Francis reminds me why I am a Christian

Yesterday Pope Francis pulled off yet another surprise. At the end of his five-hour trip to the island of Lesbos to highlight the plight of migrants who are detained there and in similar centres across Southern Europe, he brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome aboard his papal airliner. According to reports, the three lucky families, all Muslim, had been chosen by lot from among the 3000 people held on the Greek island.

The pope expressed the hope that the world would “respond in a way worthy of our common humanity” as attitudes to the refugee crisis continue to harden in Europe and elsewhere. Francis’ actions were a calculated attempt to draw attention to the crisis, which he said was the worst since the Second World War. He wanted to offer hope to people left with nothing but the tiniest of hope, and also to prick the conscience of governments who now want to build walls as their preferred response to this humanitarian catastrophe.

Some will accuse the pope of meddling in politics and dismiss his gesture as yet another example of his genius for good PR. But what the pope is doing is simply putting the parable of the Good Samaritan into practice. He is trying to demonstrate that Christian love is about far more than sexual ethics or who should use public restrooms (as some Christians in the United States in particular seem to think) – it is about concrete love of neighbour irrespective of who he or she is. 

Francis reminds me of the reason I wanted to become a clergyman. The example of people like Jean Donovan and Oscar Romero, martyred for standing in solidarity with the poor of El Salvador, is what motivated me as an idealistic teenager to give my life to the church. Not lace or the allure of dressing in fancy garments, but grace and a message of hope and love. Not a desire to find refuge in a ‘smaller, purer church’ in combat with the modern world, but to be part of a church on the streets engaging with people as we find them.

That’s what Francis tries to do and teach. Thank God for him and his example.

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Could we really continue to feel pain after death?

A medic said something to me the other day that really made me stop and think. I was talking about my pain and how I could understand why some people would choose to die rather than live with constant chronic pain. The medic’s reply went something like: “But we don’t know what happens on the other side. We don’t know if the pain ends once you die.”

I was taken aback. Could what he said be true? Could it really be that your chronic pain would remain even after you had breathed your last? That one’s soul or spirit or life force would continue to experience suffering even after the physical body was no more? Maybe that’s what Hell is, but I can imagine nothing more unjust or wrong.

When I told somebody what the medic had said, that person came up with an interesting analogy that also gave me pause for thought. Why do some people experience phantom pain in a limb that has been amputated? The limb isn’t part of the body any more, yet the person feels terrible pain where the limb used to be. Why is that? And might the same thing happen on a larger scale after an aching body breathes its last?

It’s too horrific to contemplate. And if there is a creator, as I believe there to be, why would a creator punish anyone in that cruel way? Why should I continue to suffer after death, when, through no fault of my own, I have already suffered so much in life? It goes against every concept of justice and decency. It goes against any notion of a loving God. I’d rather that there was no afterlife than think I would not be allowed to Rest in Peace.

A (reasonably) clear conscience 

I made an examination of conscience last night. I scrolled back through the years to try to assess whether I have been a good human being and a good priest.

It was prompted by a programme on the BBC about Jimmy Saville, and the appalling impact sexual abuse has on its victims. The documentary showed footage of Saville’s almost state-like funeral, with mourning crowds lining the streets and a church full of robed clergy and solemn dignitaries listening to eulogies that were fulsome in their praise of the legendary ‘entertainer’. And then we were introduced to some of the women who had been abused by Saville, and whose lives have been destroyed by him. Their pain and anger still rage, as does their bitter disappointment that he was never made to account for his crimes while he was still alive. His victims would never have their day in court.

I was left wondering how Saville, a regular churchgoer, must have felt about himself and his crimes as his end drew near. Did he feel any remorse? Did he have any sense of the devastation he had caused to so many people? All the lives he had ruined? All the innocence and innocents he had destroyed? How tormented was he by his actions or was he tormented at all? Did he worry about judgement day?

It put me thinking about my own life and my deeds and misdeeds. I had a happy childhood and a pleasant experience of school. I don’t think I hurt anyone, at least to any serious degree, by anything I said or did in my youth. Same with my college and seminary days. Yes, I was difficult to live with sometimes. Yes, I could be moody and I definitely upset people more than once by my words and actions (I remember being rebuked by my formator for having dogmatic and authoritarian tendencies!) but I never hurt anyone deeply or damaged anyone beyond repair.

And I think the same is true of my life as a clergyman. I can recall four or five occasions when people were hurt or offended by something I said in a homily or mission sermon, but it was always due to poor use of language or lack of sensitivity on my part rather than a deliberate attempt by me to cause offense. 

I can recall a lot of phone calls and letters over the years from people angry at something I wrote or published. Some of them were angry enough to report me to Rome and get me in trouble with the Vatican. While I know I could have formulated some of my pronouncements more carefully, I also know that anything I ever wrote or published was out of love for the church and without malicious intent.

I think back on my ministry in the confessional and in one-to-one encounters with people, and while I might have lost patience with a few people over the years, I always tried to put mercy before cold adherence to the letter of the law. 

I have been far from the perfect priest. I have struggled with keeping all four of my vows, I have let my anger at the institutional church get the better of me at times, I have struggled to forgive, to pray and to love unconditionally. I certainly haven’t always practiced what I preached, but I can say that I have not irreparably damaged anyone or destroyed a life. When my time comes, I think I can face my maker with reasonable confidence on that score at least.

Ready to meet my maker

Next Friday I am having yet another medical intervention to try to calm my chronic back pain. A series of Botox injections will hopefully ease the muscle spasms in my back. At least that’s the plan.

But whether it will make any difference I am not at all sure. I have had so many procedures over the pasts 18 months, so many false dawns, that I am afraid to hope anymore. I have had so many interventions, and all I have to show for it is a titanium bolt and seven useless screws. My pain is more intense now than at any time in the past and I feel broken. At this stage I feel that the life has been sucked out of me and I’m not able to endure much more.

Over the years I have known and admired people who had chronic pain. I think of a Redemptorist confrere of mine and his sister who both suffered for years with arthritic pain that left them wheelchair bound. They were always so phlegmatic, so serene in face of adversity. I don’t know how they were able to do it. I’m not as heroic or as stoical or saintly as they were. I can’t envisage spending the rest of my life like this. I know I won’t be able. 

I cling on to the hope that maybe the Botox will do something. But it’s a long, long wait until Friday.

Back on board

Two weeks ago I accidentally deleted my WordPress blog. All 79 posts were lost. Though I am disappointed to lose some of them, I know also that most of my entries, especially in the last couple of months, were just long moans about my physical pain and my frustration with life.

Everyone gets tired of that kind of moaning after a while, so I hope that there will be less whining and more positivity in this new blog. Though I am in constant pain, I’m trying to remember that life is worth celebrating. I just have to be more attuned to what is good and wholesome and to remember that there are people out there who love me more than I deserve.