In 1980, with the modest earnings from my first job, I took my parents to Ireland. We drove from Dublin through Waterford, where my grandfather was born, and as we awaited our flight home in Shannon Airport on a Sunday morning, a little old fellow toddled up to travellers. "Father will be starting Mass in the chapel in a few minutes," he informed us. It was one last great memory from my mother's spiritual homeland: A stranger invites you to Mass at the airport. Only in Ireland.
That country is gone, I'm told—the remote backward dreamscape that we Irish-Americans loved to romanticize—and now, so is that Church. Worse yet, it apparently never existed. The triumphalist Church whose confidence spread all the way to the airport chapel was apparently riddled with rot, and the betrayal, from the abusing clergy right to the top of the hierarchy, has dealt a near-mortal wound to the already faltering faith in Ireland.
This has been tormenting me, and I think I have figured out why it seems like such a personal hurt. Like my mother before me, I've been deeply invested in the idea of Ireland and her Catholic soul, and I needed them to stay the same, a touchstone of mystery and reverence (not a corny St. Paddy's Day greeting card version, mind you). Even if I never made it back to Shannon Airport, I loved to think that there was still a place where everybody went to Mass—a place that had held fast against the tidal wave of secular sewage that has washed over our own culture in the nearly 30 years since our visit. It is particularly devastating to learn that their cesspool was rising up from deep within.
Compared to Ireland and indeed most of poor old Europe, the Church in America seems robust, although you'd never know it from its scandal-plagued and shrinking presence in places like New York and Boston—come to think of it, the paleo-Irish places. Here in the Northeast, the urban Church feels like a Catholic Rust Belt, with our half-empty churches and dwindling schools. But to read the amazing Whispers in the Loggia is to realize that the Church is thriving elsewhere. There are celebrations in the Midwest that draw tens of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants, and Our Lady of Guadalupe rivals Christmas in places like L.A. Even white suburban Catholicism is alive and well as close as Nassau and Westchester, where the mass (small-m) appeal of the evangelicals and the mega-churches is pulling in the young folks with Christian rock and holy rolling.
Trouble is, the Church I grew up in and loved, culturally speaking, is the Irish model that now totters in disgrace on its home soil and struggles here: the one that treasured silence and obedience, mysticism and scholarship. I rejoice that there's a healthy Catholic Church springing up, whether in the Sunbelt or right here in Brooklyn, and if liturgical dance or rock or mariachi is bringing in the faithful, well, bless them. But if the Lord spares me for another few decades, I will increasingly feel like E.T. in many of my own faith communities, and if the Irish church is on the ropes, I won't be able to phone home. I'll get over it, but permit me a bit of Celtic moping first.
Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of those bonus days off on the Catholic school calendar. This year, the celebration of the church's contention that Mary was "conceived without stain of sin" seems like a poignant echo from another age. The tortured theological quest for a model of absolute purity was something I never fully understood. Not that there's anything wrong with being immaculate, mind you, but wouldn't it have been enough that she was simply humble and virtuous and brave? Those will take you a long way in a world full of stains.
We bless thee, as full of every grace,
thou who didst bear the God-Man:
we bow low before thee;
we invoke thee and implore thine aid.
Rescue us, O holy and inviolate Virgin,
from every necessity that presses upon us
and from all the temptations of the devil…
Ephrem the Syrian (306-373)