What are your own images of Ireland? Are they of some idyllic scenes from the movie "The Quiet Man"? Maybe you went there at one point, to find out about your family roots. Or traveled the countryside as a student, perhaps having your own, unique perspective on the land. Maybe you carried a guitar when you went, like me. Or, like some of my friends, you might've slung a bag of golf clubs over your shoulder.
The fact is, many of us claim this country as the touchstone of our familial heritage. Yet for all our ownership of this place as our homeland, we usually cling to some very outmoded, and even downright quaint, images and misconceptions about Ireland. Especially when it comes to the church. For right now, the Catholic Church in Ireland is in a desperate state. And if we, from Notre Dame, claim the right to this heritage – even going so far as to use a culture as our mascot – then we must embrace a certain responsibility as well.
This Friday, the Folk Choir sings for Ireland. We do so with eyes wide open, and not hanging onto some cute or trivial icon of the country. We sing for a place that means a lot to people at Notre Dame, and we sing for a church that is in dire straits at the moment.
We've had a lot of experiences in this country over the last twenty-plus years of touring. We've sung in the highest church of the land: St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, home to the Cardinal Primate of the Catholic Church. We've sung in what used to be Ballymon, the huge cluster of high-rise tenements that had, at one time, been the focal point of poverty just outside of Dublin. We've been hosted by parishes large and small. And we've sung for masses that officially "closed" the local seminary.
The fact is, only one seminary remains in Ireland. More than twenty have closed in the last two generations.
The laity, too, are without much of a home. Even with an alarming shortage of priests, the Irish presbyterate has not done what we did in America – make way for a corps of trained, collaborative professionals to work side-by-side in the vineyard of saints and scholars.
Church leaders in Ireland have estimated that, despite a statistic that boasts more than ninety percent baptized Catholics, barely over fifteen percent of these people regularly go to Mass.
So, Friday night, we sing for this country.
It is an act of witness for our own singers, because a handful of the Folk Choir – four graduates – are now working in County Wexford, the Diocese of Ferns, to help revitalize the landscape of the church, through song and prayer and story.
They are also learning precious things from these lovely people – learning how to approach life with joy and laughter, learning the gentle art of wit and storytelling, learning that not all we do in this country, in the name of triple-tasking tedium, is worth the craziness. There is more to life than frenetic, driven, resume-building madness. There is also tea and conversation with people around a hearth.
I'll be writing more over the weeks about the House of Brigid, Teach Bhríde. It is a small venture, right now – a small community of four men and women, hoping to rekindle the faith through song and catechesis. But most good works start small.
And Friday night, we sing for them. How can we not?