Monday, January 30, 2012

What Do You Believe?

Yesterday morning at church the homily was delivered by our retired parish priest, Fr. John O’Connell. Fr. John is one of the most Christian, most compassionate and most intelligent people I've come to know. In the 30-odd years I've known him, he has delivered through word and deed a very pragmatic view of Christianity. I may revisit that in a future post. Now, however, I want to tell you something of yesterday’s homily which Fr. John based entirely on the interview, broadcast on Jan 22nd 2012, between Fr. Shay Cullen and Gay Byrne as part of ‘The Meaning of Life’ series. Fr. Shay is one of the founders of PREDA (People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance). This small charitable organisation has a number of purposes which include the promotion and protection of the dignity and the Human Rights of the Filipino people, especially of women and children. I missed the original broadcast but I made it my business yesterday to watch it on playback.

I know Fr. John well enough to believe he has great respect for the way Fr. Shay spoke in that interview and for the pragmatic views he espoused. Let me briefly relate some of the points from the interview that Fr. John covered in his sermon. During the course of his questioning, Gay asked Fr. Shay about various aspects of his faith. He asked him what his image of God is. He replied that it was not the image as portrayed by the likes of Michelangelo, for example. Rather, he expressed his image of God as the existence of eternal goodness – the power and the force of love, caring for and respecting each other. When asked about the Mass, he answered that he found it a bit too ‘religioso’ in its current ritual and quite removed from what Jesus would have experienced. He likened it more to a meal of friendship. Asked about his thoughts on the ‘real presence’ (transubstantiation is the technical term, or the ‘magic bits’ as a friend of mine refers to it), he replied that he sees it more as the presence of Jesus being recreated by the people in the congregation who believe in the spirit of his message and want to carry on his mission. Regarding the resurrection, and Gay was quite specific on his meaning here – the ‘bodily’ resurrection – Fr. Shay says ‘we go with that’ but further explains that what Jesus lived and believed in – his message – is alive because his followers decided to keep the spirit of his message alive by living according to what he had taught them. 

Now if I was being asked to offer a critique of the programme I would say the questions were all very high level but nonetheless relevant. Anyway, how much depth can you go to in a 25-minute interview? Regarding the answers, I would say on matters of doctrine as professed by the Catholic Church, Fr. Shay probably did enough to avoid being branded a heretic. Not that it would bother him, I’m sure. Where he excelled, for this viewer at least, was in offering a different view or interpretation on several of the central tenets of the Catholic faith.

Why did yesterday’s sermon strike such a chord with me? Well you see, in the last few years I’ve gone through a bit of a crisis of faith, for want of a better way of putting it. The reasons are many and varied but suffice to say for now that I have become extremely disillusioned (perhaps irretrievably so) with the ways of the institutional Catholic Church. But more than that – I had started to question some of the fundamental teachings of the church. The revelation for me yesterday was hearing a cleric address the same questions I am struggling with but answering them in a way that made a lot of sense to me. You might well ask why I continue to attend Mass if I have so many questions and misgivings. I am very active in music ministry and I find that very challenging and fulfilling. Anyway, I don’t hold sway with the “if you don’t like the rules join another club” brigade and as Fr. John famously encourages people “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

So, what do I believe? What is my image of God? Well, I don’t have one because I’m no longer sure that there is the existence of an almighty being responsible for creating everything we see. In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether I believe in such an existence or not. God as a being or entity either exists or does not exist, irrespective of what I believe. Like Fr. Shay, I believe in the existence of goodness (and evil – this was covered in the interview also) but that these things are not outside us but within us as part of our human nature, our human spirit. I believe that a man whom we know as Jesus Christ walked on earth 2,000-odd years ago. He was a prophet and a rebel in a time and a place where oppression was rife. I believe his message was that people were not going to find a solution to their problems by worshipping false gods. Rather, he taught them that god is love – not the sun, the moon, the sea, money, greed, power or anything else. He called people to use the love and the spirit within themselves to work for freedom and justice. His notion of the kingdom of god (kingdom of love) is achieved right here through making justice, love, concern and compassion for others the number one priority.

I believe the Mass as we know it today is in stark contrast to the image we have of the last supper – Jesus gathered with his friends, his community, most likely around a wooden table and sharing whatever bread and drink was procured from the local market. I doubt there was a bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is far more likely that the Romans disposed of the body to avoid creating a shrine to the rebel they had just defeated. I have a lot of empathy with Fr. Shay’s view that the spirit of Jesus’ message lives on by the decision of those who believed in his message to continue the work that he had started. I believe that, unfortunately, a lot of Jesus’ message has gotten lost in a fog of dogma, doctrine and canon law that has been developed through the ages by the Church.    

I believe that we need more people with the clarity of vision and the courage of Fr. Shay and Fr. John, able and willing to peel away the irrelevant paraphernalia that the Church has built up over many centuries and which now has so much power and control vested in its structures and belief systems that it cannot back away from them. Alas I fear such people of courage are few and far between in the Catholic Church. Vatican-II offered us a vision and a blueprint for the Catholic Church in the modern world and a true recognition of the role of everyone in the Church, women and men alike, to bring about the kingdom of love. Progress towards that vision appears to have stalled – some might even say we are in reverse gear. Unfortunately, there are too many Vatican men now emerging from the seminaries and not enough Vatican-II men. And no women. 

You can read more about PREDA here.

You can view Fr. Shay's interview with Gay Byrne here.


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  2. I live in the southern Philippines as a profoundly lapsed Catholic, but I am regularly inspired by Father Shay's work here for women and children who undergo personal exploitations that few of us can comprehend.

    Belief doesn't end miserable practices of exploiting real people's lives; thoughtful, kind, absurdly brave actions do.

    Fr. Shay has repeatedly undergone the experience of having his life threatened— and one's life, for all the warmth of the Philippines, remains a commodity easily lost to a hired motorcyclist pausing with a revolver.

    I suspect Fr. Shay's candor in the interview comes from a reflective bravery facing these mortal risks. Were the Church to him throw out for the wrong beliefs, he'd still be at work helping folk with the support of decent people in the Philippines and our larger world.

    One doesn't need creed or the correct beliefs to be a decent fellow. Just return to that incandescent truth that every heart knows before any creed was learned: that every living being brings the world value and therefor is a treasure.

    You speak of crises of faith, but faith— for me anyways— is gingerbread decoration, fancy filigrees, bright paint on a lifeboat, that simply parades about without active kindness.

    I feel best when I experience the zing and energy of kindness, the "groove" of kindness, so often seen energizing Fr. Shay.

    All the best to you, Mr. Ivory. From what I can gather from what your doubts, you have a decent honesty that affords you a seat at the wood table of that carpenter's son we keep hearing about.