Sodalities and Confraternities

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Sodalities and Confraternities

Sodalities and confraternities were associations for lay people who wished to perform religious work and achieve personal sanctification by means of special devotional practices or charitable endeavors; their overall aim was to promote religious observance under ecclesiastical direction. There was a dramatic increase in the level of popular devotion to Catholicism in the latter part of the nineteenth century attributable to the impact of the Great Famine, among other things, but given the scale of prefamine church-building, it is likely that the upsurge was in train prior to the 1840s. In 1850 the Synod of Thurles, the first national assembly of the Irish church for almost 700 years, established an up-to-date code of ecclesiastical law and consolidated reforms and discipline within the Catholic Church, making a contribution to a "devotional revolution," which was further strengthened by the appointment of the archbishop of Armagh, Paul Cullen, as archbishop of Dublin in 1852.

Politically conservative, Cullen was an upholder of Ultramontanism, or the exaltation of papal authority, and he sought to oversee a new discipline and devotion in the Irish Catholic Church. During this era the involvement of Irish Catholics in confraternities and sodalities was seen as an essential contribution to external piety, accompanied at the end of the nineteenth century by new publications with large circulations, such as the Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart, the Irish Rosary, and the Irish Catholic.

The promotion of this new piety was also helped by an explosion in the numbers joining religious orders. Nuns, for example, increased eightfold between 1841 and 1901. The greatest growth was recorded by the Irish Sisters of Mercy, founded in Dublin by Catherine McAuley in the late 1820s. In 1841 there were 100 nuns in this order; by the end of the nineteenth century there were 8,000. Priests anxious to improve the spiritual practices of their flocks inaugurated confraternities and sodalities in parishes and dioceses throughout the country, including confraternities of the Holy Family and Christian Doctrine, and sodalities focusing on the Virgin Mary and the rosary. Some of these organizations also had a role to play in combating the efforts of Protestant proselytizers.

By the end of the nineteenth century there was a huge variety of sodalities and confraternities to choose from. The number often depended on the enthusiasm and organizing skill of the parish priests. Their existence was also indicative of an emphasis on "externalism" in religious practice over interior spirituality. In the absence of a scriptural tradition in scholarship or popular piety, the Catholic Church proved itself capable of organizing mass public devotion, as exemplified by the gathering of one million Catholics in Dublin city for the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.

A precursor of the widespread institutionalization of Catholic piety was the attempt to inculcate temperance undertaken by Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin monk. Father Mathew inaugurated a relentless temperance crusade, through the Cork Total Abstinence Society, beginning in 1838 and quickly spreading to the rest of the country. Initially an attempt to address the serious issue of excessive drinking, it developed into a more populist crusade based on the idea of pledging among the masses. It was, superficially at least, a phenomenal short-term success, but it declined within a decade and left no durable structures behind. Undoubtedly, the famine and the social disruption, emigration, and death toll that it left fatally undermined the temperance movement.

More successful and durable was the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, established in Dublin in 1898 by the Wexford Jesuit James Cullen, who devised a "heroic offering" in which people pledged to abstain completely from alcohol for life. It became the country's most successful Catholic lay movement, and its Jesuit directors vigorously decried the pervasive Irish drink culture. Its golden jubilee in 1949 attracted 90,000 people to Croke Park in Dublin. Membership peaked at nearly 500,000 in the 1950s, after which it went into decline.

Popular Marian societies seemed to reach their apex in Ireland in the 1950s, after which their membership contracted dramatically. By the end of the twentieth century the Legion of Mary, which was closely associated with missionary work, had a membership of 8,000, less than one-third the membership in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Another important Marian institution was the Jesuit-led Sodality of Our Lady. In 1958 there were as many as 823 local sodalities with a total membership of 250,000, but by 1975 only 82 sodalities remained. The Jesuits' attempts to transform these old-style sodalities into Christian Life Communities failed. Other significant religious activists included the prayer groups devoted to Our Lady of Fatima, Padre Pio, and Medjugorje. In recent decades members of these prayer groups have become political lobbyists against contraception, abortion, and divorce.

The collapse in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, from 34,000 in 1967 to fewer than 20,000 by the end of the century, was also notable in the context of the waning influence of sodalities and confraternities. Their decline was further fueled by Vatican II reforms, which redirected activity toward dialogue with other churches and stressed the importance of inner spirituality and devotion to Christ rather than to Mary.

SEE ALSO Ancient Order of Hibernians; Devotional Revolution; Marianism; Orange Order: Since 1800; Religion: Since 1690; Religious Orders: Men; Religious Orders: Women; Temperance Movements; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891


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Diarmaid Ferriter