Is the Church Getting It Right — or Getting It Wrong?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my readership has grown older and greyer. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. I’m growing older and greyer myself and begin to appreciate better than before how much is owed to those who just ‘get on with things’ and are not in themselves particularly scintillating. Blogging is no longer as popular as it was for diffusing ideas and inviting debate but the format suits me and is more manageable than most alternatives. The unease I am voicing this morning therefore comes hedged with qualifications. I admit my own ignorance and the difficulty of judging a situation that is, by its very nature, known only partially and imperfectly. I recognize that only a very small part of the Church (the part that reads this blog) is likely to respond and that its demographic is not representative of the Church as a whole. So, I write as a Catholic, of a certain age and background, living in the West, more specifically England, with its unique experience of Catholicism, and heavily influenced by my interests in history and theology. But the question I ask is of wider significance because it concerns the very nature of the Church and her role in the world.

The question troubling me is, do the current public preoccupations of the Church really help to spread the gospel? Are they, in any meaningful sense, meeting the desire for God? Or does the Church have some other reason for being than leading all to salvation in Christ?

Current Preoccupations of the Church

Sitting where I do, one might think the Church had no other interest than safeguarding regulations (the horse long bolted from that particular stable, I would suggest) and ever more complicated directives concerning COVID prevention, Mass attendance and online liturgies. All too often, this has ended up with a lot of form-filling and the compilation of statistics that a statistician would say revealed nothing of much use or importance.

From Holy Week (yes, Holy Week) until now, here in the monastery we have been working through an endless stream of safeguarding material provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. We agree that safeguarding is important. We have attended courses, adjusted our buildings and grounds, had an independent audit of our arrangements and practices and, crucially no doubt, paid our fee to the safeguarding service. Given our small numbers as enclosed (or cloistered) nuns, the absence of a chaplain and our clear policy of not allowing children to visit unless accompanied by a responsible adult, one might think we pose little risk. But the time we give to these matters is taken from time we might otherwise give to prayer and spreading the gospel, and that not only worries me, it suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church and her missionary character. We are not here to be defensive, surely? What are we defending anyway?

Like many others, I had hoped that the experience of lockdown and the creative way in which many tried to meet its challenges might have led to a profound enrichment of the Church’s missionary endeavour. However, if the anecdotal evidence I have received is to be believed, many clergy are simply sighing with relief that things can go back to normal (i.e what was understood to be normal before the pandemic began) though there is some anxiety about those who have been ‘lost’ to the Church and decided they are not returning to their parish for worship — or to make the financial contributions on which the parish relies. But is anyone asking why people have gone from their parishes?

Public Utterances and Public Spats

Ask anyone in this country what they know of the Catholic Church and one is likely to get some shocked references to abuse and cover-ups and perhaps an observation or two about the Latin Mass and the pope’s hostility to it. Neither is exactly the whole truth, but if people bother about churchy things at all, that is what they are likely to come up with. The very lame response to abuse and official attempts to mitigate its awfulness have not been impressive. There is a sense, which many Catholics share, that the Church is not really facing up to the sin in our midst; and in any case, is there no other narrative to be told other than one of regret and apology?

We have sometimes been asked to apologize for abuse committed in Ireland by religious sisters with whom we have no connection other than membership of the same Church. In vain do I say, it was wrong, we pray for those who have suffered (and those who caused the suffering), that it happened before we were born, we are doing our best to ensure that nothing of the same can ever happen again. But it is not enough. For some, the narrative of abuse and cover-up has become the whole narrative of the Church. What is not always recognized is the fact that, by and large, we have let it become so. Yes, we have let others set the agenda, and I think we may have got it wrong.

One consequence of this, not always sufficiently appreciated, is the effect on the morale of many clergy and their reluctance, amounting in some cases to crippling fear, to go out to others. Parishioners may lament the loss of the pastoral visit; some of the clergy are questioning whether the pastoral visit is simply going to end in tears (for the priest). An awkwardness has been introduced that need not be there. A wise bishop, alert to the needs of priests and people, can do much to help; but I wonder how many are.

The constant spats about Pope Francis’ decisions, even his legitimacy as pope, enthrall some sections of the Catholic Church and provide useful copy to online journalists and media types. Often those who are most vociferous are most ignorant, presenting as fact what is merely opinion, and opinion based on an inadequate knowledge of the sources. This applies to both left and right, liberals and conservatives, all who see themselves as being right when everyone else is wrong. What comes across, therefore, is a Church bitterly divided, more intent on scoring points than seeking truth, not a place where sinners will be made righteous through the experience of love and compassion but where the self-appointed righteous exclude all who are not like them.

A Harsh Judgement

I’m sure many will think what I have written is harsh and arrogant, that I am guilty of the very faults and shortcomings I see in others. But isn’t that the point? We are all, to some extent, blind and deaf. I do not believe that the Lord will ever abandon his Church, but I do think we are in danger of forgetting that is is his Church, that we have a mission to perform, and that currently we are not making a very good fist of it. Perhaps if we were to spend a few moments today thinking about what first drew us to Christ, to what changed for ever when we said ‘yes’ to him, the way ahead would be clearer. I’m sure it would be much more attractive to others also.

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Not Speaking Out but Praying

Every day seems to bring further revelations of corruption, abuse or sheer incompetence, both within the Church and outside it. Collectively, we are suffering from an ever-mounting sense of impotence. What can we do about any of it? Even the three-day conference on the protection of minors scheduled to begin at the Vatican tomorrow is being greeted with low expectations. The truth is, whether we are talking about the abuse of power in the Catholic Church or unreal expectations of Brexit negotiations or anything else, the role of the ordinary person seems to be negligible. We simply don’t count.

I believe that is defeatist because it overlooks two very important points. The first is that we have to speak up for what we know, or at least believe, to be true. That can be lonely and difficult, but it is essential. Truth demands no less. The second is that we have to pray — and the prayer we make must engage the whole of our being. We must wrestle with God as Jacob did with the angel throughout the long night of doubt and fear. If we do not, we shall never see the dawn.

I myself feel I have no words left after the most recent allegations of abuse committed against deaf children in the Americas and cover-ups of abuse against religious sisters in Poland. That leaves me with prayer as my only option, so to say. Thank God one does not have to be important or clever or anything else in order to pray. One has only to want to be with God and do his will. Simple, really, for only God can save us from ourselves.

Virtual Vigil
We shall hold a Virtual Vigil tonight between 7.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. for the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Vatican’s meeting on the protection of minors. No set form of readings/prayers. Please join us in spirit if you can.

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Being Unsentimental About Children

Just occasionally, I have the impression that we confuse sentimentality with caring. An old person dies after weeks of neglect and we trumpet our indignation, but were we there when he/she needed help? Were we ready to do the caring ourselves or do we merely want to blame others for what we perceive to be their shortcomings?

Children are always in the news because of the terrible things adults do to them, especially if they involve sex, but I think that there, too, we operate a double standard. We want our children to be ‘innocent’, but we know very well that our society sexualises children from a very young age. The Crown Prosecution Service has criticised one of its barristers for describing a 13-year-old sex abuse victim as ‘predatory’ and ‘sexually experienced’. While we shrink, rightly, from the use of such language, at the back of our minds there may be a slight hesitation. Should we be surprised if children adopt sexual attitudes and behaviours inappropriate to their age and understanding if we bombard them with sexual messages from their earliest years?

Perhaps if we were less sentimental and more honest, we would make better carers.  Seeing people as people rather than as consumers or, worse still, commodities would be a good place to start.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Speaking the Good Word on Twitter

‘A good word is above the best gift’ (Sirach 18.17) and ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). Those two sentences are culled at random from the scripture I store in my head, and for me they pinpoint why a Twitter silence is likely to prove an inadequate response to the evil of trolling and abuse. Silence will not, of itself, change a culture of abuse — and that is what we have: not merely individuals who abuse, but a culture which tolerates such abuse. Indeed, a Twitter silence such as some are advocating may allow it to flourish all the more. Instead of walking away from Twitter and other forms of Social Media, I think we should engage with them for good. We must show how use of the good word, positive speech and engagement, is much more beneficial, in all senses of that word, than bad or angry/abusive words.

It is a challenge we can all take up, but as we do so, perhaps we need to examine our own conduct. We may not be trolls, but we may be a little too free in our negative comments about others, a little too inclined to assume that we are right and everyone else wrong, keener to lecture than to listen. The good word is born of a listening silence. Let’s not forget that.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Prayer: the Simple Thoughts of a Simple Nun

Prayer means different things to different people. Those who have never experienced it and have a secularist agenda will often dismiss it as ‘talking to a sky pixie’ or whatever the popular formula of the moment may be. Others will think of it in terms of talking to God (which sometimes, let’s be frank, amounts to talking at God). Others again will identify prayer with a particular form of liturgy or practice of meditation. I, however, am a simple person and my experience of prayer is very simple, too. Prayer needs no words, no special circumstances, nothing at all except the grace of God and the agreement of the will. That, however, is not what this post is about, although it is necessary to be clear what I mean by prayer. What I want to concentrate on today is another aspect of prayer: its efficacy.

For many people, prayer is a response of last resort. When everything else has failed, try prayer; and if you’re not sure about it, ask someone you think may be. I am sure that some of the requests that come to us via our email prayerline are of this nature. For others again, prayer is all right, inasmuch as it won’t do any harm, but it won’t do any good, either. It won’t actually change anything. Some of the responses to yesterday’s blog post ran along such lines. In fact, one or two made me think I was being virtually patted on the head with a kindly ‘There, there, dear, you run off and pray and we’ll get down to the serious business of dealing with abuse.’ What such an attitude fails to take into account is that prayer allows/invites God into situations that are otherwise closed to him. When we make evil choices, we close ourselves against God; prayer opens us up to him. In the context of abuse and other challenges that the Catholic Church faces, that is very pertinent. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is easy, that simply saying ‘Lord, Lord’ will be enough. The kind of prayer I am talking about is often hard. It requires perseverance, tenacity, sacrifice. It is the kind of prayer that seeks to become one with the prayer of Christ, and there is only one place where that can be done: on the Cross.

It may be that the language of prayer and sacrifice means nothing to those who are unfamiliar with it, but the fact that something is unfamiliar does not mean that it is not valid or efficacious. There are many things in life I do not understand and will never be able to explain, but they do not cease to be just because my brain or imagination cannot cope with them. God is infinite, so is it any wonder that our finite minds cannot grasp his infinitude?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Enda Kenny and the Catholic Church

Most people will have sympathized with Enda Kenny and his denunciation of the apparent slowness with which the  Catholic Church as an institution has got to grips with the implications of, first, the Murphy report and now the Cloyne report. I think I have written enough on this subject for everyone to know the position of the community here. I am troubled, however, by two things: the fact that so many of the clergy still don’t ‘get’ what it is all about, and the fact that it is primarily the laity of today who must pay for the sins of the clergy of the past.

Clergy who are innocent of any kind of abuse (the vast majority) are often bemused by the distrust and hostility directed at them. We find that as nuns we get a small amount of ‘hatemail’ on the subject and sometimes have a few gibes made at us; it must be much worse for the clergy. The point is, our understanding of the Church means that we are all affected by what a few do or have done. There is such a thing as collective responsibility, though I am not sure how far it goes in this case. What I am sure is that adopting a public stance of condemnation and privately playing down the significance of abuse is completely unacceptable. Despite all the talk of safeguarding and putting in place statutory measures to ensure the proper reporting of abuse, etc, there still seems to be comparatively little being done to enable the clergy and those in training to understand, identify and combat paedophilia in their ranks. If I am wrong about this, someone please put me right. I can only speak as I have heard.

My other worry is that when the victims of abuse bring lawsuits against the Church, it is principally the laity of today, especially the poor, who suffer. We have seen what happened in the Boston diocese. No one denies the awfulness of what was done to those who were abused, but the closure of schools and hospitals (and even the making homeless of some of the sisters who served in the diocese) has hurt the poor of today in ways that few are prepared to acknowledge. Other dioceses face similar sorts of closures. Those who are hostile to all forms of religion may rejoice, but those who know only the kindness of Christians will not. During my recent visit to the U.S.A. I was struck by the trust shown to nuns by those at the bottom end of the economic scale: African Americans and Hispanics doing ‘menial’ jobs or out of work altogether  seemed to find it easy to approach and ask for prayer or a blessing or just talk about their concerns. When trust is destroyed, what is left in its place?

Personally, I think we are only just beginning to understand the extent of abuse in the Church. Paedophilia has, quite rightly, come under scrutiny; but there is abuse of authority which affects not just children but adults, too. For all that, the Church remains a divine institution: one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic. No matter how flawed, she remains the Bride of Christ, guardian of sacred scripture and of the sacraments, the nexus of our salvation in this world and the next. We must pray for her, love her, serve her, no matter how difficult at times that may be.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail