IT IS said — most often by those who create it — that satire changes nothing. But, in every recent account of the decline in Ireland of the Roman Catholic Church that I’ve heard, part of the blame is laid at the door of Father Ted. William Crawley’s documentary A Church in Crisis (Radio 4, Monday of last week) was no exception. Dave Allen provided the warm-up act, then Fathers Jack, Dougal, and Ted, and Mrs Doyle, did the rest.
The caricature of Irish Catholicism that Father Ted presents is not a great deal more cartoonish than the one evoked by serious journalism: a priesthood of elderly men, sexually dubious, hopelessly naïve, and yet neurotically authoritarian; an institution whose tentacles reach into every institutional nook and psychological cranny.
The Irish referendum on abortion is imminent, and A Church in Crisis did a good job in looking beyond the caricature to something of the reality of the Church and the Irish consciousness in the 21st century.
The Irish Constitution opens with an invocation of the Holy Trinity; and, as Crawley notes, more than 80 per cent of the population at the last census identified as Catholics. While that might not be as impressive as it initially sounds — eight per cent of those Catholics also say that they do not believe in God — it speaks to the hold that cultural Catholicism maintains in Ireland.
At the same time, groups such as Net Ministries aim to encourage the young to take ownership of their Catholicism rather than merely conform to established habits. For them, Catholicism is not about buildings and bishops, but about direct engagement in faith. It all sounds very familiar.
One priestly position which has now been indisputably appropriated by the secular world is that of counselling. In Word of Mouth (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the presenter, Michael Rosen, interviewed two Samaritan volunteers about the language of empathy, and the dos and don’ts of their work. First: never engage in competitive misery. “You think you’re depressed? You should hear the day I’ve had. . .” is not likely to get your caller on side; nor should you be reaching for consoling epigrams from the works of Khalil Gibran.
Instead, an epigram, courtesy of Chad Varah, is more useful: you have two ears and just one mouth, so you can listen twice as much as you speak. Embrace silence; let them talk; and, if things are going badly, consult “the Listening Wheel”, which gives all manner of tips for moving the conversation on: echo, summarise, or give your caller a “verbal cuddle”.
As volunteers Mark and Darren talked us through the skills, I became aware of all the small instances of contempt and impatience that creep into our own conversations. The ambition for a Samaritan is to “get alongside” the caller. It is a skill that we lay people rarely possess.