Reek Sunday this year was, as usual, a misty day on the heights of County Mayo as some 20,000 pilgrims made their way up the treacherous scree, many of them barefoot, to the summit of the 2,500 foot peak. An annual event on the last Sunday of July for some 1500 years, ascending Croagh Patrick has pre-Christian origins. But it is now identified with Ireland’s patron saint who fasted there for 40 days before hurling a silver bell off the peak and, so it is said, banishing all the snakes and serpents from the island. Only 40 people fell off the track this year, and of that number only 2 were seriously injured. It was a better year than many.
This year, Reek Sunday was also notable for its conclusion, an hour-long talk show hosted by Mick Peelo on RTE One, the principal national television channel. “Would You Believe” is a regular religious feature and on Sunday the topic was “The Crisis in the Church,” which might be taken as an understatement. Traditionally Catholic Ireland has been especially devastated by the sex-abuse scandals tormenting the Church in the United States, Germany, Belgium, and elsewhere. But the appalling extent of the abuse and the following cover-up by many bishops, including the Cardinal Primate, which has led to over a half-dozen episcopal resignations and a forthcoming visitation by a special papal envoy, is only one of a host of problems racking the Church here. And all that was the focus of the lively if regrettably scattered discussion on Sunday night.
Among the dozen or so “guests” offering live and taped views before a live audience (who also got into the act) were two bishops (the retired but still outspoken bishop of Kerry, Willie Walsh, being especially noteworthy), Dom Mark Hederman, the abbot of Glenstal, several priests, sisters, a young Dominican student, and a number of prominent lay people, including Baroness Nuala O’Loan, the former police omsbudsman from Northern Ireland, Mary O’Rourke, a member of the Irish parliament, and Prof. James Mackay, a theologian from the University of Edinburgh. (The list may be read in either ascending or descending order, depending on one’s hierarchical preference.) Fr. Enda McDonagh, the esteemed theologian from Maynooth, was not surprisingly both eloquent and incisive.
The conversation dashed from topic to topic, rushed, it seemed, by the moderator, Mr. Peelo, who seemed at times to want to squeeze as many opinions as possible into the segments conveniently divided by advertisements. But it was not all a 3-ring sound-bite circus – Mackay, Hederman, and O’Loan provided a number of telling observations, mainly calling for greater transparency (or at least some) in church procedures, as well as greater lay participation, especially on the part of women, and a willingness to listen to the voice of the faithful. Not exactly revolutionary, but Ireland’s bishops have only recently and reluctantly begun to admit permanent lay deacons into ministry.
More telling was Professor Mackay’s observation that every pope since John XXIII has backed away from the vision of the great pontiff who threw open the windows of the Church to the modern world. The reigning pope did not come off well at all in that regard. Bishop Walsh’s lament that there are no real structures of accountability between individual bishops and Rome identified one of the chief areas of muddle. The clear call was for a thorough reform of policies, not belief, if the Church in Ireland and elsewhere is to regain the moral credibility it has squandered over the last decade. Apparently not a few of the snakes have come slithering back.
In the end, the daring-enough program was frustrating for lack of deeper penetration and discussion in regard to any of the many issues brought forward. Despite several moments of remarkable insight by Walsh, McDonagh, O’Loan, and others, Peelo’s prodding mainly resulted in a venting session. Still, it was a pretty amazing event for Catholic Ireland. Now to see who will lead up the mountain of reform.