RITE AND REASON: There was widespread disappointment among the faithful that in the pope’s letter last March, sex abuse was not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in church structure.
WHEN POPE Benedict XVI wrote his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland in March 2010, Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady issued a wide invitation, asking people to respond to this groundbreaking initiative.
Since then, a huge amount of work has been undertaken within the church to pave the way to a hopeful future.
But this is a period which, with Dickens, we might call “the worst of times”.
For the church in Ireland, what could be more devastating than the trail of destruction brought about by child sex abuse and related failures in accountability?
It is a stark truth that will forever hold the church up to accusation.
In 2010, in parishes and dioceses throughout the country, people who love the church have been talking. They know the past failings of the church were at wide variance with its mission.
This truth is painful for all of us, and it begs the question: “Why?”
For believers, Jesus Christ is the lord whose spirit fired up the first disciples to believe and to give witness, and to form into the communities which became the church.
This is the vision many people have for the church.
This year, bishops invited people of their dioceses to come to listening sessions where painful and fruitful concerns were expressed.
People were asked to speak from their hearts and to speak the truth. Bishops listened.
In the nine months from April to December, over 3,000 people have contributed written responses to the Pope’s letter.
Just over a quarter of these came through diocesan channels, a fifth from lay associations and almost half from religious communities.
The rest came from informed groups and individuals.
A summary was presented to the bishops’ conference at their December meeting and is available at catholicbishops.ie, under the pastoral renewal and adult faith development section.
Key findings indicate everyone heard the Pope’s call to renewal, and some interpreted this as a call to become “a mature church”.
The clarity of language and the simplicity of the letter’s structure were appreciated.
The pope’s reference to the history of the church in Ireland was also appreciated.
Moreover, respondents welcomed the Pope’s plea that “the whole truth” of the past be brought into the open. Pope Benedict’s recognition that it is a time to ask forgiveness and to turn to victims as well as to the lord with open hearts was positively acknowledged by many.
There was disappointment that child sex abuse was not seen as a symptom of shortcomings in church structure and function in the Pope’s letter.
Respondents observed there was no critique of the role of the Vatican, and little or no acknowledgment of the exclusion of lay people from roles in which they can contribute.
Practically all respondents found it encouraging that the ope’s letter recognised the church as the community of all the baptised. But many did not concur with the view they should repent for the sins of others.
There was universal support for continuing implementation of guidelines for the safeguarding of children throughout the church in Ireland.
There were requests that the use of titles, insignia and exclusive language be examined.
Many placed a strong emphasis on education and formation as a foundation for renewal: “We need to relight the vision of Vatican II.”
Theologians and returned missionaries, Catholic media and ongoing research were all mentioned as vital to the task of fostering an adult understanding of faith.
There were multiple calls for renewal of liturgical celebrations, and for fidelity to the teaching of the church.
Many respondents called for dialogue relating to sexuality, clerical celibacy, and the exclusion of women (not just from ordination).
Some called for greater transparency on church law and how the church functions.
It is hoped the celebration of the International Eucharistic Congress in Ireland in 2012 will reflect the whole church, including its sinfulness, and commit all of us to service and charity as well as to renewal.
It is clear that, this year, the church in Ireland has experienced the beginnings of structured dialogue at many levels.
If this process of renewal interests you, I invite you to look at the summary report on the website (as above).
Please e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Séamus Freeman is Catholic Bishop of Ossory and chairman of the bishops’ Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development