Chris McDonnell: Facing up to our responsibility

Facing up to our responsibility

La Croix July 09.2021

There has been much talk in recent weeks about facing up to our responsibility in the Church. The offered resignation of Cardinal Marx, which thankfully was declined by Francis, was one high profile instance. It has brought to our attention issues that for too long many of us have been avoiding, often through concern with the possible consequences.

But there comes a time when we must face reality and ask the difficult question – where do I stand? With the Synod now due to open in 2023, there is a real opportunity for radical change. Do we wait for an invitation to contribute to the preparation for the Synod or do we open wide the door that is ajar and make a worthwhile contribution? Maybe now is the time for individuals to approach their bishop and raise pertinent questions.

The question is, how? Where parishes have functioning Councils, there already exists a structure for formulating opinion that might offer a way forward. It beggars belief that there are still so many parishes where there is no recognized structure for parishioners to have a voice, where the management of parish life is centred on one person. We are paying the price for our casual acceptance of clericalism over so many years. You take people with you by offering the option for real participation, by hearing their voice and responding to their concerns.

Whether we like it or not, circumstances have changed. The monolithic structure that has been accepted for so long deemed by many to be no longer fit for purpose. What will replace it? What is the emerging Church going to look like? How will we sustain continuity with the faith that has nurtured our lives?

The question of faith is ever-present in the Gospel narrative. The challenges that are so often posed by Jesus the Nazarene ask for a response that demands confidence and trust in his word. Sometimes that seemed too much to ask. We are told when the gift of the Eucharist is first mentioned, that many turned away from him. Rather than explain that they had misunderstood him, he turned to those near him and asked if they wished to leave him as well. The reply given by Peter in the Gospel of John is well known: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life”.  

Faith grows like a bud on a bush experiencing the challenge of changing seasons. Those seasons cover many years as we pass from childhood through to maturity and old age as the green bud breaks open offering the vibrant colours of a flower. With that passing time, faith is framed by circumstance and does not, should not, remain the same. The faith of childhood is experienced within our years of immaturity. As with so many other aspects of our life, it does not stay unaltered. We are asked questions, and rightly so. Such questions are reflective of concern and need to be addressed. Not all have immediate answers, some questions hang in the air, leaving the uncertainty of doubt. But no matter, for without doubt, faith would be replaced by surety and so not be faith at all.

I recently read an article by the Irish poet John F Deane, entitled Of Faith and Doubt, a reflection on the faith and practice of Séamus Heaney. He writes that “the trajectory of a life is often one of initial belief, aided and underpinned by rites and rituals. Doubt creeps in when the rituals take over from the belief that may not, originally, have been based on personal thinking and conviction. Finally, the intellect dismisses the shows and rites of belief, and throws God out with the peelings”. Heaney’s movement from the Catholicism of his youth to his position of honest uncertainty in his later years is encapsulated in the quotation from Heaney during a conversation over dinner – “that he felt caught between the old forms of faith that he had grown up with in Northern Ireland and some new dispensation that had not yet emerged.”

There is courage to be found in facing change, hoping in the future that emerges from the months and years of journey. Faith succeeds doubt when reality is faced. Recently I wrote these few words:

Once, it demanded little to rise early

and begin the day in quiet, solitary stillness,

a flickering candle flame, 

breaking Dawn-touched icon silence.


Patterns change, heaviness of sleep now endures,

empty echoes of a lost time.

Memories contained in a small space,

a long loneliness as pieces of a broken jar

lie scattered by the open door.

Gather the sharp-edged fragments,

patiently rebuild the form of faith

even if all the parts do not fit neatly

but struggle for wholeness.

the gaps that are left give access to the heart.

And there lies the rub; the expectation that faith remains constant and its form unchanging only leads us into a barren cul-de-sac where the challenge of present reality cannot be met with a tired response. Faith, like the bud on the bush, requires nourishment, in order that doubt may be overcome. We need to have faith in the depth of our being, even if we haven’t it on the surface. Just as faith and its demands run through the Gospels, so too does the confrontation with doubt.

In many parts of the world, faith is being challenged in an open and often brutal manner. In such places it is not only expressed in comfortable words and phrases but in the reality of the marketplace, home and church, synagogue and mosque. There the conviction of faith over doubt is both stark and costly. It is a high price that is paid by many.

A few years ago, on a beach in South Devon, my grandson James and I, found two pieces of driftwood which we wired together in the form of a cross. Planted in the sand, its rough sea-worn substance cast a dark outline on the sand, a vivid reminder that we all live under the shadow of the Cross. The consequence of the Crucifixion and the subsequent Resurrection is a narrative of faith. The rebuke from Thomas when told that the Risen Christ had been seen was doubt, demanding proof before he would believe.

When he had opportunity to meet the Christ, he was told, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” A life in faith, with all its vicissitudes, is a life lived in the promise of the Risen Lord.


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