Wednesday, 27 July 2011

500 (d)

This is getting to feel a bit like surfing. The longer one stays on this particular wave, the less secure one feels. But be that as it may, I think there is still more to be said.

One element in Irish Christianity to which I have alluded is what one might call the folk element. I watched a programme on the Electric Television some months ago. Three men shared a boat in Ireland; one of them was Dara O'Briain, the other two were British—Griff Rhys Jones, I think, and an irritating Rory. Somewhere in the sticks they came across a holy well, and there was by it a sight familiar to those who frequent such places. A tree stood hard by, festooned with rags of cloth. One of the Englishmen opened his mouth to say something caustic, but was forestalled by Dara O'Briain who said 'I want to mock that, but I don't want you mocking it.'

Here we have the Irish paradox. Ireland is a country that is intensely proud of its own culture, not least that it has managed to keep it alive under the most unpropitious circumstances. It is highly tenacious of it, but also aware that other cultures have despised it, and non-Irish educated people these days are at best patronising about it. Irish people, especially intelligent and educated Irish people (and there are still plenty of Englishmen who think that that is an oxymoron) feel this tug within them. The same Dara O'Briain, when a guest on that smugfest quiz Q.I. was asked by the host Stephen Fry to comment on various patron saints, among superior chortles from guests and audience. O'Briain got right up on his hind legs and objected to what amounted to the racism being expressed. He is not, I understand, a practising Catholic, but he is very sensitive to the fact that the chattering classes are allowed to be as patronising and contemptuous as they wish about Catholicism and Irishness without the slightest need to devote any energy to understanding what they are criticising. Both are self-evidently beneath contempt.

'But, but……' —I can hear people protesting right now—'surely Irishness has never been so popular. Look at all those Irish pubs, look at Riverdance, look at Enya, look at 'Celtic Spirituality'. This kind of Disney view of Ireland, sometimes called 'Oirishness' has substituted in many (non-Irish) people's minds for the real thing. A charming, out of touch, mediæval cute little land of leprechauns, shillelaghs, and Guinness keeps people from engaging with the reality of a land whose people are peculiarly articulate, with high standards of education (in everything but religion) and a unique and valuable culture which is itself in danger of being Oirished out of existence.

The Irish are keenly aware of how they are viewed, and it makes them somewhat allergic to the somewhat stranger manifestations of folk religion, like rag-festooned trees (and yes, I know that in the past, and even here and there today, such things could and can also be seen in England). This in itself distances the educated Irish from Catholicism, because the dearth of serious catechesis in the last 40 years has exposed them to the stranger elements of folk religion without the intellectual apparatus to understand the real depths of the faith. All they have got has been weak hymnody, poor sermons, inadequate religious instruction—and now clerical child abuse and irresponsible bishops.

That is one result. There is another, which is no less dangerous. I don't think that the Irish have any problem at all with the spiritual dimension of things. It was what (real) Celtic spirituality brought to Catholicism in general. The drive of the Platonic element in Christianity, vitally important though it is, tended to create an attitude to the material creation that was ambivalent at best. Matter was at the other end of the spectrum to Spirit, and the closer one wanted to draw to God, the more one should despise matter. The great Christological crises of the first centuries centred mostly around this strange fact that God, pure Spirit, could take a material nature without diminishing what He was.

I alluded in an earlier post to the (probable) fact that St Patrick never studied Plato in any thoroughgoing way. His education stopped in his mid-teens, and only restarted when he trained for the priesthood in Gaul. At any event, the Irish have never seen any problem with finding God in the material. They have seen wonders all around them, all the time. Sacraments make total sense. The old Celtic gods were primal forces in nature, unpredictable. Christianity (which spread throughout Ireland without any real opposition within a single generation, it is said) gave a whole new meaning to the world around them, and the introduction of the Latin script gave the a means to articulate this joy. The introduction of Egyptian-style penitential monasticism to Ireland was also deeply creative. The desert is a tough place to live, without much to look at, but Ireland is deeply beautiful. Even that monastic rock in the Atlantic, Skellig Michael, lifts one's mind to God. Imagine looking at a sunset from there and not wondering at the might and glory of God who could create such a thing. St Kevin stood up to his neck in the freezing water, but he did so at Glendalough, a truly lovely place. The Christian Romans didn't really look much at scenery, (many pagans did, though—think of Horace, or the villas around the Bay of Naples) but the Irish enjoy looking at everything and everyone with a perpetual and vivid curiosity and see nothing wrong in it.

What I'm trying to get to is that, deprived of proper orthodox catechesis, many Irish people will continue to look around them for the spiritual, because they expect to find it in the world around them. So they will hare off to Ballinspittle to look at moving statues, they will go to Achill Island to hear the latest message from God through Christine Gallagher, they will listen to John Bird's latest predictions concerning the end of the world……

So, there are two results from the atrociously poor catechesis of the last fifty years. The first is a tendency among the more highly-educated elite to throw everything to do with Catholicism over (though with a rather uneasy conscience, because the Irish are naturally spiritual). There's no fear of them becoming Protestants, because that would be to deny their own history. The other result is to flee after signs and wonders.

To believe nothing, in other words, or to believe anything.

For God's sake, for the people's sake, serious catechesis, well adapted for the intelligent, inquiring, mind in the modern world must be reintroduced without delay. But how, and by whom? There is a long path ahead.


Ernie Skillen said...

You're best ever, Fr, so sparse in exspression (eg short, punchy sentances)but full of content. I've lived in Ireland, North and South and the priests there are generally poor preachers.

In the Cloyne and Dublin reports the failure by key clerics locally to apply canon law is deprecated but it's easier, quicker and more patriotic to blame the Holy See rather than look closer to home.

John L said...

A few remarks;

- the Egyptian desert is actually strikingly beautiful, as you see if you visit St. Anthony's Monastery, although admittedly it was chosen as the site for monasticism because it was thought to be the haunt of demons - the monks were thus bringing the battle to the enemy.

- your call for good catechesis is of course correct, as it is necessary for the faith, but it does not address a problem that Joe Shaw recently mentioned here; This is that prior to the 1960s there was great effort put into catechesis, resulting in a Catholic population that by the 1950s was probably better catechised than at any time in previous history. But all this catechesis produced little adherence to the doctrines that were taught; when a new catechesis was introduced that mocked and denied all the doctrines previously taught, it was swallowed without a murmur.

- you do not address the leading cause of the collapse of faith in Ireland as in the rest of the world. This is not moral corruption and privilege among the clergy, bad as this was in some places, but mass apostasy among clergy and religious. After the 1960s, the majority of priests and nuns in Ireland (as in the UK, France, Canada, the US, Germany, and elsewhere) either abandoned the faith and taught the faithful that they should do the same, or else made no effective resistance to this attack on the faith. The current loss of faith among Catholics is the fault of the clergy. Until this is admitted by clerics like yourself, and it is repented and atoned for, the Church is not going to get better.

Sir Watkin said...

Three men shared a boat in Ireland; one of them was Dara O'Briain, the other two were English—Griff Rhys Jones [...]

Ahem, ahem.

At the risk of turning into this blog's resident Welsh Bore, I have to point out that Griff[ith] Rhys Jones (b. Cardiff) isn't English.

His name is a bit of a giveaway ....

Anagnostis said...

Thanks for this series, Father. I am able to think about the Irish situation with far greater sympathy and compassion.

Several things strike me, from my own particular perspective: monasticism, intensely incarnational spirituality, pilgrimage - it all sounds very much like Orthodoxy!

In fact, I enjoyed a long conversation a couple of weeks ago with a parish priest in your diocese, from Co. Limerick. He quoted EP IV, and I said "That's taken straight from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom". "Yes!" he said, "We are Orthodox!" The very moving way he spoke about his own priestly ministry was certainly recognisable to me. If I were to have lent him a Slavic or Greek accent, it would have been pitch-perfect! No Anglo (or French) RC priest, in my experience, would have spoken like that.

Pastor in Monte said...

Sir Watkin:
You are of course quite right, and I apologise humbly. That was a very silly mistake, and one I grumble about when others make it!
Incidentally, have you any idea what 'Griff' is short for?

Sir Watkin said...

Bonus dormitat Homerus!

Griff is short for Griffith (=Gruffydd).

Delia said...

Really excellent 'series', Father. Do hope you keep going to 500 (z)!

santoeusebio said...

Somewhere Chesterton wrote about the psychology of this. The English having conquered Ireland are obliged to despise Irish culture in order to justify themselves.

Nicolas Bellord

Terry said...

"The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has put hard numbers on the anecdotal evidence: One out of every 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a separate denomination, they would be the third-largest denomination in the United States, after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who were raised Catholic no longer identifies as Catholic.

Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus." Discuss.

Data available on reasons given. Your observations are very relevant.

Sir Watkin said...

The English having conquered Ireland are obliged to despise Irish culture in order to justify themselves.

As Tacitus observes, it is human nature to hate those whom one has injured (Proprium humani ingenii est, odisse quem laeseris).

GOR said...

When I first came to the US some 40 years ago the American view of what constituted 'Irishness' always irritated me. Fueled by Hollywood, it was what my mother used to refer to as "The Stage Irishman" with lots of 'begorras' and 'bejapers' etc. etc. I was inclined to respond in a tit-for-tat mode: "Y'all's got it wrong!" Of course I was undercut in this as it was also the image fostered by Bord Failte.

The excesses of the St. Patrick's Day (or 'St. Paddy's Day' over here...) celebrations were unlike anything I had experienced growing up in Ireland. In vain I tried to impress upon people that St. Patrick's Day in Ireland was not just a drunk-fest but actually a religious holiday - a Holyday of Obligation, in fact. Today we have come full circle where the religious aspect of the feast didn't get exported abroad but the foreign excesses were imported to Ireland (not that we ever needed much encouragement for partying and the consumption of alcohol!).

Your point about bad catechesis is well taken Father, and the results of it are very evident in Ireland today. Gone are the days when it was in the hands of capable nuns and each diocese had a Diocesan Catechist who visited the schools on an annual basis (and whose visit was waited upon with some trepidation!) to ensure orthodoxy and completeness of instruction. Gone also are the days when Doctrine was preached whole and entire from the pulpit. While the secularism and prosperity of the Celtic Tiger years contributed much to the situation, the hands-off approach of clergy and religious to forming the faith of the people has much to answer for also.

That we should come to such a pass in a generation is alarming, but not unexpected when the Faith is watered down and the Truth is not proclaimed in its fullness. Without a strong foundation, the faith of many has been challenged by recent events. Faith is not easily found, but is very easily lost. Despite the dire warnings in the secular media, there are signs of hope in its revival in Ireland. But you have to look hard and with an open mind to find them - and they are less newsworthy to the mainstream media than salacious scandals.

shane said...

Father, as someone who does a lot of study on the modern history of the Irish Church, your posts on Irish Catholicism have left me very confused. Can you please cite sources in your next posts on this topic or give a list of the sources you have already consulted?

Pastor in Monte said...

The facts can be found in any life of St Patrick, for instance.
Most of those posts are based on my own experience and reflection; if you differ, you are welcome to post a comment here and say why. Your experience may well be different; I am aware of how dangerous it is to generalize.