An Irish Catholicism?

Recent years have seen a renewed interest in what is sometimes called “Celtic Christianity.” This is however, a very ill-defined term. In Ireland, where Christianity generally meant Catholicism, it seems to mean a brand of religion that has its roots in a spirituality that identifies with the natural world in the sense that the ancient druids did.

This identification is always suspect as being pagan because, according to what we have learned about the druids, they were believed to have the ability to become what they identified with, for example, a bird, a tree, a lake or a river. Whatever demonic influence is mixed up here would be impossible to discern but we need to be certain that this kind of identification has nothing whatever to do with Christianity.

Those who like to call themselves Celtic Christians tell us this is the true nature of the Irish. In ancient times we had the Brehon Laws which they say were favourable to women but when Christianity was imposed on us at the coming of St. Patrick, the Irish were subjected to new alien laws. Of course there are more complex reasons.

No-one would deny the legacy of the monasteries which blossomed in Ireland in response to the Christian Faith. Each monastery, under the direction of its Abbot was the centre of culture and learning but was also the fundamental unit involved in the economy, the social life and even the trade of the people who formed a community around each monastery.

Fr. Vincent Twomey, in ‘The End of Irish Catholicism?’, recounts the story of a lady, recently returned from London who was asked “Are you a Roman Catholic?” to which she replied with some indignation “No, I am an Irish Catholic.”

How many other Irish men and women think of themselves in a similar way? Is our Catholicism almost synonymous with our national identity? To be an Irish man or woman, at least up to recent times, was to be a Catholic.

Although those outside of the Catholic Church often refer to us as “Roman Catholics” it is not a term we use easily ourselves, at least not in Ireland. Many of us still remember the Reverend Ian Paisley using those words in a derogatory way.

Traditionally we were distinct from Catholics on the European mainland. While being loyal to the Holy Father, there was always something different about the Irish Catholic man and woman.

There are many reasons for this.

We are a nation that has been subjected to various colonisations but so were most European countries and as in Ireland, each new invader left its imprint. Those who have had the privilege of visiting some of the great cathedrals of Europe are able to appreciate the great treasures, art and architecture that are a witness to a Catholicism of which Ireland is mostly bereft.

We often see liturgical practices where the sense of Irish spirituality is evident. It appears that those who plan and carry out these activities usually claim a distinctly “Celtic” component, claiming that the official Church fails to recognise.

This makes the Irish different from Catholics of other nations but the attempt fails because it lacks integrity. Pagan practices and improvised ceremonies had never been included the official liturgy of the Church and even in the earliest times, liturgy was always in Latin. The Gallican Rite, to which the Celtic was closely related, did not contain elements of pagan superstition. In addition, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that cultural diversity can only be incorporated into the Church if it is in harmony with the true and authentic spirit of the liturgy.

It is a sad irony that while there is an attempt to make religion pastorally relevant, no account is taken of that fact that folk customs had always been intertwined around major Church feasts. When the feast loses its traditional relevance as has been the case with the major feasts of Ascension, Pentecost and Corpus Christi, the devotional practices are set adrift.

A growing passion for the beauty of the world in which we live and the identification with nature can be inspiring and can bring us closer to the Holy Trinity. It does however have another side that needs to be considered.

In today’s post-modern world the strongest single source in the revival of interest in paganism, is Celtic legend. As one publisher declared, a book with the word “Celtic” in the title is always sure to sell. This kind of spirituality suits those who claim not to be religious and who have plenty to say against the Catholic Church. They are spiritual they say but have no time for doctrines and dogmas.

If we are Christians, we are not pagans. We know that God is not nature and that he is not the Universe. He is the Creator of all of nature and is our Father through his Son, Jesus.

A person may well feel he is more in touch with the divine when he climbs a mountain or sits at the sea. Some have even said these experiences bring them closer to God and maybe to some extent that is true. Nevertheless, we must remember that it is not all about feelings. Feelings come and go and are not the most reliable judge of truth.

As Christian people we know that God has revealed himself to us and for Catholics there is nothing more important than being in touch with him through the Mass and the sacraments, regardless of how it actually feels at the time.

Let us never forget the very many men and women of Ireland who in the past were martyred for the Faith. This is the faith of our Fathers and it has nothing to do with druids or bards or fili. It has to do with the doctrine of Holy Mother Church.

How many Catholics today even know the names of the Irish martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II a few years ago? As Fr. Twomey claims, while there are many monuments recalling the Great Famine, there is little witness to the heroism of the Irish martyrs.
“There is little popular devotion either to the beatified martyrs or to the rest of the 259 men and women who gave their lives for the faith in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at those places associated with their lives and their heroic deaths. There are few visible memorials to recall the long period of the persecutions, apart from the Mass rocks and holy wells, which today are often neglected.” (The End of Irish Catholicism?)

At the same time as long as our fundamental doctrines remain in place we can learn something from our Celtic heritage. Whether or not we want to claim Celtic roots, we can appraise the beauty of our country with spiritual eyes and allow ourselves to see this as the gift of a loving Father, our Creator.

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