Sunday, July 30, 2023

The closure of the Franciscan Friary in Athlone is symptomatic of the wider loss of religion in Ireland (Opinion)

A sad day': Irish Franciscan Friars say goodbye to Athlone after serving  community for 800 years - Gript

In recent years, Ireland has seen religious orders close community houses across the country due to lack of vocations. 

These closures are normally accompanied with brief news articles with local people expressing sadness, but few others in the wider public take notice of the impact. 

As an archivist, before Christmas I had the sad task of helping to close the Franciscan Friary in Athlone, Co Westmeath. 

Set upon the banks of Ireland’s biggest river, the River Shannon, Athlone is a small town of 20,000, in a part of Ireland that is less populated and left behind both economically and infrastructurally. 

It lies about 12 miles from the ruins of the important monastery of Clonmacnoise, founded by St Ciarán. Historically a key military base, Athlone is now trying to regenerate itself. 

However, in contrast to the larger cities, life feels more natural and less stressed in Athlone, the birthplace of the famed Irish tenor Count John McCormack.

Arriving in the town around 1235, the Franciscans moved location several times over the centuries. 

During the times of the Penal Laws, they served as the parish clergy for the Diocese of Clonmacnoise when the priests were evading capture. 

During the height of the persecution, the friars were forced to live and minister the Sacraments in secret in the countryside. 

They survived imprisonment, transportation and death in some cases to keep their presence and the Catholic faith alive in the town. In the early 1700s, they eventually arrived at the location in Athlone they would stay in for about 300 years. 

The current church was opened in 1932, originally dedicated to the “Four Masters” who began their influential Annals in 1628 in Athlone, but later rededicated to St Anthony of Padua.

Built only eight years after the foundation of the Irish Free State, in many ways St Anthony’s is a physical manifestation of the new state. 

The Romanesque interior of the church contains five beautiful stained glass windows from the iconic Harry Clarke Studios, while the exterior harks back to the golden age of Celtic Christianity of nearby Clonmacnoise with its round tower belfry and Celtic cross. 

The money, raised since 1919, built an impressive church that was representative of the local community’s pride in its faith and heritage, having undergone centuries of suppression. 

Over the course of the following century, the friars of St Anthony’s humbly served the spiritual needs of Athlone, while also serving as a House of Formation for the Franciscans in Ireland for many years.

From a religious level, the departure of the Franciscans will be a severe blow to the people from Athlone and neighbouring areas. Sizeable numbers also travelled lengthy distances daily to the friary for the Sacrament of Confession. 

The already overstretched secular clergy in Athlone will now have an even greater load of duties to carry. 

While practising Catholics will still be able to attend Mass elsewhere, and the Church has been kept running in the short term, the parish has lost part of its identity and the town has lost part of its living heritage. 

In more tangible losses, the Third Order Franciscans in St Anthony’s has no place to meet, anda local support group had to find a new location for their meetings.

On January 8, 2023, the Franciscans left Athlone after a presence of almost 800 years. During my weeks in Athlone, several questions sprang to mind that don’t have straightforward answers. 

What happens to a town once a vital part of it, for centuries, leaves? Surely the loss manifests itself in more than just immediate sorrow of affected parishioners. 

Spiritually, there will be fewer sacraments readily available; fewer Masses offered daily for the local community and the souls of parishioners. 

The loss of witness to the religious life will make vocations an even obscurer option. 

Societally, what damage will it do to a town like Athlone losing the Franciscans? 

The loss of parish life will reduce the level of social capital in the town. The local community could further fragment. Given the very positive reputation of the Franciscans in Athlone, it will be an even tougher challenge now for the Church to rebuild credibility.

Nationally, the departure of the Franciscans from Athlone begs further questions. St Anthony’s Church symbolises the Ireland that was fought for during the War of Independence: a proudly Gaelic and Catholic nation. 

But in the decades since independence, the Irish language has languished in contrast to the revival in the Welsh language. 

With the exception of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland has left its Gaelic roots to wither while it consumes American or British media, sport, culture and politics. 

The Catholic Church in Ireland will face serious problems in the next five years, including the imminent collapse in the numbers of active priests, declining (dying) weekly Mass-goers, numerous empty Churches, few vocations to the priesthood, aggressively hostile national media, an uneducated laity and a thoroughly secularised, individualistic culture. 

While on a local and personal level there is still very positive goodwill towards religious, nationally and among young people there is antipathy. 

The Church is utterly irrelevant to the lives of most young people and only relevant when there is a national scandal. When Pope Francis visited Ireland in 2018, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke of a new relationship between Church and state. It remains to be seen whether that new relationship will allow Catholics to freely live and express their faith.

Getting to spend time with these humble friars who devoted decades of loyal service to Christ was a privilege. Their witness makes it clear how shallow and selfish modern Ireland is. 

Speaking to local people in Athlone during my stay, believer and nonbeliever immediately expressed sorrow for the loss of the friars. Although the sadness of parishioners was palpable, there was also a deep gratitude for the immeasurable good and centuries of service they brought to Athlone. 

While this is likely to become a more regular occurrence in the coming years, unless it happens to them, few will reflect long on how this will affect the communities left behind. While St Anthony’s closing could be a symptom of a Church in decline, the profound negative impacts suffered by the parish and community shouldn’t be forgotten.

As numbers of the faithful in Ireland shrink, some will be tempted towards despair and conclude that the Church in Ireland is destined to become like the ruins in Clonmacnoise. 

In 1969, the then Fr Joseph Ratzinger prophetically described the Church of the future, now quickly becoming a reality in Ireland, a smaller Church but filled with those dedicated with the “pure fullness of their faith”. 

Modern man pursuing hedonistic lives devoid of meaning will, please God, find Pope Benedict’s words fulfilled in the future. 

“If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching for in secret.”

The Church in Ireland will survive in some form. 

Men and women will then emerge as the new Jongleurs de Dieu and, like St Francis of Assisi, will answer the call of God to go and repair His Church stone by stone.