The Church in Outreach

Perspectives from the Church in English-speaking countries.

New opportunities for life and commitment in the Church

Bishop Brendan Leahy


Bishop Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick in Ireland and an ecclesiologist, indicates some of the challenging issues generated by today's culture, not only for the  Catholic Church but  for every Church.  In the aftermath of the scandals involving the Church in various English-speaking countries, Bishop Leahy explains how a process of soul-searching and re-thinking is blossoming into a new conversion to a renewed evangelical life.
Against the backdrop of the huge trial that the Church has been undergoing both in Ireland and in other countries within the English-speaking world, the election of Pope Francis has brought a wave of joy and a renewed sense of hope.  Even those who are not part of the Church have been touched by his spontaneity and honesty in his actions and words. Themes with the most impact include the Pope’s focus on the Church in relation to the poor and outreach to the peripheries as well as his focus on renewal of the Vatican administration.  Some of the significant gestures that have struck people:  the washing of the feet of prisoners (including women and Muslims) during the Holy Thursday Liturgy; the transfer of residence to Saint Martha's; the nomination of 8 cardinals to act as his advisors. 

The earthquake of scandal

When we think of the Church in the English-speaking world, it would be impossible not to mention the impact of the child-abuse scandal. For the last 10-15 years it has been like an earthquake that has shaken the Church and the tremors are still being felt.  Undoubtedly, the Church has become more humble.
There has been a number of areas where we see new directions opening up. I would like to mention two in particular. Firstly, the recent crisis has raised the profile of children in the Church. As a fruit of all that has happened there’s a new discovery of the dignity and vocation of the child within the Church.  Children and young people are no longer seen as objects of pastoral care, but as subjects, active participants in the life of the community.  The spiritual nature of children has become a topic of great importance.

Secondly, reflecting upon how the scandals came about, it became clear that during the 60's and 70's, the pastoral approach to handling difficulties arising within the Church did not sufficiently take account of canon law and the administrative procedures that exist within the Church.  Now we see a much greater emphasis on adherence to both the canon law and civil law standards and guidelines. In some countries, like the United States, we are also seeing a rise in the number of vocations to the priesthood. However, we should be asking ourselves what type of role-model for the priest is emerging? While we need to be clear on the institutional requirements of ministerial model, we need to be mindful that priesthood has to be understood also in its deepest dimensions. There’s a need to explore the meaning of ministry in terms of our understanding of the Church in her Trinitarian Mystery where love, order, structure and ministry are not separated but integrated together. In a sense, we need to rediscover how to order our ministry according to love, as Chiara Lubich would say; that is, we will need to deepen our understanding of what it means to order things out of love, with love and being love (with all the demanding requirements of genuine Gospel love).  And we will also need to rediscover the reality of the “People of God” within which priests exercise their ministry.  As Pope Francis affirms in
Evangelii gaudium: 'Evangelisation is the task of the whole Church.  The Church is much more that a hierarchical institution, she is first and foremost a people, advancing on its pilgrim way towards God (n.111).

Where should the Church position herself in modern day society?

Apart from the scandals, another great challenge for the Church in the English-speaking world, is where to position herself in modern day society. I am conscious that situations may vary depending on the country in question and the Catholic Church will need to take these differences into account.
As governments introduce new legislation in the field of ethics and morality, various Catholic institutions are coming under increasing pressure.  With the situation becoming more and more complex, it is difficult to foresee how the Church will be able to continue running hospitals and other similar institutions.
Faced with an ever more secularized society, there are differences of opinion within the Church itself: those who insist that we are caught in a downward spiral and those who look for the positive in these new situations; those willing to dialogue, and those who maintain in defence of the faith that we can’t make compromises.
On this point,  it is interesting to read what John Allen the American journalist has to say in his recent book
(The Catholic Church: What everyone needs to know, 2013); he mentions the Focolare Movement as being particularly adept at overcoming ideological divisions. What might be his reason for saying this?  Perhaps it is because in  polarized situations such as these, the spirituality of unity offers the perspective of all being children of the One Father; looking at things with new eyes and drawing out the positive, whilst at the same time not being afraid to name and confront the darker side of the today's ecclesial and cultural landscape.

The God Question

It has become fashionable once again in the English-speaking world to discuss God. This is partly due to the effect of the terrorist attack of September 11th 2001 in New York and the success of publications by so-called 'new atheists' (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens).  The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, speaks of a shift in the 'social imaginary' ; society's perception and understanding of itself has undergone great changes over the last few decades and this has led to faith being viewed as a strictly private matter.  So the question now is how to   integrate the idea of faith being something that is lived out, collectively, in a society rich in diversity.
In a nutshell, 'popular' culture is singing a new song.  It is up to the Church to start learning how to sing in the context of this 'new song'.  More than any other topic of discussion is the question of how to transmit the faith? Some speak about the emergence of an ' evangelical Catholicism' (cf George Weigel and John Allen) but the term 'evangelical' often refers to the strong evangelical tradition of the American protestant churches. The evangelical Catholicism implies a Catholicism that is more 'assertive'; more willing to speak out; more 'orthodox', more apologetic, less concerned with ecumenical or inter-religious dialogue. There is a lot to be said for this, but it has its limitations as it often fails to keep the broader dimensions of the Second Vatican Council to the fore.
One final observation. In general in the English-speaking world, relations between the Churches are good, but the real challenge now is not to stop here at this level of general friendship and tolerance, pleased with having got this far; instead we must keep our interest in ecumenism very much alive, recognising we are called to “may they all be one” (Jn 17:21).