“On Sunday last I presided at a ceremony in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin during which I welcomed over seventy new catechumens or adults who are preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil. It is one among many discreet signs of hope that you can discern regarding the Catholic Church in Ireland today and looking towards tomorrow.
What was most important in the ceremony was that those who participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults were accompanied in their own parish over a lengthy period and in that time the faith of the catechumen was enriched and developed and accompanied by the faith of a local parish community. It is evidence of a willingness of Christian families to be more actively engaged in the transmission of the faith and the catechetical life of the parish community.
There are many such examples in the Church today. In Dublin we see lay men and women, working with priests and deacons, in building up new forms of parish community life and helping parishes to work together for the mission of the Church. The deaneries are moving from being clerical gatherings into focal points for looking at the pastoral needs of an area. We find new forms of collaborative ministry in preparation for the sacraments, in the charitable works within the community, in child safeguarding and many others areas. There are new examples of reaching out to those who have drifted away from the Church. All of these together are creating a new image of the Church, not a Church preoccupied with its internal workings, but one which must reach out in service and in evangelization.
I can say that in Dublin we have great examples of parish renewal within the complex and challenging culture in which they take place and I am sure that in this diocese and all around the country we can say the same. But we also have parishes where little is happening and things are kept at most ticking over. We have parishes which remain trapped in a past which has long since ceased to exist. If I were to look at one word which would to me be vital in discerning what sets a parish on the road to renewal, that word would be ‘community’.
We need to develop a true sense of community in the Catholic Church today and move away from a Catholicism which was very much individualistic. In Ireland we had a very individualistic piety; we had bishops and priests who were individualistic in their pastoral style. Where piety becomes individualistic it runs the risk of becoming somehow magical or external or it runs the risk of being totally subjective. The future of the Church in Ireland will depend not just on individuals, bishop or priests or charismatic lay men and women, but on new and robust communities of faith and worship. We urgently need faith communities which embrace our young people.
Today anyone can define themselves as being Catholic according to their own definition. Others will say that they are not Catholic or religious but are spiritual persons – again, however, according to their own definition. I find it curious on many occasions that those who are most vocal in their criticism of the internal workings of the Church are those who have really long-since given-up on any real participation in a believing community.
People still expect and want the Church to speak out on social issues. Criticism of society from the side of Church leaders will be welcomed, but often only on those areas where such criticism is the flavour of the day and not on certain others issues. There is a tendency to want to forge an image of the Church which fits in to the social patterns of the day. We must remember that ethical teaching cannot be reduced to an ethic which makes people feel comfortable; it must challenge people to move away from acquiescence. A pluralist society may need to arrive at compromises to attain peaceful co-existence, but the men and women who change society are always the people of idealism and conviction, of courage and vision.
The message of Jesus Christ is a message which must combine idealism, conviction and vision, alongside mercy and compassion and support for the weakest. Is that the image of the Church which we are presenting today, especially to our young people? Do we still come across as negative, a Church of a rule book on everything? Do we come across, on the other side, perhaps as a Church on the retreat; timid in presenting our vision for fear that we may be unpopular?
I believe that the Church has to learn again how to criticise. It is not easy. In the past the Church criticized as if it had answers to all sorts of social problems and demanded that society be conformed to a Church understanding of realities. Now the Church has to learn to form its criticism in language which is open to dialogue with the language of the men and women and young people of our time and to convince them rather than condemn them. We must also be aware, however, that there will be occasions in which the language of the times will be unable to really capture or easily understand what is explicit in the Christian message.
Take for example the discussions in our society about marriage and the family. The Church argues from a somewhat abstract view point about the understanding of the nature of sexuality and of the uniqueness of the mutual relationship between male and female. Others argue from concrete examples of people that they know and their personal hopes, frustrations and desires. Where can these different strands meet?
Where the Church argues from general principles, there is inevitably the feeling on the part of others that it is somehow against the concrete individual men and women who have a different viewpoint. This is made more complex if Church leaders – or self-appointed Church spokespersons – use language which is insensitive and over judgemental. The Church has to learn to voice its criticism clearly and without fear, but it must always do so in language which respects her Master, Jesus Christ, who never criticised those with whom he may have disagreed about their morals, except with those who were hypocritical and all too often the hypocrites in Jesus’ judgement – it is clear in the Gospels – were the religious leaders. The Church needs to learn the art of criticism from the Gospel itself.
Religious leaders must learn anew how to criticise but always starting out from a position of humility and honesty. I am always struck by the manner in which Pope Francis seems to be able to speak clearly about doctrine, and yet respect and embrace those who cannot find their way to follow that doctrine. His starting point is usually not that of being head of the Catholic Church, but that of being a sinner. When in his first lengthy interview after becoming Pope he was asked who Jorge Mario Bergoglio is, he replied without hesitation “I am a sinner”; and when he asked for a moment to reflect more deeply he responded “Yes, that is the best way for me to describe myself: I am a sinner”.
In the debates around same-sex marriage in Argentina, Pope Francis was unequivocal in his judgment about its non-admissibility, yet he consistently told people not to judge any individual. Many find that a position of that kind is untenable: certain things, they will say, are simply wrong and to be condemned and there is no way in which we can countenance any response except repentance and change of life style. Others will say that the only way in which the Church can show mercy is by changing its teaching.
Pope Francis has the ability to see that truth and mercy are not mutually exclusive in absolutist terms. Pope Francis does not think the black and white categories that we tend to. He sees that most of us live in the grey areas of life where compromise may often be almost inevitable. He sees that Christians who may live together before marriage or who live in civil marriages may indeed share more of the vison of Christian marriage than we often think. We will attain more by reaching out to them rather than by simply condemning. Pope Francis’ pedagogy, however, is not a pastoral of “anything goes”, but what I call a “pedagogy of pastoral patience”.
By reaching out to people in what for the Church are irregular situations, they may become more open and gradually begin to come closer to more sensitive understanding of the Church’s teaching on marriage as a lifelong commitment, which for Christians has with a deep religious foundation. The Church has to learn a new way to criticise in such a way as not to alienate, but also the Church must avoid giving the impression that “anything goes”.
The teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage is well known and is not something just Irish. That teaching is the same in Ireland and in any other country in the world and does not change according to fashion. That said we must also remember that people will not come to understand the Church’s teaching simply by decree or dictate. The real problem is that the Church has been negligent in presenting more effectively its own teaching. The Church in Ireland for far too long started out from the position that the majority of Irish men and women understood and accepted the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage. For too long Catholics felt that Catholicism was the majority faith in Ireland and thus numbers were on their side and were their strength. As time went on and the culture of Ireland changed, the numbers decreased and the cultural factors which affect all western countries are just as active in Ireland as elsewhere.
Does that mean that the Church should simply recognise social change and either change its teaching or shut up? What the Church in Ireland has been weak on is that of presenting in a convincing way with our younger generations the values which underlie our teaching on marriage and the family. We have repeated our teaching on lifelong commitment to people whose understanding of these words had slowly become different to what we thought.
There is a sense in which in Ireland “the Church” taught married couples what marriage was about, whereas for the Church married people are not passive recipients of teaching. The sacrament of marriage is not just a blessing for a man and a woman on their wedding day. The sacrament of marriage is a sacrament given for the building up of the Church. Christian married couples have a calling and a special charism within the Church which should make them active protagonists in fostering the values of love and life, of permanence and fruitfulness, which are the essential of marriage life.
To many, even within the Church, the language of the Church appears to be a disincarnated language of telling people what to do. I am in no way saying that the Church is not called to teach. I am not saying that experience on its own determines teaching or the authentic interpretation of teaching. What I am saying is that the lived experience and struggle of spouses can help find more effective ways of expression of the fundamental elements of Church teaching. Marriage is a complex social reality. It is not simply “two individuals who are in love”.
It is also important to remember that Jesus himself always accompanied his preaching the good news with a process of healing the wounded and welcoming those on the margins. His teaching was never disincarnated and unmoved by the concrete human situation in which people could come to be embraced by the Good News.
The Church must also listen to where God is speaking to the Church through the witness of those Christian married couples who struggle and fail and begin again in the concrete situations of the harshness of life today and fail again. The experience of failure and struggle cannot surely be irrelevant in arriving at the way we proclaim the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. There is still difficulty in accepting the significance of human endeavor which fails to reach the high ideals but is part of the struggle for perfection. None of us would be capable of living the teaching of our calling in the Church without the help of the mercy of God.
The challenge of the Synod of Bishop is to re-awaken in our communities a sense of the importance of the mission of married people in the Church. Pope Francis has asked for the contribution around the world of married couples and parish communities as to how we should address these questions. The first stage in preparation for the Synod was to look at the situation of marriage and family life in today’s culture. I sometimes feel that that was the ideal question to ask in Ireland where we are great at identifying where things go wrong and to look at the divergence between popular culture and practice and the teaching of the Church.
The upcoming Synod is to look at the pastoral responses to this challenge and to identify ways in which we can change our pastoral structures to ensure that we understand marriage as an itinerary of faith and help married couples to deepen that journey of faith through their everyday realities. Already I am beginning to fear that our answer to the pastoral challenge will only be another analysis of what went wrong.
Pope Francis constantly stresses an image of the Church as a “field hospital on the scene of a battle”. At the field hospital what matters is the first contact with one who is wounded. It is not a place for diagnostics, but a place where people are taken up into the caring arms of someone, where their wounds are washed and cleaned and they receive a welcome of care and concern. At the Synod one Bishops said that while the Pope speaks of a field hospital, in many parts of the Church we are happy to be more like the state pathologist’s office, tentatively looking at the factors that went wrong.
Let me come back to the concept of community. For many the sacramental life of the Church has been reduced to a sort of spiritual supermarket where I as an individual come occasionally to top up my spirit. The idea of being part of a believing and worshipping community was not central.
Now immediately many will say to me that I am beginning to say that going to Mass is the real litmus test about whether a person is a Catholic or not. There are certainly some who attend Mass regularly who have lost the true sense of what belief is about. There are certainly those who attendance at Mass may even be hypocritical – Pope Francis just one week ago was critical of those who give generously to the Church and yet do not pay their employees a decent wage.
But Christianity is not just a religion about individuals. The sacramental life of the Church is always the celebration of a community. We still have to recognise that in our practice. Baptism is not a private celebration for a family and friends. It should really take place within a celebration of the Christian community. The entire sacramental practice in Ireland has to be seen as something which takes place within the framework of a worshipping community and which leads to the Eucharist as the central element in our communion with Christ and with one another, which was the theme of the Eucharistic Congress some years ago.
For me there were a number of lessons which I learned at the celebration of the Eucharistic Congress and which still need to be developed today. One was the desire for formation in the faith. The main seminars at the Congress were overbooked and some had to be repeated two or three times.
The second thing that struck me was that men and women coming from various parts of Ireland got an injection of enthusiasm and confidence and hope about their faith and about their church through being together and experiencing a broader sense of community. I am very pleased that your lecture series is called “journeying in hope”. The Church needs to regain confidence within itself and about the role and the place of the church in society.
A believing community can never just be an inward looking one. The concrete Christian community must engage in a sort of theological discernment which seeks to examine the relationship between the realities of faith and the realities of their lives. That was one of the great insights of the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Francis, in his dialogue with Eugenio Scalfari, the editor of the liberal Italian newspaper La Repubblica, an atheist whose newspaper is well known for many trenchant articles against the Church, stressed the twofold nature of his own mission as Pope. He stressed that his mission “is to not only confirm the faith in Jesus Christ, for those who already believe, but also to spark a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those who, like you, define themselves as ‘for many years being a non-believer who is interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth”.
That phrase “a non-believer who is interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth’” is a noteworthy one which applies today not just to what we might call the “traditional non-believer” but also to many who would today in Ireland register themselves at the census as Catholic. Our evangelization must open out to them and address the challenges they face in their search for truth and meaning.
The emphasis on religious education in schools has taken attention away from the need for adult religious education. By that I mean not just addressing the religious education of adults, as another category. I mean that the quality of religious education must be of such a level that it treats men and women as adults, addressing the questions which adult Christians have to face as they live their faith in today’s world.
The Christian community in its dialogue with people of different viewpoints must bring its contribution to the building up of the Irish society of the future. This involves also a contribution to the building up of a different political culture, not in the sense of building a new Christian political party or by telling parties what to do.
We are at a crucial moment in our political culture. Healthy politics cannot just be built on a culture of the spin doctor or on a policy of just being against something. We need policies which are not just anti-something or policies which are sound-bites of self-congratulations or policies of economic dogmatism. We need to look at the social needs of people directly in the face and work together to answer them and not to be put off by diversionary tactics.
We need a renewed sense of national purpose which attempts to involve citizens rather than to manage them. We need a renewed understanding of civil society and its ability not just to toss ideas around but also to bring into social and economic policy a sense of participation, of gratuitousness and generosity and of true pluralism. Our Christian communities of lay men and women – and especially idealistic young people – should not be absent from this process.”