Some priests and Bishops have made “terrible mistakes” and “bad errors of judgement”, but are at heart still good men, the Bishop of Derry Dr Donal McKeown has said.
He also warned that Church community life in general is failing to engage with the reality of many people’s lives.
The Bishop made the stark pronouncements while delivering his Mass of the Chrism Homily for Holy Thursday.
Dr McKeown elaborated that “the current way of being Church” was “not permeating the heart of society”.
Speaking at St Eugene’s Cathedral, Bishop McKeown said that the Church today could not cling to the status quo, and detailed how Jesus himself had challenged the rigid orthodoxy of his time.
In a wide-ranging address, the Bishop touched on the failings of, and the burden on, the clergy of today, comparing them with their spiritual ancestors- the Apostles of Jesus.
He said: “The Prophets were a mixed bunch and the Apostles were a motley crew.
“We know from the writings of the New Testament that the early Christian communities were not some group of ideal believers. They were composed of people that argued, sinned and made mistakes.
“But we believe in a God who believes in us. The God who made us in the Divine image and likeness still sees the Church as the Body and the Bride of Christ – even when we cannot see that, or behave as if we did not believe it.
“We can all say, with Jesus, that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us. That applies to our priests as well.
“They can be selfish, bad mannered, thoughtless and odd. Some priests and bishops have made terrible mistakes. But I still believe that these are men who do their best to preach the Gospel by word and deed, and celebrate the sacramental mystery of God’s work in Jesus.
“Some have had to struggle with addictions, mental and physical illnesses and with bad errors of judgement in their lives.
“They can move between a youthful enthusiasm for Christ and the doubts that come from apparent failures or a punishing workload. None of us knows what demons others have to fight in their lives. But, at heart, they are good men who could be living a much less pressurised life in another job.”
Referring to the New Testament gospels, Dr McKeown said Jesus “was upsetting the comfortable status quo of religious practice, where He saw heavy burdens being placed on people and a Pharisaic lack of integrity”.
“He was coming to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” the Bishop said.
“So we could spend a while this morning on an inspiring theology of Jesus our High Priest – but I believe that this is not a time for some reassuring words. Rather, we are invited to engage with the Gospel’s uncomfortable Jesus who did not want to promote the status quo in His own time.
“If you want to be a fisher of people you have to push the boat out.
After all, we have to acknowledge across all the Churches that the current way of being Church may still attract considerable numbers of people – but it’s failing to engage with the reality of many people’s lives and is not permeating the heart of society.”
Dr McKeown added later in his Homily: “As the Church in the diocese of Derry we need to be clear about what has to change if we are to be a missionary Church. Priests and parish communities work tremendously hard – we have 207 Masses in English each weekend around the diocese. But I think many would struggle to state clearly what it is we stand for, what the core of our message is and what we see as our role in 2015. If we have no clarity what we are trying to do in God’s name, then it is not surprising if others will not know.
“And we will be clear about those things only if we are communities who pray, not just separately but together, making communal space for grace and discerning which uncomfortable roads we have to follow.
“Thus it is hard to justify a parish not moving towards some form of parish Pastoral Council – or a diocese not having a diocesan equivalent. Otherwise we end up exhausted, doing what we have always done and expecting that to be effective in ways that it has not been up until now.
“Pope Francis is clear in that it is the bishop’s job to lead that process by listening to everyone and not simply to those who would tell me what I would want to hear.
“We have heard the mission statement of Jesus. We have to be focussed, not on what we like or on those who like our current offer – but on the evangelisation of everybody, everywhere, from Malin to Desertmartin and from Coleraine to Drumquin.”