President’s fond farewell

November 9, 2010 in General, News

uachtaran_01At the Conferring ceremony of the Milltown Institute  on 20 October, when they called for the address by the Valedictorian, what stepped up to the podium was not your typically bright and nervous student facing a big public audience for the first time, but rather the best known figure in the country, and one of its most engaging talkers, President Mary McAleese. She had serious things to say, however lightly she put them. She had opted to study Canon Law, “the institutional legal architecture of the Catholic Church”,  when many of her clerical friends were shying away from it; and she chose as her thesis the hot issue of Collegiality in the Code. AMDG Express is grateful to be able to print her speech.


Valedictorian Address

President Mary McAleese

A little over three years ago I noticed an advert in “The Tablet” for a summer school in Canon Law at Milltown Institute. The Director was to be Dr Elizabeth Cotter. I knew she was good – for the last time I had met her some years before she was my two daughters’ school principal. Having sorted them out, Elizabeth gave up teaching and became a Canon Lawyer. Since then, I have cherished the hope that the correlation between the experience of teaching my children and Elizabeth’s decision to go to Ottawa to take on the Licentiate and Doctorate in Canon Law was purely coincidental. A few people in Ireland may have had similar qualifications but none had done what Elizabeth was now doing – offering in our capital city, to anyone, lay or clerical, the chance to become literate in Canon Law, the institutional legal architecture of the Catholic Church.

I signed up with great enthusiasm and then made the mistake of telling family and a few friends what I was planning. The family, knowing nothing at all about Canon Law, thought it was a far better bet for them than my previous summer school studies of the Bodhran and the tin whistle. Martin was thrilled it was not yet another summer school of set dancing in which he would be a reluctant conscript and possibly, even probably, the only man. I had anticipated family scepticism but was surprised by the cool reaction of my clerical friends who by definition could have been expected to have some knowledge of the subject. Not a single one said anything vaguely encouraging about the study of Canon Law. Almost all claimed to have awful memories of their own introduction to the subject. Indeed, the Report of the Dublin Archdiocese Commission of Investigation, known as the Murphy Report, bore out their views. It stated that “The Commission heard evidence from Canon Law experts that the status of Canon Law as an instrument of Church governance declined hugely during Vatican II and in the decades immediately after it.” It also noted that “since the 1960s, Canon Law itself has been in a state of flux and considerable confusion, making it difficult even for experts to know what the law is or where it is to be found.”

The lack of enthusiasm therefore among my clerical friends was far from groundless but then they never had the experience of being taught by Elizabeth, or Fr. Frank Morrissey or the thoughtful team who gently guided those of us who signed up for that first summer school. They had a fresh vision for the potential of Canon Law to be an agent of change. It says something about that team, the Milltown student experience and the subject matter itself that many of us signed on at the end of that week to take on the part-time Higher Diploma in Canon Law.

Those Tuesday evening classes here brought us deeper into Milltown’s charism of care for its students. We mastered moodle; came to love the Library with its wonderful resources, not least of which is its ever helpful staff; piled on the calories in the pleasant meeting ground and melting pot that is the Refectory; met up with chatty saints and scholars in classrooms and corridors; and felt so comfortable and supported that committing to the MA by Research seemed a feasible and sensible progression. We knew by then, from experience, that the supervision would be relentless but benign. We knew we could count on access to whatever help we needed and no matter how busy the people we approached, time would be made for us. If ever a group of students had a truly collegial experience then we did. Ironically, my thesis was on the subject of Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law.

I know there is an expectation that a valedictorian will say something about the subject of his or her own research, suffice to say that by the time the 50,000 words of my thesis were written and End Note had made fritters of my brain, I understood the complex constitutional framework of the Church and the Conciliar concepts of ‘communio’ and ‘collegiality’ with a considerably enhanced clarity. More than that, I had come to know the works of so many fascinating writers – among them that wise old man of Canon Law, the great Jesuit and theologian Ladislas Orsy, who has made the academic critique and development of collegiality and communio within the Church his life’s work.
Unknown to Fr. Orsy, he too became one of my teachers and his recent book “Receiving the Council” asserts a view which has considerable implications for the teaching and practice of Canon Law in Ireland. He points out that the fulfillment of Conciliar expectations “can only come from those invested with apostolic authority…. This power, however, by its very nature demands the learning and expertise that canon lawyers have. Under the impact of Vatican Council II a new movement has emerged in the community of canon lawyers, a movement that is best described as a process of intellectual conversion, metanoia. This movement is bringing new questions and produces new responses in fulfilling the Spirit’s intentions.”

Dr Elizabeth Cotter with the help of Milltown has endeavoured to make Ireland a locus of serious discourse on Canon Law through widening the community of men and women credibly educated in the subject matter. However, with the future of Milltown’s Canon Law courses “yet to be determined” the fact that no other opportunity for formal study of Canon Law now exists in Ireland is much more than a merely a pity. I am very grateful for the opportunity the Milltown Institute offered me. I am indebted to my supervisor Dr. Elizabeth Cotter, to those including Milltown staff and fellow students who critiqued my work along the way and to those who so carefully examined my thesis. To all those at Milltown who helped each one of us arrive on this platform today, on behalf of the graduating class of 2010, I say a resounding thank you and I wish you well as you plan a new future for Milltown Institute.