The Vatican announced on Nov. 12 that the Apostolic Visitation of the Irish Church has begun, following the directives in Pope Benedict XVI's pastoral letter to Irish Catholics.
The visitation will follow up on concerns about the Irish hierarchy's handling of abuse cases, in addition to surveying seminaries and religious orders to discover ways to renew them.
Two government inquiries produced alarming reports in 2009, detailing sexual and other physical abuse in the Irish church, as well as Church authorities' efforts to keep the incidents secret. Irish bishops met with Pope Benedict in February after the findings came to light.
Three groups of apostolic visitors, appointed by Pope Benedict, will now survey the Irish Church, with one group visiting the four metropolitan archdioceses, another the Irish seminaries, and a third the houses of religious life.
A team of four cardinals and archbishops –Cardinals Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and Sean O'Malley, and Archbishops Thomas Collins and Terence Prendergast S.J. – will visit the four metropolitan archdioceses of Ireland to meet with clergy and archdiocesan staff as well as the lay faithful and other concerned individuals.
Their meetings will directly address the problem of sexual abuse that prompted the Pope's letter to Irish Catholics, along with charges that Irish bishops acted to conceal cases of abuse against disclosure or prosecution.
While the visitation will not assume responsibility for handling individual cases of abuse, the visiting prelates and their assistants will make themselves available to meet with victims and their families. They will also look to see how effectively the Irish Church's 2009 guidelines for child protection have been implemented, and what areas need improvement.
The Vatican guidelines recommended that the four archdioceses schedule penitential services coinciding with the dates of their visitation. The Irish bishops have already announced a campaign of prayer, fasting and charity, acknowledging the failure of many in leadership positions.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York will visit Irish seminaries, along with a team of priests who will interview individual seminarians.
The priesthood has suffered in Ireland not only from revelations of abuse by priests, but also from a sharp drop-off in vocations which are only gradually beginning to return. A 2008 report in the Times of London noted that 160 priests died in 2007, while only nine were ordained.
Archbishop Dolan will visit St. Patrick's College, the only major seminary in the Republic of Ireland, as well as St. Malachy's College in Belfast and three other institutions that provide theological training for priests. His interviews will focus on the vision and process of priestly formation.
Two religious sisters and two priests will visit the institutions of religious life in Ireland, also seeking a solution for the vocations crisis and answers about how sex abuse cases were handled. Like the archdiocesan visitation, the first phase of the inquiry for religious life will focus on past sexual abuse and implementation of the child protection guidelines.
Irish consecrated men and women will also be asked to reflect upon how they can best fulfill their calling as witnesses to the faith. Once known throughout the Western world, Irish monasteries now attract few vocations. In 2007, 228 nuns died, while only two made their final vows.
Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican press office, announced that the apostolic visitors had begun arriving and taking up their work on Nov. 11, with the goal of concluding their inquiries by Easter 2011. After a study of the visitation's findings next May, the Holy See will announce further plans for the “spiritual renewal” of the Irish Church.