Sunday 21 December 2014

Colum Kenny: A warm faith makes us all stronger

The flame of religious belief will still flicker even if the institution that once housed it now seems unfit for purpose, says Colum Kenny

Published 25/12/2011 | 05:00

This Christmas Eve, some of us will do what Irish families have done for generations. Light a candle at the window and go out in the dark to attend Mass. It is Christmas, and old traditions still have a place in our hearts.

Many Irish who were reared as Catholics feel that their church somehow left them, and not that they themselves abandoned their faith. Fewer than one in seven now attend Mass weekly in the Dublin Archdiocese. But people who stop going to church do not necessarily turn their backs on Christ.

There will be a surge of attendance at Masses this weekend. A growing number of people cross the thresholds of churches only at Christmas and at Easter, or when someone is being baptised, married or mourned.

Those who think that it is just social convention or sentimentality that draws people into churches on special occasions miss a point. Many men and women still respect religious insights, even if their experience of institutions and doctrines has left them with a bad taste in their mouths.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of Christ in the world, and anyone can hope that her or his heart is a stable in which Jesus will somehow be born again.

One Christmas nearly 70 years ago, in the middle of a dark European war, Aran Islander Mairtin O Direain wrote his Christmas poem to Mary in search of a place to give birth: "Deign to accept My invitation To a sea-bound island In the remote West: Shining candles will be Lit in each window And a fire of turf On each hearthstone kindled."

Irish people harbour a faith that is more fundamental than rules about baptism or confirmation. Most have little time for those who lay down the law on contraception or divorce or papal infallibility or women priests or communion with other Christians.

Those who would shut the doors of their church in the face of occasional visitors who cannot bring themselves to be dumbly loyal ought to think twice.

The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, recently spoke on RTE's Would You Believe TV programme about the phenomenon of social Catholicism. This is where parents only turn up when they want their children baptised or confirmed. It is disheartening for priests to feel treated like the providers of an occasional entertainment service by people who never contribute in any way to a local parish.

Archbishop Martin said: "It requires maturity on two sides, maturity of those people who want their children to become members of the church community, and maturity of those people who say 'I do not believe in God and I really should not be hanging on to the vestiges of faith when I do not really believe in it'."

But we should be careful about using words like "God" and "vestiges" too easily. Faith abides in many forms and there is an old Gaelic saying about Christ often coming in the guise of a stranger.

People who reject religion are hypocritical if they sometimes pretend otherwise "for their kids". Yet those "vestiges" that we trail around, like wisps of a shredded garment, may be the visible remnants of a more fundamental faith that has a richer meaning than do conformist church doctrines.

Archbishop Martin himself does not want a closed Catholic Church that simply mothballs its most loyal and unquestioning of members within it.

He told RTE: "You cannot be a mature Catholic in today's world just on the basis of what you learnt in primary school or secondary school." He has faulted generations of Catholic instruction in Ireland that "did not really deepen our faith" in a way that empowered believers to be more loving.

Catholic authorities have made a show of themselves in recent decades over the child abuse scandals. Hopefully the hierarchy's Eucharistic Congress next year will not become an embarrassing effort to reassert an outmoded model of church organisation and teaching.

People now suffering from growing economic pressure and social problems have been alienated from a church organisation that has been at times, even before the abuse scandals surfaced, deeply flawed. For emigrants in particular, who no longer have the same support networks that earlier generations of emigrants had, the collapse of an Irish Catholic Church network is unfortunate.

But the flame of religious faith will continue to flicker in people even if the institution that once housed it now seems unfit for purpose. Only those without faith could think otherwise. And a faith that is true is compatible with science and reason and the Big Bang, and does not depend on unthinking loyalty.

Church authorities do not own faith, nor should faith take a form that excludes anyone from celebrating the light of Christmas.

The candle that we light at our windows at Christmas is a sign. We begin again to hope for a better future.

Sunday Independent

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