Sean O’Conaill © Reality Mar 2010
As a child of the Age of Optimism – the 1960s – I have never seen a darker time than the present.
And yet it is this deepest darkness that defines the brightest light and draws my eye – and my heart and my mind – towards its source. And that source fills me with a hope that is more deeply grounded than ever.
Graduating from secondary school in Dublin in 1960 I caught the optimism of JFK and Martin Luther King and Pope John XXIII in the years that followed. Although these men were all dead by 1968 – two by assassination – I never doubted that the future must always be brighter than the past. Until 1994.
By then I was 51, and overworking in a Northern Ireland Catholic Grammar school. Fascinated by the digital revolution, I was using the new technology to gather and process news data from around the world for use in my current affairs classes for older teenagers.
That news was increasingly bad. Children were suffering and dying in too many places – victims of an indifference fostered by Western escapism and what we miscalled ‘materialism’. The environment was under increasing threat, and governments were not yet paying close attention. We already seemed to be losing the war against a plague of addiction and its close relative, depression. This in turn was often related to a chronic instability of relationships, captured in a question from an Anne Murray song: “If love never lasts forever … what’s forever for?”
This gathering darkness threatened the future of the children I was teaching, and their children too – and my own children. And Northern Ireland’s own special darkness seemed endless also, as people who were in fact brothers and sisters in Christ persisted in a fratricidal war.
And then in that year, 1994, the clerical child abuse catastrophe erupted in Ireland for the first time.
Already I was deeply frustrated by the failure of the Irish Catholic church leadership to realise the promise of Vatican II. A closed Irish clerical structure had failed the challenge of dialogue with laity that had been issued by the council. So it had also failed to develop the far too passive role of lay people. And so it had also failed to give the children I was teaching a clear notion of their mission within this deteriorating world.
The celebrated and charismatic Pope John Paul II seemed unaware of this problem. And oblivious also to the dangers of the cult of celebrity that enveloped himself – its tendency to make media ‘icons’ of a chosen few and to convince billions of others of their own unimportance.
Waving papal flags was just about OK in 1979 for the first ever papal visit to Ireland, but no more challenging or creative role was discovered by the church leadership for the Irish people of God in the years that followed.
And now in 1994 we learned for the first time that an Irish priest could devastate the lives of children. Worse – although his superiors had been made aware of it, his abuse had continued for decades in his abbey in Cavan and wherever else he roamed in Ireland – and as far abroad as Providence, Rhode Island, USA. Irish church leader had known of this behaviour decades earlier – and failed to stop it in its tracks.
That was not the first major Irish church sex scandal, of course. Two years earlier in 1992 Bishop Eamon Casey had fled from Ireland to escape a media storm following the news that he had fathered a child in 1974. That had been disturbing enough, because Bishop Casey had been one of the most prominent Church leaders in Ireland. But the Brendan Smyth affair was even more disturbing because it revealed a far deeper failure of church leadership than anyone could have suspected. How could the protection of children ever have slipped from the top of any church leader’s agenda?
Trained to suppose that all problems had to be solved in the head, by the rational, logical mind, I was processing all of this depressing data at an increasing rate – and working myself dangerously hard. What exactly was wrong? Why were we so beset by such a multitude of evils? More important, how were we to tackle them?
Yes of course I had always been warned of the problem of evil in the world, but what exactly was the mainspring of that evil? What was the deepest root of our human problem?
Then one evening in the midst of all that my youngest son, aged fourteen, came to see me in my study and said:
“I don’t believe in all this Jesus stuff – and I don’t think anyone else in my class does either!”
That really shook me – because I found myself then unable to explain to my own son why I believed that the biggest mistake we could make in the midst of a gathering world crisis was to let go of our Christian faith.
Always through these years I had been an attentive Sunday Mass goer. The first thing I would do in chapel would be to lift the missalette to scan the scripture readings, especially the Gospel. There was something about that experience that rested the mind and restored the soul. I surely believed that somewhere in that strange, dusty, ancient Palestinian world – and in the words and ceremonies that had emerged from it – lay a treasure and a secret that the world must not lose.
But what was it exactly – what was the relevance of those words and ceremonies to all that was oppressing us in 1994? What did my Sunday have to do with my Monday and the rest of my working week? If I couldn’t put my finger on that, I couldn’t even really do my job – to encourage and maintain the faith and optimism of the children I was teaching – and of my own children too.
So I did then something I should have done much earlier. I began to pray really seriously about all that was worrying me.
This time I didn’t say set, memorised prayers. I took seriously what my church (despite all its faults) had always taught – that there is a spiritual resource or presence that never leaves us, a presence that can be addressed directly. And I did that quietly in my room – confessing my own inability to see any light in the gathering darkness. And I simply asked for help with all that.
In the weeks that followed my life began to change in mysterious ways. Most importantly, I began to notice a pattern in the news stories I was processing for the children I was teaching. One human failing suddenly seemed to me to underlie problems as diverse as global warming, indifference towards 3rd world suffering, the corruption of politicians, the explosion of the cosmetics industry, and injustice of every kind – and even the failure of bishops to protect children.
My first description of this human failing was simply this: people climb!
I meant by this that we humans suffer from a chronic tendency to be dissatisfied with ourselves, and to seek satisfaction by impressing other people. To impress others we need to be noticed by them, and this leads us to climb endlessly – to attract notice.
And it suddenly seemed to me that this was the solution to an historical problem that had always baffled me – the emergence in every human society in every era of some kind of social pyramid. It is our tendency to climb that produces this also – and the snobbery of those who must look down on others. Even the United States, founded on the principle of equality, had become by 1994 just another social pyramid, with most of the graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton looking down on the poor with aristocratic disdain.
And then I realised what had always attracted me to the Gospels. Jesus was the great exception to this historical rule of thumb, that “everybody climbs!” He had done the exact opposite.
I became convinced I had finally managed to connect Sunday with every weekday, and to connect the Bible with my own time. Our God – especially through the Lord of the Gospels – is constantly challenging the pyramids of the world, by challenging first of all our tendency to build them.
Everything I have written since then is based upon that conviction.