Address by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Mater Dei Institute,

24 Feb 2012

Address by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Mater Dei Institute,
Spring Lecture Series 2012 ‘Reform of the Church in Ireland: Facing the Future with Hope’

Clonliffe Road came on to the radar screen of my personal life fifty years ago.  Coming towards the Leaving Cert in 1962 I began thinking of my future.  As I have said on many occasions, my first interest was in becoming a broadcaster and in particular a newsreader or announcer.  But that was a very limited market in Ireland at the time and with the opening of RTE television just some months earlier the available posts had all been filled.  The likelihood of getting a position with the BBC, which would have been my real ambition, was even less.  BBC announcers in those days did not speak with Dublin accents.

Not that priesthood was a reluctant second choice.   My reflections on priesthood were there all the time and were maturing and it was at this time that I began to notice the existence of Clonliffe College, the place where the priests of Dublin were trained.

In my final years at school Pope John called the Second Vatican Council.  It opened, as you know, on the 11th October 2012, seven days after I entered Clonliffe.  Preparations for the Council were underway.  Change seemed to be in the air.   It was an exciting time. In 1962, however, Clonliffe College was not an exciting place.  Clonliffe was a place where there had been little change for decades.  The daily routine had been the same almost since the College opened one hundred years earlier.  One professor made no secret of the fact that he had been giving the same lectures for at least twenty years – and to be true his were not the worst lectures.

One could easily have gotten the impression that the Irish Church that we encountered then was the Irish Church “as it was in the beginning”, and that the established order “now” would, “ever shall be”.   Indeed the established order of Clonliffe was on a major expansion course, building a new wing to cater for an increase in students and revamping the main building.  Things seemed to be on the up.   There was very little understanding of the historical ups and downs of Irish Catholicism over the centuries.

In 1962 Clonliffe College was not an exciting place but in the years that followed it became an exciting pace.  There was great interest and ferment in theology.  The Vatican Council broke down walls of an over institutionalised Church and the new air generated new vitality.  Today there are those who feel that the Irish Church has failed the vitality and hope that the Vatican Council had engendered; there are others who would say that opening the windows of the Church so widely and indiscriminately without noticing the contamination of the outside air, let in viruses that we would have been better off without.  I imagine that future historians with the light of hindsight will probably say that there are elements of truth on either side.

There have always at the same time been reasons of hope and reasons of concern in the Irish Church.   To imagine otherwise would be do be totally a-historical.   As always at times of change, the hope of one side can quickly become the anxiety of the other.  In times of change each side sticks to its side and we Irish when we get stuck into a position are not always that good on the subtlety thing.   In time of change – like today – we always need the light of historians who remind us of the ups and downs of Irish Catholicism over the centuries and who recall that the winds of reform and renewal often come not from those debating on the different sides but from unexpected quarters and take unexpected paths.

When we look back in history, there is no doubt that the achievement of Cardinal Cullen in reforming the Irish Church in the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation was phenomenal.  Participation in Church life flourished after the extremely low Mass attendance rates of an earlier time.  Existing religious orders found new life; new Irish religious foundations were founded and religious came from abroad.  Institutions which showed the care of the Church for the marginalized sprung up across the nation.  The commitment to care was there, but often it was conceived and clothed in the dominant Victorian philanthropic and social culture.   As often happens, the Church in its desire to care for the marginalised espoused the contemporary climate of institutional care and built even bigger and more institutional institutions that Victorian Britain.

We understand that today and regret that dimension of our past and we are quick to point the finger of blame and not without right.  What is harder to do is discern how much our current visions of the Church are actually underpinned by aspects of contemporary culture which in their way distort the Christian vision and the realisation of the Christian message.   We can never have a vision of the Church which is totally de-culturized, but that does not mean that inculturation may not distort.

In Cardinal Cullen’s time the physical and religious geography of Dublin was changed within a few decades.  And Cullen did not just reform structures and build new ones.  He restored the discipline of a Church which had become lax and recalled all, bishops, clergy and laity to integrity in their calling challenging a culture of litigiousness and self-affirmation.   He invited Newman to establish the Catholic University – and even though the personal chemistry between the two was not a good one – the invitation was a clear indication of the need for theological renewal and the establishment of a mature lay Catholicism able to take its place in Irish society.  All in all, this was not a bad reform package.

Others today, however, would be highly critical of aspects of the vision of Cullen’s reform.   Cullen’s was a reform from above, but perhaps only an outsider could have done it.  His was a Roman reform, but at that time the elements for a more Irish reform were not easily at hand.  Newman himself was dismayed at the lack of an Irish Catholic elite, due to the fact that Irish Catholics on the whole were excluded from university education.

Cullen’s predecessor, Archbishop Daniel Murray had a different vision.  He would have been in favour of a greater participation Catholics in the public life of the day.  He was almost the only Irish Bishop to be favourable to the participation of Catholics in the Queens Colleges and in the national school system as originally proposed.  One can really ask “what if” Archbishop Murray’s idea had prevailed and the Catholic Church had become a different style of partner in the Irish educational system. But the “what if” analysis can easily be superficial because it tends to look at the question of the past in the light of the culture of today.  One would have to remember that Archbishop Murray was universally regarded by his Episcopal colleagues as being a very holy man, but they thought of him as a little politically naïve, underestimating the intentions of Dublin Castle and of the not entirely unfounded suspicion of proselytising that was current.

It is interesting that a good deal of the reflection on the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland focuses above all on Church-State and Church-Society relations.  This is even more true of current commentary of the life of the Church in Ireland. This is not a criticism of historians or the social commentators of our day.   It is a real and at times unique dimension of the history of Irish Catholicism that as the history of a demographically dominant religious confession, there would inevitably be an intense interaction of interests on the part of both the Church and the State, especially at moments of great change.

Interestingly, at the moment of Catholic emancipation there was no Irish Government. Through the Act of Union Irish Catholicism had become a minority confession in the larger United Kingdom, which had its own established Church.  This was to have its repercussions as the subsequent struggle for Home Rule was not just political but touched the aspirations of Irish Catholics.  It was to have repercussions further anon with the establishment of the Irish independent State where Catholics who had been excluded from participation in the public administration inevitably took up their new political and administrative roles in a climate of a certain re-vindication also for Catholicism.

It is useful to look at the past to remember that in the history of Ireland Church and State in Ireland have been intertwined for the good and for the lesser good, in good times and in difficult times, and that the same is true today.   Church and State are separate but not necessarily hostile realities.  The challenge is to find a mature interaction which is neither that of being in bed together nor that of living as survivors of a hostile divorce, unable to converse.  The structured dialogue between Church and State which was launched some years ago offers a useful model for mature dialogue, but it has not yet taken off effectively.  Greater attention needs to be given to identifying the best ways of putting into practice this important structure.

Church and State will inevitably be intertwined in Irish society for many years to come.  We see this is the current debate about no longer accrediting a resident Irish Ambassador at the Holy See which has evoked a widespread reaction which many had not anticipated.  I fear however that the controversy has taken on a life of its own and one not always related to the best interests of the Church or of the Government of Ireland or of our common interests around the world.  While I believe that the change in status of the Embassy was a mistake and that it will in time be changed, the current polemic is distracting us from the real challenges of Church State relations and from the real crisis questions facing the Irish Church.  But the debate has laid down markers.

The change that is taking place in the Irish Church today is much more significant than many imagine.  The change that will take place between now and the year 2020 – just eight years away – will be enormous. I am more and more convinced that these years will be the most challenging years that the Irish Church has had to face since Catholic Emancipation.  The goal posts have changed and changed definitively.

These are difficult times in the Church; day after day there are those within the Church and outside it who prophecy the end of the Church as a significant factor in Irish society.    There are others who feel that the Catholic Church in Ireland is on a suicide path created by its own internal culture.  We must realistically recognise the critical situation of the Church, but we should never give in to pessimism and negativism.

I thought it would be good to quote from the homily of Pope John XXIII on 11th October 1962 at the opening of the Second Vatican II.

Pope John’s first words to the Vatican Council at the beginning of his homily were Gaudet Mater Ecclesia:  Our Mother the Church rejoices.   Polarisation in the Church can and has led to a loss of the sense of joy which should be a mark of the community of believers.  Reformers and traditionalist alike can all too often be men and women with a mission, but also men and women with gloomy and stern faces. The Church at all times has reason to rejoice.  Jesus loves his Church and will be with his Church.  The Church’s agenda is driven by Jesus and it is from his fidelity to the Church that we can draw hope.

That reminds me of the story of the current Archbishop of New York when he was Rector the North American College in Rome and welcomed a group of new students who were a little on the gloomy side about the fate of the Church and felt that they had a special mission to save the Church according to their plan.  The Rector welcomed their aspiration to save the Church but added: “However, I have got bad news for you; we already have a Saviour”.   The Church’s agenda is driven by Jesus and it is from his fidelity to the Church alone that we can draw hope.

But let me come back to Pope John’s Homily.  He was not one to sponsor gloom and he pulled no punches in what he said.
“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history…  They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life…
We feel – Pope John said – we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster”
There have always at the same time been reasons of hope and reasons of concern in the Irish Church.  It will always be so.  We have to prove wrong the doomsayers both inside and outside the Church, both conservatives and traditionalists.  Gaudet Mater Ecclesia: gloom about the Church and its future – from whatever side – can very often be a sign of a faith that is weak.

Gaudet, rejoice: but be realistic.  Our rejoicing about the Irish Church must be kept within the limits of realism and realistic analysis. The Church needs more than the analysis of spin doctors and public relations gurus.  It is no use rejoicing at every fleeting sign of change or statistic.  Our analysis must go straight to the point.    The real roots of the religious crisis in Ireland are deep and of a different character than many would wish to admit.  They are linked with a crisis of faith, among individuals and within Irish society.
That crisis of faith then manifests itself in a crisis about the Church as an institution within a broader context of a change in the cultural infrastructure which had traditionally sustained the faith of people but which has become much more fragile over the years.  Ireland is a highly secularised society and secularisation should not leave us unmoved.

I am not talking about crusading, but we must admit that unfortunately the Church in Ireland was slow and is slow in recognising the fragility of the infrastructure of faith and in many ways continues to think that the challenges of tomorrow can be addressed with the pastoral methods of yesterday.    For their part many well-intentioned outsiders fail to understand the particular characteristics – both historical and contemporary – of the Irish Church and they fail to understand the depths of the current crisis.

The challenge of faith in Ireland can only be addressed by radical efforts of new evangelization.  That new evangelization must however have its own Irish characteristics. The renewal of the Irish Church must be led from within the Irish Church.   It must begin immediately.  There is little time to waste.

Many people are disillusioned by the Church.  It is very hard to underestimate how much the scandals regarding the sexual abuse of children and the manner in which it was dealt with by Church authorities has wounded the Church in Ireland.   I am struck by the effect that these scandals had on young people who find it hard to reconcile what happened within the Church with the Christian message.   The fact that thousands of children were abused within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland is a scar that the Church will bear within it for generations to come. There is no way in which what happened to be consigned out of the way into the archives.  The lessons of what happened and how it happened are a vital key to our looking forward to and building the future with hope.

Inevitably the effect of these scandals on some has been an anger on the part of many and by some a complete rejection of the Church and even in some places it has resulted in appeals to remove the Catholic Church presence in society.

In other cases there are appeals for a sort of de-institutionalisation of the Church.  There are those who would wish an Irish Church separate from Rome.  There are those who would speak rightly of a strengthening of the role of lay people in the Irish Church, but really want a Church in which Office and Order would be radically emptied of their theological meaning.  There are others who want reform, by reform by going back to the past.  Renewal is required, but that renewal first of all requires conversion on the part of all and not just outward changes in structures.

Church authorities must learn to listen; but that listening is not to be equiperated simply with sounding-out public opinion.  It requires above all listening intently and in common to the word of God and proclaiming that word and living it.

There is a certain ambiguity in the attitude of Irish society to the presence of the Church in the area of education.  There is a strong move to reduce the number of schools under Church control, yet at the same time on local level most parents still want their children to attend schools with at least generic religious inspiration.  The Irish system of Catholic schools is quite different to that in most other countries.  Almost 90% of all State-funded schools are Catholic schools.  It is not a parallel system for the Catholic community.   There are very few alternatives available and Catholic schools welcome children of all faiths and none.  This shows that the Catholic Church is open and welcoming to children of different cultural backgrounds but it has inevitably contributed to an erosion of the concept of what a Catholic school truly is.

Those parents who do not wish their children to be educated within a religious framework have their rights which the State is obligated to protect.   Ireland needs plurality of provision of schools.  But the rights of those Irish citizens who wish their children to receive Catholic education can only respected by fostering Catholic schools that are truly Catholic and there is an obligation of the State to foster that possibility also.

The family in Ireland is still healthy compared to other parts of the Western world.  There is a high birth-rate and rates of divorce are low.  Like other parts of the world, however, more and more young people opt to live together before marriage or not marry at all.  Moves to change the Constitution will inevitably mean that attempts will be made to change its definition of marriage, but for the Christian tradition marriage remains a natural institution rather than just a social construction.  The mutuality of the two sexes belongs, according to the biblical tradition, to the very essence of the human person since creation.

The Catholic Church has long been in the forefront in the area of providing education for marriage, courses of marriage preparation and counselling and services to families in difficulty.   Priests tell me that in the evaluation reports completed by couples at pre-marriage courses there is a growing appreciation of the specifically religious context on these courses.

The concept of life-long commitment and fidelity are hard to understand in today’s culture, but most young people who come for marriage in Church have a genuine hope that their marriage will be successful and will last and develop and mature with the passage of years.

For too long the Church appeared in a role of moralisation and people failed to transmit the real depth of the Christian message which is about Jesus as a person who in his life and teaching reveals to us who God is.  God is a God of love with whom we can in Jesus enter into a personal relationship, which then brings richness to the way we live of our lives.

On a deeper level, however, there is a certain ambiguity as to what “being Catholic” means in contemporary Irish society.  There are multiple expressions of the claim: “I am still a Catholic, but…” Many people who no longer regularly practice will still come to Church on special occasions and on the great feasts and maintain some personal contact with the Church.   In some cases people live out a sort of cultural Catholicism; in other cases what is called Catholicism is really a type of civil religion, a social spirituality without dogma, with blurred reference to a Jesus of one’s own creation.

Again, without becoming elitist, the Catholic Church in Ireland must be concerned about the lack of knowledge of basic elements of the Christian faith and of the nature of the Church among Catholics.   This is a situation which should be a cause of concern as it can only increase from one generation to the next.

The Irish Church invests too little in the on-going education of the faith of adults.   The New National Directory of Catechesis Sharing the Good News is truly a forward-looking document and work in underway in every diocese to address its implementation.  The Irish Church is extraordinarily weak in its knowledge and use of the scriptures.
In other cases there remain among those who have drifted from Church life vestiges of faith and of affection for the Church.  The importance of these signs should not be underestimated.  But such vestiges will never flourish again without a genuine programme of new evangelization.

I can see that priests in Dublin have gone through a troubling period and at times they felt lack of support but they have never abandoned hope.  There is a genuine enthusiasm for renewal and among priests, diocesan and religious.  The results are already being seen.  Attendance at Sunday Mass may be falling but enthusiasm is not missing.

The Church in Dublin is opening new horizons in evangelisation.  We have a full-time Episcopal Vicar and Office for Evangelization.  We have a priest dedicated full time to the animation of pastoral programmes based on the Scriptures.   Priests are working on the implementation of a new National Directory of Catechesis “Sharing the Good News”.    The occasion of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which will be held here in Dublin in June of this year, is being seen as a unique opportunity for renewal of the Christian life.   To the surprise of its critics the Eucharistic Congress is taking shape as a genuine moment of renewal in the Church.

Fifty years ago Clonliffe Road appeared for the first time on the radar screen of my personal life.  Who are my successors in taking up today the challenge which I undertook as a future priest?  Where will we find the leaders of the future Catholic Church in Ireland?  There will be fewer priests and the place of the priest in society will be different.  Those priests will have to be men of a strong and outreaching faith.  They must understand their priestly role founded on their bond with the Eucharist around which the Church is constructed.  They will have to be able to listen to but also talk to and with the community of believers which they serve.  They must be able to break the bread of the Word of God.

The future of the Catholic Church needs such priests but leadership will not be the prerogative solely of the priest.  The presence of the Church in the society of tomorrow will be lay lead, but lay lead by men and women who have a profound understanding of what faith in Jesus Christ entails.   The future of the Church will not be about social commentary on political issues but about witness, witness to the impact that the message of Jesus Christ can make on lives and on the interaction of people.  The “Communion with one another” which must be the mark of Christians must be one which reflects the meaning of communion with Christ and the communion within his Church.
The Church of tomorrow will not be created tomorrow or next week or next year.  The Christian life is a life long task.  Ecclesia semper reformanda est:  the Church must constantly reform itself.  Each Christian must constantly reform himself and herself.  Reform and renewal involve humility and holiness; not the empty humility and holiness of performance, but a humility and holiness which can be tested and verified by the lenses of integrity, personal and institutional.

The Church of tomorrow will not be created tomorrow or next week or next year but I believe that slowly the Church in Ireland is turning the corner.  I say “is turning the corner, not ”has turned the corner”.  History teaches us that hope and challenge will always be present together in the Irish Church.  We have to get the balance right.  The crisis today is however much greater than in the past and we have only one chance to get it right.  Burying our head in the sand or making a mistake of discernment, especially any return of triumphalism of self-satisfaction, could turn renewal back irreversibly.

That said I am with Pope John:  the Catholic Church in Ireland “must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster”.


Further information

Annette O Donnell, Director of Communications, Archdiocese of Dublin, 01 8360723/087 8143462