There is now currently open speculation in the Irish media that Irish Catholicism may not survive its roiling crisis of faith engendered by the growing recognition that many Irish priests and bishops over decades have been complicit, if not actual predators, in the rape, sodomy, and exploitation of their children.
How far Irish Catholicism has fallen! Though historically one of Europe's poorest and weakest countries, Ireland was always an unrivaled Catholic bastion of learning and devotion. Author Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Western Civilization, 1995) rightly argues, with not a little Irish blarney, for the preeminent Celtic role in influencing the very development of the western civilization.
While protecting Irish national identity from centuries of British hegemony, the Irish church exported both catechism and education by sending priest and nuns, but mostly millions of immigrants to America, Australia, Africa, and Asia. Ireland's economic poverty and famine was golden opportunity for almost everyone else.
As the troubles in Northern Ireland eased at the end of the 20th century, and the economic "Celtic Tiger" roared, Ireland proved not to be immune from the same secularizing winds that have swept over Europe since the end of WW2. The central, dominant force of the Catholic Church in Irish cultural life has ebbed and waned.
Of course, there is the broader European historical context in which these Celtic trends are embedded signifying that what is happening in Ireland is indeed endemic across the globe in Catholic communities.
Just in the last several weeks, we have seen the public awareness and outrage over the sexual exploitation of children by Catholic priests grow into wildfire proportions across European countries especially Germany, Netherlands and Austria.
The German media is now reporting a firestorm surrounding Benedict XVI's own blood brother, Rev. Georg Ratzinger, caught up in allegations from thirty years ago or more of homoerotic and masochistic exploitation of children by priests in a boarding school the pope's brother led for three decades.
There are calls from German citizen groups for investigations of Benedict's time as archbishop of Munich in the late 70's and early 80's. Americans familiar with political corruption investigations know where this is going: "What did the pope know? And when did he know it?"
After decades at the center of the Vatican hierarchy, it is hard to imagine how Joseph Ratzinger is not fatally compromised himself. No wonder, Benedict's own words following the extraordinary two-day synod of Irish bishops in Rome last month were so limp, so inadequate, so out-of-touch.
Who will rise up among the Celts like their patriarch St. Patrick to drive these modern snakes of clerical corruption from the Emerald Isle? Is that even feasible given the cultural, political and economic dynamics of modern Ireland? Should the Irish people be even looking for a cleric to lead them out of their betrayal and disillusionment?
For most of us the historical Patrick is shrouded in the mists of time and legend. Here in the US, Patrick has been churned through the cultural meat-grinder to the point where St. Patrick's Day has become trivialized, secularized, and exploited for its commercial value.
It is hard to fathom how the mythic figure of Patrick could speak with a renewing and reforming voice today. That is not to say that Patrick's story could not help shape the response of Irish Catholics, indeed all Christians, every where, to their abandonment and betrayal by their religious leaders.
Living in the 4th century, Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, was born in Scotland to Roman parents who were probably colonial officials assigned to Rome's British province.
Some accounts have his family as Christian, with his father a deacon, and his grandfather a priest reflecting the historical customs of early centuries of Christianity in Rome. Indeed, two documents written (in Latin) attributed directly to Patrick survive evidencing his education and social status.
For sure, the turning point in Patrick's life came at just age 14 when he was captured by Celtic raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland where he lived for six years, working as a herdsman.
Some accounts have it that Patrick was kept naked without clothing. Despite his suffering and trials, Patrick learned the Gaelic language, before escaping and returning to his family.
Like the fate of all slaves, it doesn't take much to imagine that Patrick was terribly exploited, maybe even abused, by his captors. We do know that this experience was transforming for Patrick to where he eventually returned in the tradition of his father and grandfather to be the primal evangelizing Gaelic patriarch.
While we only have an incomplete and contested record available to us, much of which has passed over into myth, we know that Patrick was the first Christian leader, five centuries after the Christ, to preach against slavery. Not Jesus. Not Peter. Not Paul.
Patrick's own experience of exploitation must have fired his conviction that the Irish people should be empowered to live in the freedom of a new ethos. I would suggest that nothing less is required today if the Catholic Church, in Ireland and indeed across the globe, is to endure, let alone survive.
Let's not look for a new St Patrick among priests and bishops who by their silence and inaction are compromised, complicit and corrupt. What if we look among the Irish people for a new archetypal figure?
What if the transformation that the Irish church is presently undergoing is best embodied in one of their own brothers or sisters? What if the next St. Patrick was actually one of the survivors who for years have carried the very heavy cross of humiliation, abuse and exploitation in obscurity?
What if this survivor who, like Patrick, redeemed their experience of sexual abuse by leading all Catholics into a new dispensation in a new Peoples' Church?
A Peoples' Church WHERE THE PEOPLE DECIDE who is to be their bishops, their priests?
A Peoples' Church where the liturgies and rituals celebrating their lives are governed and arranged by the very people living in the believing community and not some feudal clerical overlords beholding to foreign papal despots?
Isn't it about time some new Patrick, a peoples' prophet, maybe even a matriarch, once and for all drives the he sea?pernicious snakes of clericalism into the sea?
Happy St. Patrick's Day!