The results of a poll outlining the current support for our political parties was published recently. The sample of the population polled was 1,102 people (out of a population of about 5 million – approximately 0.2 percent). From this, experts were able to determine the position of the parties within a margin of error of plus or minus three percent. It is extraordinary how such accurate information can be harvested from such a small number of people. Last week another piece of research was published showing that nine percent of Mass-goers contributed to the Synodal listening process. This was reported as being a poor turnout, however, as modern research illustrates, it happens to be quite a significant number and we have garnered a lot of important information that is very helpful as we engage with Synodality.
Pope Francis has emphasised how time is greater than space, or put another way, we should work slowly but surely without being obsessed with immediate results. The world in which we live is very much preoccupied with the immediate, we want everything now! The Synodal journey will take time to involve more people, it is not something instant. The point has been made many times that this is a process, a way of being Church, a way of discerning the Spirit, it is not “an event” that will come to a conclusion. The Synod is on “Synodality”, it is to help us as a community of disciples to reflect on how we can journey together in communion with one another and how we can further the mission of the Church in the light of the Spirit. I understand that there are genuine fears with this journey. These fears were summed up at the recent Continental Stage of the Synod where it was stated “There are those who are hoping there might be change and those who fear there will be.” My hope is that these legitimate fears and tensions would not become polarisations.
In looking back over the history of the Church, especially going back to its very beginnings, the disciples discovered at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11) and on the Road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35), being in an uncomfortable place is sometimes the most fruitful condition if we are open to the mysterious workings of God’s grace. One might argue that we are in an uncomfortable place now, but this has always been at the heart of a healthy Church. It is when the Church became comfortable that a lot of problems manifested themselves. We need to engage with the new questions of today and not fear them. There is little doubt that “Cullen’s Catholicism” is at its end, however, the Church is not at its end, far from it! The questions emerging today are far more nuanced and complex as religious faith has not gone away and is still very important to a great number of people.
There is a sense that Ireland has “grown up” and moved away from an oppressive past to a newfound freedom. However, this new sense of liberation has not brought with it the sense of fulfilment that was anticipated in the process. If anything, evidence of a deeper alienation has emerged in the statistics that show a steady rise in substance abuse, a fragmenting of relationships, an increase in different forms of addiction, more violent crime, and a high rate of death by suicide. Perhaps these indicate that all is not well in a society that is promoting an exaggerated preoccupation with self-gratification and individualism? How are we to trace a way forward and tackle this existential void? Some would like to go back to what they consider a “golden age” when religious practice was high and seemed to be the answer to all our ills. However, as we have seen, the former age was perhaps not so golden, many dark secrets were deeply buried, hidden form the light of truth. Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa reminded officials of the Roman Curia last week that they should not be “overly nostalgic” of the era after World War II when “seminaries had abundant vocations. If those seminaries were filled with holy pastors… we wouldn’t have to mourn so many scandals today.”
In order to engage with the new questions, we need to revisit the very roots of our faith and the vision of Jesus Christ. This is the true renewal needed if the Church is to chart the choppy waters of the present age. This is at the heart of Synodality, which is inviting us to walk the path of conversion that will help us return to the roots of our Christian faith. The result will be living the Christian message which is far from “comfortable” in a society where the imprint of Christianity is weakening. Old pastoral assumptions may have to be “set aside” to create new ways of sharing the Gospel in tune with the sensibilities of today. At World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, which I happened to be at, Pope Benedict said, “we must go beyond the negative stereotype of what it means to be Catholic and describe ourselves not by what we are against, but what we are for.” Faith is something positive, it brings a sense of meaning, hope and freedom. If faith is missing, then our sense of meaning and purpose is diminished.
This reality offers a challenge and an opportunity for the Church, in how it gives witness to the Gospel, to attract and awaken a desire for the Truth. Bishop Ken Good, the retired Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, sees the challenge for the Church not so much from outside forces but from within, he says: “The main challenge to the Christian church today, in this country, is not from any external threat, be it secularism, materialism, consumerism, or postmodernism. The main challenge is the internal one of ensuring that the integrity, the reality, and the relevance of the Church’s life and worship, its teaching and communication, must strike a meaningful chord in a society that still has an appetite for spiritual reality.” Here lies the heart of the matter, we should not attempt to “water down” the Gospel message to make it more attractive today, rather we should live the message unapologetically. This is not an arrogant approach, on the contrary, it requires the Church to have a genuine humility where it will earn the right to be listened to rather than demanding or expecting it. What has declined in recent decades is a set of ecclesial priorities that suited another moment in time. We have crossed the threshold into a new era with new questions and possibilities. Charles Taylor, the Canadian Sociologist, in his book “A Secular Age” believes this era is “the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can as yet foresee.” Synodality invites us into the heart of this search and wishes to engage with it and the potential it offers. We must be patient on this journey as we discern the promptings of the Spirit, something that takes time and “whose outcome no one can as yet foresee.”