Charity, Community and Caring in Catholic Ireland

Angel holds aloft the Coat of Arms of the Holy See with the Papal Tiara in New Ross, Co. Wexford, Ireland. Photo courtesy of Andreas F. Borchert GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, we continue with further manuscript extracts regarding Catholic Ireland from my upcoming book, Cor Jesu Sacratissimum.

Last time, I spoke of how, as an American who came to live in the West of Ireland in 2004, I was astonished by the Catholic culture I discovered there.

This was true, even while that Catholic culture had become greatly diminished, compared to the society which had flourished in Ireland right up through the 1980s – until massive secularisation and globalisation ensued.

For more context, you may wish to read my previous extracts here. In the previous entry, I spoke of the extraordinary religiosity and piety that existed until very recently in Ireland – echoes of which can still be found in the rural West.

In the extracts today, we turn from extraordinary piety to the likewise extraordinary sense of community and caring that has been a hallmark of Catholic Ireland.

Manuscript extracts:

In Ireland, people still remembered – and sometimes deeply mourned – the integral Catholic culture which they had known in their youth …

Ninety Second Video on the True Ireland—Article Continues Below

Even for souls who know nothing but Secular Materialism, Ireland can still be truly startling. Of course, Ireland has become very rapidly secularised in recent decades.

Yet one can still feel the Catholic culture which is being rapidly eroded, particularly if one listens to older Catholics, who recall the Ireland of their youth – and often mourn her demise.

In Ireland, I have tried to listen to those grieving generations – who are often markedly disturbed, even horrified, by the eradication of the culture they knew.

All this provided deeper stimulus for my enquiry into the Catholic Mystery.

Questions welled up in my soul: What can be learned from the fact that until very recently, Ireland was distinctly set apart from the secularising trends elsewhere in Europe?

What does the frequent reception of Sanctifying Grace mean for the majority of an entire population?

What does it signify for a population to be bathed – century upon century – in these Sacramental Arteries of His Sacred Heart?

Providence led me to these questions. For as I entered more deeply into the Catholic Mystery, I encountered not only different individuals and communities. I was providentially guided to entire cultures that were so different from the Protestant matrix I had known. France, Spain – but first of all: Catholic Ireland.

Catholic Ireland – how I would like to pay a tribute to you.

In a cynical age, how I shall be accused of romanticising and idealising you! Nonetheless, you made the most profound impression on my soul when I first crossed onto your shores. I was shocked – really shocked.

For your people seemed more genuinely caring, warm and helpful than any other people I have known in this world.

Your spirit of community was profound. Your society was also steeped with concern for charitable activity, unlike any I had ever seen.

Indeed, it has often been remarked that, even when you were among the poorest countries in Western Europe, your per capita quota of money given to charity was high – very high – by the richer countries’ standards.

All across your land, I still saw evidence of uncommon compassion and humanity. Forgive me for my repetition, dear Reader: I was shocked …

What I saw and felt in Ireland might fill many pages. But a few personal recollections may evoke the greater totality I experienced there. Here is one such memory …

I have come from an Anglican college in Britain to study theology at Mary Immaculate college in Limerick. What difference! One lecturer – he was a priest – calls students to prayer in his class – and no-one bats an eyelid!

The ethos is startlingly different from my British theological college in further ways, as well.

There is, for example, this striking emphasis on charity here.  Students raising money everywhere around me it seems – all of which is poles apart from my Anglican college. (Despite being a religious institution, Twenty First century yuppie materialism seems much more important there than charity).

Shortly after I start to walk the halls of Mary Immaculate, I spy a poster. It is one of many there for organised charity. But this single poster clearly articulates the difference I am feeling, by now, right across Ireland.

The poster shows a crossword puzzle. On the puzzle, words are scrawled in. Yet the presentation is such that they were not fully clear. For the words were obscene. I see SH … I see F … But then the rest is obscured.

All this serves to make a point. For beneath the crossword comes the slogan: The Real Obscenity: Not Caring.

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I never saw posters in my British college even remotely like this. But in Mary Immaculate and throughout Ireland, I will see these posters calling for charity, charity! And I will see people responding more frequently and readily than I have ever seen before …

Now, I do not wish to condone obscene language. I simply mean to say that that single poster captured so much of my experience of this blessed land.

For to be deprived of a caring heart – a heart that bleeds, like His Heart bleeds – this is indeed the greatest obscenity of all.

Now, as is well-known, Ireland has long been steeped in a particular devotion to His Sacred Heart.

And for me, it was transparently clear that Ireland had developed a collective heart that was indeed rare among nations.

Americans, for example, are rightly perceived as an outgoing and friendly people. But in Ireland it seemed to cut deeper than that. The Irish were also warm and friendly – particularly so –  but, as an American myself, I could not help but feel that the remarkable Irish human warmth was only the beginning of something even more remarkable.

Things did not stop at simple friendliness (important as that is). No, the Irish, by and large, cared about their neighbours – even strangers in the street – in uncommon ways.

Not only did I witness repeated acts of genuine considerateness, helpfulness and self-sacrifice that startled me, but, moreover, the sense for social justice seemed much deeper than in my native country.

Yes, the slogan on that crossword puzzle – the obscenity of not caring – spoke volumes about the soul of the Irish people.

Here is still another memory, which tells me that I am not alone in my perceptions. I meet a thoughtful, impressive American in County Clare who has lived seven years in Ireland. And his experience is similar to my own. He was likewise utterly astonished when he arrived in the late Nineties.

Like myself, nothing in America had prepared him for this. Hence: his shock.

I ask him what he thinks now, seven years later. Has he changed his mind? He tells me he recognises certain Irish limitations more than he did at first. But fundamentally, no, he has not changed his mind. He still sees something very, very special here.

Many other souls visit Ireland and report the same things we see, this fellow-American and myself. Still, my memory of this intelligent American remains telling for me. For first impressions sometimes lie  – but his sustained seven years in Ireland help to confirm my first impressions.

Are there not shallow, superficial and egocentric Irish you may well ask me? Are there not self-serving, corrupt – even monstrous – Irish you may well demand? And are there not sickening Priests who destroyed children’s lives?

Of course, Ireland is shot through with fallen humanity like everywhere else on this planet. The Irish have plenty of faults like everyone else. And like everywhere else, sometimes they manifest in terrible ways.

But I have seen too, too much of the warm, communitarian heart, which beats on that island to renounce anything I say here.

To invoke a current cliché, I have seen too many ‘random acts of human kindness’ in Ireland to avoid the conclusion that the extraordinary sacramental participation and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that once characterised Catholic Ireland made a genuine and lasting difference to her people …

End of manuscript extract.

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Again, for more regarding “the extraordinary sacramental participation and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus that once characterised Catholic Ireland”, please see my entry here.

Further extracts about Ireland will follow in time – although there may blog entries first about other themes of this weblog (including the Sacred Heart, Catholic Tradition and the twin threats of the largely Anglo-American driven globalisation and the largely Anglo-American New Age movement).

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One response to “Charity, Community and Caring in Catholic Ireland”

  1. […] Two earlier instalments have appeared: Encountering Catholic Ireland (here) and Charity, Community and Caring in Catholic Ireland (here). […]