Healing a broken church


A new ‘Irish Times’ series begins today. Next week, Ireland hosts the 50th Eucharistic Congress of the Catholic Church. More than 80 per cent of Irish people still call themselves Catholic, but the church is out of touch and divided. Can it be repaired?

THE IRISH CATHOLIC Church is a house divided, and the events of just the past few months have demonstrated the depth of those divisions. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has acknowledged it, speaking of “unhealthy divisions within the church”. On May 6th at St Francis Xavier Church on Gardiner Street in Dublin, the archbishop said he was “saddened by some of the polemics taking place in the church today”.

He was saddened too “by some comments made in the public arena about Pope Benedict, as if all he did as pope was somehow suppressing the truth”. What was needed in the church was “not discontent but hope”, he said.

He was at the Mass to launch “a simple prayer book to help prepare for the forthcoming 50th International Eucharistic Congress”, which begins in Dublin next weekend.

The archbishop was speaking against a background of outrage after disclosures in April about Irish priests recently censured by the Vatican. Fr Tony Flannery, Fr Gerard Moloney, Fr Seán Fagan, Fr Owen O’Sullivan and Fr Brian D’Arcy had been rebuked for questioning church teaching on contraception, mandatory celibacy, women priests and homosexuality.

During the controversy, Fr Adrian Egan, rector of the Redemptorist community in Limerick, had compared being a priest with liberal views in the Catholic Church today to living in the US during the Hoover era. He said: “There are people sitting in churches on a daily basis that are almost listening to hear you express an opinion that might be seen as dissenting, and they will report you [to Rome].”

Dr John Murray, a lecturer in moral theology at the Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin, expressed a different view. He “broadly agreed that the church has a responsibility as well as a right, especially where priests and theologians were concerned”, to ensure “they truly believed in the faith and communicated it well”.

The theologian and Augustinian priest Fr Gabriel Daly spoke of “an ominous division” in the church. “One party is now in control and is presenting its views as ‘the teaching of the church’,” while “its more voluble members dismiss those who differ from it as ‘à la carte Catholics’ – a witless enough phrase in a legitimately diverse church”.

The censured priests attracted public support. A silent vigil was held outside the nunciature in Dublin to protest against the Vatican’s treatment of the priests.

Among the 200 people who took part was Sr Siobhán Ní Mhaoilmhichil, who has been a member of the Dominican order for almost 50 years. She was angered by the way the priests had been treated. “These are all good theologians who have worked for the church for many years, and we are here to show our solidarity with them,” she said.

But in the Irish Catholic Church today, a fresh controversy is seldom far away. On May 2nd the BBC broadcast The Shame of the Catholic Church. The programme showed that, in 1975, the Catholic primate, Cardinal Seán Brady, who was then Fr John Brady, had been given the names and addresses of six children who were abused by Fr Brendan Smyth but that this information was not passed to parents of the children or to the Garda.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and leaders of all the major parties asked whether it was tenable for the cardinal to continue as primate of all Ireland. The former professor of moral theology at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, the Rev Dr Vincent Twomey, openly said the cardinal should resign.

Addressing the controversy at St Francis Xavier Church, Archbishop Martin told the media that he believed “until all of this story in its entirety comes out, we are not doing justice to those who were abused and we’re not really getting at the truth”. He suggested “an independent commission of investigation into the activities of Brendan Smyth”.

He refused to call for Cardinal Brady’s resignation, saying: “I’ve never called for anybody’s resignation . . . Everybody has to make their own decisions.”

Many within the church are are now openly questioning its leadership. The day after the archbishop spoke, the Association of Catholic Priests held a meeting that was attended by more than 1,000 lay Catholics, priests and nuns. The association was founded in 2010 to promote dialogue on matters arising from the Second Vatican Council and, more immediately, out of concern about how priests falsely accused of child abuse were being dealt with by their bishops.

Last Wednesday night, about 200 people met at All Hallows College in north Dublin to discuss the formation of a group to represent lay people interested in generating reform within the church. Noel McCann, who organised the meeting, said those attending were practising Catholics who were “frustrated by their exclusion from any form of dialogue or input to what happens”.

The Irish Catholic Church is certainly divided. But perhaps more worrying for those who care about the church is how few of those who call themselves Catholic heed its teachings.

Most Irish people still adhere to a Catholic identity. In last year’s census, 84 per cent ticked the Roman Catholic box. But they attend Mass less regularly. They prefer pilgrimages, pattern days and missions or retreats when it comes to practising their faith. And they have a less formal attitude to marriage, with many couples choosing to cohabit.

A survey of Irish Catholics by Amárach Research in February found that church teachings on sexuality had “no relevance” for 75 per cent of them or their families. It found that 87 per cent of Catholics believe priests should be allowed to marry and that 77 per cent believe there should be women priests.

In 1970 Ireland had almost 4,000 diocesan priests. Today that figure is 2,160, with 687 others retired, ill, on study leave or working elsewhere. Their average age is 64. In 1970 164 men entered Irish seminaries. Last year the figure was 22.

The Amárach survey also found weekly Mass attendance in Ireland was 35 per cent. Last December Archbishop Martin disclosed that weekly Mass attendance in Dublin is down to 14 per cent and said that within eight years just 235 priests will be available to serve full time in Dublin’s 199 parishes. Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese was facing its biggest crisis since Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the archbishop said.

The first Mass in St Francis Xavier Church in Dublin took place just shortly after that, in May 1832. It has seen much: the church’s persecution and penury in those years, its subsequent power and wealth, and its recent decline and disgrace.

THE IRISH CATHOLICChurch dominated the State for much of its 90-year existence and has been a powerful influence on the island for more than 150 years. It played essential roles in rebuilding the Catholic Church in Britain and in establishing it in the US, Canada and Australia, and it became a big influence in Africa.

One of the key architects of the post-Famine Irish Catholic Church was Paul Cullen, Catholic primate and archbishop of Armagh and, later, Dublin. He oversaw the huge expansion of church primary and secondary schools, set about establishing a Catholic university, supervised an enormous programme of church building, and encouraged Irish religious congregations to involve themselves in education and healthcare. By the time of Cardinal Cullen’s death, in 1878, Irish Catholicism was a powerful force.

After independence the influence of “the church that Paul built” grew. The 1932 Eucharistic Congress saw a coming out of the Irish Catholic Church in all its unfettered triumphalism, free at last to express itself without inhibition. That consummation between church and State brought forth the 1937 Constitution, which defined what was, de facto, a Catholic state for a Catholic people.

Although emigration and poverty continued to dominate Irish life, the church prospered. By the 1960s Ireland was producing so many priests and nuns that between a third and half of them were being sent on the missions.

Now, in terms of influence and personnel, the church that Cullen built is a shadow of its former self, and many Irish Catholics seem to have reverted to a pre-Famine religion. The church itself is a house divided. And, as Matthew’s Gospel quotes Jesus, “no city or house divided against itself will stand”.

So can the upcoming International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin do anything to heal the ailing institution in Ireland?

The first congress was held in 1881 at Lille in France. The purpose is to celebrate the Eucharist, the central Roman Catholic tenet that holds that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ at consecration in the Mass. Initially it was held annually, but since 1960 it has taken place every four years, and it frequently coincides with a major anniversary in the host city.

The 31st congress in Ireland in 1932 marked the 1,500th anniversary of St Patrick’s arrival on this island. This year’s 50th congress marks the 80th anniversary of the last one in Ireland, and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. It begins at the RDS tomorrow week and continues until June 17th.

In his sermon at that Mass in St Francis Xavier Church, Archbishop Martin said the congress would be “an important moment to encourage renewal and unity in the Church.” It would be “a forward-looking event. It sets out to showcase, in a modest and not in a triumphalistic way, what is good and active in the Catholic Church in Ireland today and where renewal is taking place”. Rarely in modern times has such a positive showcase been more necessary.

Catholicism Now

Continues next week in The Irish Times

MondayThe role of the modern Irish priest and how it has changed since the last Eucharistic Congress

TuesdayHow Catholic are you? The results of an Irish Times survey of current Irish Catholic beliefs and practices

WednesdayWealth and power: How much does the church own, and how influential is it?

ThursdayWho are the movers and shakers, here and in Rome, of the Irish Catholic Church?

FridayWhat will the Irish Catholic Church look like in 20 years?

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