Brendan Hoban: The Church Should Trust More in ‘God’s Spirit’

The Church should trust more in ‘God’s Spirit’      Western People 17.5.2022

I’m not too sure what it’s a sign of but I’m growing more and more reluctant to expend precious time on reading new books. The catalogue of overblown blurbs, I’ve found, doesn’t always deliver an honest assessment and I find myself re-reading books from the past I remember as exceptional. In truth, it has added immeasurably to my present enjoyment of reading.

Books like Karen Armstrong’s, The Spiral Staircase, which I’ve just read again. It’s a life-story threaded through a long and difficult road from a pious faith as a young nun to an angry atheism as a later student at Oxford to an individual peace that does justice to the sharpness of her intellect and her unswerving commitment to naming the truth as she sees it.

But what concerns me here is an incident she relates about the baptism of Matthew, a special needs 12-year-old boy. The boy’s parents, two university professors, were unbelievers, derided religion and specifically Catholicism, and Armstrong had many a good-humoured debate with them, as at this time she was a committed Catholic, attending Mass every Sunday. She befriended, Matthew, who asked out of the blue could he go to Mass with her some Sunday. The parents, who at the time were struggling to control their son who was also subject to epileptic attacks which exacerbated his condition, had no problem as long as they said there was no Damascene conversion on the road to Mass! In the event, for whatever reason, the Mass rituals seemed to have a peculiarly calming effect on Matthew who, for some reason, was especially taken by the use of incense.

The Mass was at the small but welcoming Dominican academic community in Blackfriars in the heart of Oxford. The community was informed that the boy had no understanding of religion or faith or worship, and that his parents were atheists but the Dominican community were happy to facilitate Matthew’s presence with them every Sunday.

Months later, the boy’s mother approached Armstrong with the suggestion that Matthew be baptised and that Armstrong might be his godmother. This, as could be expected, was highly problematic. Matthew had no faith, his parents had no faith and, as this point, Armstrong was in the process of losing her own faith. However, despite Matthew’s situation which, in terms of canon law and pastoral precedent, was spectacularly outside all the usual boundaries in terms of receiving a sacrament, the Dominican community very graciously conceded to his baptism.  

Even though the situation was extremely unusual, Armstrong conceded, she wasn’t surprised because, she wrote, ‘the Dominicans were no fools’. The Oxford Blackfriars community had a reputation for dealing with hospitality and for dealing with ‘marginal’ cases, and their intelligence and learning served them well in finding a compassionate pathway through the often inhospitable avenues of church law.

On the great day, they made (what Armstrong described as) ‘a strange quartet of belief’. A special needs child with no sense of God, no understanding of faith or religion and with no one quite sure of what was going on in his mind, supported by his parents, both atheists who dearly loved their special child and who had come to accept, if not quite believe, that what they regarded as ‘popish flummery’ had somehow calmed their son and were happy to indulge an unexpected improvement in his condition. And his godmother, Karen Armstrong, all too aware of the gap between her wobbly faith and the usual requirements for the valid reception of a sacrament.  

The Dominican priest, Geoffrey Preston, judging the situation perfectly, asked Matthew if he would like some incense for his baptism, an effect that made Matthew’s day. Matthew’s mother, in her atheism, had read the situation right. Her son, Matthew, did hunger for something he could never put into words and that he had found something special in the Blackfriars community, though no one could explain what that was.

There is a point in the care of our people at which we need to respond not to the legal requirements governing participation in religious events but to that point in life when God’s Spirit helps us to understand that we need to untie whatever knots lie in the way of his grace.

I remember once hearing a priest from Derry explain the difficulty he experienced many years ago as a young curate when his parish priest expressed reservations about a special needs child – let’s call her Katie – receiving her First Communion. His problem was that he (the PP) didn’t think Katie understood what she was receiving. The dilemma was resolved when the PP agreed that the curate would give Katie Communion.

On First Communion day Katie and her mother came forward for Communion. The curate placed the host on the palm of Katie’s hand. She looked at it for a split second, then took it in her hand, smiled at everyone and after dividing it into two parts handed one of them to her mother. Both then ‘received’ together.

Afterwards in the sacristy when the PP and the curate discussed what had happened, the PP was quite emotional: ‘There I was’, he said, ‘worried about Katie not knowing and not appreciating what receiving Communion meant. She reminded me, even though she didn’t know it, of our understanding of the Eucharist as bread, blessed, broken and given’.

I remember once chatting with the late John O’Donohue about how difficult it was to get the Catholic Church to ease up on legalities and to be more flexible in pastoral situations. I remember his words: ‘What we seem to be doing is placing sentries at the entrances to the great avenues of our Catholic heritage instead of opening them up and inviting people to enter’.

Or, in other words, denying the Matthews and Katies of our faith the fruits of God’s Spirit, rather than trusting in God’s Spirit.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Brendan Hoban: The Church Should Trust More in ‘God’s Spirit’

    Thanks for that Brendan. I must read The Spiral Staircase.

    What havoc has been caused in Ireland by what followed the administering of the sacrament of Confirmation at pre-adolescence and the telling of us then that we are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’: the treating of these temples thereafter as necessarily forever closed to inspiration, as necessarily mute and unintelligent – doomed always to be merely obedient receivers of unending clerical monologue.

    A letter in today’s Irish Catholic repeats the implicit heresy: for the sake of unity there cannot be any ‘inversion of the pyramid’; Synodality is a mistake; God has given the church a vertical authority structure; we lay people need to know our place and just shut up and listen as all necessary wisdom comes down to us through hierarchical and clerical channels.

    What these prophets of doom always forget is that the Holy Spirit is not the spirit of dissension but of peace, not of heresy and argument but of a truth that all can share – that we are equally and infinitely loved. The vertically ordered church cannot teach that truth: its implicit curriculum is an inversion of the Gospel – the heresy that God does indeed have favourites and that the gifts of wisdom and understanding are denied to the merely baptised. Implicitly it calls lay people fools, a sin condemned in the strongest terms by Jesus himself. (Matt 5:22)

    For proof just look to the Irish hordes of alumni of the vertically ordered church – the society now almost closed to all talk of a Holy Spirit, despite the fact that most of its members were once also told, at Confirmation, that they were God’s Temples.

    Who remembers the prayer of Pope and Saint John XXIII for a New Pentecost in 1962 – a sentiment repeated in 2018 in Phoenix Park, Dublin, by Pope Francis? That prayer could be reprised on the ACP front page, and at every Mass – for the Holy Spirit is also the spirit of consolation, of healing, of restoration and of new and everlasting life.

    A world now racked by fear of the future can still be rescued – and will be, the sooner we all say this prayer.

    1. Pat Savage says:

      Brendan Hoban: The Church Should Trust More in ‘God’s Spirit’

      There are times I find myself taking life too serious, even taking church, as in our faith leaders, too serious.

      Then I take a look around the church I witness in my local parishes as I journey. No parish priest can agree on the most simple of details post COVID, i.e. when will restrictions lift? When will we return to norms we have had in our liturgical practices? We have mixed messages. I watch and seek leadership and yet I don’t recognize it. I observe fear but try and tell your local parish priest that and you’re sure to find out who runs the parish.

      My point is we can blame, blame, blame but when did we ever look in the mirror and ask our self, am I part of the problem?

  2. Mattie Long says:

    Brendan Hoban: The Church Should Trust More in ‘God’s Spirit’

    Brendan, such a common sense approach by the curate in Derry and the Dominican community in Blackfriars.

    Your comment
    ‘There is a point in the care of our people at which we need to respond not to the legal requirements governing participation in religious events but to that point in life when God’s Spirit helps us to understand that we need to untie whatever knots lie in the way of his grace.’

    reminded me of something I read some time ago, on a similar theme, from what I regarded then as an unlikely source, but age and experience can temper most of us and broaden our understanding.

    “When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred. But then I always used to talk to my parish priests when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded.

    Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according to many official authorities – with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion.

    Therefore, I would say substantially that the sacraments are naturally sacraments of faith: when there is no element of faith, it can no longer be a sacrament of faith. Yet, on the other hand, if we can still see a little flame of desire for communion in the faith, it seems to me that it is right to be rather broad-minded.”

    Pope Benedict XVI in dialogue with the clergy of the diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone at the Cathedral of Bressanone, 6 August 2008.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban: The Church Should Trust More in ‘God’s Spirit’

    Next Sunday’s second reading is very relevant to our broodings on synodality. The early church expressed itself not only in glossolalia and in kerygma but in mature discussion in which important differences were aired (and not always harmoniously as the first two chapters of Galatians reveal). Here is where the Spirit showed Its presence most impressively.

    Psalm I lambastes the councils of the wicked and Psalm II views rulers of the earth taking counsel together in a dim light. But the antidote is not timid silence, from dread of conflict, but rather the wholesome practice of open discussion, held in check not by any dilution of truth but only by the precepts of charity.

    Now Catholics are celebrating the imminent rescinding of Roe v. Wade as a triumph (notably in the Jesuit ‘America’ magazine). But has there been any open discussion of this questions among Catholics, or any forum for such discussion?

    Such open discussion is positively dreaded by the male experts who determine legal upshots. Indeed they dread discussion even among themselves, as we see in the huge silence of the moral theologians.

    Now that we have won the abortion battle, says a writer in ‘America’, we must look to the care of newborn infants and their mothers. There are institutions like Cura, but is there really a culture of such care in our church? And could the absence of such a culture be connected with the fear of open discussion?

    One of the strong points of pro-life argumentation is that the vast number of abortions is connected with the vast number of unplanned or rejected pregnancies and this in turn is traced back to the irresponsible sexual behaviour of many males and females, an uncomfortable topic that no one wants to discuss openly.

    Synodal discussion is lamed if on the issues that affect people most it is hemmed in by sacrosanct and unquestionable dogma on one side and dread of honest communication on the other.

    Did my ears deceive me, or did I hear a church leader say recently that abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare’? Was that not the heresy of heresies a short time ago? It’s a reasonable position, and could set the debate in a less threatening horizon.

    The Synod of Jerusalem, Acts 15, was one of the most successful ever, opening the church to the gentiles as the Spirit had already indicated to Peter. Today we need to cultivate a joyful spirit of synodality that may produce equally successful responses to the pressures and divisions of today.

    One area where healing is needed is the liturgical controversies. The criminal current English translation has intensified the impression that Catholic liturgy is a scene of desolation. But the answer is not to huddle in a corner with the ‘Tridentine’ mass. Pope Benedict’s expectation that de-abrogating it would bring about a joyful liturgical pluralism was not realized, and the emergence of schismatic tendencies made it certain that the promised review would have a negative outcome, necessitating Pope Francis’s draconian steps. But the suppression of free creativity here has been catastrophic. Linguistic, musical, visual, performative creativity and inculturation were positively demanded by the times and by the church of Vatican II and instead we got zombified routinization. Synodality demands that we become more like adults and less like timid children. There is no need for noisy protests, for mounting a Fronde, for anti-papal or anti-Vatican denunciations tending to schism. Rather we must develop a culture of synodality at every level in the church, following up on every possibility opened at parochial and at hierarchical level. Things are changing and developing (‘Egad! they’d better!’), and if we persist, with the Spirit, in patient pleading, forthright speech, bold innovation, in calm and charity, the obstacles and obstructions will yield, as they did for Paul at the Jerusalem synod.

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