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.

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The world’s 26 richest billionaires own as much as the poorest 50% – an unjust situation at odds with the gospel

A shocking statistic published a couple of days ago shows the extent to which our world is messed up. The top 26 billionaires are as wealthy as 3.6 billion people, according to a report by Oxfam International. The net worth of these mostly American top 26 reached $1.4 trillion last year. Or, to put it another way, the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50%. Billionaires, who now number a record 2,208, are growing $2.5 billion richer every single day, while the net worth of the world’s poorest half continues to dwindle.
Since the great recession of a decade ago, the number of billionaires has nearly doubled, a gap that will only increase as China’s economic slowdown sharpens and with Brexit and Trump’s trade war creating more uncertainty.
No wonder there has been an increase in the popularity of extremist parties and individuals, especially on the right.
For all the progress humankind has made, for all our advances in technology and science, for all our progress in human rights, there is a growing gap between rich and poor. The rich will always find ways to protect and increase their wealth, even in times of turmoil and certainty. (Just look at how leading Brexiteers are transferring assets overseas in case their deluded project goes wrong.)
More people than ever are excluded access from a decent, sustainable, even a basic, quality of living. Women suffer the most from equality. Of course, the rich practice philanthropy, and many are genuine about it, but charity is never a substitute for social justice. It simply keeps the current system in place.
As the wealthy gather for their annual powwow at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a plan is needed to more fairly distribute the goods of the earth. Oxfam recommends that nations tax wealth at fairer levels, raise rates on personal income and corporate taxes and eliminate tax avoidance by companies and the super-rich.
Here in Ireland, as we celebrate the centenary of the first Dail, we also have a long way to go to build a more just society.
Action for justice is a Christian imperative. The church has a whole body of teaching built up over decades that speaks about the rights of workers and of the poor, a body of teaching that places the church and its members firmly on the side of the oppressed. In fact, the church teaches that action for justice is a constitutive part of living the Gospel. It is not enough for us to tell the poor, the abused, the unjustly treated, that we will pray for them or that we will give money to charity to support them. We must also do whatever we can to address the injustice. Our faith compels us to be concerned for justice and to work for it.
We must support all efforts to build a fairer, more just world.

The conspiracy against Pope Francis

Even as Westminster bristles in turmoil and Washington simmers in shutdown, another battle is being fought at the Vatican. The papacy of Pope Francis is under attack from people in the upper ranks of the church. These men are not only trying to undermine him but to drive him from office. They are taking advantage of the abuse crisis as a platform to get the pope to resign.

“There are people who simply don’t like this pontificate,” says German Cardinal Walter Kasper. “They want it to end as soon as possible to then have, so to say, a new conclave. They also want it to go in their favour, so it will have a result that suits their ideas.”

Some powerful enemies have never liked Francis’s style or his policy of glasnost or his efforts at reform and at giving more power to local churches. These same enemies were appalled by his letter on Marriage and Family, which they feel is confusing to the ‘simple faithful’ and not doctrinally sound. Four of them, lead by Cardinal Raymond Burke, published an open letter criticising the pope’s teaching and demanding clarifications.

Last August, on the last day of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, ex papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published a letter accusing Francis of ignoring allegations of misconduct against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and calling for the pontiff to resign. The letter and its timing were deliberately calculated to cause the greatest possible embarrassment to the pope. While most senior clerics publicly defended Francis, dismissing the allegations as a smear, some on the Burke wing of the church did not. The irony is that McCarrick wasn’t promoted by Francis but by Francis’s predecessors.

To many casual observers, the Catholic Church gives the appearance of being a monolith and that a monolithic unanimity exists at the top. This has never been the case but the divisions and dissension at the top are clearly visible today. These divisions exist also in the lower ranks of the church. They are especially strong in the American church, aided by right-wing Catholic media such as EWTN. Just check out the twitter accounts of cardinals like Joe Tobin of Newark and Blaise Cupich of Chicago. Every day they are viciously trolled on social media by ‘good’ Catholics, defenders of the faith, who abuse these men because they see them as Francis supporters. The level of vitriol is astonishing.

The sad irony is that the very churchmen and their supporters who attack Pope Francis are the same people who would not tolerate any criticism of John Paul II or Benedict XVI. In the years before Francis, they used to demand total obedience to the Holy Father, and were eager to publicly discipline small fry like me who stepped out of line. They don’t seem to be aware of their own hypocrisy, or maybe they couldn’t care less.

I have no doubt Francis is doing his best, but it is difficult to make progress when there are enemies in the camp.

Gillette’s new ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect. How could anyone be outraged by that?

Gillette, the razor company, released a new television ad this week that has generated lots of controversy. The ad isn’t another version of the shirtless man, gazing into a mirror, face covered in lather, as he shaves himself fresh and handsome for the day ahead, to the old jingle “The best a man can get.”

This ad adopts a radically different approach. There is no shirtless man in front of a mirror. Instead, through a series of different scenes, it provokes viewers to take on issues including sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour and toxic masculinity, praising those who’ve abandoned “the same old excuses” for such behaviour in the past.

It is Gillette’s response to the #MeToo movement, which has encouraged women to speak out against sexual exploitation in a way they never had before.

Instead of “The best a man can get” line, the new ad challenges, “Is this the best a man can get?” The ad encourages its audience to reflect on what masculinity means, and how a man should see himself.

Many viewers were thrilled with its message of tolerance and respect. But others were outraged by what they saw as another example of political correctness gone mad. They claimed, in the words of Piers Morgan, that the ad is stating that men are bad and masculinity is a bad thing, that it is a shameless exercise in man-shaming and emasculating men.

But what I saw is a beautiful ad with a powerful message. It’s not attacking men or masculinity. It’s attacking toxic behaviour, the kind that leads to intimidation and violence, and women being afraid to be out alone at night. It’s challenging the kind of behaviour nobody – male or female – should engage in.

It’s extraordinary how so many people managed to get offended by the ad. And how the outrage came from the same predictable sources – the right-wing, the traditionalists, the Jordan Peterson fans, the Trumpsters, those who see liberal conspiracies everywhere.

Look at the ad and see if you’re offended. And if you are, then ask yourself why.

It reminds us to think about how we see and relate to each other. How we touch others can be positive or negative. It can build up or knock down; be constructive or destructive, life-enhancing or life-diminishing.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a warm hug or we can touch them with a slap or a beating. “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union,” Pope Francis writes in The Joy of Love. And, of course, this doesn’t just happen within marriage.

It reminds us that we can touch someone with a word of encouragement or acceptance or love. Or we can touch someone with a word of contempt or anger or abuse. Bullying in schools and the workplace is a major problem, made worse by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And we know what bullying can do.

The Gillette ad is a statement about Christian values of love and respect.

Why should anyone be outraged about that?

We must reform how bishops are elected (and why I would never make one)

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin will soon be coming to the end of his time as Archbishop of Dublin, and already speculation has started as to his successor. But there are several other dioceses in Ireland that have been waiting for months and even years for new bishops, and several bishops who have been obliged to minister deep into retirement age. It’s not easy for them, or their priests and people.

Perhaps the Nuncio and his Vatican colleagues are taking their time, giving thought to a radical reorganisation and reduction of the number of dioceses in Ireland. (They could easily be cut by 12 or 14). Or perhaps they have a problem finding suitable candidates. A man is invited to the nunciature to be offered a diocese, but he politely declines, or makes his intentions known even before that.

It’s understandable why good men would be reluctant to become a bishop in Ireland today. He’d be destined for a life of dealing with crisis.

The pool of potential bishops is made smaller by the reduction in the number of eligible candidates. There are not many fit and able priests between the ages of 45 and 60.

And then, of course, the criteria a candidate must fulfil to be considered for a bishopric reduces the pool even more. You have to be sound on Church teaching, a defender and supporter of the party line, with a patron or two in Rome (though, hopefully, this may have eased a little under Francis, who prefers shepherds to culture warriors). It’s why I, or anyone like me, will never be made a bishop. (I always wanted the See of Cashel in order to be patron of the GAA and get the best seats at matches!)

It’s clear that something is wrong with the method for choosing bishops. It’s clear that it needs to be reformed. It’s clear that much wider consultation needs to take place, and it must involve all interested parties in the diocese.

Imagine if we were to go back to the manner of selection that was the norm in the early church.

Each diocese would nominate its own bishop. The bishop would be chosen after wide consultation among priests and people in a manner that was open and transparent. The bishop would be elected at a synod attended by priests and people from throughout the diocese. The pope, who would be obliged to accept the candidate unless there was clear evidence of his incompetence and/or unorthodoxy, would then ratify the new bishop formally.

Imagine if each bishop came from within his own diocese. He (or, hopefully before long, she) would not be a ‘blow-in’ from another diocese or be from a religious order or congregation but would be one of the clergy of that diocese. From the local church, of the local church, called by his own people into leadership, he would have an intimate knowledge of his flock and their needs, and they would have knowledge of him. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as the danger of political interference in the selection process or major disunity in the diocese, would a non-native be appointed.

Imagine if each bishop remained in his diocese for the duration of his episcopal ministry. Chosen by the priests and people as their shepherd, it would be unthinkable that he would transfer elsewhere, or use his appointment as a stepping-stone for promotion to a larger or more significant diocese. In keeping with the understanding of the early church, his relationship with his diocese would be seen as being like a marriage relationship, and so to break that bond would be akin to divorcing the community he was ordained to serve.

When you compare how things were done in the past with how bishops are appointed today, it is clear that there have been significant changes from the practice and understanding of the early church.
The method of selecting bishops today is secretive. Some consultation is done but only with a select few whose recommendations do not have to be accepted. How the consultation is done and what questions are asked is never revealed. The local church gets very little say in the selection of its leader. The first engagement most people and priests of the diocese have with the process is when their new bishop is presented to them.

Nor is every bishop from the diocese he has been chosen to lead. In fact, many bishops are from another diocese. When you are an ‘outsider,’ it inevitably takes time to settle in, to get to know priests and people, to understand the issues and challenges the diocese faces. It also weakens the sense of the shepherd as one of the local presbyterate who is called into leadership by his own flock.

And, of course, there is the long-established practice of transferring – or promoting – bishops. There is no guarantee that a bishop, once ordained, will always in the same diocese. Quite a bit of moving around takes place, which leads to the danger of careerism and undermines the image of bishop as being wedded to his diocese.

Given the challenges it faces, the Irish church requires good bishops, people with the smell of the sheep. In order to reclaim the understanding of bishop as one who is called by his local ecclesial community to be its leader and shepherd, maybe it’s time to look closely at how bishops are chosen and to return to our ancient practice.

And, while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the medieval titles and robes and headgear. These are anachronisms from the past, but today only invite ridicule especially from younger people. The bishop’s authority will be seen by what he says and does, not by what he wears.

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.

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?