The search continues

There are many reasons for pessimism about the state of religious faith, and in particular of our Catholic Church, in Ireland today. The obvious ones, the drastic decline in church attendance and in recruits to the priesthood, have been well documented.

In the last couple of months the Association of Catholic Priests conducted a series of meetings with priests around the country in order to give them an opportunity to talk freely about themselves and their lives. The reports are on the ACP website. They make for sad and disturbing reading. To put it mildly, priesthood in Ireland is not in a good place. Priests are an ageing group who find themselves with a greater burden of work and responsibility than when they were younger and more energetic. Now they are mostly in their seventies and in a much more stressful environment. The climate of the times is to a fair degree antagonistic to what they stand for. Many are tired and demoralised. Some would love to retire, but cannot do so without having their own accommodation, and some private income, which very few have. So they soldier on, often with little enthusiasm for the task. A particularly disturbing fact is that at least eight priests have died by suicide in the past ten years. The one bright light is that at local level they still get great support and encouragement from many parishioners. Issues like the mother and baby homes, the debate on what is euphemistically called the “baptism barrier”, and the upcoming referendum to ‘repeal the eighth’, with all the attendant media storm that accompanies these controversies, are a real heartbreak for many older priests hoping for a quiet life as they get on with their parish duties.

A feature of these ACP meetings was how often priests mentioned the lack of leadership or support from their bishop. I have been on record many times lamenting this terrible lacuna in the Irish Catholic Church. With one or two exceptions, all I can see in our hierarchy is fear, anxiety and a desperate clinging to old ways. And this at a time when Pope Francis has by now clearly charted a new way, a new presentation of the Good News of the Gospel, based on openness, listening and courage.

Yet, in spite of all this, the situation is by no means completely negative. The fundamental questions, the ones that have provoked the spiritual search since humans first walked on this earth, still remain. Questions around the meaning of life, the purpose of our own individual existence, and increasingly the broader question of the future of our planet.

The many critics of institutional religion, and indeed they have a lot to criticise, often fail to point to any alternative channel of meaning. My experience suggests that the search for a spiritual dimension is still strong and active in many people. The institutional churches are too hidebound by ancient and rigid doctrinal formulas, expressed in traditional language, that make then unable or unwilling to communicate in a meaningful way with such people.

The fact that our churches are becoming increasingly sidelined in the search does not mean that the search is not still going on, even, and maybe most often, among the younger generation. Currently I am working with a group of people who are exploring new ways, and new language, for addressing spiritual realities. We are doing this is the light of the enormous advances made in scientific understanding in the past sixty or seventy years, most especially in cosmology and quantum physics. We are exploring ways to talk about creation in the light of what we now know about the universe, and what that tells us about a Creator and our relationship with that Being. It is a fascinating study, about which much stimulating material is now being written. This is not to contradict what has gone before us, but to ‘find new wine skins for the new wine’. Our first public presentation of our ideas will take place in Cork on Sunday evening, July 23rd. (Keep an eye to my blog – – for further details.)

The search will continue. But if there is a future for institutional religion it has to involve courage, respect for different beliefs and churches, listening with open minds and hearts to one another, recognising that we are all on the same journey and must help each other along the way. So the historic attitudes of divisions, bitterness, condemnation, even wars, have to be put aside. Pope Francis is showing the way with great courage, in spite of strenuous opposition. I wait with ever lessening hope for someone in the Irish Church to follow the way of Francis. Who are the leaders? Is there anyone among them with the courage to lead? Can they realise that there are many people in this country who are still deeply committed to the Christian Faith, and who long for a vibrant, revitalised Church. We desperately need someone in a position of authority who would bring us all together, to listen and speak ‘openly and without fear’. Francis is coming here next year. It will be an opportunity for some members of the hierarchy to reach out to those who think differently, an opportunity for celebrating unity in the midst of diversity. Let’s get to work together.

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  1. Excellent, Tony as always. I have been involved in our ecumenical journey in this archdiocese for nearly 30 years now and the first part of your last paragraph would make an excellent opening to any mission statement for the ecumenical movement.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well the priest to bishop ratio is way off. To properly manage, it is unheard of to have a ratio of 1 bishop to 80 priests. That is not a friendly ratio and looking for leadership from them is really not fair at this stage.

    Pope Francis is not charting a new way – he is charting the only way that makes sense for a global network that keeps equality as its mainstay. There has been a departure from that theme within every institution in society and the Roman Catholic Church is no exception. It is simply easier to micro-manage clerical tasks than it is to consult and take on that responsibility. That requires a whole lot of relinquishing of control which creates the anxiety, fear, and clinging to old ways you experience.

    The future of our planet is not in the hands of a select few, although we have burdened them with this responsibility passively, through financial instruments. To be honest, they are not, in the least, capable of rising to the occasion. The Fukushima disaster is a constant reminder of how quickly those who wield great financial control over the masses, are able to turn a blind eye to future generations in a heartbeat.

    I think once you start to focus on the human experience and make that your modus operandi, you might be surprised to realise that you have found what you’ve been looking for all along.

    “We desperately need someone in a position of authority who would bring us all together, to listen and speak ‘openly and without fear’.” This is the culture that needs to be checked in Ireland – if not for someone in Ireland to take Pope Francis’s lead, you are essentially left leaderless. I can’t even believe I’ve read this – this is clericalism at its finest. The thing Pope Francis fears the most is certainly warranted because it kills the hope of ever achieving the inverted pyramid structure that will invigorate the church with a vibrancy it has never seen before.

  3. Con Devree says:

    There has been a trend in recent decades for science not to oppose the existence of God. If anything it gestures support for it. The relatively recent video “Science Tests Faith” can be said to “support” Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.

    We believe this teaching of course not on the basis of scientific evidence but as Aquinas said because “God the Son has said it.” Thus faith rather than “the enormous advances made in scientific understanding in the past sixty or seventy years is the basis of Christian life.

    I think this article misapprehends the current epochal shift that European-Anglo-American civilisation is living through, – a mass consciousness driven by horizontal relationships among people. This differs from earlier decades when despite “all they have a lot to criticise” us for, many exalted sanctity which flowed from the vertical connections with God. This connection provided the individual with autonomy to evaluate events and relationships from the point of view of religious ethics. Shared evaluation of this kind was a prime part of what constituted the Catholic community.

    Until recent times the salvation of the soul was a central issue in the vertical connections with God. Yes the “fundamental questions … which have provoked the spiritual search since humans first walked on this earth, still remain.” But by and large in many so-called Christian contexts, secularisation has sucked the sap of faith awareness out of the exploration of these fundamental questions. Simply put, the salvation of the soul and the happiness sought by human beings in this life have become disconnected to the extent that the future salvation of the soul is seen as the adversary of present happiness, the Christian promise is deemed an impairment and menace to the earthly present. This disconnect is core to the current mass consciousness driven by mere horizontal relationships deprived of the vertical connections with God. The contributions of most opinion formers in Irish media reveal the way in which “happiness” seeks to emancipate itself from the threats of the soul’s salvation.

    This secularism, now internal to Catholicism, was mentioned albeit differently at the priests’ regional gatherings.

    An atheist close friend asked me at the funeral of her son about the possibility of her going to Hell on foot of her atheism. Here the “spiritual dimension [was] still strong and active” but driven by the fear of the loss of heaven. Focus on Gods absolute concern for all humanity, on His goodness and mercy are core pastoral requirements. Priests continually preach good works. But when the things of God are not central to life the fear of the loss of heaven may be the most powerful motivator to obey the Commandments.

    Indeed the centrality of the salvation of the soul is accentuated at Mass, in the Bible, in Lumen Gentium, in the CCC but rarely dealt with seriously at homily time. My friend’s asking the question shows the power of its relevance. Does failure to address it not alone ignore God’s wishes but desensitize the laity to a vital issue that only the Church can address with credibility. Has this omission not nourished the secularism within Catholicism which priests have to compete with now, especially at many funerals and weddings? Has the omission in the end not created a source of distress for priests?

    Fobbing off the question of salvation of the soul casts light on why “churches are becoming increasingly side-lined” by the public. Are unawareness of the contingent nature of salvation and non-observance of the Third Commandment mere coincidences? “A God without wrath [bringing] men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” empties many pews. The solution in the article above is a tad utopian.

    The reports from the regional meetings need more precision. As published they risk portraying priests in general as unhappy, living an unappealing way of life. If the priests concerned include the ones I know, they are good actors. The pressure on priests is increasing in a number of directions and we laity must make ourselves available as responsible helpers. Insofar as the solution involves prayer, the prayer after the Pater Noster at Mass, said privately outside of Mass for priests, is appropriate for their well-being and sense of hope and vindication.

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I’m not sure if I’m disagreeing with you, Con but your vertical/horizontal connections are surely descriptive of a bubble that Catholics have lived in and continue to live in.

    Through the decades, we Catholics were rejoicing in our vertical connections that allowed us to properly “evaluate events and relationships from the point of view of religious ethics.” Where did that lead us exactly? A vertical connection with God, does it not lead us to a deeper horizontal connection with our fellow human, if properly understood. Can you have one without the other? This “shared evaluation” has certainly led us down quite the path in certain respects. The good news is that despite the bubble that exists with Catholics judging the world from their ability to evaluate from on high (if that is what you mean), the Spirit has allowed us to shrink the world and be closer to those on the fringes of society.

    I also think what you are evaluating is completely disconnected from the group of 13-17 year old children who now have the weight of the world on their shoulders. They are horizontally connected and they are losing faith in adults and for good reason; Catholics might be the first they’ve lost faith in. We haven’t been able to level the playing in terms of social justice, gender equality, and they might see it as a haven of sorts for an upper-middle class think tank. Talk to them about salvation of the soul – they fear the loss of heaven and earth and they know we certainly can’t have one without the other. If we proclaim to be vertically connected to a supreme ethical authority and resist answering the moral questions that define us at this juncture, is it possible we are seen as simply a front of some sorts by them?

  5. I admire the realism with which Tony approaches the current plight of our Church. I read recently where Einstein said that he spent 90% of his time understanding a problem and then only 10% solving it. I think Tony is well on his way to understanding our Church’s problem and helping the rest of us understand it better too. Others, it would appear, are still unable to accept that there is a problem. The extent of that problem has been highlighted in a nationwide poll on the role religion plays in the lives of Austrians, which was reported in this week’s Tablet.
    What really stopped me in my tracts was the fact that:
    “Asked which tenets of the Creed they believed in, very few people, even committed Catholics, believed in the holiness of the Catholic Church ………”

    The rest of the piece in the Tablet is below.

    Pope miles ‘more popular than the Church’, poll finds Premium
    29 June 2017 | by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt
    A nationwide poll on the role religion plays in Austrians’ lives has shown that Pope Francis ranks “miles above” the Church, writes Christa Pongratz-Lippitt.

    “Appreciation of Pope Francis is miles above that of the Church. His are absolutely peak values,” Werner Beutelmeyer, the head of the Linz Market Institute that conducted the poll, told the Kärntner Kirchenzeitung (Carinthian church paper) on 23 June.

    The poll showed that 57 per cent of Austrians think Francis “absolutely reliable” while only 20 per cent think the same applies to the Church, and 42 per cent are convinced that Francis is capable of solving problems while only 14 per cent think the Church can.

    Asked which tenets of the Creed they believed in, very few people, even committed Catholics, believed in the holiness of the Catholic Church, particularly on account of clerical sexual abuse scandals. Both the abuse scandals and the spate of controversial bishops’ nominations in Austria under the then Pope John Paul II in the 1980s and ’90s had shattered trust in the Church, Mr Beutelmeyer explained. The Church’s commitment to helping refugees and the poor was appreciated, he said, and charismatic personalities and personal Christian witness – as seen with Francis – were called for.

  6. Con Devree says:

    Number 5 above.
    Lloyd, thank you for your reply. The disconnects you mention in your last paragraph do exist and more besides.

    In number 4 above I took three factual matters together – the current non-awareness of God among the human community, the general omission of the question of salvation from homiletics and the increasing pressure on many priests. I concluded that the first two were contributing factors to the third, especially on foot of the negative impact of the first two on the baptised.

    Of course the essential aspect of Catholic faith is the range of plusses it conveys on those lucky enough to have it despite the fact that we continue to use our reason in the same manner that landed us in trouble in the first place in that “Garden.”

    God also shares his work in relation to other Catholics with us. In that regard anyone who engages in prolife canvassing knows that it is probable that the Irish baptised will open the door in next year’s referendum to legislation permitting a massive scale of injustice against a defenceless category of people. However laity in the shape of The National Eucharistic Adoration Committee have started a drive to promote one million rosaries and one million hours of Eucharistic Adoration for the conversion of enough of the baptised to vote for retention of “The Eighth” and a culture of life. It’s the faith, God, offering an opportunity for a massive work of mercy.

  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well the non-awareness of God in the human community is a stretch at this time – I think people are more aware of how their small acts can have disastrous impacts on the worldwide community and that in itself is a closer connection to God, whether people choose to accept it or not.

    We might disagree with the essential aspects of the Catholic faith – not using reason properly denotes us from being Catholic altogether – you can’t have one without the other, sadly.

    One million rosaries and one million hours at this time in our very fragile state is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I would somehow love for Ireland to switch on the “living laudato si” ideals before things get a little hotter here on this planet that needs a replacement.

  8. Con Devree says:

    People differ on what constitute “disastrous impacts on the worldwide community.”
    Which baby and which bathwater?

    Given a certain level of civilisation, the expectation would be that the populace cared more for the wellbeing of baby humans than for baby animals, and that the wellbeing of adult humans precedes that of animals and of the environment. In 1983 Ireland adopted that maxim in the Eighth Amendment.

    As regards the environment, I live a green practice but am not convinced about the doom and gloom arguments. The eschaton, the Parousia are God’s to decide.

    The latest I hear from science is that our sun is half way through its lifecycle, and has another 5 billion years to go. Prior to that time it will have expanded to envelop the earth which will then of course cease to exist. The latest scientific estimate is that the entire cosmos has at least a trillion years left before it destroys itself.

    In the meantime we can expect repeated eras of turmoil in the Church, which Jesus as the Kingdom of Heaven Himself will always steady the barque of Peter.

    The extraordinary thing about prayers like the rosary and Eucharistic Adoration is that they enable the influence of affairs way beyond the ingenuity of the individual human being trusting in the prayers. “And He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Luke 18,1.

  9. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I think it comes down to priorities, Con @9. There has never been a time when we have as a species prioritised the environment we live in to see what kind of impact it would have on disparity. Disparity as we know it connects us with the structural violence that occurs on the planet – it is like economics has its own theory of relativity – where there is affluence, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. The environment and the resource grab that affects it is certainly the fault of the Western world and Laudato si’ affirms this. So living “green” in the Western world takes on a whole new meaning because there is practically nothing that disconnects us from this structural violence grid unless let’s say you decided to live on your own, at one with nature which is simply too aggressive a solution at this time.

    The very latest I’ve heard from the scientific community is that the methane release in the Arctic is so advanced at this stage it is starting to make the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere look like a healthy alternative – sadly one feeds the other and the balance needed to stop the deglaciation is in the hands of the lifestyle of the Western world which is completely oblivious to anything found outside the end of our noses, it may seem.

    My point is that no matter what stance we take on separate issues, we firmly stand in communion with this structural economic grid that unleashes all the man-made disasters on the planet from drought to tidal increase to violence. Distancing yourself from it, there is a better chance that you could ride a camel through the eye of a needle. That is civilisation as we’ve created it, not God’s will, for the time being.

    The eschaton and Parousia are certainly God’s to decide but the free will necessary to right our wrongs of the past do not require divine intervention – just solid logic, a slice of courage, and favourable conditions that Pope Francis has provided by way of an encyclical and a declaration that the church would invert its hierarchy for the time being – adopting the spirit of the church Jesus’s instituted where service is key.

    The good news is that there is a solution well within our grasp but it is still being negotiated by the younger generation with that generation who is on its final chapter here in the earthly realm who is still very much in control. The search continues for the logic needed to put ideas into action and to temporarily stop the search for a spiritual dimension for the time being and focus on the human elements of the dimension we all currently occupy. Pope Francis is asking for this but apparently has no authority in Ireland, or so it would seem.

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