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The Furrow as window on Irish church

Maynooth, Ireland

In a country that boasts the Book of Kells, the scribblings of Joyce and Yeats and other legends, The Furrow was a modest proposal. But then, 1950 was not a great year for church reform, and the Irish had given up on saving civilization about a millennium earlier. So Canon J.G. McGarry, professor of homiletics at Maynooth College, trod lightly in the foreword to his new pastoral magazine: The Furrow would be "guided by the mind and spirit of the church."

The title of the new monthly was taken from Jeremiah 4:3 -- "Yours to drive a new furrow, nor sow any longer among the briers." The cover hovered between bland and boring. This year's color is yellow, but after 47 years fresh colors are hard to imagine. One has to squint to make out the pale motto: "A journal for the contemporary church."

Yet, during those 47 years, The Furrow was and still is the best single window on the Irish church.

The pastoral concerns to which McGarry promised to devote fuller attention were "preaching, pastoral organizations, the liturgy, the church, its art and architecture." He expressed more interest in experience than theory. Furthermore, he noted, there was a flock of young Irish priests -- the laity were not yet worthy of even a position paper for Vatican II -- with an interest in writing, and McGarry promised to give them a voice.

One can only imagine the palpitations this mild manifesto caused in the 20-odd bishops' palaces that were then the seats of Irish ecclesiastical power. Because the Dublin archdiocese, in which Maynooth is situated, was then ruled by the late draconian Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, McGarry established his printing operation in a neighboring diocese where the imprimatur might be in less jeopardy.

Still, episcopal hazards were never far away in Ireland. According to one chronicler of that period, when one of the new priests to whom McGarry had given a voice was disciplined by his home archbishop for alleged theological indiscretions, McGarry wrote suggesting the archbishop might have been unjust. The archbishop's reply began, "I am not, and can never be, unjust. ..."

Maynooth College

Over and beyond the mandatory nod to Rome, McGarry had promised The Furrow would express "reverence for the traditions of the Irish church and pride in its distinctive way of life." Those traditions were indeed a tangled skein: days of ancient monastic glory and years of brutal penal laws. The Irish had fought Rome for centuries about the date of Easter. One pope had given Ireland -- all of it -- to some British king as a gift. A lively history.

Maynooth College itself was interwoven with two centuries of that history. The seminary was founded at the instigation of the British in 1795 to stop the seminarians from going to Europe, especially to French seminaries, whence they often returned aflame with the radical ideals of the French Revolution. Endowed by an act of the Irish (Protestant) parliament during the reign of George III, the seminary was thus kept on an ideological and political leash for generations.

But never completely bought out, according to former Maynooth president and later Bishop Jeremiah Newman, who in a guide to Maynooth writes, "From the beginning the students were patriotic," from the rebellion of 1798 down to the rising of 1916 when the president considered sending the student body home lest they go off and join the rebellion.

Even the seminary site was symbolic of the turbulent interaction between church and state in Irish history. The imposing medieval castle still standing at the college gate belonged to the Fitzgeralds, several generations of whom were lords deputy of Ireland during some of the harshest years of English domination.

In front of the old castle, a market was held each Friday since 1286, according to a booklet written by another former Maynooth president, Fr. Micheal Ledwich. "The spot before the gateway of the castle has seen the execution of about 60 people," writes Ledwich. It is assumed that none of these were seminarians, though Ledwich does mention the "ghost room" at the college where a student committed suicide in 1841 and another followed suit 19 years later, causing the room to be boarded up for good in 1860.

Ledwich also tells of clerical students from the early days, arriving from all corners of Ireland, who would sell their horses at the Maynooth market to support themselves during their years of study.

Maynooth College has been described as the biggest and best-known seminary in the world. In two centuries more than 10,000 priests were ordained there. They became bishops and otherwise famous in many parts of the world, but the primary purpose of Maynooth was to supply the Irish church with priests.

One former student explained, using the understated patois of the place, that the Maynooth ideal was "the sound man." Such a man was not flashy or flaky or outstanding, not an overachiever nor an embarrassment. He fitted in, could be relied upon, knew his place. And if he knew his place well enough, with the help of God's grace and a sunny disposition he would grow to be a sagart aroon -- a darling, Barry Fitzgeraldesque priest. This, of course, was only an ideal, an average; many went on to be both bigger and smaller than that.

Then, in the 1960s, Maynooth was caught up in the changes that swept the church and world. The Irish bishops decided to open the college to lay students. This in a way brought them full circle: They had, at the very outset, opened the college to lay students, to keep them away from the then-dreaded Protestant Trinity College, but that experiment petered out in 1817, owing, it is suspected, to the machinations of one "Black Jack" Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare.

The new Maynooth, now a branch of the national university, has had, sources say, mixed success. It had, for one thing, an identity problem. The influence and traditions and very bulk of the seminary loomed over the new venture and were hard to tame. On the other hand, almost immediately, the number of seminarians began to dwindle. In 1955, 103 new clerics entered, of which 80 were ordained; in 1996, only 18 entered. And these recent candidates -- as characterized by one Maynooth priest for NCR -- are "more concerned about the distance between the alb and the floor" than about the pastoral concerns that traditionally endeared the priests to the people in Ireland.

Novelist Michael P. Harding, who was a student at Maynooth during the years of transition, writes in Priest (Belfast: Blackstaff Press) about the pained lurching from the old order to the new.

On the one hand, the raw laity, infiltrated by a stray nun or priest or two, looking for love and/or meaning at a party on the new campus: "Everything was discussed; from politics to religion; from group therapy to abortion. They sat on the floor, the window, the chairs, the table; they put arms about each other in twos, threes and larger groups; they kissed in the bedrooms, the kitchenette ... and even a few traditionalists went outside. ... And songs about love and fighting and drinking and dying were sung over and over" while they all, naturally, got drunk.

On the other hand, over in the magnificent chapel, a senior cleric tries to pray: "You came as a boy, in search of truth; but all you got was a kind of secondary truth; the place had truth and permanence; you had not; you were a leaf or a breath. ... Right across Europe, the land was peppered with pillars and spires and vaults that reached into the one dark night and stood silent for centuries, so that a man could walk in their holy shelter and know that he was dust. ... He offered it as the nearest he could come to prayer after six years in the seminary."

The Furrow plows on

The transition to whatever will be the future of the church -- and society -- continues at Maynooth as elsewhere. On an eerie, overcast June morning the famed chapel spire was ominously lost in fog. Underneath, the bishops of Ireland were holding their annual meeting with minimum fanfare. The people are still angry at them for the haughty years, and for clerical pedophilia, and for failing, when people need them most, to have the old solid answers and some hopeful blueprint for heaven.

McGarry was killed in a car crash in 1977. Among the young priests he had gathered around The Furrow, low-profile in typical Maynooth fashion, was Fr. Ronan Drury, who became review editor at an early stage and succeeded McGarry as editor just as he had earlier succeeded him as professor of homiletics.

There was a welcoming fire in Drury's comfortable study, which by late morning had attracted several other priests from down the corridor or up from Connaught for the day. They were men at ease and witty in each other's company. Head-and-shoulders above Maynooth's traditional "sound man" -- one was on a short list suggested by a political columnist to succeed Mary Robinson as president -- they have learned how to get away with it.

The Furrow's audience has been predominantly clergy, Drury says, but this is changing steadily in the direction of the laity. The magazine has been remarkably free from interference by the bishops, who have never tried to censor a story.

This is not because The Furrow ducked the issues, including the dire beating taken by the Irish church in recent years. As a window, The Furrow still offers a relentless view of Irish reality.

"It is a lonely, difficult and confusing time to be involved in the Irish church," wrote Fr. John O'Donoghue in the March 1995 issue: "Sin, fear and guilt were widely exploited as a means of controlling and holding people within a tight religious frame. The church seemed to own that inner world of spiritual meaning in this life and also to have the power to admit or deny entrance to eternal life."

The very fact that The Furrow could publish this hard-hitting article was an indication that the institutional church had in the meantime lost that power to intimidate. Indeed, the article vaulted all the way to Rome to complain, "This papacy has not lived up to its potential."

Church and people

This blast echoes Ireland's cri de coeur on learning some of its priests had feet of clay and the institution had dry rot. From the beginning, and true to their modest proposal, the editors declined to write editorials, thus absolving themselves from the need to fulminate or fawn. When it was time to throw tantrums, as in recent years, they had no trouble finding tantrum throwers. Probably because of the country's history, fawners were never popular in Ireland. Balance was always an ideal, Drury explained. But finally, one knew where The Furrow stood by reading it.

When anger at the church died down, people had to come to terms with what has been variously called postcolonial, post-tribalist, postnationalist and even post-Catholic Ireland. This new Ireland, like any work in progress, is being viewed from surprising new angles. Mary Kenny, who from the more haughty enclaves of London has cast a jaundiced eye on her homeland for decades, in a new book, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (Sinclair-Stevenson), has upended the traditional image of "priest-ridden Irish" to read "laity-ridden priesthood":

When the people were obsessed with land, the priests were obsessed with land; when they were into agricultural "improvements," the priests were the same; nationalism, internationalism, Gaelic Leaguism, pro-British feelings too were represented within the priesthood. ... When we built bigger houses, they built bigger churches. And it may be said that when we grew tired of chastity, and went in for sexual liberation, and did our own thing, some of the men of the cloth did too.

There is ample room for a benign rendering of this dynamic: priests and bishops identifying with their people. A good example is Bishop Colm O'Reilly of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, writing in the February Furrow of "A Winter Journey," his personal pilgrimage to his own parishes to hear the people's voices before even suggesting a pastoral plan. It is hard to exaggerate what a change of national attitude this embodies. O'Reilly's priests wanted no part of any plan in which their people did not have a say. Writes O'Reilly:

At the time of writing I am about the half-way stage in my winter journey. It has been wintry in more than low temperatures. I have left myself vulnerable, I know. There has been some anger in the air, mostly of an unfocused kind. I have been confronted with strong views about the lowly role given to women in the church as a whole. ... One priest has given me great comfort by assuring me that I can be something like a lightning conductor, neutralizing danger by conducting the anger harmlessly into the ground!

In keeping with its pastoral purpose, many of The Furrow's subjects are bread-and-butter ordinary. In recent issues there have been articles on preparing for confirmation, on coping with pain, on praying, on grieving, on ecumenism. After so many years there is little left to say about the Northern troubles, but Cardinal Cahal Daly writes that peace is still possible. About half the Irish bishops have written for the magazine at one time or another, Drury says.

Not surprisingly, preaching is a continuing preoccupation. A northern layman writes that there is a preaching crisis, scarcely news. He yells at the homily people to come down from their pulpits to where the people are: "The heart of modern man is hungry for the God who is love. Clever ideas about God will not satisfy his hunger. ... If you want to preach effectively to your people, you need to knock on their doors and visit them." Be, in other words, the sagart aroon.

There is a pervasive difference in style from, for example, comparable American publications. One might call it poetic pragmatism. While the sound man has poetry coming out his ears, he is coy about the use of it. Unlike societies with more benign histories, Irish music and poetry often had more to do with survival than entertainment. The Furrow is peppered with poets and philosophers, from Sartre to Primo Levi, from Lady Gregory to Dylan Thomas, but most of these are not cited for fun but for ammunition in a country where, for centuries, one had to camouflage the truth to tell it.

Bleak times

"It is a very bleak time to be a priest," O'Donoghue wrote in his 1995 article. While the church battles bravely on, The Furrow does not pretend to hide the bleakness. In 1996 it published a homily by Fr. Padraig Standan, who came back to his alma mater invoking a "thundering Jesus" to shake up the church: "I would rather that there wouldn't stand a stone upon a stone in this building, which I have loved for more than 30 years, than that we carry on as we are, complacent, self-indulgent, misogynist."

In December 1996, in an article of similar passion, Fr. Brendan Hoban lambasted the tyranny of clericalism -- not for what it did to the faithful but what it did to the priest.

He wrote, "The field of dreams that opened out before us on ordination day is now a thicket we try to break through to preserve the vestiges of an ordinary life. ... What is left of me when so much is subsumed into priesthood? ... This experience of long-term isolation and the loneliness it engenders could well be the key to understanding much of the shadow side of priesthood in Ireland today."

Three months later, a snippy Sr. Kathleen Dalton, a Canadian -- but what courage! -- returned fire on behalf of the eternally upbeat: "Isn't it possible that the real bete noir in the Irish church is the very minimal number of discontented priests who like little lap dogs keep whining and nipping at the heels of those who are trying to get on with the multitudinous tasks each day presents?"

It was a fine skirmish, Irish-style, with metaphors flying in all directions. In an unrelated discussion Mercy Sr. Kathleen Minogue implicitly agreed with Hoban while explicitly disagreeing with the pope: "At present, despite the effort at 'meaningful' community, many religious feel lonely and loveless."

Editor Drury meanwhile worries about finding a balance for such pain and dejection. There is wide agreement that a new note of optimism and resurgence has crept into Ireland, but few seem to be saying that it has much to do with the church.

In summer the corridors of the vast old seminary are nearly empty. So much history here. And aspiration. So much pain. And joy. Impossible just now to say who will fill all those once-filled rooms. Or for what purpose. Badly-needed money is being raised in America especially. Grand stone plaques in memory of donors -- someone called them Stonehenge -- include the names of the late Princess Grace of Monaco; the late industrialist J. Peter Grace; and inside, behind the main altar, the late CIA director, William Casey.

"An explosion of imagination and courage could place the church at the center of the modern world," Patraig Standan said at Maynooth. Ireland seems to be holding its breath. If the explosion happens here, you can read about it in The Furrow.

NCR Editor Michael Farrell recently returned from a three-week visit to Ireland.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 1997