(The Nationalist, 16 April 2004)
At this time of year, during Holy Week and Easter, thoughts turn to the matter of suffering and death. I’m often fascinated by the paradox that death is the only certainty in life. It’s the one thing we can be absolutely sure of – not its time, place, or manner, but its certainty.
Life itself, and especially old age, is a school of letting go. Death is the great letting go, when we finally take leave of all. For most people, illness and the gradual break-down of our ability to care for ourselves, is the preparation for it, the time when we become more aware of being dependent on others. We learn gradually, as the saying has it, to let go and let God.
This applies to institutions as to individuals. What we are witnessing in Ireland at the present time is the suffering and dying of the model of church we have known since Catholic Emancipation in 1829. The evidence of this is all around us. Nostalgia for the past provides no agenda for the future.
I’m thinking of a model of church, that is to say, a particular way of being church. For instance, the Irish church which followed the time of Saint Patrick was a different model from the present. It did not have dioceses or parishes, and the bishop was usually a member of a monastic community, subject to the authority of its abbot. His function was to ordain. That was a different model of church – and also the same church.
It seems self-evident that the model of church we have known is Ireland is dying. I don’t see that as something to worry about. It is a process of sin, suffering and dying, and that is what Holy Week is about.
But the Christian story does not end with the death of Jesus. It goes on to his resurrection. It says that death does not have the last word. It speaks about rising from death to a new kind of life, one which is not a continuation of what went before, but something different. That applies to the church as well as to individuals.
The present model of church is dying. What will take its place? I don’t know. But I believe that our task now is each day to fulfil the mission Christ gave us, that is, to be fully human, a people who have life and have it more abundantly, who in some way bear the image of God. And the way to that is by loving.
As a community, we are invited to reveal the values of the Kingdom of God, that is, a community characterized by recognizing and respecting the humanity of the other. In a divided and imperilled world, that is a challenge and an opportunity.