Non Redemptorist colleagues help us to find a way forward

New life has invigorated our assembly this morning as almost thirty non Redemptorist colleagues and coworkers join us for the day. These women and men of all ages have travelled from north, south, east and west to take part in our discussions about the current and future shape of the Redemptorists in Ireland.

Their presence is a welcome and necessary boost. While we Redemptorists are required to be here, they have volunteered to join us today. While we are card carrying members of the clerical church, they are ordinary Catholics who remain committed to their faith despite all the difficulties of recent years. While we do our best to soldier on with hope, they remain full of enthusiasm and commitment. They still believe in us and in the church, even when we might be doubting ourselves and our future in Europe.

The presence of so many women and men offers a glimpse of the church at its best – of people working together to build the kingdom of God without any distinctions of rank or gender, people united by a common baptism and a shared vision. It offers a glimpse of a non clerical, inclusive church, of ordinary, fragile people doing their best and wanting to do their best.

Half way though our chapter, we needed this injection of hope and zeal and energy. Their enthusiasm will help us to see a way forward for the next four years.

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Old Redemptorists, still full of zeal

I studied them last night, my Redemptorist colleagues from all around Ireland. They had been gathering outside Newry for the beginning of our Provincial Chapter. Many of them had been attending chapters for fifty years, veterans now of this kind of thing.

I studied them with their grey hair, and hearing aids, and slightly bent backs, and occasional walking sticks, the weight of the years bearing obviously on so many. And I was moved and impressed, as I am every time I encounter them at an event such as this. Some of these old men did not have to be here, they could have been formally exempted from the chapter had they wished, but they chose to come anyhow. They wanted to be here. They wanted to do their bit. Their commitment to the Redemptorists and to the church compelled them to be here.

It has been the story of their lives. Many of them joined as young men in the 1950s, the so-called golden age of the Irish Church. Things were going so well during that decade that the Redemptorist provincial boasted that he was opening a new house every year. Now these same men witness the closing of these same houses. Expansion has become retrenchment. These men entered religious life when it was highly regulated and predictable, yet were able to adjust and adapt to the liberalizing changes in religious life that followed Vatican II. These men learned their preaching craft with a theology that emphasized the fear of God, and then were able to change to one that focused on the love of God. So many changes over little more than half a century, and yet their enthusiasm remains undimmed. They remain as committed and as eager as ever.

Their enthusiasm is wonderful to see. I know I need to bathe in it and take heart from it these days, because, as these men fade away, as they go to their eternal reward, there will be very few left behind to take up the challenge in a similar wholehearted way. They were a stalwart generation. We will need to look on their example and no our them by trying to follow it.

Irish Redemptorists look to next four years

Today Irish Redemptorists gather outside Newry, Co Down for a week-long event known as a Provincial Chapter. More than 60 members of the Province will take part in the gathering, which is held every four years. A Chapter is a legislative and deliberative body which elects members of the provincial government and decides on policy and priorities for the next four years. Anyone who is a professed member of the Irish Redemptorists is required to participate (the sick and old are exempt) while some lay colleagues also attend.

A Chapter is a good example of democracy at work within the church. Our national leadership are elected by a majority of the assembly; policy is decided by the assembly, and any major decisions (whether to close a house or start an initiative) are approved by the assembly. Leaders can only hold office for two consecutive four-year terms. Unlike bishops, they know it’s not a job for life and that they will return to being foot soldiers all too soon. This keeps their feet on the ground and aids accountability.

A Chapter is also an opportunity for confreres from around the country and some living abroad to spend time together, to renew friendships and to deepen bonds. It is a valuable exercise in fraternity.

Of course, Chapters are not always bloodless affairs. Not everyone agrees on the way forward. Not all have the same vision. There will be disagreements and the odd personality clash. A Chapter is a human event after all.

And a Chapter such as this will also be a graphic reminder of the perilous state of the Redemptorists in Ireland today, and of the challenges facing the church as a whole on this island. We will be reminded with our very own eyes of how old we are getting, of how frail we are as individuals and as a body, and of our steady fall in numbers. We will be reminded of the pressing, difficult decisions we will have to make if we are to maintain a tangible presence in Ireland in the years ahead, decisions about plant and personnel, about apostolic priorities and care of the old and sick.

We will be reminded, also, of our need to develop closer ties with other Redemptorist provinces and of the need for amalgamation. Whereas the Brexiteers are trying to pull Europe apart, the signs of the times are compelling the Redemptorists to forge closer bonds with neighbours throughout Europe and beyond.

I took part in my first Chapter in 1984. I was 22 years old, newly professed and full of enthusiasm. As a political buff, I loved the intrigue around the election of our leaders. The assembly looked bright and vigorous, full of men in their prime. It gave me a buzz.

Thirty five years later, there is no buzz. I have been around a long time now. I know our strengths and our weaknesses. I know the challenges and painful decisions that lie ahead. I know that the pool of potential leaders among us is shallow. We are a tired bunch, battered by the scandals and disappointments of the past quarter century. No one will need to tell us to curb our enthusiasm.

Still, we will endeavour to soldier along, doing our best, for four more years.