Evangelization in Modern Ireland

The creative minority is the way in which God has throughout history brought about reform. He depends on the few. That has always been the way change occurred in the Church.

Editor’s note: This paper was delivered at the Maynooth Evangelium Conference on July 10, 2016 and is reprinted here by kind permission of His Excellency, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan.

The purpose of the Evangelium Conference is “To spread the richness of the Catholic faith in the modern world.” I hope that this talk will be in keeping with that purpose. Just to mention at the outset that the Lord has been very good to us all in the past few days. This weekend there are several wonderful faith events taking place: the Focolare Mariapolis in Dungarvan with around 250 participants, the Youth 2000 summer retreat in Roscrea with something around 800, the Knockadoon Faith Camp in Co. Cork run by the Dominicans, eight men were ordained for the Dominican Order yesterday, and now here in Maynooth the Evangelium Conference. These are all examples of the green shoots of faith which the Spirit is making grow. They are all examples of the New Evangelization called for many years ago by Pope St. John Paul.

What is the New Evangelization?

Primary evangelization is the proclaiming of the Gospel to those who have never heard it. Now in countries which have lost their fervour for the faith a New Evangelization is needed. Pope St. John Paul used the expression “New Evangelization” for the first time in June 1979 during his first visit as Pope to his native land. He was speaking in Nova Huta – a district of Krakow which had been built by the Communists who deliberately excluded any religious element to this new development. No church was allowed to be built. There was no need of God.

In 1983 in Port au Prince in Haiti JP II called for a New Evangelization of the Americas. He called for this to begin in 1992. Why 1992? Because the first evangelization of the Americas took place after the discovery of America in 1492. Five centuries earlier the great Catholic countries were Spain, France and Italy.  Now the great Catholic countries are Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and one can even say the United States. In terms of the faith Europe has become tired in many places. What is needed is a New Evangelization. We need a New Evangelization here in Ireland. Irish society in many ways is falling apart. I am not going to go through the list of woes, I think we are well acquainted with them.

This is one example of our ailing culture: I heard from the father of a seventeen year old secondary school girl studying in Ireland that she had to choose her friends carefully because of all the girls in her year only five were not either: “sleeping around, drinking, doing drugs or cutting themselves”.

The number of people in Ireland who have undergone divorce or separation has shown massive growth since 1986. It has increased six fold in that time. It has increased by 47,332 since Census 2006 alone.

The rate of suicide in Ireland hit its peak in 2001 at 13.5 suicides per 100,000 people and by 2004 – a “Celtic Tiger” year in which economic growth was running at 4.6 per cent – the rate still remained at 12.2. That 2004 rate of 12.2 per 100,000 has never been exceeded since. The rates began to drop in 2005 and even though some of those gains were lost during the recession, making a clear cut link between the state of the economy and suicide is nowhere near as simple as people sometimes think. There is an equally compelling argument to be made that the problem of suicide in Ireland was at its worst in the period between 2000 and 2004, during the height of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger (see RTE News website).

We are all painfully aware of the scourge of illicit drugs. Just a short while ago we had the tragedy of the death of a young man who died after consuming drugs at a party where several people were out of their minds, with one man trying to eat the pavement … the list goes on.

What do we do?

One of the best things that you could do to help your faith and the faith of those around you is to read up on Church history. I am reading at the moment a book on the life of St. Alphonsus Liguori. It is a fairly typical story of the founding of any new initiative in the Church. And the only conclusion one can arrive at on reading it is: if the Holy Spirit were not behind it, it would never have survived. St. Alphonsus had to battle against the opposition of good people, intrigue, calumnies, the desertion of close friends and members, misunderstandings, the efforts by some to control the beginnings of the order,  jealousies,  lack of funds, the enormity of the workload, etc. If it were not of God the new Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer more commonly known as the Redemptorists would have crumbled after a year or two.

If the Church were not of God it would have ended at 3pm on the day we call Good Friday over 2000 years ago. We are involved in a Church which is God’s. We must never forget that. We also must accept that in Ireland at the moment faithful Catholics are in the minority. We can point to recent referenda to prove our case. I think we all know this anyway. What do we do? One very helpful approach to this question is the approach of Pope Benedict XVI and his idea of the “creative minority”.

Creative minority

The term “creative minority” came into the public square via Pope Benedict XVI in an interview he gave on a flight from Rome to Prague in 2009. A journalist on board asked: “The Catholic Church is a minority. In this situation, how can the Church effectively contribute to the common good of the country?” To which Pope Benedict replied: “I would say that normally it is the creative minorities that determine the future, and in this sense the Catholic Church must understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality. The Church must actualize, be present in the public debate, in our struggle for a true concept of liberty and peace.”

The phrase, which Benedict has used for several years, comes from English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975). Toynbee’s thesis was that civilizations primarily collapsed because of internal decline rather than external assault. “Civilizations,” Toynbee wrote, “die from suicide, not by murder.” The “creative minorities,” Toynbee held, are those who proactively respond to a civilizational crisis, and whose response allows that civilization to grow. 

For the Church this has always been the case. The group around the cross was a very tiny minority.  The twelve apostles sent out by the Lord and the seventy-two disciples chosen by him were again, minorities who made all the difference.

Another example was the Catholic Church’s reaction to the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in the 5th Century A.D. The Church responded by preserving the wisdom and law of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem, while integrating the invading German tribes into a universal religious community. Western civilization was in that way saved and enriched. Irish monks played a significant role in this.

In the lives of so many of the saints we see how they battled against the majority, sometimes from within their own orders or dioceses to bring about renewal: Sts. Bernard, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, Simon Stock, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Cure of Ars, Francis de Sales, Josemaria Escriva, etc.

This is Benedict’s vision of the Catholic Church’s role in contemporary Europe. In fact, it’s probably the only viable strategy. One false alternative would be for the Church to ghettoize itself. This is not the kind of attitude Pope Benedict was talking about when he used the term “creative minority”. He is not talking about “circling the wagons”, about cutting oneself off from the world and surrounding oneself with like-minded people. It means instead engaging with the world.

Benedict’s creative minority strategy recognizes, first, that to be an active Catholic in Europe is now a choice rather than a matter of social conformity. This means practicing European Catholics in the future will be active believers because they have chosen and want to live the Church’s teaching.

Secondly, the creative minority approach isn’t just for Catholics. It attracts non-Catholics equally convinced that modern society has fundamental problems that cannot be solved by government spending. Creative minorities will play the essential role in restoring a Christian soul to Europe, and in defending Christian values against secularism and relativism.

Lastly, creative minorities have the power to resonate across time. It’s no coincidence that during his English journey Benedict delivered a major address in Westminster Hall, the site of Sir Thomas More’s show-trial in 1535. When Thomas More stood almost alone against Henry VIII’s brutal demolition of the Church’s liberty in England, many dismissed his resistance as a forlorn gesture. More, however, turned out to be a one-man creative minority. Five hundred years later, More is regarded by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a model for politicians. By contrast, no-one remembers those English bishops who, with the heroic exception of Bishop John Fisher, bowed down before the tyrant-king (see Rev. Pat Gorevan, ‘Creative minorities’ Position Papers, Dec. 2015).

So what does the creative minority have to offer to people?

What we have to offer is to tell the world that there is only “One Thing Necessary”: God. God the Son tells the world its true story: that we are created by God, to live as children of the Father, but that we sin because we suffer from that original fault of Adam and Eve, that wound in our human nature which is prone to selfishness and sin, but that Jesus has taken our faults on himself and that through his death and Resurrection we have the promise of redemption and the grace to live a new kind of life and gain eternal life, back to the paradise from which we were exiled. This is what we have to tell the world – that life has meaning, ultimate meaning. 

We can tell the world that the way to happiness is self-forgetful love and the way to unhappiness is self-regard, self-worry, and the self-centred search for personal happiness. Our happiness comes to us only when we do not seek for it. It comes to us when we seek the happiness of others instead.

We offer the world sanctity instead of spirituality. 

The creative minority’s task is the rebuilding of Christian culture. This is what the saints did time and again during history. As Alasdair MacIntyre explains in his concluding reflections in After Virtue:

What they (the reformer saints) set themselves to achieve – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. And now, MacIntyre concludes: “We are waiting not for a God, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”

What is the Church for?

In the words of Evangelii Nuntiandi, the favourite encyclical of Pope Francis: “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 15). And in the words of the same document:

As the kernel and centre of His Good News, Christ proclaims salvation, this great gift of God which is liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is above all liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by Him, of seeing Him, and of being given over to Him. All of this is begun during the life of Christ and definitively accomplished by His death and resurrection. But it must be patiently carried on during the course of history, in order to be realized fully on the day of the final coming of Christ, whose date is known to no one except the Father (Evangelii Nuntiandi 9).

We need saints who know they are sinners, not sinners who think they are saints. Oftentimes we are tempted to offer grace on the cheap. Dietrich Bonhoffer speaks eloquently about costly grace and contrasts it with cheap grace: 

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheap jacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! ….

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life….”

We have to give God everything. T S Eliot described Christianity as “a condition of complete simplicity costing nothing less not everything”. The creative minority is the way in which God has throughout history brought about reform. He depends on the few. That has always been the way change occurred in the Church.

Blessed John Henry Newman in ‘Witnesses to the Resurrection’ asked himself why did God use a few souls to begin and continue the work of the Church, and he answered in this way: 

“I have already suggested, what is too obvious almost to insist upon, that in making a select few the ministers of His mercy to mankind at large, our Lord was but acting according to the general course of His providence. It is plain every great change is effected by the few, not by the many; by the resolute, undaunted, zealous few.”

What are the weapons Christ has given us? The same for Francis and Ignatius, and Columbanus, and Teresa: prayer, the Gospel the sacraments, the scriptures, and fasting and twenty-four hours each day to love God and our neighbour with all our minds and all our hearts and all our souls.

We have to be saints. And we have to know that there will be challenge and fierce challenge at times. As Pope Francis famously said the Church is like a field hospital.  That is a military term. We are involved in a war. Christ’s followers will get bruised and battered. There will be opposition even hatred, we will meet the cross; Calvary was a messy place. And we remind ourselves that God is in charge. He is the One who gives us strength and hope. And we must realize this fully. With Christ we can stand undaunted. After all Christ has overcome the world. Therefore the creative minority can stand unintimidated. 

St. Paul writes in Romans 8: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And that is the most key thing of all: our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

We are called to bring Christ to others – to be apostles. If we are not apostolic we do not know Christ. Apostolate is the overflow of the interior life. One naturally follows the other.  And I do not have to save the whole world. I start where God has put me, with God’s grace changing hearts, one by one. 

In an interview once Pope Francis was asked what the Pope does all day to which he answered that he discerns. The answer of a Jesuit! But a revealing one from which we can learn so much. May we discern what God wants of us today and may God give us the courage to follow it.

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About Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan 0 Articles
Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan is the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore. He studied at Saint Patrick’s College Maynooth from 1989-1995 where he completed an STL (Licentiate in Theology). He was ordained by Bishop Jeremiah Newman in 1994 in Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick, and appointed Curate in Saint Munchin’s Parish Limerick city 1995-1996. He was chaplain to the Regional Hospital in Limerick from 1996 until 2001, and then studied for his doctorate in moral theology in the Alfonsianum in Rome 2001-2004 before being appointed chaplain to the Limerick Institute of Technology 2004-2011. He was appointed Parish Priest of Rathkeale, County Limerick in 2011; he was ordained a bishop on April 12, 2015.