On Good Friday droves of people attend church services to celebrate and honour the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ.
Good Friday, like Christmas night, still has a deep resonance with most people and recognising its significance, despite the decline in practice in the main churches, is still a compelling impulse in Irish people.
This year too, on the first Good Friday for decades, pubs opened to officially allow huge numbers enjoy the Easter bank holiday weekend – a very different but still compelling impulse in the Irish character.
The contrast between the two worlds – devoted Catholics and other Christians for whom Good Friday is a sacred day and those enjoying the holiday weekend – couldn’t be more marked, even though many are happily part of both worlds. But lifting the ban on pubs opening on Good Friday is another marker on the definitive shift of religion to the margins of Irish society.
While Catholics lament the decline of their Church – the collapse of its authority, the decline of influence, the implosion of regular practice, the crisis in vocations – a difficult truth is that much of the decline is self-inflicted. We are where we are not just because circumstances conspired to make it all happen but because we don’t seem to know where else we might be.
While Ireland moves on without us we’ve failed consistently to navigate the impulses of the modern world and seem content to maintain the moat distancing us from an Ireland that has changed (and continues to change) beyond recognition.
The second papal visit in four decades conveniently bookends two different worlds – Pope John Paul in 1979 striving to convince us that we were on the brink of a new and glorious age and confidently lecturing Catholics on contraception and divorce and Pope Francis in 2018 probably not even acknowledging the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal letter that banned artificial contraceptives for Catholics, which ironically coincides with his visit in August.
Even though more than half a century ago, the Second Vatican Council encouraged the Catholic Church to watch out for the signs of the times (to learn from the world) the two pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have consistently ignored and undone the direction of that Council.
One, during decades when the enhancement of the role of women in society has gone through several mini-revolutions and become part of the very texture of Irish life, we still seem to think that we’ve a God-given right to patronise, disrespect, ignore and presume that women today will accept the excruciatingly embarrassing efforts we make as a Church to limit their role.
Mary McAleese’s recent representation of the Catholic Church as an ‘empire of misogyny’ not only dissected the reality in all its disagreeable detail but laid bare the due anger of women and the frustration that what appears so obvious, sensible and necessary is still beyond the pale for the clerical Church. When will they get it? Will they ever get it? Is ‘No’ the only word they know?
Two, the denial on the part of the leadership of our Church about vocations is instructive.
Caught between an aspiration and a mathematical reality they take refuge in Hilaire Belloc’s advice in a crisis of ‘always keep a hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse’.
On the cusp of my 70th birthday, incredibly I’m still under the average age of priests in Ireland. According to Archbishop Diarmaid Martin there’s only one student for the diocesan priesthood in Dublin, a diocese with 199 parishes and a nominal Catholic population of over a million.
Plan A in the Irish Church is praying for male, celibate vocations.
Plan B is praying even more for male, celibate vocations.
Yet, almost everyone can see that there’s a menu of solutions to the vocations crisis – ordain viri probati (married men of proven reputation), ordain women an well as men deacons, ordain women – and almost everyone believes we need to move smartly or parishes that have been vibrant faith-communities for centuries will disappear within a decade.
Yet strangely, Pope Francis seems to be among the few in positions of authority in the Church prepared to debate the problem. Priests themselves, reading the writing on the wall, are now in increasing numbers calling for change. The people in the pews would welcome change, as surveys consistently indicate by huge majorities.
And still, as far as we know, Irish bishops have not as yet seriously debated the obvious solutions and seem reluctant to alert Rome to the imminent collapse of hundreds of Eucharistic communities (parishes).
I made this point recently when I met an Irish archbishop. He dismissed it by saying he wasn’t ‘into depression’. But he’s clearly into denial, as are (it would seem) the Irish bishops as a whole, as no credible vision for priesthood (apart from male celibates) seems under their consideration.
The gap between the leadership of the clerical Church and the rest of God’s faithful is growing wider by the year as a small enclave of celibate men, supported by a small enclave of ultra-conservative Catholics, push the Church away from the influence of its clergy and its people. And push the Church away from the wisdom the world, from learning from ‘the signs of the times’.
Recently, at a diocesan conference, priests were addressed by two lay-men who both agreed that the Church as we have known it in Ireland is in its death throes. We don’t know what the future Church will or might be like so (priests were told) we need to prepare for a Church that few of us will live to see. We are in ‘open ground’.
In such a scenario the Catholic Church in Ireland needs two things: to face the reality of life in a changing Ireland and to listen to what the people are saying. The flow of the tide of the modern world doesn’t mean the ebb of the tide of Catholicism. We need to learn, to listen and to hear.
While most people are content to try and navigate the uncertain currents of the modern world, the leaders of the Catholic Church seem reluctant to enter its choppy waters. They don’t seem to be able to let go of the anchors that once stabilised the foundations around which we built the Church of the past but that now bind us to the wisdom of a different world.
Whether as church we have the capacity to take the tide of change is another question. Old institutions and old habits die hard.
I’m reminded of a story told by Donald Schon in his 1970 Reith Lectures about attempts to introduce modern technology into an artillery regiment in the British Army. The regiment was equipped with new rapid-fire guns deployed on a motorized carrier but it was found that the regiment’s rate of fire in field conditions was much lower than anticipated. A time-and-motion study revealed that at a certain point in the firing cycle one soldier would stand motionless at a short distance from the others. When this apparently illogical practice was put to the commanding officer, he replied that the soldier was ‘holding the horses, old boy’.
The example illustrates the pathological resistance to change in great institutions, the difficulty of changing not just ways of working but a complete mind-set. For just as the army’s procedures for controlling their horses during fire outlived the switch to motorized technology, so too many of the supposedly immutable rites, rituals and practices of the Church may in future years be recalled with the same wry incredulity.
Does it really matter if the pubs are open on Good Friday?