3/11/04 Talk of Archbishop Martin to The Ceifin Conference

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Imagining the Future 

Imagining the Future for Organized Religion

Speaking notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
West County Hotel and Conference Centre, Ennis
3rd November 2004


A few weeks ago, I called a meeting at which the majority priests who work in the Archdiocese of Dublin were to attend.  It was an important meeting for a new Archbishop, to dialogue about the future.  At one stage I wrote in my talk that: “I have no idea how the structure and distribution of priests will look like in Dublin in ten years time. Parishes will not be as they are today. I have no idea to what I will be appointing priests in ten years time. I do not know what new collaborative mission between clergy and laity will eventually look like”.
I asked one of my staff to have a look at my text.  He came back very happy with what I had written, except with that phrase I have just quoted.  He said:  “the priests are coming to the meeting looking to know what your plan is for the future of the diocese, to hear what is new, and you are telling them you have no idea where we are going!  That’s not leadership!”
I had thought that the quotation contained something significantly new.  I have a feeling that some of my predecessors thought that they knew only too well what the Church would and should look like today and tomorrow and for a long time to come.   Expressing uncertainty, I thought, was not only an honest and true reaction, but perhaps also somewhat new.
Organised religion has changed very much already in my life time and it is going to change very much in the years to come.  I entered the seminary in Dublin in 1962 and left it after seven years – seven years during which the Vatican Council took place – back into a different Ireland and into a different Church.  I left Dublin over thirty years ago and once again came back to a very different Ireland and a very different Church.  Recognising the need for change and reacting aptly to change is part of living in our times, for individuals, for businesses, for organizations, for churches.


Organised religion will change for good or ill.  The one thing that is not going to happen is that organized religion will go away.  Organised religion is going to be part and parcel of society in one way or another for the time to come.   Who would have thought that organized religion would have been such a significant factor in the United States election and in US politics in general at the beginning of the twenty first century?  But even here it is a different kind of organised religion than would have been examined by the electoral pundits of the past; it was not the traditional Catholic or Jewish vote, but something “neo”, something new.


The term organised religion is an interesting one.  I have a feeling that in the title that I have been given for my talk, there is a sort of assumption that, whereas an “authentic”, personal religion is very important to people, when people begin to organize religion and put on rules, then the whole thing irks a little.  For many, organized religion, as opposed to a spirituality of personal experience, is somehow less popular, less authentic perhaps even a distortion of what religion is all about.  There is no way, people will say, in which we can put a narrow institutional framework on what are our deepest personal values, on our sense of spontaneous goodness.  These cannot be organized, these cannot be commanded; they must be spontaneous if they are to be authentic.


There is no doubt that some kind of private, personal religious sense or sentiment, a sort of spiritual framework within which we can consider our world and draw inspiration, is very appealing to a generation where there is a broad rejection of institution, and is more in favour of expressions of spirituality which are considered authentic and personally satisfying.  And there is no doubt that such spirituality would hardly need any organization at all. 


For many, organized religion has been substituted by a secular spirituality of life: a spirituality that is mine, personally, one constructed and adapted by me as I move forward in my choices and experiences.  Such a spirituality contains nothing of “the given” and “the absolute” which is typical of organized religion.  Such a secular spirituality may indeed have dimensions of the otherworldly, of transcendent values.  It can be nurtured by maxims from the historical religions, but alongside those of contemporary spiritual leaders, contemporary literature and it may draw inspiration from men and women of our time who epitomise in their lives honesty and integrity, courage and zeal for justice. 


Secular spirituality can be very attractive.  For many it is the only inspiration for a life of rectitude and decency.  Secular spirituality can have its litany of its own Saints, its own secular icons, its liturgies and celebrations, its music and even its own mortal sins.


It is not surprising then that for many people in Western Europe today organized religion will seem to be not just dull, but too secure, unadventurous, unable to change, with a built-in tendency to defend and perpetuate the institution as institution.   Western Europeans are thus surprised and perhaps frightened when they see the joy and vitality of the faith of young Islamic believers.


I will limit myself today principally to reflection on Christian faith, and especially of the Roman Catholic Church.  Jesus himself would be a little surprised to be told that he had founded an “organization”.  He founded a Church, a Church with sacraments and ministries, a Church which has over the centuries developed organizational structures, just as even the most charismatic movements have.  But what Jesus left behind was a communion, a communion of communities which meet together to deepen their understanding of the word of God, to celebrate Eucharist and to support those in need.  “These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2: 42). 


A communion of communities will certainly have organizational dimensions, but it will have to be defined primarily by its purpose rather than by its sociological framework.  It is Eucharist, “that which [we] have received from the Lord” (1 Cor 11:23), which gives structure to the Church.   Church is not defined by us, but received from the Lord.


It would be foolish, however, to think that a communion of communities, even with only the minimal structure, will not inevitably be tempted to take on organizational structures very like those which are common in the society of the times in which it finds itself.  Organizations inevitably develop a desire to have power or to be close to power.  The relationship between organized religion – Christian, Jewish or Muslim – and power is complex and paradoxical.  Organized religion tends to drift towards power, it tries to influence power; political power tends to court religion to its side (both President Bush and Senator Kerry were very regular and public Church-goers over these past weeks), yet political power is always anxious not to allow organized religion drift too far towards autonomy, because there is also within organized religion a strong, almost crusading capacity which once let loose cannot be controlled.  Organized religion can be among the most potent factors in fostering either conformity or transformation.


Contemporary Western societies today have an ambivalent relation to organized religion.  On the one hand, there is a rejection of anything which might look like special treatment for organized religion.  Organized religion, it is said, should be looked on like any other non-governmental or private organization.   And yet there is criticism of organized religion if it fails to take up positions – with a prophetic action expected to push the law to its limits – when questions of justice and social concern are involved.   Modern secular thought paradoxically asks two questions contemporaneously:  on the one hand, “What is the Church doing here at all” and on the other, “What is the Church doing about injustice”.  You cannot have it both ways however.


Just as historically Church structures have been influenced by organizational models of different periods, Office in the Church has sadly too often modelled itself too closely on the authority structures of the contemporary secular world, while Jesus himself had said quite the opposite: “among pagans it is the kings who lord it over them and those who have authority over them are given the title benefactor:  no, the greatest among you must appear as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves” (Lk22:25-26).


People expect different things from the Church in society.  Leaders want to use religion.  The President of the World Bank said to me:  “The World Bank is the premier wholesaler of ideas on development today, and boy if we could use your retail outlets around the developing world, we could do a lot of good!”   Lady Thatcher insisted the Churches should tell people they should work harder.  After nine-eleven in the United States, society turned to organized religion, but there was a sense in which it was to solemnly sing “God bless America”, rather than “Holy God, we praise your name”, to worship God even in times of distress.


When I imagine organized religion in the future, I imagine it then more distant from the structures of power, and thus all the more free to influence power.  Looking particularly at the Roman Catholic Church, I see that it must become a Church which is such that those who look at it, even from the outside, will see not a cold institution, but a community of faith, which is transparent in its beliefs and practices, a community which worships God, but a community also which witnesses to what God is, namely gratuitous love, a caring and forgiving God.


A community which reflects gratuitous love will be an important antidote to a society in which everything is measurable and marketable.  It will give witness to the fact that God’s love is so great that the believer must respond with a love which goes beyond worldly logic, which goes beyond even enlightened self interest.


Let me say that that is what Church is today in the lives of many.  That is what most people, even those who feel that they will perhaps never again return to be an active part of that community, feel that the Church should be.  I spend my time visiting communities around the diocese of Dublin and I encounter a lot of hurt, but I also encounter a great deal of affection and recognition for what has been done and what is being done by Church communities, by individual priests, nuns and lay persons.   I encounter parish communities, perhaps with smaller Mass attendance, but which are more vibrant today than at any other time in their history.  There is a great buzz around parish life today.


In the current discussions on child sexual abuse by clergy, I feel very strongly that the full extent and nature of such abuse should come to light and that there is no way in which healing can be achieved until that happens.  That does not mean that the Church should be blocked from its normal activity of evangelization and the construction of a more just and compassionate society.    Yes, as a Church we have made mistakes.  But what we do is much more, much larger than our mistakes and we have every reason to be proud of that “much more” and we will continue on that path.


However it would be foolish to think that the Church in Ireland has not lost credibility through the recent scandals.  Many have been hurt traumatically. There have been many who have felt their trust betrayed.  Trust and credibility cannot be bought or commanded. They have to be earned, and when lost they must be earned again right from scratch.


The first dimension of that earning will be through a renewed witness of integrity, integrity with respect to the real foundations of what the Church stands for, integrity in the life style of individuals and institution.  Part of that integrity must be keeping promises of reform made; part of it must be in working towards healing and making people whole.  A religion in which God assumed human nature, which teaches that human beings are created in the image of God, must be one which is marked by its ability to enhance people, to give them confidence and self esteem.  In the past Church has stressed conformity, which does the opposite, except for some like me whose self esteem is enhanced by battling with the conformists, or better said battling with the tendency towards conformity which I find in myself.


The credibility of the Church of the future will come from the credibility of witness.  Transparency will be achieved not just through organizational measures of accountability but above all when the love of Christ transpires as the true hallmark of every institution and organization which bears the name Church.


I would not be honest if I did not say that we have a long way to go.  But that also says something about what Church is.  Church is a path of conversion.  It is the place where one recognises one’s sinfulness, but also where one hears a call to conversion, not cheap conversion, but a real change of live, a real desire to follow the good.   The Church is an Ecclesia semper reformanda:  a Church always in need of reform, a community where every member must be ready for conversion.
The future of religious faith must be a faith in the transcendent God, a God who cares and loves and communicates that caring and love in the works of his creation, in the genius of humanity, in the unity of human family and in the integrity of all of creation.   Faith in a transcendent God, however, is a faith which, though not insensitive to the realities of the world, is not determined by them.  It is interesting that it is very often the less organized religious structures which are the most fundamentalist. Because they lack of an integrated doctrine, political expediency rather than the integrity of God’s design tends to set standards.


Church will of course remain institution.  It will have an organized face.  But it will be a very different one from today. I can imagine a future in which the Church is not there in competition with or in a role of substitution for the State in a whole range of services in society.  But that does not mean that Church will be absent from society, much less disinterested.  Just as in the past, religious congregations emerged to respond to the unmet needs of the marginalised, I can imagine tomorrow a Church which is much more humble, but also much more agile in responding quickly to the community needs which are not met by anyone, and much more sensitive to identifying new social needs in advance. 


 I might draw attention to two such issues.  Firstly, I see a real challenge for all of us in ensuring that, in an ageing population, all will be able to realise their human potential as fully as possible, for as long as possible and in the most dignified way possible.   Secondly, we have to address more directly the issue of violence in our society.  I am appalled by the number of stabbings which took place in Dublin diocese over Halloween weekend.  Why do so many young people carry knives?  Why is the culture of drinking still so dominant for many young people?  Things are not likely to change if we still have areas in the suburbs of Dublin where, as one priests recently told me, there are already three pubs, three betting shops, but no doctor and no pharmacy!
It is very interesting to read of the Church renewal in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, after emancipation and quite extraordinarily during the famine.  There was a remarkable upsurge of congregations of religious women, which were initially spontaneous groups of women who gathered around charismatic figures who got things done in the face of the poverty of the time.


When we look closer at figures such as Catherine Macaulay or Mary Aikenhead we see that the sensitivity of their response was linked in a special way to a religious sensitivity, even a mysticism which drove them on in the face of difficulties, even difficulties with Bishops.  I must say however that history is showing that the Archbishop of Dublin of the time, Daniel Murray, was a much more outstanding figure than he is often remembered as, especially as at times he was one who took positions quite different from the standard wisdom and different from the standard positions of his colleagues.  I hope that my brother bishops will not take this as a declaration of war.


The strength of the Church of the future will depend on how much those who actively adhere as Church members enter into the mystery of what Church is.   Where people are not initiated into the mystery of the Church they will always look at the Church only in its sociological structures.  On the other hand, if the structures do not witness to the interior mystery, then those structures are the wrong ones and not those which Jesus wished for the communion of communities which he instituted.


To the outsider religion will appear as an organization.  To the initiated it will appear as part of the mystery.  Organized religion of the future must be one that is able to engage people of all ages, but especially young people, in dialogue about faith, about belief.   It must be one which engages people in their specific questioning about the meaning of their lives and the motives of their hopes.   It will be a religion which listens and journeys with people, beginning where they are.  It will be less a religion of frenetic doing, than one of leading people to ask the deeper questions.


Faith in today’s secularised world will always need community to sustain it.  Community will not just be one uniform institution, but a communion of communities, with each community experiencing and sharing its particular path towards God.  Christian communities of faith will be places where the mystery of God’s love will be celebrated, as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who gave himself up that we could be free, that we could be the persons God created us to be, freed from the bonds of egoism and enabled to mirror God’s love in our relations with others.


The organizational structure of such faith communities will be different to what we know in Ireland today.  But I am sure that they will be strong communities, even though they will be formed by and led by weak human beings.  It is the gratuitous love of God which changes us and charges us for mission, not ourselves, not the institution.  When we realise that then we can rise above our own limited personal spirituality, rise above the conformity of institution, then we can be fully free to take the leap of faith, to risk our lives knowing that God’s love will sustain us.