Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

A moment for churches to reflect on a turbulent year

By this weekend, at the height of summer, many people will have been on holiday or will be looking forward to their own break. It is a time when local churches are fairly empty and when the faithful may be attending services far from home.

They may also be assessing how well, or how badly, their own churches are doing in terms of numbers, liturgy and liveliness.

In this period of relative lull in the annual cycle of church life, it is also time for reflection not only personally, but also on the main churches in general.

This has been a tough year for some, and not least the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

It is difficult to believe that in January this year Cardinal Brady seemed securely in command as he officiated at the funeral of another Prince of the Church, the late Cardinal Cahal Daly.

Just over six months later the picture is very different. The on-going revelations about clerical child sex abuse have undermined the credibility of much of the Catholic Church in general and of the Irish Church in particular.

The much-publicised meeting in Rome between the Pope and the Irish bishops backfired publicly, in that it was seen as a group of mainly elderly men who were failing to come to grips with, admittedly, an extraordinarily difficult problem.

The Pope’s Pastoral Letter to Ireland, while a significant ecclesiastical milestone, failed to reassure the public at large that the problem was being properly tackled.

The later appointment of several senior clergy from outside to help review the situation in a number of areas only underlined how much the Irish Church had failed to come to grips with one of the most serious problems in its history. In the meantime, Cardinal Brady, after much soul-searching, decided not to step down and to attempt to lead his wounded Church further down the road to healing.

His decision did not surprise some people, but others were disappointed that he chose not to move on.

He is perfectly entitled to stay and, as a man with a strong sense of duty, he will do his very best.

However, this story is by no means over and after the summer lull the affairs of the Catholic Church will continue to make headlines, not least through the impending visit of Pope Benedict to the United Kingdom.

There was a time when a side-step to Armagh seemed possible to complete the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II so long ago.

However, recent events have ruled this out — for obvious reasons — and it is doubtful if Pope Benedict will ever set foot in Ireland, north or south.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has also had a difficult time this year because of the collapse of the Presbyterian Mutual Society.

It seemed, at one stage, that they were nearing a solution, but as time drags on there are still a number of major loose ends which need tying up.

The Church has still to work out how it will raise the £1m it has promised for a so-called Hardship Fund.

One well-placed source believes that, in the end, the Church might not need to raise the £1m, but there have been so many false dawns in this distressing story that it is difficult to know what will happen.

One thing is certain — some of those with money in the PMS have no certainty of regaining their funds as yet, and these are usually those who need them most.

In the meantime, the Church of Ireland and the Methodists have been facing less urgent problems, apart from the continual challenge of literally keeping the faith, in face of the challenges of the secular society.

In this respect, Archbishop Harper has been particularly noticeable in his criticism of the financial morality of the banks — or the lack of it.

All the Irish churches share similar problems of relevance and outreach in the modern age and the rioting over the post-Twelfth period has underlined that cross-community relationships need as much nurturing as before, if not more.

One can only wish the churches, their clergy and laity some restful and peaceful holidays. There is a mountain of challenges facing them when they all get back.

On the other hand, they do claim a hotline to a very powerful mentor.

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