Archbishop Seán Brady address to the 2007 Milwaukee Irish Fest at the Market Amphitheatre in the University of Milwaukee: “The Catholic Church in Ireland is experiencing the best of times and the worst of times”

17 Aug 2007


17th August 2007

The Catholic Church in Ireland is experiencing “the best of times and the worst of times” – Archbishop Brady

The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Seán Brady, today addressed the 2007 Milwaukee Irish Fest in a lecture at the Market Amphitheatre in Milwaukee on contemporary challenges facing the Catholic Church arising from changes in Irish society.

In a wide ranging speech Archbishop Brady addressed these changes under a number of themes: the erosion of external authority; peace and prosperity; the challenges to old values; and, signs of hope for the new millennium. In his speech, Archbishop Brady:

  • says that in Ireland, if we take religion as a body of doctrine and a system of practice, then we see decline but also many reasons to hope.
  • suggests that the secular project in Ireland has failed to bring the happiness it promised or the answers to the really important questions of people’s lives.
  • expresses concern about a gradual breakdown in social cohesion, an increase in violent crime and a growing ‘shift to superficiality in Irish culture’.
  • calls on public policy makers to address “Time Poverty” as it undermines family and community values and leads to social isolation and community breakdown.
  • encourages US companies and entrepeneurs to invest in Northern Ireland.
  • calls on the British Government to provide further incentives to investment, including bringing Corporation Tax [in the North] into line with the rate in the South of Ireland.
  • calls on companies profiting from producing alcohol to do more to promote responsible drinking and provide greater support to those recovering from addiction.

Archbishop Brady said: “Ireland is in the throws of a rapid transition between old and new at so many levels: economic, cultural, political, social and of course religious. The first major axis of transition in Irish society in recent years, has been what I would describe as: ‘The erosion of external authority’.”

Archbishop Brady continued: “The attitude to politicians, An Garda Síochána, financial institutions, the Church and other traditional sources of social and moral authority in Ireland has changed dramatically in recent years. This was a result, in part, of the multitude of investigations, many of them still ongoing, in to how these institutions had managed their affairs. Nothing has yet emerged to replace the cohesion and stablity that these institutions once brought. They have been partly replaced by the ‘authority’ and influence of the ‘mass media’ – the commentariat!

“In terms of the Church, the impact of the last 30 years has been particularly dramatic, no doubt because of its role in society. The seeds of it were already evident in the challenges to the position of the Church in key public votes on social and moral issues in the 70’s and 80’s. The slow decline in the very high rates of weekly Mass attendance, the trauma and scandal around revelations of clerical child sexual abuse accelerated this process dramatically in the 1990’s.

“While at the beginning of the 1970’s weekly Mass attendance would have been as high as 90%, now it would be closer to 50% (though it is worth bearing in mind that this is still high by European standards) and vocations to the priesthood and religious life have fallen dramatically in the same period (though there are still more priests in Ireland than there were during the famine or the penal times). Major restructuring of parishes is imminent in many Dioceses.

“In Ireland, if we take religion as a body of doctrine and a system of practice, then we see decline but also many reasons to hope. It is, therefore, a time of great challenge for the Church but also a time of great opportunity for the Church. There are also many signs of hope!”

Regarding the challenge of peace and prosperity Archbishop Brady said: “All the evidence is that the new power-sharing Assembly at Stormont in Belfast is working very well. People are taken aback at how well former adverseries such as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are working together in the common interest. As some of you will know I had my own historic meeting with Dr Paisley only a few months ago. It was a very positive experience. We discovered that we shared the same views on many social issues including poverty, the importance of marriage and the family, the right to religious freedom, to faith based education and so on. It was another example of how much is to be gained from simply meeting with others. Patient dialogue, developing mutual understanding was one of the keys to finding peace in Northern Ireland.

“What we now need to do is build on the peace. We need to address the legacy of the past, particularly in terms of the legacy of poverty. Northern Ireland remains one of the most deprived parts of Europe because of the legacy of conflict. Yet it has one of the most highly qualified workforces and one of the best infrastructures to support development of any part of Ireland or the UK. I hope that many of you will encourage US companies and entrepeneurs to invest in Northern Ireland. I call on the British Government to provide further incentives to such investment, including bringing the corporation taxation rate into line with the rate in the South of Ireland.”

Regarding the growth of prosperity in the economy of the south of Ireland, Archbishop Brady said: “This present prosperity has certainly lifted the burden of hopeless impoverishment from many families. We have also experience the benefits of increased economic migration into Ireland of people from across the expanded European Union. It is estimated that there are over 300,000 workers in Ireland who have come from Poland in the last ten years. One of the many benefits of this increased migration is that many of the new Irish who have come to our shares come with a very strong faith commitment. In many of our inner city parishes it is the new migrant communities who have brought new life to the faith of these parishes.”

Archbishop Brady also addressed the topic of ‘new challenges to old values’ saying: “There is a growing concern regarding evidence of a gradual breakdown in social cohesion. This comes from a cultural shift from emphasis on community and family to an emphasis on the happiness of the individual, particularly of the individual as a consumer. It is also tied up with a notion of freedom of the individual without reference to our responsibility to the common good that is so prevalent in Western culture at the moment.

“Some of the evidence of this gradual breakdown in social cohesion is the dramatic increase in the levels of violent crime, including the number of murders committed on an annual basis. There is also evidence of increasing use of illegal drugs and with it has come the phenomenon of gangland killings, something largely unknown in Ireland’s past. In addition to to increasing use of illegal drugs, you will not be surprised to know that our young people have some of the highest levels of alcohol addiction in Europe. There is a dangerous and alarming culture of binge drinking. It is assumed by so many young people that you cannot go out and enjoy yourself for the evening without getting drunk.

“I am conscious that Milwaukee is known for its association with some of the biggest beer brewing companies in the world. I hope you forgive me for taking this opportunity for saying that I do not believe that companies producing alcohol and making huge profits from it, whether in Ireland or the US, are doing enough to promote responsible drinking or to provide support for those trying to recover from addiction!

“One other factor which is undermining the values of family and community is the phenomeon of ‘Time Poverty’. To keep up with the consumer demands associated with our new levels of prosperity, people now have to have two incomes in the home, have to travel further and for longer to get to work and have less time to spend with family or doing ‘community’ based activities. All of this is adding to the stress and pressure of life.

“Perhaps the most tragic evidence that something fundamental is changing is the unprecendented levels of suicide, notably amongst the young. The reasons for this tragic increase in suicides is complex and needs further detailed analysis. However, it is difficult to believe that is not connected, at least to some extent, by the move away from those values which give meaning and purpose to life beyond the material. It is a real warning sign, along with the increase in violent crime, in alcohol and drug abuse, that any cosy assumption that our wealth will bring us a better quality of life is unfounded.

“Other critical issues include the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. It is one thing to achieve prosperity. It is another thing to ensure that it is distributed fairly! While the new ethnic and cultural diveristy of Ireland brings with it many benefits, many people find living with such diversity a real challenge. Tragically Ireland is not without its quota of hate crimes based on ethnicity and country of origin.”

Finally, Archbishop Brady highlighted ‘signs of hope for the new millennium’as: the peace process moving beyond political agreement into the deeper and more Christian concepts of reconciliation and the healing of memory; level of joint work between the Churches; greater level of lay involvement in the Church; increased level of the faith brought by many of the new migrant communities and the welcome benefits of increased prosperity; the recently inaugurated Church-State structured dialogue process.

“Perhaps sometimes we forget that our greatest strength is that we have the answer to the deepest questions of peoples lives: Who am I? Why am I here? What ought I to do? What will happen to me when I die? These questions have not gone away and lurk behind the façade of what often appear to be contented but actually quite stress filled Irish lives. I am always mindful myself – amidst the challenges of change in Ireland – of those powerful words of St. Peter: ‘Lord to whom shall we go, you have the message of eternal life’.

“Young people in Ireland, as elsewhere, have a very global sense. These also have a sense of the fragility of the planet in terms of Global Warming and the nuclear threat. They have a moral sense of the need for solidarity and a passion for Justice. This is deep soil in which the Gospel, presented and lived with confidence and conviction can take root. There is clear evidence to my mind that many people are getting tired of the emptiness and stress of a life built predominantly on secular and consumerist values.

“It may be smaller Church in future but it may also be a more authentic one – ironically, a smaller but more authentic Church may have more influence, more impact because of the integrity of its witness.”

Archbishop Brady said: “The best way to summarise the overall situation of the Church in Ireland at at the moment is in the words of Charles Dickens: ‘It was the best of times and the worst of times’. The fundamental challenge in my view is for modern Ireland to retain the balance between the best of the old and the best of the new. This includes taking steps to build community and support for marriage and the family. It requires moving to a new maturity in public and media debate, where the importance of faith in the lives of so many Irish people, including many of the new Irish, is given due recognition and respect by the new forces of Irish culture.”

Archbishop Brady concluded: “I believe that there are increasing signs that the secular project in Ireland has failed to bring the happiness it promised or the answers to the really important questions of people’s lives. I also believe that the inherent beauty and depth of the Catholic faith and the timeless message and example of its founder, is once again appealing to the hearts and minds of many, not least the young.”

Notes for Editors

  • As part of the Milwaukee “Irish Fest 2007”, on Sunday next, 19 August, Archbishop Brady will deliver the sermon at the open air Mass for Justice and Peace in the stadium of the University of Milwaukee. 10,000 people are expected to attend this Mass.
  • In the early 1980s, members of Milwaukee’s Irish community discussed opportunities to promote their Gaelic heritage in a city known for its German roots. The idea of a festival, a three-day event to promote Irish culture through music, dance, cultural exhibits, drama and sports, was born. The festival is both an opportunity to feature Irish acts and also an impetus to showcase local groups that celebrate the rich traditions of Irish music. The first “Irish Fest” premiered in 1981.

Further information:
Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678)