Huge longing, as well as potential, for renewal – but also, among many, a deep frustration with an Irish church system no longer remotely fit for purpose. That was the impression I took away from the three-day day Irish Catholic National Pastoral Conference in Athlone in late September 2014 – ‘Growing in Faith Together as Local Church Community’.
Robert Schreiter from Chicago, an eloquent proponent of the need for ‘local theologies’, was the headline speaker from Thursday to Saturday. Well aware of the historical legacy to the wider global church of Irish Christianity in the past, he challenged all of us to think about a likely global crisis of ecological stress and of human displacement and growing conflict in the years ahead. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Irish Church is just about as well prepared for that scenario now as the whole country was for five years of total war in 1914.
Nonetheless this first-timer in Athlone was impressed by the representation at this event from the Irish Bishops Conference. My own invite had come in a letter to the Belfast Irish News last February from Bishop Donal McKeown, of the bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development – and Bishop Donal was present throughout the first and last day. The newly appointed Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, was present to meet attendees on Thursday – and I would guess that most of the other Irish bishops spent some time in Athlone also.
What exactly is the local church, and what exactly could and should it be doing to prepare for ‘future shock’? This latter question in my own head was amply answered by the three days: the last thing we should be doing is waiting for orders from the summit. Bishop Donal said as much on the opening day when he declared that the conference would not produce a master plan for the future – and it was clear throughout that as yet no musical maestro has emerged in Ireland with the flair to get all of the instruments in the Irish church orchestra to make beautiful music together.
My own conviction is that the fundamental gift required is a pedagogical one – an ability to hold and articulate a Catholic faith that can confidently address the full dimensions of the gathering crisis. There was still far too much reliance at the conference upon weighty printed sources – such as the new catechetical plan ‘Share the Good News’ and the recently launched ‘Irish Catholic Catechism for Adults’. Both are weighty and worthy tomes, but by their nature neither can be sung to a rousing tune that captures the need of the moment.
The greatest merit of ‘Share the Good News‘ is that it implicitly admits the fundamental shortcoming of the church’s current systems of education and formation – they remove all responsibility for that from the merely baptised and place that in the hands of duly trained professionals. Nothing could be better designed to achieve two objectives simultaneously – to persuade all of us that in the end the faith can reside only in the heads of experts, and to create so many printed sources that the task of recovering a vibrant faith appears way beyond most of us. It is a supreme irony of Irish Catholicism that it was transmitted far more effectively by a preponderantly oral and isolated culture in the past than it is these days in a ‘connected’ literate society by a professional educational elite.
The main reason for this is the many decades of conditioning we have received in the always-greater wisdom of external summit authority. We have thus been made as insecure in our own understanding of the Creeds as the inhabitants of Kazakhstan were in their understanding of the Communist Manifesto by the Moscow politburo. While Irish Catholic bishops will agree that the whole weight of the Catechism derives from a vital core of meaning – the creedal truths that lie at the summit of the whole hierarchy of Catholic truth – none has yet managed to articulate that core in a way that can set fire to the imagination and help us all to make beautiful music together.
The consequences were clearly evident in Athlone – a sincere anxiety to be as demanding of ourselves as we are of those who lead us, combined with a frustration that the bishops have not yet managed to appoint a national coordinator for the new Catechetical strategy.There is also deep frustration with the canonical constraints upon parish pastoral councils. Without any assurance of continuity when parish clergy are changed, those who currently man those councils are rowing against the tide of disillusionment that so often prevails ‘where the rubber hits the road’.
In this situation it is difficult to see how these biennial conferences in Athlone can survive without a clear signal from the Irish Bishops Conference that it will change this state of affairs, and give parish councils genuine power, responsibility and continuity. It is the dead hand of clericalism that prevents that happening and that leaves us still defenceless against the likely storms of future decades.
Do things really have to get even worse before they can get better – when they are already surely far worse than they should ever have been allowed to get?
As for the local church, I must suppose that begins with the parish – and that I should begin by telling all in my own space that we should definitely not hang about with our hands in our pockets, waiting for clarion commands from on high. We need to discover right now what exactly our Catholic faith means to us – while there is still a parish community of some kind to speak of. There are no experts in the proactivity that Ireland now needs to become again a vital habitat of ‘the faith’.