The Congress is flying in the face of modern Irish culture – and is all the better for it

Young people take part in a parade at the Congress's opening Mass (CNS photo)

Here at the Congress the air is alive with conversations about the best ways to bring lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics to the faith. There could be fewer less fashionable topics of discussion in modern Ireland. Mention this at a Guinness and oysters evening, and you’ll get a look that could split the oyster’s shell. The days of 1932 are being remembered fondly as a time when the Irish were of more modest means but of proud faith. This is a change from rubbishing our “poor Catholic” Angela’s Ashes past. When I was growing up in Ireland, it always felt as though cradle Catholics were apologising for their religion.
But I was flabbergasted by some countercultural surprises which happened yesterday, the day devoted to ecumenism.  Maybe because I am a strict, Latin Mass-loving Catholic I had been dreading the ecumenical day because I thought Catholicism would be presented as inferior to other faiths.  

Thankfully, I was proved wrong. At the start of the day, in the press conference on ecumenism Ron Crane and Jackie Ottoway, members of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, asked the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, about Anglicanorum coetibus. They invited him to read their online magazine The Portal where they document the successes and struggles of the Personal Ordinariate. They enquired of him if he would like to join Anglicans in England who are swimming the Tiber. The archbishop was forthright that his flock have not shown “much interest”.  
To me this is the spirit of true ecumenism, sharing the good news about revolutionary developments like the ordinariate and generously telling others that there is room for them too. It goes to show what a great boon the ordinariate is – and that we have so many former Anglicans that are now brave Catholics.  
Not only is the Congress presenting a sign of contradiction to secular Irish society, but it is defying its own reputation. The Church in Ireland has long been characterised as one that dominates a muted lay people. But the Congress allows a two-way conversation. Yesterday two young Dublin priests arranged for talks from two lay converts to Catholicism. This was a courageous attempt to allow converts a chance to evangelise the cradle Irish Catholics. And it certainly goes against the craze of leaving the Church.  

Tracy and Gareth were brought up without religion. Tracy is from Canada and made prayer a part of daily life after a friend took her to Sunday school when she was 14. She decided to become a Catholic after moving to Ireland. But in 2010 she was the only person who was going through RCIA in her Dublin parish of Swords. She did feel a little daunted by the reports into clerical sex abuse, but persevered in becoming a Catholic because it was making her relationship with God “stronger”. Tracy said that at first it was a little lonely coming into the Irish Church, but that when she was confirmed in her parish, she felt like she received “a thousand welcomes” from her fellow parishioners.

Gareth hails from England, and first attended Mass when he was dating his wife. He moved to Ireland in 2000. At the beginning of his RCIA, Gareth “struggled” to understand the Gospels and found the ceremonies were way over his head. But he found that one exercise, “the lifeline”, helped him put his faith in perspective – it invited him to draw a line of his life and show the parts where he has felt close to God and parts where he didn’t. Gareth is now a sponsor to other people who want to become Catholic. I asked him if he feels he is swimming against the current tide: “It’s not ‘cool’ to become Catholic in Ireland now, but my conversion generated a lot of interest in the parish and the people that I met when I was in RCIA are now really good friends of mine.”

Most refreshingly at the Congress there are little or attempts to pander to Irish society. The Ireland that I grew up in was a hard-drinking one, where many of my classmates in primary school were used to furtive drinking at the age of 11. Young members of the Pioneers Total Abstinence are dotted throughout the crowd at the Congress. When I was in secondary school, there were pilot sex education programmes which taught that saving sex for marriage was an out-dated, freakish practice. The group Pure in Heart, a youth group that gives support to teenagers and twenty-somethings who want to stay pure, are some of the most active participants in the Congress. Some very high-profile Church leaders have said to me how “impressed” they are that Pure In Heart show other youngsters the benefits of chastity.
Irish Catholic culture is often stereotyped as one where priests prescribed penance and pilgrimage, but had took the easier options for themselves. The Congress is not about high and mighty Church figures lecturing us on sackcloth and ashes, while exempting themselves. One very prestigious example is that Cardinal Ouellet will undertake the gruelling Lough Derg pilgrimage. A prince of the Church he may be, but on the island, he will fast, stay up all night, eat dry crackers and endure the ceaseless rain.