July-August Editorial – ‘Do not be afraid’

On the morning of 26 May 2018, many Irish people felt that they had woken up in a foreign country. The outcome of the previous day’s referendum was sad but unsurprising; the scale was staggering; the jubilation was shocking – indeed disgusting to many; the anti-Catholic sentiment that laced the commentary was both interesting and worrying.

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t so much a matter of waking up in a foreign country, as a matter of simply waking up. Waking up to the reality that for many Catholics, faith does not provide a moral compass; waking up to the fact that for many, Catholicism is a cultural artefact rather than a worldview and a way of life. This is not to call anyone’s sincerity into question: faith and its trappings are, for many self-identifying Catholics, a sincerely-loved cultural artefact.

That a large percentage of repeal-voters would identify themselves as Catholics is beyond doubt and speaks volumes. Exactly what it says will need to be carefully and respectfully deciphered, but it seems clear that a very sizeable proportion of Irish Catholics are unmoved by their Church’s steadfast proclamation of the gospel of life. For many of us, this has been a sorrowful and challenging time. It can be tempting to propose simplistic solutions intended to restore, in a rush, our sense of relevance and purpose. I must admit that in the days following the referendum, I had a head-full of things that ‘we’ needed to do. I’m now convinced that the wisest thing we can do is acknowledge the depth and the scale of the change we’ve witnessed. Such realism needs to precede any action.

We are in a new era. We can argue about when this new era began, but it would be inaccurate to see it as beginning on 25 May 2018. It began years earlier. What’s new, post-referendum, is that we know clearly where we stand. We may not yet quite know what to do, but we can hardly deny where we stand.

I would suggest that the large percentage of repeal-voters who would identify themselves as Catholics unintentionally gave the Irish Church a mandate for change. Not the kind of change they might, themselves, articulate, but a mandate for change nevertheless. They have let us know that the Church has become weak and irrelevant. Undoubtedly, many of them would suggest that the Church needs to acculturate further, but the most important thing they’ve taught us is not what change is necessary, but that change is necessary.

Faith and its practice are only ever based on an appeal to human freedom. The Lord who calmed storms and fed multitudes could only invite human hearts. There is no pastoral panacea or silver bullet available to the Irish Church at this time, nor has there been at any other. Yet we must start from our clear first principles. What are we for, as Church? ‘The Church exists in order to evangelise’ (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14). What attitude do we need? Faith and courage, Pope Francis would suggest: ‘How often we are tempted to keep close to the shore! Yet the Lord calls us to put out into the deep and let down our nets’ (Gaudete et Exsultate, 130).

What shape will the letting down of nets take? That will become clearer in time, but whatever else we do, we must leave no stone unturned in order to become evangelised evangelisers. How the Irish Church uses its resources will be crucial. We may discern areas where a change of focus is necessary, which is to say that we may need to withdraw focus from some other areas. We may need to engage in a process of divestment of many schools; we may need to ask probing questions regarding the nature of the pastoral service we’re been providing and the use we’ve been making of our remaining clergy. We will have to take much more seriously the partnership between clergy and laity. And in the mix, we will almost certainly have to make decisions that will alienate some good and sincere Catholics.

It’s easy to write ‘we,’ but the people at the front end of change are our bishops. They need our prayers during this momentous period. As St John Paul II spent his papacy announcing: ‘Do not be afraid.’ And as the late Gerard Hughes SJ put it in God of Surprises, ‘the facts are kind, and God is in the facts.’

Father Chris Hayden

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