Benedict needs to silence himself

Reports from Rome suggest that retired Pope Benedict XVI is co-authoring a book defending mandatory celibacy. According to the National Catholic Reporter, the ex-pontiff says he could not remain silent on the issue even as Pope Francis is considering the possibility of allowing older, married men to be ordained as priests in the Amazon region. At the close of the synod on the Amazon in October 2019 the members recommended by a vote of 128-41 that Francis allow for bishops in the region to ordain married deacons as priests, should circumstances so merit. The book is co-written with Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, and is expected to be published this week.
Francis is reported to be working on an apostolic exhortation in which he is expected to respond to the synod’s request to permit the ordination of married priests.
This intervention by the retired pope on an issue currently being considered by the reigning pope is both dangerous and unprecedented.
Pope Benedict aptly nobly when he resigned from the papacy. It was a courageous move, a breaking with tradition, a radical letting go. People assumed that after he stepped down, he would go quietly into retirement, careful not to step on his successor’s toes, knowing there can ever only be one pope at a time.
Benedict should have left the city of Rome and withdrawn to a monastery or retirement home in his native Germany. He should not have remained in the Vatican.
He should have cast off the papal white and worn the robes of a cardinal or simple priest.
He should have dropped the word pope from his title and used a new title, such as emeritus bishop of Rome, to indicate his altered status and so that people would not think there are two popes, two voices of authority in the church.
He should have stated his intention to remain neutral on issues affecting the church, keeping a stoic silence above the fray. Knowing he could no longer do the job himself, he should have allowed his successor the freedom to do the job, without public comment or interference.
He should have known that Francis’s enemies would use him as a weapon, a figure to rally round, in their battle to prevent any real change in the church.
Benedict acted nobly in deciding to retire. The decisions he has made subsequently have not only been unfortunate but dangerous. By speaking out publicly on such a divisive and sensitive topic as mandatory celibacy, he has placed Pope Francis in an awkward position. Benedict is encouraging dissent. He is widening the divisions in the church. He is increasing the possibility of schism.
In the past, those who dared criticise Benedict or his predecessor were summarily dealt with, told to desist, effectively silenced. Some are still being punished. Many of those who tolerated no criticism of the pope or the institutional church when John Paul II and Benedict were in office, now have no problem in openly attacking Pope Francis.
Of course, mandatory celibacy is a core pillar of clericalism. It’s no surprise that Benedict wants to maintain it. It is most disappointing that he would air his views publicly, knowing the damage it would do to Francis and the church.

The cost of discipleship (Homily for 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

It’s always smart to plan ahead. If you’re doing an exam, and have five questions to answer in two hours, it’s essential to calculate how long to spend on each question. Otherwise, you may run out of time. If you’re going somewhere by car, make sure you have enough petrol, especially if you’re travelling in the countryside late at night.

History overflows with examples of epic miscalculation. Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia without taking the hostile winter weather into account. David Cameron promised a referendum on the European Union thinking he’d never have to hold one. Theresa May called a general election certain she’d win handily. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with no plan what to do once the regimes were overthrown. Now, millions of suffering people are paying a terrible price. Last week, Boris Johnson threatened his MPs with deselection if they failed to back his Brexit plan. Now he – and we – are facing a deep dystopian crisis. Think of the ghost housing estates of a decade ago, a symbol of reckless spending and absent prudence that ended up crushing so many ordinary people.

Good planning is essential if we don’t want to miscalculate and mess up. In setting out to do something, it’s critical to weigh up the options and potential outcomes, in order to achieve success.

Good planning is what Jesus advocates in today’s Gospel. He says if we want to follow him, we need to be absolutely clear what we are getting ourselves into. We need to know exactly what it means. We need to calculate the cost because it won’t be easy. If you become a follower of mine, he says, it will involve making tough decisions, hard choices. It will mean taking up your cross every day. It may mean laying down your life.

Jesus uses an extreme example to illustrate his point. Choosing to follow him, he says, means being willing to put him before everyone else, even our own family. It means putting him first in everything, whatever the consequences. Like someone building a tower or a king going into battle, we need to know what we are getting ourselves into; we must make sure we are ready and prepared; we must approach it with eyes wide open.

Last Sunday marked the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It’s tempting to think of the German people as fully supporting Hitler. But many Germans and Austrians did not. Many opposed him because they knew that Nazism was the opposite of Christianity. People like the great Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew that Nazim was sinful, grotesque, abhorrent.

One such person was a young Austrian farmer called Franz Jagerstatter. A committed Catholic, Franz was married to Franziska, and had three young daughters. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Franz was enlisted to serve in Hitler’s army. He refused to serve. He knew the war was unjust, that Hitler’s campaign was evil. As a Christian, he could have no part in it.

It was a brave stand to take because the price to pay was stark: the punishment for refusing to wear the Nazi uniform was death. His neighbours and local community thought Franz was crazy, and they tried to get him to change his mind. Even the local bishop pleaded with him, telling him it was his duty to his family and to the nation to be a good soldier.

Franz was taken to the local prison and from there to Berlin to be tried before the Supreme Military Court. Even at that late stage efforts were made to find a solution, but to no avail. On August 9, 1943, Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded in Brandenburg Prison. He had been given just 20 minutes to say goodbye to Franziska. He was 36 years old.

Fast forward to October 2007, and Franz’s beatification in a cathedral in Austria. There at the Mass was his 94-year-old widow Franziska. She had lived to see her husband, who had been excoriated and ignored for so long, finally recognised by the church for his heroic virtue, just one step away from sainthood.

Franz Jagerstatter knew what was going to happen to him and his family for defying Hitler, but he did it anyway. He calculated the cost and was ready to pay the price. He was willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the Gospel. His family were willing to stand with him. If I had been in his place, could I have done that? Could you?

Next Thursday it will be exactly 40 years since I joined the Redemptorists. I was 17 years old, just finished the Leaving Cert, pimple-faced and full of zeal. The religious life was what I wanted. I thought I had it all worked out, certain I knew what I was getting into. Nine years of study, profession, ordination, then parish missions. A cloudless horizon ahead. But clouds drifted in, often obscuring the horizon. Scandals, clericalism, loneliness, celibacy, friends leaving, vocations falling, church attendance plummeting, the Vatican censoring what I said – so many crises, obstacles. Like a Sat Nav after going off-route, I had to recalculate, reimagine, recommit. Entering religious life seemed much easier in 1979 than today. Now there is a deeper awareness of the cost, of the price.

As there is for all of us gathered here. In Ireland today, to be a Christian doesn’t mean literally risking your life, but putting Jesus first is still a risk, because it means going against the grain. It means believing and acting in ways that the cool people think are foolish.

Today’s Gospel asks us to think about our response to our baptismal calling; whether we are totally committed. Do you stick your neck out for the Gospel? Are you all-in? Do you know the potential consequences? Have you calculated the cost?

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.

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?

My 30 years as a priest have brought no little disappointment

When Archbishop Desmond Connell ordained me to the priesthood on October 2nd, 1988, it seemed a good time to be a priest in Ireland. Fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I had high hopes. I was delighted to become part of a team conducting parish missions, as Irish Redemptorists had done for more than a century.

I loved going from parish to parish, preaching to full churches, visiting homes and schools, meeting clergy. Though I was aware of the increasing impact of secularisation, and the sharp decline in vocations, I presumed church and priesthood would remain largely the same into the future.

I had no idea of the tumult that lay ahead.

When measured against the vast expanse of history, 30 years is an insignificant amount of time. But when measured in terms of the story of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the past 30 years have been hugely significant indeed.

In 1988 Catholics of all ages still attended church in large numbers and confession remained important. In 1988 the church’s moral authority still stood strong, and preaching retained punch. The Irish church remained clerical and confident, as it had been since before independence.

Hard though it is to believe, back then few knew the word “paedophile”. In all my seminary years I had never encountered that word, which is linked so solidly today with the Catholic Church.

Running torment

The abuse scandals are the great running torment of my priesthood, a scar every priest carries. I am distressed by what has happened, by the layers of abuse still being exposed, by the indifference and cover-up of those in authority. I feel sorry for myself that I have to carry the can for the sins of others. It’s not what I signed up for 30 years ago.

In 1988 I seldom wore a clerical collar. Today I never wear one. I feel embarrassed to be identified as representing a clerical caste that permitted abuse, and am angry at church authority and the abusers – for the incalculable damage done to victims and their families as well as to Catholics everywhere.

Starting out, I never dreamed I would fall foul of Rome. But in May 2011, I was shocked to discover I had been secretly investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

They sought my removal as editor of Reality magazine because of its stance on women, sexuality and authority in the church. My future had been discussed at the highest levels for months without anyone telling me about it. Sentence was imposed before I knew I was on trial. I was horrified that this was how the church treated someone after a lifetime in its service.

Blocking equality

I remain disgusted at the injustice perpetrated on Catholic women, who are denied equal rights, and at a mandatory celibacy rule that diminishes many clerics. It says so much about Rome that while clergy who advocated women’s ordination were summarily silenced or sacked, bishops who engaged in or facilitated abuse were not.

Today, I bristle at the church’s hurtful language about the LGBTI community and am ashamed that a particular theology of the body has been used to make people feel unwelcome and excluded.

I dream of a restructured church that recognises the radical equality of all the baptised, that respects the sensus fidelium, repudiates the evil of clericalism, and replaces lace with grace, as Pope Francis tries to do.

A church that doesn’t insist it has all the answers to complicated moral and ethical questions but that engages with the world of science and biology so as to better respond to the signs of the times.

Though much has changed since 1988, not everything is bleak. What keeps me going is the wonderful witness of so many people who stick with the church despite all that has happened, the enthusiasm of so many lay co-workers and volunteers of every age and the selfless dedication of so many clergy and religious despite falling numbers and sapping morale.

It takes a brave person to be a card-carrying Catholic in Ireland today.

In 1988, I started priesthood with high hopes. Those 30 years have brought much fulfilment and satisfaction, yes, but also no little frustration and disappointment.

(Published in The Irish Times, October 2, 2018)

 

 

 

 

 

Three ways to be a good news person

There’s been so much bad news over the past year, indeed over the past decade, that it can feel overwhelming. It’s a situation made all the more toxic by the Trump White House and the Brexit mess.

Aware of the prevalence of bad news stories, and the impact they have on readers, The New York Times newspaper decided some time ago to introduce a feature called The Week in Good News. This weekly newsletter, it explains, is meant to send the reader into the weekend with a smile, or at least a lighter heart. It includes little items of good news that readers otherwise might have missed, little stories that act as a welcome counterpoint to the surfeit of bad news that fills the rest of the paper.

A good approach to the new year would be for us to focus more on good news and less on bad news, those stories or opinion pieces that agitate or divide. While we can’t avoid the news if we wish to be informed, we can choose how to process it.

My advice to self this January is to remember three words beginning with  the letter ‘c’ that I hope to incorporate into my daily living:

1. Be clean. English is a rich language with about one million words. We don’t need to use bad language to express ourselves, even if an image of Trump or Jacob Rees Mogg pops up on the screen.

2. Be courteous. Use only words that are respectful, that honour rather than dishonour the other. This is hard to do, especially if we get angry easily or suffer from road rage, as I do.

3. Be constructive. Use words that are positive, not negative; that build up rather than knock down, that are life-enhancing rather than life-diminishing. This means resisting the urge to gossip or to damage another’s character, which is also hard to do, especially in the highly inflamed social media world of today.

The power of language is extraordinary. We should try to use it in a positive way.

The time a senior cleric forced me to leave Twitter 

Three years ago, the Convention on the Constitution spent some time discussing Same Sex Marriage. It led to a wider debate about the nature and definition of marriage and whether “marriage” was the best word to describe such a partnership between two persons of the same sex.

Having listened to one such discussion, I fired off a quick tweet. I told my 500-plus followers: “I don’t care what they call it, I’m in favour of marriage equality.”

The downside of Twitter is that you can make statements in the heat of the moment that land you in hot water or that you later regret. And, after I sent it, I began to wonder and worry. Maybe I had been a little rash, maybe I should have worded it more carefully. Given that I’m a Catholic priest, I expected an instant response.

And I was right. A journalist spotted the tweet and thought it newsworthy enough to write a little story about it. The day the story appeared, my boss came to see me. He said that a senior cleric was annoyed about my tweet and had told him to instruct me to take it down. He didn’t identify who the senior cleric was but I understood it to be a bishop.

I agreed to delete the tweet. I knew I shouldn’t really have posted it given the trouble the Redemptorists were already in at the time.

But it was his next request that really took me aback. “Did you tweet something lately about mandatory celibacy being evil?” he asked.

I said I couldn’t remember offhand but it sounded like something I would say. “Well, they want you to delete that tweet, too,” he said.

I promised to do so.

And so I opened my Twitter account and deleted the statement from a few days earlier about marriage equality. Then I went searching for the tweet about mandatory celibacy. I scrolled back through what seemed like hundreds of tweets before I finally found it. It too was deleted as requested.

But I was shocked and angry. The tweet about celibacy had been posted five months previously. About 80 percent of my tweets at that time were sports related, roughly 10 percent were about politics, and the rest had to do with everything from religion to the weather. Somebody in an office somewhere had spent a considerable amount of time systematically ploughing through my tweets about Luis Suarez and Liverpool Football Club and the goings on in Dáil Éireann and Westminster in search of church-related statements of mine to be offended by.

I couldn’t believe that they would go to all that bother, and that, with church attendance falling and abuse stories still surfacing, they had so little to be bothered about. There is nothing heretical in expressing a view on mandatory celibacy. It was not as if I was denying the creed.

I was so angry and upset that I decided to leave Twitter. If I couldn’t tweet with integrity, if everything I said was being monitored from on high, if my statements were being censored, then I would not tweet at all. I decided to exit the medium quietly, and I did.

Eighteen months later I returned to Twitter. I missed being able to comment on current and sporting affairs (especially about Liverpool Football Club), but mostly I wanted to recover my voice.

Of course, silencing someone or making them retract a statement isn’t going to make the victim change his or her mind. And so, just four days before the marriage referendum last May, I wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times advocating a yes vote. I found it amusing and satisfying that the sub-editor chose that deleted tweet of mine as the heading for the piece: “I don’t care what they call it, I’m in favour of marriage equality.”

I got to make my point after all, only this time to far more people than would ever have read the original tweet.