2012 Speech Garry O’Sullivan

Speaker-Speech: Garry O’Sullivan 2012

He is Managing Editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper.

He worked as Communications Manager for the Jesuits and before he got into journalism, he studied with the Capuchin friars for three years.

Formerly he worked for The Irish Voice in New York and contributed from there for Ireland on Sunday.

He has worked as a producer in Vatican Radio during the Jubilee year 2000.    He is also a regular contributor to The Examiner, the Herald and a variety of radio and television news programmes.

Speaking notes  of the 18th of February 2012 by  Garry O’Sullivan (See Audio at bottom of the page)

Theme:    How can we rebuild our Church today?

I think has been one of the hardest papers I have ever put together. It seems a straightforward question – how can we rebuild our church,

But so much is left unsaid – like who do we mean by ‘we’, and ‘church’, and then what are we re-building.

There are so many books and articles written on the theme – you can pick up copies of the Furrow from 10 or 20 years ago and they could have been written last week. The same outpouring of desire for change that brings us here today has been in the ether for a long time now.

But then it has always been in the Church, this need for change and renewal, most of the religious orders and congregations were formed out of a radical desire for change. Indeed the theme is taken from the command to St Francis to go and repair the Church.

Francis’s antidote to the confusion and paralysis according to the spiritual writer and Franciscan Richard Rohr was a return to simplicity. So I would say that has to be our vision in any rebuilding project, return to simplicity and the Gospels.

But I think it is true to say that many of us are confused about the change needed. It is not as clear as it used to be.

The more liberal wing of the church which was so vibrant after Vatican II is dying out. Many lament the loss of energy and vitality that once was. Its agenda for reform and renewal seems as far off from realisation as it ever was.

But one has to ask, was there too much emphasis on rights based renewal such as the right of women to be ordained and priests to marry, instead of emphasis on more achievable targets such as getting structures established that would allow the lay voice to be heard rather than dismissed? It could be argued that by fighting the political fights with those in power, it allowed the authorities to bar up the doors to any change, when we should have been working on change as a mass movement in the parishes perhaps.

I’m sure we could have a whole other conference on that topic but that’s for another day.

So while the agitation from the left – and I know these terms are somewhat simplistic but they’ll have to do for now to illustrate the point – didn’t remove the power of the clerical system. Instead we saw a tightening up in the church from what many had hoped was an opening out.   However, I think that while this might be a source of disappointment, in the longer run, we will see that it was not a defeat.    If you are going to rebuild something, you have to clear away the old and damaged parts of the building, maybe even clear back to the foundations and then you start your rebuild. If the reforms and changes many in the left had sought had been brought in, they would have been built upon a rotten superstructure which we now know was there.

We now know that since before Vatican 11, the church which obsessed over the sexual sins of its members and threatened them with a God who was nothing like the God Jesus spoke of in the Gospels,
That self-righteous church we now know was filled with what the pope has called ‘filth’. And that ‘filth’ was largely covered up by a clerical caste.

So while the efforts of the liberal wing after Vatican II found the doors of reform firmly shut to them, perhaps it is worth considering that the Church wasn’t ready for such reforms.   The Holy Spirit had to sweep the house clean first.   So if some of you feel you have been left knocking at the door for the last 20, 30, 40 years or so, take comfort that the Holy spirit was inside getting the place ready!

So that’s my starting point for our building project. We need to assist in this process of sweeping the house cleaning; stripping back the unnecessary bricks and mortar to build new, firmer walls that will not rot. We must build on the foundation of the Gospel.

Stripping away what is rotten

What I was referring to was that Amarach research company found in 2001 that 53% of people trusted the Church but only 35% trusted the media.

In 2010, only 17% trusted the Church but only 7% trusted the media.

Now everyone in the room knows the Church lost 36% in 9 years, but how the media lost 28% is the elephant in the editorial room!

Even the banks score higher!

And yet, in the case of the Church it was this very flawed, poorly trusted media, which, as Cardinal Levada, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said recently at the Rome conference on child abuse protection, it is this flawed media that has managed to force the Catholic Church in the US and Ireland and other places into admitting and then eventually dealing with the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests.

If God truly writes with crooked lines, what better example of the modern day Pharisees – who love secrecy and clericalism – being brought to account by, according to the opinion polls, the modern day sinners and outcasts!

Let’s face it clearly; something has been dying in our Church for a long time, of which the child abuse scandals were only a recent manifestation.
A bishop I know says that the rot set in long before the abuse of children came to light. It started he says even before the Church we know now was built as part of the ultra montaine project back in the 1800’s.

It started when a small energetic new religion based on the teachings of a carpenter’s son got subsumed into an Empire.

The Community of Jesus Christ – meek and humble and flawed too – where people came and asked to join up to a brotherhood and sisterhood,

We lost that for an empire, where people were then forced to join up.

God who Jesus wanted us to call ‘papa’ or ‘daddy’ was now an emperor God who looked after the powerful.
But this church lost one of its lungs when the Eastern Church split and left, the eastern mind/mystical mind of the church was gone.

On one lung we survived – but the oxygen levels going to the brain weren’t so good and the Reformation happened and robbed half of the remaining lung – the Protestants ran away with the Bible and we ran off with the Blessed Sacrament.

Now folks, they’re surviving on half a lung, but not enough oxygen is getting to the brain.
Then the corruption comes along in the form of abuse, widespread abuse and the oxygen starved brain thinks cover-up is the best way forward!

So now, rocked to their core by abuse, they are left living on a quarter of a lung.


I think the positive ‘why’ of our need to rebuild, put at is most essential and in pure form, is also that each one of us knows in our hearts that we were told we needed to be a light to the world, a salt to the palate.

The Church cannot be a partner to darkness; we are called to be its light.   We were told that we have the power inside of us to change the world, inside of us there is a power, God given, and that power is a belief, a belief that the world can be better and that we should never settle for less.   That belief leads all the way to the hill of Calvary where the voice of belief in better, a voice that promised that life was given to be lived to the fullness, where that voice was silenced by hate.

Our idea which is to change our world is a big idea, and we will be crucified for it – but did Jesus not warn them when he sent them out two by two that they would be cursed and beaten etc. And who was doing this to them?   The Jews, their own people, their own religious leaders.   Our idea of change still burns inside our hearts – like the disciples on the road to Emmaus – but we’re afraid that when we communicate that idea we will be cursed, beaten, not listened to.

That’s why we want to rebuild Our Church.   We have a hope, we have a baptismal duty.


Change however, has not and will not come from the top. Period.

I recall bishop Joseph Duffy, (a gentleman) who had on resigning the decency to say that one of his regrets was that the bishops didn’t bother with Vatican II all that much!!!   What an admission!   We didn’t even bother, as bishops, to implement Vatican II!   WOW!    Our bishops essentially ignored a Council of the Church which in Catholic teaching is the supreme infallible vehicle– they should have resigned immediately en masse.   And all the time they ignored people like Pobal De and many many others.
Are you beginning to understand what Jesus meant when he said ‘leave the dead, to bury the dead’.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Catholics have been given a bad cheque by their leadership – a cheque that comes back market insufficient funds. We have a largely bankrupt leadership – if you think that’s harsh read the Pope’s letter to Irish Catholics – a leadership that says we want to discuss your role in our church on our terms and conditions. No thanks!

Yes our heads are becoming greyer, we’re not as youthful as we were, but it takes just a little scratch and the embers fan into flame in our hearts and we are fired up again – otherwise why would you bother even coming here today?

So why should we allow our dream to be pushed down and die, why should we allow our dream to be killed by people who have no dream, no ideas but only failure.
Cardinal Brady is a lovely person – but I don’t want lovely people running my church, I want real competent leadership in my church, I don’t want wounded healers – Give me real men, real women, psychologically healthy, strong compassionate and on fire with Jesus Christ!


Firstly here’s what we’re not rebuilding….

There is no place in any church I’m going to help rebuild for Clericalism. As Margaret Thatcher might say, ‘That is out’.

Clericalism in the Church is something like the pattern in the wallpaper; it’s been there so long you don’t see it anymore. But, visible or not, clericalism and the clericalist culture were at the heart of the sex abuse scandal, or to give it its fuller name, the power abuse scandal.

By “clericalist” I mean an elitist mind-set, together with structures and patterns of behaviour corresponding to it, that take it for granted that clerics are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference.   Passivity and dependency are the laity’s lot. This is not to create opposition to priests or the priesthood, but, rather against an attitude present in some clerics – and lay people – that holds that clerics are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference.   The Church itself returns clerics to the lay state when they offend greatly, they are laymen given a special ministry which can be taken away. It’s time to end the dualism.

Let’s be clear: clericalism did not cause sexual abuse, nor did sexual abuse cause clericalism. However, the attitudes and behaviour patterns tied to clerical elitism time and again came into play when priests were found by their superiors to have engaged in abuse.   These attitudes and patterns of behaviour made what already was a tragedy for the abused into a calamity for the entire Church.   There is, in my opinion, no other way of credibly explaining the actions of bishops and superiors, known to be decent, intelligent, conscientious men who nevertheless hushed up the shameful crimes of abusive priests and religious and repeatedly transferred some of them to new parishes or ministries without so much as a by or leave.

Bishops and religious superiors who acted like this were acting reasonably by the standards of the clericalist culture to which they belonged. Wishing to be good servants of the Church, they served the clericalist system. And in the end this system of concealment and illusion betrayed them and the rest of the Church.

In 2004, in response to clerical abuse scandals there, the Catholic Church in the United States established a ‘Review Board’. That board published a report on the “causes and context” of the scandal. Titled ‘A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States’, it is indispensable reading for anyone trying to understand this catastrophe.

One section is devoted to clericalism. It delivers a devastating critique of clericalist culture:

Some witnesses likened the clerical culture to a feudal or a military culture and said that priests and bishops who ‘rocked the boat’ were less likely to advance. Likewise, we were told, some bishops did not want to be associated with any problem for fear of criticism because problems arose on their watch. As a result, problems were left to fester.

The report left no doubt about the link between clericalism and secrecy:

In many instances, Church leaders valued confidentiality and a priest’s right to privacy above the prevention of further harm to victims and the vindication of their rights. Both confidentiality and privacy are valuable…But these values should not be allowed to trump the duty to keep children safe from harm.

Clericalism, according to the report, also was to blame for “massive denial” on the part of Church leaders when faced with cases of sex abuse by priests: “Indeed, Church officials seemed to want to keep information from themselves.”    Finally, contributing to the problem were the “haughty attitude” of some bishops and the practice of placing priests on “a pedestal far above the laity”.


In the years since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the exercise of pastoral authority in the Church has repeatedly been called a form of service. And so it is.   But honesty and openness are necessary if the exercise of authority is not to degenerate into paternalistic authoritarianism with a smiling “pastoral” face.   Ending the abuse of secrecy for the sake of clerical manipulation and control is essential to that.

The mishandling of sex abuse by priests in the past is hardly the only example of the abuse of secrecy in the Church. Consider what is known – and what is not – about the process by which men get to be bishops.   There is an urgent need for reform in this field so that Catholics can have some involvement and ownership in the process of how their leaders are selected.    When a diocese becomes vacant can the Church not, as a Christian community, have an honest conversation about the sort of qualities and leadership that a diocese may need at a particular time?    Can we not look around and see the men who have these qualities of leadership? Is the Pope really best-judged to decide with a close gaggle of elderly Italian cardinals who would make the best bishop for a rural west of Ireland diocese? I’m not talking about a popular election with candidates and voting-pacts, but, there is an urgent need to make the process of appointing bishops more transparent.    Leadership shouldn’t simply fall to the next person on the list or the aging parish priest who has served his time well and not caused any trouble.

The abuse of secrecy in the Catholic Church and its accompanying behaviour – lying, stone-walling, half-truths, happy-talk, mental reservation, failure to consult and the rest, are evident in so much of how the Church operates.

The utter devotion to secrecy displayed regularly by the Church’s hierarchy and many clerics and religious is having a devastatingly detrimental effect on the morale of lay people within the Church. From Vatican II Lumen Gentium makes it clear that “To [the pastors of the Church] the laity should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ”.   By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have the laity are empowered – indeed sometimes obliged – to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church. If the occasion should arise this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose”. (LG 37).

So secrecy, that is also out!

Another attitude we don’t want in our rebuilding project is the persistence of ecclesiastical spin.   Often this reflects the well-intentioned but paternalistic mind-set of persons in official positions who, if truth were told, consider lay people unqualified to participate in serious discussions of Church issues and have no interest in supplying them with information and ideas to bring them up to speed. Instead of engaging in candid communication, they engage in spin.

In the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council, diocesan and parish councils were the great hope for a more open, participatory and declericalised approach to internal communication and decision making in the Church. After Vatican II, it appeared that shared responsibility was on the way to becoming an accepted fact in the Church, and most people assumed that that was a good thing. But the enthusiasm has diminished in recent years.   Where they exist, not much is expected from these struggling vehicles of shared responsibility now.   Many priests and bishops are openly hostile to the idea of a parish pastoral council; others have descended in to a simple rubber-stamping mechanism or spending hours deciding what type of biscuits to have after the parish mission.   I call them ‘the how to get the fig into the figroll’ parish councils.

Many good, talented people eager to be involved have simply walked away from parish councils.   Parish councils were never supposed to be preoccupied with figrolls.

So ecclesiastical spin is also out…, Clericalism is out, secrecy is …out out out!


So what do we build then?

I want to build a Church that sees openness and transparency as virtues to be proud of.

That has a policy of openness in conducting the business of all dioceses and parishes and religious institutes.   This includes such sensitive matters as publishing detailed comprehensive financial reports and letting people in on the studies and planning that precede decisions about parish clustering or parish amalgamation.

I want to build a church that makes a fresh start with diocesan and parish pastoral councils and finance councils, giving these bodies a real say in policy-making and making their membership and their agenda and minutes a matter of public record.

I want to help build a church that implements new procedures that make the process of appointing bishops a more open procedure giving all the baptised a consultative voice in choosing bishops.

And while we’re at it, let’s Adopt and implement meaningful freedom of information policies in parishes, dioceses and national Church organisations.   Things within the Church that people are expected to contribute to or fund-raise for should be subject to oversight by the very people keeping such organisations alive.

Let’s build a church that faces up to the destructive impact that clericalism continues to have on Catholic life and take the steps necessary to root out clericalist attitudes, structures and practices once and for all.

Other criteria for rebuilding

But there are also other criteria for our rebuilding – here’s a quote I particularly like from one of Ireland’s top theologians.

“There is also today a crisis regarding the credibility of the Church.

Among the reasons for this credibility crisis is the failure of Church teaching to evolve and find expression in such a way that stands up to the legitimate critique of personal experience,
and also the retention of medieval and patriarchial structures which have long outlived their usefulness and which in fact alienate people. The result is that people whose hearts are restless for some deeper meaning and sense of purpose in life search for it elsewhere.”
The same author, a theologian warned:

“Those of us who have authority of any kind in the Church tend to be cautious people.
“safeguarding” and “preserving” come naturally to us.
The journey which we are challenged to make today is out of our present securities, a journey from fear to faith.

Freedom and courage ‘to strike camp and move on’ is a statement of our faith and our hope.

Refusal betrays the face of a frightened Church and is the faith crisis of our time
– listen to that line again – ‘refusal betrays the face of a frightened Church and is the faith crisis of our time”.

Those words and that warning to strike camp and move on were delivered in a paper called the ‘Changing Face of Ministry’, in Milltown Park 1995 to none other than the CORI conference.


Who is the ‘we’ we talk about when we said ‘how can we rebuild our church’?

Karl Rahner has written: “It is strange that we Christians…have incurred the suspicion both in the minds of others and in our own that so far as we are concerned the will to guard and preserve is the basic virtue of life. In reality, however, the sole ‘tradition’, which Christianity precisely as the people of God on pilgrimage, has acquired on the way, is the command to hope in the absolute promise and – in order that this task may not remain merely a facile ideology of ideas – to set out ever anew from social structures which have become petrified, old and empty.”

I think we need to remember that we are not agitating for something that is not our right, we are not sticking our noses in where they don’t belong; by virtue of our baptism, we are called, mandated to take responsibility and ownership of the church. Baptism, not ordination, is the sacrament par excellence, and through it we believe that the holy spirit moves and speaks through us and not soley to those in holy orders.

We are not attacking anyone either, we are trying to understand. As Fr Timothy Radcliffe has written this is a crisis of the Tridentine Church which formed after the crisis of the Reformation, otherwise Catholicism would have collapsed. He says it was what was needed at the time but that time is passing; we need a humbler, simpler and more humane Church.

I believe we need to reach out beyond left-wing and right-wing, clerical and lay and find new ground, new alliances, and an alliance of the baptised. This means putting aside certain differences in favour of working together on what unites us.

The clergy are isolated, battered down and in crisis. The ACP (Association of Catholic Priests) has tried to fill some of this need but it can only do so much.   We need to reach out to them and this is the time to do it.

But if we are having a reality check about the inability of the existing leadership to facilitate change, let’s have a reality check about what we are signing up to as promoters of change in our Church.
There will be fighting and division in the days ahead.

When we read ‘1 Corinthians, Divisions and Scandals – Factions in the Corinthian Church’ we see even the early Church had its problems.

But I don’t think any of us are expecting to build a perfect church – isn’t that the problem with the past?

“Our dreadful idea of perfection’ – Jean Paul Cassaude calls it.

Our theology sought men and women to be perfect but not whole – I remember being told that novices on their Sunday walk would be instructed to put up their hoods if a bull was bulling a cow in a field, or keep themselves covered when using the bathroom.
Where is the incarnation in such madness?

When we think back on Vatican II and that time of upheaval and change in the world as well as the Church, that sign of the times is not lost, in fact If there is a word that captures the zeitgeist now, a word that captures the spirit of our times, it has to be the word ‘change’. Practically every institution has come crumbling down under the weight of their own corruption and failure to change – a more radical transformation than many could ever have wished for.

People say they want change

Yet ask any behavioural psychologist and they’ll tell you  We don’t want change at all!   Are we that different from the bishops and cardinals and bureaucrats?

We hate change, on every level. As we get older the more resistant we become.

As W.H. Auden has written “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die.”

Perhaps we too must die to some of our illusions before we can climb the cross of the present and rebuild something sound and solid.  Someone once said that the most difficult years are from 10 to 70!  Our new President Michael D on his acceptance speech spoke of ‘necessary transformation’– ‘good people have commenced a journey to a version of Irishness of which we can be proud’………………….‘as good people we need to commence a journey to a version of Christianity of which we can be proud’.

Is that our starting point for our Vision, our dream?

Faith is an “openness to the truth, no matter the consequences, no matter where it leads you and when you don’t even know where it is going to lead you” – that’s faith, faith is insecurity.
Anyone can lead in the good times but in the rough times? In the Dark Nights?

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, one of the high points is Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech to his troops who are despairing of the lack of reinforcements (lack of vocations) and likely death.
– to prevent disaster he has to do two things  ……Present a compelling vision……………Build a community, a sense that they are all in it together.     The king reminds them that tomorrow is St Crispin’s Day and he paints a picture of a future where they have lived to old age and the old soldier will show his scars and“remember with advantages/ What feats they did that day”

He continues the heroic picture and the morale of the troops begins to rise
and he says:“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by/ From this day to the ending of the world/but we in it shall be remembered/ we few, we happy few, we band of brothers – / For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother….and gentlemen in England now abed/ Shall think themselves accurs’d that they were not here / and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/ That fought with us upon St . Crispin’s Day”.

The King ends his speech with the line; “All things are ready, if our minds be so”.

And to you I say, “all things are ready, if our minds and spirits be so”.

I would like to give the last words to Pobal’s own Sean McReamoin, here recalling in 1987 memories of the opening ceremony of Vatican II.   “Pope John aroused us from our torpor, bade us cast off fear, listen to the lessons of history, stop moaning and condemning, and go out into the world in the hope of the Holy Spirit – into his world and ours, and let our light shine before men.”

Sean concludes and I conclude with his words: “It was the end of an age, the beginning of an age, a revolution, a leap into the future, a new call to faith and hope and love…For what we have failed to do, Kyrie eleison.”


Audio of Garry O’Sullivan’s Speech above

To listen to the speech press the play button  in the box below