Friday, 3 July 2009

A Bishop "Tells it like it is"

In January of this year, the retired Bishop of Lancaster, Rt. Rev. Patrick O'Donoghue gave a talk to the Oxford Newman Society which was unlike any talk given by any Catholic bishop in England and Wales in living memory. Referring to his two documents, "Fit for Mission? Church" and "Fit for Mission? Schools", he asked,

"Why...are some Catholic education authorities, even bishops in this country, so fearful of Fit for Mission Schools?"

He also spoke of the, "pathetic situation of catechetics in this country" and referred to a "certain scepticism or embarrassed reserve about the supernatural dimension of the Faith", saying that this can be found in the lives of many clergy and laity.

Many priests - and I count myself amongst them - will recognise much truth in what he continues to say. His recent remarks in Ars, delivered during a retreat for clergy of the Northampton Diocese, are even more revealing. He speaks of a "wall of silence" in relation to the other Bishops' reception of his documents. He also accuses "some" bishops of disloyalty to the Pope. I guess this remark is meant to include any bishop from whatever country or diocese who has serious theological disagreements with the present Pontiff, but it still leaves uncomfortable questions about the other bishops of England and Wales, and it is obviously meant to do so.

A few years ago I read a very scholarly and balanced study of Catholic education which included an honest critique of the education policies of the Bishops of England and Wales. It is called, "The Ebbing of The Tide" by James Arthur. I never saw this book reviewed in any Catholic newspaper or magazine in England. I only know one other priest who has read it. Like me, he considers it to be a "bombshell". As far as I know there has not been any response from any Catholic bishop. Arthur conclusively shows that the Bishops of England and Wales have failed to follow Vatican guidelines in their guidance of Catholic education and catechesis in this country.
Like many priests I have to deal with young Catholics, asking to have their children baptised, who are living with their partner and have little or no real understanding of the Church's position regarding sexual morality and Marriage. I always ask them what school they attended. Without fail it is the local Catholic High School. Not only that, but they often have no understanding of the "Sunday Obligation" and why the old tradition of attending Mass on Sunday is important. They think that they can receive Holy Communion as and when they want whatever their situation. This is not all. I have often felt sick in seeing how some of these - often very generous and honest - young people are encouraged in their ignorance by other clergy, as though none of this really matters. I know of one priest in a deanery meeting who was told not to ask "certain questions" when the deanery meeting was visited by the local high school headmaster. Some things are not to be discussed. The distinction between mortal and venial sin has disappeared. Most Catholic young people know nothing of this - because they have not been told.
Some will attempt to say that it is up to the priests in their parishes to teach these things, but as we know, we only have around seven to ten minbutes to speak to people, often in a church full of distractions where some people switch off as soon as the homily begins. Not only that, the practice of preaching on the readings sometimes goes against a straightforward sermon on basic doctrine. Sometimes people will say, "we don't want to hear any of that" as though they have a right to suggest that the priest should not teach certain aspects of the Faith.
I remember some years ago being in Harrogate when we three priests agreed to preach a series on the Ten Commandments. After one Sunday sermon on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments I found a small group of men waiting for me outside the church. One of them said, "We think there should be a moritorium on sermons like that, Father - as it says in the Tablet" (he had it in his hand). The other two priests had similar responses. Have we "caved in" to this kind of pressure? Are we afraid to speak the truth because it may upset or offend people? Are we nervous about facing the facts about our poor catechesis and the dreadful absence of many young people at Mass? School Masses continue to see hosts of young people receiving Communion. Priests know that, in some cases, they have never seen some of these people at weekend Masses - unless they remember them from Primary School days or First Communion day.
I think it is time we ALL told the truth. This is NOT a condemnation of young people - it is not all their fault (if ever!). We must be open and face facts and stop congratulating ourselves as if trying to drown the truth which cries out for recognition.

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