I am conscious as I write these words that I have no idea, nor can I even imagine what it must have been like for a young girl in Ireland to have become pregnant outside of marriage just a few decades ago. So many were abandoned by their families, their communities, their parishes, their priests, their Church, and the men who were responsible for their pregnancy. The loneliness, the shame, the fear, the angst, the sheer terror is beyond my comprehension. The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes Report goes to three thousand pages. It would be impossible for me to cover all the issues it raises. However, the general tenor that emerges within its pages is of a society that was cold and uncaring. We could all too easily blame “society,” but as a member of the Church, and a leader in that Church, I face the difficult reality that it was a society which was deeply influenced by the Catholic Church.
In their apology, the Bon Secours Sisters, who ran the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, stated that they “did not live up to their Christianity.” It seems that so many during that period of Irish life “did not live up to their Christianity,” even though we were a nation that prided ourselves on being a good Catholic country. It seems that we may have been good Catholics, but we were not such good Christians. The question has been asked: “How could this happen?” How could we be so cold, so cruel to our daughters, our sisters, our friends, our neighbours? One explanation was that the Church had a distorted view of sexuality that seemed obsessive. Instead of seeing sexuality as a beautiful, sacred gift, created by a loving God, it was considered something secretive and taboo, something not to be talked about. Anyone, who through human nature, was viewed to have made a mistake, was shunned. Sins of a sexual nature seemed to be the only sins one could commit, there was little focus on other immoral issues such as domestic abuse or fraud. There is no doubt, and it is truly shameful, that the Church during this time lost its focus, which should always be Christ. When the Church fails to focus on Christ, all sorts of distorted practices emerge. It seems that one of those distorted practices was exercising an unhealthy power over people’s lives, especially in the most intimate areas of life.
Unfortunately, we cannot change the past, but we can learn from it. This, perhaps, is where we can draw some hope. The Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, stated that; “we should not lose sight of the more hopeful story that is told in the Commission’s report as well. It tells the story of a country that has changed and progressed, that got better, kinder and more compassionate, more loving, less judgmental and less misogynistic as the years passed.” I believe this is generally true, but in my own ministry over the years, I have come across many people who lament the direction our country has taken. They feel it has become far more secular, with fewer numbers attending Mass and they believe there is an agenda to rid society of the influence of the Church. In the light of the Mother and Baby Homes report and the numerous reports that preceded it, is it any wonder people would want to rid the country of the Church that is portrayed? I believe there is a more hopeful message in there for the Church too. The publication of so many painful reports has exposed us to the truth. Jesus Christ tells us; “The truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32). It is important to acknowledge that it was the “secular” world that has called the Church to account and made us face the truth. Surely this is a good thing and God has to be at work in it?
In my experience the Church has become a more humble, more compassionate community today. It no longer holds an unhealthy, powerful grasp on society. The Church has its teaching, a teaching that is inspired and revealed by Christ, an ideal that followers of Christ aspire to but do not always attain. It is a teaching that is proposed, not imposed. It is also important to state that so many people in parishes, priests, sisters, members of parish pastoral councils, and numerous others reach out and serve the needs of so many in such generous ways in communities right across the country today. Their work is critical to the lives of so many people and is to be commended. Our position as Church was never to be at the centre of society in, as Pope Francis puts it, a “self-reverential” manner. I believe this is a moment of fundamental call and challenge to those of us who hold the Church close to our hearts. There are justifiable concerns and fears about the future, but we must remember that the Church is not dying, it is a model of Church that is dying. The dying process is painful, but the potential for new life always gives hope. This is Christ’s Church, not ours, he is in charge, “we are ministers, not messiahs” as St. Oscar Romero reminds us.
It is hugely positive that the real-life stories, the experience, and the pain of so many has now been heard through this report. The State has apologised, as have religious orders who were responsible. I too, as a Church leader, wish to apologise to all those who were treated in such an undignified and demeaning manner. However, as has been said many times, apologies can be easy, action is more challenging. I hope and pray that those who wish to find their true identity that might bring the peace they are searching for, can be given the means to do so.
As I conclude, there is one concern I wish to raise. I heard several politicians making statements this week about our past and how the poor treatment of women and children must never happen again. Related to this, over the past few years when I worked in parish, I was in regular contact with people in a Direct Provision Centre. I saw how women and children and others, were cramped into tight living spaces, lacking basic human dignity. I have been thinking about them these days. As we have been told, we cannot change the past, but we can change the present. I urge those in power, in the light of the Mother and Baby Homes Report, to focus on improving the living conditions of those in our Direct Provision Centres. I would imagine this real action to improve the lives of mothers and children today, would be a fitting tribute to those who suffered in Mother and Baby Homes in the past.
Bishop of Achonry.
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