The end of an era. Guest blogger: Michael Kelly SJ

Nov 14, 2013

It may be because I’ve been in Ireland and dealing with people who are the heirs of those responsible for most of the heritage and works of the Australian Jesuits. But I don’t think so. What struck me most deeply after a month or more among European Jesuits, and registering the scale of challenge to the Church as it is represented in the new Pope, is what a “fin de siècle” state the Church is in throughout all its moods and tenses.


It is difficult to overestimate the rate and depth of change and the collapse of a phase of the Church’s life that is currently underway. Throughout the world, but particularly in Ireland, the sense of the end of an era that delivered the largest growth in the history of the Church, something foundational is happening. In Ireland for 150 years from the Famine in the 1840s, a cast of Catholicism was exported worldwide. It’s plain that this phase in the Church’s life that seemed as though it would last forever is in fact over.


For example, the Irish Jesuits who sent hundreds and hundreds of missionaries to Asia, Africa and Australia now have more members aged over 90 than they do less than 50 years of age. They have four under 50 and can only look at “consolidating”, also known as shutting up shop. One British Jesuit told me that on current figures, there would not be a Jesuit in Britain NOT on the aged pension by the middle of the next decade.


It’s not as though the statisticians throughout the Jesuits and the wider Church in Australia, Europe and the USA haven’t seen it coming and haven’t already been advising the Congregational and diocesan leadership for a long time on the unsustainability of various Provinces, dioceses and works. But in Europe it would appear that the future has arrived a little earlier than expected, as John Battersby once said of the Archdiocese of Brisbane!


Such has been the case for many congregations of religious women across the world far earlier than for some male clerical religious congregations and for the supply of clergy in dioceses. For clerical religious, the provision of the sacraments has been an enduring need to meet and one that provided relevance. That has kept numbers up quite apart from any special focus offered by the charism of founders and their relevance and attractiveness to prospective members. But not now.


As far as absorbing the impact of these well-known and common experiences, not much work has been done apart from scaling back, sometimes done with an energetic press of the panic button by superiors and bishops to underline the urgency of their actions.


For the rank and file among religious and clergy, even if these realities were not anticipated when most joined their congregations or dioceses, the challenge is great. The most common reaction is something I have come to call the spirituality and missiology of the last of the Mohicans.


Everyone can see the reality; everyone is reluctant to utter the D word for DEATH; everyone hopes that at least there will be something around for when the inevitable admission to the aged care facility occurs. ‘Don’t ask me why it’s all evaporated; I’ll be the last of the tribe and I don’t want to have my life complicated by being asked to “please explain”. The ‘collapse’ is the way many respond’.


At the turn of an age, as the early 20th Century French Church historian Peguy once remarked, the Church always arrives a little late and a little breathless. The turn of this one is no different because the reality is that there are no reinforcements coming from traditional sources to support existing ways of delivering the service.


For believers, the future belongs not to fears but to God. The only authentic and spiritually persuasive response to being in the middle of a change of eras like this is one that allows the Spirit to do what the Spirit does. And what the Spirit does is always surprise. Discipleship asks that we be attentive to the unexpected ways we may be drawn.


What I find very discouraging about ways of addressing this inescapable reality is the abject failure to see how the mission of the Church is actually delivered today.


Despite our blindness to it at times, God is still vigorously at work. Only a conception of mission and the resources needed for it entirely reduced to clergy and religious as until recently trained and authorized could see it as something where God hasn’t been energetically active.


To borrow from what Bill Clinton did to beat George Bush Senior twenty years ago – “the economy, stupid, the economy!” The real context for the Catholic Church in Australia and much of the developed world is “the laity, stupid, the laity”. There actually has been an explosion in lay participation in ministry at every level, except the sacramental. What’s needed is to acknowledge that fact.


The acid test of whether there has been any acknowledgement of the facts is whether any real power sharing has occurred whereby lay people have become part of decision making processes of dioceses and congregations. Lay people and women especially have taken leadership roles in the services that are offered – in health, welfare and educations – because they require a professional expertise that these days the congregations and dioceses don’t have among their members.


But do lay people and women in particular actually become part of the processes where the most significant decisions are made – on Congregational Councils and in the diocesan bodies often reserved for exclusive clerical membership?


At a strategic and organizational level, acknowledgement of and decisive involvement by lay people in mission, leadership and ministry can go a couple of ways.


One currently proposed response to this change of eras adopted by some in the Church, and reinforced by Emeritus Pope Benedict, is quite happy to welcome this decline in the Church as we have known it. They have seen it as a God given opportunity to scale the Church back to a faithful remnant that would be distinctive because of its orthodoxy and compliance with what Rome and its utterances required under the management of the last three decades.


Shame about the mass of Catholics, you might say. They can amuse themselves. There is the elite and that’s all there really needs to be any concern for.


The more recent, but also more ancient, view – proposed by Pope Francis who also accepts a reduced size and presence of the Church as inevitable and perhaps desirable – is to say that elitism is for the birds and what is needed is for the Church to be present and make its contribution as leaven: distinctive, even vital and decisive, but not all consuming and dominating.


The faithful remnant – and not the usual clerical and religious suspects – in this view will be distinctive because it engages directly with the issues and concerns that the average person has, is in the market place and is ready to give an account of the hope they have. It is not hidden away behind sacristy doors and locked into conversations with the already signed up membership.


However the present becomes the future, one thing is sure. The latter won’t be like the past. We might just be in a situation of such abject poverty and resourcelessness that we can allow God to be God.

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