Archbishop is only the messenger

 

Desmond Connell keeps the faith. In an Ireland reeling from the cultural shocks of self-scrutinising tribunals and unprecedented economic growth, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin is one of the few citizens to believe not only that there are absolute truths, on which all human conduct must be based, but that those truths are not negotiable.

People are wary of him, and he knows it. "I'm always suspected of the worst," he explains. "It's part of the legacy of history, and I have to live with that."

The shock waves created by his intervention in the current inter-Communion debate have made him - and ecumenism - a talking point everywhere this week. Yet he seems genuinely baffled by the outcry his remarks have provoked. Why punish the messenger? Dr Connell believes that he is simply preaching the gospel.

"The Eucharist is the very life of the church," he explains. "The Second Vatican Council says that it contains the entire spiritual wealth of the church: it is the foundation of our Catholic identity. Taking Communion is an expression of faith - isn't it a pretence (to partake) if you're not buying into what you're doing and if you do not share the faith?"

The outcry started when Dr Connell called it "a sham" for Roman Catholics to take Communion in the Church of Ireland. Mrs McAleese had done so, as have thousands of other ordinary Catholics all over the island. But many more have not, and even within the Roman Catholic liturgy thousands of people in second unions are forbidden to share in its Eucharist. For Dr Connell, Catholic identity is not a lifestyle option: it is a fundamental act of commitment to live in accord with Catholic teaching. Dr Connell's appointment as Archbishop of Dublin nine years ago was widely perceived as a case of `Rome rule' over local preferences.

He was an academic, the Professor of Philosophy at University College Dublin, and a man with little pastoral experience. Immediately, he was characterised as shy, taciturn, and generally out of touch.

"I'm not shy," he says. "I'm not an extrovert, in that I am reflective, but I like people, and I can mix with people without the slightest difficulty. I wish I could get out of this place much more, and move around the people. And by the way, I did not write a dissertation on angels."

The man who had ministered to Carmelite nuns would, as archbishop, face the disinterring and exposure of child sex abuse scandals within the church, as well as the claims of women whose children had been fathered by Catholic priests.

During Dr Connell's tenure, Dublin became a European capital of impressive stature, but hid in its backstreets a network of problems from drug abuse to a ferocious criminal underworld. Nuns and priests increasingly chose to exercise their ministry within the ever-more marginalised sectors of Irish society, and Dr Connell found himself confronted by a society changing so fast that it could hardly keep up with itself.

A series of public tribunals began a process of self-interrogation by the State, but the place of the Catholic Church could not be cross-examined in the same way. As church and State began to separate, Dr Connell's statements became increasingly bullish, as he fought to articulate the rights of the Catholic voice within Irish society.

Inevitably, parallels suggest themselves with his predecessor, Dr John Charles McQuaid, the legendary friend of de Valera and opponent of the 1951 Mother and Child Scheme. Dr McQuaid is widely perceived as the spiritual bad guy of Irish history, and Dr Connell looks set to succeed him, in some camps. Is he the 1990s version of this arch-conservative?

"I am a completely different person, am I not?" Dr Connell actually chuckles at the comparison. Like Dr McQuaid, he is "concerned first and before all about the church and its pastoral welfare, about the faith, the safeguarding of the faith, and the promotion of the faith".

But the comparison stops there, he believes. "He exercised his pastoral ministry much more through control than would someone like myself. He was a remote figure, as far as I was concerned (when I was a young priest). In fact, relations between Archbishop McQuaid and myself were quite cold for quite a while." Yet every time Dr Connell speaks on public affairs, he risks being perceived as the man in the corner with the stick, a blast from the past who is preaching a gospel of denial and attempting to recapture the Catholic Church's moral monopoly on Irish identity and values.

His interventions on the abortion and divorce referendums set him apart from most of his episcopal colleagues - in all the churches. Although convinced that he is not preaching a gospel of denial, he carefully considers the possibility that his ministry may look distorted because of his own outspokenness.

"That's a judgment I have to make, but I would be very worried about evading my responsibility." For him, intervention is a matter of duty, particularly when there is, as he sees it, a move to replace what he calls "the cosy consensus between church and State" with an equally cosy relationship between the State and the media. He does not seem to weight the possible cost to himself.

"There was unanimity between all the political parties and the media on the question of divorce," he argues. "That was followed by the bail referendum, and you had exactly the same position. I spoke on that. I did not say in which direction one should vote, but I did say it was intolerable that a measure of such great importance should be put to law without any proper discussion.

"Is that good for Irish society? Is that good for democracy? I'm a believer in democracy, and I want to support the democratic system of power in this country, but I can see that kind of thing happening so often."

The legacy of the Catholic past sends shivers down many people's spines every time Dr Connell comments on public affairs, summoning memories of Rome rule and of the time when being a good Catholic was an intrinsic requirement of being a good Irish citizen. The prospect is fearful to some of us. But Dr Connell claims to want to move on.

"We have gone beyond all that, and I think the State should also," he asserts. "Early on in the history of this State, there was a moral consensus across the people, and for that reason politicians turned to the (Catholic) bishops to express that - it seemed quite natural. We should try to understand the past rather better than we are doing, and part of the worry I have is that in this constant denigration of the past we are becoming a rootless people. We have to grow out of our past and into our future."

Dr Connell argues that new and transparent structures should be introduced to facilitate the discussion of "matters of common interest" between church and State. There are informal contacts, but he wants things "more transparent". I cannot help wondering if he has been coached to use this word, yet the man sounds sincere.

What he asks for his own church, he expects for others, too, "if they wished it: I'm not asking for something for the Catholic Church alone." But the biggest challenge is that Dr Connell's view of the church differs considerably from that of many practising Catholics: his preaching is based on a theological rationale which can seem to privilege intellectual clarity over the facts of human lives.

THE great intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic Church has yielded such tours de force as, for example, the theory of natural law, on which the present Constitution is founded.

But to many everyday Catholics, the issues which matter are often more down-to-earth, belonging to a messier place described by Sam Beckett as somewhere between the poles of "unrelieved immaculation" and "unrelieved viciousness". For Dr Connell, such a line encourages relativism, and that is why he fights so fiercely on issues which to others seem questions of compassion and common sense.

He mentions the Father Pat Buckley case, where he refused him permission to conduct the funeral Mass of a dead nephew, and then was neatly manoeuvred into refusing to guarantee Father Buckley's mother that her son could conduct her own funeral Mass, when her time was up.

"Some people thought I was preferring the law to compassion, which was the wrong way to put it. So far as I was concerned, Father Pat Buckley was profaning the sacraments because of the way he was celebrating Masses for people who were not in a position to be married in the Catholic Church. He was leading them astray."

Surely people's pastoral needs cannot be ignored? Does the archbishop expect the eucharistically dispossessed to wait for the 200 years or so that it will take to change canon law?

In other words, how can you say `no' and at the same time offer pastoral care to those who need it? "It's difficult, it certainly is difficult, because people very often don't understand."

Why say `no'? "Because you have to say `no'."

But why do you have to? "Because the way they are living is in conflict with the gospel. Compassion is not an absolute, it has to be exercised in conjunction with the truth," Dr Connell speaks sincerely. "Not enough stress is being laid on the Commandments. In recent years we have been frightened off the expounding of the Commandments."

Yet the gospel and the institution of the church, while inter-linked, do not necessarily have identical lives: the question is how the church can guard against serving the institution, more than it does the gospel. Dr Connell quotes from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, where he warns that they be properly disposed in coming to the sacraments, or otherwise "they'll be meting judgment out to themselves."

That is why he opposes individual decisions by Catholics to take Communion in other churches. But can not ordinary Catholics take Communion elsewhere without buying into the belief? Must it always be "a sham"?

"Isn't it a pretence if you're not buying into what you are doing?" Dr Connell replies. "Taking Communion is an act of faith, and if you do not share the faith . . . It was unfortunate that I used the word `sham'. It came out, and I certainly didn't intend it in any way that would be offensive." Is he sorry for the offence he gave to many people, both in the Church of Ireland and in his own church?

"I'm very sorry for the offence. If it will help you can put that in. I blame that offence very much on the way The Irish Times put its headline: "Taking Church of Ireland Communion a sham, says archbishop". That was very bad," Dr Connell's regret is genuine. "I am very sorry that people have been offended. I wouldn't offend people deliberately. I was present in Christ Church, I have been involved in the ecumenical movement."

Dr Connell was one of the first Catholic bishops to attend the consecration of a Church of Ireland bishop, the Bishop of Meath, and he says that he is committed to ecumenism. Yet his powerful need to assert the Catholic faith - a concept which is not interchangeable with church law, but sometimes seems to be - overrides all other considerations, no matter what.

The gulf between his bishopric and everyday practice looks wide, and not only for reasons of semantics. "Sham" is the kind of word Dr Connell probably heard as a boy at the pictures in Drumcondra's Grand Cinema during the 1930s, but this row is not about language. To many Christians there is only one Communion, just as there is only one Christ.

The archbishop is very tired: so strong a sense of duty leaves little time for himself. His confessor keeps him on his toes, reminding him alternately if he is getting too big for his boots, or if he is fitting them too snugly. His love of music cannot be indulged any more, because he simply doesn't have the time. Every day he rises at 6 a.m. and devotes two hours to Mass and private prayer.

"I have to be frank with you, and admit that I'm often so tired I fall asleep, but I arrange my alarm clock to sound every five minutes."

If he could have foreseen all the things that would happen during his stewardship of Dublin, would he have accepted the job as archbishop? His sigh is palpably profound. "How can you answer that? The only reason I said `yes' was that I believed it was the will of God that I should do so."

We are saying goodbye when he tells me one new thing about angels: "When angels talk to each other, they speak in Mozart; but when they talk to God, they speak Bach."