'It's like a big funeral," one woman was quoted as saying in The Irish Times. Indeed she was right. It was a big funeral, a heartbreaking one, at which the liturgical community at Marianella chapel in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar was being buried – alive. That sounds rather dramatic, but it is what happened on Sunday, January 31st, 2016.
Church leaders frequently bemoan the empty pews in parish churches. There were no empty pews in Marianella on Sundays. Yet the chapel was closed, the site sold to property developers. The question to be asked is “why?”
The answer always is “lack of vocations”. That is true, undeniable. There is talk of church closure everywhere, parishes being amalgamated and clustered. Not all churches are as full and vibrant as Marianella, but some are, and many still have respectable congregations. We are told again, there are no vocations.
It seems we are still, in Ireland, and indeed universally, very much a priest-centred church. This is epitomised in decisions to close chapels and sell church property. Good men make decisions, for what they think are good reasons.
All too often no one speaks with, or listens to, the people who have worshipped there day after day, week after week, year after year.
This seems to be the practice, more or less everywhere. An old vision of church prevails. The ordained make the decisions. The laity “pay, pray and obey”.
As one older, wiser, very faithful Catholic woman said to me in the midst of all the pain of the last few months – “they don’t understand, they just don’t understand”. They, in this case, are the ordained. They don’t understand that it is ‘our’ church; all our church; a church of all the baptised.
We are 50 years after Vatican II, the council which reminded Catholic believers of the deep truth that all the baptised "are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood" . . . called to "present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God". [Lumen Gentium 10]
The documents of Vatican II are, all of them, compromise documents, trying to bring together different theologies. The teaching which followed, in the same paragraph, gets more emphasis in practice.
It speaks of difference, of the sacred power of the ministerial priest, of the priesthood of the faithful as one of receiving the sacraments from the ordained priest. The one “priesthood of Christ” becomes hierarchically configured.
The question of the closure of liturgical communities, of the church buildings in which they worship, is one of the key questions in the church in Ireland today. It is an ecclesial question, a question which challenges our understanding of church, all the baptised together, as people of God.
Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church understands itself as a eucharistic assembly. As the French theologian Henri de Lubac says, the church makes the Eucharist, the Eucharist makes the church.
We need the Eucharist and so, yes, indeed we need people ordained to lead the eucharistic celebration. But, and this is the question, does the eucharistic community need to pack their bags and follow the priest? Or does the community have a standing as a real expression of the mystical body of Christ?
Do we keep closing church buildings, throwing out once full pews, until priests again are plenty? Or do we keep our communities of prayer, visible expressions of faith, in the hope that from them vocations may come? These vocations may be different from those we are used to, but no less valid.
Marianella did great work. Elsa Browne, speaking on behalf of the church gathered, noted that we were indeed blessed, privileged, to have had the benefit of the Redemptorists' wisdom and learning for so long. In particular for the homilies which "challenged us to think and think again".
One of the key things learned was that we, all of us, together are the people of God, the priesthood of believers.
As for the Marianella community, we pray in thanksgiving for all we have received and in hope that we may, in new ways, continue to benefit from the richness of the Redemptorist tradition. Together as the people of God, let us explore new ways of being church together. Dr Fáinche Ryan is assistant professor in systematic theology at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin