‘Life is beautiful’: 40 years of priesthood remembered
Forty nine years ago today, I joined the Augustinians. (The photo of that day shows I haven’t aged!) In two weeks time, I will be 40 years ordained. Unlike Bert Thelen SJ, I don’t feel the need to ‘walk away.’ However, I would agree with many of his concerns. Yet, today I can still say: Those forty years have been quite awesome. It has been a most privileged commissioning for me to have been immersed in this God-world. Student days were difficult. But priesthood itself has been marvellous. I cannot even imagine how any ‘job’ in life could ever have been more satisfying. The ‘burning bush’ and ‘the holy ground’ was everywhere. God was in the music and poetry of every day. The laughter in life was ubiquitous. The ‘rumour of angels’ abounded. What made it so? It was always the local (people) Church and the local community. Bert’s ‘quiet and gentle rant’ was also true for me and for most of us. Our rant would always have been towards the Establishment Church. The ‘Word’ became Flesh in the local Community and appeared often disembodied in the Official Church.
The students of the 1960s
Our generation is seen as ‘the flower people ’ of the ‘60s’ and so we are! We were also students with the Vatican II Council. The Council occurred during the ‘60s’ when there was a celebration of freedom. We can look back with nostalgia at those days but something wonderful happened. Martin Luther King’s speech was specific but had its application for all of us. The shackles of a redundant and flawed Thomism was being dismantled. The static and dead philosophy which underpinned and structured too much of Theology was being exposed as inadequate. Something evolutionary was happening. All around us, the universities were protesting. Many of us were involved in those protests. Joseph Ratzinger may have been shocked by such protests (Kung) and it may have redefined his theology. It defined us differently. We found the era very ‘incarnational’ and very real. We saw too the great sexual release that happened in those days and many of us felt that the Church had lost its way at the time with Humanae Vitae. The Church hasn’t recovered.
We may be known by some as ‘ageing hippies’ and so be it. However our lives were shaped by a new world, a new reflection and a new celebration of humanity. It wasn’t just that our theology escaped from its Latin prison and was set free into our native languages but that too began to launch us into a different kind of future. These theologians were our inspiration: de Lubac, Karl Rahner, Von Balthasar, Congar, Garigou-Lagrange, Schillebeeckx, Gutierrez, Sobrino, Segundo, Kung, Moltmann, Teilhard de Chardin. John XX111 was our charismatic missionary of the Good News. He told us what we already knew to be true. His world view was very familiar to us. We were in a hurry to be missionary.
When we were unleashed, (into our work place), we found immediately that our theology and formation had badly prepared us, for the local Church (as we had been caught in a transitional stage in our theological formation). But we had the confidence and the humility to move on and learn. Liberation Theology and Hope Theology might not be the local ‘lingua franca’ but the methodology made sense and was applicable. Scripture now became alive and evocative. Liturgy woke up. The ‘passive congregations’ began to stir and to find their way and their voice. This was a journey of discovery. ‘The old Church’ seemed so disconnected from anything real and appeared to miss out on any sense of a ‘continuing incarnation. ‘ The static model of priestly life and Sacrament (Ex opere operato) seemed to determine everything. This was rather convenient and meant that no-one had to pay any attention to the idea of a living (thinking, theologising) Church. That problem remains. How often are Masses robotic; where funerals are cold and empty and impersonal (note Michael Smith); where marriages could be about anyone and no-one; where Liturgy is lifeless and generally where there is ‘no communion.’ And then we have the new Missal which was birthed by a dead Theology that supposedly disappeared with the 60s. The English is crude and clumsy. It lacks any grace. Where is the poetry of the sacred? It even talks of female saints being ‘the new man in Christ.’ We could despair at those who allowed this be foisted on us and yet ‘no one shouts stop’?
The Laity were also anointed.
Priesthood for the 60s graduates has been exciting. The freedom of a living Theology has been exhilarating. We met humanity in its beauty and in its rawness. It was revelatory. The living Liturgy and the release from a literalism (absolutism) in Scripture have been liberating. The sense of everyone being ‘christened’ (anointed) has been another stimulating challenge for us. However, the model of hierarchy and pyramid notion of the chain- of-command remains in place which is foreign to the Gospel. The cult of infallibility remains with the Ordained and especially with the Ordained Bishop. The obvious is missed that the Christ of the Gospel is revolutionary and change has to happen.
A history of service in Ireland
Priesthood for me has been most enjoyable. I feel very humble at seeing how much Church people have done over the years. I know that I am only living off the investment of the past. We can focus on the negative (and only that) and be apologetic about the past – I know that education, social services, community help, counselling, all of this has been done by Church people before it became professionalised. No one can ever repeat or replace what was done by our predecessors. The mistakes are shouted about but we dare not forget the achievements. This country was made by the Church. Some Church people may have come across as domineering and arrogant. Yet we cannot erase from our history how the whole infrastructure of life was created by the Church. Those who have replaced Church people will never do it as well.
The extraordinary in the ordinary.
For myself – what was good? People. Community. I was at home. The ‘shalom’ was everywhere. I found a welcome always. I belonged. Scripture meetings every week has been essential wherever I have been. I have found the ‘sharings’ at Mass inspirational. The priest is not the only one who enters the ‘holy place’. The priest (myself) is not the only one ‘who knows.’ I have found a Living Liturgy – to be real Eucharist . I have found people (with little or no education) able to participate and make their experiences part of a living Scripture. Every day of my life – I meet God in them. God becomes flesh (and food) in the mess and wonder of every day.
Job description for a priest!
Here was the job-description and challenge of the priesthood as I see it: An open door (24/7); Always available on the phone; Sacred access to every home; An invitation into the heart of everyone’s story; Making the Sacraments real and living; Being an accountant; A maintenance man; An advocate; A psychologist; A counsellor; A school man and a security man; A letter writer and a reference writer; A spokesperson in the Courts; A local politician and a community agitator; An outspoken public speaker against criminals; A companion with the bereaved always and too often also in murder and suicide; A guide, writer, reader and fighter for the travellers; A friendly presence especially with those disconnected from Church; A contrarian; A clown; Pressurised every day to show how God is at home in every situation and every person; A scribbler who has tried to show a God who is different; Arguing and joking around the shops where often I met more of the community than in the church; Teasing and taunting through the simple banter and fun of being a member of the community and being at ease everywhere and anywhere. How have I done all of this? Through the companions around me – through team work; through the great company of many women who know how to nurture and nourish all of us.
I recall my poor mother being quite concerned when she realised I was really going to appear for the Ordination on 12th September 1973 wearing a green suit. (Celebrating green shoots of course!) The collar and dull/dreary clerical dress felt rather dour for a minister of ‘the Good News.’! A few still say – I should dress like a priest. I haven’t done so and will hardly do so now. Does that mean that people don’t know what I am or who I am? I am too well known everywhere which makes such minor details rather irrelevant.
Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! (Or maybe not)
I have never been restricted in what I have done or how I have done anything. The only restrictions in my life have come from my own limitations. It is good to say that. I do know that there are many things presently wrong in our Church (but I have to emphasise the positive also). I do know that many changes need to happen. I would agree with Diarmuid Martin’s analysis. However the radical changes necessary have a long way to go. (pace comments on article). I still don’t believe that the insights of the 60s have been truly absorbed. There is still a very passive church. I still think that the ‘clerical church ‘remains. I still think that many Bishops have been appointed for the wrong reasons and that these characters are shackled by orthodoxy. (One of our best scribes on the site would make a great bishop!) They are appointed for their sobriety and their adherence to Rome. And someone different is needed. Too often Rome doesn’t appear to have a pastoral heart; It suffers from the paralysis of an institution. An example is its silence in regard to people like Tony Flannery or Sean Fagan or Keith O Brien: No one speaks. No one answers. (How Rome deals with such people is more like the Stasi or the show- trials in China- it doesn’t bear favourable comparison with the Christ of the Gospels. WWJD?). There is a great empty space out there called Silence. The Rome machine is bureaucratic and is cold. It doesn’t throb with the heart of Christ. This needs to be addressed. Francis has begun the process.
Communion means Communication.
What needs to be changed? We need to face the wider issues of life and sexuality. In a very strange way – the shambles of clerical abuse may have shocked the Church into facing the reality of being human in all its weaknesses and its strengths. We need to face the issue of celibacy and question the supposed link with ministry. We need a new understanding of ministry and priesthood and management (Bishops etc). We need to address the place of women in ministry. We need to address the supposed absence of vocations and redefine what we mean. Helmut Schuller in his comments on the burden on priests today says this: “we can no longer be companions of (parishioners’) lives…. Instead of knowing their names, there are meetings, meetings, meetings. This cannot be our vision – a Church (that is) a kind of Starbucks, a sacrament-distributing agency.” He is right. In the fire-fighting at present, we have the ‘cluster model’ to deal with the so called shortage of priests. Theoretically this is good. In practice, it can’t work; if only one person won’t work as a team – it collapses into frustration. Do our Bishops work together? Do our Bishops work with Rome? Or share with their local churches? Do priests work together or work with their parishioners (how often Parish Councils/Priests’ Council are quoted as advisory?). We have also been betrayed by retrenchment. The inadequacy of all of us before God has been neglected. We have met with rigidity and certainty. Even the newer ‘recruits’ into priesthood frighten many of us ageing hippies. Too many want the security of certainty which is never faithful!
God is in this place.
What did we hear recently? (Gen 28. 10 et seq). In the dream, the angels were ascending and descending the ladder as Jacob slept. (Those angels are still around; the poetry of faith hasn’t disappeared). Then he woke up and he said: ‘God is in this place and I never knew it.’ Well I know s(he) is here and in this place. God is here and in priesthood. I am humbled by the God I meet every day in Rivermount where practice is only 4 percent but Communion is everywhere. I am humbled by the trust of my fellow Augustinians in what they called me to do. I am still celebrating Liberation Theology and it happens here where I am. I am still living the Theology of Hope and it happens here. I am still delighting in de Chardin and the ‘gift’ of everyone coming to the Table in Finglas. That Table is bigger and more than the Altar in St Finian’s church and Oliver Plunkett’s church. The Table takes in the whole territory of where we are and where I am. Church is much bigger than those who gather around the Altar! And I am blessed. Thanks Bert Thelen. We needed to hear you. But there is more to be said and many others need to say it. This is only a glimpse of my experience; it would take a book to paint the ‘work of art’ that has been my story.
Seamus Ahearne osa Rivermount Parish, Finglas.