The elephant in the sacristy

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

On July 26, I spoke at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties on the crisis in Irish Catholicism. In this column and the next one, I will give a resumé of my contribution.
The seminar asked the question whether Irish Catholicism will survive. In its long history it has experienced triumph and failure, resurgence and decline, ruin and restoration. Only a foolish bookmaker would give favourable odds on its demise. I am convinced, however, that the present model of Irish Catholicism, which reached its zenith in the 1950s, is collapsing.
One does not have to be a forensic accountant to discern its predicament from the facts. I will refrain from giving you a morass of statistics on church attendance and vocation decline that all point to the one conclusion. I will confine myself to one example from the situation I know best, in the Diocese of Killala in north Mayo and west Sligo where there are 22 parishes.
In that diocese, there is only one priest under the age of 40, two under 50, five under 60, nine under 70. Seven priests will retire in the next three years when they reach the retirement age of 75. Only two priests have been ordained in the last 17 years. The diocese has not had a student for the priesthood since 2013. For years, Catholic leaders have turned a blind eye to the elephant in the sacristy as the number of available clergy remained high. They should have gone to Specsavers, for he is trampling on the furniture.
So the big decline in church attendance and a collapse in vocation testify to a model of church in severe crisis. It is worth looking at how the present model developed in order to discern why it is lost in today’s world.
What we call traditional lrish Catholicism is a product of the 19th century. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave the church a tremendous psychological boost as it emerged from the catacomb experience of the Penal Laws. In the following century 24 cathedrals and over 3,000 churches were built.
The priest-people ratio improved after 1850 due to the increased number of vocations and a population decimated by famine and emigration. The growth of female religious orders was even more striking. In 1800 there were only 120 nuns in Ireland. As the 20th century dawned there were 8,000. Religious institutions were founded with such frequency that Mayo novelist George Moore commented that ‘nothing thrives in Ireland like a convent, a public house and a race meeting’. The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, as a response to the reformation, provided the templates for the Catholic Church in the centuries that followed. It promulgated a church, based on the parish structure, rigorously controlled under the discipline of Rome. Due to our febrile history Tridentine rule was slow coming to Ireland.
The emergence of a strong Tridentine church in Ireland is the particular achievement of Cardinal Paul Cullen. A native of Kildare, he spent all his student and priestly life in Rome before his appointment as Archbishop in Ireland in 1849. Austere, dour and a gifted administrator, he was suspicious of Irish customs and in thrall to the Roman way. In the long history of Irish Catholicism no Irish cleric has had as strong an influence with the Vatican curia.
He found a Catholic community haunted by the trauma of the ‘Great Famine’, amenable to strict church control and open to pious continental devotions. In an episcopate of almost 30 years he shaped a church that was strictly disciplined, theologically and spiritually acquiescent, politically powerful and a major player in education and health care.

`This is the first of two articles in which Kevin Hegarty summarises a recent presentation on the crisis in Irish Catholicism that he delivered at the 2018 MacGill Summer School. The second article will be published on August 21.