The great thing about this Pope is that, in the inevitable tension between those who favour change and those who don’t, Francis is on our side, writes
HISTORY was made on September 29, 1979, when the first Pope set foot on Irish soil. As predicted Pope John Paul kissed the tarmac in Dublin Airport and the iconic moment was captured forever by a swath of photographers.
People were moved and some wept not just because so many thought they would never witness the visit of a pope to Ireland but because the gesture was replete with meaning.
That respect for Ireland and the Irish Church, implicit in a pope kissing Irish soil, was seen as a tribute to the extraordinary history of the Irish Catholic Church, its resilience through centuries of persecution, its enduring support among the vast numbers of our people, its centuries of unswerving loyalty to Rome and its impressive contribution through thousands of missionaries overseas.
After a long and proud history, after what was by any estimate a telling impact on Ireland and the world for the fifteen-plus centuries since St Patrick, we felt a papal visit was no more than our due and we delighted in it.
Adding to its importance was a sense that the visit – the enthusiasm it had generated, the publicity it had garnered, the good-will that was experienced – would serve as a launching pad for an even brighter future for Catholicism in Ireland. Indeed at the time such was the optimism that the three-day visit was widely regarded as the beginning of a new era for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
What we didn’t advert too, even though the signs were there, was that the visit marked not the the end of a beginning but possibly the beginning of an end.
Almost 40 years later, by every measurable evaluation, the Irish Catholic Church is on its knees: attendance at weekend Masses is a third of what it was (30 per cent down from 90 per cent); vocations have virtually disappeared; leaders are ignored and often reviled; Catholicism has been moved from centre stage to a peripheral position on the sidelines of Irish life; the authority of the Church has plummeted. We Irish Catholics are not in a good place.
To explain what happened in the interval between papal visits, we usually point to the child abuse scandals and the way they were dealt with but pre-1979, in retrospect, the decline had already begun.
Education, prosperity, independence, rationality and modernity were already placing huge question-marks against the hitherto unquestioned presumptions that defined traditional Catholicism and the Church’s dismal response of appealing to loyalty and fear was being interpreted as out of touch with modern life.
The rituals and mystique that the Church traditionally relied on to influence an impressionable and malleable people no longer delivered because the culture had changed spectacularly.
People, in the light of the Church’s refusal to engage with the modern world, began to view Catholicism as out of touch even eccentric, its attitudes to sexuality as sometimes misguided and arcane, its efforts to interfere in civil affairs as meddlesome and almost peevish.
In four decades, while Ireland has changed beyond belief, the Catholic Church has refused to change. The result is that Church and people are speaking two different languages. In that context, decline was inevitable.
It’s our own fault, of course. Since the 1960s when the Second Vatican Council produced the outlines of a road-map for the future of Catholicism, our leaders lacked the vision and the commitment to take it seriously.
Worse still, they failed to note the signs of the times, encouraged traditional voices to articulate a retreat to a reliance on past certainties, silenced priests who questioned their refusal to engage with the modern world and we’d ended up with the worst of all possible worlds – including a debilitating loss of trust.
Instead of a vibrant institution moving with the times, embracing change and engaging respectfully with people of goodwill, the Irish Catholic Church now presents as a dying entity, associated in the public mind with intolerance, deviancy and a lack of compassion while insisting that teaching cannot change (when we know it can), that its often naïve assumptions about sexuality make sense (when we know that isn’t always the case) and when canon law is quoted to trump reason and common sense.
However, even though many of the signs are not good I regard this as a moment in time that, despite our problems as a Church, is full of possibilities.
Among them are: Irish people, though distrustful of religion have clung grimly to the importance of spirituality – God is still alive and well for them; huge numbers (78 per cent in the last census) still describe themselves as ‘Catholic’ – they still want to belong; the present crisis is so clear that Irish Catholics when they are given a voice, are prepared to say it as it is; some bishops and many priests now accept that without the people at centre stage the Church will die;
and, last but by no means least, we have a pope who, before his election in 2013, was mandated by the cardinals to introduce the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
And he’ll be here among us, if just for a fleeting visit, this week.
So what will Pope Francis have to say to us when he comes? In preparation for this visit, who will he have listened to? Those who want the same clerically-dominated Church to prevail and who insist on parroting the same old answers to the new questions? Or those who are waiting to see that road-map for the future given some real purchase in Irish Catholicism?
The great thing about this pope is that, in the inevitable tension between those who favour change and those who don’t, Francis is on our side (I have to say I enjoyed writing that last sentence because I’ve been waiting to write it for 40 years!)
Francis wants what the vast majority of Irish Catholics want – a people’s Church where people, priests and bishop come together, debate and discuss issues of concern and make decisions together.
He wants to ‘de-clericalise’ the Church, to get rid of the traditional domination and control of the local Church by priests and bishops and of the global Church by the curia in Rome.
He’s encouraging a more respectful attitude to LGBT people and making more space for them in the Church. He’s contemplating the ordination of women deacons and he has let it be known that he’s open to ‘decoupling’ priesthood from celibacy.
Francis speaks a language of mercy not of fear, of respect not of dominance, of asking rather than of telling, of listening rather than of directing, of encouragement rather than command, of consensus rather than control.
In other words, Pope Francis thinks the way the vast majority of Catholics now think, and he wants what they want now.
We know what Francis thinks and wants because he keeps telling us – people, priests, bishops and cardinals. And we know what the people think and want because every time we give them a respectful and confidential opportunity to tell us, they tell us.
They told us back in 2012 when Amárach Research carried out a comprehensive survey for the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP). They told us again this year in Killala diocese in a survey in preparation for a diocesan Assembly which, through the votes of 300-plus representative delegates, passed a series of resolutions underlining the need for reform. And they’ve told us more recently in a spot survey organised by the ACP through four regional meetings and their website.
What Irish Catholics want is an open, adult, participatory Church that’s in tune with their lives and responsive to their needs. They want movement on church teaching as regards structures, leadership, worship, gender and ministry.
In other words a Church where theologians are not all clerics, where those who matter are not all men, where those in irregular situations (including LGBT people) are welcomed and given their due space, where decisions are made at local level by a faith community not handed down from on high, and where the rights of every baptised person are respected and cherished.
And they know, as everyone should know by now, that unless a ‘People’s Church emerges, as the Second Vatican Council proposed, the Catholic Church in Ireland will virtually disappear within a few decades.
This will be a difficult visit for Francis, not just because of the continuing debate over the abuse crisis and the less than edifying role of the Church in dealing with it, but because he’s not into the celebrity culture as, effectively, what he’s trying to do is, in the words of Jesuit theologian, Gerry O’Hanlon, ‘abolish monarchy and celebrity in the Catholic Church’.
While he will be happy to mix with the people, he won’t relish the formal meetings and the photo-shoots with ‘significant’ individuals which he will be expected to fulfil. And I suspect that he won’t be impressed by the usual suspects who will seek to butter him up with extravagant and nonsensical claims about his visit ‘producing green shoots of new life’ or ‘renewing the Irish Catholic Church’.
Because he knows and the people know what’s at stake here. Not a visit from a celebrity making us all feel good about ourselves but the leader of our Church challenging us to be what we can be, A People’s Church, focused on the gospel of love and mercy of Jesus Christ.
Let’s hope that message does not go unheard.