Rediscovering a healthy Irish Catholicism for a secular Ireland

Rediscovering a healthy Irish Catholicism for a secular Ireland
Glenstal Abbey offers a road map to living the Faith well in modern Ireland, writes Garry O’Sullivan

I was speaking to a prominent Catholic public figure recently who lamented the dramatic disappearance of Catholic life from the public sphere. A bit like predictions around melting glaciers, the decline has evidently become more an avalanche than the expected slow melt.

Availability of talent and interest seem to have all but dried up making it harder to have a solid thoughtful Catholic public presence in our society.

Into this growing vacuum enters the big unanswered questions, most prominently: where now for Catholicism in Ireland?

Well, my humble suggestion is that Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick is a good starting point for finding answers to that difficult search.

We in Columba books spent the last year with the monks capturing their daily lives in and around the monastery, and indeed behind the normally private enclosure. What emerges in the book Glenstal Abbey – Through the Seasons is a vibrant, diverse and challenging community of Faith that is built around three hours of prayer every day. Former Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman calls it “showcasing an alternative way of living on this planet running on wind energy – the wind of the Holy Spirit”.


Glenstal is, as another former Abbot there once described it, “an oasis in an increasingly secular world”. His thesis is that as vocations continually decline and priests are no longer available for local parish duties, the laity will increasingly look to monasteries as pockets of vibrant Catholicism much the way they were in early Irish Christianity.

One of the attractions for myself and so many others who have visited Glenstal is the vibrancy, especially of the liturgies. They are well planned and rehearsed and the execution is perfect. It is not rushed but doesn’t feel too long either. The sense of a place of prayer is manifest. The sense of a place of solidity, anchored with strength in numbers to guarantee continuity is reassuring to those used to parishes closing or threatened with closure.

Glenstal is, as another former Abbot there once described it, ‘an oasis in an increasingly secular world’”

Glenstal has always been at not just the liturgical frontier in its avowed following of the Holy Spirit; intellectually and artistically there is the freedom for deep thinking, speculative scholarly musing and artistic exploration, all balanced by study and academic rigour.

Their resident artist monk is doing a doctorate on questions involving the need for contemporary liturgical art to adapt to Chrisitan iconography in terms of postmodern recontexualisation. Better him than me.

Another monk is a scientist and theologian and is grappling with the scientific notion that the world will end and yet as Christians we pray ‘world without end’ every day in the Glory Be – Theology and Science in a fraught but inescapable dance and embrace.

Another monk Bro. Colmán is a medieval scholar and prolific writer with a beautiful turn of phrase.

But it’s not all reading and erudition in Glenstal – there’s food to be put on the table. Fr Simon keeps bees and they provide honey and wax for candles used in the church. The Headmaster takes care of and oversees the education of the boys in the boarding school. Chalices and patens used in the liturgy are cast in silver by Fr James and Fr Henry in their workshop. Bro. Ciaran is one of Ireland’s best-known wood turners.

One of the attractions for myself and so many others who have visited Glenstal is the vibrancy, especially of the liturgies”

Fr Philip keeps the hens safe from foxes, while Fr Christopher welcomes and tends to the needs of guests to the monastery all year long. Bro. Padraig bakes gorgeous bread and is a wonderful cook.

Fr Placid is the world’s oldest ordained monk who escaped the Nazis in Rome and Vichy France to hitch a ride in a flying boat back to Ireland, his life story something more at home in a James Bond book than a monastery.

There are too many fascinating individuals to name in this limited space.

And then finally there’s the Abbot who from his rostrum has to somehow conduct this large and varied ‘orchestra’ of unique individuals while trying to ascertain what the unruly Holy Spirit is up to at the back in the wind section.

Glenstal Abbey – Through the Seasons is not just a wonderful insight into the world of a modern Irish abbey and its monks, it’s a road map to developing a mature and deeply Irish Catholic Christian identity in a recently secularised society. A Catholicism that is not petty, ashamed of the gift of sexuality or the body made in God’s image and likeness, or obsessed with moral infractions instead of mercy and forgiveness, or intolerant of difference or intellectual discovery or marked by deep clericalism.

In short, Glenstal for all its wonders and faults has the potential through their lived incarnational Christianity, to offer an open-armed embrace to those wanting a lived example of modern Irish Catholic Christianity in tune with its ancient Irish Celtic roots and interpreted and lived radically for the broader Irish church.

Christians want to be engaged by example and lived experience that is appropriate and challenging to the busy rat race lives all of us contend with. Glenstal can lead the way. It won’t suit everyone, but for those who are searching or lamenting, as St Benedict says: “He who has ears for hearing, let him listen.”

Glenstal Abbey – Through the Seasons is available from For media and other inquiries, contact Mahak Verma, marketing executive for Columba Books