Towards an Assembly of the Catholic Church in Ireland

Towards an Assembly of the Catholic Church in Ireland
On February 11th 2012 a posting on the web-site of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) announced that ‘The ACP, in conjunction with some others, is organizing a gathering, which we are calling “Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church”. It will take place on Monday, May 7th in the Regency Hotel, Dublin’. The posting went on to say that ‘this is meant to be a first effort at bringing people together to discuss the current state of the Church in Ireland; and hopefully to be the beginning of a process that continue at all levels in the Church’. Background The background to this announcement is well-known. The crisis of clerical child sexual abuse, and its serious mis-handling by Church leaders, has revealed wider and deeper fault-lines in the Catholic Church, nationally and universally. In particular there has been a growing sense that an increasingly centralised and hierarchical culture and structure of governance have left little room for the voice of the faithful to be heard, not least the voice of women. We have yet to realise the vision of Vatican II of the Church as the People of God. We need badly to sit down together as Church to tackle the enormous crisis that confronts us, to tap into the wisdom of the committed and the alienated, the ‘sense of the faithful’, in order to plot a way forward. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has been particularly strong in alerting us to the deep nature of this crisis. He has noted that the abuse issue has opened peoples’ eyes ‘to a much deeper crisis’ (The Irish Times, November 22, 2010) and has argued that the period up to 2020 ‘…will be the most challenging years that the Irish Church has had to face since Catholic Emancipation’.   Without renewal he believes that the Church will end up as a ‘culturally irrelevant minority’ in Ireland.  Individual bishops and dioceses – notably in Down and Connor and Killaloe, but also in Tuam, Kerry, Waterford and Lismore, and elsewhere- have engaged in serious consultation processes in order to map a way forward in this crisis. Abroad, the Catholic Church in Germany has committed itself to a 4 year consultation process at all levels of the Church, in the wake of the child sexual abuse crisis there and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. The Catholic Church in France has convoked a national Assembly to commemorate the Vatican II anniversary next Autumn, with 3000 Catholics invited to participate. So far, despite some local initiatives and international precedents, the Irish Hierarchy has been slow to accede to the many requests from individuals and groups to convoke a National Assembly of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Perhaps they are waiting for the publication of the Apostolic Visitation to Ireland, and will use this as an opportunity to promote renewal by means of an Assembly? That would be a wonderful outcome, a graced sign of courageous leadership at a time when it is not at all easy to be a Bishop and member of the Episcopal Conference. However, perhaps too, following the lead from Rome, the Irish bishops as a group tend to believe that reform needs to come about by means of ‘spiritual renewal’ and ‘internal conversion’.  In this context Archbishop Martin warns against ‘appeals for a sort of de-institutionalisation of the Church’. He goes on to argue that ‘… There are those who would wish an Irish Church separate from Rome. There are those who would speak rightly of a strengthening of the role of lay people in the Irish Church, but really want a Church in which Office and Order would be radically emptied of their theological meaning…Renewal is required, but that renewal first of all requires conversion on the part of all and not just outward changes in structures’.  To emphasize the need for personal conversion is absolutely appropriate, and, indeed, the fears of a kind of institutional anarchy and even schism are understandable. However, the perceived dichotomy between personal and structural renewal can be something of a phoney theological war. This is, as Bishop Donal Murray has noted, a matter of ‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’ – ‘Do we need new structures or new attitudes? –Clearly we need both’.  It is quite possible to want both personal and structural renewal, to value the gift of papacy and yet call for its re-imagining (as Pope John-Paul II did in 1995 in Ut Unum Sint), to affirm the theological nature of both Office and church Order and yet, particularly in the context of the Eucharistic needs of local communities at a time of serious shortage of priests, to try to imagine a different theological basis that would allow for a more participative and inclusive exercise of ministry in the Church.  The saying attributed to Peguy puts it well – ‘everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics’: both are needed, outside and within our church. Above all, it makes sense that at a time of crisis we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in all the baptised faithful. People care, they want their voices to be heard. It will help if this is done in public and is well communicated, so that people in Kerry know what people in Belfast are thinking and saying, so that we all have a better sense of the way forward. In this context it would seem that leadership ‘from the top’, no matter how enlightened, is less important than a servant leadership which empowers and facilitates the voice of the faithful.  Initiatives by priests and lay people ought not to be seen as divisive or in opposition to Bishops: it is the one Spirit who inspires us all and blows where it wills.
The event envisaged by the ACP, in cooperation with the small number of religious and lay people who are helping to organize it, is ‘Towards an Assembly…’ A real National Assembly would need to be planned over a long period, at parish and diocesan levels, with Episcopal involvement from the start. Ideally it would not simply be a ‘one-off’ event, but would become part of the normal culture of Church life, as it is in many of our sister Christian churches, from whom we have much to learn. The ACP event is rather a ‘priming of the pump’, a first small attempt to model what a National Assembly would look like and a spur towards that end. The event is open to all who are interested, including the committed and the alienated. The bishops will be invited. Interestingly, it takes place on a Bank Holiday Monday – the organizers were faced with the request of lay people to hold it on a week-end (since many are working during the week) and by priests to hold it during the week (since they are not so easily free on weekends): the Bank Holiday Monday was the best we could do in the circumstances, a first learning experience in the complexities of bringing the People of God together! The event will hope to name some of the realities of being a Catholic in Ireland today, to look to the future inspired by the vision of Vatican II and in response to our own ‘signs of the times’, and to call for the kind of action required.  It is hoped that, in particular, a stronger lay organizational grouping might emerge from the process. It will be conducted in a spirit of prayer and discernment, conscious that our own efforts remain as gifted response to the much greater call of God’s Holy Spirit, trusting in the ‘Gamaliel principle’ outlined in Acts 5, 38-39: ‘If this plan or this undertaking is of humans only, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!’ Again, the ‘discernment of spirits’ takes time and skill, and above all we must not ‘stifle the Spirit’ (1 Thess. 5, 19). Hope We need signs of hope in our Catholic Church. In the current climate of crisis informal conversation about the Church is peppered by phrases such as : ‘let the whole thing come crashing down’; ‘things will never change’; ‘it’s easier to change the world than to change the Church’; ‘they just don’t get it’; ‘the bishops themselves are the problem’; ‘it’s the brick wall syndrome’; and, in reference to the introduction of the New Missal, one woman quotes a female friend – ‘it’s like putting up new curtains when there’s a hole in the roof and the whole house is collapsing about our ears!’. We need to channel this kind of criticism and this kind of energy constructively. Otherwise it will end up in simple alienation and indifference. We need to create the fora where this kind of conversation can happen, to relearn what Dermot Lane, in another context, refers to as ‘the art of good conversation’ in our church.  And this conversation needs to be more than a managerial exercise in ‘listening’, but a real contribution to Pope Benedict’s call for laity to exercise ‘co-responsibility’ in the Catholic Church  – it needs, in other words, to lead to decisions and action. The event on May 7th is another step towards such a structure and culture in our church. As critics on the side-line, ‘hurlers on the ditch’, we remain open to the charge of being co-dependents in a manifestly dysfunctional structure. Often, indeed, we are genuinely at a loss to know what to do, what concrete step to take. It would be wonderful if the baptised from all over Ireland, young and old, women and men, clerical and lay, committed and alienated, could take this opportunity on May 7th to let their voice be heard. A facility for registration for this event may be obtained on the web-site of the Association of Catholic Priests: www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie
Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J. Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

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One Comment

  1. Liz O'Sullivan says:

    A wonderful article thank you.
    I wonder if there there is a possibility of including inputs from the Irish Diaspora – Missionaries/Emigrants – into the Assembly? Their viewpoint and experience may add a slightly different colour?
    I support ACP and Fr Tony in all your work.

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