Taoiseach. I've been listening to the way the Irish pronounce it, and you're safe in going with "T-shirt." It is, of course, the title of the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland, who for the last decade has been Bertie Ahern. He's in the country, as Irish prime ministers traditionally are, for St. Patrick's Day. (When, at least in New York, Lenten disciplines are suspended by official dispensation.)
I was party to a luncheon meeting with Ahern this Wednesday under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations. It was a candid conversation and he had interesting things to say. For instance, he is very big on Tony Blair, asserting that, from the perspective of Ireland, "he is the greatest English prime minister in history," adding for emphasis, "greater even than Gladstone." He did think that Blair was too wary of the European Union, but that is because, or so Ahern believes, the people of the U.K. are too wary of the E.U.
Much of the discussion was about "the troubles" in Northern Ireland. For twenty-five years, that has been the news about Northern Ireland, but now the situation there is on the very cusp of dramatic change. Over the years about four thousand people were killed in the North, and another ten thousand wounded and often crippled for life. If things go as scheduled, next week the Rev. Ian Paisley will assume the rotating post of chief executive in a shared government with Catholics. Recently, Paisley met with the archbishop of Armagh, something that would have been inconceivable even four or five years ago.
I did a good deal of reporting on Northern Ireland back in the 1970s, and, no matter how you analyze what happened there, the developments of the last few years must be welcomed. Ahern says the change is mainly the product of patience and willingness to "get your hands burned" by risking active involvement aimed at the solution of an intolerable situation. To be sure, a solution is greatly aided by the economic boom in Ireland, both North and South, in the past decade. And, again, Ahern is lavish in his praise of Blair's determination to see the situation through to a solution. He did not draw direct parallels with Blair's determination in Iraq, but inferences were invited.
As for a deeper and abiding reconciliation, Ahern is uncertain. He alluded to the example of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa after the ending of apartheid. The difficulty is that everybody wants to know exactly what happened during "the troubles" and who is to blame. Killings and mayhem were such a daily occurrence that, he says, nobody was keeping very accurate records. Who did what to whom is lost in endless accusations and counter-accusations, and this is bound to be unsatisfactory to victims on all sides, for whom "these things happened just yesterday." The hope is that over time people will let go and forget, he suggested. One missed any reference to the virtue and possibility of forgiveness.
Ted Sorenson of J.F.K. fame was at the luncheon, and he raised the question of the inordinate political power of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The Taoiseach was polite in letting Mr. Sorenson know that many things, including the public role of the Church, had changed over the past four decades. Ahern is no particular friend on the social issues that matter most to serious Catholics. He has, for instance, committed himself to pushing for the legalizing of same-sex marriage. But, with respect to Northern Ireland, he was not stinting in his praise of Catholic and Protestant leaders who over the years were in the lead in promoting reconciliation between their communities.
Ahern noted that for 150 years Ireland had been a massive exporter of its people to other countries, and he did not forget to add a generous thanks to America for its hospitality. But, as a consequence of prosperity and E.U. membership, Ireland now has more than 200,000 immigrants from other countries, mainly from Poland. He noted with a smile that the U.K. had for fifty years been in the immigration business and now had a population with 8 percent immigrants, while Ireland, after only a few years, has 10 percent.
That is indeed noteworthy, but it is also noteworthy that the U.K. was receiving from its former empire a largely Muslim population that has had great difficulties, to put it gently, in assimilating, while Ireland is receiving Europeans with much in common culturally and, in the case of Poles, a greater devotion to Christianity than is found among most of the Irish. The Church has no problem with immigration, Ahern observed with a wink, because the Poles in particular are filling half-empty churches. On Sunday, he said, "they show up and pay up," so the bishops are happy.
I had not met Bertie Ahern before, and he struck me as a very likeable fellow in a distinctly Irish way. The ending of the troubles in Northern Ireland, if indeed they are coming to an end, is very good news. And it is that for many reasons, not least because it was the one example of intra-Christian violence that was so often cited by those who contend that religion is inevitably linked to fanaticism. In that respect it was a little like the Galileo case as it is used in discussions of religion and science. When people mention Galileo, the thing to do is to acknowledge the error and then ask for another example.
As an aside, I have in a forthcoming issue of First Things a commentary on evangelical Protestants in Ireland, who are less than 1 percent of the population, exulting in the decline of Catholicism there and proclaiming it to be "Ireland's Evangelical Moment." Very unseemly, that. Evangelicals and Catholics Together, anyone?
But now St. Patrick's Day is upon us. Top o' the morning, and the rest of the day, too.
Russell Hittinger of Tulsa University and a frequent contributor to First Things was in town this week, and he persuaded me to go see the film Into Great Silence. It is nearly three hours of nearly silent filming of the life of the monks at Grand Chartreuse, the Carthusian monastery founded by St. Bruno in 1084 in the Swiss Alps near Grenoble.
The film was a big hit in Europe but is showing here in only one theater, the Film Forum over on West Houston (For non-New Yorkers, that's Howston.) It was scheduled for a week, then held over for another week, and is now held over indefinitely. The lines to get in are long and steady, and let's hope theater owners elsewhere will recognize its potential. I understand it will be out in DVD in a few months, but this is something that should, if possible, be seen in the theater.
The packed house was almost preternaturally silent as people were caught up into a way of life radically directed to the transcendent, to God. For me, the film made a deep and, I expect, lasting impression. If you have the opportunity, I suggest you not miss it.
In a forthcoming issue of First Things, there will be a full commentary on the remarkable apostolic exhortation issued this week by Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis. News reports got the document off to a rough start, with headlines declaring that the pope was clamping down on Catholic politicians who reject church teaching, bashing homosexuality, etc., etc. All the usual blather and quite unrelated to the document.
In its story, the New York Times did not even manage to say what the exhortation is about, namely, the Eucharist. Damien Thompson, writing in The Telegraph, complains that the document was buried by the bishops of England and Wales, and Uncle Di over at Catholic World News has been tracking some questionable translations of the text apparently aimed at fudging for the sake of those adept at taking offense. (He quotes Philip Lawler, who observed that, when people say they are Catholic but have trouble with some church teachings, you can be pretty sure that they don't mean they are monophysites.)
Sacramentum Caritatis is a long read of some sixty pages and the full text can be found here. And, as I say, watch for a considered reflection on its significance in the magazine.