Category Archives: Prophecy

2018: A year of rescue from the belly of the whale?

So impossible is the Bible story of Jonah that we surely must take it as a sacred allegory, a storied metaphor for the many and varied disasters that can transform completely the lives of those who suffer them.  Any of us can get thrown overboard when we least expect it these days – and then find ourselves in an impossible darkness, a place of disorientation and apparent defeat.

So has it been in recent years for all who remember a totally different ‘Catholic Ireland’ – when the church’s future seemed secure, and no shipwreck was on anyone’s horizon. Now we find ourselves both underwater and in the dark, thrown off the deck of a secularising Ireland by those who have decided that we and our faith stand in the way of all ‘progress’.

As if to wave a final goodbye, Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times told us on Nov. 7th, 2017 that our schools had failed to provide Ireland’s commercial and banking elites with the moral backbone to resist the excesses of the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

“Would developers have been as reckless had church-run schools been effective? Would bankers have driven the economy over a cliff? Whatever happened that laudable ‘Protestant probity’ once associated with Irish banks?”  These and other questions underlie the growing defection of younger generations from church practice, according to McGarry.

The mention of ‘Protestant probity’ tells us that we are not the only ones to be thrown off the deck:  Christianity itself is to be challenged, and probably all religion –  charged with  moral bankruptcy.

This is, of course, grist to the mill of the Enlightenment’s claim that reason, shorn of Christian faith, can deliver Utopia – and that Catholic schools especially are a barrier to that.  That Ireland’s developers and bankers might in fact have been in thrall to the economic ideology of the Enlightenment (beginning with Adam Smith) rather than to the call of the Christian Gospel did not occur to Patsy McGarry.  ‘It’s all the fault of faith schools’ is the more saleable cry of the moment.

Yet before we all protest this obvious scapegoating of the churches we need to remember  why Jonah had found himself on board that ship to begin with.  Had he not been running away from  the risk of facing Nineveh with its imperfections?

To the same effect, was Catholic social teaching ever advanced with sufficient strength by our clergy and educationists in Ireland – in all schools and parishes – as part of a critique of the social blindness of our rising commercial and political elites?  Similarly,  was ‘worldliness’ ever unpacked as we lauded the effectiveness of our schools in producing ‘successful people’.  Can anyone remember a homily – or a clergy-led parish discussion – on the dangers of measuring ‘success’ in terms of social acclaim, or on the vanity of celebrity-seeking?  Who has heard a sermon on the silliness of supposing that an iPhone X, or even an iPhone XXX – or a Lamborghini – will make us instantly, more worthy?  Are Catholic teenagers even yet being told in school and church that the aim of becoming famous just for the sake of being well known is the very last word in futility?

Following Vatican II, did any parish community anywhere in Ireland experience regular opportunities for critical discussion of the huge changes that came to Ireland then – of the rising power of media to make us ‘lose the run of ourselves’, and of the moral dangers of excess that could come with easier times?

And must we not indeed wonder why Ireland’s political elites – mostly the products of our Catholic schools – are so complacent in the face of the homelessness of so many children, while so many adolescents wait endlessly for attention to their mental health issues, and so many urban families wonder if their incomes will cover their mortgage payments next year?

It could not be a better time to ask such questions, with Ireland set to receive a visit from the Pope in 2018.  In the whale’s belly still – in terms of morale – we have an opportunity this Advent to reflect not only on the problems of the family but on the necessary role of the family in teaching social solidarity, moderation and generosity of spirit.  The decades of denial of adult dialogue that underlies the serious weakness of the Irish Church can now be repaired, beginning in 2018 – if our bishops especially have had enough of the whale’s belly.  Who better than Francis to pull us out?

This is a time for reorientation, and the means for that lie to hand.  Cardinal Kevin Farrell (Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life) assures us that the pope will challenge us to a new era of mission – and not just to mission in Ireland. To begin to consider that is to address the question of what underlies the pursuit of social acclaim through personal aggrandisement – globally. What have we Catholics lost as a result of our demotion by media, other than our complacency and our illusions?  Do we really need to restore those?  Are we now not in the very best position to proclaim that God loves  us even so – and to ask the most searching questions of an Ireland once more in ‘economic recovery mode’?

For example, how wise is it to suppose that if we can accumulate a  million ‘Likes’ on social media, or two million Euro in business, or even a few movie Oscars or a houseful of sporting trophies – we have added anything of real importance to our central ‘being’?  Are all of the ‘games’ that the world now arranges for us not in fact a whirlwind of distraction from the reality that we were always, and will always be, ‘somebodies‘?

That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.
That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.  The whale’s belly is merely a ‘wake up’ call to the futility of trying to add value to ourselves – by ‘looking to others for glory’. No message is more needed by an Ireland in thrall to the illusion that we do not already possess the treasure that we seek.

Yes, folks, this is indeed an early plug for Christmas 2017!  Rescued as we soon again will be from the fear that we have been forgotten, we Catholics will be very well placed indeed to ask such questions, and to deliver that message.  We might even be ready to tell Pope Francis  next August exactly what he needs to hear.  Trained well by experience of ‘social trauma’, and woken up to the central ‘good news’ of the Gospel, we can and must become the ‘field hospital’ for the many other casualties of entirely bogus ‘failure’ in Ireland.

It will soon be time for all of us to wake up to rescue from the belly of the whale – to the realisation that we must not look to media – the new brokers of honour and shame – to pass the final verdict on the record of  our church in Ireland.  What matters is our own relationship with the living truth, the Lord who forgives and then restores the soul. There is no such thing as a ‘ruined life’ when the Lord dwells within and among us – so why not wake up fully right away to the challenge of using all of our gifts to restore the dignity of the poorest in our society?  Is this not what our missal texts are telling us these days?

Our Irish church is surely called just now – by the times we are still going through as well as by Pope Francis – to become yet another ‘sign of Jonah’ – proof of the power of the Holy Spirit to ‘make all things new’.

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The ‘war’ against Pope Francis: where do Irish bishops stand?

“The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church.”

So wrote Andrew Brown in the Manchester Guardian on Friday October 27th, 2017 – in an extended attempt to explain what he calls ‘The war against Pope Francis’. Brown calls the first of these camps the ‘introverts’, and the second the ‘extroverts’. Placing, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke in the first camp, and Pope Francis in the second, Brown implies that the pope believes that the world must set the agenda for the church. Though Brown appears to be sympathetic to the pope, no description of the situation could better serve the cause of Cardinal Burke.  For that school of thought ‘the world’ is the church’s greatest threat – an advocate of ‘anything goes’ rather than the teachings of Jesus.  Cardinal Burke’s most outrageous supporters see Francis as a heretic because they too believe that ‘the world’ has taken him over.

What does Christian leadership require today?

Of course it is true that the usual ‘conservative v liberal’ analysis of Catholic differences is trite and misleading. So is ‘reformers v traditionalists’ – by implying that only those who oppose reform are true to the church’s oldest traditions. However, ‘introvert v extrovert’ is worse still, especially as it could imply that Pope Francis, as an ‘extrovert’, is a shallow populist bent on changing everything to please the masses, whereas Cardinal Burke is a stern and deeply thoughtful disciplinarian who stands for timeless truths. This is to turn the real difference on its head. It is the pope who has thought hardest about what timeless truths require of Christian bishops in the present era – and it is the pope who is most truly ‘counter-cultural’.

The central dispute in the church is over the exercise of power and teaching authority, specifically the papal office. As the papacy is a model for all bishops, this dispute has implications for the role of Catholic bishops everywhere.

As revealed by both his behaviour and his writings, Pope Francis believes that Christian leadership has primarily to do with loving accompaniment of always fallible people on their journeys towards ‘the kingdom of God’. For Cardinal Burke on the other hand it is clear that the primary role of the Christian leader is verbally to define Christian obligations and to insist upon adherence to certain of those obligations as a condition of full access to the church’s central sacrament, the Eucharist. For Burke the accompaniment of the sinner can have only secondary importance.

In a sense the dispute is over the proper relationship between ‘teaching’, ‘ruling’ and ‘sanctifying – the three most important duties of a bishop.

Remembering that the word ‘companion’ is derived from the practice of sharing bread together, it would therefore be fairer to both parties in this dispute to describe them as idealising either a ‘companioning’ or ‘rule-making’ relationship with those they wish to lead to the living truth, Jesus the Christ.

How is conscience ‘formed’?

The difference is most clearly stated in article 37 of Amoris Laetitia, where Francis writes:

We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.

Formers of conscience rather than replacers of conscience. That is the fork in the road for Francis, and, by implication, for all bishops. To seek simply to legislate, to make up the minds of others by mere magisterial declaration, is, by implication, not necessarily to form conscience – and the Pope and the bishops must – according to the present pope – seek to do the latter.

To spend even half-an-hour contemplating the implications of this teaching is to realise the profound silliness of describing this manner of leading the church as a mere ‘style’. Pope Francis is instead advocating and leading an abandonment by Catholic bishops of the role of sequestered and elevated legalist, imposing rules from above – to take up the role of companion of struggling Everyman, a companion who begins by discerning the drama of that struggle before speaking to it of the risen Lord. Only in that way, he insists, can consciences be formed.

A Change of Era

For Pope Francis “we are not living an era of change but a change of era.” Another way of saying that is: “this is a different time“. Cardinal Burke’s liking for the full panoply of the cardinal’s attire – including the page-borne fifteen-foot silken cloak, the cappa magna, tells us that he tends to idealise the era when cardinals had the social and civil status of the highest nobles at the court of the king. That fits perfectly with his apparent tendency to think that to rule is also to teach and to sanctify.

For the pope, clearly, sanctity demands humility – and bishops should model the latter as well if they are to teach. Companioning was an essential aspect of Jesus’s ‘teaching style’ – he was both persuasive and edifying. Pope Francis’ teaching style therefore represents a return to the earliest teaching tradition of the church – centuries before bishops became aristocrats. Few people today take handed-down edicts – declarations of law – as effective teaching. They simply tune out.

The Irish Experience

It will take just another half-hour to realise that nowhere in the world has the truth of this conclusion been more clearly demonstrated than in Ireland. As distant rule-makers since 1968 Irish bishops have steadily lost the attention of the large majority of Irish people who describe themselves as Catholic. Never persistently trying to convince their people directly of the wisdom of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning contraception, they relied on the equivalent of a recorded message to convey this ruling and were proven ineffectual – as they have been on every similar stand taken since.

We are standing in the midst of the ruins that this ‘style’ of leadership has created – especially the bewilderment of unaccompanied younger generations and their incomprehension of key Catholic terms such as ‘sin’, ‘grace’, ‘sacrifice’ and ‘priest’. Caught between that elevated legalism and a rapidly changing society, the generation of Irish clergy that welcomed Vatican II was left stranded, disappointed, tongue-tied and hobbled. Already, with congregations dwindling by the week, the closure of some Irish Catholic churches is under discussion.

To be companioned by a convinced Christian like Pope Francis is to be given both a glimpse and a promise of the ‘kingdom of God’ – that kingdom in which rivalry for status has been replaced by mutual love and support – true ‘family’. That is the choice that Francis is presenting to Irish bishops too, especially by his promise to attend the World Meeting of Families next year. Will our bishops be ‘up’ for companioning rather than aloof rule-stating – for the forming rather than the replacing of consciences? The near future of the Irish Church will depend upon their response. Megaphone Irish Catholic leadership, a leadership that considered regular dialogue unnecessary, has had its day. The Irish church is facing extinction because it has been deprived for half-a-century of a true communion of clergy and people.

As for the more distant future, the global popularity of the present pope is surely due to a recognition that his leadership is more closely modelled on that of the church’s founder than on the distant imperial bishops of the medieval church – and that no other ‘style’ can now bear timeless fruit.

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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.

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