The opportunity for the Church

I'm back in Australia after two months in Europe, including Ireland. I find it difficult to overestimate the rate and depth of change I witnessed and the collapse of a phase of the Church's life that is currently underway. Throughout the world, but particularly in Ireland, the sense of the end of an era that delivered the largest growth in the history of the Church; something foundational is happening. In Ireland for 150 years from the Famine in the 1840s, a cast of Catholicism was exported worldwide. It's plain that this phase in the Church's life that seemed as though it would last forever is, in fact, over.

The Irish Jesuits – who sent hundreds of missionaries to Asia, Africa and Australia – now have more members aged over 90 than they do less than 50 years of age. They have four under 50 and can only look at 'consolidating', also known as shutting up shop.

It's not as though the statisticians throughout the Jesuits and the wider Church in Australia, Europe and the USA haven't seen it coming and haven't already been advising the congregational and diocesan leadership on the unsustainability of various provinces, dioceses and works. But in Europe it would appear that the future has arrived a little earlier than expected.

Such has been the case for many congregations of religious women across the world far earlier than for some male clerical religious congregations and dioceses. For priests, the provision of the sacraments has been an enduring need to meet and one that provided relevance. That has kept numbers up quite apart from any special focus offered by the charism of founders and their relevance and attractiveness to prospective members. But not now.

As far as absorbing the impact of these well-known and common experiences, not much work has been done apart from scaling back, sometimes done with an energetic press of the panic button by superiors and bishops to underline the urgency of their actions.

For the rank and file among religious and clergy, even if these realities were not anticipated when most joined their congregations or dioceses, the challenge is great. The most common reaction is something I have come to call the spirituality and missiology of the Last of the Mohicans.

Everyone can see the reality; everyone is reluctant to utter the ‘d word’ for death; everyone hopes that at least there will be something around for when the inevitable admission to the nursing home occurs.

At the turn of an age, as the early 20th Century French Catholic poet and writer, Charles Péguy, once remarked, the Church always arrives a little late and a little breathless. The turn of this one is no different because the reality is that there are no reinforcements coming from traditional sources to support existing ways of delivering the service.

For believers, the future belongs not to fears but to God. The only authentic and spiritually persuasive response to being in the middle of a change of eras like this is one that allows the Spirit to do what the Spirit does. And what the Spirit does is always a surprise. Discipleship asks that we be attentive to the unexpected ways we may be drawn.

What I find very discouraging about ways of addressing this inescapable reality is the abject failure to see how the mission of the Church is actually delivered today.

Despite our blindness to it at times, God is still vigorously at work. Only a conception of mission and the resources needed for it entirely reduced to clergy and religious as until recently trained and authorized could see it as something where God hasn't been energetically active.

Co-responsibility in the Church

The acid test of whether there has been any acknowledgement of the facts is whether any real power sharing has occurred whereby lay people have become part of decision making processes of dioceses and congregations. Lay people and women especially have taken leadership roles in the services that are offered – in health, welfare and education – because they require a professional expertise that these days the congregations and dioceses don't have among their members.

But do lay people and women in particular actually become part of the processes where the most significant decisions are made – on congregational councils and in the diocesan bodies often reserved for exclusive clerical or religious membership?

At a strategic and organisational level, acknowledgement of and decisive involvement by lay people in mission, leadership and ministry can go a couple of ways.

One currently proposed response to this change of eras adopted by some in the Church is to happily welcome this decline in the Church as we have known it. They have seen it as a God-given opportunity to scale the Church back to a faithful remnant that would be distinctive because of its orthodoxy. Shame about the mass of Catholics, you might say. They can amuse themselves. There is the elite and that's all there really needs to be any concern for.

The more recent, but also more ancient, view – proposed by Pope Francis who also accepts a reduced size and presence of the Church as inevitable and perhaps desirable – is to say that elitism is for the birds and what is needed is for the Church to be present and make its contribution as leaven: distinctive, even vital and decisive, but not all consuming and dominating.

The faithful remnant, in this view, will be distinctive because it engages directly with the issues and concerns that the average person has, is in the market place and is ready to give an account of the hope they have. It is not hidden away behind sacristy doors and locked into conversations with the already signed up membership.