Lessons for Church in the new Ireland

Cardinal NewmanRecent years have seen a number of events commemorating the activities in Ireland of John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was invited to the country in 1851 by the Irish bishops to assist in the establishment of a Catholic university.

The controversy and opposition that Newman dealt with in those years may seem best forgotten, but might have some insight to offer the current challenges to the Irish Catholic church.

At the time of Newman’s visits, Ireland was in the throes of the ‘Devotional Revolution’. Popular home-based observances, local saints and places, and vernacular prayers were being replaced by church-centred, priest-led Mediterranean practices, as parish missions, novenas, sodalities and regular masses were introduced as the norm of what would become thought of as ‘Irish Catholicism’. The Catholic church in Ireland was gradually brought into the Roman line of Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin. Recent years have tested the Irish church on many fronts and challenge it to re-imagine its place in Irish life.

The 1979 visit of John Paul II to Ireland was a significant moment in Ireland’s religious history. Almost every reference to the event includes a depiction of the pope accompanied by Eamon Casey or Michael Clery. The bishop and the priest were two of the most accessible and popular commentators at the time, but are remembered now less because of their charismatic personalities, than because of later revelations; both had secret relationships and children of which the public knew nothing.

The disclosure of their relationships caused great confusion among supporters of the church and much speculation and derision among others. Many see their departure from the public eye as marking the beginning of a slide for the church in Ireland, a slide that would continue with deepening awareness of sexual scandals, inept management and a failure to recognise the mood of public disquiet. The resignation of the once-popular Bishop Brendan Comiskey in 2002, and the later publication of the results of a government enquiry into the administration of his diocese, deepened the questions about the church and its place in Irish society.

Pope John Paul II in IrelandIronically, the loss of each prominent spokesman left no-one to answer the questions that arose. The media became the forum for discussion and was responsible for forming much of the public attitude. The church became quieter, being at best circumspect, but often ‘unavailable for comment’ as questions multiplied.

Some church figures construed the media atmosphere as being hostile to them. Having become unused to dialogue in the church, they were not disposed to engage in it ‘outside’ where exactly an opposite expectation was growing. No longer among the poorest nations in Europe, an educated and confident public was ready for discussion.

Something in the national psyche was changing as Ireland adapted to being destination for economic migrants. The success of the economy meant that more people arrived in the country than had previously left it in comparable periods. Irish people have found that their views of the world and of themselves have changed, as one person in ten has been born outside of the state.

Roadshine Shrine - IrelandThe economic boom has been enjoyed also, of course, by the locals. Growing numbers live in urban areas or in the ‘rural sprawl’ and infrastructure struggles to cope with the increasing requirements for better hospitals, schools, roads and facilities. It is not only demand that is rising; expectations are getting higher too. As with other public bodies, the church is queried about its standards and values as terms like ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ challenge older ways of working.

Suspicion of prescriptive authority increases with a growing emphasis on personal choice and freedom, but does not imply that people are not amenable to the concerns of religion. Despite the decline in participation in voluntary and community activities, the Irish public responds well to meaningful celebrations and events such as the Special Olympics in 2003 or the welcoming of the new European member states in 2004. Church initiatives have recognised the new stresses brought by modernisation, and have sought to help those affected by high rates of borrowing, inordinate house prices, significant alcohol-abuse and climbing suicide-rates.

Youth culture in IrelandThis may be the crux for the Catholic church in Ireland: how to move from a being a clerical institution to engage with the developing pluralism. The signs are that the time of the clerical church, predicated on hierarchical obedience, is over. That way of being church, which could function well when priests and religious were numerous, seems bemused and mystified by modern Ireland. The mediabrokers of modern valuesoften portray the hierarchy as something of an anachronism, unfit for today’s realities. Members of each group have enjoyed their influence and power and have chosen pronouncement over dialogue. The best way ahead is as unlikely to lie with media-shy bishops as it is with pontificating journalists.

History shows how Irish people have relied on the church in coping with adversity. The ‘official’ church may now choose to follow where the people have led, into an Ireland that is more diverse, urban and secular than ever before.

Bottom photo: Temple Bar, Dublin (credit: David Hewitt)



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up