Friday, August 10, 2012

The End of Catholic Ireland?

Many years ago, prior to my departure for a trip to Ireland, I received a handwritten note from my Great Aunt Sissy telling me to enjoy my time in the "Land of Saints and Scholars." Sadly, a description that may have been apt 20 years ago seems today to be obsolete. The Guardian carried yesterday a story entitled "The End of Catholic Ireland." It is well worth a read.

Mary Kenny, the author, writes:
...what is obvious anecdotally: that a substantial number of Irish people have ditched the religion of their ancestors because they think it no longer applies in an age of scientific rationality; because they rebuff "control" by ecclesiastics; because they are disgusted by the clerical scandals – indeed, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is himself disgusted by what he has had to read in the archives; or because sex, drugs and accumulating electronic gadgets are more "relevant" to modern life than "God and Mary, His Mother", as the traditional greeting in the Irish language puts it.
I don't know if it strikes you this way but, after teaching high school boys for the last three years, I'm struck by the fact that this description of "Catholic Ireland" strangely mirrors the behavior of adolescents.

Now, I'm not saying that the Irish are being petulant or adolescent. In fact, I totally get their rejection of the Catholic faith: for far too long was the maxim "Pay, Pray, Obey." Yet the bulwark of authoritarian Catholicism could not withstand the sustained buffets of past 50 years. What was once taken for granted is now being questioned.

Adolescents, as they begin to carve out their own identities, very often experience great conflicts with their families. They become aware of family dysfunctions and are scandalized by it. They reject the family, its customs, its values. Parents are faced with the choice either (1) to engage in a long and drawn out battle with the teen or (2) to wait patiently, challenging when necessary, and to show why the family and its customs are valuable.

Near as I can tell, there are only two options available to Ireland and, by extension, to the Church in general. We need to allow ourselves to be conduits of the Good News, to live out our faiths authentically and joyfully and invite those who have left to return. We cannot any longer compel by sheer power. We can, however, convince by authentic witness.

A long shadow has been cast over the Catholic Church. We should not be smug and say, "Ah! But it is the shadow of the Cross." It may well be that the shadow that envelopes us is actually one of our own creation, a shadow that is saying, "Morons, move out from behind what is blocking My light!" As a corporate body, we need to find the courage to try to embrace the light, to be proactive in sharing the message of the Good News. For too long has the Church been reactive, forever on the defensive. We need to become Courageous Agents of Light rather than Self-Righteous Denizens of the Shadow.

The Church has a rich intellectual and cultural heritage. Our brightest minds - our scientists, our artists, our musicians - need now, more than ever, to give voice to their experience as women and men of faith and to show how "Faith and Reason" work together. We need to show that the same hand that texts on an iPhone can also finger the beads of the Rosary; the same knees that support us in our workaday world can also bend  in silent prayer and adoration. We, as Catholics, fail if we see faith and reason, the Church and the World, as an "Either/Or."

I'm not tempted toward pessimism. I find this situation exciting, because it is challenging. The message of the Good News, in an increasingly secular and jaded world, can reclaim its edge and its transformative power. In a "pagan" world, we can again preach and live "The Way" of Christ. Let us not succumb to the temptation to despair, to look back upon the past as the "Golden Years" but, rather, have the confidence that God calls us and Christ is leading us into the future. Have we the courage to respond, walking forward into the as-yet-unknown, armed with the trust the the One who calls us will lead us aright?
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