COLUMN: Michael Hand- Incensing the priesthood

During my seven years studying for the priesthood at Maynooth Seminary, there were occasions when the powers that be could have questioned the appropriateness of my suitability. Indeed there were several incidents, had they come to light, the authorities would have had good grounds to expel me. But like Al Capone being caught for tax evasion, my run-in with the authorities came about as a result of something quite harmless to my mind.
During my final year, there was a Third World Week, when issues regarding the plight of people in the most deprived parts of Africa, Asia and South America were highlighted in a series of lectures and workshops. I attended a slide show given by a priest who worked in the Philippines and in the course of that presentation he showed a slide of a prostitute in the gutter followed by a slide of the Eucharist. He kept flashing back from one to the other, and said: “Jesus is equally present in the prostitute in the gutter as he is in the Eucharist.” That insight made a deep impression on me and tied in with my own humanitarian take on Christianity.
A few days later it was my turn to lead a liturgical prayer service that took place once a week where innovation and originality were encouraged alongside a traditional Benediction in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Inspired by the slide show I came up with the idea of putting a Trócaire poster of a poor person alongside the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament. On the poster were the words from scripture: “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty you gave me to drink”. In my homily, I expanded on what the priest had said in the slide show that Jesus was equally present in the poor person represented in the picture as he was in the Blessed Sacrament and to highlight this point I incensed both the Blessed Sacrament and the picture containing the words of scripture. That was a big mistake.
The following Saturday night I was invited to a student party. Clerical students were not supposed to attend parties however I was never very good at obeying rules. By today’s standards, the party was sedate, there wasn’t a bit of cocaine to be seen but in 1980 it was pretty wild. Copious amounts of alcohol was consumed, along with lots of music and dancing. I stumbled back to the Seminary at two in the morning and to gain access I had to climb over a spiked gate on the bridge over the main Dublin to Galway road, not advisable when large quantities of alcohol had been consumed.
During Sunday morning mass the next day I was feeling pretty rough and looking forward to getting back to bed and catch up on some sleep. After mass, the Dean who was responsible for disciplinary matters asked me if I could come to his room as there was an urgent matter that he needed to discuss with me. Immediately I assumed that someone had reported me being at the party, so I headed for his room in fear and trepidation. This was a serious situation for a deacon who had taken a vow of celibacy to be in, two months before his ordination. I was prepared to throw myself at his mercy, confess my musdesmures and plead my case.
“One of the senior priests in the college has taken grave exception to you incensing a picture,” he informed me. “He views it as an act of idolatry and he wants your ordination to be stopped. He has brought the matter to the highest authority in the college and a special disciplinary meeting has been called for Wednesday to decide your fate.” There wasn’t a mention of the party. It was about the liturgical event that to my mind was very tasteful and innovative. I was told to stop all preparations for my ordination which was a bit late as the invitations had already gone out. He said that he would try and make the case for me as best he could as he always knew me to be a model student and beyond reproach. However, the prospects were not good as there was a conservative backlash following the recent visit of Pope John Paul to Ireland and the authorities were determined to root out any signs of radical or liberal thinking.
The next couple of days were difficult as I contemplated seven years of study and dedication going down the drain because of one small incident. While I had my moments of misbehaviour, the Dean was right, I was a dedicated student and had worked hard to follow a vision that I believed in, to serve those on the margins of society as a priest. On the evening before the disciplinary meeting, I went into the church seeking solace and there I saw a large group of my closest friends doing an hour’s vigil on my behalf, it moved me to tears.
The Dean informed me that the meeting had been very heated and that a very hard line had been taken, “they were out for blood” he said. He pleaded my case and a compromise was reached that the matter would be reported in full to my Bishop and it would be up to him whether or not my ordination would go ahead. I was ordered to meet with the Bishop the following week when I would be at home on Easter Holidays and plead my case.
As I left for the meeting, my mother said to me: “If he agrees to your ordination going ahead, ask him to assure you that there will be no comeback on this and that it won’t be held against you. And if he doesn’t give you that assurance, tell him that you will not go ahead with the ordination.” Enlightened thinking from a woman from that generation.
The Bishop gave me a dressing down about my actions and I pleaded guilty and asked for mercy. He said that after giving the matter a lot of consideration he had decided that my ordination should go ahead. I asked for his assurance that this would not be held against me and he gave me his word. He had one demand however, he insisted that I go and apologise to the elderly Dominican priest who had been most offended by my actions.
The following week I nervously made my way to the room of the elderly Dominican and made my apologies. “Gimmickry,” he said to me with great passion, “Gimmicky. You will try one gimmick, then another gimmick and another and you will end up with a woman.” Clearly the ultimate gimmick in his eyes!

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