Gerry O'Sullivan: Can a gentle nudge from Vatican rescue Irish church?
The Vatican has finally turned its attention back to Ireland. Preoccupied with the Papal visit to the UK and caught by the summer break, it is only now as early October approaches that the Vatican is ready to begin the Visitation promised by the Pope last March.
The four Irish bishops have been asked to go out and attend the meetings but much of the work on the terms of reference of the Visitation are believed to have been worked out already.
It may well be the case that the meetings will serve to cross the 'T's and dot the 'I's and make sure that the four Irish archbishops are fully informed in order to ensure full compliance.
Most, if not all, of their work will be in secret, which will add to the speculation that Rome is taking a hard line with the Irish bishops in what will be seen as an audit of their stewardship, which has, in all fairness, been found wanting.
However, seasoned Church watchers will know that Visitations are almost always less dramatic than they seem at the start. There will be no upheaval -- this is not a draconian exercise -- and will most likely produce a molehill, not a mountain.
In 2002 a Visitation of US Seminaries was announced in the wake of sex abuse scandals there and that began in 2005. It was predicted that heads would roll -- but five years on it is difficult to point to any major changes that happened. Visitations are often a softer pastoral exercise than imagined.
Few outside of religious life understand the concept of 'fraternal correction'. This is more likely to be the style of approach in the Visitation, helping the Irish Church back onto a better path with a gentle nudge instead of a blunt blow. The Pope has said that he hopes the Visitation will be "an occasion of renewed fervour in the Christian life" and that it may strengthen hope "in Christ our Saviour".
The Visitors themselves are not known as heavy- handed law makers but as pastoral men, and some, such as Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, have had their own problems with abusive clergy. Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley -- a Franciscan -- and Fr Joe Tobin are known as kind, gentle pastors, so it is unlikely that they will want to make things worse.
Next week, the Visitors will sit down with the four Irish archbishops in the Vatican and finalise the format of the Visitation and to whom they will be talking.
It is expected that there will be a wide latitude given to the Visitors -- after all if the bishops here are allowed to choose to whom they speak it would invalidate the purpose of the exercise. It is hoped that lay voices will be listened to in the Dioceses being visited.
The Visitation then is important to Bishops, priests and lay people as a process that will allow the context of the abuse crisis to be examined in more detail than it has been to date. There may well be no big result from it, no 10 point action plan, but it will allow people to have their say.
It is also an opportunity for the Irish bishops to allow their voices to be heard in their individual dioceses and to reflect with their clergy and laity on this process and use it to expunge some of the hurt of the past and slowly, gently point the way forward as the clouds of anger slowly lift.