Pilgrims walk to shrine
Reflections: ‘Good old days’ are starting now
By Desmond O’Donnell OMI
Faced with the manifest evil of clerical child abuse, many Church members lament the disappearance of ‘the good old days’ of sodalities, full churches, bursting seminaries, unquestioned clergy and nuns all over the place. Yet it was during ‘the good old days’ that the crimes of child abuse were being perpetrated and covered up.
In my opinion the good days are just emerging. Maybe the Church has not been in such good shape for a long time.
A cancer discovered causes anxiety but joy comes with its excision, however painful. Any church worth its incense must surely celebrate this present disclosure of the serious cancer of child abuse. Thanks in part to the media, the church is now hopefully on its way to surgery.
In ‘the good old days’ if confession of ‘missing my morning prayers’ was an indication, more prayers were said than today but often because it was the law.
But there is perhaps a more authentic and more spontaneous new prayer movement alive among Catholics today.
The Church is not people saying prayers or listening to prayers being said at Mass; it is people praying, and this movement is growing.
In ‘the good old days’ too, apart from clergy and religious, religious education ended at graduation from primary or secondary school. No longer. Former exclusively clerical seminaries and Catholic University have hundreds of people studying theology in each of them, and asking how best to nourish faith in others.
In ‘the good old days’ women were silent and the whole church was only half nourished. Now women are studying and teaching theology in once exclusively male institutions.
Serious attention is at last being paid to the spiritual enrichment which feminine spirituality can bring to the Church. Women’s voices are being heard even if they are not always being attended to seriously yet.
In ‘the good old days’, apart from the then menonly St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholics were not directly involved with the poor. Now there is an increased awareness that without good works for the less privileged, one’s faith is false. In ‘the good old days’ even nuns who vowed to care for the poor, sick and ignorant confined most of their work to their institutions or to schools. Although they are fewer in number, many nuns are now living and working side by side with people on the margin.
Even after Pope Leo XIII’s statement of human rights in 1891 the Church of ‘the good old days’ was slow enough to move beyond exhortation. Now John Paul II has encouraged social criticism of ‘systemic evil’ everywhere. Bishops offer the only constant critique of government social policies.
In ‘the good old days’, for most Catholics the bible was a Protestant book but now the insights of Catholic and Protestant scholars are available in religious bookshops everywhere. There are bible study groups in most parishes.
In ‘the good old days’ liturgy was the priest’s exclusive domain. Women, especially, were kept well outside the altar rails except to arrange the flowers. Now any Sunday Mass and our recent Easter ceremonies demonstrate the growing participation of lay people in the sacred mysteries everywhere.
The really good news for the Church now is that it is rapidly losing friends it should never have had. It is beginning to offer – at most – critical co-operation with any political system.
The real Church is not the number of people at Sunday Mass, not the number of men in seminaries, not its diminishing control of hospitals and schools, not even its priests and bishops.
The real Church is the quality of people’s relationship with God, with themselves, with one another and with the environment.
I see grace continuing to call the Church to move away from ‘the good old days’ and move into lived faith, deep prayer, adult education, involvement with the poor, social criticism, biblical studies, lay ministry, feminine spirituality, faith communities and less fear of martyrdom in any form. In the meantime let us all have the courage to carry the cross of deserved humiliation and shame when we hurt children or one another in any way.
Father O’Donnell is an Oblate priest in Dublin. He is also a registered psychologist. He worked for 28 years in Australia.