What is God doing in the Catholic Church in Ireland?

By Paddy Monaghan

Ireland remains (in name) a Catholic nation. But what is God doing in the Roman Catholic church? VOX magazine asked Paddy Monaghan, as a representative of the Evangelical Catholic Initiative, to share his thoughts. Paddy identified seven areas where he believes God is at work. Two individuals from Ireland and Northern Ireland also share their stories of their encounters with Jesus.

(From the January - March 2019 issue of VOX)

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A new humility

Over the past 10 years a new humility has become tangible.

The effect of the sex scandals has been devastating, contributing to the defeats in the last two referenda. My prayer has been, “Lord, don’t let any of this muck within the Roman Catholic church (RC) stay hidden.” Cancer has to be exposed before it can be dealt with. Over the past 10 years a new humility has become tangible. This was typified by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin holding a Liturgy of Lament and Repentance in the Pro Cathedral in Dublin in 2011.

Abuse survivors played a major role in formulating the liturgy. All of the clerical abuse survivor groups that were contacted graciously contributed their input, although a few said they just couldn’t forgive and wouldn’t take part in the actual liturgy.

We took inspiration from Fr. Peter Hocken’s writing on Representational Repentance as seen in the prayer of Nehemiah: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you.” (Nehemiah. 1:5-7)

Ireland is Mission Territory

Since the last two Referenda there is a new realisation that Ireland is now mission territory and that the RC is a minority church. Bishop Noel Treanor (Antrim) has suggested that the Church would likely see, “the emergence of new models of ministry and pastoral care… It is probable that in a more secular and pluralist society we … will realise more clearly that the Christian way of life is a freely chosen discipleship of Christ in ever renewed conversion to the living Word of God.”

ECI Relaunch

The Evangelical Catholic Initiative was launched in 1990 with its key document, “What is an Evangelical Catholic?” It sets out what a born-again Christian in the RC believes. Its purpose was to promote revival in RC, build bridges with Protestant and Pentecostal evangelicals and foster reconciliation between Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians. In the wake of the Same Sex Marriage Referendum, the Lord clearly impressed on me to relaunch ECI, which had been dormant for some time. Resources on our website (evancat.org) include “How you can get to know Jesus” and “Why you need to read the Bible”.

Pentecostals and Roman Catholics

There has been a fruitful dialogue between RC and Pentecostals since 1972. While there are significant differences, areas of convergence include:

Bible: Pentecostals and Catholics, along with other Christians, acknowledge the uniqueness of the Bible as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, normative for the faith and life of the church.

Conversion: RC and Pentecostals both agree that conversion is essential to salvation in Christ.

Discipleship: there is a good measure of convergence in our understanding of discipleship.

The Holy Spirit: To be baptised with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5) is seen as a gift of God rooted in Jesus’ own promise of Acts 1:8 and Peter’s claim in Acts 2:38-39. The most fundamental convergence is the common conviction that baptism in the Holy Spirit is a powerful action of grace bestowed by God upon believers within the church.

New Ministries emerge in Ireland

Each of these ministries are seeing good success in using creative ways of sharing the Gospel with our young people:

Over the last seven years, the Alpha Youth Initiative, with eight staff, (run by Alpha Ireland in partnership with Scripture Union) has had over 9,000 pupils, mainly 16-year-olds, doing the Alpha Course. The course is run in school time, mainly in transition year. In 2017, 78 Alpha Youth courses were run by 103 trained volunteers in 31 Secondary Schools, involving 2,000 students. (www.alphayouth.ie)

We believe that our diocese, our culture and especially our young people need to know Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has officially commended Alpha as an evangelistic tool for young people, saying “We believe that our diocese, our culture and especially our young people need to know Jesus Christ.”

Youth Initiatives aims to awaken hope, inspire initiative, and mobilise youth to make a vital contribution to their community. It has 41 young staff (www.youthinitiativesni.com) and is based in Belfast, Banbridge, Lisburn, Derry and Downpatrick

NET has seven teams of young people (46 missionaries and 22 staff), mainly from America and Canada, serving round the country. (www.netministries.ie)

An Tobar Nua has a staff of 26 and outreach teams in Munster and Leinster, as well as in their home base in Galway. (www.antobarnua.com)

Scripture Union has 16 staff. In 2017, over 6000 young people attended camps and retreats in their activity centre outside Avoca Village, Wicklow. (www.scriptureunion.ie)

Revived Catholic Parishes

A key challenge remains of connecting young teenagers with the local parish after doing Alpha, as few Catholic parishes in Ireland have fulltime youth ministers. One which has a youth worker, Dunshaughlin in County Meath, is using Alpha Youth for Confirmation students and running an Alpha for their parents.

Two particularly inspiring renewed Catholic parishes, in the US (www.churchnativity.com) and in Canada (www.saintbenedict.ca), have moved their parishes from maintenance to mission, the latter using Alpha.


Jewish Roots and Unity in the Body

There has been an amazing move of the Holy Spirit among Jewish people in the past 40 years. There is now a Messianic Jewish Congregation in every town in Israel. The emergence of the Messianic Jewish Church has had a big influence on RC, with an MJ/RC international dialogue held annually for the past 15 years, rotating its location between Jerusalem and Rome. There is a rediscovery of the Jewish Roots of Christianity happening within RC, with major implications for unity.

I believe all seven of these are activities of the Holy Spirit preparing the way for revival in Ireland. In spite of the clerical abuse scandal and the falling away of so many from the faith, Ireland may again fulfil its destiny to be a light to the nations. Come Lord Jesus!

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Paddy Monaghan works as a Catholic Lay Missionary, part time with Alpha Ireland and part time with Evangelical Catholic Initiative (www.evancat.org). He serves on the Parish Council of Johnstown/Killiney Parish in South Dublin.


Jim’s Story

Jim Donnan is General Director of Scripture Union Ireland

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My image of God, growing up in a Catholic home, was of a distant God. I had a tremendous sense of sin and saw God as a taskmaster who was there to punish me. In essence, I feared God and my goal was to earn His favour by doing good, in the hope that I might accumulate enough credit to get into Heaven. Despite all this, there was a genuine respect for God in our home and I had a strong desire to serve Him, at one time contemplating entering the priesthood.

When I was 16, I travelled to Scotland with a small team and spent a week in a deprived tenement area of inner-city Glasgow. Our task was to work in pairs and to knock on doors, inviting people to talk about God. One dear old lady, Louisa, lived alone in a cold bed-sit flat but warmly welcomed us in and kindly gave us tea.

She began to explain how she too was a missionary, but, as she spoke about Jesus her Saviour, there was a real sense that she knew Him personally, as if He was a real living person. She shared her faith in and love for Jesus in such a simple way, assuring us of her prayers. This amazing encounter was, in time, to totally change my life. I left Glasgow with a greater desire to serve God.

On leaving school, a group of around 20 school friends met regularly each Saturday to visit the old folks in Cork Street, Dublin. One afternoon, one of the lads explained how he had met a girl in Grafton Street who told him how much Jesus loved him and pointed out his need for salvation. Ray’s attitude and character began to change and he wore out the pages of his New Testament with constant reading. He began to witness to the group. Some were quickly persuaded; others, like me, resisted. But gradually, one by one, all the group committed their lives to Christ.

I strenuously resisted the invitations to follow suit, despite the obvious change in the lives of my friends. However, I felt convicted of my need for Christ and when my girlfriend, Barbara, now my wife, came into a personal experience of the Lord, I poured out my heart to God. I simply knelt at my bedside, beseeching God to sort out and take control of my life. I asked for His mercy and forgiveness and invited Him into my life. There was no ‘Damascus Road’ experience, but a great sense of peace invaded my life. I had a complete assurance that my sins were forgiven and experienced an immediate hunger for reading the Scriptures. I wept as I realised for the very first time that Jesus loved me personally.

While most of my friends started attending various fellowships and subsequently left the Catholic Church, I sensed a strong call to remain.

While most of my friends started attending various fellowships and subsequently left the Catholic Church, I sensed a strong call to remain. I started attending a charismatic prayer meeting in the Quaker Meeting House in Eustace Street. It was an exciting time to be a young Christian as, week after week, the building was packed with over 700 people of all denominations who gathered to praise God and receive teaching.

We settled in Leixlip, Co. Kildare, and opened our home for a weekly prayer meeting. One summer, while on holiday, we heard of an evangelical Christian group running a Bible Club. We were immediately impressed by the interest and enthusiasm of the children for the well-illustrated Bible stories and began to think, ‘Could God do this in our parish?’ With absolutely no experience, we explored the possibility of running such a club in a Catholic parish. Our incentive and inspiration came from Acts 14:27, which speaks of how God opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.

The parish priest gave his permission. All we needed were the materials and some helpers. In another remarkable way, God brought me in contact with Scripture Union. Through the Scripture Union Family Weeks in Ovoca Manor, and elsewhere, my two children would have their lives changed. SU was remarkably helpful and supportive and provided us with good Sunday School material. Two of our friends kindly offered to help and soon the ‘Good News Club’ developed, with some weekly attendances exceeding 70 children. It continued for about six years.

Along the way, I developed a friendship with Paddy Monaghan, which eventually led to the establishment of the Evangelical Catholic Initiative (ECI). This small group of Catholic Christians has been a real source of encouragement and fellowship.

After 27 years working with Dublin City Council, in 1999 God called me to give up my job and become General Director of Scripture Union. While still involved in the Catholic Church, God has sent Christians from many denominations to enrich and support my relationship with Him. This has strengthened my conviction that there is only ‘one Lord, one faith, one body’. To Him alone be the glory!


Niall’s Story

Niall McNally is the Director of Cast Ministries in Northern Ireland

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I’m the youngest of six children, the product of a Republican family in Nationalist West Belfast. I dutifully went to mass on Sundays and when I left school at 16, I had never met a Protestant. To my community they were the “other side”, Bible bashers in cahoots with a government and a police force that weren’t to be trusted. “They” didn’t like “us” and the sentiment was mutual. By the time I was 18, I was despondent, I’d left school with no qualifications, I didn’t believe in God, violence in Northern Ireland was common place, my family was unravelling and to cope, my behaviour became increasingly reckless.

Hopelessly insecure, I began losing myself in alcohol and sex. One day a friend invited me to a Youth Mission in our parish – it was the last place I wanted to be but he badgered me to keep him company. Eventually I gave in – anything for a quiet life! I was stunned when we arrived at the church and there were 500 teenagers crammed in with a band set up on the altar. You have to understand – drums and electric guitars on the altar in the 80s when folk music was considered “edgy” was simply unheard of.

The team of people who had come together to lead the Youth Mission were Catholics and Protestants and together they were singing worship songs, doing dramas and telling their personal stories of their relationship with Jesus. It was mind blowing. I freaked! These people actually believed that God was real, that Jesus could be encountered and that the Holy Spirit was present. I wanted out of that building and away from those people, their conviction was unnerving. But I couldn’t escape and suffered through the evening wrestling with my fears.

I didn’t like what they were doing but they had a confidence, a peace and a security that I craved. Several weeks later, I was invited to a prayer gathering of Catholic and Protestant men in East Belfast, I went. I had never been in a room where men sang praise songs and worshipped Jesus with such freedom, confidence and passion. I just knew they felt loved and accepted and I yearned for what they had.

Jesus was here, He knew me and He understood me.

Without warning the room fell deathly quiet, a sense of calm enveloped me and I was conscious of feeling overwhelmed by love. I was acutely conscious that someone was with me. The person everyone was singing to, the person I’d rejected in loneliness, pain and frustration years before - Jesus was here, He knew me and He understood me. All the barriers I’d erected to protect myself fell right there in that room.

I was aware of both my shame and His all accepting love. I sat in that place filled with a love that surpassed my deepest longings, surrounded by 150 Catholic and Protestant men, yet completely unaware of them. It was the beginning of the most beautiful relationship I have ever known.

My journey is one I could never have anticipated. By the grace of God, I was richly blessed by men and women from different churches who, in obedience to the Lord responded to His prayer “That all of them may be one” John 17: 21. They moved beyond their comfort zones and took an unlikely opportunity to minister together in a church in West Belfast. They taught me that, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 and if we are to be transformed into the likeness of Christ then we must do that also.