Category Archives: Youth

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

‘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: 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.

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Harry Potter and the disappearing student

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2001

English public schools always breaks up for Christmas – and Hogwarts is no exception. Strange, really, since Hogwarts is an academy for wizards and witches, and therefore (according to Christian fundamentalists and even some toy store chains), a global focus of neo-pagan demonic power and a corruptor of childhood innocence.

Hogwarts is, of course as fictional as its most renowned pupil, Harry Potter. Each of the seven years that Harry spends there is to be recorded in a novel for children – boys especially – by J.K. Rowling. Four have already been written.

At Hogwarts one finds the familiar cast of the typical English boarding school yarn – the wise and indulgent Head whose gift for moral discernment has nodded strangely in the appointment of a sinister teacher or two; the sadistic, sneering student bully and his henchmen; their victims – and the heroic Harry and his mates who stand in the way. But instead of Latin, Maths and French, Harry and his coevals take Sorcery, Magical Animals and Divinisation classes. And where Harry’s predecessors had to deal with German or Russian spies or drug runners, Harry has to match wands at the denouement with the sinister Lord Voldemort, an arch wizard bent upon global thraldom. It is essentially youthful joie de vivre against the controlling mind of the overbearing adult, white magic against black, good against evil – and guess who wins in the end.

The young (and the wannabe young) tend to love these stories partly because the school is indeed, after the family, the power structure within which their own life drama begins – a challenging microcosm of the adult world within which some kind of glory is sought and all kinds of humiliation skirted. They love them also for the rich Halloween detail and humour which make lessons riotous – apart from the inevitable one or two in which the teacher burbles on endlessly on, say, astrological charts, as her predecessors would have done on Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Rowling takes her other world scholarship on everything from dragons and unicorns to leprechauns and giants with almost Tolkien-like gravity – but also improvises joyously.

Should we worry about all of this? Yes indeed. Rowling’s imagination does seem strangely bare of biblical reference, and Harry’s Christmas is a matter of mere digestive excess, in the tradition of Enid Blyton. If the rich historical significance of Christmas and Easter in the defeat of the powers of darkness can find not even an allegorical echo in the most popular child fiction of the moment, there is indeed something wrong. Christianity, one gathers from the minimal reference in these books – and from the po-faced fundamentalist campaign against them – is a portentous and tedious feature of the Muggle world – something to escape from in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, who headed down river in spiritual revolt against soap and psalms as well as fear of an abusive parent.

Muggles, for the uninitiated, are those who can never get to Hogwarts, because they are simply unendowed with magical powers. Following the murder of his parents by Voldemort, Harry was raised by his Muggle Aunt and Uncle, suburban tyrants who gave him the cupboard under the stairs to sleep in. They spoil their only son, Dudley, who bullies Harry until he finds himself transmuted into a variety of animal forms, and humiliated in various other ways.

Oddly enough, it is in the humiliation of Dudley that Rowling comes a little unstuck. Magic is after all an extension of human power and when it is used to humiliate, laughter cannot be entirely unalloyed. Dudley’s obesity is precisely the kind of vulnerability that bullies exploit in the Muggle world – so his likely destiny as the archetypal spoiled suburban child is eventually itself oddly affecting. Perhaps Rowling will find some way of redeeming this particular Muggle in the end.

The straightened circumstances of the Weasleys – the wizarding family that provides Harry with an occasional holiday refuge from his Muggle cousin’s – is also a little difficult to fathom, as the ability to transmute anything into anything else should surely be commercially exploitable without breaching wizarding rules. However, Ron Weasley’s penurious decency is a necessary foil to Harry’s exceptional talent and destiny, preventing him from getting above himself.

The Weasleys are derided for their penury by the school cad, Draco Malfoy – scion of a wealthy and ambitious family inclined towards Voldemort – so Harry’s friendship with Ron makes him a defender of the weak and the poor against the power-hungry. This is in the best traditions of children’s fiction, entirely compatible with Christian principles, and one marvels again at the obtuseness of those who condemn these books as a threat to these. They sometimes wonder why the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis have no current equivalent in children’s fiction – without realising that their own lack of humour goes a long way towards explaining why.

Lewis’s medievalism led him to allow his child characters to play in a rather priggish way at Kings and Queens in Narnia, learning chivalry from Aslan the wise lion. Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save the most selfish of the child characters was Lewis’s rather awkward attempt at explaining Christian redemption to children. Lewis could never see that the idea of kingship – the ultimate elevation of the individual in the ancient and medieval worlds – has always itself been associated with the problem of victimisation – as the Bible itself reveals, for example in the story of David. In this sense Rowling’s imaginative world marks an advance on that of Lewis – for Rowling identifies ambition and the desire for power as in themselves morally dubious.

The suggestion that these stories may draw children towards the occult seems fatuous: children playing at magic will quickly find (as I did) that the books don’t provide enough straight wizarding instruction to conjure up a packet of liquorice allsorts. Although demons do turn up rather frequently, Hogwarts is no den of iniquity: it springs straight from the magical underworld of King Arthur’s mentor, Merlin, and its sense of humour is very similar to that of T.H. White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’, a joyous retelling of the boyhood of Arthur.

The success of Harry Potter reveals clearly once again what Mark Twain so beautifully demonstrated in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: that children have an entirely healthy desire to turn the world upside down. Christian educators should wonder why it is that this same desire cannot yet be identified in children’s fiction with the purpose of the Gospels. When Harry rejects the option of power and success on his induction into Hogwarts, and at important crises thereafter, why can none of the fundies find an echo here of Jesus’ option to join the sinners in the Jordan (the occasion of his first recognition by the Father in John’s gospel), followed immediately by his rejection of both political and religious power in the desert, and his rejection of the option of force (i.e. worldly power) at Gethsemane. Jesus himself said that his kingdom was not of this world – but that children would be at home in it. As children feel entirely at home in Hogwarts it is reasonable to suppose that Christian educators would carefully study that world before banning it from their own library shelves.

Every child wants not only to turn the world upside down, but to save it – and that is why children identify with Harry, with Merlin, with Arthur, with Robin Hood, with Huck Finn in his saving of the slave, Jim, and with George Lucas’s creation, Luke Skywalker.

Luke’s recognition as destroyer of the awesome spherical Battle Station in the final scene of the first of the ‘Star Wars’ films gives us insight into every boy’s desire for recognition as hero and saviour. Somehow, for Christian education to touch the boy at the deepest level our practical theology must place Jesus in that heroic context, offering a meaningful, non-soppy heroism to children today, connected to the cosmic context in which their minds now operate. The feminising and over-spiritualising of Jesus we have inherited from an Italianate piety that essentially invites Catholic boys to be Mammy’s boys has not yet been properly eradicated from our Catholic culture – and the over-theologising of Jesus that grips the academic theologian’s imagination is equally misconceived as a means of capturing the hearts and imaginations of young men.

The Lucas stories, the Narnia books, the Potter stories and the Tolkien books all demonstrate the desire of children to live in a world that they can master and mould, escaping from the one they patently can’t. That so many now seem to want to escape from Christianity also is a problem that deserves the most careful thought.

I am convinced that the problem is precisely that theistic Christianity has largely remained the intellectual property of those governed by fear of the future, by fear of freedom, and by nostalgia for a buttoned-up past. Far from seeming subversive to the young, it is seen as supportive of an adult controlling instinct nostalgic for Victorian order – if not something even fustier. It is an Anne Widdicombe preserve (she would make a marvellous Muggle Tory school inspector double-taking the absence of maths and economics from the Hogwarts curriculum), and therefore something to avoid at all costs.

We are faced with the problem of explaining redemption in imagery that can grip children as the best children’s art does – and neither a retreat to Lewis’s medievalism nor censorship will answer. The truth is that we adults are lacking the kind of grasp of the gospels that would allow us to do this persuasively in our children’s imaginative world – and this is a fundamental reason for the current evangelical shortfall of Christian education. For most of the children who leave our schools our ‘good news’ is a complicated, incoherent and meaningless adult tale that takes place in a world entirely remote from their own, for the support of an institution to be ruled forever by an oligarchy of old men dressed in skirts. So it is very stale news best forgotten, rather than a possible vital centre of their own life’s journey.

This is our fault (I speak as a parent and former teacher) – not theirs or J.K. Rowling’s.

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The World of the Wannabe

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

New verbal coinings sometimes reveal an aspect of contemporary culture that takes us back to the ancient world. ‘Wannabe’ is just such a word – a descriptor for the (usually) young person who ‘wants to be’ someone else. Most young black Americans, the polls tell us, ‘wannabe’ celebrities of some kind – rock musicians, TV or movie or basketball stars. Currently millions of adolescent girls wannabe the pop ‘sensation’ Britney Spears.

‘Wanting to be’ is probably the major problem of the moment. It is a state of alienation from the self – a sense that the ‘being’ one now has is not worth having, and so must be exchanged for another.

What happens if we relate this to the temptation in the garden of Eden, that place of greatest happiness, where Satan promised ‘you shall be as Gods’. Genesis tells us that we fell for this, and notice here the coincidence of the word ‘fell’. The Fall results from ‘wanting to be’ something other than we are, the loss of the sense of being already all we need to be.

We find a superb illustration of this in Robert Bolt’s screenplay for ‘A Man for All Seasons’. Young Richard Rich pesters Thomas More for patronage – the use of personal influence to advance another at court. Chancellor More, disillusioned by the corruption he sees in the court of Henry VIII, insists that this ambition is misconceived.

“Be a great teacher,” he says, offering Rich such a post in a local school.

“And if I was, who would know it?” Rich asks.

“You would know it; your pupils would know it – and so would God. Not a bad public.” More returns.

But Rich has set his sights on the political summit – and eventuallyperjures himself and betrays More – in order to become attorney general for Wales. More goes to the block.

Rich pesters More because he sees himself as being ‘out’ as well as ‘down’. More is a doorway ‘into’ the charmed circle of Henry’s court. If you are ‘in’ you are also ‘up’. So when More does not let him in, Rich tries another door – the unscrupulous Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell’s price is Rich’s perjury.

Here too we find the connection between ‘wanting to be’, personal corruption, and the desire to climb. The ‘higher’ we are, the more people will see us, and the ‘greater’ we become. Herein too lies the extraordinary power of modern electronic media. Alexander the Great’s desire to ‘conquer the world’ can be achieved today by an Andre Agassi, or a Tom Cruise – for each is known globally via the TV and cinema screen.

“Top of the world, Ma”, “We’re going to the Top”, “The Jet Set” – these familiar clichés also connect fulfilment with elevation – as though the world actually had a ‘top’. The building of political empires followed the same logic – to subject a world conceived as planar to a single political edifice at the centre. George Bush is probably as close to fulfilling Alexander’s ambition as anyone will ever get – hopefully.

But what happens to this logic when we reflect that Earth has no ‘top’, that every one of us occupies the same boundless surface, which has no ‘rim’ or ‘edge’ because it meets itself in all directions – and that logically therefore, since there is no ‘up’ we are all equal, and since there is no centre, no-one is ‘out’?

It follows that there is no need to ‘want to be’, for we already ‘are’.

In evolutionary terms, to get the global human population to this insight as quickly as possible, someone sometime had to affirm that no-one ever is ‘out’ or ‘below’. The man who set out to build a kingdom for all the rejected of the world – even before the limitless nature of human space was understood – and without violence or self-admiration – must surely take the prize. As a consequence we find the inclusive symbol of the cross on all continents – however ambiguously it may first have arrived.

However, the vertical structure of the church, the source of all the ambition within it – is now a serious barrier to the growth of this spiritual insight, and a relic of the flat earth consciousness of antiquity. The investment of so much reverence in the person of the Pope – despite the historical evidence that God does not invest all grace there – creates a ‘wannabe’ culture within the church itself – as Cardinal Gantin confirmed when complaining about episcopal careerism just a year or so ago.

What is the implication of organising monster meetings for the central purpose of getting close to the Pope, other than the notion that we thereby come closer to God than we can be in our own backyard or parish church? What is the implication of a papal ‘court’ other than the notion that this man is most worthy, more ‘in’ and higher ‘up’ than we?

Were the Pope on the other hand to insist that no-one needs to ‘want to be’ anyone other than he or she is – for all are equally important – what then? In asking the church to reconsider how his office might be exercised, John Paul II draws us closer to this eventuality also.

Nothing is more certain than the need to challenge the ‘wannabe’ problem head on. Adolescent girls starve themselves because they want to be the super slim model they see on the catwalk. Young men may often deny themselves participation in sport because they don’t possess the idealised physique that TV sports coverage tells them they should have. Self-rejection is a primary factor in suicide, clinical depression, addiction, and criminality. The political corruption we are currently uncovering in Ireland is clearly a result of ‘wanting to be’ the lavish Irish country squire – the centre of attention and power.

And ‘wanting to be’ is also at the root of rampant consumerism and environmental decay. Advertising has discovered that our sense of our own inadequacy can be exploited by associating consumer wares with the people we ‘want to be’.

Which means that ‘sin’ is centrally concerned with self-dislike and the self-advancement that follows. The fixation that sexual desire is the root of all evil is entirely misplaced. The Decalogue connects even adultery with covetousness – the desire to possess what someone else already has. The media deliberately create sexual desire by creating sexual stereotypes – icons of desirability to create dissatisfaction with the partners we already have.

The current Blairite craze for ‘meritocracy’ should be another target of spiritual awareness – for it implies a pyramid of worthiness without ever clarifying that most of the ‘worthy’ have simply purchased their privilege by virtue of an historical advantage that has nothing to do with ‘merit’. The principle that ‘everyone should be able to rise to whatever position their talent and efforts deserve’ implies a level playing field to begin with, an inequality of worthiness, and a perfect arbiter to determine who is worthy – while apparently the possession of vast inherited wealth and a drone lifestyle do not disqualify. The whole notion is palpable nonsense – a thin disguise for mere selfishness, and a source of disillusionment to those who find themselves rejected.

It disguises also the self-regard of the merely clever, and the elevation of a narrow kind of intelligence to power and privilege. Education today increasingly emphasises its capability to ‘change your life’ by making us ‘everything you want to be’. Thus, merely knowing has become more important than understanding, mere information more important than wisdom.

It is no accident either that meritocratic Britain is critically short of nurses and teachers – ‘wanting to be’ is taking over from wanting to serve.

Another wannabe problem results from the prominence given to theological expertise in the church – and especially the notion that the more theology one knows the wiser one necessarily becomes. This prominence creates the theological wannabe. Wisdom has to do with quality of being, not quantity of knowing. Of course we must know what lies at the summit of the hierarchy of truth, but this is essentially quite simple: that each of us is infinitely loved by the creator of all being, and can never be alienated from that love. To peddle the notion that we can only arrive at this understanding by subjecting ourselves to a course in theology is essentially to do what the lawyers were accused of doing: using the key of knowledge to prevent others from entering, while not entering themselves. Here, I believe, we find the reason that theology often leads to nothing but arid debate – pride enters in to convince us that our greater knowledge entitles us to greater respect. The internet is often a theological battlefield as protagonists aspire to be ‘right’ when the only source of wisdom is the compulsion to love and let be.

As we mull over the strange failure of Catholic education to develop in Ireland a community at peace with itself, and in love with God, we need to acknowledge that in buying into the secular meritocratic mirage we pulled from underneath ourselves the essential truth: that respect cannot be merited. We owe one another respect because we are all equally flawed, yet equally and infinitely loved by the same God, and cannot add another cubit to our height, whatever we achieve.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Discovery of the soul is discovery of the self – the self that we don’t wannabe, the core of our being that God knows and loves. We need urgently to acknowledge the power of global media to alienate us from the wisdom to be content to be ourselves – and counter it at every turn – by telling every wannabe that he or she already – gloriously – is.

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Towards a New Evangelism IV: ‘Search’

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Of all the problems facing the church, that of passing on ‘the faith’ to a younger generation seems most intractable, yet most crucial. It is at this point that we come right up against the possibility of an unprecedented discontinuity in Irish life. If young people have now decided almost unanimously against the traditional Catholic vocations to celibate ministries, does this indicate a rejection of Catholicism and Christianity per se?

My experience of Cursillo in Derry led me to an offshoot, a ‘cut down’ version of the Cursillo provided for young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, called ‘Search’. Essentially the same features apply: the presentation, over a weekend, of a lifestyle centred on prayer, study and action; the ‘team’ drawn mostly from the peer group, supported by a few unobtrusive older adults; talks involving personal witness as well as exposition, given mostly by young people themselves. Could this formula possibly succeed among a generation now so much younger than the clerical mean in Ireland?

Again I was astonished by what I found: a complete lack of cynicism and derision; a poise and quiet confidence among the young team that I had never encountered previously in this generation; a willingness to be entirely open about the detours from the moral life that young people are now so endangered by; above all a maturity that proved that Christianity is far from being mere sentimentality and wishful thinking.

I was reminded also that nowadays young people are far from insulated from the horrors that can punctuate life in Northern Ireland – including even sectarian murder. Faith that in the darkest valleys the Lord will be found was as much present in the Search experience as in the Cursillo at Termonbacca.

One feature of Search that does not occur on the Cursillo is the dramatisation of issues such as peer pressure in relation to addictive substances or early sex. These are taken very seriously, an echo of the morality plays of the middle ages – and have enormous potential for development as Irish life becomes more sophisticated.

I was above all impressed by the demeanour of these young people before the Blessed Sacrament. Instead of a stiff formalism imposed by adults and undermined by childish giggles, or embarrassed make-believe, I found a relaxed celebration of a sacred presence, all the more sacred because the Lord was clearly understood above all as patient lover and friend of every individual present. Some sang impromptu to guitar accompaniment, while others knelt praying, or read their bibles. There was no orchestration of this, no monitoring adult presence – and no-one was disturbed by my presence either. People came and went quietly, as inclination took them.

This sense of being individually accepted and loved carried over to the relationships between all those present. The entire social and educational spectrum was covered, but the Lord’s inclusiveness was marvellously realised.

There was also a wonderful rapport between the youthful majority on the team, and their mature guides. The latter rely not upon close control but upon trust, built up for weeks before the weekend in planning and prayer sessions. Search was every bit as ‘horizontal’ as Cursillo. Indeed the gratitude of these young people for the trusting care of their elders was openly expressed in the prayers before the Blessed Sacrament that preceded the adult talks.

Speaking individually to some of the Search team later, I found myself talking to adults proud of their faith. This pride came mainly from a sense of doing important work – of proving the relevance of faith to peers often desperately in need of it. Significantly, all insisted that in the Search ministry (for this is what it is) they had received something their Catholic schooling had failed to provide: a context in which they could witness to their own faith, and receive the support of peers, free of the suspicion that they were merely ‘faking it’ for the approval of adult authority.

The essential element was the deep conviction that the spiritual life accords self-respect, as well as a capacity to be of service to those who can lose all direction in total immersion in current youth culture.

“What does ‘Salvation’ mean to you?” I asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer student.

“That God loves you,” she said, without hesitation. That knowledge, simply expressed, had been gained almost solely through the Search experience – first as a candidate experiencing a weekend provided by others, and then several times afterwards as a member of the team. Christine is in every respect completely relaxed and natural, articulate and intelligent without any sense of superiority.

Christine is also ecumenically engaged, quite at home with Church of Ireland Christians on their annual Summer youth ‘bash’. This too is as true of Search as of Cursillo: pride in being Catholic does not preclude respect for other Christian traditions. Indeed there is often an honest admiration for the sturdy faith that Ulster Protestantism upholds in a generally cynical world.

As with Cursillo, those who gain most from Search make an ongoing commitment to attend regular meetings for prayer and preparation, becoming effectively part of an evangelising community. This last, is, I am convinced the essential secret of any ‘New Evangelism’ today. An evangelism that does no more than verbally assert the existence of a loving God is worse than useless, as it merely replicates the promise of a thousand commercial ventures to ‘change your life’ without changing the communal context in which it is lived.

Conclusions

Listening to ecclesiastics enthusing about the power of modern media to ‘spread the word’ I wonder how long this mirage will deflect the hierarchical church from the reality of the death of Christendom. That was an era when spectacular ‘conversions’ flowed from the success of the Church in commanding the political and intellectual heights. All of us remember when this was true of Ireland also, when much ‘faith’ was mere conformity by the upwardly aspiring.

Now in Ireland the only powerful church is Cynicism, spilling like acid from a thousand journalistic pens and broadcasts. In the general collapse of respect for all institutions, and their most prominent members, the Irish Catholic church is undergoing its most serious challenge since the Reformation. Indeed, the present challenge to Irish Catholicism is in some respects even more serious than that, for the Reformation was weakened in Ireland by the fact that its missionaries were generally considered lackeys of an alien oppressor, and Irish Catholicism was consequently strengthened by its utility as a badge of cultural and political identity.

With political independence the Catholic hierarchy here assumed the position of the Catholic hierarchy of the European ancien régime – elitist, hostile to modernity, (especially the principle of intellectual freedom), and condescending to the social base. Convinced that control of the intellectual heights and of the educational system would mean security for ever, it failed to take the opportunity to build an open egalitarian church provided by Vatican II – and is now reaping the proper reward of such a policy: the almost total collapse of hierarchical authority.

Yet in many ways those Catholics who still joyously serve are proving that a collapse of hierarchical authority is not a collapse of the authority of the Gospels. Wherever compassion reigns, God reigns also. It is only in the context of genuine compassion – not just mere publicity – that a New Evangelism can flourish. Young people who know this, and act upon it, are tomorrow’s church, and to restore our hope, and our authority, we must simply affirm and follow them – allowing them to teach their peers.

In all the examples I have seen of effective evangelism in Ireland today, it is lay people who play the key role – the peers of those who need convincing of the reality of Christian love. They convince not by virtue of their verbal eloquence or theological sophistication, but by their integrity – the fact that they embody genuine faith and the compassion they attribute to God. They also belong to the most morally challenged society in Ireland.

Northern Ireland is commonly considered the worst advertisement for Christianity in the whole of the west. Yet in the personal crises and traumas that it provides, there is a wealth of experience of the reality of grace. Out of these darkest valleys have come people – old and young – who walk more securely and wisely in their faith than I would have thought possible. This too surely is Good News – a promise that for the Irish church as a whole there will indeed be a resurrection, if we can all learn from the experience of humiliation.

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