Breda O’Brien: A timid religion will die fast

Pope’s visit must energise Catholicism into a courageous, counter-cultural force

The news reports when Pope Francis comes to Ireland in August will be utterly predictable. There will be the "nothing like 1979" articles written by people who were using dial telephones in 1979 but somehow find it odd that things have changed in other ways since then.

There will be serious attempts to find the people who only came to gawp, because that never happens when other world leaders arrive in Ireland, does it? And of course, the Government never footed the security bill for Obama or the Queen.

And if the media can find someone who loses her virginity during the pope’s visit, as David McWilliams famously declared happened in 1979 behind the pope’s tent in Galway to the daughter of a “Holy Joe” neighbour of his, the joy will be unrestrained.

There will be lots of pieces by people who ostentatiously flaunt the fact that they outgrew religious dogma at 18, as this is the perfect qualification for them to tell Catholics how their church should run its internal affairs.


But my favourite will be the opinion pieces declaring that the cost of the visit should have been spent instead on the poor, unconsciously echoing a grand tradition started by Judas. (Try the Gospel of John, Chapter six, if you are unclear about the reference.)

The pope's visit will just be a media circus unless it causes people to realise that there is a cost to being a Christian

St Vincent de Paul alone spends double the amount the visit will cost on the poor every single year but as everyone knows, Catholics are only interested in the unborn and never, ever help single parents or the homeless.

People manage to hold this view while simultaneously lauding Brother Kevin and the Capuchin Day Centre that Pope Francis hopes to visit. But again a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as the high priest of individualism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, declared.

Media circus

It is fascinating how everyone is an expert on Catholicism and knows exactly how it should change to become indistinguishable from the general culture, which is such a success at increasing the sum of human happiness.

In reality, the pope’s visit will just be a media circus unless it causes people to realise that there is a cost to being a Christian.

Meeting Christians from all around the world will be good for Irish Catholics, especially those who face real persecution for their beliefs, such as the Christian families from the Nineveh Plain in Iraq who will be sharing their experiences.

As yet, Irish Catholics only have to deal with derision and a kind of casual sectarianism that the cultural elite would find unthinkable in relation to Muslims.

The end of the church's influence will likely intensify cultural trends which allow hyper-capitalism cynically to manipulate us in a simulacrum of real freedom

Several people recently have quoted to me Cardinal Francis George of Chicago's famous words about the future of the church.

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilisation, as the church has done so often in human history.”

In 2012, Cardinal George explained the provenance of his words in one of his regular archdiocesan newspaper columns.

He had been speaking a few years previously to a group of priests and was “trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularisation of our society could bring”.

Someone captured the words on a smartphone and they went viral but were most often quoted without the final sentence, which is perhaps the most important.

Hyper-capitalism vs Utopia

The de-Christianisation of culture is of significance for everyone, particularly in the absence of anything except identity politics to replace it.

There is a naive assumption that the end of the church’s influence will usher in some kind of progressive Utopia. It is likely instead to intensify cultural trends which allow hyper-capitalism cynically to manipulate us in a simulacrum of real freedom.

For example, what should the response be to the Taoiseach declaring that Catholic hospitals will have to carry out abortions? One could once have presumed liberals would be appalled at this intrusion on religious freedom, but no longer.

Nor could one presume the Supreme Court would find in favour of any Catholic institution seeking the right to uphold a Catholic ethos. This trampling of civil rights should prompt serious reflection by everyone.

Hodie mihi cras tibi (today it's me, tomorrow it will be you) is not just an inscription on medieval tombstones. If it is Catholics' religious freedom today, it will be another group's freedom to function tomorrow.

The temptation for Catholics will be to withdraw to a comfortable space where the like-minded can huddle, tolerated only because they are so utterly harmless.

The pope’s visit will only be a success if it can re-energise Christian communities in Ireland and allow them to find the courage to be perceived as counter-cultural or even weird. An assimilated religion too terrified to stand up for what it believes will just die even faster.