What’s it like to be a priest in Ireland today? The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, raised that question in his recent ill-fated remarks about the Irish Catholic Church.
While Williams created the greatest stir by his comment that the Irish Catholic Church had lost all credibility, he also expressed empathy for the difficulties faced by the priests on the ground, telling the BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week,
I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it’s quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now.
In his latest book, By the Word of their Testimony: The Journey of a Priest (Lantern, 2009), Fr Murchadh Ó Madagáin, a priest in the Diocese of Galway, says something similar as he reflects on those he knows who have left the priesthood (p. 117),
In Ireland at least, the last couple of decades have been a very stressful time for priests – the dreadful scandals have meant that all priests are under suspicion and this caused great suffering for many men and women in religious life who’ve been faithful to their calling in every way. As a priest you can no longer take it for granted that you’ll be welcome anywhere. Sometimes people are delighted to see you, but often they’d be just as happy if you left.
I’ve found that my own generation in particular find it hard to relate to me. As a result they tend not to be too friendly, or will even avoid making eye contact on the street. This can make you feel very isolated. However, I have to remind myself that I’m there because God asked me to follow this way of life. Some will accept me, but many won’t.
Ó Madagáin’s book offers rare insights into the struggles and yes, even joys, of being a priest. Ó Madagáin manages to cover a lot of ground in the slim autobiographical volume, ranging from his early experiences of the charismatic movement as a layperson, his work (and burn out) as a hospital chaplain, his doctoral studies on spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome, what Medjugorje has meant to him, and how he sees God working in the ‘everyday’ world around him.
While it isn’t the focus of the book, the effects of the scandals in Ireland linger in the background. There’s also an entire chapter titled, ‘I love God, but it’s just the church …’ in which Ó Madagáin says ‘I understand this disillusionment, and in some ways I’m surprised there aren’t more disillusioned people’ (p. 37).
Ó Madagáin doesn’t call for any sweeping reforms of the church – that’s not the purpose of this book, after all – but he makes a case for the relevance and importance of the church by arguing that we shouldn’t let bad messengers distract us from the message.
He urges Christians to look to the examples of John Paul II, Mother Teresa, St Therese of Lisieux, and saints Francis and Clare of Assisi; to open themselves up to the possibility of miracles (he relates the story of the healing of a young boy’s eczema at Lourdes, p. 45-47); and to seek God through prayer.
Ó Madagáin is frank about his own difficulties and doubts, especially his experiences of burnout. He testifies that he continues on his journey because of his ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ (p. 119). Ó Madagáin acknowledges that this language has usually been associated with Protestant evangelical groups, but it is clear that he sees it as essential not just to his own life, but for renewal in the Irish Catholic Church. He concludes (p. 119),
The relationship with Jesus develops over time. For me, it started with those prayer meetings when I was nineteen. I began to discover that a relationship with God was possible and it has been growing ever since. However, like any other relationship it has to be allowed to flourish and will take many different forms. Prayer is the most basic way the relationship is expressed.
If you fall in love with someone, you make time for them; if you want to build up this relationship with God, you must also make time for prayer, because you almost certainly will not find the time. Even starting with ten minutes each day can make a big difference, because it changes our focus. We realise that we’re not alone and that our life isn’t just about us. We’re only here on earth for a limited period and, while we are, it is a time for love and service. The sooner we realise this the easier it makes our lives.