This blog, in so many ways, is the result of a journey: From Catholic Ireland to the ruins of Catholic France – and back again.
Admittedly, there was also time spent in Britain and Spain, along the way. Still, my life, my writings are shaped by Catholic France and Catholic Ireland in a very particular way.
All this hit me yet again, when I read Irish Papist on the crisis of Irish Catholicism. Now, Irish Papist was specifically referring to the collapse of vocations, but the crisis – like the crisis of liberal Catholicism everywhere – is much more wide-ranging than that.
Let us listen to him:
It’s hard even to imagine what will become of Irish Catholicism in ten or twenty years or thirty years. Unconsciously, we all imagine that things will pretty much go on as they always have done, but that seems hardly possible. We have hardly any young priests. Our congregations are mostly white-haired …
What will happen? Will Catholics who are now in their forties and fifties start going to Mass when they hit their sixties and seventies, replacing the current bulk of elderly worshippers? People often get more serious about their faith as they age (as indeed they should), and this is a possibility. Will the tide turn, and will more people of all ages start going to Mass? There’s no reason to rule this possibility out.
But it seems all too possible that we will plunge over the precipice, that the current generation of elderly Mass-goers will die and not be replaced, and that the same thing will happen in an even more drastic form with our priests.
Will there be daily Mass, outside the cathedrals and a few more prominent churches?
Will the Church have to relinquish control of its schools, hospitals and universities? Will Catholics have to travel long distances to attend Mass?
Will RTE and The Irish Times even bother bashing the Church any more? Will the Church even be able to hold onto its churches, never mind find congregations or priests for them?
I’m reminded of a time when I was visiting my now-wife, Michelle, in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is plagued by extreme weather and hurricanes are not at all an uncommon part of life there …
One evening intense winds raged about the apartment and we sat in front of an all-day weather channel, where presenters were excitedly discussing animated maps and keeping a track of the places where power had been lost.
At any moment, I knew, the electricity could cut out. And up until that moment, we had light, and the comforting voices on the television, and all the conveniences and diversions of civilization. But the moment the power went, all of that was gone, and we were in a completely different world. …
As long as you were in a lit-up house, with television presenters excitedly discussing the storm, it was all kind of fun, and the danger seemed unreal and far-away. Even the prospect of being plunged into blackness seemed unreal and far-away.
That’s how I feel about the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church today. Collapse may be only a decade or two away but it’s hard to really appreciate the reality of this, as long as we regularly hear Archbishops on the radio and see crowds filing out of our local church. We accept it in theory, when we are thinking about it, but we can’t really envisage an Ireland where the Catholic Church has as much cultural importance as, say, the Methodists.
(More of this can be found at Irish Papist here.)
Irish Papist raises matters of profound import – which we will explore in the weeks and months to come, taking a closer look at the crisis of Irish Catholicism.
As I indicate above, that crisis has much to do with the general malaise of liberal Catholicism everywhere and indeed, as I have called it elsewhere, Zany Catholicism …
But today, I would simply like to salute Irish Papist‘s confrontation with the future – if this malaise is not addressed.
And whilst Irish Papist speaks of the salutary awakening of extreme weather in Virginia, I should like to say something of my own awakening process. It happened in France.
For the terrible truth is that in France, I beheld something, I fear, of the future of Irish Catholicism – if something does not change. And I speak about that prospect in my upcoming book:
On my last travels through France, I felt as though I beheld pyramids along the nile – remnants of a dead civilization.
Here is what I felt seeing decaying churches, basilicas and faded weather-beaten wrought-iron crosses that still stand along lonely country roads as monuments to the piety of a forgotten world.
For while these monuments of Catholic France are hardly old, compared to the pyramids, it would seem that today’s French lack the least understanding of their ancestors who built and cherished them. And how frequently these French are contemptuously certain that there is no point to understanding.
Catholic France is something as alien to them as the Egyptian pharoahs who built the pyramids …
France today is like a Catholic cemetery. It is true that one still finds Catholicism alive in a few last outposts of the faith. On my travels, I encountered some of these last outstations of the France that once was: Paray-le-Monial, Lourdes, La Salette, Chartres.
In the past, these had been like the great mountains of Catholic France. They stood out prominently amidst the cultural landscape of Catholic France.
Once, millions of French made pilgrimage to breathe the ‘high mountain air’ that could be found on these peaks. But now a secular sea has engulfed virtually the whole of France. And these once-great mountains are like islands – tiny islands – which are all that is left of Catholic France. They barely rise above a soulless sea of Secular Materialism.
Yes, in these last little outposts, Catholicism is still breathing. Elsewhere, I beheld a wasteland. In the Pyrenees, I met a priest who was solely responsible for forty (dead) parishes. Not very long ago, each of these parishes would have had one, if not two priests and the power of the Sacraments would have streamed through every mountain village.
I am haunted by the memory of that Pyreneen priest. He was a good man, deeply pious. He held daily Mass in the main centre of population of his forty parishes, and he would tour his other forty parishes. Some of them would be blessed by the Holy Mass once a month, others only once a quarter of a year …
Yes, Irish Papist asks terribly important questions:
Will there be daily Mass, outside the cathedrals and a few more prominent churches? … Will Catholics have to travel long distances to attend Mass?
Will RTE [Irish television ]and The Irish Times even bother bashing the Church any more? Will the Church even be able to hold onto its churches, never mind find congregations or priests for them?
Today, I will only say that, long ago, French media waged a very long, very terrible battle against the Church.
But no longer.
Because, as Irish Papist surmises, there comes a time, when there is no longer a point to bashing the Church any more.
Because the battle has been won.
So, so much to say in the weeks and months to come – about the multifaceted nature of this crisis of Irish Catholicism.
We will, however, be taking a somewhat erratic, piecemeal approach, looking here, looking there.
I hope that the readership of this site, which is mostly outside Ireland, will not mind as we go ever more deeply into Irish culture. For truly, the situation in Ireland – as in France – is a mirror for the situation elsewhere in the West.
Also in this piecemeal approach, I do not only want to speak of gloom – but signs of hope. Indeed, we will shortly be turning to one such sign of hope – as it exists in Ireland and elsewhere (but most especially France) …