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‘It all came together in the Himalayas’

Archbishop Brown presents his credentials to Irish president Michael D Higgins

Archbishop Charles Brown welcomes me inside the red-bricked apostolic nunciature in the middle-class district of Cabra on the Northside of Dublin. Outside it is a typical rainy Hibernian day and droplets splash against the long window panes. The 52-year-old New Yorker has spent nearly nine months in Ireland. When he was appointed apostolic nuncio to Ireland he was raised to the level of archbishop and given the titular see of Aquileia. On January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, the Pope personally consecrated him archbishop.

Archbishop Brown had previously spent 17 years in the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), working with the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger “every day for 10 years”. His appointment to Ireland directly from the CDF was regarded as a highly unusual move. Perhaps no one was more surprised by it than Archbishop Brown himself.

“I was thunderstruck and flabbergasted in the autumn of 2011 when Cardinal Bertone [the Vatican Secretary of State] presented me with this new mission and said that the Holy Father had personally requested me to do it,” he says. “I will do whatever the Holy Father asks me to do – that goes without saying – but of course I thought there might be others who would be better for the job and who had more experience. It’s not the usual pattern for someone who works in one of the dicasteries of the Holy See to be transferred to the diplomatic service.”

He was given a day “to think and pray about it”, after which he said to the Holy Father that he believed the assignment was part of God’s will for him, coming as it did from the Pope himself.

When I suggest that the appointment was a sign that Benedict XVI esteems him highly, Archbishop Brown shakes his head, shrugs and says: “Maybe. But I have a lot of work to do in Ireland and it remains to be seen if I’ll do the job well.”

There are three key aspects to the post. First, on weekdays at the nunciature he has to trawl through a lot of paperwork as one part of the overall process that leads to the appointment of bishops for Ireland’s vacant dioceses. Every morning the post takes an hour or two to read. Many Irish lay people, who see him as embodying the hopes for the Irish Church to make a fresh start, have got in touch with questions. He does his best to write back to everyone. Second, as dean of the diplomatic corps he has to be present at all diplomatic occasions. Third, he is an envoy to the Holy See at many Church events across the length and breadth of Ireland. One day he might be at Letterkenny in Donegal to celebrate a Mass for pregnant mothers and on another climbing up the stony mountain of Croagh Patrick.

It is not the easiest time to be a cleric in Ireland. In the book Light of the World Pope Benedict said that “to see a country that gave the world so many missionaries, so many saints, which in the history of the missions also stands as the origin of our faith in Germany, now in a situation like this is tremendously upsetting and depressing.”

For several different reasons – including his ethnic background, his early days as a priest, his time at the CDF and, especially, his keen knowledge of the Pope’s character – Archbishop Brown is like a bridge between the Holy Father and the Irish Church.

The archbishop is of both Irish and German stock. “Of my eight great-grandparents, five were Irish and the others were German,” he explains. “My Irish ancestors came to America during and after the Famine. They left because they were poor. As I said in my sermon during a Mass at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin: ‘They left with hardly anything, except the treasure of their Catholic faith.’”

There is an intriguing twist in the story of how his family kept the faith.

“One of my Irish great-grandfathers, who was from County Clare, was not terribly zealous in his practice of the faith,” he says, “but he married a devout Presbyterian girl, who was an American of partially German ethnicity, and her family had been in America since the American Revolution. She was Protestant, but she insisted that he go to Mass on Sunday and she taught the Catholic Catechism to my grandmother.”

Archbishop Brown was born in 1959 in the East Village of Manhattan, near Orchard Street and Chinatown. At that time it was a very Jewish area. When he was growing up in New York in the early 1960s his family “were pretty much the only Gentile family in the apartment block”.

He is the oldest of six children. “My mum had a baby every two years from 1959 to 1969,” he says. “After me came four younger sisters and then a younger brother Peter who was born when I was 10.”

His parents, Patricia and Charles, were daily communicants and third order Dominicans. “They were liberal Catholics of the 1950s who read Commonweal magazine and were loyal supporters of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement,” he explains. “I was bounced on her knee when I was a child. One reason they wanted to remain in New York City was so they could stay near her work.”

His parents would become, in comparison to the rest of society, more conservative as each year of the 1960s came and went. They were deeply concerned about the changing urban landscape of Manhattan and how it might affect their children. When the future archbishop was five, they moved to Rye, a suburb north of New York City. In 1971, when he was 11, his parents moved again.

“My father, who was a devout Catholic, became quite disillusioned with the way American culture was going,” he says. “By that, I mean the developments after 1968. So in 1971 we went further north to the countryside.

“My father was an engineer who had become a lawyer and he was a partner in a law firm where he handled patents. He left his Manhattan law firm, which was unheard of because there are financial implications for abandoning a career in one particular practice. But he took his family from the suburbs to upstate New York, the real countryside, where he bought 80 acres of land.

“In a small village called Windham he started his own law firm, to raise his family in an environment that was less afflicted by the problems that were so evident in society after 1968. We didn’t have a television for a while and when we did it was like Ireland: we only had three channels! We had a telephone that we shared with other families. So when we picked up the phone there could be other people talking and we would have to wait until they were done.

“My father became an amateur farmer. He had horses, cattle, sheep, a vegetable patch and all the children doing their chores while he was working in a small law firm.”

His father passed on to him his love of the outdoors, teaching him how to climb mountains and ski. They climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland when he was 14. Later they ascended the Gran Teton in the Rocky Mountains. Now stationed in Dublin, Archbishop Brown says he likes to stay in shape and runs two or three times a week.

“It’s incredible the influence that my father had on my faith,” he says. “Since my father’s university days he would go for retreats with the Trappist monks in Spencer, Massachusetts. As a teenager I would accompany my father on these retreats. It struck me that these monks lived as though God really existed. Their way of life was proof to me that God existed and that God is worthy of our total love and the response of total self-giving.”

It was at the Trappist monastery that he first thought about his own vocation. (“I admired the monks and at times I thought of joining them,” he says.) But before he felt the deep stirrings of a true vocation he pursued a degree in History at the University of Notre Dame. It was the late 1970s. John Paul II was elected when he was in his second year.

“I was an average student in the sense of doing what everyone else was doing,” he reflects. “I went to Mass on Sunday but was not particularly devout. I thought that I would either become a lawyer like my father or a professor in a university.”

At the time, it was difficult to remain faithful to the Church as a young Catholic. “The spirit of the age was in significant tension with the tradition of the Church,” he recalls. “And I was absorbing the influences around me, most of which were very liberal, and I was never satisfied by them. In spite of that, one very good influence was a professor of philosophy, Ralph McInerny. But at that time I was a Catholic who didn’t see the value of tradition.”

After completing his degree at Notre Dame he realised that he had “a thirst for God” that had not yet been sated. “So I got the idea to study theology at Oxford. I went there as an undergraduate, and it was essentially Anglican theology.”

His description of his time in Oxford brings to mind scenes from Brideshead Revisited, where sharing knowledge of the faith within the context of a friendship is a central theme. Archbishop Brown made many close Catholic friends there. “They were amazing friends who gave intelligent, comprehensive answers to the difficult questions on such things as women’s ordination and contraception, which I had been very confused about. We are still friends. One of them is Greg Wolfe and his wife, the novelist Suzanne Wolfe, who wrote The Unveiling.”

While at Oxford he got money from the university to trek in the Himalayas in September 1983. He had read up on Buddhism and monks’ repetitive prayers using strings of beads, which called to mind the rosary. He and his family had not said a daily rosary when he was growing up, but he packed his rosary for his journey to Tibet. While trekking in the mountains he recited the decades. “Something changed in my heart and my childhood Catholic faith was totally reactivated and made alive for me again,” he says. “I realised that the Catholic Church contained the truth of Christ and that everything the Church taught was true and that I could trust the Church to lead me. I didn’t have to re-fashion Catholicism in my own image, but I had to be re-fashioned in the image of the Church.

“This realisation did not happen in a moment, but during the weeks that I spent in the mountains. Then I wanted to give my life to her – the Church, Christ’s spouse – and to live my life for the Church as a priest. It all came together at once while walking in the Himalayas: a recovery of my childhood faith and a recognition that I was called to be a priest.”

On telling the news to his parents, he says, “they were bewildered, then joyful”.

After finishing his degree at Oxford, he was fully convinced of his vocation to the priesthood. “I had a real desire for radical holiness and so I visited some strict orders that were starting up at that time, such as the Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But none of them appealed to me.

“I got a scholarship to go to the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. So I left England and went to Canada to do a doctorate, still with this idea that I was called to be a priest. At this point I did not consider the diocesan priesthood because of my own misconceptions and ignorance.”

But when he visited the diocesan seminary, Dunwoodie, just outside New York City, in the spring of 1985 he had a sense that he had found his place. “Immediately, after I knocked on the door for my interview, and when I went into the chapel, I knew that I had found my home where I would learn to be a priest.”

In 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger visited the seminary. When he celebrated Mass it was seminarian Charles Brown who was the server.

Archbishop Brown says he studied for the priesthood during “a golden age in Dunwoodie”. “We had great professors: a dogma professor Fr James O’Connor, who wrote a book on the Eucharist called The Hidden Manna and a rector, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, who is now the cardinal head of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Rome, and a great moral theologian, Mgr William Smith, who was an inspired theologian and was teaching us the doctrine of Veritatis Splendor years before it was written. My formation could not have been better.”

It was also providential that as a newly ordained priest he was sent to St Brendan’s parish in the Bronx, which in 1989 was almost entirely an Irish parish. “Still a few years before the Celtic Tiger era, most of the parishioners were Irish immigrants who had just moved to New York, and were working as construction workers, waitresses and barmen,” he remembers. “I was one of the few people there who spoke with an American accent.” Little did he know at the time that this hands-on experience in a mainly Irish parish would serve him well.

Two years later, in 1991,  Fr Brown was sent to Rome because Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, who had ordained him, asked him to study for a doctorate in sacramental theology and to go back as soon as possible to become a theology professor at Dunwoodie. But the plan never became a reality. A position opened up at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith because they needed an English speaker. The CDF asked Cardinal O’Connor if he would release Fr Brown from his duties in New York.

From 1994 to 2005 he worked side by side with Cardinal Ratzinger. In 2001, the future Pope Benedict XVI requested that bishops from all over the world send details of every credible accusation of abuse to the CDF. In a short time no other place in the world was as familiar with the crisis as the CDF. The Pope would tackle these matters on a Friday, a practice he termed ‘“our Friday penance”.

The young priest and the high-profile cardinal spent a lot of time together, but one memory stands out for Archbishop Brown. “I would see the then Cardinal Ratzinger praying in the CDF chapel, before or after office hours began, his eyes on the Tabernacle. The sight of this prominent cardinal on his knees was an image of what we need to be as priests: first and foremost men of prayer.”

He adds: “He has extraordinary intelligence, deep faith and great humility. Those three things are his defining characteristics. But also, just as importantly, he is a man of prayer. He is not one who puts on airs or needs to boost his ego at all. He is very comfortable with who he is.

“One of the beautiful things in working for him was that you felt totally free to make suggestions, with total freedom because you never felt that you had to worry about his reaction, because he is very comfortable with himself and he seeks the truth at all costs. You could tell him what was on your mind. It was a very liberating experience to work for someone like that. It created a great tranquillity and trust.”

He continues: “Cardinal Ratzinger thought that he would retire or become a librarian when the new pontificate began, but he was elected Pope. And one of the first things he did as Pope was come back to meet up with us.

The atmosphere was joy, a tinge of bittersweet sadness that he was leaving us. But it was a beautiful moment and he gave us a reflection on his election, before taking an opportunity to speak to each member of the CDF individually.”

After Benedict XVI’s election the two remained close and met occasionally. It is true, Archbishop Brown says, that the Pope likes to drink Fanta. I ask Archbishop Brown if the Pope has brought cats into the Apostolic Palace, as rumoured. “No,” he answers. “I never once saw a cat in the palace.”

I ask if it’s true that the Pope celebrates the Extraordinary Form Mass in private. “I can only speak from my own experience,” he says, “but at all the Masses offered by the Pope that I have attended, they have all been Novus Ordo.”

This year Archbishop Brown celebrated 23 years of priesthood. I point out that there is a Fatima theme throughout his life: he was born on October 13, the day of the Miracle of the Sun, and ordained on the anniversary of Our Lady’s first appearance at Fatima. The archbishop exclaims: “I am all for Fatima. I love Our Lady!”

Earlier this year Archbishop Brown was invited by Fr Alexander Sherbrooke to stay in Soho, central London. He celebrated Sunday Mass on May 13 in St Patrick’s. In his sermon he encouraged the congregation to pray the rosary with devotion, saying we can’t overestimate the power of the rosary. As England is Mary’s Dowry it was a fitting sermon for a busy Sunday in the nation’s capital.

When our interview finishes the rain clears and the shy Irish sun peeps out from behind clouds. I suggest to Archbishop Brown that I take some photos of him on the steps of the nunciature. His face is bathed in pale sunshine and he looks at ease in the land of his ancestors, where he now has such an important mission.