Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Standing Steady

Any human being who is alert is conscious of the tension, the conflict that goes on between light and darkness around them and within their own hearts. St Francis de Sales said the border line between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light passes through every human heart.

For members of the Catholic community in Ireland and in many other places in the world these are very difficult days when the awareness of that struggle is hard and painful. The church is being purified and that work has to go deep. We are called to live out our Christian commitment in a time of darkness and uncertainty.

The struggle is real but so is the strength and courage that comes from the good Christ at this time.

As Christians we are not meant to downplay the reality of this struggle with darkness within our church and in our very hearts. We experience it; we see the consequences of it all around us. But if we are not meant to deny the darkness nor are we meant to be overwhelmed by it.

The Lord  knows what he is doing. I do not need to know how his grace is working as he purifies and brings healing. He alone can bring light from darkness, grace from sin and sorrow and shame, good from mess and failure.

Only his light can drive out darkness. And that is what he is doing now.

So now is the time for us to stand steady in that light.

Now more than ever we are called to hold firm, take heart and open ourselves as a faith community to receive from the Risen Christ the compassion that heals and frees us from the past, the trust that gives us courage in the present, and the wisdom and integrity that will enlighten our future path.

Friday, 22 July 2011

After the Cloyne Report

Last week the report on the handling of allegations of clerical sexual abuse within the Cloyne Diocese was published. Since then there has been a great outcry over  the mishandling of some cases, and especially about what was seen as interference by the Vatican.

Some politicians have demanded that the Papal Nuncio be expelled, and the Minister of Justice has spoken of bringing in legislation that would require priests to break the seal of confession if they learn of any sexual abuse.  The hard-hitting speech given by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dail has received almost universal praise, including from many clergy.

Much of this anger is justifiable and very understandable.

But, writing in The Irish Independent, David Quinn asks some questions:

"How many people in Ireland know that the clerical abuse scandals peaked in the 1970s and 1980s? How many know that of the several hundred allegations received by the church in the last two years, almost none relate to incidents that happened in the last 10 years?

How many know that a large section of public opinion grossly overestimates the number of child abusers in the priesthood, as a Royal College of Surgeons survey ascertained?

How many know that Catholic priests are no more likely to abuse children than comparable groups, which is what 'Newsweek' magazine discovered when it contacted US insurance companies to determine whether they charged a higher risk premium for Catholic priests than for other clergy?

How many know that the Cloyne Report itself acknowledges that the church's child-protection guidelines are better than the State's guidelines? It says that compared with the church's guidelines, the State's are 'less precise and more difficult to implement'."

Quinn continues: "It would be safe to bet that only a small proportion of the public could correctly answer the above questions. The reason for this is that our media have no interest in making the answers known so instead we have a public that believes the phenomenon of child abuse is a particularly and peculiarly Catholic one."

In an atmosphere of hurt and outrage it is very difficult for the full truth of an issue to be held. This is especially the case when different agendas are at work.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Drawing by Attraction

Last night I read an interview given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in the Guardian Weekend. Since taking on the role some nine years ago I have been impressed with him as a thoughtful man of faith.

He was asked about the current trend among militant atheists led by Richard Dawkins to attack vehemently the very notion of religion, the Christian faith in particular.  

In responding to this situation the archbishop does not set much store by confrontation. "Arguments have the role of damage limitation. The numbers of people who acquire faith by argument is actually rather small. But if people are saying stupid things about the Christian faith, then it helps to say, come on, that won't work.'

He has a fondness for quoting St Ambrose: 'It does not suit God to save his people by arguments.'  This echoes the guidance that Francis gives his friars in the Franciscan Rule. 

Francis wrote: 'I counsel, admonish and beg my brothers that, when they travel about the world, they should not be quarrelsome, dispute with words, or criticize others, but rather should be gentle, peaceful and unassuming, courteous and humble, speaking respectfully to all as is fitting.'

Francis gave this exhortation when the community of faith was struggling with various popular teachings that went counter to the Gospel. Good Catholics were expected to join in the fight!  But Francis had little trust in the power of argument to win hearts. Rather he called on people to live our faith in Christ with generous love.

In the end we must draw by attraction.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Leadership: He gives me strength

Hugh, our new Provincial Minister, and Cletus at Chapter
After several full days gathered together our Chapter drew to a close on Friday.  At the end of the concluding Eucharist the Book of the Gospels and the Rule of St Francis were placed on the altar. 

Each of the nearly 90 friars present approached and placed his hands on the sacred texts, silently rededicating himself to live the Franciscan life and mission that is our calling. Then he received a Tau Cross, so beloved of St Francis,  from Hugh McKenna, our new  Provincial Minister. It was a simple moment of grace for each of us.

Hugh was chosen by the friars with a resounding majority. He begins with a great deal of prayerful good will. Many friars commented on the heavy burden this cheerful, outgoing man now takes on. Leadership is never easy and in the Church today has its own particular challenges.

But speaking to his brothers Hugh was clear that while aware it would not always be smooth sailing ahead he was not fearful. He told us that during a particular dark period of his life he was sustained by repeating the promise of  Scripture: 'I can do all things in the power of him who gives me strength.'  With that trust in God's goodness and grace at work in our lives and Church he  takes up his task.

St Francis prayed often that the grace of  the Spirit of the Lord be especially active in the 'ministers and servants' chosen by the brothers. May Hugh experience the reality of that empowering presence.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Gathering for Chapter

On Sunday 3 July over 90 Irish Franciscan friars will gather in Gormanston College, Co Meath, for our Provincial Chapter. This week-long gathering takes place every three years.  On Monday we elect the person who will lead us as Minister Provincial. Then we choose a Vicar Provincial and  Definitors, men who will assist the Provincial in his role.

During our time together we will reflect on the past three years, discuss the reality of the Church and society in Ireland today and, in light of that reality, plan for the future. It will be a full week. I am hoping the rain stays away so that we can get some fresh air between sessions walking the wonderful grounds.

The most positive part of the week  for me, I expect, will come from just being together. When we gather in such numbers there is a real sense of brotherhood - in the common prayer beautifully celebrated, and in the good craic,  lots of chat and banter.

We simply enjoy being together. Francis would be happy about that. He said the friars should love each other more than a mother loves her child since our bond is formed by our unity in the Spirit - we are brothers in the Lord. Looking back on his life the saint wrote: 'The Lord gave me brothers.'

So when the friars start gathering tomorrow from all over the country I know in faith these men are the brothers God's providence has chosen for me. It is God's call on our lives that unites us.

May the Spirit of the Lord be our light and encouragement during the coming days.