“Your God is too small“ – Hawking

Life is colourful:

It was Thursday evening. The doorbell rang. Another letter was needed for the Courts. By now the Judges must be fed up with my predictable letters. I hope they catch the nuances. My drop-in friend and myself reminisced – back over three murders around the family. We amused each other as we recalled some of the twists and turns in the saga. Even in severe sadness, there can be laughter. (If only I could tell the stories that I know!) I feel restricted in what I can say. I can claim to have had a hand in moving that family on. This man has left the area for a few years. He was a great friend of many of the older women around and was always most respectful and helpful. He is remembered with deep affection. His offence – he was growing a few plants in his back garden.

Use it or lose it:

I was chatting with a bishop a few days ago. The shortage of personnel to fill vacancies is a constant worry for every bishop. It is a shortage of numbers but also a shortage of ability and quality. The local communities have to put up with so much – until we come up new ideas on priesthood. The same shortage applies to the potential candidates for the role of bishops. I flippantly ‘offered’ someone of huge talent who is very articulate and deeply passionate about faith/church/God. The same person had been mentioned in recent years as a possible cardinal. This good lady was immediately and politely refused by my bishop friend (even if the offer wasn’t mine to give!)   Who else could it be but Mary McAleese? She would make a great bishop. In fact when a vacancy occurs in Dublin, she would be a very fine candidate.  She could serve an apprenticeship in a smaller diocese or even as an auxiliary or even be as a coadjutor in Dublin for two years. I possibly did forget for a moment that she is a woman; that she is married. But these are minor issues really. These qualities would be an assistance rather than a hindrance.

“My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest.”

We celebrated St Patrick. Was his father a deacon and his grandfather a priest? I don’t know. The accretions of history have decorated the story and there is great unsureness. But it doesn’t matter really, the essentials of faith and mission have survived. His Confessions are delightful in their simplicity; evocative as a story; inspirational in how God works despite our own shortcomings. I am never happy with our politicians running off to the USA and being ever so pleased in the company of the US heavyweights. It feels very tatty. It looks as if we (as the little ones) love being recognised by our ‘superiors.’ I know it is about trade. I know it is about economics. I know it is tapping into the vast market of the Irish Americans. I still cringe a little.


Our celebrations at Twickenham are different. On Patrick’s day. Beating the English. In the midst of Brexit. With a United Ireland Team. Even if we remember with such appreciation the time England came to Ireland to play in the midst of huge trouble. (29th March 1973) That too is never forgotten. But in Twickenham on Patrick’s day – we could run around with our Irish flag.   This massages our national hearts. We cannot dare whisper it, but the colonial past is remembered and smiled at. However, what is much more important is the lesson for all of us to learn. This team was put together. It lost vital characters through injury for some of the matches and during matches and yet it emerged victorious. What was said? The whole panel mattered. The whole squad did it. They all worked together. Young ones came in. They blended in. They knew what to do. They depended on each other and trusted each other. It was seamless. If only…….

Rugby and working together:

Is there a metaphor here for how we could build the church of the future? Old, young, male, female – all working in communion. How much talent is ignored or underused. We slog along as Church. The same familiar outlook is retained. ‘Father’ knows best. He has divine inspiration through ordination. Everything is referred to the bishop and again by the grace of ordination, infallibility is conferred. We still talk of the Word becoming flesh – daily. Do we believe it? We talk of ‘the presentation of gifts.’ Do we believe it? We talk of ‘Communion.’ Do we believe it?   If we want to stretch it – the Irish Rugby team illustrates what ‘Communion’ could mean if we had the gumption and guts (and faith) to really create a church of every talent. I forgot to ask Mary (and others) if they are available….. Maybe Joe could join her. What a team??

Communion and Confirmation:

It is that time of year. First Communions. Confirmations. First Confessions will blast us with – ‘I didn’t love God, when….’   Our little ones are magnificent. They are outrageously beautiful. Their spontaneity is delightful. Their singing is stirring. I know. I know. The parents aren’t attending. The parents won’t be coming to Church except for the day. But surely they (the parents) and ourselves, catch something of the God who speaks. They cannot be grafted onto the model we have now. It doesn’t speak to their lives. Our business is not to worry or to berate ourselves for what we aren’t doing but rather to issue the ‘invitation.’ Faith has to be an invitation. And then we have our Services of Light as we prepare for Confirmation. We know that the Light is not handed on. We know that Confirmation doesn’t confirm anything of the Baptism received. We know. And yet somehow, it is a moment to celebrate. We know that many a bishop is run ragged putting on a show for those special occasions.

Do our Rituals speak for today?

It is a nonsense. The bishops shouldn’t be misusing their energy or their time on such occasions. They are running about; dressing up; creating an artificial occasion. We are making a fuss of something that is a charade. But locally, we can do something. We cannot and should not dare highlight what is absent (home faith). We cannot act (speak or imply) as if the parents are letting the children down by not making God central to life. There is a gentleness that is necessary. We have to mark the moment and make something of this rite of passage. We cannot remove the religious aspect (obviously) but there has to be something created which actually touches their experiences of life without being judgemental. (vide Michael A. Conway – Changing Foundations, in the current issue of The Furrow).

Stephen Hawking:

Stephen Hawking died last week. I can’t begin to understand his intellectual contribution. I do know a little about MND and the variant he had. I can only admire the tenacity of anyone who could fight such a disease and still contribute. It might not throw a person into the arms of God but it does stretch the elastics of the mind to breaking point. I always think (and repeat) of his reply to the BBC interviewer. He said that the future scientists would be mystics and science itself would be mysticism. He was asked why he didn’t believe in God. He replied: “Your God is too small.” Yes we have to realise how much beyond our words and rituals, God is.

Keith Patrick O Brien r.i.p.

Another well known public figure has died this morning. I hadn’t got a response to my last email to Keith which alerted me that something was wrong. He was always immediate in his replies. Then some messages arrived from mutual friends. Keith Patrick O Brien died this morning. Keith was full of humanity and humour. He had mischief and fun. He added colour to faith. He was flamboyant and always lit up the face of the Church. It was extremely sad that he had to resign on his 75th birthday. There were good reasons. Somehow we don’t cope too well with failure as a church. The pedestal is very high. But isn’t our history as church, built (historically) on sin and Confession? I found it difficult to reconcile a forgiving church with the exile of Keith. I would also find it very strange if his funeral now returns him to Scotland from where he was banished. Keith retained his bright outlook on life even during those past five years. Whatever happened, I want to use Schillebeeckx’s definition of a sacrament (again) : “A smile on the face of God.” Keith reflected that smile during his life in Scotland and during his retirement. His God was big. He brought warmth, heart and fun to the life of faith. He had the common touch. We miss such characters of faith.

Seamus Ahearne osa

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  1. Paddy Ferry says:

    Seamus, thank you for sharing your thoughts tonight on the life and death of our old friend, Keith. I think he would have been pleased with what you have written.
    Keith has been my friend, my patient and my mentor in things ecumenical for 30 years. After Parish Renewal in our Archdiocese in 1987, a program written by my fellow Donegal man, Johnny Doherty, CSsR, I found myself chairing the new Ecumenical Core Group of the Archdiocese and then, as the Core Group evolved, the Ecumenical Commission after Keith formally commissioned us in 2000. We could not have asked for a more supportive and collaborative bishop. There may have been indiscretions in his private life –indiscretions many of us were completely unaware of–but he was an excellent bishop for our diocese. I remember you telling me some years ago that during your time in Currie and Balerno you found Keith to be a bishop who made “being church fun”. He certainly did that and brought warmth, heart and fun to the life of faith and to all of us who knew him and loved him. He trusted lay people and if he thought you had a half-decent idea he would give you your head and support you and encourage you. We all knew he loved the role of being cardinal but he was also without airs and graces and was, in many ways, a humble man and, as you say, Seamus, he definitely had the common touch. There are many in our archdiocese tonight, and beyond, who have nothing but warm and positive memories of Keith and who are feeling the same deep sense of sadness tonight that I am.
    May he now rest in Gods peace.

  2. iggy o'donovan says:

    Seamus I read your article with pleasure and interest particularly your observations on Keith O’Brien. One of the finest pieces written about O Brien came from the pen of Matthew Parris in The Spectator, 9th March 2013.
    It is readily available on line.

  3. Chris McDonnell says:

    In the interview that Seamus refers to Hawking was quoting another great cosmologist Carl Sagan “Your God is too small for my universe” Hawking died on Albert Einstein’s birthday, March 14th.
    It was also International Pi day. The surprise of coincidence.

  4. Eddie Finnegan says:

    “The indiscretions, inappropriate behaviour and good reasons men resign over live after them; the good is oft interréd with their bones. So let it be with Keith.”

    I agree: it’s less metrical, less crowd-catching, less dramatic, more banal than Shakespeare’s 1599 original, set a few days after mid-March of 44BC. Yet they say there’s nothing more banal than Shakespeare’s less wordy four-letter choice: ‘evil’.
    Unless, of course, ‘hypocrite’ which came through Rome from the ordinary Greek word for an actor who, whether comic or tragic, always wore a mask.

    None of which is to suggest that Seamus and Paddy, or even Matthew Parris, should hesitate to praise the man they knew as a friend. “He was my friend, faithful and just to me,” says Mark Anthony simply, whatever Brutus, Cassius and the rest may tell you. What else are friends for?

    But perhaps Peter Stanford, Catherine Deveney and others of the Guardian and Observer have good reason to begin with ‘hypocrite’ and ‘hypocrisy’, to characterise not just the churchman himself but the Catholic Church’s (Rome & Edinburgh) way of dealing with Keith O’Brien in both life and death. The link is to Peter Stanford’s Guardian obituary yesterday, which in turn links to five earlier Guardian and Observer accounts:

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    Well, we must surely congratulate Eddie on his high standards of transparency. But I would ask a little more understanding for two modes of life that are very difficult to follow without falling into a “double life” — and especially in the days of Cardinal O’Brien’s youth, namely, life as a gay man and life as a clergyman. Gay men were expected to lie about their affectivity — and still more about any sexual life they might have — from the moment they discovered their nature, and clerics were expected to be impossible paragons of inhuman virtue. Given this grid, and a strong dose of confusion on the personal and theological planes, O’Brien’s misbehaviour is probably not at all off the map. It’s interesting that the most sympathetic account is given by a gay man writing in the, admittedly reactionary, Spectator: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2013/03/gay-sympathy-for-cardinal-obrien/ Eddie seems to think that Matthew Parris is writing out of bias in favour of a friend (was he?), but it seems to me that a deeper point is being made.

  6. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe, thank you for the link to Matthew Parris’ Spectator article which I have now read for the first time. I think it is the most thoughtful and insightful reflection on the now obvious contradictions and dilemmas of Keith’s life that I have read.

    Eddie, nobody could try and defend the hypocrisy but you know as well as I do there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy in our institutional church –at every level– concerning this particular matter and there are few with the sense of personal integrity and honesty that Joe possesses.  Donald Cozzens and Richard Sipe provide startling evidence of percentages.
    But, ultimately, Eddie, if you had known Keith as Seamus and I did you could not help but like him. It is as simple as that.
    There is one factual inaccuracy in Peter Standford’s piece in the Guardian. Pope Francis did not tell Keith he could never set foot in Scotland again when they reached agreement on Keith’s future status. Francis was incredibly kind in how he treated Keith.

  7. Con Devree says:

    One of the more significant events omitted by Fr Aherne was the March for Life in Dublin on March 10th. Uplifting, good fun, young people in droves, intergenerational, prayerful in places, full of humanity, life enhancing, encouraging, invigorated participation in the preceding Holy Mass, celebratory, touching the emotions, apostleship in full flow, good physical exercise, blessed by the Lord with a rare day of sunny weather enclosed within two snowy week ends.

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