Young parents with several small kids running around their legs are dotted throughout the Royal Dublin Society (RDS). The stadium looks like it is hosting one big school day out – as schoolchildren and watchful teachers are mesmerised by the proceedings. One nine-year-old said to me, “everyone here is so happy”. This encounter with faith will have a direct impact on the standards of RE in Irish schools. In one sacramental preparation programme Jesus in the Eucharist is referred to as “bread man”. Today that will seem an inaccurately silly description to the children now that they are hearing that our beloved Pope asked people during Wednesday’s General Audience to “spiritually unite” themselves with the Christians at the Congress, that the Eucharist is Jesus’s “gift of Himself to us” and “the pulsating heart” of the Church.
I spoke to one young father of four children who gave witness of how the Eucharist healed his crippling depression. His life had been at a standstill until he went for a Youth 2000 weekend retreat where he found Christ’s love in the Eucharist. After two years of seeking the healing graces from the Eucharist, he got married and now has cherubic, blond curly-haired kids. I shared with this young father how attending Youth 2000 prayer groups got me into saying the rosary, which has drawn me into the lives of Jesus and Mary. The young father said that sometimes people challenge him for having had four children, that it’s more acceptable in Ireland to have a family half that size. He doesn’t let it bother him because, he says, “their words don’t get to me. I know the Eucharist is true. I’m here with my wife to bring our kids to Christ.”
Yesterday the Congress was devoted to marriage and the parallel between Christ giving Himself entirely for us in the Eucharist, and that the sacrament of marriage calls husband and wife to give themselves entirely to each other. Too often debate on the family happens in the absence of children. But here there was something wonderfully realistic when the intellectual luminaries spoke about marriage in the presence of many parents who are tired from energetic toddlers and bullied by an intolerant society that sticks its nose into their private affairs. This wasn’t a time for waffle; the speakers had to be sincere to resonate with the hardworking parents present.
David Quinn, who last year was invited over to London by Catholic Voices, where he explained how to argue against gay marriage, gave a feisty talk on the evolution of the Irish family. David didn’t mince his words; “The old norms around family life had to be cast aside in the name of sexual freedom. There has been a move from the time when marriage was the only acceptable form of family to changes in the name of choice and freedom. There was the justifiable removal of the weapon of stigma against unmarried mothers. But sundering all the old norms means that a growing number of adults feel under no obligation to raise their kids together. The culture is that if my personal happiness requires that I leave my wife for someone younger, then so be it. If my personal happiness requires that my girlfriend have an abortion, then so be it. But the big losers are the children who are either aborted or left orphaned by parents who seek their own personal fulfilment above anything else.”
Throughout my upbringing in Ireland, David Quinn was the intrepid journalist who unseated liberal commentators, who learned fast that trying to beat David in an argument was as pointless as trying to pick up mercury with a fork. Why? David takes matters to their full logical conclusion. In the face of prevarications from liberal law-makers, David has the guts to say that the maximisation of sexual immorality means the minimisation of the welfare of children, who must be eliminated in the womb or passed from pillar to post.
If I was edified by David Quinn’s ripostes to secular society, I was touched to my marrow by my time with John Waters. For some hours, I interviewed John about his new book Was It For This? How Ireland Lost The Plot, published in recent weeks by Transworld.
In his new book John compares the obsession with ridding society of the spiritual, to taking a chainsaw to the pole at the centre of a circus. “They think there will be so much room without the big pole, so they hack away at it, not realising that there will be nothing without it.” John does not see religion as separate, but that “religion is part of everything. It’s all there in the first question of the Catechism – who made the world? God made the world. If that is true then there is no reality without religion.”
I mention to John that my favourite prayer is the decade of The Finding of Our Lord in the Temple, and John says that his favourite prayer is the serenity prayer, “it defines for me the dilemma that faces me moment to moment; to accept the things that I cannot change. It defines a line in my own life of what I can do and what only God can do.”
John Waters gave a talk called “Finding My Religion” and the hall was full to bursting. I was listening outside the door of the hall, cheek by jowl with a group of 50 other people who did not fit into the main hall. I saw a tall figure walk in who I recognised as Cardinal Brady. He was looking for a chair, and when I found him one, he closed his eyes and listened hard to John’s conversion story, after which the cardinal said, “ah sher he’s a great man”.
John did not have an easy route to belief in God. He was born to “very devout parents” in the 1950s, in the west of Ireland, but lost his faith in the 70s. He thought he could satisfy his desires in alcohol, but “where I ended up was not what I was promised”. When he was recovering from alcohol abuse, he heard “the God word” a lot in AA. He was invited to pray on his knees, which he first thought was a “horrific idea”, and he could not make his knees bend. Someone suggested he take off his shoes, throw them under the bed and then pray after he had knelt to find his shoes.
John described a very heart-rending moment in his own life when he was beginning to believe more in God, and was caring for his baby daughter Róisín on his own. He put her to sleep in her cot, and watched her fall asleep, but stayed and kept his eyes on her, for fear that anything would happen. He couldn’t leave her side until he had entrusted her to the care of “the One who made her”.