Category Archives: Laity

René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World

First published in the Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023

As soon as I began exploring the Internet from the mid 1990s, I ran into arguments against Christian belief that were couched in the following terms: ‘To believe in an objective truth, to believe that history has a meaning and a destiny, is necessarily to wish to impose that understanding on others. All such “overarching stories”– otherwise known as “meta-narratives” or “master narratives”—are necessarily intolerant and violent—the Christian Creed included. The history of Christianity proves exactly that.

This is the argument for relativism, for the impossibility—and the danger—of any Creed, any overarching ‘story of salvation.’ It is the Gospel according to postmodernism. Yet when Pope Benedict XVI launched an intellectual assault on what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in 2005, he found a firm supporter in the influential literary, anthropological, and philosophical thinker René Girard (1923-2015).

Girard upholds the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, but gives it an anthropological reading that renders it credible in a fresh way. He sets up the Creed against the World in a battle for the human soul. Here I shall meditate on two Girardian themes: the influence of mimetic rivalry in history, and the way in which the Gospel weans us from seeking glory from one another (showing the importance of this for young people dealing with social media today).

A native of Avignon, France, who spent the bulk of his career in the United States, Girard insisted that he was never a theologian. He was first (in chronological order) a historian, then a literary critic, then a cultural anthropologist, and then a philosopher of violence in his ground-breaking work La Violence et le Sacré.1 René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) He came from a French intellectual tradition that was, on his father’s side, secularist and anticlerical. Nevertheless in the 1970s he came to the firm conclusion that the Jewish and Christian scriptures, known to us as the Bible, had revealed, more clearly than any other texts, a fundamental inescapable truth about human nature – a truth that lies, he argues, at the root of all violence.

This is as follows: after we have satisfied our basic physical needs we humans literally do not know what we should want. Someone else who is apparently more important than ourselves must show us what to want or desire. We are therefore, necessarily, imitative beings. We learn by copying, subliminally, the behavior we see, as soon as we begin to see. We cannot help but adopt as our own at least some of the desires that we also see—especially the desires we observe in those who appear to have greater ‘being’ or status or fame. Girard calls this copied desire ‘mimetic desire.’ He identifies it with the tendency we are warned against in the 9th and 10th commandments—not to covet what belongs to a neighbor—not to want anything that belongs to a neighbor.

To covet is not a matter of simple greed or desire; it entails an element of rivalry and imitation. The repetition of the word ‘neighbor’ is, Girard argued, all-important. It is through that lens that he interpreted the tales of violence in Scripture and indeed the entire historical record. (He had previously uncovered the dynamics of mimetic desire in studies of the modern novel, including Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Proust.)2See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

Mimetic Desire in History

Take, for example, the young 6thcentury Irish monk, Columba. His coveted object was the laboriously handwritten and unique copy of the Psalms owned and prized by his eminent neighbor St Finnian. According to one version of the story there followed from this clashing desire the collision of two Ulster Gaelic noble families in the battle of Cul Dreimne in 561—–and Columba’s penitential exile on Iona. The history of copyright law began at that point, according to Wikipedia.

Henry II of England coveted the lands of his nearest neighbors to the west, the Irish. There was a ready excuse for appropriating them: the allegedly lower moral and religious standards of us Irish back then. No eminent cleric in England, or Rome, demurred (as far as I know) when Henry performed his religious duty—by invading Ireland in 1171. Note both the ostensible religious motive for that invasion and the far more likely motive—simply wanting what your neighbor has that you do not. Those who want to see in religion the cause of all violence do not ever want to notice what almost always lies beneath.

How could Henry II of England so easily get away with that? Recall that since the fourth century Christianity had come to be allied with state actors in a contract that seemed to benefit both. Charles the Great (Charlemagne) crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, had built that empire, avowedly, in the cause of the one true faith. He did that, often, with immense cruelty.

And then, in 1095 came the famous speech attributed to Pope Urban II at Clermont—the oration that launched the first Crusade against the Islamic world. One historical source has Urban saying the following:

Can anyone tolerate that we [Europeans] do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited earth? They have made Asia, which is a third of the world, their homeland…. They have also forcibly held Africa, the second portion of the world, for over 200 years. There remains Europe, the third continent. How small a portion of it is inhabited by us Christians.3Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976, p. 244

Yes of course there were very good religious reasons for heading off to Jerusalem with an army, but was the occupation of the Holy Land by the Crusaders truly all about religious zeal? Exactly the same question applies to the global Christian imperialism that set in with the voyages of discovery in the 1400s, with Portugal and Spain in the lead. In the summer of 2022 Pope Francis was faced with the so called ‘doctrine of discovery’ that justified all that.

The New Digital Imperialism

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken. The screen itself, easily portable on a mobile smartphone, is a mimetic magnet. If a friend is absorbed in her phone that surely signifies the existence of a more important social universe via the phone than can exist without one, so the phone becomes a ‘must have’, a ‘portal’ to the irresistible possibility of ‘going viral’. And yet ‘virality’ too is a scarce resource, so fractious rivalries—this time in an arena that is potentially global—are the inevitable consequence of this online mimetic competition for attention.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and ‘the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use.’ Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge found in 2022 that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls was even stronger.

The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.’ (Washington Post, 16 February 2022)

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions —that our value and importance are determined by the judgment of others. Disappointment and elation, obscurity or recognition, honor and shame are in the gift of a handheld device that tells us at a glance where we stand. Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history—the very same law that governed the rivalries of the ancient world. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are in any way vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is well established. To believe in the Internet, or in media generally, as the arbiter of a person’s worth is to fall into spiritual poverty. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality. Already there have been tragic instances of youthful suicide directly related to the power of social media to determine the mood and the behavior of its most vulnerable devotees. It is not far-fetched to describe social media fixation as algorithm enslavement, and the deployers of those algorithms—aiming as they do at ‘hooking’ and retaining the attention of all who enter—as digital imperialists and enslavers.

The Creed as Antidote to Digital Imperialism

The logic of crucifixion in the ancient Roman world was also squarely based upon the proposition that the value and significance of any human life is determined by social verdict. Why take the time to make a spectacle of crucifying anyone if the expected payoff was not the consolidation of the power and status of Rome, by convincing the beholders that there could be no greater power?

And yet the crucifixion of Jesus had the opposite effect on those who firmly believed that, somehow, Jesus had not been obliterated by it. Hence the conviction of the converted Paul of Tarsus that a ‘New Creation’ was now in process, and that the power of Rome was ‘passing away.’ With its trinitarian and resurrectionist core already expressed in the Gospel of Matthew by the end of the first century, the Creedal narrative was clearly in its origins a rebuttal not only of the Lordship of the Caesars, but a portable indestructible passport through any tyranny—to be recited in time of trial as a reminder of where the greater power always lay. The survival and growth of the church in the first three centuries, despite three separate waves of persecution, is testament to a core of belief that warded off all contrary social verdicts. The Creed is the densest expression of that core, even if, under Christendom, it was later misapplied as a catalogue of dogmas serving as an instrument of clerical control.

Now, with clerical control receding into history, the essence of the Creed—the proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected and vindicated by the Father, and raised to the status of supreme judge of the living and the dead—is ready for rediscovery as a rebuttal of the fallacy that anyone but Jesus is valid final judge of any one of us, and therefore as rejection of the orgy of judgmentalism—and of ‘viral’ global ambition—that plagues the Internet. No one should ever consider the verdicts of YouTube or Instagram or TikTok or any other online arena to be definitive of the value of anyone, least of all of oneself.

What has the Experience of Media Shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power-broker of both honor and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option: to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honor’ as truly at the mercy of other humans, and to identify this as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras, and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. The Gospel story exposes that mistake, and the fallibility of human judgment even when all are in agreement. So perhaps we may see the disgracing of the Irish church, at the hands of a secularizing media, as deliverance in disguise. It was to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation,’ that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children. Now their own ‘humiliation by media’ may free them to celebrate and re-affirm the Creed—the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief—in the face of a secularism that direly needs it.

Certainly there must be many Irish (and Japanese) teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet, so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market.’ Our Creed, rightly understood, can be an instrument of that rescue. It is a calling for all of us to take up that instrument and use it to overcome this new form of enslavement.


[1] René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[2] See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[3] Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 244.

Views: 216

No research, ever, on school-centred faith formation in Irish Catholic Schools?

classroom-with-crucifix

On June 2nd, 2016, the letter below appeared in the ‘Letters’ page of the Irish Catholic.  Since then no response has been received to the central question posed: whether the effectiveness of Irish Catholic schools in forming faith has ever been seriously researched in Ireland.

Educationists in all fields conduct research – and school-going pupils are always available to participate.  In an era when Christian faith is increasingly challenged it stands to reason that Catholic educationists – as well as teachers, clergy and parents – will need to know exactly what is ongoing in the area of faith development if they are to respond effectively.

It now appears that there is a very serious issue here.  If no such research has ever been conducted in Ireland – despite, for example, a reply to this writer from one Irish bishop in 2005 that the issue would be raised at an impending regional meeting of bishops – what is the reason for this?  Why is our knowledge on this issue so partial – based on individual experience, and therefore still merely anecdotal?

In 2011 Irish bishops adopted a strategy of switching the focus of faith development to adults, with the long-term intention of placing this responsibility on parishes and families.  As outlined by the document Share the Good News  this shift was to take place over a ten-year period – yet in my own diocese, Derry, there is still no sign of this shift even beginning.  In a growing general crisis of continuity – including a crisis of clerical manpower and clerical ageing – inertia too widely reigns.  Unaccountably, we remain substantially ignorant of the scale and nature of this crisis.  There is surely no excuse for this.

Why don’t we know reliably already – from pupils at the upper end of our second-level schools – why increasingly they do not show any interest in Catholic sacramental practice?  

From the Irish Catholic, June 2nd, 2016:

Huge research deficit on issue of Catholic education

Dear Editor,

These days our bishops and educationists are again circling the wagons against the encroachment of ‘faith-neutral’ models of religious education in Catholic schools. So, for example, we hear Dr Eugene Duffy of St Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, insisting that: “Parents, if they’re sending their children to a faith-based school, will have a genuine expectation that their children will be formed within their faith tradition.” (‘School religious ed will suffer under new Govt plan – experts’, IC 12/05/2016)

Upon what reliable research evidence is this assertion based? Back in 2006 Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told Pope Benedict XVI: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”

Why should we believe that the predominant motive of Catholic parents in favouring Catholic schools is not simply their belief that those schools are academically effective and well disciplined, meeting educational ends that are not strictly religious, but actually secular?

My point is not to attack the principle of Catholic schooling but to question the huge and inexcusable research deficit in Ireland on the entire issue of Catholic education – especially the reasons that despite our virtually total reliance on schools for faith formation our Irish Church is facing a radical crisis of continuity.

As a teacher in a Catholic second-level school for three decades, I had many times to supervise Catholic pupils responding to research projects initiated by the education department of a local university. Never once had any of those projects been sponsored by the Catholic Church, with the issue of faith development foremost – even though it has been known for decades that many of those same pupils are not only disinterested but often alienated from faith observance.

Everything we hear at present shouts to us that our school-reliant system of faith development is not maintaining – on its own – the continuity of the Catholic faith. Are our bishops afraid to confront that issue directly, by conducting reliable research on the issue?

Yours etc.,

Sean O’Conaill,
Coleraine,
Co. Derry.

Views: 38

Media: Cruel arbiter of youthful self-respect

According to Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, one in four Irish teenage girls aged 16-18 is self-harming, and obesity rates among young people are higher for those socially less advantaged. This news of Nov 3rd 2016 shows that Ireland is following a pattern that is uniform throughout the developed world: a new tyranny is growing, far more insidious than any that preceded the rise of electronic and print media.

Under British imperial occupation Ireland suffered huge psychological damage that has still not been overcome, but at least we had far closer bonds with one another than is happening today. We could join to celebrate what we had retained of our historical memory, and dream together of a future truly free.

But what does true freedom mean today for Irish young people, when stereotypes of physical attractiveness, celebrity and success are mercilessly relayed to them by ‘must have’ devices that wake them in the early morning. And when trolls, fashion police and ransom honey-pots lie in wait on ‘social media’ throughout their waking hours?

This ‘media colonisation’ was impending even before Ireland’s 20th century overthrow of ‘the British yoke’. The very first clinical diagnoses of what are today termed eating disorders occurred in the 1800s, in an era of expanding print mass media. The latter exploited the appetite of young women for every detail of the costume and ‘lifestyle’ of highly placed ‘beauties’ – such as Sisi, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898), wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I.

It was this ‘new woman’ who, along with her good friend the Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, put an end to the wearing of the crinoline and made slimness de rigeur for fashionable women from then on. According to one account they had in their early friendship retired to a private room to measure their waists – inaugurating what is now the global craze for competitive thinness. Ominously, Sisi insisted upon a rigid low calorie diet and dedicated herself to physically demanding sports – and it wasn’t long before the highly placed female readership of the growing print media was aware of every detail of this new ‘must’ for the ‘new woman’.

The first clinical descriptions of what is now called anorexia were written when Sisi and Eugenie were most influential, in 1860 and 1873.*

The habit of imitating social models began much earlier, of course, but the media  multiplication of images of the model ‘socialite’ meant that body-shape competition intensified – and the least ‘body-confident’ girls among the upper classes were necessarily in most danger. Now every young woman is subject to the same threat.

As for rates of obesity, those too are now known to correlate with social disadvantage and the self-dislike to which the least fortunate give way. ‘Comfort eating’ is far from being a myth for those subject to media, yet incapable of participation in any of the competitions for status that they see.  Self-cutting is obviously closely related, an expression of the deepest self-rejection.

For commercial media, competition of all kinds is the ‘gift that keeps on giving’ – because of a singular human frailty: our tendency to agree that our worth is indeed determined by other humans, by ‘society’. There is a complete uniformity in the damage done to young men who ingest steroids to ‘bulk up’, and young women who swallow dieting doctrine, by virtue of the same conviction: ‘I must not be shamed by my body’.  Media are almost uniformly the conduit of this merciless dogma: beware at all costs of social contempt; seek honour through conformity.

Those who see religious faith as the greatest threat to freedom have not yet noticed that it is now from a thoroughly secularised media, dominated by purely commercial interests, that a far greater danger threatens. Or that, as the greatest theme of all great religion is the equal sacred and inviolable value of every one of us – no matter what ‘society says’ – it is only through those who believe this passionately that true freedom will come.

‘What happened to sin?’ asked the late Sean Fagan. Answer: it became ‘self harm’. (For St Thomas Aquinas ‘God is not offended until we harm ourselves’.)  Irish Catholic clergy, many still despondent over their own recent shaming, need to remember that it is only from their current social altitude that the Gospel can be effectively preached.

Only now, released from its mistaken role at the pinnacle of social respectability,  can the Irish Catholic church – clergy and people together – effectively uphold the full Gospel of the equal and infinite value of every person.  The power of Christendom to teach the whole Gospel was always an illusion, because it was in those centuries of the clergy’s greatest social power that the deepest meaning of the Resurrection was almost lost: that our value, our worth, is God given and is therefore not in the gift – or justly subject to the contempt – of any other power: not ‘society’, not media and not even the Church.

*    See: Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire’, René Girard  [Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 3 (Spring 1996)]

Views: 30

Sexuality, Nature and Justice

How should we Catholics react to the presence of anyone involved in a same-sex marriage in any role of ministry in our church congregation?  Here I presented a very personal view.

Activist ‘forced’ lesbian couple to leave roles in church choir. So reported Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times on September 9th 2016. Less than five hours later, this headline had been replaced with Lesbian couple to retake church roles they were ‘forced’ to leave.

As such brief reports typically summarise and over-simplify a great deal of complexity, and I have no means of verifying the factual statements made in that report, I will refrain from attributing any of the reported ‘facts’ to any named individual. My purpose here is not factual reportage but personal reflection and comment upon a situation which we can regard as entirely hypothetical, as follows:

Person A, described as an ‘activist’, takes exception to the participation in a Catholic church choir, and in Eucharistic ministry, of Persons B and C – on the grounds that their gay civil marriage is contrary to Catholic teaching. Person A makes known this opposition in such a way that Persons B and C at first feel obliged to relinquish their membership of the choir. Sometime later they reverse this decision – influenced, it appears, by an unknown number of other members of the same church community who do not share Person A’s position.

The story is of interest to Catholics generally for the obvious reason that this situation could occur anywhere, posing (possibly) a clear challenge. We will all naturally ask ourselves ‘how would / will I respond in that same situation?’

Asking myself that same question, I place myself in the situation firstly of Person A, who becomes aware of the personal relationship of Persons B and C and their membership of the church choir in my own local church. What, if anything, do I feel compelled to do about this circumstance?

Yes, Persons B and C do appear to be in breach of a disciplinary position advised to us by the official leadership of the church – but is it not possible, even likely, that other members of the same congregation (and perhaps even I myself) are in breach of one or more other rules of the church, and that these other infractions could well be known to others present? As it is most unusual for anyone to take express exception to the presence of someone else in a church gathering, for whatever reason – even if that person is in some kind of ‘leadership’ role  – is this particular circumstance exceptional to a degree that obliges me to behave in an exceptional way?

On balance I strongly think not. For one thing, the official leadership of my church in Ireland has signally failed even to try to convince me that it has understood human sexuality as fully as this particular situation requires. No one yet has convinced me that the church’s ‘take’ on ‘natural law’ requirements regarding sexuality and marriage is binding in conscience – and none has ever entered into dialogue with me or anyone I know on the matter. (At 73, I have been a Mass-goer in Ireland all of my life.)

Furthermore, when it came to church management of other issues of sexual morality in the church – specifically clerical sexual abuse of children – huge injustices followed that have not yet been fully explained or healed. Had the principles of natural justice been followed in those circumstances, rather than the comparatively trivial matter of protecting popular trust in priestly celibacy, thousands of Catholic families throughout the Catholic world would have been saved from long-lasting trauma.

So the central question for me now in regard to all issues of sexual relationships is: ‘what are the requirements of justice here?’ Until the Catholic episcopal magisterium has also systematically addressed issues of sexuality and marriage under that criterion I will remain unconvinced by ‘natural law’ argumentation on matters of sex. (Instead, a US Catholic theologian who has systematically pursued that very line of inquiry has been censured – without any discussion, as usual – by the Holy See. That is in no way convincing either. * )

And knowing that the same bishops allowed priests guilty of clerical child abuse to continue to celebrate the Eucharist – without ever warning even the parents of those children who served on the altar – on what grounds would I feel compelled to complain about the presence of anyone in a same-sex marriage in the choir or in the role of a Eucharistic minister? How, in justice, could I do that? The question answers itself.

So, next, how would I react if someone else in my church community took such an action, leading to a decision by others to resign from any ministry open to lay people?

I honestly hope I would have reacted as others appear to have done in the case cited above: taken the trouble, firstly, to express disagreement with the action of Person A, and, secondly, to show solidarity with Persons B and C – for the reasons given above. I hope I would also take the opportunity to protest the total lack of opportunity to discuss such issues with clergy during the whole of my adult life – and to point out that this clear moratorium on dialogue has done untold damage to the faith and trust of so many families in Ireland, as well as to confidence in the said magisterium. For me, no ‘New Evangelisation’ can be effective in Ireland until that truly disastrous dialogical deficit is remedied.

Finally, I hope I would also take the trouble to oppose any move to ostracise or pressurise Person A into leaving my church community either, and to make known that opposition to Person A. When it comes to celebrating our central Eucharistic and penitential rite, all of us deeply need to embrace fully the principles of both mercy and inclusion – and to seize such ‘learning moments’ as a God-sent opportunity to begin the deep discussion that has been so disastrously delayed for so long. Person A also needs a hearing, and compassion – and this Year of Mercy surely requires of all of us a supreme effort to bear with one another as imperfect beings who are called, above all, to love.

* Margaret A Farley: ‘Just Love: A Framework for Sexual Ethics’ (Continuum, NY, 2006)

Views: 6

‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale

This project preoccupied me for months:  the experiment of a novel that would test the power of Girardian mimetic theory to explain to young people a wide range of modern ills – from the global threat to the environment to violence of all kinds – including school bullying.

The project arose out of a realisation that were I still in the classroom I would be proposing that we do often unconsciously absorb the desires of others  – as a tool to explain such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, the World Wars of the 20th century, the Cold War – and the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Would it have been feasible to do so?  Do young people already notice ‘unconscious copying’ as a dominant feature of human behaviour, and even as a potential source of conflict?

The second crucial factor heading me in the direction of fiction was the simple fact that my classroom days are over.  Now in my seventies I am retired from formal teaching – but very much committed still to what lies behind all teaching:  the task of maintaining a living tradition of insight into so much of what ails us, and especially of passing that insight on to young people concerned for the future of the planet.

So could I write a story that would have eleven-year-olds stumble upon the significance of our human weakness for adopting the desires of others, and then have them argue their case in their own school context?

I have tried to do that, in any case.  It is for young people themselves to tell me if I have succeeded.  My very first young readers of a late draft have been enthusiastic, but I have no way of knowing how representative they are.

As I was obliged to self-publish this story, the initial retail cost of the paperback version on Amazon is too high.    I am setting out to make copies available soon at what they cost me, ordered in quantities at a discount.  I will update this page to log progress in this attempt.

Views: 12

Was I uncharitable, scathing, lacking in compassion?

In the week beginning May 12th I was charged by Joseph O’Leary in the Irish Times with making a scathing commentary on the relationship of Fr Michael Cleary and Phyllis Hamilton – on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) – and with showing scant sympathy or compassion for those involved in that relationship.

I append below a link to that whole discussion, and ask anyone (who has the time) to feed back to me their own conclusions.

I was responding on the ACP site to a thread that asked if Catholicism is now seen as more-or-less irrelevant in Ireland. I offered the opinion that, if this view is to be countered, we Catholics all need to find a deeper integrity and to avoid ‘bad religious theatre’.

As an example of the latter I referred to ‘the Michael Cleary phenomenon’.  I meant by this the obvious contradiction between Fr Michael Cleary’s high media profile as a proponent of official church teaching on sexuality, and  his private life.  (It is surely obvious now that had Ireland known in 1979 what it came to know about Fr Cleary in 1993, he would not have featured on global media in 1979 as part of Ireland’s official welcome in Galway for Pope John Paul II.)

The issue for me was not Fr Cleary’s character, still less that of his partner, Phyllis Hamilton. It was the impossibility of reconciling his public message and posture with his private life – an issue not of private individual morality but of institutional credibility.

In the discussion that followed on that ACP thread, the question arose of the beginnings of Fr Cleary’s relationship with Phyllis Hamilton (aged 17 when they met), and with it the question of the behavioural guidelines to be followed by clergy in such situations today.  As this is an ongoing matter of real concern, and as Joseph O’Leary seemed to me to underestimate the problematic nature of a sexual relationship developing out of such an encounter (especially with one so obviously vulnerable as the 17-year-old Phyllis Hamilton), serious alarm bells rang for me.  The absence of a far more guarded clerical view on that issue on this ACP discussion raised for me the question:  what’s the ACP’s position on that issue anyway?

My alarm deepened when that request was simply blanked by the ACP leadership – even when it was made directly to the ACP’s Contact email address.  Would an acknowledgement, at least, not have been warranted?

For the record, I think it very possible that Fr Michael Cleary was also a ‘vulnerable adult’ in 1968 when, aged 34, he met Phyllis Hamilton, and that he probably also deserves compassion for the misfortune that befell.  (Phyllis was then emerging from psychiatric care following childhood abuse.)

However, it is for that very reason – that a double vulnerability is likely to exist in such situations – that explicit guidelines are needed for clergy in such encounters – and are in fact under development in Northern Ireland at this time.

Unfortunately the remit of the church’s safeguarding body, the NBSCCC, does not permit it to develop such guidelines for clergy throughout Ireland.  But that would not prevent the ACP from producing and publishing its own guidelines for its reported 1,000 plus members.  (It could very easily do that in consultation with, for example, Ian Elliott – now freed from his commitment to the NBSCCC.)

However, I must leave it to others to tell me if I need to revise my view of this whole exchange.  The entire discussion involving Michael Cleary on the ACP website can be found at the following link:

Is Catholicism now deemed to be old-fashioned, irrational, and unacceptable? Brendan Hoban asks in his weekly Western People column.

Views: 4

The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-sacrifice?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Sep 2007

“The specific leadership task of the priest is to foster not just any kind of community but one which embodies Gospel values at both the local and the global levels.” Donal Dorr, Do We Still Need Priests, Doctrine and Life, April 2007

In full agreement with this, I find myself asking the following supplementary question: What was the definitive priestly act of Jesus? Was it his institution of the Eucharist on the night before his crucifixion, or his passion and death the following day on Calvary?

So inextricably connected are these events that the question may seem naive, but it seems to me to go to the heart of our current need to discern the specific Christian priestly role today. As Donal Dorr pointed out, the generally accepted solution is that the priest celebrates Mass and grants absolution. However, neither of these roles need involve their actors in the endurance of suffering on behalf of others – the very heart of the mystery of the Eucharist itself. That is not to say that Catholic priests do not often lead heroic lives, but that we have not, sadly, been taught to see personal sacrifice as the distinctive and necessary characteristic of Catholic priesthood.

We need to make a key distinction here, to separate in our minds the first Eucharist – a symbolic, ritual event – and the crucifixion, the actual endurance of pain on behalf of others – a decidedly real, non-ritual, event. It was the latter alone that gave meaning to the former. Remembering Jesus’ devastating verdict on those who affected to be religious – that in winning a naive admiration they had received their due reward – we need to be especially mindful that if the church existed solely for ritual and symbolic purposes it would exist in vain. So, the actual bearing of pain on behalf of others is the essential core of Christian priesthood: if that does not happen our priestly ritual would essentially be an empty facade, and not Christian at all.

Especially we need to remember this because the essence of Jesus’ priesthood was his integrity – the fact that, unlike the pagan priest, he was also the real victim of the sacrifice that he had ritually celebrated. So how have we come to elevate the performance of ritual and sacrament – what might be called virtual or symbolic ministry – above what is actually more important: actual ministry, the taking of pain on behalf of others?

In stressing the priest’s obligation to provide Christian leadership, in stressing also that Christian leadership is something quite different from control, and in emphasising the need for prophetic witness, Donal Dorr is taking us towards a reintegration of symbolic and actual ministry. It is useful here to reflect upon the historical origins of their separation. The following paragraphs are taken from a standard history of our church:

“The clergy at first were not sharply differentiated from the laity in their lifestyle: The clergy married, raised families, and earned their livelihood at some trade or profession. But as the practice grew of paying them for their clerical work, they withdrew more and more from secular pursuits, until by the fourth century such withdrawal was deemed obligatory.

“An important factor in this change was the increasing stress laid on the cultic and ritualistic aspects of the ministry. At first the Christian presbyter or elder avoided any resemblance to the pagan or Jewish priests and, in fact, even deliberately refused to he called a priest. He saw his primary function as the ministry of the Word. The ritualistic features of his sacramental ministry were kept in a low key. Even as late as the fifth century, John Chrysostom still stressed preaching as the main task of the Christian minister. But the image of the Christian presbyter gradually took on a sacral character.

“This sacralization of the clergy was brought about by various developments – theological, liturgical, and legal. The Old Testament priesthood, for instance, was seen as the type and model for the New Testament priesthood. The more elaborate liturgy of the post-Constantinian era, with its features borrowed from paganism, enhanced the image of the minister as a sacred personage. The ministry of the Word diminished in importance when infant baptism became the rule rather than the exception, for infants could not be preached to. Imperial legislation established the clergy as an independent corporation with its own rights and immunities.”

[From: T. Bokenkotter, ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’, 2004,Pages 53-54]

It is clear from this that the earliest dis-integration of ritual ministry from actual ministry accompanied the growing ‘success’ of the church in the third and fourth centuries, culminating in Christian clergy replacing the pagan religious establishments. The priest who sought to follow and to witness to Christ in an era when this could be deeply dangerous was still likely to become the real victim of the ritual he celebrated. The person who found high position in the post-Constantinian church, on the other hand, had often no similar test of his integrity to pass. In fact, the role now usually guaranteed creature comforts and social status. Nothing else was needed to elevate ritual ministry – the public and theatrical aspect of Christianity – above actual ministry, and to separate the two.

After Constantine, Church leaders quickly became powerful enough to be victimisers themselves – and this deeply disordered situation persisted into the modern era.

Reform movements in the church were often a reaction to this dis-integration of actual and symbolic ministry – as was the Protestant Reformation in its emphasis upon the priesthood of all believers. So was Vatican II in its attempts to involve laity. Now today we are attempting to identify the specifically priestly ministry at the very time we are also attempting to discern what ‘involving the laity’ might mean. These problems are inseparable.

For the fact is that lay people already often are involved in actual self-sacrificial as distinct from ritual priestly ministry. I am not simply referring here to the heroic service that many individuals may give in charitable work or activism on issues of justice. I refer to the many critical service occupations that are poorly paid, such as nursing, counselling, teaching, youth ministry and caring for the disabled and the elderly. I refer also to the mundane fact that marriage, parenting and other family obligations, and even close friendships, often involve personal sacrifice to a marked degree. Why do we still suppose that the ordained priest is the model of Christian priesthood when his role does not necessarily involve self-sacrifice on behalf of others, and may in fact insulate the priest from any such obligation?

The reason is, I believe, that with the Constantinian shift something else was in danger of being lost in our understanding of the Calvary event: that Jesus’s integrity required that he accept the very opposite of the elevated social position of the priest of the ancient world, that he accept the social position of the slave. Here again, reform movements such as those of Saints Benedict and Francis of Assisi sought to re-identify Christian ministry with powerlessness, poverty and humility. However, secular clergy tended on the whole to continue to occupy socially elevated positions from which to critique the faults of the people, and this was especially true of those appointed as shepherds.

“I think we need more involvement of the laity,” insisted one secular priest recently when asked by a colleague what he thought needed to happen to reinvigorate the church in his own troubled Irish diocese. “Nonsense!” was the emphatic reply. For the latter ‘the church’ must remain essentially a clerical entity whose clerical proprietors simply mustn’t relinquish the very thing that Jesus did relinquish to become the archetypal Christian priest: the status that goes with exclusivity. The argument appears to be that if ‘vocations to the priesthood’ are to be encouraged at all, young men must continue to be offered an elevated status as an indispensable incentive

But if the ‘the church’ and priesthood have essentially to do with humility, self-sacrifice and service, it is indeed ‘nonsense’ to talk of ‘lay involvement in the church’ as though it wasn’t already a reality. There is a dire need instead for the actual living priesthood of the laity to be formally acknowledged by the clerical church, and for the wisdom that must obviously accompany that living priesthood to be released into the clerical church through structures that allow us to address one another for the first time as equals and collaborators. We need to think not of ‘involving the laity’ but of involving the clergy in the church of service that many of the laity already embody, and to convene the whole church for the first time in many centuries on that understanding.

So of course we still need priests, because all of us are called to the essence of Christian priesthood: actual service of others. Whether we need any longer an ordained elite to celebrate the Eucharist is an entirely different question, because elitism has always been dangerous to Christian priesthood, properly understood. That we should still be tied to an elitist and ritualistic conceptualisation of priesthood in order to continue to celebrate the sacred ritual of the Eucharist, and to receive the body of Christ, is one of the great ironies of the history of our church.

And as we fail this test of grasping fully what Christian priesthood actually means, our younger generations are walking away from our schools, many never to realise that in rejecting (or suffering exclusion from) membership of an historically limited version of priesthood they have not walked away from the essence of Christian priesthood. Male and female, if they retain their Christian idealism, and their spirit of service, they will bring to the secular world the very priesthood it needs for its restoration.

It is time to tell them this, as a matter of real urgency.

Views: 300

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: X – The Emerging Church

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Nothing could be more obviously needed by the Catholic Church in Ireland than a clearly defined role for lay people – a role in renewing and revitalizing the whole church.

And nothing could be more obviously lacking in our church at present than structures that would require and allow lay people to meet creatively – under the banner of their church – at parish, diocesan and national level – to respond to the current crisis by building a prayerful sense of common purpose and ownership of our own faith.

The fact that four decades after Vatican II the Catholic church in Ireland has a conference of bishops, and a conference of priests, but still no conference of the Catholic laity – is a monument to the inertia of the church’s leadership, to Irish Catholic clericalism and to hierarchical disloyalty to Vatican II.

The fundamental problem of clericalism is that it is obsessed with the status of clergy – an entirely worldly concern. It fears lay people exercising initiative, freely debating the multitude of problems that beset their church and society, and taking action to put them right. It privileges clerical control, so it places a high value on lay docility and passivity and prefers lay people to be in a permanent state of inadequacy and need. Raising lay obedience to the pinnacle of its value system, it trains us for permanent inertia.

“Leave everything always to us!” This is the central message of clericalism. “We will do all your thinking for you, and tell you when and how to respond.”

As a result our church is in deep danger of disappearing altogether when the present generations of clergy pass on – as they are rapidly doing. No adult in Ireland is now unaware that the continuity of the faith is critically challenged. Clericalism is building nothing to replace itself, because it can envisage nothing but a clerically-controlled church.

And lay people are especially disheartened when some of those priests who have sought a reputation for forward thinking have been heard to say to their new and fragile pastoral councils: “What you propose is not going to happen: remember I am the parish priest”.

Yet the conviction behind this series of articles is that already lay people are being called into thought and action – and are laying the foundations of a different kind of church. A deep sense of crisis is calling people into prayer, and the continuing absence of an adequate clerical response to that crisis is forcing lay people out of their inertia. When clerical leadership fails, lay people are clearly themselves called to lead.

This does not mean that we are called to promote and preach new and radical theologies. Our specific task as laity has been already clearly defined by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God. Our current priority is to understand what that means, and to communicate that meaning to one another and to the secular world in which we live.

I am convinced that it means infusing secular space with the values and wisdom of the Gospels – so that no one is abandoned to loneliness, depression, addiction, suicide or neglect. It means understanding why secularism alone is not enough, and why prayer is necessary to human health and development. It means nothing more than making Ireland a truly welcoming, safe and compassionate society.

The ideology of secularism began just two-and-a-half centuries ago, when many intellectuals in western Europe became convinced that religion was the source of most human problems. Under the banner of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ secularism set out to change the world – as though nothing more than a snappy slogan was needed.

This movement had no sooner begun in 1789 than it discovered it needed a guillotine to get rid of its opponents. And then these same secular evangelists began to use the same guillotine on one another. Their outstanding legacy to the world was the word ‘terrorism’

Two-and-a-half centuries later freedom, equality and brotherhood are in as short supply as ever – and terrorism is a global problem. And the Gospels tell us why.

The reason is that whatever slogans we may agree with one another politically, we are all secretly afflicted with a tendency to put ourselves first, by acquiring a superior status. (‘Lord, which of us is the greatest?’).

This is a moral and spiritual, not an intellectual, problem – and it has therefore only a spiritual solution. Every one of us needs to be engaged daily in a struggle with our own selfishness, our own ego.

The most effective means of waging that struggle is to understand that true freedom and self-respect lie in meeting the needs of others – the reason Jesus calls us to serve. If we use our personal gifts merely for personal advancement we miss the joy that lies in using them freely for others.

Many people in Ireland today are discovering exactly that. The search for spirituality – and for answers to problems such as addiction, depression, family breakdown and loneliness – are all leading us in the same direction. We cannot find personal fulfillment as isolated individuals: we are fulfilled only when somehow we are involved in meeting the needs of community.

The search for status – for the admiration of others – the search that underlies excess consumption and workaholism – is the root of most social problems – including the collapse of community. If there is nothing beyond this world (the basic precept of advanced secularism) then every one of us must compete for status with everyone else – by building the largest palace on the outskirts of town, with the most expensive cars in the driveway. Every town in Ireland is now encircled by these ridiculous monuments to human vanity – while community collapses.

And so everyone who lives in such a palace must also become increasingly security-conscious. Soon enough in Ireland the rich will be doing what the rich elsewhere are obliged to do: building high walls and fences around their palaces to defend ourselves against the envy they evoke, permanently protected by closed circuit TV.

It is the search for social status that underlies both social violence and the environmental problem. The iron law that tells us that we must desire what others find desirable is heading the human population rapidly towards social and environmental catastrophe. This iron law is nothing other than the biblical sin of covetousness.

Spirituality – the search for a relationship with the Spirit of Goodness and Truth – leads us on another path: towards personal frugality and an ethic of compassion, generosity and service.

This union of religion and spirituality is the challenge that Vatican II threw down to Ireland and the whole of the church forty years ago. It threatens no-one, and can answer the supreme question that secularism poses: how can we be prosperous and happy as well?

It can meet also the other challenge that Vatican II threw down – to ‘engage with culture’. How are we to avoid absorbing every new cultural wave that rolls in from across the Atlantic or elsewhere? (Some of these now encourage children to engage in sexual activity as soon as they reach puberty.) How are we to define, improve and preserve our own cultural identity, bequeathing solid values to our children?

The answer lies in understanding why we so easily absorb the culture of others. The reason is nothing other than a lack of self-respect – and this too is a deep spiritual problem. To overcome the fear of being different we need to understand that spiritual development offers especially the courage to be different – the courage to be ourselves. For Christians, this is the great gift and programme of the Holy Spirit.

Understanding all of this – and much more – is the wisdom that Ireland now needs. To develop this wisdom lay people need to be meeting together as adult Christians, taking responsibility for the first time.

Too many of our clerical leaders are, so far, afraid to sponsor and encourage this process – because they are still mostly wedded to the strange notion that the Holy Spirit wants clergy to be always in charge.

Their own inertia – and the growing confidence and independence of the Irish laity – is proving something else: that God gives intelligence to everyone, and calls everyone to prayer, so that we can freely spiritualise our own lives, and spiritualise also the secular space we occupy. The many thoughtful responses this series of articles has received from lay people prove exactly that.

So lay people must not feel guilty that they have outgrown the inadequate structures that the clerical church provides the wider church. Growth is the particular business of the Holy Spirit, who is calling us into a new maturity. The decision taken recently by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that all parishes in his Dublin archdiocese should have parish councils, and his challenge to clerical authoritarianism, are pointing the way forward for clergy in all dioceses.

Our challenge as laity is to humanise and spiritualise a secular world that does not understand the limits of mere secularism. That is our own lay task, our own adventure – and no one is entitled to take it from us. We need no-one’s permission to begin it, as we have always been called to do it – by our baptism and by the Eucharistic liturgy.

For the moment we must use every means and opportunity that secular space provides. In time, as usual, the clerical church will catch up – and belatedly sponsor a process that it cannot, and must not, stop.

Fifteen centuries ago when the faith was new in Ireland, our missionary saints set out to restore Christian values to a world devastated by imperialistic and militaristic values. Now Ireland has been given a different challenge: to put our faith to work to meet the challenge of a fundamentalist secularism that does not understand its own shortcomings, or why the world it has built is headed towards disaster.

We Catholics in Ireland are now called to respond to that challenge, and to teach the world once more. This time we must teach by doing – by helping to build a compassionate, just, free and wise society, using the insight and inspiration that the Gospels provide.

There is probably no town or village in Ireland where some have not already begun.

Views: 34

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IV – Jesus the Layperson

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

We Catholics have always been taught to see the priest as an icon, or model, of Christ – as the best possible guide to how we should live our own lives. So, in our minds eye we may see Jesus as more of a priest than a lay person.

This is especially because the central ritual of the church, the Mass, is led by a priest who takes the place of Jesus at the last supper.

But Jesus was in fact, for almost all of his ministry, simply a layperson who attacked the snobbery of the Jewish priesthood of his time – for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And his own priesthood was of an entirely different kind – a kind that we lay people can – and must – imitate if we are to fulfil our own calling as Christians living in the world.

Moreover, the church has always taught that Jesus is prophet and king as well as priest – and prophets and kings were lay people also.

Jesus spent most of his ministry as a lay teacher or Rabbi, living among his disciples in the world. His priesthood began only on the night before he died. It was for his teachings as a lay person that he was disliked by the Jewish elites – and it was for these teachings that he was crucified. It was Jesus the priest who gave us the ritual of the Eucharist – but it was Jesus the lay person who hung on the cross. He was placed there because he had identified with those Jews whom the religious elites called sinners , because he had attacked the Jewish religious authorities for their lack of compassion, and had built up a large following who saw him as the Messiah, or deliverer of his people from oppression. Priests in Jesus time did not do that sort of thing.

Before Jesus all priests had offered victims other than themselves as offerings to God. They had wielded the sacrificial knife against human, and – by Jesus’ time – animal victims. In other words they had shed not their own blood but the blood of someone, or of something, else – to deflect God’s supposed anger from themselves and from those who had provided those victims.

Jesus put an end to this evasive process by replacing a religion of sacrifice with a religion of self-sacrifice.

Alone among the teachers of his time, Jesus had picked up on the profoundly important words of the prophet Hosea, words that Hosea placed in the mouth of God himself:   “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Hos 6:6). Jesus reminded his enemies of this passage twice in the Gospel of Matthew (e.g. Matt 9:13).

This is profoundly important, because it makes it impossible for us to believe that God the Father, whom Jesus called Abba , wanted Jesus to die because he needed some kind of sacrificial blood offering. Quite the reverse: he gave us Jesus to stop us victimising one another – to replace victimisation with generosity. If we are hurt, bitter or angry we should never take this out on one another – but carry this cross ourselves.

Down through the centuries many Christians have somehow absorbed this message. Although all my life I have shuddered at the idea of blood sacrifice, I have absorbed from the Mass the conviction that Jesus wants me to take some pain for others. I believe that Jesus has subtly but profoundly changed the meaning of the word sacrifice itself.

When parents at Christmas time deny themselves luxuries so that they can buy expensive gifts for their children they will call that a sacrifice . The priests of Jesus time would not have understood them, but that usage of the word is now accepted and understood by everyone – because of the cross.

That simple act of putting ourselves out for others, if we can make it the centre of our lives, will fulfil our lay role as priests in the world. And since without it the world cannot be changed, that priesthood of generosity is the most important priesthood in the church. The ritual sacrifice of the Mass is an invitation to take the same holy spirit of self-sacrifice into the world – but only lay people can do that to the extent that it needs to be done.

Once, as a teacher, I reprimanded a young pupil for yawning in class. Somewhat hurt, she told me she had been up all night tending to her sick grandmother. That somehow stuck in my mind – as an example of the priesthood of the laity. But did she ever realise that?

It reminds me now to say something else. Although words are a beautiful way of expressing love, they are often useless and out of place. The world is awash with words today – but in desperate need of loving action.

I am now convinced that the leadership of the church is in serious danger of overvaluing words, and undervaluing action. I have found it extremely difficult to get priests to listen when I say that they undervalue the eloquence of Christian action, and make too little of the loving actions of their people – for example their potential to reach out to people in desperate need of self-esteem. The church will not be truly healthy, I believe, until it reverses this order of priority – and makes Christian action the centre of the church’s life.

Jesus was king and prophet as well as priest – and the first two of these are roles that can best be filled today by laity, as we too are baptised into the kingship and prophetic role of Jesus.

As Jesus was a king who insisted the last shall be first , it follows that lay Catholics are implementing that kingship when they work for an equal and just society. Prophecy was always far more a matter of speaking the truth to powerful institutions than of foretelling the future. Both of these roles are required today in a society that is becoming increasingly unjust and unequal, and in a church that has still to rise to the challenges laid down by the second Vatican Council.

Lay people were challenged by the council to consecrate the world to God – but have not yet been given ownership of this great task. The reason for this is the continuing – but now declining – power of clericalism, the mindset that accords to clergy a superior status and a controlling power in the church.

Consecrating the world to God should not, however, be seen as a matter of imposing our faith on others. Although we lay people too must participate in the New Evangelisation we need to avoid the fundamental mistake of coming across as holier than thou . Ireland has had enough of evangelists who do not fundamentally understand what the good news is: that all are loved unconditionally for themselves, even if they do not share our faith.

Despite our best intentions we Christians usually convey the message: “God will love you if you let us tell you how to run your life”. This is evangelisation as manipulation. It is counter-evangelical, because it presents our God as self-absorbed and manipulative.

Do we love our fellow-citizens unconditionally – even if they refuse to believe what we believe? Is our love superior to our need to have our faith confirmed by the conversion of others? If not, we are spiritually unready for evangelisation. We are also intellectually unready, because we have not fully understood what unconditional love means.

It means service that does not require payback of any kind: the kind of service that Jesus gave.

And that, above all, is what we Catholic laity need to pray for above all – for the spirit of love and service – both unconditional.

This is especially true because all Irish people believe they already know the Gospel – and are rejecting our church because they see it as essentially dedicated to its own power and survival. That is the lesson they have taken from the scandals of the past twelve years.

We will only rise to this challenge if we have no hidden agenda to empower our church once more – no agenda other than the service of the needs of the neediest Irish people – especially of those who are today outside the magic circle of secular power and influence.

We will rise to this challenge, I am convinced, if we pray to Jesus the layperson, and ask him to give us the gifts we need to fulfil our own lay role.

Views: 30

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: III – A Portable Faith

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.

~oOo~

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.

Why not?

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.

Views: 33