(The Nationalist, 19 September 2003)
There’s a story about three priests comparing notes about their parishes. They found they had a problem in common: bats in the belfry. The first priest said he had tried sealing off the tower and fumigating it. That worked for a while, but, before long, the bats were back.
The second priest said he had introduced hawks and owls, but that didn’t work either, because there were simply too many bats.
The third priest listened to all of this with a smug look on his face. The other two said to him, ‘You obviously have found an answer to this problem. What is it?’ He replied, ‘I baptized the bats, gave them first confession, the bishop confirmed them – and I haven’t seen one in the church since’.
We are growing more familiar with “four-wheel” Catholics, those who come to the church in a pram for their baptism, a limousine for their wedding, and a hearse for their funeral – with nothing in between.
Sometimes people have such little knowledge of the faith that you can only ask, ‘How can a person receive religious instruction at school for maybe twelve years, and yet know so little?’
But it is more than simply a matter of lack of knowledge; it goes deeper. People are receiving the sacraments seemingly without the faith that gives them meaning. And an apparent lack of reverence suggests that there has not been a prior experience of conversion. Sometimes, the sacraments seem to be no more than rites of passage which provide the occasion for a family celebration.
Before people can come to the liturgy, that is, to Mass and the sacraments, they must be called to faith and conversion. Yet, in the Catholic Church, we seem so anxious for people to receive the sacraments that we turn a blind eye to the hollowness of it all. To do this is to trivialize the sacraments, reducing them to the level of a superstition that they “work” just as long as you receive them, regardless of dispositions. That also demoralizes priests, reducing them to figures of fun. And it diverts energy from where it is needed and could produce results, namely, by engaging in the missionary task of conversion.
Are we still living with the illusion of Holy Catholic Ireland, unaware that Ireland is mission territory as much as Africa ever was? Maybe we all, priests and people, need to leave behind the numbers game and start playing the reality game.