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.

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The conspiracy against Pope Francis

Even as Westminster bristles in turmoil and Washington simmers in shutdown, another battle is being fought at the Vatican. The papacy of Pope Francis is under attack from people in the upper ranks of the church. These men are not only trying to undermine him but to drive him from office. They are taking advantage of the abuse crisis as a platform to get the pope to resign.

“There are people who simply don’t like this pontificate,” says German Cardinal Walter Kasper. “They want it to end as soon as possible to then have, so to say, a new conclave. They also want it to go in their favour, so it will have a result that suits their ideas.”

Some powerful enemies have never liked Francis’s style or his policy of glasnost or his efforts at reform and at giving more power to local churches. These same enemies were appalled by his letter on Marriage and Family, which they feel is confusing to the ‘simple faithful’ and not doctrinally sound. Four of them, lead by Cardinal Raymond Burke, published an open letter criticising the pope’s teaching and demanding clarifications.

Last August, on the last day of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, ex papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published a letter accusing Francis of ignoring allegations of misconduct against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and calling for the pontiff to resign. The letter and its timing were deliberately calculated to cause the greatest possible embarrassment to the pope. While most senior clerics publicly defended Francis, dismissing the allegations as a smear, some on the Burke wing of the church did not. The irony is that McCarrick wasn’t promoted by Francis but by Francis’s predecessors.

To many casual observers, the Catholic Church gives the appearance of being a monolith and that a monolithic unanimity exists at the top. This has never been the case but the divisions and dissension at the top are clearly visible today. These divisions exist also in the lower ranks of the church. They are especially strong in the American church, aided by right-wing Catholic media such as EWTN. Just check out the twitter accounts of cardinals like Joe Tobin of Newark and Blaise Cupich of Chicago. Every day they are viciously trolled on social media by ‘good’ Catholics, defenders of the faith, who abuse these men because they see them as Francis supporters. The level of vitriol is astonishing.

The sad irony is that the very churchmen and their supporters who attack Pope Francis are the same people who would not tolerate any criticism of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. In the years before Francis, they used to demand total obedience to the Holy Father, and were eager to publicly discipline small fry like me who stepped out of line. They don’t seem to be aware of their own hypocrisy, or maybe they couldn’t care less.

I have no doubt Francis is doing his best, but it is difficult to make progress when there are enemies in the camp.

Gillette’s new ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect. How could anyone be outraged by that?

Gillette, the razor company, released a new television ad this week that has generated lots of controversy. The ad isn’t another version of the shirtless man, gazing into a mirror, face covered in lather, as he shaves himself fresh and handsome for the day ahead, to the old jingle “The best a man can get.”

This ad adopts a radically different approach. There is no shirtless man in front of a mirror. Instead, through a series of different scenes, it provokes viewers to take on issues including sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour and toxic masculinity, praising those who’ve abandoned “the same old excuses” for such behaviour in the past.

It is Gillette’s response to the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women to speak out against sexual exploitation in a way they never had before.

Instead of “The best a man can get” line, the new ad challenges, “Is this the best a man can get?” The ad encourages its audience to reflect on what masculinity means, and how a man should see himself.

Many viewers were thrilled with its message of tolerance and respect. But others were outraged by what they saw as another example of political correctness gone mad. They claimed, in the words of Piers Morgan, that the ad is stating that men are bad and masculinity is a bad thing, that it is a shameless exercise in man-shaming and emasculating men.

But what I saw is a beautiful ad with a powerful message. It’s not attacking men or masculinity. It’s attacking toxic behaviour, the kind that leads to intimidation and violence, and women being afraid to be out alone at night. It’s challenging the kind of behaviour nobody – male or female – should engage in.

It’s extraordinary how so many people managed to get offended by the ad. And how the outrage came from the same predictable sources – the right-wing, the traditionalists, the Jordan Peterson fans, the Trumpsters, those who see liberal conspiracies everywhere.

Look at the ad and see if you’re offended. And if you are, then ask yourself why.

It reminds us to think about how we see and relate to each other. How we touch others can be positive or negative. It can build up or knock down; be constructive or destructive, life-enhancing or life-diminishing.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a warm hug or we can touch them with a slap or a beating. “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union,” Pope Francis writes in The Joy of Love. And, of course, this doesn’t just happen within marriage.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a word of encouragement or acceptance or love. Or we can touch someone with a word of contempt or anger or abuse. Bullying in schools and the workplace is a major problem, made worse by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And we know what bullying can do.

The Gillette ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect.

Why should anyone be outraged about that?

We must reform how bishops are elected (and why I would never make one)

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will soon be coming to the end of his time as Archbishop of Dublin, and already speculation has started as to his successor. But there are several other dioceses in Ireland that have been waiting for months and even years for new bishops, and several bishops who have been obliged to minister deep into retirement age. It’s not easy for them, or their priests and people.

Perhaps the Nuncio and his Vatican colleagues are taking their time, giving thought to a radical reorganisation and reduction of the number of dioceses in Ireland. (They could easily be cut by 12 or 14). Or perhaps they have a problem finding suitable candidates. A man is invited to the nunciature to be offered a diocese, but he politely declines, or makes his intentions known even before that.

It’s understandable why good men would be reluctant to become a bishop in Ireland today. He’d be destined for a life of dealing with crisis.

The pool of potential bishops is made smaller by the reduction in the number of eligible candidates. There are not many fit and able priests between the ages of 45 and 60.

And then, of course, the criteria a candidate must fulfil to be considered for a bishopric reduces the pool even more. You have to be sound on Church teaching, a defender and supporter of the party line, with a patron or two in Rome (though, hopefully, this may have eased a little under Francis, who prefers shepherds to culture warriors). It’s why I, or anyone like me, will never be made a bishop. (I always wanted the See of Cashel in order to be patron of the GAA and get the best seats at matches!)

It’s clear that something is wrong with the method for choosing bishops. It’s clear that it needs to be reformed. It’s clear that much wider consultation needs to take place, and it must involve all interested parties in the diocese.

Imagine if we were to go back to the manner of selection that was the norm in the early church.

Each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.

Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He (or, hopefully before long, she) would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would have an intimate knowledge of his flock and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.

Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.

When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.
The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.

Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, many bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.

And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese.

Given the challenges it faces, the Irish church requires good bishops, people with the smell of the sheep. In order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, maybe it’s time to look closely at how bishops are chosen and to return to our ancient practice.

And, while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the medieval titles and robes and headgear. These are anachronisms from the past, but today only invite ridicule especially from younger people. The bishop’s authority will be seen by what he says and does, not by what he wears.

People who make me ashamed to be a Christian

I am no saint and am full of faults and prejudices of my own but there are some kinds of Christians I find embarrassing and who give Christianity a bad name. Among them are:

Christians who support a man who gleefully puts kids in cages at the Mexico border.

Christians who (quietly) support the burning down of hotels designated as reception centres for refugees.

Christians who use the cloak of clericalism to nakedly climb the hierarchical ladder.

Christians who refuse to receive holy communion from a person of colour.

Christians who use their position of trust to use and abuse the weak and vulnerable and those who cover up for them.

Christians who greedily exploit and denude the environment, or treat it with reckless abandonment.

Christians who blame those who are gay for sexual abuse in the church.

Christians who want nothing to do with Christians of other denominations.

Christians who disown a family member simply because he/she is gay (even though God created everyone in God’s own image and likeness).

Christians who send gay teens to special camps to undergo so-called ‘conversion therapy.’

Christians who advocate erecting walls and barriers between nations and peoples rather than building bridges.

Christians who, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, continue to deny the reality of man-made climate change.

Christians who are repulsed by transgender people, even though they have no idea about the life-long pain and trauma transgender people go through.

Christians who agitate about some pro-life issues while studiously ignoring others.

Christians who confidentially tell you that they just hate having all those foreigners around. (Who knows what diseases they might have?)

Christians who vociferously attack the current pope while tolerating no criticism of his immediate predecessors.

Christians who anonymously report or delate other Christians to those in authority for not being, in their view, sufficiently orthodox.

When Christianity is not about love, then it is about nothing.

True love, which always speaks the truth, is the only antidote to the lies and fake news of today

Love is an overused word today. We find it everywhere from graffiti-laden locker room walls to the heart emojis in anonymous internet chat rooms. It sells everything from underwear to Ferraris. It is confused with every kind of feeling and state and emotion. I’ve been thinking of the casual way I misuse the word love:

I love chips

I love a nice lie-in on a Saturday morning

I love Liverpool FC

I love preaching

I love salt

I love a good game of hurling

I love a book that captures my imagination

I love relaxing on Cape Clear island in the summer

I love Munster rugby

I love history and politics

I’m sure all of us can come up with our own list of ways we misuse the word love.

But what is the true meaning of love? For those who are Christian, if we want to know what true love is, we need only look at God. God is love, St John tells us. God not only loves, God is love. And God showed us what true love is like by sharing it, by shaping us like himself, with an inbuilt capacity for loving. By sending his only Son among us to show us how to live.

The nature of true love is spelled out for us in St Paul’s famous ode to love that is read at so many weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious, boastful, rude, and arrogant. Love does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, love takes joy not in wrong-doing but only in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

That is the definition of true love.

True love does not change with the times. It can be cheapened by misuse and overuse but its essence never changes. Love is not infatuation or lust or obsession. It is not servile submission or putting up with. It is not grasping or abusive or domineering. It is not a one-night stand or a casual fling with someone whose name you forget the next day. True love overcomes, forgives, endures, sacrifices, empathises. It never gives up on anyone. It sees the good in everyone. Love, true love, is our best nature because it is God at work in us.

True love is never selfish, never all about me. When you love it’s not all about you anymore, you empty yourself for the one you love. You die to yourself for the one you love. Think of the give and take in a marriage or a committed relationship. Think of the parents of a handicapped child who spend themselves for that child every single day. Or the one who cares for an elderly parent. Patience, sacrifice, devotion, willingness to be there for someone always – that’s love.

True love speaks the truth. Or, as St Paul puts it, love delights in the truth. It always speaks the truth, no matter how difficult or dangerous that might be. Love speaks uncomfortable truths, whatever the cost. We can think of politicians, presidents and others throughout history, and especially today in this era of fake news, for whom that concept is alien.

Andrei Sakharov was a brilliant scientist who helped develop the Soviet Union’s nuclear programme. The Communist authorities honoured him for his achievements. But then he began to speak out in favour of social justice and human rights and against the bomb. So he was stripped of his honours and sent into internal exile in the city of Gorky, where he could contact no one. He was punished severely for telling the truth, as so many of his country men and women were. But he did not back down and he was vindicated in the end. Love speaks the truth no matter what the cost.

Love risks everything. It pays any price; lays everything on the line. Think of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who willingly gave his life in Auschwitz for a man he did not know. 

True love risks everything.

The Bee Gees were onto something when they asked: How deep is your love?

Mrs May’s exercise in hypocrisy

There are many things I like about Theresa May. She has great stamina and determination. She has the ability to bounce back after repeated humiliation. She is a woman of faith who takes her Christian convictions seriously. She is a politician serious about politics.

But one thing I cannot understand, and never will, is how she could change her mind on a fundamental principle literally overnight and then fight will all her might for the very opposite of what she claimed to believe before. She campaigned as a Remainer, though not a vociferous one. She argued that Britain should be at the heart of Europe, that the claims made by the Brexiteers were wrong. But as soon as Cameron left Downing St for life in a hut in his back garden, she grasped the Tory leadership by repeating over and over “Brexit means Brexit.” She became a convinced Brexiteer, one of their loudest cheerleaders.

I understand the nature of politics and that one must sometimes sacrifice conviction in the interests of ambition. But I don’t know how one could do so on an issue as vital as Brexit. It is to go from advocating one point of view to then championing its very opposite. It would be like me becoming an advocate of the Tridentine Mass after long being a supporter of women’s ordination (if I was angling for a bishopric). It would be an act of hypocrisy or duplicity. If I believe something strongly enough, if I believe it with all my heart and soul, then I could never become a champion of the opposite position, even if a majority of electors agreed with opposite the position, even if it would be in my personal interests to do so.

If I am a Remainer, I could never become a Leaver overnight, unless convinced by some new overwhelming evidence (that does not exist) or out of naked ambition and the desire to reach No. 10. But how do you live with yourself in such a scenario? How can Theresa May live with herself (and trust in God that she’s doing the right thing)? I know I couldn’t.

Maybe that’s why I’m a clergyman on the bottom rung of the ladder and she is prime minister.