Archbishop Martin Hosts “Breathing Spaces” discussion evening with young Christian Leaders
I welcome the initiative of the Irish Peace Centres- following on initiatives begun through the Glencoe Peace Centre – for organising this evening’s dialogue within the programme “Breathing Spaces” which brings together this evening young leaders of different Christian traditions in different parts of Ireland.
In many ways the Irish Peace Centres began at a moment in which the dialogue between the Christian Churches in Ireland was difficult. The Peace Centres became a catalyst not just in overcoming division, but in fostering a constructive contribution by the Churches to peace building and ecumenical cooperation.
The Peace Centres were born within the context of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Today they are taking their work a step forward building on their experience and success of the past, to encourage the Churches to work together to build the peace of the future, bringing together people of various religious and cultural heritage to look at the future of a multi-cultural Ireland.
I am pleased that you have taken up my suggestion of holding a meeting of young religious leaders and that it will be possible to have an informal and frank dialogue about the challenges that young faith leaders encounter in their interaction with the leadership of the Churches. It is encouraging to see the interest that exists among young leaders to engage with people of their own generation on the question of the future of the Churches in Ireland, and at questions of the role of the faith communities in building the future of our country, North and South.
I have consistently repeated that I consider the biggest challenge that I have to face as Archbishop of Dublin is that of establishing a new relationship between the Catholic Church and young people. Most of our young people will have attended Catholic schools and assisted at religious education for more than a decade. They will have been initiated into the sacramental life of the Church. They will have imbibed a religious ethos and culture in their schools. But very quickly the loose contact with the day to day life of the Church and indeed many become disillusioned and even angry at their Church.
Much of this, in the Roman Catholic Church, is due to the scandals that have merged and the manner in which they were dealt with. I was surprised at a World Youth Day event which I led in Madrid last month to see the strength of expression that came out in the questions submitted by the young people from Ireland and from other countries about the child abuse scandals.
But the gap between young people and their Churches is deeper and wider. I have to ask why is it that so many young people today in their genuine search for meaning in their lives, in their idealism and generosity do not even look to the Churches as a focal point. They are not necessarily hostile, but they tend to look on the Churches as largely marginal to their quest, if not irrelevant.
I do not wish to anticipate the answers you will give this evening but I would like to set out some of my own reflections and to ask you if you think that I am on the right track or not.
I believe that the first thing that leads to the alienation of young people from their Churches is that the Churches do not listen enough to young people. The leaders have very often lost the art of listening to young people. Our congregations do not always allow the voices of young people to be heard. For many young people church buildings and gatherings are alien territory. On the one hand, many young people find the culture much of what happens in Church as alien to their way of thinking and to their aspirations. On the other hand they are often treated in some way as aliens who seem to want to upset the way things have been carried on for years.
Secondly I feel that the Churches in their congregations in the schools and in their youth organizations have too often not been able to establish real dialogue with young people about faith issues. There are occasions for social commitment and platforms for justice and societal issues. But the real challenge for the Churches is to help young people to understand the deeper questions of meaning in the lives and to understand what their Christian faith is saying to them in the real context in which they live. Religious education in Ireland must radically change.
Christianity is not an ideology or a subculture; it is not just a moral code. I was struck last week to hear an Italian priest say that when he asked young people what the Church taught, he got a series of answers all of which began with the phrase “the Church is against”
Young people have problems with the structures of the Church, with the institution of the Church. I feel that this is true in all the Christian Churches but it is particularly true within the Roman Catholic Church which stands out as a Church with a hierarchy and complex worldwide structures. I receive many letters from Catholics in Ireland saying that they want to be Irish Catholics and not Roman Catholics and some even ask me to break away from Rome and become the leader of an “Irish” Church.
The office of bishops and the office of the Pope belong to the essence of my Church. The manner of the exercise of authority can be changed, but my Church is unequivocally linked to the office of the Pope. This does not mean that it cannot also be a Church authentically inculturated in Ireland and its traditions and culture. The challenge however is to ensure that the Church does not find itself trapped in the thought processes and philosophies and deficiencies of contemporary culture and its expressions. The Church must be led by the Gospel, not by modernity. The more the Church attempts to integrate itself with the culture of the day the more it risks losing the sharpness of the Gospel which will always be counter cultural. It is not an easy balance to attain.
Young Irish people have difficulties with institution and structures when it comes to their reflection in faith. I believe also, however, that they will not be attracted to a Church culture which is constantly haggling about structures and internal problems. An introverted Church will only attract the pathologically gloomy or polemical. You as young religious leaders can foster a more evangelical Church which enthusiastically proposes the message of Jesus Christ as one which is lived and witnessed to in a living faith community.
Ireland today is multi-cultural, multi-denominational and multi-faith in its make up. The Peace Centres played an important role in challenging the Churches to work together in building peace in Northern Ireland. I am delighted that together with the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Inter-Church Meeting the Peace Centres are today challenging the Churches to look in a more focussed way to the future of Ireland, North and South. Who better to listen to on that theme than young Church leaders? Thanks you for accepting my invitation.
Annette O Donnell 087 8143462