Sunday 21 April 2019

Laity of the Land: The devotees gaining influence

With vocations on the wane, lay ­people are ­increasingly important to the ­operations of the Catholic Church. That said, as John Meagher ­discovers, those who seek reform find their point of view isn't always ­welcomed by the Catholic ­hierarchy

Question of reform: Áine Lee of Youth 2000 in Ballina. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Question of reform: Áine Lee of Youth 2000 in Ballina. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Anthony Neville, chair of the steering group of the Association of Catholics in Ireland at St Kevin's Monastery in Glendalough, Co Wicklow. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Meagher

John Meagher

Brendan Butler remembers the visit of John Paul II like it was yesterday. He can visualise the lengthy walk to the Phoenix Park, the sense of excitement that was in the air, the thrill when the pontiff first appeared on the altar in front of the masses. He was a minister of the Eucharist on that September day, 39 years ago, and he savoured every moment.

And, looking back, he remembers the unquestioning devotion that he and so many other Catholics felt towards a man dubbed God's representative on Earth and the Church of which he led.

"You did what you were told back then," he says. "If you had faith, you went along with the teachings. You didn't question it. The Church was all-powerful and people just accepted it for what it was."

All's changed today. Butler, now 75, still feels a strong Catholic devotion but he has a very different attitude when it comes to the Church's hierarchy. "It hasn't moved with the times at all," he says, "and a lot of Catholics feel very disillusioned with it."

Butler is one of the founders of the progressive lay group, We Are Church Ireland. Among their objectives is the welcoming of women into the priesthood and the acceptance of all people, no matter what their sexual orientation.

"Unfortunately, the Church is stuck in the past and it's no surprise that it is really struggling to connect with young people today. For many, it's not seen as something with any relevance in their lives, even if they do have faith.

"The institution of the Church is no longer important to me," he says, "and they have not done nearly enough to reach out to people."

It's a chief reason, Butler believes, why lay groups like We Are Church Ireland have prospered today. "People want to reach out to like-minded others, especially when the hierarchy seems to have such little interest in their views."

He says this organisation has sought meetings with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin on several occasions but to no avail. "Not only did he not respond to our letters, we didn't even receive acknowledgement that they had been received. It's quite disillusioning," he says.

It's a sentiment echoed by Anthony Neville of another lay organisation, Association of Catholics in Ireland. While the group welcomes the visit of Pope Francis, he says it has significant misgivings about the World Meeting of Families event, which, ostensibly is the reason the Pope is visiting this country. "We want to see a united church that accepts the equality of all believers by virtue of their baptism," he says. "It's an association of lay people believing in the right of all baptised people to have a voice in the formation of church teaching and that there should be appropriate structures at international, national, diocesan and parish level to facilitate the involvement of the laity.

"We believe in equality - everybody should have a role and there should be a full participation in every aspect of the Church and particularly the way that women have been neglected."

Neville believes women have been sidelined for too long in the Church, including in their rights to stand for the priesthood, but he insists that women priests "is not the answer to the problems in the Church." And those problems, he feels, stem from the disconnect between bishops and grassroots members.

"But that's not what's happening today and we've concerns that at the World Meeting, the bishops will present the 'idealised' Catholic family: where both parents are happily married and together with their children, and they're attending Mass every week without fail. We know that that's not the reality for so many people."

Neville has lucid memories of the last papal visit and believes that the laity had a minimal role in the Church then. "Well there were no reform organisations like there are today," he says. "Back then, it was very much about doing what you were told."

'Casting a shadow'

If both We Are Church Ireland and the Association of Catholics in Ireland are lay groups favouring reform, there is no shortage of laity organisations in this county that adhere to traditional church teaching. The Irish branch of the Tradition, Family, Property campaign has been gathering signatures to petition for the removal of US priest James Martin from the World Meeting.

Fr Martin has been a supporter of LGBT rights for many years, much to the chagrin of traditional churchgoers.

In a letter to Archbishop Martin, the group noted that "the hosting by your Archdiocese of the World Meeting of Families should be a joyful occasion for Ireland… we are disappointed and greatly concerned that Fr James Martin will speak at the event, casting a shadow over its proceedings. Fr Martin is well known for his dissent from church teaching on sexual morality. He has articulated views with condone homosexual behaviour in contradiction to the magisterium". The petition attracted more than 9,500 signatures. One signatory, who speaks to Review on the guarantee of anonymity, says the Church should "stand strong" when it comes to principles. "Homosexuality is a sin and while it might not be a popular thing to say that today, that is the case if you are a true Catholic."

The speaker, a woman in her 50s and a Marian devotee, is a member of the conservative Irish Society for Christian Civilisation and she believes the visit of Pope Francis offers an opportunity for Irish people to reconnect with faith.

Fear of societal contempt

"Young people have lost their way," she says. "We saw that in the abortion referendum and we see it in the breakdown of community. There's very little of the spirit that was there when John Paul II was here. It wasn't perfect, but people had more time for each other."

Like many devoutly churchgoing Catholics, this lady has seen Mass attendances fall off dramatically in the past few decades, but she believes there are positives to take from that.

"It is good to know, today, that people who go to Mass really want to be there to hear God's teachings. They are not going because society expects them to go, and that was the case in the past. I think a smaller congregation of people who cherish the gospels is far greater than a large group of people who have a lukewarm attitude to faith and pick and chose what suits their lifestyles."

A much younger Christian who is involved with the Irish branch of the international lay group Youth 2000 says Pope's Francis's Irish visit will allow proud Catholics to express their devotion without fear of societal contempt.

"Catholics are under attack in this so-called liberal Ireland all the time," she says. "We've seen that in the past couple of referendums. If you have a view that doesn't fit in with the mood on social media, you get dog's abuse. My Catholic faith is a fundamental part of who I am and the right to life is central to that, but when I campaigned for a No vote in the referendum in May, I was verbally attacked and ridiculed.

"A fellow student called me 'disgusting' and 'a disgrace to women'. I feel envious for the sort of Ireland where you could express your Catholic faith and not feel like a pariah."

She believes that being able to gather in the Phoenix Park with hundreds of thousands of people of all ages will be liberating. "It will be a reminder that a great deal of people in this country believe in Jesus and want to come out to see a wonderful and kind pope. Being involved in Youth 2000 gives me that sense of community, but the Phoenix Park Mass will be on a completely different level."

After initially agreeing to be named and photographed for this article, the young Catholic has a change of heart a couple of days later. "By putting my beliefs into the public domain like that, I could be bringing all kinds of hardship upon myself so I don't want to be named."

Mayo student Áine Lee is also a member of Youth 2000 and helps to organise prayer meetings at University College Dublin. "The media sometimes says that young people have turned away from the Church, but in my experience that's not the case at all. There are a lot of people my age [she's 19] who have a strong faith and who feel that it completely enriches their life. That relationship with Jesus is so important to us. I'd love people to know God's love is such a gift - and it's available to anyone who looks for it."

Lee believes organisations like Youth 2000 help like-minded devotees to gather, share experiences and help each other.

"We're all so excited about the visit of Pope Francis," she says, adding that she will be a volunteer steward on the day of the Mass. "It's a once-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Pope in our own country and I believe he will get an incredible welcome here."

The psychology student does not believe the Church requires radical reform and is dismissive of the notion of women priests. "The people who say there should be women priests haven't read the Catechism," she says. "If they really understood the teachings of the Catholic Church, they wouldn't be calling for women priests. People asking for it think it's a short solution to the shortage of priests in Ireland but I don't think it's a solution at all. In fact, it might cause many other problems over the years. As a woman, I have never felt neglected."

Nor does she believe the Pope should feel compelled to publicly address the issue of clerical sexual abuse while he is in Ireland. "It's not something I've given much thought to but he will be in this country for a specific event, the World Meeting of Families. The focus is on families. We forget that sexual abuse is something that happens throughout society and too often the good work the clergy do is never acknowledged."

But many lay Catholics, including Brendan Butler, believes it is imperative that the pontiff acknowledge the damage the Church has done to Irish people. "The scandals of clerical abuse is the great failing of the Church and it's handling of the issue has been atrocious," he says, pointing out that last week former minister Dermot Ahern revealed that he had been put under pressure by a leading cardinal to indemnify the Vatican from any legal proceedings.

"Francis says he has zero tolerance about clerical sexual abuse but has he demonstrated that in practice? Has he punished bishops who covered up the abuse? Words only go so far. What has he actually done?"

It is a view echoed by Anthony Neville, who says the Association of Catholics in Ireland strongly supports clerical abuse victim Marie Collins in her call for Pope Francis to acknowledge the Vatican's culpability. "The leadership of the Church is responsible for allowing a catalogue of abuse to happen and for protecting the perpetrators when their identities became known.

"Saying sorry is not good enough and Francis should take the opportunity while he is in Ireland to set out how he plans to deal with the abuses taking place around the world and to commit to action."


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