Feature

‘I carry Ireland in my heart’
On the eve of his departure, Archbishop Charles Brown sat down with Mags Gargan to reflect on his time as Papal Nuncio
to Ireland

Archbishop Charles Brown with a group of young people from Skerries, Co. Dublin

Since arriving in Ireland in January 2012 as Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown has become a very familiar face to Irish Catholics. He has travelled the length and breadth of this island attending parish events and giving many people their first opportunity to speak to the Pope’s representative to Ireland. 

His friendly nature and openness soon endeared him to the population and the announcement on March 9 of his new posting to Albania was met by sadness in most quarters. 

Archbishop Brown admits to The Irish Catholic he too feels “a twinge of sadness in my heart” at leaving Ireland, “because I will miss the beauty of this island, I will miss the edification I have received from the people of faith on this island and I will also miss the amazing welcome that I received from people all over this island, without exception, from the moment I arrived in January 2012”. 

“I was received with such graciousness, openness and kindness on every side and every quarter, and that is a beautiful thing that I cherish in my heart and it makes it difficult for me to leave without lots of emotion,” he says.

Archbishop Brown’s posting to Ireland came as a shock five years ago, as the 57-year-old New Yorker had no previous diplomatic experience, having spent the previous 17 years in the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in the Holy See.

He arrived in Ireland after a two-month crash course to train and prepare for diplomatic work, and didn’t know what to expect of his new assignment.

“I was beginning something that was very new for me and my expectations were quite fluid. I was really open to everything that was coming,” he says.

However, Archbishop Brown’s Irish ancestry – five of his eight great-grandparents coming from Co. Clare and Co. Leitrim – and his experience of working in St Brendan’s, an Irish parish in the Bronx, did give him “a kind of preparation in a certain sense for Ireland”.

“I think that the kind of Ireland I knew in an emigrant parish in the Bronx was borne out by my experience when I came here to Ireland, because I found an island in which there is still – not withstanding all the events of the last 25 years – a large residue of Catholic faith and a great interest in the Church, a great appreciation for the Church,” he says. 

Five years later his American accent seems as strong as ever, but he will be taking some Irish influences away with him. “I think my vocabulary has been changed with certain expressions that you only hear here, such as ‘to give out’. There is a lot of people giving out. I had no idea what ‘to give out’ meant before I came to Ireland because in the States it would mean to distribute, to hand out or to pass out. Here I found that ‘to give out’ had a different meaning and it can be quite common actually as an activity!”

Archbishop Brown has also developed a love for GAA, particularly for hurling. “I had never really seen a hurling match before. I went to a good number of hurling and GAA football matches and I love both sports. Hurling, I find especially interesting because it is such a fast moving sport and such a pleasure to watch. The frequency of the scoring is pretty perfect – they don’t score too often the way you do in American basketball or too infrequently the way you do in soccer, which at times can be boring,” he says.

“I think in terms of culture, I have learned so much and benefited so much in these five years, and I leave a much better priest and bishop because of my experience here thanks to the faith of the Irish people.”

When pushed to select a highlight of his time in Ireland, the nuncio’s first choice is the Eucharistic Congress in 2012. “That was an amazing event,” he says. “A beautiful manifestation of the faith of Irish people in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.”

On the cultural side, he says he will never forget his trip to Skellig Michael, for its symbolism and beauty. “This amazingly beautiful and dramatic rock in the North Atlantic, where monks prayed for centuries, tells us something about the spirit of Irish Catholicism. The deeply monastic spiritual vision of the Irish people is manifested so beautifully on Skellig Michael.”

Archbishop Brown also says he loved climbing Croagh Patrick, which he managed three times over the years as part of the Reek Sunday pilgrimage. “Again what a great image of the faith of Ireland – everyone walking together on this beautiful mountain, the chapel on the top, Confessions and Holy Eucharist celebrated on the summit. A great image of Christian life walking on a road that can be difficult at times, that can be rocky at times, in which at times you need to help one another to reach the summit and even get out of each other’s way in order to ascend. The physical beauty of the West of Ireland, Clew Bay, these are all images that I carry in my heart as I leave Ireland.”

The nuncio says his “biggest regret” is that he didn’t do the pilgrimage on Lough Derg. “I went to visit Lough Derg twice, but I never did the pilgrimage. I always intended to go, and this is no excuse for my indolence, but as you know the season for the three-day pilgrimage is quite short. I really do hope to come back and do that.”

From all his travels and conversations with the faithful, the nuncio has an acute sense of the issues and struggles of the Church in Ireland, but looking to the future he says with certainly that the Faith will survive its current challenges, although perhaps in a different form. 

“I am convinced before all else – and I know in my heart – that the Catholic Church has a future in Ireland. The story of more than 15 centuries of Catholic faith in Ireland is not finished,” he says. “At the same time we know that every age of the Church is different. There was times of incredible missionary fruitfulness in which missionaries from Ireland were sent all over the world. There were times of horrific persecution of the Faith, in which the Mass was only celebrated clandestinely in Ireland. 

“All of these different periods have existed before us and there will be challenges in the future, but the Faith will continue here because there is such a depth of faith in the hearts of Irish people, such an innate and intrinsic spirituality, a longing for something more than materialism that is deep in the Irish people,” Archbishop Brown says.

What that future will be like is more difficult to say, but one obvious change is the decline in the number of priests which he thinks will continue “even at a more rapid rate than it is now”. “That also means that inevitably one part of the future of the Church in Ireland – and this is only one part and people will misunderstand me if they thought this is what I think is the only part – will be more priests from other countries coming to work in Ireland, especially priests from Africa,” he says. “Large parts of Africa were evangelised by Irish missionaries and the gift of Irish missionaries to Africa will be repaid in some way by African priests coming back to Ireland.

“I also pray God, and I am certain, that the number of vocations to the priesthood will increase in Ireland, although it will almost certainly not in my lifetime ever reach the numbers it was in the 1950s and 1960s.” 

A consequence of the decrease in priests is already leading to a much greater responsibility for lay people, which is another aspect of the changing face of the Church in Ireland. “Lay people are taking a more active and central role in all aspects of Church life in Ireland, in terms of administering parishes, as catechists, as pastoral workers, that is certainly a part of the future of the Church in Ireland,” Archbishop Brown says. 

“As the numbers of priests decline the positions that will need to be filled by lay people will increase. That will give a different shape, a different image, a different face to Irish Catholicism.”

As society becomes more and more secular, Irish Catholics are now for the first time experiencing a sense of being in the minority, but Archbishop Brown urges the faithful not to be afraid of being different.

“To be a Catholic in today’s world means to be somewhat different from the ambient culture and not to be afraid to be somewhat different, and that is a new experience,” he says. “In a time where to be a Catholic is not to be just like everyone else, where cultural momentum is not carrying people to church but away from church, that means inevitably that the people who are in church will be people who have made a more conscious decision to be as some call them ‘intentional disciples’. To practise the Faith in Ireland is increasingly becoming a decision that people make and a decision that their fellow citizens may not be making.”

Archbishop Brown says that affirming people in their faith is an important aspect of the role of Apostolic Nuncio, and why he felt it was so important for him to accept invitations to visit parishes. “That’s probably the best description one can have as papal nuncio, to confirm people in their faith. That was one of the things that St Peter receives as a charge from the Lord – once you have converted, strengthen your brothers and sisters in the Faith,” he says. 

“I think that was perhaps the most consistent and verifiable experience I had visiting parishes all over Ireland. People were happy to have someone who represents the Holy Father come and try to strengthen them in their faith and to encourage them to continue in the life of faith in Ireland, because as all of us know there have been in the last 25 years many counter witnesses and even scandals that have led people to lose heart, so I think people wanted to be heartened, strengthened and to be confirmed.”

Archbishop Brown was originally sent to Ireland by Pope Benedict XVI, but most of his time as nuncio has been under Pope Francis, and one of his last public engagements here was a celebration in the Apostolic Nunciature last week for the fourth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election.

Asked what has been the Pope’s greatest impact so far, the archbishop immediately nominates the Holy Father’s “beautiful emphasis on God’s mercy”. “That is really his deep intuition about the way in which evangelisation needs to be accomplished in today’s world. In a world that is very aware of human suffering, the accentuation by Pope Francis of God’s mercy is incredibly powerful because it corresponds to people’s desire to be strengthened, to be comforted, to be received in their difficulties. 

“Pope Francis repeats quite often an image, that comes from the early fathers, of the Church as a hospital. That the Church is not a club for the perfect. The Church is a hospital for sinners, a place where all of us are receiving therapy in a sense, where all of us are on the way to healing. 

“I think that perhaps the impression was given in some circles that the Church is somehow a place where the morally perfect are applauded for their moral perfection. But that is a grotesque misunderstanding of the nature of the Church. If you look at all the saints, at St Faustina, at John Paul II, the emphasis is on God’s mercy, which is God’s embrace of us in our brokenness, in our imperfection, in our human neediness, but also an embrace which changes us. I think that is the other side of the beauty of mercy, that God receives us, that Jesus accepts us, but also begins to heal us and show us the way towards healing, and that is why the image of the hospital is so beautiful.

Over the last five years Archbishop Brown has been central in the decision-making process of the appointment of 11 bishops to head Irish dioceses. He has also been credited with bringing a more open style to the role of nuncio and helping to rebuild fragile relations between the Irish Government and the Vatican with the reopening of the Irish Embassy to the Holy See. 

Six dioceses await a new bishop and with Pope Francis expected to visit the World Meeting of Families in Dublin next year, the nuncio’s successor can expect a busy first year.

Now as Archbishop Brown departs for Albania, he says his farewell message to the people of Ireland is “to remember that Jesus Christ is alive and active in the world today”. “That the Faith of our ancestors is as true today as it was when they lived here. And that it is the Catholic faith, because it is the truth that comes from God, is a truth that liberates us and gives us a joy and a purpose that the world cannot give. That it is only in following Christ that we will find our greatest joy. 

“When we make a small step towards following him, he supports us, receives us and strengthens us, and gives us the ability to be disciples. That discipleship gives us the greatest joy and satisfaction that is possible in this world,” he says.

“My other message to the Irish people as I prepare to leave is, of course, pray for me as I go to Albania and start my new mission. I will need a lot of prayers in a country that is utterly unlike Ireland, but a place that I go to on the one hand with a lot of eagerness and enthusiasm – because Pope Francis has sent me there – but of course I go also with a sadness in my heart to some degree, because I am leaving Ireland and I have been so well received here and so immeasurably happy here in these last five years. 

“But I just say to all the people who read The Irish Catholic that I carry Ireland in my heart and, God willing, I will come back some day.”