“Crisis of Faith”

Crisis of Faith - The Vatican

This piece appeared in the Sunday Independent in October 2005


Crisis of Faith

It was oddly disconcerting last week to see the Catholic Bishops invite submissions from the public as to how they could improve their educational service. After millennia of confident, autocratic rule the Church suddenly looked very much like any decaying semi-state dame: struggling for credibility by donning the democratic veil. Instead of telling us our opinions, it was suddenly asking for them. And yet, strangely, though we always thought we wanted to be asked for our thoughts, the moment passed without comment. We were shocked into silence.

But perhaps now, before their deadline passes and we have wait another thousand years, it’s time to raise a hand, clear a throat, and make a few humble suggestions. You and I might be pleasantly free of mass-going duties but every week thousands of pensioners and young children still suffer needlessly.

The biggest and most obvious improvement they could make is to jazz up the service a little. There is no known scale to measure how boring an activity is, but if there were mass-going would surely top it. Our young peoples’ attention spans are shorter than ever before but the church is still using a painfully 1960s script and set design (murmured sermons and nylon flowers). To survive it needs to up the entertainment ante and rediscover the theatrical side of the service.

The proof that these things would make a difference can be seen on the other side of the Atlantic. In America all the churches do a roaring trade. And no wonder. While our priests mumble to hushed rows of pensioners, their preachers grandstand to football stadiums full of devoted and attractive young people – each one getting their money’s worth (we count our coppers into the collection plates but Americans think nothing of opening their chequebooks to praise the Lord). Our churches offer incense, candles and community service announcements, Americans get music, lights and action.

Though they are too polite to say it, the yanks also seem to have noticed this. Only the other day I answered the door to two missionaries from the mid western United States. We are now, they told me, considered a third world country in matters of faith.

A similar problem of presentation is also to be seen in schools. Religion was once a subject that, even without the threat of a clip round the ear, had students quaking in their boots. Like history, it was dramatic, blood-drenched and a bit scary. But on the modern curriculum, R.E. (as it is now known) is blandly humanistic, dominated by video watching (in my experience something totally unrelated to religion) and taught by the most untalented teachers of their generation. It is uninspiring stuff – mass by any other name.

The result is that there is a spiritual vacuum in this country. Few young people have any clue of the basics of Catholicism and fewer still ever attend mass unless absolutely necessary. Those that do feel the need for some form of spiritual guidance more and more seek it in made-to-measure new-age religions, which at least are presented as though they had some relevance to modern life.

All of this is not to say that the church should ‘dumb down’ its teachings. Nobody wants to see some self-conscious MTV-style attempts to hypnotise young people back into the pews. But the medium is inseparable from the message and a highly educated and frantically busy public expects more from religion than a sixty-year-old priest talking off the top of his head about life.

The Bishops might be appealing to the public for help but in a sense, they have already been provided with the best possible blueprint for improving the way Catholic doctrine is taught. That a bit of old fashioned showmanship and the right imagery could help revive flagging church numbers was to be immediately seen in the aftermath of the death of John Paul II. As images of the life of the showboating pontiff were beamed around the world mass attendances suddenly shot up and they stayed high while the whole camp theatre of choosing his successor was played out.

Even asking for our two cents is in itself another measure of how weak the Church has become. Its essential message will never change but the medium and methods badly need an overhaul. Not even God is immune from apathy and his representatives on earth (or this small corner of it, at least) need to do a better job of telling us about Him. If John Paul’s passing meant we didn’t have to suffer anymore at mass then maybe he really didn’t die in vain.

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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