Dear Archbishop Brown

Dear Archbishop Brown archbishop charles john brown
David Quinn offers an analysis of the Irish Church for the new papal nuncio

 

First of all, welcome to Ireland. You arrive at a crucial point in the history of the Catholic Church in this country. Everyone wishes you well in your new job although there will be many different opinions as to what ‘doing well’ means exactly.

Accordingly you will receive many different opinions as to the state of the Church and about what needs to be done to improve things.

However, as with the dire state of our economy, there are a number of facts that are beyond dispute.

One is that levels of weekly Mass attendance stand at around a third of the population.

You can add another 10-15 per cent to that figure who go roughly monthly. Different surveys throw up different results, but this figure is in the ballpark.

It won’t surprise you that there is great variation in this figure by region and social class. Mass attendance in rural areas and middle class areas is higher than in urban areas and working class areas. Dublin is the most secular part of the country.

Vocations are dismally low and sometimes it is hard to hold on to the few vocations we have. For example, Dublin has very few vocations compared with its size and it has lost quite a lot of the men it had in formation.

Levels of general religious knowledge in the population are low. According to a poll commissioned by The Iona Institute (which I head), a third of 15- to 24-year-olds can’t tell you what the Church celebrates at either Christmas or Easter. Only 5pc can name the first commandment.

Basic

Barely a third of this age group can correctly say how many Gospels there are, and only half can name the Holy Trinity. This is very basic stuff.

In terms of public attitudes towards the Church, another poll commissioned by The Iona Institute (admittedly in the aftermath of the publication of the Cloyne Report) found that a quarter of people would like to see the Catholic Church completely disappear from Irish life.

About half said they viewed the Church unfavourably and only a quarter said they viewed it favourably.

On the other hand, just under half said they believed Church teachings were still generally of benefit to society as against 31pc who have the contrary view.

Archbishop Brown, you will also find that the traditional devotions remain strong in Ireland. For example, there are prayer groups up and down the country.

Huge numbers turn out for novenas, especially in rural areas and in particular for the annual Knock novena.

Numbers going to Lough Derg remain strong and the annual climb up Croagh Patrick is still very popular.

Bishops

As for the Irish hierarchy, most people agree that we need a new generation of bishops who can present a fresh face to the public after the battering the Church has rightly received over the scandals.

But this is probably where agreement about the Church stops, with the basic facts, because as with the economy there are numerous conflicting opinions as to what should be done to fix things.

Speaking personally, I would like to see the appointment of strong, brave and dynamically orthodox bishops who can offer strong leadership to a demoralised laity.

The sort of bishop that would do very well in Ireland I believe would be someone in the mould of the late Cardinal Tom Winning of Glasgow.

Scotland, in fact, is increasingly well served by its bishops. Cardinal Keith O’Brien has proven to be braver and more outspoken than anyone predicted when he was given the red hat, and Bishop Philip Tartaglia, tipped as the next archbishop of Glasgow, is excellent.

It seems obvious that a lot more needs to be done to promote vocations and increase basic knowledge of the Faith.

For example, how many dioceses really have a proper vocations programme in place? How many priests actively promote vocations? How many bishops do so? How many bishops go into schools and universities to call on young men to consider becoming priests?

Why is it that the Dominicans are good at attracting vocations? What are they doing that other orders are not doing?

It goes without saying that the Church needs more and more lay involvement, but it can’t do without priests.

Catechetics

Opinions differ as to the quality of catechetics on offer in schools. I tend to think it is pretty poor in the main, but even if it was excellent, parents need to do an awful lot more to teach their kids the basics.

In fact, parents should assume their children know next to nothing and go from there. How can we revive the faith when a growing number of people don’t know the first thing about it?

So much more needs to be said, for example about the relationship between Church and State, about the rise of an ugly and aggressive secularism, about the generally poor morale of laity and clergy, but also about the fact that many Catholics are crying out for a revitalised Church and are eager to help.

There is only so much that can be expected of a nuncio, no matter how willing and able he is. But in order to do anything, he has to diagnose the situation correctly, and this, Archbishop Brown, is my very brief and no doubt in some ways flawed analysis of the Church in Ireland today.