A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Á la Carte Catholics?

by Fr Brian O'Connell sm

Late last year Archbishop Diarmud Martin of Dublin urged lapsed Catholics to leave the church. Pointing to a recent increase in “á la carte Catholics”, those who come to church only for baptisms, marriages and funerals, the Archbishop appealed to them to have the maturity to walk away. The Archbishop is hardly in a normal situation. Ireland has recently closed its embassy in Rome, and he has been trying to steer a principled path through abuse scandals and cover-ups to avert a complete meltdown of his diocese. He has signalled to his priests to seek a much firmer commitment from church-goers in future. For schools too he is ready to require much stricter entry requirements, and is anxious to let some of them go as they are presumably not building up the church.

Archbishop Diarmud Martin

Archbishop Diarmud Martin

An observer can perhaps see these draconian moves making some sense – tough times require tough measures, as long as the mission and nature of the church is not compromised. The ‘shape up or ship out’ message may shock some into making a decision. The Archbishop has presumably given the same message to his priests. Time will tell whether these challenges will renew the diocese from the ground up.

However the realities that the Archbishop is criticizing are present in every diocese of the Western Church viz. inactive Catholics who use the Church on select occasions only. I am not at all sure that his drastic measures will work at home or elsewhere. The local church ought always be a place of healing and new beginnings.

The local church ought always be a place of healing and new beginnings.

For example, John and Tanya were an inactive Catholic couple who came to me for a preference card for their two daughters to go to the parish school. John had the whole Catholic upbringing with a mother still active in her parish, while Tanya was baptised Catholic as an infant but knew little. She was a member of a community church and a successful fund-raiser for World Vision. Now they wanted a Catholic school for their two daughters. I suggested that this might be the time to consider Baptism for the two girls. They replied that they were not ready for that. I said I would talk to the school principal and would they come back next week.

I spoke with the school principal and knew I would have to stretch the rules to give them preference (the rules have since been eased). Anyway I gave them a preference card without conditions. Days later they returned and wanted to enroll as parents in the Baptism programme. They had a very positive experience of the course and were invited to join as team leaders. The girls were baptised and the couple became regulars at Sunday Mass. How poorer we would all have been if they had walked away.

Then a big opportunity to go dairying took them to another region nearby. They kept in touch, and were loving the dairying when I visited them. Then friends in the Baptism team told me that Tanya had come down with cancer. She fought the disease but eventually they had to give up the dairy unit to nurse Tanya. She died within the year.

They were an adventurous couple. When they were engaged they travelled around India on motorbikes. Tanya with her World Vision contacts had bought sewing machines for Vietnamese villages, and help set up sewing collectives which lifted them over the poverty line. She had visited them once or twice. Somehow she fitted in marriage, motherhood and feeding calves, and kept up her fund-raising at country markets. Together they claimed their Catholic identity when the moment came, and enriched the church, although  it was to be only briefly. Before that, they looked like “inactive catholics”, were classed as lapssed but were never far from the kingdom of God.

I hope and pray that Archbishop Martin gets his people back on side, without leaving too many of the ‘weak’ ones behind.

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