Friday 20 September 2019

Michael Kelly: Celebrating a nation's birth, and praying for a rebirth in the church

'Patrick Pearse and his fellow rebels found the Christian theme of resurrection sat perfectly with their hope of birthing a new state for an ancient people'
'Patrick Pearse and his fellow rebels found the Christian theme of resurrection sat perfectly with their hope of birthing a new state for an ancient people'
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Easter looms large in Irish history. Patrick Pearse and his fellow rebels found the Christian theme of resurrection sat perfectly with their hope of birthing a new state for an ancient people.

The fact that it was Good Friday in 1014 when the Irish, under Brian Boru, defeated the Danes at Clontarf wasn't lost on the rebels either. After the Rising, a comrade of rebel leader Thomas MacDonagh gave evidence of MacDonagh addressing Irish Volunteers on Holy Thursday 1916 as they prepared weapons in Clontarf, reminding them that they stood on sacred ground - since it was in Clontarf where Boru had been victorious in the cause of Ireland some 900 years earlier.

Easter was coming, and that was "the time of resurgence in Ireland", MacDonagh reportedly told his men.

The association between the resurrection of Christ and the rebirth of the Irish nation didn't end with 1916. It's well known that fervour in the 1920s saw calls for the GPO to be rededicated as the new Catholic cathedral of the nascent state. What is perhaps less well-known, however, is that Ireland's emergence as a Republic had a decidedly Christocentric undertone.

The 26-county state officially became a Republic on Easter Monday, 1949 - exactly 33 years after the Rising. Christ's passion, death and, crucially, resurrection from death occurred when he was 33 years old. The profound symbolism in a self-consciously Catholic state in the 1940s could hardly have been more evocative.

The symbiosis between Catholicism and nationalism in the 19th century was a key backdrop to 1916. A hugely unpopular uprising won popular support largely because the British authorities ruthlessly executed the leaders with abandon.

It wasn't much of a jump for Catholics - the followers of a first century Palestinian itinerant preacher crucified for a crime he didn't commit on trumped-up charges - to be captivated by the Easter rebels.

Standing, as we do, at Easter 2016, the past is a far distant country. Countless column inches have been written castigating successive governments for the failure to realise the ambition of the Proclamation of the Republic.

Where stands the Church? Bruised? Bloodied? Discredited? Absolutely. Relevant? For Mass-going Catholics, undoubtedly. But for many with little more than a passing association with the Church, the jury is still out in the Ireland of 2016.

The endurance of Catholicism is remarkable. Despite the scandals, and the Church's dreadful failings, surveys reveal that about a half of Irish people will attend Easter ceremonies in their local parish church this weekend. About a third of Irish Catholics still attend Mass weekly. But Mass attendance is a crude yardstick, and congregations are greying as the Church struggles to attract a new generation.

The symbiosis between Catholicism and Irishness that provided the dramatic backdrop to the 1916 Rising has also been lethal for the Church.

The post-independence Church, tired from centuries of subjugation, saw the emerging state as fertile ground for power. Catholicism provided the only viable infrastructure for a state built on little more than idealism and a thirst for self-determination. The founding fathers of the Free State were happy to endow bishops, the new establishment, with the reins of power.

What emerged was a long-suffering Church, hungry for prestige and obsessed with fabricating a Catholic idyll. Unmarried mothers and those who didn't conform were warehoused in the most appalling fashion.

Ireland in 2016, Church and State, is reaping what it has sown.

There's no doubt that we are witnessing the death rattle of one vision of Catholicism - or, perhaps more accurately, Christendom Irish-style.

Christianity had a bumpy start marked by rejection and persecution. The crucial moment was the year 313, when Emperor Constantine effectively made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. What emerged was Christendom - a hand in glove relationship between Church and State that served both and had very little time for outsiders.

This cosy relationship characterised much of 20th century Ireland, and the over-dominance of the Church has led many to reject it. Is there any hope of resurrection?

The Church in Ireland can have a vibrant future if it can calibrate itself with the humble leadership of Pope Francis. Some of the great champions of the vulnerable in the Ireland of 2016 are people like Sr Stan Kennedy, Br Kevin Crowley and Fr Peter McVerry. People who give daily witness to gospel values and prick our collective consciences.

Survival is not a gospel value, and a Church obsessed with its own survival will fail miserably. But a Church that can breathe new life into eternal truths and share in the joys and hopes, the sorrows and despairs, of the men and women of 21st century Ireland will attract fresh interest.

Many people who have given up the practice of faith reconsider this choice when they start to have children. If they meet a Church that is welcoming and wants to meet them where they're at, regular Sunday Mass and volunteering in the local parish can become part of family life. If they meet a closed community they may conclude that they should leave the dead to bury the dead.

So, this Easter, as we commemorate one of the major birth pangs of the Irish State, Catholics will be celebrating the resurrection of Christ and praying for a rebirth in the Church.

Not a return to Christendom Irish-style - but a return to an attentive following of Christ, who taught his followers simply to "love one another as I have loved you".

Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic'

Irish Independent

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