Mary Kenny, columnist for the Irish Independent, writes of the sex-abuse and cover-up scandals that have devastated the Catholic Church in Ireland.
While admitting the dreadful situation in which the Irish Church finds itself, Kenny takes hope in the vast number of Irish who participated in the annual pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick, the hill made holy by St. Patrick’s 40-day fast on behalf of then pagan Ireland. The writer reflects that the Irish may stop sending their children to Catholic schools; they may boycott Mass. But they have not stopped believing in Jesus Christ nor thinking of themselves as Catholics. Kenny concludes, “The people’s faith has a knack of continuing on.”
Kenny is to be commended for uncovering any bit of solace to be found within Ireland’s tormented Catholic community. But her perceived division between Ireland’s Catholic faith and Ireland’s Catholic practice is alarming and ominous. American Catholics who themselves are recovering from a similar upset in this country should take heed.
Christianity is not primarily a religion of the heart. Christianity is not merely good feelings about God who is in heaven or about Jesus Christ who spoke wisely centuries ago. Christianity is an incarnate religion that does not separate belief from action. Divine truth that does not have practical consequences is either being ignored or misunderstood. The Gospel is not intended simply to bring consolation while seated before the hearth. The Gospel is meant for the transformation of society. Consequently authentic Christianity must always affect daily life and daily practices. The challenge given to Christians is to permeate the world’s routines with the grace derived from the church’s rituals. Separating personal faith from church involvement deprives the believer of his or her greatest resource. Granted the church in Ireland and the church in America have been stung (to put it too mildly) by clerical abuses, but a retreat from Catholic community life would be a very destructive consequence. (And Ireland is not alone in risking this.) If anything, a more vigorous involvement in parish, diocesan and national church life is the more faithful and more Christian response that an aggrieved laity is challenged to embrace.
The solemnity of the Baptism of Jesus Christ at the hands of St. John the Baptist reminds the Catholic faithful of the great tradition of cleansings that was found in Judaism, that St. John employed effectively at the Jordan, and that, under Jesus’ inspiration, would evolve into the Christian sacrament of baptism. It is true that baptism has its spiritual effects. The barrier to grace known as original sin is banish from the soul; the baptized enter into intimate communion with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; the theological virtues are bestowed. But baptism has corporate consequences as well. The baptized are welcomed into the Christian community, the Catholic Church, which will eventually lead them to the altar where, as a community, they will hear the Gospel proclaimed and will worship the Father through the enduring sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To extend the graces of the altar to the worldwide community is a consequent vocation of every Christian. The special task of the laity is to foster a temporal society where the meaning of the Gospel and the strength of Christ’s sacrifice can flourish. To accept baptism as a spiritual comfort without appreciating that it has practical significance is profoundly to misjudge this initial sacrament.
The last 50 years have truly witnessed Catholic liturgical action coming to life. Deacons and lectors now participate regularly; more Scripture is read; more hymns are sung; gifts are brought to the altar and the Precious Blood is more often offered from the altar. Some liturgical excesses have occurred but the livelier liturgy witnessed today is a happily broader experience than the muted Masses of the past. The modern church’s goal, however, is not simply liturgy coming alive; the aim is to bring liturgy to life. All the church’s sacraments, all the church’s doctrines, all the church’s moral guidance must reach into and affect daily life both on a personal level and on a community level. Baptism has obligations beyond the font. The Eucharist has responsibilities beyond the altar. And the Scriptures, while reassuring, are also intended to be practical, radically transforming humanity into the people of God. Those who hear the good news must spread the good news