Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001
Of all the problems facing the church, that of passing on ‘the faith’ to a younger generation seems most intractable, yet most crucial. It is at this point that we come right up against the possibility of an unprecedented discontinuity in Irish life. If young people have now decided almost unanimously against the traditional Catholic vocations to celibate ministries, does this indicate a rejection of Catholicism and Christianity per se?
My experience of Cursillo in Derry led me to an offshoot, a ‘cut down’ version of the Cursillo provided for young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, called ‘Search’. Essentially the same features apply: the presentation, over a weekend, of a lifestyle centred on prayer, study and action; the ‘team’ drawn mostly from the peer group, supported by a few unobtrusive older adults; talks involving personal witness as well as exposition, given mostly by young people themselves. Could this formula possibly succeed among a generation now so much younger than the clerical mean in Ireland?
Again I was astonished by what I found: a complete lack of cynicism and derision; a poise and quiet confidence among the young team that I had never encountered previously in this generation; a willingness to be entirely open about the detours from the moral life that young people are now so endangered by; above all a maturity that proved that Christianity is far from being mere sentimentality and wishful thinking.
I was reminded also that nowadays young people are far from insulated from the horrors that can punctuate life in Northern Ireland – including even sectarian murder. Faith that in the darkest valleys the Lord will be found was as much present in the Search experience as in the Cursillo at Termonbacca.
One feature of Search that does not occur on the Cursillo is the dramatisation of issues such as peer pressure in relation to addictive substances or early sex. These are taken very seriously, an echo of the morality plays of the middle ages – and have enormous potential for development as Irish life becomes more sophisticated.
I was above all impressed by the demeanour of these young people before the Blessed Sacrament. Instead of a stiff formalism imposed by adults and undermined by childish giggles, or embarrassed make-believe, I found a relaxed celebration of a sacred presence, all the more sacred because the Lord was clearly understood above all as patient lover and friend of every individual present. Some sang impromptu to guitar accompaniment, while others knelt praying, or read their bibles. There was no orchestration of this, no monitoring adult presence – and no-one was disturbed by my presence either. People came and went quietly, as inclination took them.
This sense of being individually accepted and loved carried over to the relationships between all those present. The entire social and educational spectrum was covered, but the Lord’s inclusiveness was marvellously realised.
There was also a wonderful rapport between the youthful majority on the team, and their mature guides. The latter rely not upon close control but upon trust, built up for weeks before the weekend in planning and prayer sessions. Search was every bit as ‘horizontal’ as Cursillo. Indeed the gratitude of these young people for the trusting care of their elders was openly expressed in the prayers before the Blessed Sacrament that preceded the adult talks.
Speaking individually to some of the Search team later, I found myself talking to adults proud of their faith. This pride came mainly from a sense of doing important work – of proving the relevance of faith to peers often desperately in need of it. Significantly, all insisted that in the Search ministry (for this is what it is) they had received something their Catholic schooling had failed to provide: a context in which they could witness to their own faith, and receive the support of peers, free of the suspicion that they were merely ‘faking it’ for the approval of adult authority.
The essential element was the deep conviction that the spiritual life accords self-respect, as well as a capacity to be of service to those who can lose all direction in total immersion in current youth culture.
“What does ‘Salvation’ mean to you?” I asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer student.
“That God loves you,” she said, without hesitation. That knowledge, simply expressed, had been gained almost solely through the Search experience – first as a candidate experiencing a weekend provided by others, and then several times afterwards as a member of the team. Christine is in every respect completely relaxed and natural, articulate and intelligent without any sense of superiority.
Christine is also ecumenically engaged, quite at home with Church of Ireland Christians on their annual Summer youth ‘bash’. This too is as true of Search as of Cursillo: pride in being Catholic does not preclude respect for other Christian traditions. Indeed there is often an honest admiration for the sturdy faith that Ulster Protestantism upholds in a generally cynical world.
As with Cursillo, those who gain most from Search make an ongoing commitment to attend regular meetings for prayer and preparation, becoming effectively part of an evangelising community. This last, is, I am convinced the essential secret of any ‘New Evangelism’ today. An evangelism that does no more than verbally assert the existence of a loving God is worse than useless, as it merely replicates the promise of a thousand commercial ventures to ‘change your life’ without changing the communal context in which it is lived.
Listening to ecclesiastics enthusing about the power of modern media to ‘spread the word’ I wonder how long this mirage will deflect the hierarchical church from the reality of the death of Christendom. That was an era when spectacular ‘conversions’ flowed from the success of the Church in commanding the political and intellectual heights. All of us remember when this was true of Ireland also, when much ‘faith’ was mere conformity by the upwardly aspiring.
Now in Ireland the only powerful church is Cynicism, spilling like acid from a thousand journalistic pens and broadcasts. In the general collapse of respect for all institutions, and their most prominent members, the Irish Catholic church is undergoing its most serious challenge since the Reformation. Indeed, the present challenge to Irish Catholicism is in some respects even more serious than that, for the Reformation was weakened in Ireland by the fact that its missionaries were generally considered lackeys of an alien oppressor, and Irish Catholicism was consequently strengthened by its utility as a badge of cultural and political identity.
With political independence the Catholic hierarchy here assumed the position of the Catholic hierarchy of the European ancien régime – elitist, hostile to modernity, (especially the principle of intellectual freedom), and condescending to the social base. Convinced that control of the intellectual heights and of the educational system would mean security for ever, it failed to take the opportunity to build an open egalitarian church provided by Vatican II – and is now reaping the proper reward of such a policy: the almost total collapse of hierarchical authority.
Yet in many ways those Catholics who still joyously serve are proving that a collapse of hierarchical authority is not a collapse of the authority of the Gospels. Wherever compassion reigns, God reigns also. It is only in the context of genuine compassion – not just mere publicity – that a New Evangelism can flourish. Young people who know this, and act upon it, are tomorrow’s church, and to restore our hope, and our authority, we must simply affirm and follow them – allowing them to teach their peers.
In all the examples I have seen of effective evangelism in Ireland today, it is lay people who play the key role – the peers of those who need convincing of the reality of Christian love. They convince not by virtue of their verbal eloquence or theological sophistication, but by their integrity – the fact that they embody genuine faith and the compassion they attribute to God. They also belong to the most morally challenged society in Ireland.
Northern Ireland is commonly considered the worst advertisement for Christianity in the whole of the west. Yet in the personal crises and traumas that it provides, there is a wealth of experience of the reality of grace. Out of these darkest valleys have come people – old and young – who walk more securely and wisely in their faith than I would have thought possible. This too surely is Good News – a promise that for the Irish church as a whole there will indeed be a resurrection, if we can all learn from the experience of humiliation.