A broken and demoralised Church still contains something precious and important for the future of humanity

TG4 did a very interesting programme on the discovery of the Faddan More Psalter, an ancient manuscript of the Psalms found in an Offaly bog. It dated from the eight century. The programme outlined the work that went into restoring what was left of the manuscript, and what could be learned from it. One of the really interesting things was that it had influences from the Coptic Church in the Middle East. This was the first indication that the Irish Church of that era might not have been as totally tied into the Latin Church as we have traditionally thought. The programme also went into the historical context of the time, highlighting the enormous contribution Christianity made to the preservation of literature, and culture generally, right across Europe. The Irish monastic movement of those centuries played a major part in that.

On the evening before his inauguration Joe Biden took part in a ceremony in memory of all those who had died from the pandemic in the United States. It was a ceremony that was beautiful in its simplicity and dignity. It took place in front of the pond in the Mall in Washington. It began with a prayer from the Archbishop, Wilton Gregory; next Kamala Harris spoke briefly and succinctly about healing. This was followed by an African American woman singing Amazing Grace as only they can sing it. Then Joe spoke, very briefly, and finished with the lights coming on all around the pond, while the small group of people stood in total silence. What struck me was how much it had in common with a Catholic liturgy — the prayer, the words of healing, the hymn,  the symbols of darkness and light, the silence. Two themes from the Bible kept going through my head: ‘The Spirit of God moved over the water” and the notion of the light dispelling the darkness. It was all imbued with religious symbol and ritual. Watching it, it was easy to believe that the Spirit of God was present.

These two events coincided with a further period of intense criticism of the Catholic Church here in Ireland following on from the release of the Report on Mother and Baby Homes. Much of this criticism was valid, and well justified. It was not a good period in the life of the Church, by any standards. But, as we have seen with previous reports, it released a degree of criticism, some in regular media and a great deal in social media, that was bordering on, and sometimes totally, vitriolic. Many were calling for the complete destruction of the Church and all that it stands for. There seems to me to be a degree of anger against the Church in Ireland that is blind to any possible good that the Church many have to offer. I know that we have come out of an era when the Church had great power and control, and that its power was often used to oppress and abuse people. The strong reaction to the latest report will certainly impact on the standing and credibility of the Church, and also on church attendance. 

Coinciding with all of this we have the pandemic. It is difficult to measure the impact of the pandemic, and the periods when Mass was only available online. How many will decide that participating in the Mass on television will satisfy them from now on? 

A combination of these two, the report and the pandemic, could well lead to a serious decline in church attendance, and as a consequence an equally serious decline in financial contributions. The future is very uncertain.

Is there any way that the Church here in Ireland can arrest the decline, and breath new life into the institution? 

I will make a couple of suggestions. 

In order to begin to restore some credibility, in my view, a start must be made in dealing with the inequality and marginalisation of women in ministry and decision making in the Church. We have had more than our share of platitudes from bishops. The day for that is long gone. Action is essential. This has to happen at local level, by bringing women into positions of real influence at parish and diocesan level. In tandem with this, the leadership of the Irish Church must come together and begin to bring real pressure on the Vatican to change the rules that block equality for women. That means changing canon law so that people can have leadership roles without being ordained, and that a move towards ordination of women can begin by first approving the diaconate for women. The election of Kamala Harris as the first female Vice President is a further penetration of the glass ceiling. Change is happening all over, except in the Church. Francis’ decree legitimising the exercise of two minor ministries, altar servers and lectors, by women is probably more symbolic than practical, since women have been doing these and more for many years. But there is no sign of change in diaconate, ordination or participation in decision making. I know change will be difficult, and will of its nature be slow, but a good start would be for the leadership of the Irish Church, meaning the bishops, to publicly state that the present situation is intolerable, and to commit themselves to bringing about change in whatever way they can. That in itself would give a new aspect to the whole situation, and would help to accelerate change, and to encourage women to hang in there.

The second essential for the Irish Church, in my view, is to begin to seriously move on Pope Francis notion of synodality. This would have to begin at all levels in the Church, from parish up to, eventually, a national synod. It would be essential that real listening would be a feature of all levels, and that no subject would be off the table. Too many of the recent efforts at consultation at diocesan level did not gain the confidence of the people, because they felt that real listening was not happening, and that only some subjects were permitted. This will not work anymore. Real synodality would also involve a very different style of Bishops Conference, one that is much more open, and includes lay representatives on an equal basis.

While a further decline of the Irish Church is inevitable at present, there are still a great many people who have the faith, and who wish to be part of a believing community. Unfortunately many of them don’t find the Church institution, as it is presently constituted, credible, and they don’t wish to be part of it. I believe the beginnings of change in the areas I suggest would entice many of these people back into involvement, and would breath new life and energy into our Church.

The two occurrences I mentioned above, the programme on the Fadden More Psalter and the significant part that Catholic faith and ritual played in the inauguration of Joe Biden, remind me again that there is so much that is precious and valuable in our faith. We really must do our best to prevent it from dying out in our country.