House of Brigid
This past Saturday night, my Irish parish celebrated its 40th anniversary at a spectacular Mass celebrated by the Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Charles Brown, along with our bishop, parish priests, and clergy from all around our diocese. During this momentous liturgy, the nuncio formally commissioned this year’s House of Brigid volunteers, which made things extra special for us!
Teach Bhríde VI Commissioning
Archbishop Brown, a fellow Notre Dame graduate, had kindly accepted my request earlier in the week for an interview after the Mass. What follows is a beautiful, articulate, and thought-provoking summation of the Catholic Church’s current situation in Ireland, which encompasses a range of important social, theological, and ecclesial issues:
How do you think young adults perceive the Catholic Church as an institution both in Ireland and in the global community?
That’s a great question. I think, you know, that the challenge for us as Catholics is precisely to get young adults not to perceive the Church as an institution. The Church, in the end, can only be understood completely through the eyes of faith. Certainly, as your question implies, in large segments of the young adult population, the Church is seen as a human institution. It does a lot of good for people, it takes care of a lot of poor people, it’s like Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in a certain sense, or in Ireland, the GAA, which is the Gaelic Athletic Association. People see the Church as an institution, and our challenge, really, is to get young people to see that the Church is the presence of Jesus, and the Church is Him. The Church is the encounter with Jesus fundamentally in the Eucharist. And that is a non-institutional way of seeing the Church– seeing the Church not as an institution, but as the presence of Christ, seeing Him at the center of the Church, understanding the entire thing as a relationship of love between ourselves and the person of Jesus Christ.
The Church, of course, in a theological sense, She is described as the spouse of Christ. St. Paul has a beautiful imagery in his Letter to the Ephesians of the Church as His bride, “washed and made clean” in baptism. That spousal relationship between Christ and the Church, that relationship of love, that mystical relationship, that interpersonal relationship is what we need to communicate to people and get them away from seeing the Church as another human institution with its scandals, and difficulties, its structures, its money, its organization and all of that. And when people make that switch, when their eyes are opened to the reality of the Church, that God is here, that the Eucharist is Him, that in the Scriptures, He is speaking–then something changes in their hearts, and they fall in love with the Church. So that’s what our challenge is.
Recent surveys have showed a marked difference in the percentage of young adult Irish Catholics who attend Sunday Mass versus older Irish Catholics of the previous generation. As these young adults have children of their own, studies have shown that it is often the grandparents who take children to Mass. What kind of formation do you think needs to take place in order to encourage those children to continue going to Mass, and also, in turn, the parents?
Your question reflects the reality of the situation quite precisely. That’s quite clearly the situation. The Church in every country has a different history, a different heritage, a different background, a different experience. We should always remember that Ireland is the only English-speaking country in the entire world with a Catholic majority. The only Catholic, English-speaking country in the entire world– there’s no other country where everyone speaks English and is Catholic as in Ireland. It’s a bit unusual. Most of us English-speaking Catholics live as a minority, in America, in England, in Australia, and we’re used to being a minority. And I think that in some ways, there are challenges of being a minority, but there are also some advantages. Because as a Catholic, when you’re in a minority population like in America or in England, or in parts of northern Ireland, you grow up with a sense of being different. In the sense that you realize little by little that you’re Catholic and you’re not just like everybody else. That’s more difficult, that kind of mentality, in Ireland, where everybody is Catholic. Basically everybody is baptized, more or less. It’s more difficult for people to take a step back and be a little more critical of the surrounding culture, when that whole surrounding culture is basically Catholic, or was Catholic. It requires a different way of seeing things. I guess my point in simple terms is, it’s easier I think to be a Catholic in a minority population.
Being in a majority population, as in Ireland, presents its own difficulties. There certainly is the difficulty here of lower Mass attendance among young people. Overall Mass attendance in Ireland, if you look at the overall population, and the number of people at Sunday Mass, it’s not that bad at all, statistically. In fact, it’s probably about what it is in America, or maybe slightly higher here. But as your question points out, the population that’s going to Mass here would be older than the population in America. Now, we have to evangelize young people. We have to get them to become excited about the Church, in the terms in which we discussed your first question–getting them to realize that the Church is this encounter with Christ, this encounter with a living person, God made man, who loves them.
Now how do we do that if they’re not coming to Mass? One of the things which is to the advantage of the Church is that most of the schools here are Catholic schools. In fact, the great majority of schools are Catholic schools. So as part of the normal schooling, to which all the kids are coming, there is a Catholic connection to that. I think that, whereas it’s true that in Ireland there will be some Catholic schools in some areas that will be given to the State in order to run secular schools—that will happen—it’s still extremely important that that Catholic Church keeps a large number of its schools so that we can have contact with young people and their parents; because in the Catholic schools in Ireland, they’re preparing for their First Communion and Confirmation. That is a connection to people who are not practicing. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t see those people. It really is something we need to take advantage of, and see as something that really can bring people into contact with Christ.
What are some of the challenges you and the Irish Church face in promoting the New Evangelization?
The major challenge, I think, would be the legacy of scandals in the Church. Today in 2014, I can say there is NO institution anywhere in the world that has more rigorous child protection standards than the Catholic Church in Ireland. And the Church is exemplary in what it’s doing today in terms of child protection. But there’s a legacy of scandals–we’ve had two decades of scandal. We have to realize that faith is caught, not taught. When people are presented constantly for a long period of time with counter-examples, not of saints and holiness, but of criminals and failures, it creates a spiritual deadness in people’s hearts. Now how do we overcome that?
We overcome that by being zealous, by being holy, by praying, by realizing that Ireland was converted by men and women who were immersed in prayer and the liturgy–the monks and nuns. That’s how this Church began on this island– these miracle-working, ascetical men and women who went to live the monastic life, they became people of prayer, witnesses of faith, ascetical witnesses, spiritual witnesses. That’s exactly what we need: a new generation of saints in Ireland, a new generation of those kinds of people. And they are here! I’ve seen them with my own eyes. They’re not heralded, people are not writing articles about them, but there are saints in Ireland today– people who are living their faith with great generosity, with great fervor, with great commitment, and that’s what will change the situation. We have un-canonized saints who I think would be wonderful if the Church moved towards canonization, like Matt Talbot in Dublin, an amazing figure; the Jesuit Fr. John Sullivan, an incredible hero of the faith. We need to promote those figures and give people the experience of holiness, to show people that holiness is possible, in order to counteract this legacy of the scandals, where people are presented with a series of criminals and failures.
Over the past decade, the economic situation in Ireland has changed a great deal. The boom of the Celtic Tiger has given way to higher rates of unemployment and economic recession. Has there been any indication that financial difficulties have prompted a resurgence of cultivating a spiritual or liturgical life by people returning to the Church? Is there a way in which the Church can be reaching out to those whose lives have been impacted by the recession?
Well, the second part of it would be an easier question to answer. The Church does reach out to people who have been negatively impacted by the financial crisis. The amount of charitable work done by the Catholic Church in Ireland is immense: food kitchens, the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul…a huge amount is going on, largely unheralded and really very, very impressive. On a practical level, the Church is doing a lot in that area. I don’t think that the economic difficulty in itself will correlate to a spiritual rebirth, I really don’t—it’s a great question, though. I think what we need, again, are witnesses to faith, holy men and women who pray, who live their faith with conviction, who aren’t afraid to speak about their faith. That’s what will convert, and re-convert people in Ireland to the Catholic faith. The fact they’re a little bit richer or poorer…I don’t think that will have a huge effect on that. I don’t think the pure economics will have much effect on people’s faith.
What are some of the effects you’ve seen in the Irish Catholic Church since the 50th International Eucharistic Congress held here in 2012?
I think that the liturgy–for example, people used to complain, I used to hear this a lot when I was in America, actually I worked at an Irish parish in the Bronx at the beginning of my priesthood in the late ’80s. People used to say the liturgy in Ireland wasn’t celebrated with great devotion, it was kind of mechanical and rapid, with an over-emphasis on simply the ex opere operato, the idea of just doing it and getting it finished. I think the Eucharistic Congress was a tremendous gift to the Church in 2012; it focused our attention on the liturgy. I wouldn’t want to say it changed in itself the liturgical situation, but it focused our attention on the liturgy. I’ve been all over Ireland in the last almost three years–north and south, east and west–and I’ve seen the Mass celebrated with devotion, with beautiful music, with good preaching.
So I think the liturgical situation in Ireland is quite good actually, and improving, with good music, and good participation in general; of course there’s always going to be small defects here and there, that’s always the case. But I think the Eucharistic Congress helped us to focus our attention on Jesus in the Eucharist, on the dignified, reverent, prayerful celebration of the Mass. And that has been my experience of what’s going on in Ireland. People want a dignified, prayerful celebration of the Mass. You know those stories of Mass being over in 11 minutes? I’ve never seen that, and I don’t know if it happens anymore. So I think there has been a liturgical rebirth here.
Since we share an alma mater and there will be Notre Dame students, teachers, and people in the ND community reading this article on our blog, looking back on your experience as an undergraduate studying at Notre Dame, how did you find the liturgical life? Did it affect you in any particularly significant way?
I arrived at Notre Dame in the autumn of 1977. I think we would all probably say that the 1970′s were not the liturgical zenith in the Church’s history, you know? So all of the kind of trendiness of the 1970′s was in painful, cringe-worthy evidence at the time. All I would say is, that the Church in general, and Notre Dame in particular, and I’m holding in my hand this beautiful new Newman Hymnal, which is an absolute work of art, beautiful, fantastic music…I think in all honesty, the experience of liturgy at ND in the late ’70s, for me, was not spectacular. It’s gotten only better. I was actually back at Notre Dame for a sabbatical year from 2006-2007, and the liturgy was absolutely splendid. Extraordinarily beautifully celebrated. I couldn’t speak more highly about the way the liturgy is celebrated at Notre Dame now. The 1970′s were only ten years after the end of Second Vatican Council, there was a lot of euphoria, experiments going on, some of it was cringe-worthy, but a lot of it’s been purified. I think at Notre Dame now the liturgy is celebrated quite beautifully. It’s wonderful, it’s really great.
What are some of your thoughts on the value of the liturgy today?
The liturgy is our life—there’s so much one can say about that. People are converted by the liturgy. If I’m not mistaken, Cardinal Lustiger, the Cardinal of Paris—who’s now deceased, he’s gone to God–born into a Jewish family in Paris, he wandered into Notre Dame on a Holy Thursday liturgy. He saw the liturgy and basically was converted by the liturgy on Holy Thursday.
The liturgy is so important, it’s our encounter with Christ. It’s a foretaste of the life of the world to come. It should be a moment of heaven on earth, really. Liturgy does not detach us or separate us from everyday life, but it brings us into the encounter with Christ, who is our life. So I think it’s incredibly important that liturgy should be celebrated beautifully, and reverently, and prayerfully. If liturgy is celebrated prayerfully, everything else will follow. Everything else will follow. I can’t think of anything more important than celebrating the liturgy properly and beautifully.
Last question! So as people in general, and the media in particular, continue focus on declining Mass attendance, lower rates of financial contributions to the Church, and continued allegations of misconduct within the institutional Church, it can be very easy for people to become discouraged. And yet there are parishes in Ireland and throughout the world who persevere in living the Gospel and bringing the Good News to others. Where have you observed signs of this hopefulness in Ireland?
I think parish life in Ireland is undergoing a renewal. The parish where you are here in Clonard is extraordinary in what’s going on: the different ministries, the enthusiasm for the faith. That’s one very, very positive thing. There are groups in Ireland who are involved in evangelization, which are very, very effective, and very beautiful—NET Ministries, have you heard of them? They’re really great, they’re terrific, I’m a huge fan of NET ministries. There’s another group called Youth 2000, they’re great. I preached at their summer retreat– they had a thousand kids at it, and this is Ireland, too which is a small country, a thousand young people at their retreat, beautiful. A third group for young people is Pure in Heart, which is a smaller group kind of focused on St. John Paul the II and Theology of the Body, an excellent group doing great things. Another thing that’s becoming more and more widespread in Ireland, especially in certain diocese, is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Eucharistic Adoration. There is a HUGE correlation between dioceses and parishes where adoration of Christ the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is practiced and an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. There’s a lot of adoration going on in Ireland, which I think is a real sign of hope.
But your question makes clear that we also have the counter-witness that is propagated all the time by the media. Just do a very objective experiment: go to Google News, take the word “priest” and put it in Google News, now that’s a computer searching stories all over the world in English for the word “p-r-i-e-s-t.” And then look at the twenty stories and ask yourself, these stories that come up, are they positive or negative stories? Then do the same thing with the word perhaps “journalist,” and see what you find. It’s completely objective, it’s a computer doing it, so you’ll see this kind of negativity that’s being propagated, you’ll see it very clearly if you do this little experiment.
In the midst of that, we need to live our faith joyfully and courageously, as Pope Francis says so beautifully, with “contagious apostolic fervor.” That’s exactly what we need, contagious apostolic fervor. That people catch faith from us. Faith comes from hearing–what does that mean? When the disciples saw Jesus praying and they asked him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” It’s seeing people praying, it’s seeing people of faith that elicits faith in us. So we have to be people of prayer. And the liturgy is prayer par excellence, the center of prayer. And so, a lot of it comes down to the liturgy.
I have to thank His Excellency Archbishop Charles Brown for being gracious enough to take a half hour out of his incredibly busy schedule to sit down for this beautiful, enlightening interview. Archbishop Brown’s words inspire a real, tangible hope for the renewal of the Irish Catholic Church today!