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Sunday 24 September 2017

Emerging from the darkness with love and hopeFor Fr Joe McDonald, the light is burning stronger than ever after a bleak period for his beloved church. He argues that Congress could set the seal on a magnificent renewal

Both my parents were born in the year of the last Eucharistic Congress, 1932. I was born in 1961. I was to grow up in a church that, unbeknown to anyone, was on the cusp of a tsunami of change, the reverberations of which continue to be felt today.

Belfast too, was to soon enter, perhaps, its bloodiest and saddest chapter. What we were not aware of was the most abusive aspects of the church, even though there was much evidence of a clerical, patriarchal and hierarchical institution.

As I prepare for the Eucharistic Congress 2012, I find myself musing on our church today. For me, whilst it has been clearly identified as abusive, corrupt and at times dysfunctional, it is the church that I continue to dedicate my life to. I do this with joy in my heart because it remains the church that I love. This is, of course, largely due to the fact that side by side with those few who abused their power and my trust, were the many who modelled for me all that is good and beautiful in the church.

Today I give God thanks for that saintly old canon and the marvellous young Christian Brother who reinforced what I had already got at home in spades, namely that God is merciful and that we are loved beyond measure.

Later on, indeed twice in my life, I was to be in religious training/formation, firstly in preparation for my life as a Christian Brother and later on in training for priesthood. In both systems I was to receive so much: in the former, the richness of community, absolute dedication to service and above all I was taught how to pray. Then years later, in the latter, the joy of theology, most especially scripture, a deeper awareness of liturgy and sacrament as well as a sense of the universal church.

Interestingly, even though they were 20 years apart, they both shared a similar deficiency. This repeated inadequacy was in the area of psychosexual and emotional development. And so all through my life I have lived with the church that is both human, in all its mess and brokenness, and at the same time, divine as founded by Jesus, and sustained by the Holy Spirit.

It is this same church that invites us to the Congress. We are invited to the Eucharistic Congress 2012. More specifically, in coming to this Eucharistic Congress we are invited to deeper communion with God and with one another. What does this mean? These days people often remark that it is a very difficult time to be a priest, but I can honestly say that it is for me a privileged and exciting time.

I contextualise my work, indeed my life, in my conviction that we are living on a little island on the edge of Europe in a time of great spiritual darkness. The adrenaline rush, for me, comes when I can be a small part of the light in that ink blackness. That darkness is particularly evident in a growing sense of hopelessness and loss of meaning. As a priest I am called to be ever more prayerful, less selfish by the day and increasingly a man for others.

This manifests itself daily in preaching the Gospel, celebrating the Eucharist, study and soul-filled conversation within small groups. My life as a priest is receiving a super-charge turbo boost because of the Eucharistic Congress. I do not mean this in a triumphalist way and I do not have much time for comparisons with 1932 or the papal visit of 1979. We live in a different time. We are moving more towards being a leaner church, and leaner means fitter, more potent.

The group that will travel in and out of the RDS and finally gather in Croke Park will represent a church in transition. In modern parlance one might use a term like 'beleaguered church' but actually for us, as a faith community, we are the vine in the painful but necessary process of being pruned. In so many ways we are in the throes of a purgation . . . a purification.

No, we are not triumphalist and if we come to the Eucharistic Congress with our heads up and our hearts full it is because we acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as saviour of the world. So then, what of this call to communion?

I believe it is a call with which every Christian can be comfortable. I believe it begins with an investment of time, energy and space directed at coming to know Jesus in a deeper way than before. This then will mean we use our intellect, we will read, study, discuss . . . rooting our relationship in Jesus as revealed in the Gospels.

However, if we really want to get serious about this we will come into the Eucharistic presence in profound silence, and then gently freefall into even deeper silence. If we get this far we might adopt a posture of intense listening. I can add this without fear of contradiction that if we make this investment we will not be disappointed. The reason I say this is that if we come with real generosity of heart then the Lord outdoes us.

Let us hope that the Eucharistic Congress will not be an end but an oasis from which will flow real renewal. Let us hope our leaders, often lauded, and rightly so, for their learning and hard work, will through God's grace eventually find their prophetic voice, courageously etching out our future, acting as living beacons to the new order that is God's kingdom.

The Lord surely does not want blind subservience but I am confident nor does he want disunity. Perhaps a major assembly of the Irish church would be a useful start. I envisage a major symposium style gathering. It would have a prayerful listening dynamic and would then lead to a round of discussion and reflection. Perhaps decisions would follow but this would not be the driving force.

I hope and believe that if we come to the RDS and to Croke Park and remain open to God's spirit then we may kick start a new beginning. It is possible we will begin building afresh a church that is suffering, prayerful, prophetic and missionary in nature. In other words, a more Christ-like church.

Fr Joe McDonald is curate at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Johnstown Killiney, Dublin

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