Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Should we close the churches?


It might seem a startling proposal: that the Bishop of Port Pirie close all fifty-seven churches in the diocese! But might this be an effective way to bring about a more family-oriented Church, reviving the family as the community in which the faith is communicated, taught, practised and nourished?

Very much of the shape of Australian Catholicism was moulded in Ireland. A giant of the Irish Church was Cardinal Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland from 1852 to 1878. He was the first Irish Cardinal, and was greatly committed to the Vatican and the Papacy.

Cardinal Cullen’s indirect influence on the Australian Church was profound. Cardinal Patrick Moran was his nephew, and the twelve Irish priests who were made bishops in Australia during Cullen’s time were all his pupils - and some were his relatives - all at a time when the character of Australian Catholicism was being shaped.

One of the great contributions of Cardinal Cullen was the ‘devotional revolution’ (as it is termed) that he initiated in Ireland, serving a Church that was coming out of the penal era, when Catholic churches were not allowed to be built, Catholic schools were forbidden, and there was a general discrimination against Catholics in British-run Ireland. Working with the new religious orders that were being founded then (the Sisters of Mercy, Christian Brothers and so on) changes were introduced among the Catholics of Ireland, through the many devotions that were promoted. Among the many fruits of this devotional revolution were multiplicity of vocations to the religious life, resulting in a great many sisters and brothers coming to mission countries like Australia. In addition, in Ireland, the churches became crowded with more than ninety percent of the population attending weekly Mass.

What was the situation like beforehand? In the days of strong discrimination against the Church under British rule, the priests had little option but to move from house to house to say Mass, and neighbours and people from the village would crowd in. The home became the principal place for the handing on of the faith. The life of the Church took place in the home.

As the Church became freer and the role of the parish church as the Mass centre grew, a balance was maintained between home and church for religious practice. For a century there was a very good balance, with the church the place for the Mass and the celebration of the Sacraments, and the home for the nurturing of the faith. It was our experience also in Australia where the home was the place where for most families the religious devotions like night prayers, the rosary, grace before meals, the sprig of palm from Palm Sunday, images of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady and some of the Saints, holy water, and so on, were practised. The home was the context for the faith, reinforced by the school, and celebrated in the church.

There has been a change. In many Catholic homes today there are no images of Mary and the Saints, no crucifix, no grace said, no prayers together as a family, not a Bible or missal readily to hand. We go to church if we want religious practice. The home is neutral. Clearly, I am painting a picture with very broad strokes, just to make a point. In our homes there is of course a massive example of Christian love and comfort through parents and child, but nevertheless little is done to express our faith as families in acts of prayer together.

Look, however, at the faith of the Jewish people enduring through centuries of persecution, against massive acts of annihilation of whole communities. In spite of everything, their faith has survived, and it is a family-based faith. The mother lights the candle in the home on the Friday evening and intones the psalms and the prayers. It is a family-centred, table-top liturgy, springing from the home. They go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, but the dynamism comes from the acts of worship in the home. On the other hand, we have grown to act as if religious experience only takes place in a church, not in our homes.

If we can rediscover how to be a family-based church, it will stop a hardening of attitudes. We are in danger of moving towards seeing our homes as the places for real living, and the church for the place of religious practice, a divorce that will over time enfeeble faith, and allow Christ not to be mentioned or celebrated where we live our real lives - in our homes.

Hence, if our churches were closed, and we had to go back to Masses in the homes as the only place to worship, would this, I ask with tongue in cheek, help revive our faith and worship, and help reduce the drift of our young away from their religious practice? If prayer or Scripture is not practised in the home, and our young people are not going to a church, then they are necessarily living lives where there is no hearing of the Word, no opportunity to ‘be still and know that I am God’, no developing of a maturing faith. There will be much input from other sources – music and media, texting and involvement in sport or fashion, but no input from the Gospel of Jesus to help mould their inner lives of faith, hope and love.

By Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ, Port Pirie Diocese. This article first appeared in The Witness magazine.