Sunday, November 15, 2020

Fr Harry Bohan in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare. Bohan accepts that whatever the future will be, it will be different from the past. Picture : Eamon Ward

The main thing we know about these strange Covid times is how little know. We don’t know when the storm will be over, what damage it will have done and how our future lives may be compromised.
We suspect that with Covid-19, humanity is at a historic turning-point, different from but as compelling as earth-shattering events of the past like the Great Famine (1845-49) in the questions it poses for the future. We see at present only ‘through a glass darkly’.
Recently I met Fr Harry Bohan, the sociologist, still bristling with ideas, still searching for ‘new meanings and lessons’, still adamant that new thinking needs to be done and still ready ‘to hold a conversation about the kind of Ireland we would wish to build out of the ashes of Covid-19’.
Harry Bohan’s isn’t just another voice crying in the wilderness. Almost 50 years ago he founded the Rural Housing Organisation which built, 2,500 homes — stabilising 120 communities throughout 13 counties in rural Ireland. In 1998, he founded the Ceifin Centre, to promote family and community values in Irish society and spear-headed 12 Ceifin conferences which identified the values shaping social change. In more recent times he has been involved in a series of local community initiatives in Co Clare.
Still involved in parish work after 57 years, Harry has just written Rearing the Future, a short work that asks the question — Is the Future our Responsibility? — a reflection on responding to these pandemic times — bringing to his deliberations his long experience as a reader of trends in Irish society, the obvious need for change and pointers to how that change might be delivered.
At a time when everyone has an opinion and when scribblers of various hues present pathways and solutions peculiarly reflective of their own agendas, it is refreshing to see an analysis that accepts that, whatever the future will be, it will be different from the past. The temptation, he suggests, is that getting ‘back to normal’ may be perceived as getting ‘back to the way we were’.
Radical change, Bohan believes, needs to be prioritised; it will have to be ‘creative’; and it needs to start at local level ‘with the felt needs of people’.
The ‘top down’ approach has ‘become the wrong way up’ so people need ‘to be engaged in order to be enabled to shape their own future’. He instances a process in Sixmilebridge parish in Co Clare where small groups of young parents meet to identify and discuss issues of immediate concern to them.
The key connectors, Bohan suggests, are family and community — with an unerring focus on the importance of parenting — influences which have shaped generations of Irish people.
Bohan believes that the central lesson of our Covid times is that it is forcing us to reflect on what is important in our lives and that we will find that only by listening to the people.
The outstanding lesson of this year, he suggests, is ‘the profound determination of the Irish people to act in the interests of the common good’ and the need to harness the kindness, humanity and solidarity shown by so many in order to create a better society for all.
Bohan teases out what this means for economics, family, education, the health system, sport and, not least religion. All systems, he suggests, need ‘a reality check’, not least religion and the Church.
The Church, he writes, is ‘not satisfying those who stay away or those who attend’. The problem lies with the Church, he argues, because ‘people do not find meaning in the Church’. While dioceses and parishes are taking steps to involve lay people in ministry, more fundamental change is needed as ‘our focus is too narrow’.
We need, he suggests, a return to basic gospel values, to improve ‘the quality of our Eucharistic celebrations’, to find a language people will understand and a leadership that genuinely trusts the people of God.
Bohan believes that though ‘the graph is going the wrong way for the Church in Ireland’ there is still ‘a huge commitment on the part of a significant number of people to value and support the Church’. He finds this to be particularly true of young parents who know the importance of a sense of God for themselves and for their children.
But the willingness of such parents to be part of a new Church comes at a price. Their participation depends on starting where people are at, on an expectation of real rather than cosmetic change, on a leadership with credibility and determination, on intellectual honesty and ultimately on an open agenda that has trust stitched into the fabric of the way it operates.
The key people are young parents, who can be both the resource and the creative driving force of change. They need to be affirmed and trusted so that their discussions are embedded in their reality, their concerns, their agenda. And if they get any sense of being manipulated by a clerical or other agenda or towards a pre-determined outcome they will be out the door before anyone notices they’re gone. The old way will not work.
My own limited experience suggests that Bohan has got this exactly right. There are enough faith-filled, committed Catholics to bring new life to a tired Church, provided there is a process which allows them to focus on the realities of life as they experience them, what Bohan calls ‘their felt needs’.
In other words, they have to be listened to and heard, trusted and respected. Without trust and respect, the rest is just dissembling and manipulation.
Rearing the Future is a book for our time.

  • Harry Bohan’s Rearing the Future is available at €10 from The Ennis Bookshop, O’Mahoney’s in Limerick and will be available soon in the Knock Bookshop and Kenny’s in Galway. All proceeds to Ennis Hospice.

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