When Pope St. John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979, he did so amid a sea of unprecedented euphoria. More than half the population attended his open-air masses in Dublin, Galway, and Limerick. The papal pilgrimage to one of the last bastions of European Catholicism was nothing short of a triumph, comparable in many ways to the Pope’s historic journey to Poland earlier that same year. Beneath the surface, however, the cracks in the once monolithic Irish Church were already beginning to appear. Prior to the Pope’s arrival, the Irish hierarchy issued an information booklet in which it lamented a sharp decline in vocations and religious apathy among the young. That is why those who prepared the Pope’s speeches and homilies for the Irish visit would stress the corrosive effects of materialism and secularism on the spiritual values of the country. Those evils paled, however, in contrast to that which would eventually shatter the moral and spiritual integrity of the Church.
As the Pope vested for a youth Mass on Galway Racecourse, two clerics were engaged in a warm up act before the vast crowd. The then Bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey, and famous ‘singing priest’ Fr. Michael Cleary, were widely regarded as the progressive face of the clergy. In time, they would both be exposed as fathers of their housekeepers’ children. Both men signified the moral hypocrisy of so many of the Church’s ministers. Moreover, we now know, thanks to the litany of horrors revealed in countless reports on clerical abuse in various dioceses, that the ‘smoke of Satan’ was already well established in the Irish Church by the time Pope John Paul II knelt and kissed Irish soil in 1979.
In my book Why Be a Catholic? (Bloomsbury, 2011), I suggested that the abuse crisis in Ireland was fomented in large part by dire seminary formation. My own involvement in seeking to expose the sad state of Irish seminaries—a full account of which I also provide in that book—brought the issue to national attention. However, despite Pope Benedict XVI ordering an Apostolic Visitation to the seminaries in 2011, that issue was not generally perceived as being significant in the context of such appalling disclosures. Fuelled by a highly partisan media, the Irish public blamed the Vatican and Pope Benedict for what was fast becoming a tsunami of sordid revelations. Despite mounting evidence that the Vatican was, at the very least, aware of what was going on in Ireland, the fact remains that it is not the Vatican but local bishops who are responsible for the training, placement, and conduct of their priests. That is why, at the height of the crisis in 2011, Benedict appointed his long-time collaborator at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Charles Brown, as apostolic nuncio to Ireland. In so doing, the Pope could have eyes on the ground rather than relying on the word of the now discredited Irish bishops.
When I met Archbishop Brown for a private meeting shortly after his arrival, we both agreed that the key to a thriving Church—even one as morally decimated as that in Ireland—is good bishops. He invited me to propose names of those whom I believed would be best suited to the task. In the end, he did not appoint the priests I suggested, but those he did elevate seemed somewhat more promising than their predecessors. Indeed, in 2013, I travelled to Normandy to give a lecture entitled “Reclaiming the Irish Church,” in which I praised Archbishop Brown for giving new hope to the faithful remnant. It quickly became clear, however, that, with few notable exceptions, the new hierarchy would rather retreat than fight the good fight.
I say that because, rather than defy a woke culture that has successfully campaigned for all its pet causes, they virtue signal from the side-lines, fearing to offend those who would rather see the Church perish than thrive. This, of course, is sharply exacerbated by the fact that the Church squandered its moral authority by permitting such evil to fester among its ranks. Even now, fresh revelations regarding historic abuse by religious orders are dominating the headlines. How, therefore, can a church swamped in such moral squalor preach to an enlightened public, so many of whom were abused by countless Irish priests, nuns, and brothers? How can an institution, whose credibility has been so damaged, hope to survive in a culture that is so antithetical to its very existence?
The answer is certainly not by embracing a watered-down woke version of the Gospel. Neither is it by closing churches, restricting the sacraments, or by apocalyptically predicting its own demise. Despite all its woes, the Irish Catholic Church still has a deeply faithful lay remnant. It is also served by many fine priests who, despite little diocesan support and a hostile climate, continue to labour tirelessly in the vineyard of the Lord. Most are elderly and well passed retirement age, but they steadfastly refuse to abandon their dwindling flock.
Others, however, seem quite prepared to accept that the Church’s future is bleak and that fighting for its survival is in vain. This is evidenced in the fact that they take days off from offering public Mass, barely offer the Sacrament of Confession, and keep their churches closed except when celebrating the liturgy. Surely the correct response to a church in decline is not to expedite its demise by withholding the sacraments, but to knuckle down and offer more of Christ to His people. The imperative is to fight for the Faith without fear of consequence, rather than responding helplessly and without hope. It is certainly not to follow the example of Archbishop of Tuam, Francis Duffy, who recently warned: “The one certainty is the ongoing and sustained decline both in the numbers who practice, and in the numbers of those who answer the Lord’s call to priesthood and religious life.”
Lest we forget, the Irish bishops are also heirs of the Apostles, men who sought to establish a fledgling church in circumstances far more challenging than those faced by their successors. Just consider St. Paul’s experiences as missionary to the Gentiles:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24-28)
In his determination to see the fledgling Church survive, Paul endured inhuman persecution. He did not sit back and wring his hands in the face of a hostile culture. Neither did he despair when facing seemingly insurmountable odds. Rather, for the sake of Christ, he was “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” As he proudly proclaimed: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” If his Irish successors were to emulate Paul, they would not cower before those who would ‘cancel’ them. Neither would they seek to appease their opponents by sacrificing the Gospel so as not to offend woke sensitivities.
Consider, for example, the case of Fr. Seán Sheehy, who recently preached a homily on sin and the redemptive love of God. The homily, which received global attention, specifically mentioned homosexuality, abortion, and transgenderism. However, the Bishop of Kerry, in whose diocese the homily was preached, responded by condemning Fr. Sheehy, removing him from ministry in the diocese, and stating in a formal apology: “The views expressed do not represent the Christian position.” Are we to conclude from this that a Catholic priest is now forbidden to speak in Ireland about sin and salvation during Sunday Mass, for fear of who he might offend? If so, let me ask whether the following statement also ought to be forbidden:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked when you were living in them. But now you must put them away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.
Those are the views of St. Paul as stated in his letter to the Colossians—a letter in which he urges his readers to abandon their sinful lives in favour of the new life which Christ purchased for them on the Cross.
Are we to contend that Paul, who wrote two thirds of the New Testament, is out of step with the Christian position? Are we to believe that his teachings—which, as he wrote, he “received through a revelation of Jesus Christ”—are no longer tolerable because they preach against sin? If so, what did Christ come to save us from? He certainly did not come to make us comfortable with sin, but to liberate us from it. As Paul writes:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin … Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
If, however, a priest in contemporary Ireland follows Paul in preaching against sin, he is not only condemned by fellow clergy and his bishop, but also by the Prime Minister, his deputy, and the media.
Contemporary Ireland doesn’t do sin because, in the new religion of equality and inclusivity, everything must be permitted. Those who subscribe to the Christian scriptures, however, must contend with the stark reality of sin, otherwise they remain in bondage to it. Christ, however, did not come to leave us broken and fallen, but to recreate us through the cleansing of Calvary. What he nailed to the Cross was sin itself, for, as Paul explains, “He who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” We were slaves to the law of sin and death, but now, having died and risen with Christ in baptism, we are no longer “debtors to the flesh.” Rather, having received the “Spirit of adoption,” we are now “children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”
Any other understanding of the issue is simply a denial of the Gospel. That is why it defies credulity that a Catholic bishop would decree that a sermon preached against sin is not the “Christian position.” Listen, however, to what Paul says to those who would distort the Gospel, and thus deny the offence of the Cross, in order to seek the “approval of man”:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-10)
Does all this mean that Ireland has fallen? Does it mean that we have completely abandoned our Christian values and heritage, and that the Church is beyond all hope? Not entirely. In those parishes and communities where the beauty of the true Gospel continues to shine thanks to committed and fearless pastors, the flame of faith burns brightly. I know of one thriving parish, for example, that offers at least two Masses per day, that never shuts its doors, and whose priests are rarely absent from the confessional. In their preaching, they make no concessions to the world, but speak passionately of the salvific love of the Redeemer, and what we can become in accepting that love and grace. That there is a constant stream of penitents waiting in line for confession is no surprise, for when the faith is preached authentically people will always respond accordingly.
The current crop of Irish bishops was not responsible for the abuse crisis. That is why they need to stop talking as though the Church were already dead and follow St. Paul in keeping it alive by the means that Christ has given her. They might start by supporting their priests and by preaching the Gospel rather than trying to “please man.”
In his final address to the Irish people during his visit in 1979, Pope John Paul II cried out: “Ireland, semper fidelis! Always faithful!” Even then, however, the Ireland to which the Pope was referring was already part of history. What would unfold in the intervening decades, however, could not have been predicted even by those who foresaw the waning influence of the Church on Irish life. Today, Ireland is barely a Christian country, let alone a Catholic one. It is the woke capital of Europe—a country in which equality and entitlement are the new cardinal virtues, and one in which religion dares not speak.
In the face of this radical transformation, the Church must recover its vocation as guardian of the Gospel of truth. In such times of moral and spiritual turmoil, the Church has traditionally stood against those who would destroy it, even to the point of martyrdom. Rarely has it acquiesced with forces opposed to the Gospel, which is why it has always served as a beacon of hope in the midst of darkness. That is why, in this moment of existential crisis, the Irish Church must opt for courage over cowardice. It must stop trying to appease the prevailing culture and defend genuine Gospel values. To do otherwise is, as St. Paul says, to seek the approval of man over God—a position which will only hasten the Church’s decline.
It is only when the Irish bishops rediscover their calling as “ambassadors of Christ” and stop trying to cancel the “offence of the Cross,” that they will provide true hope to the faithful. Only then will they be able to proclaim with Paul: “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”