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Is local Church in crisis?

Fr Joe Borg lit a fuse in his The Sunday Times of Malta column last weekend when he questioned Archbishop Paul Cremona’s ability to lead the local Church. He said that while others discussed the issue behind closed doors, he felt as a matter of conscience the duty to speak out about the issue.

If for nothing else, he deserves credit for being upfront. There are many discontented people in various walks of life, priests included, who would do well to take a leaf out of this particular book. However, the second issue that needs to be addressed is, does he have a point?

We asked the Archbishop for an interview on the issue. We got a one-line statement the day after the column was published, saying that he was committed to serve the Church to the best of his ability, and after catching up with him on Friday, he said it is the Pope who decides his future. But no interview.

This in itself is evidence of a problem. The Archbishop is a good man. No one questions that. He has had health problems. Everybody sympathises with that. But, as a question raged over whether Pope John Paul II should carry on in the latter stages of his papacy – and we all know the step Benedict took – so the issue must be addressed as to whether the Church’s best interests are served with Mgr Cremona at the helm.

This is a question the Church itself must resolve. But it can only do this if it first shows a hitherto unseen willingness to discuss it. In truth, rumblings have been around for quite some time and clergymen are doing themselves no good by running away from them.

Yet, leadership is not the only issue the Church needs to address. It is also rapidly facing a problem of relevance.

The Church has been in precipitation since the divorce referendum, which saw a majority of voters agreeing with a need for the law despite her stand against. It emerged bruised, possibly stunned, given the lame position it took over the recent debate on civil unions and child adoption, and staying out of such a crucial debate drove it in the direction of irrelevance.

Fr Borg posed the question: should the necessary change come about in the Church’s tactics and initiatives or through changes in its higher echelons?

To attempt to answer that, it is essential not to view the local Church in isolation. Secularism and indifference to the Church are rampant in Europe, but that has not stopped Catholic leaders from being more vociferous in acting as a conscience of society. Pope Francis has been a shining example of that.

But he has gone much further than a teddy bear image. He is attempting to make radical reforms at the Roman Curia, saying it is “Vatican-centric”, caring more for its own interests than anything else. “The Church,” the Pope said in an interview, “must return to being a community of the People of God.”

Grim as the situation may initially look, the local situation is not as challenging as it is in Europe. Church attendance, although falling, is still strong. But unless addressed, this situation will not last forever. Leadership, impetus and energy are required in huge quantities.

There are great challenges ahead for the Church on this fast-changing island. But those challenges should fill the Church with a sense of opportunity, not apathy.

It needs to recognise the signs and take the necessary decisions, be they administrative, pastoral, liturgical, evangelical or simply communicative. What it mustn’t do is nothing.

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