by Anthony Murphy


dog collarLast week I spoke to an Irish bishop about the latest scandal to hit St. Patrick's seminary in Maynooth, while he himself did not want to go on the record he did acknowledge that the Irish bishops were aware of some of the concerns about the seminary but were unable to act because the complaints made by seminarians were always anonymous. Is he serious? Does he really expect anything other than an anonymous complaint? To understand the fear of speaking out openly and why seminarians chose to suffer in silence we first need to visit the Gulag.........


Lessons from the Gulag


There is a story told by that great Russian writer and Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his book The Gulag Archipelago, about a gathering which was held in 1938 in honour of Stalin. At this gathering there were many speeches. Stalin was not even in the room, but every time his name was mentioned in a speech, the people rose to their feet with thunderous applause. At the end of the evening, there was a call for one more cheer in honour of Stalin. Solzhenitsyn writes, “For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued”.

Who would be the first to stop clapping? Nobody dared – there were guards from the NKVD all around the room keeping an eye out for those who might not be “real” supporters. Thus the applause continued. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say, “It was becoming insufferably silly, even to those who really adored Stalin”. The applause went on, continuing for six, seven, eight minutes. “They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks”.

The author mentions the director of a local paper factory who was an independent and strong-minded man – while aware of the falsity and impossibility of the situation, he kept on applauding. Eventually, after eleven minutes, this man stopped applauding and sat down. Where did the seemingly universal enthusiasm go? Everyone sat down – “They had been saved”! The factory director was arrested and interrogated. Solzhenitsyn concludes his account with these few sentences:

“They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:‘Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding’.”


This short account captures perfectly the fear and sense of terror which gripped the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s totalitarian regime.


Fear of speaking out openly


Although some readers might think it a bit sensationalist to make this comparison, it is my contention that the seminarians in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, are the ones who are being forced to applaud without ceasing. We have heard controversy after controversy, year after year – lax theology, lax morality, lax priestly formation – yet why will no seminarian, for example, go on record to state publicly what is going on?


As has been pointed out elsewhere – most recently, perhaps, by David Quinn in last week’s edition of The Irish Catholic – all the claims being made about the state of priestly formation in Maynooth seminary have been made anonymously. Yet, is anyone really surprised? Such is the state of affairs that seminarians are afraid speak openly about what is happening. Claims recently that a seminarian who spoke of the existence of a homosexual sub-culture among some seminarians was suspended from seminary illustrate why this fear exists: the “whistle-blower” was suspended.


Last year, seminarians who had issues with members of the theology faculty who reportedly denied the Real Presence or who had issues with seminarians kneeling at the consecration of the Mass, were the ones who were sanctioned. Indeed, the President of St. Patrick’s College, Monsignor Hugh Connolly, had the “last word” on the latter matter when he dismissed the claims in The Irish Catholic last June. Nothing more was heard about the matter…until, of course, this most recent controversy emerged a few weeks ago. Almost convincingly, Monsignor Connolly once again refuted the claims by stating that concerns were “robustly” dealt with.


So, is that it? Case closed? 


We are seeing the same pattern year after year: there is a fresh controversy, which the rector attempts to refute, and no more is said on the issue for another year. The emerging controversies are like the director of the paper factory who decided that it was time to end the falsehood and stop clapping. 


It is really quite simple: one of the prime reasons why these stories about our national seminary, which have cropped up year after year, are so quickly dismissed is that there exists a culture of fear among seminarians. This fear, I believe, extends to several newly-ordained priests who have passed through Maynooth seminary, having experienced its serious shortcomings, but who do not feel that they can go “on the record” to speak out against these shortcomings.


For example, if a seminarian who genuinely feels called to the priesthood were to speak out against a homosexual sub-culture in the seminary which resulted in his expulsion, he would likely be afraid that going “on the record” would jeopardise his chances of being allowed to continue his priestly formation. If a newly-ordained priest were to go “on the record” and speak publicly about the scandal of Maynooth seminary, he might fear that his bishop – who may be a trustee of the seminary – would send him to the most isolated parish in the diocese.


Seminarians forced to suffer in silence


The sad and most regrettable fact in all of this is that because the ones who have had the power to eradicate the filth which has pervaded Maynooth seminary for decades – our bishops – have reneged on their duty, burying their heads in the sand, and refusing to listen to the cries and pleas of their seminarians, the seminarians have been forced to suffer in silence. If our seminarians could have confidence that their bishops would listen to them and take genuine steps to ensure a thorough Catholic formation for them, this culture of fear would not exist. Sadly, the situation last year, where six seminarians received negative reports from the seminary for being “theologically rigid” proves this point. Only three of those six seminarians returned to seminary.


Where was the protest from the bishops of these other three men? These “theologically rigid” seminarians who decided to stop clapping – they refused to applaud the “Gulag Archipelago” which is Maynooth seminary. Like the director of the paper factory in Solzhenitsyn’s account, they were the ones who were punished, not the ones who were binding them in a tyranny of distortion of the truths of the Catholic religion. We should bear in mind that, when the Church in this country was reeling from revelations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, one of the central points which was made was the pain which was caused to the abuse victims who were not listened to and who were not believed – why are our bishops not listening to their seminarians? Why do they not believe their seminarians?


This, dear readers, is the fundamental reason why more seminarians are not speaking out and why those who do speak out do so anonymously and “off the record”. Because they cannot have confidence that they can make a complaint without running the risk of being expelled, or because they cannot have confidence that a bishop will plead their cause, they are forced to applaud, and applaud, and applaud, a system which is in the most deplorable state of decay.


What will be the legacy of the Irish Bishops?


As a final thought, Pope Pius XI, in his great encyclical on priesthood, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, tells bishops that the seminary should be the apple of their eye and the chief object of their solicitude (par.66). This ideal has not been superseded by any subsequent document! When bishops knowingly allow their seminarians to live and be formed in a seminary wherein faulty theology, a homosexual sub-culture, and un-Catholic formation are allowed to thrive, the seminary cannot be said to be the “chief object of their solicitude”. Regarding those whom bishops should choose to govern the seminary, Pius XI says:


Let them be such as teach priestly virtues, rather by example than by words, men who are capable of imparting, together with learning, a solid, manly and apostolic spirit. Make piety, purity, discipline and study flourish in the seminary”.


Can our bishops say that this has been their vision for Maynooth seminary for the past number of decades? What will the legacy of the current Irish Bishops’ Conference be? Will it be a truly Catholic seminary which operates according to the mind of the Church and which is truly the apple of their eye, as Pope Pius XI exhorts, or will it be merely one more sad chapter in The Gulag Archipelago?