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What hope for faith in the new Ireland?

Michael Paul Gallagher SJ Michael Paul Gallagher SJ spoke to almost 400 priests at a recent Dublin Diocesan conference. He explored such issues as changes in Irish culture, the challenge of post-modernism, and the “languages of faith”.


The title of my presentation for the Dublin priests was “After a cultural revolution, what hope for faith?”, and I described it more as an evocation than a lecture.Using about sixty images in PowerPoint, there were three main parts. The first section tried to evoke the changes in Dublin over the last generation. Karl Rahner once said that what changes is not faith itself but the context for the decision of faith. For Ireland it is a major change that faith has to be a decision, often against the cultural tide. Being a Catholic was part of the unchanging landscape up to some twenty years ago. Then came both economic boom, the shock of scandals, and an unprecedented decline in active Church belonging. We face a radically new culture, which is a power in the land. It shapes our imagination and our freedom or unfreedom. It can seem a hostile context and that has an inevitable impact on a priest’s sense of himself and his ministry.

A second part invited the priests to shift focus, from outer developments to what this postmodern situation provokes in them. There is a cross-cultural dialogue going on in us, not just out there in society. Is there a danger of desolation when we experience so much unforeseen and perhaps bewildering change? A mixture of fear, guilt, resentment, disappointment, and ultimately a form of sulking? Or is it possible to discern the call of the Spirit in the new Ireland and the new Dublin? It is an old piece of wisdom that we cannot decide well unless we are in serenely in tune with the Spirit, aware that we are not alone in the boat in spite of the storm.

A third part suggested some languages of faith that have emerged as priorities in other secularised parts of the world. Most people admit that passive sacramentalization cannot really serve the needs of evangelisation today, especially if evangelisation means surprising people with a gift they don’t know they need. In such a situation, some pre-evangelisation of people’s desires and dispositions becomes much more important than before. Where “God is missing but not missed” our spiritual imagination will need to be healed into new hope.

Another priority in our postmodern world is to recognise that faith is counter-cultural: it needs different “practices” in a community that is happily, but not negatively, different to the secular context. “Life-styles are now so different that an intellectual approach on its own is not enough. We have to offer people living spaces of communion and of traveling together”. These were words of Cardinal Ratzinger in an interview with a rather secular Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, some months before becoming Pope. In this light “practices” involves concrete ways of living the faith, ancient roots that become urgent again in the new culture. They range from finding a prayable sense of scripture to social commitment, from various forms of communities of growth to a rediscovery of the sacraments after a time of initiation.

In brief, a key hope for faith today is to encounter Christ as a source of both freshness and of disturbance, and then to build together the imagination to live a different love in this moment of Dublin’s long history.