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Some Irish media commentators love their Church ‘not wisely but too well’

Shortly after Pope Francis, in his now famous interview, drew the attention of Catholics to the need for balance in the presentation of the Catholic faith, the American Supreme Court Judge, Antonin Scalia, launched what he called an ‘independent search committee’ to select a new Pope. Scalia said that he had no other alternative after hearing Pope Francis say that ‘abortion, homosexuality and contraception’ did not represent the fullness of Catholicism and that we needed more of a balance than an obsessive focus on specific issues.

Scalia isn’t the only one who’s unhappy with the sudden change of direction for Catholicism that Pope Francis represents. In fact, his ‘independent search committee’ for a new pope could attract some predictable followers. Among them those who designate themselves as traditional or right-wing Catholics – and those who are but like to pretend they’re not.

The commentator David Gibson puts it like this: ‘Just when Pope Benedict XVI had reassured traditionalist Catholics that his reform of the reform would overturn the Second Vatican Council and make it safe for them to stay out of the sanctuary and yield it to the clerical culture card-holders who, backs turned to the faithful, could make the Mass mysterious again by mumbling it in Latin, along comes Pope Francis who, to traditionalists’ horror and discomfort, is recalling the church to Vatican II and emphasizing its themes’.

Among the nay-sayers are churchmen, like Philadelphia’s arch-conservative archbishop, Charles Chaput (who spoke at a conference in Ballaghaderreen a few years ago) and Cardinal Raymond Burke who travels the world saying Latin Masses with the full panoply of medieval vestments, including a 50-foot purple train.

Chaput said recently that Catholics on ‘the right wing of the Church, have not been really happy about (Francis’) election’, but that Francis wil have to take care of them too ‘so it will be interesting to see how things turn out’. Burke has reassured Catholics that Pope Francis’ liturgical practices – his preference for simplicity, for example – are really in perfect conformity with those of Benedict XVI, (which is stretching it more than a bit!)

This is a pope who is sending signals, left right and centre, and when he washed the feet of a few women in the traditional foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday, some ultra-traditional Catholics went into a panic. But they quickly recovered themselves to conclude, against all the odds, that the men’s-feet-only rule remains officially in place – even though it’s ignored throughout the entire Catholic world.

A more sophisticated ‘putting-Francis-in-his-place’ approach was evident in a recent column written by Breda O’Brien in The Irish Times. O’Brien who travels the country addressing priests’ conferences, novenas etc concluded that ‘a quiet momentum’ was building in the Irish Church and that there were ‘green shoots of renewed faith’ all around us.

Disconcertingly O’Brien lists as evidence of this a number of staged events – from last year’s Eucharistic Congress to the recent launching of the Down and Connor diocese’s ‘Living Church’ initiative to an annual meeting of Parish Councils in Tuam diocese – all of which she attended.

This kind of potted, personal and anecdotal research based on a survey count of one does not represent the reality of church life in parishes in Ireland today. And it ill serves the Catholic Church to imagine or pretend that such public staged occasions are somehow representative of ‘green shoots’. They’re not. Rather they are often little more than boxes being ticked to give the impression that something is actually happening.

O’Brien comments on how impressed she was with a faith festival at the Waterfront in Belfast with the equivalent of 1,600 first-year secondary students. She should know, as a secondary school teacher, that all you need to effect that kind of ‘festival’ is someone to organise a fleet of buses. It has nothing to do with ‘green shoots of religion’.

Just as she should know that the Eucharistic Congress was a similarly staged event that added little to the renewal of church life in Ireland. Or that gathering Parish Councils for a talk once a year is no guarantee that Parish Councils are effective, or even that they exist.

While people loyal to the Church and people who participate in staged events (like conferences, etc)  feel compelled to give the impression that things are much better than they are, those working in parishes experience know exactly what’s happening.

Ask anyone in parishes about the promise of green shoots in the Irish Church and they will struggle to locate them. After a while they may point to the only green shoot on the horizon, Pope Francis and the extraordinary lift that he has given to our Church through his conviction that, as the Second Vatican Council represented 50 years ago, the Catholic Church should be open to (and listening to) the world.

What’s remarkable about O’Brien’s assessment is the very minor role she attributes to Pope Francis. Effectively she dismisses what’s called ‘the Francis bounce’ and suggests that ‘bonus’ rather than ‘bounce’ would better describe his impact. Can she possibly be serious? Where has she been this past six months? Two questions: one, why is it that the most popular person in the world today is the pope? And, two, who would have predicted, a year ago, that such would be the case?

Or is this more evidence of a campaign to minimise ‘the Francis bounce’ and to somehow present his approach as in continuity with that of his predecessor, when we know it isn’t. As a bishop said recently, Francis may be playing with the same Catholic ball but he’s kicking it in a different direction.

Recently the Catholic commentator, David Quinn, pondered the curious point that Francis is receiving more attention than Benedict for ‘flexibility’. Is this for real? I know commentators like O’Brien and Quinn who lauded Benedict’s conservatism must wonder what’s happening to the secure ultra-Catholic world he represented and in which they acted as enthusiastic cheerleaders.

I’m not suggesting that O’Brien or Quinn will join Judge Scalia’s ‘independent search committee’ for a new pope but like other conservative Irish Catholics who lionised his predecessor they need to be more real about the situation on the ground in Irish parishes today.

And they need to give Pope Francis a fair wind. It’s one thing to imagine, as O’Brien writes, that something Benedict said in 2009 about lay people sharing responsibility for the future of the Church has given an impetus to the ‘green shoots’. Really? It takes even greater imagination to present Pope Francis as somehow a marginal presence. Sometimes we can love our Church not wisely but too well.

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  1. Calling occupants of interplanetary craft. What planet are some people living on ?

    I am not kidding in the least when I say that if I had to sit through a spectacle of a priest, cardinal or not, wearing a ‘fifty foot purple train’ I would literally vomit before leaving.

    That is just so so wrong on so many levels.

  2. Green shoots: The Irish Catholic ran a two page spread a couple of years ago about a pariah in Northern Ireland, churches full every Sunday. The article and spread highlighted (with photographs) all the (parish) organisations that were active “within the parish”. But in a revealing comment the parish priest remarked that if he wanted to get something done he approached the GAA.
    The Eucharist Congress : The final Mass, liturgy organised from Maynooth, seemed odd, quaint, dated in its whole ambiance.

  3. I just finished reading Fr Tony Flannery’s most recent book ‘A Question of Conscience’.

    I would suggest that Ms O’Brien read it (tho’ I suspect she won’t). Her wishful, somewhat deluded, thinking is of no help to the Church she wants to survive.

  4. Bernard Cotter says:

    Brendan Hoban is right. There are no green shoots in Cork and Ross, the one diocese I am familiar with, only priests ground down with no pastoral leadership and little support from the Church they serve so well.

  5. Mary O Vallely says:

    I still can’t get that image of Fr Brendan Hoban’s “topping a hard-boiled egg in the gloom of a February evening as the winter wind whistles in the chimney” out of my mind. It is as vivid an image of loneliness as I have ever read but then again, how many lonely widows and bachelors are there to whom this would also apply? It is the sad fact that the loneliness isn’t something chosen but imposed on by a tradition which needs to be challenged. I think particularly when illness strikes it is then that the challenge of mandatory celibacy is most hard felt.

    Re little green shoots, I’m an Armachian and I love my parish and I have to say that I am more hopeful that change is a’ coming. We have just had our first elected PPC and Cardinal Brady is determined that all parishes in the Armagh diocese at least, have elected PPCs. It’s a start, is it not? (hard to leave cynicism outside the door but a PPC CAN give one a voice to speak up for the marginalised perhaps?) We also have quite a vibrant Youth Group going but then again we have the youngest priests in Ireland here and they are very approachable and decent men. I heard too that Archbishop Eamonn Martin is very keen on the principle of subsidiarity. He wants people to take the initiative and not go running to the line manager for permission. Vamos a ver, amigos.

    I am in Polyanna mode again and trying to emphasise the positive. The grave injustices of the marginalisation of women, of the failure to change anachronistic outmoded structures and the lack of openness to discussion and debate, never mind issues like enforced celibacy, same sex unions, woman’s rightful place in the church, haven’t gone away, I know, but there are positives, aren’t there?
    May I please remind readers that there is another space for comment AND an actual Forum for discussion and debate. It has taken a while to get this far but the Association of Catholics in Ireland website is up and running (with some excellent articles) and there is a Facebook page for those who want to connect in a lighter way, to join in a prayer/hymn or tick “like” to an article. Look to the right of this page.
    Mary V

  6. Sean (Derry) says:

    I wouldn’t get too excited just yet by believing that Pope Francis’s views on Vatican II are somehow in line with those of the ACP.
    Pope Francis recently wrote to Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, regarding his book, (‘Pontifical primacy and epicopate: from the first millennium to the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’) and stated, “I once told you, dear Abp. Marchetto, and I wish to repeat it today, that I consider you to be the best interpreter [ermeneuta] of the Second Vatican Council.”
    Archbishop Marchetto’s ‘interpretation’ of Vatican II, which is admired by Pope Francis, would be much more in line with the views of Cardinal Raymond Burke than with the views of Fr Brendan Hoban and others who seem to believe that the Catholic Church was founded in 1965.

    I also don’t think that Pope Francis has a problem with, ‘making the Mass mysterious again by mumbling it in Latin’, considering that he recently celebrated Holy Mass entirely in Latin and ‘ad orientem’ (is that with his ‘back turned to the faithful’ or could it be that he is ‘facing God’?), nor did he celebrate the Mass wearing an open neck shirt and jeans.
    I, for one, will not be losing any sleep by worrying that Pope Francis has abandoned the ‘traditional’ Church in favour of a ‘modern’ Church.

  7. I think it is worrying to see people like Barrack Obama lauding the present Pontiff. “Blessed shall you be when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake”. I see nothing good in the praise of a Pope by those who hold the Catholic Faith in contempt. I guess it must be the Pelagian side of me coming out.

  8. Donal Dorr says:

    I agree that there are not many signs of new green shoots in the Irish Church. But I think it is not good strategy to label a wise and balanced Catholic commentator like Breda O’Brien as a conservative who minimizes the importance of the fresh approach of Pope Francis. We in the ACP need all the allies we can get. Even if the bottle is only a quarter full, what’s wrong with looking at that optimistically?

  9. Seamus Ahearne osa says:

    Brendan is back and his fingers are as sharp as ever. We are indeed blessed in having such a vigorous, sensible and articulate spokesperson in our Church. This is leadership indeed.

    Whatever about green shoots in Ireland – I was amused and pleased to hear of some such shoots, in the Church, from an unlikely source. I was asked to take someone to a Bookshop on Thursday. I was the one who ended up buying a book by Hans Kung. It has a delightful upside down title: Can we save the Catholic Church? (literally upside down then is the second half of the Title: We can save the Catholic Church).

    This Book is up-to-date with recent events especially with Pope Francis. Kung is impressed and very hopeful.

    Kung is described in the Introduction as a Catholic priest ‘in good standing.’

    I was taken to task later by a gentle lady who was aghast at the fact that I bought a book in Veritas, given that Tony Flannery’s book wasn’t stocked. But Hans is a ‘priest in good standing’ and Tony!? What a very strange and stupid world we live in if this is Church? Green shoots are there but still struggling.

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    I agree with Donal Dorr, it would be very foolish to treat sound conservative Catholics like Breda O’Brien as adversaries (especially as she was practically the only journalist to take up the critique of the Murphy Report!).

  11. Maeve Kennedy says:

    With regard to the last paragraph of Father Hoban’s piece, readers might enjoy catching up with Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian -a Jewish atheist, I think -who is enthused by Pope Francis’ freshness and argues that he should be supported.

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