A Son of Ireland Reflects on Catholicism in Ireland

A lot has been and will continue to be written about the vote in Ireland last Friday in which over 65% of the Irish voters approved the legalization of abortion in Ireland. I hope to add some distinctive comments about the outcome of the vote.

One commentator, Fr. Dwight Longnecker, has expressed the opinion that it’s a good thing that what he calls “cultural Catholicism” has died in Ireland. What he means by cultural Catholicism is a faith that is deeply imbedded in a culture but without vitality and deep conviction, something that everyone takes for granted. Now, Fr. Longnecker writes, people in Ireland can make a conscious, purposeful decision to be Catholic as opposed to just doing what everyone is Ireland has always done.

I understand what Fr. Longnecker is saying, and I agree that there is some merit and logic to his perspective. However, as someone of Irish descent, I can’t help but be saddened and even angry about how quickly something that has been in place in Ireland for centuries to the point of being a key element in the Irish identity has been destroyed in such a short time.

I don’t know the full history of the Sullivans in Ireland, but I would guess that the Sullivans in Ireland have been faithful Catholics for many, many centuries. Our Catholic heritage means a great deal to me and to my sons. We have every intention of honoring that heritage with our own lives and passing it on to our children.

My father, Bernard Sullivan, was a devout Catholic his entire life. I well remember taking a short trip with him to Coffeyville, Kansas to see the home where he lived and the church where he was baptized. During our visit to his first parish, Holy Name Church, I walked up to where my dad was looking at one of the beautiful stained glass windows. He was weeping. When he saw me looking at him, he could only point to the window in front of him. At the bottom of the window was a marker indicating that the stained glass window had been donated by Mr. and Mrs. R. E. Sullivan. They were my father’s parents. His gratitude for having been raised in the Catholic faith by his parents was very deeply felt.

In 2008, I moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Newark, New York, which was situated in the Diocese of Rochester. While I hadn’t thought of it at first when my wife and I decided to relocate to New York, it meant a lot to me when I realized that my great-grandparents, Jeremiah and Norah Sullivan, had moved to what is now the Diocese of Rochester when they came to America from Ireland in the 1850’s. My wife and I made a pilgrimage to Addison, New York to visit the graves of Jeremiah, Norah and several of their children in the Catholic cemetery there.

What is particularly distressing to me is how many people in the last 50 years or so have walked away from the Catholic faith without much thought for the sacrifices made by their ancestors to maintain their Catholic faith. In many of the cases I am aware of, the decision to leave the Catholic Church was made for weak or even casual reasons.

I can’t help but wonder if many of today’s Irish people who have rejected Catholicism would be more comfortable with the Anglican Church, which has been much more accommodating to the modern tendency to dismiss traditional moral standards. The Irish have a historical dislike for anything British. Perhaps what we’re seeing in Ireland today is not just a rejection of Catholicism but a rejection of Christianity.

Without getting into the ugly details, there is no question that a big part of the move of the Irish away from the Catholic Church has resulted from the failings of the Church in Ireland. One can understand a disenchantment with the Church in Ireland, but that would not explain overwhelming support for abortion rights.

We need to pray for Ireland, that somehow and soon the Catholic faith will flourish there. If it doesn’t, the Irish people won’t even know who they are anymore.