Category Archives: Personality Cults

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VII – The Power of Prayer

Sean O’Conaill © Reality, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bury your pride with my boy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The World of the Wannabe

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Myth of Materialism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Ecclesiastics are never done complaining about ‘materialism’. A search in the Web archives of the right-wing Catholic news agency CWN – which meticulously reports the statements of the Vatican – turns up thirty-one high-level statements referring to it since 1996. It has become the cliché of choice in describing the errors of the age. Commenting upon the Pope’s Lenten Message this year, Archbishop Josef Cordes spoke of the ‘materialism in which we are immersed’ as the explanation for the loss of the sense of the spiritual dimension to life.

Presumably this cliché rests upon the assumption that since there is a philosophical phenomenon we can justly label ‘materialism’, the acquisitiveness of modern society derives from it, and from nothing else. This assumption doesn’t hold any water – humans have always been acquisitive, as all ancient literature, including the Bible attests. And modern acquisitiveness is essentially no different.

A single evening’s perusal of the products of the mass-market advertising industry reveals that matter per se is the last thing people are interested in. Where are the ads for ‘two tonnes of lead’ or ‘one ton of stainless steel’ or even ‘three ounces of gold’? Nowhere. When people have satisfied their basic material needs for food and shelter, and the basic comforts, they spend their surplus on something else entirely.

What that something else is can also easily be gleaned from mass-market advertising. A certain expensive shampoo will put women among the Jennifer Anistons, making them as ‘worth it’ as she is. If you can afford a Rolex watch – and many can these days on hire purchase – you join Andre Agassi on the lawns of Wimbledon. A powerful motor bike will put Northern Ireland’s young men on the Isle of Man circuit, in pursuit of the status of local hero and world legend the late Joey Dunlop. A powerful computer will give Internet access for your garden furniture business – and dreams of a global commercial empire – or allow you to invent another generic software application and follow Bill Gates to the top of the Fortune 500 rankings. Wealthy Londoners will gladly pay Harrods prices for white goods – for the mere possibility of rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi – or even the owner, for he too is media-beloved. And the public flaunting of mobile phones and off-road vehicles is largely down to yearning to be considered as important as the owners of penthouses and landed estates.

‘Rankings’ are what it’s all about. People measure their worth in terms of where they believe they are in what is now a global pyramid of worth or esteem, maintained lovingly by the media whose bread and butter it is. They keep us fixated on the daft notion that some of us are infinitely more important than most of us – and most people cannot live spiritually with this sense of their own insignificance. This is why we are endlessly acquisitive. We are addicted not to matter, but to its symbolic significance when shaped in a particular way, and then associated with celebrities – because where they are (or where we think they are) is where (we think) anyone of importance should be.

The Bible most clearly reveals that things have always been this way. In the Ancient world, top status went to military heroes like Alexander, and, in the Jewish tradition, David. The young women who swooned then over David’s ‘tens of thousands’ of victims do so now over Willy Wales’s inheritance of good looks, the throne of England and the media’s fascination. Saul’s sense of humiliation at being merely credited with ‘thousands’ is mimicked by the young men who set out to joyride and destroy the powerful cars they will never be able to earn lawfully – with similarly murderous and suicidal results.

To put it another way, ‘the world’ is as it has always been – a source of spiritual fascination and distraction from the ordinariness of our own lives, and the fact that, nevertheless, we are loved by God. It makes us endlessly dissatisfied to be who, and with whom, and where, we are. It even alienates us from the present moment, placing us spiritually in the future, towards which we then frenetically move seven days a week. Even the business courses that the already affluent purchase at exorbitant prices are called ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ or some such, for we always must be in pursuit of something, in flight from ourselves and from the present. And from the fact that 200 million children – for example – are in severe physical distress around the globe, a distress that could be alleviated by turning just a proportion of the West’s surplus wealth to their extreme need.

All of this is so obvious that it is the inability of the intellectuals at the summit of the church to see it, and note its spiritual significance, that becomes the real mystery. Why are ecclesiastics always maundering on about ‘materialism’ when it comes nowhere near to naming the real source of acquisitiveness, this sense that people have of their own unimportance unless they acquire the symbols of celebrity, the sense of being ‘worth it’?

The answer is cruelly obvious. These ecclesiastics have generally no sense of their own unimportance. Quite the reverse. Although the verbal truth they utter is supposedly centred upon the life of a man whose life’s journey was downward to ultimate humiliation, they are themselves the winners of the race for eminence within their own institution.

The common effect of this upon their own spirituality needs no elaboration from me. In May 1999, Cardinal Gantin, who had for fifteen years been Prefect of the Vatican Office which assists the Pope with the nomination and transfer of bishops, complained trenchantly about the naked careerism of many bishops, which had, he said, “altered” the nature of episcopal service.

They sought promotion to get on to “a good thing”, he claimed, and to meet more influential people who could help their careers. “Even those making these requests – and sometimes they did so jokingly, and other times not, considered that they were expressing a legitimate desire”. “Other times I happened to hear at the end of an episcopal ordination some bishop shouting ‘ad altiora’ [to the highest posts]”. (Catholic Herald, May 21st, 1999)

The symbols of status that bishops pursue, are, of course, in some respects different from those sought by the business executive. There is no real equivalent of the bishop’s mitre or coat of arms in the business world, or of the prestigious diocese – but these had their equivalents in the heraldic devices, coronets and landed estates of the nobility of the ancien regime. The unique symbols of Episcopal importance are thus simply the shadows of those of yesterdays secular hoi polloi – and therefore intensely a reminder of the sheer snobbery of the past.

Until the church at its summit grasps the parallel here with the upwardly-directed yearning of the secular person, it will fail to measure the significance of this in impoverishing the church itself spiritually. Upwardly directed bishops cannot dignify their priests and people – i.e. assure them of the love of a God who really exists – if they believe that they themselves will only be really ‘worth it’ if they become Cardinals, or even Pope – for this too is dire spiritual poverty.

Indeed, if the gospels are studied carefully it could even be that they will not even understand ‘Sin’ either. Those who came to Jesus for forgiveness seem to have been distraught above all about their own lack of worth, their own inability, due to poverty, measured by their inability to afford the services of those who cluttered the path to temple sacrifice and cleansing. He never asked them to name their sins, but simply forgave them, assuring them of his Father’s love. The pyramid of esteem and power within the church is a scandalous betrayal of that life, and its ultimate sacrifice – and is itself a source of the distance that many, many people mistakenly believe lies between themselves and God.

The cult of the papacy, tended assiduously by the Curia (which would itself be just another bureaucracy without it), is thus itself a major source of spiritual poverty in the church, for the papacy is at the summit of the pyramid of esteem that the church became in the fourth century. When we watch now those 1979 videos of the papal visit to Ireland, by far the most embarrassing aspect is the sight of Irish bishops, including Eamonn Casey, preening themselves in the august presence – as though the summit of their lives had been this few days of closeness to a reigning monarch and Time’s Man of the Year. The parallel to those legendary millions in the UK who dream nightly of tea with the Queen is too close to be missed.

The recent visit to Belfast of the Dalai Lama presented an entirely different social role and style for the spiritual leader – one of unselfconscious informality and simplicity. Here was someone who did not need to stand upon his own dignity – respect was elicited by virtue of the respect with which he treated everyone he encountered. In stark contrast, probably the single greatest failure of the present papacy is its failure to attack the cult of celebrity which so disfigures this era, by insisting upon the equal dignity of all in the sight of God – indeed by deliberately repudiating the idea that Popes are more important than anyone else. Could it be that the superior spiritual presence of the Dalai Lama is related to the fact that, like Jesus, but wholly unlike the Pope, he has nowhere to lay his head? I believe so – and see an obvious solution.

The enormous and widening gulf that now separates hierarchy and people in Ireland has much to do with the contrary obsession with status and dignity. And when we remember that lack of self-esteem is a common feature of so many of today’s addictions, neuroses and psychoses, this upward obsession of clericalism becomes more tragic yet, for it is precisely what prevents the church living up to the standards of its founder, for whom a genuine compassion for the poor in spirit, i.e. the unesteemed, was central. By contrast, Irish people these days swap stories of the snobbery of bishops who seem to value lay people in terms of the marques of cars they drive.

Nothing essentially separates the mitre-bound cleric from the penthouse-bound yuppie – each is equally obsessed with symbols of status – with what ‘the world’ thinks of him. Status-seeking is the essence of worldliness – the fact that the ambitious cleric seeks status within an ecclesiastical institution makes no essential difference. It simply explains why Jesus resisted the second of his three temptations – to amaze the temple elite by throwing himself from its summit. Thank goodness we have many priests still who understand this passage more clearly than their bishops.

We are all equally sinful (i.e. ‘worldly’) and equally ‘worth it’ (i.e. the love of God). When all bishops realise this, and begin descending rather than climbing – the Pope too – then only will they get to grips with the ‘spiritual impoverishment’ of our times and show true leadership. Wittering on about ‘materialism’ – from the palaces inherited from the ancien regime – just doesn’t cut it anymore. Like the sin of the Pharisee who condemned the tax collector, it completely misses the mark.

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