Ireland’s new Papal Nuncio has admitted that he knows little or nothing about the country – and is not charged with leading any reform of the Irish church.
Irish-American Archbishop Charles Brown has told the Irish Times, in a fascinating interview, that he has "a lot to learn" about Ireland and its people despite a distant link to the country.
Even with a mother whose maiden name was Murphy and a great-grandfather called O’Brien, Archbishop Brown admits his experience in Ireland relates to two brief visits as a student – although they did leave a lasting impression.
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He told journalist Paddy Agnew that one trip to Wicklow to visit an American friend in the early 1980s, while studying theology at Oxford University, proved fascinating after he arrived on the boat from Holyhead with no idea how to get to the village of Roundwood.
As snow began to fall, the young theologian was offered a lift by a woman travelling with a small baby who drove him practically to his destination.
For Manhattan-born Archbishop Brown, someone whose first parish was that of St Brendan in the Bronx, this was a sharp culture shock.
“Can you imagine, what other place in the world would a woman with her little baby stop to pick up a hitchhiker, the beauty of the thing, the generosity,” said the cleric.
Now 52, Archbishop Brown also told the paper that his surname is German, from Braun, and that he is coming to Ireland to work with the Irish church at a time when relations with the State are at an all time low after recent clerical sex abuse scandals.
“My brief is to learn and to help,” he explained to the paper. “Let us not exaggerate. The nuncio is a representative of the Holy See on the ground there. It is not that, in any sense, he is in control of the church in Ireland.
“It is the bishops of Ireland who are in control of the church in Ireland.”
One advantage Archbishop Brown will bring to Ireland with him is a close working relationship with Pope Benedict after 10 years together at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“I know him, he knows me. I worked with him closely for 10 years, I travelled with him, I worked hard for him. He trusts me, for better or for worse,” said Archbishop Brown of the Pope.
Already immersing himself in Irish news, courtesy of the online edition of the Irish Times, the new Papal Nuncio has also printed the entire Murphy, Cloyne and Eliot reports ahead of his arrival in Dublin.
He added: “I have not seen anything yet. I have a steep mountain to climb and I hope to be there helping. As for reforms to the Irish church, I am agnostic about this. I need to study all that material and then talk to the Irish bishops.
“Not to be a broken record, I have a lot to learn, I know this is a society that has changed rapidly, that has experienced incredible economic prosperity and then problems, one that has moved from a country of emigration to immigration.
“The church was left behind the curve on all of that, the church has to modernize and to find new ways of presenting her message to people in this new context of the materialism and consumerism of a society that is now more similar to other European countries than it was in the 1980s.”
Archbishop Brown did address the clerical sex abuse issue in his interview with the Irish Times, pointing out that all his experience at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was working on doctrinal issues rather than handling those specific sex abuse cases that come to the congregation.
“At the CDF, our section would be part of the larger discussion of the problem of sexual abuse as impacting on faith and morals in any given country. So, on that level, I would like to think that I am up to speed,” he said.
“The horrible scandal of clerical sex abuse in a country that epitomises Catholic culture is horrible for everybody because we have learned to hold up Ireland as something special and something great.
“However, Archbishop Martin, for example, has been admirable in the way he has faced the problem. There is a dynamic in the sex abuse thing that relates to the publicity, the visibility and transparency with which it can be identified and denounced in a particular culture.
“I don’t think that sexual abuse in the church is that much more prevalent in northern cultures than in other cultures, for example in Latin cultures. However it is much less reported and discussed in Latin cultures.”
Having started clerical life in the St Brendan’s parish in the Bronx, Archbishop Brown may know more about the Irish than he thinks.
“I go to Ireland with courage and trust in God. In some senses, this is completely out of the box, I pray to God that I don’t make too many mistakes and do something decent,” he concluded.