Category Archives: Maladies

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

On Exodus? From What?

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value.”

So wrote Alain de Botton, philosopher, in 2004. His name for this affliction – Status Anxiety – is the title of an accessible book on the subject.1Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005 Outlining its role in Victorian snobbery, class conflict, consumerism, the idea of ‘meritocracy’ and many other things he makes a persuasive case for Status Anxiety as a pernicious source of unhappiness in all eras and cultures – but especially in the West today.

De Botton suggests also that religion, especially Christianity, might be a cure. Could this offer insight into our ongoing hesitation over ‘mission’, and maybe much more than that?

Status Anxiety in the Church

Take, for example, the ‘shock’ expressed by the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin in 1999, for the rampant ‘social climbing’ of bishops who had looked to him, as a Vatican official, for transfer to ‘more prestigious’ dioceses.2See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin If other Vatican officials were not prone to the same affliction would there have been a ‘Vati-leaks’ affair in 2012, or a papal retirement the following year?

[It is, of course, untrue that Irish parishes and dioceses are ranked in much the same way by Irish clergy, and that transfer to the least prestigious (poorest) parish or diocese is regarded as demotion – even if scurrilous rumours of this persist!]

Take also the embarrassment suffered now by sincere clergy over the plethora of questionable clerical titles such as ‘Monsignor’ (My Lord) or ‘Canon’. Would so many of those have been invented if ordination was an instant cure for the yearning for higher status?

Take then something far more pernicious – the practice by Irish bishops until 1994 of secrecy on clerical child sex abuse. When the bishops of Ireland admitted in December 2009 that this had arisen out of a desire to preserve ‘the reputations of individuals and of the Church’ were they not also admitting to the role of clerical Status Anxiety in the deepest church scandal of our time?3Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland

The Crisis of Faith Formation

Why, finally, are Irish bishops so slow in getting to grips with what is now an existential problem for Irish Catholicism – described in the August 2022 national synodal report as ‘a crisis in the transmission of faith’?4Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23 Why the failure, over decades, to conduct and publish research on the effectiveness of school-dependent faith formation – to get to the root of the indifference of so many baptised teenagers while still at school? Are we to believe there is no fear of further embarrassment by Irish campaigners against faith schools, on foot of any such research?

Could it be also that although now committed – at least on paper – to permanent synodal ‘mission’ we lack even a clear view of the ‘salvation’ from the ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ that the ‘Good News’ promises? Are we Irish Catholics largely inarticulate about our faith simply because we have failed to recognise that our own national history of imperial conquest and occupation has made us especially inclined to doubt our own value – i.e. to suffer from Status Anxiety – and embarrassed even to admit this to be an ‘affliction’ in need of a spiritual cure?

If the sixth commandment was especially emphasised in the past by Irish clergy was that because we could not see the repeated ban on covetousness in commandments nine and ten as a warning against desire for the higher status that our wealthy neighbours, secular or religious, might ‘show off’ in their possessions or titles? Has our inability to categorise status seeking as a spiritual problem – and often also our uncritical embracing of a ‘meritocratic’ ethos in our schools – been a huge beam in our discerning eye – an inability to focus something deeply problematic that was always in plain sight?

Have we even yet fully absorbed the meaning of the Catholic social principle that all of us, as children of God, are already strictly equal in dignity – and St Peter’s own mature conclusion that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10:34)?

Could it even be that Status Anxiety is at the root of the ongoing reluctance of many priests to engage in fully committed synodal discussion?

On Exodus?

‘We are a people on Exodus,’ said Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry in 2016.5‘Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’ This reminder of the association of the God of Israel, and of Jesus, with ‘redemption’ – i.e. with liberation from enslavement – surely prompts a critical question for faith formation today: From what enslavement is the Gospel offering us – the people of Ireland and the world – liberation today?

‘From the power of evil’ is surely true, but also far too abstract to be helpful. In what visible, real phenomena do we see that power of evil begin to work?

If we find that question baffling, could that be the root of our problem with articulating the ‘Good News’ to younger generations?

That Jesus of Nazareth, though born in poverty, was entirely free of Status Anxiety is a dominant theme of the Gospels. ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you,’ say those seeking to entrap him in political opposition to Rome (Matt 22:16). ‘Why do you eat with sinners?‘ is another frequent complaint (e.g. Luke 5:30).

‘Why do you worry about what you wear?’ Jesus asks in return (Matt 6:28). Berating the tendency of religious hypocrites to dress up to impress others was he not identifying their Status Anxiety as their core problem? (Matt 23:5)

Before the crisis of the crucifixion the apostles were also clearly trapped in deference to the honour pyramids of their world. ‘An argument also began between them about who should be reckoned the greatest.’ (Luke 22:28) James and John, the sons of Zebedee, looked for a promise of the highest places in Jesus’s future kingdom (Mark 10:35-45) – pointing to what lies at the root of all conflict. Then finally Jesus’ forecast of his own crucifixion – the fate of a rebellious slave – was for Peter an impossible prospect (Matt 16:22). As Jesus’ first lieutenant, how could he himself now escape ultimate social disaster?

So when Peter told Jesus that his crucifixion ‘must not happen’, and Jesus called him ‘Satan’, are we being told to look to Peter’s fear of shame – to his Status Anxiety – as the wellspring of all evil?

Overthrowing the Judgement of the World

Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.

This for Alain de Botton is the self-imprisoning consequence of Status Anxiety. All seeking of the positive regard of others can follow only from the mistake of attributing to those others the authority to evaluate ourselves. Who can justly claim such authority?

When Jesus asked his critics why they looked only to one another for glory was he not nailing a mistake we all tend to make? When he assured his more attentive listeners that some Galileans recently slaughtered by Pilate were not worse sinners than anyone else was he not revealing that Jews of that time were drawing exactly that conclusion from Roman occupation and brutality – that this was a ‘thumbs down’ from their own God as well? (Luke 13:1-4)

‘Do not judge,’ insisted Jesus. The religious elites of his time, the pharisees and scribes, were inclined to do exactly that. An ability to memorise and deploy any of the 613 laws of Leviticus led naturally to hypocrisy and judgementalism – and therefore also to extreme Status Anxiety on the part of the poor and illiterate. Is not that what it was to be ‘poor in spirit’?

I have overcome the world,’ said Jesus in response to his own impending judgement (John 16:33). Did he not obviously mean that he had overcome the human tendency to internalise the criticism and judgement of others – including those at the summit of the honour pyramids of his own time, in both ‘church’ and state?

Saying this, has he not told us also the purpose of the crucifixion: to subvert our tendency to fear the judgement of others, a tendency that empowers all who are ready to exploit it – from schoolroom and workplace and media trolls to religious charlatans, globalising entrepreneurs, racist agitators and scandal-hungry journalists?

How could Jesus have challenged us to face, and to overcome, in prayer, our own fear of shame if he had not faced that same challenge?

That Jesus’ resurrection was for the first Christians liberation from the fear of being looked down upon, especially by Rome and by their own religious elites, is altogether plain in the detail and conviction of the New Testament texts. What else could St Paul have meant when he wrote of a ‘new creation’? (2 Cor 5:17)

And was not Status Anxiety – this human tendency to doubt our own value as we are – also the original human frailty attributed to Adam and Eve in the Genesis allegory? Do we need seriously to rethink what we mean by original sin?

Lying at the root of all social ambition was it not Status Anxiety that drove Alexander the Great, the Pharaohs and the Caesars? Is it not the wellspring of all modern imperialism, inequality, oppression and conflict – and now of the rampant desire to be media icons?

Deployed now by social media as a core strategy for making digital addicts even of children, is not the fostering of Status Anxiety – via the lottery of ‘going viral’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘influence’ – the most pernicious of global plagues?

Is the Gospel truly irrelevant there, especially for the victims of all ages?

Salvation?

Jesus insisted: ‘whoever sees me sees the one who sent me‘ (John 12:45). Why then is Christianity, and Catholicism – and faith formation – still vexed by the medieval notion that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by a heavenly father who needed ‘satisfaction’ for the offence caused to him by sin? Why this attribution to God the Father of the same affliction of Status Anxiety that Adam and Eve – and medieval monarchs – had, when Jesus had no such problem?

The earliest Christians made no such charge. They clearly understood the passion and resurrection of Jesus in a totally different way: as liberation for themselves – by the Father – from fear of judgement and humiliation by the ‘principalities and powers’ of their own time (e.g. Rom 8:38).

Why should we not believe that the challenging and healing of Status Anxiety – essentially fear of shame from the negative judgement of others – was from the beginning the purpose of the Incarnation, the intention of the Trinity? When we say in the Creed that we believe in Jesus as final judge of ‘the living and the dead’ have we ‘relativised’ all other judges?

As for the Eucharist don’t we need to restore its meaning as a celebration of release from fear of the judgementalism of our own time, if we are to be joyfully ‘on Exodus’?

From what do we think we have we been liberated when we say:

‘Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.’ ?

As for the marginalised and the self-harming and the lonely – all those who are supposedly in need of our ‘mission’ – from what do they need liberation most of all? If we do not already know, why is that?

Notes

  1. Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005
  2. See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin
  3. Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland
  4. Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23
  5. Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’, June 23, 2016 – Irish Catholic Bishops Conference website.
[This article appeared first in The Furrow (Maynooth) in January 2024.]

René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World

First published in the Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mimetic Desire in History

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Digital Imperialism

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

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

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

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

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

The Creed as Antidote to Digital Imperialism

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

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

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

What has the Experience of Media Shaming taught Irish clergy?

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

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

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


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

A Reckoning on Catholic Clerical Abuse? Seriously?

Are Irish bishops truly serious in echoing the view of Ireland’s National Synodal Synthesis – that a conclusive ‘reckoning’ on the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children has yet to happen in the church? If so will they now call upon the Pope and the Universal Synod of Bishops to remove the obvious barriers to such a reckoning that the hierarchical church has maintained since the abuse crisis began in 1984?
~

In a December 2022 statement Irish bishops repeated the assertion of the Irish National Synodal Synthesis that a ‘reckoning’ on abuse in the church has still to happen. They quoted the following paragraph from the National Synthesis:

“There was a palpable sense that despite many efforts by the Church, a ‘reckoning’ had not yet taken place, and the synodal process generated a clear imperative to place this issue at the heart of any Church renewal and reform. A submission noted: We must pledge ourselves to journey with survivors, to meet with them, preferably in small groups where dialogue is possible and opens us to the presence of the Spirit.”

Who do Ireland’s church leaders suppose should initiate such a ‘reckoning’ after three decades of church scandal, when everywhere the hierarchical church has deliberately dealt with survivors individually – often imposing non-disclosure agreements on receivers of settlements – and failed to provide victims of abuse in the church – or the people of God – with any corporate representative structures?

No Irish diocese has ever even projected a full reckoning on the issue of abuse, to end the isolation of survivors with a view to final reconciliation. This effectively means that the Irish church remains divided into three separate bodies: first, clergy; second, clerical abuse survivors; third, the now radically declining body of church goers. 

Furthermore the Irish Catholic Church has never published any account of the current wellbeing or otherwise of the survivor community, leaving the wider church completely in the dark on the wellbeing and health status of survivors. It is for all the world as though they are all out of sight and out of mind, and deliberately so.  If a ‘reckoning’ is sincerely contemplated now, shouldn’t survivors be asked, openly, what exactly that would mean?  

The 2022 synodal process received only one distinctive survivor submission – from only seven Irish survivors – and their submission was an indictment of the ongoing typical treatment of survivors as adversaries – by church servants who too often showed an inclination ‘to sacrifice survivors for what they considered to be the good of the Church‘.

And no Irish diocese yet has a permanent forum where anyone could ask why this is still so.

This is the deliberate maintenance of an imbalance of power between survivors and Irish church leaders, and the isolation of survivors from the wider church-going community.

When and Why did Secrecy Begin?

Meanwhile there has never been even a hint of an in-house attempt to uncover and reveal the root of the ghastly mishandling of the issue via secrecy and recycling of malefactors. What reason do survivors have to believe that they will live to see such a reckoning?

Ad nauseam we have been assured that celibacy does not cause clerical child abuse – but what caused the cover up by bishops everywhere, which empowered abusers and protracted this disease for centuries? When and why did it become standard procedure for the hierarchical church to ignore what Jesus had said should happen to those who caused children to stumble (Matt 18:6) – and to hide, systematically, the fact that the ordained could ever do this?

Did the rule of celibacy and the elevation of celibate clergy as exemplary models of Christ truly have nothing to do with the intensification of the practice of secrecy since the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, and especially from c. 1869 – as outlined by Tom Doyle in his brief history of this issue?

Given that Rome has not ever offered even a hint of interest in discovering the roots of this malignant secrecy, the onus must surely rest with the hierarchical church to prove that this had nothing to do with the preservation of the myth of a celibate clergy.

The obvious block on the disclosure of the full historical record, at the highest level, is a barrier to belief that living survivors will ever see a full reckoning. Those at the local level who don’t control access to the full historical record can speak of a reckoning easily enough, as another pious thought –  just something for the historians of the 2100s to get into.

Given the imbalance between the Irish hierarchy and the sufferers of abuse, the former can defer to the notion of a ‘reckoning’, while knowing full well that in their own time everything is being done at the centre to block all means of getting there.

So if Irish bishops are serious about a full reckoning, will they now call for a full disclosure of the historical origins of the greatest mistake ever made by church servants – the hiding of a phenomenon that has plagued the church for centuries and will continue to paralyse it until the mistake of secrecy is traced to its poisonous source?

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/

What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 1 Sam 8:4,5

Notice ‘such as all the other nations have’. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of mimetic desire, or covetousness – the desire to possess that which is possessed by others – because they possess it. The perceived greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led Israel to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had – one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. Renown is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had again become his undoing. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’s time.

Sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being upon whom an exaggerated dignity and military expectation was then conferred – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from those subjects who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

St Mary’s, Dunboe on YouTube

Does the word ‘decrepit’ best describe the current state of Catholic Canon Law?

In what else could the Irish Church be ‘entrapped’ – to use the perfect word of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin – other than Catholic Canon Law?

And how else could the ‘We speak – you listen’ inertia of our Irish Catholic clerical culture have persisted – in a zombie state – for over half-a-century after Vatican II (1962-65)?

And how else could the dozy clericalism of the Down and Connor pastoral letter ‘To Follow Jesus Closely have found its way onto a leaflet to be read by adults at Easter 2019?

Then there had been an exploratory pilot study (EPS) of ‘lay involvement’ in Irish Catholic parishes, conducted by the steering group of the Association of Catholics in Ireland in the spring. Pending a more through professional report on this I could see three things right away from the returns:

First, ‘lay involvement’ can vary hugely from parish to parish – with the crucial factor always being the readiness of parish clergy to take time to develop that very thing. The reluctance of too many too-busy clergy simply to delegate parish development activities to lay people is crystal clear. The insistence of Pope Francis, that ‘making a mess‘ to begin with is OK, has fallen on far too many deaf ears.

Second, this sample of thirty-three different parishes was predicting that healthy parish pastoral councils are likely to be in a minority.

Third, some returnees expressed a fear of being known to have taken part in such a poll!

So, by July 2019, it was very clear to me that ‘things’ are very far from OK for the RCC on this island, and the Archbishop of Dublin is far from being the only Irish Catholic who feels ‘entrapped’.

But I wasn’t ‘entrapped’!

Not by lack of resources anyway. I hadn’t yet ever produced a video – but surely I could find someone who could help with that. And wasn’t there a perfect example of the very same ‘entrapment’ of a parish community on my own doorstep? By the system in which parish clergy are also ‘entrapped’.

And hadn’t I developed a bit of a ‘brass neck’ over the years, by just writing for public consumption? And wasn’t some persistent prayer for guidance on ‘entrapment’ making this neck brassier still?

And didn’t the example of the good ol’ Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey of Bristol in the 1780s and 1790s offer the perfect example of that proper respect for the good people of Dunboe that was so clearly missing from the canonical treatment of their community 2018-19?

Mind you, I had one detail of that story quite badly wrong, I am told. Since the voiceover for the video was recorded I have received the following from Jim Hunter of the Hervey Heritage Society, based in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry.

Jim quotes Stephen Price as writing that:

Frederick [ the Earl Bishop ] stipulated in his will that Catholics living near Downhill should be allowed to hold a service in the Mussenden Temple every Sunday in the actual Temple itself and not in the less salubrious basement, as is more often recounted. He even laid aside a payment of £10 per year for the priest and decreed that he and his horse should be fed. The arrangement persisted until the 1850s, although a row over a missing book caused a priest to take his congregation into the basement, which was never the Earl Bishop’s intention.”

So that point in the video could have been made even more strongly!

What am I hoping for now?

First, that Catholics struck by this story would both pray and think about it – to clarify for themselves whether it seems important that this present state of affairs should be ended. Might everyone who does feel ‘entrapped’ ask themselves ‘Am I, really?’ and then decide on a course of action. It’s pointless to be complaining while doing nothing constructive oneself.

Not everyone can be, or needs to be, with myself and some friends, at the gateway of Maynooth College, Co. Kildare on October 1st, 2019 – when all Irish bishops next meet.

But those who cannot be there could instead write to their bishops on this matter, expressing an opinion.

And in the meantime you could be discussing this with some friends too.

Nothing will change without obvious and overwhelming momentum for change, an unstoppable ‘enough already’ tsunami of rejection of the non-accountable and non-transparent canonical clerical culture that keeps Irish Catholicism entrapped – in 2019 – in the legal detritus of the Middle Ages.

We’ll see – as my Mum used to say.

‘Holy Sacrifice?’

Without question our Irish Catholic chapels – especially the smallest – are both holy sanctuaries and places of sacrifice.

That is, they are places set aside for the sacrifice of time… for contemplation… of a life given totally to others, in love.  The life of Jesus.

And places for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the celebration of that greatest gift ever given, and of the gifts that we now make of ourselves. 

And places of celebration of the other lives that loved him, the life of Mary, the Mother of God, of Joseph. The lives and holy deaths of the Saints.

Places of proof that such a life is not only possible but historically verified in all the lives that have followed, in hopeful imitation, over so many generations.

Of that life that did not ever end, that rose from death, that is alive still in the memory and bodies of local people who came with their own sacrifices of penitence and self-giving.

Places for the shedding of whatever in us that is unholy, selfish, dark – and therefore places of penitence, forgiveness, light, generosity, restoration and renewal.

For the shedding of tears over centuries and centuries – wrenched by miseries that only the angels have total record of …

And places of sacred bonding in marriage, of sacred parting in the mystery of death.

And places of Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, weekly Mass – the rites of passage from womb to tomb – in stubborn hope of the eternity that children trust to in their own innocence and wisdom.

These churches memorialise those who designed and built them with love – with that letting go of the little wealth they could donate, for the sake of that dream of eternity.

What could it mean that such places – and especially the smallest – could now be under threat of closure, of the dying of the sanctuary lamp, of shuttering, of decay or transfer to another usage?

What better source of meaning has replaced the Creed that built these Holy Places?

None whatever! Merely the novelty of meaninglessness, the entrancement of a commerce that glories in novelty, illusion, unreality – the endless screenings of stories of superheroism that deny human vulnerability and the facticity of death.

If our chapels are in danger of closure, that is not because the Trinity are absent but simply because our pastors are temporarily without passion for the Creed and the Gospel , and cannot convey to us why Holy Sacrifice is still the only trustable path to the future.

We must now therefore make holy sacrifice of a different kind – in our own vigilance and prayer and study – to keep these places safe and holy for a better time, for a renewed Eucharistic ministry. 

For, built in confidence in the power of Holy Sacrifice, they belong to the future, to the Omega, the Christ, the One who is coming – who must find them clean and warm, lit and welcoming.

They must not be sacrificed to the dark, grasping, confused and baffled present.

21st Century ‘Status Anxiety’ is Gospel ‘Worldliness’

Status Anxiety and the Scam Economy’: that’s the title of an opinion article in the New York Times, mid-March 2019. Triggered by the revelation of high-profile cheating in the admissions process to elite US universities such as Harvard and Yale, the article lists a series of such obsessive efforts to acquire or retain status in a ‘highly stratified society’ in just the last two decades.

Central to all of these is an obsessive anxiety over how one is perceived, in line with a principle attributed to Ivanka Trump: “Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true.”

Long gone in Ireland are the days when ostentatious fasting or prayer – or climbing Croagh Patrick in bare feet – could have earned social prestige, but that does not mean that the malady that underlies all ‘showing off’ has gone away.  To the extent that we believe that some kind of favourable social feedback is necessary to establish our own importance and dignity we remain forever trapped in Status Anxiety.  Spectacular glamour at the racetrack or the award ceremony and ‘hugging of the altar rails’ belong to different Irish eras but to exactly the same need for social reinforcement of our ‘right to be here’.

This is far from being a problem of only the socially elevated and frivolous. Severe consequences can follow for those who conclude that the social verdict upon themselves must necessarily be negative. In early March 2019 BBC NI reported that on average 28 cases of self-harm present themselves daily at NI hospital casualty departments.  Practices such as self-cutting are closely connected to the power of media to convince us that if our own image is not reflected back to us, or if we are ‘trolled’, we must not deserve to exist. 

Given that so many Irish young people are known to complain that ‘the Mass is not relevant to our lives’ it is now a matter of serious frustration to me that I have never yet heard a homilist point out that the Christian Creed is  essentially a refutation of the authority of all fashionable judgement. It insists that a man who was socially disgraced and obliterated had not only been raised to life by God but made the final arbiter of all ‘success’. The Gospels underline the message: the first shall be last and the one who was rejected would become the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.

This delay in ‘take up’  of the relevance of the Creed is due, of course, to the fact that in living memory Catholic clergy occupied the highest social status in Ireland. While the letters page of ‘The Irish Catholic’ are still  full of indignant resentment of the capture of Irish print and digital media by ‘forces hostile to the church’, how much current clerical despondency is due to the same misperception: that while ‘the church’ is socially reviled it cannot have any future.

That this is a profound mistake is plain from the recent historical record.  Irish Catholic clergy were never closer to disaster than when they themselves were Ireland’s brokers of honour and shame.  Irish anti-clericalism flourishes on a vivid folk memory of the parish priest who had the power to eject an unfortunate woman from her family home and even from the parish, and we will be reminded of all that soon again in the continuing story of the ‘Tuam babies’. 

It is time to recover the full import of Jesus final warning:

‘Listen; the time will come — indeed it has come already — when you are going to be scattered, each going his own way and leaving me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world.’ (John 16: 32,33)

All inequality and injustice, all motivation towards social ascent for oneself and all social contempt for others arise from the mistake of believing in the authority of the society that envelops us to judge ourselves and others. 

To overcome this problem there is no alternative to the seeking of relationship with a higher authority, one that is timeless and transcendent, one that has ‘no favourites’.

And that is why the development of a habit of continuous prayer is crucial to our own health and the recovery of the church.  We need also a revised understanding of the history of the church. Clerical social elevation – and especially clerical capture of political power – was the root source of Irish societal revulsion toward Christianity.  And the roots of the church’s earlier evangelical spread lay in its earliest indifference towards social contempt.

It is time to understand why Jesus would tell us we are blessed when we are abused.  To be socially reviled is to have no option but to search for another deeper source of self-acceptance.  When we look, seriously, where Jesus looked we find the treasure hidden in the field – and can never again take fashionable judgement – the supposed wisdom of current public opinion – seriously. 

Far from being the end for Irish Catholicism, the secularist seizure of media power in Ireland – the power to award both honour and shame – needs to be seen as a liberation of the Irish Church. It marks a necessary separation of the church from ‘the world’, a separation necessary to the understanding of Jesus’s mission. We cannot find the Father so long as we ‘look to one another for glory’ – and he was never closer to us than he is just now, when we are truly ‘poor in spirit’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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