AS a foggy, January darkness falls in the early evening, the ground floor and upstairs lights are still shining in Columba House.
Now, inside a basement room unobservable from the outside, 18 of Ireland's 33 Catholic bishops are in extraordinary session.
This symbolism of embattled bishops anxiously deliberating as an elite body in a bunker is a discomfiting one for their Lordships, long-steeped in making flowery, symbolic gestures related to Ireland's forgotten martyrs.
To the twittering young, they are fables. To disillusioned middle-aged and elderly Catholics, they sound like sanctimonious cant -- doled out to them from their youth by their pastors to disguise the abuse of power by a clericalist regime that for decades suppressed knowledge of heinous crimes against innocent children by paedophile priests.
This haunting image of the 'Maynooth Bunker' should be fixed in the minds of every concerned Catholic, or lapsed Catholic, whenever bishops talk of a change of direction from clericalism to a new era of openness, accountability and participation in the running of their church by a disenfranchised laity.
Their rhetoric is observable cant in light of the searing analyses of clericalist power voiced through the media since the publication of the damning Murphy and Ryan reports, which even goaded the Vatican into action.
The one new element in a communique issued after the bishops had slid off under darkness to their diocesan palaces was the vague announcement that they plan to hold a consultation process with lay people, clergy and religious after their February summit in Rome.
The statement did not confirm if the Pope would issue his special Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland on Ash Wednesday, February 17.
Like the rest of us, it would seem that the bishops are in the dark as to what bonfires are being stoked up by the 82-year-old German Pontiff and his aged Curia of administrators, led by his 75-year-old Prime Minister Cardinal Tariscio Bertone, the head of the powerful Vatican Secretariat of State.
Little evidence here, folks, of either the Vatican or Maynooth acting as 'the People of God', as the Catholic Church defined itself at the Second Vatican Council, from 1962-65.
But do not fret. The statement loftily assures us that "bishops have been listening to the widespread and justifiable anger and frustration from survivors, priests and laity across their dioceses. Bishops recognise that, in the critical area of safeguarding children, people want accountability and transparency in terms of policy and procedures."
Hold on a minute, bishops. Yes, it is painfully true that there has been unprecedented public revulsion over the culture of cover-ups in the archdiocese of Dublin, which last month you acknowledged was replicated in the other 25 dioceses.
The public has also been shocked by the naked infighting between former auxiliary Dublin bishops and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that led to the resignations of four of them, but was followed by a stand-off between the fifth, Bishop of Galway Martin Drennan, and Dr Martin.
This unedifying spectacle of squabbling bishops was the last straw for victim Andrew Madden, who had called for all bishops named in the Murphy report to stand down.
Mr Madden formally registered his departure from membership of the Catholic Church, as have 6,007 others disgusted by the church of their birth.
On Friday night, after newspaper reporters left Maynooth to file copy, Dr Martin broke his self-enforced silence to RTE. He spoke of his surprise at Bishop Drennan's claim his integrity was attacked.
"I'm surprised that anybody would say that by asking people to be accountable, to stand up and explain themselves, that was an attack on anyone's integrity," said the former Roman diplomat.
"Saying people should be accountable didn't mean heads should roll."
This sounds as if Dr Martin has backed off from securing the resignation of Bishop Drennan, a Dublin auxiliary from 1997 to 2004.
Yet Bishop Drennan's presence in Rome means he will remain a divisive figure in the Irish Church, as pointed out by protester Brendan Butler and Sean O'Conaill of the Voice of the Faithful -- Ireland.
The 'Maynooth Bunker' showed that the Irish bishops and Rome are devising a flawed strategy that will fail to restore their moral authority.
There was no input from married laity or women into the Maynooth-Rome process.
Post-Rome consultation by Maynooth will be no substitute to the holding of an elected national assembly, at which the laity take back ownership of their church from a discredited clerical leadership.
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