Escaping From Nostalgia Lane

(The Furrow, February 2000, pp. 88-96)



I left Kilkenny in 1962. It was then a sleepy, somewhat dilapidated provincial town with the title of a city. Its castle dominating the River Nore by St. John’s Bridge was impressive without, derelict within. My confrères, young like myself, used to joke about Kilkenny, quoting Hebrews (13.14) ‘We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one which is to come’.

Thirty five years later, I returned to Kilkenny and found that the city had indeed come. It was alive, alert, aware and awake, full of vitality, a place where lots of interesting things were happening. There was a theatre, a fortnight-long Arts Festival, the place was alive with tourists from all continents; the Design Centre had established an international reputation for good quality products; and the castle, like several other historic buildings in the town, had been splendidly restored, a place to be proud of.

Other changes that I became aware of as time passed were that women had come alive; there was a sparkle in their eyes, they had taken the world in their hands with confidence and were shaping it as they thought right. (Men, by contrast, seemed confused, almost helpless.) And there was a wonderful growth in community associations of all sorts, from Alzheimer’s to Bulimia to Cystic Fibrosis to Down’s Syndrome – an alphabet of associations of people caring for people. In 1962, it would have worried me if those had had no formal links with the church; now it doesn’t.


Beyond Kilkenny, and in the country in general, things had also changed. The State had got its act together in a way which it did not have in the fifties and sixties. It was more flexible and responsive, more democratic in its procedures, more open to public opinion, more willing to learn from mistakes and correct them. Emigration had become immigration. The Celtic Tiger had put an end to the cruel poverty of the past and opened up new horizons and opportunities for people – and they were using them. There were more and better jobs and new avenues for re-training. All this was bringing a change of culture: we were beginning to find remedies rather than seek excuses. We were beginning to believe that it was possible to change our society, and with it our lives, for the better. The Sean Bhean Bhocht was gone – and good riddance to her!

I joined the Capuchins in 1961. In that year, one out of every 12 boys who passed Leaving Cert went into a seminary or religious order, and one girl in every 8 went into a convent. There was a sense of joining a going concern which offered life, hope and opportunity through service to others. There was generous idealism.

The churches were packed. Missions and retreats drew crowds which required loud-speakers to be set up outside. I remember writing an article half-way through the sixties suggesting that, to cope with the crowds in the churches, the Sunday Mass obligation be changed to a weekly one which could be fulfilled on any day. Changed times!

Returning to – could this be home?

Returning to Ireland in 1997, I experienced a culture shock greater than in going to New Zealand as a newly-ordained priest, or to Zambia in Africa seven years later. I find it tough going adjusting to the new situation. It was not simply that congregations were smaller and older; it was the pervasive atmosphere in the church of negativity, fatalism and despair. I kept asking myself: ‘Did Vatican II ever come to Ireland?’ Where, for example, was the active lay participation that so characterized the church in Africa? Why is it that, for those who come to church regularly, morals are still a burden, an obstacle course from which they do not wish to be liberated while others have found human growth only by walking away?
We seemed in the intervening years to have lost the young, the left, the poor, the liberals, and educated middle-class women. That didn’t leave very many, except the over fifties, and those locked into denial who want to walk past the cul de sac sign down Nostalgia Lane.

Much had quickly happened and changed that could be grouped under the broad umbrella of secularization; that didn’t bother me so much as the seeming lack of response to it. The church had moved from the centre to the margins of society, a practical denial of the Incarnation. When I left, Ireland was an ecclesiastical society; when I returned it was substantially a secular one.

There was a noticeable lack of leadership at all levels of the church, the grass-roots no less than the diocese or nation. I couldn’t pick up traces of a sense of mission, or a vision of where the church might be going; it seemed to be sleep-walking its way into oblivion – and content to let it be so. Clergy seemed demoralized, so punch-drunk under the impact of the sexual and other scandals they did not notice that the greater scandal of the church in Ireland is the number of Catholics who don’t know Jesus Christ; Ireland is mission territory, awaiting evangelization. Some clergy appear to be passively waiting for death to release them from the misery of their despair; others spend their remaining energy propping up models of church (or religious life) which are no longer viable; and still others have drawn the wagons defensively into the laager.

Sometimes I felt angered by what seems to be a lack of moral courage in the Irish church; it is, I fear, a national fault, the cute hoor syndrome elevated to the status of wisdom. Ireland is too often a testosterone-free zone. A particularly striking example of this is the failure of the church in Northern Ireland, despite thirty years of hatred, division, cruelty and killing, to put the common good before sectional interest by integrating the Catholic and the state school systems. How right Terence O’Neill was to say that Northern Ireland had not used its religion to elevate its politics but had used its politics to degrade its religion. What is the use of speaking the language of reconciliation while refusing to take steps that could bring it about? Individual clergy have almost certainly done good work there but the refusal to tackle such structural sources of division, the maintenance of a cult of grievance, the playing of the minority card, the failure to decommission minds (to borrow John Hume’s phrase) as ways of reinforcing our separateness all serve to keep the pot boiling. (Protestants did likewise.) All of that is to betray Jesus Christ, who was crucified by a coalition of forces who rejected him because of the universalist character of his message, because he would not play their sectional power games. I think history will judge the church in Northern Ireland harshly for its failure to be a unifying force; and that judgment may come quickly with a collapse of the church’s position there if peace endures. The socio-political props to its position will have been removed.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

Standing back from particular issues, I’m reminded of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s ideas (in her book On Death and Dying) about the mental attitudes of a person faced with terminal illness. She sees a process in which the person goes through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance and death. That described the stages the church institution is going through in Ireland at the present time.

Denial is there on a grand scale: we can no longer deny the facts of decline because they are so undeniably pervasive, but we deny their significance instead. A failure to acknowledge unpleasant or even ugly realities is dressed up as looking on the bright side of things, when it is simply a refusal to look facts in the face and call them by name.

Anger is there, too: it expresses itself in looking for someone to blame, typically the media, but also conservatives, progressives, liberals or restorationists according to one’s orientation in ecclesiastical politics.

Bargaining: ‘If only people would start saying the rosary again’; ‘If only priests would follow the lead of the Holy Father’; ‘If only we would just go back to the way things were…’ It isn’t true. The tide of secularization is irreversible.

Despair: yes, it’s there. Sadly it sometimes appears under its disguise of cynicism, the belittling of attempts at a new venture, a new approach, with a dismissive ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, it won’t work anyway’.

Acceptance: we haven’t reached that point yet, but we’re getting there. Acceptance of what, you may ask? Acceptance of the reality of impending death.

Death: What we are called to face is the reality that the model of church we have grown up with is dying and will soon be dead.

The Catholic alternative society – a model in terminal decline

The model of church that existed in Ireland in the 150 years between Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 was one of a Catholic society alternative to the alienating British colonial one. At its best, its mission was to lift up the Catholic people of Ireland from the gutter and enable them to take their rightful place as fully-fledged citizens of their own country; and the means of achieving that task was education. Through generous effort, hard work and sacrifice it achieved its goal. A new model needs to take its place, not because the old one failed, but because it succeeded. At its worst, it co-opted the state to its mission, especially after 1922, and turned the faith into an ideology that underpinned a control system. We preached churchianity, not Christianity. We made the church a substitute for the Holy Spirit; we made the church an end in itself instead of a means to the one end, God. People are not going to let us do that again, so there’s no point in talking about restoration.

Where do we go now?

Where do we go in search of a new vision of church for Ireland? One thing to avoid is banging one’s head off the brick wall of resistance to change, a resistance which is widespread, at “the bottom” no less than at “the top”. All that will bring is a brain that is smashed to pulp – and the walls of resistance will remain as strong as ever. Should we, for the sake of unity, move only at the pace of the slowest member? That would mean no movement at all because the slowest members do not want to move forwards but rather backwards. The best way to move forward is to draw a line under the past, leave it behind and look to the future. Better to leave old attitudes to die and for people who are open to change to come together and work positively for the future.
One thing we can always do is ask questions, even if we don’t have answers. For instance, what is God saying to us about priesthood, not just its roles or functions, but its nature and significance as we look towards a future of fewer and ageing priests? How is the traditional understanding of the relationship between the ministerial priesthood of the ordained and the general priesthood of all the baptized likely to be affected by the changing situation?

God speaks in facts, without asking our permission. Are we preparing for collaborative ministry with lay-people? Are we making room for the thousands of young Irish men and – especially – women who have completed degrees in theology and pastoral studies at colleges such as All Hallows, Carlow, Maynooth, and Milltown? Are we ready to work with them in pastoral ministry on a basis of equality? Will we wait until the last woman has left the church before deciding to work with women on a basis of equality? Are we ready to pay them a living wage? If we do not begin by welcoming them as an opportunity we will end by fearing them as a threat.

There is another question for us to ask. Are we planning a pastoral response to a situation in which a Christian presence in schools is reduced to a mere token without substance, if not altogether removed? Other countries have responded creatively to such situations.

A question in the minds of some (or many, I suspect) is a hidden one which people are afraid to ask openly: ‘Will the church survive?’ I believe that while the present model of church won’t survive, the church itself will. But – and this is important – that is not the point. Jesus did not die on the cross so that the church would survive; he died so that it would fulfil its mission. If we would stop worrying about the church, with all the negative attitudes that such worry brings – defensiveness, timidity, lack of imagination, the stifling of creativity lest it rock the boat, and so on – and instead pluck up the courage to become evangelizers then the church would come alive and grow. Why was the Decade of Evangelization such a flop? ‘The essential mission of the church is to evangelize …. Evangelization is the special grace and vocation of the church. It is her essential function. The church exists to preach the Gospel…’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.14.) If survival is our focus, we will not survive – nor deserve to; if mission is our focus we will survive.

A state of transition

Our task is to re-incarnate the vision of church we have already received from Jesus Christ. We are in a state of transition where no one knows what lies ahead or what direction to move in. Did Saint Patrick have a blueprint for Ireland in his pocket when he came here? But what we can usefully do is try not to pre-empt the Holy Spirit and instead create a spirit and structures of dialogue so that something constructive can evolve from the present muddle.

The Individual

‘Individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social organization’. (Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, n.219) And three key areas emerge here for the individual: prayer, scripture reflection and the formation of conscience:


To lead people to conversion.
Helping people to pray alone and in groups.
Laypeople beginning to develop a lay spirituality, focussing on marriage, family life, human sexuality, work etc.

Scripture reflection:

Help for people who haven’t a clue about scripture.
Lectio Divina.
The development of scripture as a basis for prayer.


Helping people to take responsibility for themselves.
Learning to use freedom creatively, intelligently and responsibly and to accept the consequences of our decision-making.
Learning that rights and responsibilities are reciprocal.
Growing up into an adult faith that becomes a force for human liberation.

The Family

The family is the domestic church; we can hardly go wrong in making it a pastoral priority. Some key elements will emerge:

To be fully human is to be Christian; an integral humanism; Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Overcoming the dualism in theology of the sacred and the secular, the human and the divine, nature and grace.

The priesthood of all the faithful

Learning, (from St. Thérèse of Lisieux perhaps), the sacredness of the ordinary.

The family as the first school of civilization and community.

Having family life centres, e.g. such as in Boyle, Co. Roscommon.

Developing new forms of family prayer and rituals, centred on key family events, such as sacraments, deaths, anniversaries, homecomings, passing exams or driving tests or other such rites of passage.

Making family meals a bonding occasion, built around the sacredness of food, conversation and companionship.

We could learn from the Jews how to centre religious life firstly within the family.
The development of support groups such as parenting classes, pre-marriage preparation at home and in the parish; helping divorced, separated or bereaved couples.
A fresh look at the discipline of the non-admission to the sacraments of those in second unions.

Small Christian Communities

These small communities are more than just another movement, or a new pastoral strategy, method or technique. They are the church renewing itself and fulfilling its mission. They are a new way of being church.

They invite all people, in a down-to-earth way, to imitate the life of the Trinity which is a life of sharing. Christians have no choice but to be a community, a communion. For Christians, life is not worthy to be called a life unless it is shared.

This pastoral option represents the most appropriate way of expressing the mystery of the church as a communion of faith, hope, and love, as well as being a means of involving all the people of the God in the common task of continuing the reconciling mission of Christ in the world.

Church life must be based on the communities in which everyday life and work takes place: those basic and manageable social groupings whose members can experience real interpersonal relationships, and feel a sense of communal belonging, both in living and in working. A parish is too big and diverse for that. In a small Christian community, people:

can know one another sufficiently to grow in unity.
can pray together.
can experience together joy, success, failure, sorrow.
can meet problems together, and seek solutions to them in sharing of faith.
can build some grass-roots ecumenism by sharing with Christians of other churches.

A small Christian community should not have so many members that they cannot know each other on a person-to-person basis; about 12 is a good number. Community presupposes communication and dialogue is the key to communication.

A small Christian community may be made up of several family groups. Family catechesis is therefore at the heart of the formation of small Christian communities.

Small Christian communities come together not only for prayer and faith-sharing but also to care for the needs and problems that arise locally. Once people link faith to life they will see the church as theirs and will get involved.

Small Christian communities challenge a situation in which people see little evidence of shared leadership in their ordinary lives, in work, in politics, or in the church. And Christian leadership is about service, not power; it takes Jesus Christ as its role model.

Church councils

At present, church structures, e.g. church, parish, deanery and diocesan councils of various kinds, are not pastoral structures focussed on mission so much as political structures focussed on power. The music they dance to is not the Pastoral Symphony or The Mission but The Godfather, or Let’s do it my Way. Why is it that in one diocese in Ireland (perhaps others, too), more than 30 years after Vatican II, less than one-third of parishes have a parish council?

There is a convergence of factors at work today which call for significant change: –
Sociological: the shortage and ageing of priests;
Political: people insist on power-sharing in decision-making;
Psychological: there is a human need for real participation in community;
Theological: what church documents say about full, conscious and active participation in the life of the church.

Church councils, at whatever level, need to have decision-making authority, within the terms of a constitution which is the product of experience and which is formulated at the end of a lengthy process of experimentation, e.g. 20 to 25 years. Without this, they will be only discussion groups which no one will take seriously and which will invite irresponsibility. Power and responsibility are inseparable. We need to summon up the courage to apply our own teaching on the principle of subsidiarity.

Such a constitution would not follow the standard model for clubs and societies because a church council has a different goal, a different raison d’être. Its goal is community; its methods are word, worship, work and witness. That needs to be reflected in its structures.

The quality of local leadership is the decisive factor in the success or failure of church councils. For this, formation and training are needed. A change of attitudes is also required:

from patronage to partnership,
from dictation to dialogue,
from control to trust,
from the static to the dynamic,
from playing it safe to being willing to take risks,
from the institution to the community,
from law to respect and love,
from being self-centred and worrying about survival to being outward-looking and concerned with humanity.

Others have done it; it can be done – but not in one day.

Planning for the future of the church

Learn from the past, live in the present, look to the future.
Start with what you’ve got; see, judge, act.
Think globally; act locally.
Be positive: watch the doughnut, not the hole. Light a candle rather than curse the darkness.
Create new facts. Don’t wait for opportunities; create them. Carpe diem.
Take the initiative here and now.
Work with others.
Full, conscious and active participation.
Change the practice; the policy will follow.
Be practical; aim at attainable goals; no paralysis of analysis.
Let the end be prefigured in the means.

One way of moving forward.

Look at life.
Ask the question ‘Why?’ And keep asking it.
Search for root causes.
Listen to God.
Plan with firmness and love.


Make use of the following steps to arrive at a concrete plan of action: –
Formulate the problem. (What?)
Suggest many possible solutions. (How?)
Discuss a few of the more likely solutions, including their advantages and disadvantages.
Which solution is nearer to the mind of Christ?
Decide on one solution with a wide measure of agreement.
Work out the details: Who? When? Where? What? How?
If the why isn’t clear, then you need to go back to the start and begin again.



What we want to achieve – the goal, and why we want to achieve it – motivation.
Deliberation as to the means of achieving the goal: various ones, pro and con.
Saying yes to one means saying no to the others; you make your choice and live with it.
Who? When? Where? What? How? The ‘why?’ should have been done at the start.
Plan the first steps – but have a second string to your bow.
Break down one large problem into several small ones.
No matter what we do, we have a reason for doing it.
Not to take a decision is itself a decision with consequences as real as any other.

Are we ready to identify, to name and to challenge the attitudes in ourselves that are obstacles to working together in partnership? Are we ready to challenge inertia, passivity, lack of trust, power-seeking, or structures that are stagnant and stifling? To quote the late John F. X. Harriott, [We]…’cannot preach a God of resurrection by clinging to a dead past.’ (The Empire of the Heart, Gracewing, Leominster, 1990, p.97.)