What will be the future? This might be the question about the current state of Irish Catholicity following the country’s recent International Eucharistic Congress.
For anyone convinced of a dramatic downturn in Ireland’s ancient and solid loyalty to the Catholic faith, then the modest attendance at this year’s congress, balanced against the enormous crowds that came for the 1932 International Eucharistic Congress, proves his point.
For anyone with a more optimistic view, the fervor apparently evident at this most recent congress, albeit displayed by less-than-huge crowds, proves that the Catholic religion is far from dead, or not even dying, in Ireland.
Maybe the truth about the condition of the Church in Ireland lies in looking at both these extremes and deciding that somehow both ends of the equation represent a reality.
It would be ridiculous to insist that Irish Catholicity is as robust as ever. Regular Mass attendance is at a low level that rightly terrifies anyone interested in the Church’s future in the country. It especially is bad in Dublin, the country’s only genuinely sizeable metropolitan area; it is not good in smaller communities and best in the small villages and rural areas outside the capital.
Even admitting the better figures in the countryside, the picture is daunting. Once, Ireland was a virtual reservoir of vocations that flooded the world, including the United States. The Church worldwide would be very different today if missionaries by the hundreds had not left Ireland to spread the Faith.
Now, the Irish population is not even supplying enough new priests for local needs.
Looking at the decline, most would rush to say that the damage has been done by the revelation of sexual abuse of youth by priests and religious and by bad management of the situation by Irish bishops. Granted, the sex abuse crisis has injured the Church catastrophically.
Adding to the injury was, in my view, a distinctly Irish factor not found, or not found with such force, in this country. American Catholics, while traditionally deferential to priests and nuns, never developed the unquestioning regard for clergy and religious as did the Irish, for whom extraordinary regard for the ordained and the vowed was part of the definition of being Catholic.
True, many people in Ireland love and practice their Catholic religion. Still, the picture is not good, and it seems to be getting worse.
In 1922, at long last rid of the British control that had so tormented Ireland for centuries, the country began a slow march to prosperity. More and more Irish people acquired the “good things” of life. Modern communications and transportation brought new ideas to Ireland, and the Irish were able to find new ideas in their travels or on their television screens.
Economic recession then followed, creating its own sense of bewilderment and loss. Ireland fully stepped into line with secularist Western Europe, where Catholic religious practice also dramatically has diminished.
While many Americans of Irish descent view present Irish Catholicity at least with regret, American Catholics of all backgrounds might remind themselves that religion in this country is on the downhill track. The American society is not for the better because of this fall of religion.
What is the future of the American society? God help us, considering where the current trends of discounting or abandoning institutional religion here at home might lead.
We too are in trouble. We need God — and we need the Church. There are no substitutes.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.