The children of this age are more shrewd …

A week before the recent Marriage Equality referendum, the government withdrew State funding for pre-marriage courses from Accord, a Catholic support agency for marriage. In the run-up to the referendum, as the Catholic Church argued trenchantly for a No vote, and the government campaigned for a Yes vote, the move was interpreted by some at least as an indication that Catholic agencies were being punished because the Church was refusing to step up to the mark on ‘marriage equality’.
While government sources rejected the accusation, in the highly-charged pre-referendum context, eye-brows were raised.
Some church sources protested at the withdrawal of the funding, interpreting it as laying down a marker for the Church, but the truth, as it turned out, was less conspiratorial. Other family agencies, like Barnardos were subjected to a similar cut-back.
But you can see how church people were sceptical as a culture of opposition to Catholicism is now taken for granted in Irish public life. It’s fuelled by populist resentment born out of the sex abuse scandals and has created a context where the Catholic Church, once a formidable presence in Irish life, is now regarded as a soft target. Badly damaged by scandals, weakened by the decline in numbers, those who oppose the Catholic Church are perceived as moving in for the kill on an institution seen as limping into an uncertain future.
This perception of opposition to the Catholic Church by a range of forces was underlined in the referendum campaign when Irish public discourse was presented with the extraordinary spectacle of every media outlet of substance supporting and effectively campaigning for a Yes vote. Any pretension to balance and equity went straight out the window.
You see this attitude very markedly in some journalists who seem compelled to display their anti-Catholic bias as a badge of honour by dragging in some misplaced and out of context comment to demonstrate their credentials.
You see this culture too in the ill-disguised attempt by public authorities to force the Catholic Church into parting with its property, sometimes taking over property forcibly and attempting to use the law to bludgeon the Church into submission. And sometimes too public authorities exerting influence on parish and community bodies to, in turn, exert influence on church authorities in order to deliver or part-deliver a church asset (that is a parish’s asset) into public ownership. And the voluntary or community group, with the best intentions in the world, may be blissfully unaware of the underlying agenda.
The confidence and the presumption involved can be breath-taking. A land bank, houses and investments ear-marked for resourcing church projects and for supporting priests and nuns in their old age are all regarded as legitimate targets to be pressured or wangled out of church authorities.
Worse still, when church authorities present property for nothing or at a considerably reduced rate for a specific project, the property can be left idle for years because at the time the local authority disguised the fact that it hadn’t the resources to complete the specific project for which the land or money was donated. Sometimes even land can end up being used for a completely different purpose.
And even worse, when a project is brought to completion, the contribution of the church body can be, either purposely or negligently, airbrushed out of the public record, even though the church contribution was absolutely vital to the delivery of the project.
An example of this was the building of the swimming pool in Ballina some years ago. A small but committed group had for years worked to complete what was a massive project. The sticking point was a suitable site. The project was effectively rescued when Bishop Thomas McDonnell, on behalf of the parish of Ballina and the diocese of Killala, gifted a prime and valuable site adjacent to the Cathedral.
Later when the pool was officially opened, Catholic Church authorities were not invited, nor were they asked to bless it and their essential and valuable contribution was largely ignored. Years later, at the insistence of some members of the original committee, a plaque was placed on the building, acknowledging the role of the Church in delivering it.
Meanwhile, in the early 1990s when the development of Ballina parish necessitated the building of a Pastoral Centre, an approach made by Bishop Thomas Finnegan to the civic authorities to sell part of the closed Vocational School was rebuffed. In the event the parish had to buy another site for the centre.
Later, Bishop Finnegan, on behalf of the parish of Ballina and the diocese of Killala, gifted a valuable site in Ardnaree to the Moy Valley Resources. This led to the development of a shopping arcade. Later a creche was opened on part of the site and, when I worked in Ballina, I was asked to bless it. It was clear that none of the organising committee was aware that the land on which the creche was built had been donated by the Church, though in fairness the representative of Moy Valley Resources, who spoke at the opening ceremony, thanked the Catholic people and authorities in the parish and diocese for their generosity. It was the first many of those attending had heard about it.
There are lessons to be learned from all of this. One is that the Catholic Church, except in exceptional circumstances, needs to hold on to its property and not allow itself to be cajoled or bullied or embarrassed into rescuing the civic authorities by gifting valuable property or rights. Hopefully the Redemptorist Congregation, who sold their Dublin property for €40 million last week, will withstand the expected populist pressure that will inevitably follow.
The experience of the parish of Ballina and the diocese of Killala in the last 30 years has been instructive and we need to learn from that. I get the feeling that sometimes civic authorities are laughing behind their hands at the gullibility and innocence of church authorities, especially when there is so little credit given for the donation of sites that run into millions of euros.
It’s time church authorities took their courage in their hands and refused to allow themselves to be manipulated. Enough is enough.

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  1. Noel Casey says:

    In recent days we have been given very good reasons for not being quite so pessimistic and downhearted.
    Six of our young people died tragically in Berkeley. Catholic priests and church authorities, both at home and in California, found themselves called upon to support and grieve with relatives and friends, to open their churches for liturgies, funeral Masses and simply as meeting places, in the case of those in California, for distracted and distressed people far from home. They freely gave of their service, as would be expected, but what struck me was the deeply felt need, on the part of so many young people and their families, for the service they were offering.
    And I wasn’t the only one to be struck by the centrality of the Church, its priests and its rituals to these sad days. On Wednesday, June 24, Kathy Sheridan in The Irish Times drew attention to ‘the soft Banbridge accent’ (that of Fr. Aidan McAleenan, pastor of San Francisco’s St. Columba’s parish) which became ‘the accidental voice of a broken Irish community’ 8,000 kilometres away from home. And she commented: ‘Observing the rituals of these weeks and many other weeks, it seems there is something there that speaks to us in times of trial and of joy.’ And in The Irish Times of Saturday, June 27, David Lally, reflecting on his attendance at a memorial service in St. Brigid’s Church in San Diego for those who had died, referred to ‘the Irish priest reflecting on the devastation with tact and humour’.
    Maybe part of the ‘reality check’ called for by Archbishop Martin should take this, and I advisedly call it, ‘extraordinary’ phenomenon into account, in an attempt to find ‘the full truth about ourselves as a nation’ (to quote Kathy Sheridan). All is far from lost.
    I might add something from my own experience, in a somewhat different context. I recently attended The Leaving Certificate Graduation Mass in my onetime place of work. Students were free to attend or not; everyone attended. I remember, when I taught religion there, being very mod and having a vote as to whether the class wanted a Mass to celebrate their finishing with secondary school; again, all wanted a Mass.
    Finally, I would hope that all celebrants of funeral Masses (and baptisms and weddings too) are aware that the liturgy is the best form of sermon, the best opportunity to catechise. On these occasions you have large numbers of people who rarely find themselves in a church. Give them all you’ve got!

  2. It’s not just about caring for people in their old age, you also need that cash to promote vocations and to evangelise. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an add on TV promoting vocations. Why wait for a programme or presenter to present priesthood in a favourable light, buy your own adds and stick them on the TV.

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