Fact or Fiction : Real or Imaginary.
I am surrounded by ‘fallen women. ‘ Do other parishes have such problems? It is not yet a crisis but the regularity of falls, does concern me. Our women (yes, mainly older women) call to the houses; do the collections each week or do a mail drop or distribute the Bulletin/Newsletter through the doors. Many have fallen. Wrists are broken; ankles damaged. Who will replace them; who will keep our church together? And yet they can’t be ordained? I wonder would ordination be as dangerous as doing what they already do? Such women fall because of age. So many priests are falling too because of age. Evangelisation has to mean finding a new poetry and a new design for the ‘workers’ in our community and a new language and a very new model of priesthood.
Padraig McCarthy wrote about an imaginary parish in The Furrow (current). He was very creative and his questions were provocative especially around what might happen if a priest took ill. (Or the women got older; or fell??).
If I wrote up the story of this parish, some might think it was also an imaginary parish. I suspect many would wonder whether the goings-on here were real. I have met strangers leaving our church recently who said “things are done very differently here.” I didn’t know whether that was a compliment or a critical insult!
I too am allowed to dream. I amused myself as I fancifully wondered how Cardinals Burke, Muller et alia might deal with the funeral of a 21 year old. The funeral was awash with drugs. However the crowd were at home here in the church. They took part rather strenuously. They agreed/disputed what was said. (Recall the innovation of the dialogue homily of years ago?) It was all very real; very sad and yet very homely. This has to be what Communion is. My thought was (and always is) – how creatively can we celebrate a life or a death or a family or a community in ordinary gestures and meaningful language on such occasions. I think we usually manage.
On the 2nd November, we had our ‘Day for the Dead’ focusing on those bereaved in the past year. The church was packed. (That only happens for funerals and such days). Again, our creative architects designed a Ceremony which spoke into the experience of those present – mostly disconnected from the usual Church services. The camaraderie of grief and the poignant silence was powerful. The earlier visit to the homes was so moving. Susan was ecstatic. She was thrilled. Two letters had arrived. Her son (20 year old) Glen’s organs had been donated. A little girl with cystic fibrosis had got lungs. Another got his heart. It was a beautiful moment and an oasis of goodness. We shared that intimacy.
Ann wanted her husband’s ring blessed. He had lost his wedding ring, swimming on holidays. He wouldn’t wear the new ring unless it was blessed! She arranged a surprise gathering in church. I have never seen the two of them at church but I know them well. We had a special moment.
At our Baptisms, I asked the Godparents to ‘stand up.’! I then quizzed them on what it meant and had fun. I said Kaide was the biggest troublemaker in our street and that we were delighted to be rid of him (had been evicted). Kaide blushed. That in itself was an achievement! And then I said: ‘When Carmel died, I was up in the houses around Carmel’s talking with the neighbours. I asked about Kaide (who lived close by). All those older women said that Kaide was a gentleman who was the best neighbour anyone could have.’ So I turned to the crowd and said – This now is Kaide. And the changed man he has become, is what a God– parent should be!’ His blush turned to delight and he seemed to purr for the rest of the Ceremony.
I listen to the news each day and hear of places in Nigeria that I know (and the church communities that had been built and the builders). And I feel weary. I recall the hopes for the Arab Spring and see the failure. I listen to the angry news from the UK around Sexual Abuse where politics is in turmoil; where Butler-Sloss and Woolf had to resign before they started; where police and politicians and media are in a mess (Savile, Clifford, Harris, Rochdale) at the handling of abuse and then I hear of the Maria Cahill case being bundled and further misused for party political purposes and even find the church hurled into the discussion. Who has the gumption or the humility now to realise something about the sexual jungle?
Our parish sister has been asked to ‘mind a cat’ for a week. Some of the wags are suggesting that the local ‘take-aways’ might reduce her work load. Our school Principal has been advised how to move foxes from the school grounds. She has been seen surreptitiously sprinkling a ‘liquid’ around the fields. She has warned me that ‘I would be killed’ if I ever said anything before she retires. We are reminded of a newly installed pp (happy with himself) in Orange Country until he heard the first request in his job– “there is no toilet paper in the ladies loo.” Greg (a colleague) was indeed taken aback. If I wrote a job description for a priest – it would surprise many.
Somehow the death of Gerry Hughes (The God of Surprises) touched many of us. Gerry was ‘the immoral Gerry’ to distinguish him from the other one– ‘the moral one’ (the philosopher ). I think Gerry’s book unleashed in us, our ‘holy ground experiences’ in pastoral ministry.
The God of Surprises stirs/evokes an image of the burning bush daily. The moments are caught. The memories are dredged. Every day – something happens that fires us with awe (note Mary Oliver on this). I listened to Finnie yesterday. He wasn’t impressed by the cussedness of Jesus or the dramatic storyteller’s exaggeration (astute steward and more) and then he said: ‘ Look. Those stories are pictures. What are ‘your pictures’ now? Paint a picture of God; of faith; of grace; of love; of hope. ? Share your pictures. ‘ Finnie got it right.
Those little pictures; those surprises coax me away from the whinging and whining that often makes up the media messages; from Morning Ireland to the Moaners’ charter with Joe; to the carry-on in the Dail and the folks who dislike austerity (who doesn’t?); to the disgusting disfigurement of religion by the Islamists who have gone astray; to the fundamentalists in our faith who damage the gospel so badly; to the dullness and dreariness of how God is presented so often among us; to the dubious excitement of the new converts (disciples of Francis) who spoke so differently just a few days ago; to the unnatural attempts to force-marry parishes into clusters.
The God of surprises; the rolling pictures are evoked in the fun of daily life; in the banter of the Gospel; in the home visits; in the school moments; in the privileged access and spontaneity especially around funerals; in the battles around the drink/alcohol; in the different world of travellers; in the marvellous hilarity of our weekly team meeting and lunch; in the poetry of chaos; in the struggles of ordinary folk; in the commitment of so many to Jesus Christ; in the colour of our parish. Mr Turner may not be here but the artists are plentiful.
I was asked recently about how our local folk cope with chaotic lives and messed up relationships – how did I handle this in regard to admittance to Communion. My answer was obvious: ‘This is never a problem.’
I was asked in the past few days how we handle Annulments in this parish. In seventeen and a half years – not one has come to me. Such things no longer matter. Is this a fictional parish or is this how it now is? I must say I enjoy it how it is. New Missals (what drivel!) and such language is totally irrelevant. A new language is absolutely essential. Liturgy (if it is real) connects with the experiences of the local community. It is their pictures that matter with the God of surprises. I’m not sure whether Padraig’s story is imaginary or if this one is fictional. I need a book to finish the story for today.
Seamus Ahearne osa
This is a dream of a parish. Wish I was there.
The reality of Seamus Ahearne’s comments is mirrored in the life of Gerry Hughes. The book most widely known, “God of Surprises”, is reflective of our own times, for God is indeed surprising us through the ministry of Francis, Bishop of Rome.
In a Sermon in Rome this last October, Francis said “They did not understand that God is the God of Surprises, that God is always new: he never contradicts himself, never says that what he had said was wrong, ever, but he always surprises us. And they did not understand, and closed themselves in this system created with the best of intentions.”
Gerry Hughes surprised many of us by showing us that the God that inspired him is within all of us. By asking questions of himself he allowed others to ask similar questions. And Seamus does the same. We owe him our thanks.