Long accustomed to a situation in which the formation of Catholic faith in Ireland was supposed to be ‘taken care of’ by Irish Catholic schools, most Irish Catholics are now well aware that this supposition is no longer reliable. The diocesan synodal synthesis reports of June 2022 are virtually unanimous both on the absence from church of most young people – even while still at Catholic school – and the critical need to address this problem urgently through effective adult faith formation.
But what exactly is ‘effective adult faith formation’ today in Ireland?
Straight away we are faced not with just one issue, but with a confusing complex of issues.
To begin with, what ‘faith’ exactly are we hoping to form in the church itself – in the wake of decades of church scandals?
Even if we can agree upon the importance of the Creed, how exactly do we focus that, given the church’s teaching that truth is a hierarchy – not a list of equally important truths?
And even if we could agree upon a focus, to whom exactly are we hoping to deliver that, and how?
Should we begin instead with research on the questions that adults have today – and what in the meantime should we be doing about family faith formation – for some the most important challenge of all just now?
So the ‘what?‘, the ‘who?‘ and the ‘how?‘ of faith formation are all critical questions, with no obvious simple answers.
To help focus this issue of faith formation, ACI in October 2022 began a series of Zoom talks related to this theme:
- Oct 6th 2022: ‘Transmitting Faith in Contemporary Culture‘ – Professor Michael Conway of Maynooth identified squarely the mistake of supposing that the very same faith can be ‘transmitted’ by anyone to anyone else – like a baton in a relay race or a parcel handed through the doorway. That simplistic approach to faith formation can lead all too easily to the attempted ‘indoctrination’ decried by Pope Francis in Christus Vincit 214 (2019). It ignores the fact that faith develops for all of us through a variety of experiences, many of them entirely unpredictable. It also ignores the reality that the grace of the Holy Spirit is needed in this unpredictable process, and that the attempt to ‘transmit’ faith ‘systematically’ can easily have the opposite effect to the one intended.
The Mystery of ‘Share the Good News’ (2011)
In 2011 it seemed that the Conference of Irish Bishops had abandoned their strategic dependence upon schools for faith formation. ‘Share the Good News‘ – a new ‘National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland’ – recognised that ‘knowledge of their faith and religious practice is clearly declining among Catholics in the younger generations, particularly the youngest age groups.’
It followed logically that ‘Share the Good News’ would repeat the declaration of the church’s ‘General Directory for Catechesis’ that ‘catechesis for adults … must be considered the chief form of Catechesis’. In line with this perception adult faith formation in parishes was to become a pivotal feature of a ten-year plan for implementation of Share the Good News in Ireland – with parishes, parents and schools collaborating in the process of family faith formation
For reasons that remain undisclosed a decade later, Share the Good News never reached that stage of implementation in any parish in Ireland – and this mystery is itself now part of Ireland’s faith formation Crisis. Even yet there has been no sounding of a general alarm. Nor has there been a frank acknowledgment that the school-reliant model is ineffectual – even though, by the summer of 2022, that conclusion was inescapable.
Now, with the Coronavirus pandemic still impacting on all aspects of life, this faith formation crisis has taken on a new dimension – against a background of a Catholic clerical cohort with a mean age of seventy plus.
As the pandemic is also in itself a severe test of faith, how we will think of faith development in the future is undergoing radical change. An ongoing series of articles on this site deals with this issue – and future Zoom sessions will make it a key focus also.
- Faith is under constant challenge, formation and re-formation, especially at times of general crisis – like Now!
- First Comes the Experience of God’s Unconditional Love – Aidan Hart explains that what was true for the Israelites in Egypt is true for us today. It will also be true of our own attempts to ‘form faith’ in others: unless we can love unconditionally those we seek to persuade, we cannot be persuasive witnesses to Christian truth.
- There are known ‘stages’ of faith development. Childhood faith is of necessity different from a mature adult faith. Typically it is a faith in trusted adults as much as a faith in God, and has not been tested by the traumas that can beset later experience. A mature faith in God can cope even with the disillusionment that comes with experience of leadership failure and church scandal.
- Parents who love their children unconditionally are always the first and best formers of faith in God – superior to any book or summary of belief such as the Creeds. In 2020 in Dublin, Ireland, the potential of Catholic parents to lead their children in faith, when school-centred faith formation was obviously failing, was rediscovered.
- Christian faith is above all else faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the one historical person through whom God reveals himself to us – as the Christ, or anointed one. Through the Holy Spirit or counsellor he speaks to us as individuals still today, bidding us to love one another and helping us through the challenges to faith that will come our way. There is never any higher authority.