Long vocations

Jul 22nd, 2010 | By | Category: Ministry

Thirty years ago, in England, I spent a year with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, working as a volunteer in a boarding school they ran for boys with intellectual disability.  The sisters were overwhelmingly from Irish backgrounds, with the odd English accent amongst them, and the work of the school was their life.  Working as assistant to a houseparent meant seeing at first hand the hour by hour life of that school: it was marked by extraordinary kindness and selflessness on part of the sisters, not once was there a moment of cruelty, rarely even a cross word spoken.  When the sisters withdrew from the school because of declining vocations, it seemed that something special was being lost.

A Church of Ireland friend, growing up in the Irish midlands where a lack of money was common to both sides of the community, talks of the great commitment of the brothers in the Catholic school he attended.  He recalls none of the cruelty that characterised some institutions, rather a sense that if it were not for the order that ran the school, there would have been no secondary education for the majority of those present; the Irish government was not hurrying forward to make provision for working class people.

Sitting at supper beside a brother, from an order not named in the Ryan Report on institutional abuse, he talked of his fifty years working in a very difficult area of Belfast.  Now, at the age of eighty, he was leader of a community of retired brothers, some who had spent their lives working in Ireland, others who had spent many years in overseas missions.  It was hard to imagine how some of them must feel; men who had been imbued with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council who had then watched as successive popes tried to turn back the clock, centralising power and stamping on dissent.  Watching as the new Ireland for which they had tried to educate people turned into a land of cute hoors, gombeenism and corruption on a previously unimaginable scale.

Were I in his place, I think there would be a profound sense of bitterness, of betrayal, a sense that life might have been profitably spent in some other way, yet he was tranquil and content in his view of the world; things had not turned out as they might, but there was always grounds for hope.

We agreed that we must meet again and he headed back to his house to catch up with the evening’s business, smiling at still working at eighty.

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  1. I worked in Africa as a lay volunteer with Irish Catholic missionaries in educational and rural development matters. I saw first hand the cheerful attention nuns, priests and teaching brothers gave to their duties and to people benefiting from educational and medical programmes initiated by missionaries. As individuals belonging to religious orders they enjoyed more freedom to take social and pastoral initiatives than they ever could have dreamed of had they opted to work in dioceses in their native Ireland. In their own country bishops and religious superiors would have moved them from pillar to post at whim, like coloured pins moved around on a military map. Incidentally, I met some long serving members of the Irish Christian Brothers in Zambia, who had been working in secondary schools, trades training centres, and on community Aids awareness campaigns.Government administrators and parents hold their institutions in high esteem. Within a few years the old hands will have retired and died and administration of institutions will have been laicised by African professionals. I hope the lay people will hold on to the spirit of pragmatic dedication shown by their foreign predecessors.

    I am also aware that in parts of Africa some of the best rural and urban schools and hospitals were set up by Anglican and Nonconformist missionaries, some of whom came from Ireland. The story of the Irish-initiated Leprosy Mission has been published, but the wider contribution of Irish Protestants to Africa, India and elsewhere remains to be researched and told.

    I agree with your observation that those Catholic brothers, priests and sisters who taught decently in Irish schools and worked quietly and without scandal in institutions for the handicapped and disadvantaged must feel betrayed by the revelations of institutional inhumanity perpetrated by members of the orders and networks that they dedicated their lives to. You also make a telling observation that aged members of teaching orders must feel badly let down by the cynical cutehoor morality that has been practised by politicians, businessmen and professionals who got their first chance in education because of the spiritual committment of those who joined teaching orders thirty, forty or more than fifty years ago..

  2. These are the people the others have let down.

    It is an interesting development in Irish culture to have Protestant priests commenting on Roman Catholic affairs, yourself and Stephen Neill, for example. This must surely be a healthy development by anybody’s reckoning. Hope you guys don’t take offence when the RCs respond in kind, if they dare. 🙂

  3. I have even written to the Irish Times in defence of the Roman Catholic church, not because I agree with anything the Pope says, but because of the priests and religious I encounter in daily life. The letters I have received on the couple of occasions I have made the columns have been fascinating.

  4. I have RC priest relations and my heart bleeds for them.

  5. I never know what to say to the ones I meet without sounding patronising.

  6. I am sorry for your troubles, is a common way of sympathising with people at an Irish funeral. You must have an interesting pastoral and social life as someone coming from a very urban, agnostic society to live in a grassroots Irish rural setting where the majority of neighbours attend a different, troubled church on Sundays.

  7. Gerry,

    Ecumenical relationships were strong in Dublin and there was a keen awareness of the pain being felt. This was a speech at last year’s synod in the diocese in which I was serving:

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