Barely a day goes by when I don’t think about the undergraduate semester I spent in Ireland 21 years ago. The memories grow more vivid with time. When else have I even come close to walking three miles to church on Sundays through country so green that I could happily have lain down in a field and sent forth my spirit?
I’ve never found the opportunity to return. But two recent events on campus renewed my acquaintance with the island and my hope that transformative Christian faith may not be a thing of the Irish past.
Two weeks before Christmas, my wife and I met friends at Notre Dame’s nearly empty Browning Cinema to see Calvary. The recent Irish film slices straight into the scandals and pain that have threatened to destroy the Catholic Church in Ireland.
As the theater lights went down we found ourselves in a confessional on Saturday afternoon, face-to-face with Father James. Immediately the window slides back and a man’s voice begins from behind the screen. In one raw sentence he recounts his sexual abuse as a child at the hands of another priest. But this is no moment of penitence for his own sins. Instead the voice gives Father James, a gentle, red-bearded and seemingly fearless giant played by Brendan Gleeson, a week to put his affairs in order. He will die the following Sunday — not, the faceless man makes clear, because he is a bad priest but because he is a good one.
The film’s power builds from that opening punch. Father James neither fights nor flees his picturesque rural parish, though he will be tempted. Instead he turns to his pastoral duties. Before long we understand that any of his parishioners could have made the threat. Father James’ impending murder invites us to consider something unimaginable only a generation ago: the prospect of an Ireland that, wounded and angry, rejects not only the institutional Church but Christian faith altogether.
Since that night, I’ve often wondered how an Irish film that so probes the wounds afflicting the national soul went over in its home country.
Then, last week I attended the 10th annual Terrence R. Keeley Vatican Lecture, which was delivered by Archbishop Charles Brown ’81, the pope’s ambassador to Ireland. Brown’s talk, “The Church in Ireland and Pope Francis: Legacy and Transformation,” promised to cover the same terrain as Calvary, though the archbishop credibly managed not to make direct reference to sexual abuse until the second half of a 45-minute talk. (Sure enough, the film came up in the first question, put to the archbishop by an undergraduate.)
Brown said his primary job is to create an atmosphere in which the Christian faith might flourish. It’s hard to imagine a more daunting task — and Brown has been at it for three years — but then one could hardly ask for a more appealing candidate.
Superficially, the archbishop with Irish roots is athletic and handsome and could pass for someone 20 years younger. His education and training as a longtime official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger bespeak clarity, resilience and an intimate awareness of the Church’s mission and obstacles.
Moreover, he is humble. For the audience’s benefit, Keeley ’81, the lecture’s patron and a close friend and classmate of Brown’s at Notre Dame, recalled him as a “scrawny” freshman collecting money outside the dining hall for the World Hunger Coalition as a “way to meet girls.” Brown only laughed in reply.
The essence of Brown’s message was that while Christendom may have fallen as a place where Christian faith permeated everything, Catholicism may yet thrive without that kind of support.
Ireland is one of the few places in the world where such a “pervasively Catholic culture” has existed within memory, the ND history major said. At its peak, 90 percent of the population attended Sunday Mass. Religious vocations were a chief export. Evidence of respect for the sacred was everywhere. Divorce, rejected 2-to-1 in a 1986 vote, was legalized only in 1995.
Moral failure and outrage were only the most painful of the acids to dissolve this culture so quickly. Today, the Church finds itself nearly unable to speak on spiritual and moral matters. Those opposed to the Church on any issue, Brown points out, can always say, “How dare they?”
Yet the papal ambassador believes Ireland isn’t lost. Mass attendance is still the highest in Europe. The island knows few equals for its “spiritual geography,” those thousands of Christian sites where for centuries monks, nuns and devout laypeople contemplated and adored the Lord.
Then there is the growing sense of dissatisfaction with what Brown called the “emptiness of secularism.” He says Pope Francis has captured the attention of many by insisting that the Church’s first proclamation — “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” — comes before moral or religious obligations.
Which brings me back to Calvary, which Archbishop Brown admits he hasn’t seen but has heard praised for its accuracy. What makes Father James so appealing isn’t the charm or piety we’d have expected from a movie priest in the 1950s, but how he embodies the compassionate respect for the freedom of his flock that the pope talks about. That dangerous and exemplary respect remains unshaken, even in the face of death.
John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.