20May Jo O’Sullivan writes on the development of her faith

Believe it or not, Saoirse, I can totally relate to your confusion as to why I still consider myself to be a Catholic. And I’d like to try and explain myself to you.
I’m from a very ordinary Catholic background – no great delving into the tenets of my faith during my life – no great exploration of theology or church history – no participation in ‘progressive’ movements or anything like that. In fact, all I did was try to observe the teachings and ‘living out’ of Catholicism as best I could – going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days (and the occasional daily Mass if I was in a position to do so) and playing a full part in my church, parish life (I have played the church keyboard and been part of a lively children’s liturgy team, among other things, here in my parish for many years).
I suppose, to be totally honest, I carried a unease with certain aspects of Catholicism for a long time and had to reconcile things as best I could –sometimes by acknowledging I was ‘breaking the rules’ but letting myself off the hook (f.eg. for using contraception) and sometimes by not allowing myself to think too deeply about them (f.eg. the huge wealth in parts of the church contrasted with the poverty in the world; the position of women, people in second relationships, gays in the church  etc.) I sometimes felt I was a ‘bad’ Catholic for having such critical thoughts about the structures and teachings. After all, those who dictated how things should be- those in positions of authority over me in my spiritual life, were much greater than I in every way and it was the sin of pride on my part to harbour such criticisms and doubts. In particular, anything coming from the Vatican was coming from those closest to God in this world so I had no business questioning the validity of anything they had to say.
I spent most of my adult life in that way, Saoirse, living a rather superficial version of Catholicism because, I think, I was afraid to delve too deeply!
However, my relationship with my loving Creator, as experienced through my Catholic faith, sustained me through many rough times in my life – many situations/times when no amount of logical, rational thought helped to see me through – life’s messy, difficult, paradoxical and sometimes cruel and painful chapters. So it was enough that I practiced Catholicism without thinking too deeply about it.
Life kept nudging me in my unease every so often though – sometimes it was in the shape of my growing children asking me questions and not accepting pat answers so I had to try and find answers which I felt to be true and valid; sometimes it was in finding myself in situations where the Catholic teaching just didn’t sit properly with my conscience. It was in meeting and knowing wonderfully Christian, caring people who were deeply hurt by the fact that the faith of their childhood rejected them because of their life’s circumstances.
I continued trying to accept that my ‘betters’ knew more than I did – I didn’t want to be proud and arrogant – so I tried to quieten my conscience by continuing to try and build a nurturing community in my own wee world and keeping my head in the sand over the rest of it (not something I’m proud of, but it’s the truth!).
The revelations of the Murphy Report caused a chasm to appear under me. I had been able to accept that there were individual criminal perpetrators of evil but I could not bear the fact that my ‘betters’, my moral and spiritual guides, had totally failed our most vulnerable little ones by choosing to protect the institution of the Catholic church over them.
I could no longer continue to contribute to building up the church in my own wee way if, by doing so, I was allowing the rottenness to continue.
It set me off on a long, terrifying journey, Saoirse, where I felt blasphemous and heretical and totally confused by my thoughts at times. All I could do was read and talk and listen and agonise over what was right and what was wrong. For every article I read by experts extolling adherence to strict Catholic teachings evidenced by readings from scripture, I read another one which interpreted scripture in a different way in the light of on-going theological exploration. All the experts were absolutely sincere and genuine in their arguments. I so wanted to be able to go back to being as I was before, but I couldn’t and I still can’t!
The conclusion that I came to was that, for me, there are no absolute certainties anymore. I can never know for sure that I am ‘right’. So, it follows on from that that I can never be sure that anyone who doesn’t see things MY way is ‘wrong’. In reading such people as Richard Rohr O.F.M., I have actually come to realise that I am moving beyond dualistic thinking and that’s a GOOD thing! I’m getting to a place where I can accept that I don’t HAVE to be right and others don’t HAVE to be wrong!  I can reconcile myself to living in faith, living in the paradox, and constantly trying to see things from as broad a perspective as possible.
I have no problem accepting that our church leaders sincerely wish to discern what God’s will for humanity is so that they can be our teachers and our guides. I know the argument that they do not come to decisions by their own power alone – they pray and reflect and study scripture and Tradition very carefully so that they can eventually speak ‘the mind’ of God. But what if God is now nudging us, those of us living in the non-rarefied conditions of messy, secular society, towards having our voices heard? I cannot accept is that putting up walls and silencing debate is the way to move forward.
Neither can I go back to my old argument (with myself!) that I’m a nobody, so I’ve no business speaking out my silly little views. I think I have to speak out.
I truly worry that there’s a move to make Catholicism smaller and tighter. My whole belief is that our role in life, as Catholic Christians, is to reach out to all of humanity in love, tolerance and compassion – not to judge them and find them wanting.
There’s so much more in my head and in my heart that I’d like to say – but it has taken me three days to get this much down on paper. I’ve been dipping in and out of it – adding to it, taking from it, since I read your comment on Thursday morning. If I don’t submit it now, I won’t do it at all.
I respect your views Saoirse; I know you speak out of honesty and I can feel that you’re hurt that other Catholics seem to be utterly disloyal to something you hold very dear; that they’re trying to destroy Catholicism from the inside.
And I don’t know if I’ve gone any way to explaining to you that I honestly don’t want to do that – I want Catholicism to be a way of life that attracts the lonely and the lost – a way of life that nurtures all its children – a way of life that gives my grandchildren a path to follow so that they will ‘live life to the full’ and be happy that relationship with their loving Creator is at the very core of their everyday living.
I don’t know what stage of life you’re at Saoirse, but I bet you’d want the very came things for your grandchildren?

15 Responses

  1. Mary O Vallely

    “My whole belief is that our role in life, as Catholic Christians, is to reach out to all of humanity in love, tolerance and compassion – not to judge them and find them wanting.”
    Hear, hear, Jo! I love your honesty, compassion, searching and openness to the Spirit that moves within you. This is how I feel too but I wouldn’t have been able to express it so eloquently and in such loving charity. We are all struggling with the mystery that is faith but we are not alone, never alone. Saoirse and Jo and all of us who yearn for a closer relationship with Jesus are walking beside Him, equally loved by Him. Now, that’s a beautiful image on this Ascension Sunday, is it not! :-)

  2. cathy swift

    “I had no business questioning the validity of anything they had to say”.

    Jo, I don’t have anything like your life experience or your long involvement in parish and community to guide me and maybe I’m really arrogant but that sentence I find really scary. Unless we think and question all the time, how are we bringing all of ourselves to our relationshship with God? Doesn’t it have to be conviction that motivates us? And while on this earth nobody can agree with everything that a group decides, that could be a conviction that overall, taking everything into consideration, this statement X is a good compromise between competing realities. To me, the opposite, arguing along the lines of “I have to believe because these people are better than me regardless of what I think” is a refutation of God’s love for us, that he gave us brains and free will. Surely salvation comes, not from obeying orders created by fellow humans but from working to do what our hearts and brains and faith, working together, have decided is right in a given situation?

    I do appreciate your comment expressed one thought you had along the journey and that you don’t subscribe to it now but it does seem to me that there’s a current out there which is actively promoting that line of argument and so I wanted to bear witness against it. Thank you for your article – it was because it felt so meaningful that I wanted to react to it.

  3. ger gleeson.

    What a wonderful contribution Jo. You have the ability to put on paper the worries, concerns and challenges, that many of us Catholics experience in our daily lives. In my opinion the Magisterium have absolutly no idea of living out there in the real world. They have no experience of raising a family with all its ups and downs, while at the same time, holding on to the little faith we have left. Throughout our lives we have given Blind Fidelity to Rome, but particularly because of the abuse of our brothers and sisters, we are now a more questioning people.

    On the subject of the sex abuse, I wonder who has committed the most grievious sin. Those few who abused, or the institutional church who covered up? God himself will judge. Again Jo thank you. Your words are truly inspiring for all of us seeking the path to GOD, whilst living in a very confused and challenging world.

  4. Eileen

    Thanks again Jo, for your honesty and for sharing the fruits of your journey. I resonate with a lot of your story e.g. from acceptance of all that my ‘elders and betters’ taught to thinking for myself and listening to God’s Word spoken through the signs of the times. I like what you say about ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Yes, relationships are far more important that who is right. I endorse Mary O’V’s comments above – Mary, your contributions I always find inspiring too.

  5. Sarah

    I couldn’t agree more with you.

    The people at the top have betrayed our trust.

    I don’t live in Ireland but a few years ago our Bishop took £10m out of parish funds – quite against canon law.

    As a little old lady said “You just can’t trust anyone nowadays. Just goes to prove that getting close to the Bishop doesn’t necessarily get you closer to God”

    I am not the type that meets Bishops – but I hope to meet God one day – so I’ll just try to keep in with God.

  6. Eilis

    Jo,
    your words are the words of a true contemplative. Thank you and all who contribute to this ACP forum. We are all I believe seekers. Let us not cease in our efforts to find God in all things in all people, those who agree with us and those who do not.

  7. Saoirse

    Jo, there are so many things to address in your response that I wonder where to start! Thank you for sharing your journey of faith and disillusionment with the Church; believe it or not, many times in my life I have asked similar questions. The difference is that I am now utterly at home with the traditional teachings of the Church and understand why it teaches what it does, for example on sexual relationships, contraception, homosexuality, female priests and so on. I am happy to address any of these individual issues with you but I don’t feel that is the real issue at stake here, and that kind of information is easy to find and consider in your heart yourself.
    The issue here seems to be that, because the Church failed so abysmally to protect, as you rightfully say, our most innocent and vulnerable members and betrayed the trust of each and every one of us by doing so, that the Church can no longer be trusted as an institution. Why should we listen to those who were complicit in evil? I don’t think there is a Catholic on earth who has not asked themselves that question in recent years. But here lies exactly the problem.
    As Catholics now, we have to defend the faith in the setting of people like you who want to exploit the hierarchy’s compromised credibility in order to change Church doctrine. But Church doctrine has not been given to us by the perpetrators of abuse or by those who covered it up; it has been given to us by Jesus Christ and handed down by the apostles and Popes for 2000 years. When did the Church last state an infallible doctrine? Even Vatican 11 in 1962 was a pastoral doctrine and not issued under infallibility. Therefore the dogmas and the teachings of the Church have not changed, and using the actions of an evil minority to demand such change is just adding to the sin and confusion. How can it be logical to claim that because of the actions of these evil men, everyone, including Christ and all the saints of the Church, have always been in error? Because if the teachings of the Church, are wrong now, then it follows that they must have always been wrong, and all the saints like St Patrick or St Augustine were also just blind and ignorant and wrong too! It is not a sensible argument, is it?
    You feel there are no absolute certainties anymore, but maybe your faith in certainties was misplaced; my faith has always been rooted in Christ and He is the same now, yesterday and forever. You talk about difficulties in interpreting scripture, but before the printing press was invented, how was the Catholic faith passed on? This is what I was referring to in my earlier post when I mentioned the role of Tradition, one of the Pillars of our faith. This is why the Church fathers have always interpreted scripture for us to help us understand its true meaning, and why there are now thousands of Protestant sects, because when they broke away from the Catholic church, none of them could agree on the true meaning of any scripture, so they began setting up diverse branches. ‘The wisdom of man is truly folly to the Lord!
    Jo, I do truly sympathise with your struggle, but the types of reform you seem to be interested in are heresy to a true Catholic, and as a fellow Catholic, in all conscience I have to point that out to you. I do not want the Church in Ireland to split, I do not want a single soul to be lost. It would be heartbreaking if another of the fruits of those evil men within the Catholic Church was an attack on doctrine and the loss of so many once faithful believers. I wish for quite different reforms within the Irish church; I wish that the Church would admit that because of its failure to protect our children, it has currently lost moral authority for many people (but that does not mean the teachings of the church are wrong!) and set about addressing that issue.
    I would like to see a true penitence expressed by the bishops and clergy, expressed in some meaningful penance, perhaps by giving away the riches and the bishops’ palaces that so many of us find disturbing to say the least. Personally I think any clergy involved in the cover up of paedophile priests should be donning sackcloth and ashes and living for a time as a hermit in a cave; that would go some way towards demonstrating true sorrow and true repentance. I would like to see Mass offered continuously for the victims of abuse and their families in a perpetual offering. I would like to see, hear and read an admission of guilt and sorrow that did not look as though it was written by a lawyer, and I would like all the perpetrators of abuse to be charged and prosecuted, all over the world. Priest apart though, the sexual abuse of children is not confined to priests, and I would like those in the Church who are innocent of any blame to use their expertise gathered from this unspeakable tragedy to influence the protection of children in the wider world and to ascertain that our secular society also knows how to identify, treat and punish this crime against children.
    So like you I wish for many reforms in the Church, but there we differ. I would like to see the widespread availability of the pre 1962 Latin Mass, the mass of all our ancestors which has sustained us throughout the centuries. I would like to see the Irish priests call on the Vatican to ask why the Consecration of Russia, asked for by Our Lady in 1917 at Fatima, has still not taken place. These are the things that are needed to reform the Church!
    My children are in their teens and early twenties, so I am not yet a grandmother. For my grandchildren, my most fervent wish is that they have as their inheritance the one, holy Catholic and Apostolic faith entrusted to our church by Jesus Christ.

  8. cathy swift

    Dear Saoirse and Jo,

    This discussion seems so fundamental and – for me – represents an extremely valuable articulation of some of the absolutely crucial questions in my current understanding – and lack-of-understanding – of my faith and my church.

    Saoirse, could I ask you to say something more about what you mean when you say “if the teachings of the Church, are wrong now, then it follows that they must have always been wrong, and all the saints like St Patrick or St Augustine were also just blind and ignorant and wrong too!”

    In particular, I guess, I’m confused by the word “teaching”. Are we discussing teachings of doctrine or teaching of other things like habits of lifestyle?

  9. Carol Brady

    While “faith” expresses itself in “beliefs,
    is sustained by beliefs,
    depends on beliefs,
    surely it cannot be reduced to a series of propositions (beliefs ) ?

    Faith unites, beliefs divide;
    Beliefs are diverse, faith is one;
    Faith is objective, beliefs subjective;
    Beliefs are symbolic, faith is transcendent;
    Faith is personal, beliefs propositional;
    Beliefs are historical, faith is permanent;
    Faith is God-given, beliefs community-made;
    Beliefs are theoretical, faith is practical

    (from Dermot Lane’s “The Experience of God, an invitation to do theology” )

  10. Annette Murphy

    Carol, faith is essentially loving trust in the goodness and mercy of God. The beliefs we have about God are based on Divine Revelation and there can be no conflict or contradiction between the two. Whilst perhaps a bit witty, that quote from Dermot Lane does not meet with my approval. I’ve seen similar witty sayings used by Protestants to entirely destroy, at least in their minds, the Catholic belief in the Eucharist. It’s clever, it’s witty, but is it true? The Dogmas of the faith are sure guides, lanterns along the way, and we dismiss them at our peril, for then we reject the teaching of Christ as presented to us by the successors of the Apostles. Only by following their teaching, that is, the teaching of the Church as proposed by the Magisterium, can we be sure that we are walking in the fullness of truth and that we are doing the will of God rather than our own. Of course, that is the aim of all of us, or at least it should be – to follow Jesus closely.

  11. Peter

    I have only come in on the tail end of this discussion and it seems to me that the one glaring aspect of the needs of the people of God which is ignored by Saoirse and others is the need for growth. Growth in faith, growth in spirit, growth in knowledge and growth in understanding.

    All these things are interconnected and yes, in to-day’s terms both St Patrick (even if you can separate myth from fact) and St Augustine, if they came here to-day, and preached as they would have in the fourth and fifth centuries would be rightly regarded as blind and ignorant. Augustine was a mysogynist with an unnatural guilt complex and both would have believed implicitly in te existence of Adam and Eve amongst other anachronistic biblical “truths”. And yet if Jesus came and preached to-day as he did 2000 years ago nothing he is recorded as saying would be regarded as anachronistic, mystifying maybe, but not anachronistic.

    I have struggled with my belief for over seventy years and I as a loving father and grandfather cannot ever imagine that I would punish for eternity any one of my children or grandchildren no matter how much they had hurt me and yet I am expected to believe in a God who is infinitely loving doing so to his children.

    Why does the Church insist on priestly celibacy which didn’t exist in the first thousand years and doesn’t exist in many Eastern rite churches recognised by Rome even to-day (Maronite, Ukrainian, Melkite at al) and allow married Anglican clergy to be re-ordained as Catholic priests.

    Why not women priests? Women were culturally at a different level 2000 years ago and Jesus sent his spirit to help us grow and that growth has reached the stage where the people of God now recognise that as St Paul said: ‘there is no jew, no gentile, no man, no woman all are equal in the sight of God’.

    The church needs to continue to grow and many of its hierarchy and obviously many of its faithful need to grow up.

  12. Carol Brady

    Annette,
    A brief response (as I have limited access to a PC right now )

    Yes, I agree with you… an act of “religious faith” involves a personal commitment, an act of trust where we place our hearts and selves in God’s loving care.
    “Faith” is also dynamic, searching, restless….
    This searching for the transcendent mystery of God allows for developement and re-interpretation of the content of faith (beliefs), categorical expressions of the awesome mystery of God…

    May we all continue to be GRACED on our pilgrim journey
    (including the magisteriun and all our mentors along the way )

    Abundant blessings,
    Carol

  13. Carol Brady

    ps..

    A quote from TS Elliot springs to mind this morning : )

    We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

  14. Pól Ó Duibhir

    “The Sacrament of Confirmation
    .
    (During our recent Confirmation Programme for parents, I was asked to summarise the meaning of the Sacrament. I hope these few reflections may be helpful and encourage all of us to live out this Sacrament).
    .
    While it is true that in Baptism Our Lord shares his Risen Life with the little baby, it is sometimes forgotten that the infant not only becomes a child of God the Father, but a temple of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the anointing of the baby’s head with the oil of Chrism at Baptism symbolises this aspect in a powerful way. But if this is so, what happens at Confirmation?
    .
    The Holy Spirit, first given to the child in Baptism, is through this Sacrament released in a new, more powerful way in the young adult. They become graced with the many Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit, and are then empowered to witness to Jesus by their lives and example. The gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, etc. are made available to the young adults for the rest of their lives. Having been Confirmed, and by regularly invoking the Holy Spirit, they are helped in their decision-making to proclaim by word and deed a Christian way of life. Again the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Love whose coming in Confirmation manifests its presence in many fruitful ways.”

    .
    The above is taken from the current Killester Parish Newsletter. It is unattributed but I assume it is written by the parish priest, who wrote the preceding piece.
    .
    It seems to me, that, in defending the need for Confirmation in addition to Baptism, the writer is making a very eloquent case for the Holy Spirit speaking through the wider Church.
    .
    Just a thought to bear in mind in the current climate of “uno duce, una voce”.

    .

  15. Jo O'Sullivan

    Saoirse, I thank you again for taking the time and the trouble to respond to my response! And thanks to everybody else who has added your voice here too. It is so good to ‘talk’.
    I read your response last week, Saoirse, but I haven’t had time to get back to you as life has been wonderfully hectic due to a family wedding. Evan amidst all the celebrating, I found myself mulling over various points you made and I hope I can answer some of them now.
    In the first instance, I sincerely hope some of the people who ‘hold the reins of power’ in our church have read both your postings and mine because, even though they can see that we come from different parts of this Catholic family, I am in 100% agreement with you when you say
    “I would like to see a true penitence expressed by the bishops and clergy, expressed in some meaningful penance, perhaps by giving away the riches and the bishops’ palaces that so many of us find disturbing to say the least. Personally I think any clergy involved in the cover up of paedophile priests should be donning sackcloth and ashes and living for a time as a hermit in a cave; that would go some way towards demonstrating true sorrow and true repentance. I would like to see Mass offered continuously for the victims of abuse and their families in a perpetual offering. I would like to see, hear and read an admission of guilt and sorrow that did not look as though it was written by a lawyer, and I would like all the perpetrators of abuse to be charged and prosecuted, all over the world. Priest apart though, the sexual abuse of children is not confined to priests, and I would like those in the Church who are innocent of any blame to use their expertise gathered from this unspeakable tragedy to influence the protection of children in the wider world and to ascertain that our secular society also knows how to identify, treat and punish this crime against children.”
    Well said, Saoirse!
    After that, though, I’m afraid we differ……

    Remainder of response posted on Home Page under the heading
    CATHOLIC TEACHING IS CONSTANTLY CHANGING AND DEVELOPING, WRITES JO O’SULLIVAN