Category Archives: Church Sacraments

2024: Irish Catholic Vocations Office Mired in Clericalism

 Front page of the Irish National Vocations Office website in January 2024

“Is God Calling You to be a Diocesan Priest? Come and See. Take the Risk for Christ.” This is what faces you when you click https://vocations.ie/ the website of Ireland’s Catholic “National Vocations Office”.

Asked by Ardal O’Hanlon on his RTE documentary what risk was involved in opting for the celibate priestly vocation today, the National Vocations Coordinator, Fr Willie Purcell, responded:

“Anyone who is presenting himself for priesthood nowadays is really being counter-cultural. It really is a radical decision. The risk really is giving yourself completely to Christ that others might come to know him through you.  There really is a lot of humility involved in it, of self-sacrifice involved in it, but most important of all a vocation is a selfless decision, to give yourself to Christ and then to give yourself to others.”

Yet again we are being asked here to ignore what the Gospel clearly tells us about Jesus, viz.:

  • That he was never a member of the priestly religious institution of his own time and place;
  • That his definitive role in ‘salvation’ was not sacramental or liturgical (i.e. symbolic) but the direct prophetic challenging of a religious system he saw as both exploitative and hypocritical, to the danger of his own life;
  • That it was therefore his integrity, not his celibacy, that constitutes the central sacrifice that he did indeed ask us to repeat in memory of him;
  • That the definitive Christian calling to ‘follow’ him was therefore NOT to males only to join an exclusively male religious institution but to the same self-giving and integrity in whatever social role we baptised Catholic Christians find ourselves – whatever our gender, age or occupation.

Why does the National Vocations Office see only the risk to clergy?

Why is it not obvious to the Irish National Vocations Office that any social role, in any society, can and does involve these challenges to integrity – and that risk can attach to any of these?

It isn’t only the lives and trials of outstanding Irish individuals such as Veronica Guerin, Maurice McCabe and Martin Ridge that demonstrate this. Public service, especially for women, has become notably more risky and challenging for anyone who approaches it with integrity in the age of the Internet. With Pope Francis now calling all of us, even teenagers, to ‘mission’ today – and with Irish Garda, nurses, firefighters and paramedics at risk on every callout in certain locales in Ireland  – why was this not obvious to whoever dreamt up the slogan ‘Take the risk for Christ’ – implying that the risk of Christian witness attaches solely to the male celibate sacramental calling?

Lessons of the Pandemic

Did not the Pandemic teach us that in an interdependent society the lives of all of us can depend upon those who risk turning up even to man the check-out in the local supermarket or the counter in a dispensary?

Isn’t even any Irish teenager who stands in school against sexual harassment or homophobic bullying – or online trolling of a friend – at risk, and is not this the risk that attaches to the common priesthood of the people of God, the risk that comes to all who affirm their Baptism?

Why does Fr Purcell imply that only the diocesan priest has the responsibility to bring the message of Christ to others, when the key message of synodality is that this responsibility comes to all of us with Baptism?

The Priests who spoke out

As for the specific risks that do indeed attach to the sacramental priesthood, how would Fr Purcell account for what happened to those Irish priests who did prophetically challenge the injustices of church policies in relation to women, the LGBT community and the mishandling by bishops of the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children in Ireland, back in 2012?

What a shame that Ardal O’Hanlon did not think to ask if that was indeed the ‘risk’ that the National Vocations Office has in mind!

Child Safeguarding and Risk

And if he had asked that question, would Fr Purcell have recalled  that we have never yet had an open conversation on the role and obligation of private conscience when faced with an abuse of authority in the church, as could happen, for example, to any of the child safeguarding personnel we now depend upon?

With synodality far from firmly embedded in our Catholic culture, and canon law still a mess, the risks for every servant of the church that are still posed by the church itself are far from merely notional or historic. Does Ireland’s National Vocations Office truly serve the church by apparently forgetting all of that?

Why in 2024 can we not instead have a properly balanced understanding  of ‘vocation’ that does not associate counter-cultural Christian self-sacrifice and ‘humility’ solely with the male celibate sacramental priestly role or imply that for all lay people the risk of Christian witness must be secondary?

Is it not to this clericalist talking-up of the sacramental role alone – and the consequent forgetting of the priestly and prophetic calling of all of us – that we must ascribe the incomprehension of so many young people about the Christian call to themselves?

Baptism the Primary Sacrament of the Priestly People of God

Finally, given the paramount importance of communicating the meaning of our common priesthood, why is the restoration of the primacy of Baptism still lagging totally in Ireland? Is that no concern of the National Vocations Office, or of the Irish Bishops Conference?

In its singular concern for the survival of the sacramental Catholic priesthood in Ireland the Irish National Vocations Office has presented us yet again with an understanding of the Christian vocation that is stridently and essentially clericalist.  This can only undermine the central message of synodality and delay the emergence of the co-responsible church we so badly need.

17th Jan 2024

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How White Men Lost the Meaning of Redemption

For the earliest Christians, Jesus’s Resurrection had set them free from the worst kind of fear – that the judgement of Rome was God’s judgement also. Without an army, Jesus had defeated the world’s greatest power, simply by speaking the truth. The still living Jesus, their brother and Lord,  was now judge of the living as well as the dead. In their own minds and hearts, whatever others might think, they were beloved children of the only God who mattered.

If Crucifixion could not disgrace or kill Jesus it could not disgrace or kill those who believed that Jesus was indeed the way, the truth and the life.

And so St Paul could write :  Now this Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3: 17)

This was why Jesus was also called ‘Redeemer‘ – liberator – because his forgiveness, experienced before Baptism, had also liberated his earliest followers from the fear that eternal death would follow not only from the mistakes of their own earlier lives but from crucifixion

To redeem‘ was literally to buy the freedom of a Roman slave, so those earliest Christians were truly free in the most important sense.  The greatest power that Rome had – the power to both kill and shame by crucifixion – had been set at nought by Jesus.

That cruel Roman world was passing away.

Two thousand years later a Christian descendant of African slaves in the USA was to write as follows:

“The cross stands at the centre of the Christian faith of African-Americans because Jesus’ suffering was similar to their American experience. Just as Jesus Christ was crucified, so were blacks lynched. In the American experience, the cross is the lynching tree.”
(James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  Orbis Books, 2013)

James Cone was describing the belief that had led Martin Luther King to give his own life for the cause of African American civil equality in the USA, the Civil Rights campaign of 1956-68.

The same belief – that God and history are always on the side of the enslaved and the abused – the rejected ones – continues to make history today.

The paradox is that James Cone’s own ancestors had been enslaved by white Europeans who also thought themselves Christians. Those white Europeans had instead used the Bible to justify their own greed and brutality.

The white American landowners to whom they had sold their slaves had given the same Bible to those slaves in the hope that it would teach them obedience.  They had no expectation that something utterly different would happen:

Those slaves now saw in the story of the Israelites in Egypt their own story – and in the crucifixion they saw the lynchings that became all too frequent after the US Civil War defeat of the slave-holding southern states, in the period 1865-1945.

How had it happened that white European slavers – and even kings and popes – had forgotten what St Paul had also written about the Kingdom of God called into being by Jesus long ago: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3: 28)

The answer lies in an event that happened just three centuries after Jesus’s time on earth: the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to claim in 312 CE that the God of Jesus had helped him win power over his rivals, and would help him to further victories if he marched under a Christian symbol of that time – known as the Chi Rho.

The Chi Rho – early Christian symbol formed by placing the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) on top of one another. It was adapted to become the battle standard of the armies of the Roman Emperor Constantine 312-337 CE

Not all Christians were convinced of the truth of Constantine’s claim – for it was also known that Constantine had earlier claimed the support of the pagan God Apollo.  However, a majority of the Christian bishops decided that the sufferings of Christians under periodic Roman persecution had finally been rewarded, and did not contest this claim.  By the end of that century, 400 CE, Christianity had replaced belief in the ancient Roman and Greek Gods as the official religion of the Roman empire.

This had a profound impact on European Christianity from then on, in three main ways:

  • First, as the Christian church was now under the protection of a military Roman upper class, it came itself to be organised in the same way – with Christian clergy organised also as an officer class and social hierarchy throughout western Europe.
  • Second, the social importance of Baptism lessened greatly.  Originally received by adults converted by the ‘Good News’ of Jesus life, death and resurrection, Baptism became gradually a sacrament received in infancy in Christian families.  This strongly contrasted with the rising social prestige of the adult sacrament of ordination – the gateway ‘rite of passage’ to the Christian clergy, the church’s own officer ranks.
  • This in turn meant that ‘Redemption’ for most European Christians no longer meant freedom in the present from fear of the judgement of others, but merely a promise of eternal life after death – if one was obedient to the Christian clergy who now formed society’s moral and intellectual elite. 

This was Christendom – an era that began in the 300s CE and lasted, as a semi-Christian society, until 1914 CE.  Its downfall came when five ‘great’ European imperial powers fought World War I, the most absurd and costly war in history – the Great War of 1914-18 – all claiming that the God of Jesus would help them to victory.

This disaster – its effects still ongoing – has greatly weakened those Christian churches that had supported those imperial powers. It has led many Christians in all traditions to recall that Jesus began his ministry by resisting the temptation to seek any form of political or ecclesiastical power, and that he died holding to that same course. Christendom was obviously not the Kingdom of God, and this is slowly being understood.

James Cone’s statement quoted above helps us greatly both to pinpoint the greatest mistake of European Christian churches in the past and to chart the future.

At the highest level of the church today it is also understood that the importance of Baptism took a negative turn following the Constantinian conversion in the 300s CE:

” Theology and the value of pastoral care in the family seen  as domestic Church took a negative turn in the fourth century, when the sacralization of priests and bishops took place, to the detriment of the common priesthood of baptism, which was beginning to lose its value. The more the institutionalization of the Church advanced, the more the nature and charism of the family as a domestic Church diminished.” (Secretary General to the Vatican Synod of Bishops, Bishop Mario Grech, Civilta Cattolica, 16th October 2020.)

And that is why defending the importance of Baptism and raising its status in the church needs to be a priority for all Irish Catholics today – especially because of the continuing power of clericalism – a mistaken exaggeration of the importance of ordination.  Clericalism pays only lip service to Baptism.  In particular, Irish clericalism still denies the baptised people of God the ordinary necessity of frequent dialogue. This in turn means that clergy are too often unable to help lay people to develop a mature Christian faith that is free of the need of clerical approval and oversight.

Yet, in 2020, as Catholic clerical morale reaches its lowest ever ebb in Ireland, many Irish Catholic lay people are discovering that the Holy Spirit, the counsellor promised by Jesus, is always at their elbow, reminding them that with the fullest understanding of the Apostles Creed comes a freedom greater than they have ever known. It does not matter that due to its mistaken alignment with wealth and power in the past, Catholicism is written off by today’s fashionable opinion-makers.

Those same opinion-makers existed in Jesus’s time – he called them ‘the world’. Knowing that world was passing away he left to all Christians a far greater faith in the living presence of the Holy Spirit and in the better world to come.

In the end all human judgement and social and spiritual pretence is set at nought by the Cross. It is our pride, our mistaken pursuit of superiority, that leads to snobbery, inequality, clericalism and injustice in all eras.

Prayer – especially reflective prayer on the Apostles Creed – will remind us that it is the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are the true Lords of Time.  As ever we are all equally and infinitely loved, and need to believe this firmly to become a true Christian community – and heralds of the world to come.

[This article was published first at:  https://acireland.ie ]

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The Scandal of the 2011 Missal


Why exactly did we find ourselves in 2011 suddenly obliged to declare that Jesus as Son of God is ‘consubstantial’ with the Father?  Why had it been supposed that this would clarify what had been meant by ‘of one being with’ the Father – the previous translation of the Creed from the Roman missal, used in Ireland since 1972?

And why in the same prayer were we now saying that ‘For us men and for our salvation’ Jesus had come down from heaven, when ‘for us and our salvation’ would have left half of the human race untroubled by the possibility that only those with male chromosomes could fully enthuse about that event?

As for terms such as ‘oblation’, ‘prevenient grace’ and ‘sustenance’ – and flatly ugly and incomprehensible phrases such as ‘merit to become co-heirs’ – who exactly had supposed that the liturgy had been improved in solemnity and clarity by these?  Had English truly been the vernacular of the person or persons who had delivered these galumphing atrocities?

And why those impossibly long sentences in the Eucharistic Prayers at the centre of the Mass, prayers that so often lead officiating clergy to substitute Eucharistic Prayer II, the most succinct of the four, for any of the other three?

For a truly literate, succinct and quite shocking explanation of these mysteries the curious reader need look no further than ‘Lost in Translation’ by O’Collins and Wilkins.  In just over 100 pages this (for me indispensable) book tells us not only why we are still trying to pronounce the unpronounceable at Mass, but why we should instead be using a far superior translation of the missal prepared by people who could speak and write English – a translation that was shelved in 1998 in the cause of what looks extraordinarily like Roman pique and amour propre.

The timeline at the foot of this review will summarise the complete dreadful tale – of what can only be interpreted as Roman resentment that Vatican II had given Catholic bishops anywhere the strange notion that they could do without Roman supervision when it came to deciding what wordage was to convey the meaning of the liturgy in Ireland, England, New Zealand, The United States, Australia et al.

It was especially interesting to learn here why such luminaries as Evagrius of Antioch, St Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Henry Newman had long ago rejected the practice of translating sacred texts in a simple word-for-word sequence, carrying over even the elaborate structure of complex Latin sentences to a language that still lives.  As brevity, simplicity and clarity are exemplified in, for example, Jesus’s rendition of the Lord’s prayer, it is surely to these ideals and to the meaning of the original that the translator needs to be faithful first of all.  Liturgiam Authenticam – the document that in 2001 mandated that translation take place on the basis of a quite contrary word-for-word method – flew in the face of advice given by St Thomas in the 13th century:

“It is . . . the task of the good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning but to adapt the mode of expression, so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating.”

Yet this greatest of the medieval theologians was drawing on a far older tradition of paying attention first of all to the sense of the original.  As early as the fourth century Evagrius of Antioch had translated from Greek into Latin a life of St. Antony of Egypt – advising in the preface that “A word-for-word translation from one language into another conceals the meaning and strangles it, even as spreading couch grass [does to] a field of corn… Whatever lack may be in the words, there is none in the meaning. Let others go hunting after letters and syllables; do you seek for the meaning.”

How then could it have happened that in 2011 there would come a translation of the Missal that would flagrantly flout that long-established principle, and inflict the couch grass of ‘oblation’, ‘merit to’ – and the syntax of Cicero – etc upon all of us?  This slim volume cuts to the chase on this admirably.

It does far more than that.  It compares key passages in the 2011 Missal with what we might now be using instead, if the 1998 ICEL translation – the one that had satisfied eleven conferences of anglophone bishops and that is still gathering dust – had been accepted almost two decades ago by the Holy See.  Here, for example are comparable renditions of the prayer over the offerings for the feast of the Immaculate Conception:

1998 rejected ICEL version

In your goodness, Lord, receive the sacrifice of salvation which we offer on the feast of the immaculate conception. We profess in faith that your grace preserved the Virgin Mary from every stain of sin; through her intercession deliver us from all our faults.

2011 Missal version

Graciously accept the saving sacrifice which we offer you, O Lord, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and grant that, as we profess her, on account of your prevenient grace, to be untouched by any stain of sin, so through her intercession, we may be delivered from all our faults.

To compare just these two passages is to see clearly the impact of the translation protocols at work in the 2011 missal.  Obsequious courtly terms such as ‘graciously’ and ‘solemnity’ – and theological power terms such as ‘prevenient’ must clutter up and extend the verbiage, and the passage must also be one long single sentence.  The normal conventions of punctuation, aimed at the needs of the celebrant who must enunciate the text, have been sacrificed in the cause of pomposity.  Most importantly, the meaning of ‘prevenient’ – perfectly rendered in the 1998 translation – has been lost in the 2011 version.

As I obviously cannot go on here with further such comparisons I can only urge those interested to read this book – to be convinced that the cause of the restoration of the discarded 1998 translation needs the most urgent support.

There is an even more important point made by this book:  that in overruling the anglophone bishops’ conferences on the missal this curial interference of the late 1900s was a flouting of a key principle of Vatican II – that key responsibility for church governance belongs to regional conferences of bishops also.  If the bishops of Ireland, England, Wales etc can so easily capitulate to such flagrant and foolish overreach, what kind of precedent has been set for the future, and what conclusions should those bishops now come to regarding other matters critical to the health of their own congregations – under a jurisdiction inclined (for how long?) towards decentralisation?  Those bishops too should read this book – as a warning to seek the gifts of the Holy Spirit (including fortitude) in any such future assault on Vatican II, the only sure gateway to the future – and to pray for those gifts right now also, in urgent consideration of a missal that clearly should not still be in required use.

I chose carefully the word ‘scandal’ for the title of this article.  A scandal is a ‘stumbling block’ – an obstacle to belief.  This short book explains how and why the 2011 missal became a clear obstacle to the belief that common sense, scholarship and wisdom will always guide the leaders of our church – and makes a formidable case for the conclusion that this travesty needs to be cleared out of everyone’s way as speedily as possible.

~

Timeline

1963 – Sacrosanctum Concilium – Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – stipulates that responsibility for determining the liturgy would rest with the Holy See and the bishops of different regions.  It allows translation into the vernacular, to be ‘approved’ by regional bishops, and makes no mention of the need to have such translations ‘recognized’ by the Holy See.

1964 – Sacram Liturgiam – a motu proprio or personal edict by Pope Paul VI prescribes submitting translations to the Holy See for an official recognitio or approval.

1972 – ICEL – (The International Commission on English in the Liturgy) – introduces first vernacular translation of the Roman Missal.  This comes into use in 1973, and remains in use until 2011.

1981 – ICEL begins painstaking revision of the 1972 Missal.

1998 – ICEL wins support for new English translation from eleven English-speaking bishops’ conferences and submits this completed translation to Rome.  It is rejected without discussion by Cardinal Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who also then demands radical changes to ICEL which place it under Vatican control.

2001 – A new document, Liturgiam Authenticam, is issued by the CDW, changing the rules for translation of the liturgy and emphasising the need for word-for-word (rather than meaning-for-meaning) translation.

2011 – The 1972 missal is replaced by a new word-by-word translation prepared by a reconstituted ICEL, gifting English-speaking congregations everywhere with e.g. ‘consubstantial’ in place of ‘of one being’ in the Nicene Creed.  Lengthy sentences following the structure of Ciceronian Latin are declared literally ‘unspeakable’ by some priests – and in Ireland some clergy continue to use the 1972 translation.

2016 – Pope Francis appoints a commission to revisit the rules for translation set out in Liturgiam Authenticam .

2017 – (September) Pope Francis in the motu proprio ‘Magnum Principium’ restores to the conferences of English-speaking bishops the authority to translate the liturgy.

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‘A Lost Tribe’ – a story that should not have ended this way

I had the most eerie feeling on first scanning the back-cover blurb of this novel.* Not only would the story’s narrative arc begin in Dublin in 1962 (with seminarians hopefully watching the opening of Vatican II in Rome on a just-arrived TV set): the author is now parish priest of Rathmines, Dublin.

My frisson had to do with the fact that not only was I confirmed (c.1954) in Fr King’s own parish Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners (by none other than the ‘High Command’ of the novel, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid) but that I might have mingled at UCD with some of the seminarians who inspired his fictional protagonists during those years of the Council.

Very much influenced by the Council, and by some of the clerical personalities who taught in, or visited, Earlsfort Terrace at that time, I was immediately agog to discover how the novel would treat of such encounters and then explore the intervening decades.  By what fervent early reformist convictions would his protagonists be gripped, and what would happen to them?  Something obviously had ‘gone wrong’ for that generation of budding Dublin priests – for the story to end in the ignominy of 2009 – but what exactly had that ‘something’ been?  What passionate arguments and dramatic defeats had transpired after 1965 – to compare, perhaps, with the bitter Parnell dispute in Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist‘?  What would the novel have to say of clerical interchange with lay people, during and after the council – to test the boundaries of what was possible en route to implementing the baptismal principle of the equal dignity of all within the church, and the theological truth of the Holy Spirit who blows where God wills?

To ‘cut to the chase’, this novel hints that Vatican II was already doomed in Dublin by the time that generation of clerical students had been ordained.  None of the clerical characters of this novel develops a passionate vision of the potential of the ‘merely-baptised’ – enlivened by the Holy Spirit – to change not only the church but the secular culture of the time.  (One Charles J. Haughey was also an up-and-comer then, and sometimes visible in the environs of Kildare Street, St Stephen’s Green and Earlsfort Terrace.)  One character dismisses the thought of ever ministering to the inhabitants of a Dublin tenement, and there is not a single counterpointing reference to Catholic social teaching by any character at any stage in the story’s arc. Not even in those council years did one of these fictional  students make contact with a lay person of theological bent – and not once afterwards is there an episode of clergy-lay interchange or experiment on what might have transpired for Vatican II by way of hope.

The absence of any slight reference to Lumen Gentium 37 is also deeply poignant.  That article of that Vatican II document predicted for my generation the creation of church structures through which lay people would make their pastoral needs known to their pastors.  It was the complete absence of any such structures that doomed the Dublin archdiocese – and all of the country – to the total disgrace of the Murphy Report over four decades later.

Instead this story is about just three clerical types:  the sharp-eyed and sometimes toadying careerist bent on high academia or Rome; the diffident also-ran, too unsure of himself to rise above the role of dogsbody-to-the-bishop; the refugee-in-waiting for whom ‘change’ meant essentially a hoped-for and never-arriving end to mandatory priestly celibacy.  None of these was ever likely to challenge the High Command’s 1965 dismissal of the relevance of Vatican II for Ireland.

So, although careerism and Rome often get the blame for ‘what happened’ in Ireland after 1965, this novel strongly suggests another possible contributor:  that this 1960s generation of Dublin seminarians – despite what was also happening in Dublin and UCD at that time –  simply never caught – with any life-changing passion – what Vatican II envisioned for the transformation of the role of the ‘merely-baptised’ within the church.

Never in this novel does any of the characters encounter a lay person of the vision and Christian commitment of  the RTE personality Seán McRéamoinn – or even a clerical visionary of the calibre of a Joe Dunn, an Austin Flannery or a Fergal O’Connor.  All four of these men were meeting (re the Council) with some UCD students at that time, where the documentary producer Joe was also chaplain and Fergal a lecturer in philosophy and politics.  Austin, also Dublin-based, was a translator of the Council documents into English and a convenor of ‘Flannery’s Harriers’ – a discussion forum that included, for example, David Thornley, the TCD academic and Kevin O’Kelly of RTE.  None of King’s characters – some of whom travel to UCD in pursuit of degrees in Arts or Philosophy –  falls in with anyone who reminds this 1962-66 UCD alumnus of any of these men or of the deeply committed philosophy student Denys Turner, whom I also knew.  (Denys later became a leading academic in the UK.)

All of the most serious interchanges in this novel are therefore confined to proto- or actual clerics (with the exception of personal interchanges between the central ‘dogsbody’, Galvin, and his female romantic confidantes).  The overall pattern impressed upon the reader is of a hermetically closed clerical world that no one on the inside could or would seriously attempt to open to the wider Irish world, to let the merely-baptised in.   Moreover, neither Galvin nor any other character ever reveals any abiding theological questioning or conviction of his own in the seminary, or any moment of theological or spiritual epiphany thereafter.

The novel is therefore a tale that could have only one possible ending.  The careerists toe the Humanae Vitae line after 1968, themselves helping to end all prospect of ‘change from the top’.  The academics do the same in hope of a diocese – or else languish in seminaries and colleges.  The dogsbodies keep their noses to a pre-shaped grindstone and then go to seed or to dementia in rural parishes – or succumb to (or get the blame for) clerical child abuse (or the ‘cover up’).  The refugees take flight, sooner more often than later, and disappear without trace.  That fictional seminary of “St Paul’s” left no one in this novel with a fire-in-the belly that was sufficient to the challenge of staying put and fighting seriously for Vatican II.  That would certainly have been a losing fight, but no theological passion ever even surfaces in this story to precipitate a confrontation over Vatican II: we are always dismally distant from any prospect of an Irish Pentecost.

Perhaps, of course, William King has written – or has still to write – another novel, about a true Vatican II ‘rebel’ of that era – someone for whom a seed of Christian commitment and passion survived the deadening influence of the ‘clerical club’?  I was impressed enough by this novel to want to find that out.  This one was instead for me at different times amusing, moving, bitterly disappointing and deeply tragic in roughly equal parts.  I learned from it that I need to be more sympathetic (and prayerful) for what remains of that 60s ‘club – but I am left feeling that I was deeply naive in leaving Dublin in 1966 with the firm conviction that radical change would come inevitably in my own lifetime.   If this particular novel is historically representative and reliable, that Catholic clerical club in Dublin in 1962-65 was doomed from the start to remain an unhappy simulacrum of the ‘rat race’ it might instead have been ready to change for the better – until that shut-out external world ran out of any interest in maintaining it.  A true Christian communion of all of the baptised was never on any fervent clerical agenda in 1960s “St Paul’s”.

Sean O’Conaill, 3rd Nov., 2017

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The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

Views: 259

No research, ever, on school-centred faith formation in Irish Catholic Schools?

classroom-with-crucifix

On June 2nd, 2016, the letter below appeared in the ‘Letters’ page of the Irish Catholic.  Since then no response has been received to the central question posed: whether the effectiveness of Irish Catholic schools in forming faith has ever been seriously researched in Ireland.

Educationists in all fields conduct research – and school-going pupils are always available to participate.  In an era when Christian faith is increasingly challenged it stands to reason that Catholic educationists – as well as teachers, clergy and parents – will need to know exactly what is ongoing in the area of faith development if they are to respond effectively.

It now appears that there is a very serious issue here.  If no such research has ever been conducted in Ireland – despite, for example, a reply to this writer from one Irish bishop in 2005 that the issue would be raised at an impending regional meeting of bishops – what is the reason for this?  Why is our knowledge on this issue so partial – based on individual experience, and therefore still merely anecdotal?

In 2011 Irish bishops adopted a strategy of switching the focus of faith development to adults, with the long-term intention of placing this responsibility on parishes and families.  As outlined by the document Share the Good News  this shift was to take place over a ten-year period – yet in my own diocese, Derry, there is still no sign of this shift even beginning.  In a growing general crisis of continuity – including a crisis of clerical manpower and clerical ageing – inertia too widely reigns.  Unaccountably, we remain substantially ignorant of the scale and nature of this crisis.  There is surely no excuse for this.

Why don’t we know reliably already – from pupils at the upper end of our second-level schools – why increasingly they do not show any interest in Catholic sacramental practice?  

From the Irish Catholic, June 2nd, 2016:

Huge research deficit on issue of Catholic education

Dear Editor,

These days our bishops and educationists are again circling the wagons against the encroachment of ‘faith-neutral’ models of religious education in Catholic schools. So, for example, we hear Dr Eugene Duffy of St Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, insisting that: “Parents, if they’re sending their children to a faith-based school, will have a genuine expectation that their children will be formed within their faith tradition.” (‘School religious ed will suffer under new Govt plan – experts’, IC 12/05/2016)

Upon what reliable research evidence is this assertion based? Back in 2006 Archbishop Diarmuid Martin told Pope Benedict XVI: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”

Why should we believe that the predominant motive of Catholic parents in favouring Catholic schools is not simply their belief that those schools are academically effective and well disciplined, meeting educational ends that are not strictly religious, but actually secular?

My point is not to attack the principle of Catholic schooling but to question the huge and inexcusable research deficit in Ireland on the entire issue of Catholic education – especially the reasons that despite our virtually total reliance on schools for faith formation our Irish Church is facing a radical crisis of continuity.

As a teacher in a Catholic second-level school for three decades, I had many times to supervise Catholic pupils responding to research projects initiated by the education department of a local university. Never once had any of those projects been sponsored by the Catholic Church, with the issue of faith development foremost – even though it has been known for decades that many of those same pupils are not only disinterested but often alienated from faith observance.

Everything we hear at present shouts to us that our school-reliant system of faith development is not maintaining – on its own – the continuity of the Catholic faith. Are our bishops afraid to confront that issue directly, by conducting reliable research on the issue?

Yours etc.,

Sean O’Conaill,
Coleraine,
Co. Derry.

Views: 39

Sexuality, Nature and Justice

How should we Catholics react to the presence of anyone involved in a same-sex marriage in any role of ministry in our church congregation?  Here I presented a very personal view.

Activist ‘forced’ lesbian couple to leave roles in church choir. So reported Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times on September 9th 2016. Less than five hours later, this headline had been replaced with Lesbian couple to retake church roles they were ‘forced’ to leave.

As such brief reports typically summarise and over-simplify a great deal of complexity, and I have no means of verifying the factual statements made in that report, I will refrain from attributing any of the reported ‘facts’ to any named individual. My purpose here is not factual reportage but personal reflection and comment upon a situation which we can regard as entirely hypothetical, as follows:

Person A, described as an ‘activist’, takes exception to the participation in a Catholic church choir, and in Eucharistic ministry, of Persons B and C – on the grounds that their gay civil marriage is contrary to Catholic teaching. Person A makes known this opposition in such a way that Persons B and C at first feel obliged to relinquish their membership of the choir. Sometime later they reverse this decision – influenced, it appears, by an unknown number of other members of the same church community who do not share Person A’s position.

The story is of interest to Catholics generally for the obvious reason that this situation could occur anywhere, posing (possibly) a clear challenge. We will all naturally ask ourselves ‘how would / will I respond in that same situation?’

Asking myself that same question, I place myself in the situation firstly of Person A, who becomes aware of the personal relationship of Persons B and C and their membership of the church choir in my own local church. What, if anything, do I feel compelled to do about this circumstance?

Yes, Persons B and C do appear to be in breach of a disciplinary position advised to us by the official leadership of the church – but is it not possible, even likely, that other members of the same congregation (and perhaps even I myself) are in breach of one or more other rules of the church, and that these other infractions could well be known to others present? As it is most unusual for anyone to take express exception to the presence of someone else in a church gathering, for whatever reason – even if that person is in some kind of ‘leadership’ role  – is this particular circumstance exceptional to a degree that obliges me to behave in an exceptional way?

On balance I strongly think not. For one thing, the official leadership of my church in Ireland has signally failed even to try to convince me that it has understood human sexuality as fully as this particular situation requires. No one yet has convinced me that the church’s ‘take’ on ‘natural law’ requirements regarding sexuality and marriage is binding in conscience – and none has ever entered into dialogue with me or anyone I know on the matter. (At 73, I have been a Mass-goer in Ireland all of my life.)

Furthermore, when it came to church management of other issues of sexual morality in the church – specifically clerical sexual abuse of children – huge injustices followed that have not yet been fully explained or healed. Had the principles of natural justice been followed in those circumstances, rather than the comparatively trivial matter of protecting popular trust in priestly celibacy, thousands of Catholic families throughout the Catholic world would have been saved from long-lasting trauma.

So the central question for me now in regard to all issues of sexual relationships is: ‘what are the requirements of justice here?’ Until the Catholic episcopal magisterium has also systematically addressed issues of sexuality and marriage under that criterion I will remain unconvinced by ‘natural law’ argumentation on matters of sex. (Instead, a US Catholic theologian who has systematically pursued that very line of inquiry has been censured – without any discussion, as usual – by the Holy See. That is in no way convincing either. * )

And knowing that the same bishops allowed priests guilty of clerical child abuse to continue to celebrate the Eucharist – without ever warning even the parents of those children who served on the altar – on what grounds would I feel compelled to complain about the presence of anyone in a same-sex marriage in the choir or in the role of a Eucharistic minister? How, in justice, could I do that? The question answers itself.

So, next, how would I react if someone else in my church community took such an action, leading to a decision by others to resign from any ministry open to lay people?

I honestly hope I would have reacted as others appear to have done in the case cited above: taken the trouble, firstly, to express disagreement with the action of Person A, and, secondly, to show solidarity with Persons B and C – for the reasons given above. I hope I would also take the opportunity to protest the total lack of opportunity to discuss such issues with clergy during the whole of my adult life – and to point out that this clear moratorium on dialogue has done untold damage to the faith and trust of so many families in Ireland, as well as to confidence in the said magisterium. For me, no ‘New Evangelisation’ can be effective in Ireland until that truly disastrous dialogical deficit is remedied.

Finally, I hope I would also take the trouble to oppose any move to ostracise or pressurise Person A into leaving my church community either, and to make known that opposition to Person A. When it comes to celebrating our central Eucharistic and penitential rite, all of us deeply need to embrace fully the principles of both mercy and inclusion – and to seize such ‘learning moments’ as a God-sent opportunity to begin the deep discussion that has been so disastrously delayed for so long. Person A also needs a hearing, and compassion – and this Year of Mercy surely requires of all of us a supreme effort to bear with one another as imperfect beings who are called, above all, to love.

* Margaret A Farley: ‘Just Love: A Framework for Sexual Ethics’ (Continuum, NY, 2006)

Views: 6

Rethinking Catholic Formation

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Reality Feb 2011

As more and more teenagers and young adults fall away from the practice of the faith, we need to rethink the timing of baptism and the other sacraments of initiation.

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For the earliest Christians, initiation into the life of the church was a deeply experienced event occurring in adulthood. Those who had actually known Jesus of Nazareth, and who had experienced the Pentecostal flame, were profoundly changed by that experience, and spoke of a ‘new life’ beginning at that point. So did St Paul, who had an equivalent experience. As an often persecuted minority living in an environment that was usually unpredictable, those early Christians had a highly compressed sense of future time. Typically they expected that the ‘end times’ – the return of the Lord and the ‘coming of the kingdom’ – could happen very soon, quite possibly in their own lifetime.

Consequently they saw the baptismal initiation of other adults into this new life as the most urgent priority, and as the sacramental equivalent of the Pentecostal experience. All New Testment accounts of Baptism are accounts of the Baptism of adults. Preparation for this event was at first also an urgent affair, stressing the ethical challenge that Jesus had posed, rather than setting out a systematic Christian theology. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find an account of the instruction and Baptism of children. That is not to say that this didn’t happen: it is more than likely that parents would have wanted their children to be instructed and baptised – but we have no account of that in the New Testament.

It’s clear instead from the earliest accounts that the church grew rapidly at first mainly through the deep conversion of adults who were attracted to the spirituality, discipline and warmth of the Christian community. Baptism typically celebrated the conscious beginning of an adult life of faith – after a period of formation known as the Catechumenate. The profound culminating experience of Baptism was thought of as the beginning of an eternal life in union with the Trinity. ‘Salvation’ was believed to begin with this experience – this ‘dying to the self’ – rather than after physical death.

As these early centuries passed and the church grew rapidly, that early sense of urgency gradually evaporated also. With the Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity early in the fourth century, persecution ceased and new questions arose. If Baptism was actually necessary for salvation, what happened to the ‘catechumens’ – those waiting for Baptism – if they died beforehand? Prudence counselled the wisdom of earlier and earlier baptism. So did the strictest teachings on original sin developed by St Augustine of Hippo. By the end of the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm.

By that time also, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire. Infant baptism and the expectation that children would grow up within a Christian society meant that an entirely different sequence had overtaken Christian formation. Instead of first being instructed in the faith and then freely choosing baptism as adults, most Christians were first baptised as infants and then received as they grew some kind of formal or informal Christian education.

This had profound implications. For those baptised as infants – the overwhelming majority – there was no longer an overwhelming sacramental ‘rite of passage’ into an adult life of faith. It was simply assumed that the Christian social environment would gradually complete the process begun for the infant at Baptism.

The Catholic educational system we know today was first developed in this ‘Christendom’ social context – in which the state and the surrounding society supported the church and protected it from unorthodox ideas. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s did not radically change this system in Catholic societies. The development of Catholic schooling in the modern era continued to be based upon the assumption that the individual baptised in infancy would be somehow formed into Catholic adulthood by the Catholic environment, especially the school. Increasingly, responsibility for Catholic education was delegated to professionals – trained Catholic teachers who were usually at first also priests or religious.

The assumption that this Catholic sacramental and educational system would in itself automatically ‘form’ adult Catholics was never subjected to a radical open questioning by the leaders of the church. This was despite the fact that the history of the church shows that many of its greatest saints had experienced a deep adult conversion arising out of unpredictable life experience – usually a deep personal crisis of some kind. (St Augustine of Hippo, St Patrick of Ireland, St Francis of Assisi, St Alphonsus de Liguori and St Ignatius Loyola spring readily to mind.)

In the eighteenth century the secularising intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment began seriously to undermine this ‘Christendom’ environment. Even Catholic schools had eventually to devote the bulk of their curriculum to secular subjects. In our own time in Ireland we have seen the rapid disappearance of priests and religious from Catholic schools – and at the same time the development of a powerful ‘youth culture’ that erodes parental influence during the child’s early adolescence.

Yet still today the ‘cradle’ Catholic child will usually receive the three Christian rites of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation – before adolescence sets in – as though Christendom was still in place and no environment hostile to faith awaited the teenager. The assumption of major responsibility for formation by the school has meant that typically parents feel incompetent to assist in the formation of teenage children. We still tend to rely upon our schools to do what we have been taught to believe they always did: form the Catholic adult. If they don’t succeed we often assume the fault must lie with the educational professionals.

Our sacramental system continues to deny most ‘cradle Catholics’ what the earliest Christians all took for granted – an adult sacramental ‘rite of passage’. Thus the Catholic teenager has no such event to look forward to, no opportunity to opt in as an adult. (Neither ordination nor marriage adequately fill this need.) It is a huge mistake to take teenagers for granted – this is undoubtedly a major cause of many of them opting out.

Since infant baptism became the norm in the fifth century the most rigorous teachings of St Augustine on original sin and salvation have been modified by Catholic theology. We no longer believe as he did that the unbaptised are denied heaven. Even less rigorous teachings on the existence of Limbo for unbaptised infants have been superseded. The Holy Spirit is now believed to be at work in the conscience of all humans, and the church teaches that divine grace will save the eternal lives of all who sincerely respond. It follows that the original argument for infant baptism has evaporated.

As for our Catholic formation system, it has always been the case that life experience will raise questions that children usually have neither the ability nor the need to think deeply about. Many adult Catholics will attest to later life experiences that made early instruction deeply meaningful for the first time. The deepest ‘conversion’ is almost always an adult affair. Nevertheless ‘adult faith formation’ is still just an option for a minority.

Those who have deeply studied the development of religious faith now agree that this usually happens in a sequence of stages. One of these is typically a period of the deepest questioning of early life instruction. A mature adult faith involves a deep experience of the mystery and beauty that lies behind childhood conceptions that are typically too literal and naive. It follows that it was always a mistake to suppose that faith can be guaranteed by childhood instruction alone, and to trust that Catholic schools should be able to ‘produce’ committed and fully formed Catholics.

The question must therefore arise: why is our formation system, including the timing of our sacraments of initiation, not now undergoing a radical reappraisal? Current circumstances for Catholicism in the West are increasingly closer to the crisis of the early church than they are to the era of Christendom – so why do we continue to behave as though Christendom was still in place?

It seems to me that three interrelated shifts need now to take place in our formation system.

First, we need to switch our major formation effort from childhood to adulthood. This does not mean that we abandon child religious education, but that we cease to think of it as a stand-alone system for ‘perpetuating the faith’. It means also that we need explicitly to tell our children that the deepest Christian faith does not usually come through school instruction, but through adult experience and through the graces available when we meet a crisis in our teenage or adult years.

Second, responsibility for adult formation must be relocated in the Christian community and combined with the missionary and evangelical effort that will now be required to meet the all-enveloping crisis we are facing. Adult faith formation must become part of the ordinary experience of all Catholics – not just an option for those who can afford the cost and the time. Catholic parents who are developing their own faith will need to become much more involved in the Christian formation of their teenage children. Those who argue that Catholic formation must be left to ‘the professionals’ need to recall that the word ‘professional’ is derived from the verb ‘to profess’, i.e. to adhere to and to avow, a faith. It is faith itself that best develops faith, and faith cannot be guaranteed by any professional training.

Thirdly, the adult experience of deep conversion must receive some kind of liturgical celebration, a ‘rite of passage’ organised by and for the Christian community. It simply does not make sense to confine all Catholic rites of initiation to the pre-adolescent phase of life when we know that the Pentecostal experience is almost always an adult experience, and when we know also that there is no eternal penalty for those who die unbaptised . We need to rethink the sequencing of our Catholic sacramental system, timed and structured as it is for an era that is now rapidly passing into history. As it stands it fosters clericalism – the assumption of all major responsibility for the church by ordained clergy, and the abdication of that responsibility by most of ‘the people of God’. It is clericalism above all that stands in the way of a revitalised church.

Christian faith in the end is not something passively received as a child, but something deliberately embraced as an adult. Our Catholic formation and sacramental system needs urgently to reflect that fact, while there are still some of us left.

Views: 9

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

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The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-sacrifice?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Sep 2007

“The specific leadership task of the priest is to foster not just any kind of community but one which embodies Gospel values at both the local and the global levels.” Donal Dorr, Do We Still Need Priests, Doctrine and Life, April 2007

In full agreement with this, I find myself asking the following supplementary question: What was the definitive priestly act of Jesus? Was it his institution of the Eucharist on the night before his crucifixion, or his passion and death the following day on Calvary?

So inextricably connected are these events that the question may seem naive, but it seems to me to go to the heart of our current need to discern the specific Christian priestly role today. As Donal Dorr pointed out, the generally accepted solution is that the priest celebrates Mass and grants absolution. However, neither of these roles need involve their actors in the endurance of suffering on behalf of others – the very heart of the mystery of the Eucharist itself. That is not to say that Catholic priests do not often lead heroic lives, but that we have not, sadly, been taught to see personal sacrifice as the distinctive and necessary characteristic of Catholic priesthood.

We need to make a key distinction here, to separate in our minds the first Eucharist – a symbolic, ritual event – and the crucifixion, the actual endurance of pain on behalf of others – a decidedly real, non-ritual, event. It was the latter alone that gave meaning to the former. Remembering Jesus’ devastating verdict on those who affected to be religious – that in winning a naive admiration they had received their due reward – we need to be especially mindful that if the church existed solely for ritual and symbolic purposes it would exist in vain. So, the actual bearing of pain on behalf of others is the essential core of Christian priesthood: if that does not happen our priestly ritual would essentially be an empty facade, and not Christian at all.

Especially we need to remember this because the essence of Jesus’ priesthood was his integrity – the fact that, unlike the pagan priest, he was also the real victim of the sacrifice that he had ritually celebrated. So how have we come to elevate the performance of ritual and sacrament – what might be called virtual or symbolic ministry – above what is actually more important: actual ministry, the taking of pain on behalf of others?

In stressing the priest’s obligation to provide Christian leadership, in stressing also that Christian leadership is something quite different from control, and in emphasising the need for prophetic witness, Donal Dorr is taking us towards a reintegration of symbolic and actual ministry. It is useful here to reflect upon the historical origins of their separation. The following paragraphs are taken from a standard history of our church:

“The clergy at first were not sharply differentiated from the laity in their lifestyle: The clergy married, raised families, and earned their livelihood at some trade or profession. But as the practice grew of paying them for their clerical work, they withdrew more and more from secular pursuits, until by the fourth century such withdrawal was deemed obligatory.

“An important factor in this change was the increasing stress laid on the cultic and ritualistic aspects of the ministry. At first the Christian presbyter or elder avoided any resemblance to the pagan or Jewish priests and, in fact, even deliberately refused to he called a priest. He saw his primary function as the ministry of the Word. The ritualistic features of his sacramental ministry were kept in a low key. Even as late as the fifth century, John Chrysostom still stressed preaching as the main task of the Christian minister. But the image of the Christian presbyter gradually took on a sacral character.

“This sacralization of the clergy was brought about by various developments – theological, liturgical, and legal. The Old Testament priesthood, for instance, was seen as the type and model for the New Testament priesthood. The more elaborate liturgy of the post-Constantinian era, with its features borrowed from paganism, enhanced the image of the minister as a sacred personage. The ministry of the Word diminished in importance when infant baptism became the rule rather than the exception, for infants could not be preached to. Imperial legislation established the clergy as an independent corporation with its own rights and immunities.”

[From: T. Bokenkotter, ‘A Concise History of the Catholic Church’, 2004,Pages 53-54]

It is clear from this that the earliest dis-integration of ritual ministry from actual ministry accompanied the growing ‘success’ of the church in the third and fourth centuries, culminating in Christian clergy replacing the pagan religious establishments. The priest who sought to follow and to witness to Christ in an era when this could be deeply dangerous was still likely to become the real victim of the ritual he celebrated. The person who found high position in the post-Constantinian church, on the other hand, had often no similar test of his integrity to pass. In fact, the role now usually guaranteed creature comforts and social status. Nothing else was needed to elevate ritual ministry – the public and theatrical aspect of Christianity – above actual ministry, and to separate the two.

After Constantine, Church leaders quickly became powerful enough to be victimisers themselves – and this deeply disordered situation persisted into the modern era.

Reform movements in the church were often a reaction to this dis-integration of actual and symbolic ministry – as was the Protestant Reformation in its emphasis upon the priesthood of all believers. So was Vatican II in its attempts to involve laity. Now today we are attempting to identify the specifically priestly ministry at the very time we are also attempting to discern what ‘involving the laity’ might mean. These problems are inseparable.

For the fact is that lay people already often are involved in actual self-sacrificial as distinct from ritual priestly ministry. I am not simply referring here to the heroic service that many individuals may give in charitable work or activism on issues of justice. I refer to the many critical service occupations that are poorly paid, such as nursing, counselling, teaching, youth ministry and caring for the disabled and the elderly. I refer also to the mundane fact that marriage, parenting and other family obligations, and even close friendships, often involve personal sacrifice to a marked degree. Why do we still suppose that the ordained priest is the model of Christian priesthood when his role does not necessarily involve self-sacrifice on behalf of others, and may in fact insulate the priest from any such obligation?

The reason is, I believe, that with the Constantinian shift something else was in danger of being lost in our understanding of the Calvary event: that Jesus’s integrity required that he accept the very opposite of the elevated social position of the priest of the ancient world, that he accept the social position of the slave. Here again, reform movements such as those of Saints Benedict and Francis of Assisi sought to re-identify Christian ministry with powerlessness, poverty and humility. However, secular clergy tended on the whole to continue to occupy socially elevated positions from which to critique the faults of the people, and this was especially true of those appointed as shepherds.

“I think we need more involvement of the laity,” insisted one secular priest recently when asked by a colleague what he thought needed to happen to reinvigorate the church in his own troubled Irish diocese. “Nonsense!” was the emphatic reply. For the latter ‘the church’ must remain essentially a clerical entity whose clerical proprietors simply mustn’t relinquish the very thing that Jesus did relinquish to become the archetypal Christian priest: the status that goes with exclusivity. The argument appears to be that if ‘vocations to the priesthood’ are to be encouraged at all, young men must continue to be offered an elevated status as an indispensable incentive

But if the ‘the church’ and priesthood have essentially to do with humility, self-sacrifice and service, it is indeed ‘nonsense’ to talk of ‘lay involvement in the church’ as though it wasn’t already a reality. There is a dire need instead for the actual living priesthood of the laity to be formally acknowledged by the clerical church, and for the wisdom that must obviously accompany that living priesthood to be released into the clerical church through structures that allow us to address one another for the first time as equals and collaborators. We need to think not of ‘involving the laity’ but of involving the clergy in the church of service that many of the laity already embody, and to convene the whole church for the first time in many centuries on that understanding.

So of course we still need priests, because all of us are called to the essence of Christian priesthood: actual service of others. Whether we need any longer an ordained elite to celebrate the Eucharist is an entirely different question, because elitism has always been dangerous to Christian priesthood, properly understood. That we should still be tied to an elitist and ritualistic conceptualisation of priesthood in order to continue to celebrate the sacred ritual of the Eucharist, and to receive the body of Christ, is one of the great ironies of the history of our church.

And as we fail this test of grasping fully what Christian priesthood actually means, our younger generations are walking away from our schools, many never to realise that in rejecting (or suffering exclusion from) membership of an historically limited version of priesthood they have not walked away from the essence of Christian priesthood. Male and female, if they retain their Christian idealism, and their spirit of service, they will bring to the secular world the very priesthood it needs for its restoration.

It is time to tell them this, as a matter of real urgency.

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