Unable to bear much reality

Part of the difficulty we have in living the lives God gave us is facing reality. The many skirmishes of life leave us vulnerable and feeling threatened and we tend to want to look on the bright side and to deny any kind of darkness that threatens.
When pain and loss enters our world, it’s natural that we would seek to lessen it in any way we can. Human kind cannot bear much reality, the poet T. S. Eliot wrote so we try to manage it by minimising, contextualising and sometimes, unfortunately fantasising.
Fantasy is okay for children, who live a lot of their lives in their heads, but with adults it can lead to huge problems – for themselves and those around them. When adults refuse to face reality and insist on denying incontrovertible, self-evident truths, then we’re in real bother.
A reader takes me to task for some comments I made recently on the dearth of vocations in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve said the same things hundreds of times: priests are disappearing, Masses are being curtailed, parishes will close. The facts and the trends are clear – unless we do something other than continue the present strategy (pray and encourage). My critic said that my approach was making it difficult to attract vocations and that I should desist immediately. At least that was the gist of it, though he put it in less elegant language!
Those who study psychology tell me that there are two realities that minimise the need to face the truth about ourselves, or about what’s happening around us. One is called ‘denial’ which most of us are familiar with and which explains itself. The other is called ‘cognitive dissonance’ which seems to mean that deep within us is the tendency to convince ourselves that things could be much worse than they are. An example would be a visitor to a hospital telling a patient who had broken his leg that it would be worse if he had broken two legs.
It seems to me that the Catholic Church in Ireland should organise meetings, conferences and seminars in every townland on both those subjects because part of our problem with dealing with the huge issues that face us is denying them and/or pretending that they are not as serious as they are. (I won’t go through them one by one because anyone familiar with this column will know them.)
In a sense, in our circumstances, denial is understandable. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been turned upside down in the last few decades. So, instinctively, we reach out for solid stepping stones in order to maintain our balance in the swirling rapids around us. And as time rolls on and as the stepping stones seem fewer and fewer, we want to believe that there’s a corner just ahead of us that once we get round all manner of things will be well again. Or we can even begin to fantasise that we’ve already turned that mythical corner. ‘Green shoots’ and all the rest of it.
Those in positions of church leadership (who tend to be older) are particularly prone to denial and cognitive dissonance. And prone as well to being manipulated by those who cheerlead for whatever the official church position may be – and are usually well paid for their reassurance.
There’s a lively sub-culture in Irish Catholicism of individuals and groups who encourage and reassure the leadership of our Church not to change anything. They feed the denial and the cognitive dissonance of distressed Catholics – from the mitre to the pew – and they criticise those who welcome change as dissident and disloyal. They write in newspapers they describe as ‘Catholic’ though they have little sense of the breadth of that term. They travel the country giving lectures and pep-up talks to the fearful and fragile who want to be convinced that keeping out the tide is a better strategy than learning how to swim. And some of them are clerics and theologians, wearing their naked ambition for promotion on their sleeves.
An example of this was a recent profile of the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Browne, on the American Catholic Crux website, by Michael Kelly. A report from ‘Dublin, Ireland’ and intended for mainly American consumption, presents a glowing report on the extraordinarily positive, almost miraculous effect on the Irish Church of the appointment of Archbishop Brown.
According to Kelly, Archbishop Brown is ‘saving the Irish Church’; he has had a huge influence on the Irish government re-establishing the Irish Embassy in Rome; his engaging personality has impressed politicians; his ‘normal-guy ethos and engaging style’ means he can share a joke even with people like Leo Varadkar; he’s reshaping the hierarchy with Pope Francis-style bishops; his accessibility is such that he probably knows the name of every parish priest in Ireland; and, for good measure, he jogs in the Phoenix Park. All that was missing from the Kelly profile was the mood music.
This sycophantic nonsense must embarrass Archbishop Brown. Because he knows that much if not most of the Kelly profile, though unintentionally entertaining, is very wide of the mark. He knows, for example, from the fall-out to his ill-judged 2013 sermon at a Mass in Mount Merrion at which he lectured Irish politicians on their responsibilities, that he’s far from being a poster-boy in Leinster House. He knows that, while he visits some priests in Ireland who conspicuously share his approach, he refuses to meet the Association of Catholic priests which represents almost a third of the priests on this island; and he has to know that his approach to the appointment of bishops hasn’t the confidence of most Irish priests and probably many bishops.
So, like the famous Reggie Perrin (‘I didn’t get where I am today without . . .’), shrewd man that he is, I have no doubt that he takes profiles like that of Michael Kelly with more than a grain of salt. I’m sure he knows better than most that such unambiguous flattery serves neither him nor his Church. He knows too, wise man that he is, what Pope Francis would think of such nonsense.
Fantasy is no help to the Irish Catholic Church.

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  1. Speaking of facing reality, I wonder if anyone else felt the heart sink this past weekend when yet another highly respected public figure announced on TV that she had decided to leave the Church? I agree with Brendan that the Church needs to organise conferences and meetings in every townsland in Ireland before it is too late. Those of us who live in the real world, surrounded by people and whole families who continue to leave the Church every day, find very little to fantasise about regarding the future of the Church. There must be more we can do apart from discussing it here—lest we become a mere talking shop.

  2. I propose that no one understands the reality, even those who are deeply aware of the disintegration…

  3. Ann Walsh says:

    One of the aspects of my catholic church that always concerns and frustrates me is the fact that the hierarchy won’t or don’t do conversations with their people. The answer to every call for discussion is rejected – as the ACP are now learning. But Brendan, (sorry to tell you), lay people have got this message all our lives.
    We know that the Catholic church gives sermons and never does open conversations;
    it engages in a monologue on every topic but never trusts or allows dialogue;
    it releases statements but never takes part in debates.
    And any lay person who tries to force a conversation is quickly demonised, while any religious who does likewise is ruthlessly silenced.
    So let the ACP not feel alone.
    Lay people have had the same reality for years.
    Hardly the church as Christ intended but human kind (or bishops) can’t bear much reality.

  4. Martin Harran says:

    Another aspect of reality, is that sometimes we just have to let things run their course. I am becoming less and less bothered about things are happening or not happening in our Church. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that our Church will survive – Christ did promise to be with us until the end of time. There is equally no doubt in my mind that the Church will change radically through time. Can anyone seriously imagine that 50 or 100 years from now, Mass and the rest of our worship will be focused on celibate males wearing a white collar? Or that 50 or years from now, we will still treat homosexuals and divorced people as we do today?
    These things will changing, it’s simply a question of when. The debate we are having is really only about the pace of change and, whilst is right and proper that we should try to get the hierarchy to face up to reality and manage the change instead of the mismanaged chaos a dwindling priesthood is leading us into, we should not allow ourselves to get into a state of despair.
    It’s an old saying but a true saying that God works in mysterious ways and I more and more becoming convinced that what we are seeing right now is God laughing whilst men make plans.

  5. Cornelius Martin says:

    In the midst of squabbles where does one turn? To more squabbles? Surely not. In Choma diocese (equal in area to the Irish Republic) in Zambia in the 1970s a major portion of the Catholic community in the bush areas got Mass at most once a month. There was only one native Zambian priests that I knew of. Recently a nun in South Africa told me of Zambian priests doing missionary work in South Africa.
    In the 1970s I once asked students aged in their twenties about the benefits of Christianity. The principal one mentioned was Christianity as an antidote to fear, the fears intrinsic to paganism. In other words Catholicism was liberating. As Psalm 118(119) says:
    “Happy are they who follow the pure path, who walk in the law of the Lord.
    Happy are they who obey his decrees and seek him out with all their heart.”
    Does Psalm 13 (14) in fact not echo the squabbles and labelling we (=we) are engaged in?
    “They are corrupt and they do vile things: not one of them does good.”
    While at the same time:
    “From heaven the Lord looks down on the sons of men to see if any understand, and seek God.”
    Back in Psalm 118(119) the remedy seems to be:
    “You have made your commandments for us to obey them…..
    I shall proclaim you by right living since I have learnt your just decrees.
    I shall hold close to your statutes: Lord, never abandon me.”
    So we all have a clear job to do, but allowing things to work themselves through is not where it’s at. I suggest that thinking in terms of enemies is not that distant from the fear adverted to by those young Zambians. It’s probably a reminder from God to engage more in prayer. Psalm 13 (14) again:
    “They did not call on the Lord, so they tremble with fear, for God is on the side of the righteous.”

  6. Ned Quinn says:

    Nero comes to mind.

  7. John Collins says:

    Brendan .. Fantasy indeed !! Could not agree more.. Strange thing is my classmates are now Bishops and I have no idea what they are at or why they seem to be playing games of denial with the people.. Are they so inept that most people have switched off the tired empty message ? Please Please if you can’t say what is real .. Say Nada
    Yes the Church will survive as Christ promised, but, it could be better. That is my Hope

  8. Clare Hannigan says:

    The institutional church is out of touch with the reality of family life in Ireland today. A couple of years ago I attended a Sunday Mass at which the Priest spoke at length about Catholic education. He reminded the congregation that when we got married we promised to bring up our children in the Catholic faith. He had with him a copy of the documentation which couples signed when getting married and he waved this as a way of emphasising the importance of our commitment and that we had failed to live up to it. Our children had given up going to Mass many years ago. I came out from Mass feeling that in the eyes of the Church not only was I a failure as a mother I had also failed my marriage vows. Apart from insisting we send our children to Catholic schools the Church offers little support to parents in relation to passing on the faith to their children. In relation to the upcoming referendum what support has the institutional church offered people who are homosexual, what support has it offered to their families. Those on the no side argue for rights of biological parents and yet not so long ago biological mothers were forced by the church to give up their babies for adoption.

  9. “Abandonment to Divine Providence” is a good book at such a time. We can’t do anything about the past and we don’t know what will happen next. All we can do is live in the Sacrament of the present moment.

  10. Prodigal Son says:

    The second prayer at Mass after the Our Father is one for peace and unity. Each cannot exist without the other in the life of the Church. According to the prayer both are contingent on two factors:
    1. the faith of the Church (Church always understood as the Communion of saints in Heaven, souls in Purgatory and faithful on earth).
    2. God not “looking” at out sins.
    The key to the latter is the Sacrament of Penance.
    Peace and unity cannot be manufactured by Catholics on their own on earth. They exist perfectly in Heaven. Both are gifts of grace, granted on foot of what Sara (9) implies – correspondence with the will of God.
    As Cornelius implies above animosity and rancour within the Church are inebriated to a greater or lesser extent by fear. There is only one thing that sets us free of that fear, or of any other negative.
    Here’s to more faith and hope and peace and unity in an ongoing state of difficulty.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
    “Cannot bear very much reality.”
    It is not only negative realities that are in question but positive ones. The Church would be renewed overnight if it tuned into the good news of the Gospel of Jesus (as recently clarified in Vatican II). Obsession with numbers of vocations and mass attendees and a cynical and conservative attitude to the best initiatives of modern society keep Catholics locked in a spiral of self-asphyxiation.

  12. The political confusion, the complexity of social change, are mirrored in the Church of our time. The contrasting voices, the expression of different points of view is striking, and for some is a threat to a faith that has always presumed conformity. This has affected both young and old, but in different ways. Those over 60 still have memory of the lived experience in the pre-Vatican II years. They know the road we have travelled and many are reluctant to turn the clock back.
    For our younger people, leaving school or university, maybe in the early years of marriage, the context of their lives is different. They do not have such an extensive personal history. We should understand that, when we are critical of their attitudes or responses to current issues.
    In fact they often see no issue at all where those who are older are still influenced by the conflicts and arguments of earlier years.
    We must face present church issues and accept the many grey edges that separate black and white opinion. The response of the Church has to recognise the streets where the people live and the communities they generate now, not as they once were.

  13. Jordan O'Brien says:

    The following quote keeps me on my toes, despite flat feet…”A dread of what is happening to our future stays on the fringes of awareness, too deep to name , too fearsome to face” Joanna Macy quoted by Albert Nolan In Jesus Today p.6
    I struggle to put it into practice.

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