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Time to Follow in St Patrick’s Footsteps

Catholic Voices founder Austen Ivereigh


Greg Daly - published on 10/07/14

Dublin conference seeks to explain Pope Francis and encourage the renewal of the Irish Church

Pope Francis is destined to be seen as one of the Church’s great reformers, in the tradition of Pope Gregory VII, Francis of Assisi, and Pope John XXIII, according to Austen Ivereigh (pictured), author of the forthcoming book The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.

Speaking at Pope Francis and the Future of the Church in Ireland, a conference held in Dublin Saturday, Catholic Voices founder Ivereigh said that Pope Francis has “set in train a whirlwind of reforms that will shape a generation.” These reforms, said Ivereigh, “are reshaping the Church for mission, bringing the periphery in to shape the center, combatting all that tempts us to put out faith elsewhere than the Gospel, attracting the world to Christ through actions that embody God’s merciful love.”

The Irish Catholic newspaper had organized the conference because, as editor Michael Kelly told Aleteia, “We really felt that people had a real desire to get to the heart of what God is saying to the Church through the ministry of Pope Francis and what this might mean for Catholics in Ireland. There is also a very real fear that certain elements of the media are trying to put a particular spin on Pope Francis and, for some Catholics, there is a danger that the media portrays the Holy Father as a sign of division, which he most certainly is not.”

“We hope that the conference will help Irish Catholics understand where the Pope is coming from,” he continued, “and authentically understand the reform and renewal of the Church that he is talking about, particularly in the context of Ireland.”

The various talks over the course of the day and the vigorous discussion that followed will certainly have helped in this regard, with contributions from speakers as diverse as Abbot Mark-Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey, the former Northern Irish police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan, theologian Father Tom Norris, Iona Institute director David Quinn, Eamonn Meehan of the Irish bishops’ relief and development agency Trócaire, and columnist Breda O’Brien.  

Proceedings were opened by the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, who read from a letter from Pope Francis, greeting and blessing all those present and expressing his hope that the day of reflection and debate would help stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of joyful and loving evangelization in Ireland.  Launching Blueprint for the Church, a guide to Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium by theologian Father Eamonn Conway and Irish Catholic journalist Cathal Barry, Archbishop Brown described the book as a useful resource for individuals and parishes. Father Conway said that he hoped the book would help Catholics in a world where being a missionary would be “the new normal.”

For those who might be perplexed as to how we can be such missionaries, Francis offers us important pointers, said Ivereigh.  Crucial to this, he says, is the notion that our evangelization must embody mercy. Pointing to Pope Francis’s famous likening of the Church to a battlefield hospital, he explained that the Pope believes evangelization should start not by preaching doctrine but by learning people’s needs and wounds and seeking to help. Allowing teaching to flow from mercy, aside from being profoundly Christian, is deeply effective, said Ivereigh, citing a Daily Mirror story by a journalist who had been affected by Pope Francis’s call for the elderly to be cared for rather than hidden away. “There’s no place for religion in my head,” Ivereigh quoted the journalist as saying, “but my heart has been won over by Pope Francis, a pious, virtuous, humble human being who aches for the whole of humanity.”

Ivereigh said it is crucial to understand Pope Francis’s love for and understanding of ordinary, faithful Catholics. Even in the 1970s, the then Father Bergoglio had urged Argentina’s Jesuits to go among the people rather than take refuge in abstractions. For Pope Francis, he said, the Magisterium may tell people how to think of Mary, for instance, but to learn how to love her it is necessary to listen to those he calls, harking back to the Second Vatican Council, “God’s holy faithful people.”

Convinced that the late Yves Congar OP is something of a lodestone for the Pope, Ivereigh explains how Congar believed every Church renewal consists of an increase in fidelity to her own calling and a return to the roots of the Church. True reform often comes from outsiders and requires new structures, and reforms from on high stand little chance of success without the participation of those below; all true reform is pastoral, and is about helping people to be holy.

Speaking of the current Synod on the Family, which began with a consultation of the faithful as an attempt to draw the entire Church into the process, Ivereigh noted how last year Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, had said the two stages of the current Synod reflected Pope Francis’s wish for “a dynamic and permanent synod, not as a structured entity but as an action, as osmosis between the center and the periphery.” This, said Ivereigh, is the language of Yves Congar.

To those who worry that the Synod has exposed and even exacerbated divisions in the Church, Ivereigh pointed to the writings of the late Father Romano Guardini as another key for unlocking the mystery of Francis. Noting how Guardini believed contrasting views could work together to generate dynamic growth, Ivereigh recalled how Pope Francis has said of the Synod Fathers that, “I prefer that they yell a few strong words against each other and then embrace, rather than speak against each other in hiding.” Pope Francis, he said, is not afraid of conflict, and believes it can lead to a deep agreement in unity, though not in uniformity. Such unity, believes Pope Francis, is the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Asked after the conference how the Irish Church could work towards renewal in the light of Pope Francis’s teaching, Michael Kelly described the call to the Church to be on a permanent missionary footing as particularly relevant in the context of an Ireland where Catholicism is no longer synonymous with Irishness and where a new evangelization is a pressing issue.  

“Pope Francis’ vision of a Church, humbly calibrated by the Gospel, offers a powerful antidote to the problems of the Church in Ireland, which is struggling with reaching out to the disenchanted,” he said, adding that he hopes that Pope Francis will “help the Church in Ireland rediscover that contagious apostolic fervor which must be at the heart of the Church in Ireland if is truly to be relevant and bring the young people of today in to encounter and friendship with Christ.”

In a nutshell, as Ivereigh put it to Aleteia, “Francis is calling the Irish Church to stop focusing on the shadows, the past, the sense of loss, and become missionary disciples like St Patrick. Build from below: focus on prayer and the poor. And let Christ do the rest.” 

Greg Dalycovers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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