CHRISTIANS around the world are celebrating Easter. It is the most important feast in the Christian religious calendar. However, for many around the world, even baptised Christians, Easter means very little. Easter is a break. It is about children and chocolate. Many will celebrate in church; others might barely spare a fleeting thought about what Easter means.
The religious culture of Ireland is changing. We can read the change in different ways. Some will see in the recent census figures that Catholicism is still the largest religious tradition to which Irish people adhere, and will take that as a sign that the faith is as strong as ever. Others will see the same figures as hiding a faith that is weak and symbolic, rather than one which has the robustness to survive and be creative in a changing contemporary culture.
Bad news about the church is good news for many. Sadly, there has been much genuinely bad news about the Catholic Church in recent years. Some hope that this is a sign that Catholicism, and even religion itself, is coming to an end, or at least that it has lost its vitality and validity within society. Believers are welcome, but belief belongs in the churches and at home!
This year we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The council changed the face of Catholicism in Ireland. It was an extraordinary event, which was the fruit of a spirit-filled insight of an almost 80-year-old man: Pope John XXIII.
Pope John had a vision of wakening the church up, not just to the realities of changing times, but to the reality if its own message. He was not entirely sure what way the council would go. On the evening of its opening, he said that it might not finish in the three months that had been planned for its initial session. In the end it took four sessions.
Not everyone liked Pope John's plans. For some, what was about to happen at the council was not about plans, but about a pope who combined lack of planning and personal naivety, a true nightmare for the pillars of establishment. Pope John's spirit-filled intuition faced opposition and strong opposition.
I often take courage when I read his opening homily at the council. His first words were: "Gaudet Mater Ecclesia." (Our mother, the church, rejoices.) Pope John never lost spirit. Rejoicing is part of the church's mission. Jesus brought a serious and demanding message. But it was a message of love, a message which sought to lead the men and women to a truth that frees. Jesus's teaching was not just in words. He accompanied his words with signs: signs of healing and releasing troubled men and women from burdens.
In his opening speech to the council, Pope John took a direct shot at those who were fearful of renewal. Reformers and traditionalists in the church alike can all too often be men and women with a mission -- but men and women with gloomy and stern faces. The church at all times has reason to rejoice. Jesus loves his church and will be with his church. The Easter liturgy is filled with references to how, throughout history, God remained faithful to his people while that people failed God.
But let me come back to Pope John's homily. He was not one to sponsor gloom and he pulled no punches in what he said. He spoke of voices which, in modern times, can "see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history ... They behave as though at the time of former councils, everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life ... " Pope John profoundly disagreed "with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster".
THERE have always, at the same time, been reasons of hope and reasons of concern in the Irish church. It has always been so and it will always be so. We have to prove wrong the doomsayers both inside and outside the church, both conservatives and liberals, who fail to see that Jesus is still there and still with his church as it renews itself.
There are many who tell me to stop talking about sexual abuse in the church. There is no way we can bury and hide a painful past; it remains with us and will remain with us. But that does not mean that we shy away from announcing the teaching and the person of Jesus Christ. We should have no fear in bringing his message on to our streets, into our media, to our younger generations.
Jesus is still there. What the church has to fear is the fearfulness of its own members.
Dr Diarmuid Martin is the Archbishop of Dublin