I WONDER how many of the men listening to the Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin last Monday night in the imposing premises of the Knights of Columbanus in Ely Place in Dublin felt that he did not belong there?
Did any of them, I wonder, go further and think that he did not even belong in the Roman Catholic Church that they know and believe in? Because I, for one, do not believe that Dr Martin belongs in a Roman collar; and I do not believe that he belongs in the Roman Catholic Church. He is too good a man for any of them.
And sometimes I wonder if somewhere in the depths of his being, Dr Martin may not wonder the same thing as he struggles singlehandedly for dignity, justice, and wisdom as principles to underpin religious practice and belief.
On Monday night, he called "the future of the church in Ireland . . . one where we truly learn from the arrogance of our past and find anew, a fragility which will allow the mercy and the compassion of Jesus to give us a change of heart".
Fragility, aka sensitivity and inwardness, linked to stalwart, tolerant witness? I don't think so. That describes Diarmuid Martin; it is not a description of the hierarchy of the Irish church at large. Nor, unfortunately, of the majority of believing Catholics as they present themselves, whether or not they practise the rites of the church on a regular or irregular basis.
As it happens, I don't think Jesus was fragile in Dr Martin's sense, or in any other sense.
Dr Martin was speaking to a group of men who are self-proclaimed conservative Catholics. The Knights of Columbanus were formed as an "antidote" to the Order of Freemasonry in Ireland because the Catholic Church condemned Masonic rites as "satanic". (The fact that Freemasonry worldwide had a long and stalwart history of free-thinking and solidarity against religious oppression might also have had something to do with it.)
But one thing is certain about the Knights of Columbanus: they do not question the authority and relevance of the institutional church. For them, it is what Dr Martin called a "reality of faith". The difference is that he also added that as a man of faith himself, the future of the church was not in his hands, but would be guided by the Lord. One suspects that the rest of the Irish hierarchy with very few exceptions see themselves as uniquely qualified to know the mind of the Lord.
In that, they actually have a lot in common with those who see themselves as sceptical of the institutional church, and who react against those who stress the institution, as Dr Martin pointed out, by proclaiming that "we are the church". Rather, he says, it is a case of both sides feeling "I am the church," that the church must be modelled on my way of thinking or on my position. But renewal, the archbishop said, is "never our own creation; it will only come through returning to the church, which we have received from the Lord".
It was one in the eye for a la carte Catholics who sign off with a flourish in the letters pages of the newspapers, dogmatically proclaiming what Jesus would have said and thought were he around now, just as it was for the fervent supporters of the received wisdom and structures laid down by an arrogant hierarchy.
Are the latter the people he was identifying, both lay and clerical, when he spoke of "the sub-conscious denial of the extent of the [child sexual] abuse which occurred within the church of Jesus Christ in Ireland?"
How often have we seen them on television screens, microphones thrust at them as they enter or leave churches for daily Mass, defiantly proclaiming that it was all "a long time ago" or that "it's time to move on" or "none of this would have happened if it weren't for the media" while the men in black and red whom they support so fervently drag their heels, and see themselves as the real victims? But despite such "strong forces", Dr Martin believes, "the truth will make us free".
He also emphasised, however, that "the moral teaching of the church cannot simply be a blessing for, a toleration of, or an adaptation to the cultural climate of the day". The rules, in other words, are not for bending if you wish to bear witness to a faith, despite the frequency with which believers "albeit unknowingly to themselves, often view the reality of faith through a secularised lens".
They are all around us, as he did not point out, but we know them: "I'm a cultural Catholic, but I've no time for the institutional church." They are the people who, according to Dr Martin's reasoning, would have received a tongue-lashing from the real Jesus rather than the personalised milksop they have manufactured for themselves. The teaching of that strong Jesus, (and this Dr Martin did say) is "both compassionate and demanding".
The church, he added, is not a collection of individuals who worship when they feel the need; the church is "fundamentally a worshipping community, founded in and nourished by the Eucharist", just as "Catholic identity is more than about vague ethos: it is about witness".
And that witness, he said controversially, has been badly served because the Irish Catholic tradition has greatly neglected the place of the scriptures. "Catholics do not know the scriptures."
What's more, he added, sounding more and more like an advocate of the beliefs and teaching of the Church of Ireland, "we need a more demanding catechism (the teaching of religion) for those who wish to come forward for admission to the sacraments. Admission to the sacraments is not something which is automatically acquired when one reaches a certain class in school".
As in the Church of Ireland (again he didn't say it, but the inference is obvious) where Communion can only be received after one is confirmed, and Confirmation does not happen until halfway through the teen years. Opting for religion for Anglicans is a conscious, semi-adult choice.
I've looked for signs of the authentic Roman Catholic voice in this wonderful address, and found none. As a prelate, the voice is one of humility and pain. As a priest, the wish is for the Eucharist to have real meaning for those who presume to receive it rather than a catch-all to ensure the membership numbers stack up, however meaninglessly. As a teacher, the earnest wish is to open the gates of scriptural knowledge rather than keeping them firmly closed in favour of authoritarian interpretation and spiritual immaturity.
It's revolutionary stuff, and that's the tragedy: it should be the authentic Catholic voice, but it's a voice that Rome has always been determined, and continues to be determined, it seems, will not be heard officially.