It was inevitable that the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland in August 2018 would prompt comparisons with the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. The dramatic contrast in the reception of the two Popes, both by media and by the Irish people at large, acts as a good barometer of religious and cultural change in the country – a change so dramatic it would be hard to exaggerate it. It is to this changed face of Catholic Ireland that the Summer 2019 issue of Studies is dedicated.
Many of the perceptive reflections in this issue look at the recent past, especially at the sexual abuse crisis which has left the Church where it is. Others look to the future to imagine how the Church must change in order to meet coming challenges. The diagnosis tends to be dire; the prognosis, however, provides some hope.
In ‘After the Pope – The Catholic Church in Ireland’, Fr Andrew McMahon is critical of the media’s failure to break out of their own ‘group-think’, or ‘consensus journalism’, when reporting on Francis. The narrative which dominated most media outlets was that all moves away from the cultural and social positions of the more Catholic Ireland of the past were good simply by virtue of their rejection of that religious culture. According to Fr McMahon, this led to a cross-the-board demonisation of the World Meeting of Families, which was the occasion of the Pope’s visit. And in line with this, the media tended to limit their response to judgements of whether the Pope had gone far enough in recognising the damage his Church had wrought in Ireland. What Francis had to say beyond this was ignored.
Gerry O’Hanlon SJ notes the considerable change in Irish public and private life between 1979 and 2018. Though, like Andrew McMahon, he notes the ‘group-think’ among commentators and he regrets the exclusion of religion from the public square, he finds ground for optimism about the future – so long, that is, as the Church finds the will and the way to change in significant respects. Fr O’Hanlon believes the Church must avoid two extremes – becoming absorbed into the prevailing culture and losing its distinctiveness, on the one hand, and becoming “so separate from ‘the world’ as to become a culturally irrelevant minority” on the other. But the signs are there, he claims, that a contrite and otherwise renewed church can emerge from the ashes of the past. Increased synodality as well as more inclusive and consequential conversations about the role of women, power, accountability, sexual morality, etc., will be needed, however, to make this future happen.
Fr Brendan Hoban also sees no future for the Irish Church without change. He views the two papal visits as bookends of the decline of Irish Catholicism, “the first falsely promising the beginning of a new glorious age of Irish Catholicism, and the latter announcing the end of a version of Catholicism no longer acceptable to the vast majority of Irish Catholics”. These, according to Fr Hoban, are “Titanic times” for the Irish Catholic Church, so “shuffling with the deckchairs is an indulgence beyond reason”.
His conclusion is that three elements are vital: “One is that change is acknowledged and accepted as a permanent condition. Two, we need ‘to live in the grey’, to converse rather than to explain. Three, we need to commit to a listening process that is ‘real, respectful and transparent'”. God, he finishes, “will look after the rest”.
Also writing here are Michael Kirwan SJ, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Loyola Institute, TCD, and Dr Kevin Hargaden, Social Theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Dublin. For Kirwan, the Church needs to grieve “properly and well” and to move beyond nostalgia for past forms of existence in Ireland. Only this way can it discover its role as undertaker of “alternative performances… of faith” – testimony, confession, proclamation, liturgy, doxology and dialogue.
Hargaden finds hope in the ruins of Irish Catholicism. “Ruins are wonderful places to worship,” he remarks. Banished to the margins, the Church can now attend to what is truly central in its life, namely, the Eucharist, the “flow of wealth it calls grace”, and “the fixity of a people called parish”.
Further contributions come from Breda O’Brien, Stephen Collins, and Bobby McDonagh.
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