The church, women, and the cult of virginity, Part II

It seems virginity is popular. Of all my post-Christmas posts, my little reflection on ‘The church, women, and the cult of virginity’ has got the biggest response. No surprise, I suppose, since anything to do with sex attracts attention. But I think a better explanation for its popularity is that people agree with what I wrote. The Catholic Church’s seeming fixation with sex, and with female virginity, resonates with a lot of readers. This obsession is fundamentally about the exercise (by celibate males) of power and control. Think about the ‘churching’ of new mothers, a type of ritual purification women had to go through shortly after childbirth. Think about the shame and shaming of unmarried mothers and how so many of these women were treated in the not so recent past, while the men involved suffered no major repercussions. Women were ‘fallen,’ men were not. It wasn’t just a church obsession but a societal one too.

Confession has been used for a similar purpose. In some places it still is. Asking intrusive questions, seeking intimate details, about what a penitent did or did not do, or what the penitent thought or did not think, was a method of control. It was and is an abuse of a beautiful sacrament. It is extraordinary how many (primarily) older people are crippled with scruples or worried about ‘bad thoughts’ or minor infractions which occurred long ago but that continue to torment them. In church teaching and preaching, there was a negative attitude toward sex and sexuality. Sex within marriage was understood as something functional, mechanical, cold; an activity to be endured rather than enjoyed. Sex, and anything to do with it, was dirty. And so any expression of sexual intimacy induced tremendous feelings of guilt.

But sex is good and our sexuality used constructively is a beautiful thing. Our sexuality is a gift from God and so is something wonderful. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis writes about the ‘joy’ of love.

The ‘MeToo’ movement is about women demanding respect. It is insisting that (powerful) men treat women and their bodies with the dignity that is their right. That we need a movement such as MeToo in the 21st century is sad. That the church needs to examine its language about sex and sexual morality is also not only necessary but urgent.

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Hounded by the black dog

The black dog has been hounding me for the past week or so, that feeling when you are low and listless and each day becomes a struggle.
The black dog grabbed me and held on tight. Only now is his grip beginning to loose. It’s not always easy to identify what springs him from his kennel but, I think, several factors have been at play.
The usual January blues have done their thing. It’s that time of year when the Christmas buzz has dissipated, but the all-enveloping seasonal darkness remains.
There has been a spike in my chronic pain. Cold weather exacerbates the constant ache in my back, which of course is not helped by the January blues. Medication does little for my pain. Doctors can do nothing. All I can do is struggle on.
The state of the church in Ireland and the world has left me feeling low. The post-Christmas assembly of Irish Redemptorists demonstrated with crushing clarity just how fragile we have become as a body of men and how fragile is the state of religious life in the western world. What will we be like in ten years’ time? How can we plan for the future when it appears there is no future? How different it seems now from the organisation I joined straight out of school almost 40 years ago.
The state of the world hasn’t helped. The Madness of King Donald and the British Tory Party, as well as the coming to power of extremists such as the new Brazilian president and the clinging to power of autocrats such as the current Venezuelan president, has left one feeling angry, bemused and worried for the future. Our bright, progressive, tech-driven world is threatened by the primal forces of fearful populism and narrow nationalism.
There is also the peculiar loneliness of the long-distance celibate, the tsunami of aloneness, of lack of intimacy, of disappointment and regret, that occasionally washes over and engulfs and almost drowns.
There has been nostalgia for days past, when I was busy and occupied, and thrilled to the buzz of the editor’s office.
So I wonder in the midst of all of this, what have I achieved over my almost 57 years of life? What, if any, difference have I made to the world or the church? What have I contributed over 30 years of active ministry? It’s a desperate seeking after validation, scratching beneath the surface of my existence to see if I have left any visible imprint for good. I know I have, though, when hounded by the black dog, I see just the trace of a blurred line on a tattered copybook.
All I can do at this stage is to try to be good, be honest, be loving, and a little prophetic if I can. And if I can manage any of that, and smile a bit more, then I am doing something meaningful.

What Gorbachev and Pope Francis have in common

Having just finished a fine biography of Mikhail Gorbachev by William Taubman, I have been struck by some striking similarities between Gorbachev’s career and that of Pope Francis.

Both reached the top against the odds. Gorbachev’s background and private views should have ensured he was never promoted to a position of real power. Both his grandfathers had been arrested and tortured by Stalin; as a young boy growing up in the countryside, Gorbachev saw and disapproved of Stalin’s vicious policy of collectivisation and murder and deportation of innocent peasant families; he believed the system urgently needed reform. A brilliant student and organiser, he worked his way to the very top and began his reforms, by which time it was too late for the system to stop him.

After coming a surprising second in the 2005 papal conclave, it was thought that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s chances of becoming pope had passed. Most observers knew little about him; his opponents made sure to highlight his stormy early career as head of the Jesuits in Argentina. By the time of the surprise conclave in 2011, it was thought his advancing years would eliminate him from consideration. Yet he was elected, despite the efforts of traditionalists to stop his candidacy.

Both made an extraordinary initial impact on the world. Gorbachev was young, energetic, open, charismatic – a Soviet leader unlike any of his predecessors. From his first appearance on the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square, Francis made an indelible impression on those watching. His simplicity, humility, and humour were a breath of fresh air.

Both had a reformist agenda. Gorbachev spoke about the need for glasnost and perestroika, and began to try to transform the Communist Party and the USSR. Pope Francis spoke of a ‘church on the street,’ emphasising the need for mercy and compassion in dealing with people in difficult personal situations, and for a synodal model of church where there would be greater dialogue and openness to change.

Both encountered strong opposition from within almost from the start. In the beginning Gorbachev was able to placate or outmanoeuvre his opponents but eventually, they began to get the better of him. His finally stepped down several months after a failed coup against him in August 1991.

Opposition to Pope Francis has been intensifying in conservative circles for several years. They have agitated against him in public, tried to block his initiatives, and even to force his resignation so they can get a more like-minded man in his place. That battle continues.

Despite the tremendous pressures they faced, both had an innate optimism and remarkable energy that kept them going even in the face of extraordinary obstacles and setbacks.

Gorbachev achieved great things – an end to the old cold war and to communism in the old CSSR, the freeing up of eastern Europe without bloodshed, the reunification of Germany. Pope Francis has promoted inclusion and reform. Though his vision has not been realised he has given us hope. We pray that the transformation and renewal he has promised may come about.

The world’s 26 richest billionaires own as much as the poorest 50% – an unjust situation at odds with the gospel

A shocking statistic published a couple of days ago shows the extent to which our world is messed up. The top 26 billionaires are as wealthy as 3.6 billion people, according to a report by Oxfam International. The net worth of these mostly American top 26 reached $1.4 trillion last year. Or, to put it another way, the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50%. Billionaires, who now number a record 2,208, are growing $2.5 billion richer every single day, while the net worth of the world’s poorest half continues to dwindle.
Since the great recession of a decade ago, the number of billionaires has nearly doubled, a gap that will only increase as China’s economic slowdown sharpens and with Brexit and Trump’s trade war creating more uncertainty.
No wonder there has been an increase in the popularity of extremist parties and individuals, especially on the right.
For all the progress humankind has made, for all our advances in technology and science, for all our progress in human rights, there is a growing gap between rich and poor. The rich will always find ways to protect and increase their wealth, even in times of turmoil and certainty. (Just look at how leading Brexiteers are transferring assets overseas in case their deluded project goes wrong.)
More people than ever are excluded access from a decent, sustainable, even a basic, quality of living. Women suffer the most from equality. Of course, the rich practice philanthropy, and many are genuine about it, but charity is never a substitute for social justice. It simply keeps the current system in place.
As the wealthy gather for their annual powwow at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a plan is needed to more fairly distribute the goods of the earth. Oxfam recommends that nations tax wealth at fairer levels, raise rates on personal income and corporate taxes and eliminate tax avoidance by companies and the super-rich.
Here in Ireland, as we celebrate the centenary of the first Dail, we also have a long way to go to build a more just society.
Action for justice is a Christian imperative. The church has a whole body of teaching built up over decades that speaks about the rights of workers and of the poor, a body of teaching that places the church and its members firmly on the side of the oppressed. In fact, the church teaches that action for justice is a constitutive part of living the Gospel. It is not enough for us to tell the poor, the abused, the unjustly treated, that we will pray for them or that we will give money to charity to support them. We must also do whatever we can to address the injustice. Our faith compels us to be concerned for justice and to work for it.
We must support all efforts to build a fairer, more just world.

Priesthood must change if the Mass is to continue being celebrated

As part of our service here in Limerick, Redemptorists celebrate Mass in some local convents every week day and on weekends. It’s a service we are happy to give, something that has been offered for many years now, and a service for which the sisters are most appreciative.

The graying of the priesthood and of religious life is an undeniable reality. The lack of vocations to both is keenly felt. Though many pray for a miracle, few believe it’s going to happen. Those who are able to minister are delighted to do so, and will keep going as long as they are able. But what of the future? What even of the next five years?

We will not be able to continue as we are. The church in Limerick and in the West will not be able to continue as it is. At least, Limerick diocese has held a synod to help it to plan ahead. But no local church has the authority to make the kind of radical decisions that might go some way to addressing the priest shortage. All it, or we, can do is try to involve more non-ordained in the church and enable them to use the many gifts with which the Spirit has blessed them. But priests are needed to lead the celebration of Mass, and Mass, as we know, is the heartbeat of the church. Without priests, while many good liturgies can be held, there can be no Mass.

Meanwhile, groups of religious sisters depend on elderly men to lead them in the Eucharist every day, sisters many of whom are steeped in the scriptures and in the knowledge of God. It seems a shame to me that they are prohibited from leading the Eucharist in their own religious community and that suitably qualified leaders cannot be ordained or anointed to do the same in their own parish communities.

Reform and renewal are needed if the church is to remain alive and significant in the West. A new council of the church is needed in order to meet the extraordinary challenges of the 21st century. If the Eucharist is going to continue to be celebrated regularly, and if the church is to remain vital and alive, then we need a new way of being church, a new model of church. We need radical restructuring.

New wine, as today’s Gospel puts it.

That we will (be allowed to) use our gifts (Homily for 2nd Sunday of the Year)

On October 5th, 2011, Steve Jobs died. I’m sure you remember who he was – the co-founder of Apple. He was an American businessman and inventor widely recognized as a charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution. A visionary and technology genius who made his company one of the most valuable in the world.

Steve Jobs was responsible for everything from the iMac to the iPad, all those gadgets starting with the letter i. I wrote this homily on an iMac computer as I was checking football scores on an iPhone listening to iTunes on an iPad. At the time he died, Jobs was listed as either primary inventor or co-inventor in 342 United States patents or patent applications related to a range of technologies.

Steve Jobs was a gifted man who used his gifts to make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s almost a decade ago now, but those who witnessed it will never forget the moment. It was Britain’s Got Talent and a frumpy, middle-aged woman with a goofy smile and dreadful hairstyle, came out to sing. The judges sniggered, as did many of those watching. Here was another desperate wannabe who would make a fool of herself in public. But then she began to sing and people’s jaws dropped. This dowdy-looking woman could sing – beautifully, gloriously, wonderfully. She was blessed with a rare talent – and now, at last, the entire world could hear it and appreciate it. Susan Boyle’s gift.

When Christopher Nolan was born in 1966, his parents Bernadette and Joseph, were devastated to discover he had severe brain damage. The doctors told them he would not be able to talk, or to walk or use his hands; he would never be independent.

His parents did all they could to make Christopher’s life as normal as possible. They involved him in daily events; took him to the park, read to him, told him stories, prayed over him, surrounded him with love and laughter – though it seemed he couldn’t really engage or respond. When he was about 10, they bought him an electric typewriter. Bernadette strapped a unicorn stick to his forehead, like a pencil, and holding his head in her hands, encouraged him to stab at the keys. She did that day after day, and nothing happened.

And then one day, August 20, 1977, Bernadette watched, as slowly Christopher began to put words together. It was a poem, beautifully written, called “I learn to bow.” Christopher was 11 years old. By the time he was 15 he had published a book of poems called ‘Damburst of Dreams’ and six years later an amazing autobiography, called ‘Under the eye of the clock.’

This boy, whom people thought couldn’t communicate, was able to write. So good a writer was he that he won the Whitbread Prize for literature. Inside that broken body was an extraordinary literary talent. Christopher Nolan’s gift.

In today’s second reading, St Paul speaks about gifts. There are a variety of gifts, he says, working in different ways in different people, and these gifts are given to us by God. They are given to each person for a good purpose – to give glory to God. One person may have the gift of preaching; another of teaching or instructing in the faith; another of healing, another of being prophetic, and so on. All these, St Paul says, are the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives different gifts to different people for the sake of the kingdom.

We are given a similar message in the Gospel story of the wedding feast of Cana. The miracle Jesus works of turning water into wine has been described as a gift miracle. It wasn’t just Jesus getting the bride and groom out of an embarrassing situation – one barrel of cheap wine would have achieved that. It is the sheer abundance of wine and its quality that is the significant thing. All that wine is an image of God’s generosity to us. God has gifted us abundantly; gifted us in so many ways, and Jesus’ life and ministry is a sign of that.

What do today’s readings say to us?

First, to acknowledge our gifts. We are all gifted. God has gifted every one of us. We don’t all have the same gifts – but we are all gifted. Many of us have a hard time believing this. In a world obsessed with celebrity and money and looks, we can find it hard to believe that we amount to anything much. If we have low self-esteem, we can find it really hard to believe. Yet the truth is, we are all gifted. God has blessed each of us with an abundance of gifts. We, you and I, are gifted.

Second, help those you love to identify their gifts. Nobody is good for nothing; we are all good at lots of things. Sometimes we just need to be prodded, encouraged, reminded. Make it a point to point out to those you love the gifts they possess. Point out to them what God sees in them.

Third, use your gifts. Let the Spirit work in you to bring your gifts out. Use them to build up the body of Christ, as St Paul instructs. Let your gifts flow abundantly, like the new wine at Cana. Maybe you’re good at music – can you use that gift in church and outside too? Maybe you’re good with young people. Maybe you’re a good public speaker. Maybe you’ve a gift for helping others a local charity could use. Maybe you’ve the gift of prophecy, of being able to draw attention to injustice in society and in the church. Use your gifts for goodness sake.

Finally, pray that our church will acknowledge the gifts and potential of all its members, women and men, and allow them full expression.

Steve Jobs, Susan Boyle, Christopher Nolan had gifts inside that, released, brought pleasure to many and glory to God.

The invitation to us today is to let our gifts flow.

Celebrating what unites us (Week of Prayer for Christian Unity)

In July 1949, Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president, died. Political leaders and ordinary Catholics wanted to attend his funeral. But there was a problem – he was a member of the Church of Ireland and his funeral service was taking place inside a Protestant church. Catholics were forbidden from attending Protestant services. And so the Catholics had to wait outside the cathedral until the service was over.

Fast forward to November 1974 and the funeral service of Erskine Childers, the fourth president of Ireland. This also took place in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, for Erskine Childers was also a member of the Church of Ireland. But now times had changed, and Catholics did not have to wait outside. They were able to attend the service and pay their respects to a great man on his sudden passing.

What made things different, of course, was Vatican II and the opening out of the Catholic Church to the world, and the thawing of its relations with the other Christian churches. Steady progress towards greater Christian unity has been made in the decades since the Council. Agreements have been reached with other churches on the fundamental nature of baptism and eucharist and on the question of justification by faith.

Here in Ireland, with our difficult history, great strides have been made in recent decades also, and great gratitude is due to church leaders and others who, often at considerable cost to themselves, extended the hand of friendship across the religious and political divide.

But major challenges remain. Some people are uneasy about the ecumenical movement and want nothing to do with it. For some Catholics, to dialogue seriously with the reformed churches is to risk compromising on the truth, which they believe the Catholic Church alone has in all its fullness. For some Protestants, what the ecumenical movement is about is Protestants bending the knee to Rome. To engage in ecumenical dialogue is to lose through compromise what the Reformers lived and died for.

For ecumenists, on the other hand, there is a fear that the move towards greater unity has lost urgency. They are disappointed over failure to move where movement is obviously demanded – on inter-communion, on marriage, on so much else. They are frustrated over doctrines and laws and attitudes which seem to hold the churches back rather than draw them together. Indeed, it seems that even after the great progress of the last five decades, the Catholic Church is still no closer to full communion with anyone in the West. Women’s ordination, human sexuality, the role of the pope and church authority all remain seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

But while these obstacles seem capable of keeping the churches divided for now, it is important to acknowledge all that we do hold in common. We have broad agreement on what is known as “the deposit of faith”: the creeds and the canon of scripture. We believe in the same God and are in the same business of building God’s Kingdom.

There is so much we can learn from each other. As we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we thank God for all that unites us, and pray for ever greater unity in the years to come.