I believe we are coming into a very exciting, but trying time for the church. The winds of change are blowing, and, I believe the church must listen, and have the courage, and trust in the Spirit, to be willing to be led by the Spirit. I imagine that many a bishop went to Vatican II very happy that all was well with the church, but, as events showed, the Lord didn't think so. In a way, he pulled the mat out from under a lot of what had been, and we still have not put any better alternatives in place, in most instances.
For example, it must be obvious that we are coming into the age of the laity in the church. I think the Lord has had enough of a clerically-dominated church and, it would seem, he is about to give the church back to the people! This will not be easy, for many reasons. Apart from bishops and clergy not wishing to relinguish authority, relatively few people among the laity are trained, prepared, or willing to take up the responsibility that will be theirs in the not-too-distant future.
The greatest need in the church, at the moment, is the formation of the laity, and I am not speaking of religious knowledge, or catechism answers here. I speak of information, based on education, leading to formation of Christian community, leading to transformation of the church. We must begin with information, with solid, and down-to-earth religious education, that is gospel-oriented, and that brings people into a personal experience of Jesus Christ.
At present, apart from Life in the Spirit Seminars in the Charismatic Renewal, there is very little evangelising going on within the church. There may be plenty of lectures, and we can have tapes, books, and videos all over the place, but what we need are people already evangelised, sharing with others who are ready to be evangelised. If I am not involved in evangelising others, it's simply because I myself have not been evangelised. In the context of the two great opening and closing sentences in the gospel, if I have come and seen, I will certainly want to go and tell.
I believe the place of the laity in the church is so central, that God will arrange a total dry-up of vocations to priesthood, if he has to, until this injustice in the church is addressed, and dealt with. I am not at all concerned about vocations to priesthood or Religious Life. I know there is a good reason for what is happening, and I will share some thoughts on that later. For now, however, I just wish to stress that, like it, or lump it, the church is going to be given back to the people. The biggest concern is if we are prepared to do all we can to ensure that people are prepared, and willing to accept their new role in the church.
Many generations of being told to "pay up, pray up, and shut up" can produce a very indifferent, and silent majority. This position is not going to be reversed overnight. Nothing worthwhile will happen if changes are seen as 'concessions' that are grudgingly given; if change comes about because there is absolutely no other way around a problem, or if the institutional church becomes so stubborn and insensitive that it is seen to be irrelevant to the lives of people, anyhow, and they just lose interest.
The Holy Spirit has, as always, a central role to play in this, and, often when the Spirit is at work, the solutions are so evidently simple, that intelligent people would never have discovered them, in their search for comprehensive solutions for complicated problems. Genius is the ability to discern the obvious, and the Holy Spirit is expert in this area.
The only realistic way I can grow into the future is to accept that nothing is ever going to be the same. Spare me the details of what it was like when you were a kid, and you walked ten miles in your bare feet to every novena, parish mission, or Sodality. Those days are gone, and to yearn for their return is to walk backwards into the future. Life is a whole series of letting-go's, and that applies as much to church, as to families. Nothing in life can remain static, because only God is constant, the same yesterday, today, and always.
I believe that it is not that world change first, and then people change to adopt to the world. I believe that people are always in the process of change and evolution, and, of course, every new development in science or technology is brought about by people, and not the other way around. In the past, bishops had kingdoms, armies, and all the trappings of earthly and worldly power, but, thankfully, that would no longer be tolerated, or practised.
As time goes by, we see things differently, we get a different perspective, and we grow in our ability to comprehend. No one but God can claim a monopoly on truth and right thinking. I believe we are getting a humbler church. At Vatican II, members of other churches were invited to attend, and there was a very edifying witness of mutual acknowledgement, and understanding. Apologies, and requests for forgiveness were exchanged, for injustices of the past, and there was a respect shown, one for the other. This was a quantum leap from how things were in a former age.
It is witness like this that maintains my optimism, and enables me hope that we are at the beginning of a whole new time in the church. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the work of the Spirit is of such a nature, that His most effective work is being carried on in secret, unsuspected, like seeds germinating under ground, and, then, suddenly, one day, we look and see something wonderful unfolding. In my heart, I believe we are about to reach such a time in the history of the church.
I was walking in the mountains the other day. I came across an area where there had been a gorse fire some months ago. I examined the black remains, and, yes, here and there I saw shoots of green grass beginning to emerge. That is exactly how I see the Church today. My work brings me into contact with much of what is best in Renewal, and that is the source of my optimism.
Religious Life is a charism, or a gift in the church. God does not take away his gifts, once he has given them, and so, Religious Life will continue, but, obviously, in some new form. Religious Life, as we knew it, is finished, as convent after convent closes, and Religious-run schools are being handed over to lay staff. As I travel around the country, I notice the ruins of old monasteries, and I am reminded that this was what was there before Religious Life, as I have known it, began.
Most Congregations of Brothers or Sisters I know began within the past two hundred years. Two hundred years from now, there will be something completely different. At present, as Religious Life, as we have known it, is disappearing, there are people experimenting with new ways of living such a commitment. What I am saying is that everything within the church is in a process of continual change, and nothing will ever be the same again. Our choice is one of mission, or maintenance. If we are involved in maintenance, we will surely die, and the sooner the better. If we are involved in mission, we will never die.
That promise of Jesus goes with those who do his work his way. Sometimes I detect an air of despondency, when people speak of the fall-off in vocations to Religious Life, as if the whole structure of the church was in jeopardy. This same despondency is far from the hope that must always accompany Christians on their journey, because we are followers of a leader who has overcome the enemy, and who has triumphed over all the forces that would detroy his Church, and harm his people. Despair, in any form, has no place in the heart of a Christian.
In fact, and I will devote a whole chapter towards the end of this series on the whole subject of hope, I believe that the only real sin for a Christian is to lose hope. St. Peter has a marvellous sentence in his second letter, where he says that "You should always have an answer ready to give to those who ask you the reason for the hope that you have."
Regarding vocations to priesthood within the church, I believe there is need for a new definition of priesthood, an understanding of priesthood, and its place of service in the lives of people. Is it possible that God is deliberately letting the numbers come down, down, down, until the laity is given back their proper place, and that injustice has been redressed? This would not surprise me, and, I am prepared to believe this to be the case.
It is not my intention, nor is it within my competence, to review the history of priesthood down the centuries, but, if I did, I could show that priesthood has not always been what we have known it to be. What does the future hold? I do not know, but I certainly am not concerned about it, because I trust Jesus to be there for his people, and I trust the Spirit to inspire, to guide, and to lead.
Jesus said that he would not leave them as sheep without a shepherd. I must not take this literally, of course, as if the bishops and priests were the only shepherds, and all the laity were sheep. Just as Jesus commissioned Peter to feed his sheep, so, I believe is he commissioning many people, laity included, to take on leadership roles in the church.
And that brings me to ministries in the church, which are being revived after many years of neglect. Let me say very emphatically, right from the beginning, that lay ministers, of any description, are not there to help the priest. No, no, no! These ministries are as much part of the church as sacristans and Mass servers, except they are much more solemn, sacred, and sacrosanct.
I think it important that we retain a vision of the ideal, even when we fail to achieve it. Therefore, when I speak of ministries, I speak of the ideal, of how, I believe, they are intended to be. Calling someone up to read at Mass is just not on. Unless the reader has reflected on, studied, prayed about, and become familiar with the spirit of the passage, that person is not qualified to proclaim it. To read it, yes, but God's word must be proclaimed.
In the old days, when an invading army was driven back beyond the border, heralds went from town to town, and, in a public place, for all the assembled multitudes, they proclaimed the good news to all and sundry, announcing that the enemy had been defeated, and the country was safe. This was a time of joyous acclamation, and anyone approaching the gathering would be left in no doubt that they were being told good news.
I remember reading about an incident in the life of Eamon Andrews. The local priest asked a young lad to tell Eamonn that he was reading at Mass the following morning. The priest received a letter from Eamonn, saying that he was unwilling to go up there, unprepared, to read the lesson, without having had time to study, to ask about it, and to pray about it. He said that he normally spent a full week preparing a television programme, and proclaiming God's word was much more important than that. With one day's notice, and no copy of the reading in his hands, he regretted that, in conscience, he would not be reading the following day.
Would that we had more like him to blast people out of their slip-shod approach, where functional performance rather than ministry is the name of the game. If the importance of the ministry itself is not stressed, we could end up with the reading being played from a tape recording, which would be the ultimate obscenity.
Ministers of Eucharist are there in their own right, and, again, I stress, are not there to assist the priest. If John or Mary are ministers of Eucharist, and ten priests concelebrate the Mass, nine of the priests should sit in the sanctuary, while John, Mary, and the main celebrant distribute Communion. Treating ministries in any other way is a charade, and a very subtle way of being seen to empower people, while, in fact, we are only using them, when it suits ourselves. At Mass, there are many ministries operating, and the priest is presiding at the celebration, as one among several ministers.
To highlight something very important, it would be significant, but not necessary, if the priest left the sanctuary, during the readings, and sat in the pews. This would give correct focus on who exactly is ministering to the community at this particular time. I would emphasise that ministries, as we have them today, is an attempt to return to what was there, before the clerical church assumed all ministries to themselves, and the laity were expected to sit back, and be ministered to, without being actively involved.
As I've said before, nothing will ever be the same, and, I could have said that if I had lived in any century up till now. I speak now, however, of changes in our time. We don't build basilicas or cathedrals anymore. The concept of Christian community is being rediscovered, and I believe the building in which we celebrate Eucharist, should also be used for many other meetings of the local community. The more uses the building serves in the up-building of the local community, the more relevance the church will be seen to have in the lives of the people.
If people gather there for a Neighbourhood Watch meeting on Monday, for a Residents Association meeting on Wednesday, or a Senior Citizens meeting on Friday, they are more likely to return to join the worshipping community on Sunday. The idea of mission is changing greatly in today's church. Gone are the days when we were into converting people, when we sent missionaries to the most remote tribes of Africa, where we put clothes on the natives, and taught them to become good Europeans, and to get rid of all that held them to their past.
Indeed, a few shamrock on St. Patrick's Day, and a few bars of "The night of the Kerry dances" was a very welcome bonus, that brought joy to the heart of the weary missioner! I do not wish to belittle the hard work and dedication of missionaries of the past, but, if they learned to respect the culture they found, and if they themselves were brought on the road of their own conversion, then they were truly blessed. If the concentration was on the need for the natives to change, and become what we had decided they should be, then we were involved in colonialism, and Europeanising.
That is not necessarily the same as evangelising. In today's world, one would hope that it is the missioner who is first converted, by the adjusting he or she has to make to present a credible face of Christ to those to whom they minister. If the missioner goes through a conversion experience, then the witness of such will constitute a powerful sermon, that will not go unheeded among the people of an area. All I am saying here is that missionary endeavour, like every other aspect of church activities, is going through fundamental and basic transformation.
The church in which I grew up not unlike the seamless robe of Jesus that the soldiers cast dice to win. The church was seamless in that it was all of one piece, as far as I was concerned, where we all marched to the beat of the same drum, and we were a vast silent majority. Everybody in my part of the country went to Mass on Sundays, to devotions during Lent, or to the annual parish mission. There was a uniformity there that was totally predictable, and deviation from the norm was not to be considered. In fact, I do remember the shocked whispers about certain locals who emigrated, and rumour had it that they were a disgrace to their mothers, and to their church of origin, by not continuing to be faithful to the rigid moral code, and strict church observances they had received in their local national school.
Without wishing to be simplistic, it would appear that we were not much better than our environment. A lot of our Religion was deeply effected by the social milieu in which we lived, rather than coming from some deep sense of conviction. When at home, I did as others did, and when away from home, I fitted in with whatever was the norm. I would suggest that we are developing a much healthier church today.
The church is no longer a large uniform gathering, where all think and act alike, but is becoming smaller groups of much more commited people. In the gospel, as Jesus spoke to his disciples, some of them turned and walked away, because they did not like what he was saying. Jesus let them go, and he turned to challenge the others, to make sure that their staying was the result of a decision, and not inaction.
A group of Christians had gathered in Russia some years ago, and were holding a prayer meeting, when the door was broken down by the boot of a soldier, carrying a huge gun. He stood in front of the gathering and said, "If any of you don't really believe in Christ, get out now, while you have a chance". Several made for the door. The soldier then closed the door, came back in front of those who remained, smiled, and said, "Actually, I believe in him, too, and I believe we are better off without those!"
It is quality not quantity that the church requires today. The time has come to stop catechising people in our schools and sacramentalising them in our churches, when no one had thought of evangelising them. This way, we were engaged in producing vast hordes of spiritual illiterates.
I have heard the question asked "Who needs Church?" My answer is that I do, and that my church needs me. With all its faults, it reflects exactly what's within us all, and is no better or worse than we ourselves are. I think it is important that I use a critical eye when I look at the church, or I will settle for mediocrity and aimless conformity. The one thing I have said again and again throughout this chapter is that nothing is the same anymore, that the whole thing it a-changing.
Let me finish with a story that, I think, summaries the big difference between the church of my youth, and the church of today. A chicken and a pig were out for a walk. The pig wasn't too bright, and tended to repeat the ideas of others. "They are very good people down in that farm-house," said the chicken. The pig agreed. "They are very good people, indeed," he said. "They are very good to us," said the chicken. "Yes, indeed. They are very good to us," said the pig. "I was thinking we should do something for them," said the chicken. "A very good idea," said the pig, "What did you have in mind?" "I was thinking we should give them bacon and eggs," said the chicken. At which, the pig stopped in his tracks. "No way," he said. "For you that's only a little inconvenience, but for me it's a total commitment."
And that, my friends, is the big difference between the church of yesterday, and the church that is now evolving. The men of violence, the war mongers, the drug pushers, the pornography peddlars are all totally commited to what they are about. If I am not part of the solution, I also am part of the problem. Half-hearted, lukewarm, indifference is more destructive than direct assault. Jesus says that if we are not for him, we are against him. There is no in-between. It's not a question of a little inconvenience anymore. Anything less than total commitment to Jesus and to his message is unworthy of our Christian calling