A Changing Landscape
Change touches all groups
There was a time across the world, in all of our lifetimes, when it was assumed that Marxism was the future and the words of Stalin echoed keenly in our ears “How many divisions has the Pope?” as he compared the strength of his army with the weakness of God’s. That was until the fall of the Berlin wall – a symbolic tower of Babel. We now know who’s laughing!
This was replaced by a belief that liberal secularism was the way forward and this is the dominant ideology now among those in positions of power and influence in Europe and among some in Ireland. It stems for the Enlightment and the belief that religion is only a temporary aberration, for those who have no sophisticated understanding of the human need for personal freedom but come the scientific enlightenment, so the argument goes, and all of this will change. A new era in which individuals will write their own script for life will replace the outdated patriarchicy that is institutional religion. However, as Brian Appleyard pointed out in his article in the Sunday Times Mar. 31st. 2005 “clearly, the only beleaguered and threatened faith in the world today is the cult of secularism and Europe is the exception to the dominance of religion in most of the rest of the world”. This sentiment is echoed by Alistair McGrath in his book “The Twilight of Aetheism: the rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world”. So even Marxists, aetheists and individualistic secularists, perhaps most of all secularists, have had to face the prospect of change also, and prospect it remains for many who continue to inhabit a world of defensive denial. A further problem is that we are not made aware of these philosophical shifts due to the liberal hegemony in the Western media. I mention this, not to gainsay or deny the reality that the Catholic Church, specially in Ireland, has had to confront demands for change and face the actuality of change in our country in a particularly glaring manner, but to emphasise that you are not alone as change faces all groups and institutions.
Since the sexual abuse scandals, the word “change” has been on everybody’s lips and indeed there must be change in attitudes among priests and bishops and in some of the local church structures so as to ensure that children are protected and that priests who abused young children are no longer shielded and protected from the full rigors of the law.
However, even in the absence of this terrible decade in the Irish church’s history, changes in the clergy’s approach to many aspects of church practice would still have come about although it would have been less painful since it would have been driven by specifically religious and demographic requirements rather than by scandal. Firstly let’s consider the demographics that are driving this change.
Ireland has altered dramatically in the past 15 years. Not only has our physical landscape altered as every town and village has building in progress and we have to welcome new citizens, but also our demographic and cultural landscape has also altered beyond recognition. This has led our psychological landscape changing as we have to confront the reality that we are no longer an island of saints and scholars on the edge of Europe with a homogenous population but a multicultural pocket and a major economic player in a militantly secular Europe. All of this has happened in less than two decades and probably in the course of one. The change has not been gradual but sudden and dramatic. Our population has gown to over 4000,000 and it is ageing. In addition a changing cultural mix means that we have many more religions in Ireland now than ever before and within Catholicism you are faced with new Catholic Christians from accession states. Ultimately many of these new workers will come for a short time but inevitably many will also settle here. They will come from Eastern Europe, from Africa, from various parts of Asia and from the East. And all of these countries are much more religious than is Western Europe. We may like the concept of multiculturalism and I certainly do, but for many secularists they have forgotten that inevitably multiculturalism means religion also. So there is likely to be a growing tension between the increasing secularism of the indigenous Irish and increasing religious beliefs of the new immigrants.
At present many are still focussed on the secularisation of Ireland, that has seen a significant decrease in church attendance in the past 10 or so years although this might have recently bottomed off. It is tempting to blame yourselves for some of the adverse changes that have come about such as the decline in church practice and affiliation especially among the young. Indeed the media constantly reminds us that the church is authoritarian and patriarchical and that this is off putting to young individualists who eschew anything except moral relativism. You might blame yourselves for this because of the sexual abuse scandals but that is an oversimplification.
You should not be duped into believing that the problems assailing the Catholic church as unique to it. Commitment and involvement is a problem for all institutions within our society. Participation in sporting and voluntary organizsations, involvement in the democratic process by voting and political party activism (with the exception of Sinn Fein) is declining dramatically. It is hardly surprising that the church is similarly afflicted. Yet if you belief that the faith and what it stands for both at an individual level and in relation to communitarian values then the fight for souls must continue and you must continue to evangalise in a way that has meaning in the 21st century.
Indeed if you do not become evangelists in your own country the Catholic church will not be able to match the determination of Born Again evangelical groups that will cast their eyes towards Ireland. Suppose present trends continue, an unchecked secular philosophy of moral uncertainty and relativism will not be able to withstand the forces of a religious philosophy that preaches certainty in this life and the certainty of life hereafter also since the religious impulse cannot be thwarted, try as secularists might. Every human person needs certainty and needs hope and if they do not have these elements in their psyche they either commit suicide or they turn to therapists, even to crystals, in the search for meaning and purpose. Indeed therapy is essentially a religious proxy. As Chesterton said “When we stop believing in God, we don’t believe in nothing, we believe in anything”.
So either you evangelise or others will step into the breech. And recognising that you are no longer simply ministering to a converted faithful, but recapturing your evangelising roots is one change that you must confront. However, there is one caveat to this perspective and it adds a further layer of uncertainty to your mission and it is this. Whilst we are presently experiencing a decline in church attendance, we cannot be certain that this will continue – as I’ve said already, it seems to be levelling off. With the new wave immigrants, who are much more religious than we are it is possible that they will help reverse the trend by a process of religious osmosis almost. However we cannot be sure at this juncture so you must assume your evangelising mantle.
Traditionally we were an evangelising nation who went in our thousands to Africa and South America especially, to spread the faith. It seemed as though this would continue indefinitely and for many we still regard ourselves as evangelists to the developing world. However, we now have to accept that reverse evangelisation is probably being initiated here, as nuns from Africa and priests from Poland trickle into Ireland. It is almost a given that this will become at least a stream if not a flood as time passes. So an Ireland in the future that may have priests from South Korea or nuns from Nigeria ministering to us requires a shift in how we perceive ourselves – a shift from a Catholic missionary nation to a Catholic country in the throes of re-evangalisation and re-conversion both by Catholic missionaries but by missionaries of other faiths also. This may cause tension between the indigenous clergy and those sent to minister to our new Catholic citizens, a group you may have felt were your responsibility.
There are dangers of course in the present situation of priests and nuns being drafted into Ireland to minister to their own communities. There is a real possibility of ghettoisation with for example one religious group having its own priests ultimately asking for and being given their own schools. An apartheid mix of both cultures is in my opinion a real possibility unless attempts are made for priests and nuns from Ireland to work with those from other cultures in a spirit of co-operation.
Another change that stems from the new catholic population in Ireland is that their celebration of Mass may be somewhat different from what we are used to. For example have you ever been to a gospel mass in Harlem or worshipped in Hong Kong? Attending Mass in America is even significantly different – not in the essence of the mass of course but in the singing, the clapping, the sermons, the interactiveness. Many of you will be familiar with some of the music of native churches such as the Missa Criolla and the use of novel instruments such as kettle drums, pan pipes in church.
The personal ghetto
If social ghettos exist we must also remember that personal ghettos exist. Let me explain. There is still a huge amount of good will towards individual priests, the local priest, even if among many the institutional church is criticised and viewed with doubt. It may seem at times that you are alone but unless you ask you will not see the positive feelings many people have for you. They will not come and say “Hi Father, I think you’re great” and often it is only recognised when the priest is leaving and the collection that is gathered is enormous – I have experienced this in one parish where I lived. Church attendance was low but the leaving collection was vast. These parishioners feel isolated from the church. Some may be trying on hang on in there and continue to attend Mass, others may drift through a gradual wearing away of involvement. I believe there are many families who find faith difficult to sustain because they are undernourished within the Christian community, not spiritually but emotionally and drift along in their own personal ghettos. It is the challenge of priests and committed lay people alike to try and identify these people and engage in a dialogue with them. Friends of mine had such an experience and although they continued to practice found it difficult and moved from church to church because their parish church had so little happening. One evening at a dinner party they happened to mention it to their hosts who unknown to them were having exactly the same experience. They started meeting at the school gate and talked about this with others in the same casual way that it arose the evening of the supper party. Communicating in this way they enriched each other and deepened the involvement of several families. Such questions could be asked at parish level – Of the priest the question could be “What do you think it is like being a member of this parish?” or of other families “What is it like for you being a Catholic in this parish”. Reaching out in this way to those who hold goodwill towards the local church could strengthen parish life immeasurably.
Coping with the abuse scandals
I am not going to dwell too much on these as they have been covered relentlessly and rightly so for the past decade. I doubt that I have any greater pearls of wisdom to offer above what you have already listened to for others far better qualified than I.
Undoubtedly the abuse scandals have weighed heavily on many priests. However I believe they are less relevant now than even two years ago as the anger directed at the clergy ahs abated. Take the Panorama programme last Sunday night on BBC 1. It barely got a mention but last year it would have received wide coverage and endless letters to the Newspapers. It may be that people have got fatigue from it or that there is a re-evaluation taking place as the church deals with child protection issues and society faces up to its own imperfections. Nevertheless it has served to lower your confidence particularly in your role as evangelisers. It might make you reticent to preach – but remember it is the word of God that you are preaching. Speaking out on topics especially those relating to sexual mores might be difficult and for the moment it may be more appropriate to leave this to lay people and to science. In fact if the natural laws that our church bases its teachings on comes from nature then evidence to support it should exist in nature and should be amenable to testing. This seems to be the case for aspects of relationships that priests have to teach on such as marriage, cohabitation etc. So look to interested lay people with scientific evidence rather than just relying on religious teaching alone.
New pastoral demands
In addition to the changes demanded by religious and demographic factors, there are new pastoral problems also, that perhaps pose the greatest challenge, not least because they touch the daily lives of other human beings. The most obvious are suicide and abortion – two social problems that almost always take people to their priests in a way that no others do any more. Of course in the past people went to their priests for advice in dealing with all manner of problem from spousal violence and wayward children to alcoholism and depression. Nowadays the counselling role of priests has largely been replaced by therapists and lay counsellors. But for suicide and abortion the priest is the first port of call for solace and for forgiveness.
Suicide now touches every parish in Ireland so the priest, who may never had had to deal with a family bereaved in this way has to find words that will bring consolation to the family and community, that will not condemn the dead person yet will not glorify or encourage suicide either. This is a difficult mix of essential requirements – like needing a gentle, firm and father like figure all in one. For many priests preaching the sermon at the dead person’s requiem Mass will be a first and hopefully only experience. Mainly priests do an exceptionally sensitive and compassionate job in such circumstances but occasionally it goes very wrong as when I heard a priest say that the person who had taken his own life had “chosen a courageous path” or another who said that “the church in the past had got it wrong in its attitude to suicide” – he didn’t qualify in what way he believed it had got it wrong – was it the refusal to bury to person in consecrated ground or its belief that suicide was a sin or its statements that suicide was a tragedy? Did he think the Church should say suicide was acceptable in some circumstances? I think it was an overcompensation, of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, of ditching everything to be a hip-hop priest.
In dealing with suicide it is important not to condemn the dead person but neither must that person be in any way glorified. Statements such that s/he was a wonderful person in the full bloom of youth with a promising future could be construed by some young people as adulation and be an encouragement to take their own lives. Similarly, pupils forming guards of honour at the funeral or having trees named after them could also be similarly regarded. I know of a school where its charity for the third world has been called after a 14 years old who took him own life by hanging one Christmas Eve. A vulnerable young person perhaps isolated from family might be attracted to achieve similar recognition for himself by taking his life. The best approach is to discuss with the family if they are in a position to do so at the time, the content of the sermon.
In counselling the family it may also be tempting to offer simple explanations to assist the family and friends in comprehending the act – so statements that it might have been due to bullying or to a broken romance or to debt must be avoided because of course nobody knows.
Abortion is also a very difficult area for the priest pastorally. Condemning the sin but not the sinner is demanding but you will find that in this instance the person involved will be aware that they have done wrong, hence their contact with you, so your role in more likely to be as a grief counsellor, albeit of a different sort to the more obvious grief when say an adult dies since a death due to abortion is usually known or disclosed to very few of the person’s close family and if they are aware of it they may undermine the grief especially if they encouraged the abortion. So comments such as “you did what you felt was best for you” are not helpful. Instead the woman should be encouraged to accept that her decision while made in good faith was the wrong one but that this is part of the human condition – we all make mistakes and becoming whole again means learning to live with them and making amends. The focus should be on recognising the sadness and loss that the woman feels – at a later stage this may take the form of a commemoration ceremony, or of the naming of the baby and of restitution such as giving to a charity for children in China or “adopting” financially a deprived child in say Africa.
Increasingly we see murder in our towns and cities and that too is demanding pastorally especially if the dead person is part of a gangland feud – however, the grief of the family is no less for that is no less intense for that and it should be the focus.
I believe the church and you priests are at your most impressive when you deal with the grief – hearing the words of priests at funeral Masses for the dead during the troubles in Northern Ireland, seeing priests such as Fr. Billy O’Donovan in Midleton, the priest who was so visible on our TV screens during the search for and subsequent funeral of Robert Houlihan in Midleton two years ago, I cannot but help thinking that the mixture of compassion and belief in the power of Jesus, the image of Mary at the foot of the cross as Jesus hung dying, enunciated time and again in these terrible circumstances is one of the most powerful messages that you have to offer.
Coping with change
Ultimately, we are creatures of habit and most of us find change at least unsettling if not even difficult and distressing. This is a human attribute – perhaps it is determined by evolution so as to lead to stability for the rearing of children and for us to work and form permanent relationships. The gypsy mentality, whether it be reflected in multiple jobs or constantly moving houses in not a good environment in which to bring up children. So, familiarity with our environment and ourselves is of benefit to the species.
Coping with change is invariably difficult. When it is imposed rather than chosen there are difficulties in accepting the alterations that come in its wake. Further, more if the institution involved is fixed in a particular mode of behaviour then making change becomes very problematic and of course a hierarchical church with power devolved downward is faced with particular difficulties. Also, because of individual differences, some priests will adapt to change more easily than others.
If change has to take place it is best that it should happen gradually rather than suddenly as has occurred in Ireland. Moreover, change is easier when it is viewed as necessary, positive, self- driven and embraced rather than imposed, .as have many aspects of change facing you. Doing so by agreement and following consultation is also of assistance and having others to offer emotional support greatly reduces the emotional burden. Even when change is a problem it can be accepted if there is an understanding of its ultimate purpose.
Unhelpful in dealing with change is the tendency to focus on the glorious past and idealise it. How often do we hear others talk of the really warm summers of their childhood, or the high standards of examinations in the past as compared to now or of the depth of faith of those former generations. We should guard against this since these perceptions may be inaccurate. In relation to the faith of our fathers one wonders how deep it was since it has been jettisoned so quickly by many. Perhaps it was really fear rather than faith that drove it.
While change is difficult, sometimes the opposite occurs also so that change becomes our metier and we sweep away all vestiges of the past. For example the suggestion that the crucifix is a patriarchical symbol that should be discarded until something more “feminine” is found. A less dramatic manifestation of this is the abandonment of any indication that you are priests or nuns – I’m not just talking about the collar or veil but even crosses on your lapels or references to God as “he”. There is nothing to be gained from becoming an a la carte church as have other Christian denominations. Humans need religion to provide them with guidance in living their lives (the commandments), with a sense of the transcendent (the experiential) and with a sense of purpose (the afterlife) and so there is little to be gained from throwing out one of these. Indeed it is worth noting that the most successful churches are those that offer all three (The evangelical churches).
At a parish level the involvement of others whom you trust is important say on parish councils and other organisations as well as having personal support and confidants outside your vocational life is beneficial. However priests are increasingly isolated in parishes as they are often working single handed. The importance of getting support and new ideas from other priests in a formal way by using deanery meetings is crucial. As with any group, some will work better than others so there must be flexibility so that priests can move between them so as to find a group that suits his particular style and personality.
Change affects all groups, all ideologies and all institutions. When you are confronted with it as compulsively and overtly as you have been in the Church it is particularly difficult to face. You have come through the most awful period perhaps in the history of the Church in Ireland, at least in the 20th century and you have survived. Remember there is a huge residue of good will towards you at a personal level and attitudes to you and to the Church are perhaps even turning around. This is an exciting time in the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland and indeed internationally as the tensions between the old secularism and the new religious enthusiasm become apparent. These are mirrored in modern Ireland with its mix of hostile or indifferent ex-Catholics and new enthusiastic Church members form Africa and Eastern Europe and even some from Ireland too. This is calling us all but especially you priests to examine your role in modern Ireland. I believe very firmly it is to be an evangelising one although this will bring you face to face with others, both Catholic and non-Catholic, engaged in the same exercise in order to win souls. But you are human and like all of us you need your own supports both at parish, at professional and at a personal level to take you into a new future.