The Truth About Ireland & the Faith

The Truth About Ireland & the Faith

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Conversations with Dubliners

by Michael Durnan

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The image of Ireland is one of rolling emerald green fields full of sheep and dairy cattle; whitewashed cottages and quaint pubs; charming villages; rustic farms; a wind-and-rain-swept coast and a gentle pace of life. Ireland for some conjures up an image of country that resembles a kind of giant film set for John Ford’s movie, The Quiet Man.

Most Irish people now are town dwellers
Ireland's reality, however, is far removed from this charming, wistful image, because most Irish people now live in cities and towns. In the last twenty-five years, Ireland has undergone dramatic change and has completely re-invented itself. In the 15 years since my first visit to Ireland in 1990, it has been amazing to see how much Dublin has changed.

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New, smart restaurants, bars, shops, cafes are everywhere. Fashionably-dressed Dubliners crowd the sidewalks — affluent, confident, brash, cosmopolitan, and full of the joy of life.

Materialism and consumerism corrodes Irish spiritual life
David McWilliams, an Irish economist and writer tells us that “Ireland has arrived!” and I can only add that it has done so at breath-taking speed. The materialism and consumerism that has enveloped Ireland has, however, had an undeniably corrosive effect on its religious, spiritual and faith life.

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Ireland’s rising prosperity and its expanding middle class, along with other social changes such as artificial contraception has had serious consequences for the nation.

This includes a plummeting birth rate, which in the 1980s dropped from four to two children per mother. The number of children born outside of marriage rose from 5 percent in the early 1980s to 25 percent by 1990, and 33 percent by 2006. In a country of only 4 million souls, this has serious consequences.

Church influence has waned
Fewer young people now attend Mass, and even if they do practise their faith, many pick and choose which of the Church’s teachings they will follow. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been battered and bruised, and the morale of clergy and religious is low, with vocations declining rapidly from their historic high levels.

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Then, in the midst of these profound changes, Ireland was rocked by horrific revelations of abuse of its young people by a minority of its Catholic clergy and religious. What made the situation worse was the conduct of some of the bishops, who were seen as trying to cover up the whole episode and their own role in it, and of silencing the victims.

Whilst the Church in Ireland is facing serious problems, there are signs of hope and renewal.  Mc Williams also writes that there has been a revival of  ‘mystical, symbolic Catholicism.' Over 25% of the population turned out to see the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux in 2006 –a phenomenon which no one had predicted. (Many of the Church's senior officials had been against the idea.) McWilliams suggests that “this single turn out suggested that something was being overlooked by the secular commentariat and it is a yearning to connect”.  He also noted record attendance at The Galway Novena, pilgrimages to Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick — all reversing the downward trend of the 90's. Clergy are also reporting increased attendances to ceremonies from throat blessing to Ash Wednesday after plummeting dramatically in the 1990's.

The Church in Ireland, as in the rest of Europe, has ancient, deep roots, so even if the vine above is pruned severely, the Church will not die out completely. As the Irish-American Catholic Archbishop of New York, Fulton Sheen, once observed — it may be the end of Christendom, but it is not the end of Christianity.

What the Irish faithful will tell you
(Editor's Note: Whilst Regina Magazine has spoken with many Irish people in both country towns and cities, few faithful Catholics were willing to talk about the state of the Faith on the record. This is, frankly, because in an atmosphere of almost daily media and elite attacks on the Church, they fear ridicule and indeed reprisals.)

One veteran Irish priest who works with university students pointed out that that the vocations coming forward to the priesthood and religious life are orthodox young men and women from practicing families who remain loyal to Church teaching.

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“Changing the Church’s image by working on the ground (where she has always been strongest) and continuing the hard work of generations of clergy, religious and laity in areas that actually make a difference to the lives of ordinary people, especially the poor and the sick, this must be a priority. It’s what St. Francis might have called ‘preaching without words.’

Recently a Catholic conference in Ireland, reported in the ‘Irish Catholic,’ heard much talk about the laity being needed to fill in for the falling numbers of clergy. I don’t see that we are yet ready to face the music on contraception and the betrayal of the clergy, religious and laity of tomorrow by the laity of yesterday and today. The Church hierarchy is going to have to face the contraception issue sooner or later. It is not just a matter of adherence to Church teaching but about the survival of the Church in Ireland and of the Nation itself. I can at least hope that that will happen, eventually.”

A Catholic professional woman and mother in her 50s told Regina Magazine that, “we’ve had decades of mismanagement by bishops afraid to stick their heads up over the parapet. Catholics in Ireland had been lulled into complacency about the Faith, confident that their children were being taught their catechism in the Catholic schools when in fact that hasn’t been the case. Most young Catholics today have no idea of what the Faith actually teaches.

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“But the fascinating thing about the Irish is that you'll get someone who calls themselves an atheist coming to you and asking for prayers when their child is diagnosed with cancer. The Faith has a deep root in Ireland.”

An Irish media professional working in London talked about the 2010 Vatican visitation ordered by Pope Benedict XVI in the wake of the terrible revelations of the sexual abuse and cover-ups by Irish bishops. “Just recently the Archbishop of Dublin publicly repudiated the Vatican visitation, saying that they hadn’t been ‘helpful.’ 

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“This is part of an overall dishonest pattern of the Irish hierarchy of playing to the sensibilities of the anti-clerical Irish media and elites and shifting the blame to Rome – when it’s been the Irish hierarchy which has been in fact responsible for this horror.”

And what of the future?

When asked about her experience of the Faith in Ireland, one 20-something woman told Regina Magazine: “The Irish Church is going through a long process of cleansing and renewal, and there is a long way to go yet. Many of the problems that we have now are slowly being eradicated; literally dying out.

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“Young Catholics are not responding to liberalism; only to the undiluted Truth that will inspire them to take up their crosses and follow Christ. This means that young people who are involved with the Church really have faith in the teachings.

It is actually the difficulties in the Church right now that give cause for great hope. The men joining the priesthood are men of real conviction and faith, I think. Similarly with the laity, those without conviction are falling away from the Faith and this means the Church is becoming slowly but surely more authentic.

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“Irish society and the media are quite hostile to the Church now, and when people constantly have to defend their beliefs they are forced to examine why they believe these things. Movements and groups are slowly forming, as Catholics need the support of one another.”

Foreign missionaries tell me that they are impressed by how much Irish people really still believe in the power of prayer. Also, while it’s controversial now for a young person to really agree with the teachings of the Church, few would bat an eyelid if you said you went to Mass each Sunday, it’s not that unusual still.

“Many in Ireland would have a poor opinion of the Church as an institution (of what they term “the Vatican” in particular), but Irish people are very comfortable with Catholicism on the small scale. Many parents are still very happy to have their children in Catholic-run schools and for them to receive the sacraments. The sacraments still frame the lives of many people, even if they are not very involved otherwise. While there are positive signs of the ground here, I also look to countries such as the U.S. for hope. The recovery of the Church there is well ahead of Ireland and is in many ways to be admired. The U.K. is also interesting to keep an eye on, as Catholics there are very much Catholic by choice.”

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“Orthodoxy and a love for the traditional liturgy is really taking root in dioceses under good bishops in both countries and I really hope this is something we can look forward to seeing in Ireland again in the future.”

The so-called “credit crunch”
Having undergone such a dramatic boom and transformation in the last twenty years, the subsequent bust and the following austerity has led to rising unemployment and young people once again emigrating in search of work and a better life.

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Not everyone is living in an American-style Mc Mansion. Many Irish people are struggling. The opportunity is there for the Church to renew both herself and the Irish people by providing spiritual sustenance and practical assistance.

For centuries, observers both friendly and hostile have pointed out that the Catholic Church is at its best when faced with challenges and even hostility. An Irish Church that has suffered damage to her reputation now has the historic chance to redeem herself by assisting in the healing of the Irish nation once again.

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“The Irish Church is going through a long process of cleansing and renewal, and there is a long way to go yet. Many of the problems that we have now are slowly being eradicated; literally dying out.”

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