Maynooth – a crisis in Spiritual Formation

I Will Give You Shepherds

In March 1992 – almost twenty-five years ago – Pope Saint John Paul II issued his Post-Synodal Exhoration Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds), on the formation of priests. In this document, which has become the point of reference with regard to priestly formation since the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul refers to four areas of priestly formation, namely human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation. While the Pope stated that the work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary formation if it did not include suitable human formation, he made the point that this human formation finds its completion in spiritual formation. This idea certainly makes sense in the context of Christian anthropology, in that man has a capacity for the transcendent – indeed, in the words of St. Augustine, man has a heart which is restless until it rests in the Lord. The very fact that the life of the priest ought to be ordered towards the salvation of souls and the spiritual welfare of the people entrusted to him, means that a rigorous and thorough spiritual formation must lie at the heart of formation of our future priests.

For several years now this newspaper has focused on the deplorable state of affairs in Ireland’s National Seminary, St. Patricks College, Maynooth. We have heard about the various deficiencies in priestly formation, which need not be re-hashed here yet again. This paper has shown beyond question that Maynooth Seminary has been in a deplorable state for several decades, and we have made the point that our bishops need to finally take serious and decisive action precisely because allegations which have been made in recent times are not new. In the previous edition we examined how the bishops of Ireland appear to have turned a blind eye yet again to the difficulties which engulf the seminary, because they have collectively given their support for the seminary and have not initiated any substantial changes. Today we take a closer look at one of the elements of the decay which is ravaging the Seminary currently: namely the spiritual formation, which our beloved Pope Saint John Paul prized so highly.

It must be noted, however, that on the surface, the spiritual life of the seminary appears quite healthy. There is a daily celebration of the Holy Mass – usually referred to as “Eucharist” – and seminarians do pray parts of the Divine Office, particularly Morning and Evening Prayer. In addition to this, there is Eucharistic Adoration several evenings a week, and there is an opportunity to avail of the Sacrament of Confession. Although it has not always been encouraged in Maynooth, it appears that praying the Rosary is now an acceptable practice.

This, of course, is the day to day operation of the seminary – the minimum, one might say, which should be part of a seminarians spiritual life. However, the Irish Bishopsdocument on priestly formation (which is based on Pastores Dabo Vobis), Programme for the Formation of Priests in Irish Seminaries, lays down further norms with regard to spiritual formation. One such norm is number 205, which states that, “Talks, days of recollection, retreats and workshops shall be provided and organised in order to create an overall coherent programme of spiritual formation”. It is clear to me, from talking to seminarians in recent years, that this norm is indeed observed in Maynooth – that is, there are several retreats and days of recollection for seminarians throughout the year. It is understood that the retreat-givers are normally suggested by the spiritual directors and then ratified by the Seminary Council. Most of these retreats, it appears, are rather “harmless”; in other words, they do not particularly challenge seminarians, and they often take the form of the retreat-giver telling some nice stories about their life and ministry. However, in recent years, two particularly controversial priests have been invited to give retreats to seminarians: namely Fr. Timothy Radcliffe O.P. and Fr. Peter McVerry S.J.

Controversial Retreats

In March 2013, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe gave the Holy Week retreat to the seminarians of Maynooth Seminary. Fr. Radcliffe is a Dominican priest and a former Master General of the order. Now, according to my source, the retreat was engaging in many ways and was not notably controversial. He said many good and positive things to the future priests of this country. One point, however, which really stuck out for the seminarian with whom I spoke, was that Fr. Radcliffe pointed out – and rightly – that the first duty of the priest is to speak the truth. On the other hand, readers will understand that some seminarians were rightly perplexed as to how a priest could speak so sincerely about truth and the duty of priests to preach it, any yet hold views which are so seriously opposed to Catholic truth. In light of the recent controversy about the homosexual sub-culture in Maynooth Seminary, it is frightening to think how or why the seminary authorities would have invited Fr. Radcliffe to give a three-day retreat to seminarians when he has explicitly contradicted the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality. For example, Fr. Radcliffe has stated that “gay sexuality” can be “Eucharistic” and “expressive of Christs self-gift”. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that homosexual acts are “contrary to the Natural Law” and cannot be approved under circumstances” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357). In addition to this, Fr. Radcliffe has presided at the infamous “Soho Masses” in London which were “especially welcoming to gay people”. He also claimed that he did so because the Masses were approved by the then-Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy OConnor. Of course there is a discrepancy here – the “Soho Masses” were notorious for promoting the homosexual lifestyle as opposed to leading such persons to the truth about the immorality of their lifestyle. In addition to this, Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, came under pressure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to end these Masses, which he did in early 2013.

Towards the end of 2016, the seminarians of Maynooth Seminary were placed under the spiritual direction of Fr. Peter McVerry S.J. for a three-day retreat. Very few will deny that Fr. McVerry does very good work for the homeless and the socially disadvantaged. However, according to a source in Maynooth Seminary, Fr. McVerry spoke openly about his position on various Church teachings. During one of the retreat conferences, Fr. McVerry reportedly “did not hold back” – significantly, not one of the formation staff was present at that particular input. It appears that his message for that session was that the law (of the Church) is bad and that compassion is good – the reality, of course, is that neither ought to be put in opposition to the other. For example, one position which he reportedly expressed to our future priests was that the law of the Church which states that only baptised males can be ordained to the sacred priesthood is uncompassionate towards women. Needless to say, the law of Christ – which the Church teaches – is not uncompassionate; furthermore, to abandon the law of Christ to suit an ideology is about as uncompassionate as one could get.

The very fact that Fr. McVerry was invited to give a retreat in the first place is unfathomable – regardless of what he said or did not say. Like Fr. Radcliffe, Fr. McVerry has come out publicly against certain Church doctrines. For example, during the so-called marriage equality referendum in 2015, the “Yes Equality” campaign listed Fr. McVerry as one of its supporters – he was one of several priests and religious sisters who publicly called for a yes vote. Ahead of the referendum, he stated that he had received “hate mail” from “right-wing Catholics” telling him that he was going against the Word of God and the teaching of the Church. His response was as follows: “I don’t accept that for a second. Even if one accepts the Churchs position – which I dont – that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, we cant legislate for the moral code of the Catholic Church”. To even refer to the Churchs teaching as merely a “position” is flawed because it implies that morality is merely something upon which one takes a decision – it is a dangerous stance to take as it puts error on a par with truth. Of course the Churchs teaching on homosexuality is not the only teaching that Fr. McVerry believes is up for discussion. In 2012, when a number of priests were “silenced” by the CDF, Fr. McVerry decried the “attempts by Rome to suppress any discussion about issues such as ordination of women and compulsory celibacy”, stating that they were “surely a sign of fear”. Of course this is a worrying trend, particularly with regard to the ordination of women. Everything, for Fr. McVerry, is up for discussion apparently – even that which the Church does not have the authority to change. In the same statement, Fr. McVerry said, “The God of compassion is incompatible with the God of the Law” – rather like what he reportedly said in Maynooth. However, this notion is false, for Our Lord Himself has given the Law. What is more, He submitted Himself to the Law, which He came to fulfil, not abolish (Matt.5:18). For a priest to put the Law of Christ in opposition to compassion simply does not make sense – there can be no contradiction between the two! Yet despite all of this, a priest who openly dissents from Church teaching and who openly supports sinful behaviour – particularly sodomy – was invited to address our seminarians who are supposed to be formed in the truths of the faith.


Pope St. John Paul II rightly says that future priests need to be educated to love the truth – but how can our seminarians be educated to love the truth if they are not taught the truth or if they are being led in retreats by clergy who openly dissent from the truths of our Catholic faith? Once again, people will rightly ask, who is really running the seminary? Who is permitting open dissenters from the Catholic faith to address the seminarians? A major question which needs to be answered is this: do the bishops of this country – particularly the trustees of Maynooth Seminary – know who is giving retreats to the seminarians?

The findings of the Apostolic Visitation, which were released in 2012, stated that there should be a reinforcement of “Episcopal governance over the seminaries”. Are the bishops consulted when the spiritual directors or the formation team draws up the list of retreat-givers for each year? If the answer is “yes”, then faithful Catholics can only shake their heads in disbelief. A faithful bishop, concerned for authentic priestly formation for his seminarians simply cannot in conscience give his consent to dissident clergy giving retreats to his future priests. If the answer is “no”, then faithful Catholics ought rightly ask the question, “Why not?” What excuse could a bishop have not to have his finger “on the pulse” with regard to the spiritual formation being given to his seminarians? It is the duty of our bishops to ensure that seminarians are receiving a sound and authentic Catholic formation. Such a formation does not allow for dissent or heterodoxy, but should strive at all times and in all areas of formation to expose our future priests to the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith. Perhaps to achieve this goal – assuming this is what our bishops want – they could take the advice of the Apostolic Visitation to heart by ensuring that only clergy outstanding in virtue, holiness, fidelity to the Church, and love of the truth, be invited to give retreats in our National Seminary in future.