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?

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Virgin on the ridiculous – the church, women and the cult of virginity

I have been wondering about the extraordinary emphasis the church places on virginity.

Belief that Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived Jesus is a core article of faith. Her virginity has been celebrated in Christian tradition and in the prayers of the church since its foundation. Countless hymns have been composed to honour the virgin.

That is all well and good. But sometimes it seems to me that the church goes on about it a bit too much, as if the words Mary and virgin, like love and marriage or Trump and controversy, cannot be separated. The liturgy of the church almost always refers to the mother of Jesus as Virgin Mary or Blessed Virgin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and other teaching instruments do the same. Mary has been accorded many wonderful titles – Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Victories, Queen of Heaven – but Blessed Virgin trumps them all.

For many people, this obsession with virginity is off-putting. It’s as if the church is stating that sex is bad and our virginity is what we should hold onto, if it’s not too late already.

The cult of virginity doesn’t stop with Mary. It extends to female saints, too.

In the liturgical calendar, which lists the feast days of the church’s year, a striking distinction exists between almost all the female saints and their male counterparts. With few exceptions, female saints are classified as Virgin.

The great Catherine of Siena is described first as Virgin, and only second as Doctor of the Church, even though the latter is one of the highest accolades a saint can receive. St Agatha is listed first as Virgin and then as Martyr, even though martyrdom ranks in the top category of saint. Poor St Scholastica is listed simply as Virgin.

In each case, whether she was religious or lay, the saint’s virginity is considered at least as significant as her martyrdom or her zeal, or even her status as doctor of the church.

The same doesn’t apply to men. Nowhere in the liturgical calendar is a male saint described as virgin. Depending on the individual, he is listed as Priest/Bishop/ Pope/ Religious/Missionary/Martyr/Apostle/Doctor of the Church, or a combination of these, but never as Virgin. Even if he took a vow of chastity and never had sex in his life, he is never called virgin.

This may be because the word virgin has traditionally been applied to women who haven’t had sexual intercourse.

It’s true, too, that the veneration of virginity is not a Catholic invention. It goes back to ancient Rome and the cult of the vestal virgin. Mankind – a better word here than humankind – has always placed virgins on pedestals.

But is it appropriate for the church of today to have a similar obsession? To champion virginity – as opposed, say, to chastity, which is a different thing – seems not only sexist but also to claim it as the ideal state over and above all others.

What does this say to women (and men) who are not virgins? What does it say to married women, widows, the divorced, and all those who have experienced sexual intimacy at the deepest level?

What does it say about the church and its relationship with sex?

Of course, virginity is fine for those who choose it, and purity is wonderful, and consecrated chastity is noble, but so also and equally is the married state and parenthood and the single life.

Christians honour Mary, the mother of Jesus, not because of her perpetual virginity but because of the unique role she played in the story of salvation. Her ‘yes’ to God’s plan for her is incalculably more important than whether she ever had sex.

So also with the other women saints. How they lived the Gospel is what makes them saints. Their fidelity to their baptismal promises is what makes them saints. Whether they kept their virginity is far less significant than that they were true followers of Jesus. 

 

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.

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.
 

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.