In 1970, for the first time in several hundred years, a Catholic Chaplain was appointed to Trinity College, Dublin. Arrangements worked on between the Board of TCD represented by its then Provost, the late Albert McConnell, and Dublin Diocese in the person of the then Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, saw Fr. Brendan Heffernan appointed to take on the post of Roman Catholic Chaplain at the beginning of the Academic Year of 1970.
In 1973, after spending six years as priest-teacher in the Technical Institute in Ringsend I was asked to join Brendan in TCD to bring the RC Chaplaincy staff to two. That November witnessed the beginning of the shared use of the College Chapel, when the Church of Ireland generously made it available to us for use.
It was towards the summer of 1974 that I first met Soline Vatinel, a young French student, who was part of the RC worshipping community in College. It was sometime later that year or early in 1975 that I first heard her say that she had a sense of vocation to priesthood. For me, to hear that in a Church that had Dermot Ryan as a relatively newly appointed Archbishop and in a world Church that was full of the promise of Vatican II but still in a ‘not quite yet’ mode, it presented a problem or two. Mind you, literature on the subject then was available and came in a way that hinted at exploration of possibilities, in sharp contrast to the ‘total closure’ attitude of today’s leaders; but in practical terms, it became a question of listening and accompanying and supporting a calling that seemed very genuine and so deserving of such support.
Applying for a sabbatical in June of 1997 and being granted it, commencing in August I998, the opportunity to look across the path of life that had been mine was available. It occurred to me that just about now marked twenty five years since first hearing that call expressed by Soline, years that were marked, firstly by no great enthusiasm on the part of the Church to listen to her calling; later, by her marriage to Colm Holmes in 1980, the birth of sons Killian in 1982 and Jonathan in 1984 and a very strong resurgence of her calling to priesthood in 1990. Since then, much work has gone into trying to discern the genuineness of that call and to both support it and the known call in other women, particularly through the establishment of Brothers and Sisters in Christ (BASIC), launched in 1993.
My honest and considered response has been and is that were Soline to be male and celibate, any diocese would be very proud to recommend that her vocation be tested through admission to a seminary and its courses of formation and study. And so, as a result of trying to pray out of the circumstances of life that are mine, I was moved to write to the Archbishop of Dublin, and my archbishop, Desmond Connell, outlining that I would have to recommend that due consideration be given to her call and that I was asking him to say as much to the leadership in Rome so that the reality of what the Spirit of God was doing in people’s lives in the diocese of Dublin could be made known there, out of which discernment could be validly made. (It does strike me that if, at the very least through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, the Church claims that the Spirit is given to us, then the most modest courtesy ought to be that leadership would listen to what the Spirit is saying in the lives of people.)
Being at an age when the office of Parish Priest could possibly come one’s way, it happened that this summer, the lot was about to fall on me... but it posed a problem for the Archbishop. The terms of appointment include an oath that one would be true to the current ‘de fide’ package, which this year has added to it (it would appear by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger), the item that ‘Ordination is to be reserved to men alone’. As my written recommendation to the Archbishop in relation to Soline would seem to have indicated a different and opposing stance, I was invited by the Archbishop to reflect on my position and was given time to pray and return my decision. I replied, some days later, that I respected the Archbishop’s conscience on this matter, but that I would not be in a position to take such an oath. That, of course, has closed the offer that was about to come my way to take on the position of parish priest; an alternative posting has been offered, and accepted.
In the intervening time, several reflections have come my way. Firstly, I feel very graced to have written the initial letter outlining my position to the Archbishop; for had I not done so, one of two possibilities might have occurred. In being offered to take on the posting as a parish priest, I might not have looked carefully at what was included in the ‘de fide’ package and taken whatever promises were required; or indeed, having studied the content, might have been tempted to make a ‘mental reservation’ - in keeping with that hollowed process that has played such significant parts in the course of Irish history, both of Church and of State.
Either way of responding would have allowed me to take on the position offered. Accepting such a posting would offer a person a sense of taking on a recognised office within the structure of the Church, perhaps a sense of ‘arriving’ after a long journey through the chaplaincies and curacies of the diocese, perhaps a sense of being accepted at last within the ‘middle management’ structure of the institution, a moment or two in the sun!
There are those among the clergy who have no issue with the ‘de fide’ package as it is currently constituted, but I know there are many who would question areas of its content, particularly the recent statement that precludes, for ever, women from ordination. For several reasons, I think it is a great shame that the latter grouping, when offered the position of parish priest, find themselves forced to take on the ‘mental reservation’ route.
In the first place, we have an ailing church, devoid of many of the essential signs of healthy life, apparently incapable of listening to what the Spirit of God is saying in the hearts and minds of its members. Secondly, on the particular issue of the ordination of women, MRBI polls show, latterly, that over 70% of the people are in favour of women’s ordination in Ireland.
However, if priests who, in conscience, are at odds with the new ‘teaching’ from Rome on the matter opt to keep silent,
Personally, the whole episode brought to mind for me the Robert Bolt play, produced in many a seminary in the 1960s, A Man for All Seasons, in which Henry VIII was pressing those around him to take the oath in which they would acknowledge him as the head of the Church. Thomas More, meeting Sir Richard Rich, chides him for accepting, with the comment concluding, "... but for Wales?" where Richard had been appointed as head of operations in Wales for his ‘loyalty’.
I remember an episode of some ten years ago or so, when a colleague was being offered the position of ‘Monsignor’. I was uncomfortable with the process and asked out loud, in company, ‘What century are we living in?’ Another priest, on hearing me, pointed out that I was naive in my comment, saying that in any organisation, such postings and positions had to be on offer to enable leadership to keep in check the desire for advancement that was in the hearts of many! To quote William Gilbert, ‘Small titles and orders for mayors and recorders and people that I’m interested in’
Effectively the process of the ‘mental reservation’, enabling someone to take on a posting while squashing conscience a little, in the interests, perhaps, of making a change when operating within the new position, leads to
|The Truth Shall Set You Free|
(John 8.32) 10.10