The sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, both in Ireland and further afield, have led to calls for a re-formation of the church. In Ireland, this has included ideas such as reducing the number of bishops and simplifying church structures. But the Catholic hierarchy has been slow to implement any such measures.
In Belgium, lay Catholics are getting impatient. One of our doctoral students, Jayme Reaves, alerted me to an article in Tuesday’s New York Times with the headline ‘Catholics in Belgium Start Parishes of their Own.’
It tells the story of how devout Catholics are, in the words of journalist Doreen Carvajal, defying ‘centuries of Roman Catholic Church doctrine by worshiping and sharing communion without a priest.’
The article says there are about a dozen of these ‘ecclesias’ (the Greek verb for ‘calling together’) in the Dutch-speaking regions of Belgium and the Netherlands. It describes them as:
an uneasy reaction to a combination of forces: a shortage of priests, the closing of churches, dissatisfaction with Vatican appointments of conservative bishops and, most recently, dismay over cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests.
The Belgian Catholic hierarchy, of course, has said the ecclesias are ‘unacceptable.’
But those who are participating in the ecclesias say that they are a space where they can practice their faith in a more involved and meaningful way. Carvajal quotes a married former priest who is active in one of the ecclesias:
“We are resisting a little bit like Gandhi. … Our intention is not to criticize, but to live correctly. We press onward quietly without a lot of noise. It’s important to have a community where people feel at home and can find peace and inspiration.”
A different community in Bruges, called The Lyre, has a rota of two men, two women and a priest who conduct services. Carvajal describes how The Lyre ‘tackles’ the sex abuse scandals in its services, for example by reading from a Belgian church commission report and talking about the shame they feel about the way the church has handled the scandals.
Doubtless, some Catholics will see the ecclesias as just another form of Protestantism, following the logic that all who dissent from the Roman line must be Protestants. But there is no hint that these people want to renounce their Catholic faith.
Rather, they are sincere people who are dismayed that their church seems incapable of change. They believe that the Holy Spirit is working and that the hierarchy in charge of the Catholic Church is just not heeding it.
Lay Irish Catholics haven’t yet become as radical as the Belgians and the Dutch who have formed the ecclesias. Jennifer Sleeman’s mass boycott is the most obvious example of this type of ‘civil disobedience’ within the Irish Catholic Church – and that only involved not attending mass for one Sunday.
I am saddened that sincere Christians believe they must resort to civil disobedience within their own church. They must feel that the leadership of their church just doesn’t believe that the Holy Spirit can work through the people in the pews.
I think it may be necessary for some lay Catholics to temporarily bypass the hierarchy through structures like the ecclesias, if only to communicate to the leaders just how much communication has broken down between the altar and the pews.
But it will take a great deal of work and grace to make sure that the ecclesias open up, rather than shut down, communication.
(Image: ruins of Holy Cross Abbey, Sligo. Sourced on flickr by Fergal OP)