“Can Ireland rediscover its faith – as I did?”

CP&S comment: The holy old Franciscan, Fr Benedict Groeschell, once remarked that in all his recent travels he had never encounted greater anti-Catholicism in any country than that which he had found in Ireland! To the large Irish Catholic diaspora, proud of its heritage and long history of numerous saints, martyrs and missionaries, together with its heroic faithfulness during those gruesome penal years, this revelation came as quite a shock. But there is no denying the truth of Fr Groeschell’s analysis; Ireland had changed within a few decades from being a once pious Catholic nation, to becoming a generally secular one, largely scornful of its Catholic past. Yet this abandonment of the Faith that had sustained them throughout their difficult history has brought neither joy nor hope to the Irish population. Let’s borrow a few suggestive words of the current U.S. President: “We must make Ireland great again”… meaning, of course: We must make Ireland CATHOLIC again!


By John Waters 

Irish Christianity was reduced to two thin strands: moralism and emotionalism (CNS)

Irish society needs to look truthfully at the past it seems determined to bury. I am hopeful, but not especially optimistic for change in my lifetime

When I think of my country and its relationship with Catholicism, I think of it, in what I hope is appropriate humility, as being about 25 years behind on the path I have travelled myself. In the middle 1970s, when I was 19 and 20, I began a period of vaguely oedipal struggling against the Church. I recall that my main focus was what I deemed “hypocrisy”: the way Church personnel said one thing and did another.

There were some unlucky priests upon whom I frowned for their love of female company or a good whiskey, and this became a useful mechanism in enabling what I later recognised as the carefully constructed alibi for my resolve to shake off the judgments of Catholicism and get on with exploring those exciting new freedoms I identified as being in conflict with the theology of my upbringing.

Faced with a choice between Jesus and Elvis, I chose Elvis, and hardly gave it another thought. For many years I stood at pub counters and pontificated about the obsolescence of God, my tales of priestly debauchery growing legs and moustaches by the new time. For a while I worked as a roadie with a band and remember with great vividness the early hours of Sunday, September 30, 1979, returning to Dublin from a gig in Derry and meeting on the way the headlights of the thousands of cars of the pilgrims who had travelled south to see Pope John Paul II in the Phoenix Park – feeling utterly alienated from the event. Although John Paul II had a superficial attraction for me, I had deliberately placed myself outside the embrace of his visit, not wanting a surge of sentimentalism to unseat my determination to continue walking away.

It was the drink that, in the end, brought me to my knees, in just about every sense you can conceive of. Forced in Alcoholics Anonymous to summon up a concept of “God as You Understand Him”, I reluctantly started reimagining the Christian God of my childhood – first the Father, more or less sitting on a white cloud, but eventually Christ, with whom I allowed myself to become reconciled on realising that there was in fact no reasonable barrier to my having both Him and Elvis at the same time.

This rapprochement coincided more or less precisely with the beginnings of the collective estrangement of my countrymen from the Church, which followed a quite remarkably similar pattern to my own: denunciations of the pietistic zealotry and obscurantism that had allegedly constrained Irish people in their freedoms, and of the doublethink and hypocrisies of those deemed the enforcers of an outmoded moralism.

Conventional wisdom assumes that Irish Catholicism remained vibrant until the emergence of the clerical scandals of the 1990s, starting with Bishop Eamonn Casey’s exposure for having had an affair out of which was born his son Peter. Bishop Casey, who died recently, was merely the entrée of a long unravelling to follow, with revelations about historical sex abuse by priests functioning to marginalise and eventually hush the Church’s voice on virtually anything to do with sex or morality.

From where I stood, these scandals seemed to offer convenient alibis to people already struggling in adulthood to find an engagement with Catholicism, allowing them publicly to declare their alienation. The real problem related to the reduction of Irish Christianity, over the previous century or so, into two thin strands: moralism and emotionalism.

The brand of Christianity purveyed by the Irish Church since the famines of the 1840s was rich in piety but poor in reason, which meant that in the end people regarded their priests more as a moral police force than the custodians of mystery in the world. Christ, at once the Chief of Police and yet manifestly incompatible with this moralism, became externalised and suffused in an aura of sentimentality.

It goes on. The recent unembellished replaying of the three-year-old saga of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, which again went around the world and enabled even media organisations which had apologised for publishing such tenuous and unsubstantiated allegations in 2014, to embrace the story again with renewed gusto. It may not be coincidental that the story was reinterred just as the Citizens’ Assembly, a body reviewing the constitutional position of the unborn child, was entering the final stages of its deliberations.

I have some hopes that, one day, Irish society may turn and look more truthfully at the past it seems so determined to bury in the septic tank of bad history. I am broadly hopeful, but not especially optimistic for a change during my own lifetime. Right now, my country seems determined to exceed the duration of my own sojourn in the wilderness. I can think of no equivalent of alcoholism – with the possible exception of (God forbid) war – that might afflict a whole country and bring her to her senses. I simply say, from my own direct experience, that the human spirit remains always subliminally alert and longing, and that its infinite desiring cannot long remain buried under baubles, analgesics and untruths. Perhaps Ireland is not as far as we might fear from a necessary re-evaluation of God as She Understands Him.


[This article first appeared in the March 31 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald.]


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8 Responses to “Can Ireland rediscover its faith – as I did?”

  1. toadspittle says:

    Interesting insights.
    In my opinion, the majority of the Irish didn’t lose their faith because of the antics of a few naughty priests, or bishops. The simply stopped believing in what they came to consider rather unpleasant fairy stories employed to scare them into submission.
    I might be quite wrong, of course.

  2. J.P. says:

    Thanks be to God that we here in Ireland have cast off the old-style childish religiosity John Waters speaks of – ‘rich in piety but poor in reason’. We are all grown up now

  3. kathleen says:

    Toad @ 07:04

    No, I believe it was an uncontrolled uproar, blown completely out of proportion by elements hostile to Catholicism, at the news of the covering up of the sex abuse scandals by certain bishops that sparked off Ireland’s decline from the Faith. This, together with the onslaught of modernism in the aftermath of Vatican II, was a powerful destructive poison that infiltrated the Isle of Saints! A return of the ‘snakes’ (Druid paganism) abolished by St Patrick?

    But yes, unfortunately there were some Irish priests who took a few liberties with “fairy stories” in earlier days. That is a shame, as it undermined the Truths of the Faith they should have stuck to. No need to embellish our beautiful Catholic Faith with either exaggerations or myths.

    My Irish granny once told me the amusing (but mistaken) story she’d witnessed of a priest who, from the pulpit, angrily threatened the congregation that if they continued to walk across the muddy grass to enter the church, instead of taking the longer walk along the ‘L’ shaped path, he would turn them all into white rabbits!!! 😱
    The amazing (and sad) thing is, that people believed him! No one dared cross over the grass to get to the church from then on!

  4. GC says:

    I should have thought that Ireland, so privileged to have been hearing the Gospel for more than a millennium and a half and who baptised not only much of Europe but elsewhere, in my country as well, could only benefit even more from hearing it into the future.

    I don’t know of any other “programme” where people are encouraged to use their talents and intellects to the full in humble service to their brethren in order to make a fine society and win life eternal for all. Where jealousy, fear, greed and any other destructive tendencies are overcome when we hear and follow our Lord, who came, taught and died for all this alone.

  5. I had a conversion experience somewhat like that of John Waters that brought me to my senses. I grew up in Ireland in the forties and fifties before emigrating and experienced the sentimentalism and moralism of the Irish version of Christianity that John Waters describes. I never came to realize the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection – that it was for my personal salvation. I would have heard countless exhortations to seek redemption and salvation but I could not figure out what the Church was talking about. The disciplined upbringing that resulted from obeying the rules allowed me to consider others gods – the false gods of wealth, health and personal autonomy. For a while that worked well until the wheels come off in mid-life. Slowly concern gave way to anxiety to depression and a full scale crisis. In the depths of despair a miracle occurred that instantly released me from the depths of despair and I came to finally know what salvation meant. And this brings me to make a few observations about renewal in Ireland. With the institutional church in complete disarray the hope for the renewal of Christianity in Ireland depends upon the laity with significant assistance from a few energized priests who espouse a role as servants of the faithful. I believe that anxiety is the gateway to salvation. When people are encouraged to share the inevitable disillusion with the secular life style in local autonomous groups on the lines of AA, being encouraged to surrender to Jesus Christ, the rebuilding that Waters hopes for could begin. It should not be that a crisis is necessary for renewal but experience points to it and Christianity in Ireland has hit bottom.

  6. Like John Waters, I had a conversion experience that brought me to my senses. I was raised in the Ireland that he describes, where Christianity was experienced as sentimental and moralistic. I heard many times that Christ died for my redemption and that salvation lay in following Him, but I could not make much sense of it. The narrative I was given simply did not add up to a full understanding of why I existed. At that time of life a full understanding was not the most pressing problem so I put the matter aside and set to the task of chasing the false gods of wealth, health and personal autonomy. It worked for a while until by mid-life, concern moved to anxiety to depression and to a full scale existential crisis. The secular remedies of therapy and medication were not working when a miracle happened. Without any expectation on my part, my depression was lifted and I finally came to know salvation in real terms. I know that Jesus saves – I testify to it.
    It took depression and alcoholism to straighten John and I. What realization of doom will it take to make Ireland come to its senses? I don’t know but I have no doubt that the island of Saints and Scholars will surmount its difficulties by some miracle. The resurrection I imagine will start with the laity and a few key priests who will be servants and minister to them. Perhaps the growing anxiety of a secular culture running amok will be the trigger to salvation. In the U.S. mental health is front page news and people are questioning the reason for greater longevity. An AA type model for depression has not been tried on a large scale in which people acknowledge their inability to sustain autonomy but finding the answer in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It has the enormous advantage of starting a Christian recovery from a position of humility and dependence on God’s grace. In AA, Kiros, Christ Renews His Parish, Cursillo, Catholic Men’s Fellowship and Marriage Encounter, all lay driven conversion programs, the Church has somewhere to start.

  7. toadspittle says:

    “…(I) set to the task of chasing the false gods of wealth, health and personal autonomy.It worked for a while until by mid-life, concern moved to anxiety to depression and to a full scale existential crisis…”
    What were you doing for a living, Declan?

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