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On the Edge

On the Edge
Donagh O’Meara
The Furrow September 2014
In the wake of 9/11 in the USA psychologists spoke about the fact that groups can experience trauma just as individuals and families can. In the US the protective membrane was penetrated, violated,
perhaps even destroyed. The centre of what Americans considered their sanctuary, the Pentagon was nearly taken out. Imagine how vulnerable that made them feel. Not alone vulnerable but temporarily helpless.
As I come to reflect on priesthood and where we are at as a church in Ireland, I want to suggest that as church and as individuals/priests we too are deeply traumatised. The tsunami of revelations around abuse, the drip-drip of horrendous stories relating to the past around the treatment of children, have left me deeply vulnerable and feeling helpless too.
What happens in trautimised organisations then?
– There is a circling of the wagons
– Stress increases
– There is a sense of disconnection and loneliness
– There is a loss of a sense of meaning
– In grief we become disorientated and lose the vision.
I would like to make a number of observations on how I see this trauma being played out.
Loss of connection with the centre/diocese. Though we receive more texts and emails than ever before, the centre seems more and more remote.
Many fellows have adopted the attitude: ‘I will look after my own patch’. No doubt disillusioned by the secrecy and the disregarding of local consultation around the appointment of bishops.
Vatican II disregarded again. But minding your own patch won’t help in the situation we are in now.
The missal, or will I call it the missile, landed upon us but it certainly hasn’t landed with us as priests and certainly not with the people. Like Humanae Vitae given but not received and even
though it isn’t working, we continue to go with it anyway.
Silence, except in a few notable quarters, on the silencing of Tony Flannery, a man who raised legitimate questions. A sadness that he has gone but an inability to say anything about it.
Keeping the same system going no matter what, even though some people’s health is being damaged.
We are so traumatised we can’t say ‘no’ anymore. My image of us now is that we are going
around with our hands up. Getting the prayer cards for vocation even though that particular train went off the rails a long time ago.
A dodgy spirituality: Donald Cozzens says that we tend to reduce the spiritual life to ethical living or saying our prayers and to holding fast to church dogmas. Or we tend to become pious in
the sense that our spirituality takes on a sentimental character where the comforts of belief hold belief sway. Spirituality is then offered as kind of eternal life insurance policy.
A refusal to discuss certain issues, a refusal to discern the Spirit honestly, particularly around the exclusion of women; an inability to see that the introduction of the permanent diaconate would shut the door in women’s faces again.
An absence of leadership, a going into the bunker – with notable exceptions: the ACP comes to mind, the courage of Enda McDonagh from this College, the courage of Willie Walsh from my own diocese.
Kubla Ross speaks about a liminal space between the place we are in now and what is new. In order to move she says we must acknowledge the loss, otherwise we stay in denial around it or we get stuck inside in it and go around in it like a mixing bowl.
Can I make a few observations that might help us to move a little bit? Francis seems to be saying that the priest is called to be there for people no matter whether they are connected or not.
• Offer welcome – that might not be far from what Jesus was talking about.
• The priest is there to journey with people.
• Our most challenging times and our best times are when we truly journey with people in moments of grief and tragedy.
• In the future we will be called to go to people rather than that they come to us.
We are called no longer to be managers but to be animators. I was privileged to be part of a listening process in our diocese. We have 136 places of worship spread over 58 parishes. How do we
animate people in these communities to gather into the future?
How do we get people to engage so that these communities will be vibrant into the future?
We are going to be a voice among other voices, a Church among other churches into the future – a good thing. No longer the dominant one.
To do this we will need to be people of soul in tune with our own soul and in tune with the soul of people.
We will need to stand at the interface between church and society – stand on the edge, as Peter McVerry does so well, and speak courageously for the poor and the vulnerable.
I would like to conclude with a poem from David Whyte that might sum up where we need to go:
When your eyes are tired and the world is tired also,
When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognise its own.
There you can be sure you are not beyond love,
The dark will be your womb tonight.
The night will give you a horizon further you can see.
You must learn one thing; the world was made to be free in.
Give up all other worlds except the one in which you belong.
Sometime it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness
to learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small to you.

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  1. Kathleen Faley says:

    Here are a few more observations that may have contributed to the lack of Vocations to Priesthood and Religious Life in recent decades:
    The Clergy have become more laicised than the laity themselves and I am not thinking here of Priests who were laicised because they wished to get married and were forced to be laicised because it was an either/or rather than an also/and decision to be made on the grounds of the vow of celibacy taken at their Ordination to Holy Orders. Many Priests dress as the laity do and it is hard to distinguish who is or who is not a Priest anymore unless they are local. The same can be said for some Nuns.
    Regarding Parishioners who come to Church as, ‘bums on seats’ whenever dwindling numbers of the parish congregation is being discussed in religious discussions or written about in religious articles. That kind of terminology de-humanises the dignity of the Parish Christian Community who do come to Church and turns away those who would come because that kind of terminology de-values the Baptised Personhood of the Christian Community whatever their age or status in the parish.
    Making secular comments from the Altar which has nothing to do with the Eucharist that has been celebrated respectfully and reverently. In the recent past Bishops have spoken out against and banned the constant flashing of cameras during the First Holy Communion Celebration and during the Sacrament of Confirmation in order to maintain due reverence and respect for the occasion and likewise secular music has been deemed unsuitable to sing in Church during the Celebration of the Life of a Departed Soul.
    All the above are forms of creeping secularity which de-values the Sanctity of the Sacrament being celebrated and the Christian Community also. I am not advocating a return to the Tridentine Era but rather a Remembrance of what is being truly celebrated within God’s House – the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus the Eternal Word of God.

  2. I find that priests dressing ‘as the laity do’ helps them/us connect in our common humanity rather than perpetuate the false dichotomy of ontological difference.
    Liturgy and ritual is there to serve the people and not the other way around. Let us therefore prioritise respect and reverence for people over form.
    “God pervades the secular”. (Leonardo Boff).

  3. Kathleen Faley says:

    MM, you may take issue with my comment re: Priests becoming more laicised than the laity themselves from the point of view of their casual attire rather than more formal priestly attire but I still maintain my comment for the following reasons. A couple of nights ago I heard a casual comment made on TV in the film of The Three Musketeers (the context it was meant in was totally different to the interpretation I’m outlining here)that “the Man of God and Man of the Cloth are not necessarily one and the same thing” even though the laity have always been pre-conditioned to believe that both Man of God and Man of the Cloth were one and the same thing – namely because of distinctly priestly attire that signalled them out from the laity as well as signalling the deeper aspect of Call to the Priestly Vocation of Holy Orders that it was meant to do.
    While I do not advocate a return to the wearing of Soutane and Birretta, lay casual dress worn by priests does ‘hide them in the midst’ of the Catholic laity in Parish Communities. Yet, uniforms as distinctive attire are worn in Hospitals, schools and colleges,universities, in team sports and by some businesses such as banks etc as distinct identifiers through Badge, Logo or Company Brand who want to have that particular identity in the midst of the laity in Parish Communities recognised as their particular identifier.
    If priests cannot be found in the midst of Catholic Lay Communiites because they are so hidden by their lay casual attire how can the laity even know they are there at all to by served by these priests in liturgy and ritual or to call upon them in an emergency situation of Spiritual need that arises and which needs a Priest for Confession or Last Rites.
    Shepherds or Priests are meant to stand out from the sheep/laity that they are Spiritually Leading in their Community not hide among the sheep in the midst of the Sheepfold.
    As you quote “God pervades the secular”(Leonardo Boff)but equally it must be noted that the wolf of secularism is invading the Sheepfold of the Laity and scattering many of the laity out of that sheepfold into the world with all its worldly distractions and leaving Catholic Churches here and elsewhere with ever dwindling numbers.
    Maybe it is time for priests to start wearing more distinctive Priestly attire as the Shepherd of the Flock does and stand out ahead of the laity/sheep as the identifier he is meant to be.

  4. Mícheál says:

    If only the clergy wore their clerical collars, if only the religious wore their habits, if only the secular was banned from the liturgy … then all would be well. I can’this help but think that this is not a realistic analysis and is rooted in a nostalgic longing for a church of yesteryear. Other religions, most obviously Islam, use “uniforms as distinctive attire” but it appears to represent an authoritarianism and rigid orthodoxy. The Christ who went naked to his cross did not require any special,form of dress for his followers.
    The current concern with secularism seems to me to be often a desire to flee the reality of the world in which we live and sometimes a denial of what the Incarnation represents.

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