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DUBLIN, Ireland, April 2, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) –– For the second year running, the Irish government has brought about something which would have made the previous persecutors of Irish Catholics so very proud: The prohibition of public worship during Holy Week and Easter.

Yet the blame cannot fall solely at the feet of political legislators, as this occurrence is something which is due also to the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. And so, as churches will be empty once again for the most sacred time of the Church’s year, the question must be asked — what happened to Catholic Ireland?

COVID and the Church in Ireland

Ireland has a special place in Catholic history as the land of saints and scholars, the land to which St. Patrick famously came and from whence missionaries and monks left to convert the world. In parishes across the world, very often the stalwarts of daily Mass are Irish themselves, or of Irish families. The culture has for generations been steeped in the faith. Life revolved around the practice of Catholicism in a way that must have angered the increasingly secularist world.

But for the past number of decades, this happy situation has no longer been reality. Catholicism in Ireland has become watered down to little more than a folk religion, where people attend Mass infrequently at best, the faith is rarely taught, and scandal after scandal is used to undermine any remnant of authority and respect which the Church used to command.

Certainly, any church one passes will almost always be Catholic, but even this is not set to last. For many years, there has existed a faux Catholicism — an image of a Catholic country, but, in reality, one which is propped up merely on remnants of the past, and with little that is actually flourishing.

The arrival of COVID-related restrictions provided the long-awaited impetus for this projection to collapse and crumble.

The government and the Irish bishops worked in tandem to close Catholic churches across the country, so that from March 13, 2020, public worship had ceased, and for the first time since the days of Catholic persecution, which began under Henry VIII, Catholics were once again prevented by the authorities form worshipping God.

This time, there was no St. Patrick, none of the numerous priests and bishops who happily endured prison, torments, and death rather than bow to similar encroachments upon the rights of the Church as enforced by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

One by one, bishop after bishop suspended public Mass, attempting to reassure their flock that they were not abandoning their duty since Mass would still be said in private, but that the people would be barred. Clergy interpreted the government advice, which banned indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, as the excuse to demonstrate their subservience to the state, in a manner which would have made ashamed their brother clergy from previous centuries who were martyred for the faith.

As Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam said: “I regret the disruption and inconvenience that this will cause to children, parents and priests, but I take this decision in the interests of public health and in the common good.”

So also spoke Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick, who called the closure of churches “necessary” to “protect the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.” Sadly, Bishop Leahy did not follow the example of Hugh Lacy, bishop of Limerick, in 1578, who was driven out of his see and imprisoned twice for refusing to abandon his flock to persecution.

Days later, a Catholic priest from Archbishop Neary’s diocese allowed a Muslim imam to deliver the Islamic call to prayer in the parish church. Catholic parishioners were kept out, by order of the hierarchy.

Then, in August, the clergy abandoned the spiritual health of Irish Catholics once more, as Ireland’s national Marian shrine of Knock was closed for the feast of the Assumption, due to fears that people would flock there as in previous years. On a day that usually saw hourly Masses starting at 6am, for the 20,000 plus pilgrims, the shrine was closed, not on the order of the state, nor even in an act of Catholic persecution by officials, but by the clergy, whose duty it is to lead souls to heaven.

Ireland, a nation once so devoted to the Mother of God, thus saw its priests turn their back upon Mary — something which Oliver Cromwell himself would have welcomed.

Ireland saw its churches closed once more in October, as the government raised the alert level for the virus and ordered worship to take place online. In the spring, the bishops had demonstrated that they were willing to close the churches, and thus set the way for the state to do so a few months later.

Weeks after, images of Catholic persecution returned once more, as a new law was passed (in direct violation of the Constitution), threatening imprisonment for priests who dared to say a public Mass. A €2,500 fine or 6 months in jail were the potential punishments for a member of the clergy exercising his vocation.

It seems that at this point, the four archbishops in the country did begin to realize the dangerous precedent which was being set, and issued a half-hearted statement in an attempt to demonstrate action. They called for constructive engagement with the government in order to have access to the sacraments, but continued to “fully support the guidance of the public health authorities.”

Renewed attack on the Church

The country that once was so predominantly Catholic now appears utterly foreign to those of previous generations. While some faithful few made recent public demonstrations of piety, the state has ramped up its persecution of Catholics. In recent weeks, the attack against the Church and Catholics has rapidly gained pace, while both politicians and clergy (on the whole) avoid calling the situation as it is — namely, a persecution.

Three men were arrested while praying and broadcasting Mass outside Waterford Cathedral. Police have been gathering information of people who are merely praying outside churches, and even set up check points around Fr. P.J. Hughes’s parish in order to prevent people from going to Mass.

The brave priest welcomed what he described as “anti-Catholic and anti-Church” behavior: “In a way, I felt privileged to be persecuted by the guards because the story today in the gospel is about the Passion of Jesus Christ, how Jesus was crucified, mocked, scourged. I wasn’t scourged or mocked but I was probably insulted and persecuted by the guards.”

On that same day, Palm Sunday, the government responded to questions about the current legal status about saying Mass, insisting that priests were committing an offense if they left home to celebrate a public Mass.

Pockets of resistance

Yet the faith is by no means completely dead. Priests, mindful of their primary duty to souls, have continued to offer the sacraments to their flock.

Fr. Hughes said Mass, without turning away those parishioners who came, and was promptly threatened with prosecution by the police. In scenes directly from the 1600s, Hughes had been “reported.” Yet in scenes very different from the days of persecution, he was without the support of his bishop.

There are certainly determined groups of faithful souls up and down the country, both lay and clerical, who are imitating their martyred predecessors in the faith, and going underground.

They are, no doubt, drawing on the example of Catholics such as Sir John Burke, Fr. Patrick O’Derry, and Donough and John Olvin, all of whom were hung, drawn and quartered for their faith in the early 1600s.

Indeed, days ago, just over one year since the bishops first closed the churches, Irish Catholics braved persecution and gathered in Dublin to hold a procession in honor of St. Patrick. Singing hymns and praying rosaries while carrying a statue of Mary, they prayed for freedom of worship once more, and conversion of the country.

Irish Catholic media outlet Catholic Arena also reported that on Palm Sunday across the country, Catholics gathered outside their churches to pray the rosary for a swift return to their churches.

Once more the faithful in Ireland are returning to the underground Church, expecting persecution from the state, a lack of support from their bishops, and an absence of the sacraments in many of their churches. The surface appears dead, but the blood of the martyrs sustains the underground Church.

A double-sided attack

In many ways then, the situation in Ireland is very comparable to penal times. With politicians readily ramping up legislation against worship, making arrests, and fining Catholics for praying, it is not hard to see the similarities.

But this time there is one crucial difference — the Catholic bishops have abandoned their flock, allowing the state to persecute Catholics freely, and sometimes adding their assistance.

Such a phrase is indeed a bold claim to make, yet it is being pronounced by clergy and laity throughout the country, and clearly evidenced by the actions of the hierarchy. For instance, the Archbishop of Dublin recently called for a swift return to worship, yet days before banned priests in his diocese from privately distributing Holy Communion, and thus from ministering to their congregation.

Rory O’Hanlon of the Irish Society for Christian Civilization spoke about this with LifeSiteNews, saying that it was “not surprising.”

“I think that the statement of Archbishop Farrell is scandalous, although perhaps not surprising. The hierarchy, to a large degree, seems to have abandoned the flock. During a previous persecution of the Church in Ireland St. Oliver Plunkett, referring to the bishops and clergy of his day, said: ‘We were resolved to die of cold and hunger rather than to abandon our flocks.’ With the exception of a small number of clergy we are not seeing the same spirit today.”

When Fr. Hughes was recently fined for continuing to offer Mass, he noted that he continued to do so (that is, to exercise his priestly duty) against the wishes of his bishop. “I will exercise my constitutional right even though people are complaining, even though I am not obeying the bishop when I go against his advice,” he wrote. “We can’t just reject Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.”

Some months ago, a priest in rural Ireland told LifeSite that the bishops had betrayed the faith by voluntarily closing the churches: “By doing so, the Church in Ireland has deemed the practice of our faith non-essential … It’s been a disaster … The Church in Ireland is a devastated vineyard.”

Anthony Murphy, Director of Lumen Fidei Institute and editor of Catholic Voice magazine, said similarly: “The bishops have handed over the sacraments for the government to control and regulate and God has been side-lined. God is being openly mocked in Ireland and the bishops do not seem to care, they stand silent while the sheep go hungry.”

Indeed, for decades, the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland has been silent, taciturn, and unconcerned, while Catholics rapidly fell away from the practice of the faith so widely that the nation of saints and scholars voted to legalize the murder of the unborn in 2018.

The bishops have nurtured such a lively practice of the faith that in 2017, the former nation of missionaries saw a record low number of seminarians in the national seminary of Maynooth. Built to house 500 seminarians, only 6 men entered in 2017, adding up to a total of 41 seminarians at the time.

The hierarchy oversaw the teaching of the faith so well that in 2015 “Catholic Ireland” became the first country in the world to approve same-sex “marriage” by a popular vote, with a reported margin of 62% to 37.9%.

Small wonder, then, that Rory O’Hanlon wrote thus: “There is no doubt that a great number of our legislators would be more than happy to see the Church permanently shut. And each day that the bishops fail to assert their rightful authority over the Church and to confront the state makes the permanent closure of the Church more likely.”

The example of the martyrs

LifeSite was recently in contact with Damien Richardson, who salvaged a book about the Irish martyrs from the rubbish. Richardson hoped that “Our Martyrs,” written by Fr. Dennis Murphy S.J. in 1896 and now reprinted thanks to Richardson, would serve as inspiration for the Irish faithful today, who could take heart from the many accounts of heroic witness to the faith by Catholics centuries earlier.

As Ireland leads the way in the anti-Catholic Great Reset, overtly persecuting the few faithful Catholics, Richardson urges his fellow countrymen to learn from the example of Fathers Mathew Lamport, John Wallis, Eneas Penny, Donough O’Reddy and scores more, who suffered torture and death for the faith.

“I also hope this generation realises that the Irish Catholics were willing to lay down their lives and risk everything just to receive the bread of life at the holy Mass,” wrote Richardson. “The Irish priests and bishops would return from studies in Europe to Ireland, knowing quite well that they were going to be hung, drawn and quartered. When they came to Ireland there was a price on their head from the priest hunters, but they loved their flock so much that they were willing to die for their flock.”

The penal times were indeed an age when numerous bishops joined the flock in defending the faith, as can be seen by the numbers of bishops listed in the pages of “Our Martyrs.”

As Ireland faces yet another Easter without access to Mass — last year due solely to the bishops, this year due both to the state and the weakness of the bishops — may the blood of the Irish martyrs serve to inspire the Church, so that the Irish clergy may once more fulfill their vocation to lead souls to God instead of away from Him, and may the underground Church continue to grow in size and fervor.

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Michael Haynes is the Senior Vatican correspondent writing for LifeSiteNews. Living in Rome, though originally from the North-West of England, he is a graduate of Thomas More College in New Hampshire, and has been very involved in pro-life activity and public campaigns defending Catholicism since childhood.

Michael writes on Per Mariam:Mater Dolorosa, and has authored works on Mariology (Mary the Motherly Co-Redemptrix), Catholic spirituality, and most recently published an apologetic work “A Catechism of Errors.” 

He regularly writes for the American TFP, and his writings have been published by Calx Maria, Catholic Family News, Gregorius Magnus. His work has been reproduced by a variety of outlets, and translated regularly into Italian and Spanish.

You can follow Michael on Twitter or via his website Per Mariam:Mater Dolorosa.