What a Day Out with the Redemptorists says about the Future of the Irish Catholic Church

On Saturday I took part in a day-long gathering for friends and associates of the Redemptorists in Ireland. The event grew out of a similar meeting at the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin, during Pope Francis’ visit.

Given that my biography of Redemptorist priest Fr Gerry Reynolds, Unity Pilgrim, was published earlier this year, I was asked to facilitate an afternoon workshop on ‘Unity Pilgrim: Challenged by the Stranger, Welcoming the Stranger’. I co-facilitated the workshop with Ed Petersen, who works for Clonard Monastery’s Peace and Reconciliation Mission and laboured many years alongside Fr Gerry.

A recent special issue of Studies which reflected on Francis’ visit ‘one year on’ lamented that it seemed to have had little lasting impact. But the fact that the Redemptorists were able to attract a couple hundred people to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Ballyfermot, Dublin, to ponder ‘How to be witnesses of the Redeemer in the Ireland of Today’ may be a sign of at least small ripples of impact throughout the Church.

(In the current issue of Studies, I wrote a response to the special issue that questioned whether Francis’ visit had been as inconsequential as the writers claimed.)

And while the crowd in Ballyfermot was primarily of an older constituency, there was a significant youth presence from both Clonard in Belfast and Scala in Cork.

Indeed, in his welcoming remarks Provincial Fr Dan Baragry noted that those in attendance presented a ‘vote of confidence’ in the Redemptorists and their work.

At the same time, Fr Gerry Moloney’s keynote address outlined the scale of the challenges facing the Church, painstakingly analysing the Church’s declining influence and relevance. The panel discussion that followed, however, drew out signs of hope, especially in the contributions of the women and young people on it. The panel emphasized that there are plenty of people who are hurting and left behind in Irish society, and there are few who make it their business to reach out to them. For them, it is the Church’s business to be those hands reaching out.

The crisis in vocations that has affected not just the Redemptorists, but all Religious in Ireland, was not really dwelt upon. But for me this was an important subtext, in that sooner or later the Irish Catholic Church will need to come to grips with what in another decade (as an ageing population of priests passes away) will be a Church with very few priests at all.

In that light, if the Irish Catholic Church is to in any way flourish, laypeople will need to take on many more of the roles and responsibilities that have been filled by priests over the years. The Redemptorists’ mission has traditionally been alongside the poor and the marginalized. So an important task for Redemptorists today is helping the Irish laity catch that vision and make it central to what it means to be a Christian.

[Ironically, on the day after this event in Dublin, Clonard had a special mass to mark the end of its 122-year-old women’s confraternity. The women’s confraternity, it could be argued, was one of the island’s most significant and long-standing initiatives for cultivating spirituality among laity. Yet as Fr Brendan McConvery explored in his fascinating historical piece for the Irish News, confraternities promoted a particular type of piety, often more associated with the pre-Vatican II Church. But while the end of the confraternity can be interpreted as just another sign of decline, it also can be understood as reflecting changes in how lay spirituality is expressed.]

But as much as I believe the laity are the key to the future of the Irish Catholic Church, the subject of my own workshop reminded me of the massive difference a priest faithfully living his vocation can make. Fr Gerry Reynolds’ impact and popularity are such that the book has already gone to a second printing.

At the start of the workshop, Ed and I asked people where they were from and if they had known Gerry. A majority had not, with most of the attendees coming from outside Belfast. In fact, more had known his brother Fr Pat Reynolds, and recalled his ministry with fondness. And those who had known Gerry couldn’t keep themselves from smiling when recalling their memories of him.

I spoke about how Gerry had been ‘challenged by the stranger’ in his ministry by the example of John Calvin, the Reformation leader associated with the Presbyterian tradition – so much so that he interpreted Presbyterianism as a ‘challenge’ to the Irish Catholic Church to get more laity involved. I also recalled how the Rev Ian Paisley challenged Gerry’s ministry by staging pickets and protests of ecumenical events Gerry had organized, noting that Gerry had responded to this sort of challenge by praying for Paisley. Ed spoke about how Gerry’s ‘Unity Pilgrim’ initiative of visiting Protestant congregations for prayer and worship sought to create a welcoming space and thereby promote the unity of Christians.

We then asked people to discuss in small groups: How are you challenged by the stranger (or strangers) in your context? How could you respond?

The groups provided feedback after their discussions, with many observing that the ‘strangers’ in the Republic of Ireland were immigrants and asylum seekers. This was a topical observation in  light of Fine Gael election candidate Verona Murphy’s comments about migrants being indoctrinated by Islamic State. Coincidentally, on the same day a Christian response to these ‘strangers’ was explored by Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times.

Others spoke of ‘strangers’ in their own families, or the homeless; and how there is fear in welcoming the stranger – fear of being changed oneself, or fear of being rejected or rebuffed.

Finally, we observed that welcoming can never be a passive acceptance, it is always active. The ‘strangers’ are the people who can be found on the margins, and it takes considerable effort to come alongside them as friends. The future of the Catholic Church in Ireland may depend on such friendships.