timing of his dismissal was not unusual back then.
    An interesting and personal footnote – one of the early recipients of the stolen land hired a man called John Cashman (my great x 4 grand father) as a farm laborer around 1700. We have no record of his birth but his son John also worked on the same land and died and is buried there in Aghada parish in 1765: and his son Timothy lays in the Presbyterian Graveyard in the same parish even though he was Catholic. The Catholic Church named Aghada-Inch Church was taken over to service the new owners but burial rights were still given to the previous Catholic grave owners. Their offspring ended up in Philadelphia (via Boston) in the late 1800s where I spend wirh them my summer holidays from Milton Mass. Cromwell’s Admiral in East Cork near my home, coincidentally, where the Ironsides landed, was William Penn the father of the founder of Pennsylvania!
    The Columbans are a great bunch. Just like the millions of Catholics. Their central councils are dedicated cogs in the wheel protected by the troops.
    Just like the Vatican who hide behind the decent faithful millions.
    Where were they when our parents in the ‘Ozarks’ of the US and Ireland were left hung out to dry on the accusations they had raised Judases.
    But the core of the Jesus message Mike and of all previous “False” Prophets is as brief as it was intended. Not open to debate.
    “By their love you shall know them.”
    “Do to others what you would like them to do to you.”
    I can still hear an enlightened woman fuse it all into one declaration, to our local priest when he came knocking; “You are three years late father but still welcome”.
    Life is sure a hoot! And not yet finished. Time enough to focus on matters that matter – and to heck with the rest.
    I just heard Bradley Manning scored a goal.


    1. As you’ve no doubt seen on “Democracy Now,” it’s not so clear that Manning scored. Also, I like that idea you shared from Sean McDonagh — as well as what you shared about John Cashman. I’m afraid my own posting on the Reunion may have seemed a bit aggressive. I certainly didn’t mean to bite the hand that fed me. I owe so much to the Columbans — all those years of education absolutely free! I am very grateful, and was only trying to indicate some questions that might have been good to kick around, had we had the time. Like you, I have so many nostalgic memories from Milton, as well as from Bristol and Silver Creek. It was a great run.


  2. I like “By their fruits you will know them.” It seems to be more inclusive.

    Great posting, by the way. Eventually, I would like to add a layperson’s opinion in this very important subject of the priesthood – as well as the one you wrote on July 14, “Leaving the Priesthood…”.

    Will you still be posting when you are in India?



    1. Yes, I will be posting in India. I plan to pursue my interest in mediation there in a very serious way. I’ve signed up for a 10 day Vipasana Retreat beginning on the 11th of September. If I can stand up to the rigors of 10 hours of mediation each day, I’ll move on from there to do at least one 30 day retreat. We’ll see. I look forward to your sharing ideas about the priesthood.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s