A crisis of identity among Catholics

Fr Joe McDonald says that we have to be careful not to only point the finger outside when looking for reasons for the Church’s current problems.

“Crisis of faith! Crisis of religious practice! Crisis of vocations!”. So run the attempts to diagnose the ongoing malaise that besieges the Church. However the malaise is in fact endemic to the Church. It seems like a case of ‘don’t mention the war!’. We are slow to take a good look at ourselves. We tend not to speak of a crisis of leadership and we are much less inclined to address our crisis of identity. Consciously or otherwise it is interesting that our attempts to explain our present plight invariably tend to pose scenarios that are ever so slightly removed from our direct responsibility. 

It is true that secular humanism has had a huge impact on people’s belief systems. The scandals, yes largely historical, and yet leaking contemporaneously, are all the while eroding practice. Yes it can be argued our society is so materialistic that it is effectively hostile to vocations. Of course there is some truth in these various strands of this defensive narrative. 

Truth there may well be in these propositions yet in point of fact they are also fundamentally flawed. The reality is that secular humanism is quickly exposed as not sating the deep hunger in people for meaning and fulfilment. If there was a meaningful vision for the reform and renewal of the Church articulated and presented freshly for people there is no doubt there would be plenty of people willing to become part of it. Vocations? A shortage of vocations? Again this is only partly true. There are in fact plenty of vocations, mostly lay, and most of these women. Lay women on fire with the Holy Spirit, bringing a myriad of richness to a Church starved of the fullness of the feminine. What do we say to them? Or rather what do we say to those women who have not as yet given up on us. Indeed is it too late to try and speak to those who have? 

I think the real crisis is much closer to home. Uncomfortably so. In fact our inability to name, never mind respond to this truth, is at the core of my contention that the Church’s condition is in fact terminal. In my view only the most radical prophetic leadership will enable the Church to recover in any meaningful way. So yes there is a crisis or perhaps more correctly a series of mini crises. Might we call them shockwaves? If so where is the epicentre? The more external, the less severe, the less pressing. 

For example let’s take the issue of vocations: is it not the case that vocations are the work of the Holy Spirit and we play our part. It is God who calls. God calls through the power of the Holy Spirit. Could it be that our ongoing lack of vocations is the Holy Spirit saying ‘get your house in order and I’ll send the vocations’. Indeed from a human perspective is it not true that if we were attractive, relevant and dynamic, people would be naturally drawn to us. They would want to be part of what we do and more importantly would be inspired to become part of who we are. 

Crisis of leadership 

So there are various crises but two are particularly pertinent. The first of these is the crisis of leadership. This is true at parish, diocesan and national levels. Admittedly at every level, one will find great goodness, holiness, intellectual capability and to various degrees genuine pastoral concern. The missing component is the prophetic. This would include, if we could find it, a courageous, innovative and dynamic witness that would inspire people to draw closer.  

Whilst this is important it still falls short of naming the core crisis. This is not in my view the epicentre. So what is the fundamental crisis that ripples out and causes the series of crises sketched above. What then is the epicentre? 

Crisis of identity  

The major crisis that faces the church is a crisis of identity. It is the great cancer, the disease that has gone unchecked, and indeed continues to spread. Some of the fundamental questions that we were discussing twelve months ago, as things that we would need to tackle in the next five to ten years, are now imminent. This has been one of the great pandemic graces. Empty churches, rather locked churches, and at least as significant as this, the almost empty coffers, have shaken many, not all, church people, out of that cosy stupor that often goes with religion.  

Yet we are living in a time of graced opportunity. Like Bartimaeus we are blind and poor. We were blind pre-pandemic but now we are poor as well. The grace here is that we might just get it. Like Bartimaeus we may well see and then follow the Lord.  At what point did Zechariah get his speech back? His speech returns as he spoke God’s will, on naming the Baptist. We have been losing our voice for a long time. I wonder might we gain it again if we realigned ourselves with God’s will?  Could it be that our way back lies somewhere in the naming. One might say it is too facile to say the greatest crisis facing the Church is a crisis of identity. So what does this mean?  

In a nutshell I believe we have lost our way. I think we are not really clear who we are. Not so much what we are about, and the danger is we might see new ministries, or indeed the revamp of standard ministries as the way out of the yawning hole of irrelevancy that we sink deeper into. Of course any injection of vitality into ministry is to be welcomed. However this too might not get to the nub of the problem as I see it.  

A big yawn 

I see the core of our identity crisis as rooted in how we preach. Specifically the preaching of Christ. For much of the time we fail to preach Jesus and when we do it is usually vague, insipid and notional. What should be the most exciting, the most life giving, the most challenging and inspirational encounter, has in our hands, become routine, predictable and in reality a big yawn! We have become purveyors of boredom par excellence. It would be more honest to welcome people to the lethargy than the liturgy.  

Most of us have not got a notion of what is happening at the Eucharist. We have moved further and further away from the Nazarene and what a price we are paying. The sad truth is that much of the enormous mess we are in, is very definitely of our own making. Before we will make any fist of either reform or renewal we need to name what is wrong and take responsibility for it. Sadly even this is proving to be beyond us. Perhaps I should do just that, here and now.  

Preaching a prissy pious Jesus 

What is wrong? We do not preach Christ. Whose responsibility is this? The shepherd/pastor, nationally, at diocesan and local level. To be fair sometimes we offer a rather patchy and morbid crucified Christ, but an uplifting preaching of the Risen Jesus remains a rarity.  

When we do preach Jesus, is often a trite superficial version of him made in our own image and likeness. Two extremes come to mind. The first, a cuddly, prissy pious little Jesus, cute but non-existent. The second is a Jesus that can be wheeled out for every occasion, usually to beat somebody over the head. This Jesus is also non- existent except in the heads of the pious lazy bones who have settled. Settled for a Jesus, hinted at by someone else, at a different time, usually long ago. We settle for these pale imitations rather than engage in the daily graft of developing the unique personal relationship with Jesus that has been gifted to us through our baptismal call.  

Responsibility for enabling this lies directly with the shepherd, the pastor. To put it another way, we as Church must take responsibility for the fact that many people in this country after twelve years in the Catholic education system know little about how transformative our relationship with the Lord can be. It should be no surprise that the apparently omnipotent Church is rendered impotent. We do not know who we are because we have not preached Christ in a long time. How many people participating in the Eucharist even glimpse the radical counter cultural Christ? I genuinely believe the main reason we are in this crisis, a crisis which I believe is essentially a crisis identity is that we are badly out of step with the Spirit. Part of this is because we are a community who says lots of prayers but struggle to be a community at prayer.  

Why do we not preach Christ in his entirety?  

Perhaps it is that Christ is just too much. Maybe the truth is that this Jesus is just too hot to handle. I wonder is it, at some level that we actually know if we get serious about Jesus we will not be able to remain as we are, to do what we have always done. I think we know that our true identity is to be found in working at getting to know Jesus, wrestling to understand him a little more and consequently being taken up joyfully into that loving relationship. Of course were this re-rooting, this re-routing to happen, our ministry, our liturgy and our catechesis would all be fundamentally changed. Maybe we are just not up for this.  

The pandemic days offered us the opportunity to kickstart radical reform. That said, given the amount of church people, especially, and most worryingly, the number of priests who seem ‘hell bent’ on getting ‘back to normal’, I fear the danger is we will settle once again for tinkering. For my part I hope there will be no going back and I pray for the grace to resist any attempts to take us there. 

Fr Joe McDonald has been a teacher, an author and for over 10 years, a priest of the Dublin diocese. Originally from West Belfast, Fr Joe currently ministers as parish priest in Celbridge Co. Kildare.  

Leave a comment

Subscribe to The Synodal Times weekly newsletter


Become a Member

Ireland’s only synodal publication is available for under €2.50 a month.

Join today to access all the latest analysis from the ongoing Irish Synod.

Members also receive a FREE eBook of The Synodal Pathway.

€25 per annum