There is a temptation to see the need for change in our church as primarily the elimination of clericalism by the transfer power from clergy to laity but, but as Bishop McKeown reminded us last month, Pope Francis does not want synodality to be perceived just as power blocs squaring up to win votes or force through changes that particular groups have on their agenda; it means clergy and laity genuinely walking together in unison to discern the church that Christ wants us to have here in Ireland and what we can to bring it about. This will indeed require new thinking in the traditional concept of the role of the clergy, but it will also require new thinking and approaches from us laity.
Here in Ireland, we have been used to a church where the clergy have essentially been service providers and we, the laity, have generally been mainly passive consumers. Mgr George Talbot 160 years ago expressed the view that the role of the laity is to “pray up, pay up and shut up!” That view may in some ways have reflected clericalism at its worst, but if we are to be honest, I think it is a concept that suited most of us sitting in the pews, it meant that our Catholic lives required very little intellectual challenge and we could leave the difficult stuff to the priests.
Things are clearly different nowadays. One of the challenges identified by the Irish bishops for the launch of the synodal pathway is the secularisation of society. There is a temptation, perhaps, to think of that secularisation purely in terms of the radical change in attitudes towards our church that has pervaded society in recent times ranging from ambivalence to outright determination to drive religion completely out of the public arena.
The challenge, however, is much greater than that. Somehow, in the midst of the opposition to religious belief, we have to find the best way of spreading the Good News in a society where people are exposed to a wide range of influences, far more pervasive that at any time in the history of mankind and where people are no longer prepared to accept things as being right simply because they have been laid down by a higher authority. In particular, we have to deal with modern methods of communication – in an era where communication is dominated by online interaction especially Social Media, relying almost exclusively on the priest’s Sunday homily occasionally backed up by complex documents issued from the Vatican is a sure-fire route to failure.
We have just come through the season of Easter and our daily gospel and other readings have reminded us of the far greater opposition and outright persecution that our forefathers faced in the very earliest days of the church. They overcame that and became the dominant social force in western Europe. They achieved that not by directly fighting back against their opponents but by demonstrating the value of the lives that they led. We get a hint of this approach from the second century Christian writer of the Epistle to Diognetus who observed that:
“… the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity … As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners … They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives … those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”
I think that what we need to achieve is a modern-day version of the distinctiveness identified by that writer. We must move on from bemoaning the changes in life around us and the constant attacks on our faith and on our church; we have a very special gift – the Good News – and the best way we can counteract the negative influences that seem to dominate society nowadays, is to show people how that special gift really does make our lives special. We must do that in ways that are not perceived as simply preaching to other people, yet somehow has the effect that, perhaps without even understanding why, they can see that specialness in our lives.
Achieving that will require a far more active and committed Catholic life than many of us have led in the past. A first step is a deeper personal understanding of our faith and how we can live it out on a daily basis. We have a wealth of talent to help us achieve that. We have many dedicated people working very hard within parishes in all sorts of areas; at diocesan level, we have various dedicated groups doing tremendous work in various catechetical areas like working in schools, working with young people and developing baptismal teams within parishes. I think one thing we need to do is look at how the abundance of excellent materials they have, ranging from printed booklets to PowerPoint presentations to videos, can be made more available within parishes, both to individuals and to groups such as pastoral councils. Again, existing groups like Thornhill Ministries have skills and experience that could play a significant role in achieving this.
The big challenge will be motivating our laity to avail of these opportunities but there are ways we can tackle that. Whilst modern technology and its impact on communication has many negative aspects, it also has many positive ones and creates opportunities for us to both deepen our own understanding of our faith and also open it up to people who are curious about our special lives. One positive aspect of the Covid pandemic has been the widespread adoption of applications like Zoom and WhatsApp by people who little more than a year ago could never have imagined themselves using those. Alongside that, our educational institutions have developed very effective methods of delivering material to students in their own homes. Using similar methods to deliver religious development materials is likely to be a lot more attractive to individuals and groups than perhaps travelling up to an hour on a cold winter’s night to a workshop or seminar at a central location.
I think that an important part of the preparation for the synodical pathway is that we examine how we can use these modern techniques to once again demonstrate that difference identified in the Epistle to Diognetus; that we once again become people who are seen to be living in the real world but in some ways, seem like foreigners to it. We need to find ways of showing that we truly are part of something very special, something that is more than the best that secularism has to offer.