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Overcoming Apostasy in Irish Catholicism

Pat Collins C.M.
(The Irish Catholic Dec 2011)

A few years ago it occurred to me that we are witnessing a great apostasy across Europe. This pejorative word is derived from Greek and means to rebel or to defect. Christian apostates are those who in a theoretical or practical way reject the beliefs and morals of the church. I was interested to see that shortly before his death John Paul II said in par. 9 of The Church in Europe, “European culture gives the impression of “silent apostasy” on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist.” Sad to say a growing number of Irish Catholics are apostatizing by drifting away from Christian practice, beliefs and ethics. A minority have gone so far as to renounce their baptism in a formal way on the Count Me Out website. The intention of closing the Irish embassy in the Vatican is symptomatic of this trend.

When Pope John Paul came to Ireland in 1979, the statistic for weekly mass attendance was around 87%. In recent years it has fallen drastically. The latest figures on the website of the Irish bishops indicate that church practice has halved since 1980. In Dublin, only 17% attend church on a regular basis, and in some parishes the figure is as low as 2%.

Belief in Church teaching has been weakened by secular influences. For instance, although scripture asserts that, “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) many Catholics believe that all the great religions are equally valid ways to God. They maintain that to think otherwise would be intolerant and arrogant. A majority of Catholics seem to believe that no matter how they live, most people will be saved. Their maxim could be, “the road to heaven is wide and most people take it.” They seem to forget that Jesus actually said: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Mt 7:13). I have found that a growing number of people don’t even believe in heaven or hell. As faith has weakened in these and other ways, many Catholics have adopted New Age and occult beliefs and practices. No wonder that, during the last two years, more people have asked me to pray that

they might be freed from evil spirits, than during the previous thirty eight years of my priesthood.

In Judges 21:25 we read, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” St Thomas Aquinas observed, “A person may apostatise from God, by rebelling in his or her mind against the Divine commandments: and though a person may apostatise . . . he or she may still remain united to God by faith.” As increasing numbers of Catholics drift away from the Church they reject many aspects of Christian moral teaching. For instance, whereas Jesus says “you cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24) it was especially clear during the Celtic Tiger years that, not only were many Catholics motivated by greed, many of them were dishonest and financially irresponsible. In recent years there has also been an obvious breakdown of sexual morality. For example, despite the clear prohibitions of the New Testament, many single and separated Catholics engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage. Although the Church condemns abortion as something gravely wrong, thousands of Catholic women not only procure it, some of them seek to justify their actions on moral grounds.

There were many examples of apostasy in the Old Testament, e.g. when the Jewish people worshipped the golden calf in the wilderness. There were also examples of apostasy in the New Testament. For example, it is significant in the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that they were travelling away from Jerusalem. In other words they were abandoning any hope they had invested in Jesus and the coming of his kingdom. Although Jesus had appeared to the apostles after his resurrection, when Peter said to his companions, “I’m going fishing” the other apostles decided to join him. In other words, because of their disillusionment with Jesus, they were intending to forget about him and to go back to their old way of life. In both of these instances, Jesus appeared to his apostate disciples. It is striking that there was no hint of criticism, judgment or condemnation in his attitude. I suspect that he was well aware that although they knew about him they did not know him intimately because they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. So Jesus shared God’s word and broke bread with them in such a way that their relationship began to be restored and deepened.

How can practicing Catholics counteract

the apostasy that is taking place in contemporary Ireland? To begin with, they need to pledge their loyalty to Jesus as their Lord and King. Remember how many people abandoned him when they heard his challenging teaching on the Eucharist. We can join with Peter in saying from our hearts, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. We can deepen and strengthen that committed relationship by avoiding worldly thinking, reading the scriptures prayerfully, and engaging in prudent acts of self denial.

We need to intercede for those who have rebelled against the Lord, praying that during the present economic downturn many of them, like the prodigal son, will come to their senses and say, “I will set out and go back to my father” (Lk 15:18). No wonder John Paul II said at Limerick in 1979, “I ask you today for a great, intense and growing prayer for all the people of Ireland, for the Church in Ireland”.

We can also engage in the new evangelisation called for by the Church. Rather than wagging the finger of accusation at the apostates of our day, we have to make due allowance for the fact that although many of them were sacramentalised and catechised, most of them were never fully evangelised. Believing Catholics should do all they can to help people develop a personal, Spirit filled, relationship with Jesus. There are a number of interrelated ways of doing this.

Firstly, the abuse scandals have alienated many people from the church. No wonder Paul VI pointed stated, “the primary means of evangelisation is the witness of an authentically Christian life.” Secondly, there is a need to share one’s own faith story with un-churched relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. One can do this by telling them what you were like before you knew the Lord; how you came to develop an intimate relationship with him; and the effects which the spiritual awakening had upon your life. Thirdly, Cardinal Danneels of Belgium thinks that the exercise of the charisms, mentioned in 1 Cor 12:8-10, can also help people to return and thereby bring about the new springtime of the church talked about by Popes John Paul and Benedict. These supernatural charisms, such as healing and miracle working, can astonish and amaze our profane and secular world in such a way as to evoke new found faith in the hearts of those who have drifted away from the Catholic faith.