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Is the Catholic Church in Ireland down but not out? Photo by: Guardian

How the Catholic Church in Ireland can survive

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Is the Catholic Church in Ireland down but not out? Photo by: Guardian

Some in religious life in Ireland are close to despair when they see the enormity of the challenges facing them. These challenges include overcoming ridicule in the aftermath of the Ryan Report, the long and lasting lack of vocations, the lack of energy, the clear need to do something positive, to cast out into the deep, to change or die.

With an average age of 70, according to one congregational leader I spoke with recently, if the challenge can be described as a mountain to climb, it is of Everest proportions. And yet, this is to see it all through the eyes of worldly thinking and not through the eyes of faith like St ThérÉse of Lisieux, and realise the littleness of our ability, and place the mountain of cares in God's hands.

Our natural instinct is to fix, repair and grow -- we've been born and raised in an institutional Church that was far reaching and extremely well-resourced. We've never known institutional weakness in the Irish Church since independence, until now.

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We are a wounded Church. Perhaps that is God's greatest gift to our Church at the moment, its wound. Otherwise how can an institutional religion understand the wounds of its members or have compassion for them?

Institutional religion quickly becomes the religion of the Pharisee, the path of perfection and lacks in compassion for the not so upstanding members whose wounds are easy to point out, which cannot be covered up by wealth, or office or uniforms or sacramental garbs. That is why Jesus speaks so often of those who see without seeing and how they are truly blind. The truly blind didn't see that an innocent child should be protected.

I was doing an interview last week with a local Christian (Catholic) radio programme and when I said that the institutional Church was dying, the interviewer said ''that's a bit harsh''.

I countered, saying it may be harsh to her ears but the question she needed to ask was ''is it true?''

And if it is true then it is fact, and facts are neither harsh nor sweet but speak for themselves.

There is a soft-focus in much of Catholic Ireland that would prefer a few painkillers along with their weekly diet of Catholic news, but dulling the senses is not the way to new thinking.

Others want to reach out and find scapegoats and find solace in blaming others -- the media, secularism, atheists, the new missal, the old Mass, liberals, right-wingers and so on. Red herrings all.

The wound is still there and there's a message in it, for us, and until we respond to the message we will continue to die as an institutional religion in Ireland. The faith, once strong in North Africa died out completely; there are no divine guarantees for Ireland or Western Europe.

But as one religious leader has written: ''We are not here to change the world; we are here to illuminate it.'' We talk about evangelisation but is the salt still salty? Bland Christians don't convince or convert anyone.

Cardinal Brady spoke at the weekend of the numbers looking to study theology and scripture and how encouraging those numbers are.

It is impressive and is a clear sign of the hunger among laity to know more about their faith, to have an adult faith that makes sense. People long for instruction on their spiritual journey, to learn how to pray, to learn how to let go of the nonsense and find what is real.

Institutional religion -- the Church and religious orders -- are failing because there is a failure in leadership.

Quite simply, those in leadership positions were not trained to be leaders in times of chaos, yet some cling to leadership in spite of their inability to lead, others lead because no one else will.

A few recognise that leadership requires vision and is not management or administration but something different.

What we all can agree on is that we are called to be a new type of Church, ''one truly centred around the radical and disturbing vision of Jesus. At our best we know what it is. It is the only way to ensure a future full of hope''.

That quote comes from the head of the Christian Brothers, a disgraced religious order in Ireland with their reputation in 'tatters' and yet, from the margins, from the bottom, comes such insight and wisdom and hope.

I'll leave the last word to the mystics:

''Beware of the tiny gods frightened men create

To bring an anaesthetic relief

To their sad days.''

Be not afraid.

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