Brendan Hoban writes on the ACP’s May gathering
There’s an old story about an American tourist who stopped a man on the side of the road looking for directions. The man considered the problem and decided that if the American wanted to get to his destination he would be much better off to start from somewhere else. There’s a great truth embedded in that story. Whatever chance an institution or a society or an individual has of plotting a track through the confusions of modern life we need to start in the right place. Whatever the challenge or the problem we need to begin by naming the reality.
The difficulty often is that, as the poet T.S. Eliot famously wrote, human kind cannot bear much reality. Sometimes we will do anything except name the truth. We will turn it around to see if there’s an easy way out of it; we will pretend (if we’re let) that it’s different from what it is; we will talk about the bottle being half full rather than being half empty – and about ‘crisis’ being another word for ‘opportunity’; and, as we do nowadays, we’ll give each other little sermonettes about Positivity. Or maybe sing that little ditty, ‘Let’s all look on the Bright side of Life,’ to keep our hearts up. In other words, anything except name a difficult truth. I remember some years ago helping out in a parish with Christmas Confessions. Every year the numbers attending were decreasing. You could almost measure the decline in Confessions, year to year – it was that obvious. And every year when we would return to the sacristy the parish priest would say: ‘I think the numbers are a bit up on last year.’ God love him. We all knew he was exactly wrong but there was a silent conspiracy not to tread on his dreams – or fantasies, as it turn out.
On May 7 next – that’s Bank Holiday Monday in May – the Association of Catholic Priests is hosting a day-long conference, Towards an Assembly of the Irish (Catholic) Church, a first step towards what will hopefully be a fully-fledged national assembly where Catholics from every parish and diocese in Ireland would reflect on their faith, their Church and the future. Let me declare an interest here. I’m part of the organising committee and we’re hoping that the movement towards that goal will gain a clear impetus from our conference in the Regency Hotel in Dublin. It’s a step in the right direction but we have a long way to go to get where we need to be. So if you’re reading this consider yourself invited. (Details on our website: www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie) We will be attempting to start from where we are which is why the first session is headed ‘Naming the reality’.
In short inputs four Irish Catholics will name what the reality of their lives as Catholics is for them. A second session will attempt to name the vision, or what will carry us to where we want to be. And a third session will attempt to map out a direction into the future. Of the ten speakers in the three sessions, three are priests. The Priests’ Association decided to facilitate this albeit short conference in the hope that a momentum towards a national assembly might be created and a national conversation begin to take place about the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland. That decision came out of a realisation that the Catholic Church in Ireland seems shell-shocked by the events of recent years and almost incapable of addressing key issues and that energy, movement, change will only come if lay people begin to take ownership of their Church, as the Second Vatican Council recommended a half century ago.
It’s becoming clearer by the day that the kind of change we need in the Catholic Church will not come from bishops or priests. We clergy are an ageing and tired body, demonstrably incapable of taking on the key issues or facilitating the kind of fundamental change that will address the present critical situation. Recently I had a conversation with a bishop who is 20 or so years a bishop and we both agreed that twenty years ago we couldn’t possibly have foreseen what the present situation would turn out to be: levels of practice declining from 92% to 40%; vocations almost non-existent; the authority of bishops in shreds; the onslaught of media; and all the rest of it. However, while now we can look back over twenty years and say we didn’t know it would come to this, we know now what things will be like in twenty years time. Or at least we have a good idea. It doesn’t take extraordinary foresight to predict that religious practice will continue to decline, vocations will never recover to former levels, and so on. So what do we do? We didn’t forestall the problems of the last twenty years because we didn’t know what things would be like in 2012. But now we have a good idea what things will be like in 2032 so shouldn’t we set about doing what needs to be done. Take just one issue: priest numbers. The dogs in the streets know that vocations to priesthood have virtually dried up. The average age of priests in Ireland today is 59. In ten years time it will be 69 – or thereabouts. In 2032 it will be 79! The present answer to this predictable and quantifiable problem is to ‘cluster’ parishes. In other words to get the progressively fewer and older priests to rush around a number of parishes saying Masses. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a short-term, stop-gap measure which prompts the question, what then? In 2032 will there be no priests, no Masses, no Church?
My own belief is that the Catholic Church in Ireland is made up mainly of two very distinct groupings: the clergy, who lack (for very obvious reasons) the energy and the drive to come to terms with the huge problems facing the Irish Church; and the lay people (apart from the cheerleaders who favour going back to the nineteenth century) who have become progressively more radicalised by a clear understanding of what the issues are and what needs to happen. Twenty years ago Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich spoke at a synod in Rome about the need for the Irish Church to awaken ‘the sleeping-giant of the laity’. The hope on May 7th would be that we might give them a prod in that direction. Do come along. It will be interesting.