Fundamental to our membership of the Church is our commitment to and our capacity to live the Gospel, and particularly to live in love – to love God, see Christ in one another and to love one another as He loved us.
That capacity to live the Gospel will be nourished in many ways, through prayer and sacrament, but it will also be nourished by the lived example of others both priests and people. As we are nourished, so we are able to trust the Church in all our doings, and to acknowledge it as truly the Church founded by Jesus Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Trust has very clearly broken down. We know that many people are leaving the Church but we know only anecdotally why this is the case. Reasons may include clerical sexual abuse, authoritarianism, growing secularism, and the sense that God is a figment of the imagination of a number of mostly elderly people.
What is very clear is that many people no longer hold the Church and her people in the same respect as they did previously. They do not feel the need for the community of the Church, or they have not experienced that community.
Archbishop Charles Brown, the papal nuncio, asked recently whether “the way in which we live in modern Western societies makes us less sensitive to spiritual realities? Could it be, for example, that filling every hour of every day with music or television or internet or video games or texting, leads to a kind of spiritual insensitivity or numbness?”
Yet in England and Wales, there is growing recognition that the Catholic Church’s social teaching has much to offer to those engaged in industry, commerce and the economy. It articulates fundamental ethical principles which are now being seen as critical to the formation of new policy and there is a willingness by captains of industry to engage with this teaching and to attend Church-organised meetings and conferences to discuss these matters.
At the very centre of policy making and business there is openness to the contribution which can be made by Catholic social teaching. I cannot see that happening in Ireland, where it seems almost to be quaint and naïve to profess a profound faith.
There can be no doubt that there are huge levels of activity by priests and people across the Church in Ireland. In individual parishes there may be a lot happening. Others may be almost moribund. Generally we know that people do communicate at parish level. However there seems to be a significant gap between the people of God, including the priests, and the hierarchy (who are also priests!).
A brief analysis of various official Church websites shows very little opportunity for or evidence of real debate or discussion. There is little communication between the hierarchy and the people, apart from the occasional ‘letters from the bishops’ which are at best a one way exercise. That communication which does take place is initiated for the most part, not by the bishops, but by journalists who seek Church representatives to appear on television and radio programmes and to provide written comment.
The absence of proper communication, of listening and pondering, of responding and taking consequential action has long been a problem here. Its origins are undoubtedly historic. There were generations who were brought up never to challenge the clergy or the episcopacy. Letters from those who sought to engage on major issues very frequently go unanswered by the bishops.
I have never found an explanation for this. Yet many people have reported that even the most important letters go unanswered. This is not acceptable. Any commercial organisation which ignored its members could not survive. Could it be that having been denied any process or place through which there may be that communication and understanding which gives life and energy, many people no longer want to challenge or to question? Could it be that they are simply walking away, because they see no hope of change? But what is it that we need to talk about? Is it that there is not sufficient material for an agenda for a meeting between all Church members? I think not.
Is it that the issues which might be raised are very controversial, and that therefore the hierarchy are fearful of engaging in conversations on matters on which they can make no change, such as married clergy and women priests, precisely because they can do nothing other than report back to Rome? Is it that our Church leaders were not formed to run a Church in which there is dialogue and because they do not know what to do, they do nothing?
The reality of course is that there are many other issues which could profitably form the basis of dialogue between hierarchy and people. The issues which I have met in parishes across Ireland include the problems of an aging clergy, of dwindling congregations, of the need for changes in diocesan and parish structures, of low clergy morale, of people who really want to learn more about their Faith but find it difficult to do so, how to keep our young people in the Church, issues relating to prayer and the celebration of liturgy. These are all matters which affect us all. Yet there is no comprehensive process through which we can talk to the decision makers in our Church about the decisions which they propose to make.
In small groups and occasionally in larger groups there is some discussion of these things. But as the formation of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) and of the Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI) shows, the current processes quite simply are inadequate.
Certain activities and events have the potential to copper-fasten the view that the hierarchy does not listen to her people – the reported refusal by the hierarchy to have another meeting with the ACP does not engender confidence.
The Church in Ireland is in crisis. She will, of course, emerge from that crisis. That is our Faith. However, surely we all have a responsibility to try to find a way to bring about change? The Church in Ireland has much to be proud of in her history. Change will inevitably be gradual. Indeed as Teilhard de Chardin said: “Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow. Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
“Do not try to force them on / as though you could be today what time – that is to say, grace – and circumstances acting on your own good will will make you tomorrow.
“Only God could say what this new Spirit gradually forming in you will be.
“Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
Trusting the guiding hand, can we accept the slow work of God, but still move forward as a Church here in Ireland, to a better place?