The recent two-part BBC series, Terry Wogan’s Ireland, chronicled Wogan’s return to this island to explore his Irish roots. Christianity featured prominently in the series, including a visit to the school where Wogan had Catholicism hammered into him (it didn’t stay put, apparently) and his appearance on Gay Byrne’s The Meaning of Life, where he admitted he no longer believed in God, heaven or hell.
So far, so expected of a cosmopolitan media presenter who was clearly not all-together comfortable on his return to Ireland. He said himself he no longer feels completely at home here.
The most positive portrayal of religion came in Wogan’s encounter with Fermanagh-based priest Fr Brian D’Arcy, who was for years featured on his Wake up to Wogan programme on Radio 2. You can watch the segment by clicking the play button below:
Wogan summed up his segment with D’Arcy with the words:
With people’s faith in the Catholic Church at an all-time low in Ireland, it needs ambassadors like Fr Brian D’Arcy more than ever before.
What is it about Fr D’Arcy that caused Wogan, an agnostic at most, to find some hope for Christianity on this island?
I think there are two main things:
- D’Arcy’s willingness to criticise the Irish Catholic Church, and the Vatican, for the way it has handled the clerical sexual abuse scandals. D’Arcy’s criticisms are tempered by frank discussion of his own doubts.
- D’Arcy’s conception of the church as existing beyond our present denominational institutions.
Criticism and Doubt
It’s impossible to know at this stage how much the clerical sexual abuse scandals have affected Irish Christians, but D’Arcy puts it to Wogan like this:
‘The Irish people – I think their faith has been shattered.’
D’Arcy has spoken openly before about how the scandals, as well as being a victim of abuse himself, have affected him, and he has been criticised for this (not least by commentators on this blog). He was just as forthright talking to Wogan:
[the scandals] shook me to my roots not only in the priesthood, but in faith itself, that so much had been hidden. And in the middle of all that you had abusive priests who joined the priesthood so they could abuse children.
There’s something powerful about people, like D’Arcy, who can admit their doubts and their struggles with faith. It resonates with people who have found themselves in the same position, struggling to come to terms with what can only be described as the evil that was allowed to fester inside the church.
I’m more suspicious of those who claim they have no doubts, or criticise the people who – having good reason to doubt – want to talk about that and what it means. One of my favourite characters in Scripture is the man who asks Jesus to cast a demon out of his son. When Jesus asked him if he ‘believes’, he replies:
I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! (Mark 9:24) Or, as the old King James Version puts it, I believe, help thou my unbelief!
A Christianity Beyond Religion?
The most beautifully shot, and theologically interesting, part of the segment includes Wogan and D’Arcy’s discussion in a boat on Lough Erne. D’Arcy explains that the Lough has been a sacred site for thousands of years, long before Christianity reached Irish shores. When Christianity arrived, Lough Erne served as a site of prayer and reflection for many of Ireland’s greatest saints and scholars.
This leads Wogan to describe D’Arcy as:
‘drawn back to a time before organised religion, to a time before Catholic and Protestant churches.’
Indeed, D’Arcy confides that the Lough has been his refuge for the last twenty years, where:
The tension, the stress of the modern world, particularly the modern Catholic Church, drain out of you and you get filled with a spirituality that is more ancient and beautiful than anything organised religion has to offer.
He also says that his time on the Lough helps him to experience:
A kind of spirituality that’s missing everywhere else in Ireland.
These comments resonate with the theme of my blog, Building a Church without Walls, particularly the idea that many of our present church institutions (be they Catholic, Protestant, or Other) are no longer enabling people to live the ancient Way of Jesus and honestly explore their faith and their doubts.
Most clerics, I admit, wouldn’t get away with putting it as bluntly as Fr D’Arcy does. And of course, many clerics wouldn’t agree with his diagnosis of our church institutions.
But if it is true that the faith of the Irish people has been shattered, I think the first question we should be asking is how (or whether?) our church institutions should be rebuilt?