SECOND SESSION The Vision: Tony Butler SMA
A reporter sought an interview with Samuel Beckett. Walking with the great man to the cafe where Beckett liked to have his coffee the reporter tried to engage him in conversation. “It’s a nice morning, Mr Beckett.” “Mmnn, yes it is” he replied. “Good to be alive” to which Beckett replied, “well, I wouldn’t go that far.”
I do believe it is a good time to be alive now in the life of the Church and to continue to engage in conversations that come from the deep-seated faith and hope that sustains us day in, day out. That faith that is never a last resource, but the first and abiding necessity. As we pray each day, ‘look not on our sins but on the faith of your church.’ That faith that can break down the walls that fear builds, not only against each other, but even against ourselves – that fear that promotes certainty dearer than truth. The fear that promotes what has been called “The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent – nothing should be done for the first time.”
Our faith should quell our fears, never our courage. I believe in the Word made Flesh, not the word made words and I believe that no word of God is God’s last word. Because of fear there is a growing intolerance for what appears to be non conforming articulation of views, thoughts, and writing that is being met with an almost colonial instinct for retribution with well-oiled defence mechanisms. “Believing that all things worth knowing are already known, in life, church or society creates an atmosphere of cultivated ignorance which guarantees that mediocrity will be a virtue.” (Credo: The Wisdom of an American Prophet, William S Coffin, 2004) A fear that introduces ‘Premature Closure’ to conversation and discussion – that is faith-based belief – but viewed as a threat to those who feel they will be dispossessed by change, even the very thought of the possibility of change, and a loss of certainty. It is more a question of self-esteem that is too tied into what is seen as others exploring / questioning centuries-held certainties about faith, liturgy, the moral life?
I believe that a new church is being born, Catholicism will evolve; it always has. Without fear, poorer, less powerful, less clerical, more humble and more collegial, more concerned about justice, more multilingual and polycentric than our present experience, overcoming our pretensions to be a triumphal, all-knowing church. Paradoxically it begins with acknowledging and in a certain sense accepting the decline of Catholicism as we have experienced in Ireland. Our Church, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church that is in the process of new birth, will in years to come reflect the diversity of God’s Trinitarian life. The prophetic vocation, our prophetic vocation, is in many ways to prepare through dialogue, conversation and exchange to accept what appears to be a loss that cannot be admitted, and to embrace a hope that dare not be believed.
Priestly ministry, ministerial service, the Church’s life – these are not over, but they are, will not and cannot be the same. Whenever we employ silence or threat out of fear and anxiety I believe we sin against faith. There is I believe a duty of loyalty to the Gospel and to the Church that often requires the breaking of an unholy silence. A silence, a censuring that is imposed because of a faith-centred call for open and respectful discussion, attention and exploration in writing and discussion to issues profoundly affecting our lives as members of the People of God. Contrary to both denial and despair, the prophet proclaims in the Name of the Lord, “See, I am doing something new.” Doing something new, hoping for something new is not an attack, nor an accusation nor disloyalty but a hope and an aspiration based on trying to understand where we are now, yes, a critical time and if we can only let go of the fear that tempts to self-protect and simply survive.
Hope, yes. Fear, no! St Augustine said that hope had two beautiful daughters: their names? Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are and courage to see they do not remain the same. My vision of Church I base on the words of St Paul (1 Cor 12): “All the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” Fear that silences thought, opinion, expression, the Church silences or cuts off a part of itself limiting its scope and vision. Gifts, grace and opportunities to seek God’s kingdom are lost. It also becomes a place where secrets are kept or imposed. If we bury our feelings, our emotions, or are asked to bury them into silence, we bury them alive. One can enter into a debate about an academic thesis, but cannot argue with a person’s articulation of their lived-faith experience. It is an expression of the heart, soul and spirit. Many of the truths of religion dealt with what we ought to do, the way we ought to be and the kind of answers we ought to give to life’s big questions. But the oughts cannot be understood until there is serious reflection on experience.
None of the Resurrection stories in the Gospels begin with answers. They begin with the women’s wonder and fear, the doubt and confusion of the disciples, these are the raw experiences in the New Testament out of which the disciples experience of the Risen Lord began to take shape. Every day we are invited to acclaim ‘The Mystery of Faith’. The Mystery of Faith is immediate mystery, around and celebrating and partaking of this mystery of faith we are the People of God gather. Here we find our identity, here the story of Jesus shapes my meaning. Being one in Christ the Church began as a ‘we’ gradually becoming an ‘it’, an organisation to belong to and the loss of awareness of being church and this loss brought with a sense of our own sacredness. That sacredness in an emerging church will refuse to build barriers of fearful silence around itself, will distinguish between faith and certainty, will believe in charisma, imagination and joy. We all want to be nourished in our precious humanness we want to be held and supported in the very messiness of our precarious lives. To tell our stories, to have a vision of Church that is already being traced on our hearts by God.
Timothy Radcliffe, in his address to the Conference of Religious of Ireland, quotes Michael Heher from his book on Priesthood, ‘ The Lost Art of Walking on Water’: “At a time of crisis, people often find the freedom to voice things they ordinarily would not express. A dying woman can give advice to her children, a soldier going to war can tell his brother he loves him dearly, a father can tell his daughter about fear, worry and faith as he prepares for dangerous surgery. As men who have suffered so many hits as we have in the last few years, we priests can pretty much talk about whatever we want and in whatever way we want to. We have earned the right.” “The church in crisis is right here in front of us and a forced optimism of those appearing insufficiently orthodox or in some way disloyal to the Vatican strikes me as a failure of perception and faith.” (Paul Stanosz, 2007). Overcoming such denials will be the beginning of a renewal of the church, fear to ask questions, explore ideas, promote discussion and share our hopes and faith. Such fear has no place, it is such fear that should be silenced. “We have earned the right – all of us, men and women, to talk about whatever we want in whatever way we want. We have earned the right.”
I want to finish by returning to Beckett. Towards the end of ‘Waiting for Godot’ to quote Vladimir’s lament: “Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?” (S Beckett) What shall we say of today and all our tomorrows? We are not sleeping anymore. Thank you.