Category Archives: Holy Spirit

Apocalypse Soon – or New Pentecost?

fire next time

If the Catholic church is in crisis in 2024, so is the world.

When scientists tell us we are exhausting the key resources of our planet, and political leaders struggle to contain the violence that can erupt anywhere – and extremists invent conspiracies freely on the Internet to justify hatred and scapegoating – who can now share the 18th century optimism that Reason would create a perfect world, without Faith?

Instead, allied to science and technology, human covetousness has created an egregious overclass whose indifference to the suffering of a far larger underclass now threatens the world with dystopia, tyranny and cataclysm.

Not without optimism has every pope since Leo XIII predicted a New Pentecost. Pope Francis did that again in Dublin in 2018.

“Each new day in the life of our families, and each new generation, brings the promise of a new Pentecost, a domestic Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, the Paraclete, whom Jesus sends as our Advocate, our Consoler and indeed our Encourager.”

So what is it that faces us – New Pentecost as prayed for by popes, or Disaster – the Apocalypse as understood by popular media – the end of everything? When environmental scientists hesitate to beget children we are truly faced by a nightmare rather than the Utopia prophesied by the most naive at the 18th century dawn of secular liberalism.

And yet the word Apocalypse means not disaster but revelation, the breaking in of insight – exactly what is needed to precipitate a global sharing of the truth that was glimpsed in the pandemic of 2019-22. To the basic needs of food, clean water, clean air and shelter we need to add the realisation that we are all both interconnected and in need of peace and climatic safety – above all else.

Superyachts and Helicopters?

Who can sensibly be dreaming of superyachts and helicopters in such a time, or survival bunkers somewhere in New Zealand? That we tend to want what others want – choosing our own desires from the preferred options of the mega-rich – is now as obvious as the futility of doing just that. Everyone everywhere is threatened by the self-indulgence of those who can currently choose what they want from the conveyer belts of the 2024 global economy.

Who cannot see this choice as a turning point of human history – with salvation on offer only if we opt for simplicity, the Gospel of just enough?

Reason to be reasonable must now see what Faith has always taught: that there is no wisdom alternative to the Great Commandments. This is a most dangerous time – but also a time for confidence that, despite its obvious faults, our church has not led us astray.

It’s not a choice of Apocalypse OR New Pentecost that now faces us. In an intensifying global crisis radical rethinking is unavoidable, as well as prayer. Revelation and New Pentecost will come to us together. The leaders of tomorrow will be the first to experience this – the first to absorb the whole truth.

Sean O’Conaill, May 2024

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The Gospel as a Takedown of Celebrity

Mind you tell no one anything! said Jesus to the man he had just cured of leprosy in the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. (Mark 1: 44)

Repeated many times in this Gospel, this warning by Jesus has puzzled commentators for centuries. As Jesus had already begun his public ministry at the river Jordan, and already signed up the earliest apostles for his mission of declaring the Kingdom of God, why did he then repeatedly warn against what our world calls ‘publicity’?

Almost always the explanation given by scripture commentators is that it wasn’t yet time for him to be ‘raised up’ on the cross in Jerusalem, to become celebrated by the sensation of his Resurrection within three days.

It follows that the glorious culmination of the Christian story is almost always misunderstood as a return of the visible individual person, Jesus Christ. Until then, despite the power of the Holy Spirit, it seems we must think there is something profoundly lacking on earth – because the King of Kings is not here, visibly, to take charge.

Many Christians even seem to believe that in the interim the power of evil must be stronger than the power of grace and that the world is headed for some kind of cataclysm in which God the Father finally loses patience and empowers some Christian leader to do what Jesus refused to do: knock all other human heads together to create a single global Christian kingdom, with Jesus then enthroned in Jerusalem as global monarch.

That Jesus must always have wanted to be celebrated in the twenty-first century sense – i.e. to be sometime a single visible personality and a focus of endless fascination for a global TV audience – is a key component of this typical misunderstanding of the Second Coming of the Lord – because of course then, it is supposed, he will indeed reign from some earthly place as King of the World, and even of the Universe.

The Failure of Christian Monarchy

That Jesus might have seen celebrity itself – the making of any living individual human an object of fascination and ‘crowd sensation’ – as hugely problematic and even disastrous – and might have come to warn against it, is not considered. In my own church the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1978 to media stardom was seen for decades as beneficial for the cause of the Gospel. That too has become problematic – in light of the known internal abuses of power by Catholic clergy that John Paul II knew of from at least as early as 1984 – and did too little to resolve1See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/. Thankfully a successor pope has set out from the start of his term of office in 2013 to demystify himself, and to point to the need for ‘walking together’ as equals to renew the church.

To continue to misunderstand the Gospel in this way is to fail to notice what history itself – and especially recent history – reveals about the problem of celebrity and the impossibility of a single global centre of government, or living individual, ever bringing about the kingdom of God. It is also to ignore the power of the Holy Spirit of God to move multiple human beings simultaneously in service to one another – directed not by some living super-person but simply by the needs of their neighbours and the wisdom gifts of the Trinity.

In the coronavirus pandemic of 2019-22 what purpose was served by the cult of celebrity when the direst need of so many was the compassion of their nearest neighbours, and no single global master plan could have made a difference in time? In multiple locations celebrated political individuals failed dismally to lead effectively, and more often became serious obstacles to the resolving of the surrounding crisis. Everywhere the elderly found themselves dependent upon the persons nearest to them – often people they had underestimated, at the very base of the social and economic pyramid.

Celebrity is essentially a mistaken fixation with individuals who become the focus of media attention for as long as it takes disappointment to set in. No wonder we hear so much now of ‘imposter syndrome’ – the latest celebrity’s inevitable fear of being shamed by some very different revelation, in tomorrow’s press.

This ‘take’ on where human history is heading – based upon the assumption that God could have no objection to celebrity as such – ignores everything that has been learned about the dangers of celebrity, and the cult of celebrity, in the global TV era. It also ignores the warning that the Gospel story itself gives us in its dramatic essence: we humans raise people up in expectation of endless sensation, and then, if they disappoint us, to exult in tearing them down. A celebrity is always a person from whom far more is expected than can be delivered – and therefore also a scapegoat in waiting, the person whom everyone will all too often agree to shame and vilify.

The Caesars Were Celebrities

The Caesars – the emperors of Rome – were the greatest celebrities of the ancient world, their power attained and maintained by the most ruthless use of force. Beginning with their founding ‘God’ – Julius Caesar (who envied Alexander the Great) – they were expanding the Roman empire to its greatest extent in the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BCE – 14 CE) and the first century of the Christian era. It was during the reign of Augustus that Jesus was born, but from 312 CE until our own time Christians have tended also to look to Christian ‘strong men’ to protect the faith and the church – despite endless disappointment.

However, no Christian king in history has come close to realising the kingdom that Jesus spoke of – the Kingdom of God. Just as the story of Julius Caesar reveals the huge danger of murderous jealousy that arises out of the successful ambition of one man, the Gospel reveals the problem of rivalry that arises when any one living individual is identified as ‘it’ by their followers – the jostling for preference and promotion. Commonly called ‘palace rivalry and intrigue’ it happens even in the Vatican, where, above all, we should expect to see strict observance of the Petrine and Catholic principle that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10: 34-48).

Jesus reveals, by his death as well as his verbal teachings, that it was never the intent of the Trinity to reign over us. Instead their kingdom can be realised only within and among us – when we turn to the ever-present source of all truth, wisdom and love.

This kingdom is always both close to us and distant from us – close because the gifts of the Holy Spirit are equally accessible by everyone through mindful prayer; distant because mindful prayer is almost always postponed until every other means of satisfying our needs and desires is exhausted. Too often these desires are unwise, causing greater suffering – and this endless delaying of wisdom is the cause of the sufferings of the least powerful people on the planet.

These futile desires are also, now, the root of a planetary crisis. Utter disaster looms unless we all soon ‘wise up’. The Gospel warns us not to look to celebrity, or to celebrities, to save ourselves. By far the greatest figure in all human history, Jesus of Nazareth is waiting always for our attention to turn to the Good News of the Gospel: the kingdom of God is still on offer, to everyone. We simply need to ‘think again’ about where we are going, and why equality is always a mirage.

From the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) the prideful search for celebrity, for the admiration of ‘the world’, has lain at the root of all inequality and violence – including the violation of the Earth itself. That is why Jesus overcame the world by allowing it to crucify him: we are here to love and to serve, not to be objects of envy and fascination. There never was any other way of saving us humans from ourselves – and of saving our world as well.

Only when we have realised the promise of the first Pentecost, that there is to be a second Pentecost – a complete realisation of the power of the Holy Spirit to make us wise – could there be a second visible coming of the Lord. Only then will we be ready, realising that it is the same Lord who has been with us, through the same Holy Spirit, all along.

Notes

  1. See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/

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Trusting the Gifts of the Spirit among the People of God

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Doctrine and Life  May/June 2012

FOR WHAT exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be waiting, to move the Irish Church into vibrant and visible recovery and renewal? This question seems to me to be critical to any response we might make to the predicament that so many find themselves in just now in Ireland. This is related above all to two problems: frustration with the current governing system of the Church, and a still-appalled reflection on a series of Irish government-led reports on child abuse within the Irish Church, beginning in 2006.

Seeking to guide us in our response to those reports the Holy Father issued a pastoral letter in March 2010, and in April 2012 we received the summary report of the apostolic visitation to Ireland that had followed that pastoral.1Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012

It is largely my frustration with this summary report that leads me to ask the question posed at the start. In a previous article here I offered the conclusion that Catholic authoritarianism had been a key factor in the moral failure of Catholic officials in Irish state and Church to protest most vehemently against the abuse and endangerment of children.2S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010

Elsewhere I later argued that the Church’s governing system has been thoroughly disgraced not just by the scale of the abuse crisis, but by the fact that the initial revelation of this horror had been a product of secular structures and processes arising historically out of the Protestant Reformation and the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the eighteenth century.3S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010

I simply cannot get my head fully around the clear fact that my Church was finally moved to protect children not by the watchfulness, love and courage of its own leaders but by policemen, journalists, judges and jury members who often owed no debt of loyalty whatsoever to the Catholic Church. And that this process began in one of the most secularised societies on the planet: the USA.

Why did the church not uncover the problem itself?

The problem now for me is this. The summary report makes no allusion to the failure of the governing system of the Church to reveal to its leaders the scale of the abuse horror, and to act spontaneously long ago as it began to act in Ireland in 1994. Nor does it clearly explain the moral failure of so many Catholic officials, many of them ordained. In its references to the incompatibility of renewal and dissent it also seems me to seek to clamp down on the free expression of honest opinion within the Church in Ireland. So, as I began this article I was not even sure that it could be published.

Praying about all of this has led me somehow back to a reflection on my Confirmation at the age of about ten or eleven in 1953/54, when, as I distinctly remember, I was told the sacrament conferred upon me the dignity of becoming a ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. That sense of my own dignity within the Church has never completely left me, mainly because it was further reinforced by the mentoring I received at University College Dublin in the 1960s, by clergy heavily influenced by Vatican II. I caught the excitement of the time. The expectation of reform has heavily influenced my life ever since, especially since 1994, when the abuse crisis first emerged.

Learning from Scripture

It is strange how prayerful meditation on what life was like as a child of ten or eleven can somehow recover for us the hopes, dreams and vulnerability of childhood. Doing this in Lent in 2012 led me frequently into tears, and into recovered memory of matters long suppressed, such as my late mother’s strange illness that was not finally named for me until I was in my fifties. It led me also, by a process too circuitous to need tracing here, to a reflection on my early experiences of the Bible.

One of these in particular stands out: the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel.

Briefly, this story tells us that during the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, beautiful Susanna was lusted after by two Jewish judge elders. They conspired to tell her that they would publicly allege that they had seen her in adulterous intimacy with a fourth party if she did not satisfy their lust. When Susanna even so resisted their joint intimidation, they proceeded with their plan publicly to accuse her of adultery. As two witnesses were all that were required by Jewish law to satisfy their assembly, their accusation was accepted as true by that assembly. Susanna was being led away to die when she passionately declared her innocence. Then, according to the text, this happened:

The Lord heard her cry and as she was being led away to die, he roused the Holy Spirit in a young boy called Daniel who began to shout, ‘I am innocent of this woman’s death!’ At this all the people turned to him and asked ‘what do you mean by that?’ Standing in the middle of the crowd he replied , ‘ Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth? Go back to the scene of the trial: these men have given false evidence against her. (Daniel 13: 46-49)

We are told then that the other judge elders of the assembly not only acted on the young Daniel’s advice, but asked him to sit with them and advise them further. He suggested separating the two accusers, and questioning them as to the precise circumstances in which they had seen Susanna committing adultery. When this was done the conspirators gave different accounts, proving Susanna’s innocence. (Everyone has seen much the same thing happen today in TV police procedural dramas.)

Rousing the spirit of youth!

Remembering this in the aftermath of the apostolic visitation summary report, I was prompted to explore in my mind precisely what could have been involved in the Lord ‘rousing’ the Holy Spirit in a young boy, to the extent that he could stand alone in an assembly dominated by elderly judges and shout ‘stop’?

Could it be any of these, the virtues that can arise out of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord?4Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
And could it be also be the fruit of the Great Commandment: to love God above all, and our neighbour as ourselves?

My mind fastens particularly on the words ‘fortitude’, ‘understanding’ and ‘love’. Does the Catholic magisterium, and its method of exercising authority, nourish these virtues? Does it allow for the possibility that prayerful young people especially might ever be gifted with an understanding and an insight that might lead them to ask difficult questions, and with the courage to stand up and ask them, no matter what? Especially all of the questions that arise out of the leadership catastrophe we have suffered?

I have to say that my experience of the magisterium since about 1968 is that it seems to have a fearful attitude to the creation of circumstances within the Church that could encourage young people especially, but lay people in general, to ask difficult questions of itself, and of those in ordained ministry. Many of those difficult questions pertain to the issue of sexuality. It is true that individual bishops have been an exception to this rule, and that some have held open and honest forums in the aftermath of the Irish state abuse reports. But there is still no sign that such assemblies will become embedded in the regular and normal life of the Church.

‘Bishops are accountable to the people’

And that brings me back to what I see as the enormous gaps in the summary report:

First, its failure to address the question of widespread moral cowardice among so many Catholic adults, and especially among those who carried the full weight of the magisterium’s expectation that they would be loyal to it, and would avoid scandalous revelations.

Second, its failure to explain why it was that it is to Irish secular agencies that we owe both the revelation of the abuse horror in Ireland, and the momentum that led to Catholic bishops becoming for the first time ostentatious in the cause of child protection.

Third, its failure to predict that the mooted reorganisation of the Irish Church will include structural reforms that will mandate a principle stated by Monsignor Charles Scicluna earlier this year at a clerical child abuse forum in Rome: ‘Bishops are accountable to the Lord, but also to their people.’’5Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.

As the apostolic visitation and its summary report also arose out of a secular process of discovery, I am prompted to ask then also how the Holy Spirit might be moving Irish Catholics today to respond to the crisis that now still weighs on us. Could one of those ways be a questioning why the elimination of dissent among Irish Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II should be a priority of the magisterium at this time – when it has so many questions still to answer about its own failures? And when there is still no promise of structural reform?

Committed to Justice

I also ask, finally, whether the unwillingness of the magisterium to encourage questioning from lay people at every age from Confirmation on might be a key factor in the continuing inertia of the Irish Church, and especially the departure of young people from it. The forgetting that as early as ten our Church has given to all of us the dignity of being Temples of the Holy Spirit is widespread in Ireland, especially among young men. Isn’t it time to remind all of the Irish three million plus who claim to be Catholics that this privilege is still theirs? And to ask them to pray to the Holy Spirit, above all for the gifts of insight, love, wisdom and fortitude? And to provide church structures as worthy of the People of God as those that allowed the Holy Spirit to prompt an honest young man to ask, in open assembly, life-saving questions of his elders long before the time of Christ?

Apropos the latter, according to the Vatican’s own website, ‘Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna is the “promoter of justice” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.’6Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option
Isn’t justice also a gift of the Holy Spirit? Wasn’t justice precisely what was involved in the case of Daniel and Susanna, and wasn’t it precisely justice that was lacking in so many cases when the parents of victims of clerical abuse came to the administrators of Catholic dioceses and religious congregation? How are we to encourage young Daniels in Ireland, and to ensure that our child protection is not again subverted by clericalism, if our Church structures continue to patronise and exclude all lay people, and especially young people?

I am entirely convinced that the continued holding back on Church structural reform by the magisterium, and in the meantime its encouragement of unjust and covert delating of those who do ask difficult questions, subverts the work of the Holy Spirit and delays the recovery of our Church.

Notes

  1. Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland, March 2012
  2. S. O’Conaill, ‘Authoritarianism and Moral Cowardice’, Doctrine & Life, May-June 2010
  3. S. O’Conaill, ‘The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism’, in The Dublin/Murphy Report: A Watershed for Irish Catholicism?, eds. John Littleton and Eamon Maher, Columba Press, Dublin, 2010
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1845
  5. Monsignor Charles Scicluna, as reported by the National Catholic Reporter on February 8, 2012.
  6. Vatican website: www.vatican.va : type ‘Monsignor Charles Scicluna’ into the site’s ‘Search’ option

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Endless Deference or Integrity?

Sean O’Conaill   Blog   April 2012

In preparation for Confirmation around the age  of ten, Catholic children are taught that this sacrament will confer on them the dignity ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’. Are they taught how to recognise the Holy Spirit moving within them then?  If their hearts were then to burn strongly for other Temples of the Holy Spirit who were violated in the past, or they were to feel a just anger against bishops who knowingly allowed that to happen, or they were to shed tears for the mothers so cruelly betrayed – would any of those manifestations of moral indignation signify to them that the Holy Spirit was now at work within themselves?

I ask this question because of the stunning failure of the apostolic visitation to Ireland to address two other questions:

First, why Irish Catholic church administrators, politicians, civil servants and police officers – all also Temples of the Holy Spirit – were not moved to moral outrage and effective action by the cruelties revealed by the series of state reports into abuse:  in Ferns, Dublin, the Catholic residential institutions and Cloyne.

Second, why it was that the church’s clerical system did not become ostentatious in the cause of child protection until secular courts, media and state forced it to act?

The apostolic visitation to Ireland was itself the result of secular revelation but its summary report shows absolutely no sign of an honest acknowledgement of this.  Are Ireland’s young Temples supposed to be forever unable to notice this, and forever unprompted by courage, honesty and love, to ask why?

Did the visitators even ask these questions of themselves?  If not, how can they convince us Irish Catholics that the visitation was not in the main just another holy show, primarily designed to distract attention from those questions, and from the fact that the concealment of abuse within the church is a global and not just an Irish problem?

As a Catholic educated in the era of Vatican II, and subsequently by the Catholic children I taught for thirty years, I can say with the deepest conviction that those young hearts do indeed burn, feel anger and weep for all cruelty and injustice.  But while the Holy Spirit is indeed moving those children in this way they are simultaneously being taught something quite contrary by the Catholic magisterium: deference to itself, and mute obedience to its minute theological formulae as the sine qua non of Catholic loyalty.

And this is still the obsession of the magisterium, as revealed by the passage  in the summary report that insists that renewal of the church forbids dissent.

What this means is that the magisterium is still not paying attention to the effect of the prioritisation of obedience to itself above moral outrage.  What this teaches is not honesty, initiative, courage and love, but subterfuge, irresponsibility, fear and malice.  We need look no further for the moral inertia of Irish Catholic officials who were forever afraid to act rightly on behalf of the weakest of our children.

I respectfully challenge here and now the Catholic magisterium to refute this, and to explain why the  revelation and the tackling of the grotesque evil of abuse within the church had to come from the secular world.  The sacraments are one thing, but the church’s governing system is something else entirely – something that frustrates the brilliant work of Catholic teachers.  They too must be wondering now whether the magisterium will ever, like good Catholic children, sit up, wake up, and pay full attention.

For example to the obvious fact that Catholic children have been far better served by the principle of the separation of executive, legislative and judicial power in secular society than by the church’s own vertical power system in which there are no checks on the power of the most powerful, and insufficient protection for the weakest.

And this is obviously because the magisterium has forgotten article 32 of Lumen Gentium: “Although by Christ’s will some are appointed teachers, dispensers of the mysteries and pastors for the others, yet all the faithful enjoy a true equality with regard to the dignity and the activity which they share in the building up of the body of Christ!'” 

The Irish church still has absolutely no structures to vindicate this principle, and no Irish lay person has a structured right to question a bishop on obvious derelictions of duty.  And the summary report of the apostolic visitation ignores this problem also.

To this day there has been no response to the historical argument presented in 2010, and again here on this site, that the rescuing of Catholic children from the most depraved evil owes far more to the Protestant Reformation and the ‘Enlightenment’ than to the Catholic magisterium.   (See The Disgracing of Catholic Monarchism)

So again I ask: how exactly is the Holy Spirit supposed to be moving the young Catholics of Ireland and globally ‘to renew the face of the earth’?  I’ve been saying the prayer ‘Come Holy Spirit’ all my life, and the fact is that I’ve learnt far more about how that could actually happen from Catholic clergy loyal to Vatican II (now again under covert intimidation in Ireland) and from Charles Dickens, than I have from the Catholic magisterium since 1968.

If it is argued that Irish Catholic lay people need to be protected from priests who would want to explore controversial issues, has the magisterium considered the impact of this upon our morale – through the inferences that the Holy See apparently believes the Holy Spirit denies the Irish people the gift of discernment and that we are not even to be allowed to suppose that an Irish priest could actually be speaking his own mind?

Our own bishops can’t even have the courage to demand that the Holy Spirit be freed to enable them to determine the language of the Mass for us.  What kind of leadership is this?  And what kind of theology?

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The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

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Of Good and Evil: V – Abba

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jul/Aug 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may waste years in search of the admiration of others.

Until one day we realise that we have wasted our time.

Only then are we ready to live.

Never in human history have we humans had access to so much knowledge. Never has the possession of knowledge had such prestige. Especially the kind of knowledge that allows financial information to be controlled and communicated through the world’s computer systems.

And never has there been less interest in making some kind of meaningful pattern of the knowledge at our disposal. What people call western civilisation was founded on a passionate search for an overarching truth that would make sense of everything. Today you are likely to get the blankest of looks if you ask one of today’s university graduates any truly important question.

Such as: “Why have reason and science alone been unable to build a perfect world?”

Or: “What important conclusions are you able to draw from everything you know?”

Or: “Why do you think the world is in crisis?”

Or: “What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”

Focused on increasingly narrow areas of expertise, aimed usually at making a living, our educated people have mostly lost confidence in their own ability to discern a deeper truth. They may even have bought into an arrogant “we know it all” attitude that disparages all the wisdom of the past.

Wisdom such as is compressed in the following story.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

All Christians will be familiar with this story, but we have still to exhaust the wisdom it contains, or to apply it properly to our own time. No one may ever have pointed out to us to a key element of the story, the key that unlocks a meaning that would have been plain to every Jewish listener in Jesus’ time.

The fact that the son who left home and ‘squandered his wealth’ was the younger son.

Younger sons were especially doubtful of their own value in ancient times. Noticing and envying the dominant role of their fathers, they also noticed that their fathers tended to favour their eldest sons. And those eldest sons would inherit all of the prestige of their fathers some day. Younger sons could all too easily conclude: “Here I will always be second to someone – never first. I must go elsewhere to make a name for myself!”

Story after story in the Bible tells us of the rivalry that develops between brothers – and usually the rivalry has to do with the very same problem that we all have today:

We are chronically unsure of our own value, and have an extraordinary need for the reassurance of others.

And, repeating in our own lives the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’, we can cause ourselves extreme suffering in the years we spend looking for that reassurance. It is always a vain search, because most of those we look to for reassurance are looking for exactly the same thing themselves.

Does God punish us?

But this short story had an even greater meaning for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. To summarise their history, they were a people who went wandering in search of glory, who lost faith in the God who had delivered them from slavery, who suffered a second exile in Babylon, and who then found themselves in Jesus’ time under the captivity of Rome. For some of the Jews these humiliations were God’s punishment for their own waywardness.

But Jesus had an entirely different ‘take’ on these events. The parable just related explains it fully. Our worst humiliations are a self-punishment. They follow naturally from our vanity. But the God of Israel, and of all of us, is ‘Abba‘ – the father who never forgets his wayward sons. He sees us while we are ‘still a long way off’ and runs to us as we approach.

And today in Ireland?

We in Ireland desperately need to apply the parable to our own recent history. In times of despair in the past we sought meaning and solace in such stories – in the reassurance they bring that we are never forgotten, never ‘out of sight’, and always of value.

There were never more prodigal sons, and daughters, in need of such reassurance, than there are in Ireland today.

One of the main obstacles in the way of us seeking that reassurance is the fact that so many today are stuck fast in the Sargasso Sea of post-modern doubt. This is the intellectual outlook that pours scorn on any possibility that the Christian story told in the Creeds could be true after all. This outlook has been greatly strengthened by the revelations of ‘scandals in high places’ that Catholicism is still suffering.

Nevertheless, some of us still go to Mass today – because we have found ‘Abba’ in our own crises – and are confident that He sees everyone ‘far off’ . We need to equip ourselves to show the same compassion for those who will come seeking encouragement in the same story.

We need above all to have the confidence to ask: “What meaning can we derive from the facts of our own history?” and the confidence to pray for an answer.

It was in prayer that Jesus communed with ‘Abba’ – and found the strength to proclaim his truth until his last breath. It will be in prayer, and in reflection on the Gospels, that we will find a way of speaking the same truth to all those who are currently lost.

The worse things get, the closer everyone will be to understanding that mere facts are not enough, and that we must look for the meaning behind the facts to be truly knowledgeable.

It will always be through Jesus’ love of Abba that we human prodigals will most readily rediscover the kingdom of God – the realisation that Abba has always known us, and understands better than we do why we harm ourselves.

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Catholic Schools: why they are not maintaining the faith

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish News  21st June 2007

 “This will spell the end of Catholicism as a taught programme for good.”

That was one published reaction to recent news of pending inter-faith schools in Northern Ireland. A senior priest in Tyrone has publicly challenged Down and Connor Auxiliary Bishop Donal McKeown for supporting the idea.

But for Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, nothing is ever taught until something has been deeply learned. This is the principle known to Catholic thought as reception. By contrast, according to a recent poll organised from Dublin, only one in twenty young people on the island can identify the first of the Ten Commandments, and most cannot even name the Blessed Trinity. A clear majority of those young people are products of Catholic schools.

The virtually total absence of young people in the age range 15-35 from Sunday Mass in most of the country tells the same story. So does the experience of Catholic chaplains in our universities – to whom only a small minority of nominally Catholic students ever introduce themselves. What was assiduously presented in Catholic schools over the past several decades was in most cases not received – certainly not at a depth that could retain key doctrine or maintain a lifetime’s interest or commitment from then on.

It is high time that all involved in Catholic education face up to this, and ask a fundamental question. Why should we ever have supposed that Catholic formation could effectively be confined to the years of childhood – the years before childhood faith is tested by further education, secularist challenge, adult trials and adult questions? Why should we ever have thought that greenhousing our children could educate and perpetuate our church?

The answer was provided in 2002 by Cardinal Cahal Daly at a conference in Maynooth. Commenting on the phenomenon of over 90% Mass observance in Ireland until recent decades he observed that beneath “the pleasing surface” of those times there had been “dangers of conformism and routine” and even “sometimes hypocrisy, with people, for reasons of expediency, professing in public views which they rejected in private discussion or contradicted in private behaviour”.

No one is more ready to conform than a child. Catholic religious education as presently managed depends almost entirely upon the compliance of children. This explains not only why Catholic children conform to the Catholic faith norms of their schools, but why they then so quickly conform to the secular faith norms of their society when they leave school.

People of strong faith are never mere conformists: they have been encouraged to ask their own deepest questions, and to find their own faith, in freedom – and this is an adult affair. There is no scriptural evidence that Jesus spent any time instructing children. The virtually complete indifference to adult Catholic faith formation in Ireland (usually a small minority option for the well heeled) has been a tragic miscalculation. That miscalculation occurred because clericalism mistakenly supposed that to educate the child was to educate the adult as well.

It was the mass conformism of Irish Catholicism in the 1960s that misled the Irish Catholic hierarchy into supposing that the reforms of Vatican II weren’t needed in Ireland. These invited lay people to leave the passivity of childhood faith and to adopt an adult role, based upon a theology of church as ‘the people of God’. An era of dialogue and learning at all levels was supposed to ensue.

It never truly did in Ireland. Clericalism – the tendency of too many clergy to prefer the passive compliance of their people – continued to dominate. Clericalism is uncomfortable with dialogue, because dialogue presumes that people will relate as adults. Valuing conformity and docility above all other virtues, clericalism prefers lay people to remain children forever.

So, the huge efforts of well educated teachers to instruct Catholic children in the theology of Vatican II were unsupported by an adult programme that would have allowed the parents of those children to understand and reinforce that theology. A huge gulf developed between the generations. Passive parents, expected to ‘pay, pray and obey’ could not inspire their children with enthusiasm for the same passive role. It is the anticipation of responsibility that primarily motivates learning, and clericalism leaves lay people – parents included – without any real responsibility.

So children whose teachers told them that at Confirmation they became ‘Temples of the Holy Spirit’ soon found that, strangely, they would never have an adult speaking role in their own church. Clericalism insists that ordination trumps all the other sacraments, leaving nothing for lay people to discover or to say.

How then could those children ever rise to the challenge posed by Vatican II to the laity – to ‘consecrate the world to God’? Their parents had never been invited to discuss as adults what that might mean – and their bishops showed no sign of inviting their own generations to do so. So what were we ever educating our children for? The answer was shown in the failure even to develop parish or diocesan pastoral councils in most cases: for perpetual Catholic childhood. No wonder so many former Catholics in Ireland say: “I have outgrown all of that!” 

A radical crisis of continuity now obliges Irish Catholics to completely rethink and reorganise our faith formation system. It is time to refocus that upon adult needs and adult questions, to discover as adults how to be church together – priests and people – and to make parents once more the chief religious educators of their children – while there is still time.

A reflexive resistance to any change – in defence of the failed totem of the segregated Catholic school system – is not the answer. To go on supposing that to instruct the child is also to educate the adult would be to deny a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and to guarantee the disappearance of our Irish Catholic tradition.

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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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Towards a New Evangelism II: The Cursillo in Derry

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

In March 1997 I made my way for the first time to Termonbacca Monastery in Derry. In the process of retirement due to ill health from the teaching career that had dominated my life for thirty years, I was in shock over the loss of the school and career that had grounded me. Although also now a committed Catholic, I was also seriously concerned, as parent and teacher, with the failure of my church to address the exodus of its teenagers from faith, as well and home and school, at eighteen.

That failure was due, I was convinced, to an ill-conceived and desperate clinging to a patriarchal and clerical ‘Christendom’ model of leadership, when Christendom itself was patently dead, and deservedly so – the root source of the secularism that now dominated the west. Misled by centuries of inherited power, that leadership had become essentially verbal rather than exemplary, a matter of preaching a gospel narrowed to little more than sexual prudishness and perpetuation of the clerical system. Not even the shock of the sexual scandals that had begun with the Casey affair in 1992 had awoken the Irish episcopate to a realisation of the fact that Ireland was now part of the western mainstream, in which autonomous individualism had replaced deferential acceptance of inherited clerical authority.

Which meant in turn that the church was unable to critique the emerging crisis of individualism as a race for ‘success’ which most must lose in the long run, bereft of a community which will love them anyway. An Ireland in which Sunday Massgoing was the natural communal gathering of small local communities had been replaced since the sixties by a media-dominated and urbanised rootlessness that found the Mass incomprehensible and boring – but leadership had failed to react adequately. As a result most of the children I taught – including my own – now found patriarchal Catholicism a self-regarding straitjacket they were obliged to respect for the moment, but were instantly throwing off as soon as they became independent adults. What kind of church would still be around when they needed it, I wondered?

I didn’t expect to find any part of the answer in Termonbacca in March 1997. All I knew was that I was in for a three-day experience of Catholicism to be conducted by a team of laymen. Would they be up-to-speed with a Vatican II model of church? It seemed unlikely.

I was, and I remain, astonished by what I found.

The culture shock began about nine o’clock on Thursday when about seventy laymen were gathered in the coffee bar. Most wore casual clothes and small pewter pectoral crosses – these were the team. The rest of us were the ‘candidates’ – the course members. An atmosphere thickly laden with cigarette smoke and Derry banter was eventually pierced by a call to order from the team leader, or ‘Rector’. The ‘Cursillo’, he explained, was a three-day course in Catholicism, originating in Majorca. He then called the team members to introduce themselves. Most did so nervously and quickly, saying when they had done their first weekend, and how much they had enjoyed it – but finishing with ‘I’m here to serve’. Others launched into a more extended appeal to us to stick it out for the three days – and these were heckled good humouredly by the rest. Three things struck me straight away. These men were mostly unsophisticated, but happy in one another’s company – and totally unembarrassed about their faith. I was having difficulty coping with the noise, the heavy Derry accents and the smoke – but I was also touched and moved in a way I hadn’t expected. I started paying attention, wondering who was orchestrating this bonhomie.

That evening finished with a talk on the Prodigal Son by the first priest to appear. It had an unusually frank and personal character – and this prepared us for what was to follow the next morning. We also had our first experience of Cursillo music – it was in the folk idiom with expert guitar accompaniment, but the singing had a fervour I was quite unaccustomed to – especially from men.

We found ourselves on Friday seated at tables in a conference room overlooking the Foyle, listening to jokes told by team members who were clearly expert and intent on having a good time. This set the pattern for the three days. Life is often critical, but seldom serious, in Derry.

Then the talks began – half given by religious – but it was those given by the laymen that riveted me. These began with a sincere exposition of some aspect of the Cursillo ‘method’ (based upon piety, study and action) but then became an account of those experiences that had led the speaker to faith. Confidentiality prevents me recounting any one in particular – but all remain extraordinarily vivid.

Imagine the worst things that might have happened to any individual in Derry these past three decades – Bloody Sunday, or the aftermath of explosions; attempted sectarian assassination, or the blanket protest in the Maze, or the suicide of a family member, or an experience of child abuse: all against a background often darkened by unemployment, addiction, family violence and the breakdown of relationships. A multitude of the darkest valleys the human soul can experience. Into some of these we were given eloquent insight over three days, and into others I have been led on subsequent weekends on team. They were all very different from the valley through which I was then passing – but were all recognisable nevertheless as ultimate trials of the human spirit. And in all of them there had been a bonding with the Jesus of Gethsemane and Golgotha, an experience of the Church as sacrament of reconciliation, healing and ongoing community through what they call the Cursillo family – and now a joyful pursuit of others undergoing the same trials. The Cursillo framework is the means by which this is accomplished – and this explains why it is still thriving after twenty-two years.

The traditional devotionalist Catholicism that goes along with this has misled some of the more theologically ‘with it’ local clergy to dismiss Cursillo as a remnant of a dying Church. As conducted in Derry it is in fact for me the most astonishing vindication of key elements of Vatican II theology, and a promise of a vibrant church of the future – one fully capable of meeting the challenges we now face.

In particular, although there is a strong Marian element, the practical theology of the Derry Cursillistas is fundamentally Trinitarian. Their overwhelming conviction is the unconditional love of Jesus for all, especially those hurt by life. He is a God who allowed himself to be broken in order to find the broken. The Father is perceived not as inexplicable demander of due punishment for all, but as generous giver of the Son, and celebrator of our return to his house. The Spirit is invoked as the one who enables the speakers to tell their stories, who allows us to be honest and loving – and then joyful in our reunion. Salvation is therefore easily explained: it is the dawning of another life in communion with these Three, one that truly now has nothing worse to fear than the possibility of alienation from them.

How that joy is mediated on the Cursillo weekend I cannot precisely describe, as it could diminish the experience somewhat for those who take on the weekend.

One experience I can recount however. Towards the end of the weekend all get the chance to sit together in a family-sized room, as a member of their table team, in the presence of the blessed sacrament, and to pray spontaneously to the really present Lord. The sincerity with which this opportunity is seized, with complete openness, faith and intimacy, is quite unique in my experience. There is a sense of something shared, of deep communion and warmth, that celebrates the sacrament far more powerfully than is ever possible in the parish church.

The spirit of generosity that grounds the weekend, and the humility with which these men speak of their own lives, has often an extraordinary effect upon the demeanour of the candidates. Often closed and suspicious to begin with, most find that at least one of the team has shared their darkest experiences, and come through with the support of God’s grace. This creates trust and openness, and a willingness to experience the sacraments in a context of welcome rather than criticism. The most sophisticated theologian could not convey more powerfully the love of God for the individuality of every person.

The result is described by a Cursillista friend as ‘the losing of the mask’ – the abandonment of pretence to a disdainful invulnerability and independence, of remaining unwounded by life and needless of community. Realising that their deepest wounds and insecurities are understood and accepted, candidates lose that fear of openness that prevents them from being truly themselves. I have never seen men more freely and joyously respond.

One other experience I remember vividly, as it relates directly to my own professional arrogance. At the end of one weekend, at the feedback session, a young candidate of about twenty went freely to the microphone and explained that as a boy he had been dismissed as uneducable. This had profoundly depressed him, making him socially withdrawn and fearful, and unable to feel positively towards himself. On the weekend he had been accepted so fully for himself that he had lost this fear, and learned to respect himself. All of this he said with perfect lucidity, revealing again the power of Christian community to free the individual from self-dislike – and to unlock people from the prisons that supposedly intelligent people can put them in.

From this, and from many other similar experiences, I have learned that the secular pyramid of esteem, founded so rigidly nowadays on educational and career attainment, is spiritually fatuous and unjust – that when we relate to one another in a context where social status has no meaning we can be most truly ourselves, able to converse and relate as the equals we truly are, separated from secular pretensions. I serve on team knowing that I am valued simply for myself – not for the social accidents that have made me a teacher and writer. With many Derry Cursillistas I have formed enduring friendships which have given me too another life.

Which brings me to the conclusion that we intellectuals are often our own worst problem. Too often educational success has separated us from the experience of the darkest valley that the less educated have been through. We have also been taught the enlightenment’s fear of deep emotion, and its bias towards the mind as the sole repository of wisdom and happiness. So we may suppose that somewhere in our refinements and abstractions the ultimate truth resides, and that the unsophisticated faith of the less educated is somehow inferior and passé. We may also suppose that they should see us as their salvation – when in fact we may have far more to learn from them – especially the gifts of spontaneity and humility, laughter and tears.

Thoughtful Derry Cursillistas generally feel a tolerant sympathy for theologians, who in their view complexify what is really very simple – that Christ’s gift of himself renews simple words like love, peace and joy – cleansing them from the cloying sentimentality and cynicism that have made them almost meaningless. He does this by being, at Termonbacca, the presence that redeems the past, allowing people to share these words, in perfect sincerity, on the weekend, with those still in need of this experience. What they have to learn from an updated Church is therefore far, far less than they have to contribute to it – in wisdom as well as joy.

That the Cursillo framework elsewhere can also be a framework for a more chauvinist and fundamentalist form of Catholicism is clear from certain Internet sites. In Derry it is fiercely egalitarian, keeping structure to a minimum and determined to prove that personal freedom is entirely possible in the context of a genuine love of God and neighbour. Uniting evangelism with a deep sense of community, it has replaced for many the extended family that Ireland has only recently lost. It can also be a foundation for the recovery of a spirituality that truly expresses the Irish character. That Christian evangelism must be far more than a matter of mere words, that it must now be expressed in the rebuilding of community, is proven there conclusively.

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