‘The Church of the Future’ – address by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

19 Mar 2019

175th  Anniversary of Saint Michael’s Church, Pery Square, Limerick

 “I am delighted to be here to celebrate the 175th anniversary of this Church of Saint Michael.  For me this is a year of anniversaries.  On 6 January I was 20 years a bishop.  On 26 April I will be 15 years as Archbishop of Dublin and on 25 May I will be 50 years a priest.  I have seen many changes in the Church in Ireland and worldwide.

Celebrating anniversaries is a special art.  It is good to celebrate.  It is hard to celebrate objectively.  There is tendency for each of us to celebrate the positive in our lives and go lightly on what is negative.  Others however might prefer to emphasise our negatives and go lightly on the positives.

There is the temptation to judge situations by the standards of today rather than situate realities in the complex situation in which they took place.  It is easy to judge the past.  It is easy to use the past to acquit people of the mistakes of today. We live in constantly changing times.

I remember once giving a homily where I worked in the Vatican that I opened with the phrase: “I entered the seminary in Dublin in 1962 and left it in 1969 into a different Church and a different Ireland”.  My superior at the time and one of my maestri in life said to me afterwards: “I liked your opening, but you have to remember that in my life I have gone through that type of radical change on four or five occasions.  The important thing is to recognise change and to come out of change always on the right side and by that I mean looking in the right direction”.

To look towards the future means to extricate oneself from the contingencies of the past to be free to look dispassionately to the future.  The difficulty is to identify what is contingent and what is essential. 

This is particularly difficult when the past had been dominant for generations and when continuity and tradition are prized as they are in the Catholic tradition. I can well remember as a teenager finding in the introduction of my prayer book a long article on why the Mass could only be celebrated in Latin.  It read convincingly then, but not now.

I grew up for my formative years in a tradition that went back to before I was born.  For years before I was born, people in Dublin had been praying at Mass “for our Pope Pius and our Bishop John Charles [McQuaid]”.  It was a culture in which tradition was to be defended and in which change could be dangerous.  I recall the unforgettable phrase of Archbishop McQuaid on his return from the Second Vatican Council:  “no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives”.

Archbishop McQuaid had returned from a Council that had been characterised by Pope John XXIII in his opening speech as a moment to reflect on change.  On the one hand, the Pope stressed that:  “The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians…”  On the other hand, he noted: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”.

Pope John stressed:  “it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world, which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate”.

What is remarkable in this analysis is not just the openness to change, but the recognition that the challenge for change in the Church can come also from the realities of the world around us:  “For this reason, the Church has not watched inertly the marvellous progress of the discoveries of human genius, and has not been backward in evaluating them rightly.”

Pope John recognised that human progress, with all its ambiguities, could also bring us new insights into how we understand the received doctrine. Not everyone in our Church understands this even today.

One of my fears about the future of the Church in Ireland is that in the fear of change some people will seek to find comfort zones where they can feel the support of the likeminded and not open themselves to the challenge of change.  They can build firewalls between their belief and the world in which they live.  They can take refuge in what Pope Francis calls “an auto-referential Church”.

Jesus Christ came to bring liberty.  Hiding fearfully in what can appear to be tradition is a great temptation.    It is not necessarily the message of Jesus Christ.

In some cases, the fear of change can go further and be exploited into an ideology that actually distorts the message of Jesus.  I return to Pope John’s words at the opening of the Council:  “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, which is, none the less, the teacher of life… We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

Constantly repeating truths can in itself be a sign of fearfulness and a retreat from realities.  This is the problem with “cultural warriors of certainty” who focus perhaps on one aspect of the truth and affirm a certainty in a way which comes from human assertion and from within a personally defined safe space.  These people can become a source of division and partiality and polarization and can in their own way manipulate Church leadership into a certain sympathy with them and into taking wrong decisions.

It would be foolish, however, to think that Pope John’s intention was just to accept modernity as simply good and positive.  Pope John was no moral relativist.  

Alongside the fearful in today’s Church, there are also other groupings.  Not all change is or was good.  I was interested to read a collection of comments made over the years by Cardinal Godfried Danneels, former Archbishop of Mechelen – Brussels, who died in these days.  He was considered one of the more progressive Cardinals and his comments thus have an added interest.

He had been troubled, for example, by the superficial euphoria that spread within Europe after the fall of communism and the attempts to view it as simply a victory of belief over materialist communism and the emergence of a mono-polar “end of history”. 

He was sceptical about forms of new interest in religion that lacking in discernment could in the long run be dangerous as they could give rise to “an erosion within the Church of the specific of Christianity, leading to doubts about the unicity of Jesus Christ and the separation of moral values from the person of Christ.” 

He spoke of the danger of reducing the liturgy to a space for humanitarian concerns and an instrument for the simple celebration of the communitarian.   He noted that: “Trying to reduce the liturgy into a moment of theological teaching or of catechesis, or of protest or campaigning or of raising funds simply drains the liturgy of its essential”   The liturgy is the action of Jesus Christ.   He stressed that while in the past the role of the priest almost vanished captured into the ritual, today it is the quality of the priest as animator that inspires us and thus he becomes an actor rather than a servant. 

These are not the terms that one expects to hear from the more liberal wing in the Catholic Church.  Daneels is very clear that renewal does not mean returning to a society totally Christianised.  Neither does he see the Church as is a marginalised minority in society.  He saw the Church as “a spark in a dry field”.  

The presence of the Church in the future may not be a dominant one but it is not an irrelevant one.  In the face of the logic of the moral certainties of the cultural warriors, Cardinal Daneels reminded us that: “moral coherence is fundamentally a gift of grace”.

Where does this leave our reflections on the future of the Church in Ireland?   The sociological data send us mixed signals. We have statistics about decline in religious practice and yet there is a new vibrancy in many areas.  48% of Catholics between the ages of 24 to 29 in the Archdiocese of Dublin registered at the last census as “of no religion”.  Yet my experience is that there are parishes and communities that have never been as vibrant at any time in their history as they are today.  Numbers may be reduced but perhaps in the past we placed far too much trust in our numerical presence. 

Renewal is never our own creation.   Renewal will only come through returning to the Church that we have received from the Lord.  The Church must constantly undertake a path of renewal and conversion that ensures that what grows and matures into the future truly is the Church of Jesus Christ and not something of our own creation.

Let me look at one particular challenge for the future.   The first thing that came to my mind when I was asked to give a talk on the Future of the Church in a Church of Ireland Church was “which Church are we talking about?

When I entered the seminary in Dublin in 1962, the majority of my classmates had probably never met a protestant or what they might have instinctively then called a non-Catholic. 

The Catholic Church in which I grew up and into which I was ordained would have looked at Catholicism as being, if not the one true Church, at least the Church that had a right to be dominant, if just because of the extent its membership.

Relationships have changed.  I noted in the visitors’ book of my residence that when my predecessor Archbishop Edward Byrne died in 1940 it was only some days after the event that the name of the Church of Ireland Archbishop appeared. 

The first message of congratulations that I received on my appointment to Dublin was from the Church of Ireland Archbishop John Neill.  Both he and his successor Archbishop Michael Jackson have undertaken numerous common actions with me.  In addition, we have experienced true ecumenical friendship.  At moments of real difficulties for me personally, they have been a true support.  We are very much at home in each other’s Cathedrals.  We are seen together on the streets of Dublin.

Where do we go from here?  Where are the areas where ecumenical collaboration can improve?  I suppose I should be asking where are the areas where we can make a real qualitative leap within ecumenical relations, in the face of the changing religious culture.   We have to move from the situation of just ticking conventional boxes and ritually celebrating the same annual events.

We would also have to ask where differences between our two denominations might be becoming more acute.   One is the different estimation of certain moral questions and a difference between our Church traditions on how we speak or cannot speak on social morality.   

We need to be more assertive in theological dialogue on the areas that still divide us.  They will not go way by simply ignoring them or coming to private individual solutions.  Our theological institutions must do more research and reflection together.  I am pleased with developments at Dublin City University where both Catholic and Church of Ireland student teachers are trained in a common faculty of education while being rooted in the own traditions.

Here do we develop a common presence of our believers and our Churches in tomorrow’s society?   The experience of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudate Sì has opened a wider path of ecumenical collaboration in the area of the environment and climate justice.  This experience can open opportunities for young people from both traditions to develop new relationships in reflecting on the place of belief in pluralist societies and the contribution they can bring as believers to public life.  Young people in our separate Christian schools can come together more often and not just on the sports field.

The world around us and the culture of Irish life have changed.  Yet the Church continues in many ways to live in a way that fails to recognise that culture has indeed changed so much.  Irish culture has drifted from being the culture of an enlarged faith community into a heavily secularised culture.  For many, faith no longer plays a major role in their lives and they feel that this in no way compromises their ability to be good, honest and caring people.   Believers, albeit unknowingly to themselves, often view the reality of faith through a secularised lens of modern media.

During the visit of Pope Francis, the Taoiseach made an important speech in Dublin Castle.   Noting how the Ireland of the 21st Century is a very different place today than it was in the past, he reminded us that “there are more and more people [in Ireland]… who are comfortable in declaring that they subscribe to no organized religion”.

He expressed the belief that “that the time has now come for us to build a new relationship between Church and State in Ireland – a new covenant for the 21st Century.”  He spoke about an Ireland “in which religion is no longer at the centre of our society, but in which it still has an important place”.

He noted that “modern Ireland is still a country with faith and spirit and values. Family, community, enterprise, social justice, diversity, openness and internationalism, equality before the law, and individual liberty – these values describe the Republic we aspire to be”.  I believe that these are the values to which believers also aspire and wish to bring their specific contribution in building a future Ireland.

So far no progress has been made by the government in developing the Taoiseach’s idea of a Covenant. The demands of addressing the challenges of Brexit have justifiably taken up the time of politicians.  This does not mean that this dialogue is not important not just for the interests of Churches and government, but rather for the good of Irish society.

Such dialogue will involve a change in the attitude of our Churches.  I do not believe that people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland.  Yes, there are many residual elements of faith in our society and they are deep-rooted.  These elements, however, are weakened with the passage of each generation.  

We have invested in structures of school-based religious education that despite enormous goodwill are not producing the results that they set out to achieve.   I am a strong proponent of denominational education; Catholic education has a solid track record.  I see an important future for Catholic education alongside and in dialogue with other vibrant forms of education, including that of minority Churches. The real level of parents’ interest in Catholic education will only be objectively measurable only when they have real choice.

We have great teachers in our faith schools. The system is also such that teachers who do not share the faith find themselves at times teaching something of which they are not convinced.  There are fundamental fault-lines within the current structure for Catholic schools that are not being addressed and unattended fault-lines inevitably generate destructive energies.

Together as Churches we have to discover new ways of reaching out to young people and help them develop a strong faith that can be authentically lived-out in a more pluralist Ireland.  There are interesting ecumenical initiatives within many of our universities.  Some of these initiatives are strongly devotional.  Strong rooting in prayer and scripture are important but they should not produce young believers who use devotion to opt out of commitment within society.

A major challenge for the future of the Catholic Church lies in the area women’s issues and of sexual morality where the Church’s teaching is either not understood or is simply rejected as out of tune with contemporary culture.  The manner in which the moral teaching of the Church is presented to believers is for too often not adequately situated within the overall context of the teaching of Jesus, which is both compassionate and demanding. 

The curious demography and history of the Irish Church meant that the Churches developed and pioneered all sorts of valuable services within the community.   This was often done at no expense to the State.  As Irish society became wealthier, it was rightfully claimed that such services deserved appropriate support from public funds because of the social benefit they provided.  As years went by, many of these services then lost something of the Christian concept of gratuitousness and became little different to any other professional service.  

A Church that loses that sense of gratuitousness loses something of the essential dimensions of its witness to Jesus.  When Church services become simply ancillary to the State, then they run the risk of losing their ecclesial originality and will one day end up being incorporated into the public service structure and subordinated to its goals. 

The Catholic Church has to take a critical look at the dominant role it assumed in Irish society, while at the same time not renouncing its prophetic role in society.   We need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests.  A culture of clericalism is hard to eliminate.  It did not come out of nowhere and so we have to address its roots in seminary training. There is no way we can put off decisions regarding the future.

What kind of leadership does the Catholic Church in Ireland need in the future?  The term “synodality” is a current buzzword.  Catholic Church leadership must represent the various charisms present in the Church: lay clerical and religious, women and men, young and old.  We all agree on this, but nothing seems to happen.  The alienation of so many women only increases. 

Bishops play a vital role in the Catholic tradition.  An Apostolic Visitation of the Irish dioceses took place some years ago.  It is well known that I was unhappy with many aspects of the Visitation and its results.  Despite the good intentions, the visitation froze the renewal of the Irish Church for some years, while it waited years for results that were disappointing. A number of diocese were left vacant for years.   Some of the ideas of the visitation were then put back into the freezer, such as a reduction and rationalization in the number of dioceses.  I believe that this is still necessary, as is the revision of the arcane workings of the Irish Episcopal Conference. 

The Catholic Church in Ireland is coming out of one of its most difficult moments in its history and the light at the end of the tunnel is still a long way off.  The Catholic Church in Ireland will have to live with the fruits of its actions and is inaction and with the grief of its past, which can and should never be forgotten or overlooked.  There is no simple way of wiping the slate of the past clean, just to ease our feelings.  Yet the Catholic Church in Ireland cannot be imprisoned in its past. 

In my years as Archbishop, I have learned enormously from survivors of abuse as they allowed me to know something of their pain and of their hopes and also of the spiritual void which many experience as a result of betrayal by their Church.     In my encounters with survivors, however, I have found their spiritual fragility somehow has given them in fact a deep spiritual strength, from which I have profited.  For that, I thank them.

My hope is that the future of the Church in Ireland will be one where we truly learn from the arrogance of our past and find anew a fragility which will allow the mercy and the compassion of Jesus to give us a change of heart and allow others through a very different Church to encounter something of that compassion and faith for their lives.

I come back to the comments of my former superior who reminded me that as we go through various challenges of change in our religious culture, what is important is that we end up facing the right direction.  That direction may not be an easy one.  It may not leave us in the place we were expecting to be, or that we like, or in which we feel comfortable.  But that is where our future begins.