The Irish bishops are to travel to Rome to face the man in charge, Pope Benedict, and discuss possibilities for the church in the aftermath of the clerical sex scandals.
The talks are scheduled for the 15th and 16th of February. The Irish Times reports that:
“It is expected that proposals on dealing with the fallout from the abuse scandal will be put forward, with conclusions offered by the pope. The bishops will return to their dioceses for the Ash Wednesday liturgies on February 17th where they will address congregations on the way forward.”
At least the timing of the meeting has some liturgical and ritual significance, with the potential for Ash Wednesday services to provide an ideal context for meaningful repentance by the Irish Catholic hierarchy.
For me, a layperson from a Protestant tradition who more than occasionally attends a Catholic church, a meaningful symbolic gesture might be that all the priests on a given day – like Ash Wednesday – refrain from sharing in the Eucharist.
From certain theological perspectives it is impossible for priests to refrain from the Eucharist, not least on such an important holy day. But I think that Irish Catholics, feeling hurt and betrayed by the church to which they have entrusted so much, would care more for the symbolically powerful than the theologically possible.
(Just witness the way the Catholics and Protestants in Drogheda a few years ago attempted a shared Eucharistic meal, but their initiative was criticised and batted away by the hierarchies on all sides.)
Whether the Irish Catholic Church can repent and make good on its promises of reform in an authentic way remains, of course, to be seen. I think Irish Catholics have had enough carefully crafted statements of regret, and long for those words to be backed up with tangible change.
Regrettably, it doesn’t sound like this particular meeting is going to be the place where significant changes are hammered out. Again the Irish Times reports:
“Initial indications are that the [pastoral] letter [from the pope] will not be overly concerned with the current administrative, bureaucratic and organisational problems of the Irish church. Rather, it is expected to offer encouragement to the faithful, reminding them of the crucial role of the early Irish church in the spread of Christianity.”
Again, I question the relevance of the role of the early Irish church not only to the victims of clerical sex abuse, but also to the wider Irish church.
At any rate, my understanding of the early Irish (Celtic) church was that it was radical and on the fringes of the Roman Catholic Church. My image of Celtic Christianity is one that is decentralised, less clerical, and more empowering for laypeople than the brand of Irish Catholicism that has been on offer for the past few generations. But somehow I don’t think that’s what the Pope’s pastoral letter is going to recommend.
UPDATE: The Irish Times on Thursday 21 January has more details about the meeting with the Pope.