Maynooth's Father Vincent Twomey on the State of the Faith
MAYNOOTH, Ireland, 6 MAY 2004 (ZENIT).
Despite the decline of Ireland's ancient Catholic culture over the past
few decades, a native theologian has hope for the Church here.
Father Vincent Twomey, a lecturer in moral theology at Maynooth College
and the editor in chief of the Irish Theological Quarterly, recently wrote
"The End of Irish Catholicism?" (Ignatius).
He shared with ZENIT his findings: that the faith and loyalty of many
laity and clerics have kept the Church strong and have the potential to
still bear much fruit....
Q: What cultural conditions produced traditional Irish Catholicism?
Father Twomey: First, there's the loss of the greater part of our medieval
religious and cultural traditions: monasteries, churches, art, music, and
During the penal times, from 1697 to 1793, the Church lived underground.
After the Great Famine, from 1845 to 1849, we effectively lost our native
language and so lost the last cultural link with the ancient and medieval
In the 19th century, the growing cultural and spiritual vacuum was filled
by two mutually conditioned developments.
The first was a centralized, authoritarian Church. The second was the
introduction of devotions imported from France and Italy, which were
emotional in nature and rigorous in their moral demands. Their moral
rigorism was further enjoined by the dominant cultural ethos of English
Protestantism marked by Puritanism and respectability.
The result was predictably dismal, saved only by Irish wit and peasant
common sense. And yet, it had many strengths.
New religious orders such as the Irish Christian Brothers and the
Presentation and Mercy Sisters, founded by remarkable men and women like
Blessed Edmund Rice, Nano Nagle and Catherine McAuley, were devoted to
education, charitable and social work.
Equally astonishing was the rich spiritual life that marked former
generations at home and abroad in Britain, the United States, Australia
and New Zealand, not to mention the missionaries who went to every part of
At a time when as a nation we had no real political representation, the
Catholic faith created a sense of identity and of dignity both collective
and personal. To be Irish was to be Catholic.
Q: Recent years have brought great change in Ireland, particularly notable
economic progress. But this has also meant leaving behind cultural and
social models that were a mainstay during a long time. Is Ireland losing
its particular cultural identity and just becoming a part of a globalized
Father Twomey: Yes, the changes in Ireland over the past three decades
have been both radical and extensive.
The transformation from a depressed economy to one of the most vibrant in
the world has been spectacular. Though prosperity is to be welcomed, it
has also given rise to consumerism.
I get the impression that the energy Irish people once put into achieving
the salvation of their own souls
the souls of others
now been channeled into creating heaven on earth.
The over-30-year-long civil war in Northern Ireland tainted the reputation
of both Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism, which were once so
Q: What is the present state of the Church in Ireland? What are the
greatest strengths of the Church there?
Father Twomey: The Irish Church was unprepared for the Second Vatican
Council. Though the changes introduced by the Council were all obediently
implemented, the confidence of the Irish clergy in what they had once
accepted so uncritically as being the unchanging truth was undermined.
Everything was questioned, and few clergy felt up to the task of even
understanding the questions
to mention giving convincing answers.
Religious education went into a tailspin. Preaching on scriptural texts as
strange to themselves as to their parishioners became, for many in the
clergy, an embarrassment.
Various referenda on moral issues
particularly abortion and divorce
revealed a clergy that was uncertain of its stance and so incapable of
firm leadership or persuasive arguments.
The Council's liturgical reforms, necessary in themselves, were carried
out in a way that impoverished the very core of Irish Catholic
spirituality, the Mass, and practically wiped out its traditional
devotions, once the lifeblood of Irish Catholic life.
In more recent years, the scandals caused first by a bishop
once the darling of the media
by multiple cases of clerical sexual abuse of the most horrific nature did
And yet again, it never fails to astonish me that so many Irish Catholics
have actually remained faithful to the faith of our fathers.
Despite the fact that its liturgical celebrations are, with few
exceptions, generally devoid of either inspiration or beauty, the Irish
Church still has the highest percentage of Mass-goers in Western Europe.
The greatest strength of the Irish Church is thus the faith of the many
laity and clerics who have remained faithful, despite everything.
Another strength is the extraordinary charitable instinct of Irish people.
Their concern to alleviate hunger and distress throughout the world makes
such agencies as Trócaire, Concern and Goal, the most active in the world.
It is true to say, that there is no area of distress in the world where
you will not find an Irish man or woman trying to give relief, even in
Q: What is the viability of the institutional Church in Ireland?
Father Twomey: Well, the institutional Church is eternally viable, insofar
as it is sacramental by nature. And it is good to recall this, since it is
too easy to reduce the Church to a merely human institution dependent on
The fact is that the Church as the primordial sacrament works "ex opero
operato," that is, by the grace of God. This means that the weakness of
the clergy cannot prevent God working out his plan of salvation through
But I presume that you are referring to the human substructure built on
the sacramental order of bishop, priest, deacon and faithful, where human
factors do play a large role.
In recent years, the conference of bishops has tried to streamline its
operations, though it is too early to judge how effective such efforts
will be. However, much attention has of necessity been given to
formulating an adequate legal and pastoral response to clerical sexual
abuse, perhaps to the neglect of more long-term planning.
Ireland has also suffered from one of the weaknesses of the new prominence
given to episcopal conferences worldwide, namely, the tendency of
individual bishops to hide behind the anonymity of the conference.
We live in an era where people are not convinced by long documents
produced by anonymous conferences.
What convinces people is the honest bishop or priest trying to make sense
of the human predicament in the light of the Gospel, a man who has the
courage of his convictions, who genuinely tries earnestly "to think with
the Church" and is not intimidated by the media. ZE04050620
Maynooth College's Father Twomey Tells of
Reasons for Hope
MAYNOOTH, Ireland, 7 MAY 2004 (ZENIT).
The Church in Ireland needs only
to tap into the energy of young Catholics and focus on theological study
to garner a renewal in that country.
So says Father Vincent Twomey, a moral theologian at Maynooth College and
author of "The End of Irish Catholicism?" (Ignatius).
Father Twomey shared with ZENIT how more attention to the sacraments and
the liturgy could help bring Catholicism in his native country into a new
Q: What potential does the Church have for renewal in Ireland?
Father Twomey: The potential of the Irish Church is enormous. I am
convinced that the Irish Church has not even begun to tap into it.
For two decades, I have had the privilege of teaching seminarians and
young Catholic laymen and women of great ability, genuine idealism and
sincere commitment to their faith.
The Irish Church has as yet little idea of how to use that talent, or
indeed the talent and experience of older generations of laity and clergy,
and using it to find ways and means of renewing the Christian life in the
cities and in the countryside.
In every area of life
literature, the arts, music, business, technology, politics
Irish people are today leading the world. The one exception is in the
field of religion and theology. Why?
One of the main causes, it seems to me, is the lack of original thinking
within the Church. Research is the source of new ideas. In Church terms,
this means theological research.
Yet there is no serious tradition of theological research in Ireland, no
centers of specialized scholarship. Theology is largely limited to
training seminarians and catechists. Until this situation changes, the
Irish Church will not be able to tap into its own potential.
We must face up to the fact that the reasons for the Irish Church's
theological poverty are deeply rooted in our historical experience.
However, creative theology is not simply a scholarly discipline. It must
be rooted in a living faith. Theology is a living faith seeking
I might add that one of the great signs of hope for the future are the
many young people who are beginning to encounter Christ through such
movements as Youth 2000.
When their faith experience seeks understanding, Irish theology will
perhaps be reborn. But there is also a need for scholarly institutes that
can provide the technical know-how to enable this theology to find its
Q: What changes can be made for renewal and future growth in the Church in
Father Twomey: The way a Church is structured can affect the Church's
response to the pastoral needs of the day.
The Catholic Church in Ireland, in my opinion, needs to be restructured
and the number of dioceses reduced at least by half. One diocese comprises
a quarter of the Catholic population and the rest are scattered among 25
other dioceses. Most are simply too small to provide the specialized
pastoral care that a modern diocese requires.
Likewise, parish boundaries need to be revised and greater diversity in
pastoral ministries created.
Above all, opportunities need to be created for gifted laity to contribute
to parish and diocesan life.
Religious life needs to be radically renewed so that the various orders
can once again be seen to be truly religious rooted in the contemplative
life expressed in a corresponding lifestyle.
Irish missionary congregations, at present apparently preoccupied with
justice and peace issues, need to recover also the urgency of preaching
the Gospel to those who have never heard of Jesus Christ.
In general, greater attention must be paid to both the celebration of the
sacraments and the revival of feast-day celebrations that spill-over into
genuine festivities of a more general and public nature, as in the
Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe and Latin America.
The liturgy must become once again an experience of heaven on earth, of
the transcendence in our midst, an experience of the "other world" that
enables us to take up the tasks and absorb the setbacks of this world with
renewed interior energy.
This requires a theological understanding of liturgy, a reverence for the
"given-ness" of the sacred text and sacred rites, and a search for a truly
sacral art and music that can express the mystery we celebrate.
Sermons and religious education will once again inspire, once the vision
of faith is recovered which alone can prevent the Christian message from
deteriorating into cheap moralizing and fuzzy spirituality.
The renewal and future growth of the Catholic Church in Ireland, as
elsewhere, is only possible on the basis of a rich theological vision of
the world and a clarity about its moral message, which is the means
necessary for attaining our ultimate goal, eternal happiness.
And so I am convinced that the renewal of the Church in Ireland depends on
the renewal of the springs of Irish theology. ZE04050726