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Garry O’Sullivan: A lot done -- but the church is at a crossroads

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Fred and Sheila Clause, Gladys Valerie and Barbara Ginn from Atlanta, Georgia at Statio Orbis, the closing ceremony of the 50th International Eucharistic congress at Croke Park

Fred and Sheila Clause, Gladys Valerie and Barbara Ginn from Atlanta, Georgia at Statio Orbis, the closing ceremony of the 50th International Eucharistic congress at Croke Park

Fred and Sheila Clause, Gladys Valerie and Barbara Ginn from Atlanta, Georgia at Statio Orbis, the closing ceremony of the 50th International Eucharistic congress at Croke Park

THE Pope's address was not the highlight of the Eucharistic Congress -- and he was right to keep it that way. The congress was always going to be understated. This allowed a realistic check on the state of the church in Ireland.

An old priest told me that the Eucharistic Congress in the RDS last week was the best sense of being an Irish Catholic he has had since his ordination.

That says a lot about the starvation Irish Catholics have suffered at the hands of an institutional church.

The workshops surprised the organisers, such was the swell of participants for the main talks, and many went away disappointed despite paying for the privilege of being there.

This confusion is not really the fault of the organisers -- and much credit to Fr Kevin Doran, who organised the congress -- but it is the fault of a church that lost its way sacramentally, liturgically and while preaching justice denied to the most vulnerable -- children.

It was almost impossible for the organisers to know if the congress would be a success or a flop and many erred on the side of caution.

Nobody was sure if the 'limbo' church -- those half in and half out -- would turn up on the day.

Two hundred priests' seats were empty at the opening ceremony, perhaps due to it being a Sunday.

Now we know, and there is a huge sigh of relief among the hierarchy, not to mention among ordinary Catholics who came to the RDS and realised that they were not alone.

This view was confirmed by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin while speaking at the final Mass in Croke Park, when he acknowledged his surprise and that of the organisers at the hunger among Irish Catholics for the talks and discussions of the faith in the RDS.

For the Irish Catholic Church now, it is reminiscent of the Fianna Fail slogan: 'A lot done, more to do'.

Except that the church has had its collapse, whereas Fianna Fail -- which helped host the 1932 congress -- fell dramatically from grace after that slogan got them re-elected in the 2007 general election.

Could the 'past' be a distant country for the Irish church going forward? It's unlikely -- there will be more audits and undoubtedly revelations about individuals -- but it is also unlikely that anything more shocking than the role of the Primate of All Ireland in an abuse investigation controversy in 1975 will emerge.

Cardinal Ouellet, the Papal Legate who said the Mass in Croke Park yesterday, said they had prayed at Lough Derg that the church has learnt from the past. Amen to that.

But have lessons been learned?

The Pope, in his address to a packed Croke Park, referred to Vatican II and the misunderstandings and irregularities that became vogue among some priests.

He appealed to Irish Catholics to use the year of faith as a time to sound the "Irish bell", which must, he said, "resound around the whole world".

The Pope and Cardinal Ouellet both said that this Irish church had given a lot, and because of the narrative in recent years, one would be forgiven for having the impression that everything associated with Irish Catholicism was poisonous, but the international church was not saying that to us.

Not untypically perhaps, as Irish, we don't see the wider view of our own history.

While the Pope's message may have come across as understated, what is clear is that the Eucharistic Congress is off next to Cebu in the Philippines, an archdiocese that registers more Catholics than most of the Republic of Ireland.

A Canadian pilgrim I met at the last day of the congress said that she had met Irish Catholic people who were broken and holding their heads down in shame.

It was, she said, time to be reconciled and move on, and "to swallow the pride of your sin".

The apologies have been made. Now can the Irish church find the leaders to bring it into a new era -- or will it succumb, like so many European nations, to secularism?

Will it hand its rich Catholic heritage over for safe-keeping to its Asian brothers and sisters in places like the Philippines, once Christianised by Irish missionaries?

Garry O'Sullivan is editor of the 'Irish Catholic'

Irish Independent