Once upon a time, Irish villages and towns with roadside statues of Our Lady were seedbeds of missionary vocations. Young priests and nuns from Gougane Barra, Knock and Navan were so passionate about giving the faith to others that they travelled to the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel. Until recent times, Irish politicians fawned over parish priests and Vatican officials.
The days of old seem like a fairytale.
In today’s Ireland, there is an annihilating absence of young people in the pews. The reports into clerical abuse have shown that in the past there was great loyalty to the Church, but that much was hidden. I was reduced to angry tears by the part of the Cloyne Report into the Church’s handling of abuse allegations that described the situation in East Cork was such that in most cases the clergy and the families of the victims failed to bring knowledge of the crime to the authorities.
Many of these families have since lapsed; they have lost their trust in Mother Church. The reports into clerical abuse have been crucial in the search for truth and justice. But an unhealthy national fixation on the sordid details of the reports has ensued. Blame-shifting has followed, where the Vatican and the Pope are wrongly thought to be culpable for all the evils in the Irish Church. At worst, Benedict XVI is caricatured as a callous villain who was in cahoots with child abusers. The Irish, at large, have not fully confronted the sad fact that a number of Irish bishops abandoned their own guidelines for handling accusations of abuse.
The attempt to close Villa Spada, the embassy to the Holy See, mirrors the wider problem: seeking separation for our Catholic past, and wanting further isolation from true Catholicism. Éamon Gilmore insisted that closing the embassy would save money. But is saving a few euros more important than maintaining ties with Rome? But vestiges of our Catholic past remain: in Gaelic, “gilmore” means “servant of Our Lady”.
Ireland is a proud island nation, but Catholicism in Ireland has become a victim of its own insularity. If the image of Pope Benedict as a cartoon crook persists, my generation may never have a true concept of the Vicar of Christ. This is why even the thought of the Pope making a visit to Ireland is so clarifying: it brings the kindly face of Benedict XVI into greater focus. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has said that the Pope is giving it “serious consideration”. If we have learned anything about this papacy it is that Pope Benedict doesn’t procrastinate. The presence of the Holy Father in Ireland would mean that my fellow twentysomethings could personally witness his grandfatherly smile, his gentleness and that he has great respect for the positive contribution that their ancestors made to the history of the Church. If the Irish will not embrace Rome, Rome can embrace the Irish.
Doom-laden reports abound that the Irish would begrudge the cost of a papal visit and that the political elite would be disrespectful towards the Pope. But to think that he would be put off by rumours of hostility is not to know his courage. If the Pope can come to Britain, with militant atheists vying to arrest him, then he would not be daunted by a trip to Ireland in the summertime.
The suggested timing that the Pope could visit during the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin couldn’t be better. The 44th congress will give the Irish Church an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices that, in previous centuries, Ireland made for the Eucharist. There will be a new confidence remembering times past: the centuries when celebrating the Mass was driven underground, and priests and laity risked their lives so that they could celebrate the Eucharist. In June 2012, with hopes for sunny weather, Mass Rock Masses will be taking place under cliffs in West Cork, and under crags in Galway.
There are still some vibrant parishes in Ireland, such as those in Donegal and Mayo, which do not get the attention they deserve. Isn’t it possible that young people from these rural spots will welcome our Pope? We’ve seen it happen here: when Paschal Uche greeted the Pope outside Westminster Cathedral the mood of the papal visit to London became joyful. In Britain, Catholics enjoyed a “Benedict Bounce” after the Pope’s visit when we had greater confidence in sharing our faith. Presently, in Irish school curricula, the role of the Pope is sidelined and even heavily criticised.
But if the very young got to know our benevolent Pope then they may not inherit the “bad baggage” that the older generation has with the Church. Relations between Ireland and Rome are likely to improve in the next few months, largely thanks to Archbishop Charles Brown, the first Irish-American to be papal nuncio to Ireland. He is a close friend of Benedict XVI and worked at his side for over 10 years in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Before travelling to Ireland, in order to understand the crisis in the Irish Church, Archbishop Brown studied the Murphy, Cloyne and Eliot reports into clerical abuse.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s laity is awaking. An organisation by the name of Ireland Stand Up is reminding politicians that the the country’s embassy to the Holy See was paid for by the Irish voters. The group arranged for 73 senators and MPs – almost a third of Ireland’s elected politicians – to meet in Dublin and protest against the closure. Enda Kenny’s mixed etiquette of saying that the Pope “is welcome to come”, but being hesitant to issue a formal invitation won’t appease them. Ireland Stand Up has promised to campaign until Mr Kenny formally invites the Pope to the Emerald Isle. These are the same people who could line the streets to cheer and welcome our Pope.
If we are waiting for “the right time” for the Pope to come, it may never happen. A papal visit is the grace that the Irish Church needs to begin the healing process. Just as prevention is better than cure, the youngest generations of disengaged, nominal Catholics should not be further infected by anti-papal invective. Pope Benedict has always been at pains to tell a global audience that “Christianity is a person”. Pope Benedict, as Christ’s Vicar, by his presence and his prayers in Éire, will allow the grace for – the start – of recovery in the Irish Church.
I wrote this for the March 30th Catholic Herald.