Once upon a time the role of Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland was reserved for aging, stooped Italian clerics with broken English. It was a ‘peach’ of a job: elderly priests who were tired of the traffic and never-ending tourism of Rome were only too happy to spend their last years among docile, obedient Catholics in Dublin. They would stroll around Dublin’s O’Connell Street dreaming of lasagne and prosecco, while grannies and teenagers alike would line up and go on bended knee for a blessing from the Vatican’s representative in Ireland. The days of incense wafting through the air and subservience to clergy are a hazy memory. Few in Ireland can conjure up a mental picture of the last few Apostolic Nuncios. For many of the faithful in Ireland, the authority of The Holy See means long time, no See.
After the commotion caused by the Irish Government’s vengeful decision to close down Ireland’s Embassy to the Holy See, the assumption was that the curtain was coming down on diplomatic relations between the Irish Republic and the Vatican. But the show will go on, and the leading role will be played by Archbishop Charles Brown, or ‘Charlie’, to all who know him. Of all the hard-working and decent priests in the world, Charles Brown was hand-picked by Pope Benedict to be the new Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland. On the 6th of January, Pope Benedict personally consecrated Charles Brown an archbishop; a very rare move for B16, who has only consecrated three other bishops since he became pope six years ago. The newly elected Archbishop Charlie is an Irish American who hails from New York and is very proud of Irish heritage. He is handsome in a vaguely George Clooney way and fresh looking for his fifty-two years. But there is no mistaking that his eyes are those of an eagle, and he is known for his keen intelligence and that he doesn’t suffer fools.
But why does the Pope hold Archbishop Charlie in such high esteem? How is B16 so confident of his abilities? Pope Benedict and Charlie go back a long way. They worked side-by-side in the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for eleven years. Charlie Brown has a unique insight into the Pope’s character, as well as his plans for the urgent renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland. In 2001, when our Pope Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote to each and every Catholic bishop instructing them to inform the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Church about every allegation of abuse. As a direct result, no other place on earth was as aware of the abuse scandals within the Church as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His Excellency Charlie Brown became a trusted ally of Pope Benedict’s when they were trawling through the quagmire of filthy abuse descriptions.
Archbishop Charlie is a veteran of the CDF, having spent seventeen years in total there. He’s alert to the precise details of the Irish Church’s failings. But the response to Archbishop Charlie’s appointment in Dublin has been met with exclamations of joy from afar and acts of mean-spirited skulduggery. Both critics of the Church such as The Irish Times’ Geraldine Kennedy and supporters of the Church such as Rocco Palmo hailed the appointment as indicative of Pope Benedict’s heartfelt attempts to stop the rot in the Irish Church. Unfortunately, there was at least one move from the Irish Church hierarchy to prevent Archbishop Charlie’s appointment. It might be a case of begrudging this youthful Irish American his important position in Dublin as a direct envoy to the Holy See, but it definitely shows reluctance on the part of Irish Church leaders to work with Pope Benedict. Would the Church hierarchy prefer a doddery cleric with poor English? It would appear that after Archbishop Charlie’s years in the CDF, he knows too much about the Irish Church for some of its members to be comfortable to have him in their midst.
In this crucial time before Archbishop Charlie arrives, we, the Irish people must surely prepare a proper welcome to our new Apostolic Nuncio, who faces many challenges, not least from his own fellow priests. It’s not unthinkable that he could bear the brunt of the bitterness. Not only would it be unjust to tar Archbishop Charlie with the same brush reserved for such bishops like Magee who ignored their own guidelines for handling abuse and were guilty of notorious cover-ups, but it does not support this enthusiastic but also entirely blameless archbishop to help restore the Church in Ireland.
I’ve been in touch with Archbishop Brown, with the view to finding out his plans for Ireland. This week he is tying up loose ends in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but will shortly be taking up residence in the nunciature on Navan Road, Dublin where he tells me ‘lots of work’ awaits him. He has deep faith and none of the pretentiousness that besets such a highly-favoured prelate. His profile picture for his e-mail is a simple pencil drawing of the Eucharist. If rumours of a possible Papal Visit during the 2012 Eucharistic Congress are confirmed, then Archbishop Charlie will once more be at Pope Benedict’s side as he walks the island that was home to Dublin’s Frank Duff, and Cork’s Little Nellie of Holy God.