NATIONAL RELIGIOUS EDUCATION CONGRESS 2013
Speaking Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin, Mater Dei Institute, Dublin, 5th October 2013
“I am very pleased to be able to say a few short words at the opening of this National Religious Education Congress 2013 on the theme: Increase Our Faith: Fan the Flame. I congratulate the organisers on the choice of the theme as we come towards conclusion of the Year of Faith. I wish you all fruitful reflections and interaction during this day.
The Year of Faith has actually been a surprisingly successful event in the life of the Church. There is a natural tiredness about successive and even overlapping “years”. It has been very interesting for me to note, at least here in the Archdiocese of Dublin but I am sure the same is true elsewhere, the striking number of initiatives that have been taking place, especially at parish level for the Year of Faith. One of the lessons that I learned earlier from the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was the extraordinary interest that was taken in the workshops, many of which had to be repeated more than once because of the high demand. This brought home to me just how much interest there is among adult Christians in Ireland for renewed formation in the faith. The experience of the Year of Faith has reinforced that conviction.
When I speak of adult faith formation I think not so much about the faith formation for adults as just another category like children, teenagers or the elderly. I think about a faith formation which treats adults as adults and addresses in an adult fashion the challenges which adults have to face in today’s world. Adult faith formation is not just about organizing courses. It is a dialogue between faith and the realities of the world which responds to the real challenges of modern life in Ireland and helps the Christian to live the realities of his or her faith in a mature way in a changing society and to impact society through the contribution of faith.
The sad thing is that our Irish tradition has in recent times been weak in adult faith formation. Faith formation and religious education were something that took place in schools and sadly ended when one left school. Today we have a heightened awareness that the religious education that is received in school will – no matter what its quality – never be sufficient for an adult to live his or her faith fully in the complex world in which we live today. Indeed I would say that today we have a heightened awareness that the religious education that is received in school will – no matter what its quality – never be sufficient for a teenager leaving school to live his or her faith fully in the complex world in which we live today. Religious education is not routine; religious education is not a fixed given therefore life; religious education is a life long project.
The Year of Faith has for me reinforced the conviction that there are so many of our believers who really feel that need and are hungry for a formation in faith and a dialogue about their faith in today’s world. Our National Directory for Catechesis Share the Good News sets out a roadmap for lifelong formation and development of faith, addressing the formation of faith from before baptism until the final years of life, addressing the changing requirements of each stage on life’s’ journey.
Progress in implementing Share the Good News is not as forceful as is needed. It is hard for us to move out beyond the traditional patterns. We can all be caught up in our personal sector and just give token recognition to the bigger picture. Religious education still remains very much a school exercise and the links between family, parish and school have not been developed sufficiently, especially in areas where there is great human mobility and parish and school and community are not contiguous.
When the Year of Faith was announced we all had our expectations and our plans as to what we should be doing and what we should be achieving. There is one factor that none of us had written into our initial plans and it is a factor which has however radically changed them: that factor is Pope Francis. If we were thinking of the Year of Faith in terms of renewal, Pope Francis has challenged us to change gear from renewal to near revolution.
I feel that it is still very difficult for many of us to comprehend fully the change that Pope Francis is advocating in the life of the Church. In his recent interview he spoke about rigorism and laxism. We come from a strongly rigorist religious culture and in a rigorist religious culture there are two colours: black and white. If it is not black then it must be white. If it is not rigorist it must be lax. The Pope says, to take one example, that: “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that”,
It is fascinating to see the reaction. On the one hand some say that the Pope was misquoted, he obviously did really not mean what he said. Others say that if the Pope says “we cannot insist only on such themes”, then that means that we need never talk about them at all. Our rigorism leaves us in a situation in which we can only cope with black or with white and we find it hard to understand what the Pope is saying.
Pope Francis wants us to move from a rigorist religious culture to one in which the mercy of God become the dominant theme, but which does not mean that we revert into laxism. Our black and white rigorist culture makes it hard for us to do that.
The way of Pope Francis is not about tweaking our way of living and of transmitting our faith, it is about thinking in a totally different manner. Pope Francis stresses the radical nature of the commitment which our faith requires. There was an interesting article in an Italian newspaper recently about the language of the Pope. It was called: “the slang of Pope Francis”. His language is strong and fresh and earthy, almost biblical,
I was reminded of that when I looked up various translations precisely of the theme of your Congress: Fan the flame. My RSV translation was slightly different as it spoke about rekindling. But the translation which I liked best – and which I think is the one which would impress Pope Francis – was in one commentary: “stir-up”. There is something revolutionary in the term. Rekindling can be a nice respectable activity, like gently poking the ashes of a dying fireplace. Stirring up means trouble and that is what religious education must mean in the Ireland of today and tomorrow. We have to stir up and move into a different dimension and break down all the barriers and establishments which hinder the spreading of the word.
In his recent interview, Pope Francis notes: “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”
The theme of going out, of breaking out, or reaching to the periphery and the frontiers of society is a recurring theme of Pope Francis. I was in one busy parish recently where the parishioners were a little surprised when, instead of congratulating them on the initiatives that were talking place within the parish, I quoted Pope Francis’s talk to bishops gathered for World Youth Day in which he said: “We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, in our parish or diocesan institutions, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel!”
Christians and the Church have to learn a new language of evangelization, a language which is not hostile to the world but fosters engagement within a pluralist society. It must be the language of a Jesus who cares and which by committed care shows the value and relevance and urgency of the Christian teaching for our society. A half-hearted believer will easily cave in to an easy relativism. A half-hearted believer effectively witnesses to nothing. Our faith is not the faith of the conformable sitting room, from which we can contentedly sit back and comment on the world from a safe distance. The Christian message is spread not just by nice words, but a life which is marked by radical integrity of life in line with the Gospel.
Again Pope Francis stresses in his interview: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies”.
Does our religious education lead to courage and audacity? Do we transmit enough about the freedom which belief brings? Are we still trapped in our own establishments? Are we caught up in a search for security and status in society? Pope Francis is telling us that lack of status and power and apparent certainty is not necessarily a threat to the Church: it can be a clear indication of the Church’s priority commitment to serve the Lord.
Religious education is however not an “anything goes” discipline but it must always also be open to dialogue. Pope Francis began a dialogue recently with the editor of the Italian left wing newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari. Scalfari was known for his trenchant criticism of the Church. He wrote an open letter in his newspaper to Pope Francis and to his surprise Pope Francis responded with an open letter to the newspaper and then invited him to have a face to face dialogue. I was very impressed by the tone of Pope Francis’s letter. He said to Scalfari: “I write to you as a long-time atheist who is still fascinated by the person and the teaching of Jesus Christ” I do not think that I am all that wrong in saying that we could describe many Irish men and woman of today in similar terms: perhaps not long-time atheist but rather “de facto atheists who are still fascinated by the person and the teaching fo Jesus Christ”.
What is important to identify the small sparks of faith that remain, even in those who have drifted far from faith. I am reminded of my days as an altar server at Benediction when you tried to light the charcoal. Once the first little spark appeared then you blew on it until it began to glow and then and only then could you pile on the incense. Religious education must rekindle the spark of faith first and then and only then then can the perfume and smoke begin of ecclesiastical life begin to make sense and flourish.
I set out to prepare a different talk this morning, focussed on the place of religious education in a pluralist Ireland. Perhaps that is what you might have expected. I hope that my personal fascination with the “slang” of Pope Francis has not led me along a wrong path. But I really believe that the first thing that religious education must acquire if it is to be effective in a secular society is enthusiasm. Before all the curriculums and text books and teachers’ guides, we have to proclaim confidently the fundamental kerygma of our faith: a real conviction that Jesus Christ died and rose again to safe us. We have to be seen then as people who really believe that kerygma and that we live it with enthusiasm and joy and care for all those who exists on the margins and the frontiers of society. ENDS