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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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.