THE CHURCH IN IRELAND
A presentation by
CARDINAL Seán Brady
MILWAUKEE IRISH FEST 2007
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for your warm welcome. It is a great honour to be here as part of Milwaukee Irish Fest 2007. I would like to express my particular thanks to the Committee, to Fr Michael Maher and Jane Anderson for their invitation to be here and their very generous assistance in making all the preparations for my visit. Thanks also to Archbishop Dolan for his warm welcome and hospitality. I am honoured that you could be here this evening and that we will be concelebrating the Mass for Justice and Peace tomorrow.
I don’t think I have ever come across such a wide-ranging celebration of all that is best in Irish culture: music, dance, poetry, history, politics, art, literature and so much more – a truly outstanding programme of events. As an Irish man it makes we very proud to be here. Comhghairdeas agus go raibh mile maith agaibh go leir.
The festival itself, the Féile an Phobail, has a long and cherished place in Irish culture. At the heart of it is the joy of being with others. You cannot have a festival on your own! Irish people love to celebrate life with others. Whether in the Parish or the Ceili Mor, in the pub or at the football field, we have a strong tradition of getting together to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company. Perhaps this is why our well known Patron Saint, Saint Patrick, was so successful in converting us with the shamrock. The idea of a God who was a community of persons living in what the Greek Fathers of the time called perichoresis – a circle of eternal dance – would have had an inevitable attraction to the Irish temperament! I don’t know if you knew that we were also the first to invent Karaoke – or the sing along – except we called it the ‘come-all yee’, songs written so that everyone could join in – whether you could sing or not! I am sure you heard at least a few of them over the last four days!
It seems that this reputation of the Irish as a people with a strong sense of community is not just the stuff of myth and legend! In 2005, the Intelligence Unit of the Economist magazine undertook a ‘Quality of Life’ survey. I covered the 111 most developed countries of the world. The survey combined data on incomes, health, unemployment, climate, political stability, job security, gender equality and what the magazine calls “freedom, family and community life.” To the surprise of many, it was Ireland which emerged with a top score of 8.33, well ahead of second-place Switzerland. The U.S. slipped to 13th place in the survey. Some big economies fared quite badly. China was in the lower half of the league at 60th, while Russia scraped in toward the bottom at 105th. The U.K. ranked the lowest out of the E.U. in terms of overall quality of life, chiefly due to the high rates of social and family breakdown recorded in official statistics.
What is worthy of note is the reason given by the report for Ireland’s success. “Ireland wins,” the survey said, “because it successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new (including the fourth highest gross domestic product per head in the world, low unemployment, political liberties etc.) with the preservation of certain cozy elements of the old, such as stable family and community life.”
There are echoes here of something I read about Milwaukee on an internet tourist site: ‘The city,’ it said, ‘is unique in the way it continues to blend the old and the new.’ There are also echoes of the parable in which Our Lord compares the Kingdom of God to the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old!’ (Mt 13:52).
It is certainly within this tension between old and new that the Catholic Church in Ireland, North & South, finds itself. Ireland is in the throws of a rapid transition between old and new at so may levels: economic, cultural, political, social and of course religious.
I thought the best way to proceed this evening is to describe some of the key elements of this transition in quite broad terms and then I am happy to take questions along with my two Colleagues here, Fr John Quinn and Fr John O’Donnell.
Together we have many years experience of priestly ministry and so together we would be happy to fill in some of the details about what is of most interest to you during the questions.
The first major axis of transition in Irish society in recent years, I would suggest, has been what I would describe as – ‘The erosion of external authority’;
The attitude to Polticians, Gardai, Financial Institutions, the Church and other traditional sources of social and moral authority in Ireland has changed dramatically in recent years.
This was a result, in part, of the multitude of investigations, many of them still ongoing, in to how these institutions had managed their affairs.
Nothing has yet emerged to replace the cohesion and stablity that these institutions once brought.
They have been partly replaced by the ‘authority’ and influence of the ‘mass media’ – the commentariat!
Though there may be signs that they too are losing their easy grip – people are becoming more cynical about the motives of the media. Afer all, the bottom line for the media is circulation and audience figures rather than the good of society. This may take time though.
In terms of the Church, the impact of the last thirty years has been particularly dramatic, no doubt because its role in society, at both religious and secular levels had been so comprehensive.
The Catholic Church in Ireland had always been characterised by a high level of religious practice, unique in Europe. A sense of Christian faith was woven into the Irish psyche. It even manifested itself in the day to day expressions of the Irish language which came as second nature to us. The authority of the Church was unquestionned. Bishops, priests and religious were treated with great reverence and respect. Too much revenece and respect! Polticians and the media would have been slow to go against the position of the Church on a given issue.
All of this has changed dramatically in the last thirty years and increasingly so in the last decade. The seeds of it were already evident in the challenges to the position of the Church in key public votes on social and moral issues in the 70’s and 80’s. The slow decline in the very high rates of weekly Mass attendance, the trauma and scandal around revelations of clerical child sexual abuse accelerated this process dramatically in 1990’s.
While at the beginning of the 1970’s weekly Mass attendance would have been as high as 90%, now it would be closer to 50% (though it is worth bearing in mind that this is still high by European standards) and vocations to the priesthood and religious life have fallen dramatically in the same period (though there are still more priests in Ireland than there were during the famine or the penal times). Major restructuring of Parishes is imminent in many Dioceses.
In this sense it may be accurate to say that in Ireland there is a crisis in religion. If we take religion as a body of doctrine and a system of practice, then we see the decline.
For this reason it is a time of great challenge for the Church and but also of great opporunity for the Church. There are also many signs of hope! I will come to these at the end.
The second axis of change I would describe as the challenge of ‘Peace and Prosperity’:
First of all let me say a little about the Peace Process In the North:
You will no doubt be aware of the dramatic and positive developments in the search for peace in Northern Ireland in recent months. I hope to speak a little more about it during my sermon tomorrow. But suffice to say for the present that the speed with which peace and stability has taken root has been remarkable. All the evidence is that the new Power-sharing Assembly at Stormont in Belfast is working very well. People are taken aback at how well former adverseries such as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are working together in the common interest.
As some of you will know I had my own historic meeting with Doctor Paisley only a few months ago. It was a very positive experience. We discovered that we shared the same views on many social issues including poverty, the importance of marriage and the family, the right to religious freedom, to faith based education and so on. It was another example of how much is to be gained from simply meeting with others. Patient dialogue, developing mutual understanding was one of the keys to finding peace in Northern Ireland.
We have also had the quiestest marching season for many years. Just last week the British Army officially ended what was known as ‘Operation Banner’. This was the name for the British Army’s role in Northern Ireland since the start of the Troubles in 1969.
The tourist figures for Northern Ireland have risen dramatically this year. We should not be surprised – it is a very beautiful place. I hope that many of you will come and visit. It was the support of others from outside, especially those like yourselves with an interest in the Irish situation which made a critical difference in the search for peace.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support for the Irish peace process. For your prayers and for the active engagement of so many US citizens and political representatives in supporting initiatives for peace. You too deserve not only the credit for what has been achieved but also the gratitude of people like myself and others who now enjoy a whole new atmosphere of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
I would also like to take this opportunity to commend the Irish Government for establishing an intiative on International Conflict Resolution by which the lessons of the NI peace process can be shared across the world.
You can actually feel the better atmosphere around cities like Belfast and Derry. You can really sense the new optimism.
What we now need to do is build on the peace. We need to address the legacy of the past, particularly in terms of the legacy of poverty. Northern Ireland remains one of the most deprived parts of Europe because of the legacy of conflict. Yet it has one of the most highly qualified workforces and one of the best infrastructures to support development of any part of Ireland or the UK. I hope that many of you will encourage US companies and entrepeneurs to invest in Northern Ireland. I call on the British Government to provide further incentives to such investment, including bringing Corporation Tax into line with the rate in the South of Ireland.
Northern Ireland is part of the good news of modern Ireland. I believe that there are many lessons about making peace there which can contribute to the search for peace in other parts of the world. You may wish to ask me more about this during the questions!
Now let me say a litte about the growth of prosperity in the South:
Ireland, as the Economist ‘Quality of Life’ survey suggests, has experienced unprecedented economic growth in the last twenty years. This is fantastic and very welcome achievement for a country that for too long was marked by economic emigration, not least to the United States. We should thank God for this prosperity and its manifold benefits. I am confident that, despite the normal ups and down of economic fortune, Ireland will continue to be one of the most prosperous countries of the world because its prosperity is rooted in the great talent of its young people and in the standard of our education.
This present prosperity has certainly lifted the burden of hopeless impoverishment from many families. It has provided and enhanced social services to the public and fuelled much investment on infrastructure. We now see Irish people displaying talents of enterprise and business acumen quite unsuspected a generation ago. We have also experience the benefits of increased economic migration into Ireland of people from across the expanded European Union. It is estimated that there are over 300,000 workers in Ireland who have come from Poland in the last ten years. That is very sizeable when one considers that we have a population of 4 million. Other migrant and ethnic groups are also increasing rapidly in number making Ireland much more ethnically diverse.
One of the many benefits of this increased migration is that many of the new Irish who have come to our shares come with a very strong faith commitment. In many of our inner city Parishes it is the new migrant communities who have brought new life to the faith of these parishes.
However, for all the benefits of our new found prosperity, there is a real danger that we are becoming intoxicated with it and with the confidence it instills that there is more of the same ahead. It is the ideal atmosphere. Prophets of doom will not get a hearing. We currently have a young generation which has not had to cope with hardship or with any downturn on their life expectations.
And this brings me to the third axis.
The third axis of change I would describe as ‘The new challenges to old values’:
Along with increased prosperity, have come new challenges to the very values which the Economist ‘Quality of Life’ survey suggested gave us the highest score – the values of family and community.
While it would be wrong to exaggerate it, there is growing concern about evidence of a gradual breakdown in social cohesion. This comes from a cultural shift from emphasis on community and family to an emphasis on the happiness of the individual, particularly of the individual as a consumer. It is also tied up with a notion of freedom of the individual without reference to our responsibility to the common good that is so prevalent in Western culture at the moment.
Some of the evidence of this gradual breakdown in social cohesion is the dramatic increase in the levels of violent crime, including the number of murders committed on an annual basis. There is also evidence of increasing use of illegal drugs and with it has come the phenomenon of gangland killings, something largely unknown in Ireland’s past.
In addition to to increasing use of illegal drugs, you will not be surprised to know that our young people have some of the highest levels of alcohol addiction in Europe. There is a dangerous and alarming culture of binge drinking in which it is assumed by so many young people that you cannot go out and enjoy yourself for the evening without getting drunk!
I am conscious that Milwaukee is known for its association with some of the biggest beer brewing companies in the world. I hope you forgive me for taking this opportunity for saying that I do not believe that companies producing alcohol and making huge profits from it, whether in Ireland or the US, are doing enough to promote responsible drinking or to provide support for those trying to recover from addiction!
One other factor which is undermining the values of family and community is the phenomeon of ‘Time Poverty’. To keep up with the consumer demands associated with our new levels of prosperity, people now have to have two incomes in the home, have to travel further and for longer to get to work and have less time to spend with family or doing ‘community’ based activities. All of this is adding to the stress and pressure of life. People may have more, but there is a danger that they may not have time to enjoy it.
It may be that underlying the prosperity, what should be the gains in quality of life and happiness are being lost to stress and the pressure of consumerism! At its most serious, this can lead to a despair about the effort needed to keep up with others, to buy a home (Ireland has some of the highest house prices in the world). It can lead to increasing social isolation, the breakdown of community.
Perhaps the most tragic evidence that something fundamental is changing in terms of the ‘Quality of Life’ in Irish society, is the unprecendented levels of suicide, notably among the young. The reasons for this tragic increase in suicides is complex and needs further detailed analysis. However, it is difficult to believe that is not connected, at least to some extent, by the move away from those values which give meaning and purpose to life beyond the material. It is a real warning sign, along with the increase in violent crime, in alcohol and drug abuse, that any cosy assumption that our wealth will bring us a better quality of life is unfounded.
Other critical issues including the increasing between the rich and the poor. It is one thing to achieve prosperity. It is another thing to ensure that it is distributed fairly!
Similarly, while the new ethnic and cultural diveristy of Ireland brings with it many benefits, many people find living with such diversity a real challenge. Trajically Ireland, north and South, is not without its quota of hate crimes based on ethnicity and country of origin!
The Economist survey tells us what the Church, through the message of the Gospel, has always held was true, that we need wealth with values that challenge us and draw us into community, if we are to find happiness.
We need to avoid the danger of a shift to superficiality in Irish life and culture and to value those things which bring depth and meaning to our lives such as family, faith, friendship and community. These too are worthy of our investment!
And this brings me to the fourth and final axis.
The fourth and final axis I would describe as ‘Signs of Hope for the New Millennium’;
Some of these I have mentioned already, including the developments in the peace process in the North, the faith brought by many of the new migrant communities and the welcome benefits of increased prosperity.
A number of others, however, are worthy of mention:
– The new Church-state dialogue.
– The efforts to deal with the past in Northern Ireland – the efforts to move beyond political agreement into the deeper and more Christian concepts of reconciliation and the healing of memory – Commission established to do this – work of NICCOSA.
– Level of joint work between the Churches, not least because of need to work together for Peace in Northern Ireland – IICM, Four Church leaders etc.
In terms of the many signs of hope within our own Church:
We think of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, with its 10,000 volunteers, 900 Conferences, 132 shops for very inexpensive clothes and its 920 housing units.
We think of the work of ACCORD, the Catholic Marriage Advisory Service and find that most people do a pre-marriage course before getting married.
We think of the renewal in growth of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and the Legion of Mary.
The Church also continues to make a huge contribution to Education and Health. Much of Ireland’s economic success has been due to the quality of our education system in which the Church plays a key part.
The Church also has a key role in developing many community facilities and events in terms of sport, recreation and charitable activities.
There are increasing numbers of local prayer groups, scripture meetings, the development of programmes of Family Ministry and Adult Faith development.
A recent Government survey on ‘Active Citizenship’ acknowledges that it is the Church and sporting organisations which are contributing most to building a sense of community at the local level. Bearing in mind the Economist surveys link between quality of life and values of family and community, this influence of the Church on social cohesion is a critical factor in ensuring that quality of life into the future.
First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation continue to be very big events. One of the most popular events is Cemetary Sunday.
I heard recently of a group of over 1000 young people attending a weekend retreat at our National Marian Shrine in Knock, Co. Mayo. Many young people enthusiastically volunteer as helpers to the sick on Diocesan Pilgraimges to Lourdes.
Ø We also have increasing numbers of lay people who are qualified in the study of theology at University level and large numbers of young people applying to do theology.
Ø Compared to thirty years ago we have so many more lay people actively involved in various ways in their local Parish – on Pastoral Councils, Finance Committees, as lay readers, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, catechists and so on.
Ø In short, there are many signs that the seeds of future growth of the faith are firmly taking root in the new Ireland. The exact shape and direction of that growth may not yet be clear but its presence is without doubt.
Ø Elements of the media give the impression that the Church is dying. In the words of Tom Sawyer, I would reply that ‘All rumours of our death are greatly exaggerated!’
Ø Perhaps somoetimes we forget that our greatest strength is that we have the answer to the deepest questions of peoples lives: who am I? why am I here? What ought I to do? What will happen to me when I die? These questions have not gone away and lurk behind the façade of what often appear to be contented but actually quitre stress filled Irish lives. I am always mindful myself amidst the challenges of change in Ireland of those powerful words of St. Peter – ‘Lord to whom shall we go, you have the message of eternal life’. Young people in Irleand, as elsewhere, have a very global sense. These also have a sense of the fragility of the planet in terms of Global Warming and the nuclear threat. They have a moral sense of the need for solidarity and a passion for Justice. This is deep soil in which the Gospel, presented and lived with confidence and conviction can take root.
There is clear evidence to my mind that many people are getting tired of the emptiness and stress of a life built predominantly on secular and consumerist values.
It may be smaller Church in future but it may also be a more authentic one – ironically, a smaller but more authentic Church may have more influence, more impact because of the integrity of its witness.
Conclusion: Drawing our future treasure from what is both old and new!
So, perhaps the best way to summarise the overall situation of the Church in Ireland at at the moment is in the words of Charles Dickens – ‘It was the best of times and the worst of times’. We have unprecedented properity, the Celtic Tiger, and we have unprecedented political stability in Northern Ireland. All of this is really good news, a solid foundation for a better future. But just as the darnel can grow up alongside the wheat, it is clear from what I have described that many new challenges also lie ahead.
The fundamental challenge in my view is for modern Ireland to retain the balance between the best of the old and the best of the new. This includes taking steps to build community and support for marriage and the family. It requires moving to a new maturity in public and media debate, where the importance of faith in the lives of so many Irish people, including many of the new Irish, is given due recognition and respect by the new forces of Irish culture.
I believe that there are increasing signs that the secular project in Ireland has failed. It has failed to bring the happiness it promised or the answers to the really important questions of people’s lives. I also believe that the inherent beauty and depth of the Catholic faith and the timeless message and example of its founder, is once again appealing to the hearts and minds of many, not least the young.
has been its ability to hold together the best of the old and of the new. The Church, which draws from the Scriptures a treasure which is both old and new, has an indepensible part to play in maintaining this quality of life.
In this regard the words of your own President Theodore Rosevelt, whose name is forever linked to this city, have a timely relevance for the people of Ireland, indeed of the world:
‘In this actual world a churchless community, a community where people have abandoned and scoffed at or ignored their religious, is a community on rapid downgrade…. The person who does not in some way connect with some active, working Church, misses many opportunities for helping his neighbours, and therefore, incidentally, for helping himself.’
Thank you for your attention.
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