Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last week a major conference on the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland took place at the Milltown Institute in Dublin. Theologians, psychologists, sociologists and journalists were among the contributors. The following column is an excerpt from my address to the conference:
“March 9, 2011 was a significant day in the history of Irish politics. Fine Gael took over from Fianna Fail as the largest party in Dáil Éireann. For Fianna Fáil it was a painful experience. Exactly 79 years before, Eamon de Valera formed his first government. In the intervening years his party had remained the dominant one in our political system, in office for over 60 years. Now the party faces an uneasy future, a decimated gaggle on inhospitable opposition benches.
Listening to an RTÉ commentator make the connection between the two dates, I reflected on another institution that in 1932 was even more powerful than Fianna Fáil, which is now also in the doldrums - The Catholic Church.
As today a Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was pending in 1932. The 1932 congress was a triumphant Ard-Fhéis for Irish Catholicism. It celebrated the church’s emergence from the somewhat catacomb existence of the 18th century penal law experience. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave the church a tremendous psychological boost.
New churches and educational institutions sprouted throughout the countryside. Striking cathedrals came to dominate our rural towns and cities. Pious devotions, imported from the continent, attracted fervent followers. They replaced the lyrical Gaelic prayers which had been the mainstay of people’s spiritual lives for centuries,
Vocations to the priesthood and religious life rose dramatically. Just one statistic - in 1800 there were 200 nuns in Ireland; a century later there were over 10,000. The Mayo Novelist, George Moore, in his autobiography ‘Hail and Farewell’, commented that nothing in Ireland thrives like a convent, a pub and a race meeting, Such was the vocations surge that the Irish Church began to establish, through its missionaries, spiritual outposts throughout the world.
By the start of the 20th century the church was a major power in the provision of education and medical services in the country.
Participation increased its power. Cut off from the influence of the Protestant majority in the North, the new Irish State was overwhelmingly Catholic. Soon elements of Catholic moral theology started to colour deeply our laws and our constitution.
So the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 was a festive fusion of resurgent Catholicism and Irish nationalism. The June weather favoured the occasion though rain threatened towards the end of the week of celebration.
Eamon de Valera, as head of Government, in his address of welcome to the Papal Legate, referred enthusiastically to Ireland’s long fidelity to Rome, despite dungeon, fire and sword. The army provided guards of honour. Swarms of international religious dignitaries descended on Dublin.
Over a million attended the main congress Mass in the Phoenix Park. Count John McCormack sang the ‘Panis Angelicus’. New radio technology brought the voice of Pope Pius X1 in blessing.
The writer, GK Chesterton, in his sentimental and wry way, caught the atmosphere of the week:
“In that strange town, the poorer were the streets, the richer were the street decorations. Men who could hardly write had written up inscriptions and somehow they were dogmas as well as jokes. Somebody wrote ‘God bless Christ the King’ and I knew I was staring at one of the staggering paradoxes of Christianity. As the congress week drew to an end the patch of glowing weather which had been stretched like a golden canopy, strangely and almost insecurely began to show signs of strain or schism. There was a hint of storm in the still heat, and here and there random splashes of rain. It was naturally a topic of anxious talk, and it gave birth to one great saying , which I shall always remember as one of those tremendous oracles that come from the innocent. A priest told me that he had heard a very poor thread-bare woman saying in a tram with a resignation perhaps slightly touched with tartness, ‘well if it rains now. he’ll have brought it on himself’.”
That past in now a foreign country. As preparations continue for next year’s Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, the contrast is revealing. Earnest emissaries from the congress office travel the country trying to drum up some enthusiasm. I am reminded of the of the observation made of Willie Whitelaw when he was making a tour of constituencies as deputy leader of the Tory party, that he was going around ‘stirring up apathy’.
In a future column, I will offer some suggestions as to why this has happened.