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.

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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. 

 

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.

Irish Redemptorists look to next four years

Today Irish Redemptorists gather outside Newry, Co Down for a week-long event known as a Provincial Chapter. More than 60 members of the Province will take part in the gathering, which is held every four years. A Chapter is a legislative and deliberative body which elects members of the provincial government and decides on policy and priorities for the next four years. Anyone who is a professed member of the Irish Redemptorists is required to participate (the sick and old are exempt) while some lay colleagues also attend.

A Chapter is a good example of democracy at work within the church. Our national leadership are elected by a majority of the assembly; policy is decided by the assembly, and any major decisions (whether to close a house or start an initiative) are approved by the assembly. Leaders can only hold office for two consecutive four-year terms. Unlike bishops, they know it’s not a job for life and that they will return to being foot soldiers all too soon. This keeps their feet on the ground and aids accountability.

A Chapter is also an opportunity for confreres from around the country and some living abroad to spend time together, to renew friendships and to deepen bonds. It is a valuable exercise in fraternity.

Of course, Chapters are not always bloodless affairs. Not everyone agrees on the way forward. Not all have the same vision. There will be disagreements and the odd personality clash. A Chapter is a human event after all.

And a Chapter such as this will also be a graphic reminder of the perilous state of the Redemptorists in Ireland today, and of the challenges facing the church as a whole on this island. We will be reminded with our very own eyes of how old we are getting, of how frail we are as individuals and as a body, and of our steady fall in numbers. We will be reminded of the pressing, difficult decisions we will have to make if we are to maintain a tangible presence in Ireland in the years ahead, decisions about plant and personnel, about apostolic priorities and care of the old and sick.

We will be reminded, also, of our need to develop closer ties with other Redemptorist provinces and of the need for amalgamation. Whereas the Brexiteers are trying to pull Europe apart, the signs of the times are compelling the Redemptorists to forge closer bonds with neighbours throughout Europe and beyond.

I took part in my first Chapter in 1984. I was 22 years old, newly professed and full of enthusiasm. As a political buff, I loved the intrigue around the election of our leaders. The assembly looked bright and vigorous, full of men in their prime. It gave me a buzz.

Thirty five years later, there is no buzz. I have been around a long time now. I know our strengths and our weaknesses. I know the challenges and painful decisions that lie ahead. I know that the pool of potential leaders among us is shallow. We are a tired bunch, battered by the scandals and disappointments of the past quarter century. No one will need to tell us to curb our enthusiasm.

Still, we will endeavour to soldier along, doing our best, for four more years.

Why it’s time to drop mandatory celibacy

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich hit the nail on the head in a New Year’s Day homily when he spoke of the need for the church to modify tradition in response to changing modern times.

Change is needed, he said, “in light of the failure” surrounding the clergy sex abuse crisis. One long-standing tradition that must be up for “review,” he said, is celibacy for priests.

The current measures to address sex abuse are not enough without adapting church teachings, the cardinal said. “Yes, matters are about development and improvement and prevention and independent reviews — but more is also demanded.

“I am certain that the great renewal impulse of the Second Vatican Council is not being truly led forward and understood in its depth. We must further work on that,” he said. “Further adaptations of church teachings are required.”

“I believe the hour has come to deeply commit ourselves to open the way of the church to renewal and reform,” Marx said.

The cardinal’s statements coincide with plans to openly debate the issue of celibacy at the German bishops’ permanent council meeting in the spring. The bishops have said the workshop during the meeting is a direct response to the abuse crisis.

It is wonderful that Cardinal Marx, who is president of the German bishops’ conference, has spoken so strongly about the need to examine mandatory celibacy in light of the abuse crisis, but, it seems to me, this issue needs to be discussed on its own merits.

There were good historical reasons for its introduction in the Middle Ages but mandatory celibacy serves no good purpose now. Many priests have found it an impossible burden. Many others have coped with it in unhealthy and destructive ways. The cost to the church has been incalculable. The celibacy rule has contributed to the vocations crisis that is engulfing the church in so many parts of the world. In countries like Ireland, priests are ageing and seminaries stand empty, while the number of clustered and priestless parishes continues to climb.

Meanwhile, the church loses millions of members every year to other Christian dominations and religions. Between 2014-2016, Brazil lost nine million Catholics to protestantism. Committed lay leaders do their best, but without priests the church dies. Without priests, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated, and the Eucharist is the life-blood of the church. There are many former priests who would love to celebrate the sacraments again, but are forbidden to do so, and many others who feel called to the priesthood but not to the celibate way of life. Celibacy is too big an obstacle for them, and so their priestly vocation is lost. Yet, even in the face of this stark reality, most men in church leadership think that clinging to the man-made rule of mandatory celibacy is more important than meeting the urgent sacramental needs of God’s people. Celibacy trumps everything. This is not just tragic, but catastrophic.

Mandatory celibacy has forced many thousands of men out of the priesthood. They meet someone in the course of their ministry and sexual attraction takes over. They fall in love. They try hard to keep their vows but are not able. They are caught between love of their vocation and love of another person. Ideally, they should be able to love both but they cannot. So they are lost to the priesthood.

Others remain in the priesthood while not observing their vow of celibacy. These priests are conflicted. They know what they are doing is wrong. They are aware of the emotional and psychological damage they are doing to themselves and the person they love, but they cannot stop themselves. They don’t want to or can’t give up the ministry, but neither are they able to give up their affair. And so they juggle the two. It is unfair to everyone, especially the person they love.

Then, there are the secret children fathered by priests. Nobody knows how many secret children are out there, only that it is a scandal that cannot be denied. The damage done to these children and their mothers (and fathers) is incalculable.

Mandatory celibacy is a form of control. It is easier for a bishop to exercise authority over a priest who does not have commitments or obligations as a husband and father. The priest is easier to move around. He is more dependent on his superior, more vulnerable. He costs less to support and there are no potential conflicts around property and inheritance rights. As Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall put it in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, celibacy “is essential to the continuation of the power and prominence of the clerical subculture, the home of the elite minority who rule the church. … To abandon celibacy would be to risk the demise of the fortified clerical world and the consequent loss of power and influence.”

Mandatory celibacy facilitates clericalism. It leads some clergy to a sense of entitlement and privilege. The collar, the vestments, the titles, the role – all these offer status, identity, comfort, security, a feeling of superiority, of being part of an elite club, a special caste. The culture of clericalism compensates for the privations of celibacy. It also stokes ambition. Without a partner or children as a focus or distraction, some priests invest all their energy in climbing the clerical ladder. Promotion and deference provide them with a sense of validation, and help them feel better about themselves.

Mandatory celibacy leads to loneliness and isolation. In the past, most priests had live-in housekeepers or shared rectories with other clergy. They had company, companionship and support. Today most live alone. They are left to fend for themselves, often with little help from those in authority. Loneliness can lead to a feeling of isolation, or the risk of addiction, or a tendency towards melancholia. Some use work as a coping mechanism. They need to be busy, so they don’t have to acknowledge the emptiness they feel inside or cope with the painful reality of spending every night in a cold, empty house. Others have found solace in the bottle, or on internet chatrooms, or in a particular obsession.

Mandatory celibacy promotes a warped notion of sex and sexuality. It implies that sex and sexuality are bad, and over-identifies holiness with sexual abstinence. It inhibits healthy, open relationships that people need if they are to be fully alive. To live a life empty of physical affection is a tremendous burden for many.

Of course, abolishing mandatory celibacy would be no panacea for the church. It’s not going to pack the pews again or solve the vocations crisis. It would create problems of its own but ministers of other denominations and religions have to deal with these challenges all the time, and they do. Whether there is a married or unmarried priesthood, there will always be scandals, because priests are human.

And even if abolishing mandatory celibacy does nothing to address the sexual abuse crisis or produce a single new vocation, it is still the right thing to do because it would make for a far healthier priesthood and a far healthier church.

What being pro-life really means (and why yesterday was a good day)

Yesterday, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker, making her third in line to the presidency. It was a good day for democracy and many people rejoiced.

Of course, most evangelicals and many in the American Catholic Church did not rejoice. They don’t like the Democrats or Pelosi. They have bought into a rugged individualism type of politics and religion that rewards wealth and hard work and individual freedoms like the right to carry weapons (it’s why they can support a twice-divorced, tax-avoiding, sexist, racist, foul-mouthed president as someone specially anointed by God). For others, their opposition to Pelosi and the Democrats has got to do with abortion. This one issue frames their entire political thinking.

Of course, abortion is a critical issue. Preserving life, protecting the most vulnerable and defenceless, has a particular urgency for Christians because it is literally about life or death.

But what many forget is that being pro-life is more than being anti-abortion. It is to support life from womb to tomb. It is to seek to do all we can to protect and enhance life outside the womb as much as inside the womb.

This is known as having a consistent ethic of life – that, as Christians, we support everything that is pro-life and oppose everything that is anti-life. The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago described this stance as ‘the seamless garment’ approach to life issues. Christians believe that all human life is sacred because every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. And so, for us, all issues to do with life are of one piece, like a “seamless garment” (a reference to the garment Jesus wore before his crucifixion which was woven seamlessly from top to bottom).

Life issues are interrelated, interconnected, seamless. As Cardinal Bernardin put it: “Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.”

If we are committed to “preserving life” (opposing abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc), we should also be committed to “enhancing life” (supporting social justice, care of the earth, those on the margins). In other words, being pro-life is all-embracing.

That is where most in the Republican Party and in other right-wing parties get it wrong. It is certainly where so many conservative Catholics and evangelicals get it wrong. Already the newly inaugurated right-wing, evangelical president of Brazil is opening up the Amazon to even more exploitation and is rolling back hard-earned rights won by minority groups. Where is the Christianity in that?

Last chance saloon for the US bishops

This week the US Catholic bishops are making a retreat together in a centre outside Chicago. It is an unusual occurrence. At the request of Pope Francis, they have gathered for a silent retreat to discern God’s will for the church in the United States.

The retreat is in response to the terrible year that Catholics in America have suffered. Revelations about the appalling actions of former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and their cover up) as well as the fall out from state-level investigations into clerical sexual abuse have had a devastating impact. Many in America thought that, after the crisis had first blown up in Boston in 2002, the bishops had got a handle on it. The fact that someone like McCarrick could have been promoted afterwards, and that many of his colleagues turned a blind eye, has shattered trust between people and their bishops.

And so the US bishops were asked by Pope Francis to go on retreat together to pray and prepare to take action to deepen their commitment to keeping young people safe.

Bishops from around the world will then gather in Rome with Pope Francis from February 21-24 to discuss abuse and child protection. A lot is expected from this February summit. If nothing decisive comes out of it, if it is back to business as usual for bishops’ conferences and individual bishops throughout the world, if the Vatican itself does not act more decisively, then those who have remained loyal to the church through the trauma of the last 25 years will feel utterly betrayed.

This is last chance saloon time for the church to get it right. We can only hope the US bishops’ retreat and the prayers of the rest of us will move those in church authority to do what they should have done all along.