I came across the following quote from the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin in 'The Irish Catholic' of July 29:
'There are signs within the Catholic Church that some - even young people - are seeking refuge from the challenges of life by adapting ways of the past and are retreating from dialogue with the present into the false security of imaginary better times. Conformist Catholicism is not the answer.'
It set me thinking about a lot of things. Maybe it's to do with growing older, and looking back. Was it Plato who criticised the youth of his day for not showing respect to their elders?
I was ordained a priest in 1974, Paul VI was pope. The Catholic Church in Ireland still spoke with authority and had real power. But there was an excitement in the air. The church was going to become more a 'people's church' and in far off South America they were talking about liberation theology. When you walked into a sacristy you'd meet the priest who was against all that was happening and then you would meet the man who was excited and delighted with what was in the ether.
I remember cycling through southern Germany and meeting priests who were so full of ideas. Young people were best of friends with their local priest. And all the time it seemed as if Paul VI was allowing things to happen. Whether he approved or not was not clear but to many it seemed he was going with the flow. More or less. Even in Rome the men in the long cappa magnas were becoming something of a joke. I remember it well. I lived in the city between 1974 and 1976.
Then they elected this chap from Venice, Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul l. It surely was going to be reform full steam ahead. He spoke a different sort of language than the old guard and he had such a smile. The smile didn't last long and in comes Karol Wojtyla - Pope John Paul II, the man from Cracow. Slowly but surely the real smiles and the real hope began to disappear. We were back to a centralised and authoritarian-run church. And no wonder. Karol's world had been greatly influenced by the nazis and the communists. How could anyone escape two such brutal political systems without being somehow damaged? The appointment of bishops became ever more shrouded in some sort of centralised paranoia. All the time while the secular world gave the appearance of growing ever more transparent the church was becoming more secretive and closed. Priests left in their droves. Young people were no longer best of friends with their local priest.
My generation of priest is today considered by many younger 'zealots' as that group of people who failed the church. I think it's just that point at which Diarmuid Martin might be hinting. It seems there is now a retrenchment happening and a growing group of people are saying that 'my generation' failed so it's time to return to the safe old ways, even if that means a much smaller church.
Pope Francis seems to have similarities with Albino Luciani/Pope John Paul I. He smiles a lot. He uses language that is understood by people like me. He wears ordinary shoes and he doesn't seem to give too much thought to fancy liturgical vestments. But for him to do anything is like trying to turn a giant aircraft carrier out at sea.
All those careerist clerics, quietly, secretly lying in wait. God help us. But Francis is a wily old Jesuit.