[Before I continue with my 80th birthday reflections about my political development, I must add a brief account of a very important event in the process that eventually led me to leave the priesthood I had prepared so long to enter. The event I describe below gave me an insight into the inner workings of the missionary organization I had joined (the Society of St. Columban) — at the highest level.]
As indicated in previous postings, the changes represented by Second Vatican Council reforms introduced into my life a certain alienation from the Society of St. Columban, from traditional ideas of the priesthood and from my vow of celibacy. My immediate superior’s unfounded accusations recounted in part 5 of these octogenarian reflections were central to the process.
The feelings I described were compounded, when the Columbans convoked their post-Vatican II “Chapter” (leadership assembly) in 1970. The idea was to gather together the group’s leaders to determine how the Society of St. Columban might change in the light of Vatican II documents such as “The Church in the Modern World.”
The leadership in question was comprised of ex officio members such as our current Superior General and his Council. At large members were also either appointed or elected by the group which at its height had about 1000 priest-members. The majority delegates to the Chapter turned out to more than 60 years of age.
With that in mind and because of the objections of younger members, a compromise was reached to allow invitation as well of one representative each from Irish, American, and Australian members of the Society 30 years of age and under. Because of their junior status, the “young” invitees, it was determined, would have voice at the Chapter, but no vote. Joined by two bright counterparts from Ireland and Australia, I was elected to represent U.S. juniors.
The voice without vote restriction had all of us feeling like outsiders from the get-go.
My own alienation was brought to the fore by the ex officio presence of my rector from Rome. Soon after my arrival at the Chapter’s venue (the Columban major seminary in Navan, Ireland about 30 miles from Dublin), I learned that he had wasted no time before conveying to others my status as suspect and “dangerous.”
And why was I considered dangerous? It was because of positions I had taken on issues hotly debated at the time. In retrospect, the positions seem quite tame. But when I wrote them up in an “Introductory Note on Youth Representation,” even my Irish and Australian youth delegate counterparts thought them “too polarizing” to share with the Chapter at large.
The paper contrasted pre-Vatican II positions with post-conciliar approaches to church, mission, sacraments, priesthood and authority. Here’ the gist of what I wrote. Now, it almost seems laughable that such tame positions were considered polarizing:
- Church: Pre-Vatican II theology, I noted, thought of the Catholic Church as an organization to which everyone must belong in order to save their souls – i.e. to get into heaven. There was “no salvation outside the church.” By contrast, the Post-Vatican II position envisioned the church as an often-small prophetic community at the service of the world itself – helping it towards the fully human life of love exemplified in the example and teaching of Jesus the Christ. Even a very this-worldly life based on self-giving constitutes the meaning of “salvation.”
- Mission: According to older understandings that had shaped the Society of Saint Columban, our work as missionaries meant saving pagans in China, Korea, the Philippines, and Fiji by baptizing as many as possible into the Catholic Church without which it was impossible for them to get to heaven. In the newer view, quantity of membership took a backseat to quality of witness. And witness meant replicating Jesus’ life of healing, forgiveness and self-sacrifice – for the benefit of the larger world.
- Sacraments: In the theology imbibed by most members of the Chapter I attended, the sacraments were rituals that made human events like birth, marriage, sickness and death holy. The faithful needed sacraments to turn such secular events into acts of supernatural worth. However, the newer vision saw those human events as already holy simply in virtue of God’s creative order. On this understanding, sacraments became occasions to celebrate life itself and the transcendent dimension found in every human birth, marriage, visiting of the sick, in every act of forgiveness and sharing – whether they might be formally celebrated or not.
- Priests: Pre-Vatican II theology understood priests as men set apart – almost of a caste different from lay people. Post Vatican II theology understood priesthood as one function or charism among many others within the Christian community – e.g. counsellor, teacher, administrator, musician or prophet.
- Authority: In the world of my inculturation, authority was given to administrators. Obedience was a supreme virtue for the rest of us. According to the old view, the ideal superior was a “sound man” who was safe, took no chances and “runs a tight ship.” After the Second Vatican Council, authority is earned, not conferred. Here community leaders are listeners who articulate a community’s consciousness of itself. They enable rather than direct. They are forward-looking, innovate and take chances. When mistakes are made, they are freely admitted.
I conveyed my initial impression of the Chapter in my journal when I wrote soon after my arrival at the end of September: “Reading over the Chapter publications and talking with various people here make it awfully hard to identify with the Society and with the approaches of this Chapter. It makes me wonder what my own future in an outfit like this can possibly be. I’m estranged; I really am.”
Meanwhile, I also noticed that the Irish seminary itself seemed behind the times. True, I hit it off well with the seminarians taking part in field day competitions and playing basketball on the outside courts. They even wanted me to play on the seminary team.
However, a November (1970) letter to my constituents had me making the following observation regarding the stage of renewal in our seminary in Ireland: “As for the stage of seminary renewal here. . . It’s about up to where we in the States were in the ’64-’66 period. Or maybe even a little before that. . .The difficulty with renewal here (in the seminary and in the Irish church in general) seems to be this: here the church is more or less coextensive with the culture. . . The Irish church can go on speaking in archaic terms, it can go on doing rather meaningless things and still have the impression that it’s communicating the Good News in a meaningful way to the world. However, it’s not. And, after speaking with young people here (outside the seminary), it has become clear to me that this kind of illusion will not be long-lasting. The young are being alienated here too, sad to say.”
The break I predicted came in 1973 with Ireland’s integration into the European Union and with the pedophilia scandals of the late 1980s. Together, they changed everything. Entry into the EU brought the secularization and eventually the Thatcherism and Reaganism of the 1980s that centralized money, entrepreneurism, and consumption just as they did elsewhere in the western world. And, of course, the pedophilia crisis completely discredited the clergy and hierarchy.
The changes introduced were so profound that by 2018 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Society of St. Columban – the head of the Society characterized Ireland’s culture as “post-Christian.” Hearing those words from a Columban superior was shocking to me even at the age of 78.
During the two Chapter sessions I attended in Ireland (1970 and ’71 — each lasting several months) all of that was only vaguely foreshadowed. But it certainly was part of the disorder I’ve been trying to explain in these 80th birthday reflections. My highly ordered world was disintegrating at very deep levels that were intellectual, ecclesiastical, very personal, and eventually highly political.