LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland is now home to “cultural Catholics” who are not “Catholics by conviction,” according to the bishop of Kilmore.
Leading a pilgrimage to the Knock shrine, Bishop Leo O’Reilly said on Sunday he had been “troubled in the weeks since the result” of the May 25 referendum which removed the pro-life Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, allowing the legalization of abortion in the country, calling his feelings “a mixture of shock and sadness.”
“Shock that so many of our people voted to remove an article from our Constitution which protected the lives of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society – unborn children. But the overwhelming feeling was one of sadness: Sadness that the culture of life that marked maternity care in Ireland, and that was so successful in protecting the lives of mothers and their unborn children, has now been fatally undermined,” the bishop said.
Over 66 percent of the electorate voted to change the constitution, and the Irish government last week said that Catholic hospitals – which are government funded in Ireland – would be required to perform abortions.
Revelations about clerical sexual abuse has left public confidence in the Church at its lowest level in the history of Ireland. In 2015, the country held a referendum on same-sex marriage in which 62 percent of the voters backed changing the constitution to allow the practice.
O’Reilly said there is a “new reality” in Ireland, where the Church is no longer “the dominant voice in society.”
“We have the reality that many are now cultural Catholics rather than Catholics by conviction. We understand now the words of Saint Pope John Paul II before he left Ireland in 1979 – that each new generation is a new continent to be won for Christ,” the bishop explained.
He said Ireland is now a “mission territory,” the Church must focus on this, not “maintenance.”
O’Reilly said he was given hope by the “army of people, young and old” who campaigned against legalizing abortion, calling them “the new evangelists.”
“You have been out sowing the seed of the Gospel of Life in homes and hearts the length and breadth of Ireland … For the first time in my life we have had a nationwide mission of evangelization led and carried out – not by bishops, priests or religious – but by lay people,” the bishop said, calling it “a quiet revolution” in the Church.
“You may be disappointed with the results, but do not be … You will never know when the word you spoke on a doorstep about the value of human life will touch the heart of the hearer when they need to hear it,” he said.
Knock is the site of the most famous Marian apparition in Ireland, which took place in 1879, when Mary, St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist were witnessed by fifteen people.
Pope Francis will visit the shrine the morning of Aug. 26, during his two-day visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families taking place in Dublin.
“It is a place of hope. I pray that the visit of Pope Francis to Knock and to the World Meeting of Families will bring new hope to us all at this troubled time for the Church in Ireland,” said O’Reilly.