Can Pope Francis restore faith in the Irish Church?

Sean O’Conaill  April 2014

One year on from his election Pope Francis has already changed the image of the papacy, and modelled an entirely different style of leadership from that of his two predecessors.  Reflecting the amiability and simplicity of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, he may even be setting out to respond to the same challenge that the Italian friar heard from Jesus:  to ‘rebuild my church’.

However,  Pope Francis is now in his late seventies – and many younger bishops appointed by his predecessors may well be wondering if this new wind from Rome will last long enough to oblige them to amend their own way of going.

So far no Irish bishop has become quite so accessible, so open, so eager to meet people and hear their stories and grievances.   Where Francis could meet with an atheist editor in Italy – and allow their exchange to be published – no Irish bishop will formally and openly meet with the leaders of the reformist Irish Association of Catholic Priests (ACP).  Where Francis could call a synod on the family, no Irish bishop yet shows any sign of responding to the call Francis makes to all bishops in Evangelii Gaudium 31 – ‘to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law’.

For example, not even Archbishop Martin of Dublin has projected the holding of a diocesan synod – something his predecessor had done in his final years in office.

And no Irish bishop has shown any sign of taking up another suggestion offered by Evangelii Gaudium – the pope’s advice to every bishop to be willing at times to be led by his own people.

FOA – fear of assembly – still grips Ireland’s bench of bishops in a vice – that fear of ‘stirring up a hornets’ nest’ by, for example, arranging regular open diocesan forums to respond to the missionary challenge issued from the heart of the church.

There can be no missionary revival led by men gripped more by fear than the confidence shown by the pope.  Where is the Irish bishop who will call all of his people to read and discuss Evangelii Gaudium and to feed back to him their vision of the future church, in a truly ‘developed’ diocesan synod?

And where is the Irish bishop who will commit himself to regular interface with a diocesan pastoral council – to respond, for example,  to questions such as those that arise out of Ian Elliott’s concerns for the integrity, independence and strength of the NBSCCC?

If co-responsibility is the challenge of the moment, no Irish bishop has yet risen to that challenge – or responded to the Pope’s clearly given invitation to all national bishops’ conferences to freely consider the particular needs of their own societies, and to be proactive in finding solutions – even at the cost of making mistakes.

Here’s Pope Francis again: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”  (Evangelii Gaudium 27)

What are Irish bishops dreaming of these times?  Why can’t they tell us?  And listen to our dreams too?  Which of them will show the same confidence in the Irish people of God, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us?

And when will they ever change the closeted style of their quarterly meetings in Maynooth – those funereal huddles to prepare statements so guarded that they merely add to the mountain of verbal ash that buries the embers of the Irish faith.

They speak now of St Columbanus and his impending 1400th anniversary.  They need to pray for his courage in venturing into another unknown land awaiting the Gospel – and step out, unguarded, onto the island of Ireland.

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