We need to find a way to be a stronger national church
OPINION:IT WAS a challenge to be asked to write about the state of Catholicism in Ireland, reflecting on this week’s Irish Times series of articles on the subject. The articles have presented varying views, understanding and attitudes. We are all aware of the reduction in the numbers of those who choose to live their lives as participating Catholics. There are many like me, young and old, for whom the recent scandals and failings have created significant difficulties.
The drift away from religious practice reflects not only nearly two decades of reported scandals but is part of a more secular culture which provides social and other opportunities which did not previously exist, and of the widespread assertion that religion is something that is not essential.
I am not sure the articles have told us very much about why that is the case, though just as custom and practice was once that everybody attended church, now people make a conscious choice as to whether to attend, many doing so only to mark the great occasions of birth, marriage and death.
One cannot judge whether in so doing they are motivated by their relationship with God and his church, or whether they are attracted by the rite and the photographic opportunities at christenings and weddings. In speaking of Catholicism we walk on holy ground – the ground of individual and community relationship with God, and with each other in Him.
The reality of the situation of Catholicism in Ireland is even more complex than the totality of the views expressed.
Catholicism is not something to be understood only in human or material terms. The church is much more than its portfolio of property, though that was created through the generosity of her people to enable worship, education, health, and care for those for whom society did not provide.
It is much more than its current leadership and other problems. We may write at length and ponder and talk about what we are and what we do as a church, but the church itself, as Cardinal Marc Ouellet reminded us this week in Maynooth, is “a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. It is this that makes any evaluation of the state of Catholicism so difficult. We are analysing in human terms what is in part divine.
The Catholic Church is the community of those who believe, those for whom their relationship with Christ and through him with God is essential to their being. That relationship is expressed in myriad ways each day, nourished by prayer (maybe not enough prayer) and sacrament, and by engagement with each other, and through each other with Christ.
In Ireland and elsewhere people are looking for that essential reform of church structures and processes that is necessary for any organisation to maintain its vitality, for leadership, for more teaching, more development, more understanding of our faith.
Catholicism is not just about going to church once a week. Somehow we and the church to which we belong must recognise that our call to holiness really means that each of us must use all our talents in the service of God and His church. Jesus demands but does not force our love. He told us: “Love one another as I have loved you . . . a man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends . . . I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit.” We can choose to walk away.
It can be so very important when contemplating these matters to go back to the fundamentals. Jesus told us, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He founded his church as part of his legacy to us, so that we would come to the Father. Eucharist is the greatest gift which we have as church.
St Augustine, writing in the fourth century said, “That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ.”
That is Catholic faith. Catholic experience of Eucharist and faith goes much deeper than our ability to conceptualise and to rationalise.
Eucharist is about sacrifice, redemption, resurrection and above all complete love. We are invited to the table of the Lord to partake of his body and blood. We can choose whether to accept that invitation.
However, the language we have adopted during recent decades in our discussions of faith and Eucharist, and particularly the use in our schools of terms to refer to the Eucharist such as “the bread of life”, or “the bread”, without qualifying those very earthly expressions by reference to divinity of Him who said “I am the bread of life”, may have deprived us and our children of the potential to comprehend the richness of the reality of Eucharist. Bread to a child is just that. The expression “the body of Christ” conveys something completely different.
The goal of Eucharist “is the communion of mankind with Christ and in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit”. It is this which we seek.
Catholicism is predicated upon priesthood. Without the priesthood there could be no Eucharist. The good priest is the one whose heart belongs to Christ, the Good Shepherd. Such a priest, as he proclaims the Gospel, celebrates the sacraments and attends to parish pastoral needs, can convince us that life makes sense, that there is a God who loves us, and that, in the end, all will be well. Sometimes we feel less in need of such reassurance, and sometimes it can be the difference that makes our lives possible until the light shines again as it always does in our world.
Of course, faith and doubt seem almost inevitably to be the constant companions of those who seek to follow the teaching of Christ. There is reason in faith but there is also much which we must just accept in faith. Transubstantiation is one of those issues, which has to do with appearance and reality. In the Mass the appearance of bread and wine remains unchanged but the reality is changed by the transformative word of God into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
There was a man who brought his sick son to Jesus to be cured and Jesus said to him, “Everything is possible for him who believes. There is a long tradition among Catholics and Christians everywhere of those who, like that man in his response to Jesus, have said: “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.”
Recent reports have shown that Catholic people in Ireland almost universally value the work and prayers of “their” priest and “their local church”. They acknowledge the sacrifice of celibacy, though many wonder whether it should be compulsory. They have other questions. We need now to find a way to be a stronger, more faithful, national church, as well as the sum of our own parishes. We need to continue to recognise the blessing that is our membership of the universal Catholic Church.
That is the challenge of leadership and of discipleship for both bishops and laity in Ireland today.
The history of Catholicism is mixed: there is much to be very proud of and much of which to be profoundly ashamed. That is our human heritage and can be seen clearly in the series of articles published in The Irish Times this week. What is also obvious is the deep and continuing commitment of so many Catholic people in Ireland to their relationship with God and to their place in the community of His church.
Baroness Nuala O’Loan is chairwoman of the governing authority of NUI Maynooth. She is a member of the UK House of Lords and a former police ombudsman in the North