Breda O’Brien: As churches reopen it cannot be service as usual
Loss of religion as lip service has opened opportunities to do things differently
In a little-noticed move, Pope Francis has just reinstituted the ancient role of catechist as a formal ministry for laypeople. Since the first century, catechists have taught the essentials of the faith and helped people to achieve a mature faith.
This move by the pope to give catechists their own rite of institution is significant because it recognises that the role of laypeople in reaching their peers is vital to the future of the church. He is very familiar with the central role of catechists in faith communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia. It is past time they had a similar role in higher-income countries.
Religion has been privatised and reduced to the status of a personal hobby by many politicians, members of the media and other influential figures
The pope has often spoken about Japan and the torture and persecution of Christians from the 17th century onwards. The Japanese church was effectively underground and without priests for more than two centuries. When missionaries were finally allowed to return in the 19th century, they found faith still alive and people had been validly baptised, married and received Christian funerals.
When people truly value something, they find ways not only to preserve it but to pass it on to others. The Irish Church is not facing any challenge as serious as the Japanese Christians of the 17th century, or even our own era of penal laws.
Nonetheless, as churches return to public worship, the joy that people feel is tempered by the bruising reality that communal expression of faith was considered non-essential for longer than anywhere else in Europe.
Not only that but normal Sunday worship was criminalised, despite churches making strenuous efforts to act responsibly and in the interests of public safety.
These are sobering realities and evidence of what Prof Declan Kiberd once wrote, which is that the Irish are among the least sentimental people on earth. They have little compunction about dumping a once-sacred core value or identity-marker.
Kiberd was citing Fr Peter Connolly, a much-loved professor of English in Maynooth, who stated in 1980 that “religion will go in Ireland in the next generation: and when it goes it will go so fast that nobody will even know it is happening.” As evidence, Fr Connolly gave the example of the speed with which our people got rid of their own language when it no longer seemed of practical use to them.
Fr Connolly may not have got it quite right. It may not be religion that is gone but lip service to religion.
Religion has been privatised and reduced to the status of a personal hobby by many politicians, members of the media and other influential figures. It is no longer in the interests of these people to be publicly associated with religion, much less to defend the positive, life-giving aspects of it. (Obviously, no one should defend the toxic or corrupted aspects.)
Ultimately, the kind of cultural allegiance to faith that characterised Irish life until the 1990s, may prove to be no loss.
There may be a curious kind of freedom about being marginalised, which allows people to focus on what is really essential.
Covid-19 has brought pain, grief and loneliness, including to those who were denied the chance to practise their faith safely. The wake of the pandemic may also bring opportunities. Established practices that were not really serving anyone can change now that there has been a disruption.
It is no harm to remember that the most commonly repeated phrases in both the Old Testament and New Testament are variants of 'be not afraid!'
For example, many first Holy Communions and Confirmations were more rites of passage than religious rites. There is an opportunity now to have small, quiet celebrations over several Sundays, where children receive their first Holy Communion as part of the normal Sunday Mass, not as part of a huge, set-piece performance. It may cause people to reflect on what they really value in the sacrament.
The churches have also catapulted into the digital age. While a Zoom Mass is a bit like a Zoom birthday party, that is, better than nothing but no comparison being really present, other online events have great potential.
One priest described an explosion of prayer groups being created online during the lockdown. A lay pastoral worker told me that something about breakout rooms allowed a kind of authenticity in speaking about their faith and in praying that was often lacking when people met offline.
For as long as I can remember, faith communities have been bewailing the lack of proper adult religious education and formation. The online world provides a viable and valuable option to really help people experience high-quality adult education. People who could not face heading out again to a parish meeting after a long day at work are often much more willing to attend online events.
Churches are beginning to think in terms of using online events in ways that foster real connections and community rather than passive consumption. Hybrid models, where some content is delivered online and the rest in face-to-face gatherings, will become the norm.
Despite the opportunities, it is normal to experience anxiety and worry in changed times.
Nonetheless, it is no harm to remember that the most commonly repeated phrases in both the Old Testament and New Testament are variants of “be not afraid!”