A Church in crisis demands creativity
Dublin’s newly appointed Archbishop, Dermot Farrell engaged with Síolta Editor, Darragh Kennedy for a COVID-19 “virtual” Q&A in which he expresses his confidence in a very changed future.
Q: As Dublin’s new Archbishop, what are the key issues you have to address?
The challenges facing me are pretty clear. We have an ageing clergy and very few vocations to the diocesan priesthood or religious life. There is a major decline in the number of people who actively practice and live their faith. Faith needs ritual, embodiment. One must see in people how faith is lived. Today the visibility of faith has for all intents and purposes vanished. I am also dealing with the legacy of sexual abuse scandals which have damaged the Church’s credibility. Since finance is a function of numbers, financial issues will arise which will be accelerated by the global pandemic and its aftermath.
There is a need for an effective programme of catechetics throughout the Diocese to add to and, eventually, replace the current teaching of faith to the young. With the gradual decline of family socialisation in religion, the role of the qualified catechist will be essential. In my opinion, the handing on of the faith to the young is one of the most serious challenges facing our Church today. The current model of the Church is unsustainable.
The role of a bishop is to be a father to his people, a brother to his priests, and a witness of Jesus Christ to the world. Among the people and priests of the diocese, I need to raise awareness of the inadequacy of the current situation and to encourage a participatory institutional model of Church with a leadership of service.
Putting all our eggs in the ‘priest or vocations’ basket’ is like going around wearing a blindfold. We still have a very clerical Church. This is not a new phenomenon. It is linked with the “professionalization” of many aspects of life that is evident in contemporary culture. While the church has been priest- centred, it cannot continue to be structured solely around priests. If the clergy are too self-referential nothing will ever change in terms of how we operate pastorally.
The Church is, as Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his Principles of Catholic Theology, “a public assembly of the whole.” The “whole” is the People of God, the ekklēsia of God, a community of disciples. This is sometimes forgotten by some clergy. Clericalism takes no account of the People of God. The priest must be close to and rooted in the People of God. The Church today needs a profound conversion in this matter. The laity comprise 99.99% of the Church’s members. When this is grasped, all else changes. Then it is a question of what we do. Recognising this fact will require institutional reform, and a sharing of authority at all levels.
We need to put in place practical arrangements that shape our response to the pastoral, spiritual and evangelising needs of the parishes in the Diocese where the liturgy maintains and nourishes the Christian life. A service model will not sustain the Christian life in the parish.
Q: Despite the challenges ahead, do you remain optimistic for the future of the Irish Church?
While I acknowledge that there is an underlying crisis of faith, which is particularly acute among the younger generations, I am not pessimistic about the future of the Church in Dublin. Notwithstanding the secularisation which continues apace, I do feel confident about the future. Since my arrival in Dublin I have been visiting faith communities throughout the Diocese. What I have witnessed time and again are people who are committed to and actively involved in the faith life of their parish.
Last week I participated online in a gathering of a youth group for 80 teenagers. Young people are involved in a social outreach to the poor in the Diocese through Crosscare and the St Vincent dePaul. We have the youth pilgrimage to Lourdes, in which many are involved. These pastoral endeavours are important ways to involve the youth in the apostolic life of the Church. When young people volunteer to look after the sick, or the elderly, or the poor, when accompanied, it may facilitate a dynamic where the Lord starts to speak and move the heart of that young person. We need to start here rather than telling them to go to Mass.
Some of them will begin to ask why is the Church so committed to such apostolic endeavours? It is at that point a conversation about faith can begin. To quote an insight from Wittgenstein: he remarked to his Irish friend Maurice Drury that “If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different. It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.”
Evangelisation of our young people cannot be reduced to catechetics, and the gospel reduced to ideology, where the Christian life (“Life to the full” John 10:10) is perceived and preached as conformity to a set of norms which have little resonance in the real lives of ordinary people. What gives me optimism is that the Church has something to offer people, and there are many people who hunger for what it offers. Bringing people to Christ is not one work among many; rather it is the central work of the Church, around which everything else that we do revolves.
In this important work of evangelisation, of guiding people towards a life closer to the word of Christ, we can get trapped in isolation and indifference. To avoid the latter, we must summon up the courage to confront our fear and speak the word of God to the culture as Jesus did in his day.
We have an ageing population of priests; there are already some parishes in the Diocese that do not have
a resident priest. We have fallen off a cliff edge in regard to vocations to the priesthood. Many speak of a crisis in this regard. While I believe this situation will not change quickly, we cannot remedy this crucial issue for the future of the Church by clericalising good lay people. It is not yet understood by many Catholics that the laity and the clergy are co-responsible for the Church. Crisis demands creativity. This time of reduced numbers may well afford us an opportunity to be creative and to re-imagine the institutional church. We have not been abandoned by God; God is to be found in this situation. Let us not look back to our own experience of the Church of our youth, but look ahead to the Church in which we will minister and worship in the years ahead.
Q: Other than from the Bible, from what sources do you draw inspiration from?
Apart from the Sacred Scripture, other sources of inspiration for me are the lives of holy women and
men, not only those I have read about, but also those I have encountered in every faith community that I have ministered in down through the years. These were people who were grounded in the real world but very much in touch with the Lord. I draw inspiration from these women and men who will never be canonised but are models of faith and charity. The yardstick for salvation was articulated by Jesus as: “I was hungry and you fed me…..” (Matt 25).
When I read the lives of saints, I quickly realise that they were human beings who did their very best to follow God in the circumstances of the time in which they lived. Indeed many saints, dithering over their own conversion, were inspired to take the next step by reading about the life of a saint: Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, and Edith Stein, to mention but a few.
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?
When I look back at my life growing up in the country and going to primary and secondary schools, and seminary, I am sometimes dumbfounded at how life has turned out. It is certainly not the life I had planned. What has stayed constant through all the twists and turns is who I am, my values, and my hobbies.
Since I left the seminary, I have lived in six different counties, two countries and ministered in three dioceses. I have been involved in many different projects that were not on my horizon fifty years ago. So, what would I now say to my younger self? Don’t be too rigid in sticking to plans that were dreamt up in the innocence of my youth. Trust in the providence of God.
Chill out more and enjoy life, and the company of family and friends.
I accepted appointments that I would have never sought, but looking back they happened for a reason. Be open to change and new possibilities. I would tell myself to realise that I don’t have all the answers; there is wisdom in the group. The Church is always at the end of the day in God’s hands, and He is victorious even in the midst of apparent failures on my part. Have patience with people, they may not all want to move at my pace. Trust yourself, or have confidence in your ability. Chill out more and enjoy life, and the company of family and friends.
Q: What words of wisdom or encouragement would you give to a man considering a vocation to the priesthood today?
Vocation is a gift from God. Priesthood is not a job. If we only see the priesthood as an occupation, then it is only a matter of a short time before we lose sight of the heart of the ministry and of our love for God who makes himself known to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
The environment of faith and prayer is important, but more importantly is personal prayer and discernment. In other words, priority must be given to the spiritual life. It is essential to be a man of prayer and have the ability to relate to people. Today, one must have sufficient faith and courage to stand against the general trends. Public commentary in the media in Ireland has not been positive in its understanding of the Church and its need for vocations and for public support of those trying to preach the Gospel.
Commentary in the media has not been positive in its understanding of the Church – one must have sufficient faith and courage to stand against the general trends.
It is also important for a young man considering the priesthood to be involved in the pastoral and liturgical ministries of his parish. I have no doubt that young men are receiving the call from God to be a priest, but what may be lacking is the tentative commitment on the part of the recipient being called, to assent to this call and keep it alive in an unfavourable socio-cultural environment.
Thanks to Fr Tomás Surlis, Rector National Seminary, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth for permission to reprint this article.