The new ‘Umbrella Group’ needs to focus on laity, bishops and priests
I wish to express my thanks to those initiators who have taken the first steps in the formation of the proposed new lay umbrella group for reform and renewal in the Irish Catholic Church. In particular, thank you for the wonderful meeting in All Hallows on Wednesday evening last. The same Spirit that was present in the Regency Hotel was clearly present in All Hallows. The need is great and I just wanted to offer my encouragement to those involved for the task that lies ahead.
I also would like to offer a few personal thoughts, for what they are worth, that stayed with me following the meeting. I should say first of all, I speak as just an ordinary church-going Catholic, but with 30 years of active commitment to my parish (in which my involvements have found me in everything except the crib, including two extended spells as chairman of our parish pastoral council). While I remain very much committed to my parish and am still active, I have in the past year positioned myself more on the edge of things in order to feel free to speak about issues of reform and renewal if and when the opportunities arise. Indeed I see that as my new parish ministry.
I came away from All Hallows with the conviction that the new umbrella group would have to focus its efforts in relation to three groupings and not just to the hierarchy, namely:
(1) THE GENERAL LAITY OF THE IRISH CATHOLIC CHURCH.
It has to be recognised that the struggle for reform is still very much a minority sport within the church, particularly at local level. The majority of the baptised who share our views have already left. The new umbrella group needs to set its sights on the very difficult, but important job of convincing those still in the pews that the balance of virtue and justice has shifted. The mark of a good Catholic is no longer silent deference, but rather to speak up, not just as a right, but as a responsibility. How else is the church going to hear what the Spirit is saying if not through the body of Christ? The idea that every time the bishop or the pope kneels down to say his prayers he is given the next instalment of a five year pastoral plan is infantile, but sadly this is close to what many people believe.
We need to instil the will and provide the opportunity for people to grow in their ability to speak out in support of reform. We are not used to having to do this, and we need to learn by doing conversation across the country as much as possible. I am not by nature a speaker or an activist. It is only a year ago that I myself crossed a Rubicon and began to add my voice to the calls for reform. So I know just how difficult it is, after a lifetime of unhealthy deference to our two tier exclusively clerical system of church government. But given the opportunity people can road test, fine tune and begin to trust their thoughts and ideas and come to realise that they have something of value to say.
Recently Bishop Diarmuid Martin (whom I admire for attempting to give leadership in very difficult circumstances), spoke of the need for hope and not discontent in the Irish Church today – as if these were opposites. I would suggest we need both. In fact my point here is that we need MORE, not less discontent. Discontent in this sense is healthy and hopeful. We need Catholics to be more critical, not less. Critical does not mean being negative. Rather, it means not settling for things as they are, but being hopeful that thing can change.
The opposite of hope is despair. The despairing have already left. Bishop Diarmuid and his fellow bishops should see those of us calling and working for reform, as bearers of hope, not as obstacles to it. We dare to hope that things can be different and better. We recognise too that hope on its own is no more effective than wishful thinking. It needs to be accompanied by the commitment to struggle and hard work, if our dream for reform is to become a reality.
(2) THE HIERARCHY OF THE IRISH CATHOLIC CHURCH.
The need for a revision of canon law in many areas is obvious. The reason this lay umbrella group needs to form is because, even though under current canon law, structures already exist for the voice of the laity to be taken into consideration, the hierarchy continue to leave these lying dormant. Just one example would be the use of diocesan synods for joint listening and for joint envisioning of clergy and laity together in one place on a regular basis. Also the possibility for elected and organically linked pastoral councils at every level of the church, and annual conferences for members of these councils to underpin their official status. Sadly, either because of a deliberate or negligent failure to activate bodies such as these, or provide any form of official fora for a representative lay voice, we need to create, develop and maintain one, albeit on the margins. This needs to remain in place until such time as it can confidently die into appropriately reformed church structures.
(3) THE CLERGY (VIA THE ASSOCIATION OF CATHOLIC PRIESTS).
The ACP has opened a way for honest and mature conversations between clergy and laity on an equal footing. They have given a courageous lead despite having much to loose. The have been generous and insightful in sharing their online forum with the laity. They have been open and transparent. We owe it to them and to ourselves to follow their example and find an organised voice. It would be sinful and tragic if we laity were to remain silent and unorganised, limiting ourselves to merely applauding from the sidelines.
The question as to whether or not there should be two separate groups, one for the clergy (ACP) and one for the laity, or one overall group might be set to rumble on for a while. My own view is that if there is only one group the less sure priests already in the ACP may well drift away, and the ACP could probably kiss goodbye to their hopes for any further recruitment from the general ranks of clergy. The laity too, in such a coalition, might instinctually surrender leadership to the priests. Its better I think for two bodies and for them to work together as closely as possible. A dynamic and close working relationship is vitally important if the new lay umbrella group isn’t to be quickly and easily sidelined by the establishment as ‘just another group’. To start with, the two groups could focus on co-sponsoring the proposed Assembly of the Irish Church and any regional or national meetings building up to that event. Whatever process is adopted could act as an agent of bonding and as a model of healthy co-responsibility in the church.
A few final thoughts.
A speaker at the All Hallows meeting was in my opinion, correct in saying this is about politics, albeit church politics. We need to recognise that fact and not be afraid to name it as such.
The Eucharistic Congress is now upon us. May God bless it and use it in ways as yet unseen. It is a tremendous undertaking and a demonstration of a lot of good will and possibility within the church. However, one wonders where we would be if the church was to channel the same level of energy and resources into a concerted drive for structural reform. Once the euphoria has passed, I trust the work for justice and reform which assuredly will remain can begin in earnest. Many will be aware, the next big thing the Vatican has in store for us is, the ‘Year of Faith’ due to begin in October. We should not let this delay or distract us from our work. I understand the focus of the Year of faith is to be on Vatican II and the Catechism. While this sounds positive, many suspect there is a very real possibility of a revisionist agenda behind it. We need to be aware of this and be prepared not to let any attempted unravelling of the authentic vision of Vatican II to go unchallenged. The problem for the revisionists is not that we don’t know what Vatican II said, but rather that we know only too well. It has given us a dream for the church that we refuse to give up on. The genie is not for going back into the bottle.
We live in a time of Spirit filled opportunity. I am confident the Spirit will provide the proposed new Lay Umbrella Group with the strength, courage, unity and light it needs for the journey forward in this exciting and important venture.