“A body taken by fever”: Fr. Brendan has a deft turn of phrase to explain the matrix that is Irish Catholicism.
Pope Benedict XVI was one of the first bishops to talk about bringing Catholicism to what he termed the “digital continent”, a new world of opportunity he saw opening with the internet, but one which the Bavarian pontiff thought was the preserve of specifically younger believers.
A towering, middle-aged man from the farthest reaches of Ireland clearly didn’t get the memo.
Most of the people Fr. Brendan Kilcoyne is hoping to reach with his new podcast won’t be aware of what a hedge school was, but that’s exactly what his growing number of followers are entering into, for Fr. Brendan isn’t just a man of the cloth.
From Louisburgh on the coast of Mayo, the former president of St. Jarlath’s College in Tuam is also an avid reader and educationalist, whose breadth of learning in the arts, literature and Irish history is immediately apparent in speaking about his love of country and the characters of old.
“When I was a kid in Jarlath’s, other kids had dodgy pictures of women maybe, but I had pictures of Pearse and Connolly,” he explains.
“I would regard the founders of our country as an exceptional generation.”
Although he is also a canon lawyer, there are no traces of the legal rigorism some might expect, but rather one senses a man devoted entirely to the vocation he embraced as a teenager in Maynooth.
“The Brendan Option” podcast is his “loud-mouth” attempt to propose a way forward for the Catholic Church in Ireland, and to offer something a little more substantial in terms of learning than what one encounters in at least some of the schools, parishes and call-in shows of Ireland.
“My friends noticed my big mouth and with their customary tact suggested I start a podcast. I really should try to do some good ‘with a gob like that’, they said.
“I worry that the education system has killed our love of learning though. I saw as a teacher what Pearse called the ‘murder machine’.
“You’re supposed to give people a thirst, a drought, an intellectual thirst, and in a Catholic school that should be both intellectual and spiritual. The two cannot be separated, and we haven’t yet cracked it.
“So the podcast is my attempt to play the hedge school master. It’s all that’s left of me, and I’m not the only one in that predicament.”
Kilcoyne is a man who appears to read the times well, calling Catholics to abandon all hope of reviving the ancient faith through schools as they currently operate.
He rather proposes a return to hedge schools of a sort, not the clandestine kind, but groups of students who would be imbibed with a classical education, something akin to what our nation’s founders received.
“The church is in the process of losing everything. We’ve lost our schools, which isn’t a judgement on any teachers, but Irish Catholicism as a body has been taken by a fever and is in its final crisis,” he insists.
“We should gracefully bow out of the schools and start again with the resources we have. The internet gives us a phenomenal opportunity too.”
He is blunt about the 20th century however when it comes to Ireland’s experience of Catholicism.
“The Irish Catholicism of the last century was very conventional, and it didn’t last. The Church had given way to a temptation to marry the spirit of the age. And that spirit was Catholic and patriotic at the time, and it did produce good fruit like Frank Duff, Matt Talbot and Edel Quinn, but there was something stifling about it.
“I’m afraid we stayed married to the spirit of the age. The exhausting 19th century in Ireland had expended our creativity, in climbing out of the penal times, the famine and the hedge.
“So Ireland then had a huge missionary outreach, and maybe our best were lost to other countries in that effort.
“The ‘missions’ was where that impulse to service and nobility was most expended. And at home we were burned out.”
Indeed Patrick Corish, the historian and former president of Maynooth, said the Irish bishops of the 1950s were a group of men running out of ideas, Fr. Kilcoyne recounts.
As the cultural breeze of change blew over Ireland, the parish priest of Athenry believes church leaders were asleep at the wheel, unaware of the stormy course that lay ahead with modernity and secularism.
“We should have spent time and money analyzing what was happening to the country, a state department if you will, and we should have spent much more time on the training of priests.
“I have nothing against Maynooth, but students needed better preparation. It wasn’t a good scene, with guys leaving the priesthood after a year.
“I owe a lot to some of the formators but others shouldn’t have been there. Even those were well-intentioned but we knew they had compromised on orthodoxy.
“When you do that and don’t quit you poison the well, you know?”
Fr. Brendan believes that ultimately some of the seminary staff “didn’t know how to address a changing society with church tradition.”
“And if we keep losing, sooner or later very serious questions have to be asked. It was and is a problem.”
The podcast will go visual very soon thanks to “a generous American donor” and, the host adds, a few Irish ones too. It’s a basic operation ably helped by a handful of volunteers at Immaculata Productions, but Fr. Brendan isn’t under any illusions about the bigger picture at play.
“The future of church in Ireland is the same as western Europe. Ratzinger has already been proved right in predicting fifty years ago that only a creative minority will remain.
“We’ll be all the better for being back on the periphery, but getting there is wearing us out.
“We’re not yet where we’re going, and I may not even see it. Priests of my age, late 50’s, are war babies. I was ordained the year Bishop Casey left. The battle hasn’t abated since.
“Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ says the decline of faith is the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’, and that’s what it has been since.
“We can see where we’re going, but we’re not there. The lockdown, like the scandals, will dynamite the landslide, I think.”
And what about the priests, I ask?
“Priests should live in clusters together as the council envisaged, and I would start concentrating them into central locations before closing any churches. People might be willing to pay for the upkeep of their church, but we have to look at formation in the priesthood and be ruthless about it.”
Fr. Brendan, never one to hold back, is a man who might unsettle more than a few of his flock with challenging ideas, but it appears his podcast is here to stay so long as there are students to listen.