24 February 2010

Some thoughts on the Catholic Church in Ireland today

Holy Family Church, Aughrim St, Dublin, the parish in which I grew up

It must be very hard for priests in Ireland. I see elderly nuns strolling the streets and it’s clear they have to take the rap. Fr Benedict Groeschel has travelled all over Europe and the only place he was ever verbally abused for his habit was in Ireland. There was a call to the Joe Duffy show a few years ago by an Anglican minister at St Patrick’s or Christchurch (the two Anglican cathedrals in Dublin) complaining that people often mistook him for a priest and that he constantly suffered verbal slurs from Dublin's 'concerned citizens'. 'Irish Catholic' used to be worn as a badge of pride, now it's seen as something to be ashamed of. The Church was slipping before the scandals, but the Revisionist historical movement and the revelations of Bishop Casey had the effect of tarnishing a once venerated institution, and making Catholics feel 'guilty' for all their past.

Given that you do not live in Ireland, and come home intermittently, you'd be better positioned to observe the decline in Irish Catholicism than I am. I'm curious so, if I may ask you, how different do you find modern Ireland from the Ireland of your childhood? Do you like the New Ireland? How is it substantially different? How is it observedly more secular and are you hopeful that the faith will be revitalized in Ireland? If so, how can church leaders advance it? Do you discern a lack of morale among your fellow clergy? Thanks.
18 February 2010 22:05

St Brigid's Church, Blanchardstown, County Dublin, the parish I go home to now. Photo taken in early 1900s.

The above is Shane’s comment on my previous post.

I was born in Dublin in 1943 and entered the Columban seminary in 1961. Among the things I remember from my childhood and which I’m happy are not there anymore is the widespread poverty in Dublin. I didn’t have to be told that not having shoes was extreme poverty. I discovered when I entered the seminary that for my rural classmates it was a form of freedom for children to run barefoot on farms during the summer. I also remember seeing a family of travellers (‘tinkers’, as we called them) living in a small tent near Dublin Airport. I was only seven about then but the memory is still vivid.

Among the things I miss are the packed churches, not only on Sundays, but especially on the weekdays of Lent. The simple fact is that there was far more participation in the Mass in Ireland then than there is now as almost every Catholic went to Mass then, for whatever reason. And I recall the ‘communal cough’ after the Elevation as a far more powerful expression of faith than the perfunctory ‘Christ has died . . .’ that we get now and that seems to be the only acclamation that most people know.

When I celebrate Sunday Mass now in Ireland there are very few young people, including children. But I remember an incident in 2007 in the parish where my brother lives that made me smile. A young Filipino family arrived a little late – not unusual – but they made their way up to the front of the church – rather unusual – and the father was the one carrying their young child. I have a hope that such families will bring new life to the Church in Ireland, though I have a fear that their children will be caught up in the secularism that is so prevalent now.

Today’s Irish papers comment on a report on marriage in the Republic of Ireland between 1986 and 2006. When I was young marriage was a given. I had no idea if all the couples I knew were happily married or not but marriage, between man and woman, was the norm. I knew of the existence of a registry office in Dublin but I never met a couple who had been married there. I find the current situation hard to accept where the word ‘spouse’ seems to be almost a ‘four-letter’ word while the word ‘partner’, in my opinion, has become debased. In some urban parts of the Irish Republic more than half of children are born out of wedlock. The Ryan Report highlights some of the awful consequences of the other extreme that prevailed in Ireland before where many a young unmarried woman and their children were ostracized.

When I went home for a holiday in 2007 I decided to wear my clericals most of the time, something I hadn’t done for years, except when going to the church to celebrate Mass. But everyone at home knew who and what I was. One of the reasons I had stopped wearing my clericals was that I was a target for beggars. This was so even when I was still in the seminary and we wore a black suit and black tie. But I had been recognized a number of times by total strangers as a priest, once travelling on a train from London to Glasgow wearing jeans and a red sweater and on another occasion when I called to the house of someone in Ireland who had never met me and I was wearing a collar and tie.

Among the reasons I decided to wear my clericals was the example of the late Fr Niall O’Brien, whose job as editor of Misyon I took over in 2002 when he was quite ill. He made the decision to wear his clericals at home as a sign of solidarity with priests at home who felt embattled because of the sins of some. Another factor was the increase of Muslims in Ireland, recognizable by their dress. If they could show who they were by the way they dressed why couldn’t I?

Unlike Father Benedict Groeschel, whom I met once, around 1970, while studying near New York City after my ordination, I experienced no hostility but the opposite. A woman, much younger than I am, offered me her seat on a crowded Dublin bus. I declined her offer but we got into a conversation in which I discovered that she was technically homeless and with two pre-adolescent sons. She asked me to remember her recently deceased husband in my Mass the following Sunday and asked me what happens when we die.

I went to a pub with the funeral party after a burial and a man of about 40, who wasn’t part of the party, came over to me, put €10 into my hands and thanked me for wearing my clericals!

On another occasion after a Sunday Mass in which I gave the basics on the Eucharist during my homily, a middle-aged man came to me afterwards and thanked me for doing so as he hadn’t, he said, heard such a homily in a long time. I have experienced something like that from time to time over the years in different countries.

The old-fashioned missioners, who came to our parishes every Lent for a week’s retreat for the women, followed by a week for the men, had a number of jokes that they used to encourage people to go to confession. These were often very effective and helped individuals overcome their fears. The joke was a prelude to a sermon of substance. But I shake my head when I hear a priest using his Sunday homily as an occasion to tell a poor joke badly and forget about the word of God. This is not only an Irish problem.

At times when I go home I feel depressed at what I see as a real loss of faith. Many have formally rejected not only the Catholic Church but Christianity itself. There is a kind of ‘illiteracy’ among so many, though this isn’t new. I remember telling a friend in Dublin who went to Mass every day – she was a woman in her 60s and this was 1962 – that a friend had given me a gift of the New Testament (it was the Knox translation). Her response: ‘What’s the New Testament?’ But today I hear even priests talking about receiving the ‘wine’ at Holy Communion. Fr Brian Darcy CP, who is often criticized as being too critical of the Church, to my delight a couple of years ago, in an interview either on radio or in a newspaper, underlined the fact that we are talking about the Blood of Christ, not ‘wine’.

I attended a Mass in the west of Ireland one Sunday a few years ago. The priest devoted his ‘homily’ to denouncing the bigotry of Ian Paisley, which was of no relevance to the readings of the particular Sunday Mass or to the lives of the people where he was. What came across was the priest’s own narrow mindedness. I was tempted to walk out but didn’t.

Recently I was in contact with Youth 2000 Ireland. I got a reply from one email that boosted me: There is immense hope for the Catholic Church in Ireland, we just don’t hear about it. Young people are thirsting for love and hungry for the truth. The main feedback we get from young people who attend our retreats is ‘I never knew God loved me’ or ‘I’ve realised this weekend that God loves me and I am worthy of His love’.

Another area of hope for me is that the media in Ireland recognise ‘the real thing’ when they see it. The coverage of the kidnapping and homecoming of my Columban colleague, Fr Michael Sinnott is an example of this. Father Sinnott is an exemplary priest. His kidnapping simply brought him to the attention of people. When he visited the Irish parliament after his release Father Sinnott was recognised by a group of girls from a secondary school who were also visiting. They all took out their mobile phones and had their photos taken with him. A few days later he received a box with a Christmas card from each girl in the class. They, clearly, recognised ‘the real thing’.

Another area of hope is the coverage of funerals after tragedies such as road accidents involving young people: the press very often quotes from the homily of the priest. He is still seen to be part of the lives of people in times of pain. That is where we find Jesus most of the time in the gospel.

On the other hand the recent funerals of two former Irish politicians, Tomás Mac Giolla and Justin Keating, were secular ceremonies while last October a memorial service, as distinct from a funeral Mass, was held in a Catholic church for a young officer of the Irish Air Corps who died in a plane crash. He was mourned, not by his wife but by ‘his partner of nine years’. Up to a few years ago the term ‘partner’ was never used in the context of a live-in relationship, which were not the common reality that they are today, and secular funerals were quite exceptional.

A few months ago a well-known sportsman ‘came out’, as they say, in his autobiography. I heard his mother being interviewed on radio. She was asked ‘What if he brings home a boyfriend?’ I couldn’t but feel sorry for her to some degree as she seemed to ‘surrender’ and imply that if that’s what will happen what can she do? I think that some parents of my own parents’ generation were already giving in to their sons or daughters bringing someone home rather than using parental authority, and it seems to be much more widespread now, though I can’t prove that.

The sportsman also indicated, as I recall reading about his book, that he had experienced ‘one night stands’. I find the widespread acceptance of casual sex wrong. It is irresponsible and it is not being discouraged. Graduates of a ‘Catholic’ school in Cork last year put a condom at each place on the table at a post-Leaving Certificate dinner organised by the students.

I think that being a priest in Ireland today is much more difficult than being a priest in the Philippines. I was at a fundraising concert for a home for retired priests in the Diocese of Bacolod, where I live, a few days after the Murphy Report came out. The concert was given by the bishop and priests of the diocese. The hall was packed and there was a rapport between the people and the priest, a kind of rapport that I never really experienced in Ireland. But I felt a heaviness, a sadness, asking myself if what had happened in Ireland, where the Church used to be so powerful, would happen here.

The Catholic Church in Ireland has lost its moral authority. There’s no question about that. But individual Catholics, lay and clerical, who live their faith with conviction carry the kind of personal moral authority that people found so striking in Jesus. And there are a number of articulate, unapologetic post-Vatican II Catholics in Ireland who give me hope, such as Breda O’Brien of The Irish Times, journalist David Quinn, founder of the Iona Institute, and Senator Rónán Mullen.


Dr. Herbert R. said...

Sad indeed. This painful test will someday come to an end. The post Vatican events were really a tragedy. But I have faith in the Lord and we shall see the Church triumphant again. Purified by test, as a bride of Christ being purified for the day of the banquet.

Fr Seán Coyle said...

I don't think that the Vatican Council or even the widespread misinterpretation of that event is the cause of the loss of faith in Ireland. It is clear, for example, from the Ryan Report on the physical and sexual abuse of both boys and girls by religious in institutions in Ireland and the Ferns Report and Dublin Report on the sexual abuse of children by priests, that this goes way back goes way back.

The late 1960s and early 70s were years of turmoil in the Western world. There were student uprisings and the Vietnam War was in full swing. Feminism was beginning to make its mark, for good and for bad. It was a confusing time.

I don't know what would have happened the Catholic Church if the Council hadn't taken place. One liturgical benefit I see is that Catholics have become much more familiar with the Bible, at least those who go to Mass. But there has, without question, been a loss of the sacred in the celebration of the Mass, though I think that it is slowly being reclaimed.

Many, maybe most, of the bishps and priests who led the way in a huge misinterpretation of the Council on the liturgy were men who had been ordained before the Council, men who had celebrated tne Mass in the old way and had grown up with it.

I recently gave a retreat to a group of junior professed Missionaries of Charity from eight or nine countries. They had all grown up with the New Mass and the devotion of the MCs to the Blessed Sacrament is one of their most striking characteristics.

During the eight-day retreat I celebrated Mass a number of times ad orientem, something I hadn't done since the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969. I remember that because I was visiting frends in a rural part of Missouri and celebrated Mass that Sunday in their little parish church where the altar had not yet been 'turned around'.

But there are signs of hope in Ireland and I pray that I will always be aware of them, because they are signs of the Lord's presence, and encourage them insofar as I can.

God bless you

Shane said...

Excellent reply, thank you! Very fair and objective.

Irish Catholicism has shown a great capacity for adaption to the most inclement of circumstances. It will continue to do so.

In 1800 there were only 189 nuns in the country. Mass attendance was less than 30%. John Thomas Troy, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, kept getting mocked by Catholic gangs on the streets, particularly for preaching about hell. There was a massive shortfall in vocations. in Dublin the Catholic beourgeoisie was essentially deist, while there were hardly any vocations. The Englightenment was in full swing. It seemed that the Catholic Church was dying out, and the papacy seemed doomed to oblivion (Henry Grattan used this in his campaign for Catholic Emancipation to persuade sceptical MPs).

There is no reason why the Church cannot now recover.

One thing that needs immeadiately sorting out is the DIRE state of catechetics. Children are inculcated into constructivists pseudo-60 theowaffle. There is no reason why the bishops could not simply reinstate the Penny catechism, or develop a religious education course that actually communicates the doctrines of their faith, rather than subjective 'Jesus loves my pet birds' mush.

God Bless!