Church in Ireland: Divining the Future (Part 1)

Maynooth’s Father Vincent Twomey on the State of the Faith

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MAYNOOTH, Ireland, MAY 6, 2004 ( Despite the decline of Ireland’s ancient Catholic culture over the past few decades, a native theologian has hope for the Church here.

Father Vincent Twomey, a lecturer in moral theology at Maynooth College and the editor in chief of the Irish Theological Quarterly, recently wrote «The End of Irish Catholicism?» (Ignatius).

He shared with ZENIT his findings: that the faith and loyalty of many laity and clerics have kept the Church strong and have the potential to still bear much fruit.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: What cultural conditions produced traditional Irish Catholicism?

Father Twomey: First, there’s the loss of the greater part of our medieval religious and cultural traditions: monasteries, churches, art, music, and public celebrations.

During the penal times, from 1697 to 1793, the Church lived underground. After the Great Famine, from 1845 to 1849, we effectively lost our native language and so lost the last cultural link with the ancient and medieval Catholic tradition.

In the 19th century, the growing cultural and spiritual vacuum was filled by two mutually conditioned developments.

The first was a centralized, authoritarian Church. The second was the introduction of devotions imported from France and Italy, which were emotional in nature and rigorous in their moral demands. Their moral rigorism was further enjoined by the dominant cultural ethos of English Protestantism marked by Puritanism and respectability.

The result was predictably dismal, saved only by Irish wit and peasant common sense. And yet, it had many strengths.

New religious orders such as the Irish Christian Brothers and the Presentation and Mercy Sisters, founded by remarkable men and women like Blessed Edmund Rice, Nano Nagle and Catherine McAuley, were devoted to education, charitable and social work.

Equally astonishing was the rich spiritual life that marked former generations at home and abroad in Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, not to mention the missionaries who went to every part of the world.

At a time when as a nation we had no real political representation, the Catholic faith created a sense of identity and of dignity both collective and personal. To be Irish was to be Catholic.

Q: Recent years have brought great change in Ireland, particularly notable economic progress. But this has also meant leaving behind cultural and social models that were a mainstay during a long time. Is Ireland losing its particular cultural identity and just becoming a part of a globalized secular culture?

Father Twomey: Yes, the changes in Ireland over the past three decades have been both radical and extensive.

The transformation from a depressed economy to one of the most vibrant in the world has been spectacular. Though prosperity is to be welcomed, it has also given rise to consumerism.

I get the impression that the energy Irish people once put into achieving the salvation of their own souls — and the souls of others — has now been channeled into creating heaven on earth.

The over-30-year-long civil war in Northern Ireland tainted the reputation of both Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism, which were once so closely identified.

Q: What is the present state of the Church in Ireland? What are the greatest strengths of the Church there?

Father Twomey: The Irish Church was unprepared for the Second Vatican Council. Though the changes introduced by the Council were all obediently implemented, the confidence of the Irish clergy in what they had once accepted so uncritically as being the unchanging truth was undermined.

Everything was questioned, and few clergy felt up to the task of even understanding the questions — not to mention giving convincing answers.

Religious education went into a tailspin. Preaching on scriptural texts as strange to themselves as to their parishioners became, for many in the clergy, an embarrassment.

Various referenda on moral issues — particularly abortion and divorce — revealed a clergy that was uncertain of its stance and so incapable of firm leadership or persuasive arguments.

The Council’s liturgical reforms, necessary in themselves, were carried out in a way that impoverished the very core of Irish Catholic spirituality, the Mass, and practically wiped out its traditional devotions, once the lifeblood of Irish Catholic life.

In more recent years, the scandals caused first by a bishop — once the darling of the media — and by multiple cases of clerical sexual abuse of the most horrific nature did untold damage.

And yet again, it never fails to astonish me that so many Irish Catholics have actually remained faithful to the faith of our fathers.

Despite the fact that its liturgical celebrations are, with few exceptions, generally devoid of either inspiration or beauty, the Irish Church still has the highest percentage of Mass-goers in Western Europe. The greatest strength of the Irish Church is thus the faith of the many laity and clerics who have remained faithful, despite everything.

Another strength is the extraordinary charitable instinct of Irish people. Their concern to alleviate hunger and distress throughout the world makes such agencies as Trócaire, Concern and Goal, the most active in the world.

It is true to say, that there is no area of distress in the world where you will not find an Irish man or woman trying to give relief, even in North Korea.

Q: What is the viability of the institutional Church in Ireland?

Father Twomey: Well, the institutional Church is eternally viable, insofar as it is sacramental by nature. And it is good to recall this, since it is too easy to reduce the Church to a merely human institution dependent on human effort.

The fact is that the Church as the primordial sacrament works «ex opero operato,» that is, by the grace of God. This means that the weakness of the clergy cannot prevent God working out his plan of salvation through the Church.

But I presume that you are referring to the human substructure built on the sacramental order of bishop, priest, deacon and faithful, where human factors do play a large role.

In recent years, the conference of bishops has tried to streamline its operations, though it is too early to judge how effective such efforts will be. However, much attention has of necessity been given to formulating an adequate legal and pastoral response to clerical sexual abuse, perhaps to the neglect of more long-term planning.

Ireland has also suffered from one of the weaknesses of the new prominence given to episcopal conferences worldwide, namely, the tendency of individual bishops to hide behind the anonymity of the conference.

We live in an era where people are not convinced by long documents produced by anonymous conferences.

What convinces people is the honest bishop or priest trying to make sense of the human predicament in the light of the Gospel, a man who has the courage of his convictions, who genuinely tries earnestly «to think with the Church» and is not intimidated by the media.

[Friday: The Church’s renewal in Ireland]

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