THE number of priests and members of religious orders in Ireland has dropped by 70% since 1970. In the past three years, more than 25% of all priests in Ireland have died. The average age of priests has risen substantially in that time; it is now well above 70. Add to that problems of health and morale and you have a serious difficulty with staffing, to name just one.
I currently hold the responsibility as parish priest of three parishes. Clustering parishes has become the norm. In our diocese, many clergy generously continue holding active posts of responsibility well into their 80s. I often marvel at these elderly priests being so selfless despite the burden that comes with old age. However, does the institution think it is acceptable that this responsibility is inflicted on such men?
The volume of work has not grown less; if anything, the contrary is true, but the numbers available to do it have declined. Statistics and anecdotal evidence could be multiplied, but it is unnecessary. This situation did not develop overnight. A substantial decline in vocations began as far back as 30 years ago. There was no shortage of voices calling for action, for a review of the way that we are Church, for the training and empowerment of lay-people, for the creation of structures of dialogue, participation and subsidiarity. In response, some wagged a finger in reproof, saying ‘God will provide’. That was to evade the issue, and the decline continued.
Regrettably, little of the above was done. A crash landing, therefore, seems more likely than a soft one. If you don’t learn lessons the easy way, you are taught the hard way. If you don’t take the initiative, you will be boxed into a corner by circumstances beyond your control and with no room for manoeuvre. If you don’t reform, you precipitate a revolution – or a collapse.
Perhaps it is providential. The model of Church – that is to say the particular way of being the Church – we have lived with in Europe for centuries is on its last legs and, most likely, will collapse. What will follow? It is impossible to know, and speculation about the future usually gets it wrong. What may emerge will be a new model of Church, more democratic and less hierarchical, more charismatic and less structured, more lay and less clerical, smaller and less concerned with numbers.
Out of that, a new understanding of the Christian faith may also emerge. In much of the world, the Catholic Church turned the faith into a control system. That was to repeat the Pharisees’ mistake and to miss the point that Jesus was trying to free people from that. If the faith is seen as prophetic and motivating, focusing on relationships, enabling people to realise their humanity, it will be true to itself and be welcomed. Otherwise, it will wither and have to await a better day.
Pope Francis’s invitation for universal synod is a very positive initiative. Our national synod is an opportunity for all of us to engage in a process where our hopes and frustrations as members of Church are promised to be listened to and, indeed, acted upon. This process in Germany and other European countries has been very real and honest. The heart of the Gospel pulsates with love, compassion and inclusion. My own sense is that as the disciples realised, when they felt like walking away, they said: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.’
Cardinal Mario Grech, speaking in relation to the universal synod, warned against ‘the danger of keeping silent’. The synodal process is a time for speech. A time to let the voice of the Church speak and bring forward the issues, the problems that inhabit our synodal Church. For a long time, we chose to remain silent, but now it is time to speak. It is time for the local Churches to voice their concerns. It is a time to let the liberal and conservative sides of the Church speak frankly and openly and air their concerns. There is a time to remain silent and a time to speak, and the synodal process is privileged time and space in which the inner voice of the Church is allowed to speak, a time and space in which the Holy Spirit is allowed to speak through the different organs of the Church. For a long time, we chose to remain silent, now it is time for the polyphony that constitutes the Church to be played … and don’t be surprised if there are some false notes along the way.
As we move closer to the celebration of Easter, hold firm to the power of hope. Christ, whose light is brighter than any darkness, who dwells not in the certainties of black and white or dos and don’ts, but rather in the grey zone, is present in all our vulnerable lives.
Recent youth retreats I was involved with gave me great hope. The following reflection on the gift of light was written by a young Confirmation student.
***Light is the stars burning bright in the night
Light is the love shining inside us
Light is joyfulness in our lives
Light is the hope surrounding us every day
Light is also helping someone in need
Light is the goodness we shall receive
Light is in our hearts; our God is full of light.***