Over the last several weeks of this past summer I found myself mulling over three dates: 1855, 1949, and 2005. The special pertinence of these three years is completely personal. They have no particular relevance to others. All three of these dates are connected with Ireland, and their combination is significant only for my own family history. But while reflecting on recollections associated with those years, I began to formulate some insights about Catholicism that I believe are pertinent to understanding both the life of faith and cultural influences on present-day religious practice. Let me explain.
The year 1855 is notable in my family because it was that year, following the famine caused by repeated blights on the potato crop, that my great grandfather, John Fahey, and his recent bride Catherine Ryan, left their home in Tuam, traveling to nearby Galway in order to sail as immigrants to the city of Baltimore in America. As a boy, John had had the good fortune of learning how to speak, read, and write English, but Catherine, as a girl, had been taught only her native Celtic language, Irish, in which she and her husband communicated. As they embarked from the Bay on their hazardous transatlantic voyage, they possessed only anecdotal knowledge of what lay ahead of them in this foreign land. The fact that other Catholics from their country were living in Maryland provided some reassurance. The beliefs and devotions of their religion certainly offered encouragement and continuity with the past, and inspired them to look forward to eternal life. Their Catholic faith sustained them amid the hardships in the New World, especially the difficulties they faced during the American Civil War. Surprisingly, their home in Monkton, Maryland, where they raised their eight children, still stands–handsomely renovated– alongside the roadbed of the now abandoned railroad line that John helped to build.
Almost one hundred years later, in 1949, I sailed eastward with my mother, aboard the Cunard Line’s S.S. Britannic for a visit to Ireland and then on to England. After a six-days’ crossing, our first glimpse of the Irish landscape was the port town, Cobh, adjacent to Cork. At that time, Ireland was still remote from Europe. Although it had been relatively peaceful during World War II, it was a country struggling with shortages, poverty, unemployment, and uncertainty about the future. Not strong in manufacturing, it relied on sheep raising and domestic products. Strong resentment against the British still prevailed, though probably to a lesser extent than among Irish immigrants. The country was very much a “Catholic” country in its devotional practices and customs. Its large number of priestly vocations still provided a host of “missionaries” especially for Africa. Priests were treated with reverence and deference. Anyone attired in clerical garb would be greeted respectfully on the street, and gentlemen doffed their hats to acknowledge them. Father could count on free bus rides and the best tables in restaurants. Mass attendance was one of the highest in all countries. There was little hint of major changes in the coming decades.
Then in July, 2005, I returned again to “Eire,” this time to attend an international congress of Jesuit Ecumenists on “Forty Years after Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism,” held at the Jesuit college at Clongowes Wood (where James Joyce received his early education). The plane flight from Chicago to Dublin was only seven hours and upon arrival at immigration, travelers were divided into two groups: citizens of the European Union and “others.” At the boarding school, only a handful of Jesuits are currently teaching and instruction is in the hands of laypersons. Besides the conference participants, the grounds were host to several summer camps, including children from France learning how to speak English. (Some of the counselors’ children were elsewhere, at “Irish camps” where for weeks on end the language would be Irish only.) How things had changed in little more than 50 years. One pays taxi fares in euros, not Irish pounds; the city highways are modern and efficient; “mobile” phones are everywhere in evidence; teenagers are dressed in outfits one would see in any North American city; shops and restaurants mirror the impact of globalization; a sense of affluence fills the air. Was this the same country where 150 years ago starving people fled to distant shores?
This year it was the rare priest I met there who wore clerical garb in public. The reason given by some was that since shocking exposés regarding sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and regarding the bishops’ usually tepid response to these crimes, any priest ran the risk of being greeted with insults or contumely rather than courtesy.
As I tried to picture daily life and the practice of Catholicism in Ireland during those three dates, I turned to reading the massive instrumentum laboris just published to guide discussions at the upcoming Eleventh Ordinary General Synod of Bishops from October 2 to 23. The text judges that our “increasingly secularized society has caused a weakening in the sense of mystery and the sense of sin.” A negative attitude is associated with modern, prosperous conditions. Persons living in an affluent, thriving, economically booming country, with much higher levels of education, are perceived as generally less Catholic, less imbued with Christian values, than those who lived in simpler if painful years, or during times steeped in clerical culture.
What are the causes of this frequently encountered attitude? Is it the difficulty that church leaders have in accepting change in society and in reading the signs of the new times? Is it perhaps an overly facile assessment of the level of religious commitment both in times past and present? Are the criteria of measurement too narrow? Before teachers set upon the task of re-evangelizing or re-educating the faithful in the solid basics, I argue that they need to recognize the divine graces and gifts already accepted and richly operative in people’s lives.