Archbishop Martin's Analysis of Church in Ireland

«It Is Not an Easy Task to Be a Priest in Ireland Today»

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CAMBRIDGE, England, FEB. 26, 2011 ( Here is the text of an address given Tuesday by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin at the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies, at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The address focused on the theme «Keeping the Show on the Road: Is this the future of the Irish Catholic Church?»

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At the time in which I received the invitation to this Conference I was holding meetings with the priests of the Archdiocese of Dublin about the challenges that they face and their priorities in ministry today. During the debate one priest, half seriously and half in jest, answered in candid terms: «The most we can do today is to keep the show on the road». Hence the title of my talk.

It is not an easy task to be a priest in Ireland today. The numbers of priests are falling. There is more work to be done by priests who are getting older. The task of simply responding to the day-to-day demands of ministry leaves many priests with little time to take on new tasks and address radically new ways of life and ministry. There is a clear awareness that it is time for change; there is a willingness to change but the pressures of «keeping the show on the road» can be draining.

How is the Church in Ireland changing? In 2003 I was beginning really to enjoy my absorbing work as the Holy See’s diplomatic representative at the International Organizations in Geneva and looking forward to four or five more years in that mission. Suddenly I was asked to return to Dublin as future Archbishop. I remember, on that occasion, that Pope John Paul II asked me «how is it that secularisation came to Ireland so quickly?» My answer to that question was quite simple: «Your Holiness is wrong», though my Vatican training did not allow me to express myself quite in those exact words. The Pope was wrong. Secularisation, whatever that means exactly, had been on the Irish radar screen for many years. It was not all negative but it was not an overnight wonder. It was there, but not recognised. It was there but the answer of the Irish Church was for far too long to keep the same show on the road, not noticing that there were problems with the show and that the road was changing.

Ireland is today undergoing a further phase in a veritable revolution of its religious culture. Many outside of Ireland still believe that Ireland is a bastion of traditional Catholicism. They are surprised to discover that there are parishes in Dublin where the presence at Sunday Mass is some 5% of the Catholic population and, in some cases, even below 2%. On any particular Sunday about 18% of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Dublin attends Mass. That is considerably lower than in any other part of Ireland.

For the second time since I became Archbishop of Dublin there will be no ordination to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Dublin this year and the coming years indicate only a tiny trickle of new vocations.

Most certainly, there are still many vestiges of popular mass Catholic culture. The Marian Shrine at Knock is the second most visited tourist site in Ireland — second only to the Guinness Factory! Last year on the last Sunday in July around 20,000 people — many of them young people – climbed Croagh Patrick, a difficult mountain, in a penitential pilgrimage in honour of St Patrick.

That said, it must be repeated that the road of Irish Catholicism had been relentlessly changing for some time. I remember back in the mid-nineteen-sixties I had a Professor of Sociology who began his opening lecture to seminarians by affirming that «Catholicism is a minority culture in Ireland». Our reaction was that this man is telling a joke to provoke us. He however stuck to his ground showing how already then many of the forces influencing Irish culture were coming from outside the country and from way beyond the Catholic pale. You had the curious situation that Irish newspapers were more expensive than imported British newspapers. Most of the programmes transmitted by Irish television were produced aboard and most families in Dublin at least were also watching British television. Despite censorship, Ireland was open to art and theatre and literature from any part of the world. Ireland had for a long time no longer been a protected island of safe Catholicism.

In more recent times Ireland became one of the most open economies in the world and that economic openness inevitably had cultural consequences. In general these consequences were positive and openness was one of the vital — if risky — elements in Ireland’s economic transformation. But Ireland was becoming ever more open culturally.

Unfortunately my sociology professor did not take his analysis further and look at the state of the Irish Church itself. Certainly, in the mid-sixties, the effects of Vatican II were beginning to affect the Irish Church and were receiving a warm welcome. The conformist Ireland of the Archbishop Mc Quaid era changed very rapidly and with few tears, despite the fact that the conformism of the era had not been without support.

The Vatican Council was without doubt one of the most significant cultural events for the Church in the twentieth century. I believe that the Council was one of the most significant events of the twentieth century for Irish culture taken as a whole, especially through its documents on the Church in the Modern World and on Religious Freedom and thus on the concept of pluralism. I always find it a little ironic that one of the most significant events which influenced the development of a more pluralistic and thus a more secular Ireland actually took place — of all places — in the Vatican.

What was also missing from the analysis of my sociology professor was an examination of the forces that existed within the Irish Church to address the change that was to take place. Was Irish Catholicism ready for radical change? The answer must be, as the old theology text books would say, «Negative et implius» which could be translated: «no and even worse». Not only was the Church culture of the time inadequate to face the challenge of change, but that culture was in itself something that made real and realistic change more difficult.

That the conformist Ireland of the Archbishop McQuaid era changed so rapidly and with few tears was read as an indication of a desire for change, but perhaps it was also an indication that the conformism was covering an emptiness and a faith built on a faulty structure to which people no longer really ascribed. The good-old-days of traditional mid-twentieth century Irish Catholicism may in reality not have so good and healthy after all.

It is always dangerous to draw caricatures of any situation. There were many nuances in the process of change in the Irish Church which it would be easy to overlook. Two generations of Catholics made the change and made it remarkably well. The Council was well received. The liturgical changes were not just well received but welcomed.

However the Council was inevitably received in terms of the culture of the day which at times may have coloured the interpretation of what the Council intended. The Spirit of Vatican II began to be evoked first by some in a very liberal way and later by others in a more conservative way. Compared however with other countries the level of polarization within the Irish Church was however much lower.

Changes were introduced. The presumption was that they were being introduced into a healthy structure. The emptiness and the faulty structure which was already undermining the tradition of Irish Catholicism may not have been addressed sufficiently at the time and may have undermined the long-term success of reform. Structural change will not be sustained if it is built on faulty foundations. The end product may be even more precarious.

Where are we now? In the course of interview given by a member of the newly-formed Association for Catholic priests in Ireland it is alleged that
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, who is conducting an Apostolic Visitation in the Archdiocese of Dublin, had said that Ireland has only five or at most ten years before it could fall «over the brink», and be reduced to being a tiny minority Church irrelevant in society. My quotes may not be exact, also because curiously both the priest interviewed and the Cardinal seemed later to back-track and wish to distance themselves from whatever seems to be have been said.

There is, however, no hiding the fact that the Church in Ireland is facing a real crisis. When I use the word crisis many people immediately associate the word with the handling of cases of sexual abuse of young people by priests and religious. I have consistently said that the crisis of the Church in Ireland is an even deeper one and my belief is that in many ways the brink has already been reached. The Catholic Church in Ireland will inevitably become more a minority culture. The challenge is to ensure that it is not an irrelevant minority culture.

I must interject here that when I say that the crisis is deeper than the crisis about the sexual abuse of children that I am not in any way down-playing the abuse scandal. The phenomenon of abuse by priests has wreaked enormous damage on so many survivors and their families. Lives have been wrecked, indeed lives have been lost. There is nothing which could justify or explain away such widespread abuse taking place in the Church of Jesus Christ.

The abuse scandal has affected the faith of many and at the same time it is an indication of an underlying crisis of faith where institution had become in many ways decoupled from essential dimensions of faith. The abuse scandal is another indication of hidden fault lines that were there in the Church of the good old days. Today’s Church is a much safer place for children.

The abuse scandal has however deeply wounded the trust that Irish people had in the Church and it will take much effort to regain the confidence of many, right across the generations. There is no way that such confidence can be regained without the truth being revealed. Denial will not generate confidence.

The change that has taken place in Irish culture requires radical change in the life of the Church of such an extent that in the face of it even experts in change management would feel daunted. Certainly I would have to say that despite all my efforts I am failing in my attempts to lead such change. Change management has to have the patience and the strategy to bring everyone along with it and that may not be my talent.

Change is inevitably painful. Radical change can be too radical for some to really face it. In the face of such daunting change the reaction can tempt us to stick to «keeping the show on the road»: we know its rules, it worked in the past, at least it is something I am good at. Anxiety about the pace of change can easily lead some into the temptation of denying the need for change.

Let me look at some examples of the challenges of change that face the Irish Church. There is a growing debate in Ireland about schools and the patronage of schools. I am patron of about 470 primary schools — and patronage is not just an honorary title, it is one with practical consequences. I am responsible for the management of the ethos of those schools, for senior appointments and being a practical man I recognise one particular practical consequence of being Patron, namely, that I am the one who can be sued when legal action takes place.

I am the patron of about 93% of all primary schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin while Catholics compose only about 85% of the population. There may be historical reasons why this is so. These Catholic schools may be very good schools, open and tolerant, welcoming the disadvantaged sectors of society, multi-cultured and inclusive rather than exclusive. Such a massive presence of the Catholic Church in the management of schools is however patently a remnant of the past and no longer tenable today.

It is obvious that there is a desire for change in the management structure of Irish schools. It is recognised that the Irish government has an obligation to ensure that parents who do not want a religious ethos in the formation of their children can, as far as possible, exercise their rights. It is not an easy task and the data available is not as detailed as necessary. For example, it is often said that since Ireland is now multi-cultural the school system should be more secular. In fact, immigrants in Ireland would seem if anything to have a distinct preference for their children to attend a school with a religious ethos.

On the other hand, within Church circles there is a tendency to say that since 88% of the population registers in the national census as Catholic therefore 88% of parents wish their children to attend a Catholic school. There is a very high proportion of Catholics who would prefer their children to attend a school with a pluralist mix, albeit it with some basic religious culture.

Due to the current dominance of Catholic schools, it is difficult to make the distinction between a Catholic school and a national school, the school of the local community. All teachers in primary schools teach religious education, irrespective of their own personal religious belief and practice. It would be interesting to carry out a survey of the self-definition of many Catholic schools. In many parts of Dublin the self-definition of the term «Catholic» would not be one taken from the Code of Canon Law. The definition would probably be more in terms of «Christian» in a very broad sense — a sense which would not create ripples in a more secular culture. It would be a definition about leading a good life, and much less about the specific tenets of not just the Catechism but even of the Creeds themselves.

Why such a vague definition of «Catholic» education? It may not be that parents do not want a more explicit religious dimension. It may be that their own understanding of the Christian faith is vague. It may well be a rejection of the type of Catholic education which they received in the past from the priests and the nuns and the brothers. It is interesting to note that the new Educational Trusts which religious congregations have established to maintain their tradition in education as their own numbers dramatically drop are actually investing more money and resources into training of lay teachers in religious education than they did when they religious ran the schools directly. The Church in Ireland for too long relied on institution and control in education. The schools managed by the new trusts may in fact today be becoming more Catholic through greater lay participation.

It must also be said that the Irish government has been very slow in providing a plurality of patronage models. Pluralism exists in the greater Dublin area, especially where a variety of new schools have been built over the past few years. I believe that there is need for a National Forum to debate the issue. Plurality in management is needed to address the changed Irish culture. Plurality in school management can only benefit the true Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

I am thus in a situation where I have near monopoly control — at least in theory – of primary education in the Archdiocese of Dublin. What are the results? In Ireland we have a fully State-funded system of Catholic education. We have wonderfully dedicated teachers. There is access for clergy to schools which also look after the programmes of preparation for the sacraments. First Communion and Confirmation are major events in the life of each school. The question is: how far are these events really faith-filled events today? It is above all good Catholic teachers who express their concerns to me in this regard. Admission to the sacraments is not something which is automatically acquired when one reaches a certain class in school.

A few weeks ago a very angry survivor of sexual abuse by a Dublin priest came
to me to express his disgust and horror at what the Church had done to him. He wanted nothing more to do with a corrupt Church or any of its agents and listening to his story one could well understand his anger. Leaving me he thanked me and added: «I believe that you will be confirming my little lad later this month». For many the sacraments are the social events of a civil religion rather than celebrations of the Church.

Young Irish people are among the most catechised in Europe but apparently among the least evangelized. Our schools are great schools; our young people are idealistic and generous, but the bond between young people and Church life ends up being very weak.
This is due to the fact that the religious education and sacramental preparation became over the years more and more assigned almost exclusively to the school. Parents were not formally involved in the education process. The parish was content to leave the task of religious education to competent teachers. Should there be political moves or moves by teachers’ organizations to remove sacramental preparation from schools, then the parish structure of the Church in Ireland would be totally unprepared.

The gap between Catholic school and parish is much more marked at secondary level. There is evidence that in the face of increased demands of a very full curriculum that religious education is being downgraded in the timetable of some Catholic secondary schools. There are few structures for faith formation at third level education.

Much of the leadership in a new sense of mission in the Irish Church will come through lay men and women. In the Archdiocese of Dublin we have introduced an initial cohort of lay pastoral workers, men and women, working full time in parishes alongside priests. Our training and formation of these workers is very demanding and the reaction to their initial presence in parishes has been very positive. They bring an enthusiasm and a sense of professionalism that is needed in pastoral planning. They have an ability to reach out to other lay people and engage them in programmes of formation and pastoral commitment. They are prayerful men and women who have no reticence about speaking of their own spirituality. They understand that all mission in the Church is calling and requires a self-understanding which is theological in essence.

At the same time we need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests. I am working on plans to ensure that for the future in Dublin our seminarians, our prospective deacons and our trainee lay pastoral workers in the Archdiocese of Dublin will share some sections of their studies together, in order to create a better culture of collaborative ministry. The narrow culture of clericalism has to be eliminated. It did not come out of nowhere and so we have to address its roots from the time of seminary training onwards.

There is a movement of renewal among priests. There is creativity in mission and not just passivity in keeping the show on the road. The priests of the Dublin diocese provide a service and a witness which is admirable. They have remarkable support and the affection of their people, even at a time when these parishioners are angry about the Church.

Probably my greatest discouragement as Archbishop of Dublin comes from the failure of interaction between the Church and young people. I visit parishes where I encounter no young people. I enquire what is being done to attract young people to parish life and the answers are vague. Many experiments flourish for a while and then die out. Everyone knows that there is a missing generation and perhaps more than one, yet there are not enough pastoral initiatives to reach out to young people.

Parishes offer very little outreach to young people and I feel that an increasing number of young people find parishes a little like alien territory. A form of religious education which is separated from the parish will inevitably collapse for most the day that school ends. We need a more demanding catechesis, within a parish framework, and more opportunities for young people to deepen their faith and to develop a Christian sense of their generosity and social commitment.

During these past months in Ireland we have been reflecting on the legacy of Cardinal Newman and his presence in Ireland to establish the Catholic University. Our Catholic education system is far from producing what Newnan considered the characteristic of a Catholic laity: ‘I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it’ (The Present Position of Catholics in England, ix, 390).

As Pope Benedict noted in his homily at the Crofton Park Mass at the beatification of Cardinal Newman:»The service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’. His insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world».

The Church in Ireland is very lacking in «keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day». The place of the Church in the current political discussion in Ireland is increasingly marginal. I would say that none of the political parties even thought of seeking the views of the Church around their policies for the current General Election. If anything they would seem to prefer not to be seen in any way to be associated with the Church.

The paradoxical thing is that the farther the Church goes in adapting to the culture of the times, the greater is the danger that it will no longer be able to confront the culture of the time. It will only be able to speak the language of the culture of the day and not the radical newness of the message of the Gospel which transcends all cultures. It could become a type of civil religion, politically correct, but without the cutting edge of the Gospel. There is a difficult path to tread between a fundamentalism which would pretend that the Church can have its own answer to all questions and a lack of courage to take up positions which may be culturally unpopular. The conformism of the mid-twentieth century remained unchallenged because it had support. Every generation has to allow the Gospel to challenge conformism, even a conformism which calls itself progressive.

Since the failure of Newman’s Catholic University project in Ireland the Irish Church has not really found the right path of a balanced Catholic presence in Irish culture. In the past Catholicism dominated. There was no perceived need to have focused understanding of the role of being Catholic as such in intellectual and cultural life.

In part, this was due to a non-intellectual streak in the religious culture of Ireland, often located within a narrow clericalist framework. In particular, in the years following independence of Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, there developed a flourishing and fruitful collaboration between Church and State in social and education fields, but which due to clericalism and a desire for clerical control often sadly led a blurring of the correct boundaries of the roles of Church and State. The fault lay on both sides. Church leaders were often aided and abetted by politicians and at a particular moment especially by civil servants.

The result is that today Catholic culture in Ireland does not have the prominence or the intellectual leadership that it should have. While still a predominantly a Catholic country, Ireland does not produce a proportionate level of theological research. There are few forums for reflection on the relationship between faith and life.
The intellectual level of preparation of future priests is very mixed. There is no Catholic press in Ireland on the level of the Catholic newspapers in France and Italy. There are few writers or artists who would present themselves as Catholic. So much coverage in the Catholic and in the mainstream secular media is only around controversy. I am not saying that controversy should be stifled. The problem is that media coverage of Church controversy can often end-up by being just sterile debate about Church-internal issues. A Church which becomes inward looking will never be one which can bring an insightful Christian message regarding the pressing issues of the day.

The Catholic Church in Ireland will have to learn a new manner of being present in society. Recently, a leader of one of the Protestant Churches in Dublin said to me that all our Churches were now wearing clothes which do not fit well because they had been tailored for us when we were fatter. The answer to today’s real religious challenges is not to seek more fashionable clothes to make us look better, or to follow the trends of the moment. We need functional clothes of the right fit for the current realities which we have to face.

Christians in Ireland will have to learn to live in an increasingly secularised society but never in a resigned or passive way. Christians cannot accept retiring from the public domain or accept a vision of the political sphere as somehow absolute. Giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s means not just separation of Church and State, but also that Caesar is not God and should not be playing God.

When I was received by the Pope on the occasion of the ad limina visit four years ago, I arrived well prepared with all my statistics and my analysis of the bright spots and the shadows of Catholicism in Dublin. I had statistics about priests, about institutions, about Mass attendance. After greeting me the Pope started the conversation immediately by asking me «where are the points of contact between the Church in Ireland and those areas where the future of Irish culture is being formed». Instead of asking me about the number of parishes he quizzed me about the relationship between faith and universities, and media, as well as literature and the arts and the fundamental ethical issues on economy and society.

How can the Church in Ireland better foster interaction between faith and culture? The Church has an undoubtedly a contribution to the improvement of society. But that contribution cannot simply be that of being just a political commentator. The principal contribution of Church institutions in an increasingly secular society is, as Pope Benedict noted in an interview of some years ago, «to witness to God in a world that has problems finding Him… and to make God visible in the human face of Jesus Christ, to offer people access to the source without which our morale becomes sterile and loses its point of reference».

Christian faith is not just a faith about doctrines or about rules and regulations or about ethical standards against which we have to measure our own moral behaviour. It is not just about reforming structures. It is about the ability to preach and witness to the message of Jesus. The leader in the Church is not a manager, but a witness and a prophet. Reform in the Church is not in the first place about the redistribution of power, but about the redefinition of power in terms of the way in which Jesus revealed who God is.

The message of the Church is the message of God who loves us before any merit on our part. It is a God who reveals; who speaks to us, engages with us and allows us to understand something of the inner life of God, which is a life of communication and of love. It is a faith which is about truth, but truth which is to be discovered in the life of a person, Jesus Christ, who revealed himself through total-self giving. It is about a God who is generous and whose followers should witness in their lives to the fact that being truly human has much more to do with giving and sharing and loving than with possession and power and dominance.

The God of love is revealed in the life and the works of Jesus Christ. I have often mentioned how in my own religious education in the sixties we were taught that Jesus proved that he was God by his power to work miracles. I do not deny that miracles prove that Jesus was God. What was not stressed was that miracles of Jesus prove to us above all what God is like, that he is a God who reveals his power as one you cares and has mercy, who heals and wants to free people from the burdens and addictions and obsessions that bind them, so that they can be taken up into the inner life of love of God and experience salvation and freedom.

I am convinced that one of the principal ways in which the Church can reform itself and bring its message more incisively to society is through developing a renewed biblical apostolate. The Irish Church at times in its recent history got so focused on the formulae of orthodoxy that it failed to introduce its people into a real relationship with Jesus and his life and teaching. All our pastoral structures are still poor in scriptural content and approach. Such a biblical basis for its action is also a sound basis for ecumenical collaboration.

Faith is not about establishment. It is about taking the risk of abandoning one’s own security in order to be like the God who did not cling to the trappings of power and authority, but who gave himself totally for our sakes. This is a message which is difficult to comprehend and realise especially by those of us who have a leadership role in the Church and who are open to the perennial temptations to defend and even to abuse the power which was given into our hands to be servants.

The Church today more than ever needs saints and prophets. We should constantly remind ourselves that the one thing that even our most secularised societies really expect from the community of believers is that we witness to how Christ’s message can lead people in their search for the meaning of why we live and how we should live.

The Acts of the Apostles remind us how the early Church lived and was recognised. Christians gathered to hear the word of God and for the prayers and the breaking of bread. From this the Church in Jerusalem became a communion, with a unique life-style known for its sharing, not just of material goods but of the talents that belong to each and every member of the body of Christ. The Acts add that this life of communion of the early Christian had two effects: they had the goodwill of all the people and day by day the Lord added to their number (cf Acts 2:47). There is a lesson to be learned there for all us and for our Church.

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