Category Archives: Service

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: VII – The Power of Prayer

Sean O’Conaill © Reality, 2004

Just as the heartfelt prayer of a teenage boy once changed the history of Ireland forever, prayer is once again changing Ireland for the better in its deepest crisis of faith for centuries.

Although I have often criticised the clergy of the Irish Catholic Church, I must here acknowledge that they have given me the gift I value above all others: an unshakeable belief in the reality of a loving God and the power of prayer. This is why, despite all of my frustrations, I still love my church and seek to serve it.

We take it for granted that our bishops, however aloof, have always pointed to a power above themselves – a mysterious power of love that can dwell even in the heart of a child. We should not take this for granted, because it is the great gift of the church to all of us – a gift that we will lose at our peril.

When humans tell one another to stop worshipping God, we are well on the way to a situation in which some human will be worshipped as a God. This happened in Germany, the Soviet Union and China in the twentieth century. Hitler, Stalin and Mao made themselves the objects of personality cults that gave them absolute power. The results shatter the heart and are still shaking the world.

And in North Korea today a similar atheistic personality cult of ‘the Great Leader’ has produced a famine that has led to reports of cannibalism. The same ‘Great Leader’ has authorised the testing of chemical weapons on the living bodies of men, women and children.

When we stop believing in God, we are ready to believe in almost anything else – and fall victim to ‘the persuaders’ – politicians who promise heaven on earth and commercial forces that want to sell us ‘worthiness’ in a shampoo or an eye-liner. That is the state of our world today – rapidly descending into futility, violence and environmental havoc.

But God, as always, has the situation in hand. Through people who sense a spiritual dimension to everything, and seek to reach it through prayer, the Trinity are shaping a new wisdom that will grow as our crisis deepens.

Of all true stories of the power of prayer that I know, none has more impressed me than that of Michael and Bridie McGoldrick of Craigavon. I have known them now for six years, and continue to learn from them.

In early July 1996 Michael and Bridie received almost the worst news that any parents could. Their only child, Michael, had been cruelly murdered by the LVF in the period of tension that always precedes the July Orange parades in Northern Ireland. He left a wife and child, with another baby on the way.

Initially stunned, Michael and Bridie even considered suicide. Then they turned to prayer, and everything changed. On the day of young Michael’s funeral, in an atmosphere of great tension centred on nearby Drumcree, his father went to the assembled TV cameras and delivered what will one day be recognised as one of the greatest sermons in Irish Christian history. It consisted of just six words:

“Bury your pride with my boy!”

Michael was speaking above all to the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, and his message was clear. Hurt Catholic pride must not express itself in a reciprocal atrocity.

He was putting his finger on the basic reason for the atrocities that have stained militant Irish nationalism over the past thirty-five years: injured pride. No injury is greater than that of a parent whose child is murdered, and the very first human instinct is to strike out in retaliation – to deliver a similar humiliation to the supposed perpetrators.

Michael and Bridie’s central prayer was for the gift of forgiveness. They received that gift, and their lives have never been the same since. They became totally God-centred people, and received also the greatest gift of all: the gift of unconditional love.

In 1997 Michael and Bridie met Tom Lennon, founder of a small charity called United Christian Aid. Born in Co. Offaly, Tom had been caught up in Northern Ireland’s violence in the 1970s, but had later experienced his own conversion. In the mid 1990s he had felt strongly called to found a charity that would appeal to all Christians in Ireland to help the poor of Eastern Europe.

In that year, 1997, Michael made his first visit to Romania with Tom, encountering poverty and misery that was almost unimaginable. It included the slow death of children from Aids – contracted through mistaken transfusions of infected blood required by the Ceausescu ‘government’ as a cure for malnutrition. It included also infected water and wretched habitations without sanitation in winter temperatures as low as -15C – with no state support of any kind, in a devastated economy.

Michael became totally aroused by the idea of binding Christians in Northern Ireland together by bringing home to them the far greater miseries of eastern Europe. Initially transporting clothing and food across Europe, he and Tom soon realised that something else was far more portable, far less prone to exploitation by corrupt frontier officials, and far more needed in Romania: money. Michael developed a system of family sponsorship, uniting families in Ireland with poorer families in the town of Cernavoda, Romania.

The euro and the pound sterling will buy three times as much in Romania and Moldova as in Ireland. Initially warned that poor Romanians were not used to handling cash and would probably waste it on alcohol, UCA discovered that the reverse was true. The poorest people responded well to the responsibility and power that money gave them, and usually made wise choices. For example, they could now equip their children for school and send them there without fear of humiliation – or buy a gas ring to improve their diet, or bottled water to fend off disease – or weather-proof their dwellings for the winter.

When the requirements for EU entry required the Romanian government to provide a basic income for the poorest families, UCA could not justify supplementing this with more money from Ireland, and so moved its operation to Moldova in 2002. There EU entry was both remote and uncertain, and needs were even more intense. In one village they learned that an old woman had died of hypothermia the previous week. They decided that this must not happen again in the village of Kirkan.

Over the winter of 2003-4 UCA supported over 800 families in Moldova, and next winter it will probably help even more . Most of them live in three villages, but some are based in the capital, Chisinau, and some live in one of the world’s worst places, Transnistria.

Moldova’s widest river is the Dniester. Occupying Moldova from 1944-1991, Russia has decided to maintain military control of the Dniester for strategic reasons, and currently occupies the area to the east of it, Transnistria, with its army. To justify this occupation it maintains the existence of a Transnistrian independence movement. This is led by communist, or ex-communist, Russians.

As a consequence Transnistria is a dangerous place to go. UCA goes there, to help people who will next winter attempt to fend off temperatures that sometimes plummet to -25C with sheets of plastic. They have no other cash income, as the shattered economy of Transnistria is centred upon the drugs and arms trade.

Back in Ireland, we can spend a fortune on mere celebration. What power moved one young Irish couple to call for donations to UCA instead of wedding presents in 2004? That gesture realised £20,000 – money that will save people from despair, disease and malnutrition this coming winter.

As a reward for helping UCA with its occasional newsletter, Michael took me to Moldova for the second time in June 2004. This ten-day experience was even more stunning than the first, and could justify a short book in itself. One particular experience deserves special mention.

Moldova’s Christians are mostly neither Catholic nor Protestant, but Orthodox. Orthodox Christianity – separated from Rome since the eleventh century – has been called the Church’s ‘second lung’ by Pope John Paul II. However, Orthodox-Catholic relations are currently very strained. The reason is that both churches are trying to grow in the same once-communist space.

Orthodox patriarchs (the equivalent of archbishops) complain that we Catholics are trying to poach their members all over eastern Europe – ‘proselytising’. Rome denies this, saying we are simply seeking converts among people who belong to no church. The denial does little good, as Orthodoxy sees a far richer western church infiltrating its space and exploiting its weakness after decades of communism.

Into this complex situation in Moldova now marches a little Irish charity that helps people on the basis of need alone – and most of them are Orthodox Christians.

What power can it be that moves Irish people whose lives have been turned upside down by inter-Christian violence here, to show an example of unconditional love on the far side of Europe? And why would it do so?

Michael and Tom are sure that they know the answer. An unconditional love is a love that has no purpose other than love itself. It has no ulterior motive – not even the motive of developing one church at the expense of another.

Thus, albeit in a small way, Irish Catholics and Protestants are helping to heal relations with the third branch of Christianity, 3,000 miles away from Ireland.

On Sunday 6th June 2004, Michael, Tom and I sat down with the UCA interpreters in the home of the Orthodox priest of Kirkan, Fr Grigori . Earlier we had watched the villagers receive their small subsidy from Ireland, the family sponsorship that assures them of God’s love coming all the way from this little island.

The meal had been prepared by Fr Grigori’s wife, Elena. Their first child, Reluca, was the centre of attention. I became aware of an enormous privilege – the privilege of breaking bread in the home of a Christian minister of an entirely different tradition.

What had brought us all together was simply the power of prayer. Michael’s and Bridie’s had been for an assurance that they would someday be reunited with their murdered son. Tom’s had been for direction – a calling that would please the Trinity. Kirkan’s villagers had been praying with Fr Grigori for help from anywhere at the very moment Tom and Michael arrived.

My prayer had been, since the 1960s, to see the church of Vatican II in action, incarnating the love of a God whose intent it is to bind the whole world together in peace and freedom. I saw it, clearly, that day in Kirkan.

No power on earth is greater than the power of prayer. It creates in the human heart a space for God, the Trinity – who are unconditional love. Moved by that love the Irish Catholic church is now being changed, revitalised – and lay people are leading it into Christian action.

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: V – Snobbery and the Gospels

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

‘Master, we know … that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you …’ (Matt 22:16)

Jesus did not value people for their social status or wealth. It is surely this characteristic above all that draws most of us to him. We cannot read more than a few chapters of any one of the Gospels without realising that here was someone who never looked down his nose at humble people – someone who was always drawn to those ‘the world’ despised.

Not only was Jesus not a snob, he was an anti-snob. He took on the world’s pyramid of esteem – topped as usual by religious and political elites – and revealed its pretentiousness.

To get a complete mental fix on ‘snobbery’ we can think of a phrase that provided the title of a recent book of popular philosophy:  Status Anxiety*. Those who suffer from snobbery are insecure in their self-esteem, so they need the esteem of others, especially of those ‘highly placed’. The more social esteem they have, the higher their supposed status. They are perpetually anxious about this status.

Hyacinth Bucket of the TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances is a classic snob. Terrified that someone might suppose her to be ‘lower class’ she insists on pronouncing her name ‘Bouquet’.  She collects prestige china, and visits English stately homes in the hope of meeting their aristocratic owners. The actress who plays Hyacinth, Patricia Routledge, catches perfectly a recognizable type of middle aged, well-to-do suburban Englishwoman.

We can’t be certain of the precise origin of the word ‘snob’, but it may have come from the abbreviation ‘s.nob.’ (for sine nobilitate – ‘without nobility’, a ‘commoner’) written in the 1820s opposite the names of Oxford and Cambridge university students who were not well connected.

To put that kind of ‘nobility’ in perspective we need to remember that aristocratic titles were originally granted to those who performed some service for a medieval king – and that the special talent of medieval kings was for murdering peasants en masse in the gentlemanly sport known as warfare. The original aristocrats in France were called ‘the nobility of the sword’ for this reason. These medieval ‘knights’ were very effective mass murderers because they encased themselves in steel armour – an advantage not bestowed upon the unlucky peasantry.

The Roman nobility of Jesus’ time – especially the Caesars – were equally implicated in mass murder. Knowing this perfectly well, Jesus was not in awe of them – or of the Jewish religious elites either. He recognised all elitism for what it was – a pretence at superiority, and a source of violence and injustice.

Alain deBotton, the author of Status Anxiety, notes that Christianity has usually managed to convey to Christians that they are equal in the sight of God. He also points out, however, that the churches were mostly unsuccessful in levelling the social status pyramids outside the walls of churches and monasteries.

The reason for this is fairly simple. By the year 312 the Christian community in the Roman empire had acquired considerable size, wealth and prestige. In that year a contestant for the imperial throne named Constantine decided to win over the Christians to his own political cause. He did what imperial candidates almost always did in this situation. He claimed an encounter with a God.

This vision was different, however, because Constantine claimed he had met not a pagan god such as Apollo, but Jesus Christ. The latter had shown him (he said) a vision of the cross, and, inscribed in the heavens above it in Latin, the words “In this sign, conquer.”

Today we can say with complete certainty that this vision was not genuine. Constantine never read the Gospels, and supposed that the God of the Christians was not unlike Mars, the Roman God of war. This militaristic Christ was completely out of character with the gentle person who waved away the sword of Peter in Gethsemane. He was also out of sync with the pacifism of the many Christian martyrs willing to suffer death rather than serve in the Roman army in the early centuries of the church.

This ‘vision’ was also the decisive event in the heretical identification of the Christian cross with the sword of the crusader and the imperial conqueror. It was, in other words, the historical source of the many centuries of murderous ‘Christian’ scandal for which Pope John Paul II felt obliged to ask pardon before the whole world in the year 2000.

Yet the Christian bishops of 312 swallowed Constantine’s story whole. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (the ‘father’ of Church history) applauded Constantine (who went on to murder his wife and eldest son – after his ‘conversion’) in the most sickening terms. Eusebius was therefore also the true ‘father’ of Catholic snobbery – a disease that has disfigured the church ever since.

The spectacular conversion of Constantine set a new fashion for conversion of the military elites of first the Roman empire, and then of the barbarian states which followed it. Everywhere over the next five centuries the church fell under the power of rulers who were usually entirely ignorant of the Gospels. Sadly, some Christian thinkers adapted easily to this situation, developing theological ideas which portrayed God himself as an almighty snob who demanded ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

We can call this process the secularisation, or worldly contamination, of the church, because soon enough its bishops were part of this worldly aristocracy. As kings could often appoint bishops, they usually appointed the younger sons of the aristocracy. The popes themselves became political rulers – engaging in warfare, territorial acquisition and political intrigue. This system, called ‘Christendom’, baptised social inequality and so bore absolutely no resemblance to the ‘Kingdom of God’ that Jesus had described, but the illiteracy of most people in the Middle Ages prevented them from realizing this.

All over Europe, and in Ireland too, Christian missionaries placed the highest priority on the ‘conversion’ of the ruling classes. They ignored the fact that in most cases these conversions were merely a matter of snobbish imitation of those who set all trends – the powerful. Inevitably these aristocrats were taught to see their own good fortune as ‘God’s will’, and therefore to see the bad luck of their inferiors as ‘God’s will’ also. To pacify the latter, ‘salvation’ – which was for Jesus a new life that could begin anytime – was misrepresented as beginning only after death. In that way the miseries of the lives of ordinary people in aristocratic societies were justified.

Nevertheless, the story of Jesus – the king born in a stable who shared the lot of the least powerful – somehow kept alive for the poorest in Europe a dream of a better world. In the Middle Ages one reader of the Bible came up with the verses ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’  Inspired by stories from the Bible he (or she) was asking if God really approved of social inequality – and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was insistently raising the same question.

In the 1700s, following a scientific and economic revolution, a new educated lay elite emerged in Europe. Opposed to aristocratic bishops, it was determined to build a new world on the principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Although Pope John Paul II admitted in 1989 that these values were also Gospel values, his predecessors in the period 1789-1900 condemned this revolutionary programme out of hand. The reason was that almost all bishops (popes included) were drawn still from the European nobility.

That is why modern egalitarianism (the movement towards social equality) tends to see Christianity as a force opposed to equality. It is also the main reason for the Catholic hierarchy’s dislike of liberalism and socialism – because these movements have greatly weakened the intellectual influence of the clerical church over the past two centuries.

However, two centuries after the birth of secular liberalism, western secular society today is still almost as unequal as the Church. Why is this?

The answer is that Status Anxiety (which Jesus called simply the power of ‘the world’) compels us to compete with one another. It is, in fact, the explanation for the biblical sin of  covetousness. We seek self-esteem through raising our status by greater wealth or celebrity. This inevitably means that we compete and conflict with one another. This is the everlasting problem of our species – and it now threatens the survival of our planet by involving us in endless competitive consumerism.

No longer based mainly on success in warfare, our status pyramids today are ‘meritocracies’ – ruled by those who have turned knowledge itself into wealth and power. The world’s most moneyed individual, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft – the supplier of the basic software for most of the world’s microcomputers – is a perfect example.

And our ‘poor in spirit’ are those who watch this parade of ‘success’ from the shadows of our urban wastelands. Their handicap is their own lack of talent for worldly competition, for winning these ‘glittering prizes’ of the twenty-first century.

There is only one solution to the problem of Status Anxiety – a solution that many in the secular world are now also pursuing: spirituality – a way of being that frees us from the compulsion to seek the approval of others.

The greatest spiritual teachers in all traditions have somehow made contact with a spiritual dimension that raised them to a new level of being – in which we realise that no-one ever truly has higher status than anyone else. All of them shared one outstanding characteristic: they were so secure in their own self-esteem that they had lost all snobbery. St Francis of Assisi was a typical example.

The greatest of all was Jesus of Nazareth, who died to bring all of us into relationship with this dimension. He knew that its ruler was none other than the heavenly father of the Old Testament prophets – the father he called ‘Abba’ – Dad.

The result of all status-seeking throughout history is a power pyramid that crushes the losers and tempts the winners to self-destruct. The Gospels reveal this truth to us, and invite us into relationship with the Father and the Son – through the Spirit who dwells within the heart and mind of those who truly seek this relationship.

Only in this relationship with the Trinity can we Christians, working alongside all those with a similar vision, build together – slowly – a truly peaceful, just, free and equal world.

Jesus called that ideal and spiritual world ‘the Kingdom of God’.

*Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton 2004

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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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Secularism and an Adult Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1997

“Ireland is becoming a secular country.” With these words Bishop Thomas Flynn responded in April 1997 to questions from the Irish Times about a reported 70% support in Ireland for those causes espoused by the liberal Catholic petitionary movement originating in Austria in 1995 (advocating female ordination and an end to mandatory priestly celibacy etc.).

What struck me at the time was that Bishop Flynn’s comment coincided with a determined effort by the Catholic hierarchy to prevent their influence over education in Ireland being eroded by proposed (but subsequently abandoned) legislation by the Rainbow Coalition. If Ireland is becoming a secular country, I asked myself, is this in spite of, or because of, Catholic determination of the ‘ethos’ of most schools in Ireland? As a teacher of history for thirty years in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland I was fairly well placed to ask such a question, but it is in fact extraordinarily complex.

What is secularism?

First, secularism is a slippery concept. Are we talking simply about the undogmatic tendency of humans to give priority, most of the time, to the immediate concerns of this life – for food, shelter, career, financial security, entertainment. Or are we referring to an ideological commitment by those in control of policy to exclude all religious concerns and values? Or do we mean specifically anti-clericalism – the desire to wrest intellectual authority from the clergy? As the first is a constant throughout history, even Irish history, I presume that Bishop Flynn is talking about the second or third – perhaps both. Modern secularism originated in the eighteenth century enlightenment’s determination to wrest control of ideas and public policy from the clergies, so a dogmatic and exclusive ‘this world only’ outlook, and anti-clericalism, are historically closely related.

In assessing the impact of this kind of secularism upon schools in Ireland, and, through them, upon the church, we must remember that in all schools on both sides of the border there is a secular curriculum, legally enforced, which occupies more than 85% of the time of all pupils. It is against this curriculum that young people are tested at the end of their school careers in probably the most demanding ‘rite of passage’ they will face in their lives. How influential, in this context, can a spiritual ethos actually be, no matter how well used the 10-15% of time remaining?

Less influential now than heretofore, apparently – education has been secularised in this sense for generations, but only now do we discern the dominance of secularism as an exclusive cast of mind, threatening to disinherit the Church in Ireland. It seems that, ‘catholic ethos’ notwithstanding, the spiritual cast of mind so sedulously developed in up to fourteen years of education is soon consigned by most school leavers to the attic, along with the files of leaving cert and A level notes. Religious practice often ceases at the same time. This is a phenomenon that deserves serious attention and study far beyond the scope of this article, but some observations based upon my own experience as both pupil and teacher over the period 1953-1996 may be useful.

First, it is an educational truism that an answer which precedes a question will bypass the pupil. It is far easier to pose an historical problem in the classroom and arouse an interest in all possible answers, or to structure a chemistry experiment, than to create in the same situation the complex of life circumstances which lead to deep religious questions, and deep receptivity to Christian answers. If Jesus is to be a model for our educational praxis it’s worth pointing out that far from advocating the systematic ‘inculcation of ethos’ in children, He held them up, uneducated, as an example towards which the adult should aspire. And the adults chosen were usually those who turned up, often in anguish, with their own needs and questions. The original church was founded upon adult suffering and uncertainty, not childhood habituation, and grew in this mode for centuries.

Paradox

This observation explains an anomaly in my own life. My doubts about the faith started at the precise moment I was first told insistently (about the age of ten) that the Catholic Church was the One True Church. I had encountered no reason to doubt it before this, so now I wondered why so much of a song and dance was being made. Hey (lightbulb flickers) maybe ….! Yet after a subsequent half-lifetime of intellectual swithering between a purely secular and a Christian outlook I became deeply and totally committed, at about the age of fifty, to the latter. This happened as the consequence of a deep personal crisis, and was deeply influenced also by an experience of the liturgy and culture of the school in which I had taught for a quarter of a century. But paradoxically many of the most intelligent children I taught, including my own, felt ‘suffocated’ by that same experience. There are several reasons for this paradox.

The first is that, evaluating my own life, I was asking those deep ultimate questions to which Christianity is the most beautiful possible answer, whereas most young people have no occasion to do so – at least until late adolescence. Another is the fact that as a teacher I was not subject to the mandatory RE curriculum in the same manner as my own children, captives rather than determiners of the system. To put it simply, I had the power of initiative, whereas catholic education is based upon the presumption that children are from baptism committed catholics. And they are treated accordingly at every stage of their school career. From early in secondary school our children are given total freedom to choose a secular career (from a more and more dazzling array). To choose a religious faith – the most sacred right defended by Vatican II – they are given no significant moment of freedom whatsoever: Faith is poured on aboriginally at baptism and assumed to be growing constantly thereafter, like appetite or a birthmark. We take our children’s faith for granted – although it is a matter of grace, and therefore not in our gift.

No sacramental rite of passage to adulthood

The result is the most fundamental flaw in the church’s present structure: despite our total freedom to determine the age at which the sacraments are administered, for the lay ‘cradle’ Catholic no sacrament marks and celebrates the free decision – which can be taken only by an adult – to commit oneself totally to Christ. The Eucharist is first administered before the child can understand the extraordinary gift of Christ’s sacrifice of His own body in an appalling personal and completely human crisis; Confirmation before the child can possibly understand the need and opportunity for the descent of the Spirit following the Ascension and Christ’s joyous reunion with the Father. For the Catholic baptised at infancy there is no sacramental rite of passage from habitual religious adolescence into Christian adulthood. Experientially awesome sacraments – received by the apostles before and after a supreme trauma – are administered as though their efficacy was similar to that of the whooping cough vaccine – totally independent of the psychological readiness of the recipient. The life role designed for the layperson involves no power of initiative either, so passivity is all that is required throughout life.

This familiar but awful truth helps to explain what is currently happening to the church in Ireland: few lay Catholics voluntarily make the transition to an adult commitment and vocation. When the social conventions which once supported school habituation in adult life are removed, we mostly breath a sigh of relief and play truant. Further, we subsequently see the clergy as opposed to our own free maturation, as advocates of this unequal system which pre-empts and presumes what should and could be both freely offered and freely chosen. Catholic education, as currently conceived, is thus itself a major part of the reason for the early flight by many young adults into secularism and anti-clericalism in Ireland, although it does ‘work’ for a gentle, mostly female, minority. For the typical independent-minded eighteen-year-old, Catholicism represents not freedom, but captivity.

Our typical deeply pathological lay-cleric relationship also begins here: clerical paternalism and pre-emption offer only two easy options for the layperson – a childish deference and passivity, or anti-clericalism. An easy adult-to-adult relationship, founded upon the fundamental equality of responsibility and fellowship offered by Christ, is the exception rather than the norm. This is why clerical scandals are regarded as an almost opportune and therapeutic vindication of the anticlerical option.

So what?

One further consequence of modern secularism is pervasive: scepticism about the fundamental truth of all truth claims. Cartesian doubt is a remote cause. The expansion of the media and advertising, and clerical and secular scandals, are more potent. So is the application of discipline to the evaluation of sources – as a teacher of History this has been the single most important development in my lifetime. All of this produces the ‘so what?’ syndrome – a caustic disrespect and suspicion of all claims to authority.

The popular actress Maggie Hoosit says ‘Drift’ washes whitest? So what? She’s paid handsomely to do so. The lesson derived from this truism is to look for self-interest in all attempts to control our behaviour. Applied to the church as presently ordered this method of authority-testing is devastating. The Pope/bishop/priest says we must go to Mass? So what? He’s worried about losing your family’s weekly pound in the envelope!

The consequence of this cynical sophistication in the evaluation of clerical claims to life-changing authority – achieved by most by the age of about sixteen – are obvious. The Tridentine concentration of initiative and authority in the hands of a professional clerical elite – supported financially by a relatively inexpert and psychologically and spiritually immature laity – has become a colossal inspirational liability for the church of the twenty-first century. Clerical scandals simply reinforce this weakness.

Secularism in deep crisis

Yet this is far from being the end of the story. Its impact upon the church should not obscure the fact that secularism, as an ideology, is also in deep trouble, and this provides a moment of extraordinary opportunity for the church. The systematic secular ideologies which emerged following the enlightenment (liberalism, democratic socialism, Marxism, Fascism chiefly) have all failed to deliver a spiritually, socially and intellectually respectable alternative to practical Christianity. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many western societies, Ireland included, have discovered some of their most eminent secular leaders to have been essentially corrupt.

So there is a growing awareness of the importance of community, but little understanding of the relationship between community and overarching religious beliefs. So, exclusive secularism produces a growing casualty list, a dysfunctional society, and thus a new receptivity to religious claims. This exposes millions to quackery and cultism – everything from astrology to ‘New Age’ vapourware to ‘aromatherapy’ to Scientology to the X files and Yogic trampolining – but it prepares them also to listen to the truth, and trains them to recognise it when they experience it. It can also cast a new light upon the Christian cosmology inherited from centuries ago and delivered so hopefully at school.

The enlightenment, the fount of secularism, was in turn inspired by the belief that science – wonderfully boosted by the recent Newtonian synthesis – would answer all questions and solve all problems. More than two centuries later, after a period of unprecedented scientific and technological advance, we can now evaluate that prediction. In fact, runaway technology threatens to create a global wilderness of greed and deprivation. And science at its leading edges has exposed mysteries as deep and awesome as those which baffled and inspired the ancients. The imagination of children, alienated from the mess we are making of this world, reaches into deep space and distant futures. Ancient legends set in a terrestrial landscape, find a new vogue and audience when set in cinematic planetary systems way out far beyond the reach of present and foreseeable technologies. The holocaust and the nuclear winter and substance addiction have had their own horrific impact. Mystery, chaos and terror have come back into the world, although the enlightenment predicted the opposite.

This is very similar to the spiritual landscape into which Christ came.

Why did Christ undergo humiliation?

Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Church’s central agency for monitoring theologians, is my favourite clerical bête noir. His role, awesome knowledge and super-cool confidence create an impression of Olympian omniscience and remoteness. So he recently rose greatly in my estimation when he admitted that he didn’t quite understand why Christ had to fail – had to be humiliated and crucified.1In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

My layman’s ‘take’ on this, for what it’s worth, is that God is overwhelmed by compassion for the ordinary human being, the ‘loser’, for whom failure, humiliation and a lonely death are the norm. The ordinary human solution to the anticipation of this fate is to seek wealth and power – but this is in fact the basic cause of the complaint, the despoliation and enslavement of other losers, the eternal sin which will dog mankind eternally through time, and maybe destroy the whole of creation through the limitless potential of human intelligence. So God wants us to see another solution: the living of one’s life, and, if need be, the dying, for others. This will break the pattern – inspire a new creation.

That’s easy for God to advocate, we will complain, so He makes it difficult for himself also – He sends His only and most precious son to live this life and meet this death as a fully human archetype. The option he does not take (authoritarians take note) is to compel – because human freedom is part of human dignity and therefore inviolable. Secular power is a temptation for the Son as for us – but He remains faithful to His father’s vision. Rejecting the option of secular empowerment (which would enslave us) He is publicly humiliated and physically destroyed by it. This ‘death to oneself’ is morally superior to the ethic that supports the empire that killed him, and to all others of the same type. While the memory of this death and its reward, remain alive there is hope in the world, for from this seed a human and cosmic transformation can evolve. All the Christian churches carry this memory. Ours daily celebrates this loser’s death and invites us to physically link with the real body that suffered it.

Freedom?

Modern secularism is all about personal freedom. That is the glory and the tragedy of western society at the end of the second millennium. Intellectual freedom has indeed transformed the world. Freedom from material want is often achieved, but then misused – with catastrophic consequences for both the individual and society. Never before has there been the possibility of worldly success for so many people – but those who achieve it mostly haven’t a clue what to do with it. In scaling the pinnacle of modern ‘success’ – by possessing wealth – we discover that there is no beautiful vista on the other side. Today’s power symbol (the Pentium PC or Porsche) becomes tomorrow’s waste disposal problem. At the moment of triumph aspired to by teenagers the world over, the pop idol implodes into addiction, or shuts himself away in a compound to escape stalkers, thieves or the media. Our wealth is achieved at enormous environmental and personal cost. When we surf the Internet we learn that 200 million children around the world rot in sweatshops or brothels or on rubbish tips – but there appears to be no solution. We were never more knowledgeable or technologically powerful – why then are we so morally impotent?

It is questions of this kind that bring us back to reality and spirituality. Christ’s response to the worldliness of his own time was not to criticise the secular agenda of the Roman empire but to show solidarity with the weak and the miserable – at the level of the individual. There is not in the whole of the new testament a shred of evidence that Christ foresaw a role for the secular state in building His kingdom. That development had to wait for over three centuries, for the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the Roman Empire (a very mixed blessing, as time was to prove). Christ’s appeal was not to institutions or their leaders (their primary morality is always self-preservation) but to individuals on society’s margins. This is important, because it is at the level of the individual that western society is currently breaking down. Christ’s appeal to the individual – to perceive that it is only in giving that we receive, that only in service to others do we find true freedom – was never more relevant in a world devastated by selfishness and licence.

Yes, the power of secularism in Ireland today is in the ascendant. But it is forcing us all to realise and accept that priests too are only human, that we are all equally flawed, and that the church is not a given which will always be here no matter what. Many of us laity are now trying for the first time to identify what it is about our Catholic inheritance that must be salvaged. And realising that there is here after all a light with power enough to pierce through all possible futures – if we too cherish and carry it.

So I am not depressed by the rise of secularism in Ireland. The Roman Empire was the matrix of secular suffering and darkness into which Christ came. Its enormous power crushed him bodily as carelessly as one would a fly, but the relevance of his teaching, and the impact of his Resurrection upon his followers, conquered all fear and gradually overcame that empire, which now is but ruins and a memory. Its brutality was overthrown by Christ’s solidarity with its casualties, and his power to give them a certainty of their own worth that no worldly power or ideology could destroy. Today’s secular world produces even more of such casualties. They are today’s and tomorrow’s harvest – to which we are all invited.

To those who are convinced that the ‘old church’ is dying I would simply say this. The old and the new never occupy totally separate eras. They will always overlap. Alongside the old there is a new emerging church, because the Spirit is there whenever we reach out, not waiting for a change of Pope. A Catholic education joyfully forgotten at eighteen may be remembered, in its essentials, at a moment of supreme adult crisis. The central office of the priest, celebration of the Mass, saves lives eternally. But the priest now needs us, the laity, to share the church’s non-sacramental burdens in fellowship – everything from administration to evangelisation. It is this spirit of fellowship, rather than the Summa Theologia or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that is most needed just now – although they too have their place. Christ’s burden for us is far lighter and more portable – simply the news that with that extraordinary death a light came into the world that will never go out. And it shines, believe me, equally on us all.

So keep an eye out for this emerging church, if you have not already discovered it. Its harbingers may not be wearing any recognisable uniform. One of them may confront you soon in your bedroom mirror. The closer you are to despair, the more likely it is that this will happen – if you express that feeling in heartfelt prayer, even in tears. I have the very best of reasons to be certain of this.

Notes

  1. In Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium – published interview with Peter Seewald, (1997)

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