20Apr A View from the Pew: Jo O’Sullivan

I believe that God is Love –an infinite capacity to love – a love that our limited human imaginations can only snatch glimpses of- a love that puts our poor little human capacity to love into the halfpenny place. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was that God become human and live a human life to teach us and guide us and help us to live lives centred on love. I believe the Spirit of God is in us all to continue to guide and direct us in our seeking and striving to live out that love. I believe that the Catholic Church can trace its roots right back to the early communities who walked with Jesus when He was with us and came together after His death to help each other keep true to His teachings and be in the world as He wanted us to be – be His body, His hands and feet and eyes and ears and see Him in every other body and every other situation we encountered. I believe they did it in the most natural ways possible – talking together as they ate and drank, pointing out different ways of seeing things, arguing and all the while remembering how Jesus was- not just how He died but also how He lived.

It was also a natural progression that the life and death of Jesus would be recorded in written form, together with the struggles of the early leaders to put some kind of shape on the ways He had taught us to live.  I believe that the Tradition of the Catholic Church developed from sincere reading of and reflection on those written recordings. I believe that the formal, ritualised Eucharist is the development of those early gatherings and  we now gather together, remember the life and death of Jesus and its implications and say a resounding “Yes!” to being part of His body by sharing the nourishment of Communion.

I believe that the Sacraments are occasions of special closeness to our loving Creator where our spiritual life gets a “booster” of nourishment. I want to live as the best ‘me’ I can be. I try to ‘be’ and ‘see’ Christ in all that I do (failing miserably regularly – but getting up and trying again!).

If any of this disqualifies me from being part of the Catholic family, then I will have to acknowledge it and walk away from the Spiritual home that I have been part of all my life. I will have to cease attending the Sunday Family Eucharist where I’m part of the group who shares with our children God’s incredible love for them, who thanks God for that love and who sings out our praise and celebration.

It tortures me to think that I don’t belong because I cannot, in all conscience, accept the validity of certain teachings of the Magisterium of the church. Neither can I accept the ‘rightness’ of imposing those teachings by refusing to allow dialogue. It hurts and saddens me deeply that other members of my faith family want to cast me out because of this.

I keep going back to Love. In my limited human grasping of what love means, I look to my love for my children as being the ‘purest’ form of love that I’ve experienced. When my children were small, they needed clear boundaries – they needed certainty and it was the job of their father and myself to provide them with such security. They learned about right and wrong from their parents and they accepted their parents’ teaching because they knew we acted out of love for them. As they developed their own capacity for abstract and reflective thought, they challenged aspects of our teaching – and it was right and natural that they should do so. In adulthood, they continue to develop their own codes of belief and codes of conduct. I am honoured that my adult children do not have to come and ask me what’s right and what’s wrong. I am proud that they have the confidence to reflect for themselves – to seek to inform and deepen their own conscience. What parent would want an adult child to be so insecure that he would have to ask mum and dad “Am I allowed to do this?” or, even worse, “Am I allowed to believe this?” before embarking on any course? It fills me with gratitude that they are so sure of my love that they can tell me they see things differently than I do and know that it will not affect my love for them in the slightest (if anything, it deepens it).

As I have moved through my life and had different experiences, my ways of perceiving the world have changed, so I would ask nothing less for my children than that they too would have open minds and open hearts. The greatest gift I hope I have passed on to my children is the ability to learn and change and grow into Love (I know that love to be God – they may not be so sure). This is why I just cannot make any sense of the way the institutional church is acting. If the Church authorities genuinely believe themselves to be the loving guides and ‘parents’ of the church family, how can they say “Believe what I tell you to believe or you are no longer a member of this family”. At a great stretch, I can accept that the ‘parents’ see things in a particular way – that they truly believe the teachings of the Magisterium are cast in stone, but no matter how hard I try, I just cannot understand why they silence all honest dialogue. I am not the most logical of persons, but the only logical explanation I can come up with is that any body which holds on desperately to “I am right! And do what I say or get out!” has to be incredibly fearful that, in fact, it may not right and cannot defend itself against differing views.

I know my relationship with my children is deepening all the time because we know that we love each other and we know that we see things differently and can accept and respect each others’ views. It also seems logical to me that any organisation which purports to apply to all humankind wherein the leadership keeps interpreting and informing itself from the standpoint of one gender only and keeps coming to conclusions based on that gender’s way of experiencing reality cannot be well-balanced. Before I’m accused of being a feminist (perish the thought!), I would say exactly the same of an organisation wherein the leadership was all female.

Life has taught me that men and women need each other as equals; life has taught me that sexuality is a God-given gift and honouring one’s own sexuality, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual, and forming loving relationships is good and right; life has taught me that, with the best will in the world, relationships can break down and the person who is able to find love again in a second relationship is indeed blest. Life has taught me all of this and more and I just cannot accept that my God, who is Love so much greater than I can even understand, could want to keep us in a family which did not acknowledge all of the above.

With the horrific revelations of the various reports into the clerical child abuse, I had to examine my conscience very deeply to see if I could remain a Catholic. I had to question what was my own bottom line. Was I a Catholic simply because it was the path of least resistence – I had been ‘born into the faith’ and it was too much like hard work to seek another code of belief? Was it because I was so brain-washed into believing I would be damned to Hell if I left? Was it because I loved being part of my parish community and didn’t want to leave it? I had to ask myself all those questions and more, because I knew, without a shadow of doubt that I could not continue to be the way I was – doing my bit to build a local church community but keeping my head in the sand as far as the bigger picture was concerned.

I had to stand in solidarity with the survivors of abuse – those who had showed incredibly courage in standing up to the might of the institutional church so that others would not face the soul-murder that they had undergone. My debt of gratitude to those good people knows no bounds and I still stand with them in their struggle for accountability within the hierarchy. My answers came to me in the form of playing my part in the struggle to see a way forward for my church family where such situations could never arise again and, with my hand on my heart, I believe that it can only come about with a deep and honest exploration of current church teaching and church structures.

I struggle with speaking out at times because I am deeply aware of my limited capacity to grasp complex theological and doctrinal concepts. I can feel inadequate to join a debate where the language used and the ideas expressed are sometimes beyond my understanding. Part of me screams out “Leave it to the experts. You don’t know enough or understand enough”. But then, I come back to my belief in a loving God – a God who just wants me to be the best ‘me’ I can be – a God who, like me with my children, says “Good on ya, girl. I want to hear your voice just as much as the voices of the learned and clever!”

And I write these things down so that those in my family who want me cast out might just get a wee glimmer of what it feels like to be in my shoes. I can love and accept you even though I cannot believe the way you do. Can you not do the same for me?

15 Responses

  1. Mary Stewart

    Thank you Jo for your views and for expressing them. As a wife and mother of 3 teenagers I strongly empathize and agree with what you write and feel grateful to you for having posted your entry. I am also very grateful to Fr Tony Flannery, Fr Gerry Maloney and others who have tried to encourage and empower us to live our lives serving all in love and giving us hope for the future

  2. Teresa Mee

    Thank you most sincerely, Jo, for that inspiring reflection on your way of life in keeping with your faith conviction. Jesus came to show us His way, the way to the kingdom, “I Am the way…walk ye in it..’
    We know that the earliest Christian communities saw themselves as Followers of the Way.

    The Spirit is at work on this site, encouraging us to listen to each other, to sift and listen again. That’s what I feel called to do right now.I too want to be a follower of the Way.

    Teresa Mee

  3. crosach

    Heartfelt thanks to Jo for this prayerful & beautifully written piece which deserves to be widely circulated. I’m sure it speaks for a vast ‘silent’ majority. May she remember us in her prayers.

  4. Eddie Finnegan

    Jo, this piece, like your previous posts, is inspired and inspiring. Much more so than the baleful re-spouters of orthodoxies and correctors of honest Christians who try to do their own thinking. Good on ya, girl!

  5. Lee Cahill SMA

    Jo, well done; thank you. Vibrant basics…and no having to trawl through purely conceptual complexities. You are tremendously blessed with the “more abundant” life which the loving God has shared with us on our pilgrimage. You are restoring a healthy blast of fresh air into a context that was beginning to get too muddied. Lee

  6. Sean O'Driscoll

    A delightful example of a beautifully crafted reflective piece. Thank you for the inspiration and insight your faith journey has given me.

  7. Mary Cunningham

    Jo, your beautiful piece named the reality of my experience as a committed Catholic mother of adult children. Love underpins all else. Life too has taught me that sexuality is a God given gift and that honouring one’s own, is good and right.

    I pray that a compassionate theology of sexuality will emerge, based on new understandings from the human sciences.

    Vatican Two encourages us to seek out the best available information to enlighten our moral thinking.

    ‘Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served……
    To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.’(N3, N4)

    Can we all, laity, priests, bishops, come together to talk and listen to each other?

    Mary Cunningham

  8. Maeve Mc Mahon O.P.

    Jo, thank you for sharing your struggle to make sense of our calling to be like Christ in this world. You did so with your usual sincerity and love. I know that your words will touch many hearts and give support to those who feel misunderstood.

    Mary Cunningham in her response to your letter reminds us that Christ came to give witness to the truth……to serve and not to be served.

    Teresa Mee spoke of the importance of following Christ as the Way.

    I’m blessed that the three of you meet each month in my home as members of a group who are searching for a way forward in the Church that we love but about which we have great concerns.

  9. Henrietta O'Meara

    Joe, your ‘View from the Pew’ has touched me deeply. Thank you for your reflective and beautifully written article. I don’t know you, but I feel as if I am sitting in the pew next to you.

  10. Bro Jude

    May I thank you Jo for your fidelity. Today’s First Reading (Acts 6:1-7) is indeed a blue-print for the vision of Church you spoke of and dream to be a reality. The Principle of Subsidiarity is shown in the actions of the Twelve in delegating to the wider community. Centralism is alien to the early Church. The size and spread of the current Church is not an excuse to dismiss the apostolic model of subsidiarity. The issue here is the more deeper or inner model of a listening Church. This model has nothing to do with size or structures of authority: it is more to do with a vision which serves the holy preaching of the Word and the care of the vulnerable….rooted in love as those called by the Lover in silent prayer. Such is my Easter joy which enables me to rise above those who, I perceive, spend their lives serving the Church as a Firm or multi-national corporation with HQ in Vatican City. There is such a thing as Holy Listening…not just magisterial silencing! “The word of the Lord continued to spread” , we are told in Acts today. Let us believe in this as our sole mission.

  11. Jo O'Sullivan

    Because of some of the personal responses I’ve received as a result of my posting, I feel I have to clarify how I intended the following sentence to be read.

    “Before I’m accused of being a feminist (perish the thought!), I would say exactly the same of an organisation wherein the leadership was all female.”

    My inclusion of “perish the thought” was meant to be ironic. I forgot that the glint in my eye as I was writing it could not be seen! I would be proud to be considered a feminist. I have the deepest respect for the wonderful women who struggled in the past and those who continue to struggle to promote the equality of women in the sometimes incredibly misogynistic institution that is the Roman Catholic Church. I am disgusted at the current treatment of the American sisters in the LCWR by the Vatican and I give them my full support

    I am deeply sorry that my rather glib comment caused some women offence and I assure you I didn’t mean it to be understood in the way that it reads.

  12. CarmelO'Flynn

    Jo, you have expressed so accurately and so sensitively my own feelings, concerns, and anxieties about the Catholic Church. Jesus made very few demands on those who would follow Him, the Way. Jesus tells us “if you have love one for another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples”. There were no strings attached, no ifs, buts or maybes, everyone is to love and be loved. This seems to have been the case in the first centuries AD. Tertullian writing about the Christians around 200 AD had this to say: “See how they love one another, see how the die for each other. What has gone wrong in the meantime? Habakkuk was deeply disturbed by the situation in which he lived “even though the fig does not blossom not fruit grow on the vine, even though the olive crop fail, and fields produce no harvest, even though flocks vanish from the folds and stalls stand empty of cattle” his answer was “Yet, I will rejoice in the Lord.” (3: 2-4, 13a, 15-19) And the Lord’s answer was that he would take action in his own good time, “those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God.” (2.4) Hope is our hallmark and all will be well this is our faith. With Fr Flannery, and the many other great men who are trying to lead us as mature thinking people to live as Christ has shown us, I too take comfort “Let the wilderness and dry lands exult, let the wastelands rejoice and bloom, Let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy” (the quote from Isaiah is taken from Keeping the Faith. T. Flannery) One day the words “see how they (Christians) love one another” will be a reality.

  13. Elizabeth Byrnes

    May I add my word of sincere thanks for your deeply inspiring and heartfelt piece. You have articulated my thoughts and feelings and concerns about the Catholic Church so much better than I ever could.
    I just hope and pray that something great may eventually emerge from all of this. I fear it will not come in my lifetime but I will always hope.
    Meantime, like you I will hold on to my belief in our God of infinite Love who rejects no-one but includes everyone.

  14. breeda geary

    Jo: you have expressed everything that I have been unable to. Thank you for your warmth, generosity of spirit, wanting to be part of the Catholic Church and yet needing to be heard. God bless you and your family. Breeda

  15. Darlene Starrs

    Jo Sullivan, this is Darlene Starrs of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada…
    As I read your piece there today……….I’m trying to catch up on the articles…..I thought, and I said to the Lord, “Wouldn’t Jo Sullivan be a very competent and courageous leader of housechurch? I recall Colossians 4: “Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters of Laodecia and to Nympha and the Church in Her House”………….I was picturing you Jo, as Nympha! I’m a strong advocate of having Small Christian Community, as another part of the parish experience, where people gather to reflect on the Word of God, and to share the stories of faith and of their lives. It seems to me, you have started that with the above comment. The Small Christian Community experience is also a way to address, the issue, of the Church not becoming petrified wood.
    It keeps the sap flowing in the tree as it were. I would love to do house church with you and let’s not forget our other friends, including Mary V.

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