The Irish Catholic Church’s Liturgy of Lament and Repentance: Restoring Hope?

image On Sunday in Dublin’s St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, representatives of the Irish Catholic Church finally put the full symbolic resources of their faith into a special liturgy of lament and repentance for victims and survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

Reports of the event in the media and the blogosphere have been largely positive. An editorial in today’s Irish Times headlined ‘a powerful event’ reads:

There was little of the purely symbolic or emblematic in the liturgy of lament and repentance. It was a powerful and authentic event. The people celebrated were real and present and all are victims of clerical child sex abuse. Those most abject in emotion and gesture are among the most powerful figures in the Catholic Church, whether in Ireland or elsewhere.

But above all there was the stark, unequivocal language of raw truth. There was admission and guilt on the part of church authorities, who pleaded forgiveness “for the deaf ear, the blind eye and the hard heart” presented to the abused, and as spoken by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in words prepared for him by victims themselves.

‘Church Whisperer’ blogger Rocco Palmo describes the service this way:

Begun with the Irish capital’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and the archdiocese’s Apostolic Visitor, Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston, lying prostrate before the Pro’s altar — dominated for the day by a large, bare wooden cross — the 90-minute rite included "lengthy" readings from the findings of the two civil inquiries into Ireland’s long, brutal history of abuse in the church: the 2009 Ryan Report on misconduct in Catholic residential schools sponsored by the state, and the same year’s Murphy Report, which revealed decades of serial cover-up by the Dublin curia.

The service also included a sequence where Archbishop Martin and Cardinal O’Malley washed the feet of some of the survivors.

There were protests outside the cathedral and Palmo reports (this also can be seen on the RTE clip) that there were some unplanned interruptions during the service, as when

… a man stormed a microphone to ask, "What the hell did I do wrong as a child? What the hell did any of us do, as children, wrong?" to deserve what the victims endured.
Some in the crowd responded with a standing ovation.

The impetus for the service was a letter written to the Irish Times by 22 Catholics of the Dublin archdiocese in 2009, following the publication of the Ryan Report. Victims and survivors were fully involved in planning this service.

Prominent victims and survivors spokesperson Marie Collins was one of those whose feet were washed. She spoke with BBC Radio Ulster’s William Crawley on Sunday morning before the service, explaining why she had chosen to take part (audio is available here under ‘Dublin footwashing’).

Collins acknowledged that many survivors were angry about the service and she expected protests. But she told Crawley that as a Christian, if someone wanted to ask for forgiveness – including the Archbishop of Dublin – she would not turn her back. She said that it would be up to God to judge the sincerity of those who were repenting and asking for forgiveness. She added she thought that Archbishop Martin is sincere and that her participation was

… a personal act … that will help healing for me.

Collins’ positive interpretation of the event is in stark contrast to her comments on Sunday Sequence back in August, when Crawley asked her about the Pope’s refusal to accept the resignations of Bishops Eamon Walsh and Raymond Field.

Back then, Collins had said this was ‘the end of any hope that my church will change.’

Although Collins acknowledged that the issue of justice for victims and survivors remains unresolved, it seems that in this event, Collins and some other victims and survivors have had at least a little bit of their hope in their church restored.

My hope is that this service can be an inspiration to other dioceses in the Catholic Church, and an example to those in other Christian churches. An important lesson here is that the authentic Christian response to clerical sexual abuse is humility and repentance, rather than cover-up and the protection of institutions.

Archbishop Martin’s remarks at the service are available in full here.

(Image from RTE news)

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