As Autumn gathers its cloak around us, the diminished light has an effect on our spirits. And, as if nature really wands to rub it in, when we learn that someone is in the autumn of their life, we feel something change inside ourselves, too.
And this pattern is also evident in the wider Catholic Church community. Almost all the church-related news in the mass media is dark these days: commentators write and speak as if the Church were facing its ‘winter of discontent’! And this can leave those of us who are in front-line ministry in the Church very vulnerable to the negativity. And it’s crushing when the local particular situation and need for ministry is clearly positive and an opportunity for light — in contrast with the headlines and the world-wide or online view. But autumn is autumn!
I have learned that the negativity is not personal. It is passionately anti-institution. The ministry of the priest on the ground is almost always appreciated (except when he carelessly or deliberately makes criticism unavoidable!) and this can be heard even when the same people are impatient and even angry with what the national or universal Church is messaging by its actions or words.
So in this frontline of modern Irish Catholicism, each priest needs to master and tolerate a certain amount of dissonance. I have to live in a zone where intellectually what’s in front of me has often been condemned by official Church teaching while every bone in my body sees that the compassion of Christ seeks to reach out to the individuals involved. And this tension arises more and more.
It’s relatively new for priests but it has been experienced by many Catholics in their daily lives, especially over the past 50 years since the publication of Humanae Vitae — the teaching published by St. Paul VI in the late 1960s which condemned artificial contraception. In the early years of my ministry I met many people — mostly women — who were struggling with this dissonance. Every rational thought they had struggled to see how a milestone was made possible by the developments of science and its opening up to our minds the possibility of managing fertility while in almost every sermon the Church’s teaching could be so absolutist. Some — I suspect only a minority — carried on and shouldered the dissonance while many saw it as futile and foolish.
Clergy are divided nowadays by a seismic shift which is seen in most aspects of Church life — dogmatic, moral and pastoral. In the Universal Church the fissure is seen when clergy of all ranks divide along the line drawn by Pope Francis and by reactions to increasing numbers of prelates being accused of participating in and covering up incidents of child abuse. A subset — though perhaps a majority — of recently ordained priests are taking refuge in their recreated lace-lined parlours of the pre-Vatican II era when priests mingled with but remained resolutely apart from the people. Though recently ordained priests have no first-hand experience of that era, they have embraced all the external trappings in the hope that these will bring about what they understand as a ‘restoration’ of a secure isolation.
They are investing in changing the liturgical paraphernalia of church sacristies — throwing out recently purchased vestments and replacing them with the style of the 1950s, saying Mass with their backs turned to the people, walking the streets in black soutanes, instructing congregations in liturgical practises which were abandoned in the 1970s in most places (e.g. kneeling to receive Holy Communion at the altar rails and only receiving on the tongue). Some are also refusing to enrol girls as altar servers and they clearly don’t want women as Ministers of the Word or of Holy Communion. And they abhor sitting around a table in a pastoral council or parish finance committee if the spirit of the meeting suggests anything like parity of esteem.
There are equivalents to this phenomenon elsewhere in the world! In the US, people with more money than sense have spent millions designing and building underground bunkers — worlds for themselves for the day when the atom bombs of the Cold War land in the US. Some of these luxury mini-worlds even have underground swimming pools with growing trees and lighting designed to give the impression that it’s all over ground! But it isn’t! It’s a delusion — into which the owners will run when they feel sufficiently threatened by developments in the real world!
A Church community in the twenty-first century which understands itself as only being led by soutane and lace-wearing males is consigning itself to a bunker whose relevance is only seen by the few who live inside it.
A parish whose self-understanding has been worked on by parishioners and clergy together is a completely different place. It’s not easy to help people into a reflective learning space where they can believe that they truly belong and where their very involvement will shape what the spirit of the parish is about. People are naturally sceptical in parishes these days because the fault line keeps moving as randomly as the earthquake. A bishop-led change of clergy can have the lines redrawn if a replacement priest arrives with all the tools needed for bunker-building but with none of the tools for collegiality. And there are myriad examples of this: pastoral councils being disbanded by creeping neglect, finance committees ignored and accounts kept secret, funeral ministry teams being side-lined as the surplice takes centre-stage again.
When a community tastes communion all hopes can be realised, faith strengthens and Christian love gets real.
Then, there is no problem finding parents to help with First Holy Communion preparation programmes; the numbers in the pastoral council grow rather than diminish and the new problem becomes how to manage the rotas for the young people involved as altar servers, gift bearers, readers of the Prayer of the Faithful and readers of Scripture at Mass!
Faith is tangible and grows when a community comes together as equals in service — especially in service of people with a particular need. Just last evening, our parish church was full for a 7pm weekday Mass which was organised at the request of people in the community to be an expression of prayerful solidarity with a family who are keeping vigil with their teenage son in hospital. All ages were represented. Almost 300 candles were lit in prayer for Dominik.
The relevant questions were around how do we respond as a Christ-like people to this situation? Who might sing hymns? (The junior choir sang beautifully) Who might read the scriptures? (His classmates did). People messaged offering all kinds of help. Because they believed it would be heard and welcomed. They have tasted communion.
And we experienced Holy Communion — with the Body of Christ, with one another and with the family who were physically absent.
And it was appropriate that this was the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila who wrote:
“Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world”