The storm in Ireland

Most people think of Ireland as indelibly Catholic. After all, the Church survived hundreds of years of persecution by Great Britain; some of it quite draconian, such as the “penal laws,” under which Catholics could not purchase land, could not hold government office, could not own a horse worth more than £5 (roughly $6.50 USD), and were only allowed a very limited education. There were times when priests could be shot on sight.

Despite this, the vast majority of Catholics held on to their ancestral faith, suffered the privations, and with great sacrifice passed it on to their descendants. The Irish Catholic diaspora later settled in America, Canada, and Australia and did much to erect the institutional Church in their new homelands. Well into the 20th century, Irish piety seemed unshakable, with over 80 percent attending weekly Mass and the dominant position of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Republic of Ireland’s Constitution. What could ever undermine a faith so deeply entrenched?

About five years ago I received a telephone call from a woman in Ireland named Kathy Sinnott. She explained that she had gotten my name as someone with experience in starting Catholic colleges. She was working with a group, she said, that wanted a college or university in Ireland comparable to Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I had been a vice president, or Ave Maria University, where I had been president for 12 years.

I wasn’t sure I could help, but my wife Jane and I decided to visit Ireland—not just as tourists, but as pilgrims in thanksgiving for our Irish ancestors, for the faith they preserved and handed down to us. We traveled around the country, talking with bishops, priests, lay people, and even the papal nuncio. My eyes were opened. I had visited Ireland quite a few times and sensed that there had been a general weakening of the faith. Now I realized that the crisis in the Church was existential. This was not a mere weakening of the faith but something approaching an institutional collapse.

Lest that seem to be an incredible or at least greatly exaggerated prognosis, let me briefly note a few statistics. In 1965, Ireland had 10 seminaries, the largest of which, Maynooth, alone had 500 seminarians. Today, Maynooth is the only diocesan seminary left, with only 30 Irish seminarians. Last year Ireland ordained six men to the diocesan priesthood in a nation with 26 dioceses and nominally over 3 million Catholics. Mass attendance is now under 20 percent weekly. Last year a referendum to amend the Constitution to allow same-sex “marriage” passed by two-thirds; over 90 percent of those 30 and under voted for it. The Ireland that sent thousands of missionary priests and religious to the English-speaking world and Africa is no more.

The Church in America had gone through a similar period of confusion and weakness in the 1970s and 1980s, and the “can do” spirit of grass roots activism in America generated effective remedial action. Thus, EWTN, Ignatius Press, Renewal Ministries, new religious orders, etc. were founded. In higher education, Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, and Thomas More College were established, faithful to Church teaching. Others such as Franciscan University and Catholic University of America underwent reform to restore their Catholic identity. Over time, seminaries were reformed and the tide of secularism and apostasy was greatly slowed, if not reversed.

There has been no comparable countermovement in Ireland. There are some vibrant and holy ministries, but they tend to be small and scattered. They are not nearly strong enough to counteract the very powerful forces now arrayed against the Catholic Church. These forces include the government, the media, and the European Union bureaucracy. Sadly, many priests and even some bishops seem to find it “safer” to compromise with the prevailing currents rather than struggle against them.

The Church in Ireland has been going through a “perfect storm”: the changes of Vatican II, for which many were theologically unprepared; the secularism and unaccustomed prosperity that followed the country’s joining the EU; most telling, the sexual abuse scandal, which in the space of two decades destroyed much of the credibility and high esteem that priests and religious had accumulated over centuries. The Church, which had been the main guardian of those values, personal and communal, which sustained Ireland through persecution, poverty, and famine, has been nearly capsized by scandal and undermined by dissent and confusion.

At the end of our pilgrimage Jane and I decided we ought to help Kathy Sinnott launch a new Catholic “third level” college in Ireland. In God’s Providence, we were able to secure a major gift from an American friend. That enabled us to launch Newman College Ireland, explicitly following the principles of Newman’s Idea of a University; i.e., a classical liberal arts curriculum, with theology not only included but given pride of place. The college also encourages students to strive for virtue and sanctity, goals no longer even discussed at most institutions of higher learning.

The first year was held in Rome, through an arrangement with Thomas More College’s study abroad program. Searching unsuccessfully for a campus in Ireland, we were offered space at the Drummond Hotel in Ballykelly, Northern Ireland. Owned by a devout Catholic family, it has a chapel and the Blessed Sacrament. Additional funding has been a struggle, and the students, usually from large families in rural areas, cannot afford more than a fraction of the costs. Yet the faculty, outstanding in their fields, are so convinced of Newman College Ireland’s importance that they teach as adjuncts for little or no compensation. The hotel has provided room and board at sacrificial rates.

The college’s major hurdle to further advancement is the lack of a president. There simply has not been enough funding to recruit and compensate someone with the requisite credentials. To remedy this, Jane and I have relocated to Northern Ireland so I can serve as (unpaid) interim president. We are reluctant to be so far from our children and grandchildren in these troubled times. Yet the need for morally well-formed and well-educated young Irish is so compelling and Newman College Ireland is so uniquely qualified to provide this that the sacrifices are worth it. The decline of America and our ancestral homeland of Ireland cannot be reversed by economics or politics, but only through a deeper conversion to Christ and the strengthening, support, and renewal of His Church. Education is a key component of that.

We ask those who hope for a renewal of the Catholic faith in Ireland to pray for us and for this project. May all our actions be guided by the Holy Spirit and become another hope for the world. May Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman intercede for us!

NICHOLAS HEALY is the president emeritus of Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fla.

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