The last three years have been a huge success for the ACP. So let me first of all offer you my congratulations and thanks for all the work that you have done, sometimes unnoticed and unacknowledged. The ACP has given outstanding support and leadership to the priests of Ireland.
Here are some stray and scattered thoughts on what I might have said from the floor at the AGM if I were there. These thoughts were, in part, prompted by a question from Gerry O’Hanlon recently.
1. The reform of the Catholic Church in Ireland must be driven by the Second Vatican Council. The ACP has said this since its foundation, and it should continue to beat this particular drum. There is much in the vision of Vatican II awaiting implementation: the role of the laity, collegiality, ecumenism…
2. The interpretation and implementation of the Second Vatican Council has entered a new phase with the appointment of Pope Francis as Bishop of Rome. An outline of this new phase can be found in the many significant statements that he has made since his election. These include:
- His pre-Conclave speech( March 2013);
- His meeting with the staff of La Civilta Cattolica in June 2013;
- His press conference on the plane to Rome from Rio (July 2013)
- His recent interview with the editor of La Civilta Cattolica ( in August) published in Jesuit journals(September 2013)
- His letter to the atheist editor of La Repubblica ( September 2013)
- The interview of Francis by the atheist editor of La Repubblica ( 2013)
3. Francis has retrieved some of the neglected aspects of Vatican II:
- Dialogue with world, the churches and religions
- reading the signs of the times,
- the missionary thrust of Christian faith called to go out to the frontiers,
- a recovery of the mystery of Church as the light of Christ in a way that parallels the mysterium lunae,
- the need to move beyond a self-referential Church ad extra.
- a return to the Church as the People of God
- an understanding of infallibility as something belonging to the whole Church.
4. Francis has challenged the Church to become “the home of all, not a small chapel that holds a small group of selected people”. If this is to happen in Ireland the Institutional Church will have to heal the many wounds it has inflicted on so many people in the past: the victims of sexual abuse, gay and lesbian people, divorced and remarried, priests forced to leave ministry, women, outspoken/prophetic priests and theologians…The most frequently used word in the speeches and interviews of Francis is “Mercy”. Is it possible for the Church in Ireland at this time to exercise the Mercy Francis has spoken about and to embody the compassion that is so central to ministry of Jesus?
5. Since Francis is now moving the Church towards a pastoral implementation of Vatican II, the ACP has a vital role to play. It is the members of the ACP that are at the front line of pastoral activity in Ireland. How can the ACP enable parishes to embody the vision of dialogue, collegiality and inclusivity that Francis is promoting at this time? How can the ACP move its members to adopt a more collaborative model of ministry that activates the priesthood of the laity. How can parishes begin to live the mercy-filled vision of Pope Francis? In responding to these questions, attention should be given to the following:
- The vision of Vatican II as a point of departure;
- Acceptance of Francis’ interpretation of Vatican II as primarily pastoral;
- The promotion of a new dialogue: between laity, priests and bishops; between women and the institutional church; between theologians and bishops, between the disaffected and the official Church, between the wounded and the institutional church
- The urgent need to develop a theology of dialogue throughout the church, with particular reference to the divorced and remarried, the gay and lesbian community, and the role of women in the Church.
- The importance of instituting new forms of consultation that go beyond what Francis calls “ceremonial consultation”.
- Attention to the gifts of the Holy Spirit within the Christian community. The programme of renewal and reform of the Catholic Church must be driven by the Spirit: without the Spirit the Church is just another institution, without the Spirit pastoral activity is simply social work, without the Spirit the liturgy is just another empty ritual, without the Spirit the teaching of the Church is just another ideology. This turn to the Spirit will require the drawing up of credible criteria for discerning the action of the Spirit of Christ in the Church and the world today.
6. Pope Francis has also retrieved the meaning of what is involved in thinking with the Church: “When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the Pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit”. In this way Francis has retrieved the importance of the sensus fidelium as intrinsic to the teaching-mission of the Church
7. The crisis of faith in Ireland today is far more serious than most Church leaders recognise. This crisis of faith is not something that began with the revelations around child sexual abuse. This crisis of faith had begun prior to the revelations of abuse and the inadequate response of ecclesiastical authorities through the failure of the church to come to grips with the winds of modernity. Modernity arrived in Ireland almost overnight to challenge a church that seemed immune to the challenges of modernity
This crisis of faith will not be resolved by condemning secularisation, or demonising the secular, or berating the ways of the world. The only way forward out of this crisis of faith is by engaging with the secular world as proposed by Gaudium et Spes, by initiating a dialogue between faith and the public square in Ireland, and by attending to “the unquiet frontiers of modernity” (Charles Taylor). Addressing this crisis of faith will also require social and cultural analysis of what exactly is happening in modern Ireland today. In this way faith will be able to find positive points of contact with the secular ( eg, the turn to mindfulness, the search for well-being/wellnes, the quest for the spiritual…) while critiquing the negative aspects of the secular. This analysis will need the help of the arts, philosophy and theology. It is far from clear that the current methods of the new evangelisation in Ireland are sufficient to the task of addressing the crisis of faith.
8. Theology at this stage in Ireland, due to neglect by the institutional Church, is in danger of becoming an un-ecclesial activity and this in turn is giving rise to un-theological ecclesiologies and un-theological pastoral practices at Parish level (see D. Lane, The Furrow, Feb. 2004, and again The Furrow, Jan. 2010).
9. Some of the urgent issues facing the Catholic Church at this time include: the overcoming of clericalism, bridging the gap between intellectuals and the institutional Church, healing the wounds revealed in the Ferns, Murphy, and the Ryan Reports, and the regaining of trust among people
10. Is it possible that the bishops of Ireland could now establish a group of eight to advise them on the reform and the renewal of the Catholic Church? This group of eight might include a disaffected intellectual, a woman, someone from the business world, a theologian, a religious, lay person active in ministry, a priest, and a bishop. This group of eight should be given a clear brief, with a specific timeline, and some resources (which might be funded, for example, by the Bishops’ Conference and CORI and 10% of all weekend Parish collections for one month.
11. The Catholic Church in Ireland needs a pastoral plan and a theological “think-tank”: how to bring faith into dialogue with society, the academy and the Church; how to establish authentic structures of dialogue at national, diocesan and parish levels; how to recover from the betrayal of trust ( see Broken Faith: Why Hope Matters, ed.by P. Claffey, J. Eagan and M Keenan, P. Lang, 2013)
12. A particular focus for the Irish Church and the ACP at this time should be attention to the ever-increasing number of disaffected Catholics, indifferent unbelievers, the growing number of articulate secularists and atheists within Irish society, and the significant number of unbelievers who, nonetheless, continue to be fascinated by the story of Jesus as for example appears to be the case with Scalfari , the former atheist editor of La Repubblica , who I suspect speaks for many.
13. It is worth observing in passing how Fianna Fail has reinvented itself in the last two years. Is it conceivable that the church might reinvent itself to become a servant church, especially of the poor, the social conscience of society, the champion of social justice as outlined in the synodal document of 1971 entitled Justice in the World.
13. A final challenge for the ACP at this time is to get the Catholic Church to move from being a teaching Church to being a teaching and learning Church (Gaudium et Spes). Without a learning Church, there cannot be a teaching church. If the Catholic Church fails to become a learning Church, which was one of the striking features of the Church at Vatican II, then it will continue to be a merely self-referential institution, with narcissistic qualities which have been critiqued by Francis. If there is no learning from the world as envisaged by Vatican II, the church could end up as a sect within Irish society.
I hope you have a productive AGM next Tuesday.