(The Nationalist, 27 April 2007)
The average age of priests in Ireland is close to seventy. You don’t need to be an actuary to see where that trend is leading. In addition, there are significant problems of health and morale among priests. And new entrants into seminaries are very few.
Putting our heads in the sand about these matters will not make them go away. I don’t see any indication that the trend is about to be reversed, though forecasts of the future have a habit of being wrong. Ask economists.
I think what is happening is that one model of church, that is to say, one way of being church, is collapsing. That may be a necessary stage before a new model can emerge. It is happening in the context of a country which is changing rapidly from a Christian cultural setting to a secular one. Secularism is a practical denial of the relevance of God. In Northern Ireland, the process has been, to a certain extent, “deep-frozen” by The Troubles, but is likely to manifest itself if the peace process really takes hold.
Handling a process of change is always difficult. One requirement for changing organically is dialogue. We need to have in the church structures that are open and accountable, and which respect the principle of subsidiarity. That principle is about respecting the autonomy of local groups.
These topics have been talked about for years, but it has to be said that, in Ireland, little has been done about them. By and large, structures of dialogue in the church do not exist. In some places, there are councils with lay membership, but often these are no more than token gestures, where tasks are delegated but control remains where it was.
There are lots of people who want it that way and who resist attempts to make it otherwise. Indeed, some of the most clericalist people I’ve met are lay people. But, in the present church situation, those who make a gradual evolution impossible make a sudden collapse inevitable. And that will render the task of constructing a new model of church much more difficult. A gradual transition is preferable to a collapse followed by a long haul back up the hill to a viable faith community.
What is the church anyway in its essence? One answer is: the community of the disciples of Jesus. If a new model is to emerge that will capture people’s commitment I think it needs to be inclusive in all respects, including ecumenical, also less structured, and more evangelical (Gospel-based). It will surely be smaller, perhaps much smaller, than what we have now, but I hope it will go beyond the tokenism which today we seem to accept as adequate. Authority will, I hope, be exercised differently, from the bottom-up as well as the top-down. There’s no harm in hoping.
Is the church willing and able to bring about such a process of change? I don’t find the history of the more than forty years since the end of Vatican II re-assuring. But, there is a process underway whether we like it or not. We are challenged to move from the safety of where we are, the security of how we think, and the familiarity of what we do. Our task is to be willing to move from denial, defensiveness and disorientation to discernment, to be open to where God’s Spirit is leading us. We are moving from the church to the kingdom of God.