Last week Ireland almost beat Austria in a crucial World Cup fixture. It was nip and tuck for most of the match until the final minutes when Ireland forced a goal to draw level and almost forced a second goal to win. If they had won they would be sitting pretty on the top of the group table with just a few games to go.
After the match everyone, apart from the manager Martin O’Neill, seemed to believe that a vital mistake was made when the team was picked. The mistake was to opt for the reliable and defensive Glen Whelan to close down the opposition when the more flexible and adventurous Wes Hoolahan would have opened up the opposing defence. The choice was between a safe man and a creative footballer.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Different footballers bring different qualities to the field of play. The same might be said of bishops.
At significant times in the history of the Church we needed a retinue of solid fullbacks to hold the line. At other times we needed a number of creative wingers who could get past defences, even if the odd goal was leaked!
Cometh the hour, cometh the bishops.
Well, yes and no.
The appointment of bishops usually reflects the priorities of the pope of the day. Pope John XXIII, after the safe and predictable pontificate of the austere Pius XII, released several genies out of several bottles when he brought the bishops of the world to Rome for the Second Vatican Council. Priests who would have ambitioned a reasonable curacy under Pius suddenly found themselves in charge of significant dioceses.
Of course, Pius and John inhabited different worlds and had very different perspectives. Chalk and cheese. For example, Pope Pius liked to eat alone, sitting on a bare upright chair; John loved company, a comfortable recliner and a glass of dry white wine.
Pope John Paul II, now sainted, sounded more like Pius XII but without the cobwebs. And the gentle Benedict XVI, playing the piano in his spare time, was happy to continue the Pius project. The appointment of bishops was prudent and predictable. Then Francis arrives, uninfected by Vatican protocol, and the windows of the Vatican were thrown wide open again, as with his opening up the possibility of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Game on, was the cry of the refugees of Vatican Two. And, gradually, ever so gradually, bishops who reflected Francis’ priorities were appointed, as in Chicago, Newark and other places. But not so much in Ireland so far, as we know.
Unlike prime ministers who can get rid of those who oppose their policies, popes are left (sometimes almost forever) with the appointees of their predecessors. For example Pope John had nothing in common with Archbishop John Charles McQuaid who made no secret of his negative attitude to the unexpected turn of John’s appointment. But Pope John was stuck with him. On the other hand liberal bishops found themselves drifting aimlessly on the high seas as the great tide of John Paul’s pontificate flooded everything in sight. And now, with the Francis effect becoming obvious Benedict’s appointees are beginning to experience a similar fate.
The reason why the Irish Church seems incapable of responding to the Francis agenda is that most Irish bishops are Benedict’s men – and even those appointed under Francis in the tenure of the last papal nuncio are more Benedict than the other ‘Benedictines’. It’s obvious that most of them have little or no empathy with the Francis effect, other than formulaic statements of support.
The history of the Church is about swings and roundabouts, tides ebbing and flowing – those who want to conserve the past as if the Church was a museum to be defended and those who want to respond to the ‘signs of the times’ by connecting the Church with the impulses of modern life and pushing the boundaries accordingly.
While the Church used to pride itself on its inability to change in less time than at least a century and while popes come and go and bring their own style to the leadership of the Church, bishops often find themselves out of sync with the pope of the day, and beached like great whales, because the tide that brought them in has gone out again.
This is the dilemma in which we find ourselves now in Ireland. To push the footballing metaphor a bit, appointments to the bench of bishops by Benedict have left the Irish Church with a dearth of creative episcopal wingers, those with the imagination and flair to reinvent the Irish Church along the lines that Francis is suggesting.
Alongside them stand a diminishing and an ageing priesthood wondering what’s going to happen when they eventually hang up their spurs. And alongside them are people, growing more angry and frustrated by the day, waiting for the Francis effect to make an appearance in Ireland.
The only straw in the wind has been the transfer of the last papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown to Albania and the imminent arrival of his successor Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, a Nigerian who will arrive in Ireland by way of diplomatic service in Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Saint Lucia, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Australia and the Central African Republic.
He will need all the experience he can muster to bring the Francis effect to the Irish Church. His interests include playing the piano and table tennis. Now where did I put that bat?