The last great threat to the belief and practice of the Catholic Faith in Ireland was probably in the late 16th and early 17th century. The crisis of that time was unparalleled – until now. It seems unquestionable that as we look back over the past 50 years we can now see the unravelling of a Catholic community which for three centuries resisted the fire and sword of persecution and flourished throughout the English-speaking world.
There is a great deal of talk of our now being – in the context of the horror of multiple betrayals now scandalizing the world from these very shores – at a watershed in the history of Irish Catholicism. The nature of that watershed may mean different things to different people but many hope that it is a watershed from which will flow a reformed and regenerated Catholicism faithful to the teaching which defines Catholicism itself. There is every reason to hope that it will. The failures and triumphs of the 17th century are grounds for nurturing that hope in our hearts.
Catholicism in Ireland in the 16th century was in a truly sorry state – as indeed it was in much of Europe. The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to a range of abuses in the Church at large. Ireland was no freer of abuses than the next, catalogued in polemic terms by the Protestant reformers but catalogued in more accurate if no less lurid terms by the Catholic reformers of the early 17th century.
In 1631 the reforming Catholic bishop of Waterford had to contend with a diocese in which, he reported “most of our clergy are idle, contenting themselves to say mass in the morning, and until midnight to continue either playing or drinking or vagabonding; and as most of them are unlearned, the make a trade of being ecclesiastical, thereby to live idle, sit among the best, go well clad, and if I would say it, swagger….and alas very few spend one hour a twelvemonth to teach Christian doctrine, or instruct young children.”
That is just a sample. The consequences for the laity of the time of a pastoral infrastructure served by that kind of pastor were of course inevitable: ignorance, superstition, devotional aberrations and utterly loose living. The Catholic reformers took up the challenge of dealing with these. S.J. Connolly, in his history of the period, Contested Island – Ireland 1460-1630, – from which the quotation above is taken – tells of some of the things that had to be tackled. There was “a particular concern with wakes, where the passage of the recently dead was marked by feasting, drinking and ritual games, all with the aim of reasserting bonds of kinship and community and perhaps of placating the spirit of the deceased. The explicitly sexual nature of some of the games played was another challenge to the new moral discipline. Marriage was a further area of difficulty. Communities for whom weddings were a means of creating and strengthening social bonds were not easily persuaded that the consent of two individuals given before witnesses was not adequate unless solemnized by the parish priest of one of the parties, that a close existing blood relationship could be an obstacle to union or that a marriage contract remained binding even when the family or other alliances it had been created to secure had ceased to exist.”
In the 16th century a battle royal had commenced for the minds and hearts of the Irish people. The Tudor conquest of Gaelic Ireland had the dual objective of achieving political submission and religious reformation on Protestant terms. In the execution of the programme the duality of the aim was probably a major factor in the undoing of the latter. But in the end of the day the event celebrated in poetry by James Clarence Mangan two centuries later – leaving aside the political and nationalistic interpretations of the words – was what really made the difference.
O my Dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the deep.
There ‘s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green…
The combination of a muddled and often ruthless political strategy, combined with an incompetent religious persecution and a half-hearted apostolic zeal on behalf of the Protestant reform was no match in the end of the day – even when pursued over two centuries – for the resurgence of the Faith which flowed from the Council of Trent. The early 16th century saw the laying of the foundations on which the practice of the Catholic Faith in Ireland was gradually reaffirmed and restored in the face of draconian persecution and half-hearted Protestant evangelization. It took time and it was often patchy – but then there was never to be a Kingdom of God on earth without weeds. The persecuted mustard seed which was nurtured by the Catholic reformers on the watershed that was 17th century Ireland became the flourishing Catholic Church in the Anglophone world of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Are we back to square one? History may not repeat itself but it has an uncanny way of appearing to do so. We may have no wish to trace detailed parallels between the abuses of today with those of yester year but we do not need to. The moral degeneration, clerical or non-clerical, hidden or blatently evident in the behaviour of our age speaks for itself. It is hard not to conclude that if it is not square one we have reached we are somewhere in its vicinity.
In the 16th century the Protestant reformers were aware of one thing but seemingly failed to capitalise on that awareness and lost the ground they might have gained. The neo-protestants of today are fully aware of the same thing and if the evidence before us is to be trusted they are doing their best to capitalise on it second time around. Check out Is This a Trojan Horse? in the Position Paper of November 2008 for more detail. Historian Aidan Clarke noted in his contribution to the third volume of the Oxford University Press New History of Ireland: “It had been recognised from the outset that the young were more likely to be susceptible to protestantism than the old, but the problems of creating a protestant monopoly of education were too large to be tackled.” The prospect of an anti-Catholic takeover of the system of education today is much less of a challenge. It is arguable that the takeover has been largely effected already in spirit if not in the letter. What is the Faith which is being taught in the majority of nominally Catholic schools today? Where are the minds and hearts of the majority of young Irish people today? We might shudder to think what a thorough investigation might reveal.
But hope is at hand. “Wine from the royal Pope” has already arrived in port. As it was then, so it is now. The Roman Catholic Church was then and is now the institution founded by Christ to provide for the needs of his flock. That betrayals should be experienced within it should dismay no one. Judas was among the first twelve and while he helped put the One who chose him to be such on the Cross to die, his action did not deflect the Church from its path. The Pope is the universal pastor and his care for his faithful on this island and beyond is palpable in every word of his letter to Irish Catholics. It has set an agenda for the spiritual life of this people. The practical help they will need to enable them to fulfil it is marching “along the deep” in the form of the promised Apostolic Visitation. What is now hoped for, what is needed, what is on offer is a new and Catholic Reformation of a greviously wounded Catholic culture. If these hopes are fulfilled then the outcome of the sad events of the late 20th century might be as fruitful in the centuries ahead as was the outcome of those of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
A version of this article will appear in the May edition of Position Paper www.positionpaper.ie .