Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland delivered a hopeful but brutally honest homily about the state of the Irish Church on Nov. 20, addressing serious failings that he said indicated a deeper crisis of faith.
The archbishop did not shrink from speaking frankly about the scandals that have rocked the Irish Church in the wake of two 2009 reports. The Murphy Report and the Ryan Report detailed sexual and other physical abuse in the Irish Church, along with church authorities' efforts to hide the incidents. Both reports prompted a papal investigation that began Nov. 12.
Speaking to members of the Legion of Mary at a Mass marking the 30th anniversary of its founder Frank Duff's death, Archbishop Martin acknowledged that many church leaders had failed profoundly in their pastoral duties. More than this, he said, they had demonstrated “arrogance and power seeking,” acting in a way that alienated many believers and contradicted the message of the gospel.
These failures and abuses, he said, caused the Church to lose both its remaining social power and much of its credibility. The blows came at a time when many Irish Catholics were already drifting away from the Church to “live as if God did not exist,” the archbishop continued.
He also highlighted the “crisis of vocations to the priesthood,” noting that he recently presided at a Mass in memory of 20 priests who had died within the past 12 months. “A further dozen or so priests retired from active ministry during the same period,” he said. “And yet, in the past year I ordained just one new priest for the diocese (of Dublin).”
While in no way minimizing either the abuse scandals or the priest shortage, Archbishop Martin offered that there was a deeper crisis within the Irish Church, one that concerned “the very nature of faith in Jesus Christ,” and the question of Jesus' identity and mission.
He proposed that the Irish Church would only be able to address its more obvious problems, by returning to what he called “the fundamental question:” “Who is Jesus Christ?”
“We do not create our own identity for Jesus Christ,” the archbishop emphasized. Nor, he said, could the Christian message of sacrificial love be reduced to the notion of “being nice to each other.” He stated that only a rediscovery of Jesus' real call to discipleship would enable the Irish Church to find its footing– not by returning to a past state of affairs, but by returning to the unchanging truths of faith.
“In today's society, where the message of Jesus is less and less accessible,” he said, “the Church must become a place where formation in the Word of God resounds in a way that it has not done in the Irish Church for generations.” The Church, he stressed, was not a “vague moralizing agent in society,” but a supernatural institution, with a mandate that God's grace alone could achieve.
Outside interventions and structural reform, while potentially beneficial and at times necessary, could never substitute for this type of spiritual renewal, which the archbishop acknowledged would be painful.
“There are many indications that the Church in Ireland has lost its way,” he said. “Many people of various ages, no longer really know Jesus Christ.” He suggested that this living faith, for many people, may have given way to cultural expectations and outward obedience.
“Can we be happy to celebrate first communion services which put people into debt for thousands of Euro,” he asked, “while neither the children nor their parents have been led to a true understanding of the Eucharist and … the Church? Can we be satisfied when confirmation is looked on by many as a graduation out of Church life?”
“In not addressing such issues, we are not just deceiving ourselves, but we are damaging the integrity of the mystery of Jesus.”
Archbishop Martin offered no easy answers or quick fixes in the searching address. He acknowledged the persistence of deep and authentic faith among many Irish Catholics, as he observed that “many people with little education have a deeper insight into the message of Jesus Christ than learned theologians or bishops.”
Above all, he praised the example of Frank Duff, a layman who began the Legion of Mary during the troubled year of 1921, during which the Irish people faced looming civil war and crushing poverty.
“Frank Duff was a man who, in the face of a major social challenge, did something … He gathered likeminded men and women around him into a movement of spiritual renewal, prayer and Christian service.” Such movements, the archbishop indicated, would have a critical role to play in calling Irish Catholics –both the clergy and the laity– back to the essence of their faith.