Reflections on the Papal Legate’s Visit to Lough Derg – Penance during the Eucharistic Congress

Prior with Sculptor at lakeshoreI was not able to attend the Eucharistic Congress. But like many I read reports of it in the media, and over the last few days I’ve spoken with some people who did attend various sessions. A rather mixed picture has been painted, but on the whole, the sense I’m getting is that the event went better than expected.

Of course, it is possible that my friends and I had low expectations! After all, I tend to move in circles where people are disappointed in many aspects of the church, especially the behaviour of the leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

One event that I think received limited attention in the media reports was the visit of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Papal Legate (the Pope’s official representative to the Eucharistic Congress) to Lough Derg.

The purpose of Ouellet’s visit was to meet with abuse survivors and to apologise and seek forgiveness for ‘the times clerics have sexually abused children not only in Ireland by anywhere in the Church.’ He also undertook the traditional Lough Derg pilgrim fast.

The Healing Stone which was unveiled at the opening of the Eucharistic Congress in the RDS in Dublin on Sunday 10th June, has also been placed permanently at Lough Derg. The stone, a large piece of Wicklow granite, is engraved with a prayer:

Lord we are so sorry

for what some of us did to your children;

treated them so cruelly,

especially in their hour of need.

We have left them with a lifelong suffering.

This was not your plan for them or us.

Please help us to help them.

Guide us, Lord. Amen.

As with all such public events and memorials, cynics can dismiss them as public relations exercises. Before I make my own judgement, I usually try and find out how the victims and survivors who attended such events experienced them.

Did victims and survivors feel as if their engagement with the ‘apologizers’ was genuine? When they told their stories, did they feel like they were heard, or merely patronised?

In this case, my internet search has failed to turn up any responses from the victims and survivors who attended. The Church Whisperer blog includes a quote from abuse survivor Marie Collins (but without a link back to a source). It also is not clear to me if Collins was at Lough Derg. The Church Whisperer said:

In one early response, Marie Collins — one of the country’s most prominent survivors — mused whether “the Papal Legate [saw] it as part of his penance to talk to survivors.”
Collins was the lone victim to speak at the first-ever Vatican-sponsored conference on clergy sex-abuse at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University held in February, during which Ouellet led a liturgy of repentance.

My inability to find reference to the event from victims and survivors may be due to what seems to be its intentionally low profile. For example, it does not seem to have been announced publicly until after it happened.

But for now, I’m counting the event as a positive step and I appreciate the opening words of Ouellet’s homily:

Pope Benedict XVI asked me, as His Legate to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, that I would come to Lough Derg and ask God’s forgiveness for the times clerics have sexually abused children not only in Ireland but anywhere in the Church.

Lough Derg in Ireland is the symbol of conversion, penance and spiritual renewal. Many people come here to pray, to fast and to apologize for their sins. According to a long tradition, they follow the steps of Saint Patrick who evangelized the country in the fifth century.

I come here with the specific intention of seeking forgiveness, from God and from the victims, for the grave sin of sexual abuse of children by clerics. We have learned over the last decades how much harm and despair such abuse has caused to thousands of victims. We learned too that the response of some Church authorities to these crimes was often inadequate and inefficient in stopping the crimes, in spite of clear indications in the code of Canon Law.

In the name of the Church, I apologize once again to the victims, some of whom I have met here in Lough Derg.

Was this just another apology? Or was this event truly meaningful for those who took part? Right now, we can’t tell if those who were at Lough Derg felt that their stories were heard and their suffering was recognised.

The importance of story-hearing, a term which I’ve heard Prof Duncan Morrow of the University of Ulster use recently on several occasions, cannot be underestimated.

To me, it is clear from the testimony of abuse survivor Michael O’Brien on RTE’s Questions and Answers in May 2009, after the publication of the Ryan Report, that he needed his story to be heard and publicly acknowledged.

Michael O’Brien on Questions & Answers

O’Brien’s testimony makes for harrowing listening. It is what we would all hear if there was some sort of ‘truth commission’ for the Catholic Church in Ireland, as well as for the state authorities who handed so much power over to the church, especially when it came to the care of children.

It remains to be seen if the small steps that have been taken so far – and the many more that will hopefully be taken – can somehow contribute to the healing of abuse victims.

(Image of the Healing Stone, on shore of Lough Derg with Prior Richard Mohan, and Eugene (sculptor) and Bernadette Brennan of Wicklow. Provided by

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