future of the Church

May 22, 2010

Last week Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin addressed the state of the Church in Ireland. His address is timely not only for the issues the Church faces at present, but also as a preparation for our celebration the feast of Pentecost.

While the Archbishop was addressing the Irish situation, his words are needed in our own situation. His insights into the challenges for Catholic education are timely for the schools in our own parish, Our Lady of Victories and St Thomas of Canterbury and Villa Maria College.

The reaction of the Irish Media was predictable. Their narrow reaction could easily be our own default response to such an insightful and clear challenge. For this reason I have copied below a link to the response of John Waters, a columnist with the Irish Times. Take a moment to read that as well.

Address of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland

Ely Place, Dublin, 10 May 2010

What do I say about the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland? The sociological data send us mixed signals. Public opinion varies from those who would like the Catholic Church slowly, through its own implosion, to fade into the social irrelevance of private individual choice, to those who would like reform on their own terms, to those who would blindly stay with things as they are, to those who call for renewal through repentance. And there are many other viewpoints.

The Church is a reality of faith. As a person of faith I know that the future of the Church in Ireland is not in my hands, but that its future will be guided by the Lord, who is with his Church at all times. Yesterday’s Gospel reminded us that the Father would send the Spirit who, at each moment in the history of the Church, would teach us all things in Jesus name. In that sense I cannot be pessimistic about the future of the Church in Ireland.

On the other hand, as one entrusted with the responsibility of pastoral leadership I have the mission to guide that portion of the Church entrusted to my care along a path of renewal and conversion which ensures that what grows and matures into the future truly is the Church of Jesus Christ and not something of our own creation.

On a purely personal level, as Diarmuid Martin, I have never since becoming Archbishop of Dublin felt so disheartened and discouraged about the level of willingness to really begin what is going to be a painful path of renewal and of what is involved in that renewal.

How do I reconcile these differing trends in my reflection on the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland? On a personal level, I have no choice but to lay aside personal discouragement and continue day-by-day the search for personal conversion and renewal and to re-discover for my own life the essentials of the message of Jesus Christ.

The future of the Catholic Church in Ireland will see a very different Catholic Church in Ireland. I sometimes worry when I hear those with institutional responsibility stress the role of the institution and others then in reaction saying that “we are the Church”. Perhaps on both sides there may be an underlying feeling that “I am the Church”, that the Church must be modelled on my way of thinking or on my position. Renewal is never our own creation. Renewal will only come through returning to the Church which we have received from the Lord.

Why am I discouraged? The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way it was handled. There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge. The truth will make us free, even when that truth is uncomfortable. There are signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up. There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened. There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.

As regards the Archdiocese of Dublin for which I have pastoral responsibility I have constantly warned against any slippage in our vigilance. I appeal once again this evening publicly to all parishes in the Archdiocese to ensure that all child protection measures are in place and in operation and that there is no let-back on the level of vigilance. Questions about child safeguarding should be on the agenda of every meeting of every Parish Pastoral Council and if there are any concerns that are not being addressed then let people contact me directly.

Why such discouragement? The second and deeper root of my discouragement is that I do not believe that people have a true sense of the crisis of faith that exists in Ireland. We have invested in structures of religious education which despite enormous goodwill are not producing the results that they set out to do. Our young people are among the most catechised in Europe but among the least evangelised. I am a strong proponent of Catholic 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, in our schools.

I am not sure however that we all really have an understanding of what Catholic education entails. Many people send their children to what is today a Catholic school not primarily because it is a Catholic school but because it is a good school. I am not sure that parents would change their children from that school if it were to become simply a national school. The level of parents’ interest in Catholic education will only be objectively measurable when they have real choice.

We are also deluding ourselves if we think that what is in fact presented as a curriculum for religious education and formation in faith is actually being applied everywhere. There are clear indications that in the face of so many other curriculum pressures and extracurricular activities religious education is in fact being shifted to the margins of school life in many Catholic schools. We have great teachers; teachers committed to Catholic education. But the system is also such that teachers who do not share the Catholic faith find themselves teaching something of which they are not convinced. Catholic schools have contributed greatly to integration in Irish society. Catholic identity is more than vague ethos; it is also about witness.

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. Our system of religious education – especially at secondary level but also at primary level in urban areas – more and more bypasses our parishes, which should together with the family be the primary focal points for faith formation and membership of a worshipping community. I am not attacking Catholic teachers and Catholic schools; they do tremendous work. What is needed is renewal of the vision of parish. Many of our parishes offer very little in terms of outreach to young people.

There are further challenges to be addressed regarding Church teaching. Within the Church and outside of it discussion focuses around challenges in the area of sexual morality where the Church’s teaching is either not understood or is simply rejected as out of tune with contemporary culture. There is on the other hand very little critical examination of some of the roots of that contemporary culture and its compatibility with the teaching of Jesus. The moral teaching of the Church cannot simply be a blessing for, a toleration of, or an adaptation to the cultural climate of the day. The manner in which the moral teaching of the Church is presented to believers is far too often not adequately situated within the overall context of the teaching of Jesus, which is both compassionate and demanding. Christian moral rules and norms belong within a broader vision of the teaching of Jesus Christ.

This immediately brings us to the deeper question about the level of understanding of the message of Jesus Christ which exists in our Catholic Church and in our society in Ireland today. What do we really know of the message of Jesus? The Irish Catholic tradition has greatly neglected the place of the scriptures. Catholics do not know the scriptures. They do not know how to use the scriptures. We do not take the time to encounter Jesus in the scriptures.

One of the initiatives in which I place much trust in the pastoral programme of the Archdiocese of Dublin is the distribution this year of the Gospel of Saint Luke throughout the Archdiocese. I have said that I should really have charged one cent for each copy and then I would have been able to say that the Gospel had been sold and it might, therefore be at the top of the bestsellers list in Ireland this year. We have distributed 250,000 copies of the Gospel and we are backing the distribution up with e-mail support material month by month. It is one of the most widely circulated publications in Ireland this year. Even if only one in ten copies were read, it would still be on the best sellers list.

I believe that the encounter with the Jesus of the Gospel of Saint Luke could an important answer in the process of healing which is needed by people who in the past encountered the Church as an insensitive, arrogant and dominating institution. I would appeal especially to those who say that they are disillusioned by the Catholic Church in Ireland as an institution but say also they still wish to share the message of Jesus, to take up the scriptures. They will not find the authentic message of Jesus simply on the talk shows. Faith requires nourishment. You cannot allow it simply to drift.

At the same time it would be arrogant on my part not to stress that so many priests, religious and lay persons have a real understanding of the God of love who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ and who not only transmit that message of love to others, but live that message of love in their own daily exemplary lives. There is great goodness and faith to be encountered within an institutional framework which is often frail. We have great priests and we need great priests for the future.

The use of modern media mechanisms to support the distribution of the Gospel is something important and innovative. In this context, we are very fortunate to have a group of scripture scholars who put their knowledge and personal perception of the scriptures at the service of parishes and bible study groups. This material is accessible to any individual who would wish to avail of it on the website www.yearofevengelisation.ie. The modern communications media provide great opportunities for adult catechesis, especially those media which are interactive and can be used not just to transmit information to individuals, but also to contribute to the construction of faith communities. Parishes have however still much to learn about using these media. Parishes must radically re-orientate themselves to become educational communities in the faith and understanding of modern communications is an essential part of that re-orientation.

The modern communications media provide great opportunities but there is no way that the renewal of the Church will be achieved just by slick media gestures and sound-bytes. The message of Jesus is too deep to be encapsulated into sound bytes. Indeed a priority of the process of proclaiming the Gospel is that of taking people beyond the sound-byte culture.

There are those who claim that the media strategy of the Church in the Archdiocese of Dublin following the publication of the Murphy Report was “catastrophic”. My answer is that what the Murphy report narrated was catastrophic and that the only honest reaction of the Church was to publicly admit that the manner in which that catastrophe was addressed was spectacularly wrong; spectacularly wrong “full stop”; not spectacularly wrong, “but…” You cannot sound-byte your way out of a catastrophe.

Some will reply that sexual abuse by priests constitutes only a small percentage of the sexual abuse of children in our society in general. That is a fact. But that important fact should never appear in any way as an attempt to down play the gravity of what took place in the Church of Christ. The Church is different; the Church is a place where children should be the subject of special protection and care. The Gospel presents children in a special light and reserves some of its most severe language for those who disregard or scandalise children in any way.

In analysing the past, it is important to remember that times may have been different and society and other professions may not have looked on the sexual abuse of children as they do today. It is hard however to understand why, in the management by Church authorities of cases of the sexual abuse of children, the children themselves were for many years rarely even taken into the equation. Yes, in the culture of the day children were to be seen and not heard, but different from other professions Church leaders should have been more aware of the Gospel imperative to avoid harm to children, whose innocence was indicated by the Lord a sign of the kingdom of God.

The sexual abuse of children is indeed more widespread than sex abuse by clerics. I would hope that for the tenth anniversary of the SAVI report which first addressed the question of the sexual abuse of children in Ireland in an objective and overall manner, it might be possible for a wide coalition of those concerned about child safeguarding in Ireland today to draw-up an up-to-date map of the phenomenon as its exists today and verify what should be the most opportune strategy to that changed and changing landscape.

The world around us and the culture of Irish life have changed. Yet the Church still continues in many ways to live in a way which 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.

The information collected on the ground in parishes in the Archdiocese of Dublin indicates that regular Church attendance has dropped, in some cases dramatically. Certainly Mass attendance is not the only criterion for measuring the faith of individuals and their belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is not however just a collection of individuals. The proclamation of the Gospel cannot adequately be carried out by correspondence course among people who never meet. The early Church was marked by the gathering of believers, who shared in the prayers and in their understating of the Word of God, who shared what they had and who together broke the bread. The Church is not a collection of individuals whose worship when they feel the need; the Church is fundamentally a worshipping community, founded in and nourished by the Eucharist.

We live in a systems culture. Throughout its history, however, the institutional dimension of the Church has never been renewed just by new structures of organization. Renewal began with individual renewal and witness flourishing into strong and witnessing faith communities. There are those who think that in today’s culture what we need is a sort of efficient “Catholic Church in Ireland Incorporated”, with its own CEO and with management structures administered efficiently from the top right down to the lowest level (and I am not sure who would be consigned to that place). The Church can benefit from appropriate management structures, but renewal will always be the work of prophets rather than management consultants. The message of Jesus Christ is lived in localised faith communities not in national bureaucracies.

Renewal of the Church requires participation and responsible participation. I have spoken about the need for accountability regarding the scandal of sexual abuse. I am struck by the level of disassociation by people from any sense of responsibility. While people rightly question the concept of collective responsibility, this does not mean that one is not responsible for one’s personal share in the decisions of the collective structures to which one was part.

I am surprised at the manner in which Church academics and Church publicists can today calmly act as pundits on the roots of the sexual abuse scandals in the Church as if they were totally extraneous to the scandal. Where did responsibility lie for a culture of seminary institutions which produced both those who abused and those who mismanaged the abuse? Where were the pundit-publicists while a Church culture failed to recognise what was happening?

We need to take a radical new look at the formation of future priests. I am working on plans to ensure that for the future in Dublin our seminarians, our prospective deacons and our trainee lay pastoral workers in the Archdiocese of Dublin will share some sections of their studies together, in order to create a better culture of collaborative ministry. The narrow culture of clericalism has to be eliminated. It did not come out of nowhere and so we have to address its roots in seminary training. We also have to ensure that lay pastoral workers understand that all mission in the Church is calling and requires a self-understanding which is theological in essence. .

Why am I discouraged? Probably my greatest discouragement comes from the failure of interaction between the Church and young people. I visit parishes where I encounter no young people. I enquire what is being done to attract young people to parish life and the answers are vague. Everyone knows that there is a missing generation and perhaps more than one, yet there are very few pastoral initiatives to reach out to young people. I would pay tribute here to the Chaplain in our second level schools who have acquired experience on which we should be drawing.

Parishes offers very little outreach to young people and I feel that an increasing number of young people find parishes a little like alien territory. A form of religious education which is separated from the parish will inevitably collapse for most the day that school ends. Sacramental formation belongs within the Christian community which welcomes and supports each of us on our journey. We need a more demanding catechesis, within a parish framework, for those who wish to come forward for admission to the sacraments. Admission to the sacraments is not something which is automatically acquired when one reaches a certain class in school.

The curious demography and history of the Irish Church meant that the Church developed and pioneered all sorts of valuable service 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 authorities 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 which looses that sense of gratuitousness looses something of the essential dimensions of its witness to Jesus. I believe that it is no coincidence that the consistent generosity people show towards the Saint Vincent de Paul Society comes precisely because of the gratuity of its witness

The Church will continue to provide services for the poor and recognises the need for professionalism in its services. Hopefully the Church has learned the lesson that it should not allow itself to be involved in providing poor quality services for the poor. But when Church services become simply ancillary to State then they run the risk of loosing their ecclesial originality and will one day end up being incorporated into the public service structure and subordinated to its goals. Already the structures of some Catholic services are being altered to respond to financial policies of the State.

The Catholic Church in Ireland in the future will have to find its place in a very different, much more secularised culture, at times even in a hostile culture. The Catholic Church has to look again at the dominant role it assumed in Irish society, while at the same time not renouncing its prophetic role in society and in the formation of consciences through opening to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

This will involve a much greater degree of parish-based catechesis and evangelisation within our parishes. There is no way that this will take place without a very extensive programme of training for volunteer catechists, as is the case in most European countries. Parishes must become real centre of on-going faith formation. A more Parish centred church life does not however mean retreat into the sacristy.

I have perhaps raised more questions than provided answers to the theme about which you asked me to speak this evening: the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland. In our pastoral planning we have to start out from hard facts, which are inevitably today troubling facts. Already in the Archdiocese of Dublin we have ten times more priests over 70 than under 40. There is no way we can put off decisions regarding the future.

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 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. The work of evangelization must if anything take on a totally new vibrancy.

I would not however like what I say to be in any way interpreted as turning our back on the survivors of sexual abuse. They had their childhood stolen and the words of Jesus about his special care for children will apply to them until that day, whenever and if ever that will be, when their hurt will be healed. In my years as Archbishop I have learned enormously from survivors 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. I use the term spiritual void because it is an expression which some survivors have used to express how they feel in their lives. 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.

Perhaps 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.

The Catholic Church in Ireland, as I said, will have to find its place in a very different, much more secularised culture, at times even in a hostile culture. It will have to find that place by being authentic and faithful to the person and the message of Jesus Christ. The agenda for change in the Church must be one that comes from its message and not from pressure from outside and from people who do not have the true good of the Church at heart. We all have reasons to be discouraged and to be angry. There is a sense, however, in which true reform of the Church will spring only from those who love the Church, with a love like that of Jesus which is prepared also to suffer for the Church and to give oneself for the Church.

Thank God there are many who love their Church: lay persons, religious and clergy. We love the Church because the Church is our home, the pace where we encounter the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ and where we gather in love to break bread in his memory.


Link to Irish Times response of John Waters


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