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Faith on Downward Spiral In a ‘Post-Catholic’ Ireland

Members of a Catholic congregation are greeted by Father Pat McHugh and and the Rev. Neal Phair after a Catholic Mass June 20 in St. Maeldoid’s Protestant Church in Muckno, Ireland. St. Maeldoid’s, beside the Northern Ireland border, opened its doors to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which has closed for essential renovations. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters)

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

In two months time, voters in Ireland will head to the polls to decide whether to liberalize the eighth amendment – the Republic of Ireland’s constitutional provision that grants an equal right to life to unborn children and pregnant women, which was established in 1983 and effectively banned abortion within Ireland.

In May of 2015, voters in Ireland decided at the voting booth that its constitution should be amended to recognize same-sex marriage.

While official government polling data from 2016 found that Catholics account for 78 percent of the total population, in the Archdiocese of Dublin fewer than 20 percent of Catholics attend weekly Mass. In some rural areas, the Mass-going Catholics account for less than two percent of the population – down from more than 90 percent in the early 1970s.

On his first trip to Ireland as a priest, Father Christopher Heanue and his parents visited St. Joseph’s Church in Clifden, Co Galway, his father’s childhood parish. Photo courtesy Father Christopher Heanue

Considering these statistics, among others, it’s no wonder that more than a few commentators have referred to the current era as a “post-Catholic Ireland.”

Yet alongside what many would describe as a downward spiral of the Irish faith – two things are happening, one locally, the other globally – that offer some glimmers of hope.

In January of this year, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio appointed Father Chris Heanue as the new head of the Irish ministry for the Diocese of Brooklyn. That appointment came just months before Pope Francis is set to visit Ireland in August, a visit that Father Heanue believes will serve as a shot in the arm for the Church in Brooklyn and Queens and beyond.

The Ethnic Ministries

The diocese is chock-full of almost 30 ethnic ministries – Colombian, Mexican, Nigerian and more – but Father Heanue says that while “each apostolate comes with their own set of challenges and their own agenda,” many are often focused on helping their flock with ongoing migration or legal challenges.

He went on to explain that the concerns of the Irish apostolate are unique as it faces the challenge of recognizing its strong, influential past, while also reckoning with the current state of Catholicism in its native land, and giving cause for hope for its future.

As Father Heanue takes over for Father Brian Dowd, the outgoing head of the ministry, he is planning to organize a series of events, both social and spiritual, where the Irish are “recognized for the role in building the Church in Brooklyn and Queens, and yet, still needed.”

“We’re not just Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day,” Father Heanue said. “We need to keep the Irish united to the Church, not just on that one very holy day in our heritage, but throughout the year.”

Raised in Maspeth, Father Heanue is the youngest of four siblings by 13 years. While both of his parents were born in Ireland – his mother from County Meath and his father from County Galway – they met in New York.

Father Heanue, who serves as the administrator of Holy Child Jesus parish, Richmond Hill, was able to spend most of his summer holidays in Ireland with his mother where he saw firsthand how the country was changing.

Rebellion Against Authority

While the economic boon of the Celtic Tiger in the 1990s and early 2000s fueled the rapid building of houses, roadways and factories, it happened alongside what the young priest describes as a “rebellion against the authority of the Church.”

Father Heanue said that in his own experience, he’s witnessed an uptick of “pregnancies outside of marriage, a lot of broken families, single-parent families, a falling away from Sunday worship, and a mockery of the Catholic Church in its rituals and a mockery of the priesthood, and a distrust of the Church and the priesthood.”

Within his own family, he laments the fact that he has many aunts, uncles and cousins that no longer go to Mass. He says that he believes in addition to the fallout over the clerical sexual abuse the crisis, which has roiled the country in recent decades, the fact that Catholicism was so intrinsic to Irish culture made it an easy target for rebellion and dissent.

Yet rather than offering a dark forecast for the future, he believes that the luck of the Irish has not run out – and that perhaps it isn’t luck at all, but rather a robust faith that can renew the country.

Off to Dublin

In August, he will travel to Dublin with a diocesan contingent on a pilgrimage led by Auxiliary Bishop James Massa to the World Meeting of Families, which will culminate with a visit by Pope Francis to the country.

“My hope is that the pope’s visit will be a booster shot for the country, for their respect for the Church, and that the World Meeting of Families will be a reminder of true, Christian families, and the importance of the family unity,” said Father Heanue.

“I also pray it’s a reminder of the dignity of human life.

“I think the pope’s visit there will bring back a sense of that faith which has been forgotten or has been muted by their culture.”

Yet for Father Heanue, he won’t be content with letting the task of reclaiming that culture stay behind in Ireland.

One of his goals for his ministry is to celebrate Masses in places where large numbers of Irish-Americans reside – like Breezy Point and Belle Harbor – maximizing on both his heritage and his youth.

“During this Year of Vocations, I’d like to show the young Irish kids that there’s a young Irish priest and foster some homegrown vocations, as well.”

One thought on “Faith on Downward Spiral In a ‘Post-Catholic’ Ireland

  1. Thank you Father Heanue for keeping upbeat. I will be praying for you and all other priests as you strive to keep the Holy Faith alive. I’ll do my part too, to support all your efforts.

    God bless you,

    Mary Rodriguez