You will have heard the backhanded tribute to astuteness: ‘He would mind mice at the crossroads in the dark”. The compliment intrigues by its very Irish mingling of admiration with mild contempt. In the hands of a greater storyteller we have just met a character who would have no trouble managing any number of mice. The dishonest steward in today’s Gospel parable is, to say the least, a quick study. The prospect of imminent ruin would shake most people. Not so this deft, shady, calculating man who does not waste time either in begging or mourning. He has known for years how he would handle just such a crisis and, more to the point, he knows his master. Quick thinking and a series of rapid, possibly unscrupulous deals conspire to win him friends and, against all odds, the admiration of his previously exasperated employer. Obedient mice and a very well-managed crossroads!
Looking at the present state of the Church in Ireland, we are certainly at a crossroads, one of many in a long and meandering history. The rest may not be quite so easy to manage. I think it is safe to say that the Catholic Church is no longer the nation at prayer, insofar as that was ever entirely the case. On the very edge of Europe, we are hearing the last vestiges of Christendom in their death-rattle. Not Christianity, I emphasise, but Christendom. That shared set of assumptions about life and its purpose, reflected in use of language, in culture and in the law, is quickly moving towards its end. As remarked with unflinching astringency over thirty years ago by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Christendom, that communal understanding and experience of Christian culture and polity, is gone, never to return. We must, as Church, specifically as Church in Ireland, consider carefully what this means for us. That discernment, which has already begun, will in itself be difficult because the need for careful deliberation is matched by the urgency of the situation. Like our friend the steward we have received our walking papers. Unlike him we have not always known what we would do.
You are among the most committed people we have in the Church, so let me be blunt. Our priests tell me of measurably declining congregations and a steady, if still quite gentle, dropping in contributions. They see few teenagers in their churches. They feel, intuitively, that the temporary lapsing noticeable here from about the seventies is changing. They fear that those falling away in recent years will not return. I can see the same with my own eyes in our Cathedral parish. Even the outright hostility we had been experiencing from sections of the media, the political establishment and some of the public has curiously abated. This, if I am right, is not because the depth of our piety and the brilliance of our arguments have made them think again. This is because the whole society, like an Irish village of fifty years ago, knows and is tacitly acknowledging something that hardly needs to be said. That a great struggle, social, political, intellectual and profoundly cultural, has been fought. And that we have lost.
It is not primarily a question of scandals. Disgraceful as they were they only added force to the inevitable shrugging aside of values which had come to be seen as inhibiting and obsolete. Holding Ireland back from the fire, as it were, from its place at the secular hearth, from the warmth of belonging in the new consensus. Now, notwithstanding the occasional row, we may expect the good-natured forbearance accorded to an elderly, opinionated and rather irritable relative. We are not as serious a threat and will soon be even less so. As long as we continue to draw corporate breath modern Ireland may be quite content to have us around. Perhaps more than content. In the face of the innumerable problems posed by a culture which is practically founded on rapid change, modern society is as uncertainly situated as we are at the crossroads and is minding its mice no better. It may well need all the stewards it can find, whatever their curricula vitae.
Quo vadis, Domine? Where does God want us now? I wish I could add to the process of discernment with a few bold and definite answers. It is not so simple. The Church of the future, as Ratzinger originally predicted, will be much smaller. Even getting to that, which would be something, will, as he also predicted, prove a complex and exhausting process. Take, for instance, the much-discussed issue of handing over schools. Which schools? Where? By what process of consultation and decision-making? What if, as has already happened, parents, even non-churchgoing parents, do not wish a change of ethos? And churches? Will some have to be closed? Which? Where? According to what criteria? Do we close remote, ill-attended country churches and retreat to the towns or do we take a stand and favour already marginalised communities? These are not small matters and there are more where those came from. This will take time, patience, skill, and solomonic judgement. It may have to be achieved with limited amounts of all those.
It was therefore with something approaching incredulity that many people heard the call to battle that is Evangelii Gaudium, the recent apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis. A pleased incredulity, to be sure, perhaps even delighted but anyone could be forgiven for a certain level of nerves. We could hardly now present more than a respectable challenge at club level and are being told to prepare for Croke Park! The Pope has no illusions about the state of the Church in many parts of the world and especially in Europe. In spite of this he has effectively said that the opportunities present in the situation should be irresistible for anyone of faith. Just as we seemed destined for the ghetto of history, and that for a lengthy stay, he has called for a Church which ‘goes forth’, for a Church which as a spiritual home keeps its doors permanently open. Here, I believe, is exactly what Our Lord intended in his parable. A manifestly honest steward with the same reflexes and instinct, not for self-preservation, but for his master’s best interests, for God’s people, for the renewal of the Church worldwide. And this must be done even as we rationalise our situation and, so to speak, ‘downsize’. We must retreat, yes, but primarily from a position of leverage, of power and influence, and join the ones whose opinions nobody wants and whose voice is usually ignored. Ratzinger, ever the prophetic voice, always balanced his brutally honest prediction of decline with that of an eventual new springtime for the Church. Francis appears to have brought the weather with him.
This will be a new chapter in our stewardship. It will, to say the least, be labour-intensive. If we are to manage this enormous transition to a smaller but more dynamically evangelical Church we will need people. Not primarily money or structures, however important these may be. But people. People like you, talented, like you and, like you, committed to the performance of Newman’s ‘some definite service’. Trained people who know what they are about. Honest stewards who are fast on their feet. Francis has said as much elsewhere and has called for available resources to be made serve evangelisation. The road ahead is obscure and not only, as I have said, for the Church. To use the language of the mediaeval map-makers, ‘here there be dragons’. There must, therefore, be knights in armour too. We need, more than anything else now, trained and committed personnel on the ground. Priests, of course, but also full and part time lay evangelists. We need, above all, more people working in youth ministry, both professionals and volunteers. You catch the faith from others who have proven themselves credible witnesses. Just now I cannot possibly hope to understand the full range of what we will need but I know we need these and we need them urgently if we are to answer Pope Francis’ call and take up this stupendous challenge.
True, it is dark and we find ourselves at a rather bewildering crossroads. But minding mice must not be left to the cunning and the cynical. The shrewdness and resilience so prized by the worst, will, in the hands of the very best, achieve great things for God and the most vulnerable of his people.
- Archbishop Michael Neary is Archbishop of Tuam
- This homily was delivered on Friday 7 November 2014 in McKee Barracks, Dublin.
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