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New wine, old wineskins: The Catholic Church and change in Ireland today

30 November, 1999

Martin Tierney has written a series of inspirational essays on the changes that are taking place in our world and how we can respond to God’s love in that world.

139 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie


  • Foreword 
  • A Child of Vatican Two 
  • Advertising and Soaps 
  • Anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer 
  • Archbishop Milingo – A Maverick or a Saint? 
  • Being Single 
  • Caring for the Earth 
  • The Changing Face of the Priesthood in Ireland 
  • Choosing a Denomination 
  • Clergy are too Shy to Evangelise 
  • Contemporary Culture and Lapsing from the Faith 
  • The Depth of Loneliness 
  • Evangelisation is a Strange Word 
  • Fanore Summer Camp – A Spiritual Experience 
  • Fire in the Belly 
  • Forgiveness is Healing 
  • The Grip of the Church Loosens in Spain
  • The Hard Road to Klondike 
  • Healing the Pain 
  • Inviting Back Inactive Catholics
  • The Loneliness of Loveless Sex 
  • Love and Marriage 
  • The Married Single Lifestyle 
  • Missing Persons 
  • Mobile Phones – A Twenty-First Century Plague 
  • Moving Statues 
  • The Myth of Self-Esteem 
  • The Need for Friendship 
  • The New Age 
  • The Pope’s Visit 
  • Religious Symbols have Lost their Meaning 
  • Robbing Parents of their Rights 
  • The Salvation Army 
  • Say it with Flowers 
  • Second Marriages 
  • Sentenced to Meditation 
  • The Siberian Gulag 
  • Survey Reveals Enormous Challenges to Church 
  • The Tyranny of Choice 
  • The Voice of Conscience 



The name of Pope John XXIII will forever be associated with a momentous Council that gave hope to the Church.

Only once can I recall crying at the death of a complete stranger. He was a fat, genial eighty-two-year-old man! When he died in 1963, I knelt and prayed and wept. It was like a death in the family. He was the son of a poor farmer, whose birthplace was shared with six cows. In spirit he is still a father to me. As with the death of J.F. Kennedy, I can recall with clarity where I was when I first heard that this universally loved man had passed on to God. His name was Pope John XXIII. He came, like John the Baptist, to bear witness to the light; to make the rough ways plain, to prepare a path, to show Christ to the world; like his master, his mission was short, cut off by death. Shortly before his death he said, ‘every day is a good day to be born, every day is a good day to die. I know in whom I have believed’. He went to meet his end with the serenity of a child going home, knowing that his father was waiting there with open arms.

I am a child of the Second Vatican Council, ordained over forty years. I look back with sadness, even with a tinge of disillusionment, for what might have been, but with thankfulness for what was. For ‘what was’ I give thanks above all to God and to Pope John XXIII. More than any other pope he wanted dialogue with the world, irrespective of creed. He once introduced himself to Jewish visitors to the Vatican with the greeting, ‘I am Joseph your brother’. It was this pope who struggled to unravel the growing centralisation of the Church. To one cardinal he is reported to have said ‘sono nel sacco qui’ (‘I’m in a bag here’). Unfortunately, this strategy of decentralisation has been strenuously reversed under the succeeding Pontificates. Peter no longer trusts the other disciples.

John was a gentle revolutionary. Far from being the caretaker that the Church expected, John created an atmosphere in which, ‘a lot of things came unstuck – old patterns of thought, behaviour and feeling’. In place of dogmatic answers, John asked questions and encouraged others to join him in finding out whether old forms were still the right forms. He raised great sprawling questions and he shared with others in finding answers. We don’t ask questions any more. There is no one there to listen! In forty years I have seen the pendulum swing right back. Such is life!

There are some things that never change. The work of a priest is centred on the Eucharist – sacrifice and sacrament. Jesus, ‘the bread of life’, is the source and centre, both of the motivation for priesthood and the ministry he exercises for others. Questions will always swirl around the life of the Church but the hunger for God remains. Over the forty years, on a purely personal level, the struggle to communicate the Gospel, build community and be life-giving as a person has become much more challenging in recent times. With backs-against-the-wall, the priesthood places more demands on the person, but is arguably more fulfilling today. People are people, their fundamental needs change little. The enormous cultural changes that have taken place over the last few decades appear to me to demand the attention of another Vatican Council, even more open than the last one. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a Council, representative of all the members of the Church, could be convened to address current issues in the light of the Gospel?

I was ordained into the priesthood at a time of energy, hope and buoyant optimism. ‘Aggiornamento‘ (‘bringing up to date’) was the buzz word of the day. Everything was possible. Pope John had produced documents that were extraordinary at that time. His last encyclical, Pacem in Terris, was uncharacteristically addressed not to the bishops of the Church, but to ‘all men of good will’. It welcomed the progressive improvement of conditions for working people, the involvement of women in politics, the decline of imperialism and the growth of national self-determination. All these were signs of a growing liberation.

Within a tiny phrase like the ‘People of God’ (now frowned on in the Vatican) the possibility of a new model of Church emerging from the Council became more than a dream. We foolishly thought that the angles of the pyramid could be rounded. Certainly, there was over-optimism and mistakes, but little is built without risk. The priest draws his life as much, or more, from the people he serves as from the Church. They have been wonderful.

As Frank Sinatra sings, ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention’. I do think celibacy should be optional – I believe this would make for a more rounded priesthood. Collegiality: I regret that it has never been tried and I am doubtful if I will live to see its implementation. These regrets are outweighed by the goodness of God and the wonderful people I have been privileged to meet over forty years.


The Gospel has to be sold. The good news is competing for attention with many other voices. The world of advertising and `soaps’ may have something to teach church people through the strategies they use to meet their potential market.

We all live inside our own little worlds. We may even deceive ourselves that it is the only world where anything is happening. It is so easy to become locked in an ecclesiastical closet and fail to observe that the big wide world is changing faster than we can imagine. There are times when I feel consoled that what our Church is experiencing is not unique. A recent newspaper column, written by a politician, could just as easily be applied to the Church and indeed to many voluntary organisations:

It all happened very suddenly. Twenty years ago most political parties had no difficulty getting people to do the ordinary things of everyday politics – deliver election literature, canvass, man polling stations, put up (and where possible pull down) election posters and of course sell the inevitable tickets for draws and functions. In addition people attended monthly meetings of their branch or cumann and for the most part had a sturdy loyalty to the party of their allegiance. Today’s branch and cumann meetings are a pale shadow of their former selves. Many branches exist only on paper, meeting on a sporadic basis, if at all … It is as if people looked for a quick fix and, not finding it, simply melted away.

Sounds familiar, does it not?

Our world is changing fast. Here are a few examples. Life expectancy has risen by over ten years for males since 1940. When I was going to UCD in the 1950s the number of full-time students at universities in the country was only 7,900. The number of students at third-level colleges and universities today is 112,200! The number of births outside marriage has risen from 4 per cent in 1978 to over 28 per cent today. There are now over 32,000 cohabiting couples in Ireland.
I was born in 1938. This was closer to the First World War, which was history to me, than a person born in 1964 is to the Second Vatican Council. For many people under forty, the Council is history. Yet when I go to meetings I hear the Second Vatican Council mentioned as if it was yesterday. To the majority of people in Ireland today it exists only in a historical twilight! Who can recall the wall map in school with the pink of the Empire ringing the world? The sun has now set on the Empire. It’s history. The burning question is how can we as a Church change and adapt to a culture that, let’s face it, is foreign to most of us. More than half of the priests in the Dublin Diocese are over fifty-six years of age. The temptation is to retire mentally because we can no loner cope with an ever-changing landscape.
This new landscape of life was brilliantly portrayed in RTÉ’S ‘soap’ Bachelor’s Walk. It got inside the heads of twenty- and thirty-somethings. These are some of the young people to whom we are attempting to preach the Gospel. The language and vocabulary was almost foreign to me.

‘Advertising,’ said Herbert Zeltner, a New York marketing consultant, ‘has a dual role: one part is to make people want a product, the other is to tell them it is available and where it can be found.’ This is the business we are in! The Gospel has to be sold. People need to know that it is indeed ‘the pearl of great price’. To adjust to this kind of marketspeak isn’t easy. The voice of the Church is one voice competing against many, without the resources or personnel available to the advertiser. How can we get our voice heard?

In 1987 the amount spent in the US and Europe on advertising was over $4 billion! In pursuit of why and how people are prompted to buy, millions of consumers are watched, quizzed, divided and examined in almost every conceivable group and subgroup. Trends are continually charted and analysed to help determine which products are likely to become ripe for selling. For instance one such survey showed widespread underlying concern among people about social isolation and rejection. From this it was decided that there was a bright future for what is called ‘social supports’ – health clubs, vacations, games. Hey presto, the entrepreneur latched on to these things and are now making big bucks!

The evangelical churches know that word-of-mouth evangelism is what brings people to God. People who themselves have been touched by God become in turn the best evangelists. Encouraging people to speak out, telling of the mighty things that God has done in one’s life, is the best invitation to others to seek ‘the pearl of great price’. We can learn from contemporary business methods. There is no doubt that ‘the children of this generation are wiser than the children of light’ (Lk 16:8).


One of the most remarkable figures to emerge with honour from World War Two was Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was executed, leaving behind memories that have inspired generations of Christians.

I have had a book on my shelf for forty-five years. It stares out at me as I write. This book has frightened me, challenged me and inspired me; it haunts me most days. I bought it in my first flush of zeal as a young seminarian. The Cost of Discipleship, by German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was truly an eye-opener to me! In this classic work, Bonhoeffer argues that, ‘cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our Church. Our struggle today is for costly grace’. As a young seminarian I was frightened by the demands of living the gospel to the full. When one stares the demands of the gospel full in the face it is difficult not to hunt for a rationalised bolt-hole to escape the implications of what Jesus asks of us. Over the years I have learned through reading and re-reading this book that it is easier to debate religion than to live it. Bonhoeffer is frightening because he chose costly grace and paid for it with his life. With people like Maximillian Kolbe and Romero, Bonhoeffer was prepared to pay the ultimate price for the God he loved. If Protestants canonised saints, Bonhoeffer would be one today. He was born a century ago and is one of the best-known Christians of the twentieth century. He is one of ten martyrs commemorated above the door of Westminster Abbey. His family home is now a museum and several tourist companies offer ‘pilgrimages’ to sites with which he is associated. He is also a person who has fed the spiritual lives of Christians of all denominations.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in February 1906 in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland). He entered a Germany in which Bismarck’s land-owning class still had politics in its grip. He came from a privileged family and grew up in the educated milieu of Berlin University. By the age of twenty-four, after studying theology, he was a university lecturer. He was ordained the following year. When Hitler became Chancellor, Bonhoeffer put his faith in the Church to provide the opposition that would confront the evils of Nazism. He headed a seminary for training pastors for the illegal Confessing Church, established in opposition to the pro-Nazi state church. In 1936 the Gestapo began to move against him, withdrawing his licence to speak in public and closing the seminary, so he moved to America. He could have remained as a respectable pastor in America, but Bonhoeffer was too transparent a Christian to remain there while his people suffered under Nazism. He lived what he wrote: ‘the disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity; from a life which is observable and calculable into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous; out of the realm of the finite into the realm of infinite possibilities.’ He returned to Germany on the eve of war and agreed to join the anti-Nazi conspiracy. In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned. Evidence linked him with the attempt on Hitler’s life. Finally he was summarily tried and in April 1945 he was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp. Bonhoeffer wrote that the Christian, ‘tormented by sin, weakness and death, stands by God in his agony’.

There is an extraordinary timelessness about the writings of Bonhoeffer. He gave a lot of thought to how Christians might conform themselves to Christ in a post-war, non-religious age. If anything his uncompromising stance is more relevant in our neo-liberal times. According to Bonhoeffer, ‘cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’. He wrote that what people were looking for was ‘grace at the cheapest price’. In the recent past people claim that it was the fear of God rather than love that inspired them to goodness. God was the judge, the avenger, the punisher. Could it be that the pendulum has swung to the other extreme? The demands of love require sacrifice. Love of necessity places constrictions on human behaviour. Understanding love as a decision for Christ means embracing the cross, the very opposite of ‘cheap grace’. Bonhoeffer is a man for every age.

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