It is now quite fashionable, it is even considered urbane, to publicly declare oneself in the media (especially on RTE) as a practising atheist. Indeed, some of the Ministers in our current government wear their agnosticism on their sleeves. These public declarations have become a perk of so-called celebrities and very important persons.
This is a free country, where free speech is very important, though it may sometimes seem as if these declarations have a hint of protesting too much. They are often not in context. The corollary, however, is that it is now neither fashionable, nor urbane, nor politically correct, to publicly declare oneself a practising Catholic.
It is perfectly acceptable to be a Muslim or a Buddhist or a member of a reformed church. But admitting to being a committed Catholic is a no-no. The immediate reason for this has to be associated with the recent tarnished history of the church in how it dealt with clerical child abuse. But neither can it be disassociated from our forward leap towards secularism.
In this climate, it was, therefore, refreshing to hear our retired President Mary McAleese publicly speak about her faith, her love of the Mass, and her concern for the Church into which she was baptised and of which she continues to be a practising member.
She spoke eloquently, in her delightful Northern accent, in the RTE series on “The Meaning of Life.” And here the skills of her interviewer have to be acknowledged. Gay Byrne is a past master of the genre, and allowed her to speak without unnecessary interruption and at no stage inserted his own views or theories. She was allowed an unfettered run.
And she ran. The critics, however, were not uncritical. (Well, that’s their job!). One found the filming “off-putting,” the camera work too-much-in-your-face; “clunky editing” and “the lack of variation in direction in the hour-long interview made it slightly soporific.”
It seemed to this viewer that these technical deficiencies faded into insignificance in the context of the fluency and sincerity of Mary McAleese’s performance. Soporific she was not.
In telling the story of her childhood in a troubled area of a very troubled Belfast, she, incidentally, underlined the importance of family and of good parenting. There was constant internecine rioting on the doorstep of her home. As a young girl, she once tried to take milk bottles to the rioters (for the purpose of making petrol bombs). She was intercepted by her father and severely reprimanded. Her young, profoundly deaf, brother, was beaten to within an inch of his life. And what did the family do? “We prayed for them,” she said, “that’s what we did - we prayed for them.” Without being preachy or censorious, she was telling of her very early lessons in practical everyday Christianity.
Her period as President was not without its challenges from the church of which she was such a devoted member. She was accused by no less than Cardinal Law (formerly of Boston, now of Rome), who told her she was not a good Catholic President. She told him she was President of all the people of Ireland, Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter and those of no religious persuasion, and that she was a President who happened to be a Catholic. She had a duty to all. She espoused the task of bridge-building.
Now, in retirement from the Presidency, she has chosen to try to continue that bridge-building, this time within the far more challenging territory of her church. Whether this aspiration has any real hope of getting off the ground is problematical, given a governance which is exclusively male, hierarchical, and excludes any input from its lay members.
She is at present studying Canon Law, in Rome. To equip herself for these studies, she first had to learn Latin and Italian, and by the time this column is in print, her book “Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law” will be in circulation.
In a recent article in “The Irish Times,” Mary McAleese has looked at the dilemma, as she sees it, of “the opaque incoherence of a church in crisis.” She has written about the development of democracy in the 20th century; universal education; the increasing understanding of the human condition; and a governance where discussion “within the church is so heavily circumscribed and controlled to avoid dissent. Rightly or wrongly it looks as if the centre does not want to hear bad news or to face challenges from the circumference.”
All of this in a world where the Sermon on the Mount, The Beatitudes, and the Christian message, are all still very relevant in the basic functioning of society and in leading a decent life!
Once upon a time, Mary McAleese would have been burned at the stake for her constructive criticism of a Church she warmly and sincerely admits to loving. And this column would have suffered a similar fate for even naming her name!
But times change and ultimately honesty and integrity triumphs. The fact that she was interviewed on a radio/television station which once dismissed her for allegedly “cosying-up to the bishops” is a vindication of that integrity. (She had been invited to attend, as an observer, at a Bishops’ Conference).
Hearing what Mary said, and how she said it, once could only conclude that Ireland has been unusually fortunate in having had two such courageous, articulate and pioneering women, the two Marys, as presidents - Mary McAleese and her predecessor, Mary Robinson.
To put a religious frame on such good fortune - they have been a blessing!