It might seem churlish to have a real moan as a Christmas offering, but I have to admit that for the last week and more I have been simmering over the remarks attributed to Bishop Kieran Conry in his Catholic Herald interview. It is possible that his views have not been fairly represented, in which case I would assume he will issue a correction. But as his comments stand many of the faithful - clergy and laity alike - have been shocked by some of what he has to say.
Much of it has been touched on elsewhere. Here I would like to look at just three points.
First, regarding the sacred liturgy, the Bishop speaks of the centrality of the community. This is manifestly wrong. While liturgy is the action of the community, it is the service of the community. Thus the One Who is served must be greater than the one doing the serving. The Liturgy plainly does not centre on the community but on God Himself. To suggest that we are central in this action is to make our worship pointless. In all the Sacraments the things that we see, hear, touch and taste are the signs and symbols of that greater reality - the action of God that is behind them, inspiring the community's worship.
He also speaks of the community as being supreme over the individual, playing with words. As the Bishop knows perfectly well, the opening word of the Creed is not pistuomen but credo. The Greek word was used by the Fathers of the Councils as they gave their assent to the credal statements that were produced - the Councils speaking with one united voice. In the Liturgy things are different. Each one of us can only speak for ourselves before God, so we say 'I believe'. For exactly the same reasons do we say 'I am sorry' and 'I am not worthy.' These statements are signs of our own relationship with God, and it is the multitude of 'I's which make up the community.
Secondly the Bishop's statement on frequent confession is extremely disturbing - seeking to undermine the work that many of us are doing in trying to encourage people back to this wonderful Sacrament. Any priest will be aware that there are many who come to confession without a deep sense of conversion, and many who come back with the same words each time.
However, we do not, as priests, have a window into men's souls. There may be cases when a penitent's desire to avoid sin is getting stronger - even if the sins remain the same. And how many times does the Grace of the Sacrament prevent them from sinning? These are things we cannot know - but when I look at myself I can see that if I am letting it go for a longer time between confessions I am committing more sins. The Bishop's statement - as reported - seems to imply a lack of faith in the transforming power of Sacramental Grace.
And if people do come merely making routine confessions, is the role of the priest not rather to seek to lead them into a deeper appreciation of the Sacrament rather than to repel them? We need to try to help them come to a fuller understanding of the nature of sin, of Grace, of forgiveness. This can of course take longer - but St John Vianney found the time for it! It seems that the Bishop would rather turn people away than seek to teach them.
A sense of being unable to teach seems also to be present in the extraordinary statement that it is impossible to speak to young people about salvation because they won't understand. This is either lazy (not wanting to bother to teach) or patronising (not thinking they are bright enough). Of course it is not sufficient if we simply use theological jargon on its own - but the fact that such knowledge is not innate doesn't mean we shouldn't even try to teach it. That harks back to the discredited child-centred methods of education of the 1970s whose ill effects we are still suffering from.
To talk to teenagers about sin and death is to talk with them about things that are, in one way or another, part of their lives. Mostly they will say they don't want to sin. Certainly they will say they don't want to die! Jesus Christ has come into the world to save us from these realities over which, without Him, we have no control. What is difficult to understand about that? And how would talking to them about not over-filling kettles help to make it clearer?
Saving the world is, according to St Paul, an important part of our work as Christians. But to enter into that work we need first to encounter Christ as Our Personal Saviour and to develop a personal relationship with Him.
This we need to be taught - and who will teach it if our Bishops will not?