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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.