Authentic Reform in the Life of the Church
During earlier periods of the Church's history, movements of renewal and reform always grew out of initiatives aimed first and foremost at spiritual renewal - a renewal of people's relationship with God, a rediscovery of the universal call to holiness.
The example of individuals associated with such reform efforts in recent centuries - people like St. Vincent De Paul, for example, or St. Theresa of Avila, or St. Alphonsus Liguori - shows that their attempts at Church renewal always began by addressing a spiritual need, or a variety of spiritual needs. At the same time, the circumstances which produced particular reform movements were often very similar, despite the fact that they occurred in different societies and cultures and in different eras.
Those circumstances were roughly as follows. Reform-minded pastors discovered that the people's faith was weak, in the sense that God, and God's Reign, hardly appeared on the horizon of their daily concerns and preoccupations. They found that large sections of the faithful were lacking in religious knowledge - their understanding of Catholic doctrine, or the content of belief, was poor. They discovered that there was a great neglect of prayer and devotion - that men and women had lost the habit of communicating regularly with God, meditating on the Bible, or opening themselves to the reality and the activity of God in any sense at all.
And very often they found that parish communities had no commitment to practising the social imperatives of the gospel - the wealthier and more comfortable Christians showed little concern for the plight of the poor and needy, and undertook few practical measures to help relieve their suffering.
The way that the reformers confronted these problems was not to conduct a kind of market research into people's opinions and preferences but to supply what was missing. If there was ignorance of doctrine, they began teaching and explaining it - in sermons, in catechetical pamphlets, in books. If people had become unfamiliar with the practice of praying, they devised spiritual exercises and new methods of prayer and wrote meditations to encourage people to develop a real relationship with God. They attempted to create a prayerful celebration of liturgy.
If there was no commitment to the poor, they developed forms of witness and apostolic activities that gave concrete expression to Christ's teaching and enabled laymen and women to practice what they believed. Most importantly, they fought on all fronts - belief, devotion, liturgy, practical discipleship - refounding the Christian faith in its integrity and not only in a piecemeal fashion.
So authentic renewal was always, in the first place, a spiritual renewal: leading people back to faithfulness to God, and letting everything else - any kind of structural changes in the Church - follow on from that.
At the time of the Second Vatican Council, forty years ago now, talk of reform and renewal was once again in the air, as it had been so many times in the past. But it would not be untrue to say that the promise of renewal which the Council certainly contained - and still does contain - has hardly been realised as yet. Much of the "reform" which has taken place over the past four decades has borne little resemblance to the efforts made by St. Vincent, St. Theresa, St. Alphonsus and others.
The spiritual renewal - returning to the original inspiration of the gospel and to the basic themes of Christian life, such as repentance, faith, discipleship and the building of God's Kingdom - has often taken second place behind changes to the Church as an institution. In fact the modern tendency, as Cardinal Daneels of Brussels pointed out recently, seems increasingly to be to embrace structural changes without any serious renewal of fundamental Christian attitudes and practices.
Many older forms of private devotion have died out - indeed, were actively suppressed in many instances. The participation of laypeople in the Church's mission, too, has shifted away from the different forms of Christian action carried out by societies like the S.V.P. and the Legion of Mary. Instead their time and energies are now mobilised to apply modern management and business techniques to the Church's internal organisation, in imitation of the restructuring programmes undertaken by commercial or public service institutions.
Today's Church makes use of the latest communications technology and nearly all diocesan headquarters have web-sites, e-mail addresses, media personnel. Clergy and religious are enlisted onto business studies courses. But more and more, behind such feverish campaigns of structural modernisation, the Good News of salvation strikes only very shallow roots in the lives of individual Catholics and in the lives of the communities to which they belong.
Much recent research and, I would imagine, the experience of most parish clergy, indicates that Catholics today on the whole have little to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population, in terms of their outlook on life, or in terms of lifestyle. Their wishes and desires, their ambitions for themselves and their children, their notions of where happiness and fulfilment lie, are almost wholly materialistic and this-worldly. In most important respects they are enculturated to the ethos of consumer capitalism.
Like the Hebrew people in the Old Testament, the Catholic community today has wandered away from God, and fatally assimilated its values and beliefs to those of the pagan society around it. This cannot be interpreted as the renewal envisaged by the Council!
Revised "Visions" and Diocesan "Conversations"
In 1999, with the new Millennium approaching, few bishops were able to resist the temptation to cast the faithful into a whirl of meetings and discussions, which usually culminated in some grandiose conference or symposium. Typically, only a minority of church members actually joined in: the majority continued to attend Mass and took little notice of the ferment. And as in previous years no great revolutionary thinking emerged from the deliberations. Little was achieved beyond an increased consumption of motor fuel and photocopying paper.
More recently the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales decided to thrust another similar exercise upon their dioceses. A series of "Conversations" are now supposedly taking place throughout the country on every aspect of church life. Some bishops talk of constructing new and revised versions of the "visions" conjured up only three of four years ago.
Unfortunately there is little in all this fevered busyness to inspire one with hope of renewal and reform in the sense that I have tried to outline above. Like the earlier synods, forums and congresses, the new "Conversations" promise to plunge their participants into the dizzying world of consultative procedures, questionnaires, feedback sessions, steering groups, training days, and all the other paraphernalia of the modern managerial Church.
Yet the exuberance with which various diocesan publications report the discussions taking place belies the wooliness and superficiality of many of the contributions. And again, in my opinion, the real spiritual needs of our parishes are going unaddressed.
The vague appeals for "change" and "progress"; the excessive concern about the Church "not providing for" young people; the desire to make liturgy "relevant" and brimming with lay "involvement"; the frequent incitements to share the Eucharist with members of other denominations - all these reflect the extent to which marketing values - freedom of choice, the striving for novelty and entertainment value, rapid obsolescence, endless modernization - have corroded the unified content of Catholicism.
The lack of scriptural and religious language used in the reports, the cursory references to God, to Christ and the Kingdom, the absence of any profound reflection, show that none of these processes have so far produced any prophetic summons to appropriate more deeply the great themes of salvation.
Rather, the image which emerges is one of a group of people rather too satisfied with themselves, too inclined to self-congratulation and insufficiently concerned with searching of conscience and repentance. There is a constant obsession with organisational survival, and - to that end - an ill-concealed desire for a transfer of power from the clergy (assumed throughout to be a moribund species, hopelessly beyond revival through new vocations) to lay committees - the perennial miracle cure for every parish's administrative, pastoral and liturgical ills!
Conclusion: "If we do God's work, he will take care of ours"
In spite of the broad support which this unprophetic agenda seems to command I believe that our needs at the present moment are very similar to those in past eras of crisis. Lack of faith, ignorance of the content of belief, reluctance to deepen our relationship with God through prayer and reflection, make up what Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has called the present day "holiness gap".
I would add a fourth factor: a tendency to create a kind of prosperity gospel, by which affluent Christians ignore the social and economic demands of discipleship, both in relation to their own lifestyle and in relation to those suffering material poverty and distress.
"The most urgent need that faces religious organisations today," writes Fernandez-Armesto, "is to prise themselves out of worldly priorities in favour of reflection on the transcendent, infinite and eternal". I am convinced that if we take that kind of renewal as our starting point, all the other kinds of renewal and reform will follow.
Saint Vincent De Paul, who combined a life of prayer and personal virtue with extraordinary achievements in serving the poor, put it more powerfully, and more simply, when he said: "It is necessary to seek God first, to look to God first of all. Let us seek the Kingdom of God and everything besides will be given us. If we do God's works, he will take care of ours".
Notes and References
 Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The Future of Religion, London, Phoenix, 1997, p. 54.
 Andre Dodin, C.M., Vincent De Paul and Charity, New York, New City Press, 1993, p.23.