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In the May 20, 2013 issue of America Archbishop Diarmuid Martin surveys the landscape of Ireland in wake of the church's sexual abuse crisis and the country's economic downturn. The archbishop's article is adapted from an address presented as the Russo Family Lecture at the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture in New York on April 24, 2013. Here we present responses to the archbishop's lecture from two noted scholars: J. J. Lee and Theodora Hawksley.

Ireland as Missionary Country

J. J. Lee

Traditional Irish Catholicism is not something that goes back to St. Patrick. It was the result of a specific historical conjuncture in the post-famine era, roughly since 1850. That conjuncture began to falter in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is natural that there would be change as a result. The course it has taken reflects the nature of the change itself, and the response of the power holders in the church—the senior clergy.

We had just before the famine, in the 1840s, one priest for about every 3,500 Catholics in Ireland; by 1900 we had one priest for every 1,000, due to a combination of a sharp drop in population, and a sharp rise in the number of priests. The number of nuns rose even more spectacularly, from about 1,000 to 10,000. This change in the clergy-to-laity ratio was the foundation for traditional Irish Catholicism, based in powerful church-run institutions until little more than a generation ago.

The high point of this Catholicism was the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, where the universal church celebrated the 15th centenary of the traditional date of St. Patrick’s mission to Ireland. A million people are estimated to have attended Mass in Phoenix Park in Dublin. You can see it in the newsreels, in the newspapers—it was a moment of real pride in Irish Catholicism. We were at the center of the Catholic world—and the truly extraordinary Irish missionary effort since the later 19th century did indeed make Irish Catholicism a universal phenomenon.

Irish missionaries had spread to every continent because the number of vocations was so great in Ireland that there was a substantial surplus over domestic requirements. The Irish church thus became in many ways the imperial church of the English-speaking world. The Irish Catholic reach around the English-speaking world was quite extraordinary, grounded originally in a close personal friendship between Pope Pius IX and Cardinal Paul Cullen, the dominant figure in Irish Catholicism in the generation after the famine who became in some respects virtually a parallel pope for the English speaking world in the appointment of bishops. That lasted essentially with massive numbers of clergy, vis-à-vis laity, massive numbers of nuns, at home and abroad, until the 1960s and 1970s, since when vocations have plunged.

What happened? Essentially Ireland began to industrialize and urbanize rapidly. The population, which had stagnated at roughly 3 million since 1920, grew by 50 percent in the half century after 1960. A country which had suffered a net emigration of well over 400,000 people in the 1950’s experienced an inflow of the same scale in the first decade of the 21st century. Urbanization meant a different social ethos from that familiar to a hitherto predominantly rural population with its established order of inheritance patterns and generational authority.

But the church didn’t anticipate the implications. The Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, came back from the Second Vatican Council saying, essentially, nothing’s going to change. And yet we were poised on the precipice of unprecedented change.

It is only now that Archbishop Martin himself has come along that there has been a recognition in even some Irish episcopal circles of the necessity for change. An urbanized Ireland is not simply a temporary phenomenon that will go away if you keep your head down and do nothing. This is a fundamental sociological change. It is further, and crucially, reflected, in the surge in students in higher education, where the proportion of young adults proceeding beyond the age of 18 has surged from roughly 10 percent to over 50 percent over the past 50 Years, with an even more spectacular growth in the ratio of women.

It is highly unlikely there will be a going-back to almost universal regular attendance at Sunday Mass and at the sacraments. The challenge now is for the church to see what it can hold and what it can reasonably hope to recover.

The Catholicism of the future in Ireland has to be significantly adaptive. The implications of the growing public role of women in Irish society, which arises largely from a combination of birth control, economic growth and access to higher education, have to be recognized.

This partly reflects the fact that Ireland is no longer an agricultural and rural country. Less than 10 percent of the total population actually works in agriculture now. Having become one of the fastest industrializing countries in Europe, there is a very different social structure, and very different generational structure from that in which the majority of church leaders grew up.

The Archbishop alluded to youth. The church was very slow to change in response to the fundamental changes in the educational and generational structures of society. Little changed in response to the changing demands of younger generations. Many of those who have drifted from church would possibly have been lost anyway because there was bound to be change as Ireland opened to the wider world—that the lingua franca was English obviously left it particularly exposed to the impact of changes in American and British media culture, which also began to be increasingly imitated in Ireland as urbanization proceeded. That’s normal.

What is striking is the slowness with the church leadership acknowledged the speed and extent of the change. That’s largely their own responsibility. It is not of course unique to Ireland, but its impact has been particularly striking. It may have been partly the result of the defensive mentality induced by the exposure over the past 20 years of the clerical sexual abuse scandals. The scandals appalled much of public opinion, and in some cases may have given those who were moving in the direction of rejecting the Church anyway a sense of moral self-righteousness in repudiating an institution where the fissure between pulpit and performance had opened so glaringly widely.

So that is where we are left today. And if the next generation is lost, it’s hard to see how the church is going to recover. It’s not a situation without hope, as there is probably still a lot of latent goodwill. But until it is adequately addressed, then there is little chance of recovering anything of the place the Catholic Church for long had in the hearts.

If there is to be a future for Catholicism in Ireland, it has to be seen as a new missionary endeavor. Incredible though it may appear in a once so prolific a nursery of so extraordinary a missionary movement, Ireland has now become a missionary country for the Catholic Church.

J. J. Lee is director of Glucksman Ireland House and Glucksman Professor of Irish Studies and professor of history at New York University.

Places of Renewal

Theodora Hawksley

I was coming to the end of an interview with a priest in Dublin, who had spoken at length about his experiences of weathering the storm of the abuse scandal in his own congregation. I decided I would ask one last question: "What do you need, and what I can I do?" And he said, "Theo, we don’t need people to write. We need people to listen, and people to pray." These two—listening and prayer—are at the heart of my research, and at the root of my comments this evening. Without listening, any talk about the future of the church in Ireland will be up-in-the-air theological sermonizing about an ideal future. Without prayer, it will be a mere arms-length exercise in extrapolating a future from the social trends of the present.

Archbishop Martin’s lecture gives us a wealth of topics for reflection, and I have time to comment on only one. So I would like to pick up on his statement that "renewal must be homegrown." Catholicism in Ireland has its own unique culture and history, and its renewal will look different too. In my research I have been seeking out, trying to identify and describe, those places of homegrown renewal. So where are the places of life, renewal and hope? Where are the places that indicate what the Church of the future might look like?I want to take you to four places that, I think, begin to answer these questions.

Glencairn Abbey, Lismore, County Waterford

Glencairn Abbey is a Cistercian monastery for women. The community numbers 36, and three postulants have joined in 2013 alone. The nuns run a busy guesthouse, welcoming everyone from apostolic religious on retreat, to seekers in search of rest and peace. Why are people attracted to this place, and to others like it? Well, when people are angry with the church, it’s because they know it shouldn’t be a place of status-seeking or abuse. And that conviction—it shouldn’t be like this—means that people are on some level in touch with, or seeking for, a deeper truth about what the church should be like. They may not be able to articulate what that is, but they recognize it when they experience it. People are attracted to places like Glencairn, where the depth of prayer connects them to the abiding presence of God flowing quietly underneath the turmoil, and the simplicity of the community allows them to touch that deeper truth about the church. As Archbishop Martin has said, genuine renewal comes not just from changed structures, but from ongoing renewal of faith. That isn’t a mere slogan: it’s happening in practice. Communities of prayer are wellsprings of healing and renewal.


The second place I want to take you is Kildare, and the Festival of St Brigid, which is run by the local Brigidine Sisters each February. The festival includes lectures, walks and activities, many of which draw on themes from Celtic spirituality. Like Brigid herself, spirituality that claims the adjective "Celtic" sometimes comes under suspicion for being syncretistic. All this earth-connectedness and nature mysticism can sound as though it is smuggling paganism in by the back door, and it can make church authorities uneasy. But look closely at what’s going on here: in drawing on and creating resources from Celtic spirituality, these sisters are re-scripting the connection between Catholic faith and Irish land. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, that connection was forged between the church and the Irish State, with some deeply troubling consequences. The people participating in this festival are trying to access and articulate an older, deeper connection: a different way of being Catholic and Irish that also resonates with contemporary environmental concerns. Homegrown renewal is happening where people are trying to creatively reshape the relationship between national and religious identity.

Knock, County Mayo.

One memorable week of my research was spent camping in a one-man tent at Knock, surviving on tinned fish and soda bread, and talking to visitors at the shrine. During that week, Knock hosted a youth festival, and some of the young people attending the festival had walked from Lough Derg in County Donegal, to Knock. They had been accompanied part of the way by a bishop, who walked with them. Archbishop Martin has suggested that one of the challenges the church in Ireland needs to confront is the strong remnant of inherited clericalism. Clericalism established distances between people and priests, priests and bishops, distances across which it was hard to communicate honestly and openly. In the course of the abuse crisis, that breakdown in communication has at times been amplified. Survivors of abuse, as well as many ordinary laypeople, feel that their stories of hurt and betrayal are not being heard; bishops feel that nothing they can say will make any difference; and priests and religious feel stuck in the middle, their concerns unheard by anyone. Almost everyone I have interviewed has expressed a desire to be heard, for real listening at a structural level as well as a personal level. And so renewal is happening, trust is slowly being restored, in those situations where a new quality of relationship is developing between bishops, priests and people. For the young people at Knock, that was happening as their bishop literally walked alongside them.


Finally, I want to take you to Dublin. I have spent time loitering at the back of many a Dublin church, talking to folk coming and going. And very often, I see grandmothers and grandfathers with their small grandchildren, at Mass, lighting candles, sitting quietly, on one occasion leading the rosary together—an old voice and a young voice echoing in the church. Sometimes, in their desire to see the church’s present predicament as an opportunity for renewal, theologians and commentators are wont to characterise the faith of previous generations as legalistic, or sentimental and shallow. But the faith I see being passed on here is no narrow devotionalism. It has been through fire. And so if we want to find the sources of renewal, we need to look to the faith of the old as well as the faith of the young, and to the intergenerational connections that are handing on as well as transforming that faith.

Theodora Hawksley is research fellow in divinity, University of Edinburgh.

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