BECOMING THE BODY OF CHRIST
Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
All Hallows College, 28th June 2009
I am delighted to be able to speak to you at the opening of this Conference entitled Becoming the Body of Christ which takes place just as we begin a major programme of renewal in the Archdiocese of Dublin on the theme of Evangelisation.
The RCIA constitutes a major renewal in the manner in which the Church addresses the Christian initiation of adults. It is not a programme but a path, a way of overall formation of adult Christians and those who wish to come to full communion with the Catholic Church
I was struck at a session I attended some years ago in which there was a presentation of RCIA. The immediate reaction of those present was not to ask some questions of clarification, but unanimously to say that every Christian needed to be able to join something similar: a path of faith formation integrated into the liturgical year. The insights taken up in RCIA are insights not about a programme or a strategy but about a path of deepening of faith, of conversion and of an ongoing realization of what it means to be part of a living, praying and loving body of Christ. It is about how we live as Christian in a changing and challenging world.
There is a good deal of reflection going on in the Republic of Ireland about the question of Church patronage and management of schools and about how to preserve the Catholic ethos of schools as the traditional presence of religious orders dwindles and the patronage and management of many schools are being taken over by Trusts established to ensure that the original ethos remains into the future.
What is not taking place sufficiently is the more fundamental discussion about the future of religious education in a much boarder setting. I would hope that one of the fruits of this Year of Evangelisation would be to set in place a process of reflection on how in the future the Church, the entire community of believers, would see itself as the natural environment where evangelisation takes place and where of discipleship is lived-out and fostered.
The first thing to say about Evangelisation is that it cannot be a series of events, but it must be a broad and ongoing process and commitment which reaches out and touches the lives of individuals and communities over their entire life span.
We have some examples which contain the basic elements of such a path. One, of course, is the RCIA itself. Then there are programmes such as Do this in memory for First Communion and other programmes built around confirmation. There are parish programmes for Baptism preparation and for the preparation of the Sacrament of Marriage. What they have in common is the emphasis on the fact that Evangelisation is not an individual and isolated act, but an ecclesial reality. Evangelisation is an ecclesial reality for those who evangelise and for those who are evangelised. Evangelisation is an action of the Church and is an essential dimension of the Church.
Each of these examples and other pastoral programme are good, but they only touch a small portion of the Catholic population. They are also “event-marked”; they take place around particular events but there is very often no necessary sense of continuity. Parishes are very happy to see how parents who, for years, had not taken apart in parish life do come and attend with interest the programme which covers the months before, for example, first communion. In some cases the programme has been the trigger for a genuine return to practice and active participation in the Church community.
For the majority, however, the programme ceases after the event of First communion and it is left in abeyance until the preparation for Confirmation begins. After confirmation, as children disperse into different places of second level education, there is almost no follow up in this process of discipleship and being the body of Christ. In particular, the link between young people and the sacramental life of the Church very quickly weakens.
Any purely “event-based” programme, with all the advantages it has, runs the danger of leaving children with the impression that faith is about isolated moments in their lives as persons. One teacher told me that he recently asked his pupils: “You have made your first communion and your confirmation, what is the next sacrament you will receive?” After a long silence one little girl hesitantly suggested: “the debs”.
“Do this in memory” has the advantage that it is a programme which links parish, school and family. But its effects, and the effects of other similar programmes, are limited by a complex structure of religious education in Ireland where the vast share of the burden of religious education is left to the schools. We have great teachers who have rendered and still render a unique service to religious education, at times with a growing reluctance of parents and priests to be participants the on-going day-to-day work of religious education. The work of the teachers will be less and less effective as more and more parents loose their real sense of discipleship.
The programmes of religious education in schools are further very much focussed on instruction, with some generic elements of personal formation for life. There is very little stress on on-going conversion and of a sense of belonging to the Body of Christ, to a Eucharistic community. Teachers tell me of the difficulties they encounter in their work of the evangelisation of children whose parents are not just non-practising, but no longer who have any real bond with a living Church community.
At second level the gap between school and parish is much more evident. There is a geographical and demographic gap. Children are being catechized who have already lost any real contact with the local Church community and the Sunday liturgy. The examination courses on religious education have the advantage of ensuring a solid intellectual basis in religious education. They are complemented by faith formation in the teaching of specific denominations but very often this can be very much on the level of information. More and more teachers are themselves uncertain of their own religious commitment and it is difficult to expect them to be truly agents of Evangelisation. Large numbers of Catholic children attend school which are not Catholic. Not a few Catholic schools are becoming Catholic only in name and vague ethos.
The result is that we have a situation in Ireland where our children are among the most catechized and perhaps among the least evangelized.
I am not running down the importance of school based religious formation. Indeed a system of school education which rejected the possibility of religious education would be one which neglected something fundamental about the live and the choices of the young.
It would also be incorrect to underestimate the efforts of individual teachers even in a school atmosphere which is becoming more secularised. Most of the candidates who present themselves for the seminary come, interestingly, not from the traditional Catholic secondary school, but from schools with a much more mixed religious environment.
For the future, and the not-too-distant future, it is vital that our parishes have to become the real focal point of religious initiation. When I say this, I mean however a real parish community with the active participation of parents and the support of the school.
What is a “practising Catholic”? There are two temptations to avoid. One is to think that who “practising Catholics” are can be determined by a demographic survey of how many people are present in our Churches on any particular Sunday. The other is to lower the threshold so low that anyone who does not formally defect from the Church is somehow still considered to be practising in some sense.
Obviously such categorization can lead to a caricature of the diverse levels of belonging to the Church which are part of the ongoing search for a relationship with God. I do not wish to make any personal criticism about people’s religious intentions, much less about their personal goodness and uprightness. The Church does not have a monopoly of goodness and uprightness, except in the message that it receives, but tragically, as we know well in these times, it does not necessarily respond to that message authentically.
Ideally, however, being a practising Catholic must be about sharing in a spiritual journey of prayer, liturgy, catechesis, prayerful reading of the word of God, acts of charity and an understanding of the role of the Christian in day-to-day life, all fostered within a parish community.
When I say “ideally” I am not speaking about a dream, but about a challenge to which we must respond.
I ask myself does such a vision correspond to the real–life the mission statement of each of our parishes. Do our parishes have in place activities linked with each of these dimensions of Christian initiation? What structures and personnel do parishes have in place to carry out this task? What physical facilities are needed and are they there or are we working to provide them?
In the formation course for our parish pastoral workers in the Archdiocese of Dublin we found that one person on a parish placement had to work out of the boot of their car and another had to go to then local pub to find a toilet. Many parishes have no places in which Christian formation can take place and have no regular programmes outside the celebration of the sacraments. Many of our parish structures still reflect a world of mass-Catholicism in which people automatically came to Mass, went home and hopefully received support for their faith through the overall Catholic culture of the day.
Even in cases where parishes have over the years built up good parish centres, they can very often be more dedicated to community building than to Evangelisation. There is very little faith-outreach towards young people and young adults.
What we are talking about in our Year of Evangelisation is a radical change in the way not just of how we form Christians but about what it means to be an individual Christian and a Christian community in today’s world.
Let me say that there is considerable interest among Christian in seeing such a change. Our Christians are highly educated and questioning, not just in the sense that they question the style of Church life that they experience, but that they are questioning themselves about faith, about God, about prayers and about life. Young people today are asking questions at 12 years of age that only occurred to us at 21.
Why are we not providing such services or reflecting on providing them? The first answer that will come is that we are all so busy and that we need more paid personnel. There is I believe something more fundamental. Evangelisation cannot be left only to “professional religious people”. Let me not be misunderstood. I see a real and urgent role for full time pastoral animators. The more fundamental challenge is to rediscover the nature of the Church and recall that the responsibility for Evangelisation belongs to all the baptised.
One of the great themes of the Second Vatican Council was that of the Universal Call to Holiness. The Constitution Lumen Gentium stresses that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love and by this holiness of life a more human way of life is fostered also in earthly society”. Holiness is not withdrawal from the realities of life. The call to holiness is at the same time a call to mission. The call to holiness and the witness of love are the key to the authenticity of the Christian contribution to society.
RCIA requires a multitude of different ministries: sponsors, godparents, the bishop, priests, deacons, catechists, liturgy coordinators, hospitality and those who accompany the catechumens in their reflection on the Gospel. But this is not just a check list of who you need to do an RCIA programme. It is a description about what a parish community should look like.
In many ways we have created a false understanding of the Church as institution. Given the nature of institutions, a false understanding of the Church as institution can easily become a self-perpetuating process of that false understanding.
If we do not identify in our lives with the love of God then our activities will not be those of Jesus, but will always have within them something which hinders the totality of love that Jesus demands. If we do not look at the totally of love that Jesus demands it will not take long for us to weaken and fall back into self-love and end up with a false image of God. If we do not open ourselves to the absolute generosity of God’s love then we will end up with a false God, a God who measures his love and who deprives people of his love, a God who is harsh and judgemental rather than a God who is full of mercy. When we loose the correct concept of a God of love then as individuals and as a Church we can drift into a praxis which is the fruit not of love but of pathology, which reflects our limitations and distortions rather than the freedom and care and joy that belong to our faith.
The Year of Evangelization begins in these days. It is not a process of self celebration. It is not a once-off event. It is to be a real call to conversion, to renewal of the Church, of continual conversion of those who belong actively to the Church communion and a missionary reaching out towards new members on the path of Christian discipleship. I wish you God’s blessing on your reflection in these days on the RCIA and I pray that your work will reach out and brings its contribution to a renewal of the Church.