The Path to Renewal
The path to renewal begins where we are now
I have been asked to speak to you about the path to renewal and to offer some words of hope and encouragement as we end this Novena. I am focusing for the most part on renewal in and of the Church. I suppose we think immediately of renewal in the wake of the crisis caused by sexual abuse and its mishandling. But we must also think of renewal in the context of the Church’s mission to society.
1. Revelations: a more real and hopeful situation
The first point I want to make is that in the context of abuse, the path to renewal for the Church began the moment victims spoke out and confronted their abusers, and confronted those in Church authority who had failed them. In the Church of the past, while many if not most priests and religious lived lives of sacrifice, service and dedication, a small number inflicted horrific hurt and violation on the most vulnerable entrusted to them. Despite what we might feel or think, we are in a more real and hopeful situation in the Church now having begun to confront the past than during the many decades when the pain and criminal violation of victims remained hidden and festering.
The path to renewal in the first instance is the stony path of repentance for past wrongdoing. No renewal can happen in the Church without the crimes and sins of the past being completely acknowledged and the demands of justice and healing, truth and love, being fully met.
2. Much renewal underway
Second, it would be wrong to think that the Church is not already engaged in renewal. It would be unfair to the many members of our Church, lay and cleric, not to acknowledge the work of renewal that has and is being done by so many people.
Some of this work gets headlines; much of it does not. Yet there are good news stories in our Church today even in these difficult and challenging times. For instance,
– From what I gather, the number of people who have gone on various pilgrimages continues to increase: Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, Knock, the Camino to Santiago de Compostella.
– Increasingly, local parishes are training and developing dynamic pastoral councils and parish teams and forming themselves into clusters to maximize resources and services;
– Where I work in Mary Immaculate College, – University of Limerick – the number of students taking theology has steadily increased over the past few years.
– More and more lay people are taking responsibility for various aspects of the Church’s mission;
– The Church now has one of the best child protection programmes in the country.
There are good things happening, and perhaps we could be better at communicating this. At the same time, much of the most important work of the Church, bringing Christ’s healing, helping the most vulnerable, bringing about what we prayed for earlier when we celebrated the Sacrament of the Sick: love, mercy, forgiveness, goes on quietly behind the scenes by people who give and do not count the cost. This is as it should be.
In term of renewal, much is being done and much remains to be done, and I will come back to this in a moment. The reality, however, is that we will never be finished with renewal. Change is inevitable for any living body. The challenge we face is to choose change rather than have it forced upon us, and to identify the changes that are necessary to enable us to remain vibrant and faithful to Christ and his mission for the Church.
3. Need to acknowledge the anger and hurt
At the same time, we are in a crisis as Church, not just in Ireland but internationally. Many committed and convinced Catholics are rightly angry that some priests and religious betrayed the trust placed in them and that some Church leaders dealt with cases dismally. While acknowledging first the hurt of the victims, it is also important to recognise our own sense of anger and hurt, not to dwell on it or languish in it but rather so that we can grieve our sense of loss and get on with the process of renewal and healing.
Learning from Scripture… Knowing our place…
4. In our first reading today, the prophet Isaiah offers a vision of renewal for his people who would no doubt have felt as down and discouraged as we might be tempted to feel now. Isaiah assures God’s people that they will be led out of exile and in to a renewed Jerusalem which will be characterized by justice and righteousness, with special care for the poor and for the oppressed.
Listen to what Isaiah is not saying. There isn’t a word about trying to get things back to how they were. Instead, the talk is of a new heaven and a new earth (Is 66:22). God’s people will see the Lord’s glory and proclaim it to the nations but in a way previously unimaginable.
Note something else. According to Isaiah: “The Lord says this: I am coming to gather the nations…“. Perhaps at the root of most of our problems, both personally and as Church, is that we forget that it is the Lord’s Church, not ours.
The story is told of a bishop who once had as his Episcopal motto “God is my helper”, and people use to say that was the problem: he saw God as his helper, not the other way round. As Brendan Kennelly asks in one of his poems: “Is all my sinning my own refusal to know that I am small?” Our failure to have trust, to have faith in God, has perhaps landed us in more trouble than we realize.
This is not, of course, an excuse for doing nothing. The old saying “work as if everything depends on you but pray as if everything depends on God”, holds true.
What a renewed Church might look like
5. So what would a renewed Church look like for us? On my list would be, for instance:
– A greater role for lay men and women in the life of the Church, with many more lay people being genuinely trusted and enabled to put their gifts at the service of the Gospel.
– A return to the exercise of power and authority as Christ did. This would mean the end of any attempt by Church leaders to control or to dominate others. For Christ, power is the power of faith, which is the power of goodness, love and truth. It is the power of self-sacrifice. It is the power of the cross.
– A renewal of our liturgies. Sometimes I wonder if a minimalism and functionalism diminishes the reverence, beauty and joy which should characterize our celebration of the sacraments. As priests we have to ask ourselves if we really make every effort to celebrate Eucharist worthily and with the full participation of our people.
I could go on. I could talk about us taking seriously preparation for First Communion, Confirmation and Marriage, and people coming for the sacraments out of conviction rather than mere fashion. I could talk about us taking seriously our stewardship for Creation. We could talk about having Catholic schools that are genuinely Catholic schools. And we could also reflect on the need for more public representatives who appreciate and promote the Christian vision of what it is to be human.
A few points about attitude and disposition
6. But perhaps it is enough if I highlight a few key things, as I see it about the spirit with which we engage in renewal. In the future committed and practising Catholics in Ireland will probably be a minority. We have to choose whether, as a minority, however sizeable, our attitude will be that of a sect, or of a sacrament. That is, will we be
– a frightened and somewhat beleaguered remnant closed in on itself and sniping sporadically at secular society from the sidelines,
– a sacramental presence, openly witnessing to Christ’s vision of how human beings should live, not threatened by other values but confidently expressing our own and looking for allies in the service of justice, truth and love.
I hope that we will choose to be a sacrament, rather than a sect.
As I said already, change is inevitable, and necessary, if the Church is to remain faithful to the mission of Christ. The Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, Chapter VII), acknowledged this when it said that “the Church will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven”, and that until then “the pilgrim Church in her sacraments and institutions, which pertain to this present time, has the appearance of this world which is passing”.
Yet so often, I have heard priests, for instance, say “Ah, sure what we have now will see me out”. It will not. It will see us down and bring us down, not forward into a renewed and vibrant presence in Irish society.
At the same time we need to distinguish the changes that are necessary from those which would merely be surrender to the spirit of the age. For this we need a climate within the Church which enables open, responsible and prayerful dialogue; a climate in which we are not afraid to listen to each other and even to disagree, knowing that when we do this respectfully, God’s Spirit is at work. If we do not create such a climate I fear we will see people increasingly resorting to painful and divisive protests in order to be heard.
Most of all, it is important to recognize that we can only change that which we genuinely love, and our love has to be stronger than our criticism.
Food for our journey, and accompaniment
7. Finally, the path to the renewal of the Church cannot but also be the way of the cross. Someone once remarked: “the cross, and not the sword, suffering and not brute power, determine the meaning of history” (John Howard Yoder).
For each of us this cross will take its own form: having to let go of hurts we experienced in the past, laziness in terms of our responsibilities in the Church, the burden of past failure and wrongdoing, our fear of change, our lack of courage to witness to and defend our faith in public, deep-rooted selfishness when faced with the demands of the Gospel.
We may also be burdened by disappointment in relationships, by age or ill-health. Yet we should not underestimate how our experiences of painful vulnerability, in God’s hands can be the path to deep personal renewal.
No one can take up our cross for us. But at least we have company along the way, and food for our journey. Company, in the form of Mary, our fellow pilgrim in whose honour we have gathered here today. Food for our journey in the form of Christ’s body and blood. May our Amen today, as we receive Christ’s body at this Mass be a new first step for us along our path to renewal, individually, and as Church.
Eamonn Conway, Knock Shrine, August 22 2010