Another Kind of Suffering

We are about to begin Holy Week, the Great Week of the Christian year, and our eyes are already beginning to focus on the Cross and the suffering Jesus will undergo for our sakes. All our own suffering and failure is taken up into that one great redemptive act. That doesn’t mean, however, that what we suffer is somehow less real because it cannot compare with the suffering of Jesus. We can exaggerate, but we can also ‘spiritualize’, not acknowledge how deeply or negatively we experience things. Yesterday I had a negative experience I’ll share with you in the hope that it may help you see that whatever we suffer can be a way in to understanding what we celebrate this coming week. At least, I found it helpful.

I had been invited to take part in a radio programme. The producer had kindly sent an advance list of questions to form a basis for conversation and the interviewer was one I admire. All very promising. I listened to the first two contributors and felt very much in sympathy with them. Then came another, and as she spoke I began to be troubled by what she was saying about something I happen to hold very different views on. When my own turn came, I was distinctly lacklustre. No problem with that (except for my pride!), but then I was taken off-guard by the way in which two further questions were posed: the ordination of women and sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Catholics will know that John Paul II placed discussion of the ordination of women off-limits, and for those of us who are priests or religious, it is a tricky question to handle in the public sphere because the way in which it is presented (as one of equality or power in the Church) is not one that corresponds to our understanding of the sacrament of holy orders. One has to tread carefully to be intelligible to the general public and not overstep the boundaries currently permitted by the Church. I made a hash of it. Then came the killer. Would the presence of women in the priesthood help avoid sexual abuse? There are two things to note here. First, I find the idea of women being priests themselves (or priests being allowed to marry) as a way of preventing men from acting wickedly rather insulting to women. To be fair, I don’t think the interviewer meant that. It just sounded like it to me. Secondly, but just as importantly, few seem to recognize that most Catholics — surely the vast majority — are deeply upset by what we have learned of abuse and cover-ups. It reduces me to tears, and yesterday I found myself welling-up on air at the thought of how those children had been abused and the whole Church had been betrayed.

Quite clearly, the narrative of abuse in the Catholic Church is the only one the media are really interested in. I am beginning to wonder, however, whether it is time to ask the un-askable. Are there others who suffer in addition to those abused, and should we be concerned about them, too? A few years ago I wrote about the effect of abuse compensation claims on the diocese of Boston. So huge were they that the diocese had to close schools and hospitals for the poor, and one convent of religious sisters had the roof over their heads sold to help meet the cost (they were generously re-homed by some Episcopalian sisters). It was all very sad. The abuse was dreadful; the price paid by the Catholics of Boston and the poor was also dreadful. This is another kind of suffering which is not, by and large, acknowledged: the suffering of those who are themselves innocent of abuse but who must pay for the sins of the guilty — in terms of money, services, reputation and the constant drip-drip of poisonous remarks.

Some will argue that that is just tough. The awfulness of what happened means that Catholics must put up with whatever the world chooses to throw at us. The latest scandals attaching to the name of Cardinal Keith O’Brien have led to even more gleeful dirt-chucking. Those who believe that a vow of chastity or a promise of celibacy obliges to continence are appalled and saddened. The abuse of power is rightly seen as completely unacceptable. There is no excuse.

But I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the constant negativity does have an effect. To be held responsible for something one had no part in, that one condemns absolutely, isn’t easy. The pain and grief we feel for the wrong done to or by others is not assuaged by knowing that it may draw one closer to Jesus. The only way in which we can make sense of it is by remembering that we are the Body of Christ — wounded, bloodied, it is true, but still intimately united to our Lord and Saviour, who will never fail or forsake us.

As we process with our palms tomorrow, rejoicing in that transient moment of triumph which was a prelude to the everlasting triumph of the Cross, let us give thanks that we have a Saviour who has borne all our sin and shame. In him, we are washed clean, given fresh hope, redeemed.


On Being an Ordinary Catholic

People often say, ‘I’m just an ordinary Catholic’, as though it were nothing much. Yet it is not ‘nothing’ to have been baptized into Christ, nourished by his word and sacraments, and given the pledge of eternal life. Sometimes, calling oneself an ‘ordinary’ Catholic is an attempt to avoid the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ labels beloved of those who believe that they alone are right. Sometimes, it is an attempt to pre-empt criticism for not being quite as sure of an argument or explanation as one thinks one ought to be. In fact, there is really no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ Catholic, but I think most of us who would describe ourselves as such know what we are about, even if we aren’t very good at it. We are trying to live good and religious lives, even though we have become for many Public Enemy No. 1 — and there is no denying that it hurts. We don’t mind being thought ordinary, but being thought evil? No, definitely not.

There is an odd kind of arithmetic at work, by which we cannot claim any part in all the good done by the Church in the two thousand years of her history, but we can be associated with, and blamed for, all her failures. Speaking for myself, I have no desire to claim the good done by others as my own, but I am uncomfortable about being held responsible for the actions of people I’ve never met or who lived long before I was born. Here at the monastery we regularly receive a rain of abusive emails and comments, suggesting that we are somehow implicated in whatever abuse occurred in Ireland. No use explaining that we are nuns not sisters (and therefore not involved in things like the Magdalene laundries), that we aren’t Irish nor were we adults (or in some cases, even alive) at the time the alleged offences took place. It is enough that we are Catholics and wear a habit. (For a thought-provoking comment on the McAleese Report and the popular view of the Magdalene laundries by Brendan O’Neill, an avowed atheist, see

The allegations made against Cardinal O’Brien and the circumstances surrounding his resignation have added further fuel to the fire. Whether true or false, we know that people will suffer and the media will do their best (or worst) to add layer upon layer of tackiness to something that is already bad enough. Predictably, this morning one British newspaper has published a photograph of the cardinal with Jimmy Savile. Character assassination or belated justice, who can say? Oughtn’t we to wait before jumping to conclusions either way?

It is precisely in such circumstances that being an ordinary Catholic really counts. We are not powerful people. We don’t know all the ins and outs of the various subjects discussed by the media. We are not privy to official secrets of any kind and have no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who isn’t. No one is very interested in what we think or feel, but we plug away at believing and acting in accordance with our beliefs. We don’t do great things for God, but we do the little things that mark his presence and action in our lives and so allow his grace to touch the lives of others. ‘Without Him we cannot; without us He will not.’ There is the paradox, and the glory, of the ordinary Catholic which no amount of sin or shame can alter.

So, if you are an ordinary Catholic, be encouraged.