Sunday, November 24, 2013

Revolt in the pews sums up challenge faced by Church (Opinion) are seismic moments in life.

The death of John F Kennedy is one; the collapse of the Berlin Wall another. For me, the revolt in the pews of St John Ogilvie's Church in High Blantyre is a third.

I never thought I would live to see the day a Catholic congregation would shout down its bishop and walk out of mass. Their protest is extraordinary; without modern precedent as far as I am aware. Can you imagine what it must have cost them? 

I grew up a Catholic. My childhood was spent in the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland. Like all Catholic children, I was grounded in reverence for the church and obedience to its laws.

I curtsied to the nuns at school. The shadow of a priest in the doorway of my home was a trigger for the best china and manners to match.

If you want to see how deeply this attitude was entrenched, go to see the film Philomena. It's a true story. Look at the wickedness the Church heaped on Philomena Lee and her illegitimate son who was removed from her.

The cruelty was criminal in my view.

Then take note of her response. Even after the terrible wrongs that had been done to her, she was reluctant to criticise the perpetrators. She was forgiving, deferential, as well as charitable.

That was how good Catholics were supposed to be.

Respect for the clergy ran so deep we now know some of them got away with black deeds and others covered their tracks for decades - maybe centuries.

No longer, if St John Ogilvie's sets a trend. Months ago the parish priest Father Matthew Despard published a book on Amazon. He told how he had received unwanted homosexual approaches during his training for the priesthood. Those, like him, who rejected these advances were bullied, he alleged.

Archbishop Joseph Devine, then in charge of the Motherwell diocese, said he would take no action against the whistle-blowing priest.

Now, six months later, his temporary replacement, Bishop Joseph Toal, has suspended Father Despard pending a "penal judicial process" under canon law.

Father Despard's crime, according to Bishop Toal, is that he "caused scandal and hurt, and continues to do so, among the clergy and lay faithful of the Diocese of Motherwell".

(Ironically the only scandal and hurt at the moment is that which Bishop Toal has stirred up.)

It was when Father Despard's flock turned up for mass on Saturday to be told this by the Bishop that the protest erupted.

"It was as close to a riot as you get", said one of the congregation. Some parishioners left the service. On Sunday there was another walk-out and shouts of "hypocrite".

It's the arrogant, autocratic manner of the priest's treatment that most outrages.

Josephine Greenhorn, a lifelong church-goer said, "I am 55 and I was reared to respect my bishops but there were many older than me walking out. I never thought I would see anything like that but that was the strength of feeling."

Bishop Toal is reported to have "thought hard and prayed hard" before he threw himself off a public relations cliff. Me?

I'd say if he was praying for the well-being of the church his prayers were answered. What happened in St John Ogilvie's last weekend marks a healthy development for the Catholic Church in Scotland. It was the moment the worms turned.

The congregation found its voice. Never mind the bishop didn't like what it said. As one parishioner reminded him: "We the people are the church, not the bishops."

Bishop Toal, judging by his online biography, will be accustomed to the notion of unquestioning obedience from the laity. He is the oldest of nine children, so is probably from a traditional Catholic home.

He was just 12 when he went to St Vincent's seminary in Langbank. From there he went to Blair's in Aberdeen and on to the Royal Scots College in Spain. Since ordination, most of his parish work was on South Uist.

 The islands are probably on the traditional wing of the church. In 1999 he returned to the Royal Scots College as rector. Pope Benedict appointed him Bishop of Argyll and the Isles in 2008.

Looking at that background it is possible to wonder if he could be out of touch with the anger and sense of betrayal so many Catholics feel about their church and a litany of recent scandals. A veil has been stripped from their eyes. They no longer take it as a given that a dog collar or a crozier guarantees high moral standards.

They have seen paedophilia and physical brutality tolerated and covered up. They have seen guilty men protected from the law while children were left to suffer. They have seen a church protect its property but not its violated people.

They have seen their own Cardinal rail against homosexuality then admit to making unwanted approaches to young priests. They have seen their faith and their church besmirched and damaged from the inside. They have read about mafia money in the Vatican bank. They know how high allegations go.

So now they arrive for mass to discover their priest, a man who does a decent job for them, is to be "done over" - there is no other phrase for it - for making allegations. He is to be singled out, isolated and examined in a court whose laws are unfamiliar to his congregation.

Father Despard can be represented by his own canon lawyer but he must pay for that himself.

(How he could afford this is a mystery since he has taken a vow of poverty.)

The alternative is for him to be represented without charge by one of the Church's list of canon lawyers.

In other words it feels as if Father Despard will be challenged with fighting fog in a dark room.

Or he would be if he hadn't won the hearts and minds of his congregation.

His loyal parishioners do not claim to know whether the allegations in the priest's book are accurate or not. They do feel, as do others, that the issue of inappropriate homosexual approaches (in seminaries and beyond) could do with being openly investigated by an independent inquiry which includes lay members.

They have seen hope of a new order in Rome, of a new humility among the clergy: of bishops whose vocation is to serve, not to rule. They hope for a church that recognises its historic, unchallenged power - all that deference by congregations - has brought corruption in its wake.

At the weekend they shocked the bishop and they shocked themselves with their anger. At the moment it isn't Matthew Despard who stands alone, it is Joseph Toal.

We can watch now as ranks close and faces are saved. Father Despard has achieved a small reprieve in that.

Instead of being expelled from his house he can stay in his home, in plain sight, where people who care about him can keep an eye.

One of his angry parishioners said to me: "Where is God in this?"

I have another question.

Where is Pope Francis?

Isn't this the behaviour of the bad old church he wants to consign to history?

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