January 28, 2015 // Local

Nuncio to Ireland speaks at Notre Dame

Archbishop Charles Brown, the apostolic nuncio to Ireland and a University of Notre Dame graduate, delivers a Jan. 15 lecture on “The Catholic Church in Ireland and Pope Francis: Legacy and Transformation.”

By Ann Carey

NOTRE DAME — The Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to Ireland returned to the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater, to deliver a Jan. 15 lecture on “The Catholic Church in Ireland and Pope Francis: Legacy and Transformation.”

Archbishop Charles J. Brown received his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame before entering the seminary and being ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New York in 1989. While studying for his doctorate in sacramental theology in Rome, he was recruited by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to join the staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). He served that office for over a decade before being appointed apostolic nuncio to Ireland in late 2011 by his former boss at the CDF, Pope Benedict XVI.

Archbishop Brown told the audience that he approached his topic with “trepidation,” for the Church’s role in Irish society and history — and the evolution of that role — is “a question of daunting complexity.”

The nuncio said that since arriving in Ireland in January 2012, his priority was to be open and accessible to people so he could learn about the country and the needs of the Church there.

Ireland had a uniquely Catholic culture, and had been a largely rural society for a thousand years, Archbishop Brown explained. Until the 1970s, the Irish people practiced the faith in great numbers, a phenomenon he called “a living tradition of Christendom in our own time.” Some 90 percent of the people attended Mass on Sundays and holy days, many made pilgrimages to holy places, and large numbers of young people entered the seminaries and the convents.

One of the factors that preserved Catholicism into the second half of 20th century, he said, was that during the long centuries of British rule, keeping the Catholic faith of the indigenous people was seen as an act of resistance to the foreign power. This sense of solidarity and resistance, along with the martyrdom of some Church leaders, had built up “enormous good will among the Irish people,” and social legislation tended to follow Catholic principles.

Then modernity came to Ireland. A gradual economic improvement in Irish life attracted immigrants back to their home country, and those returning citizens brought with them their experience of secular societies, the archbishop said.

Contributing to the change in Irish culture was the spread of electricity to rural Ireland. Prior to the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Irish homes lacked electricity. However, with electricity came radio and television, which not only spread the values of the media industry, but also transformed the ancient rhythms of Irish life that had included a devout practice of the Catholic faith, Archbishop Brown explained.

The esteem of the Irish people for the Catholic Church also was tremendously affected by the clergy sex abuse scandals, the nuncio observed. As the culture secularized, the Irish bishops had continued to speak out strongly about moral issues in society. So, the revelation of the crimes of clergy and the negligence of some bishops was met by outrage and hostility toward the Church, Archbishop Brown said, for people questioned how bishops could dare to speak about morality when some of them had been so negligent.

“So it’s clear that from what I’ve seen is that the Church of Ireland faces unique challenges in society today. But having said that, we must also say that the Church in Ireland possesses unique resources,” the nuncio continued.

Among those resources he enumerated were Mass attendance, which is lower than previously, but still significantly higher than any other European country; the “spiritual geography” of Ireland, with its hundreds of ancient Christian sites; the “unseen world of saints and angels” that remains a part of the Irish consciousness; and an awareness of the faith still present among the Irish people.

“There is a palpable desire in the Irish people for an understanding of life which goes beyond the merely material and visible,” he said. “There is a hunger and thirst to encounter the truth of our existence.”

Archbishop Brown said that Pope Francis provides a way forward to help the Irish rediscover the spiritual basis of human life, for the pope’s reflections on freedom in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) are quite relevant to the contemporary situation in Ireland.

He quoted the “heart of the Christian message” from that exhortation: “Jesus Christ loves you; He gave His life to save you; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”

The archbishop explained that Pope Francis insists that those who want to communicate the good news of Christianity must express God’s saving love with a joy that shows that the Catholic faith is freeing, and freedom cannot be imposed. Certainly Christians have religious and moral obligations, the nuncio continued, but they are the consequence of that faith, not the prerequisite for faith.

“This message of Pope Francis … has been extremely well received in Ireland where …  the truth of Catholic teaching has been associated, at least in the minds of many, with control and perhaps at times even with coercion.”

Archbishop Brown explained that the disappearance of Irish societal support for being a member of the Catholic Church may usher in a new period in Ireland in which Catholics see themselves not just as part of the ambient, homogenous Catholic culture, but rather as people who have freely accepted the liberating gift of faith in Jesus Christ and in His Church.

Archbishop Brown’s talk was the 10th lecture in the Terrence R. Keeley Vatican Lecture series that is sponsored by Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies and is dedicated to giving students and faculty the opportunity to explore questions about Notre Dame’s Catholic mission with representatives from the Holy See. Archbishop Brown also had given the inaugural lecture in 2005, when he was on the staff of the CDF.

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