Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Ireland's "Pope"

St Malachy today. If ever there was an Irish prelate who would have made an excellent pope, it would, in my humble opinion, have been Malachy. He would have been a reforming pope in the style, I think, of Pope St Gregory VII. Certainly in Ireland in the three dioceses he governed he proved himself to be an able and committed reformer, a man who understood the nature of true reform and how to achieve it.  He was a man of intense personal sanctity, of humble and kind charity towards others, of prudent and innovative zeal and he had a heart capable of the deepest loving relationships, as we see in his friendship with St Bernard. 

Malachy was born in what is now the city of Armagh, the son of a schoolteacher. In his youth he became a disciple of Eimar a hermit. Ordained a priest of Armagh his bishop, St Celsus, recognised the young man's potential, appointing him his Vicar General Celsus he initiated the young man into his hopes and efforts at reform of the Church in Ireland. Celsus is one of our great reformers, a man of great sanctity himself, and he apprenticed Malachy in his virtues and ideas. After continuing studies under St Malchus of Lismore, when the Abbot of Bangor died Malachy was appointed to succeed him, and as in Ireland Abbots often headed dioceses, Malachy was appointed and consecrated Bishop of Connor. In the providence of God it was an important step to prepare him to succeed Celsus as Archishop of Armagh and Primate. As Bishop of Connor he was effective in carrying out various reforms. 

On his deathbed, in 1129, Celsus named Malachy as his successor. However, as Malachy was not of the same clan as Celsus, and the seat of Armagh had been in the hands of the Clann Sinaig for some time, there was a dispute. The clan imposed Murtagh, Celsus's cousin, as Archbishop, an illegal action, and so legally the see remained vacant until Malachy was able to claim it. He was enthroned in 1132 but could only enter the see in 1134 when Murtagh died, though there was conflict as he tried to take possession of the cathedral. Indeed one of Murtagh's relations, Niall, St Celsus's brother, fled with the relics, books and St Patrick's crozier in an attempt to invalidate Malachy's taking office. Though some acknowledged Niall as Archbishop because these symbols of the office were in his possession, Malachy took control and eventually regained possession of the symbols and won the hearts of the people.

Malachy's great reforming work continued in earnest. Now as Primate he had the ability to extend his plans for reform all over Ireland. Armagh was at peace, but much of Ireland was in a disastrous state. The Church in Ireland had grown lax in faith, in the observance of the liturgy, in morals and all because certain individuals sought to empower themselves in the Church. A large part of the blame lay with lay-abbots in the ancient monasteries. These lay men had obtained these offices and used them and their revenue to boost their lifestyles and prestige. In reality the Church in Ireland had become nothing more than an institution to bolster these lay people in lives quite contrary to the Gospel. The clergy had acquiesced in this and their own lax morals and slothful practice of the faith was at the very least bordering on scandalous. And this regime had its defenders, not quite a medieval version of the ACP, not too far off it in resistance to authentic reform. 

Malachy struggled to sort out the mess, and he had a great deal of opposition to deal with. The Irish have great virtues, but also great vices, and like the Sicilians we can harbour resentment and nurture revenge for generations, And some of those Malachy tried to reform responded in like manner to his efforts. But he laboured on and his work bore fruit: he restored discipline, encouraged a return to Christian morality - even among clergy, he had the Roman Liturgy adopted, he regularised and promoted marriages, restored the practice of confession (in their laxity the Irish thought they had no need of the sacrament, like today!) and he confirmed thousands who had never received that sacrament. On top of all this, indeed assisting him in his endeavours, he was a miracle worker, a lover of the poor and needy. According to one tradition he planted apple trees all over his diocese to provide food in times of famine.

This is a lifetime's work, but Malachy did it all in three years. Exhausted, he resigned his see in 1137 and retired, taking up the position of Bishop of Down, a smaller and less hectic diocese then. He continued his reforming work there and established religious communities.  In 1138 he traveled to Rome and on the way met St Bernard at Clairvaux and so began one of the most endearing and fruitful friendships in the history of the Church. Malachy was taken with the life at the abbey in Clairvaux and he sought permission to enter, however Pope Innocent II refused it, he had work for Malachy and with this in mind he appointed him Papal Legate in Ireland. Returning to Ireland he consoled himself by bringing Bernard's monks to Ireland, establishing the first Irish Cistercian monastery at Mellifont. He and Bernard corresponded and supported each other in their mutual missions.

In 1148 a synod of bishops in Ireland asked Malachy if he would go to Rome to request the palium for the two metropolitans of Ireland. On the way he stopped off at Clairvaux to spend some time with Bernard, but the time was to be short: while there he fell seriously ill and on the 2nd November he passed away in the arms of his friend. Grief-struck, Bernard still rose to the occasion (as he always did) and preached at the Requiem Mass which was celebrated in Clairvaux, in the sermon he declared that Malachy was a Saint. Rather than send the body home, a difficult proposition then, Bernard buried his friend in the abbey chapel, right in front of the high altar. Less than five years later Bernard himself died and, at his request, he was buried with Malachy.

In any age Malachy would be an extraordinary prelate; we could do with him now. In a way Ireland today is not much different from Ireland in his time, certainly many of the problems he had to face are still with us. He had the courage to face them and thanks to this genius and holiness he dealt with them. There was no compromising the Gospel with him, and he saw sin and laxity for what they were: corrupting forces within the Church and within humanity. He had a huge heart, a gentle demeanor and obvious love for his people, but this true Christian spirit did not lead him to the delusion that the Gospel can be sacrificed as a pastoral strategy to solve pastoral problems or keep people content. He was a Christian realist and understood, as Christ himself did, that the way to true happiness and peace was the way of fidelity to the Gospel even if it required heroic effort at times, an effort that would be enabled and crowned by God's grace. In essence Malachy was a believer and he lived by his belief, by his faith and trust in God.

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