Celebrating what unites us (Week of Prayer for Christian Unity)

In July 1949, Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president, died. Political leaders and ordinary Catholics wanted to attend his funeral. But there was a problem – he was a member of the Church of Ireland and his funeral service was taking place inside a Protestant church. Catholics were forbidden from attending Protestant services. And so the Catholics had to wait outside the cathedral until the service was over.

Fast forward to November 1974 and the funeral service of Erskine Childers, the fourth president of Ireland. This also took place in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, for Erskine Childers was also a member of the Church of Ireland. But now times had changed, and Catholics did not have to wait outside. They were able to attend the service and pay their respects to a great man on his sudden passing.

What made things different, of course, was Vatican II and the opening out of the Catholic Church to the world, and the thawing of its relations with the other Christian churches. Steady progress towards greater Christian unity has been made in the decades since the Council. Agreements have been reached with other churches on the fundamental nature of baptism and eucharist and on the question of justification by faith.

Here in Ireland, with our difficult history, great strides have been made in recent decades also, and great gratitude is due to church leaders and others who, often at considerable cost to themselves, extended the hand of friendship across the religious and political divide.

But major challenges remain. Some people are uneasy about the ecumenical movement and want nothing to do with it. For some Catholics, to dialogue seriously with the reformed churches is to risk compromising on the truth, which they believe the Catholic Church alone has in all its fullness. For some Protestants, what the ecumenical movement is about is Protestants bending the knee to Rome. To engage in ecumenical dialogue is to lose through compromise what the Reformers lived and died for.

For ecumenists, on the other hand, there is a fear that the move towards greater unity has lost urgency. They are disappointed over failure to move where movement is obviously demanded – on inter-communion, on marriage, on so much else. They are frustrated over doctrines and laws and attitudes which seem to hold the churches back rather than draw them together. Indeed, it seems that even after the great progress of the last five decades, the Catholic Church is still no closer to full communion with anyone in the West. Women’s ordination, human sexuality, the role of the pope and church authority all remain seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

But while these obstacles seem capable of keeping the churches divided for now, it is important to acknowledge all that we do hold in common. We have broad agreement on what is known as “the deposit of faith”: the creeds and the canon of scripture. We believe in the same God and are in the same business of building God’s Kingdom.

There is so much we can learn from each other. As we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we thank God for all that unites us, and pray for ever greater unity in the years to come.

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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.

The evil of clericalism

 

A post from two years ago has proven to be by far the most popular on this blog.  It’s about a topic Pope Francis constantly talks about. Unfortunately, the problem remains as intractable as ever. The clericalists and careerists in the church are still in the ascendency. We can only hope and pray that the sin of clericalism will finally be extirpated from our church, once and for all.

There is less lace on display in the Vatican these days and a greater emphasis on simplicity and service, but old attitudes die hard, and the cancer of clericalism is still very much alive throughout the Catholic Church.

Most clerics I know are not consciously part of this culture. They may be clerics but they are not clerical. They are uncomfortable with being placed on pedestals, do their best to listen to what lay people have to say, and are not into power games. They want only to serve God and God’s people.

But that clericalism is deeply rooted in our church cannot be denied. Clericalism has nothing to do with wearing the Roman collar or with conforming to a dress code, though that is part of it. Rather, it is a state of mind, a mentality that is strictly hierarchical and authoritarian. It is to belong to, and to see oneself as belonging to, an exclusive club – male, hierarchical, and celibate – that is closed and secretive, part of a system of privilege, deference and power.

It is a culture that is far removed from the New Testament model of how the disciples related to each other and to the Lord.

In the clerical culture, the instinct is to protect the interests and reputation of the club at all costs, even at times at the cost of Justice and truth. This has been a major factor in the failure of church leaders down the decades to address the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. The reputation of the institution came before the needs of victims. Men who saw themselves as faithful to the church – indeed, precisely because they saw themselves as being loyal to the church – made decisions that further harmed people who had already been harmed by the church.

The culture of clericalism is damaging in many other ways, too.

Clericalism attests to the notion of the laity as the People of God. But this is merely lip service. The lay point of view isn’t taken seriously. Members of the clerical caste, those on the upper rungs of the hierarchical ladder, are the ones who have a monopoly on wisdom and of access to the Holy Spirit.

Clericalism is big into status and privilege. It loves titles and rank and lace and pedestals. Woe betide the unfortunate who does not afford the clericalist his proper title, or give him the humble respect which he thinks is his right.

Clericalism thrives on power and is sustained by it. It is a strong believer in accountability – but only upwards, not downwards. Decisions and decision-making happen at the top. Lay people and ordinary clergy do not have to be consulted – and seldom are.

Clericalism has no time for dialogue and debate. It regards those who talk about renewal in the church as dangerous, and as having a liberal agenda. (Many of them would put Pope Francis within this ‘liberal’ bracket too). But it doesn’t regard those with a conservative vision of the church as having any agenda. They are merely orthodox.

Clericalism talks about service, but it loves ambition, and encourages careerism. To get ahead in the clerical world means being careful to say the right things, to cultivate the right friendships, and to toe the party line on issues of sexual morality and the role of women.

Clericalism adores secrecy and needs it. How appointments are made, how clergy are transferred, how complaints are dealt with, the reasons why decisions are arrived at, are seldom explained. They don’t have to be. Power and control are better exercised in a culture of secrecy.

Clerical is a cancer at the heart of the church. Thank God, it is something Pope Francis is conscious of and wants to drive out. But he faces a daunting, and probably losing, battle. Francis has only a few years left. The Curia will bide their time.

Non Redemptorist colleagues help us to find a way forward

New life has invigorated our assembly this morning as almost thirty non Redemptorist colleagues and coworkers join us for the day. These women and men of all ages have travelled from north, south, east and west to take part in our discussions about the current and future shape of the Redemptorists in Ireland.

Their presence is a welcome and necessary boost. While we Redemptorists are required to be here, they have volunteered to join us today. While we are card carrying members of the clerical church, they are ordinary Catholics who remain committed to their faith despite all the difficulties of recent years. While we do our best to soldier on with hope, they remain full of enthusiasm and commitment. They still believe in us and in the church, even when we might be doubting ourselves and our future in Europe.

The presence of so many women and men offers a glimpse of the church at its best – of people working together to build the kingdom of God without any distinctions of rank or gender, people united by a common baptism and a shared vision. It offers a glimpse of a non clerical, inclusive church, of ordinary, fragile people doing their best and wanting to do their best.

Half way though our chapter, we needed this injection of hope and zeal and energy. Their enthusiasm will help us to see a way forward for the next four years.

Old Redemptorists, still full of zeal

I studied them last night, my Redemptorist colleagues from all around Ireland. They had been gathering outside Newry for the beginning of our Provincial Chapter. Many of them had been attending chapters for fifty years, veterans now of this kind of thing.

I studied them with their grey hair, and hearing aids, and slightly bent backs, and occasional walking sticks, the weight of the years bearing obviously on so many. And I was moved and impressed, as I am every time I encounter them at an event such as this. Some of these old men did not have to be here, they could have been formally exempted from the chapter had they wished, but they chose to come anyhow. They wanted to be here. They wanted to do their bit. Their commitment to the Redemptorists and to the church compelled them to be here.

It has been the story of their lives. Many of them joined as young men in the 1950s, the so-called golden age of the Irish Church. Things were going so well during that decade that the Redemptorist provincial boasted that he was opening a new house every year. Now these same men witness the closing of these same houses. Expansion has become retrenchment. These men entered religious life when it was highly regulated and predictable, yet were able to adjust and adapt to the liberalizing changes in religious life that followed Vatican II. These men learned their preaching craft with a theology that emphasized the fear of God, and then were able to change to one that focused on the love of God. So many changes over little more than half a century, and yet their enthusiasm remains undimmed. They remain as committed and as eager as ever.

Their enthusiasm is wonderful to see. I know I need to bathe in it and take heart from it these days, because, as these men fade away, as they go to their eternal reward, there will be very few left behind to take up the challenge in a similar wholehearted way. They were a stalwart generation. We will need to look on their example and no our them by trying to follow it.

Five little wishes for 2019

Nothing too ambitious, of course:

For an end to the stupidity that is Brexit. That sensible politicians on all sides of the House of Commons will insist on a People’s Vote, which will lead to a reversal of the decision made on the basis of lies and disinformation in June 2016.

For an end to the treachery that is the Trump administration. That publication of the Mueller report will finally force Republican members of Congress to realize that the rule of law and even personal self-interest far outweighs loyalty to a president who is loyal to no one but himself and his crooked family.

For an end to the scandal of homelessness in Ireland. An economy that is doing as well as ours should have no problem providing shelter for all its people. What is missing is the will to do it.

For an end to the sin of racism and xenophobia. That the increase in racism that has been enabled and encouraged by trumpism, Brexit and the growth in right-wing populism will be resisted and repelled by all right-thinking people at home and abroad. Calling out racists and shaming them on social media is a good way to go.

For an end to the culture of clericalism and cover up in the church. Despite Pope Francis’ best efforts, unreconstructed clericalism continues to do untold damage to the body of Christ. The careerists in the Curia are simply biding their time until Francis is gone. What is needed is a new council of the church, Vatican III, an assembly where voting rights would extend to lay men and women and not only to ordained clerics, to consider the mountain of pressing issues – vocations crisis, sex abuse scandals, the rights of women, mandatory celibacy, financial transparency, sexual ethics and attitude to those who are gay – that confront the church and threaten its future in large parts of the globe. It’s unlikely to happen this year, but then back in January 1958, no one expected that John XXIII would call a council that year either.

Miracles do happen, as the Limerick hurlers showed last year. And so we hope.

The Christmas I managed to upset an entire congregation

It was Christmas 2001 and I had been invited to celebrate midnight Mass in a small, non-parish church on Dublin’s north side, a place I had never celebrated Christmas before. The year that was coming to an end had been a tumultuous one, with people still reeling from the events of 9/11 and talk about yet more conflict in the Middle East.

I decided that I would talk about how at Christmas, some people experience the absence of God more than the presence of God, how they can find it difficult to feel the joy of the incarnation. I used a story to make my point. It was one told by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who along with the other concentration camp inmates was forced by the Nazis one day to witness the hanging of a young boy in retaliation for an escape that had taken place. Being but skin and bone, it took the boy a long time to die. And as the child hung there, struggling between life and death, Wiesel heard another prisoner cry out: “Where is God now? Where is he?” And Wiesel found himself silently answering: “Where is God? Here he is. He is hanging here on the gallows.” 

The point I was making was that even in the darkest of times, God is with us.

As I preached, I could sense a shift in the packed congregation, an hostility almost. It was just as well that I was too obtuse at the time to pick up on this negativity, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish the liturgy at all.

When Mass was over, during the recessional hymn, I processed to the back of the church to take up position by the door to greet people as they left. I hadn’t time to catch my breath before an irate younger woman descended on me. “Are you saying Mass tomorrow as well, Father?” she asked. I told her that I wasn’t. “Good,” she replied, “because you should never preach that again, especially to a church full of children at Christmas. It was totally inappropriate.” She stormed off, leaving me stunned. Not good at handling confrontation, I wanted to scamper to the sanctuary of the sacristy and hide there, but it was too late. By this time the congregation was filing out of the church through the door beside which I stood. There was no escape. 

They weren’t slow to make their feelings known. “Dreadful. Dreadful homily,” a man bellowed without stopping to talk or even look at me. Another older man said the same thing. His wife tried to soften the blow. “It was fine, Father. Don’t listen to him.” But her husband interjected. “No, he needs to hear the honest truth. It was the worst sermon I ever heard.”

By that stage I was so taken aback that I was physically shaking. Usually, I received praise for my preaching. I had never received criticism like that before. Christmas was ruined for me. I learned the painful way that people don’t want to be reminded of harsh reality at Christmas time. They want happy clappy, feel good, uplifting stuff. They want angels and mangers and shepherds and joy, and I gave them Auschwitz and public hangings. No wonder they were angry at me.

I learned my lesson. I preached many Christmas homilies in the years since 2001, and while I never danced around the challenges that confront Christians at Christmas, I have always focused on the positive. No more upsetting stories. No more graphic tales of execution. No more talk about the absence of God.

This Christmas I have been thinking a lot about the incarnation, the good news of God with us. I have tried to feel it, to sense it, but my physical pain keeps getting in the way. I feel God’s absence far more than God’s presence. All I can do is try to believe, like Elie Wiesel, that somehow God is present with me in my agony. I might not feel God’s presence; sometimes during the long, dark nights, I might doubt it or even deny it. But I’m sure God doesn’t mind. I will keep trying to struggle on, hoping for glimpses of God’s presence, hoping for any shaft of light to help me endure into another new year.