Ministry with the freedom of poetry and the colour of marriage

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? (Mary Oliver)
My fingers have stopped thinking. But they were provoked into action over the weekend.   Isn’t life rich and wonderful? We went to the Crematorium on Saturday for Vinnie’s funeral. We had our usual rather creative Ritual and the Service ended with Johnny Cash’s – ‘Ring of Fire.’ How appropriate.
An e-mail arrived on Saturday night from Pola. It was a voice from the distant past. She had watched a documentary on Bette Midler and it reminded her of me. I had probably advocated Bette as a model for Christian living those faraway days in Dundee (38 years ago). She told me that herself & Tony (a retired consultant psychiatrist) had discerned and Tony was now going forward for the Diaconate. (Tony & Pola – with many other young students had been delightful & very active members of our parish). They now live on Skye which reminds me of Mk 4.35 when I had a very frightening experience on a boat crossing from Applecross. I replied to Pola along these lines:
It is delightful. The two of you with your very different experience of life will offer a very rich version of Ministry. I have my own doubts on Diaconate. The doubts are very real. They concern the fact that some deacons end up as Sanctuary ornaments. They add a further layer to clericalism. They are dressed up statues dumped in the Sanctuary mouthing a few responses. That is one version.
Another version might be an unfolding one; an evolving one. The ministry reaches out into all aspects of society. It has the freedom of poetry. It has the colour of marriage. It has the diversity of other life experiences. It can reach into the places that the static priesthood (of some) never does. But it needs a poet and artist to create that Ministry. My further fear is for you as a Diaconate couple – what support will you have? Do you depend on one priest who understands Ministry; who has a grasp of what Francis is saying; who works cooperatively/collaboratively at the Ministry; who is soaking in the muck of everyday life; who thinks and reflects and reads and argues. Ministry is privileged and wonderful but can be a lonely world which is often caricatured by a misunderstanding culture or even a dismissive society. It is always then the same question:  Who ministers to the minister? Who heals the healer?  (Tony will understand that very well).
I was only half joking when I suggest Bette Midler as a model. The world of faith needs and cries out for wildness and laughter and fun and outrageousness.  Mary Oliver (American poet) – says the following:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan,
Who made the grasshopper?
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
It must be about noticing and appreciating things;
about paying attention.
How to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Today there was a phone call from a journalist asking for comments on Diarmuid Martin’s decision to move the students for priesthood to Rome. I don’t know why he is doing this but I was remembering Brendan Hoban’s words on the blessing Maynooth had been as he reflected on his past fifty years. I was smiling to myself at how I had severe doubts about drafting in foreigners from Rome for Ministry in the home countries – such as Diarmuid Martin for Dublin or Leo Cushley for Edinburgh. I was recalling my own years in Rome and remembering. It was good for us to get out of Ireland to experience a different world and a new culture. Did we immerse ourselves fully into that diversity? I didn’t anyway. I regret it now but I was glad to be there. Was I contaminated by Rome? I wasn’t. It made me very critical and sceptical of the Church in Rome and did broader my mind. Would I be happy with students staying in Maynooth? I don’t know.
I think it is rather more important what version of Church is taught; what type of theology is done; what happens in preparation for ministry. I still think than an ‘apprentice type’ of preparation is essential. Ministry demands a robust personality. The business of faith is counter-cultural. It isn’t aggressive but it offers a different version of life. The world presently has gone anti- establishment. The church is part of the establishment. The ministry has to be on the side of the outsiders. Ministry has to be poetic. It has to learn a new language. It has to be creative. Are students toughened up to face that challenge? We don’t need Medieval robots.
Why did Brexit happen? Besides the arrogance of a colonial past (superiority) – it happened because people felt abandoned, uncared for. Why is Trump finding his way to be the Republican candidate or for that matter why is Clinton? Trump is anti- establishment. Clinton is seen to be too much of the Establishment. Why was the result of our own Election so mixed up? Why were the independents elected? I take it as anti-establishment. Why is the Church rejected? For similar reasons. It is tired and stodgy. What has Francis done? He demands of us to be adventurers and wanderers and searchers and pioneers, full of humility and reaching out to the broken and the peripheral. He rejects those who hide in certainties.
A simple aside is illustrative. The ridiculous Missal was foisted on us and our Leadership hadn’t the gumption or the guts to say – it was a mistake. Why was Sean Fagan allowed to suffer so much? Or Tony Flannery? Because the leadership had wish bones for backbones (remembering Jim Dillon on Conor Cruise).
Why are so many of the younger students and priests steeped in the past and caught up in performances? It is hard to face being nobodies and not being in control of the Sacred. We have to let God lead us. It is hard to cope with the collapse of ‘the known.’ Some still can get exercised on who should go to Communion? What utter nonsense. The Table is open always. It is tough facing the awkwardness of a world where life is a mess. Francis is consistent in his views and his demands to abandon the securities of life and to walk in the company of a God who takes us deep into the mess of life. I find that very poetic and dangerous and wonderful.
Deacons. Students. Priests. Bishops. Everyone. All of us have to find our bearings in that mess. The tidiness of the past is gone. The Church has to lose control. Ministers have to be strong. Men, women, married, unmarried (as ministers) – who cares (it is so totally unimportant). All that matters is the world of faith is celebrated with humility. God is ‘in the bits and pieces.’
Prayer is –
‘the cat half asleep;
the oak tree waving;
the sunflower smiling;
the wren drenched with enthusiasm –
that is prayer.’ (Mary Oliver).
It is Jonathon Tulloch in The Tablet. It is the Bette Midler type. It is the poet and artist in us pushing out the boundaries. It is the struggle with language to express the experiences of life around us. It is the bread of reality broken on the Table. It is seeing and hearing God speak in each person. It is the laughter of God found in the beauty and wonder of everyday. It is taking off those shoes. It is the gentle breeze. It is Jonah in us and the castor-oil plant.
Words were mentioned from Diarmuid Martin along the lines – that he would prefer his seminarians to be living in the reality of Dublin life where they would have the experience of pastoral work in a consistent way in a parish. Is that consistent with Rome?   Would it happen in Maynooth? I don’t know but there are bigger questions than places here. It is how it is done and not so much the where.
I feel like a parent worrying about Tony and Pola (entering diaconate). I feel like a parent wondering how would a student for priesthood face up to the life that we know is now a priest’s life. I worry about the Church that may emerge when Francis goes. I am concerned at the load that is dumped on Bishops presently. I worry about bishops being imported into dioceses for the wrong reasons and from the wrong places. They are often chosen from the wrong criteria and haven’t the flexibility to face our world today. It is both an exciting and frightening prospect. Give me Bette Midler please.  I conclude as I touch 70, my life of ministry has been delightful. I only wish that the would-be students could have the privileged opportunities I had. Then I would be totally care-free.
Seamus Ahearne osa

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  1. I share the concern over Deacons expressed in this posting by Seamus Ahearne.
    In the New Testament, the word usually translated “serve” is the Greek word ‘diakoneo’. This office should be seen as the expanding role of the laity taking responsibility for the future of the Church rather than as that of ‘priest once removed’ and another collar under liturgical vestments on a Sunday morning.

  2. Wilfrid Harrington, OP says:

    Thank you Seamus.
    It is not a time for shifting deckchairs. It is long past time, in the name of the people of God, for radical challenge to an unhealthy clericalist culture.
    It seems that Pope Francis’ insistent critique falls on deaf ears. A factor here is that, over decades, as deliberate policy, bishops were chosen to be yesmen, not leaders.
    It is refreshing and encouraging to witness Archbishop Cupich of Chicago celebrate Eucharist with a group of American ACP priests. Qui potest

  3. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Not like
    A lone beautiful bird
    These poems now rise in great white flocks
    Against my mind’s vast hills
    Startled by God
    Breaking a branch
    When his foot
    14th Century Persian Mystic, Hafiz
    Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

  4. I reckon I would be a better priest today than years ago when I was in active ministry…

  5. Soline Humbert says:

    @4 Sean: what about “I reckon I AM a better priest today than years ago…..”?

  6. You said it, Soline… I didn’t dare say it… for fear of being laughed out of court?.. Something like that…
    Hemingway put it like this: “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are stronger at the broken places…”
    I have written and published on Amazon The Search for Xavier. Hurt to write it. A lot of pain. Tears. Now that it is “out there” it may help someone… somewhere…

  7. Soline Humbert says:

    Sean,I have ordered it. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  8. January 1968
    Unfrocked, disrobed… unwaged.
    Out of security, into insecurity…
    At the end of an Aer Lingus short-haul –
    from one world to another…
    I’m told there are parts of London
    that are really lovely.
    I wouldn’t know – I take the Underground…
    Manpower. Oxford street. A man behind a desk
    fingering index cards.
    – You can type?
    – Yes – two fingers, a thumb and an elbow…
    He looked at me, oddly… A joker, eh? Irish.
    Book firm in Euston Square,
    vacancy for an invoice typist, you clock in,
    five days a week, half day Saturday…
    Take the Northern line…
    The big bad world. ‘Warned about it so often
    in the Novitiate… in the cloister.
    Now you’re in it, lad – sink or swim…
    Stand and give challenge? Oh, hardly –
    not on the escalator, platform, street…
    Go with the crowd or risk being pushed,
    jostled, stepped on, over…
    So many people! All in such a rush!
    An urgent, frenetic, ceaseless scramble.
    Getting back to base exhausted,
    frustrated, shell shocked…
    Longing for silence – just that,
    the absence of noise…
    Are you there, Mister Walsh! The rent, Mister Walsh!..
    I wouldn’t mind but the bed springs
    are coming up through the matress…
    The young man in Barclays explained that I
    couldn’t have a cheque book just like that:
    references first, then possibly an account…
    Oh, and a deposit – money up front, all right?..
    Anyone tell me what a Building Society is for?
    Mortgage? What do you mean, mortgage?
    Launderette… So if I bring my washing
    round there on Saturday afternoon,
    how does it work?
    I’ll need coins for the machines?..
    ‘Knock the corners off me? After another while
    there won’t be any corners left to knock off!..
    Poverty? Yes, I was poor –
    for the very first time.
    Now you know, man –
    what it is to do without,
    go in need of, make do…
    Lunch an apple and a Mars bar –
    on a good day!
    Here! You! What are you at?
    Where are you coming from?
    Where do we go from here,
    mein doppelganger?..
    ‘Ask me that, don’t ask me that!
    Oh, please, no! Anything but – !
    Why? That what you want to know?..
    Why I skipped, split, took off,
    leapt over the wall?
    Without as much as a..?
    Leaving behind a trail of destruction:
    people dismayed, disappointed, let down,
    betrayed, shocked, scandalised, hurt…
    Don’t ask me why. Please, oh please!
    Spare me the agony of remorse…
    the burden of soul-searching…
    the searing pain of reckoning
    in the cold light of dawn…
    For all that, there was still this power within me –
    don’t ask me to explain, I cannot –
    surging recalls from the past,
    snatches from sermons and writings
    still vivid in my memory…
    I stood at street corners amid hurrying pedestrians
    and longed to call out with the full voice God gave me –
    God is Love!.. You have only to turn to Jesus
    to find that He is already turned to you…
    arms open, extended, longing to embrace
    you, me, all we who are sinners…
    Oh, a driving, well nigh, irresistible force
    urging me to call aloud
    with all the power I could muster:
    I have come to save sinners, not the just!
    It is the one who is ill
    who is in need of the physician,
    not the one who is well…
    And to the few who stopped to listen –
    curious, wondering, sparing me
    a minute, however reluctantly –
    an imaginary audience, passing congregation:
    While he was still a long way off his father
    saw him and took pity on him.
    Running out he threw his arms around his neck
    and kissed him…
    For my son here was dead
    and is come to life again,
    was lost and is found…
    But I didn’t, did I?
    ‘Twas but a momentary dynamic
    that ebbed and faded…
    I turned away, dry mouthed,
    returned to Flatsville.
    And as the weeks gave way to months
    that inner something –
    echoes of redemption, signals of salvation –
    grew ever weaker and then…
    were no more.

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