Plain speaking – homily for 7th Sunday of the Year

Ten days ago soccer player Declan Rice announced he was switching his international allegiance from Ireland to England.

London-born Rice had represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level throughout his teen years. He had earned three caps for the senior international team, but these were friendly games, and due to a loophole in the law, the fact they were not competitive fixtures meant he could still switch allegiance if he wished. And he did. He was earning rave reviews for West Ham, and England came calling. Even though he had represented Ireland with pride for years, the lure of greater money and glory with England was too tempting. He couldn’t resist.

Naturally, Irish fans weren’t happy. Some were very angry. Twitter was on fire. I wrote an angry tweet myself. Sarcastic, bitter. Not a good look for a clergyman. Not a good look for one preaching on today’s readings.

I put my hand up. If I were in court and today’s Gospel was a charge sheet assessing how successful I am at following Jesus, I’d be found guilty, guilty of failing to do always as Jesus asks, guilty of failing to live always as Jesus commands.

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, give to those who beg from you, treat others as you would like them to treat you. 

All of these charges I have failed to keep at one time or another, in one way or another. Do not judge; do not condemn; forgive those who hurt you. But when it came to Declan Rice, I judged, I condemned, I didn’t forgive. While this might seem minor, it’s not an isolated incident. For even more incriminating evidence, I refer you to my Twitter account and what I’ve said about Brexiteers.

Today’s Gospel is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is Jesus’ manifesto, his vision, for how his disciples are to live. It’s a fleshing out of the ten commandments, a going into the nitty-gritty of what they mean, an explication of the attitudes and outlook Christians are called to have. It’s a demanding action plan; even an almost impossible one. It’s what Jesus presents to us.

So, what should we do? How must we respond?

First, we must adopt Jesus’ action plan, his template for living, and make it our own. This isn’t easy, as we know. The vision of Jesus is at odds with the way the world operates. It turns the standard way of behaving upside down. For all the progress humankind has made, for all our advances in technology and science, for all our development in human rights, we still have a lot of evolving to do if we are to live like Jesus.

Eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-semitism is increasing again. Last week 80 swastikas were daubed on Jewish graves in France; while in Britain anti-semitic bullying is ripping the Labour Party apart. Last week in America, a white newspaper editor called on the KKK to ride into Washington DC and start hanging liberals from trees. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, more than half of immigrants say they experienced racism in the past year.

Today, there are more displaced people than at any time since the Second World War, while millions of young women are trafficked into sex slavery every year. Bullying, domestic violence, sexual discrimination, homophobia are as rampant as ever. Social media has facilitated an explosion of hate speech.

Our church, which should live to a higher standard, has also failed abysmally to live by the vision of Jesus. A synod in Rome this week has been discussing clerical sexual abuse and its coverup. Clerics abused the vulnerable and abused their status while those in church authority did nothing.

To adopt Jesus’ vision is to change how we behave. It is to treat everyone as we would like to be treated.

Second, Jesus asks us to keep returning to his vision, never to give up. Of course, we will fail. Of course, we will behave in shameful ways. Of course, we will rush to judge and condemn and treat badly. We do these things because we are human after all. We give into selfishness and anger and tribalism because we are frail and broken and imperfect. But Jesus knows this – after all, he knew his disciples. The challenge he poses is to brush ourselves clean every time we fail, and start over again. Never to give up trying to live his way.

In the 1980s, civil war raged in Nicaragua in Central America. The left-wing Sandinistas eventually claimed power. The Sandinistas had a lot of support in the church from those who advocated Liberation Theology, those who believed the church should be actively on the side of the poor. One Sandinista government minister was a Catholic priest, called Ernesto Cardenal. The Vatican didn’t approve of Cardenal’s political activism, and when Pope John Paul visited Nicaragua in 1984, a famous photograph shows him wagging his finger at Cardenal, who is kneeling before him seeking his blessing. Fr Cardenal’s faculties were removed, and he could no longer function as a priest.

Fast forward to last week and another photograph. This time, Fr Cardenal, now 94, is in a hospital bed. He is dressed in priestly garments, and he is celebrating Mass. Pope Francis has restored his priestly faculties. Pope Francis has rehabilitated him, treated him with compassion. The old man is at peace. Happy.

The message of Jesus in today’s Gospel is simple and clear: let love be our guiding motive; let mercy dictate all we do; treat others as we would like to be treated. Seek, like Jesus, to turn our broken world upside down.

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Gay clergy can hardly be blamed for abuse of nuns

Pope Francis has conceded that priests and bishops have sexually abused nuns, including one case where nuns were reduced to “sexual slavery.” He said it’s an issue the church is trying to address. A couple of things we can say straight out:

Gay clergy cannot be held responsible for this scandal. Right-wingers in the church have tried to pin the sex abuse and harassment scandals in the church on gay clergy. Root out homosexual priests and the problem would be solved, they say. Ban gay seminarians and the clerical church would be healthier. Those with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ should never be admitted to holy orders. But those with so-called deep-seated homosexual tendencies are surely not the ones who have sexually assaulted nuns or held them as sex slaves. Right-wingers will have to come up with another group or fault to blame this on.

Mandatory celibacy is a scandal that must be addressed. The late Daniel O’Leary in his final piece of published writing described it as a ‘kind of sin’ for the damage it has done to so many men. Even those (many) who have never broken their vow of celibacy have been damaged by it. Clearly, if what Pope Francis says is true, clergy with deep-seated heterosexual tendencies are also a danger to the church. Perhaps they should be banned from the priesthood too.

The problem isn’t gay priests or straight priests. The problem is mandatory celibacy and an unhealthy approach to sexuality within the church. Church language and teaching around sexuality need to be examined. Too many innocent people have suffered because of the failure of those in authority to face up to this thorny issue.

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.

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.