Sean O’Conaill © Reality, 2004
Terrified and alone, a fifteen-year-old boy once stood on a hillside in Ireland and stared into the immense emptiness of the night sky. His life hung by a thread: the tolerance of strangers who now owned him as a slave and might kill him at any time. Those who loved him were far away, on the other side of the sea. Probably by now they had given him up for dead, and were praying for his soul.
But was he totally alone? His parents had assured him it was never so, for everywhere on earth was the true domain of the Great Ones who could be called to the aid of the afflicted. What was that his mother had said once when he was only half-listening?
“Though you walk in the valley of the shadow of death, no evil need you fear: his rod and his staff will protect you. Just call him then, and you will see!”
With nothing to lose, the boy called out then – not so loud as to alarm the animals he tended, or the humans further off.
“O Lord of heaven and earth, come to my aid! Ward off from me all danger, and bring me home at last!”
Nothing happened, it seemed. The sky was still as empty as it had been. But, strangely, the boy felt less afraid. Deep inside he felt a sense of warmth: much as he had felt once when he had fallen heavily as a child and been lifted and hugged tight by his father.
Encouraged the boy then began to pray as his mother had taught him: Our Father, who art in Heaven …
And as he did so, through wind and rain, his confidence grew that the Great Ones, the Trinity, were holding him close and guarding his life. They were greater than the Gods his captors prayed to, for they were a unity, not a constantly competing and bickering family – like the human family of wild Irish who now owned Patrick and held his life in their rough and callous hands.
This is just one way of telling a tale that Patrick, the Roman Briton, would tell one day in his own way. But what does virtually every Catholic chapel in Ireland do with this story? It makes of this teenager an aging patriarch, over-dressed in mitre and green chasuble – a stiff bishop in full regalia. This is a most ghastly miscalculation that makes it virtually impossible for any teenage boy today to identify fully with Ireland’s patron saint.
And this at a time when Ireland is full of lost boys, all searching for a heroic model. They can find one in Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars fantasies, or in Prince Aragorn – or the ring-bearer Frodo – of the Lord of the Rings – but not in Patrick of Ireland, or even Jesus of Nazareth himself.
Because Irish clericalism tends to clericalise all Christian heroes. Patrick never actually wore a mitre, because mitres didn’t exist for another six hundred years after his death. But those who selected the icons of Catholic Ireland in the nineteenth century were all patriarchal clerics, so Patrick became, fatally for the Church, a patriarchal cleric.
And so the most extraordinary and inspirational fact about Ireland’s early Christian history has almost been lost: that it was into the heart and mind of an unordained teenager that the Trinity came most powerfully to Ireland first, in the fifth century after Christ.
As someone who taught teenagers in Catholic schools for thirty years, I am now greatly concerned about the drift of young people from faith and practice. It is as though Anthony de Mello is absolutely correct in his assessment of most Catholic child education. “We inoculate the young with religion – so that they won’t catch it when they become adults!”
Yet, to be sure, there are interesting and vital exceptions.
“What do you think it all means then?” I once asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer science student.
“God loves ye!” she replied, after no more than a moment’s hesitation.
The manner in which she said this conveyed far more than any three words usually do – especially that there is indeed a loving transcendent spiritual being who is accessible to us, and whose love is both universal and unconditional.
Christine obviously felt confident not only that she was loved by this being, but that everyone else was also. So confident that she could say so to me, a virtual stranger, and to anyone else who might need that truth.
The great tragedy of Irish Catholicism today is that, despite the immense effort we have put into Catholic education, so few adults have Christine’s grasp of the Gospels, or Christine’s confidence that they can communicate it in the simplest of language.
In my final years as a secondary teacher I was increasingly struck by how tongue-tied and embarrassed our senior pupils could get when asked the question I had asked Christine. Although all had been selected at the age of eleven for their intelligence, it was as though they believed they had been asked a question they couldn’t presume to answer, as though the art of summary was inappropriate when applied to anything as weighty as Catholic doctrine.
After all, the Church’s own summary of its teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, runs to almost seven hundred pages. So anxious are our bishops to teach everything, and to avoid error, that nothing less will do. The unintended effect of all this is to intimidate most of us laity, rather than to make us confident that we know what it’s all about. And so we have become a tongue-tied people.
Not simply tongue-tied but paralysed, it seems, for many of us lack the confidence to express the love of God by loving one another. Indeed there are many still who seem to believe that being a Catholic is all about being right . That is, they seem to believe that they own the truth – a truth that gives them a privileged relationship with God. And that everyone else is to be pitied for their ignorance of it.
But the Church teaches that all truth is part of a hierarchy. This means simply that all of the books that have ever been written about the faith are an elaboration, or working out, of higher truths to be found in the Bible and in the Church’s own traditional interpretation of it.
Jesus himself said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”. He said also that children would understand him better than adults, so it is more than likely that at the summit of the church’s hierarchy of truth there is something very simple and portable.
Something like Christine’s “God loves you!”
Certainly these days we Catholics need a portable faith – something we can carry lightly as a source of happiness and wisdom for ourselves and others. The authoritarianism of the hierarchical church, and the huge range of its published teachings, can be immensely burdensome and intimidating for anyone, and this is a problem that desperately needs to be resolved.
A true story told by Fr Owen O’Sullivan O.F.M. in his book The Silent Schism makes this point better than I ever could. Forced to withdraw from a region on the frontiers of Angola in the 1980s, due to the spread of civil war, he and his missionary colleagues tried to foster lay leadership by photocopying the daily mass readings and leaving these with literate lay leaders who might not see another priest for years.
When the priests returned after an interval of many months they found that a group of four small churches had somehow become twenty.
When they asked how this had happened they were told by the lay leaders that one Sunday the gospel reading had told the story of the disciples sent out by Jesus to spread news of the kingdom, and of how they had brought the simple message “Peace!” to the surrounding villages. Wasn’t this the message that their own region of Africa needed just then, and couldn’t they do the same? So they did, with the result the priests had now found their church had expanded more quickly driven by inexpert lay enthusiasm, than it ever had through expert priestly evangelisation.
This story strongly suggests that what everyone essentially needs to know is that a relationship with Jesus is the source of all lasting peace and happiness and that whatever other questions we may have, he will provide the answers either in the church’s published teachings, or in the personal wisdom of someone he will help us to meet.
One ancient source of such wisdom is the summary of faith that Catholics repeat every Sunday at Mass – the Nicene Creed. The Apostles Creed often said as part of the Rosary is a simpler version. However, because we all learn these as children they are almost boringly familiar to us. Every Catholic today who seriously wishes to develop a personal, portable understanding of the faith must take a totally new look at these prayers to see what they are saying.
Although they were originally drawn up to put an end to disputes about basic truths that convulsed the early Church, and although they describe a physical universe that modern science and space travel has exploded, the Creed tells a simple true story with one overriding idea: compassion. The Great Ones that Patrick prayed to are determined to rescue us from our own misuse of the freedom they give us – especially our tendency to victimise one another in our struggles for recognition and power. The apostles themselves shared this weakness – as they revealed when they asked Jesus:“Which of us is the greatest?”
Jesus asks every one of us a different question: “What would happen to the world if everyone instead wished to be the least?”
He asks us that by living the answer – by showing infinite compassion for all the victims of the human search for wealth and power, and by becoming such a victim himself.
No age has ever been more competitive than our own. And no age has ever had more victims than this one. Meanwhile many of our most advanced scientists and philosophers assure us that life has no meaning – that it is merely the product of billions of years of Darwinian evolution. The wisest of them tell us that we must ourselves construct our own meaning.
But Patrick was wiser still. That lost teenage boy trusted to what his parents had taught him – in essence the truths related in the Nicene Creed – that there is a power above that is interested in us, that can change and inspire us – and give us the courage to meet all of the crises of life. We need simply trust in the Lord, and pray.
That portable faith is the secure foundation of all that we need now, in the deepest Catholic crisis in Irish history.