DUBLIN, Ireland — In November 2011, Ireland announced it was shutting down its embassy to the Vatican. It was the absolute low point in a crossfire between Dublin and Rome over clerical sexual abuse, one that saw Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny directly accuse the Vatican of covering up the crimes of abuser-priests.

Kenny declared in a now-famous speech in parliament that a government report on the scandal “excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”

It was the most bristling attack ever delivered on the Vatican by the head of a democratic government, and one that many observers took as the definitive end of Ireland’s traditional role as a bulwark of the faith.

Last month, however, in a startling reversal of form, a senior government minister named Simon Coveney traveled to the eternal city to ceremonially open a new Irish Embassy to the Holy See, complete with a new resident ambassador. Less than four years later, it’s as if the rift never happened.

What accounts for the about-face?

For one thing, government officials privately concede today that closing the embassy was a mistake, one that diminished Ireland’s standing internationally. After the election of Pope Francis, they seized on the new pontiff’s appeal to provide cover for rolling it back.

Yet equally instrumental, Irish officials and politicians agree, has been the impact of Archbishop Charles J. Brown, a charming and hardworking Irish-American chosen by Pope Benedict XVI as his ambassador to Ireland at the height of the sex abuse row in 2011, and confirmed in that role by Francis.

“There’s no doubt Brown’s positive engagement both with politicians and the wider community had a huge influence on convincing the government that it was wrong to close the embassy, and that [it] should be restored,” said David Quinn, director of an Irish religious think-tank called the Iona Institute.

Since he’s been on the job, Brown, a 55-year-old New York native, has not only established strong working relationships with the political establishment, he’s also put a positive public face back on the Catholic Church following an historic nadir.

If the Irish saved civilization, in other words, many Irishmen say this American is helping to save their Church.

From unknown quantity to minor celebrity

At first glance, Brown seems an unlikely candidate for the role.

As an official from 1994 to 2011 at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency, he worked closely with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI. Though Brown earned a reputation for theological acumen and a strong work ethic, it wasn’t exactly a job that put a premium on winning friends and influencing people.

Traditionally speaking, there’s a steep cultural gap in the Vatican between theologians and diplomats: Those who police doctrine internally, and those who try to express it positively for the outside world. Theologians worry about clarity; diplomats seek consensus.

For most of his career, Brown clearly belonged to the former camp, leaving some to see his posting to Dublin amid an unprecedented crisis as a prescription for disaster.

In an exclusive Crux interview, Brown admitted to being “totally astonished and quite taken aback” when the then-Vatican secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, informed him that Benedict wanted to send him to Ireland.

“I think having known me, having seen the work that I did with him, and also recognizing that I’m a native English speaker with an Irish-American background and an affinity for Ireland, [Benedict] thought that it might not be a bad idea to see if I’d go,” Brown said.

Evidently, Benedict XVI thought it was a roll of the dice worth taking. After all, relations between the Vatican and Ireland had deteriorated rapidly on the watch of trained diplomats and could hardly get any worse.

For most people in Ireland, Brown arrived as an unknown quantity, but quickly became something of a celebrity.

‘My Catholic faith was reactivated’

The eldest of six children, Brown was born in 1959 in the East Village of Manhattan. His parents were daily communicants and third-order (lay) Dominicans. According to Brown, “they were liberal Catholics of the 1950s who read Commonweal magazine.”

The young Brown went to Notre Dame to pursue a degree in history.

“The spirit of the age was in significant tension with the tradition of the Church,” he recalls. “I was absorbing the influences around me, most of which were very liberal, and I was never satisfied by them … I was a Catholic who didn’t see the value of tradition.”

He said he had an epiphany of sorts during an outing to the Himalayas in 1983. He had been fascinated by the tradition of repetitive prayers used by Buddhist monks, and as he was trekking in the mountains, he decided to recite the rosary.

“Something changed in my heart, and my childhood Catholic faith was totally reactivated and made alive for me again,” he says.

“I didn’t have to re-fashion Catholicism in my own image,” he said, “but I had to be re-fashioned in the image of the Church.”

Brown was accepted to study for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of New York under the late Cardinal John O’Connor, and it was at New York’s Dunwoodie seminary in 1988 that he first met a visiting Ratzinger while serving Mass.

“He has extraordinary intelligence, deep faith, and great humility,” Brown said. “Those three things are his defining characteristics.”

A normal-guy ethos

Observers in Ireland say that two qualities help explain Brown’s surprising success: His accessibility and his engaging personality.

Upon arrival, Brown defied expectations of a bunkered bureaucrat by getting out of the office as much as possible. Mention any town of significance and he’s been there, and he could probably tell you both the name of the parish priest and the local Catholic school.

“Being the representative of Pope Francis in Ireland means getting out of the nunciature,” he said, referring to the ambassador’s quarters, “and going to parishes, to schools, and to religious communities to meet people where they are.”

Brown has become a popular presence at all manner of church events. He’s gone out of his way, for instance, to support youth initiatives and to encourage organizations such as Youth 2000 and NET Ministries that specialize in outreach to young adults.

Few Irish Catholics had ever met a papal nuncio before Brown. Now, however, whenever you see a large huddle at a Catholic event, you can be sure it’s people wanting a few words with the pope’s man.

Brown has also adopted a normal-guy ethos that plays well in a keenly egalitarian Irish culture. Among other things, he can usually be seen jogging in Phoenix Park near his Dublin residence early each morning.

His easy-going style makes him appealing even to people diametrically opposed to his views. He was recently photographed, for instance, laughing and joking with Katherine Zappone, a prominent same-sex marriage campaigner and a member of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate. Both were attending a soccer match, and there was an easy rapport between the two as they appeared side-by-side clad in their side’s jersey.

“It may have helped that they were supporting the same team,” one observer joked.

Similarly, Brown was seen sharing a joke with Health Minister Leo Varadkar at an event just hours after Varadkar became the first government minister in Irish history to come out publicly as gay.

Brown’s ability to connect with people with whom he disagrees has impressed many. Brown made an impromptu appearance in the visitors’ gallery at parliament recently and was noticed by the chairman of the House, who offered a few words of welcome. Politicians from all parties took their feet and applauded.

Criticism from inside the Church

Interestingly, Brown may be a hit in diplomatic and political circles, but he’s run into some criticism inside the Irish Church.

When he arrived, some insiders wondered whether Brown’s mandate from Benedict XVI was linked to his former role at the Vatican’s doctrinal department. His appointment coincided with a Vatican-mandated “Apostolic Visitation” that found, among other things, “a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with [official] teachings.”

Brown scoffs at the notion that he’s on mission to rid Ireland of dissidents.

“That’s frankly mistaken,” he says. “I think Pope [Benedict XVI] knew I had a knowledge of Ireland. It certainly wasn’t because the Church was lax and they needed someone to straighten things out.”

On another front, the Rev. Brendan Hoban, a founding member of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which calls for liberal Church reforms, has questioned whether Brown’s lack of parish experience and diplomatic training make him suitable for his role in advising the pope on the appointment of bishops.

Brown doesn’t duck the challenge.

“First of all, Pope Francis appoints the bishops in Ireland,” Brown told Crux. “The pope is constantly talking to the Congregation for Bishops about the kind of men the church needs. That information is relayed to the nuncios, and to me in Ireland, through the Congregation for Bishops.”

“It’s an incredibly collaborative process,” Brown said, “in which people would be mistaken to think that the nuncio is somehow independent. He’s only implementing what the Holy Father, through the Congregation for Bishops, is asking him to do.”

Whatever one makes of it, the picks on Brown’s watch have produced surprises.

For one thing, no bishop has been tapped who comes from the clergy of his own diocese, an obvious step in the direction of fresh blood. Brown also has reached outside the usual suspects among Church bureaucrats, favoring men with backgrounds as teachers or pastors.

The new bishop-elect of Waterford & Lismore, the Rev. Alphonsus Cullinan, is a classic example. He served Ireland’s marginalized and much-maligned “Travelling Community,” a sort of gypsy tribe, right up to his appointment – making him a man who “carries the smell of his sheep,” to use the pontiff’s celebrated phrase.

‘The faith continues’

A final element of his appeal is Brown’s passionate conviction that Ireland still has what it takes to rekindle the faith.

“Renewal needs to take into account the fact that the faith has been here for so long that it’s penetrated the soil of Ireland, and penetrated the hearts of Irish people,” he said.

“On a spiritual level, there are so many Irish saints who are watching over us and praying for us,” Brown said. “Centuries of holy women and holy men transformed this island into a place of deep spirituality.”

Overall, he’s optimistic about the future.

“I don’t think the recent difficulties of the Church in Ireland should be a cause for despair,” Brown said. “There have been crises in the past, there will probably be crises in the future, but I believe the faith continues.”

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic, an independent weekly that is Ireland’s biggest and best-selling religious newspaper.