Young people are helping lead a rebirth of the Catholic Church in Ireland, according to the country’s papal nuncio.
Archbishop Charles Brown described the rebirth as the spring after 20 years of winter, saying he sees “green shoots”.
“You see a renewed enthusiasm among young Catholics in Ireland now,” said Archbishop Brown, who was appointed as papal ambassador in November 2011.
He said the new generation of Catholics, some of whom are studying for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College, the national seminary in Maynooth, or the Pontifical Irish College in Rome, will “lead the Church forward into the next decade”.
Young Catholics represent what is best in the tradition of Vatican II, “the idea of communicating the ancient unchanging faith in a new, vibrant and attractive way”, he told the American Catholic News Service.
Archbishop Brown, the oldest of six children, was born in New York and studied history at the University of Notre Dame. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New York in 1989 and was assigned for two years to St Brendan Parish in the Bronx, before studying sacramental theology in Rome and then being recruited to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
He worked for the congregation until his appointment as nuncio. Among his tasks was handling child abuse cases. He also worked with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.
His appointment came amid strained relations between the Irish government and the Vatican over revelations of clergy sexual abuse in the Church, leading to the closure of Ireland’s Vatican embassy.
“I was surprised when he asked me because I hadn’t trained as a diplomat,” Archbishop Brown said. He recalled feeling “more trepidation” at first than he revealed to others.
“You look at the great history of the Church in Ireland, the saints, its 15 centuries of faith, and you realise how inadequate you are to play a role in the continuation of that,” Archbishop Brown said.
“Those are moments that pass. The biggest challenge is not to focus on ourselves and difficulties but keep our eyes focused on Christ, God made man. Then all things are possible.”
He said it was realistic to expect that the overall number of priests would continue to decline for a while.
“Parishes will have to share resources and combine and cluster, and that will be an opportunity for lay people to take on a larger role in the Church,” he said.
Women, “the heart of the Church”, should be more visible, assuming roles in administration “even in Holy See. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see that happen under Pope Francis.” He also welcomed a new generation of “very impressive” female theologians.
But he said priestly vocations remain crucial for church renewal.
“Without the priesthood, the Eucharist does not exist, and without the Eucharist there is no Church,” he said.