‘The Church: Into the Future’
“The Church: Into the Future” was the theme chosen by Irish Jesuit Provincial Tom Layden, for the Province Assembly held in Gonzaga College, Saturday 11 June. Over 180 Jesuits, colleagues and co-workers heard the Provincial urge them to be honest about the state the Church finds itself in today, so that they might carve out a new vision of Church for the future. By doing so “we can make our contribution as one part of the Church in Ireland,” he said. Bruce Bradley SJ gave a potted history of the Irish Jesuit Province to mark its 150th anniversary, and theologian Jim Corkery spoke about an alternative vision of Church. Lively plenary and group sessions followed. A photostory of the highlights of the ‘Broken Faith’ conference was shown, along with a compilation of photos from AMDG Express. Photos of the day can be seen here (more to follow). Read the Provincial’s address below.
THE CHURCH INTO THE FUTURE
Province Assembly Address, 11 June 2011
‘The Church into the Future’ is the theme I have chosen for this Province Assembly of 2011. Why this theme?
Well, the Province is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and although it’s a somewhat technical anniversary it is nonetheless important that we mark it. However, I want us not just to mark it, but in true Ignatian spirit to do an ‘examen’ on it. That means we reflect on and give attention to the presence of God in the last 150 years of our history. We give thanks for that presence and the work it engendered; we ask for mercy and healing for where we have gone wrong; and we ask for the light of the Spirit to guide us into the future.
Let me draw your attention to three significant events of recent times that might help to set the context for my chosen theme.
Firstly, the visit of Queen Elizabeth II was an important and uplifting moment for the people of Ireland. Bowing her head in the Garden of Remembrance in honour of those who died fighting for Irish freedom was a powerful symbol of how it is possible to come to terms with the past and move on in maturity and freedom. It was a moment of hope, marking real change.
Secondly, the dramatic shifts in the economic realities of Irish life over the past twenty years have left us reeling. The unprecedented financial growth of the nineties into the new millennium gave rise to a wealthier, more self-confident Ireland, a new Ireland of changed complexion, with immigrants from many parts of the world.
But the subsequent economic collapse of recent years has robbed many people of their livelihoods, forcing our young people onto the emigrant trail once again. The revelations of dubious ethics and lax governance in our financial institutions, along with low morals in high places, have left many people angry or disillusioned about the future.
And lastly, in our own Church we have had to face the scandal of the child sexual abuse crisis. We think of those who were hurt, abused and betrayed; those who were treated so unjustly in the way their cases were handled or indeed mishandled. We cannot forget them and we know that their story points us to a wider and deeper problem because cases involving clergy and religious have impacted on our very sense of ‘Church’.
There was a time when the Church was seen as a sanctuary, as a place where people, especially children, would be safe. Now that ‘sanctuary’ is seen by many as a place where our most vulnerable were at risk. How can the Church be renewed, how can it become a sanctuary again?
Many of you attended the Broken Faith conference which took place in the Milltown Institute, in April. In the aftermath of the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports, people from various disciplines came together to explore how we might respond to what was revealed in those reports, how we might re-vision the Church in Ireland, the Church in the world.
We are the Church – or part of it, certainly. For the Church is the community of the baptised. We want to play our part in serving the Irish Church at this moment in its history.
And by ‘we’ I mean the Jesuits of Ireland, our co-workers, those of you who work with us or for us, you who direct our works or are members of our boards. And I ask: is there any specific contribution we can make, coming out of our Ignatian tradition?
That tradition emphasises honesty. In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius we are required to be honest with the Lord in our prayer and honest with the Spiritual Director as we report the movements of the Spirit in our lives.
Our tradition asks that we pay attention to our affective state, noting how we feel about issues that emerge for us, asking “Am I sad, angry, fearful?”
It is a tradition of respect for ‘the other’ requiring in particular, that we always put the best possible interpretation on their words or actions. So we allow for difference and accept that everyone does not have to be the same.
Examining the past and present in that stance of honesty, attentiveness and respect orients us to the future. We ask, “Where is the Spirit leading us?” And believing that God speaks to us through our desires, we ask, “Where do we want to go, where do we not want to go?” And it is always ‘we’ not I. For we are not alone. We have each other. And we have the three divine persons accompanying us.
In the Spirtitual Exercises we speak of ‘sentire cum ecclesia’, a concept that is sometimes translated as ‘thinking with the Church’. I prefer the notion of ‘feeling’ with the church; feeling with the whole body of Church, the community of Christ’s disciples. And that is what we can do here today. I invite all of us, including myself, perhaps especially myself, to take the plunge, trusting that the Spirit is at work with us in the process that unfolds.
Let us risk being honest. Let us each allow ‘the others’ to be themselves. Never denying that there is a real crisis, never forgetting the pain of the victims – those abused, not believed or falsely accused – let us trust that God’s Spirit is at work. That spirit can enable us to bring about real change as we bear witness to God’s love by proclaiming our faith, working for justice and seeking for dialogue with women and men of goodwill.
If St Ignatius were in our situation today, what would he do? I believe he would begin with a question: “What ought I do for Christ in this situation of brokenness?” And so each of us here today can ask a similar question of ourselves: “What can I do for Christ in this situation of brokenness, in my apostolate, my community or where I live and work?”
Throughout today I will be listening. I have set up a Church advisory group with whom I can consult and I will bring your sharings and reflections to our next meeting in September. The group members are Alan McGuckian (Chair), Mary Curtin, Jim Corkery, Sue Mulligan, Gerry O’Hanlon, Danny McNelis and myself. Socius, Noel Barber, is secretary.
Also in the course of next year’s visitations, I shall be talking with you in your works and communities. I will be continuing with you the conversation which begins today. We can explore together how things are going for us as we ponder the question Ignatius would ask: “What Christ would have us do, and so what might we do at this difficult moment in the life of the faith-community?”
I don’t want to add extra work on to busy people, so I will include it in the visitation agenda and have it as a focus there. We are all affected by this situation. It’s in the air we breathe. There’s no getting away from it. We want to make our contribution as one part of the Church in Ireland.