The extraordinary generosity of Clonard
Fr Michael Brehl, the leader of the world's Redemptorists, was in Belfast for last month's Clonard Novena. He spoke to William Scholes about what makes Clonard special, the challenges facing the Catholic Church and why there is ‘nothing bland' about Pope Francis
Fr Michael Brehl is impressed. The leader of the world's Redemptorists, coming towards the end of his first Clonard Novena, has enjoyed the experience of being one of the resident preachers at the annual celebration of faith.
"I had always heard about the enormous response of the people here and that it draws people from across Ulster and beyond," he explains.
"The engagement of the people - the friendliness, the warmth, the welcome - all of that was what I had heard about and expected.
"What has surprised me is the incredible efficiency with which everything is run.
"So much is packed into a 45 minute session which is repeated 10 times every day, for nine days - that is quite incredible."
He talks enthusiastically and with obvious appreciation about the generosity of the hundreds of people who work behind the scenes to make the Clonard Novena possible, of those who "take their holidays to help out", and of how the commitment to make sure everything runs smoothly is "extraordinary".
Fr Brehl is well-placed to make such judgments. The Toronto-born priest has been leader of the Redemptorist Congregation - a role known as Superior General - since 2009.
It is an elected position which is normally held for six years, though Fr Brehl's first stint was extended by a year before he was re-elected last November.
Though based in Rome for three or four months a year, the demands of heading a Religious Congregation of around 5,300 Redemptorists serving in 78 countries means he spends the rest of the time travelling.
He does, however, try to do several "purely pastoral" visits each year - thus the trip to Belfast.
We meet in one of Clonard's 'parlours'. One of that morning's Novena sessions is already underway, and the corridor outside the room is jammed with people who haven't been able to get a seat in the crowded church.
It underlines the effort that is made to accommodate all-comers.
It is also a picture of the sort of hospitality that Fr Brehl speaks of having encountered during his time at Clonard.
To the young Mike Brehl growing up in Canada, an Irish friend's use of the phrase "You're all very welcome" had seemed a quaint anachronism.
"But the more time you spend here, the more you realise that it is a way of life to make people welcome. It is an attitude to life that is more than just a greeting," he says.
"You see it in the church, in the way the stewards greet people, as if they are welcoming them into their own home. It is hugely impressive."
Fr Brehl - 62 years old, softly spoken and radiating friendliness and calm - has already exercised his own hospitality by telling me which of parlour four's chairs are uncomfortable enough to be worth avoiding...
I might not have been so comfortable speaking with Fr Brehl had he told me at the start of our conversation that he is very familiar with how journalists work - his father was an editor with the Toronto Star, and two brothers, a sister and a sister-in-law are also journalists.
Clonard is a familiar name to Redemptorists around the world, though that is perhaps less to do with the Novena than some in Belfast might think.
"Clonard is particularly well known because of the Troubles and through the reputation of Alec Reid and Gerry Reynolds, and the work that has been done in Clonard over a long period of time to promote peace and to move beyond our own little territories," says Fr Brehl.
Clonard is particularly well known because of the Troubles and through the reputation of Alec Reid and Gerry Reynolds, and the work that has been done to promote peace
This year might have been his first experience of the Novena, but Fr Brehl has been to Clonard before - in December 2002, when there were a number of school retreats.
"They were bringing together students from Catholic schools and non-Catholic schools," he recalls.
"I talked more to the teachers than to the students at that time, and they couldn't say enough about this effort."
It is peace-building and reconciliation work of that kind that has given Clonard a reputation around the world, says Fr Brehl.
Even so, with between 10,000 and 12,000 people attending the Novena each day, Clonard is something of a phenomenon in Northern Ireland - though, as Fr Brehl points out, with some understatement, "the numbers are not as high as in some places".
The Novena in Manila in the Philippines is attended by up to 150,000 people each day, he explains, adding: "In Brazil there would be half a dozen places with 25-35,000 every day, Singapore has up to 30,000 and Bangalore in India gets a minimum of 15,000."
We talk about secularisation, and the conversation turns to the differences Fr Brehl regards between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
"I speak as an outsider, but there are really significant differences," he ventures.
"In the Republic, the Catholic Church was very much dominant in society from the formation of the State right up until the present - the schools were Catholic schools, the hospitals were Catholic hospitals.
"People would have talked about it being the state religion, even if it wasn't. It was enshrined with rights and guarantees constitutionally.
"The influence of the Catholic Church in the Republic was at a very different level from that of the Church in the six counties."
This, he says, "makes a real significant difference when we come to secularisation", to which he adds Catholic identity and anti-clericalism.
"There is a level of anti-clericalism in the Republic that I don't sense here," he says; the northern Church is "a Church that is a little bit distinct from the experience of the Church in the Republic".
Quebec in his native Canada, where the "Catholic Church was dominant in every aspect of life", has undergone a similar experience to that felt in the Republic.
"There was the 'quiet revolution' in the 1960s and 1970s and an enormous secularisation of Quebec society," he says.
"Most people still identify themselves as Catholic, but there is very low church attendance and a high level of anti-clericalism.
"Yet we have a Novena to St Anne... and that Novena will be jammed. People come from all over, and even people who don't go to church on Sunday talk about how they have to 'make their St Anne' and go to the Novena.
"There is something about shrines, about the Novena, something about the extraordinary experience, that draws people, that responds to something that's in them, that the ordinary institutional church doesn't seem to get."
Linking that in to Clonard, Fr Brehl says: "The level of participation in the Novena here and the number of people who come, day after day for the nine days, is extraordinary to me.
"It speaks of how people get something here that is responding to real needs they have."
To emphasise his point, Fr Brehl refers to the petitions and thanksgivings made during the Novena.
"When you read them, you notice that something happens to people here where they are able to talk about their deepest hungers and needs - which, by the way, are most often for other people, and you almost never read a petition that is only for the one writing it," he says.
"And then you read the thanksgivings - 'I didn't get my prayer answered in the way that I thought I would, but I got this, I got something better, I got peace...'
"Something is happening here that hits them in a way that they may not get elsewhere."
It begs the question why, if the Novena effectively meets people's "real needs", Clonard - or other churches - are not similarly packed all year round.
Fr Brehl counters by explaining that "this is not a parish - and people live their ordinary faith life in their parishes".
"I know the parishes are not getting the huge bounce that we see here in the Novena," he says.
"I think that's a challenge to us as a Church, to look at how does our parish become more and more a place that responds to the real situations and needs of people."
The level of participation in the Novena here and the number of people who come, day after day for the nine days, is extraordinary
He also makes the point that an experience as intense as the Clonard Novena is not - and should not be - 'normal'.
"We cannot and should not be expected to live at the heightened intensity you can live for these nine days all year long," cautions Fr Brehl.
"If you do that, you are not in touch with daily life. I couldn't celebrate Christmas every day.
"In faith, the intense moments are vital."
He relates it to the Gospel story of the Transfiguration: "Peter, James and John say, 'Let's stay here', but Jesus says, 'No, we are going back down the mountain, back to the people, to live our daily lives'.
"There will be moments of Transfiguration in our faith life, and maybe that's what the Novena should be."
Worldwide, the Redemptorist Congregation is facing the same challenges as the Catholic Church is encountering more generally.
"In Canada, like in Ireland, we are shrinking - new vocations don't make up for the men who are dying," he says.
There is a geographic shift to contend with, too.
"For the first 250 or more years, the centre was in Europe, and even when I entered more than half the Redemptorists were European. Everything was very Euro-centric."
Up to around 20 years ago, he says, "the majority of those working in Africa were European or North American".
"Asia would have been about half European and North American, and Latin America was the same.
"But there has been a dramatic change. At our last general chapter [in 2016], there was only one European representing Africa, from Asia they were all Asian and from Latin America there was just one who was not born there."
It is a similar picture with the age profile of Redemptorists.
"If you go outside Europe and North America, 75 per cent of the members are under 60," says Fr Brehl.
"But in Europe and North America, 75 per cent are over 60 - and the numbers are continuing to decline in these two areas."
The figures have led the Redemptorists to ask themselves hard questions about their future, with Fr Brehl, as Superior General, playing a key role in the conversation.
"What does it mean for how we have promoted our vocation? How have we involved lay people in our mission? How have we lived in North America and in Europe, and are there possibilities of renewing our presence in these two centres?" he asks.
In Europe and North America, 75 per cent of Redemptorists are over 60 – and the numbers are continuing to decline
It is a challenge of choosing to manage decline or open new doors.
"The easiest thing to do is to fill holes. People in Europe and North America want us, largely, to fill holes and keep doing everything we are doing," says Fr Brehl.
"I'm quite sure that will not be a sufficient response to the needs of the coming generations."
There is a need to engage people in Europe and North America "to think in a dramatically new way and try things in a dramatically new way".
"It's a big ask," he admits, describing it as "work in progress".
In the context of the Catholic Church's current challenges around the world, Fr Brehl has found Pope Francis to be an energising shot in the arm.
"It is very significant that Pope Francis has come from Argentina," he explains.
"As he says, they went to the ends of the world to get somebody. He is an outsider - he was never part of the Roman Curia - and is a Religious, the first Jesuit Pope.
"It all means he has a very different experience of consecrated life.
"The fact that he is coming from so far outside the norm means he brings a fresh vision."
He points out that Francis is a Pope "who has been schooled and formed in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council".
The fact that he uses the Vatican II documents to help set the direction of the Church is, says Fr Brehl, "quite amazing and fantastic, to me".
"I am very excited about what he is doing. He is talking a language that people understand."
I point out that despite his popularity Francis has, however, also encountered resistance from within the Church about some of the emphases of his leadership.
"But that's a positive sign," says Fr Brehl.
"Unless you are touching the wounds, the hurts, you're not doing what Jesus did.
"But if you start touching the wounds and the hurts you are going to get a reaction.
"The fact that there is a reaction says he is touching real issues that are really important to real people.
"There is nothing bland about Francis. He is also humble enough to say that 'I don't have all the answers'."
The Redemptorist has had ample opportunity to see Pope Francis at work, up close.
He was one of the 10 delegates representing the Religious Congregations at 2015's Synod on the Family.
"I think his opening remarks were quite brilliant," says Fr Brehl.
"He said no topic - nothing - was off the table, but that he had two rules.
"'The only thing I ask is that whatever you say, you speak with respect and you also listen to others with respect.
"'If you don't speak and listen with respect then we won't have the kind of dialogue we need to have.
"'I don't want you to self-censor, I want you to say what you really think, to put it on the table and listen to one another'."
Fr Brehl says his experience of the Synod was very different from some reports which spoke of "division, resistance, plots, splits and so on".
"When you reflect on the fact that there wasn't one single paragraph in the final relatio [the official synod report] that got support from less than two-thirds of all the people there, I dare you to show me a democratically-elected parliament that functions like that," he says.
"That shows me that the Spirit helped us to forge together a common document, a common-sense consensus of what we were passing to the Holy Father for his apostolic exhortation.
"And Amoris Laetitia [the apostolic exhortation, The Joy of Love, published by Pope Francis after the synod] is faithful to what we gave him."
Francis stopped them and started a new chant: 'Jesu Christo' - and that's what he's all about, pointing constantly to Jesus
Of Pope Francis's challenge at the start of the synod, Fr Brehl says: "I heard and saw people who said, 'I came here with this in my mind but I learned something different, and I'm going to vote differently on a paragraph than I would have before I came here'.
"That means people really heard each other and that we really prayed together.
"The final document is not just the Instrumentum Laboris [working document provided before the synod started] - it was changed, elaborated, modified, expanded and some things were left out.
"It's a different document that has its roots in what we got, but it's not the same document we received before we got there.
"That to me says there was a real process of discernment.
"Francis was there at every session, listening intently; he was there at every coffee break, looking for the individuals who spoke, finding them to shake hands and talk to them."
"That's a different image of 'pope' than I've had in the past - and maybe we needed an Argentinian to give it to us," says Fr Brehl, hastily adding: "I'm not saying anything about past Popes - but God gives us the man we need for the specific age in which we live. I'm convinced of that."
Aside from how he has seen the Pope work first-hand, Fr Brehl says that in how Francis does things - from embracing strangers in St Peter's Square to washing prisoners' feet - he is presenting Christians with a fresh challenge.
"He is showing us what it means for him, Francis, to be a follower and witness of Jesus, and that challenges us to do the same in our circumstances," says Fr Brehl.
He recounts the story of how a crowd of young people were chanting "Papa Francesco" at an audience in the Vatican.
"Francis stopped them and started a new chant: 'Jesu Christo' - and that's what he's all about, pointing constantly to Jesus," he says.
"Evangelii Gaudium [Pope Francis's 2013 apostolic exhortation] starts with the words, 'The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus'."
It is an imperative that also echoes the missionary impulse of the Redemptorists - as the members of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer are commonly known - and Fr Brehl adds: "For Francis, everything goes back to the transforming person of Jesus - and that's what we need to hear."
And with that, he returns to making that message known to the thousands attending the extraordinary, generous and intense Clonard Novena.
- More of Irish News photographer Mal McCann's pictures from this year's Clonard Novena can be viewed here and here.