Exodus of young people is the Church’s core problem
Many words have been spoken over the past few months about the escalating problem of shortage of priests. The Roman Synod and the October NCBI have been addressing the meaning of priesthood, vocations to priesthood, and the problem of shortage of priests to provide for Sunday Mass. But Sunday Mass for whom?
The core problem is not shortage of priests. The real problem is the virtual absence from Sunday celebration of Catholics of the three younger generations. The core problem is the exodus. Where there’s a problem, the appropriate response is to begin by investigating the causes. This problem has so far not been investigated. Instead, the Church leadership has been attributing the causes to a tranche of —isms, looking around for short term patchwork solutions while lamenting the absence of the majority of the younger generations and the shortage of candidates for priesthood. Isn’t it time we go out to where the absentee younger generation people are to be found, and engage with them. We may end up finding the cause of the problem is neither with them nor with any of the ‘isms’ being quoted by the hierarchy.
I propose to focus here on the substantial number of dedicated young people one might see around in Dublin, live coals among the embers of Church. Though still Catholic, they have opted out of Sunday Mass and other church activities for dedicated life in community. We need at the very least to move around among them, listen to, observe them in action and then ask ourselves a few questions.
There’s that young fellow, for instance, let’s call him Eric, respectfully balanced on his haunches while engaging with a presumably homeless man seated by the railings of Halfpenny Bridge, beaker in front of him on the ground. Eric is listening attentively while the man, let’s call him Frank, is talking. As I pass by, in a hurry to get to church, some words of a song come to me.
‘His name is Jesus Christ and he is homeless And he sleeps on the margins of the streets And when we see him we pass by Assuming he is in a drunken sleep’
Eric is one of the volunteer members of the Dublin Simon Community. He will be followed later tonight by two or three of the part-time Soup Run team. Eric will have been initiated into this ministry team of volunteers through accompanying and later being accompanied by a Simon staff member. This ministry based on respect for each of the service users includes getting to know them, the history behind what has led to their plight whether of family breakdown or other traumatic experience leading to drug or alcohol addiction, whether lack of ability to earn a living, or having been evicted, due to unemployment and penury. Whatever be the cause of Frank’s homelessness, if he succeeds in staying with the Simon community he will be enabled to surmount the obstacle to his full human development. He will be enabled to chose between Community Counselling Service, the Treatment Services for healing of drug addiction through detoxification, rehabilitation and aftercare, or entering on the Learning and Development Programme of classes and workshops that build confidence and self esteem, or the Support to Live independently (SLI), and Tenancy Sustainment service. Eventually, through on-going Simon Community support, he will move step by step from homelessness to independent living.
Ministering to the homeless in greater Dublin through a staff and a volunteer team of about 220, Simon is only one among many faith communities in Ireland attracting a substantial percentage of the younger generations, absent from Church life, to volunteer costly service on an on-going basis, giving meaning to the lives of server and served alike. In addition to the Simon group, I’m thinking of such groups as the 14 staff and 30 volunteer members of Ruhama dedicated to outreach, education and development, counselling, and resettlement of women reduced to prostitution in Dublin alone; I’m thinking of the 2,188 volunteer members of the 20 branches of the Samaritan Communities across Ireland ministering to women, mainly drug addicts reduced to prostitution. I have in mind also the volunteer members of the 18 Camphill Communities devoted to the mentally disabled, of the Bernardos the L’Arche, and the many other such faith groups.
In sharp contrast to Catholic Church culture, the culture of these groups, in their attitude of total respect for each person without distinction of gender or sexual orientation, walk of life or religious affiliation, is a community based culture. Even if they don’t say it, they are witnessing to the Christ life in close communion with one another “I have come that they may have life”. Working and sharing life together, their aim is to bring life, building up the human person through community and mutual respect. And for the younger generations where the power of the peer group is strong, community support and the urge to face up to challenge are both central and rewarding.
Will members of these communities find such human challenge and support in the Catholic Church? In the Catholic Church, will they experience a spirit of community sharing of life, enabling them grow through responsibly participating in planning, decision making, mutually respectful dialogue and celebration? “Their heightened influence on society demands of them a proportionately active apostolate.. Happily their natural qualities fit them for this activity. As they become more conscious of their own personality, they are impelled by a zest for life and abounding energies to assume their own responsibility, and they yearn to play their part’. This question of challenge, participation and support arose in a recent visit with Kate, a member of staff of one of these faith communities. Kate shared with me and my companion how, when she had asked her married daughter, ‘a devoted wife and mother’, why she doesn’t go to Mass, her daughter said she was not willing to listen, Sunday after Sunday, to someone telling her what to think. I was envisaging Kate’s daughter as a number in a pew, looking into a sea of human backs. (It might, of course have been a different experience in one of those few parishes where a circular ordering of seating has replaced the lines of pews, where there is a real effort to develop a sense of community).
1.C.f. Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity no.12
The problem is, the culture of the Church is foreign to present day Irish culture to the point that some of the hymns and prayers in use are startling, ‘Hide me in your wounds’, ‘inebriate me’, as are prayers addressing a heart, a body, a sacrament, blood. Church culture is alien in excluding women from major leadership roles, even to the point at which a General Council made up exclusively of males discusses and definitively pronounces on such issues as birth control, the experience of intimacy in marriage, the family; and with women excluded .
Jesus was culturally inserted within the society of his time. He was not an Emperor. So who are the bishops imitating in their Roman Imperial gowns, diamond rings, mitres and crowns and thrones? Jesus came, not to re-establish a Roman Imperial institution, but to establish the reign of God in the world of all ages. Culturally, the Church is out of sync. with our generation in more respects than in the regalia of its leaders. The Church in decline has yet to wake up to the fact that world society, and specifically Irish society has undergone radical change over the years. Our education system is no longer confined to rote learning but has opened up to enquiry, research and investigation. In fact, today’s education system mirrors the system Jesus adopted. He used parables to challenge people to reflect and engage in dialogue on life, on meaning and on values. And this was the method and style of preaching the disciples would have learned in their apprenticeship to Jesus. It is the system and method the early Christian communities used as they recounted their experiences of Jesus among them and were inspired to follow in his Way. It is also the method the Basis Christian communities of Latin America followed before conservative bishops engaged in a campaign to repress them.
It is the same method and style that inspires and preserves the spirit of faith in communities such as the Simon community when for example they would invite a speaker to interact with the group. Sometimes it would be an invited speaker making a presentation on a personal experience of a weekly AA meeting as a safe place for people sharing on personal struggles with addiction, and on the joy of day by day conquests through faith in a ‘greater Power’. In these presentations, all are free to contribute. There is no pulpit. Instead, all are growing together, not through written laws and dogmas and exhortations, but through mutual interaction in friendship, nourishing the inner individual and community spirit. These communities don’t generally talk about ‘communion with Christ and with one another’ but they genuinely live it. I found the arrangement of seats in circular form in one of their prayer rooms both functional and symbolic.
People like the Kate’s daughter could yet find a home in the Church when in our time we have succeeded in undertaking the task of digging away the heavy ash and re-igniting the live embers; a task demanding more than cosmetic change. ‘New wine needs new wineskins’, new wine, the ever new spirit of the historical Jesus, to replace the heavy ash of Roman Imperialism with all its pomp and circumstance.
2. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. No.32 ‘He revealed the love of the Father and the sublime vocation of mankind in terms of the most common of social realities and by making use of the speech and the imagery of plain everyday life…He chose to lead the life proper to an artisan of his time and place’
So the challenge we’re facing is much deeper than shortage of priests or the drop in Sunday Mass attendance. The embers waiting to be ignited are there among the faith communities, the faith Movements and Associations seeking Reform, among the people who have been marginalised for speaking out in the midst of this chaos, among the tens of thousands of heroic survivors of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up still faithful to their God and still struggling with where to go to find the true Church. All of this possibly raises some intimations for reform, but also some practical questions on what’s missing for Church renewal. Above all, it highlights the need for celebrating the loving, challenging, living presence of Jesus the Christ within and among us, our greater Power. As he expressed it in his prayer to the Father, ‘You in Me and I in You, that they may be one in us’.