Category Archives: Vanity

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/

Views: 244

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’.

Views: 188

Why the Show mustn’t go on

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

I still vividly remember my first experience of live Shakespeare.  Sometime in the late 1950s Anew McMaster took note of the reappearance of Macbeth on the Irish Leaving Cert English Syllabus – and produced the Scottish play in the old Olympia theatre in Dublin, with himself in the title role.

Never can that renowned actor have been more challenged by a defiant refusal to suspend disbelief than on the day I attended.  Hungry for every histrionic slip, hundreds of us teenage Shakespeare detesters had been crammed by school decree into an already dingy theatre.  McMaster gave us early encouragement by pausing to remove wads of very heavy red beard that were impeding his vocal freedom.  Our joy became complete when, at a later stage, a youthful bearer of bad tidings rushed on a little too enthusiastically, slipped in coming to a necessary halt, and crashed to the floor in a perfect pratfall at the feet of the king.

Our sincere applause resounded far longer than the same baleful king thought warranted.  We wanted an encore, and were deeply disappointed when we didn’t get it.  Macbeth’s final ordeal at Birnam Wood was almost matched in its horror by our indifference to this honest actor’s unstinted efforts to re-create it. We thought, with all the savagery of adolescence, that he thoroughly deserved both his quietus and our cheers of relief when the whole performance was finally over.

I recall this theatrical debacle just now because I have a strong sense that I am observing another :  the collapse of the theatre of Catholic clericalism in Ireland.  Here we have another show that becomes far more embarrassing the longer it goes on.

I hope I am not being cruel here also.  I know humble men aplenty struggling to maintain the integrity of the church, and giving splendid Christian service in so doing.  But they too have a need for the truth to be spoken.  A way of being Church that has always had far too much too much to do with maintaining an illusion has been exposed as unsustainable, and needs to be given a decent and explicit burial.   So long as we were never fully conscious of its illusionary nature we could not strictly be accused of hypocrisy.  Made conscious of it recently, we are all now open to that charge.

I finally reached this conclusion when watching the recent documentary film ‘The Holy Show’.  This detailed the private life of the late Fr Michael Cleary.  While maintaining a public persona of exemplary rectitude, this nationally celebrated priest seduced a very vulnerable young woman who had come to him for spiritual support.  He then ‘married’ her in an entirely secret ceremony, and conceived a son by her whom he could never publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, with monumental irony, he had become a troubleshooter in great demand by the hierarchy to defend on national media the church’s sexual code – exemplified by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He climaxed this career by welcoming Pope John Paul II to a televised  outdoor spectacle in Galway in 1979.  (The fact that another of that day’s personalities, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed in 1992 for also having secretly fathered a son will always be remembered in connection with that day.)

The Holy Show  clearly identified Cleary’s central weakness:  his very celebrity was the greatest obstacle to his owning up to his own fallibility – and his wife and child suffered the worst of the consequences of that failure.  The more celebrated he became the more reputation he had to lose.  His greatest sin was therefore his vanity – his inability to lose public admiration by admitting his sexual indiscretion.

Inevitably I will be accused of generalising from these particular instances to indict clergy generally – but that is not in fact my drift.  Knowing clerics who live lives of exemplary humility I point only to the danger of the illusion of clericalism, which rests upon a myth.  This is the myth that ordination somehow magically confers virtue upon those who receive it.  That many, many Irish Catholics had bought heavily into that myth was proven by the shock of the truth, a shock that still reverberates and has still not been fully absorbed.

The very architecture of Catholicism, focused upon a liturgical space designed for priestly ritual, facilitates myth and illusion in relation to clergy.  Andrew Madden recounts in his autobiography ‘Altar Boy’ the impression made on his young mind by the appearance of the priest in the sanctuary of a Dublin church:  “The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important…”. This explained Andrew’s own early desire to be a priest – the very desire that made him vulnerable to his priest abuser in a Dublin parish.  “Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close.  I felt good.”

Historians interested in explaining extraordinary Mass attendance in Ireland as late as the 1970s, and our full seminaries then, should reflect upon the fact that most of Ireland was relatively starved of public spectacle before the coming of national TV in 1961.  The parish church filled this gap for many people, providing the stage for the man who was usually the most important local celebrity – the priest.

And what most differentiated the lifestyle of the priest was the fact that he was celibate.  And that he had an officially recognized role in identifying, decrying (and relieving the eternal consequences of) sexual sin.  Every adolescent learned that this was the sin most offensive to God, and the sin that the priest had somehow, apparently, overcome.  No one told us that the public role of the priest could be a temptation to another sin entirely:  the actor’s sin, the sin of vanity, the coveting of public admiration.  Needless to say, we were therefore unaware of its dangers for us also.

TV provided a far vaster national stage, and the story of Ireland since about 1961 is largely the story of how that electronic stage has replaced liturgical space as the dominant Irish theatre. It has also become the dominant temptation to our vanity.  That in turn explains how Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary became national celebrities.  From 1961 – entirely innocent of the dangers of the first of the deadly sins – the Irish church was sleepwalking towards the PR disasters that have traumatized it since 1992.

What happened to Andrew Madden well illustrates another of those PR disasters – the revelation not just of clerical child abuse but of the typical cover up of that abuse by bishops and other clergy.  (The most serious charge levelled against Michael Cleary is the allegation by Mary Raftery that he turned a blind eye to the brutal abuse by a fellow curate in Ballyfermot, Tony Walsh, of young boys.)

The papal visit to the US in April 2008 has made important progress in recognizing the seriousness of the evil of clerical sex abuse but has failed completely to grapple with the reason for the cover up:  the perceived need of bishops and other clergy to maintain the clerical myth – the myth of clerical immunity to sexual sin.  With this clericalist myth, vanity has become virtually institutionalized in our church – the reason it still cannot be named as the root cause of every scandal that has befallen us since 1992.

For scandal is not just the revelation of human sinfulness.  Sin itself is mundane. The archetypal religious scandal is the story of David, the divinely anointed Jewish national hero who covertly murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, the woman he had seduced – to prevent it becoming known that he, David, had impregnated her.  Scandal has always to do with a fall from grace by those in high places, and clericalism is essentially an unwarranted claim of entitlement to grace and social prestige.  Until that has been fully recognized and acknowledged by those who lead the church, we will not be able to learn from what has happened to us.   We will also remain troubled by periodic clerical scandal, especially if the mandatory celibacy rule for all priests is retained.

These days the Irish church is deeply divided between those who have lost the illusions of clericalism and those who believe that Catholic loyalty requires them to restore those illusions as rapidly as possible.  The latter make that mistake because our leadership has not yet clearly differentiated Catholicism and clericalism.  We will remain stuck in the ditch, spinning our wheels, until that changes.

In an earlier article here I pointed out that the ritual of the first Eucharist derived its solemnity and liturgical meaning only from the fact that it was followed by an actual self-sacrifice1.  We must never forget that all ritual is, to use a contemporary idiom, virtual reality – just like theatre.  The integrity of the ceremony rests upon the integrity of those who celebrate it – priests and people.  Clearly, ordination in itself cannot guarantee that integrity.  This too needs now to be fully acknowledged – as does the fact that the public role of the cleric can entangle him deeply in the sin of vanity, the greatest threat to all integrity.   On the credit side, the self-effacing and dutiful priest, and those married couples who fulfil all the obligations of a sexual partnership, restore the credibility of the church.

So, instead of lamenting the loss of an illusion we need to rejoice at it, and to notice that the vanity that led to it lies also at the root of the greatest evils that threaten everyone’s future.  Vanity arises out of an inability to value ourselves without validation from others.  That is why we seek attributed value through public admiration, and pursue the latter through exhibitionism, the cult of celebrity and ostentatious consumerism.  This latter source of the environmental crisis is also the root of competition and conflict – and lack of a secure self-esteem lies also at the root of addiction.

‘Hard’ secularism – the kind that thinks that suppressing all religion will create a perfect society – doesn’t understand any of this.  This is why it can’t explain the failure of untrammeled secularism (e.g, in the Soviet Union) to put an end to personality cults and to produce a perfect society.  Meeting the challenge of secularism requires us to recognize fully the deadliest of the sins as it tempts ourselves in our own time.  If we don’t do that now we will be guilty of something else – of choosing to learn nothing from the hardest and most helpful lessons we ourselves have recently received.

Notes:

  1. The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-Sacrifice?Doctrine and Life, Sep 2007

Views: 29