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Garry O’Sullivan: Can the Eucharistic Congress mark beginning of a Catholic renewal?

There will be unsuspecting tourists in the Ballsbridge area over the next week who could be forgiven for thinking that traditional Catholic Ireland of yesteryear is alive and well as cardinals, bishops and archbishops, nuns and priests in full vestments and habits, street bunting and Eucharistic processions and even the traditional Latin Mass, will all collide in a colourful spiritual jamboree which will climax in Croke Park on Sunday, June 17 complete with a video link to the Pope.

Described as a week-long spiritual and cultural festival -- it is certainly one of the more unusual festivals for an Irish summer week -- the 50th International Eucharistic Congress will open tomorrow in the RDS on the traditional feast of Corpus Christi, a once highly celebrated day in Irish life known for its processions and church pageantry.

That pageantry will be once again seen on the streets of Ireland as pilgrims from all over the world -- estimated at 80,000 -- descend on Dublin mainly for what is a week-long conference about the Eucharist.

While a festive atmosphere is expected, no one can gloss over the last 15 years in Ireland and the rapid decline of Irish Catholicism.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and papal legate to the Congress, didn't shy away from discussing the difficulties in the Irish church and the abuse crisis in a recent interview. In fact, many see direct parallels between the church in Canada and Ireland. The cardinal said that for decades the church in Canada had been affected by a process of secularisation and it needed the renewal that came through its own hosting of the Congress in 2008.

So the big question is will the Congress mark the beginning of a Catholic renewal? Many hope that the Irish church can, even after all the scandals and failures of leadership among the hierarchy, manage to pull its socks up, dust itself off and get back to the business of being a healthy church with something to say to a partially secularised society.

Cardinal Ouellet strikes a positive note for renewal because Ireland isn't as secular as Canada, at least not yet. However, he might overestimate the power of Ireland's history of "fidelity to its Catholic faith" to be a driver for renewal.

"It is an extraordinary history and they should be proud of this past which still has an impact on the present and is always part of the heritage that we should meditate upon and look for new energies for the renewal of the church nowadays in Ireland."

Yet that heritage is long gone, and the church of the future is a foggy notion as most don't seem to have any vision of how it will be constructed -- but few see it as resembling anything that went before. Restoration hopes have kept the Irish hierarchy paralysed for decades to the point they didn't even implement the Vatican II Council. That price is now being paid.

Vocations are still in decline; there are too many bishops and too many dioceses, the bishops' conference is dysfunctional and its President Cardinal Brady is fatally wounded.

While the church has in many cases better child protection policies and procedures than state bodies, there are still audits being carried out and Northern Ireland has announced an inquiry into institutional abuse there.

The financial crisis that has struck the church has wreaked havoc too and investments have been wiped out largely, with huge and ongoing costs associated with child abuse payments still in the mix.

On the political level, the Taoiseach's speech after the Cloyne Report and the closing of the embassy to the Holy See brought home to the Vatican that even Irish Catholics, once known in the Catholic world as 'always faithful', had a breaking point.

The future of the Irish church will be mainly in one man's hands, and that's the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, who was plucked by Pope Benedict from his Vatican post and asked to try and get the Irish church back on its feet.

To do that he needs to find new bishops to fill the growing number of empty dioceses and the ones where the existing bishop is over retirement age. He also needs to find a replacement for Cardinal Brady. He will be using the Congress to network with priests and bishops in order to root out potential new bishops.

Already priests around the country have received letters asking them their opinion of Fr X and if he would be suitable as a bishop for diocese X. There is a strong suspicion that the talent pool is not wide enough in Ireland and that the Vatican may look elsewhere for Irish bishops.

Once the Congress ends, watch for the appointment of new bishops as the attempt to renew the Irish church gets under way. Will the Congress herald that renewal? Or will it serve to bookend the death of Irish Catholicism between 1932 and 2012? Historians will judge in time.

For now, there is hope for the Irish church, but it hangs precariously by a thread.

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

Irish Independent