Papal nuncio faces tough task in mending relations

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

Archbishop Charles Brown does not see his role as leading a reform of the Irish church

US ARCHBISHOP Charles John Brown, the new papal nuncio to Ireland, admits he knows little about Ireland and has “a lot to learn”.

His only experience of this country came via two short holidays in the early 1980s when, while studying theology at Oxford, he took the Holyhead boat to Dublin to visit a US friend and his Irish girlfriend for Christmas.

That short visit, however, left him with a very favourable impression. His friends were living in Roundwood, Co Wicklow, which was not well connected from the public transport viewpoint. Thus the future nuncio, complete with the de rigeur student backpack, set out to hitchike his way to Roundwood.

He recalls that the day was cold, the sky grey and that snow began to fall. He was beginning to think no one would want to pick up a stranger on such a day when a young woman, with a baby in the backseat, pulled up and told him to get in. She drove him practically to his destination.

For Manhattan-born Archbishop Brown, someone whose first parish was that of St Brendan in the Bronx, this was a sharp culture shock: “Can you imagine, what other place in the world would a woman with her little baby stop to pick up a hitchhiker, the beauty of the thing, the generosity . . .”

Even though his mother’s maiden name was Patricia Murphy, and even if one great grandparent was called O’Callaghan, Archbishop Brown has had little contact with Ireland since those Wicklow Christmas days.

However, that experience has left him with a lasting good impression.

Given that he takes up the role of Holy See ambassador at a moment of unprecedented tensions between the Vatican and Ireland, that positive impression may well serve him in good stead.

The “Brown” name, by the way, is not Irish at all, but rather German, as in Braun.

At 52 years old and a thoroughbred middle-class New Yorker who has worked at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1994, Charles Brown is a most atypical choice as nuncio.

Irish Catholics have long since accepted that Rome’s man in Dublin would be a career diplomat, usually Italian, usually on the last mission of a distinguished career and usually flying way below the radar of public opinion. In normal times, most Irish citizens would have difficulty naming the nuncio.

Charles Brown, however, is very different. This time, Rome has sent a savvy, active, relatively young man from the Curia, someone who still travels around Rome every day on a scooter and who looks like he could scamper up Croagh Patrick any time.

Arguably, Archbishop Brown does not have the administrative, diplomatic or pastoral experience that might seem essential for the job of nuncio in a country where many Irish, faithful and not, have an unprecedentedly negative and critical view of the Catholic Church. He is all too aware of the delicate moment but argues that he goes to Ireland “to learn” and “to help”, not to beat the Irish over the head with a heavyweight Vatican crozier.

“Let us not exaggerate. The nuncio is a representative of the Holy See on the ground there. It is not that, in any sense, he is in control of the church in Ireland.

“It is the bishops of Ireland who are in control of the church in Ireland.”

That might well be, but as someone who spent more than 10 years working alongside Pope Benedict at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, most Vatican observers would argue that when he arrives in Ireland at the end of this month, he will arrive with a bona fide seal of approval from the Pope himself.

Over a glass of orange juice in the Hotel Colombo on Via Della Conciliazione earlier this week, Archbishop Brown acknowledged that he clearly has a very good line of communication with the Pope, saying: “I know him , he knows me. I worked with him closely for 10 years, I travelled with him, I worked hard for him. He trusts me, for better or for worse.”

Does this mean that he will be leading a crusade, intended to reform the ailing Irish church and help heal the hurt and injury done by two decades of clerical sex abuse scandals? No way. His mission is another. Right now, he is immersing himself in Irish (clerical) affairs, reading The Irish Timesevery day online and printing out the entire Murphy, Cloyne and Eliot reports, just for starters.

“I have not seen anything yet. I have a steep mountain to climb and I hope to be there helping. As for reforms to the Irish church, I am agnostic about this. I need to study all that material and then talk to the Irish bishops . . . Not to be a broken record, I have a lot to learn, I know this is a society that has changed rapidly . . . that has experienced incredible economic prosperity and then problems, one that has moved from a country of emigration to immigration . . .

“The church was left behind the curve on all of that, the church has to modernise and to find new ways of presenting her message to people in this new context of the materialism and consumerism of a society that is now more similar to other European countries than it was in the 1980s.”

With specific reference to the clerical sex abuse issue, he points out that all his experience at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was working on “doctrinal” issues rather than handling those specific sex abuse cases that come to the congregation.

However, he acknowledges more than a familiarity with the problem, saying: “At the CDF, our section would be part of the larger discussion . . . of the problem of sexual abuse as impacting on faith and morals in any given country. So, on that level, I would like to think that I am up to speed.

“The horrible scandal of clerical sex abuse in a country that epitomises Catholic culture is horrible for everybody because we have learned to hold up Ireland as something special and something great.

“However, Archbishop Martin, for example, has been admirable in the way he has faced the problem . . .

“There is a dynamic in the sex abuse thing that relates to the publicity, the visibility and transparency with which it can be identified and denounced in a particular culture.

“I don’t think that sexual abuse in the church is that much more prevalent in northern cultures than in other cultures, for example in Latin cultures. However it is much less reported and discussed in Latin cultures . . .”

As for the lack of pastoral experience, not only did he work for two years in the parish of St Brendan’s in the Bronx but, more importantly, he points out that for all his 17 years in Rome he has worked regularly with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, not only in Rome but in Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan and Japan.

On the diplomatic and “political” front, how will he fare? He says simply: “I go to Ireland with courage and trust in God. In some senses, this is completely out of the box, I pray to God that I don’t make too many mistakes and do something decent.”


CARDINAL SEÁN Brady, Cardinal Desmond Connell and Ireland’s new ambassador-in-waiting to the Holy See, David Cooney, were at the Vatican yesterday for ordination of the new papal nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown (52).

Mr Cooney, who continues in his senior role in Dublin as the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, welcomed the new nuncio’s appointment at a reception in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “I was delighted to meet Archbishop Brown today to pass on the best wishes of the President and the Government and the Irish people. We’re looking forward to having him in Dublin and he’s looking forward to getting there . . .”

In a typically sumptuous, three-hour long ceremony, set against the background of both Gregorian chant and the Latin carol Adeste Fideles, Pope Benedict XVI ordained two future nuncios, making Msgr Brown the titular Archbishop of Aquileia and making future nuncio to Georgia and Armenia, Msgr Marek Solczynski, the titular Archbishop of Cesarea di Mauritania.

The heavyweight Irish presence yesterday was indicative of just how much importance senior Irish figures attach to the appointment of Archbishop Brown at a moment of unprecedented tensions between the Vatican and Ireland. Normally, the departure of a nuncio for Ireland is marked by little if any pomp and ceremony.

Speaking after the service, Cardinal Brady welcomed the appointment, saying: “I wish him [Archbishop Brown] many blessings in his new ministry. I am confident that he will do excellent work in both forging strong and fruitful diplomatic links between Ireland and the Holy See . . . and in the promotion of renewal of the church in Ireland.”

Also in attendance yesterday were the Bishop of Down and Connor, Noel Treanor, and his auxiliary Bishop, Donal McKeown.