Faith in society - Opposing beliefs must live together

In one way or another all of our lives are shaped by belief or disbelief.

We filter our aspirations and fears, especially those we hold for our children, through those prisms. Some beliefs are inherited and endure for a lifetime unquestioned and anchoring. Others are reached through consideration, disappointment, experience, rejection, or inclusion.

The beliefs that shape us, whether we like it or not, the beliefs that shape our relationship with the people and the world all around us, may change but whatever their texture or colour they are undeniable and inescapable.

They are what we are.

Over the last week, tens of thousands of pilgrims, international and Irish, celebrated their Catholicism and their unwavering commitment to a faith that has shaped our culture and history for nearly two millennia.

Catholics from 120 countries came to the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin — 80,000 in Croke Park yesterday — to renew their commitment to their church, the ideals and ambitions it encourages through the discipline of its strictures.

Though not on anything like the scale of the social or official fervour provoked by its 1932 predecessor, it is possible that those who participated last week were more committed, and had a more secure and deeper understanding of what their religious life means than their grandparents or even their parents had.

Though some of those earlier generations formed part of the million-strong congregation at the Mass made all the more memorable by John McCormack’s contribution in 1932, they had social and cultural supports — almost a national groupthink — that today’s Irish Catholics do not. That is not to denigrate the faith of earlier generations but to recognise that contemporary Catholics may have had their faith tested in ways that recent generations may not.

This claim may even withstand the challenge presented by the Second World War and the abominations inflicted on nations and creeds during that catastrophic conflict. At least those once unimaginable horrors were not inflicted with the collusion of Church leadership.

Last week’s events occasioned yet another rehearsal of all of the crimes committed against children by a minority of clerics and it could not be any other way.

It also was an occasion to reflect on the autocracy of Rome and how it deals with dissent. This reaction was unavoidable and the proceedings would have been dishonest had they not, as they did, recognise recent horrors. It does not in any way underestimate the significance of those events and their victims to look ahead rather than backwards, which, after all, is the only way to try to shape the future.

Ireland, in the terms of the past, is no longer a Catholic country but a country with a very strong Catholic tradition. Nevertheless, that faith is central to the lives of a great number of Irish people. And, as last week’s events confirmed, how that reality is sustained in our public life remains a great challenge.

Secularism is stronger than ever in this country and it must be recognised and facilitated.

How these conflicting ideologies are matched, how each can bend to recognise the other, will be one of the defining issues of the coming years. Ironically, secularists may have to concede more than they might immediately imagine because, unless they do, they run the risk of being accused of being as absolute and authoritarian as the hierarchy who presided over the 1932 congress were.

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