The Challenge of Being Catholic in Ireland Today.
By Sue Leonard.
Published in Reality Magazine, July, 2012
Where once the Catholic church in Ireland was strong, today it’s struggling. The abuse scandals; the cover up of those scandals; and reports of divisions in the church, have ensured that it is rarely out of the media spotlight. It’s a challenging time for priests and religious, as they go about their working lives.
But what about lay Catholics? Are those who talk about their faith publicly ever challenged, or ridiculed because of their loyalty to the church? How do they keep the faith?
Ronan Johnson, a musician, musical director, and a presenter with Spirit Radio, says that his struggle was back in the eighties, when he was working for RTE.
“Back then, I was set upon from all sides,” he says. “I’ve never been a tribal Catholic. I’m a Christian first and a Catholic second. My conversion was around the mass and the Eucharist. I went to monasteries on retreats, and experienced a deeply personal expression of God’s love. I’m not good at keeping to the rules, but I am a convinced Catholic.”
Has the media been over zealous on its reportage of the abuse scandals?
“I think media jumped on the abuse scandal, because it represented the abuse of power. I think there’s been a petty abuse of power going on for decades. I think the power play went on across the board. It happened in a small way in parish politics, and on a very large scale with John Charles McQuaid helping to format the constitution of Ireland.
“The abuse of power was so pervasive, that the politicians didn’t feel they could make laws unless they could pull the church with them. And that’s unhealthy for the church. My sense is that a lot of people over the generations were hurt because they’d been damaged growing up in an abusive culture. By and large the media were not out to get at the church. But they jumped on the abuse, as an extreme version of that abuse of power.”
Should the Pope interfere with the writing of Irish Priests?
“I led a community for twenty years, and that gave me an understanding and sympathy for the church’s leadership. I don’t understand the benefit of silencing people. But as I understand it, Father Brian Darcy, whom I admire, was being asked to get someone to read over his article notes. In RTE that happened to me every day. So I don’t find that so weird.
“I have great sympathy with Rome for saying we need to keep the true Christian message out there. But there’s always a temptation, then, for people to go over the top with rules. I think they need to stop that.
“I am a convinced ecumenist. I do a lot of work with other churches and I feel there has been a merging of the Protestant and Catholic churches, and that’s not a bad thing. We can give our best to each other. The protestants have a better culture of good preaching, and they helped us into praise and worship. I’m a convinced Catholic but also a convinced Charismatic.”
Breda O’Brien, a teacher and Columnist says she’s rather fallen into her role as a ‘token Catholic.’
“There are a set of assumptions about what it means to be Catholic. I’m put on the right wing ground, but my views would be more in tune with the social teaching of the church. But nobody wants to hear that.
“I think the abuse was highlighted in the media because the church still matters in Ireland. And it’s more shocking if a priest abuses than if it’s a teacher. But I wish there was more parity. Carl O’Brien can do a piece of research and discover that 200 children have gone missing, and the news disappears in a day.”
As a teacher, she worries terribly about the effect the scandal has had on young people.
“I’m dealing with children from sixth year down who have never known any other church except for the one of sexual abusers. Some of them are still open to religion because their parents are, but most are not, and it’s very difficult. I don’t cope with it well.
“We’re heading towards a minority church, yet we continue to perform mass Holy Communions in the certain knowledge that they won’t be back until their confirmation. And after that they may be back for their marriage. I’d like to see the emphasis gradually move from the school to the parish.
“There are some good parishes where wonderful things are happening. But the problem is that the absolute orthodox Vatican 2, where lay people had their role in parishes has never been fully implemented here. People live in dread of a new priest to come in and kibosh fifteen years of good work. That is extraordinary.
“I have no idea why the Pope has silenced some Irish priests, because the issue wasn’t given due process and has not been shown to be fair. There seems to have been an anonymous complaint and I don’t know how you deal with that. I’m not saying the church doesn’t have a right to silence people, but if it does silence them it can’t be silent about doing so. It has to be transparent.
“Another problem is that the church is lacking in everyday spirituality. So many of my friends are going to Buddhist retreats for meditation because it gives you a way of living your life. You don’t get that from the church anymore. And people won’t be attracted to a religion that doesn’t feed their spirit.”
The journalist John Waters gets vilified for his outpourings on the Catholic Church. But rarely to his face.
“That is the remarkable thing,” he says. “When people meet me they are generally positive. Where I do encounter hostility is on the internet. Almost 100pc of the response to my articles is hostile.”
A fervent Catholic, Waters doesn’t believe that the church is dying.
“Mythology created that theory but it’s not true,” he says. “Though the people who state that want it to become true. There has been a decline, but in my view, less so than is generally described.”
The problem, he feels, is that society is now based on logic. And that excludes mystery and mysticism, and is therefore hostile towards religion.
“Catholics live in this objective reality, and feel discomforted by it. They think they are the problem. They have an attachment to their faith, but feel there is no place for it in the modern world. I tell them their faith is not wrong. It’s the culture that’s screwed.
“The problem,” he feels, “is that Irish culture didn’t explain Catholicism very well. Morality was placed up front. And not Jesus, and the relationship with Jesus from which all the rest should flow. The hope that Christ brought is missing. His victory over death is not conveyed.
“In a sense, Irish Catholicism stops at Good Friday. The darkness of it is persistent. Easter day is more of a secular feast day.”
Waters can understand the Pope’s impatience with priests who discuss the validity of married and women priests. But he thinks these issues are just red herrings in the context of the church’s real crisis.
“Because the crisis the Pope sees, is the crisis of reason, not of celibacy.”
Waters fears for the church’s future.
“If you cut the root of the of the spirit in our culture, which is Christianity through the church, how does the message become transmitted to the next generation? Parents are not aware of what they are depriving their children of. The loss of religion is not the loss of some airy fairy benefit, which makes people potentially more civilised or better behaved; it’s the very spine of our culture which transmits fundamental questions like meaning and hope through the generations.”
Kevin Egan, Director of the MA in Leadership and Pastoral Care at All Hallows, wrote a book, Remaining A Catholic After the Murphy Report to examine the issue.
“I asked myself what exactly had happened in the church; why did it happen, and where could the church go from here.
“People are hurt,” he says. “Some staunch Catholics I know have left the church. One friend paid a direct debit to the church each month and was, almost, a daily mass goer. She’s left the church. Others are holding on by their finger-tips, trying to stay in. But they’re distancing. They’re not attending as often. And they’re distancing themselves from the leadership.”
But it’s not through a lack of faith.
“It’s lack of credibility. The traditional way of looking at credibility, is from the top down. That the Pope appoints Bishops and they pass on faith. But most people see it as a gift from the bottom up to the leadership. And leadership can lose that gift because it can be withdrawn. That’s what the church has to come to terms with.”
As to the Pope silencing Fr Tony Flannery and others, he sees this as the system trying to control by fear.
“It was to make others fearful and to keep fear in the system. And a system controlled by fear is not healthy. The Pope, I feel, should have had a conversation with the people who were worrying him, and should have dealt with it at a local level.
“I would like to see the church act like a healthy family. Where differences are accepted; where people are respected and where they communicate with one another. Catholic means all embracing. To be an all embracing church you have to welcome everybody. It has to be an embracing spiritual home. What happens in a church where clericalism is strong, is that you’re not going to be able to use your voice.
“As a Catholic, my biggest need is for hope. But the crisis of credibility is huge. It’s the greatest crisis facing the church since the reformation. I find it painful. I’m not as proud of being a Roman Catholic as I once was. There’s a level of shame, anger and embarrassment. I’m experiencing this range of emotions, but I’m not at a stage where I feel I have to leave this institution.
“This is what I know. This is where my home is. It’s the spirit that formed me. You don’t leave that because there’s a crisis.”
Kathy Sinnott, Former MEP and Campaigner for people with Disabilities, has always loved her faith.
“I was raised in America, and to me the church was wonderful. There was lovely food on the feast days; and when my mother did a novena she’s make a new dress for the infant of Prague. Catholicism was woven into everything normal and fun. We’d give something up for lent, and the harder it was, the more wonderful Easter was.”
Coming to Ireland in 1970, she felt there was a good community around the church, and a lot of diversity.
“These days I rove around seven churches, depending on the mass time. The difference between the churches is striking. In some there’s a lot going on, and a feeling of brightness, but in other parishes, they just seem to be putting in time.”
With the abuse scandals, does she often have to defend her faith?
“People have challenged me, and I tell them I’m a Catholic because of the Eucharist. I can’t defend a system that was faulty, but to me the church is my friend. It’s Christ.”
Kathy feels that Catholicism is badly taught, but she has hope for the future.
“I think the people who are left in the church are the ones who have a relationship with Christ and who understand the Eucharist. Things like Eucharistic adoration are growing. And you’ll often find someone leading the rosary after a service. That’s the basis under which we have to go forward.
“I don’t think there can be women priests. Because in terms of priesthood Christ is the groom, and the church his bride. Christ could have set it up another way, but he didn’t. I discussed it with a Priest who was a convert from the Anglican church recently, and he said when the Anglican church introduced women priests it just wasn’t the church. So he looked for a church which Christ instituted and turned to Catholicism.
“The papal nuncio is another sign of hope. I figure he probably enjoys his faith, and so many bishops seems so defeated. As to his silencing priests, I feel that’s all about orthodoxy. People can believe what they like, but the church teaches what the church teaches about certain things.
“Everyone is going crazy about the Vatican interfering in Irish church affairs, but the UN is running our policies for children; the IMF and the world bank are running our economic system, so why shouldn’t the Vatican step in when out church is bad? We’re in spiritual receivership. To me, their stepping in is a huge hope.”
Ger Brennan, a Dublin Gaelic Footballer, has had an overall good experience of the church.
“Being Catholic is who I am. It’s normal. It enriches my life and my everyday experience. I always have a sense of God being present. It’s not so much that I am open to God, but through my trials and tribulations, that God is open to me.
“I do get challenged about my faith, and I get into a dialogue, but I know I won’t change anyone’s opinions. Churchgoers often define their faith by how often they go to mass, but that’s not what its about for me. I have lots of faults, and can get caught out in everyday life.
“The church has always given me a sense of belonging. There are so many things going on and I’ve met so many great people through being involved with it. I learned at school to see God in all things, in all we say and do, and being given gifts and talents, and being excellent in all that you do, is part of that. So I do have a sense of God in my sport.”
Does he worry that the church is in crisis?
“I think the church has to move with the times. I don’t see how somebody all the way over in Rome can have any sense of what’s going on here on the ground. I think there needs to be dialogue between those who are frustrated and those in positions of leadership.
“We should step away from the traditional aspects of the church, and concentrate on God is love. That will always hold true.
“There are some great liturgies and good family masses going on. More should be done, though, to attract the 20 to 25 age group. You don’t get people back to mass by forcing them along to be bored out of their brain. We should be providing a service for young people, so that they will want to go. There are some good programs encouraging people back to faith. I’ve been involved with some of them. That should be done instead of throwing people in the deep end.”
©Sue Leonard 2012