A God deaf to my appeals

I have written countless Gospel commentaries and preached countless homilies over the years and I have always done my best to offer them as Good News. Challenging, consoling, uplifting words.

But I am coming up short now.

Tomorrow’s readings are all about perseverance in prayer. Keep on knocking on the door, and eventually God will answer. Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives, the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will have the door opened to them.

Except it’s not the case.

I have asked and I have sought and I have knocked – and there has been no response from on high. Many others have asked and sought and knocked on my behalf too – and have found only silence. Candles burning to the quick, prayers unheeded, the door left firmly closed. After two years of hell, my pain is more intense and more deeply rooted than ever. My despair beyond despair.

In my old pre-pain, preaching days, I would have found ways to explain or make sense of this silence from beyond. God will answer in God’s own good time, God knows what’s best for us, God’s ways are not our ways. 

Maybe that’s true, except that’s not what tomorrow’s readings promise. All I know from long, painful experience is that the God to whom I have dedicated my life has been dead to my appeals, and, whatever about miserable me, God has been dead to the appeals of my saintly mother and my aunts and of so many, many others.

All I am left with are tears. I’m not even sure that it’s worth my while screaming with the psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” for all I seem to encounter is the sound of silence.

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My worst nightmare

Every priest and religious in active ministry today share one common nightmare – that he will receive a phone call from his bishop/congregational leader informing him that an allegation of sexual abuse has been made against him.

To be falsely accused of any crime is bad enough but nothing, except perhaps murder, compares with being accused of the sexual abuse of a child or vulnerable person. In most cases, you are instantly and very publicly removed from office, and even when there is no official explanation for your removal, local people will soon start to put two and two together. There is the shock, the incredulity, the shame (even though you are innocent), the helplessness, the vulnerability. Your world comes crashing down. You are made to feel guilty even before you have a chance to defend yourself.

Even when your family and friends believe and support you, you feel totally alone. You are stuck in a nightmare and you don’t know when or if you’ll ever get out of it.

You hope for the total support of your bishop/superior, but his first instinct will be to protect the interests of the church. As it has always been. In the old shameful days of the past, protecting the interests of the church meant ignoring the cries of those who were abused. It was an unforgivable act that destroyed countless lives, and for which the church continues to pay a heavy price. Now it means letting clergy hang out to dry, even when the allegation is anonymous and clearly spurious.

Because of the church’s past sins, allegations of abuse must always be treated with the utmost seriousness. The victim(s) must always come first. And the vast majority of allegations of abuse are one hundred percent genuine.

But if the allegation is anonymous, or if it is clearly false, the accused priest needs to feel supported by the church. That does not always happen, as Fr Tim Hazelwood describes in The Tablet newspaper (see his story on the Association of Catholic Priests’ website). What happened to him is every innocent priest’s worse nightmare. It is mine too.

The curious case of my ordination day appendix

On the morning of my ordination – October 2, 1988 – I woke up feeling the worse for wear. I had been out the night before, on what you could label a kind of clerical equivalent of a stag night, and I had a couple of drinks, so I concluded that what I had was a hangover. A good shower and a walk by the river would sort me out.
But they didn’t. I struggled back to the house barely able to keep my feet under me. Deep down I knew it wasn’t a hangover (nobody gets hungover on three beers!) and I began to wonder and worry. I was throwing up and sweating and trembling. I had no strength and had to get back into bed, though the ceremony was due to take place in a couple of hours and the bus full of excited family, relatives and friends was due to arrive soon.

They may have been excited but I wasn’t. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me and why it had to happen on this of all days. My colleagues, increasingly worried, decided to get a doctor.

Three of us were being ordained that day. It was the culmination of nine long years of study and preparation, and the man who was going to do the ordaining was the recently appointed archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell.

My family arrived at about the same time as the doctor, but it was decided not to tell them that I was ill in bed. The official story was that I was still getting ready and would be down to welcome them in a few minutes. But my family found it hard to believe. They knew that one thing I would never be is late.

Meanwhile, the doctor was unsure as to the reason for my illness. He recommended that I forget about the ordination, stating that I was not up to taking part in any kind of ceremony.

I pleaded with him and with my colleagues who were in charge to let me go ahead, that I could get through it. Reluctantly, they relented. I was given a pain-killing injection and the ceremony was postponed for an hour to give me a chance to recover.

All the while, my Redemptorist colleagues and the many others who had arrived for the big day were wondering what was really going on. Was I having last minute nerves? Was I going to back out? Still not having laid eyes on me, my family were beginning to ask the same questions.

Finally, my parents were allowed up to my room, and they helped me to get ready.

I was ordained in a chair with a basin underneath in case I needed to throw up. I never prostrated myself or knelt for the laying on of hands. The archbishop and the concelebrants came down to me, not me up to them. And I made it through to the end. I was successfully ordained, and as a result now ontologically different, even if the circumstances were unusual!

Family photographs taken, in which I looked as miserable as I felt, I went back to bed while the celebratory dinner was taking place. But I got up to make an end of dinner speech. I had spent days working on it, and no matter how ill I was, I was determined to deliver it. I love speechifying!

Then it was home to County Limerick on the bus with my family. But I felt increasingly weak and miserable. It was supposed to be a wonderful happy day – and of course it was – but I wasn’t feeling it. I just wanted to get into bed.

And that’s what I did as soon as I got home, but within the hour I was out of bed again, being rushed by my father into hospital in Limerick. Our family doctor had called in to look at me after we got home and straight away announced that I had appendicitis and needed it dealt with without delay.

“So, what do you do?” the young nursed asked me as I was being wheeled to theatre.

“I’m a priest,” I said, scarcely believing those words myself.

“Gosh, you look very young to be a priest. How long are you ordained?”

“A few hours,” I answered.

“Oh my God,” she exclaimed, or whatever was the equivalent of OMG back in 1988.

It was an extraordinary coincidence.

The next day, appendix successfully extracted and First Mass postponed, I was inundated with visits from family and friends.

“Just as well you had an appendix,” my sister said. “Otherwise, they’d all be saying you were trying to back out.”

But I have often wondered about that extraordinary coincidence, especially since I developed back pain on the very weekend 26 years later that I was due to begin my sabbatical. Another absolutely extraordinary coincidence.

Was my body trying to tell me something on the morning of October 2, 1988? Was it telling me to think again about what I was going to do? Could nerves trigger an appendix? Or was it just one of those one in a million coincidences that simply cannot be explained?

My tears for a lost innocence

The choir began the hymn and suddenly I felt the tears trickle down my cheeks. It was no special occasion and it wasn’t a particularly beautiful rendition of the hymn. It wasn’t even a very good hymn. “Our God Reigns” has never been popular with the liturgical types. So, why the tears?Because that is a song I associate with my young days, the days of youth and optimism, and those are long gone now.

“Our God Reigns” reminds me in particular of the pope’s visit to Ireland in September 1979. I was at the youth Mass in Galway, having entered the seminary just two weeks before. And at the Mass, where the warm-up acts included Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, I was allocated a seat in the section close to the altar, the section reserved for priests and seminarians. The pope was just one hundred yards away.

I was 17 years old. I was innocent and naïve and awestruck and, like so many others present that day, swept away in the euphoria of it all.

We were celebrating the swan song of the church in Ireland during those three days of the pope’s visit but we had no idea that is what we were doing. The hundreds of bishops and priests and religious present must have felt a warm glow of satisfaction and assurance as they gazed out at the vast sea of faces. The future of the church in Ireland seemed secure. All those young people had travelled to Galway from every corner of the country tired, but full of faith and vigor and love for the church, and singing “Our God Reigns.”

The day before almost the entire population of Dublin had gathered in the Phoenix Park in another extraordinary display of faith and emotion. The church was safe for several generations more.

I was 17 years old and had no cynicism in me, or disappointment or disillusionment with the church or the world. My experience of both had been nothing but positive. Full of zeal, I wanted to make my contribution.

It’s hard to believe that was almost 37 years ago. The young clergy who had brought bus loads of teenagers to Galway from all over the country are old and wearied now, morale is sapped, the energy and exuberance of those days long gone, as churches empty and monasteries close and parishes cluster and vocations disappear.

The tears I shed were for the innocent, fragile me of all those years ago with my naïve enthusiasm but also for the church that through arrogance and complacency and abuse of power lost the love and trust of its people and won’t ever get it back.

Yes, yes, yes to women deacons

 
Some wonderful news came out of the Vatican on Thursday. During a meeting with some 900 leaders of the world’s congregations of Catholic women religious, Pope Francis announced he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic Church.
Many church historians have being saying for decades that there is abundant evidence that women served as deacons in the early centuries of the church. The apostle Paul mentions one such woman, Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans.
The permanent diocanate was retored to the church after Vatican II and there are now over 40,000 male permanent deacons ministering in parishes and dioceses throughout the world. Permanent deacons cannot say Mass, anoint or hear confession, but they are able to baptize, preside at marriages and funerals, proclaim the Gospel and preach during various liturgies.
Women deacons would be able to do these very same things.
How wonderful would that be! Imagine a woman in vestments proclaiming the Gospel and preaching in St Peter’s in Rome! The image of a church transformed that would send out.
What kinds of things could women deacons preach on? In the words of Fr James Martin, S.J.: “Everything of course, like male deacons! But imagine them preaching on the following: The Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, the Woman at the Well, the Syrophoenician woman, the appearance of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, and on and on. Women deacons could preach on anything, like male deacons, but how I long to hear them preach on Jesus and on women in the New Testament.”
One of the most offputting aspects of major church liturgies is the rows of robed male clerics with not a single woman in sight. I don’t know how women put up with it. It’s why I choose not to concelebrate at Mass, if I don’t have to.
Of course, it is early days and all the pope has done is announce his intention to form a commission to study the possibility of women deacons. The commission may amount to nothing in the end, or propose no change in the status quo.
But it’s good to dream.
When one considers the question of women and the Catholic Church today, some things are obvious. First, women not only make up a significant majority of those who attend Mass and the sacraments week in week out, they play the primary role in handing on the faith. Without women the Catholic Church would be moribund or close to it.
Second, women have traditionally done much of the church’s dirty work. Think of religious education (nuns and catechists); church and parish administration (secretaries); upkeep and decoration of churches (altar societies and Martha Ministers), care of priests (housekeepers and helpers). If these women downed tools tomorrow the church would scarcely be able to function.
Three, women continue to have a tremendous love for the church. They show this not just by continuing to occupy the pews every Sunday and doing most of the church’s dirty work, but also by the number who serve on parish pastoral councils, teach religion in schools, become extraordinary ministers of the Word and Eucharist, do voluntary work and take courses in theology.
Indeed, the commitment and enthusiasm of so many women is extraordinary given that they are second-class members of their own church. The Catholic Church is the last great western institution that systematically discriminates against women. 
It is no longer good enough to pay lip service to the dignity and vocation of women in the church, as church leaders have tended to do. Real and equal involvement in the church is not a privilege women must earn but a right that belongs to them by virtue of their creation in the image of God and their cooperation into Christ through baptism. Ordaining women to the diaconate would be a wonderful step in the right direction.
 

The price of celibacy 

I joined the seminary before I had my first shave. I joined without ever having had a girlfriend, or ever going on a proper date. I joined without giving much thought to girls or relationships or the implications of living a celibate life.
I was 17 years old when I decided to become a Redemptorist. I understood that if you wanted to be a priest or religious, you couldn’t get married, that celibacy was part of the package. But I was young and full of idealism. Making vows of chastity seemed like no big commitment. It’s how Jesus lived. It’s how priests and brothers and nuns lived. It gave them the freedom to give themselves totally to God. They seemed to manage it well enough. So also would I, I was sure. 

And, anyway, I was joining a religious order. I wasn’t going to be a secular priest who, most likely, would end up living, isolated, on his own. I would be part of a community of priests and brothers living as one under the same roof.  

And religious life has been good to me. I have received wonderful support from my religious brothers, especially when I ran into trouble with the Vatican and, later, when my health collapsed. I have not had to worry about supporting myself financially or getting the best medical care. I have been allowed the freedom to do as little or as much work as my health has allowed. I lack for nothing.

But there is one drawback to the celibate life that I have become acutely conscious of since I became ill – lack of physical affection.

I’m not talking about sexual affection or expression. I’m not talking about breaking the vow of chastity. I’m simply talking about the sort of physical contact that most family members or partners take for granted – a hug, an embrace, a stroke of the cheek, a gentle massage, a rub of the shoulders, holding hands. The warmth of simple human contact that nourishes, soothes, relaxes, gives life.

Much of it is my own fault. Unlike my father, I have never been a tactile person. When people would try to hug me I’d instinctively pull away. I was never good at demonstrating or receiving affection.

But we need human touch – hand to hand, skin on skin – to be fully alive. Since I’ve become ill, my tendency has been to want to withdraw even more from people, to curl up in my own pain-filled, self-pitying, shrinking world.

It’s not the fault of the brothers I live with or my family or my friends. They all want what’s best for me. I know I’m loved. But celibacy does have a price. It’s just the way things are.

It’s time women were allowed preach in the Catholic Church – and lay and married men too

Last Sunday I preached on love. It was the first time I have done Sunday preaching since I went under the knife (twice) last November. When you preach in our Limerick church on a weekend, you do so at all the Masses. So I performed four times.The response was positive. I love preaching. Actually, I love public speaking. I was no more than 10 or 11 years old when I began delivering passionate political addresses with a hairbrush as a microphone.

I will never forget the first time I got to use a real microphone. I was reading in church at Sunday Mass. I was about 14 years old, and I tried to imagine I was Lincoln, or Churchill, or JFK, but it’s hard to electrify a crowd when all you have to work with is a dull passage from the Old Testament. Still, the experience exhilarated me. I was buzzing afterwards. I knew that whatever career I would choose would have a public speaking element.

For a long time, I was determined to become a barrister. It would be exciting to stand before a jury like one of the TV lawyers and use my oratorical skills to brilliantly and forensically demolish my opponent’s argument.

I also dreamed of a career in politics. It wasn’t the humdrum constituency work I was interested in, or messy meetings in smoke-filled rooms, but the opportunity to make speeches, and argue points, and even, eventually, once I got to the top, to address the nation. I could recite large parts of JFK’s inaugural address and MLK’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I could imagine delivering speeches like that, but, of course, it never came to be because I got derailed down the religion road.

I still often wonder ‘What if?’

At least being a clergyman offers the opportunity to speak in public, like I did on Sunday. And, occasionally, to debate in public also. I have taken part in a number of university debates against top quality opponents over the years and won them all on a show of hands. There are few bigger thrills than having a student audience declare you the victor.

Not all my preaching has been a success. I remember vividly the Christmas midnight Mass when I got it spectacularly wrong. The little church was packed, lots of young families were in attendance, and I spoke about how at Christmas many people can experience the absence of God rather than God’s presence. I used a story from Auschwitz to illustrate my point.

I knew half way through the homily that it wasn’t going down well, and after the Mass was over and I stood at the back to greet people as they left, several made sure to let me know what they thought of my performance.

“Disgraceful!” one man exclaimed. His wife tried to be more diplomatic. “It wasn’t that bad, Father, don’t listen to him,” she said. “No, he needs to hear the truth,” the husband retorted. “Someone needs to tell him.”

Another woman, two kids in tow, told me forcefully never to preach that sermon again. Others said the same thing.

I was distraught. I knew I had miscalculated badly. Christmas should be uplifting and cuddly and child-friendly. Mine was the opposite. I vowed never to make a mistake like that again. And I haven’t.

I think one of the great weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been the quality of its preachers and preaching. Some preachers are always going to be better than others. They have an aptitude for it. They work at it. They enjoy it.

Some will never be brilliant but, with determination and effort, they can and do improve.

But a lot of clergy, it seems to me, do not try very hard. And maybe do not care a great deal any more. They are too tired or too busy to prepare adequately. They commit little or nothing to paper. They feel they have said it all before, or they have a few pet topics they keep returning to. The whole exercise is a chore for them as well as for the congregation. I sometimes wonder how so many people put up with it week after week.

And of course it is difficult for both priest and people when the priest has to face the same people every Sunday and the people have to face the same priest.

The preaching problem will become even more acute as the number of priests continues to fall. Importing clergy from overseas, who have no knowledge of our culture and for whom English is not their first language, will only exacerbate the problem.

Priests need more training. When the Redemptorists ran renewal courses for clergy and religious back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the preaching segment was the bit the participants disliked most. Each had to compose a homily and deliver it to camera as if in his own parish setting. And then the others were encouraged to critique his performance. He would naturally get defensive and his colleagues would always be reluctant to say something negative about his content or delivery.

Most of them found the whole ordeal excruciating, most made excuses about being in an unnatural environment that put them off their game. Many were in denial about how dreadful they actually were. I doubt that most took any lessons on board at all.

And yet priests need training and regular refresher days, because preaching is such a vital part of their ministry. Not all are going to be spellbinding orators or storytellers, but everyone can do better, if they try and if they prepare.

It is a shame and unjust that only priests and deacons are permitted to preach at the Eucharist. Women’s voices are never heard (unless occasionally one is invited to “say a few words” after communion). Married voices, unless the preacher is one of the few convert priests, are never heard either. So much wisdom is being lost. So much needs to change.

But change won’t come while we remain trapped in the current clerical model of church. Maybe the slow disappearance of priests in Ireland and the western world will bring about the change that is needed. Then good lay people will be required to preach and teach. For if they are not, the gospel will not be proclaimed and the church will become even more irrelevant.