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The humbled Church

30 November, 1999

There was a time, says Paul Andrews SJ, when the Irish Church needed the metaphor of the light of the world. for instance, in famine times when it gave us an identity to survive misery. Perhaps now it is time for another image: yeast in the dough, working for good even when unseen, is less attractive, but perhaps ultimately a more encouraging image for the Church in Ireland today.

The Church is sometimes seen as a force for stability in society. In the French Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento, the institutional Church sided with established authority rather than wave the red flag. The revolutionaries were often hostile to the Church but sometimes Catholics were heavily involved in the rebellions, as in Ireland and South America. The Church believed it was better for people to live in peace in a stable society. The prospect of radical change in society pushes us all to the dilemma faced by Jesus.

He destabilised people, but was not a political rebel. He pulled people away from their trade, whether it was fishing, prostitution or tax-collecting. He pulled them from their families. But he did not want to be a king, nor to set up any new political system (as he told the sons of Zebedee). Rather he was and is dismantling our ego, rocking our comfortable sense of having an unshakable place in an unshakable society. Marriage at its best can do this, invading the other’s ego. In marriage (and also when you are teaching children), you are regularly reminded of your shortcomings.

That sort of abrasion can be missing from the celibate life. There is no intimate Other to get under my skin, and emotional inertia can easily prevail. Small things can upset me: a strange bed, a blanket instead of a duvet, Little Chip instead of chunky marmalade, unexpected breaks in my routine, new work at which I do not shine, a new boss, losing the prospect of a holiday, being bad-mouthed. They break into my ego, destabilise me, show the limits of my inner freedom and the defences I erect to defend my way of being me. We can be grateful for these destabilisers.

The Church too is experiencing its destabilisers. We live under the Chinese curse: May you be born in an age of transition. It was a fate familiar to the Psalmist and the Old Testament writers who saw the people of Israel through periods of adversity, exile, persecution, irrelevance. St Luke, by contrast, writing of the beginnings of the Christian Church, relished the signs of expansion.

Fifty years ago I lived in the USA, where the Church was in an upbeat mood: 40 million Catholics, one of them running for President. Like the man in the Gospel with a rich harvest, they built bigger barns to house their riches, the young men with vocations. All across the country you saw massive noviciates, seminaries and houses of study. Few of them survive today.

In Ireland we have witnessed something similar. Our big houses were built to supply educational, health and other services that the state has now taken over. We have seen religious houses pass into other hands (Irish Jesuits think of Emo, Tullabeg, Mungret, Rathfarnham, the Crescent in Limerick). We have handed over schools to other managers. We pass them on with sadness, with their legacy of prayer, companionship and high standards. We show our vitality to the extent that we develop real poverty of spirit and can travel light.

It is a grace to be born into an age of dispossessing ourselves, with fewer large establishments and greater readiness to share others’ lives. In a society which changes rapidly, we still need monasteries to offer stability, religious centres that last; we treasure our Mellerays and Glenstals.

The rest of us, the light cavalry of the Church, should be mobile and carry small packs. We live, as it were, on campsites. Let us pray for poverty of spirit to match our shedding of buildings and land.

It is fifty years since I was ordained a priest. I think about what those years have done: the new wine has become a mixed drink, bitter-sweet.

So many of the things I found objectionable in 1958 have changed for the better: for instance control and power. The informal alliance of clergy and state was so pervasive that we did not see it. There was a respect for priests and a holding back from them as being powerful and different, a caste apart.

We have been gradually relinquishing non-priestly power. History had put it into our hands. We were educated, leaders in education and active in the national movement, useful in helping to build up an independent Ireland. We became used to exercising power in a way that was not always conscious. Police would be reluctant to bring an action against a priest even for a traffic offence. If people criticised us, we tended to write them off as enemies of the Church.

The outcast  caste
Light remains bright even if nobody is seeing it. There were times when the Irish Church needed the metaphor of the light of the world, the city on a hill, for instance in famine times, when it gave us an identity to survive misery; or in 1932 when we were establishing ourselves as a nation and seized the chance to show that we do exist and can run things (like the Eucharistic Congress) splendidly.

Now two things have changed: the culture of the country has grown more secular; and some bishops have been found to be covering up the crimes of priests. One result: we may be afraid to put our heads above the parapet, or even to preach the gospel, and when we do, we are liable to make fools of ourselves. Perhaps it is time for another image of the Church: yeast in the dough, working for good even when unseen.

Yeast is a less attractive image than light. If there is anything of the exhibitionist in us, this image will discover it. Young priests and Religious can feel sad that their initial ambition to serve is rebuffed. Jesus showed the same disappointment over Jerusalem, over Nazareth and his own people, over the rich young man. His commitment did not waver, though he offered an option to his disciples: Will you also go away?

Few of us could have improved on Peter’s reply: Lord, to whom should we go? You have the message of eternal life.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (August 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.