Ludwig Wittgenstein spent several months in Ireland in 1948 as ‘he was in the habit of retreating to cold and desolate parts of Europe’ where he could think more clearly. Perhaps I was drawn to the same island for similar reasons and also because it is the land of my origins and I felt it would be a fertile place for a dose of aggiornamento of my own. I wanted too to discover what had happened to the church in which I grew. While the situation in Ireland is specific it has a profound relevance to the whole church. What is happening there and in all the ‘old’ churches will happen in one way or another in the ‘young’ ones.


The church in Ireland presents a complex picture and any attempt to describe it is likely to be contested. In the century just ended the Irish church reaped the harvest of its long identification with the Irish nation in its struggle against colonial oppression by the British and specifically with its endurance of religious persecution over three centuries. The nineteenth century saw the beginnings of this harvest in the multiplications of Catholic schools and seminaries, hospitals and missionary congregations. At the same time the church was prominent in the revival of the Irish (Gaelic) culture in, for instance, language and games. As the twentieth century dawned the church was poised to take a leading role in the definition of the new Ireland that would emerge after the war of independence.

Characteristic of this role was the attempt to build a Catholic nation where the teachings of the church would be, as far as possible, reflected in the nation’s constitution. The state acquiesced in this desire and the bishops were consulted in the drafting of the 1937 constitution and duly left their mark. The 1930s was also the time of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin (1932) when the whole city and country enthusiastically celebrated its faith and its new found identity. In the Ireland in which I grew bishops were respected and accepted as local centres of power and influence and when the pope came in 1979 it was a crowning moment in the long story of emergence from oppression into the bright sunlight of a glorious day.

But already in that decade of the 1970s reactions were forming that would gradually eat away at the seemingly solid structure of the Irish church. Everything we mean by ‘the secular age’ began to touch the people of Ireland and the church was unable to provide a context of welcome for what was positive in this movement or an appealing critique of what was harmful.  Young people began to move away. As the century closed the abuse scandals hit an already weakened church and the bishops failed to handle the crisis in a transparent way. The state set up commissions of enquiry which revealed appalling tales of cruelty and exploitation of the weakest in society by priests and religious. The laity was horrified, ashamed and saddened beyond words. The church suffered and still suffers a failure of nerves and indeed – can one say - of faith. When Jerusalem was sacked, finally, in 587BC, the Book of Lamentations gave us words to express our sorrow in times of calamity.

All you who pass this way, look and see: is any sorrow like the sorrow that afflicts me…? My eyes wasted away with weeping, my entrails shuddered…’ (1:12, 2:11).

Fairly quickly, during my recent time in Ireland, I formed the impression that there are three stances people take in the face of the current crisis. The first is of those who have given up on the church in practice as they see no relevance for it in their lives or, at best, they are ‘taking a holiday’ from it while, with lingering affection, they observe how the church will deal with what is happening.

Then there are those who remain faithful to Mass and the sacraments and who often redouble their attention to prayer and pilgrimages interceding for the church and the country. The attendance at the recent Eucharistic Congress in Dublin showed how many share this approach. They are saddened and confused by what has happened and want to see a return to what they knew. They would like to see bishops and priests leading a revival of practice and discipline as it used to be.   

A third group are also faithful to Church practice but they look forward to a new church arising from the embers of the old. These people are the searchers who see the church as going through a phase in its growth. They understand this pain and sorrow as a passion for the church and a purification.  They welcome the passing of the powerful church and look forward to a humbler servant one.   

I met people in all these groups but it was in the third that I sensed a great spirit of hope. I attended a number of meetings and lectures that nourished this hope and came away with some reflections.

  1. Ladislaus Orsy, a 91 year old Jesuit who teaches in Fordham, told us that while we have still not implemented the Vatican Council’s teaching on collegiality – and he said this more than once – the council released a surge of energy which can be ignored no more than a tsunami can be ignored. This energy is working in the church in every corner and it will bring change even if it takes longer than we thought. Full of energy himself despite his years he told us we have to ‘learn to be merry in a gloomy church.’   
  2. Slowly this energy is showing itself. There are the beginnings of a ‘culture of synodality’ in some countries, for example in Austria, France and Germany.  This ‘culture’ refers to people meeting together to share their experience of church. It sounds bland but when seen in the light of the opening months of Vatican II it is something else. In November 1962, when the Council was underway, the bishops expressed their dismay at a document prepared by the preparatory commission. They voted it down. The curial cardinals who had drafted the document appealed to Pope John but he told them, ‘trust the bishops.’ The result was that a completely new document was drafted and from that moment no one knew what was going to happen next in the Council. It can be exciting when people listen and act on what they hear.
  3. So this culture of synodality refers to bishops, priests, religious and lay people sitting down and listening to one another. People like meetings that (a) have an agenda and (b) are short. But the ‘culture’ I refer to leads to meetings that have no agenda – except what emerges from the listening – and can take time if it is to bear results. Two dioceses in Ireland – Kerry and Down and Connor (these last two being one diocese) are already taking first steps on this road.   
  4. In this culture power and control are left outside the door. They are encounters characterised by humility and a desire to learn.  To return to Ireland for a moment, no one has any idea what the future Irish Church will look like, except that it will be humbler (like Jesus, Matt 11:29 ), weak (like Paul, 2 Cor. 11:30), and it will walk together with people – not out ahead claiming it has all the answers and not behind caught off guard by the technological, medical and ethical understanding of the ‘people of our time’ – a common phrase in the documents of Vatican II. A key text here is Matthew (18:20), ‘where two or three meet in my name I am there among them.’ What happens when Jesus is ‘among us’ is likely to be a surprise – as it was in November 1962 in the Council. We are not to come to these meetings with an agenda, least of all our own agenda. All we come with is a great desire to discover what Jesus wants of us at this time.
  5. In my time in a ‘cold and desolate part of Europe’ I came across a warm and consoling story. After the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine were massacred in 1996 the small Catholic community in Algeria went into a state of numbness. Were they all going to be killed or driven out of the country? They invited a Jesuit from the France, Christoph Theobald, to visit them and reflect with them on their situation. He came, he sat and he listened. In due course he wrote the following:

What you (Christians among the Muslims in Algeria) live is a sign – acute and disturbing, for me – of the huge transformations in all societies today and in the Church, not only in Algeria but elsewhere. The experience of ‘precariousness’ ofwhich I speak is a call to conversion, to allow our image of the church and our ecclesial conscience to be transformed. The idea of the ‘church as sacrament’ finds itself at the heart of this transformation. (my translation)

This experience of ‘precariousness’ is a new gift for the church. Or perhaps it is a restored gift for it was the mark of the early centuries until the time of Constantine. He brought ‘peace’ but it was a peace that prompted the church, in one sense, to replicate the Roman Empire with its emphasis on order, law, wealth and power. It is common today to lament this ordered church which appears deaf to the agonies of conscience often suffered by its members. The church seems so solid and immovable – the very opposite of precarious. We cannot ignore our history of the past sixteen hundred years: there were many blessings attached to the robust emergence of the papacy which don’t need to be listed here. But we lost something of the ‘earthen vessels’ and the ‘Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ approach to church.

There are signs and hints that we are returning to this form of church. They may have grown dim since the heady days of Vatican II, but the energy, Orsy speaks of, is still there. The late Cardinal Duval, who accompanied the Algerian church through the country’s struggle for freedom, the post-independence period and the fundamentalist and violent period of the last two decades of the twentieth century, said on his deathbed, ‘You will see. One day Algeria will surprise the world.’ I believe he was referring to the meeting of Christians and |Muslims that the monks of Tibhirine witnessed to with their lives and their deaths. The precariousness of their witness was awesome and inspiring and perhaps it is the way, in one manner or another, the church is called to travel in the future.

Reproduced with kind permission of the author and first appeared in The Furrow January 2012  icon Towards a precarious church (72.4 kB)