A need for healing … and revolution

It was the 40th anniversary of St Finian’s MNS. We began with Mass in the School Hall. The history was traced and stories were told. At Communion, the team gathered to ‘give out’ Communion. As we hesitated prayerfully, we saw flames of fire. There were gasps and some spontaneous prayers! The decorative candles set fire to the back of a dress. Some saw tongues of fire and thought it was the Holy Spirit. The wearer thought that the radiator was too hot! The fire was put out but the lesson was learned. Modern clothes and modern hair can catch fire easily.
It was a wonderful celebration of a great school Community. I left for the house and then collapsed and ended up in hospital. Three weeks have almost passed. It was a vague but enlightening time. I got respite this morning and I escaped for the day.
My poet friend Padraig Daly texted me : “I hope you’re coping with the boredom of a hospital weekend.” My returned text said: “I have reached the promised land – Finglas (for the day).” So despite being in the news for unruly behaviour outside another school, where Michael D was barracked, Finglas is the ‘Promised Land’ for me.
Hospital life is strange. I can’t trust the truth of what I say but these stray ideas churn around in my scattered mind. I went in for a blood test and was confined. Now I must untangle some of what went on, over those days.
I couldn’t think. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t pray. I couldn’t talk (socially) I shut down. This different world took control of me. The ‘nakedness’ of the ward took over. I was institutionalised. The rhythm of hospital life absorbed me. I had no control over anything.
Food was a pit-stop, to break the monotony of the routine. Fasting and waiting for tests went on forever. I was an impatient patient. The hospital clock did not work like my watch (not a complaint.) These are the facts of life in a hospital. Everything depends on something or someone else. The Cat scan; the Ultra sound; the Scope; the MRI. These may happen ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’ or the next day or ‘whenever.’ Nothing happens at the weekend. Everything stops.
What struck me were these impressions: The youthfulness of everyone. All are so young – The Doctors, Consultants were youngsters. I thought some of them were transition students? The lassies seem to have taken over; Many with pencil thin heels and mini skirts. It looked like a cat-walk at times. Swinging handbags ran amok. Everyone was on first names. And then there was the cultural diversity. It was the United Nations. The language all the time was about ‘Team.’ ‘The Team’ will be around. The Team for x, y, z will see you. The nurses, the students, the care assistants and the ‘specials’ all worked as a Team. The food people; the cleaners were part of the cohesion of the place. Again all were so young. The banter and chatter was good. The kindness and care by everyone was lovely. The hard work done by all, was extraordinary. The response to the permanent cry ‘nurse, nurse,’ was immediate and warm. (Do we do that in ministry?) The long hours and good humour was special. So the words echoing in my mind are – ‘youthfulness’ and ‘Team’ and ‘Catholic.’ The whole world was here which was very catholic.
I was helpless. I could do nothing for myself. I couldn’t even walk. And the thinking (mind) was gone. Now on Parole, my mind has woken up in the Promised Land. And these crazy ideas jump out of my fingers.
Our Church is old and possibly needs hospitalisation! This Church of ours needs healing and revolution. How can we find that youthfulness which explodes into life in a hospital community? How can we find that Catholicity of effort in parish life or in clustering that I saw (or think I saw in hospital life).
How can we create similar Team work (again I think I saw) in the working out of the ministry of the Gospel. How can we begin to create something very new and fresh in the life of the church which is essential? (The structural order in Church has to be readdressed and drastically changed). The model of management and leadership has to be remade. The whole formality of our institution has to be changed. It has to be re-thought or re-founded. The gender imbalance in the leadership is nonsensical. A masculine ministry or a reserved priesthood is unacceptable. All of us know that where there is Team in parish life or in Diocesan life; something different happens. All of us know that when males/females work together, something rich and different happens. ‘Father doesn’t know best.’ The age imbalance among us is nonsensical. Old men (and celibates) can’t face a rapidly changing world. We have to find that youthfulness. Now I know and realise that even in the simplicity of a dull mind; the problems of institutional malaise in the HSE are legion; but something lively & lovely is happening as I see it. How can we cause that to reach the innards of our own sick institution?
Now one of the worrying aspects of the public ward of course is the total openness of life. The patient is stripped. Every word is heard and therefore shared. (If I was a Roddy Doyle, I could be rich!) The floating Teams talk quietly but the voices are heard. There is no privacy. It isn’t the stripping off that is important but the utter intimacies of the revelations involved. The mixed wards too brought a smile to my face and no blush to my ears. Men and women together is how it all works better in life too! I make a virtue out of necessity – openness; vulnerability; no hiding place; sharing. Those surely must be the meaning of the words – Communion and Eucharist and Community and Ministry. In the public thoroughfare of a ward, something of the mess of family life happens. It is very incarnational.
I found it disturbing in my heart when Communion was brought; A host felt very inadequate. (No comment on those who came). But Communion is much bigger than that. Somehow it cannot be detached or cannot be a magical moment if it is disconnected. Some much of our Sacramental theology is semi-detached; so much of our Liturgy is detached; so much of our Scriptural understanding is detached.
My parole time is almost over. I must return. My brain has re-engaged a little. The wind has scattered some thoughts. My hospitalisation has stirred something in me. I can’t cope with confinement. I can’t cope with being out of control of my time and my day. I can’t handle it. Can I cope with ageing or sickness? I don’t know. However, neither can the church cope with being sick. The church becomes absorbed by the immediate. It can become paranoid (CDF). In the hospital (as patients) we become preoccupied with minutiae and almost obsessed. The bottle, the obs, the meds, the commode becomes the centre of our life. We tell the same story to so many. The immediate takes over. Has that happened ourselves in Ministry? We need to wake up and or see the bigger picture. How often we have spent years and energy fighting lost causes and answering questions that are no longer issues: I recall some of the many words said by Francis. I like the freshness of his words and his dangerous asides. However, I know some of the words he said to Curia people apply to me. I know that I couldn’t even take an hour off or a day off or a week off and now the world in the parish runs without me and will have to for some time. But now – how can we help a sick Church grow healthy and help it appreciate how sick it is. Can we learn.? I end my blethering. If I can even begin to read again, I might attempt to look at ‘Exploring Faith with new eyes: addressing the crisis of faith in a new age.’ 2014 Jose Pagola.
Seamus Ahearne osa

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  1. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Séamus – you’ve been recruited for Pope Francis’s field hospital!
    And remember: your patron Oliver Plunkett also lost his head.
    In my experience, Pagola etc would be indigestible when I’m knocked out. Short stories are all I’d be able for.
    Letting go is difficult. For about a year after I retired, it was strange not having the continual human interaction I was used to. But a new normal develops. Now in a different way I find my time fully occupied, but in a more relaxed style.
    I will praise the Lord at all times!

  2. Frank McManus says:

    Seamus, the best of luck in your recovery.
    A couple of things I can empathise with having had my mother in hospital recently-
    Our dependency on the kindness and professionalism of others. For me this is part of the incarnate spirit of the Lord that manifests itself in so many ways. Understanding this can counter in some way the churchiness and clericalism we can easily lapse into.
    The team approach- so many male & female; young and old; working together. They had their differing roles and competencies but these were not defined by gender.

  3. Mary Vallely says:

    Seamus, long may you “blether” as you described it. It certainly didn’t take you long to find your mind again after you thought it had gone! I’m not really surprised that your body gave up and cried out for rest. There’s a lesson in that for you and for all of us. We can be done without. None of us is superhuman and you need to take a serious look at your workload and be kinder to yourself.
    Having experienced something similar 20 years ago where I felt totally helpless in a hospital situation, where my body was literally falling apart, I came to realise the profundity of love, not just that of my husband and family but of Divine Love. I felt held, cradled in my very darkest moments. That might sound crazy but I’ve never forgotten it. Sometimes we have to plunge to the depths, release the pent-up pride within us that makes us abhor being reliant on others (speaking personally) and let go of everything and just BE. Out of your experience you have given us wise and wonderful food for thought which we can all chew on and learn from but for goodness sake, Seamus, look after that elderly shell of yours (no disrespect!) and slow down a bit. The Holy Spirit in her/his wisdom is telling you something. Keep writing, keep challenging us, keep ALIVE! Rath Dé ort.

  4. Well said Mary. It is very often when “we” stop…God starts…and He starts in a way, we could never have imagined. Father Seamus has produced a very fine piece of personal reflection…what I would call….”Inductive Theology”….I found it to be extremely moving…yes, prophetic!

  5. Seamus, I am saddened to hear that you are not well and I know that all your friends, your parishioners and your readers are supporting you in their thoughts and prayers.
    I found your description of hospital life fascinating as a metaphor for the church at the present especially the teamwork that is so vital there. You say,”The church is old and possibly needs hospitalisation.” The reason why it grabbed my attention so strongly is that recently I have been reflecting on the church and these are my simple observations about the picture that seems to be emerging.
    As I see it, the “faithful” has now fallen into three quite distinct groups of people.
    1. Those who consider themselves to be strong, faithful Catholics, the majority of whom would most likely be in the upper-age category. In general, they are happy with the way things are; they don’t experience any need for reform and renewal. (10-15%)??
    2. Those who have fallen away completely for whatever reason and who have no intention ever to return. (10-15%)??
    3. That far greater majority in the middle, many of whom are hanging on by their fingertips, feeling helpless,(like sheep without a shepherd), longing for renewal, better leadership and a return to the simplicity of the message of Jesus….(You could go on and on…) (70- 80%)??
    These figures are by no means scientific. However, I think that the general categories still apply and I suspect if there was a survey taken across these groups the percentages would not be far off–which begs the question, “Why are church leaders not focusing on creative ways to attend to the faith needs of the vast majority of their people?”

  6. Donal Dorr says:

    Seamus, thank you very much for this deeply moving and valuable reflection. Thank you for taking the risk of dredging it up from deep places in your heart and spirit, places where the sighs and groans of the Spirit begin to find words.

  7. I like your categories Rosaline….however, in Canada…group one is probably about 45%….group two is probably about 45%….and group three is probably about 10%….I suggest that this is also true for the United States.

  8. martin gilcreest says:

    Hopefully you are on the mend.As a hospital chaplain myself I can understand your plight.Hospital life makes you vulnerable.I hope that you were respected and cared for.As a church we can learn from the holistic care of a hospital.We need to have a holistic approach to curing the ailments we have,which need a team work mentality.we can be the medics,the nurse,the carer,the porter and cleaners,and even the chaplain.The church need’s us all so that it can be healthy again.

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