Faith Matters

Archbishop Charles Brown has profound gratitude for his time in Ireland

Before he left for a new post in Albania, Archbishop Charles Brown, the Pope's ambassador to Ireland for the last five years, spoke to Dominic O'Reilly about the 'heroism of the ordinary', counter-cultural Christianity and how an encounter with Buddhist monks in Nepal rekindled his faith

Dominic O'Reilly
18 May, 2017 01:00

ARCHBISHOP Charles Brown, a New Yorker blessed by appearing considerably younger than his 57 years as well as being approachable and friendly, left Ireland last month after five years as Papal Nuncio.

It was announced in March that Pope Francis was appointing him as his ambassador to Albania and though he is excited by the challenges ahead, he says he has a "very profound sense of gratitude" about his time in Ireland.

He arrived in Ireland fresh from a post in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was appointed as Nuncio by Pope Benedict XVI his former boss at the Vatican's doctrine watchdog.

Archbishop Charles Brown, whose five years as Papal Nuncio to Ireland came to an end in April

Archbishop Brown's appointment was announced in November 2011 and its timing, in the wake of a series of damning reports critical of the handling of clerical sexual abuse, and the fact that he was regarded as being closely associated with Pope Benedict, suggested to some that the Vatican was serious about attempting to change the culture of the Irish Church.

Groups like the Association of Catholic Priests have been critical of his tenure as Nuncio - a role which not only involves diplomatic relations with the host nation but also the appointment of bishops - and regarded his appointment as a sign that the Irish Church was being disciplined by Rome.

But however his time as Nuncio in Ireland is assessed, there is little doubt that he has been a hugely influential figure in determining the future of the Church, not least through his involvement in the appointment of 16 bishops, or more than half of those now leading the Church.

My memory of Ireland will be one of immense gratitude for an extraordinary and continual welcome

I have edited a book on the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen's University in Belfast, and Archbishop Brown agreed to speak with me at the Apostolic Nunciature on Navan Road in Dublin primarily about university and how young adults can engage with their faith.

Like many senior figures in the Church, Archbishop Brown has a long list of degrees and qualifications, but he mentions that his undergraduate degree was in history.

"I have always enjoyed and been fascinated by history," he explains.

"For me it is a way of understanding the present by trying to understand how we got to where we are. The question of the past, the question of tradition, was always something that was interesting for me."

When he attended the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, he says his intention was to study history before going to law school.

"I was interested in the question of culture, the question of why do we think the way we do, what are the forces that shape our world outlook and my approach has always been historical; by understanding the past, by understanding where we have come from, by understanding our tradition we can better understand ourselves," he says.

It has been said that to be a practising Catholic on a university campus today is counter-cultural. I wonder if Archbishop Brown feels this is the case.

"Yes, absolutely it is counter-cultural, and it has been counter-cultural for a while. To be a practising Catholic at Oxford University in the 1980s, as I was, was certainly not to be like everyone else - and that was 30 years ago," he says.

"We've been in that situation for a while. Even in Ireland today, if you are a practising Catholic in a university you are going to be in a minority."

Papal Nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown opened the Holy Door of Mercy at Saint Patrick's Basilica, Lough Derg, to inaugurate the Jubilee of Mercy Pilgrimage Season in 2016. Picture by Michael Mc Laughlin.

This idea of being in a minority can, he argues, actually be "very liberating and fruitful".

"There is a fecundity that comes from being in a minority that you don't have when the faith becomes institutionalised, stale and practised by everybody," he says.

"The current situation is a moment that can lead to some really beautiful results. I am absolutely convinced of that."

Being an active Christian - or an "intentional disciple", as Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin likes to put it - is undoubtedly "counter-cultural - but I think that can be a very positive thing".

We have this idea that the missionaries who go to far off lands are the real heroic Christians, and that people who get married are somehow not living their Christianity to the same level - that is wrong

"Pluralism can be a good thing for us," he says.

"It's amazing how many young people are coming to the faith, especially on university campuses - a lot more than people realise."

Universities are essential places for Christian witness, not least because, says Archbishop Brown, "the human heart is made for God".

"We have a capacity for God. For all kinds of reasons, people try to fill that that natural thirst for God with all kinds of other things but there are plenty of young adults who realise that the thirst for absolute love and truth can only truly be answered if one embarks on a path towards the divine, towards God," he says.

"I have been very edified by the university students that I have met here in Ireland in my years."

He regards it as a failing that not enough Catholics, of all ages, appreciate the importance of the 'ordinary' vocation. Perhaps this is an outworking of the unhealthy clericalism that has so characterised the Irish Church?

"One of the things we need to do, and we haven't done this successfully, is to show people - particularly our young adults - the greatness and the heroism of the ordinary," says Archbishop Brown.

"We have this idea that, particularly in respect to the faith, that the missionaries go to far off lands and that they are the real heroic Christians, and that people who get married are somehow not living their Christianity to the same level.

"That is wrong. To be a Catholic parent - to raise a Catholic family and to pass the faith on to your children, to bring new souls into this universe and to prepare them for eternal life... - there is really nothing more important than that.

"We have to show people the heroism of what appears to be ordinary and not make people think that Christianity means doing something in a professional religious way that is extraordinary."

The Archbishop believes that large families are "an incredible witness".

"To have a large family - there are a lot of large families in Ireland, larger than most in Europe - and to have many children is an incredible witness to the truth of our faith," he says.

"We need to help people realise that every vocation and every path in the Church is of equal dignity.

"We have all kinds of problems when we start to look at the Church as some kind of multinational organisation where the bishops are the board of directors and are the important ones, and everyone else is the consumer."

To hold that sort of view is "completely false and mistaken": "We are all equally part of the body of Christ; equal in our dignity, equal in the call to holiness. We are not identical. We need to distinguish between equality and identity - equal doesn't mean we have to be the same."

There is much food for thought in what Archbishop Brown says. It is inspiring to be reminded that each of us is capable of achieving great things, if we are given the space and encouragement to achieve them.

To have a large family - there are a lot of large families in Ireland, larger than most in Europe - and to have many children is an incredible witness to the truth of our faith

It is also deeply reassuring to hear someone like the Archbishop speak so warmly about the heroism of the ordinary.

He was brought up in an 'ordinary' home himself, with parents he describes as faithful Catholics and a family practise of attending Mass each Sunday.

"When I was a teenager my father would take me on weekend retreats with the Trappist monks in Spencer, Massachusetts, which is a really beautiful monastery," he recalls.

"I remember it was a really great experience just to spend a weekend with my father on retreat with the monks. It left a deep impression on me.

"I remember looking at the monks as a young boy and for me they were a living witness that God really existed. For me, only God could explain their manner of life; my youthful logic was they lived as if God really existed, therefore God must really exist."

When he went to Notre Dame, he admits to continuing to practise the faith but says, "I wouldn't have described myself as extraordinarily devout".

"I lived a totally normal undergraduate life - dances, parties etc, just like everyone else," he says.

"However, there was always a certain kind of restlessness in my heart. I was trying to discover my place in the world, my place in the universe: 'Why am I here, what am I supposed to do on this earth?'"

For the young Charles Brown, those kind of 'why am I here?' questions "probably weren't explicit but they certainly were implicit".

"They would have come to the surface every once in a while," he remembers.

Archbishop Charles Brown with Archbishop Eamon Martin and Bishop Donal McKeown outside St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.

He made his way to Oxford University to study theology which, in 1983, in turn led to a visit to the Himalayas in 1983 and an experience which put his future into focus.

"Out of a desire to fit in with the Buddhist monks' repetitive prayers I prayed my rosary more," says the Archbishop.

"My faith was really rekindled and when I got back to Oxford I began to practise my faith more seriously.

"Almost simultaneously with that reversion experience came the realisation that that my vocation - my job, my destiny, my purpose - was not just to study theology in the abstract and intellectually analyse the ideas - which is what I had been doing - but rather to give myself to Christ and his Church."

He resolved that his vocation was "to be a disciple and lay down my life for the Church - to surrender to the Church, to the wisdom of the Church and to the beauty of Christ, and to become a priest".

Archbishop Brown says that in hindsight, at that time his theological interest was "at a human level".

"It was a way of keeping the Lord's call at a distance until that became inescapable," he explains.

"I decided to become a priest while I was at Oxford but I didn't know how to become a priest or what kind of priest I was going to become.

"It took me some time to work that out."

There is something very refreshing about hearing a Catholic archbishop speak so candidly about his own experience of trying to keep the Lord at a distance.

I visited the Himalayas in 1983 and out of a desire to fit in with the Buddhist monks' repetitive prayers I prayed my rosary more... I began to practise my faith more seriously

But how would he encourage those who may be experiencing this in their own lives?

"The Lord never tricks us," counsels Archbishop Brown.

"He never asks us to get out of the boat and leave us sinking in the water. If we trust Him and take a step He will support us every step of the way.

"In the Catholic life, Christ is always asking for our five loaves and two fish. Our cooperation, which in itself is totally inadequate and totally insufficient, is at the same time totally necessary.

"Jesus says, 'Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened'."

In other words, says the Archbishop, "take a step out of your boat and he will support you".

"Our problem is paralysis or quietism, where we don't knock at the door," he explains.

"We sit by the door thinking that maybe someone will open it.

"He wants us to knock, to step out of the boat. He waits for the little boy with his five loaves and two fish, which is totally inadequate but necessary."

Following his particular vocation as a priest has, says Archbishop Brown, "brought total fulfilment and total satisfaction in my life".

"It is kind of paradoxical in the sense that it is really by serving and surrendering that one finds joy," he says.

"By abandoning one's own will to the will of Christ, one receives a joy and contentment that the world, and even following one's own will, can't really give."

It is in this context that he is thrilled at the chance to leave Ireland and go to Albania.

"The Pope wants me to go to Albania - never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be going to Albania," he explains.

"But it gives me such joy and such freedom to go be a missionary there.

"If you can be open to that then you really realise, wherever you are, in some very mystical or unclear way, you are there because the Lord has sent you and you are there because He wants you to be there."

Archbishop Brown says he feels "immensely privileged to go to Albania".

"I will be walking in the footsteps of martyrs - and fresh footsteps at that," he says.

"They were severely persecuted for their faith right up until the early 1990s. When I was ordained in 1989 there was a very virulent form of communism there and so for me it is a privilege to go to a place where, in my own lifetime there have been Catholic martyrs."

Reflecting on his time in Ireland, the Archbishop says he has "a very profound sense of gratitude".

"From the day I arrived I was received with open arms by everybody, north and south; by the government, by the laity, the bishops and the priests especially.

"My memory will be one of immense gratitude for that extraordinary and continual welcome."

Archbishop Charles Brown in St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, with Archbishop Eamon Martin. Picture by Bill Smyth.

As Archbishop Brown starts his new role in Albania, I cannot help but reflect on whether his mission to Ireland has been a successful one; perhaps only time will answer that question.

This much is clear however: the Irish Church is alive. Those practising their faith do so out of conviction and not simply through inheritance.

The Archbishop's love of this Church and her truth is palpable and inviting.

  • Dominic O'Reilly is the editor of Space for Grace: Stories from the Catholic Chaplaincy at Queen's University Belfast, available to purchase through Shanway Press. He can be contacted on Facebook at 'Dominic O'Reilly Writer'.
18 May, 2017 01:00 Faith Matters