Derek Scally’s new book, wryly entitled ‘The Best Catholics in the World’, is a thought-provoking and timely book which raises some important questions for thinking people – why did the Irish for so long submit themselves to the authority of the clergy and the hierarchy? One of the lay people he interviewed for the book asks the rhetorical question: “Weren’t we very stupid,” she said, “to believe everything they told us?”
Speaking with Scally, Cardinal Sean Brady suggested that the kind of religion he had encountered as a boy growing up in Cavan in the 1940s and 50s was “more mechanical than mature” where people merely said their prayers rather than praying.
Reflecting on the early response of the Church in Ireland and that of the Vatican to the scandals of abuse suffered by women and children”
Meditators have learned, experientially, the difference between mental prayer and contemplative prayer and are keenly aware of the need to promote contemplative prayer in parish and family life. Although meditation is manifestly not about thinking, the practice leads to greater clarity of perception and to an open-mindedness that is urgently needed in Irish society today.
From the time of Cardinal Cullen in the mid-nineteenth century until the late twentieth century, very many of the Irish ‘faithful’ conflated faith with belief and ignored the vital importance of thinking things through for themselves. Reflecting on the early response of the Church in Ireland and that of the Vatican to the scandals of abuse suffered by women and children, Scally writes that “after years taking literally the metaphor of their faithful as a ‘flock’, the institutional Church continued to treat people, outraged by revelations, as a lumpen, woolly-brained herd simply needing to be calmed and corralled”. But the attitude of the people has changed greatly over the last 20 years and they are no longer willing to give blind assent to the utterances of those in positions of authority – in any institution.
And while that significant shift is a welcome change, it is also problematic because the reaction of modern Irish society has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As well as rejecting the authority of the human institution of the Church which tolerated and covered up so much abuse, the pendulum has swung 180 degrees leading to a complete absence in the public domain of discourse about the spiritual nature of the human person. This has occurred because, as Scally observes, despite having been raised in an education system that was staunchly Catholic, so many people emerged from that system “with an understanding of Catholic faith and doctrine that is as rudimentary as their grasp of another compulsory subject in our schools: the Irish language”.
The Irish theologian like Fr Dermot Lane describes faith as a search for truth and a willingness to live by what we find – and that includes the truth about God in our own personal experience – which ultimately leads us to explore questions about meaning and purpose in life and how to live life with greater authenticity. But in the absence of a language that enables such discussion it cannot happen. Scally regrets that the flock has seemed to move on “to graze safely in more secular pastures,” still lacking the language “to explore their inner feelings about spirituality and faith” in private, let alone in the public space.
Michael Paul Gallagher spoke about this in his later years; about the need to recognise where people are in relation to their spiritual journey and to start from there. People need to be accompanied, he said, “on a longer, slower, human, spiritual, gradual journey towards a threshold where they might be surprised by God”. He considered that “we live with unvisited spaces within ourselves, unknown not only to others but even to ourselves”. His advice was to “start further back”. In other words, not to jump into doctrinal or theological language too early and to pay attention “to the soil of experience into which the Sower has to sow today”.
It has been a recurring theme of this column that there is an urgent need in Irish society to address this problem, to find ways of engaging in public discourse about what matters most in life; to find ways of enabling ordinary men and women to speak meaningfully about their inner life. We need to help people of all ages engage in an open, nondidactic, non-dogmatic conversation about the innate spirituality of the human person and its relationship to individual and collective wellbeing. Meditation, understood as a contemplative practice, has much to offer in this regard – it awakens the heart to experiential knowledge and leads to an integration of intellectual and experiential ways of knowing deep truth.
The Church must avoid a defensive, siege mentality if there is to be any hope of genuine renewal”
The Church in Ireland is about to embark on a synodal pathway which will lead to the holding of a National Synodal Assembly within the next five years. The bishops have expressed the hope that people and groups both within the Church and in Irish society at large, will share their insights into the Church in Ireland – past, present and future. This creates a very real possibility for open, non-dogmatic conversation but will require a framework that will enable ordinary people to speak meaningfully, from the heart, in their own words, about their spiritual journey.
The synodal pathway must be contemplative and allow all – including those who may no longer see themselves as formally affiliated to the institution of the Church but who experience spiritual hunger – to participate in its reform. The Church must avoid a defensive, siege mentality if there is to be any hope of genuine renewal.