Time for the Church leaders to stop pretending it’s the same old game
Diarmuid Martin is right. The success of Pope Francis’ agenda depends on all Catholic-Christians, and how far we are willing to make his agenda truly and comfortably or uncomfortably our own. He continued: ‘The success of Pope Francis will not be the fruit of a process of reforms which he initiates and on which we, from our safe and secure positions, pass judgement as to how they fit with our own positions’.
Martin’s comment is incisive. Because just as a rugby player, breaking the opponent’s line, can become isolated if he moves too far ahead of his team-mates, so Pope Francis can become isolated unless he has his ‘team-mates’ supporting him, moving in concert with him. Ready to run with the ball he’s offering them.
Was Martin giving a hint to his bishop-colleagues? Maybe he was giving them a dig in the ribs and effectively saying to them, ‘Come on, let’s take this tide that’s being offered us in the ‘Francis effect’.
And if he was then he was surely echoing a deep frustration in Irish Catholics and in many Irish priests and religious that our bishops, as our leaders, in this new dispensation need to start giving us a lead because surely we have a right to expect and demand that much.
I have to say that I thought it mesmerising that all the Irish bishops could say on the first anniversary of Francis’ election as pope was to offer the usual formulaic ‘health and happiness’ wishes for the future. Apart from a reference to being challenged by him, there was no sense of the energy he has unleashed in the Church, the possibility and the promise that are so evident in his first year, the hope he represents for the future. If a teacher received the equivalent in an essay by a first-year student in secondary school, he or she would write at the end of it, ‘Should do better / Must do better’.
Bishops have to be careful in what they say and do. But they can be too careful, too prudent, too averse to risk, so careful in their responses that they miss the tide and, though I regret to say it, the Irish bishops have missed a series of tides over the years, standing on a series of shores, looking out to sea and wondering why everything is moving away from them.
An example of this episcopal paralysis through over-prudence was their recent decision not to publish the findings for Ireland of the survey Francis insisted be carried out in preparation for the Synod in Rome on the Family in October, which will tackle difficult issues like Communion for remarried couples. The reason given was that the Vatican didn’t want them to publish them. As Mandy Rice-Davies so memorably responded in different circumstances, ‘They would, wouldn’t they.’ (More recently, in the face of widespread criticism, the bishops issued a report on the findings).
Even though it was good to see that Archbishop Martin, Archbishop Michael Neary and Bishop John Fleming had no difficulty sharing the survey results of their dioceses, the silence from the rest of the bishops was deafening. Could they possibly imagine that Pope Francis would reprimand them if they told us what we thought? What do they think that the Vatican can do to them? Whose side are they on, anyway? Because there are sides, even if the pious can’t bring themselves to admit it.
Is it just that the bishops have nothing to say because they have nothing to offer – no thoughts, no ideas, no vision? Or are they just keeping their ‘powder dry, as one bishop many years ago described his strategy? I can sympathise with a priest-colleague in the south who told me recently that the only risk his bishop ever took was eating his After Eights chocolates at half-past-seven.
Bishops (and some priests and people) seem to have difficulty getting it into their heads that Benedict was then and Francis is now. While it’s inevitable that official church people will argue that there’s continuity between Benedict’s pontificate and that of Francis, that’s just public relations guff because it’s quite clear that there’s more evidence of discontinuity than continuity.
Some years ago, in the cold Siberia of John Paul II’s pontificate, the only Irish bishop who tried to raise the siege was Willie Walsh of Killaloe, who was a voice of sanity and common sense and a beacon of hope for refugees from the Second Vatican Council. Extraordinarily, now that Francis is forever echoing the anthem of that Council, I can’t think of a single Irish bishop who gives any indication that the game has changed and is prepared to run with the ball that Francis has placed at his feet.
In England, at least one bishop seems to understand the way the wind is blowing. The bishop of Middlesborough, Terence Drainey, said that the Catholic Church needs a radical re-examination of human sexuality in the light of modern psychological and anthropological insights and the lived expedience of lay people, a point made by respondents in his diocese to the questionnaire. Drainey went on to say that a careful discussion of the dichotomy between high ideals and the messiness of life ‘could yield pastoral solutions in the areas of family life where people are struggling’.
The people know this and have said it in the survey. Priests clued into what’s happening at parish level know it too. Some Irish bishops know it but, for God’s sake, why on earth doesn’t one of them say it?