Brendan Hoban: A People’s Church is closer than ever before

Western People 14.6.2022

During the Covid lockdowns, the traditional obligation for Catholics to attend Mass was waived for two main reasons. One was that, in a pandemic, it was an impossible (and dangerous) obligation to fulfil and, two, not gathering people unless absolutely necessary was an accepted strategy in saving lives. 

Thus, the Irish bishops and their counterparts around the world formally announced the official waiver – the obligation to attend weekend Mass was temporarily relaxed. 

It seemed, in the circumstances, an obvious and responsible decision to make. However, it was greeted with some surprise across a broad spectrum of Catholic life from a general eyebrow-raising that bishops felt they needed to point out the obvious to adult Catholics to an unease sometimes bordering on anger that bishops were living on another planet if they thought (a) infantilism (treating people as children) was still a factor in the lives of adult Catholics and (b) that Catholics would take that kind of instruction seriously. That ship has long sailed.  

But clearly not everyone is familiar with the obvious truth that generally Catholics no longer take direct instruction or guidance from bishops. Listing arguments in support of that truth is no longer necessary, as can be seen from the Marriage Equality referendum and other multiple examples.

To awkwardly paraphrase the poet, John Milton, in Lycidas, ‘The hungry sheep’ no longer ‘look up to be fed’. 

Yet as recently as a few weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales announced the reintroduction of the Sunday Mass obligation using, as the English Catholic paper, The Tablet, pointed out, the word ‘obligation’ six times in their statement. 

Now the question is: will the Irish bishops follow the same route? Or will they respect their people enough to leave that decision to themselves – in the certain knowledge that, if they don’t, all they will achieve is a further lessening of their own authority compounded once again when Catholics in the pew will pay little if any heed to them.

The word is that the Irish bishops are considering a move along the same lines of their colleagues across the Irish Sea. I can think of a number of obvious reasons not to do so: (i) it attempts to reinstate an image of God dependant on a fear-based and a scrupulosity-driven approach to religion;  (ii) it proposes a return to the infantilism of the past where grown adults are not trusted to make adult decisions about their own lives; (iii) it makes no sense, knowing what we do about its probable impact; and, (iv), it ignores the broadened definition of Irish Catholics who, in the main, have made their  peace with their own untidy beliefs and ambivalent lives. And the more bishops and others try to drag Irish Catholics back into what they see as a medieval world-view of instructions, prohibitions and anathemas, the easier it is for lay Catholics to dismiss them as ‘living on a different planet’.

If you don’t agree, try to get your hands on a copy of the recent report of the Dublin diocese on their efforts to surface the needs of the Catholic Church going forward in preparation for the world synod in 2023 and the national synod a few years later. 

It presents in startling terms what Dublin Catholics think and the changes they deem necessary in the Catholic Church. And it confirms, in broad outline, the same agenda as surfaced in other dioceses, including Killala, Achonry and others, now available (or soon to be available) on their diocesan websites. 

In a short summary gleaned from the reports published to date – and the expectation is that further reports will confirm the basic findings already clear – Irish Catholics want: ’urgent change’; a new language in worship that is not a barrier to communication; the development of new lay ministries as priest numbers continue to decline;  ‘a meaningful role for women in ministry and in the governance of the Church, including ordination’; a focus on the vulnerable, the disadvantaged and the oppressed; optional celibacy for priests; a focus on the needs of young people; a reaching out in welcome to marginalised groups including unmarried couples, divorced and remarried, LGBTQ+; and, yes you guessed it, an improvement in the quality of sermons!

Reports to date confirm that the reforms introduced by Pope Francis have huge support among Catholics and have generated a real sense of the opportunity offered now to parishes through the synodal pathway he recommends – a new and very different way of being Church – as evidenced by the desire of people to participate and the energy, enthusiasm and momentum already generated. It is, in effect, a welcome for the reforms envisaged by the Second Vatican Council but never implemented.

The great fear of those who have already participated is that the opportunity offered by the synodal pathway may be lost and that, as so often happened in the past, no real change will take place. It would be a disaster beyond words for the Catholic Church. 

That said, the reforms now deemed necessary by the people – in the main those who are committed to faith and parish – will not be easy to deliver as they will demand painful and difficult changes in attitude and approach. 

But, the clear and obvious truth, is that there is no option to change.  There is, as many have said, no other game in town. The prize is a People’s Church, something that is now no longer as out of reach as it was even a few years ago. 

We live in interesting times.

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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Brendan Hoban: A People’s Church is closer than ever before

    “Yet as recently as a few weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales announced the reintroduction of the Sunday Mass obligation using, as the English Catholic paper, The Tablet, pointed out, the word ‘obligation’ six times in their statement. Now the question is: will the Irish bishops follow the same route?”

    They already did. After their Spring meeting in March, their statement included the following:
    “At the heart of the life of our parish communities is the Sunday Mass. When we gather for the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day, we do so to express our joy in the Risen Lord and to unite with our brothers and sisters in the Church in thanksgiving and praise to God. This is a communal celebration which shapes us as a community of faith, life and charity.
    “We pray in the Mass that it is ‘indeed right and just, our duty and our salvation’ to give thanks to the Lord, and the Sunday Eucharist is our greatest act of thanksgiving. During the Season of Lent, we encourage everyone to return to Sunday and weekday Mass in our churches, welcoming each other back as we gather once more together. From Easter Sunday, 17 April, this will once again be deemed an essential expression of faith for all in our Church in Ireland. As always, those whose health is vulnerable or who are unwell will not be under any obligation to attend Mass, and should keep themselves safe and pray at home until they are better.”

    It is indeed a pity that they did not grasp the opportunity to recognise today’s reality. While less heavy-handed than the statement from England and Wales, we could have done better, recognising that the language of obligation in this matter conveys an unhelpful understanding of our being the church.

    1. Pat Savage says:

      Brendan Hoban: A People’s Church is closer than ever before

      “Reports to date confirm that the reforms introduced by Pope Francis have huge support among Catholics.”

      Can we be perfectly honest and let’s live in the real world? The census 22 will soon issue its report and stats will show how many sign up as Catholic. Maybe it will be down or up???

      The point is, what is the true amount of “Catholics” who actually participated in the synod? Very small from my very quick flick around diocesan reports and yet all the mainstream media and certain Catholic priests and some bishops want to focus on a very small amount, high profile issues.

      I found it funny recently to read a quote from a bishop in the ‘Irish Catholic’ who spoke about the spirit moving.

      I wonder was it the spirit of me and just me or was it the “Holy Spirit”?

      Returning to the obligation of Mass. We should never ever have had the language of obligation. We should have been given the nourishment that without Mass we are just social workers not Christians.

  2. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: A People’s Church is closer than ever before

    To his four objections to any bishop directive re the weekly Mass ‘obligation’ Brendan could add a fifth: the likelihood that any such instruction would be interpreted as driven by financial panic and the need to replenish church coffers via full offertory baskets!

    The association of the Mass Offertory with clerical income – rather than with almsgiving and the feeding of the poorest as in the early church, before the emergence of a stipendiary clergy – was already a scandal that compromised the meaning of Christian sacrifice. This too needs to be part of synodal discussion aimed at a restored understanding of the Eucharist, if those who find Mass ‘boring and irrelevant’ at present are to have a different and more rewarding experience.

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