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 – tonyflannery.com – 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.