Thanks to the Pobal organising group, for consistently providing space for dialogue and conversation on issues reflecting concerns in the Church today.
Evangelism, not Twitter, drained the Pope’s stamina , said Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times of Feb 16/17,( p11), suggesting that Benedict never really got the hang of Twitter well enough to make much difference. He cites George Wiegel, biographer of John Paul 11:
Throughout the Western world the culture no longer carries the faith, because the culture has become increasingly hostile to the faith…So we can no longer sit back and assume that decent lives lived in conformity with the prevailing cultural norms will somehow convey the faith to our children and grandchildren and invite others to consider entering the church.
His thought partly echoes that of Karl Rahner, 40 years earlier:
The decline of Christian ways and faith is not the work or effect of sinister forces, nor even a decline of really necessary saving faith. It is simply the disappearance of the preconditions of that very special kind of faith and Christianity, by no means identical with the essence of faith and Christianity, which was involved in social conditions which are now disappearing …(Shape of the Church to Come 1972 tr. 25)
This piece will focus mainly on three points. 1: The context – Catholic faith in Ireland today. 2: Responses to that context – personal and collective faith – renewal and reform. 3: Personal and collective witness – the call to action for change.
Christmas Eve 2012
The turnout in our parish for the Christmas Vigil Mass was amazing – I had not seen the like of this since I was a child. All the pews were full and people crowded into the alcoves and corners, carrying chairs, standing. Many people had been involved in preparing the Liturgy and the church for this occasion. The singing was great, the distribution of communion took a long time, and everyone waited for the procession to the crib at the end of Mass. There was a wonderful atmosphere of celebration. Christmas has not entirely lost its meaning. Hearing from people in different parts of the country tells me that many parishes experienced the same thing. But we know this was a one off. We know that the celebration of God with us that Christmas is, has the power to draw people beyond their daily ‘take’ on the world and our place within it, to renew our sense of awe and wonder about the whole thing, and we all have permission to linger in that place of mystery as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
By contrast, the penance service some days earlier had been attended by approximately thirty people, at least six of whom were priests, half of them asked to attend for that occasion. The service had been well thought out and prepared but the atmosphere in the church could not have contrasted more with Christmas Eve.
Discussing faith, theology and beliefs, Richard Mc Brien, in Catholicism, (1981), tells us that liturgy and Christian education embody and communicate beliefs and that it is through these that most Catholics have come into immediate contact with the beliefs of their faith tradition.
Faith is one response to deep questions within us all – even with the terrific progress of science and technology, the questions are still there – who are we? What are we for? What should we do? Bernard Lonergan , in his study of human knowing, (Insight),shows that by nature we are questioning and wondering beings. We experience life with all its beauty and its awfulness, and we have questions about that experience. We have questions for understanding, and with whatever degree of understanding we achieve, we have further questions, questions for judgement and value – what is truly good, or merely seems to be so. And then the question of what to do in any given situation arises. It might seem obvious that when we come to an understanding and judgement about a particular situation, action in line with our thinking would be the natural outcome. But our life experience constantly reminds us that this is not so. At each stage, Lonergan tells us, conversion – intellectual, moral, religious – is needed, and we struggle to be authentic, to actually do what we have judged to be the right thing. This is true for groups as well as individuals. And though the prevailing culture seems to have the answers to so many questions, and our church purports to know, with certainty, the truth about many complex realities, it is clear from the levels of stress, anxiety and so on, that no simple solutions exist. The longings of the human heart, the questions and the wondering remain. These are the basis of Faith, and it is clear that although many elements in our culture, not excluding aspects of our own church, stifle questions and distract us with all manner of diversions, that restlessness that St Augustine described, is never far away, and liable to take us by surprise.
The Amarach research. Published in Irish Times April 12th 2012
Commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests, and published just a year ago, this research revealed much information about the connection between Faith and its practice today. The survey was conducted only among people who described themselves as Catholic. Just 35% of Catholics – North and South – attend Mass weekly, one in five only go for either celebratory and/or religious occasions. In the area of moral teaching on sexuality, 75% of Catholics believe Catholic Church teaching is not relevant to them or their family. A large majority (in the 70 and 80% range) responding to questions about married priests, and women priests, hold opinions utterly at variance with the current Institutional position. You might say that a huge body of Catholics, reflecting on the experience of church at this time, understanding increasingly what is going on, are judging that much of the present manifestation of the church is not good and their decision is to sit lightly to it, or to stay away.
The Irish Church and the Vatican.
A question about the relationship of the Irish Church and the Vatican showed that 28% believe the church here is completely subservient to Rome and a further 29% believe it somewhat so. Just 14% thought the relationship about right. This last issue, while perhaps not top of anyone’s list, is reflected in the debate about collegiality and the role of Rome in the affairs of the Irish Church.
The question of the Church of Rome and the practice of the faith in Ireland, now and in the future, needs, I believe, to be handled much more carefully than has been the case by our hierarchy and by Vatican representatives in the recent past. Absolutely loyal and faithful Catholics are beginning to express considerable unease at the role the Vatican has taken in our Government’s handling of our national affairs. I don’t need now to go over the unsatisfactory exchanges in relation to the various reports on child sexual abuse. And, while we are a republic and a democracy, and so everyone has the right to express opinions, something of the hastiness of the Bishops’ opening statement on the legislation for abortion issue, and the tone and context of the Nuncio’s homily at New Year – given the tardiness of the hierarchy in addressing other issues, and the way the Vatican insists on its right to handle what it sees as its own affairs – is giving cause for concern. And this is perhaps on a wider scale than they may be aware of. I am among the many who much regret the closure of our embassy at the Vatican. As Catholic, I value greatly the connectedness to Rome, to the seat of power in our church. But I do not value it absolutely. As Irish, I greatly value all that belonging in a republic and a democracy has brought – even if, as some commentators hold, we are struggling to discover the meaning of a republic. I well remember, from family folklore, the cost that came with persevering in the Catholic faith, and also persevering in the struggle for our freedom; the cost to us all of now having a country which self- determines, even if that has involved choices that have brought about our bankruptcy and financial dependence. Our politicians are elected, our bishops are not. The job our politicians have been elected to do cannot be done by other than themselves. They must legislate for all the people in the republic. This was well understood by the bishops at Vatican II and clearly expressed in Gaudium et spes.
It is of great importance, especially in a pluralistic society, to work out a proper vision of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and to distinguish clearly between the activities of Christians, acting individually or collectively, in their own name as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and their activity in communion with their Pastors in the name of the Church. (74.)
Teaching on sexuality
The issue of the church’s moral teaching on sexuality being considered irrelevant by so many is a more disturbing matter. Is there an indication that the future for faith in this area will involve the consigning of sexual morality to the entirely private realm? Would this be good for anyone? The church, at present, lacks moral credibility, for reasons we know too well. But there are deeper reasons than the recent scandals. The gap between church teaching and the reality of people’s lives has simply become too wide. Many people seem to be taking the line: ‘ since they have got it so wrong in this or that area, why should we give credence to anything they say about sexual morality?’ The claim to ‘truth’, in this most complex area of human being, rings hollow in the light of the experience, understanding and judgement of people who have growing awareness and knowledge of the complexity of human being and human behaviour. Quite simply, while acknowledging that there will always be further questions, we cannot just refuse to take new knowledge into account when making moral judgements.
The ‘Natural Law’, and what constitutes the ‘Common Good’, is not self-evident and can look very different from different perspectives. None of us sees the whole picture. Our sincerely held views and opinions, and our claim to right, can be coloured by all manner of variables – faith, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, race, education and family background and so on. This means that authentic faith, while taking a stand on the big questions of our time, not excluding the economic and financial issues, which are causing such hardship to so many people these days, should be involved in the on-going search for truth, and be open to taking ever wider horizons into account. Claims to truth and charges of relativism cannot stifle the human desire to know. But the desire to know must equally involve judgements of value and actions in line with those appropriated values.
What is the future for Faith?
There is other research, on-going, in relation to the perceived support for transfer of Catholic schools to other management. If Mc Brien is right, and most people learn about their faith through Liturgy and Christian Doctrine, then, given the reality of attendance at Liturgy, we need to be very sure of what we do in handing over many Catholic Schools. The results of the Pilot Survey (Irish Times Jan 14th 2013) show that that nothing like a majority of young parents are anxious that schools be removed from Catholic management. This could seem like a contradiction, but I think it is teaching us some important things about faith and the future. Many parents might be saying: ‘Just because we do not go to Mass every week, and just because we do not agree with some current disciplinary positions in the church, and just because we are in favour of women priests and married priests, does not mean that we consider ourselves less Catholic, that we do not want our children educated in a Catholic environment , with its emphasis on the love of God for us present in Jesus, and the cycles of the church around which to live our lives.’
Faith and church are not the same thing. It is extremely unlikely that there will be a great revival in numbers attending Church. I do not doubt that there is increase in particular groups and organisations within the Church, but the overall trend is still in the direction we have been observing for many years. The clustering policy in some dioceses is the acknowledgement of this. Yet, to acknowledge Catholic faith and to respond to it in a in a group setting, in a faith community, does carry different meaning. The sad reality is that, for many, the institutional church is unnecessarily pushing faith further and further into the realm of the very private and personal, and this is surely not good for faith now or in the future. I have spoken with too many people who, for their well-being, or their sanity, for now, have simply had to desist from participation in the church. They have not lost faith in God, or faith in Christ, but the Institution has become such a block that, to survive in faith, they have to walk away.
In virtually every walk of life the question of participation in decision-making is now the norm. To close this off from all who are not ordained clerics, without even getting into the gender question, really is no longer a tenable position. And we all know this. The spirit is in the church, in all the people of God. Why is the institutional church stifling the spirit in its present phase? There might have been reason to reserve decision making to clerics when they were mainly the only ones with education. But those times are long over, and major decisions in the church are now taken by an increasingly limited pool of men, who mainly live apart from the real world, as anyone who has visited the Vatican in recent times can easily see. That this flies in the face of the reality of the spread of information and communication, the great advances in education of many, many people throughout the world, makes the already diminished credibility of the church an increasingly dominant factor in considering the future. Bernard Lonergan describes his work Insight as ‘a study of human understanding’ but also as ‘a campaign against the flight from understanding’…the flight from understanding blocks the occurrence of the insights that would upset its comfortable equilibrium. Nor is it content with a merely passive resistance. Though covert and devious, it is resourceful and inventive, effective and extraordinarily plausible… (xi)
Would it not be wonderful if our new Pope were to make his own the campaign against the flight from understanding?
Pope Emeritus Benedict and co-responsibility
The charade of a church that is in denial about the great changes needed, gives yet another reason to many people to opt out. For example, some parishes could not continue without the ‘supply priest’. Among them are elderly men, who at great cost to themselves, are propping up a system that is in the throes of collapse. Should a man in his eighties have to celebrate Mass in three different parishes within twenty four hours? Surely this is wrong, particularly on the dark, wet, and sometimes freezing, winter evenings, when simply getting to whatever church and getting home again is hazardous? In my opinion, asking men in their eighties to lock up, to make sure the church is empty and safe, borders on the inexcusable. Ordaining a few male deacons is not the answer. The health and wellbeing of priests up and down the country is being trodden on by the refusal of the institution to change. You have to admit, it looks somewhat strange to see the hierarchy so concerned about the possibility of legislation for possible abortion, while, in some cases, they seem to show complete disregard for the health and wellbeing of their presently living priests, some of whom are being treated unjustly and are dangerously overburdened.
Pope Emeritus Benedict has spoken of the ‘co-responsibility’ of all the members of the People of God.
It is necessary to improve pastoral structures in such a way that the co-responsibility of all the members of the People of God in their entirety is gradually promoted, with respect for vocations and for the respective roles of the consecrated and of lay people.
This demands a change in the mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognised as ‘co-responsible’, for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity…(Address to the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome, May 26th 2009.)
I emphasise the words ‘Co-responsible for the church’s being and action’. Well, in my opinion, you cannot be co-responsible for anything unless you have corresponding authority, call it shared power, a vote which carries equal weight, a real role in decision-making that cannot be merely consultative. The role of lay people in the Church – at present defined by hierarchy – perhaps needs to be redefined by lay people themselves. Parish Pastoral Councils are, on the face of it, an attempt to bring some change, but have no real decision-making power. Consultation can never be the same as shared decision-making.
Church but local only?
Should we just carry on at parish level and simply ignore the bigger questions that apparently we can do nothing about, as many people advocate? But not everyone has the luxury of being able to ignore the bigger institutional issues.
If I have found ways to deal with the untenable gender status, it is almost certain that my grandsons and granddaughters, will not in the future, as they grow up accustomed to the full participation of women, at every level, in every other field of life. Yet they too will experience the hungers of the heart, the need for a context in which to address the mystery of our being, to know themselves beloved of God. And if my son or daughter is gay, how can I pretend to be at peace with a church that considers them ‘disordered’ in their very being, objects of pastoral concern rather than subjects active in, and for, the Church? If my sister or brother or neighbour has suffered marriage breakdown and has re-found love and self-esteem and happiness – which we believe are of God – in a new relationship, how can I sit on the side-lines, when they are persistently told they are not acceptable as full participants in the Eucharist?
How can I be even half- informed about the scandals of varying kinds in the Vatican, added to on an almost daily basis, from financial to sexual to political, and not be very troubled at the thought that those people believe they know what is best for us all as followers of Jesus Christ; that they are the ones with power to decide how we should live our life of faith within the church? Finally and most troubling of all, in this year of faith, we are asked to engage in helping ourselves and others to know more the person of Jesus. Well, the more I come to know, the more I cannot stop myself asking the very dangerous question: what would Jesus say or do? And I am constantly appalled at how far our church has removed itself from him in too many areas. The Jesus portrayed in the gospels could have no truck with the clericalism and sexism, and indeed classism, that are so pervasive in our church. I am a very uneasy Catholic in this phase of my life. But, I am not going away – however much that might please not a few people; however much remaining has become at times draining, and wearying to the point of acute sadness. We should not underestimate the burden that faith and church have become for many people, and I do not just refer to those who have been so publicly unjustly treated. Reflection on the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is, I suspect, a regular feature of the prayer of many people of faith. It can seem as if facets of the institution are making faith increasingly burdensome, rather than something that gives hope and uplifts us in life’s journey. This must make us pause: do we want to pass on a burdensome faith to our children and grandchildren? If the good news of God’s love for all humanity is so tainted by the structures and systems in which it is delivered, albeit by many well-intentioned people, then the structures must be changed.
Communities of Solidarity
In Communities of Resistance and Solidarity (1985) Sharon Welch questions the moral adequacy of Christian Faith. The truth of Christian faith and theology, she says, is called into question not only by intellectual quandaries, but also by the actual practice of that faith in history.
Will the future of faith, as well as efforts to live the love and compassion of Jesus in our personal and collective lives, involve actions and behaviours of resistance to what is incompatible with love and compassion? Members of our church are forming communities of resistance and solidarity focused on many different aspects of life today, inside the church as well as in wider society. The fear might be that our church will become a collection of sects, each focusing on its own issues while remaining in unity on the basic tenets of faith. Would this be such a bad thing in this phase of the church? Catholic social teaching on Solidarity implicitly supports this. It may be that the future for faith lies in engaging with one or two such groups, putting energy into the work for change, and gathering and celebrating in communities of like-minded believers.
Already the Internet is a great blessing and a great danger for the future of faith. You can find the latest press releases from any diocese, or indeed the Vatican, you can study theology or read the scriptures, you can learn what is going on in far-away parishes and even take part from afar, via skype, in a family wedding or funeral. But even a cursory look at various Catholic/Christian sites reveals also the down side. There is vitriol and hatred, mis-representation and untruth in abundance. If the future of faith becomes privatised how will people know where to put their trust? You could argue that because you are on line it is not a private expression of faith. But who is responsible for what goes on line? Some of the bigotry and hatred is only balanced by the piousness and sanctimony of bloggers who have the ‘truth’ about whatever issue. If ever there was an argument for keeping connected to the Magisterium and having access to unadorned texts, for me, this is one.
Personal renewal, action for justice, learning from and sharing with the world.
Karl Rahner’s belief that the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all (Th In XX, 149) has profound implications for the future of faith.(Th In XX, 1981) He does not mean any esoteric phenomenon but ‘a genuine experience of God emerging from the heart of our existence’. And of course this is experience open to all. Wendy Wright, (The Way, 2013) writes:
– ‘The humanist spiritual traditions have helped me to see that growth in faith (as radical commitment to an infinite horizon) hope, (as the gift to breathe out ‘yes’ when there is no evident reason to do so) and love, (as the spaciousness of a heart broken open so wide that nothing is excluded) are the true measure by which I know that God is indeed with me.’
There is need to recover, and articulate, the sense of the sacred really present in the mundane – the sacramentality of our ordinary life experiences. Personal renewal and daily conversion will always have a central role to play. In our family, work, community, social life, are the most challenging situations, the most testing of our faith. But there too can be the most sacred experiences, the most affirming of faith. There we have the possibility of discovering what Wendy Wright calls ‘the unpredictable, mysterious power of God to appear in our often broken, often messy midst as healing, compassion, mercy, beauty and sheer grace.’ I suspect, for most of us, it is in these, rather than in liturgies or preaching, or from books, that we can come to learn what love might mean, what compassion means, what forgiveness – forgiving and being forgiven – and mercy, hope and its absence, are like. In these we can have glimpses of who, and how, God is for us all. What is it to love one another? Whether we speak of our most intimate relationships, or the way we, as a faith community, behave in relation, for example, to those who have been subjected to sexual abuse, to those against whom there is an allegation, and indeed to those who have been convicted of it, we can have some notion of what a Christian response might involve. And it is not always evident in the church. There seems to be little recognition of the implication of basing our faith in the knowledge and love of Jesus. Jesus did not stop short of engaging with religious and political systems and structures that oppressed people. Personal renewal is incomplete without reference to the structures of church and society in which we live.
Faith, in the future, I believe, will be as strong as its authentic and visible practice by those who profess it. The mark of Jesus is compassion, says Peter McVerry. (eg. The Meaning is in the Shadows.) We know well Jesus’s words in Luke and Matthew, they are simple and direct: Be compassionate, do not judge others, do not condemn, grant pardon, give….. Peter McVerry, and indeed many others who support him, work tirelessly for justice for homeless young people, for prisoners. He constantly engages with and challenges the structures and systems in society that oppress them. His personal Christian faith could not possibly exclude such. His conviction of the unconditional love of God drives his actions.( movingly expressed in his piece The Giver of Gifts.) He speaks with authority, he lives what he preaches. We cannot all be courageous leaders, we may not all agree with everything he says and does. But we can follow the example of authentic faith by doing whatever is possible, at the individual and at the structural level, to uphold human dignity that is destroyed, when people are oppressed by poverty, or systems, or lack of justice in their lives. This applies also to those within the church who suffer the same fate. The Christian call to love includes justice…so action for justice is not a ‘take it or leave it’ aspect of faith, but of its very essence. Whether in family, in work, in society generally, or in the church, it is and will always be a sine qua non of faith. (1971 Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World). The personal and the political are fundamentally linked. Pedro Arrupe said, ‘We must learn what it is to have enough. This becomes more relevant today when an indiscriminate and selfish use of the world’s resources by the richer nations threatens to cause irreparable damage to the essential elements of human life and to jeopardise the development of poorer peoples… Personal renewal cannot be separated from structural reform.’(Justice with Faith Today, p147-150)
Conclusion: Realistic hope for the future
We know that our church has changed in many ways down the ages. There have been periods of grace and periods of horrendous disgrace. But grace cannot emerge through the people of God if we just turn a blind eye. No. it is my firm conviction that because of the state of the church today rather than in spite of it, to stay and work even harder for reform and renewal is what is being asked of us. For very many people the lead shown by the Association of Catholic priests has been a lifeline, has rekindled hope from virtual despair. The Association of Catholics in Ireland too, has the potential to draw many Catholics who are on the edge back into hopeful and prayerful action for the future. And this is already happening. In the long term It may be preferable that there would be just one Association – we are all members of the people of God and it can seem as though the existence of two associations is simply feeding right back into the lay/clerical divide that many want to move on from. However, it may be that for the moment this is the best way, and something else will emerge in due course.
Those who have decided to ignore the institution and to engage with faith only on the personal level, must do what they must do. Perhaps they do this for their survival – so that their spirit will not be entirely crushed by the institution, as has been the case for too many people. Perhaps they do a great service to the many who cannot cope with much of the current manifestation of authority, the pomp, of the institutional church. But I believe they may be doing a grave disservice to those who follow, to future generations, if they decide to ignore the systems and structures of the institution, or to benignly tolerate its injustices with a shrug and a sigh of resignation. Of course everyone cannot do everything. But everyone can do something. Every marathon is made up of single steps – the important thing is not how long or short the steps are, or even what kind of ground they cover, but that they are going in the right direction, and are not going backwards.
Do we need a ‘let it be’ time for the next phase of the Church in Ireland? If, the bishops cannot make any changes, because the Vatican forbids it – then so be it. But the church is not the Vatican. The church is not the bishops. At parish level we must do what we can to be a welcoming, faith community. John Paul 11 said, The parish is not principally a structure, a territory, or a building, but rather, ‘the family of God, a fellowship afire with a unifying spirit, a familial and welcoming home, the community of the faithful. (CL 26)
We have not got the last word on who is welcome in the eyes of God. At Mass and at the important life events of baptism, first communion, marriage, funerals, we can let everyone know that they are welcome, whenever they come. And many parishes are already doing this. We do not need to monitor who turns up to what, but be glad to see people gather. In other words decrease anxiety levels in the church, show by example, be what we say we are. Of course this includes helping those who are not frequent attenders to know why we do what we do, why we say what we say, what constitutes respectful attendance and participation in our liturgies. But we do this inside our churches, we do not judge people before they come in. We do not judge people who want to participate by thrusting questionnaires at them, or by asking them to go through hoops of any kind. It is Baptism that is the door to communion. We commit to working towards a church that is welcoming and inclusive, a beacon and light in a sometimes very hostile world. All who are the Pobal de in these times, people, priests and religious, might re-group in such a way that our faith communities – parish or other – become truly welcoming places. People will be attracted when they experience love and inclusion, rather than judgement and exclusion. And in the light-reflecting, and life-giving qualities of the communities gathered, some may just possibly re-find the ‘home’ they have lost, the home I believe Jesus intended.
NB: Copy write of a version this speech is held by:
The Furrow, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland.,
The article is published in The Furrow, Vol.LXIII, Number 4, April 2013