When I penned Part 1 last week I rambled on a bit; I was, as it happens, not very well, and not thinking quite straight.
What was I trying to say? Only this. That the Catholic Church in which I was brought up seemed to be emphasizing that it was ok to stay poor and miserable and just await a reward in the next life, and that this seemed to me as a child and as an adult, unsound. Whether you look at it psychologically, or “spiritually” or in terms of Scripture does not really matter; it is a profound misconception. For the Church to focus on the poor and helping people out of poverty and into well-being and is wonderful. To focus on being poor, as if poverty and straightened circumstances are good things in themselves (unless chose them, in which case I would say good luck to you) is the wrong emphasis.
The post provoked a great deal of reaction, and much of it very hostile to the Church. I was particularly moved by the comment by the gentleman whose grandfather had been persuaded to give up his savings by a priest, and died a broken man in poverty. That upset me.
Let me then tell a story. On Sunday afternoon I was discussing my post with a woman of my recent acquaintance. She strikes me as a kind and gentle but strong soul, trying to do good in this world. She recounted to me that when she was a young child – from the age of 3 or 4 onwards – she had been educated at a Convent School run by nuns of the Catholic Church. I know which one but I will name neither her nor it. I think she would have been growing up in the late 1950’s or 1960’s.
She told me how when she had become frightened and made a mistake she was humiliated in front of the whole class, and roughly treated. And how when she had done something “wrong”, which was declared by the nuns to be a “sin”, she was made to climb a long wooden staircase, reciting 10 “Hail Mary’s” on each step. As a twist, she had to do that on her knees.
When she was teenager she finally rebelled completely and stopped going to Church. At that point the Irish Parish Priest came round, angrily demanding to know why she was not attending Mass. He was rude and bullying.
In the end she blurted out: “Piss Off! You are just a man!”
To which I might merely observe first, that is a rather insightful observation from a doctrinal point of view; second, bravo! And third, that he doesn’t sound like much of a man to me. But there we are. I have some memories of that type of priest. At the back of my mind there is a label by they were termed by some: “Bog Priests”.
If there is one word about which would characterize much of the feedback and stories which reached me after that piece it is this: “unkindness”.
I am indeed on pretty strong grounds here, not simply anecdotally. One only has to look at the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The “Ryan Report” was published in 2009. It was a judicial commission tasked by the Irish government into children of the poor or children who had committed minor offences and who were placed into institutions under the control of the Catholic Church makes quite shocking reading. It paints a picture of endemic cruelty and sexual abuse with details I would rather not recount here and now, for they are too disgusting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commission_to_Inquire_into_Child_Abuse
Then, also in Ireland, is the scandal of the “Magdelene Laundries”. Between 1922 and 1996 10,000 young Irish girls were sent to these Catholic run workhouses. Some because they had committed the crime of being illegitimate, some because they committed crimes such as not paying for a bus ticket. They were used as little more than forced labour and wicked humiliations were piled upon them. They were intolerant, unkind and even brutal places. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalene_asylum
When I hear stories such as that of my friend, or read the reports of the treatment of young women in the Magdelene Laundries I have to confess I feel terrible, cold anger.
It should go without saying that this type of thing is of course the very opposite of what the Church should stand for. It is what happens when religion is based on as dogma, rote and fear rather than spiritual and psychological insight and faith.
The Catholic Church has to deal with and clean up its act in respect of these terrible crimes. Guilty parties must be brought to book, and that includes people who covered things up. Forgiveness is a virtue. But so is Justice. Forgiveness does not involve hiding away what has gone wrong. Whether it is rooting out anyone who perpetrated or colluded in this sort of behaviour or being more open about what happened, the Church needs a thorough clean from inside out. Some atonement has been made, but not enough.
The Church must become a truly kind institution, serving both practical and spiritual need. There are in fact many, many examples of good, selfless men and women of the Church who do great good in the world. As an example, there is an organisation with a branch near me called “Emmaus”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmaus_
Emmaus is an international charitable movement founded in Paris in 1949 by the Catholic priest Abbé Pierre to combat poverty and homelessness. It started to become famous in the fierce winter of 1954, when the homeless began to die in great numbers. Pierre organised what he called “the Uprising of Kindness”, a national mobilisation to help the destitute. Although he may have been something of a radical, he persuaded the right-wing Figaro newspaper to publish his moving call to action:
“My friends, come help… A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00 AM, on the pavement of Sebastopol Boulevard, clutching the eviction notice which the day before had made her homeless… Each night, more than two thousand endure the cold, without food, without bread, more than one almost naked. To face this horror, emergency lodgings are not enough.
“Hear me; in the last three hours, two aid centers have been created: one under canvas at the foot of the Panthéon, on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève Street; the other in Courbevoie. They are already overflowing, we must open them everywhere. Tonight, in every town in France, in every quarter of Paris, we must hang out placards under a light in the dark, at the door of places where there are blankets, bunks, soup; where one may read, under the title ‘Fraternal Aid Center’, these simple words: ‘If you suffer, whoever you are, enter, eat, sleep, recover hope, here you are loved’.
“The forecast is for a month of harsh frosts. For as long as the winter lasts, for as long as the centers exist, faced with their brothers dying in poverty, all mankind must be of one will: the will to make this situation impossible. I beg of you, let us love one another enough to do it now. From so much pain, let a wonderful thing be given unto us: the shared spirit of France. Thank you! Everyone can help those who are homeless. We need, tonight, and at the latest tomorrow, five thousand blankets, three hundred big American tents, and two hundred catalytic stoves. Bring them quickly to the Hôtel Rochester, number ninety-two, la Boetie Street. The rendez-vous for volunteers and trucks to carry them: tonight at eleven, in front of the tent on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Thanks to you, no man, no child, will sleep on the asphalt or on the waterfronts of Paris tonight.
Emmaus takes and resells second-hand goods and furniture donated to it, and in so doing gives work and accommodation to people who have often through no fault of their own fallen in to homelessness and destitution. Although founded by a Catholic priest it is as far as I am aware non denominational. It does enormously good work, quietly and without great fanfare. Here is its motto:
“Our guiding principle is one which is essential to the whole human race if there is to be any life worth living, and any true peace and happiness either for the individual or society: Serve those worse off than yourself before yourself. Serve the most needy first.”
In my dealings with it I have found the men and women involved – whether the people who are getting back on their feet or the people who simply volunteer to help – uplifting and full of hope and compassion. They all seem strangely clean and smart. I am not sure what this might signify. This is active spiritual practice in a practical context. This is the meaning of kindness in action, and that is part of what the Catholic Church should support and throw its weight behind, rather than fussing about the hereafter.
The new Pope Francis I has a certain charm and modesty about him, and a certain strength too. Spirituality and kindness does not mean being soppy. That is a good note upon which to start. He must strive to spread that tone through the whole institution.
If our learned editor permits, next week I will set out my views on how the Catholic Church needs to overhaul and revise its teachings in key areas. On its teachings about Heaven and Hell. On sex, which is its biggest hang up, and specifically on birth control and the role of women in the Church; on preserving the sanctity and beauty of its sacraments; and on looming threat of aggressive and intolerant Islam.
Gildas the Monk