A Year of the People?

Chris McDonnell

CT, September 01, 2017

There have been many ‘Years’ of celebration proclaimed by popes for the benefit of the Church. How about one with a difference, a ‘Year of the People’ or if you prefer the phrase a ‘Year of the Laity’?

The word Laity tends to superimpose on the Church a divide between ‘us and them’, between Priests and people and so feeds the clericalism that we have experienced over the years.

What would the proclamation of such a Year achieve? Hopefully, a number of things might result. For starters it could offer a forum for an exchange between the once silent majority and the decision making minority.

Few communities that we call parishes, have a parish council; fewer still diocesan areas have a diocesan council. There is no formal way that relevant discussions can take place; in fact, options being so limited, only the media is available. When matters are raised there, through articles, letters and interviews, it is all too easy to brush them away as dissident voices that can be ignored. It will be interesting to see how the 50th anniversary of the publication of Paul VI’s controversial encyclical, Humanae Vitae, will be marked next year. A teaching that has not had the acceptance of the majority of the faithful, the sensus fidelium, will no doubt be praised by a few with little opportunity for fruitful open discussion. It would indeed provide a coincidence of timing for 2018 to be proclaimed the Year of the Laity.

It would be evidence of the exchange so much in evidence with the teaching of Francis, for if talking is to have fruit then each of us must listen in a meaningful manner. The issues of faith and practice affect the Church first of all, at a local level, the Parish and Diocese. Frequently we hear that our bishops, facing an ever increasing shortage of priests, make suggestions and instigate plans for the amalgamation of Parishes, when if real discussion took place with the people the option of considering a married clergy would be all too obvious to ignore. So we stumble on unable to talk in a meaningful manner.

“And the leaves that are green turn to brown,
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.”

wrote Paul Simon.

In a working class community, with little or no educational development, the cleric had a strong sway over the people, for even if he himself was of limited education, his influence over others was enormous and ensured him respect. ‘Father says’ was a familiar phrase. But rapid change in recent years has swept that division aside like a flood breaking through a dyke. The great uptake of tertiary education, widespread literacy and the availability of information through the Web have changed so much. We now have an educated laity, perceptive of social change, anxious to play a part in the mission of the Church. We are foolish to ignore them.

There is a similarity with the medieval years and the translation of the ‘Bible in to English’ controversy. Too much information is a risky commodity for it might help form opinions and the consequences have far reaching effects.

The concern for many, at present in a position of power, would be the place of women in the Church. Even writing that phrase about one half of the people of God is problematic for we now have experience of a society that has come to accept gender equality as the norm. Our Christian mission can no longer come with the baggage of two levels of value attached to our ankles. We must face up to issues that will not go away.

A Year of the Laity would give us the framework for open discussion in an honest and sincere manner. We hear so often of the departure from the Church of young people, of the stress on family life in the middle years, often resulting in the break-up of marriages and of the frustrations of those of us whose formative years were so greatly influenced by the spirit of the Council. Disappointment is hard to bear when opportunity has been seen and then lost.

Our rapidly increasing understanding of human sexuality has posed enormous questions that in previous years were not even asked, let alone answered. Hide away from it if you wish, pretend the awkward reality doesn’t affect you, but it does. Either we face up to issues or we get swept along in an uncontrollable tide that allows no still point of security.

In his many parables, Jesus set his words in a familiar context that the people could understand. The Church needs to find the commonality of language in our own time. What better way than a declared Year of the Laity where all can contribute and all benefit from a prayerful seeking of the Lord?

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  1. Mary Vallely says:

    What better way indeed.
    A Year of the Laity sounds appealing and a positive step in the right direction and I don’t see why the permission to begin it has to come from the Vatican. Can’t the Irish church initiate such a movement? Surely it is in the interests of all especially since vocations to the priesthood are at an all time low this year with only six or seven seminarians entering Maynooth. It is time to focus on the priesthood of ALL and as Chris suggests such a framework would give everyone an opportunity to sit down and engage in meaningful and fruitful discussions.
    The church is becoming more and more like an old ostrich with its shaky head in the sand. Is it fear that lies behind the refusal to face up to the shocking gender imbalance in governance, of the fact that so many ordained cannot keep their vow of celibacy and that gay sex is more the norm among them than heterosexual sex? Most of us, slow learners that we are, have long ago come to realise that homosexuality is not ‘an intrinsic disorder’ and that many of our priests are gay but the official ostrich still refuses to acknowledge this and at the very least, put better structures of support in place to help those who struggle with celibacy. You begin to wonder why a priest is ‘on sabbatical’ and if it has become a euphemism for something else. If we don’t talk about these things we give cause for innuendo and suspicion. Typical Catholic Church. ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’ Parishioners will understand and have compassion for a priest who has struggled with addiction or sexual issues and needs to go off to a clinic for counselling but they don’t like to be treated like children and kept in the dark. If we have learned anything from the appalling child abuse saga it is that covering up is iniquitous, simply iniquitous and compounds the hurt.
    Just as I was reading Chris’s excellent post I had a sudden new image of the word ‘laity’ as a carpet of women and men being stepped on by a long line of old men in flowing robes with mitres on their heads and croziers in their fists. Had never thought of the word before as conveying that image. Sadly too many of the carpet people are content to be used in such a manner.
    A ‘Year of the People’ sounds Christ-like and fitting to the Gospel message.
    Speaking of which the urgent, urgent issue above all is dealing with the dreadful shame of homelessness in Ireland. One death is one too many and I am ashamed to say that I am not sure how many I have read about this past week. Three? Four? More than we know probably or that are recorded. How can we call ourselves a Christian people if we don’t do something about this particular crisis and as soon as possible? This demands our attention much more than these other injustices.
    Mind you as is so often pointed out to me by others who have long ago given up on having anything to do with Catholicism, the Church is not a democracy. You can’t change it. ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda?’ Waste of time and energy. Quit whingeing and get out there, feed the hungry and house the homeless. Maybe they’re right though I like the idea of a ‘Year of the People’ even as a safety valve for those needing to feel less alone in their thinking. Bishops, what is there to fear? Loss of control? You need help. Ask for it then in having an open and honest sharing of hearts and minds in some sort of synod or discussion forum. Thanks, Chris, for your thoughts on this.

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    As always or most of the time, I agree with just about everything Mary@1 says so cogently. But when she writes: “The church is becoming more and more like an old ostrich with its shaky head in the sand,” I disagree profoundly and rush to the defence of the Common Ostrich who never deserved the reputation for stupidity and fear of the big bad world that Pliny the Elder visited upon him and her. If ‘Struthio camelus’ sticks his/her head in the sand from time to time, it’s not from any sudden ecclesiastical urge or even in the conviction that if you hide your head deep enough and long enough nobody will notice the rest of you. More likely the Struthio is turning her eggs to the sun’s heat to help them hatch, or swallowing sand and pebbles to help digest a fairly tough diet, or to toughen up her gizzard for stronger eggshell texture. ‘Struth! We should be praying for a more ostrich-like church, for your Common Ostrich is the most adaptable of creatures, with many local variants suited to local cultures and climes, and at the same time the most useful. Where would you find a church to provide you with everything from great feather dusters, fine leather and the healthiest of lean meat on its demise? And remember those splendid ostrich-feather fans that no pope would be without back in the day. But, since you mention it, wouldn’t a now empty Maynooth College, with all its dividing walls, airy buildings and well fenced grazing, make an excellent Ostrich Farm?

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    We are actually heading into our third year of the people – Pope Francis announced it as an era that will last during his tenure. According to an article in NCR:

    The church’s structure, the pope said, “is like an upside down pyramid” with the top on the bottom, which is why the ordained are called “ministers” — they serve the others.

    No offence but Chris must have missed that one – I prayed for it for 6 months because this inversion would be instrumental in giving traction to an idea that I had been kicking around for some time.

    A true understanding of mimetic desire and its grip on the world can only be realised when you see that it is strengthened by hierarchical structures. For a new mimetic to emerge through all this confusion, there would have to be flip; a surrender of sorts.

    But to this day, I stand by Monbiot and his maxim : “Tell people something they know already, and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new, and they will hate you for it.”

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