Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. As we navigated the recent lockdown and the prohibition of public worship during the pandemic, most of us wondered what kind of Church there will be after the crisis ends. It already seems clear that the Church we anticipated would emerge in about five years’ time, is already at our door and is rapidly becoming a reality in the majority of our parishes and dioceses. The impact of COVID-19 on our faith communities has found few of us prepared as we struggle to adapt to how quickly change is happening. So, what is happening in our Church and what are the implications of these changes? What are the elements of newness that are emerging that give us hope? This week on 'the Hook of Faith' we begin a new series with the first of ten reflections on a new Irish Catholicism that is emerging. These are the new elements that will define the Church of the future in Ireland. These are offered not as an exhaustive list but rather to begin a conversation about the signs we discern how the Lord is renewing his Church. Tomorrow’s Church in Ireland will be a different Church and a smaller Church than before; but how will it be a new Church? What are hallmarks of a new Irish Catholicism?
Here is the first of ten hallmarks of a new future.
The first place to begin is to identify the unique gift the Church has received and is called to share. We are a people who have come to see our own need for salvation and who recognize that need in a broken world in need of healing. We are a people who have come to know the saving love of God made visible in Jesus Christ – a gift that is accessible to all by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been touched and changed by that love and truth to such an extent that we want to introduce others to its life-giving power. As the angel instructed the Apostles, so the word of God says to us today: ‘Go and tell the people all about this new life’ (Acts 5:20). Our confidence is in the gift we possess. In the words of Pope Francis: ‘We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 265).
This is our mission - to share this treasure of life and love that flows from communion with God and fellowship in the family of the Church. Now is the time to re-discover the pearl of great price, the one thing necessary that animates all that the Church teaches and stands for. Now is the time to finally reject residual notions that God’s love can be earned; to know that ‘God loved us first’ (1 John 4:19) and to build our faith on the primacy of grace. To nurture this gift, we need to be people who love the holiness that leads to personal integrity and comes about through a living union with Christ. To progress along this road means engaging in ‘the art of prayer’ (John Paul II, Novo Millenio Inuente, 32) so that our parishes and communities might be marked by ‘an all-pervading climate of prayer’ (Novo Millenio Inuente, 34). This means a willingness to teach our people how to pray by tapping into their deepest spiritual hungers. Irish Catholicism will be renewed in the measure that it successfully connects her people to our ancient tradition of mystical prayer that nurtures a living relationship with God. This powerful union with God is mediated in a unique way through the Church community with the Word of God, the sacraments, the liturgy of the hours and the witness of the saints. When parishes become schools of prayer then liturgies become animated beyond stiff rituals that many find deadening and unattractive. They become celebrations of living faith that worship God as the source of everything that is good, true and beautiful – all that the human heart is drawn to and loves.
Prayer is the key to a renewal of our Church. This is crucially important to keep in mind as we cope with many challenges that require a response. As Pope Francis guides us: ‘Changes in the Church without prayer are not changes made by the Church. They are changes made by groups…Everything in the Church originates in prayer and everything grows, thanks to prayer...This is the Church’s essential task: to pray and to teach how to pray….Without faith, everything collapses; and without prayer faith is extinguished’ (General Audience, 14th April 2021).
When the early Church began to grow and its administration became more time consuming for the Apostles, the community ordained deacons so that the Apostles could be free to preach, teach and to pray (Acts 6:1ff). Preaching, teaching and prayer were prioritised before administration and maintenance. They still ought to be. If the Church can teach her members to pray, train people to be teachers of prayer and provide opportunities for spiritual direction to more Catholic Christians, then the whole of peoples’ lives will be renewed. Reconnecting spirituality and religion is one of the most pressing tasks of our time. It should be one of the Church’s main priorities – to help people to know God, fall in love with Him and sustain her members in a life-giving relationship with the God who created us and loves us.
Part 2 next week.