21 March 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Important religious events in Monaghan Town and in Rome this week were bound by a common embrace of the pillars of renewal and constancy sustaining the spiritual lives of those who follow the Catholic faith.

Tuesday saw the Mass of Inauguration for the newly elected Pope Francis, watched closely by a worldwide audience for early evidence of the distinctive signature the latest successor to St Peter is expected to inscribe on his pontificate.

The previous evening the people of the parish of Monaghan & Rackwallace gathered in the beautifully restored St Joseph’s Church in Monaghan Town for a Mass of Thanksgiving offered to mark the completion of the church renovation and the provision of the new adjacent Parish Pastoral Centre.

Incomparable in terms of scale, the occasions had significant parallels nonetheless, one of the most striking being the partial sharing of liturgy arising from their coincidence with one of the feast days of St Joseph.

Audiences of both were invited to meditate on the example of the life of the first century saint and its relevance to modern parenthood, service and religious faithfulness.

Beyond the opportunity offered for spiritual reflection, Monday’s ceremony in St Joseph’s Church had great social significance for parishioners and the clergy who serve them.

It manifested the general feeling of welcome and approval for the nature of the works that have taken place to the facilities of the parish that has been evident in the local community since they were unveiled to the public.

The need for improvements to be made to both the place of worship and the nearby hall was generally acknowledged, but changing the environment of a religious building raises issues of sensitivity that make the task particularly challenging.

Although it is now largely regarded in the community as a religious space of harmony and beauty, the modern St Macartan’s Cathedral caused disquiet among a section of the local Catholic population when it first came into being and they saw that some earlier, more traditional features of its interior furnishings and architecture had been replaced.

Worshippers perhaps awaited the outcome of the St Joseph’s Church works with some trepidation as to whether its cherished identity would remain intact – but when the doors were opened they found the building revivified rather than changed, a bright, warm and welcoming space that was still identifiably itself.

Those responsible for the concept and execution of the restoration have managed to achieve a harmonious balance between renewal and constancy.

It is in expectation of a similar reconciliation that the world is watching with particular closeness the early words and actions of Pope Francis.

Here, the desire for change to win out over sameness seems to dictate the direction of our attention.

And the hasty sketch pencilled by first impressions presents a promising profile.

From his first words to the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square to greet his election, the new Pope has emerged as a man of exemplary humility and simplicity who has already inspired in the Catholic devout the hope for a fundamental spiritual renewal in what are extremely difficult times for their Church as an institution.

One senses that spiritual reform, a reordering of the focus of both the clergy and the laity towards the core principles of Christian thought and teaching, will be the defining ethos of Francis’s pontificate.

He will be a champion of the poor and the vulnerable, the weak and the disadvantaged, and the manner in which he brings these least of the Christian brethren to the forefront of the Catholic Church’s concerns may entail some radical changes in the way in which its institutions function.

And his evident compassion will surely respond deeply to the immense suffering inflicted by clerical abuse – a response that will be for many a litmus test for the restoration of his Church’s moral authenticity.

Expectations of radicalism in terms of moral teaching, however, and any huge shift of ground in the way in which the Catholic Church addresses issues such as abortion or homosexuality, are almost certain to be unfulfilled.

We can be forgiven for sometimes mistaking the institution over which Pope Francis now presides as an organisational structure roughly equivalent to those that operate in the political and economic realms, as these are the parameters and comparisons employed by many commentators to evaluate it.

However, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin pointedly argued when commenting on the inaccurate media speculation as to who Pope Benedict XVI’s successor was likely to be, the Catholic Church functions administratively in an entirely different way.

Its operation cannot be entirely deciphered by the language of the temporal, and its capacity for change is circumscribed by the prevailing interpretation of its scriptural foundations, on which consensus is a prerequisite for membership of the College of Cardinals from which the Pope is chosen.

Pope Francis may moderate or conciliate the stance of the Catholic Church on some of the “big issues” of contemporary religious and moral debate, but no more can realistically be expected from him than the facilitation of future small increments of change in established positions.

This will disappoint many both within and outside the Catholic Church – but it is fallacious to expect otherwise than constancy in this regard.

But there is also a powerful promise of renewal embodied in the person of a man who has proclaimed, “The church must walk among people and be in step with the poor”, and who has himself committed by his choice of papal title to walk in the footsteps of the saint of Assisi synonymous with love of the created world and compassion for the misfortunate.

Whatever form the changes decreed by Pope Francis take, there will be a responsibility on the Catholic clergy and laity at the fundamental organisational unit of the parish to animate them.

In this context, the example of renewal and constancy celebrated in St Joseph’s Church in Monaghan Town on Monday evening assumes some added significance.

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