| |

Still flying a tattered flag

This June, God willing, I’ll be a priest for 43 years. Ordained in 1973, less than a decade after the Second Vatican Council ended, I remember it as a time of huge hope and expectation. Despite the fact that the ink was hardly dry on the seminal documents of that Council, at that time we were imbued with a glorious optimism. The road had been marked clearly for us and it opened out invitingly ahead of us. Everything was possible.
It wasn’t just that we were young. With the Bible in one hand and the documents of the Council in the other, we were told that our task was to connect the lives people lived with a God who loved them. And we believed we had the conviction, energy and commitment to birth a different kind of church.
The priest-poet, Pádraig J. Daly, a contemporary, captured our mood in his poem,

The Last Dreamers:

We began in bright certainty
Your will was a master plan
Lying open before us
Sunlight blessed us
Fields of birds sang for us
Rainfall was your kindness tangible.

Paul VI, the pope at the time, and a central figure in delivering the documents of Vatican Two, was a tortured individual, fearful and uncomfortable with change, who soon came to believe that his duty was to hold the line, to rein in what he regarded as the danger of excessive decentralisation from Rome. After his death Pope John Paul II adopted a policy of centralisation, rowing back on the implementation of reforms and Benedict XVI, as we know, continued that process.
In the same poem, Daly captures the mood as the dream of reform dissipated:

But our dream was flawed
And we hold it now
Not in ecstacy but in dogged loyalty
Waving our tattered flags after the war,
Helping the wounded across the desert.

The wonder is not that so many walked away but that so many stayed with it. For those, like myself, who believed that the great Council contained the seeds of hope and progress for our Church, it was incredibly frustrating to witness the Church declining year by year while the great vision that could give it purpose and strength was disparaged and rejected by leaders who weren’t able to see (or didn’t want to see) what the Council called ‘the signs of the times’.
John Paul and Benedict directed us back to where we used to be: theologically, pastorally, liturgically, psychologically. It was as if the word ‘retrograde’ had been invented to describe the process. It was as if the Council had never happened or that it was all a mistake or that the dream was a sham. The more charitable assessment was that it was a loss of nerve; the less charitable, a betrayal. Either way, it was a profound loss of hope.
St Augustine is credited with saying that ‘hope has two daughters, anger and courage – anger at the way things are and courage to change them’. And as hope gradually died a long and difficult death and Rome eventually began to implode, a few years ago the cardinals came to the obvious conclusion that the Curia in Rome had to be reformed, rowing back in the general direction of the Council of Trent had failed and that the vision of Vatican Two was worth a second look.
Unexpectedly Francis emerged from the shadows and while hope was re-kindled we wondered whether the burden of so much expectation was too much for a man in his late 70s to bear. The Curia struck back, as everyone knew they would and vested interests manipulated opposition to Francis’ reforms. The word from the Vatican was that another pope in the mould of John Paul and Benedict would be elected in a few years when the daft notions of the man from the pampas of Argentina would become little more than a temporary aberration. To re-cast Seamus Heaney’s famous line, hope refused to rhyme with despair. The legacy of John Paul and Benedict has brought a bitter harvest.
Yet, here Francis is. Smiling. Speaking in plain words. Living simply. Reminding us that Jesus loved the poor. Telling us, his fellow-sinners, to cheer up because God loves us. Saying don’t judge, don’t condemn. Nothing is black and white. And quietly and determinedly opening up vistas of possibility and promise for our Church. Who could have thought, after the long winter of our discontent, that suddenly again everything is possible?
At the synods in Rome in 2014 and again in 2015, he encouraged real discussion – ‘Debate, debate, debate’ he advised – and he took his time digesting the different and often opposing views before he published his ‘exhortation’, The Joy of Love.
It’s an extraordinary document: ground-breaking, breath-taking, wonderful, hopeful, liberating, encouraging, life-affirming, exhilarating. Here’s a sample of some of the things he’s said:

  • Church law needs to be placed in pastoral and cultural perspective
  • The primacy of the individual conscience has to be respected
  • Priests and bishops, in dealing with marriage and family life, shouldn’t throw ideals at people like stones but be aware and accepting of mitigating factors
  • Women who are struggling for ‘liberation’ are doing God’s work
  • Don’t describe anyone as ‘intrinsically disordered’
  • Don’t describe any couple as ‘living in sin’
  • What makes sense pastorally in one country may even seem out of place in another.
  • He’s commended, to married couples, the role of desires, emotions, feelings, passion and sexuality in marriage.
  • Sexual desire is a good thing; the erotic is a gift from God; sexual pleasure in marriage should be celebrated and nurtured.
  • People in non-traditional families, including single mothers, need to be offered ‘understanding, comfort and acceptance’.
  • He’s pointed a direction for those in second marriages to receive Communion.
  • He’s brought respect for the individual into the heart of the Church.
  • He’s extended the net of belonging to everyone – all are welcome in the Church.

Who would have believed it? I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting this extraordinary document, the Joy of Love, again and again.
After carrying a battered flag across the desert for more than 40 years it’s like coming over the brow of a great hill of sand and discovering a well of sparkling water.

Similar Posts


  1. Well done, Brendan; an inspiring article and one that gives renewed hope where it has perhaps begun to fade or already faded.
    The issue will be whether or not Pope Francis will have brought about sufficient structural change to survive his eventual death or retirement. I am of the opinion that he needs to move more quickly and appoint many more bishops and cardinals who agree with the direction he is taking for the whole Church and with the reforms he is trying to initiate within the Curia.
    I appreciate that he is rightly concerned to hold opposing sides within the hierarchy together to protect the vitally important unity of the Church; very easy to fracture but a very, very long time to bring back together again, as history shows.
    Let us all hold him in prayer.

  2. Wilfrid Harrington, OP says:

    Thank you, Brendan. I am in total agreement. I, too, was inspired by Vatican II and have, from the first, striven to present its spirit. Yes, indeed, what a glorious time that immediate aftermath of the Council. Since then,an orchestrated policy of ‘restoration’ has had its way. Happily, the window that John XXIII flung open has not, despite determined effort, been slammed shut. It is, again wide open. Paul had warned: ‘Do not quench the Spirit’ (1 Thes 5: 19).

  3. Pascal O'Dea says:

    I agree with your point that Pope Francis needs to appoint like minded bishops to maintain the momentum for change which could easily be lost, notably here in Ireland.I would disagree on your point of Pope Francis’s keeping the hierarchy together at all costs, we have a dying church as a result of that holding together approach,the church as it is currently organised needs to debate and listen in order to survive , we have had years of a curia led fear factor, imposing “apparent orthodoxy” with a “lets pretend we are a united Church” .People have voted with their absence.
    best wishes,

  4. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Wouldn’t it be sad if Pope Francis were to be succeeded by someone who did not hold true to the ideals set forth in Laudato ‘si and Amoris Laetitia. The good news is that his decentralization agenda is in full swing. I might have mentioned this in the past but the best Pope will be the one who makes the Papacy redundant. This decentralization brings the battle closer to the ACP/AUSCP/PI which is where it should be. Do you get the idea the grass roots reform you are all seeking has been made easier? If the Pope is telling us that church reform is within the scope of local cultural reform, then you have to get back to conducting the polls you had started early on and do so with the confidence that Amoris Laetitia and Laudato ‘si provides you. The more I read, the more I realize that he is giving the Associations (and any parish for that matter) the ability to conduct their own pastoral polls and find out what level of inclusion Catholics believe to be supportive of their local culture. Am I the only one who sees this as a huge victory to the international reform groups? Whose playbook is this Pope reading from? I like it. The Pope is waiving a flag in the distance.

  5. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Brendan paints the “before” and the “after.”
    Have a look back at what Melbourne priest Eric Hodgens wrote in the summer edition of Swag, journal of the National Council of Priests of Australia: “We are the Gaudium et Spes priests.” It captures the picture. (It has a nativity picture on the cover – Christmas is in summertime there!)
    It’s on the ACP website at http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2013/05/reflections-of-a-gaudium-et-spes-priest/.
    Click the link “Read the original here” at the end: the original is a bit easier on the eye. Go to page 12.
    Bishops and cardinals have an important part to play, of course. But more vital is that lay people and priests resonate now with the call by Francis to be a people of gospel hope and mercy. It’s from these that future servants in the episcopacy and cardinalate will emerge.

  6. Pascal, I agree with you when you talk about avoiding ‘pretend’ unity but I don’t think that is what Pope Francis is about. I surmise that he is thinking more of Jesus’ heartfelt prayer for unity recorded in John 17:21ff.
    That he is trying desperately to hold the Church together while he seeks fundamental reform can be seen from;
    1. His slowness in introducing structural reform;
    2. His keeping people in curial positions of authority who
    strongly disagree with him and even speak publically and
    write against him; Cardinal Gerhard Müller Prefect of the
    CDF,is just one major example. You will be aware of many
    3. His recent meeting on April 2nd with the head of the
    ultra-traditional and break-away Society of St Pius X
    (SSPX), founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970.
    In only recognising the Tridentine Mass and rejecting
    much of the Second Vatican Council I would imagine that
    Pope Francis would disagree strongly with many of their
    beliefs and practices. And yet he seems to be seeking
    ways to get them to return to unity with Rome. But at what

  7. I agree that the initial response to the council was overwhelming Joy among the younger clergy, and those of us fortunate enough to be close to the events. It was a time of great division as well. so many people were in pain at the loss of “their” church as it had been for hundreds of years. We have missed the distinction between unity and uniformity. Perhaps there was a need for the tridentine mass to continue for some time, but those who press for it now were not even alive in the 50’s. It is now a museum piece.
    We need unity not uniformity. All too often uniformity is what the hierarchy looks for even when they are so torn by attitudes. WE have conservative (read reactionary) cardinals who demand uniformity on their terms. Were that true of the liberal cardinals the conservatives would have been left out in the cold with the Lefbvre-ites and never welcomed back. Todays reading (27/4)about the council of Jerusalem should help us to put this into perspective. There was great discussion, but in the end those who had lived the Mosaic law were free to continue to live it, but those entering the community were not forced into the practices from the past. We have always had room for dissent and discussion. and we need to continue. It would be better if the universal church were open to the discussion and open to the fruit it produces.
    We need true authority and less authoritarianism. Our hierarchy seems to be living in great fear that they will lose their power, while they have already lost their authentic authority. We face many issues, but with the power of the gospel and an openness to the role of the spirit in the whole church we will continue to march, whether in the desert sands or the desert in bloom.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.