And Benedict XVI will once more weave his magic at a great papal Mass

Last July, you will remember, the Taoiseach made an unprecedented attack on the Catholic Church in general and the Vatican – which it said had adopted a “calculated, withering position” – in particular. This followed a judicial report into the mishandling of abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne, according to which the Vatican had been “entirely unhelpful” to Irish bishops drawing up guidelines to tackle abuse; according to the Taoiseach, the report “excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day”.

Mary Kenny commented in the Telegraph that “Our Irish parents and grandparents would find astonishing the acidly anti-clerical views expressed in the Republic of Ireland today. The land that once called itself a foremost Catholic nation and most loyal ally of the Holy Father is awash with sentiments that seem to veer between Ulster Paisleyism and the Spanish republicanism of the 1930s”.

The Irish foreign minister a few months later announced that the Government had decided to close the Irish embassy to the Holy See, saying that it cost too much and that given Ireland’s current financial situation, with great regret, and bla de bla de bla. Whatever the excuse, the closure was pretty clearly part of a continuing anti-Vatican (and anti-Catholic) campaign by the Irish government.

But how far was all that part of a real and fundamental rejection by the Irish people of the Catholic religion itself? George Weigel, from across the Atlantic, pronounced confidently that “Ireland has now become the epicentre of European anti-Catholicism”. But this was always a ludicrous conclusion to reach. Of course, there had been a huge disenchantment with the Irish bishops, and widespread calls for radical reform in the way the Irish Church was actually run. But to suggest that the Irish had lost their faith, that there had been a massive cultural shift leading to the kind of secularisation that we have seen on this side of the Irish sea, even to the birth of an anti-Catholicism on the scale suggested by George Weigel, was always utterly absurd.

As I wrote at the time,

The real point about the Irish people is that they have not become disenchanted with the Catholic religion at all; it’s precisely by the moral standards of the Catholic religion that they are now judging all too many bishops and some, a small minority but still far too many, clergy. The child abuse scandals themselves have brought no decline in Mass attendance. On the contrary, far from being the “epicentre” of European anti-Catholicism, the practice of the Catholic religion is one of the highest in Europe.

As Michael Kelly pointed out in the Irish Catholic in April: “Decline in Church attendance in Ireland happened long before revelations about abuse and the subsequent cover-up. Polls show that in 1981 a staggering 88 per cent of Irish people attended Mass at least once a month, with 82 per cent attending weekly. By 2006 that figure had slipped to just 48 per cent for weekly Mass attendance while that figure climbs to 67 per cent when those who attend at least once a month are factored in.

Subsequent polls have been fairly consistent, putting weekly Mass attendance somewhere between 45 per cent and 48 per cent. These are remarkably high figures by western European standards (the latest figures for Italy are 22 per cent and approximately 10 per cent for France). The fact is that the rebellion of the chattering and political classes against the power of the bishops (in itself not necessarily a bad thing) was never remotely a rejection by a largely Catholic people of their faith. And that, it seems, is now being borne out by recent events. According to a piece in the Catholic World Report,

the Irish Government is now coming under increased grassroots pressure to reverse its always controversial decision to close the country’s Embassy to the Holy See:

Dozens of parliamentarians – including many from the Fine Gael and Labour coalition parties – attended a meeting in Dublin January 18 called to highlight opposition to the closure and some 96,000 postcards have been sent to Prime Minister Enda Kenny by members of several different lay initiatives and individual Catholics protesting the move.

‘Ireland Stand Up’ is campaigning for the closure of the embassy to be reversed and for the Government to issue an invitation for Pope Benedict XVI to visit the country.

Note the name of that movement: “Ireland stand up”: this is a movement of the people against politicians who have now gone just too far (incidentally, almost a third of TDs (Irish MPs) – backbenchers, with their regular contact with their constituencies, are often better informed than ministers about grassroots opinion – attended that meeting calling for the Irish embassy to the Vatican to be reopened). The CWR reports that the energy around the campaign to restore the embassy to the Holy See has surprised many. “Ordinary Catholics seem to have found a voice around this issue,” they quote David Quinn of the think tank the Iona Institute as saying.

It’s one thing for Irish politicians to get out from under the historically excessive political power of the bishops: that can never now be re-established, and probably a good thing, too. But the political attacks on the Vatican itself were a big mistake. When you have lost faith in your bishops, it’s the Pope you look to. “Ireland Stand Up” wants the Pope to celebrate Mass at the closing ceremonies of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress next June in Croke Park, Dublin. I have a feeling that that will happen. Pope Benedict will come and celebrate Mass before a vast congregation: and he will once more, by the great power of his visible holiness and humility, weave his magic. Just as his visit here led to many salutary changes in the English Church, so the regeneration of the Irish Church, and the beginning of the restoration of its morale, will be set in motion then.