A Recipe for Ireland’s Christian Comeback

Father Twomey’s Insights at an Ecumenical Meeting

CASTLEPOLLARD, Ireland, MARCH 1, 2007 (ZENIT.org).- Here are excerpts of a speech delivered by Father Vincent Twomey at an ecumenical meeting in Castlepollard on the challenges and opportunities of being Christian in Ireland today.

Father Twomey is a professor of moral theology at the pontifical St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, County Kildare. He delivered the speech Jan. 22.

* * *

The religious situation in Ireland, as far as both Catholics and Protestants are concerned, has been overshadowed for almost 40 years by the so-called troubles in the North. They were generally presented in the media as a religious war. This, I am convinced, fostered a kind of skepticism here in the South about the claims of Christianity in general, especially among younger and more-educated people at the time (they are now middle-aged), who in fact were not schooled in the actual situation.

More significant for the Catholic Church was the effect of the Second Vatican Council, which was sprung on a Church that was ill prepared for the radical changes it introduced, in particular in the liturgy. Those most affected were the priests. Much of the theology they had learned in the seminary seemed now out of date. How could they preach with conviction?

* * *

All of this happened in parallel with the most extraordinary economic and social developments Ireland has ever known, producing the Celtic Tiger.

Cut off more and more from traditional Church teaching and practice — indeed alienated from it by the developments we have briefly outlined — the population as a whole began to seek that salvation in the here and now which former generations had tended to seek in religious practice.

As one Maynooth professor put it in the 1970s, the motto became: “No more pie in the sky, I want jam in my hand.” And it all happened under the banner of “progress,” one of the most powerful symbols of secularization.

By progress is meant the assumption that history is of necessity heading for a future utopia.

* * *

But economic well-being has not produced paradise here on earth. The shadow cast by the Celtic Tiger is long and painful — symbolized by a society caught up in a frenzy of work and economic ambition, with increased aggressiveness, criminality, alienation, loneliness, fear, drugs, excessive drink, collapse of family life, suicide, etc. We know we are made for something more than what we experience in daily life, and yet we cannot find it — and so resort to various escape mechanisms, not least of which is work, work, work.

When the fear of God is removed, then we have cause to fear our fellow man, which can be terrifying. When we no longer try to act according to our conscience, as our faith teaches, then corruption becomes endemic.

Abandoning the search to do God’s will, we also become hopelessly conformist. Turning our backs on Church teaching, we easily become slaves to the questionable values that are fed by the media. Recently, someone said that the new begging bowl of modern Ireland is the television satellite disk, empty and waiting to be filled by the media’s questionable values — and waiting to offer us the means to escape by the boredom that seems to be endemic today.

* * *

The first challenge to the Christian in today’s Ireland is to recover the primacy of God, the primacy of the sanctification of life, the primacy of Jesus Christ in our own lives — and to propose this primacy to others, who are at present like sheep without a shepherd.

Now this is not just something theoretical nor is it a mere aspiration. It means recognizing how God is at work in various ways in Christian communities throughout the country.

Various youth movements are increasing in strength and vitality, as they discover God in a personal encounter through the mediation of other young believers, who bring them back to the sacraments. These young Christians are often decried by the Church’s liberal establishment as conservative, even reactionary. The most offensive description seems to be that they are (or want to be) orthodox.

The second challenge is to recover a sense of the beauty of the truth and a desire to search for it. Truth is ultimately transcendent, that is incomprehensible but is not unknowable, albeit we only perceive the truth in this life as in a glass darkly.

But every tiny glimpse of truth, every true insight into the human condition and into God’s self-revelation in Christ is a light that truly dispels the darkness in our souls, gives us hope, and fosters joy. This challenge includes facing up to the huge theological effort to overcome the errors of recent years and to pave the way for people to return to meditating on Scripture and becoming acquainted with the rich tradition of the Church.

Pastors and theologians are challenged to articulate a genuine Christian vision that can inspire our contemporaries and pave the way for them to encounter him who is the way, the life, and the truth. Such a vision will only be possible, when we regain our confidence that we can know the truth, and when we are open to truth, wherever it is to be found, in art, literature, music — and the great religions of the world.

* * *

The third challenge is to recover a genuine Christian spirituality, to return to the 2,000-year tradition of Christian prayer, asceticism and mysticism, which are awaiting discovery, but also to recover a proper sense of liturgical worship so that our communal worship truly is, in the words of the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, a divine liturgy, one that corresponds to the “lift up your hearts” — “Sursum corda” — of the Latin Mass. Sunday worship must be the occasion for an anticipation of eternal joy, which must also be palpable on the great festivals of the Church’s liturgical year.

The fourth challenge is to recover our sense of community at the local and/or parish level, where people feel part of a bigger entity than the family or the one-bed apartment, where there is a sense of identity with a place and tradition that gives them roots, where talent can flourish, where there is sufficient public space for those shared civilities and festivities that make life in community worth living, and where religious celebrations give meaning and substance to life in common.

* * *

The opportunities are also many. First of all, the up-and-coming generation do not seem to have the hang-ups that previous generations had about their traditional form of religion. Admittedly, they seem to be almost devoid of any substantial knowledge of Christianity, but yet they seem to be more open and so are, therefore, easier to address, ready to be persuaded.

* * *

A second opportunity is of an ecumenical nature. The effective solution of the civil war in the North, has hopefully, banished the specter of a “religious war” from our midst — and our minds. More importantly, inter-Church developments since Vatican II have been such that the traditional antagonism and distrust between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, have been largely removed. Genuine dialogue is now possible, where each side searches with the other for the common truth that unites us and will unite us in future.

The third opportunity is presented by the new influx of immigrants. Many are fellow Christians. Already, they are beginning to have an impact on the local communities, making the Churches less narrowly Irish and more consciously universal, as in the early Church. If we allow them, they can enrich our still somewhat impoverished ritual actions.

* * *

Fourthly, our new prosperity should be seen also both as an opportunity and as a challenge. It evidently gives us the means to be more generous to those less well off. It should also give us the opportunity to surrender to beauty in creation and in art. The challenge is to learn to live with prosperity without being possessed by it. This means, among other things, giving God primacy in our lives, learning again the true meaning of leisure, including the appreciation for the simple pleasures of life, such as a walk in the countryside, a game of golf, a football match, visiting an art gallery, conversation with friends, a shared meal — and, above all, learning anew the meaning of silence. We live in a noisy world, that prevents us from facing up to our deeper selves and which deafens us to the still small voice of God within.

D. Vincent Twomey, SVD

[Text adapted]