18/2/06 Pobal Conference Address

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Twentieth Pobal Conference A HUMBLE AND LISTENING CHURCH –
A Step towards Meeting Today’s Spiritual Needs

Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Jesuit Conference Centre Milltown Park, Dublin 6

 Pobal sets out as its first aim that of increasing awareness and understanding of the vision of the Church as the People of God.  Your very name obviously recalls attention to the Second Vatican Council, that extraordinary event in the life of the Church which concluded just over forty years ago.

I entered the seminary in Dublin on the 4th October 1962, just a few days before the opening of the Council.  We were even allowed to watch the event on television in the seminary, an indication that our seminary superiors realised that the opening of an Ecumenical Council was something very special, at least as important as an all-Ireland final, the only other occasion on which, under the rigid seminary norms, we were ever allowed to watch television.

I began studying fundamental theology not long after the publication of the Constitution Lumen Gentium on the Church.  It was a time of transition, of change and resistance to change. We had the impression that our professors were only a few pages ahead of us in their reading of the Conciliar Constitution. In at least some cases there was genuine enthusiasm among the Professors.  Others plodded along in the feeling that not much would change.  Later I was to attend a course in Rome on the Ecclesiology of Vatican II in which the most used phrase was “The First Vatican Council”.

I remember that at the end of the first session of the Council Archbishop McQuaid returned to Dublin and remained totally silent on his experiences.  At the end of the Second Session, to our great surprise, he came across to Clonliffe on the very same evening of his return to Dublin to talk to the seminarians.  We were fascinated to know if he had had a sudden conversion to the ideas of the Council.  I remember well how he opened his talk with the phrase:  “The Council Hall has been beautifully arranged” and preceded to talk for over thirty minutes on the furnishing of the Council Hall in Saint Peter’s Basilica, about where the various categories of Bishops and experts were sitting and what they we wearing.  Not a single word about the debates!

Times have changed.  Has the promise of the Council been fulfilled?   Is the Church today – I am referring in these reflections to the situation of the Catholic Church – truly the Church desired by Vatican II?  Has the doctrine of Vatican II been received in the Church?  Are there areas where this vision has been blocked and impeded?  Have, on the other hand, cultural developments over these past forty years coloured and even distorted the way in which the ideas of the Council are perceived?

The Church in Dublin to which I returned after an absence of over thirty years is a very complex Church. There is no doubt that Vatican II was a great gift to the Irish Church, which needed a quantum leap for it to become truly Church in the second half of the twentieth century.  There are however many paradoxes. Numbers attending Church regularly have dropped radically.  I visit parishes where there are no young people present at all.  Vatican II is not a term used often in the vocabulary and culture of most of our young people. We have invested huge effort into new catechetical programmes, yet many young people move out into life with a very superficial religious culture.  For the first time in the memory of the Diocese of Dublin there was no ordination to the priesthood last year.  And yet I find parishes that have never been as vibrant in their history as they are today.I am carrying out in these days a series of meetings with the priests of the diocese.  They have had a difficult time.  Yet they are ready to face and are indeed waiting to face renewal and a pace of change which very few other categories in society would be asked to take on.  No one should even attempt to cover up the horrors of the recent scandals of sexual abuse by priests.  Yet when ordinary priests have had to stand up in their parishes to address their pain in the face of these scandals they have received enormous support and affirmation from their parishioners.

I wrote after the publication of the Ferns Report to each of the Parish Pastoral Councils of the diocese asking their advice.  The replies I received have been the most encouraging reading that I have done since becoming Archbishop.  Lay people are prepared to assume real ownership of their Church community even in such a difficult matter.  The fact that we have Parish Pastoral Councils up and running or in formation in over 90% of our parishes is significant in itself and a sign of hope.   Half the heads of diocesan offices and agencies in Dublin will be lay people by summer this year.  These are not just cosmetic changes. The specific contribution of lay co-workers has been a most enriching dimension of my experience and ministry and is changing the way in which the diocese of Dublin carries out its service.  Hopefully we will soon begin work on establishing a Diocesan Pastoral Council as an established instrument for pastoral planning and ministry in the diocese.
The Church is the People of God.  The affirmation of this principle was stressed by our professors as one of the great theological achievements of the Council.   It was emphasised that the chapter on the People of God appears in Lumen Gentium before the chapter which addressed hierarchical distinction within the Church. This was to augur in a new sense of recognition of the basic vocation of all Christians by virtue of their baptism.  Hierarchy, the Council stressed, was at the service of God’s people, established “to shepherd the People of God”.  “All the disciples of Christ” are called, by virtue of the common priesthood of the faithful, to “bear witness to Christ and give an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope of an eternal life which is theirs”. The Constitution on the Church emphasises especially the true participation of lay persons in the salvific action of the sacraments

All Christians share also in Christ’s prophetic office.  It is the task then of all believers to enter into a dialogue with the realities of contemporary culture and how these are perceived in people’s lives.  The proclamation of the word of God should lead people into a path which brings a sense of meaning and hope into their lives.  All believers are called to witness to the hope that is in them, both as regards eternal life and as to how our call to eternal life influences the way we live in this life.

This ordering of the Chapters on the People of God and on the Church as Hierarchical became then one of the landmarks of the Council.   But perhaps it was not stressed enough that the very first Chapter of Lumen Gentium was about the Mystery of the Church.  The Church is people.  It is convocation.  It is, however, in the first place a liturgical convocation, constructed around the Eucharist.  It is the Eucharist which constitutes the Church   In the liturgy, and in the Eucharist in particular, the People of God nourishes itself on the Word of God and the Body of Christ and thus becomes Body of Christ.

        When we speak about a humble listening Church, we are speaking about a theological reality.  When we say that the Church must be a listening Church we are not saying that it is a sort permanent session of hearings in which we listen to each other’s viewpoint – even though listening to each other is important. The first and determining listening process is listening to the Word of God.  The need to listen to the word of God, to be obedient to the word of God is an obligation of every Christian.   Teaching authority in the Church is firstly about the obedience of the teacher to the Word of God.  To impose obligations on the people of God other than those which emerge from the Word of God as taught in the Church would be an abuse of authority.

One of the most important insights which Pope Benedict XVI wished to recall in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est is the fact that the truth we encounter in the Word of God is truth about love.  The Word of God, the expression of the very being of God can only be a word which expresses love.  The Word which took flesh, took flesh as the concrete revelation of the love of God, of a God who is love. In listening to the Word, in responding in obedience to the Word we enter dynamically in to the very process of loving which is characteristic of God.

The Church must be a place where the love of God becomes the norm of life, not the focal-point of an impersonal rule book or of a checklist of ethical principles against which we externally fill out a report card on our lives.   The Church must be the space in which the love and the mercy of God become visible and through the lives and witness of believers become also the norm for society, for social interaction, recognising that through the incarnation the law of love has become the fundamental law which governs human relations and the entire universe.

Pope Benedict goes on then to stress another important element of this dynamism of God’s love into which we are captured when we receive his word authentically.  The Pope notes that: “Union with Christ is union with all those to whom he gives himself.  I cannot possess Christ just for myself.  I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become and will become his own.” Communion draws me out of myself towards Jesus and towards unity with all Christians.  Through the Eucharist, all spirituality is therefore ecclesial in the sense that when we share in the life of Christ, we become one body, as is stressed in various ways in each of the Eucharistic prayers.

Being a member the Church, as People of God, means therefore being a member of a community which realises that it is involved in a new type of relationship.  We are called to share in that very same relationship of love which exists between the Father and the Son.   It is in opening ourselves to that gift of love that we are empowered to love.   We can love because we have first been taken up into the logic of divine love.  The gratuitousness of God’s love invites us and takes hold of us in our isolation and permits us to enter into communion with God and with others.

What are the characteristics of the People of God?  What are the characteristics of People of God which are most important to recall in the changed cultural realities of a new century?  The first thing we must stress is that Church is never ours to create.  A listening Church means listening to the Word of God and following the invitation of the Spirit.  In obedience to that Word we shape our lives in love.  In sharing that love with others we work to create a society where egoism and individualism give way to self-giving and communion.

The People of God will always be a people of service.  It will be a service to the truth and a search into how that truth can be embodied in a society that is often disoriented.  The Church must therefore always present truth in love.  The process of proclaiming truth must be characterised by the manner in which Jesus himself acted.  Jesus claims in fact to be the truth in person: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn.14, 6).  But at the same time his presence is always like a servant (Luke 22, 27).  Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself as a servant (Phil.2). Jesus however receives Lordship, “the name that is above all other names”, because he consumed himself in service until the end. We need to reflect in greater detail the essential bond between truth and love, rediscovering the rich tradition of epikeia in the practical application of Church norms.

A listening Church leads automatically to a humble Church.  The People of God is the continuation of that humble remnant of the Jewish people, represented above all by Mary, whose life was marked not by outward expressions of personal affirmation, but by a combination of pondering the word of God and silent and unremitting presence alongside her son.

The single characteristic of the Church, however, which is noted in all the ancient creeds is holiness. The Church is holy.  The People of God is holy on the basis of its origins and divine institution.  The Church is holy in the fact that it is guided by the spirit, that it is the custodian of the Word of God, that it is the abode where the sacraments and the economy of grace are active.  It is holy in its missionary character and in its capacity to generate new believers into the life of grace.
The Church is not a simple organization of which we can be a member and at the same time calmly criticize as if from the outside.  We must love the Church.   Certainly, the affirmation of the Church being holy should not hide from us that the Church is made up not just of saints but also of sinners.  Our affirmation of the holiness of the Church calls us to commit ourselves to conversion, repentance and renewal, in our own lives and within our Church communities.  Solidarity in holiness means holding each other responsible, and challenging each other – including Church leadership – to the highest standards of holiness and integrity.

Yet still we must love the Church.  That love of the Church is driven by the way Jesus loved his Church.  Saint Paul reminds us that husbands should love your wives, “as Christ loved his Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy.”  Our love of the Church must also be sacrificial love, it means giving ourselves up for the Church.  This sacrificial love of Christ should guide us in our reaction to the Church, even when what we concretely see causes scandal or frustration or anger.   When the Church is struck by scandal and weakness we must love the Church even more, just as we would show even more love for a friend that is sick or troubled or in shame.

For the Church to be holy, we too must be holy.  The People of God is a pilgrim people.  It is a pilgrim on the way, not yet arrived at its fullness.  It is a pilgrim Church in the manner in which it moves forward through listening to obedience to the word of God, making that word of love the norm of our lives in all seasons, in all generations.

When we say that the People of God is called to holiness we affirm that it is a people apart.  Its mission as it makes its journey through time is to foster openness with God in cultures which in many ways are closed, uninterested to God.  The Church is an anticipation of the kingdom. It is the kingdom breaking into the realities of the world.  The People of God must be people marked by constant dreaming of what is to come, of how the kingdom can be anticipated in this world longing for redemption.

That longing for a different world should make us free.  I am quite disturbed by the number of people who write to me who have become entrapped in a religion of fear and anxiety. This is far from the joyful hope that we proclaim each day at Mass.  But the freedom we attain is the specific freedom of the children of God.  It is a liberty which is sacrificial rather than self-centred.  The liberty which we attain is the same liberty which characterised Jesus in that he could give himself up to his Father and give himself to his brothers and sisters.

The people of God is a people set apart, but always a people of service and a people marked by the ability to dialogue.  This dialogue will take place today in the context of cultural diversity and pluralism.  The Church should not be afraid of pluralism.  Truth can only be attained with the space of liberty.  Church should always be a place which sets people free.  Jesus always combined his preaching of the word with the care of the sick and the freeing of those whose lives were possessed by various idols or demons.

In the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council the People of God was seen very much in terms of a people able to dialogue around the signs of the time with all those who cared for the good of humankind and of creation. The Church understand herself as an ally of all those who sought the rights and the good of others. The Church had to learn that it could thrive in pluralism, perhaps better than when it had cosy relationships with power.

New challenges emerge today when the Church has to face what Cardinal Kasper calls “pluralistic totalitarianism”.  The Church must never renounce her mission of proclaiming the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in history and realise that the message of Jesus must be a message that goes against the stream.  The Church must proclaim the Word of God without fear and not allow others determine the framework in which its message is taught.

The concept of the People of God is fundamentally a theological reality and not a sociological one.  The structuring of the People of God is therefore not to be modelled on relationships as they exist in any other situation.  Above all being a listening Church means recognising that the Church is not ours, not a human invention, not an institution created by the Christian community but a community that comes into being through opening ourselves to the Word of God and the love of God.
 The first task of the Church then is to proclaim above all the essence of the Christian message as a message of love.  This may sound too simple, almost naïve and banal to many.  But without that fundamental realisation Christianity will be reduced to an ideology or an empty rule book.   On the other hand, as Pope Benedict notes “Love is the light – and in the end the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage to keep living and working”   The mission of the People of God is to “experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world”.

A world grown dim: but also a Church in many ways grown dim!   Many of the questions asked in the years after Vatican II have remained unanswered.  But in the radically change cultural context in which we live today it may be that these questions have in any case become yesterday’s questions.  Re-reading Vatican II today means that we may have to begin posing our questioning anew and listening more attentively to those for whom Vatican II is more than a distant memory.

Speaking Notes ofArchbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland———–Jesuit Conference Centre Milltown Park, Dublin 6