07Jul Brendan Hoban on Gerry O’Hanlon’s new book

Back in 2005 I wrote a book, Change or Decay: Irish Catholicism in Crisis. Its central point was that the Catholic Church in Ireland was dying on its feet and if we didn’t take action it would die in front of our eyes. It really was a matter of Change or Decay.
At the time many thought it simplistic, needlessly dramatic and somewhat over the top. Things really were not that bad! Surely the Catholic Church had weathered even more violent storms in the past – the persecution of the Penal Laws and so forth. After every storm doesn’t a calm descend to remind us that perspective is everything? Been there, done that, survived to tell the tale.
Well, yes and no. That was before the publication of the Dublin and the Ryan reports, the resignation of bishops and the era of constant crisis that continues unabated. That was before a profound clarity emerged from the scandals of sexual abuse and the institutional failure to deal with them.
That clarity has convinced us that there is a deeper malaise in the Catholic Church that has to do with the twin problems of a debilitating clericalist culture and an overly centralised organisational structure that are cutting off oxygen from our understanding of our Church as God’s People. The Church is not the Pope’s or the bishops’ or the priests’. The Church is the People of God.
Few need to be convinced anymore that the Catholic Church, in Ireland and throughout the world, stands in need of radical reform.
In a new book, A New Vision for the Catholic Church: A View from Ireland, Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, a Jesuit theologian, agrees that the situation is grave. While an informal ‘conversation’ has broken out among church members – ‘They (bishops / priests) just don’t get it’, ‘Things will never change’, ‘Rome is just as bad’, ‘Get real’, ‘It’s not nice being a woman in this church’ – what is needed, he suggests, is a period of ‘communal discernment.’ In other words structured discussions at parish and diocesan level that would help to create ‘a better balance’ between the authority of the Pope, centralised decision-making and the proper autonomy of local churches.
What O’Hanlon proposes is a new vision for the Catholic Church though the vision is not new. It’s the teaching of the Catholic Church as enunciated in the Second Vatican Council. We’ve had it for the last half century. The problem is that we didn’t take it seriously. Now we need to shape a road-map that allows us to come to terms with where we are and, acknowledging the road-blocks and the necessary detours around them, to find a new direction.
While O’Hanlon recognises the temptation to ‘ride out the crisis’ or to reassure ourselves that a bit of tweaking here and there will help the present ‘model’ of church to survive, he believes we need to use the present crisis to imagine and create a church more faithful to the vision of Vatican II.
So O’Hanlon proposes, as a way forward for the Irish Catholic Church, 7 theses or propositions.
The first element in the ‘communal discernment’ he envisages is the centrality of prayer. This is not the kind of prayer that’s often used as an excuse for doing nothing! This is a form of prayer that leads to decision and that ends in action. It is a form of prayer that will sustain the conversation through the inevitable difficulties and frustrations along the way.
His second proposition is that the voice of the people needs to be heard. This needs an imaginative and creative balance between on the one hand the primary role of the people (as laid out in Vatican Two) and due respect for ordained leadership. This needs people to speak out, even if clerical feathers are ruffled in the process, and to claim that consultative role in decision-making that Vatican Two envisaged. This will take time and patience and courage. We need, O’Hanlon writes, to ’re-invent those corporate habits of conversation familiar to other churches, which centuries of clericalism have deleted from our corporate memories.’
His third proposition is that bishops need to exercise real leadership. Strong leadership is not to be confused with bishops making decisions on their own. What is needed is an ‘empowerment’ of the voice of the people coupled with a need to take on a more assertive role in relation to Rome. The culture of deference to Rome has to be reassessed. The Irish bishops, O’Hanlon contends, owe this to the Irish Church. Peace with Rome at all costs is no excuse for failing to articulate the concerns of Irish Catholics. An open, respectful and robust dialogue is what is needed.
A fourth proposition is that the Irish bishops need to act more effectively and more cohesively and that they need to make the necessary organisational changes to achieve that – one of which is to empower lay participation along the lines suggested by Vatican Two. The way to do this, O’Hanlon believes, is to convene a National Assembly of the Irish Church, in preparation for which there would be discussions at all levels on a subject like ‘What sort of Church do we want for the future?’ And any discussion would need to have an appropriate follow-up mechanism built into it.
A fifth proposition is the need for a more robust, adult engagement between the whole Irish Catholic Church and Rome, even possibly a Third Vatican Council to broach issues that need to be faced. A sixth proposition is that a range of skills of many disciplines need to be recruited to sustain the kind of conversation we need. And the last proposition is that our conversation about church vision and structures should be a ‘light to the world’, a witness to the world.
Gerry O’Hanlon believes that our present difficulties as a church have revealed a structural and cultural malaise at the heart of which has been the failure to implement the vision of church outlined by the Second Vatican Council.
Next year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Two. What better way to do that than a National Assembly of the Irish Catholic Church with God’s people at the very heart of it.
(Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J., A New Vision for the Irish Catholic Church, A View from Ireland, Columba Press)

8 Responses

  1. Spencer

    Why are attendances at Protestant churches falling so dramatically in Ireland if all we have to do is emulate them? The writer is correct in saying that everyone agrees that something must be done. We must get back to solid, uncompromising Catholicism and away from the failed and failing template of Protestantism that some would have us duplicate.

  2. Joseph O'Leary

    Solid uncompromising Catholicism is putting people off big time. Add sectarian anti-Protestant remarks and you get a formula not only for church decline but for bloodshed on the streets of Belfast.

  3. Alan Horton

    Orthodox Catholicism is attractive. Look at the large numbers of young people who attend Youth 2000 events as well as the large numbers of young people drawn to the EF Mass, e.g. the Mass in Dublin’s Harrington Street each Sunday.

    I think you have not good insight into the Irish situation. Everybody knows that the boys and girls out rioting are not good Catholic boys and girls. Even good Protestants don’t go out rioting. The problem in N. Ireland is not the problem of faithful, well-catechised, and devout Catholics fighting with devout Protestants. No, it is much simpler, it’s simply tribalism. It is not religion.

  4. Gerard Flynn

    The ecclesiology behind the Tridentine form of the Mass is problematic. Everything depends on the priest. Liturgy is something he holds between his thumbs and forefingers, rather than the action of the community. Participatio actuosa is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, given the decreasing numbers of people with some competence in Latin. People are excluded from serving, if they happen to be born female. Summorum pontificium is merely prolonging the minimal survival and death-pangs of such practices.The future of the christian gospel doesn’t lie here.

  5. Alan Horton

    I think it is easier to actually participate inwardly, spiritually, in the sacrifice of the Mass in the EF. In the OF, there is too much clericalism, given that we have to look at the priest’s face the whole time and priests feel pressed to be entertainers. I can actually participate in both forms, though it is MUCH harder in the OF, since too many priests think Mass is about them. It is easier for a priest to be a priest, for him to decrease so Christ may increase, at the EF and so that benefits the people too obviously.

  6. Gerard Flynn

    The problem is that clericalism is more insidious in the Tridentine ritual. The role of the priest is exalted to the detriment of the role of God’s people. Latin is exalted to the detriment of the vernacular. Why? It was the language of the Roman Empire, not the language of the early Jewish Christians, Jesus included. The mannerisms of the Middle Ages are exalted to the detriment of contemporary liturgical actions. While the personality of the individual priest may be less accentuated in the Tridentine ritual because all he has to do is say (articulate – even if he doesn’t know what he is saying) the black and do the red, the cultic role of priesthood is, by that very fact, more accentuated.
    Your argument is not an argument against the missal of Paul VI. It is an argument against the failure to implement that missal fully.

  7. Joe Edmonds

    Except for his last two sentences (which I cannot reference), I agree with Gerard Flynn. There is no model of priesthood other than the tridentine. Most if not all newly ordained priests in Australia say their first Mass in latin according to the old rite, it was reported recently. There is an inordinate fear that the priesthood will disappear altogether unless he Church continues to offer aspiring seminarians the power and authority that goes with the traditional notion of priesthood and its sacramental character.
    Gerry O’Hanlon’s book is enormously helpful as Gerry Bates said in a recent review in the Furrow but O’Hanlon has not tackled the real problem which is, in my respectful view, the threat which is shared by laypeople, that traditionalism is the only way of saving the priesthood.
    What we need is a better study and understnding of priesthood as envisaged by Vatican II.

  8. Soline Humbert

    There is a wonderfully thought provoking piece on the Eucharist and priesthood, well worth reading on this birth day of Mary http://www.prairiemessenger.ca/07_27_2011/MLTG_07_27_11.html

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