Setting us on our way

Home Thoughts from Abroad

The Church in Ireland dominated the lives of the people in a way that it did not do in England. I noticed this even as a young boy going to Mass in Bangor Erris on my holidays. Everybody went to Mass. Back home in Lancashire most of my neighbours were not Catholic and many of the Catholics did not go to mass either.

My faith slotted into a wider and different culture and it was something that we practised faithfully and quietly.

But going to mass was a serious duty and in that sense the feeling of a dominating church was very much there, making attenders feel obligated and non-attenders be regarded as lost souls. When more relaxed days came along it seemed that Catholics in England had just blended further into the fabric of non-religious life, whereas in Ireland the coming of modern times have been accompanied by upsetting scandal issues so that the reaction against the Church is far more personal and wounding for people who had once been silently obedient. The expressed anger against the Church has been vitriolic at times. Upsetting but understandable.

I believe Pope Benedict XVI has written somewhere that the Church will diminish in size now and become a smaller reality in the world, as opposed to the huge organisation that it has been. This is clearly happening in the West: Expansion and now reduction of the institution. Parishes will close and buildings become uninhabited. Big changes will happen.

There is often an appeal to the hierarchy to do something to address all this, and the hierarchy are not equipped to do any such thing. I find Eamon Duffy, the historian, helpful on this matter. In his book, Faith of Our Fathers, he says the Church needs structure and order to survive, fire and ardour if it is not to become a prison for the spirit, and intellectual rigour and commitment to the truth if it is to have a gospel to preach.

Hierarchical leadership is rarely initiative-taking, Duffy points out. What it does when best exercised is to make space for non- hierarchical leadership to flourish. (Faith of Our Fathers, p. 86-7)

Pope Francis is creating such healthy conditions.

The Church of my youth was centred on the duty of attending mass, and that service was provided to people by a recruited celibate priesthood. Lots of other things also happened, very good things by way of social service, care and education, but the central force was that duty to attend. When I became a priest Redemptorists still preached sermons about the evil of Mass-missing, and that was in 1970!

What is the central driving force today for us as Church? What should it be? It has to be different. And in the ‘age of the laity’ ministry will change too.

In a quiet and beautiful corner of Mayo lies Ballintubber Abbey, beautiful to visit and very popular for weddings. I remember meeting Father Egan, the great restorer of the place, in the early 70s. The place lies in a little valley and the path to the door invites you in. There is also a finger post there, pointing out the old pilgrim road to Croagh Patrick.

I find all this eloquent of what the Church must be. A place that gathers you in to bless you and encourage you, and that then points out the road to you, the road of your life that you are encouraged to walk, until you reach God’s holy mountain.

We need a Church like that, to gather us in, to fire our hearts and to set us on our way.


Brian Fahy

26 July 2017

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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well at this stage, the health of the planet is a mathematical game. If a demographic were available to be mobilised for the Care of Creation and the Poor, seems like Catholics would be an apparent choice since we have a ready-to-act behavioural instinct written to our firmware – that’s been my hopes anyway.

    The central driving force of the Church has been self-preservation and it hasn’t been driving – it’s been set to auto-pilot with an unimaginative leadership, checking boxes, dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s just like the rest of society has been, preparing for the apparent outcome of a never-ending game. Pope Francis is trying to put an end to this as you point out.

    Now some of us can see as far as 50 years in the future (13-17 year olds) and can clearly recognise the societal problems of our time and are not short on imagination. Sadly, as they enter adulthood, that imagination is better spent on how to cover a mortgage, car-payment, food costs and a preferably small yet expensive family. Most of us these days haven’t got the stomach to attempt such madness. So the necessary reverse-engineering of society can happen but not without focusing on that future generation; luckily our CEO has equipped us with jet-packs and unlimited fuel.

    Our Church will always and forever be a place for people to witness how community-minded individuals can position themselves when trying to tackle larger-than-life problems facing future generations. Society throws a lot at us even within a democracy – I’m proud to say solutions this time round will be faith-based and this will be a trend that lasts millennia but only if a small percentage of our total number finds the initial courage (0.25%).

    Pope Benedict’s call for a smaller church was a precursor to Francis’s Laudato si’ and call for the inverted pyramid:

    “How does all this affect the problem we are examining? It means that the big talk of those who prophesy a Church without God and without faith is all empty chatter. We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the [sidelines], watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of man, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.”

    You’ve been set on your way for some time it would seem.

  2. Within my church, tried to develop a change management process but this has been a dismal failure. Basically, the pastoral council is made up of the prayer groups who always defer to father in everything…try to engage in developing a vision or a pastoral plan and developing the financial budget. The outcome is that father likes to do things in a certain way and that’s that.

    There is no point complaining. The bishops and priests are set in their ways and have neither the heart or desire to change. The problem is that what are we the to do…? just stand by and watch our faith disappear.

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