Rite&Reason: a compassionate church can never be doomed
In the eyes of many it has reached its ‘sell-by-date’
People turn to the Church in times of grief and mourning, and it does not fail those who do so but its ministers often feel hurt that it is only at these times that their dedication is understood
Swans are gracefully long-necked, heavy-bodied birds that glide majestically along our rivers, lakes and canals. They fly with slow wingbeats and necks outstretched.
They migrate in diagonal formation at great heights. They feed by dabbling in shadows for aquatic plants. On the surface, swans seem to be floating effortlessly on the water but, hidden beneath, they paddle with prodigious vigour and energy.
Swans have similarities with the church. On the surface, and in the eyes of many, the church has reached its “sell-by date” and is totally inactive and meaningless. Yet, beneath the surface and with little public apparent recognition, the church is engaged in a huge range of activities providing compassionate social and pastoral services.
Little or no acknowledgement is given to the church for its continued dedicated services to the sick, dying, homeless, bereaved and suicidal; its work with victims of torture, prisoners, justice promotion, education, alcohol and drug abusers and training personnel for Third World work.
It would seem society is not yet ready to hear the narratives of the good that was done and is being done by so many in the name of the Lord and can still only recall the atrocities of the few.
The compassionate role of the church is evident at times of great tragedies like the Boston, Berkeley, Buncrana and other horrific happenings. Church personnel give an invaluable and dedicated support to families and friends who have lost their dear ones in fatal accidents,earthquakes, terrorist bombings and many other disasters.
Despite this negative and public image of religion in general, it is estimated that approximately 94 per cent of death notices in our newspapers announce that Masses and other church services will be celebrated for the dead at funerals. The relevance of religion emerges at these times.
Swans mature in their third or fourth year and live for about 20 years in the wild and 50 years or more in captivity. The church has survived for much longer. In its present form and structures it may die, but it will continue to exist as long as it continues to serve people in society.
The late president Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, a dedicated and insightful political leader, stated in 1970: “Unless the church, its members and its organisations express God’s love for people by its involvement and leadership in constructive protest against the present conditions of people, then it will become identified with injustice and persecution. If this happens it will die and, humanly speaking, deserves to die, because it will serve no purpose comprehensible to modern society.”
Like the paddling legs of the swans, the church is a proactive organisation in society. As long as it continues to serve people in need, it will continue to survive and grow despite any opposition or criticism it may experience. There is no reason to believe that it is doomed to die since it has a role. Its services are unconditional, and deep in the hearts of those who understand the church,
They know that it will always be where it is needed, comprehensible and relevant. Responding to Christ’s call to spread the Good News, the church will continue to give invaluable services to society.
The facts outlined in the excellent and most informative editorial of yesterday’s Irish Times (“Crisis confronts main churches”) cannot be disputed.
However, it would be incorrect to conclude from the editorial that the condition of the churches is terminal, while at the same time we must admit that it is serious.
It would also be incorrect to conclude that due to the significant downturn in newspaper sales, their condition is terminal and they might not exist in the near future.
Rev Dr Tony Byrne, CSSp, is director of the Awareness Education Service; info @awarenesseducation.org