Notes from Ireland on the archbishop, the pope, and Opus Dei

Dublin, Ireland

I’m concluding my Irish swing today, and I had the chance to drop by Archbishop Diarmiud Martin at the Archbishop’s House in Dublin prior to leaving for the airport. Local attitudes towards Martin, 61, were perhaps best summed up by the cab driver who took me from the hotel to Martin’s residence. Informed of my destination, he launched into a colorful string of expletives about the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, but capped it off by adding, “The new archbishop, though, seems a nice fellow.”

By most accounts, Martin’s candid approach to issues in the church, above all the sexual abuse crisis, coupled with his affable personality, have been received as a breath of fresh air. Despite periodic rumors that Martin is in line for various Vatican postings, the consensus in the Archbishop’s House is that his focus is very much on Dublin and the Irish church.

The Irish bishops just returned from their ad limina visit with Benedict XVI in late October, and it was clear that the media are still buzzing about the pope’s comments on the sexual abuse scandals. I was asked about what the pope had said both on RTE, the Irish state network, and on the Newstalk program.

On Oct. 29, Benedict said:

In the exercise of your pastoral ministry, you have had to respond in recent years to many heart-rending cases of sexual abuse of minors. These are all the more tragic when the abuser is a cleric. The wounds caused by such acts run deep, and it is an urgent task to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged. In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes. In this way, the Church in Ireland will grow stronger and be ever more capable of giving witness to the redemptive power of the Cross of Christ.

It was the pope’s first public statement on the sexual abuse crisis since his election in April 2005, and it played to largely positive notice in the Irish press, especially in light of the fact that a government commission is presently examining sex-abuse complaints lodged against the clergy of Dublin between 1975 and 2004. Its official charge is to look for “any evidence of attempts on the part of those authorities to obstruct, prevent or interfere with the proper investigation of such complaints.”

In that context, the pope’s words were widely taken as a mandate for the church to cooperate with the inquiry.

Martin said that Benedict’s abhorrence of sexual abuse by clergy seemed clear in their conversation, with the pope expressing astonishment, for example, that priests could engage in such conduct and then celebrate Mass.

On other matters, Martin said that Benedict had expressed keen interest in how the church in Ireland is engaging the worlds of culture – art, literature, and the intellectual life of the country. The pope asked, for example, about the university founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman, and what impact it has had on shaping Irish culture.

Martin said he has made the point that while it’s easy to become consumed in the problems of day-to-day church management, the pope’s line of questioning is a reminder that none of that matters if it’s not in service to the deeper challenge of evangelizing the culture.

Last night, I delivered the second of two lectures at Trinity College, this one on Opus Dei, drawing largely on my 2005 book on the subject. If there was consensus on anything in the crowd, it seemed to be that Dan Brown had inadvertently done Opus Dei an enormous favor in The Da Vinci Code by giving the group a chance to revise its largely nefarious public image.

Though, once again, the “cab driver test” suggests there still may be some work to do in this regard. As I was returning to my Dublin hotel after the “Newstalk” appearance, the driver said he’d caught me on-air talking about Opus Dei.

“I’ve heard of them,” he said. “Aren’t they that slightly dodgy outfit?”

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