Church in need of new direction to avoid drift towards oblivion


RITE AND REASON:There are a myriad of problems facing the church, not least the lack of leadership

TWO REMARKABLE statistics emerged from recent surveys. Firstly, in the census, 84 per cent of people in Ireland ticked the “Catholic” box. And secondly, in an Amárach survey on behalf of the Association of Catholic Priests, 35 per cent of Catholics said they attended Mass weekly.

After all that has happened to the Catholic Church in Ireland in the last two decades no one, I suspect, could have predicted such extraordinary results. The odds against it would have been significant. And yet here we are.

After the child abuse scandals, the failure to deal with them, the scathing reports, the inevitable condemnations, the continuing decline in vocations and church attendance and not least the growing perception that the Irish Catholic Church is in terminal decline, suddenly, extraordinarily, there are reasons for believing that belief in and commitment to the Catholic project is resilient and, numerically, still significant.

Despite the perception, we haven’t gone away.

However, no one can doubt the drift. There are a myriad of problems facing the church, not least the current vacuum of leadership and direction, and the current doomed strategy of trying to recapture the past.

Fifty years ago this year, the Second Vatican Council began its deliberations. What emerged was a deeper understanding of the church, an energy that emanated from the security and confidence that the highest authority in the church – the pope and the bishops – had confidently pointed a new direction and a plan of campaign.

The expectation was that the central, skeletal truth that emerged – that the people are the church – would be given flesh through a scaffolding of structures. Half a century on we can survey a landscape of missed opportunities, broken dreams, failed leadership.

Yet we remain absurdly hopeful. Despite official efforts to “reform the reform” (shorthand for undoing the great council) and the reluctance of church leaders to engage with the world (if all you have is a hammer, everything seems to be a nail), the recent association’s survey underpins a significant truth – the desire for change among Irish Catholics.

Since its inception less than two years ago, the association has argued for renewed commitment to the insights of Vatican two. If we had instituted the necessary reforms to bring people into the centre of the church then, how different things might be now.

One example: if mothers were sitting around the table when decisions were being made about dealing with clerical child abuse, how much human misery would have been avoided and how much more credibility we would now have as a church. To place again the reforms of Vatican two on the agenda of the Irish Catholic Church is a difficult and daunting task. Yet the associations believes we still have as a church the resources, the commitment, the resilience and, above all, the people to face down this road.

Which is why, in co-operation with lay groups, we have sponsored another beginning in a conference entitled Towards an Assembly of the Irish Catholic in the Regency Hotel, Dublin, next Monday at 10am.

There will be three sessions: naming the reality; a vision; and where to from here? Inputs will be short and to the point and the focus will be on participation.

The hope is that from the gathering will emerge some structure to continue the process towards a full assembly of the Irish Catholics in Ireland.

We need a new direction, a new compass, a new energy to rescue us from the resignation and the rage that comes from internal church attrition as we drift towards oblivion.

There is no plan B. We need to stop barking at the wheels of history, and move on. Hopefully, next Monday will be a step in the right direction. Join us, if you can.

Fr Brendan Hoban is parish priest in Moygownagh, Co Mayo, and an ACP leadership team member