The Church is missionary by its very nature: that is to say that Catholics should be constantly reaching out to others. One of the great calls of Pope Francis since his election has been for Catholics to step outside of ourselves, to go out to the margins.
We have an enviable missionary tradition in Ireland: there have been numerous waves of zeal that saw thousands of Irishwomen and men travel to the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel.
The task that faces the Irish Church now, however, may prove to be the most challenging – that of the home mission.
While it’s easy to think of bringing the Gospel to far-flung lands it’s difficult to focus on bringing the Gospel to the heart of a highly-secularised culture like Ireland.
When faced with secularism we can have either of two responses: on the one hand (the route chosen by too many Churchmen) we can be overwhelmed by the challenge and bemoan the loss of faith in the culture. The other option, what I would say is really the only option, is to come out of ourselves with confidence and boldly assert those Gospel values that will transform our culture as it did in times past.
There is great work being done in some parishes to reach out to those who have drifted away from the Church. But it can be scattered and too often lacks a wider focus or vision. There’s precious little happening at a national level or at an institutional level. Some individual bishops are embracing the challenge, but the hierarchy as a whole has shown little or no interest in the new evangelisation. Other countries have faced many of the same challenges that Ireland has faced. But, crucially, these countries have not been defined by the challenges alone, but by the response to the challenges. The Church in England and Wales – arguably after decades of paralysis – is embracing the challenge with enthusiasm. This week bishops in England and Wales announced plans to try to reach out to an estimated four million baptised Catholics who rarely – if ever – attend Mass. It’s part of an initiative known as ‘Home Mission Sunday’. Each year free materials are sent to every parish and religious house in England and Wales to support the celebration of Home Mission Sunday. There are also ‘Parish ambassadors’ who work closely with the parish clergy and parish council to reach out.
Dublin Diocese hosted a ‘Year of Evangelisation’ from 2009-2010. Those involved deserve credit for embarking on such an ambitious plan of work at a very difficult time. The results were mixed at best and some proposed initiatives never happened. At one stage, for example, there was a plan to visit every home in Dublin to invite people who have drifted away to re-engage with the Church. I have never met anyone in Dublin who received such a visit.
Priestly vocations can also be taken as a sign of the vitality of the Church. In Scandinavia, where there are just 250,000 Catholics there are 60 men studying for the priesthood. In Dublin, where there are 1.2m Catholics there are just nine men studying for the priesthood. Some will argue that statistics are a crude measure of the life of the Church, but they paint a stark picture.
Irish Catholics and Church leaders here should have the humility to look elsewhere for what works in reinvigorating the Church. Of course it’s true that we need Irish solutions to the problems facing the Church in Ireland, but we should also be open enough to see the weaknesses in what has traditionally passed for ‘Irish Catholicism’.
I am optimistic about the future of the Catholic faith in Ireland, but I am not naïve. It will take a lot of work and Church people – lay, religious, priests and bishops – will have to re-find confidence in the message and mission of the Church. We will also, like Pope Francis, have to step outside of ourselves and move away from a culture of self-referencing. The Church exists for the sake of the world, not for its own sake.