Bishops Conf. Ireland: New Year 2011 message by Bishop Donal McKeown, Auxiliary Bishop of Down & Connor
"In an increasingly fragmented and diverse world, parishes can be key prophetic voices" - Bishop McKeown
At the start of 2011, there is a lot of anger and fear around. In some quarters there is more talk of revolutions than of resolutions.
As we step into the second decade of the 21st century, all Christian churches face huge challenges. In Ireland religious practice is less than it used to be. For most young people, the choice is whether to opt into active involvement with religious bodies, not whether to opt out of them. Across modern Ireland, not having any real connection with church is the assumed default position. That clear need for a new proclamation of the Gospel is one of the reasons behind "Share the Good News - National Directory for Catechesis in Ireland" which will be published next week by Cardinal Seán Brady.
So, in the context of this new publication by the Catholic Church in Ireland, where might churches find some guidance for priorities in 2011?
Could I suggest going back exactly 10 years to a Papal document – "Novo Millennio Ineunte" (NMI) - issued by the late Pope John Paul II immediately after the Jubilee Year of 2000. I will take just two phrases from that compact letter.
Firstly, he says that, since the first call of all believers is to be holy, all Christian bodies have to be ‘schools of prayer’. What might that mean and imply?
a. If parishes, schools or church organisations are not actively places where can people grow in holiness, then maybe they are a waste of time. In the 21st century, they risk becoming mere holy huddles, gatherings of the pious, cosy coteries of the spiritually childish. If groups which bear the name of Christian are not places where spiritual and human maturing is actively and consciously promoted, then it is not surprising that people are walking away from them. Being a ‘school
of prayer’ is a risky business as it means being open to discerning God’s way forward and not just in seeking divine support for our little plans. Those movements and groups thrive which nourish the human hunger to worship the Father ‘in Spirit and in truth’.
b. Jesus engaged with the head and hearts of his listeners. He practiced long periods of prayer and taught his disciples by word and example. He told stories to help people engage with, and learn from, their own personal story. Merely ritualistic prayer or cold dogma alone will do little to promote healing and growth for members of the pilgrim People of God. Indeed, they may encourage precisely the form of religiosity that gets religion a bad name.
c. The weekly celebration of the Liturgy is meant to be the high point of a community that prays. A Mass with little sense of prayerfulness and either a shallow or a rambling sermon nourishes neither the head nor the heart. It does justice neither to God nor to his people.
Secondly, the late Papa Wojtyla was clear that a healthy Christianity would not proclaim Christ by having just any form of spirituality or prayer. True Christian prayer, he said, needs to promote a ‘spirituality of communion’. An excessively pietistic ‘me-and-Jesus’ relationship, a smug sense of self-righteousness or a vague espousal of ‘the spiritual’ should not be confused with Christianity. The one who went to the Cross invites people to take a spiritual journey that is not a comfortable road to walk. a. Communion with God and communion with one another are two sides of the one great commandment. Unless faith activities build bridges and break down barriers, then they may be merely self-indulgent. A faith community with lonely members is a contradiction in terms. In an increasingly fragmented and diverse world, parishes can be key prophetic voices, generating a disinterested welcome and openness, support and patience, especially for those limp along strange roads or who come looking for even a stable on a cold night. b. But in a world where the emphasis is on self-fulfilment, a community open to self transcendence will not happen by accident. It comes from prayer, conversion and a generous heart. In an alien cultural environment that tends to prioritise having rather than being, a spirituality of communion needs conscious nourishment. c. A ‘spirituality of communion’ implies journeying with people. That involves learning from the early New Testament community, which was faithful to ‘the teaching of the apostles, the community, the breaking of the bread and the prayers.’ (Acts 2:42) Semi-detached Christianity is not an option in the Body of Christ. d. The service of leadership is essential if church renewal is to take place. But unless Church structures reflect that communion spirituality, high flown ideas will not ring true. Community-building is deeply humanising - but it calls for a dying to self, if it is to be a service to human growth and not just self-serving. e. Ireland remains a very generous country, especially when responding to the needs of developing countries and communities. But that sort of generosity is not a substitute for local action. A spirituality of communion involves not just putting your hand in your pocket but also getting your hands dirty nearer home. A parish may get a great buzz out of raising money for a project in Africa - but that concern needs to be matched with action with the local struggling inner-city parish. It may be easier for a school community to support a school in Latin America than to share facilities with a neighbouring school in a deprived area of Dublin, Limerick or Belfast. And a passionate defence of life before birth will be heard most clearly where it is accompanied by an equally clear passion for life after birth. f. Catholic dioceses have begun the catechetical preparation for the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) in Dublin (June 10-17 2012). Its theme "The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another"reflects that necessary harmony between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of Christianity. Indeed, Pope Benedict, when speaking to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and members of the IEC Organizing Committee in November, mirrored the words of NMI when he referred to that part of evangelisation “which takes place in the school of the Church in prayer and through the liturgy.” The IEC offers an opportunity for a clear focus on renewal of all relationships in Christ.
All religious bodies face huge challenges to their development and their message in a culture where secularism has developed a strident voice. The Catholic Church in Ireland has a particularly big mountain to climb in order to develop its credibility as a humble and self-sacrificing proclaimer of God’s dream for the world.
As the National Catechetical Directory is launched next week, a helpful New Year’s resolution for us could be to focus on these two NMI phrases – and to be prepared for the sometimes painful and grace-filled evolution (or even revolution) that this might entail!