The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: “You shall be my witnesses”
In the first reading Peter stresses that the apostles are attested witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, with the task of proclaiming to all what Jesus’ saving mission meant. The message of the second readings is that all followers or Christ should be witnesses to the new life in Christ in a world that often has a contrary message. There is fruit for reflection in this for us today.
During this Holy Week, and on Easter Sunday, many Catholics will attend the ceremonies and Easter Sunday Mass who may well stay away until next Christmas. It is a feature of modern Ireland. Regular Sunday Mass has in many places decreased dramatically. The Church in Ireland has been through trials of different kinds, and is still in turmoil. There has been, and there still is, a growing secularism with less interest in the divine and in religion. Then there have been the shocking child sex abuse scandals by clerics, and the state Tribunal reports on these and on the religious institutions. Coupled with this there has been a somewhat concerted campaign to highlight any abuse that might damage the Church. One may also instance the campaign to promote and register what is described as defections from the Church. And before the 2011 Census of Ireland there was a campaign directed at citizens not to register themselves under “Roman Catholic” in the Census return, but rather as “no religion”. One could have wondered what the present situation of the Church in Ireland really is, or what its future prospects are. The official figure for the 2011 Census of Ireland, showing that the number registering themselves as Roman Catholic had actually increased by 5% since the last Census in 2006!! The figure for the total population was (in round figures) 4,580,000 (four million, five hundred and eighty thousand), while the total number registering themselves as Roman Catholics was 3,860,000, that is 84% the total population (with 4% registering themselves as “no religion”). When measured against the nationalist Irish population (not including non-nationals) the percentage is higher again, in the region of 90%. Thus despite all the trials and setbacks it appeared that the Irish people were still solidly attached to their Church. However the 2016 census paints a less favourable picture, with 78.3% registering as Roman Catholics (and 8.1% as of “no religion”). One can only pray that this trend does not continue.
We can compare the situation somewhat to that of the disciples during and after the terrible events of the Passion and death of Jesus. The hopes expressed in him on the entry over the Mount of Olives seemed dashed. In his hour of trouble his disciples had abandoned him; Peter had even denied him three times. The situation changed with the resurrection belief, and the words of Jesus that his death was really a victory. They could take courage. Through his death and resurrection he had conquered “the world”, that is all forces trying to take believers away from him. And his followers would be witnesses to this new age. As Jesus said (John 15:26-27): “When the Advocate (Paraclete, Comforter) comes, whom I send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
The Church in Ireland is now at a turning point. In the census some eighty-four percent (84%) of the population of the population has registered themselves as Catholics, while a mere 4% registered as of no religion. There has been expressed regret and apologies for the sex abuse, but also stating the obvious that there is need of renewal. The high proportion of those registering themselves as Roman Catholics in the last census might not present any reason for complacency. A number of those so registered may have intended to register merely as “ethnic” Catholics, rather than as believing and fully committed. The current situation calls on all believers to become informed of their religion, of the call of Christ, to be active witnesses, by their way of life. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, has revealed shortcomings. But that same Spirit is our Comforter and our Advocate, giving peace in believing and strength of faith conviction. Presence at Easter ceremonies could be a call and a reminder from Christ that all who believe in him are his witnesses, witnesses to his passion and resurrection. Renewal means greater contact with the Mass and the sacraments than twice a year, quiet prayer alone, and also if appropriate in the family, a deeper understanding of the faith, and enthusiasm for all Christ and the Church stand for in the troubled world of our own day. Let us all be Christ’s witnesses, because we have been with him (and he with us) from the beginning, from our baptism.