Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pastores Dabo Vobis, Erin Edition

On this blessed feast -- the 1,550th anniversary of the death of the Apostle of Ireland -- the thread of this morning's gate-starter is worth returning to.

Of course, such are the days we live in that, here in the States, the Vietnamese are viewed as the "new Irish," while on the Sod itself, talk abounds of "post-Catholic Ireland" (as if such a thing could exist). Even for these theories, though, the thread of Irish leadership in the church at home and beyond remains strong and significant, albeit developed considerably from the jingoistic days when the likes of Paul Cullen and John Hughes bestrode the earth.

Closer to home, one son of Dublin is experiencing a ministry unlike any he'd currently find in his birthplace. At 63, Bishop Kevin Farrell heads the 1.2 million-member church in Dallas -- a fold boomed some five times in size since 1990, its average parish counting upwards of 20,000 souls.

He'd build more, if only he had the priests. So for now, they're just expanding the buildings instead.

With the North Texas Metroplex become the nation's fourth largest metropolitan era -- and, in a reality once unthinkable, Catholics now comprising the most sizable religious group in the Lone Star State -- the Big D is expected by many to become the seat of a third province in Texas at some point after the impending USCCB ad limina to Rome, which begins in early November.

In the meanwhile, as he ordained Dallas' first-ever twin auxiliaries last year, K-Far offered up a memorable, shimmering definition of leadership in today's church and what it requires:

* * *
Meanwhile, back on the Blessed Soil made holy by Patrick's preaching, the archbishop of Dublin is in a fight for the church's future.

That doesn't mean, however, that Diarmuid Martin enjoys unanimous ad intra support. If anything, seemingly every sector of the Irish church's Old Guard finds something to complain about when it comes to the Republic's primate.

Still, not even the internal sniping can obscure the reality that, in a national square looking upon a rocked church, the media-friendly native son is Irish Catholicism's lone heeded major voice -- a standing largely due to his clean hands amid the country's epochal abuse scandals... but just as much, his drive to present the moment as God's call to clean house.

Viewed by many survivors and Catholics disaffected by the crisis as the Isle's sole leading churchman worthy of their trust -- an impression burnished further by his emotional talk at last month's public penance in Dublin's Pro-Cathedral -- the veteran Curialist recently sketched out his thoughts on the Irish church's present and future in a talk to a study group at Cambridge.

While Martin's fulltext is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the shape of things to come both on the Isle and well beyond, here are some key snips:
At the time in which I received the invitation to this Conference I was holding meetings with the priests of the Archdiocese of Dublin about the challenges that they face and their priorities in ministry today. During the debate one priest, half seriously and half in jest, answered in candid terms: “The most we can do today is to keep the show on the road”. Hence the title of my talk.

It is not an easy task to be a priest in Ireland today. The numbers of priests are falling. There is more work to be done by priests who are getting older. The task of simply responding to the day-to-day demands of ministry leaves many priests with little time to take on new tasks and address radically new ways of life and ministry. There is a clear awareness that it is time for change; there is a willingness to change but the pressures of “keeping the show on the road” can be draining....

The abuse scandal has deeply wounded the trust that Irish people had in the Church and it will take much effort to regain the confidence of many, right across the generations. There is no way that such confidence can be regained without the truth being revealed. Denial will not generate confidence.

The change that has taken place in Irish culture requires radical change in the life of the Church of such an extent that in the face of it even experts in change management would feel daunted. Certainly I would have to say that despite all my efforts I am failing in my attempts to lead such change. Change management has to have the patience and the strategy to bring everyone along with it and that may not be my talent.

Change is inevitably painful. Radical change can be too radical for some to really face it. In the face of such daunting change the reaction can tempt us to stick to “keeping the show on the road”: we know its rules, it worked in the past, at least it is something I am good at. Anxiety about the pace of change can easily lead some into the temptation of denying the need for change....

Much of the leadership in a new sense of mission in the Irish Church will come through lay men and women. In the Archdiocese of Dublin we have introduced an initial cohort of lay pastoral workers, men and women, working full time in parishes alongside priests. Our training and formation of these workers is very demanding and the reaction to their initial presence in parishes has been very positive. They bring an enthusiasm and a sense of professionalism that is needed in pastoral planning. They have an ability to reach out to other lay people and engage them in programmes of formation and pastoral commitment. They are prayerful men and women who have no reticence about speaking of their own spirituality. They understand that all mission in the Church is calling and requires a self-understanding which is theological in essence.

At the same time 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 from the time of seminary training onwards.

There is a movement of renewal among priests. There is creativity in mission and not just passivity in keeping the show on the road. The priests of the Dublin diocese provide a service and a witness which is admirable. They have remarkable support and the affection of their people, even at a time when these parishioners are angry about the Church....

A few weeks ago a very angry survivor of sexual abuse by a Dublin priest came to me to express his disgust and horror at what the Church had done to him. He wanted nothing more to do with a corrupt Church or any of its agents and listening to his story one could well understand his anger. Leaving me he thanked me and added: “I believe that you will be confirming my little lad later this month”. For many the sacraments are the social events of a civil religion rather than celebrations of the Church.

Young Irish people are among the most catechised in Europe but apparently among the least evangelized. Our schools are great schools; our young people are idealistic and generous, but the bond between young people and Church life ends up being very weak....

Probably my greatest discouragement as Archbishop of Dublin 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. Many experiments flourish for a while and then die out. Everyone knows that there is a missing generation and perhaps more than one, yet there are not enough pastoral initiatives to reach out to young people.

Parishes offer 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. We need a more demanding catechesis, within a parish framework, and more opportunities for young people to deepen their faith and to develop a Christian sense of their generosity and social commitment.

During these past months in Ireland we have been reflecting on the legacy of Cardinal Newman and his presence in Ireland to establish the Catholic University. Our Catholic education system is far from producing what Newman considered the characteristic of a Catholic laity: 'I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it' (The Present Position of Catholics in England, ix, 390).

As Pope Benedict noted in his homily at the Crofton Park Mass at the beatification of Cardinal Newman: "The service to which Blessed John Henry was called involved applying his keen intellect and his prolific pen to many of the most pressing 'subjects of the day'. His insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education... continue today to inspire and enlighten many all over the world”.

The Church in Ireland is very lacking in “keen intellects and prolific pens addressing the pressing subjects of the day”. The place of the Church in the current political discussion in Ireland is increasingly marginal. I would say that none of the political parties even thought of seeking the views of the Church around their policies for the current General Election. If anything they would seem to prefer not to be seen in any way to be associated with the Church.

The paradoxical thing is that the farther the Church goes in adapting to the culture of the times, the greater is the danger that it will no longer be able to confront the culture of the time. It will only be able to speak the language of the culture of the day and not the radical newness of the message of the Gospel which transcends all cultures. It could become a type of civil religion, politically correct, but without the cutting edge of the Gospel. There is a difficult path to tread between a fundamentalism which would pretend that the Church can have its own answer to all questions and a lack of courage to take up positions which may be culturally unpopular. The conformism of the mid-twentieth century remained unchallenged because it had support. Every generation has to allow the Gospel to challenge conformism, even a conformism which calls itself progressive.

Since the failure of Newman’s Catholic University project in Ireland the Irish Church has not really found the right path of a balanced Catholic presence in Irish culture. In the past Catholicism dominated. There was no perceived need to have focussed understanding of the role of being Catholic as such in intellectual and cultural life.

In part, this was due to a non-intellectual streak in the religious culture of Ireland, often located within a narrow clericalist framework. In particular, in the years following independence of Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, there developed a flourishing and fruitful collaboration between Church and State in social and education fields, but which due to clericalism and a desire for clerical control often sadly led a blurring of the correct boundaries of the roles of Church and State. The fault lay on both sides. Church leaders were often aided and abetted by politicians and at a particular moment especially by civil servants.

The result is that today Catholic culture in Ireland does not have the prominence or the intellectual leadership that it should have. While still a predominantly a Catholic country, Ireland does not produce a proportionate level of theological research. There are few forums for reflection on the relationship between faith and life. The intellectual level of preparation of future priests is very mixed. There is no Catholic press in Ireland on the level of the Catholic newspapers in France and Italy. There are few writers or artists who would present themselves as Catholic. So much coverage in the Catholic and in the mainstream secular media is only around controversy. I am not saying that controversy should be stifled. The problem is that media coverage of Church controversy can often end-up by being just sterile debate about Church-internal issues. A Church which becomes inward looking will never be one which can bring an insightful Christian message regarding the pressing issues of the day.

The Catholic Church in Ireland will have to learn a new manner of being present in society. Recently, a leader of one of the Protestant Churches in Dublin said to me that all our Churches were now wearing clothes which do not fit well because they had been tailored for us when we were fatter. The answer to today’s real religious challenges is not to seek more fashionable clothes to make us look better, or to follow the trends of the moment. We need functional clothes of the right fit for the current realities which we have to face....

When I was received by the Pope on the occasion of the ad limina visit four years ago, I arrived well prepared with all my statistics and my analysis of the bright spots and the shadows of Catholicism in Dublin. I had statistics about priests, about institutions, about Mass attendance. After greeting me the Pope started the conversation immediately by asking me “where are the points of contact between the Church in Ireland and those areas where the future of Irish culture is being formed”. Instead of asking me about the number of parishes he quizzed me about the relationship between faith and universities, and media, as well as literature and the arts and the fundamental ethical issues on economy and society....

Christian faith is not just a faith about doctrines or about rules and regulations or about ethical standards against which we have to measure our own moral behaviour. It is not just about reforming structures. It is about the ability to preach and witness to the message of Jesus. The leader in the Church is not a manager, but a witness and a prophet. Reform in the Church is not in the first place about the redistribution of power, but about the redefinition of power in terms of the way in which Jesus revealed who God is.

The message of the Church is the message of God who loves us before any merit on our part. It is a God who reveals; who speaks to us, engages with us and allows us to understand something of the inner life of God, which is a life of communication and of love. It is a faith which is about truth, but truth which is to be discovered in the life of a person, Jesus Christ, who revealed himself through total-self giving. It is about a God who is generous and whose followers should witness in their lives to the fact that being truly human has much more to do with giving and sharing and loving than with possession and power and dominance.

The God of love is revealed in the life and the works of Jesus Christ. I have often mentioned how in my own religious education in the sixties we were taught that Jesus proved that he was God by his power to work miracles. I do not deny that miracles prove that Jesus was God. What was not stressed was that miracles of Jesus prove to us above all what God is like, that he is a God who reveals his power as one you cares and has mercy, who heals and wants to free people from the burdens and addictions and obsessions that bind them, so that they can be taken up into the inner life of love of God and experience salvation and freedom.

I am convinced that one of the principal ways in which the Church can reform itself and bring its message more incisively to society is through developing a renewed biblical apostolate. The Irish Church at times in its recent history got so focussed on the formulae of orthodoxy that it failed to introduce its people into a real relationship with Jesus and his life and teaching. All our pastoral structures are still poor in scriptural content and approach. Such a biblical basis for its action is also a sound basis for ecumenical collaboration.

Faith is not about establishment. It is about taking the risk of abandoning one’s own security in order to be like the God who did not cling to the trappings of power and authority, but who gave himself totally for our sakes. This is a message which is difficult to comprehend and realise especially by those of us who have a leadership role in the Church and who are open to the perennial temptations to defend and even to abuse the power which was given into our hands to be servants.

The Church today more than ever needs saints and prophets. We should constantly remind ourselves that the one thing that even our most secularised societies really expect from the community of believers is that we witness to how Christ’s message can lead people in their search for the meaning of why we live and how we should live.

The Acts of the Apostles remind us how the early Church lived and was recognised. Christians gathered to hear the word of God and for the prayers and the breaking of bread. From this the Church in Jerusalem became a communion, with a unique life-style known for its sharing, not just of material goods but of the talents that belong to each and every member of the body of Christ. The Acts add that this life of communion of the early Christian had two effects: they had the goodwill of all the people and day by day the Lord added to their number (cf Acts 2:47). There is a lesson to be learned there for all us and for our Church.
And the point is this: what some have called "post-Catholic Ireland" won't ever really be that. What's more accurate to say is that the Irish church's future will merely be a "post-institutional" one -- in historic terms, an evolution from the Cullen-inspired model that's been in force for 150 years.

To be sure, there are those among us who conflate "institution" with Revelation. Yet wherever that mindset exists, above all, it shows a lacking grasp of history... not to mention what the church really is.

* * *

Late one recent night, in the West of Ireland, two priests were sitting around, winding down the day.

At 40, one was pastor of four parishes in a diocese where, due to retirements, the number of active clergy will tumble from 42 to 12 within a decade.

That's not a foreign scenario for Irish dioceses -- nor, proportionally, for many Stateside ones, either -- and almost every local church on Patrick's soil has become well accustomed to a year, or two, or even long stretches, without any ordinations. (For the second time in the last five years, even Dublin -- host of next year's International Eucharistic Congress -- will see no new priests in 2011.)

Given the strains, the men discussed what the church's future will look like, particularly for the elderly devout who form its faithful base. As one foresaw it, "things will come to the point where the parish will be too far [for Sunday Mass], so they'll stay home, say the Rosary, and say, 'Lord, we know you want us to make it, but we can't.'"

And as the other shot back, "Well, Father, that's what kept the faith alive in this country for 300 years."

Sure, three centuries of that reality might be an alien concept to the faithful on these shores. Still, over many decades -- indeed, a century and more -- it's how American Catholicism began... and if that austerity could birth everything that followed, then, perhaps, there are worse ways to start anew.