In Ireland, Simple Acts Are Evidence of Growing Tolerance

Catholic president took Protestant communion last month. Most approve.

Following a service at the Protestant Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin the Sunday before Christmas, the US ambassador to Ireland got talking with two young American visitors to the city. When one told ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith he had been to school in Arkansas, she replied that he was in "very good company, the best company in the world."

President Clinton would have been proud of his ambassador, not only for promoting his home state, but for taking communion at the service.

The presence of Ms. Kennedy Smith, a Roman Catholic, at the Protestant service would have occurred without comment had it not been for the decision earlier last month by the country's newly elected head of state, Mary McAleese, to also receive communion at the cathedral.

President McAleese is a prominent Catholic and her action brought immediate condemnation from her church's bishops, who cited an 1896 edict that Protestant communion is "absolutely null and void."

The new president saw herself fulfilling a preelection pledge to "build bridges" among the different traditions in Ireland. It is a theme that also emerges in her recent book, "Love In Chaos," in which she writes that the "challenge for the churches is to take the sectarian hatred out of political discourse and remove the poison."

In attacking McAleese's action, the bishops had not allowed for public opinion. One poll indicated that 4 in 5 people welcomed the president's decision.

There was also embarrassment for the Catholic Church when the Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, described Protestant communion as a "sham." He later apologized, saying, "'it was very unfortunate that I used the word."

McAleese has not commented publicly on the controversy. But Kennedy Smith said her actions were those of a "private citizen."

The ambassador added that in New York, she regularly attended a Presbyterian church on Fifth Avenue near an apartment she owned in the city.

Judging from the reaction on radio talk shows and in the letters pages of national newspapers, the controversy is likely to continue for some time.

Already, commentators are observing how the story illustrates the narrowing of distinctions between members of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Ireland.

"Until the late 1960s, there was a kind of religious separation, but since Ireland joined the European Union in 1973 the country has become part of a more consumer-orientated, secular society and the religious divisions have broken down to a very considerable degree," says Professor Terence Brown of Trinity College in Dublin.

For the past 30 years, Patricia Jeffers has taught at St. Iberias School in County Wexford. The 70 children in her care are part of a wider Protestant community that makes up about 5 percent of the population in Ireland.

Mrs. Jeffers rejects claims by Protestant politicians in Northern Ireland, such as the Rev. Ian Paisley, that their fellow Protestants in Ireland suffer discrimination. "I hate the word because it's not there and I have never experienced it," she says.

However, Jeffers does accept that previously, to be Irish was taken as being Catholic and that Protestants were considered pro-British. "My parents and their parents before them found that they were never considered Irish, yet they were part and parcel of the community where they lived for several generations. Now I think, thankfully, that has changed."

But while religion may have faded from politics in Ireland, it still remains a potent force in Northern Ireland, between pro-British Protestants and the Catholic community, which seeks a unified Ireland.

The McAleese row has also highlighted an often-ignored difference between Protestants in Northern Ireland and their co-religionists in Ireland. Although they worship at the same church, relations have not always been comfortable as they give allegiances to different states.

Southern Protestants also have great difficulty with the often violent Protestant marching tradition in Northern Ireland, which each summer recalls historic military victories over Catholics.

With the eruption of violence in Northern Ireland over the holidays, a leading Protestant clergyman, Sam Hutchinson, has called for "the voice of moderation of ordinary people to be heard loud and clear."

Two Catholics were killed in separate attacks by a renegade Protestant paramilitary group, to avenge the Dec. 27 murder in prison of its leader.

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