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Home thoughts from abroad, Martin Rafferty, CM, class '55

Where are they now

Apr 5, 1984
Home thoughts from abroad, Martin Rafferty, CM, class '55 - KnockUnion.ie

I had thoughts of calling this piece Home-Thoughts from a Fraud because of the nagging doubts one constantly has about the accuracy of impressions, and the narrow range of one’s experience. Everything that follows is quite untrue, in some sense. Indeed, anyone who has the temerity to write about the United States should preface everything with perhaps or maybe. The visitor has a fatal tendency to generalise from his own severely limited experience, and given another day or two he could just as well find equally strong evidence for a totally different series of impressions. There is a prejudice in all Europeans to believe that television reflects the complexity of American life; it doesn’t. All American life is not encapsulated within a social milieu ranging from the decadence of Dallas to the frantic violence of Hill Street Blues. It takes some time to come to grips with the sheer vastness of the country and realise that one is attempting the impossible in making any generalisation about a continent. Living in Boston doesn’t help. New England has an air of autonomy and conscious superiority rather like the south of England. If civilised life ends north of Watford the same is true, for most Bostonians, once you cross the state line. The brownstone houses and enormous cachet attached to everything European makes you wonder at times if the American Revolution really began here. Known to the citizens as “The Hub” Boston, for all its Irish pubs and third-rate ballad-singers, is really like a strangely English raj, and even if the name is O’Flaherty or Seducci once they have percolated up to professional status their tastes and behaviour are remarkably English. It is significant that the opening challenge of the Revolution should have gone down in history as the Boston Tea Party!

Still, the very mobility of Americans means that university life provides a useful contact with students from all over the country. So, one begins to gather a few impressions which, one must file under “Tentative”.

It doesn’t take long to appreciate that for most Americans religion is a serious business. Unlike their peers in Ireland and Britain, American students are extremely open when it comes to discussing religious convictions, or lack of them. Coming from a more reticent tradition I found their ease and readiness to reveal the most intimate details of belief and practice quite unnerving. Even those who have rejected Catholicism will still insist on telling you in excessive detail why they “couldn’t take any more of that crap” (sic). You can’t help feeling that many are in the throes of disengaging themselves from a series of unfortunate encounters with less-than-admirable exponents of the Gospel. Even those whose lives are technically alienated from the institutional Church will still grapple with it as if the mark of God is on them and, try as they will, they simply can’t get “Him” off their backs. I have failed to find any of that cynical paganism masquerading as “selective Christianity” which bedevils so much of Irish middleclass life. Even in the American equivalent of Maeve Binchy’s Dublin 4 there is a refreshing honesty which at least regrets its inability to live up to the demands of the Gospel rather than the phoney “enlightenment” which gnaws away at the vitals of Irish “faith”.

There is, however, a real problem when it comes to finding a language adequate to religious conviction. Sadly, the diction of Psychology has had an enormous impact on high school and undergraduate vocabulary. Everything must be reduced to the currently fashionable models — Maslow, Fowler and Kohlberg — rather than the simple language of experience. Words like “kinda”, “sorta”, “like” nearly always preface an attempt to see the realities of life in terms of the prevailing jargon. Once a verbal label has been found you are meant to reply in similar fashion. At times I am convinced that the attempts to see religious developments solely in terms of psychological theory have tended to impose models and stereotypes between the parties to a conversation. When a student tells you that her father is having a “role conflict”, or that his father wasn’t “nurturing”, you simply are not playing the game if you ask “What exactly do you mean?” A recent book by William Kirk Kilpatrick, a psychologist at Boston College, called Psychological Deductions has caused a flurry in the psychological dovecotes, and even merited a review in the London Times, by simply questioning the whole attempt to construct a religion of psychology in place of the cult of the Living God.

Certainly the whole cult of Counselling leaves you wondering if this is yet another instance of the contemporary fascination with the professional. Everything must have a label with appropriate academic accreditation. Where before a woman went next door and wept on her neighbour’s shoulder, she now makes an appointment with her Counsellor and pays through the nose for the privilege. Some priest acquaintances have told me that they simply had to have a Counselling qualification if their parishioners were to have any confidence in them. God has become an understanding therapist who wants us only to come to love and accept ourselves for what we are. As Kilpatrick remarks: “We would do well to remember that Christ… performs radical surgery on us because what we need is not a pat on the back but an operation, very possibly a heart transplant”. The whole present vogue for spiritual direction is largely a growth industry of the Counselling boom. Even Fr Bill Connolly, a shrewd and experienced practitioner of spiritual direction, warns: “If the present interest in spiritual direction follows the course of other recent movements in American spirituality the enthusiasm itself will not last more than ten years or so”. While Connolly’s measured prediction is worth bearing in mind for anyone who imagines that a course in spiritual direction is the “cure-all” for the difficulties of mediating the Living God to a reluctant generation, I have found that the best practitioners of direction are extremely circumspect in their reliance on psychological “maxims” and much more likely to press the less palatable “maxims” of the New Testament.

There is no doubt that the “feel good” philosophy has done untold damage to any attempt to foster a genuine spirituality. At the heart of the whole miasma is the basic refusal to face the problem of Truth. There is a real tendency to forget that Christ came to reveal a transcendent reality, not a set of inspirational themes. The main question to be asked of any religion, be it faith in Christ or faith in Psychology, is not “Does it answer needs?” but “Does it answer questions?” The Truth, not elaborate ego-massage, is what ultimately makes us free. I have spent a considerable amount of time wading through recommended “spiritual writing” much of which is crudely sentimental or blatantly false. One of the curious things about secularised society is that the less it believes in God the more it believes in miracles. Much of this rubbish might carry the subtitle “How to achieve sanctity without even trying”. Even the definition of sanctity is seen in strictly monetary and social terms. And much of this is not the preserve of the Evangelical “lunatic fringe” but of what I can only call the Catholic “God in the trees and weak in the knees” school of spiritual confectionery. While I hope I have sufficient respect for the mysterious ways of Providence and the Lord’s care for the falling sparrow I baulk at the confusion of aesthetic elation and a “God” who is on call, night or day, to arrange social mobility or instantly dispense from all the suffering which is part of the human condition. There is basically a tendency to by-pass the inconveniently human and opt for some transcendental Utopia that requires just a change of attitude and a coy disregard of sin.

Much of this kind of “spiritual” writing comes in response to a pervasive lonliness at the heart of American life. While the kindness and hospitality of most Americans would put our grudging formalism to shame there is a deep lonliness that longs for some form of “community”. Sadly, the very word “community” has become a buzz word in the vocabulary of Religious. I have been amused at the irony entailed in hearing “liberated” Religious on the lecture circuit speaking with passionate conviction on the lack of “meaningful” community in religious houses, while they check their schedules for their next speaking engagement. Many community houses have become the retirement homes of the elderly, and the postal addresses of the itinerant young. “Self-actualisation”and “self-fulfilment” often mask a blatant selfishness which is the religious equivalent of the “Me Generation”.

America’s commendable dis-satisfaction with the inadequacies of the present can often be used as an excuse for evading its crosses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the current debate on the futureof Ministry and the place of women in the Church. When one hears of some of the treatment meted out to religious women in the past the back-lash was inevitable. One hears of convents located on the top storey of Dickensian school buildings where the devoted Sisters lived out a lonely existence in frugal penury while the clergy dwelt in baronial splendour in the rectory. The injustices were legion, and bishops were quite content to fulfil canonical obligation with a ritual annual visit that left nothing changed. Vatican II simply lifted the lid on an already festering situation and the climate of acceptance allowed many to leave. It is against this  background of real grievances at hierarchical neglect, and the coincidence of the Women’s Movement, that much of the current turmoil among women religious must be viewed. Sadly, the bitterness is still very real, and the insensitivity of some Roman diktats on trivial matters of habit and canonical niceties has added to the frustration. It might be added that in many cases the sisters are considerably better qualified in matters theological, scriptural and canonical than some priests. Few can deny that religious women have been far more willing to undergo the hard task of renewal and re-thinking than priests.

All of this has tended to focus attention on the limitations of the present structure of the Church and concentrate energies on a Church of the future. Often the present is dismissed as an aberration, as if a “new” Church will emerge miraculously from the sheer intensity of theorists. There are times when the possibility of schism seems very real. The enthusiasm of many devotees of ecumenism has convinced them that Unity has been achieved “in spirit”, and it is no secret that many of the most accomplished women theological graduates have gravitated to the Episcopal Church where they feel their voice will be heard; or else they have joined soi-disant ecclesial communities on the Congregational model. Predictably, the thorny question of Ministry has become the issue which focuses the dis-satisfactions of many women, religious and otherwise. While many are happy to raise the question and leave the solution to the unfolding of the Spirit, a recent injunction from Rome ordering bishops to withdraw all support from organisations studying the question has left many wondering if Roman congregations really know what is going on. If Church authorities simply won’t listen, then, it is argued, they must act on their own.

One of the disturbing aspects of all this is the growth of “parallel” churches which, for all their commendable zeal, are doomed to go the way of all splinter groups. Perhaps at the heart of the problem is an overweening seriousness that lacks the blessed gift of laughter to realise that God ultimately disposes. It has been said that “the serious tone of the therapist’s office has crept into all the areas of our lives”; and at times I have heard the humourless tones of the self-righteous 17th century reformer in some of the more strident denunciations of the institutional church. Hence, I am often saddened to see a genuine love of the Church gradually transmuted into a nebulous quest for the “ideal” church of the future.

The most alarming aspect of the current debate on Ministry is a tendency to undermine confidence in the institution of Priesthood. What begins as a radical critique of the arrogance and posturing of priests, soon becomes an insidious devaluation of the very sacrament of Orders. There are the seeds of a neo-Congregation-alism in the air, and many younger priests have found the confusion of expectancies too much to handle. If Priesthood is only one Ministry among many, and if, as some would argue, presiding at the Eucharist is the result of deputation to that office by a congregation, then what is the uniquely priestly character? It isn’t surprising to discover that recent research has shown that those priests who combine two roles, priest-teacher, priest-counselor, etc., are least likely to succumb to “burn-out”. The poor pastor coping with a parish and the diverse interpretations of his role must either batten down the hatches and lapse into a totally conservative posture or else work through the confusion with nothing more than the fraternity of his fellow-priests and a profound confidence in God to see him through. The latter course has led to a most impressive growth in “spiritual development” programmes and practical strategies to assist priests to foster a sense of fraternity.

Amid the welter of mis-directed energies the concentration on spirituality in seminaries is one of the many signs of hope. I never cease to be amazed at Americans’ unwillingness to acquiesce in the status quo. The European’s tendency to live with contradiction is simply not acceptable. If something is wrong, then you take action to remedy the situation. While universities have a fatal urge to theorise in terms of the ideal, I have found seminaries more shrewdly aware of their responsibilities to the wider community of the diocese. University teachers have at best to deal with their peers; seminary personnel have a more immediate constituency in the rank and file of the diocese. When your salary is being paid by the men and women in the pews your speculations have a very pragmatic dimension! The tragedy is that the universities rather than the seminaries are the training ground for most of the newest forms of Ministry and tend to be divorced from the real needs of the Church now. There is also a singular lack of any training in the dynamics of personal spirituality. It is assumed that Ministry requires theological and pastoral skills only. In some cases the need to keep numbers in a department up to a viable norm has led to the acceptance of some candidates for Ministry who will simply be unemployable. Members of religious communities who have proved too difficult to involve in a community’s traditional apostolate are shunted into Ministry training in the hope of keeping them usefully occupied for a few years.

Ironically, seminaries which are now geared to foster vocations to priesthood and permanent diaconate have become increasingly selective, and candidates must undergo an often harrowing series of evaluations each year. My own experience with the programme for permanent  deacons in the Boston diocese has been a most invigorating experience. The sheer range, in terms of social and ethnic background, is quite staggering. To find the head of a merchant bank and a black Haitian school janitor seated side by side reminds me of some of the anomalies of the early Church: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor freeman”. Of the four years spent in training the first is spent entirely in spiritual formation and each candidate spends at least one hour every two weeks with his individual director. The contrast with the university programme is quite pronounced. And the tragedy is that ordained and non-ordained candidates for Ministry will emerge from totally different institutions with often contradictory expectations. The problem will now be compounded by the refusal of the authorities in Rome to permit seminaries to change their focus from ordained Ministry alone. However, there is a flexing of hierarchical muscles clearly visible, and I suspect this will be side-stepped by some ingenious canonical sleight-of-hand. The American hierarchy has achieved a strong sense of cohesion over the last few years and will not be cowed quite so easily. There is no doubt that they are providing remarkable collective leadership, and on the issue of nuclear weapons have adopted the role of loyal opposition to the prevailing political establishment.

Living away from the community and forced to cope on my own I have been surprised at how readily I have tended to gravitate towards the diocesan clergy, and flattered by the kindness and welcome with which I have been received. Whatever our peculiar identity may be I am convinced it has much in common with that of the diocesan clergy. Much of my time outside university is spent at St John’s Seminary, a Liberal Arts and theological centre for the New England dioceses. By a series of fortunate accidents I have found myself being drawn more and more into life at St John’s. My over-riding impression is the prevailing commitment among all members of staff to the primary task of fostering vocation. Formation is not something hived off to a corps of spiritual directors but a goal to which all contribute. Certainly there are tensions between academic and pastoral demands, and at times I wonder if the students aren’t simply exhausted trying to cope with competing expectations; still, the primary role of the seminary, never disolves in a series of short-term peripheral goals. Nor is it assumed that the ideal formula has been discovered; there is a constant reevaluation and a willingness to change. At the heart of the seminary programme is the whole detailed process of formation; conferences, liturgy and retreats are not mere appendages to the daily routine of lectures and study. But most significant of all is the almost total absense of what I can only term “clerical careerism”; there is no jockeying for preferment nor salivation at the prospect of vacant sees!

That I have managed to survive over here (and let no one imagine that being sent to study abroad is a holiday in disguise) is due in large meausure to the fraternity I have experienced in the diocese of Boston and, I might add, the high esteem in which confrères like Fathers Donal Cregan and Sam Clyne are held at Boston College! But also the inestimable value of community life during my years at Castleknock and the profoundly educative influence of the boys! Any exposure to young people is useful in studying the dynamics of religious development; to have lived with them in the close proximity of a boarding school is one of the surest antidotes to arrested development in a middle-aged cleric. The eagerness with which candidates for Ministry seek access to educational institutions over here makes me wonder if we appreciate just how valuable our own commitments really are?

Martin Rafferty