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Church must come back down to earth

The publication of the new Catholic directory (Irish Independent, January 6) feels like a breath of very fresh air. At last, the leaders of the Catholic Church are listening.

At the heart of what is a genuine attempt to connect with those who have lost faith in the church is a realisation by the bishops that they are fallible and that the laity are no longer gullible. This has to be a promising beginning to 2011.

The new directory is the first genuine attempt to come to grips with the yawning gap between what the laity and the leaders of the church perceive as the Christian faith.

Those who attempt to teach religious education in schools have often fought a futile battle. This has resulted from the lack of clarity about the precise purpose of religious education in a multicultural, multifaith and multiethnic society.

I have spent most of my life teaching students of all faiths. What I have found, particularly among Catholic students, is the longing for the leaders of the church to shift their attention away from official answers to more thoughtful reflection on the questions that beset them.

This point was first made clear to me when, as a youth, I asked the priest in confession how far I could go with my girlfriend. His reply was: "It depends on where you are going." The priest in question was clearly aware of Einstein's remark that if we are clear about the question the answer will follow.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin's comment that many young people leave Catholic schools theologically illiterate is certainly borne out by my experience. Unfortunately, young students see the religious education in their schools as an attempt to explain the obscure by the even more obscure. As one student wryly remarked: "It left me confused, but at a higher level."

What has always inspired me is the depth of spiritual longing and reflection that students reveal. They haven't lost their faith, they have lost our faith.

I feel confident that the reforming instincts of Dr Martin and his colleagues will do much to release the intelligence of the young people of Ireland so that they affirm intelligently and confidently what they believe.

The church must join them in celebrating difference rather than conformity. I hope that this initiative will herald the end of the national sport of berating bishops.

Philip O'Neill
Edith Road, Oxford

Irish Independent