Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: X – The Emerging Church

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Nothing could be more obviously needed by the Catholic Church in Ireland than a clearly defined role for lay people – a role in renewing and revitalizing the whole church.

And nothing could be more obviously lacking in our church at present than structures that would require and allow lay people to meet creatively – under the banner of their church – at parish, diocesan and national level – to respond to the current crisis by building a prayerful sense of common purpose and ownership of our own faith.

The fact that four decades after Vatican II the Catholic church in Ireland has a conference of bishops, and a conference of priests, but still no conference of the Catholic laity – is a monument to the inertia of the church’s leadership, to Irish Catholic clericalism and to hierarchical disloyalty to Vatican II.

The fundamental problem of clericalism is that it is obsessed with the status of clergy – an entirely worldly concern. It fears lay people exercising initiative, freely debating the multitude of problems that beset their church and society, and taking action to put them right. It privileges clerical control, so it places a high value on lay docility and passivity and prefers lay people to be in a permanent state of inadequacy and need. Raising lay obedience to the pinnacle of its value system, it trains us for permanent inertia.

“Leave everything always to us!” This is the central message of clericalism. “We will do all your thinking for you, and tell you when and how to respond.”

As a result our church is in deep danger of disappearing altogether when the present generations of clergy pass on – as they are rapidly doing. No adult in Ireland is now unaware that the continuity of the faith is critically challenged. Clericalism is building nothing to replace itself, because it can envisage nothing but a clerically-controlled church.

And lay people are especially disheartened when some of those priests who have sought a reputation for forward thinking have been heard to say to their new and fragile pastoral councils: “What you propose is not going to happen: remember I am the parish priest”.

Yet the conviction behind this series of articles is that already lay people are being called into thought and action – and are laying the foundations of a different kind of church. A deep sense of crisis is calling people into prayer, and the continuing absence of an adequate clerical response to that crisis is forcing lay people out of their inertia. When clerical leadership fails, lay people are clearly themselves called to lead.

This does not mean that we are called to promote and preach new and radical theologies. Our specific task as laity has been already clearly defined by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God. Our current priority is to understand what that means, and to communicate that meaning to one another and to the secular world in which we live.

I am convinced that it means infusing secular space with the values and wisdom of the Gospels – so that no one is abandoned to loneliness, depression, addiction, suicide or neglect. It means understanding why secularism alone is not enough, and why prayer is necessary to human health and development. It means nothing more than making Ireland a truly welcoming, safe and compassionate society.

The ideology of secularism began just two-and-a-half centuries ago, when many intellectuals in western Europe became convinced that religion was the source of most human problems. Under the banner of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ secularism set out to change the world – as though nothing more than a snappy slogan was needed.

This movement had no sooner begun in 1789 than it discovered it needed a guillotine to get rid of its opponents. And then these same secular evangelists began to use the same guillotine on one another. Their outstanding legacy to the world was the word ‘terrorism’

Two-and-a-half centuries later freedom, equality and brotherhood are in as short supply as ever – and terrorism is a global problem. And the Gospels tell us why.

The reason is that whatever slogans we may agree with one another politically, we are all secretly afflicted with a tendency to put ourselves first, by acquiring a superior status. (‘Lord, which of us is the greatest?’).

This is a moral and spiritual, not an intellectual, problem – and it has therefore only a spiritual solution. Every one of us needs to be engaged daily in a struggle with our own selfishness, our own ego.

The most effective means of waging that struggle is to understand that true freedom and self-respect lie in meeting the needs of others – the reason Jesus calls us to serve. If we use our personal gifts merely for personal advancement we miss the joy that lies in using them freely for others.

Many people in Ireland today are discovering exactly that. The search for spirituality – and for answers to problems such as addiction, depression, family breakdown and loneliness – are all leading us in the same direction. We cannot find personal fulfillment as isolated individuals: we are fulfilled only when somehow we are involved in meeting the needs of community.

The search for status – for the admiration of others – the search that underlies excess consumption and workaholism – is the root of most social problems – including the collapse of community. If there is nothing beyond this world (the basic precept of advanced secularism) then every one of us must compete for status with everyone else – by building the largest palace on the outskirts of town, with the most expensive cars in the driveway. Every town in Ireland is now encircled by these ridiculous monuments to human vanity – while community collapses.

And so everyone who lives in such a palace must also become increasingly security-conscious. Soon enough in Ireland the rich will be doing what the rich elsewhere are obliged to do: building high walls and fences around their palaces to defend ourselves against the envy they evoke, permanently protected by closed circuit TV.

It is the search for social status that underlies both social violence and the environmental problem. The iron law that tells us that we must desire what others find desirable is heading the human population rapidly towards social and environmental catastrophe. This iron law is nothing other than the biblical sin of covetousness.

Spirituality – the search for a relationship with the Spirit of Goodness and Truth – leads us on another path: towards personal frugality and an ethic of compassion, generosity and service.

This union of religion and spirituality is the challenge that Vatican II threw down to Ireland and the whole of the church forty years ago. It threatens no-one, and can answer the supreme question that secularism poses: how can we be prosperous and happy as well?

It can meet also the other challenge that Vatican II threw down – to ‘engage with culture’. How are we to avoid absorbing every new cultural wave that rolls in from across the Atlantic or elsewhere? (Some of these now encourage children to engage in sexual activity as soon as they reach puberty.) How are we to define, improve and preserve our own cultural identity, bequeathing solid values to our children?

The answer lies in understanding why we so easily absorb the culture of others. The reason is nothing other than a lack of self-respect – and this too is a deep spiritual problem. To overcome the fear of being different we need to understand that spiritual development offers especially the courage to be different – the courage to be ourselves. For Christians, this is the great gift and programme of the Holy Spirit.

Understanding all of this – and much more – is the wisdom that Ireland now needs. To develop this wisdom lay people need to be meeting together as adult Christians, taking responsibility for the first time.

Too many of our clerical leaders are, so far, afraid to sponsor and encourage this process – because they are still mostly wedded to the strange notion that the Holy Spirit wants clergy to be always in charge.

Their own inertia – and the growing confidence and independence of the Irish laity – is proving something else: that God gives intelligence to everyone, and calls everyone to prayer, so that we can freely spiritualise our own lives, and spiritualise also the secular space we occupy. The many thoughtful responses this series of articles has received from lay people prove exactly that.

So lay people must not feel guilty that they have outgrown the inadequate structures that the clerical church provides the wider church. Growth is the particular business of the Holy Spirit, who is calling us into a new maturity. The decision taken recently by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that all parishes in his Dublin archdiocese should have parish councils, and his challenge to clerical authoritarianism, are pointing the way forward for clergy in all dioceses.

Our challenge as laity is to humanise and spiritualise a secular world that does not understand the limits of mere secularism. That is our own lay task, our own adventure – and no one is entitled to take it from us. We need no-one’s permission to begin it, as we have always been called to do it – by our baptism and by the Eucharistic liturgy.

For the moment we must use every means and opportunity that secular space provides. In time, as usual, the clerical church will catch up – and belatedly sponsor a process that it cannot, and must not, stop.

Fifteen centuries ago when the faith was new in Ireland, our missionary saints set out to restore Christian values to a world devastated by imperialistic and militaristic values. Now Ireland has been given a different challenge: to put our faith to work to meet the challenge of a fundamentalist secularism that does not understand its own shortcomings, or why the world it has built is headed towards disaster.

We Catholics in Ireland are now called to respond to that challenge, and to teach the world once more. This time we must teach by doing – by helping to build a compassionate, just, free and wise society, using the insight and inspiration that the Gospels provide.

There is probably no town or village in Ireland where some have not already begun.

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