(The Nationalist, 21 October 2005)
When I was based in Africa I used to visit an area on the border between Angola and Zambia. I went there first in 1978 and found three churches. For a combination of reasons, mainly related to war, I was unable to return until 1982. What I found then astonished me. The number of churches had grown to twenty-one. In each case, a church council had been chosen by the people, and the work of instruction in the faith had begun. In some cases, the leaders themselves were catechumens, that is, people preparing for baptism. Few of them were literate, and the books available to them were almost all in languages other than their own, making it necessary to translate the text as they used it.
Yet these were the people who had found ground for a church, built one with their own hands, using local materials, learned how to conduct Sunday services and funerals, to teach Christian doctrine, and to care for the poor and the sick. They didn’t talk about it; they just did it – all in the absence of a priest. On my visit I examined and then baptized six hundred people.
The people’s effort fitted well into the pastoral plan, based on small Christian communities, adopted by the bishops of six East African countries in 1973.
In Ireland today, the number of priests and members of religious orders is half what it was in 1970, and the average age is substantially higher – in the late sixties. There are significant prob-lems of health and morale. There is no pastoral policy and many parishes don’t have a church council. Where there is one, it has only a consultative role.
The time is probably not far distant when people will go to their local church on Sunday morning and find that there is no Mass, because the priest is either ill or dead, and no replacement is available. We can either prepare for a church of few priests by acknowledging the baptismal right of lay people to a direction in church affairs, or wait passively for the roof to fall in. At the moment, we are sleep-walking our way to oblivion.
We could learn from Africa if we wanted to. Mission is receiving no less than giving.
For those in a hurry: ‘Those who feel God most deeply can say least about Him’. (Blessed Angela of Foligno)