The last few days the place I remember and call Maynooth has become a hashtag #maynooth or #maynoothscandal. Someone just asked me how I feel about this. The answer is sad, very sad – because the truth is my abiding memories of Maynooth centre around happy days when I looked forward to becoming a priest, of good friends, enthusiasm around church, dreams for the future and a belief that I was in the right place and doing the right thing with my life.
When I started in Maynooth there were seventy-five in my class, most of them my own age with a few, some years older, having worked in other places before making the decision to explore God’s Call. I’d imagine there were 300-400 students in the college at the time, people from all over Ireland. I believed we were there because it’s where we felt we were meant to be. At that time, as far as I recall, there were seminaries in Thurles, Carlow, Waterford, Kilkenny, Wexford as well as All Hallows in Dublin and Clonliffe College which was the seminary specific to students for the Archdiocese of Dublin. There was too, the Irish College in Rome. With the exception of Maynooth and the Irish College in Rome, all are now closed. I’ve no doubt many of the buildings are still there, perhaps other roles were found for them but I’m certain that memories specific to each place remain for those who walked their corridors, sat in their lecture halls and sought to find and deepen the faith “within” in their chapels.
Through the years I have visited Maynooth. In the earlier years of being a priest I’d have visited the students as we had people from the diocese studying there. As time passed, I found that happening less and less. I have however attended meetings there to do with bits of work I do here in the diocese, so I haven’t lost contact with the place entirely. I know there are people that left Maynooth who never re-visited but I think it more the case that most past pupils of the college, whether they were ordained or not, would allow it hold a special place in the heart and feel comfortable enough to wander around its corridors and grounds. The Classpiece pictures (lines of them) along the corridors, remind us of faces from the past, some known to us and many not, and give witness to the reality of vocation and response. I often think about those pictures, my own included, and have come to the conviction that we remain the “man” in that photo. By that I mean, whatever has happened in life, successes and failures, good days and bad, we are still the one who sat in front of a camera and allowed the shutter to close on the face of one preparing for ordination. Whatever hopes and dreams we had at that moment, whatever goodness was in us at that moment, whatever belief in priesthood was in us at that moment, remains the truth of that moment. It is a truth we have to re-visit and, at times, reclaim.
What do I remember of the journey in Maynooth? I remember struggles with prayer and with study, I remember confusion around feelings and somewhere too, of course, wondering about celibacy. I knew that priesthood meant I would not have a wife but at eighteen years of age a wife wasn’t the first thing on my mind!! Even at twenty-four, I’m sure I might not have given too much thought to that. There were nonetheless those “stirrings” in us that seemed at odds with being “holy”, “men apart” and yes, they gave rise to questions and quite likely doubts. I recall someone telling us once during a talk, a retreat maybe, that our feelings around sexuality were normal. As men (women too I’m sure) it was natural to wonder about this side of life and to have to make choices. He said “your hormones don’t even know you’re Catholics, never mind celibates”. I’m sure we laughed but he was making a good point. Hormones are hormones and feelings are feelings, irrespective of creed or calling. It’s what we do with and about them that ultimately shapes us. Somewhere and somehow in vocation and priesthood, with the Grace and help of God, the support and understanding of people and inner will, we have to try to align the hormones with the calling, and bring them to a place where they know “we are catholic and striving to be celibate”.
I don’t recall a “gay culture” in Maynooth when I was there. Neither do I recall “a heterosexual culture”. I felt as people we were rounded, balanced and doing the best we could. I think what I recall was a sincere effort to respond to the call to be a priest. People left along the way. It was the rule of thumb that about half the first year class would leave before ordination and, give or take that was the story with our class too. Why would people leave? Some, I am sure because they came to the realisation that priesthood was not their calling. This may or may not have had to do with celibacy. Others quite likely came to the point where they knew they could not live life without sharing it specifically with another. The idea of parenthood, handing on life through a loving relationship held more value for them and understandably so. It’s certain some might have realised their orientation was homosexual and that seeking and responding to the love of another was something they could not live without. There were, in fairness, many reasons to leave and many too, to stay. It would also have been the case that people might have been asked to leave for various reasons. That surely had to be the role of the Seminary formation team, that it journeyed with the students and observed the lifestyle and the choices being made and if these were considered incompatible with priesthood, then the recommendation would have been made that another life choice might be more in keeping. I suspect similar would happen in any field of training, from the Teacher Training College to nursing, medicine, military, Gardaí and so forth.
The time in Seminary is a time of discernment. What does that mean? It’s something to do with looking at life, seeing where the road is leading and arriving at a decision that the road ahead looks as if it’s leading to the destination you seek. Equally it might lead us to a moment where we need to stop, gather our thoughts, and admit this is not the road for me. It’s a good road and an important road but if I continue on it I will arrive at a destination, yes, but not the one I need. What I am searching for, where I am being led, is not to be found on this road. It’s no harm I’ve travelled this road and chances are I will remember much from the journey but it’s time to look to another path. That’s discernment. It’s about reflection and choice.
So what about the Maynooth of these days? As I said, I’ve lost contact a bit with students. We don’t have any student for our diocese at this time. My interaction then with present day Maynooth in terms of students and indeed staff is practically non-existent. I was involved a number of years ago in giving a retreat to the students and I wondered what that would be like. I recall meeting a small number of them in advance of the retreat to have a chat about it and when I asked what I should do, one of the students said “Don’t apologise for being here”. I am sure we laughed at that too but his point was also valid. What he was saying to me was don’t come in thinking you are not worthy to be here or that you haven’t something to say. Come to us as you are. I very much appreciated that comment and have tried to apply it to other situations in life since then. I went to Maynooth for that retreat expecting to find people at a low ebb (it was at the height of other scandals in our church), where morale would be low and people at a loss. That was not my experience. I met lovely people there. Many of them spoke with me on a one to one basis during times of reconciliation or between talks. I was amazed by their enthusiasm. The hundreds had shrunk to numbers less than a hundred but I found again a sense of purpose among these men. They seemed at ease with themselves and I came away thinking they never knew the Maynooth of hundreds or seminaries scattered across Ireland. This is the only seminary life they’ve experienced and they are making their own of it. I’d like to think I gave something to the students over those few days but I know for certain they gave a lot to me, not least hope.
It is the choice of a bishop to send seminarians to any college he feels would be good to and for them. The Irish College in Rome is an equal partner in the seminary formation of the Irish Church. Indeed when we were in Maynooth, Bishop Flynn (R.I.P.) let it be known that should any of us like to go to Rome to study we were welcome to do so. Furthermore he encouraged this and some of my fellow students chose or maybe were asked to attend the Irish College. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this decision. I’m sure from a practical point of view, the bishops were trying to support both colleges through sending students there. For that reason, I would not like to see Rome and Maynooth being pitched against each other now. It’s my belief they both seek to assist those who feel God’s call to priesthood and it’s for the good of both that a student body is maintained in each. Furthermore, it is my belief that any diocese lucky enough to have a number of students could well benefit from sending some of those students to each or, as was the case in the past, encouraging that they spend time between both.
I am very sorry for anyone who has been hurt in Maynooth. I truly am and I feel much of what is happening these days is sincerely born of personal hurt and a belief that the seminary could and should be better. It is my hope that this hurt will be healed. Whatever needs to be said or done should not be left unsaid or undone. I believe there are very sincere people, staff and students, clerical and lay, men and women still walking the corridors of St Patrick’s College.
Though there is sincerity in the recent comments about Maynooth, I don’t like some of the approaches taken as the story unfolds. It seems certain that some linked with this story have made questionable decisions around social media. At least the allegations made suggest as much. What lies behind those alleged decisions and possible needs of those involved is the journey of discernment. It has to be personal though and to seek to embarrass people through innuendo and invasion seems at odds with a Christian approach to seeking a lasting peace for all involved. My hope is that Maynooth will be to and for all involved a certain companion who will walk the road, listen and offer guidance. Equally may it listen to the voice of students and those believing there is room for change.
At day’s end, I believe Maynooth will continue to shape and be shaped by those who call it “home” during their time there. I would be deeply saddened were it to remain a hashtag when it has offered, offers and has the potential to offer much, much more.