World Youth Day? Sean O Conaill
As a tiny remnant of Ireland’s Catholic youth makes its way to Rio for ‘World Youth Day’ next month will any of them wonder about its significance for the huge majority of their peers left behind?
Will any of those on the plane ask themselves: “Why is there ever only one such assembly on this spherical earth? Doesn’t that exclude almost all of us? Why isn’t WYD celebrated on the same day in every city and diocese in Ireland – with all of us able to attend and tell our bishops how we foresee the future of the church?”
Those questions might even be prompted by the same experience that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin described to the pope emeritus in 2006: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”
Given the usual format of World Youth Day, it is highly unlikely that any question as to its mysterious unilocational character could be put directly to the pope next month by our young people. However, given the dire crisis of continuity threatening the Irish Church – proven by the very phenomenon that Archbishop Martin described – shouldn’t it occur to the Irish Bishops Conference, as well as to the Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, to ask it for them?
It will certainly be regarded by future generations of Irish Catholics as the strangest and most dangerous feature of our church at present that we all, adults and young people alike, do not have regular opportunities for asking such questions of our bishops. Why this overwhelming fear of any regular assembly that might permit unscripted questions to the magisterium – questions that might relate directly to all aspects of the crisis we are so clearly surrounded by? How come that the nearest ever approximation to an assembly of the Irish church in the midst of this crisis was organised by the ACP in May 2012, an event entitled ‘Towards an Assembly of the Irish Church’? And how come not a single Irish bishop could dare to attend that?
To me it seems that the answer lies in the fear of modernity that overtook the papacy after 1789, a fear that was squarely challenged by Vatican II, but a fear that returned in 1968 with the conflict over Humanae Vitae. This fear has led to an effectual ban on assemblies of the Catholic church in Europe – in the very era that the papacy has deplored the EU’s apparent loss of a sense of its Christian heritage. How else are we to understand, for example, the disappearance of the plan to hold a synod of the Dublin archdiocese, mooted in the final years of Cardinal Connell?
And so World Youth Day has been until now essentially a media op for the papacy – to prove its intense rapport with younger generations. It has also been, sadly, a striking sign of the very sickness identified by Pope Francis: the fatal narcissism of the church’s leadership – and of its denial of the actual crisis of Youth Departure in the Western church.
So maybe this year World Youth Day in Rio will hear promise of an entirely different format for the future – one that will allow the entire cohort of Irish Catholic school leavers to attend next time round? This too would be for me a litmus test of the pope’s determination to end the magisterial ban not just on assembly, but on its Christian corollary – genuine Communion. It is surely this ban above all that explains why Archbishop Martin could still probably go to parishes in Dublin “where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”