Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Prince Charles' attendance at canonisation in stark contrast to anti-clericalism of Dublin bigots

Heir to the throne was a credit to royal family, while Fine Gael and UCD disgraced themselves.

Prince Charles meets the Pope
Prince Charles meets the Pope
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Prince Charles has a knack of capturing matters of crucial public importance and highlighting them with skill and obvious passion. His concern about architecture, the environment and organic farming are all examples of that in the past.

Furthermore, his love for Ireland and the Irish people and his commitment to peace in Ireland needs little elaboration.

So, his attendance at the Vatican last Sunday at the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman as a representative of the Queen (who is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England) and as heir to the throne was not surprising and most appropriate.

But it was also in itself an important statement of his personal interest in Christian belief and its relevance to the contemporary world.

Prince Charles attended the canonisation to pay tribute to the life and contribution of Cardinal Newman and, in particular, to show his appreciation of the role of the Catholic Church in Britain.

Prince Charles emphasised that Newman's canonisation was a cause of celebration not just for Catholics or for the people of Britain, but for all who share his vision.

He stated that the world needed Newman's example more than ever. The Prince of Wales said that Newman "could advocate without accusation, could disagree without disrespect and, perhaps most of all, could see differences as places of encounter, rather than exclusion".

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Before his shock conversion to Catholicism in 1845 Newman's contribution was enormous to academic life in Britain and in particular to the Church of England, leading the Oxford Movement and revitalising the intellectual and spiritual life of the Anglican communion.

After his conversion, as a Catholic priest his contribution to the Catholic Church in Britain and Ireland was exceptional, in his writings (including some great poetry, The Dream Of Gerontius being a classic of the 19th century), and also in his pastoral and educational work.

His establishment of the famous Oratory Church in the new industrial metropolis of Birmingham was a significant achievement.

Prince Charles's presence at St Peter's in Rome was in sharp contrast to the disgraceful attitude of the Irish Government, which belatedly and reluctantly sent Minister of Education Joe McHugh to the ceremony.

The political establishment in Dublin are so blind to their own prejudice that they cannot distinguish their own anti-clerical attitudes from the worst excesses of old-fashioned Paisleyism.

What an outrage there would be if a DUP First Minister vetoed the attendance of an Executive minister at such a similar event in Rome to honour an Irish Catholic cleric.

The Irish political establishment would be incandescent with rage and gallons of ink would have been spilt by Ireland's leading newspapers condemning narrow-minded, northern bigots.

Probably more appalling was the begrudging attendance at this unique religious event by a nominee of University College Dublin, an academic institution that owes its origins to John Henry Newman.

But such is the culture of aggressive secularism at an official level in contemporary Ireland that the university intended to ignore altogether the canonisation ceremony in Rome on the grounds that the university was a secular institution.

However, a groundswell of critical public opinion, particularly from UCD graduates, embarrassed the university authorities and forced them to send someone at the last minute.

This is, of course, the same liberal and tolerant university whose student body shamefully deposed its newly-elected student president Katie Ascough from office because she was pro-life and opposed to the repeal of the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution.

Surprisingly, although UCD is a place of higher learning, it still hadn't occurred to the university administration that secularism does not mean that you deliberately snub the Catholic Church by boycotting Newman's canonisation service in Rome, or, worse still, deny its own intimate historical association with a distinguished academic of Newman's standing - a man who, on the invitation of Archbishop Cullen of Dublin in 1851, played a pivotal role in establishing the Catholic University of Ireland by becoming its first rector.

The Catholic University was the institutional predecessor of University College Dublin and, without it, UCD would never have come about.

Secularism should mean embracing all beliefs and none in a tolerant and pluralistic fashion. A university, of all places, given its commitment to the active pursuit of higher learning and truth, should not be a cold house for religion or religious beliefs, but a custodian of truth and a conscientious defender of freedom of belief and expression.

To behave otherwise is to belittle learning and to pervert the positive concept of secularism.

The south has become a post-Christian society, like the rest of Western Europe, lacking in any alternative value system. This is a dangerous place to be because a society that is value-free will, ultimately, become valueless.

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