In the past week, I have been approached on a number of occasions by members of the Church who feel undermined, defeated, or, simply disregarded by the Church hierarchy. These are individuals who are committed in their faith and have chosen to dedicate their lives in service to the Church. It may be thought that there is nothing unusual here; nothing deserving of comment.
As fallible human beings, we become fatigued from time to time and disheartened when we perceive a disparity between the mission of the Church and our lived experience within it.
Not so very long ago, within the UK and Ireland (and elsewhere) Catholicism and those who practised it were viewed with deep suspicion and subjected to very real prejudice. Denied the right to vote, excluded from access to higher education, prevented from seeking participation in social and political life; all on account of the faith. During this same period, the faith was not confined to attendance at mass on Sunday. It was seen as an integral part of a person's social identity and heritage. This was, to some degree at least, the faithful contra mundum.
Membership of the Church and the practice of the faith came at a price. It was a price the faithful, clergy and laity, were prepared to pay. Through this shared commitment, there was a spiritual and social solidarity; a commonality of purpose and direction. This pen picture of an active faith and committed practice is not the product of nostalgia. The image is not of 'Going my Way' or 'The Bells of St Mary's'. It is an accurate presentation of a shared understanding of the very real distinction between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular. It was a time when the faithful looked to the Church for the spiritual nourishment they needed in order to serve out their vocation in the world. Can the same be said today? Are things so very different? Surely, one might suggest, the faithful were as susceptible to despondency then as they are now? However, the potential for despondency (or in extreme form, acedia) is ultimately not the real issue. Instead, if a legitimate comparison is to be made, it is necessary to locate the source of our present ills. That is, to identify the causes of the difficulties which assail us. In this respect, it is too simplistic to point to the conduct of offending priests. A more considered approach might suggest a number of contributory causes. These might be thought to include the societal obsession with self-interest; the rejection of things which make demands of us; society's acquisitive culture; or the rejection of religious belief as the polar opposite of intellect and reason. Quite a list. The difficulty with such a list is that it contains nothing which may be described as novel to our present times. Perhaps our difficulty lies not in these perspectives, but the fact that the Church has seemingly lost the ability (or appetite) to counter them?
Faith calls not only for commitment but also stamina. Stamina, or, endurance are themselves dependent upon a mindset. For the athlete it is expressed in the desire to reach the finish line. In the combatant, it is to endure the battle. Both the combatant and the athlete have a clarity of vision and are unwavering in their commitment to attaining it. As Christians, this is a mindset which we must - both individually and collectively - cultivate and ascribe to.
In any community or family unit, lack of commitment or purpose has a corrosive effect. It has the potential to not only undermine the prospects of success, but also remove hope. How might this apply to the Church?
Like the disciples aboard the boat in the storm, we are tossed about, beaten by the elements, shrouded in darkness. In the pitch of the night; confronted with our worse fears and insecurities. The imagery is familiar enough, but do we know where to find the answer? The disciples, realising their plight, looked to Jesus. Asleep on the boat, he was awakened and controlled the elements in an instant. Similarly, when the faithful are confronted through the world's media, with criticism and scandal, they naturally look to their pastors in faith (i.e. Bishops and priests). What do they find? Experience suggests that the response they are likely to receive in any given place is far from uniform. In some quarters, the response might include suggestions of 'mindfulness' training or similar practices. For others, the response may include the suggestion that the time has come for the laity (especially women) to claim equality of participation in the Church. For others, the advice might extend to a need to embrace more extended forms of ecumenism. For the lucky few, their quest may bring them into contact with a pastor who is first and foremost a man of faith. Someone who is able to see through the ideologies and arrogance of our present times. One for whom, like the disciples on the Boat, Christ is both the end and the means. These men are not company men. They are men of faith who, with patience and stamina, daily go about their efforts; attempting to lead the faithful to Christ by means which are tested and true: prayer, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and participation in the sacraments. Like their predecessors in these islands, they seek to impress upon us what is true and encourage us to call upon our Blessed Mother to walk with us and guide us. For this, they are labelled clericalist. They stand in marked contrast to those who whilst ordained have shown themselves more concerned with career than chasuble; those who prefer celebrity to stole; those whose have allowed the desire for praise to overtake the passion for prayer. Perhaps it is here that we encounter a very modern phenomenon, the root cause of our present day despondency: an absence of faith amongst those who have accepted the Divine calling to transmit and uphold it. Disinterested or distracted shepherds lead to lost sheep. As the saying goes, "I know my sheep and they know me" (Jn.10:4). What other form of knowledge is as vital? What other form of ignorance as harmful to our Christian destiny? Cause and effect indeed.