We write in the aftermath of the visit of Pope Francis.
It was a strange few days. On the one hand, the palpable delight of so many in the visit of Pope Francis and the lift it has given to the Irish Church. On the other, a sinking feeling that the visit and the expectations it generated were dominated by an unexpected, though not unpredicted, focus on the sexual abuse issue.
What surprised and upset so many (not just Catholics but priests and bishops too) was the virulence of the negative commentary and the lack of engagement of so many Catholics with the visit.
The conclusion, we believe, is that the papal visit was a stunning reminder that the Catholic Church in Ireland is now in a different place and the challenges deserve and demand our unremitting focus on the reforms proposed by Pope Francis.
We believe that the day is long gone – and the papal visit was yet another reminder – when we can indulge the luxury as a Church of pretending that it’s enough to just keep doing what we’re doing and that somehow we’ll turn some mythical corner when all will be well again.
We believe that unless we are prepared as a Church to face up to the compelling need to make difficult decisions, using the ‘synodal’ approach that Pope Francis employs and recommends, then we will have missed the tide of the present moment and our Church will become more and more peripheral in the lives of more and more Catholics and less and less credible in our society.
We believe that the present downward momentum is obvious and requires an immediate focus of resources and personnel on fundamental issues as well as a level of seriousness that demands more than a formal ‘ticking of a box’.
For that reason, while we welcome the invitation extended by Archbishops Eamon Martin and Diarmuid Martin at our last meeting, we believe that – in deference to the critical situation in which we find ourselves – more is needed in terms of a committed and realistic engagement with the Irish bishops than what has been delivered so far.
It’s clear to everyone now that we are at crisis point, entering a post-Catholic Ireland. We believe the key question is: Will the Catholic Church become a ‘culturally irrelevant minority’, or can it take the road of renewal and reform that Pope Francis is pointing out, with space for open debate and consultation? Will we take ‘this path of synodality which’ he writes, ‘God expects of the Church in the third millennium?’ In these critical times we cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the plea of Pope Francis.
In your letter following your March 2018 plenary meeting, you state that ‘the Episcopal Conference is open to continued constructive engagement with the ACP’. We are very happy to co-operate with that engagement, though we are anxious that as well as being ‘constructive’ any engagement would also be realistic, ongoing, coherent in terms of time-scale and commitment and, above all, that it would engage with key critical issues.
What we can’t afford to do is to do nothing. And there is much we can do. For example, the Irish Bishops could convene a National Assembly to discuss ‘The Reform and Renewal of the Catholic Church in Ireland’, at which all groups could be represented, including the disaffected and the young. In preparation for such a national event, individual dioceses could convene diocesan and parish assemblies. And there are other options that could be explored, like some of the interesting listening processes in individual dioceses at present.
This is not a time for wringing our hands in frustration or for sitting on our hands in despair. We need to talk. We need to work together. We need to stop deferring decisions that need to be made now. We need to focus our resources and personnel on dealing with the reality of unease, discouragement and disenchantment on the ground in parishes and dioceses. In short, we need to set in train a process of discussion and debate that is open, credible, respectful of all views, confident in its endeavour, bold in its range, serious in its intent, at once prophetic and pragmatic, taking advantage of the deep faith, the good-will and the individual and communal resources we can still draw on as a Church.
The ACP urgently appeals to the Irish Bishops to engage with both the crisis in the Irish Church and the promise offered by the reforms of Pope Francis by leading the renewal of Catholic life in parish, diocese and country. We are all in this together. We need to act together. We need to act now.
(Rev) Brendan Hoban
on behalf of the ACP Leadership (Tim Hazelwood, Gerry O’Connor, Roy Donovan).