Michael Byrne reflects on his journey from vagueness and doubt towards certainty and faith, and he considers what it means to be a committed Catholic in Ireland today. Kevin O’Higgins SJ responds to Michael’s article.
There appears to be a growing sense among Catholics in Ireland of panic, pessimism and plain resignation regarding the future of their faith in the face of a more secular society and falling Mass attendance. As someone from the very generation – I’m in my early 30’s – which seems to be losing faith, I’d like to offer some reflections on the subject which may encourage a little hope. After all, our duty as Christians is clear – to exhibit hope to the world, along with those other great virtues, faith and love!
Social and cultural upheaval
If, at the time I was born, someone who was as old as I am now had stood up at a social gathering in Ireland and proclaimed themselves an atheist, the reactions might have ranged from shocked silence to bafflement to disbelief (no pun intended!). And yet, today, at the same gathering, professing oneself a Christian (or, even more a Catholic!) might provoke the same reaction, but for clearly different reasons. In other words, the social and cultural poles of Ireland have, in a sense, been reversed.
Why? Perhaps the desire to leave behind the bad old days of economic hardship and political division have caused a ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ reaction. Society in general (or do I mean the loudest voices in society, the richer elements and those who control the media?) seems to accept, if a little regretfully, that indeed ‘God’ was just a fairy-tale after all, one invented many centuries ago by clever social engineers to keep people in line with a devious mixture of the ‘carrot’ of eternal life, and the ‘stick’ of eternal damnation.
There are, I believe, other faith voices in Ireland, voices which don’t make it into the headlines so often, but which continue to carry the torch of faith, in a quiet or even totally silent way. I think of the 25,000 who climb Croagh Patrick on the 25th of July, the thousands who disrupt Galway traffic for annual Novenas, or the crowds whose response to the Omagh bomb was to fill Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral to its greatest ever capacity for a special service. Perhaps these voices don’t write for the national media, or raise the rafters with hymns every Sunday morning but they are there.
Irish people like to think of themselves as a gregarious lot, talkative and ever willing to share of their inner selves with others. I believe this is a bit of a myth (fuelled by copious amounts of that reliable social lubricant, alcohol) and that we are actually extremely private people especially about faith, and even more so today: when faith has become such a taboo subject in polite conversation. So, belief is an altogether more private affair in today’s Ireland so remote from the world of the Eucharistic Congress pageants of 1932.
The many reported incidents of unpriestlike behaviour by priests, ranging from romantic affairs to love-children and paedophilia, have obviously affected many Catholics profoundly, creating a sense of confusion and an unwillingness to be associated with such terrible hypocrisy.
It might seem to some that to take part in any sacraments of the Church would be to condone the actions of a small minority within it. And so, perhaps another nail is driven into Irish Catholicism.
Strange as it may seem, the public disclosure of these scandals may turn out to be positive for the Church. It is harder for people to get away with such acts in today’s climate.
Priests and religious have been taken down from a ridiculously high pedestal in Ireland and are now seen as real human beings trying, like their congregations, to live up to Jesus’ calling in spite of their human failings.
Also, those who remain within the Church do so with an increased sense of strength in their commitment. I vividly remember the atmosphere at a Christmas Midnight Mass some years ago after a particularly damaging series of Church-scandal revelations. The celebrant used the occasion movingly to admit how hard the year had been, and to thank all those who voiced renewed support for their clergy.
To stay loyal to one’s faith in times of ordeal is a real challenge, and that Midnight Mass had something of the flavour of the early Christian Church in Rome, not cowed by attack, but strengthened in mission.
When I attend Mass, I’m often the youngest participant by decades, and I sometimes ask myself whether, in twenty years’ time, I will be the only one! However, even after the great spiritual rebirth that I experienced in my late teens, I myself did not attend Mass regularly for years. For young people, the need to pull away from authority, be it parents, school or Church, is often overwhelming. But people return to their roots, even if only after a long time in the wilderness, and I believe that the eternal hunger for transcendence, for a real meaning to the apparent chaos of existence, will bring many back to the Church, especially as they form their own families and begin to ask themselves exactly what values they want their children to have.
In some ways, my generation is living an extended adolescence, a continued desire to escape from the responsibilities of adult life. But every adolescence must end, and the roots of faith planted deeply and securely by countless Irish families will bear fruit for many in a return to the Church.
Mass attendance may be down, but how many firm believers with deep prayer lives do we pass in the street without recognizing them as such, even if we never see them in our local Church? Meeting other members of my Christian Life Community at our weekly sessions, I often reflect that I would never have ‘pegged’ them for ‘Christians’ and they probably say the same about me!
So the next time you spot someone on the street, in a shop, in a job or on a bus with a small crucifix on a chain, ask yourself whether that ancient symbol is more than a fashion statement, and whether perhaps he or she also belongs, if only silently and privately, to that strange subversive group known as Christians.
And if you see no crucifix, ponder whether the Cross may be on the inside, invisible but a reality.
RESPONSE FROM KEVIN O’HIGGINS, S.J.
I really enjoyed reading your article. I also found it personally helpful, for various reasons.
A few years ago, I returned to Ireland after a fifteen-year absence. Most of those years were spent in Latin America, where I was nourished and inspired by a wonderfully vibrant Church. I may have thought that I was going there in order to evangelize others, but I soon had no doubt whatsoever that it was those good people who were evangelizing me.
The key to understanding why the Church there is so different is the leading role played by the laity. Unlike its Irish counterpart, the Latin American Church is not dominated by the clergy. Both in the Basic Christian Communities and in the parishes, the voice of the lay majority is heard and they participate actively in major decisions.
In the past, I always resisted attempts to differentiate too sharply between Christian faith and Church membership. However, I am more and more convinced that certain models of Church are obstacles to effective evangelization. Among those unhelpful models, I would include the kind of structure that, for far too long, has concentrated authority and decision-making in the hands of an isolated few, thereby excluding the majority of believers from active participation in the discernment of the Church’s mission.
Like yourself, I am confident that Ireland’s heritage of fifteen hundred years of Christian faith and culture will eventually prove to be more deeply rooted than present trends might indicate. If, in the past, much of our religious practice seemed shallow and even hypocritical, it seems to me that the present wave of secular chic is no less objectionable.
Be that as it may, I honestly cannot see large numbers of people returning to the model of Church that continues to predominate in Ireland. There is much talk of the people abandoning the Church, but I suspect that there is also a significant element of the Church having abandoned the people. I am confident that faithfilled people will return to active Church life when they know that their contribution is valued and effective.
The recent scandals certainly came as a shock. I wonder whether their deeper significance has been understood. A pattern of behaviour of that kind usually indicates that, beneath and beyond the personal difficulties of individuals, there lies a systemic problem which, if not addressed, will continue to manifest its presence in one kind of disorder or another. In the past, some members of the clergy were renowned for being ‘a bit odd’ or were known to have ‘a fondness for the bottle’. These recent revelations are much more serious because of the nature of the damage inflicted on others, but the underlying causes may not be very different.
I hope and pray for a new model of Church, in which committed and reflective believers like yourself will play an active and decisive role.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (Feb. 2000), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.