Category Archives: Prayer

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

Sean O’Conaill © Reality, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bury your pride with my boy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reprieve!

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2003

My two-month course of chemotherapy intended to stop the spread of cancer in the lymph system ended in mid August 2003. Another CT Scan followed in early September. It found that the cancerous nodes in the lymph had indeed been reduced, and that an operation to remove a cancerous bladder could go ahead.

This was the first indication that I could indeed be cured of cancer, that I was no longer in the ‘departure lounge’, and that I could hope for a resumption of normal life. Naturally I was relieved – but the experience of the nearness of death had changed me. I found that I wanted above all to remember that experience in all of its detail, not to escape from it.

The reason was that as a writer I had discovered the validity of what my church had always taught: the reality of a mysterious presence just beyond the range of our normal perception, available to us in time of greatest peril, especially when we come to evaluate our own lives. Trusting to that reality I had given myself to it completely, and then experienced also its power to heal our bodily ills as well as our closest relationships. I wanted above all to maintain contact with that reality.

The operation that followed involved major surgery. In a four-hour procedure, the cancerous bladder was removed. Then a 40 cm section of the smaller intestine was excised and formed into a new reservoir, connected to the kidneys and urethra. This has become the standard procedure to deal with bladder failure in the US and continental Europe, but it is comparatively new in Ireland.

I awoke to find myself seriously weakened and surrounded by infusion drips, with several tubes draining the new reservoir to allow it to seal itself before becoming fully employed. I felt as though I had suddenly become many times heavier, as it took an immense effort to accomplish even the slightest movement of an arm or a leg.

This was my time of greatest dependence, as I could not move, wash or even drink without help. When the human bowel is handled by a surgeon, it shuts down completely, refusing even to receive the contents of the stomach. In my case this meant that the saline infusion gathered in my stomach, creating an intense pressure. There was only one way of relieving this – by passing a tube through my nose into my oesophagus, and from there into my stomach. My very worst hours now followed, as I had to try to sleep with this tube in place, attached to my nose and impeding even my ability to swallow.

It would be great to be able to report that even in this crisis my faith and serenity were unaffected – but the truth was otherwise. I suffered, and there was no way round this. I could, and did, pray – but I was overwhelmed by the bodily pain and discomfort that enveloped me, and I experienced, at times, a profound despair.

I am now convinced that anaesthesia does not allow the human body to escape the effects of the deep trauma involved in the excision of a major organ. I felt as a child feels in the aftermath of a heavy blow: traumatised and expecting further similar blows – and unable to dwell on anything else.

Pain of this kind has a deep spiritual impact – persuading us that somehow we have merited the blow that has fallen, and leading to a profound loss of confidence in ourselves. Even now I am battling against this tendency.

In the middle of all this I was told that an exhaustive biopsy undertaken during the operation had confirmed that the lymph system was now entirely clear of cancer. I was indeed now ‘cured’, and had everything to look forward to. Only gradually did this sink in, as my strength came back, and with it my independence.

Almost four weeks after the operation I am home now, recuperating. My new bladder is fully operational, only slightly less efficient than my old one at its best. I don’t receive the same signals, of course – and need to remain aware of time passing, and of the need to relieve the new reservoir before it relieves itself!

One thing above all I have learned from all of this – how dependent we are upon the normal functioning of our own bodies – something we take entirely for granted – as well as the fragility of that body. An amazingly complex organic machine, it is the medium through which we experience and learn to function within our physical environment. When it becomes dysfunctional – as it always does eventually – we are faced with total separation from that environment, and with the question of what happens next. There is no evading this question.

I am above all profoundly grateful that my church has given me a framework within which I can face that reality, connecting my bodily environment with one that transcends it – one that will receive my essence with love when the moment of final separation comes. In that truth I will try to live out the rest of my earthly life, knowing that in the end God will find it sufficient that I commend my spirit to him, in love and trust.

In the meantime I must never forget what happened when, believing myself close to death, I trusted to what I had been taught – to the real presence of the Lord, especially in the valley of the shadow of death. If I can pass on that assurance to just one other person in the same awful circumstances I will perhaps feel that I have earned my reprieve.

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“You have possibly incurable cancer.”

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality, 2003

“You have an aggressive cancer of the bladder – best cured by removal of the bladder. But the cancer appears to have spread to the lymph system, making this probably inadvisable. You first need chemotherapy, which has a fifty percent chance of enabling the operation.”

This was the essence of the news I heard from a consultant in one of Belfast’s major hospitals in mid June of 2003. Knowing that bladder cancer can kill if unchecked, I realised my near future was all I had left for certain.

Now, in early August 2003 I am two-thirds of the way through the chemotherapy course. Until this point, with my earth-survival horizon still uncertain and my family still fretting, I haven’t been sure that I could ever find the strength and the inclination to write about this – or anything else for that matter.

I have written before, from a safer distance, about the prospect of dying. For about nine years now I have been a committed Christian and Catholic, familiar with St Paul’s assurance that if we go into the tomb with Christ we rise again.

But there are many degrees of distance from the tomb, and for most of those nine years my distance from it has been very comfortable. I had, especially, until February 2003, good physical health – and therefore no experience of the shattering impact of physical collapse and dependency.

It’s all very well to write and speak heroically about death from that distance, but now I found that when an essential natural function collapses, begins to cause intense pain, and threatens basic survival, all of this romantic long-distance heroism about death collapses also.

I simply wasn’t in any way prepared for the bitter prospect of imminent departure. Aged sixty, I am the eldest of three brothers, with both parents still living, aged ninety-one. They lost my older brother to cancer in 1962, so shouldn’t I be allowed to survive them – to look after them? Wouldn’t any reasonable God agree?

And what about that better book I had planned, and that course of study, and those articles on this and that – and that first trip to the US I had looked forward to, taking advantage of a friend’s invitation?

Most of all though, I was assailed by an intense sense of loss – of losing everything I loved. My wife, my children, my parents, my home, the daily routine, the Ireland I love. I might soon, now, lose everything – to go into total uncertainty, dispossession and powerlessness.

I had previously in my writings drawn a distinction between death and humiliation – but now all separation between the two was lost. Death, I discovered, is in itself the final humiliation – the extinction of everything we humans are surrounded by in life, everything that gives us a sense of our own identity and significance.

I felt also an intense sense of isolation – of having been shut into a cell on my own, which no-one else could really enter – because it was an ante-room to death itself, a departure lounge from which there might well be no return, from which every instinct tells us to fly.

My worst night ever was that night in the hospital – as I faced a painful biopsy and no certainty of living far beyond the end of 2003. My wife was 60 miles away in Coleraine – as I had blithely travelled to Belfast on my own. Doctors and nurses were kind and encouraging, but they could not be with me in my isolation either. When the lights in the ward dimmed about ten and my neighbours turned to sleep I felt a degree of abandonment and loneliness that totally overwhelmed me emotionally – in a way I had never before experienced.

Desperately I sought some solace. As fate, or providence, would have it, I had brought a portable CD player with me – and my wife Patricia had packed a two-disc compilation of Taizé music. Not expecting it to be much help I had no other recourse.

“Lord, hear my prayer!” was soon echoing in my head – and my prayer was for a sense of His presence with me, there in that strange place, with people I did not know. Soon enough came something even more appropriate:

“Within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away!”

Somehow the faith of choir singing this became at that moment my faith too, and I began to echo the music and the words.

Suddenly I felt a sense of warmth, and a certainty that I was among friends – even, in some sense, at home. I also felt a sense of time slowing down – and an awareness of slight movements around me that indicated living souls – dependent like myself upon the nursing staff nearby.

Dependent! That was part of my problem – the fear of dependence, of being incapacitated and increasingly useless. But, watching those nurses, I had realised already that their role and sense of duty and fulfilment rested wholly upon the dependence of others. For them it was the expected duty – not something burdensome and tiresome.

There, then, I began to come out of the shell of isolation into which the shocking news had pushed me, and to take a new interest in everything going on around me. By the time the discs had finished, time itself seemed to have slowed down. I even fell asleep for an hour or so.

A few days later I was reminded even more strongly of this sacred relationship between patient and carer, when my chemotherapy regime began. Tethered to an electric pump infusing various obscurely named liquids over a forty-hour period, I was confined to the oncology ward. The pump was clipped to a wheeled stand, allowing me, in theory, to push it ahead of me.

At 2 a.m. I received an urgent bladder signal in the darkened ward. For the sake of my morale I needed to make it to the bathroom eighty yards away. But when I had swung my feet to the floor I found the pump wouldn’t move more than a few inches.

“Are you all right there, darlin’?” came a Belfast accent. A nurse was at my shoulder.

“It’ll work off the battery,” she continued – unplugging the pump from the wall. She looped the cable round the pump, and I set off successfully, dignity maintained.

She had answered my question, the question everyone seems to be asking these times: – “Where is this God of yours when you really need Him?”

The answer was in another one of those Taizé hymns:

“Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus Ibi Est! – Where there is caring and love, God is also!”

And it was there in the ward – among patients I could observe, many of them more ill than I was. I could observe them second-to-second, and I suddenly realised that my perception of time itself had changed.

Our attitude towards time seems to be strongly influenced by our perception of how much of it we have left. For children it seldom passes quickly enough, because it stretches away limitlessly. Although many of us now plan our lives a few years ahead, we somehow assume that the final frontier to this life is beyond every horizon for which we plan.

I could no longer do this. In fact I couldn’t plan anything now but my immediate response to the possibility of death within a year. “Depend upon it, Sir,” said the great Dr Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I had a lot more than a fortnight, but my mind was indeed concentrating hard. By now I was aware of different schools of thought on the subject of cancer itself, its causes and treatments and how to fight it. My daughter had presented me with three different books on the subject and many of her own ideas coincided with those of a friend who is also fighting cancer from an alternative medical standpoint involving a completely organic diet. Hadn’t he told me he had sailed through chemo as a consequence?

First, however, I made what has turned out to be my most crucial decision: to place myself completely under the protection of the one I now call the Great Physician – the healing Lord of the Gospels. The Taize music had given me a sense of the Lord as always present – and especially in the darkest valley of Psalm 23. Above all I did not want to lose my awareness of that presence, whatever happened. I determined that from now on I would simply check out if I felt myself losing this awareness.

By ‘check out’ I mean simply disengage from the moment, close my eyes, and place myself again in the presence of the Lord. By now I had a prayer that allowed me to do this – one familiar to every Catholic:

“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Bring all souls to heaven, especially those in need of thy mercy.”

It’s the first three words, not the mention of hell, that are crucial for me. They immediately state and invite a relationship. The rest of the prayer states a lack of presumption that anyone else is less loved or precious than I am. We don’t know what Hell is – unless it is endless futility and loneliness – but we surely wish to get wherever heaven is. And if we are truly into the spirit of the Gospels we know also that Jesus wishes to save every last one of us.

Something else had helped me immeasurably through that crisis – the messages of support that came from all who knew me – old teaching colleagues, Cursillo friends, Internet contacts abroad. I might now be in the departure lounge, but I was not forgotten – and the most powerful force for healing was active in my regard: prayer.

By day twelve of my hospital stay I was buoyantly looking forward to going home – and I had with me a journal detailing the state of my mind, soul and body from the start of the crisis. I continued to keep it at home – for I had much more to learn from that seat in the departure lounge called cancer. Editor permitting I will cover that in a second article under this heading.

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Towards a New Evangelism IV: ‘Search’

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Of all the problems facing the church, that of passing on ‘the faith’ to a younger generation seems most intractable, yet most crucial. It is at this point that we come right up against the possibility of an unprecedented discontinuity in Irish life. If young people have now decided almost unanimously against the traditional Catholic vocations to celibate ministries, does this indicate a rejection of Catholicism and Christianity per se?

My experience of Cursillo in Derry led me to an offshoot, a ‘cut down’ version of the Cursillo provided for young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, called ‘Search’. Essentially the same features apply: the presentation, over a weekend, of a lifestyle centred on prayer, study and action; the ‘team’ drawn mostly from the peer group, supported by a few unobtrusive older adults; talks involving personal witness as well as exposition, given mostly by young people themselves. Could this formula possibly succeed among a generation now so much younger than the clerical mean in Ireland?

Again I was astonished by what I found: a complete lack of cynicism and derision; a poise and quiet confidence among the young team that I had never encountered previously in this generation; a willingness to be entirely open about the detours from the moral life that young people are now so endangered by; above all a maturity that proved that Christianity is far from being mere sentimentality and wishful thinking.

I was reminded also that nowadays young people are far from insulated from the horrors that can punctuate life in Northern Ireland – including even sectarian murder. Faith that in the darkest valleys the Lord will be found was as much present in the Search experience as in the Cursillo at Termonbacca.

One feature of Search that does not occur on the Cursillo is the dramatisation of issues such as peer pressure in relation to addictive substances or early sex. These are taken very seriously, an echo of the morality plays of the middle ages – and have enormous potential for development as Irish life becomes more sophisticated.

I was above all impressed by the demeanour of these young people before the Blessed Sacrament. Instead of a stiff formalism imposed by adults and undermined by childish giggles, or embarrassed make-believe, I found a relaxed celebration of a sacred presence, all the more sacred because the Lord was clearly understood above all as patient lover and friend of every individual present. Some sang impromptu to guitar accompaniment, while others knelt praying, or read their bibles. There was no orchestration of this, no monitoring adult presence – and no-one was disturbed by my presence either. People came and went quietly, as inclination took them.

This sense of being individually accepted and loved carried over to the relationships between all those present. The entire social and educational spectrum was covered, but the Lord’s inclusiveness was marvellously realised.

There was also a wonderful rapport between the youthful majority on the team, and their mature guides. The latter rely not upon close control but upon trust, built up for weeks before the weekend in planning and prayer sessions. Search was every bit as ‘horizontal’ as Cursillo. Indeed the gratitude of these young people for the trusting care of their elders was openly expressed in the prayers before the Blessed Sacrament that preceded the adult talks.

Speaking individually to some of the Search team later, I found myself talking to adults proud of their faith. This pride came mainly from a sense of doing important work – of proving the relevance of faith to peers often desperately in need of it. Significantly, all insisted that in the Search ministry (for this is what it is) they had received something their Catholic schooling had failed to provide: a context in which they could witness to their own faith, and receive the support of peers, free of the suspicion that they were merely ‘faking it’ for the approval of adult authority.

The essential element was the deep conviction that the spiritual life accords self-respect, as well as a capacity to be of service to those who can lose all direction in total immersion in current youth culture.

“What does ‘Salvation’ mean to you?” I asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer student.

“That God loves you,” she said, without hesitation. That knowledge, simply expressed, had been gained almost solely through the Search experience – first as a candidate experiencing a weekend provided by others, and then several times afterwards as a member of the team. Christine is in every respect completely relaxed and natural, articulate and intelligent without any sense of superiority.

Christine is also ecumenically engaged, quite at home with Church of Ireland Christians on their annual Summer youth ‘bash’. This too is as true of Search as of Cursillo: pride in being Catholic does not preclude respect for other Christian traditions. Indeed there is often an honest admiration for the sturdy faith that Ulster Protestantism upholds in a generally cynical world.

As with Cursillo, those who gain most from Search make an ongoing commitment to attend regular meetings for prayer and preparation, becoming effectively part of an evangelising community. This last, is, I am convinced the essential secret of any ‘New Evangelism’ today. An evangelism that does no more than verbally assert the existence of a loving God is worse than useless, as it merely replicates the promise of a thousand commercial ventures to ‘change your life’ without changing the communal context in which it is lived.

Conclusions

Listening to ecclesiastics enthusing about the power of modern media to ‘spread the word’ I wonder how long this mirage will deflect the hierarchical church from the reality of the death of Christendom. That was an era when spectacular ‘conversions’ flowed from the success of the Church in commanding the political and intellectual heights. All of us remember when this was true of Ireland also, when much ‘faith’ was mere conformity by the upwardly aspiring.

Now in Ireland the only powerful church is Cynicism, spilling like acid from a thousand journalistic pens and broadcasts. In the general collapse of respect for all institutions, and their most prominent members, the Irish Catholic church is undergoing its most serious challenge since the Reformation. Indeed, the present challenge to Irish Catholicism is in some respects even more serious than that, for the Reformation was weakened in Ireland by the fact that its missionaries were generally considered lackeys of an alien oppressor, and Irish Catholicism was consequently strengthened by its utility as a badge of cultural and political identity.

With political independence the Catholic hierarchy here assumed the position of the Catholic hierarchy of the European ancien régime – elitist, hostile to modernity, (especially the principle of intellectual freedom), and condescending to the social base. Convinced that control of the intellectual heights and of the educational system would mean security for ever, it failed to take the opportunity to build an open egalitarian church provided by Vatican II – and is now reaping the proper reward of such a policy: the almost total collapse of hierarchical authority.

Yet in many ways those Catholics who still joyously serve are proving that a collapse of hierarchical authority is not a collapse of the authority of the Gospels. Wherever compassion reigns, God reigns also. It is only in the context of genuine compassion – not just mere publicity – that a New Evangelism can flourish. Young people who know this, and act upon it, are tomorrow’s church, and to restore our hope, and our authority, we must simply affirm and follow them – allowing them to teach their peers.

In all the examples I have seen of effective evangelism in Ireland today, it is lay people who play the key role – the peers of those who need convincing of the reality of Christian love. They convince not by virtue of their verbal eloquence or theological sophistication, but by their integrity – the fact that they embody genuine faith and the compassion they attribute to God. They also belong to the most morally challenged society in Ireland.

Northern Ireland is commonly considered the worst advertisement for Christianity in the whole of the west. Yet in the personal crises and traumas that it provides, there is a wealth of experience of the reality of grace. Out of these darkest valleys have come people – old and young – who walk more securely and wisely in their faith than I would have thought possible. This too surely is Good News – a promise that for the Irish church as a whole there will indeed be a resurrection, if we can all learn from the experience of humiliation.

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