Michael Kelly: Rome's man in Dublin makes his voice heard
IT'S rare for a Papal Nuncio -- the Pope's representative to a particular country -- to say anything of substance publicly, much less set out his vision for the future of the church. Nuncios tend to be Rome's eyes and ears rather than the Pope's voice, usually leaving public pronouncements to the local hierarchy.
But Archbishop Charles Brown isn't your average Papal Nuncio: he has been hand-picked by Pope Benedict XVI to chart a way forward for the struggling church in Ireland.
Having spent 11 years working under the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger until his election as Pope in 2005, Dr Brown knows the mind of Benedict XVI. Perhaps more importantly, the Pope knows and trusts Archbishop Brown.
Since his arrival earlier this year, the energetic 52-year-old New-Yorker signalled that things were going to be different.
While his predecessors remained in relative obscurity in the Apostolic Nunciature on Dublin's Navan Road, this charismatic Irish-American immediately began touring the country meeting and, crucially, listening to ordinary Irish Catholics.
In terms of a plan Archbishop Brown's comments at Knock Shrine yesterday were modest.
Nevertheless, they build on a consistent theme coming from Rome for the Irish Catholics -- the future rests with a reliance on the church's tradition rather than radical changes to core teaching.
This is in stark contrast to the vision of the leaders of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) who are campaigning for a change in traditional teachings and whose views are echoed in surveys of Irish Catholics, many of whom have drifted far from the church's teaching.
As a close confidant of Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Brown clearly has a mission in Ireland and is determined to fulfil it.
It is in essence a two-pronged mission: his first task is to restore the confidence of ordinary brow-beaten Catholics and give their fragile faith a much-needed shot in the arm.
His second task is to articulate what the Pope sees as an 'authentic' vision of a church renewed and reformed. All of the various fractured factions within the church in Ireland agree on one thing -- the need for renewal. The disagreement, of course, is in what actually constitutes renewal.
During yesterday's address to an estimated 10,000 pilgrims at the Marian Shrine, Archbishop Brown made it clear that he has an optimistic vision of the church's future in Ireland despite the obstacles.
He is obviously laying out what can be described as a Benedictine vision of the future of the Irish church.
The key to understanding this Benedictine vision is when Archbishop Brown says that "the future needs to be authentically Catholic if there is to be a future".
It is a theme close to the heart of Benedict XVI who has spoken frequently of the need for Catholics -- particularly in countries like Ireland where the faith has been under pressure -- to hold firm to the traditions of the church. The church, the argument goes, will not survive and prosper by conforming to the dominant culture but rather by being counter-cultural and continuing to preach a consistent message.
It was a theme echoed in the report earlier this year of the Vatican's investigation into the church in Ireland -- the Apostolic Visitation -- which noted what it described as a widespread tendency "among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium".
"It must be stressed," the report stated, "that dissent from the fundamental teachings of the church is not the authentic path towards renewal." There's that word authentic again.
Archbishop Brown continued this theme in Knock, insisting that Irish Catholics need "to propose the Catholic faith in its fullness, in its beauty and in its radicality, with compassion and with conviction.
"We need to be unafraid to affirm the elements of the Catholic way which secular society rejects and ridicules," Archbishop Brown said.
Again, this is key to how Pope Benedict XVI sees the task of articulating the faith in a secular culture: uncompromising, but preached with energy and compassion. The church, Benedict says, doesn't change its views because they are unpopular.
Archbishop Brown's Knock remarks sought to reassure Irish Catholics that despite the depressing demographics and seemingly endless crisis that the hierarchy has thrust the church into, there is hope.
But it's hardly a naive hope. "It seems as if, every few months, a new survey is released showing, or purporting to show, that the Catholic faith is disappearing in Ireland," he told the congregation. Certainly, the number of Irish Catholics disagreeing with the church's core teachings has sent shockwaves through the hierarchy. It's true that many still attend Mass regularly and 84pc of Irish people self-described themselves as Catholics in the census.
The problem for the church is that being a card-carrying Irish Catholic no longer means that one signs up for everything.
Hence, a struggle for the heart of the church: a struggle between those who want to maintain traditional orthodoxy but present it in a fresh way, and those who want to make Catholicism more palatable to the dominant culture.
Archbishop Brown has set out his stall. This doesn't mean that there won't be reform and restructuring in the creaking Irish church. The kind of Catholic 'dynamic orthodoxy' that Archbishop Brown represents holds no sentimental affection for structures and patterns of working that no longer work. It's all about the teaching and it's all about being 'authentically' Catholic.
Michael Kelly is Deputy Editor of The Irish Catholic newspaper and on Twitter @MKellyIrishCath