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An Informed Laity: A Reformed Irish Church

20 June, 2012

THE BOOK: informedlaity
In a trenchant and punchy style, the author sets out his case that the laity in the Irish Church has been made to feel inferior, timid and reluctant to speak up by authoritarian priests and bishops. They have not been treated in an adult way. They have been deprived of their birthright. He sets out to restore this birthright. He assures lay people that they can really experience God, not just have an intellectual knowledge. He leads them in the way, even of mystical experience, with the help of St John of the Cross’s poem, The Dark Night. He criticises the phrase “attending Mass” as clerical paternalism; often it is the presider that is the obstacle to real celebration. The Eucharist is an act of the whole people of God in thanksgiving and remembrance, a truly Christian Passover feast, not something done by the priest with the people watching. Priests, bishops and lay people all need to read this book. It is a breath of fresh air in an Irish Church that has become paralised and stuffy.

Seán MacGabhann is an Irish missionary priest, who ministered in Guyana, South America, for thirteen years. After graduating from the Jesuit-run Creighton University, Omaha, with an MA in Christian Spirituality and a certificate in Spiritual Direction in the Ignatian tradition, he ministered in Canada. He is now chaplain to the contemplative Benedictine nuns in Virginia Dale, Colorado. Attached to their retreat centre, he is spiritual director and guides people in the spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. His previous book, The New Evangelisation of Catholics in a New Language, is available on Amazon. This is a priest with fire in his belly, outraged at how bishops and priests persist in depriving lay people of their full participation in the richness of the Christian message. He wants to communicate the full message of the Second Vatican Council and is unconcerned if he ruffles a few feathers in doing so.


Restoring Your Birthright 

  • Your birthright
  • As old as Jacob
  • We have robbed you
  • No excuses
  • Two-way robbery
  • We don’t mean it
  • Taking it slowly
  • You too can do it
  • Confirmation: a misused sacrament
  • Less equal than others
  • Denial of a right
  • Jesus has it right
  • Teach you to fish
  • Part of the decision-making
  • Jesus the only way
  • Asking the right question
  • Giving the right answer
  • Give it less thought
  • Mr. Duffy’s problem
  • Feelings and Christmas
  • The best is below
  • Experience superior to thought
  • Birthmother and godmother
  • Prayer of affirmation and gratitude

You Can Experience God Now 

  • Best-kept secret
  • Relationship spirituality
  • A God who pursues and desires
  • We both are guilty
  • Fully immersed
  • In
  • In Jesus and in God
  • Leadership models
  • God by participation
  • Communion not connection
  • Breath of life
  • Breath the teacher
  • Breathe in breathe out
  • Now
  • Now-awareness
  • Two equals one

The Lover And His Beloved 

  • An unpopular book
  • Look at couples, not at us
  • An unpopular priest
  • You are one of them
  • Sexual energy channelled
  • Dualism is darkness
  • The bright side of darkness
  • Control leads to darkness
  • Dumping on God
  • Hold your head high
  • John’s poem is your poem
  • ‘One dark night’
  • ‘Ah, the sheer grace’
  • ‘My house being now all stilled’
  • ‘On that glad night’ `in secret’
  • ‘Where he was awaiting me’
  • ‘Upon my flowering breast, I caressing him’
  • ‘Suspending all my senses’
  • ‘I abandoned and forget myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies’

God Is In This Place Now 

  • A dream come true
  • When God was easily accessible
  • God and Noah
  • God and Moses
  • God and a child
  • God and David
  • God and Job
  • Leaders take heed
  • Past and present are now
  • Embrace the truth speak the truth
  • An observant Indian
  • The right time is now
  • Jesus and the now
  • Eternal life is now
  • Living faith is eternal life
  • Hope is now
  • Healing is now

Eucharist: Remembrance – Thanksgiving 

  • Learning a new language
  • Passover the proper context
  • Remembrance more than remembering
  • Eucharist is thanksgiving
  • Personal application
  • New language for presiders
  • Presider an obstacle
  • Matrimony and Eucharist
  • Penitential rite
  • The readings
  • Preparation of the gifts
  • The consecration
  • Holy Communion
  • Go in peace
  • Start with ourselves

You Are The Best 

  • Who is the greatest?
  • God and matrimony
  • The husband of a whore
  • Disillusionment to romance
  • Wedding at Cana
  • Unlikely source of praise
  • Wedding warnings
  • A persecuted bride
  • Jerusalem the bride
  • How couple is a sign
  • Arian heresy
  • Newman on the laity
  • Laity save the day
  • Newman’s Council
  • Laity elects bishop
  • God’s little people
  • Wounded healers
  • Church always reforming

186 pp. To purchase this book online go to www.irishchurchreform.com or [email protected]. Alternately, telephone Brigid 00353-45-877544



While, but for the grace of God, I am not guilty of sex-abuse, I have abused my people in other ways. I ministered out of a culture of entitlement and with my superior, ‘better than thou’ attitude, inflicted hurt on them. My sins that emanate from corrupt power are many: sexual discrimination against women, laying guilt trips in my subjective interpretation of the Gospel, preaching more the fear of Jesus than his love, too rigid and going by the book in the confessional, all too often my way or the highway, demanding too much commitment for baptisms and weddings, talking at people instead of talking to them. For these and other ways I have abused my people, I ask their forgiveness.

Although a dark heavy cloud hangs over the Irish Catholic Church, I feel optimistic and see hope for real change. The warning of Cardinal Sean O’Malley that if reform is not taken seriously, within ten years the Irish Church will go down the same road as Europe, is startling to say the least. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s belief that the Church in many ways has already reached ‘the brink’ of collapse, is frightening. I am convinced that it is the Irish laypeople, working together with the many great bishops and priests, who will bring about radical reform. While I do not tiptoe around the appalling behaviour of the leaders, the focus of my book is to help the average Catholic to believe in him or herself and assume their rightful place, not in the Church, but as Church.

Paddy and Bridie were married for ten years and tried without success to start a family. So they went for the usual battery of tests. The doctor told Paddy he would phone him as soon as he had the results. Sure enough he did call him at work: ‘Mr. Murphy, I’ve received the report on your tests and I have to tell you that you are impotent. Do you understand, Mr. Murphy?’ ‘Definitely doc’ replied Paddy. ‘It’s is the very first time I am hearing this, thanks Doc.’ ‘So you clearly understand that you are impotent?’ ‘As clear as day Doc, thanks again.’


He couldn’t contain his joy and excitement so he called Bridie at work: ‘The doctor just called and it’s the best news I’ve ever heard in my whole life. It’s a cruel life that nobody, not even you told me what he did. Meanwhile Bridie kept butting in, ‘well what did he tell your The doctor said, ‘Mr. Murphy, I have to tell you that you are important.’ ‘This is the best day of my life. If Paddy Murphy is important then you and I will go to the pub tonight and celebrate.’

For centuries, the laypeople have been reduced to impotency. Feeling shut out, powerless and helpless to make a significant contribution, they withdrew into a totally passive mode. In my book, An Informed Laity: A Reformed Irish Church, I aim to help the laypeople turn things around. Like Paddy Murphy, I want them to hold their heads up and see themselves as very, very important. Throughout, I affirm them in their God-given status, not as members of the Church but as Church.


Nothing, more than the sex-abuse scandals, has rocked and shaken to its very foundation the Catholic Church in Ireland that dates back to St. Patrick in the year 432. On the bright side, never has the Catholic laity been more open, eager and willing to come into their own and take responsibility. I write to encourage, inform and educate them.

The good news is that the laity has already initiated reform. I emphasize who needs to be reformed, converted and renewed. It’s the leaders: the bishops and priests, including myself. Not all of course because most are good men ministering in painful and humiliating circumstances unheard of in the Irish Church. In coming forward with their heart-wrenching stories, they are holding the abusers accountable.

The abused have set the ball rolling and the rest of the Catholic laity, with a little encouragement, are ready to pick it up. They are no longer Jimmy Riley’s cattle looking over the hedge! That’s what priests used to shout to the lads at the back of the church on one knee, discussing Saturday’s racing and Sunday’s football game: ‘Will yis come up outa dat. Yis are like Jimmy Riley’s cattle lookin over a hedge.’ Not only do the laity need to hear that they are not merely members of the Church but that they are the Church, so do we leaders. While this might threaten us and put us on the defensive, it’s music to the ears of the laity. Rarely have we given them that compliment. Now is the time for the leaders to stop dictating and collaborate with their people. Not confrontation and isolation. Now is the time for bishops and priests to say less and listen more to their people.


As evidence of genuine reform bishops and priests must cease identifying themselves alone as the Church. They are not. They must also stop implicating the whole Church in the scandals. Without a shadow of doubt the leaders have a very important role to play but they must know their place, and their limitations. They too are Catholic along with their sisters and brothers. The time has come to be inclusive. By that I mean to actively involve the laity in their rightful role as Church. For this reason I clarify throughout my book the practical, everyday difference between Church and leaders.

Contrary to what some leaders are saying, the sex-abuse scandals do not reflect the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The Church, the people of God, the vast majority, more that ninety-percent, do not need reform simply because they are not guilty of abuse. It’s unjust and arrogant for bishops and priests to call on the ‘Church’ to make reparation for the scandals. The Church, the people of God, must not be held accountable for sins they did not commit.

I draw on three main sources for my affirmation and formation of the Irish laity. The first is my own practical experience of almost forty years as a missionary and parish priest. When I went to South America in 1974 I found a well-formed, vibrant laity already taking a leadership role. Their bishop was a step ahead of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) having already implemented a three-year training programme. From there I learned to collaborate with, respect and empower the lay people.

That great champion of the laity of his day, Blessed John Henry Newman, could well be the patron saint for the Irish Catholic laity and is my second source. When his bishop asked him, ‘who are the laity?’ he replied: ‘The Church would look foolish without them.’ He was no stranger to Ireland. In 1851 he founded the first Catholic University in Dublin and was appointed its first rector. After several run-ins with Archbishop Paul Cullen he resigned and went back to England.

Newman blasted the Irish bishops for their discrimination against lay involvement in the University. He lamented, ‘one of the chief evils which I deplored in the management of the affairs of the University twenty years ago, was the resolute refusal with which my urgent representations ever met that the Catholic laity should be allowed to cooperate with the archbishops in the work. As far as I can see there are ecclesiastics all over Europe whose policy is to keep the laity at arm’s length, and hence the laity have become disgusted…. I came away from Ireland with the distressing fear that in that Catholic country, in like manner, there was to be an antagonism, as time went on, between the hierarchy and the educated classes.’ Add to this the sex-abuse scandals today and we do indeed have fierce antagonism, mass anti-clericalism and bitter distrust of leaders. I hold up Newman to the laity as their hero, mentor and encourager.

My third source of affirmation for the laity is Karl Rahner, German Jesuit and theologian. His powerful, prophetic statement is often quoted but rarely taken seriously by the leaders: ‘Tomorrow’s devout person will either be a mystic – someone who has experienced something – or else they will no longer be devout at all.’ Elsewhere he says that the laity are sleeping mystics waiting to be wakened. They will continue to sleep because nobody is telling them who they are. As leaders we simply do not believe they have this awesome potential. In our appalling ignorance we dismiss it outright because we think mysticism is only for the elite like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

The core of Rahner’s absolute belief in the laity is his conviction, and mine, that God is ‘immediately’ experienced by every Christian; that the immediate experience of God ‘is not a special privilege for a chosen elite but something not denied to anyone.’ Bishops and priests do not grant the laity this right and privilege: they are born graced and already in a loving relationship with God. Leaders do not supply the ‘what’ but the ‘how.’

Rahner is emphatic that ‘immediate experience of God is not simply mediated by the ecclesiastical machinery.’ And, ‘the institutional  in Christianity is secondary to, and at the service of, believers.’ Jesus said exactly the same: ‘The student is not above the teacher.’ ‘I came to serve and not be served.’ Leaders have forgotten that a disciple of Jesus is always a learner. Today we have the tail wagging the dog! With the leaders wielding this kind of absolute power over the laity, we should not be surprised by all sorts of abuse, including sex-abuse. At the heart of the sex-abuse scandal is corrupt, absolute power.


With marriage largely reduced to the secular, I opted to use the title ‘matrimony’ throughout. I address the laity in a down-to-earth conversational manner avoiding theological jargon! I am deeply sensitive to how they have been wounded, talked down to, taken for granted and made to feel impotent. I worked for years with team couples on Retrouvaille weekends helping to restore broken relationships. More than anyone else, they taught me that once trust is violated it’s one long uphill effort to restore it. It’s my great desire and hope that my book will help to build trust between a hurt and disillusioned laity and their bishops and priests.

For the assistance I received in making this book possible, I wish to thank Sister Margaret Quinn and Sister Assumpta Saunders, Religious Sisters of Mercy. They generously took on the painstaking task of proofreading and gave a wonderfully encouraging and rigorous critical response to the manuscript. I also thank a long-time neighbour, friend and accomplished photographer, Tony Keane. He put his professional expertise to work in designing the eye-catching front cover.

Seán Mac Gabhann





Your birthright
‘You are a child of God and a loved sinner’ could very well describe and summarize your birthright. Your teachers: parents, school-teachers, priests and bishops, tend to put too much stress on being a sinner. Except Jesus! No matter how bad people were they always experienced him loving them in their sinfulness. Jesus loved people into changing their lives. When did you last hear us tell you that you are a loved sinner? God loves you, as you are, unconditionally, which means you don’t need to earn God’s love. You cannot earn it anyway because it is pure gift.


You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation and a people set apart (1 Peter 2:9). You are precious in God’s eyes (Isaiah 43:4). God calls you by name (Isaiah 43:1). Even before you were born God knew you by name as God reminds Jeremiah: ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’ (Jeremiah 1:4). At the end of your pilgrimage you will see God face to face, and he will recognize you by your name: ‘they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads’ (Revelation 22: 4).

Today being Christmas day, I just finished praying the breviary and here is what pope St. Leo the Great says to you in one of the readings: ‘O Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share.’ We are so special to God that God does what we do when we want to remember something very important: we write it on the palm of our hand. ‘I have carved you on the palm of my hand’ says God, (Isaiah 49:16). God’s hand as it were acts like a mirror. Every time God looks at that hand God sees your name and rejoices in you. One could say that God is the original palm-reader! You are indeed ‘the apple of God’s eye’ (Psalm 17:6).

When you hear your name called your ears perk up, your heart races and you feel like you are the only one present on the planet. You feel affirmed, special and loved because someone knows you by name. You count. You matter. You are made to feel very special. You feel like Mary in search of Jesus in the garden after his crucifixion when Jesus called out, ‘Mary!’ Overjoyed she flung herself at his feet because her old friend remembered her name.

We love to be remembered by name. Often people will compliment me with, ‘and you even remember my name!’ It makes their day! It’s important to remember the rich significance of a name in scripture. It is more than just a title. To name something or someone in scripture is to possess them. When Adam named the animals he took possession of them. In calling you by name, God possesses you as his beloved sons and daughters. A verse of a beautiful hymn says it well:

By name I have called you
By name I have loved you
By name you are mine
You are precious to me.

As old as Jacob
This goes back to around eighteen hundred years before Jesus. Jacob was Abraham’s grandson; son of Isaac and his mother was Rebekah. His twin-brother was named Esau. Already in their mother’s womb they were engaged in a battle for superiority! Esau was born first but not without a struggle because his brother Jacob held on to him by the heel! In that culture the first-born automatically inherited his parents property.


Esau was a skilled hunter and spent most of his time in the open country. One day he returned home tired and starving to the delicious smell of soup prepared by his brother Jacob. ‘I am starving and exhausted,’ said Esau, ‘please give me a bowl of your fresh soup.’ Jacob was cunning and, thinking on his feet replied, ‘only if you sell me your birthright.’ How could poor Esau resist! `Here I am, at death’s door,’ he lamented, ‘what use will my birthright be to me?’ (Genesis 25:29-34). And he capitulated. But to be doubly sure, Jacob had him swear an oath to this effect and so the deal was official.

What we see played out here is power, domination, superiority, greed and taking advantage of a person in dire need. Nearly four thousand years later things have not changed much. The western superpowers are dominating the rest of the world and countries are forced to sell their birthright simply to survive. Among other ways, this happens in the form of huge loans from the rich, particularly the International Monetary Fund. The poor countries end up at their mercy and totally dependent. The rich dominate, take all kinds of unethical advantages and wield control. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is the state of the secular world we live in. Because the Church is in and is part of this corrupt society, her leaders are inevitably influenced and contribute their share. As someone said, original sin is alive and well in the Church!

We have robbed you
‘Father knows best.’ How often I have heard you say that. Church leaders come across as an intellectual elite with all the answers. You feel inferior, timid and reluctant to speak up because you sense you will not be listened to and even put down. In this way they wield power over you. Like the superpowers, they dominate and take advantage of you. Their superiority makes you feel inferior because they have reduced being a disciple of Jesus to mere knowledge, rules and traditions.

How we your leaders take great pride in placing after our names titles like, Doctor of Divinity, Master of Theology, Doctor of Philosophy and a host of others. And before our names we boast of titles like Canon, Monsignor, My Lord, Your Grace and more. All they do is give us an air of authority and power over you. Whether we are aware of it or not, we intimidate you, so no wonder you are backward in coming forward!


I believe it was Pope Benedict XVI who spoke of the need for a paradigm shift from the ‘experience of authority to the authority of experience.’ Your experience of many of your leaders is primarily that of authority and sometimes authoritarianism. It means that they lead from a power base that automatically excludes any sense of a relationship with you and sharing of their experience.
To lead from the authority of experience is totally different and more akin to that of service as commanded by Jesus. In practice it means that they first walk their talk. Without the experience they have no authority. They are simply talking through their hat, as they say! A bishop or priest who says, ‘this is my personal experience of Jesus loving me as a sinner,’ speaks with authority. He is credible and you warm to him. You could say, ‘he’s my man.’

I am often asked why I did not become a Jesuit. Me, a Jesuit! Poor little me, David, up against Goliath, the Jesuits! I honestly believed they were all rocket scientists! But my eyes were opened when I worked alongside them in South America and I lost all my inferiority. Sure they were smart but ordinary men nevertheless who not once made me feel less a priest. I will never forget their humility and ordinariness when the dictator President took over their college. Up to then, men who had degrees from Oxford and Cambridge spent their days teaching there. Then, without a murmur, they headed off to the deep interior to work with the Amerindians along the border of Brazil. And the people loved them because they were able to come right down to their level. They slept in hammocks like them, eat their cassava and in the mountains, walked for miles and miles serving thirty villages in the scorching tropical sun, for they were only five degrees from the Equator.

No excuses
Looking out my window I see the domination and power-game at work in the animal kingdom. It is winter and we are deep in snow so I put birdseed on the veranda for the little ones. At first there were only a few but today it seems they have invited not only their thirty-first cousin but neighbours as well! I feel like going out and giving them a good lecture on brotherly and sisterly love and how to share. But then I am not St. Francis of Assisi to whom the birds listened! The big ones chase away the little ones and the little ones fight with each other. It really is the survival of the fittest.

It’s ten times worse with the hummingbirds in the summer. They are just plain nasty to each other. The first one to discover the feeder will defend it tooth and nail and I’ve witnessed some fierce mid-air fights. It was the same with my hens. They really do have a pecking order. You should hear the squawking at night when I locked them up fighting over their own spot on the roost. There is an excuse for these but there is absolutely none for the pecking order your leaders have established. Whether they would admit it or not, the reality is that they are superior and you are inferior basically because Church leaders have read a few more books than you.

Two-way robbery
Just as we sin in two ways, you are robbed you of your birthright in two ways. We sin when we choose evil. But we also sin when we neglect to do good. It is what we call sinning by commission and omission. When we say the ‘I confess’ at the beginning of the Eucharist we acknowledge this: ‘I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault …. in what I have done and in what I have failed to do….to pray for me to the Lord our God.’ Your leaders rob you of your birthright when they lord it over you, control you and treat you as insignificant. You are also robbed when they don’t affirm you and tell you how God sees you. There are many things I regret as I age and look back over my ministry. One that stands out is how little I affirmed  you in my homilies. I talked down to you instead of to you. You see, I read a couple of books and scraped through a few exams so I know more than you. After all, ‘Father knows best.’ Rubbish! You are as well if not better educated than the us.

We don’t mean it
It’s the official teaching of the Church that you parents are the first and best teachers of your children in raising them to be disciples of Jesus. At the end of the baptism of your child the priest reminds you of this in one of the prayers. Before the final blessing he prays that you ‘may be the best of teachers.’ But all too many pray this with tongue in cheek because your leaders do not implement what they say. What it boils down to is that they do not trust you to be the first and best teachers of your child. Three days after Christmas, on the feast of The Holy Family, Pope Paul VI issued a stern reminder to bishops and priests: ‘Let us learn from Nazareth that the formation received in the home is gentle and irreplaceable.’ Too often they replace it with their subjective brand of teaching because ‘Father knows best!’ They think!


Church leaders are obsessively paternalistic with you just like some of you are over-protective with your children. When you act like that you diminish your child’s confidence in him or herself and he/she grows up with an unhealthy dependence on others. This of course is a recipe for a disastrous life. Instead of letting go of your hand and affirming you in your God-given right to form your child, your leaders take full control. So, from the parish we recruit religious education or Sunday-school teachers to ‘teach’ your child the faith and religion. Catholic schools play an important role in the religious formation of your child. But it must always be a secondary one. Sadly the reverse is true. Because of your low self-esteem you honestly believe you are not qualified to form your child. Your leaders must take responsibility for this, turn things around and restore your birthright.

Taking it slowly
You can see how your leaders project themselves on you and your children. Their seminary training was primarily academic. You could very well say to them ‘It’s all in your head’ and you would be correct! Because they attended lectures and were taught religious subjects this is the only model they know and in turn pass on the same to you and your children. Your leaders do the best with what they have but that does not let them off the hook!


In this respect where do we begin and return to you your birthright? I am the first to admit that it is an enormous challenge and will be a slow process. We cannot expect to undo overnight centuries of paternalism and control. We would be foolish to even think we could. Patience, infinite patience is what you and your leaders need to make any change in this. At the risk of being politically incorrect, I often heard it said growing up that patience is a virtue, always in a woman and never in a man! Well since all leadership is male in the Catholic Church, we better pray for a major miracle!

Being a man and having no patience, I resort to pragmatism, to getting the job done at all cost. Delegation is not my forte as a pastor because all too often it seems to take an eternity to get something done. So I do it myself. It’s far quicker and more efficient. In other words, I am a control freak and can’t let go. You can very well relate to this as parents but who suffers in the end? Your children of course because you don’t trust them and let them learn from their mistakes. Like me, you are perfectionists. You suffer because of my control and never grow up to be adult, mature and confident Catholic parents. It’s amazing how we boast about our perfectionism forgetting that it is sickness known as ‘obsessive compulsiveness.’

The first step in this whole process of change is for Church leaders to believe in you as children of God. To believe that God has equipped you with all the tools you need to be the best teachers of your children. Then they have to help you believe in yourselves because God believes in you. So here we are, you and your leaders, non-believers, making an act of faith! Like your little child taking tiny steps they too, as Jesus tells them, must become like little children: be humble and take small steps in what is a serious conversion process. Here’s where the patience comes in!

You too can do it
The goal is eventually to have no catechists or religious education teachers in our parish communities doing your work for you. This will not happen in our lifetime but we have to be persistent. You, and Church leaders, might well ask if it is at all possible or are we all just dreaming. It is my experience that not only is it possible but it is actually happening. Some parents are assuming full responsibility for forming their children as disciples of Jesus and doing an excellent job. Maybe it is like the mustard seed in the Gospel and that is alright because this is how Jesus began. Small beginnings are precious. Less is more! As the Chinese philosopher Confucius said ‘a thousand miles begins with the first step.’


I am witnessing a big increase in parents home-schooling their children. By this I mean they teach them all the secular subjects along with their religious formation. I personally know families with as many as eight children home-schooling. I can only stand back in wonder and awe when I see how well they do it. When it comes to their Catholic formation they stand head and shoulders above children in Catholic schools and catechism classes. I feel humble and small, and even ashamed, when I listen to their integral confessions. The first time I heard a seven-year-old rattle off the long act of contrition, I nearly fell off my chair! I did it in preparation for my first confession but don’t ask me to remember it now!

One day during the homily at the Eucharist, I asked a group of home-schooled children how many books there are in the bible. Immediately ten-year-old Joseph’s hand shot up: ‘Seventy-three.’ Then I asked how many in the Old Testament and New Testament. His older sister, without hesitation and bubbling with confidence, rattled off: ‘Forty-six in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament.’ The first reading that day was about Jacob and the twelve tribes of Israel. Keep in mind that
Jacob and Israel is the same person. I thought I would push my luck a bit further and asked if anyone could name the twelve tribes. I am not lying, but a sixteen-year-old began naming them; stopped a few times to think and then rhymed them off! I was flabbergasted! Had they turned the question on me, I would have looked at my watch and said we are out of time because I don’t have a clue! And I bet most bishops and priests would have done the same!

Home-schooling families have not surrendered their birthright and are shining examples for you to follow. But it’s not all plain sailing for them. They often get a lot of criticism from parishioners and even from some priests and bishops. We judge them saying they are conservative and narrow-minded. Maybe your leaders are jealous because they don’t depend on them and cannot control them. But they hang in because they believe in themselves and push ahead with confidence. Nobody is going to wrench from them their precious birthright.

Being the best teachers of their children, these parents know them better than anyone else. It is they who tell me when they feel their child is ready for First Confession, Confirmation and First Eucharist. This is exactly how it should be instead of the present practice of herding your children through at a certain age or particular grade. I long for the day when we will get rid of mass-Confirmations and First Communions. Here we are; priests, teachers and catechists telling you when your child should celebrate the sacraments whether or not they know what they are doing. Because we have robbed you of your birthright, we treat you as mere children incapable of doing what you alone do best. You are made to feel insignificant, and instead of being full participators in your child’s celebrations we reduce you to mere spectators.

Confirmation: a misused sacrament
At the risk of being hung out to dry I will say it anyway: bishops have hijacked Confirmation and are robbing your child of their rightful place in the Church. It is the official teaching of the universal Church that the correct order for the celebration of the sacraments is: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. It is also the official teaching that the Eucharist, not confirmation, is the ‘source and summit’ of a Catholic’s life. A handful of courageous bishops are following the correct order and thereby restoring to you your dignity. In my diocese, confirmation and First Eucharist are celebrated in one ceremony. But the vast majority of bishops continue to celebrate confirmation after First Eucharist.


In acting like this the bishops are putting the emphasis on the wrong sacrament and without good reason. In practice, they are saying that confirmation is more important than the Eucharist in your child’s initiation into the church. All this does is sow seeds of confusion. The Eucharist, not confirmation, is the ‘source and summit’ of Catholic life. Bishops have to walk the talk! This means going around the parishes to celebrate your child’s full entry into the church in the celebration of the Eucharist. It is not absolutely essential that the bishop confirm your child. The priests in your parish are already delegated and celebrate confirmation on a regular basis.

Baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are what we call ‘sacraments of initiation’ into the church and one is now a full member. No bishop or priest can put forward a valid theological argument for reversing this order because there is none. What we have in practice is your child, not fully and properly initiated into the church and yet participating in the Eucharist! Leaders use the excuse that it is pastoral and practical. By that I mean, they use confirmation as a weapon to beat you over the head with! That’s putting it crudely but it is true. It’s like holding out the carrot before the donkey! You might as well call it for what it is: bribery! The idea behind this thinking is that in delaying confirmation there is a better chance your child, because he or she is now older, will better understand what they are doing and remain a practising Catholic for life. In this sense it is a bit like an immunization sacrament to prevent them from falling away from the church. You know, I know, we all know this is not the case. Sadly, confirmation is a graduation celebration for most and the next time they will be back is for the wedding! Confirmation must not be treated as a single event in isolation from the other two sacraments as is the practice today.

Less equal than others
When examined closely you will find there is even discrimination at work here. I will explain this with three examples: Your seven-year-old son Johnny is not a Catholic but wants to be. To prepare him we have him join what is known as the RCIC: The Rite of Christian Initiation for Children. It’s the childrens’ version of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Then at the Easter Vigil here’s what happens to Johnny: He is baptized, confirmed and participates fully in the Eucharist for the first time as a fully initiated Catholic!


Then there is your seven-year-old daughter Mary who is a baptized Lutheran and you would like her to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Like Johnny, we put Mary in the RCIC and then at the Easter Vigil she is confirmed and participates fully in the Eucharist for the first time as a fully initiated Catholic. That’s how it should be for all children but, regrettably it is not and here’s where the discrimination kicks in.

Finally, take Susie, a baptized Catholic at a Catholic school or goes to Tuesday night catechism class. Your leaders have unilaterally decided that she should receive First Communion in grade 2 (age seven), and then be confirmed as late as grade six or seven. Recently I heard the confessions of fifteen-year-olds preparing for confirmation! In the RCIC, on the other hand, she would be confirmed and participate fully in the Eucharist right away. As it stands, she receives First Communion in grade two and then waits as long as six or seven years for confirmation! How does this make you feel? Surely, what’s right for one is right for the other. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander! Like everything else in life, the sacraments are gifts from God. We do not, we cannot, earn gifts. We simply receive them. Nor can you demand a gift. We never take the initiative in the sense of starting our relationship with God. It is God who takes the initiative with us. It means that I cannot begin the process in my encounter with God. What we do is respond to God’s graciousness. But when it comes to confirmation the message we give is the opposite: we take the initiative and behave as if we earn it. So we have the children do all kinds of services and projects as the lead up to confirmation. We teach them that it is an adult sacrament and that they are expected to behave accordingly after they are confirmed. The bishop told me that confirmation made me a soldier of Christ and he gave me gentle slap on the cheek as a reminder! Now I was expected to go out and be personally engaged in the work of the church. It was as if an old head was placed on young shoulders! With this kind of thinking confirmation was a graduation into an adult faith.


This attitude stems from our western hyperactive, work-oriented culture that puts all the emphasis on activity and getting things done. We forget that your child was and is a child of God simply by being created by God. Leaders have to learn more about how ‘to be’ rather than ‘to do.’ It is less important ‘to do’ things for Jesus, as preparation for confirmation stresses, and much more important to teach them how ‘to be’ God’s children. Teach them first of all to be receivers and not doers. Tell them what Jesus teaches about who takes the initiative: ‘This is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son’ (1 John 4:10). And: ‘We are to love then because he loved us first’ (1 John 4:19).

Denial of a right
One brave bishop has this strong warning about postponing confirmation to a later age: ‘Unduly delaying confirmation for those who have already celebrated First Eucharist fails to accord the person their proper role in the Eucharistic assembly, the life of the Church, and the strengthening of the sacraments. Worse than that, it could entail a denial of their right within the Church to receive the gift of the sacrament [confirmation] once they have met the conditions required by Canon Law: the age of reason [around age seven] and proper dispositions of soul’ (c. 843). He makes it abundantly clear, in keeping with the teaching of the Church, that there is no excuse for bishops delaying confirmation for your child. To keep doing so is to continue to rob you and your child of your birthright.

Jesus has it right
In Jesus’ day, as in mine growing up in Ireland, a child’s place was to be seen and not heard. When visitors arrived my mother looked at us and delivered her usual orders: ‘Now like good children go out and play.’ Like me, Jesus grew up in a rural setting and a child’s job was to take the animals and find grazing for them. Formal education was not considered a priority and not knowing the Torah, as the adults did, the children remained on the bottom rung of the ladder.

So it is no surprise to read about the disciples chasing away the children who were attracted to Jesus and wanted to be around him. But Jesus, as in so many other ways, dared to be counter-cultural and instead of putting the children in their place, put the grown-ups in their place! Clearly Jesus was on the side of children, marginalized like so many others, and this must have upset the adults, including his disciples. Nobody more than Jesus acknowledged, defended and promoted children’s birthright when others considered them a bit of a nuisance. They were, and are, God’s children par excellence to be loved, and not just tolerated and treated as second-class citizens.

As a master teacher Jesus always seized the opportunity and used the present moment to instruct his disciples and people. This is because he not only lived in the present moment, but he was present to each moment, to the now. In paying attention and noticing, Jesus was fully in touch with his surroundings. On one particular occasion as Jesus welcomed children and the disciples tried to stop them, Jesus hit them with this one-liner: ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:13-16). That must have stopped them in their tracks and made them sit up and think! It’s as if Jesus said something like, `put that in your pipe and smoke it!’


It is very important to remember that when Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God he was not referring to the next life only. The kingdom of heaven is a present reality. It is practical, in the here and now and about being a disciple of Jesus. In fact, Jesus is the kingdom so it is personal and tangible. It would be like Jesus saying, ‘whoever does not receive me as these little children are doing right now cannot be my disciple.’ Being a disciple of Jesus then is about having a trusting, intimate, personal relationship with him and nothing at all to do with having a lot of knowledge about him.
Jesus did not say to the disciples, ‘unless you become educated and learned like the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.’ This whips the rug from under the feet of Church leaders who insist on the priority of education and knowledge before your child can celebrate the sacrament of confirmation. Only the radical and unpredictable Jesus could hold up a child as our model for discipleship. His directive is as valid for us today as it was then. In practice, he does not hold up as models for discipleship priests, bishops, religious, theologians and popes. That may not go down well but it is the truth and sometimes the truth hurts. Because of the appalling child-abuse scandals your leaders are doing their best to reach out to children, to protect, to welcome and to love them. But, according to Jesus, they have to go a step further: they must repent, become like children, and only then will you accept them as credible and trusted leaders.

Teach you to fish
I was a missionary of my day when I headed for South America. The emphasis was on me bringing something to them that they did not have. In this way I acted like the colonists setting out to conquer newly discovered countries. The church actually spoke a similar language like ‘conquering souls for Christ.’ To be fair, that was all we knew and looking back today we did a good job with the little we had. We are learning from our mistakes and don’t speak or act in that superior manner any more. A saying grew up, which reversed our thinking that ‘it is more important to teach people to fish than to give them a fish.’ Missionaries now go as equals, open to receiving as well as giving. You see, God is already there long before us so we do not bring God to people. We help them discover, experience and articulate God’s loving presence in themselves. We are meant to be nurturers. When they pastor like this, missionaries teach the people to fish instead of bringing handouts whether spiritual or material. Looking back over my years I can honestly say I received far more from the people with whom I worked than I could give or imagine.


We need a surge of ‘mission in reverse’ because back on the `auld sod’ your leaders treat you like the colonists did! They have not made a great deal of progress in teaching you to fish. Instead, you are the faithful who are kept dependent because they either don’t know or just don’t accept that God was with you long before they came on the scene! Deep down bishops and priests are convinced that they alone bring God to you and so set about teaching you because, ‘Father knows best!’

How many of the local bishops and priests can honestly say, like the missionaries, that they receive much more from you than they give? I am not talking about the collection! It would make a fascinating survey and I bet we would not at all be surprised by the result! We men feel more comfortable giving than receiving. When we give we remain at a distance from you, in control and are not involved with you. To be a receiver I have to be very humble, admit that I do not have all the answers and that you are graced by God every bit as much as I am. It’s all about letting go of control and trusting you.

Leaders tend to minister to you rather than serve you. By and large we minister mainly out of our heads. There is a place for knowledge of course but when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus, it is almost irrelevant. Ministering from this mindset, leadership reduces the spirituality of discipleship to knowledge. So we hold up and present a God to be understood, which of course is impossible because God is totally beyond our grasp. Stemming from this we present the faith as an object to be grasped so we speak about ‘knowing the faith.’

Bishops and priests would do well to reflect on what faith and belief mean in scripture. Abraham is held up as the great model of faith, not because of how much he knew about God. He is our super mentor because he departed from his homeland and had not a clue where he was going. Biblical faith is more a verb than a noun. The little I remember from my English grammar is that a verb is something active and dynamic. Faith then is personal, alive and active. In Abraham’s case it was his trusting relationship with God that got him moving and kept him going. Not knowledge!

It is the same in the Gospel of John. Faith for John is not about a body of teaching and knowledge. The teacher, Jesus, and not his teaching is always the object of this dynamic personal faith. The word ‘faith’ occurs about a hundred times in John’s Gospel and always as a verb, never as a noun. To believe in Jesus is to have a relationship with him that is active taking the form of discipleship. To have faith in Jesus is not to know about him but to be his intimate friend. Like Abraham, we throw in our tot with him and have no idea where he is taking us. Faith in John is always experiential and never abstract. Faith and relationship always go hand-in-hand.

In presenting God as a concept, we reduce God to a problem to be solved instead of a mystery to be lived. Is it any wonder you fall asleep during our homilies! Like the husband, with his head leaning on his wife’s shoulder snoozing during the homily. The priest couldn’t handle it any more when he began snoring so he yelled down, ‘madam, wake up your husband.’ To which she shot back, ‘you wake him up, you put him to sleep.’ And like the priest who was being complimented for his homily in humble reply regretted, ‘I should have put more fire into it,’ to which an alert passing parishioner quipped, ‘you should have put it all in the fire.’

Then there’s the priest who is off to the races and catches fire when he preaches on his favourite topic about which he seems to know a lot: sex! The more he went on about the sins of the flesh the higher the decibel count soared! As a mother made her way out with her crying baby, he called down, ‘madam, you don’t have to leave. The baby is not upsetting me.’ ‘But you are upsetting the baby,’ she shouted back to him!

You are screaming out at your leaders and they are not listening. You are like the people in the Gospel who went up to Philip with the request, ‘we want to see Jesus’ (John 12:21). Philip was a close follower and friend of Jesus and they knew instinctively he was their man to put them in touch. They were very clear and specific about what they wanted: a relationship with Jesus, not knowledge about him. In my experience you are like them: thirsting and hungering fora personal relationship with Jesus, but your leaders offer you mere knowledge about him.

Did you ever hear of a young man or woman going alone to marriage preparation courses not even having dated anyone? Of course not. The relationship comes first where they get to know each other. Later on they study the facts about married life. Surely it is far more important to know the teacher than his teaching. It’s like Jimmy at university. At a parent-day gathering, his dad sidled up to his professor who was top notch and always had full classes. `My son Jimmy is your student,’ said the proud father. The professor pondered for a while. ‘Ah yes. I know Jimmy. He attends my lectures but he is no student of mine.’

Discipleship is all about being a student of Jesus and less about listening to lectures on him. You want to be his student. But your leaders keep you attending classes! And of course you never graduate! When, like Philip, you say to them you want to see Jesus, what do they say? ‘Hold on. We need to call a meeting and set up a special committee to look into it!’ Jesus, discipleship and the Gospel have this one thing in common: they are utterly simple, but not easy. For the most part, bishops and priests have obscured this simplicity by reducing them to a body of knowledge and a religion. They should be as equipped as Jesus was when the apostles asked him to teach them to pray. Say, ‘Our Father….’ was his instant reply. Elaborating on this Jesus asked them: ‘What father would give his child a stone when be/she asked for bread, or a snake when they asked for a fish?’ Is it your experience that your leaders are giving you bread and fish, meaning, introducing you to the person of Jesus? What do they offer you in their Sunday homilies?


When was the last time you heard them really and truly proclaiming Jesus? They are experts on talking about the church, religion, the faith and the sacraments. But Jesus? I have yet to hear of any parishioner writing to his or her priests and bishop complaining: ‘I am tired of hearing you talk about Jesus Sunday after Sunday.’ Now that would be a great compliment!

There is no question but we need to establish our priorities and put the horse before the cart! A good place for Church leaders to start would be to take a lesson from the very first days of the early church. Just like in every parish, people complained then as they do today! Theirs’ was about the allocation of food to widows. One group felt they were being overlooked so they took it to the Twelve, the apostles. Now these may not have been the sharpest knives in the drawer but they had oodles of common sense!

Knowing how to delegate, they called the people together and here’s what they proposed: ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God to wait on table. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves, seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task. We, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word'(Acts 6:2-4). The community chose seven and the apostles ordained them as deacons to look after the widows.

This is an overwhelming example of respecting your birthright. Notice how the apostles trusted, consulted and listened to the people they served. They affirmed their people as equals and called them to play their rightful role in the early church. They then honoured their choice of the seven men they prayerfully selected and ordained them the first deacons. Isn’t this a delightful example of what I mean by teaching you to fish? In effect they said we are not going to do anything you can and should be doing. They put into practice what we call today the principle of ‘collaboration’ without ever having heard of the term! I guess it came naturally to them. Indeed the apostles were great fishermen in more than one sense of the word!

In acting like this the apostles hold up to your leaders a model of leadership that we pretty well have abandoned. Their priorities are way out of sync. Far too many priests and bishops are mainly administrators but that is not their primary vocation. They are busybodies rushing from one meeting to another. I would like to include in the prayers of the faithful throughout the world the following: ‘From all meetings; Lord deliver us!’ I once heard an excellent definition of a meeting: ‘A meeting is where minutes are kept and hours are lost!’ How true!

You, and quite rightly, look to your leaders to be a Philip in your lives: to show you Jesus. You want them to be gurus or spiritual directors but they prefer to be administrators. When are they going to hand over the administration to you and, like the apostles, spend their days in prayer and studying the word of God? This would be another step in affirming you in your God-given birthright. After all it is your money and you have a right, and duty, to see it is put to good use in the diocese and parish. After all, the one who pays the piper should call the tune!

Part of the decision-making
Another way to affirm you in your birthright is to involve you in the process of sending one of yourselves to the seminary. Also, in having some say in the appointment of your priests and selection of your bishop. The apostles could have taken it upon themselves to select the seven deacons but they did not. Their exclusion of the people would have been an abuse of power. When a man from your parish indicates he is thinking about being a priest, those of you who know him well should be consulted. As it stands it is the parish priest who often knows little about him and the seminary staff who recommend him for ordination.


While you cannot always expect to get the priest you personally like, at least there should be some dialogue about the kind of priest who can meet the needs of your particular parish. Each parish is somewhat different and without consultation leadership can end up putting round pegs into square holes. When it comes to appointing a bishop to your diocese, neither you nor your priests have any say at all but you have to live with him! It is all so very secretive. Like an arranged marriage! I don’t quite know how it works but I gather the names of three priests end up in Rome and then the pope appoints one. Not only would it give you your rightful place but, it would be a very healthy practice if things were more transparent.

Every future bishop is personally known to a lot of parishioners and you know far more about him than the papal nuncio and pope. Had you been involved at the various levels of decision-making, maybe we would have headed off the terrible sex-abuse scandals. While the church is not a total democracy, you have inherent God-given rights that leaders fail to acknowledge, encourage and develop.

I believe it is not so much bad will on their part but fear, that keeps you on the outside looking in and not involved. They are scared to let go of control and this suggests insecurity. They are frightened that if given an inch you will take a mile! Isn’t it sad that they see you, the people of God, the Church, their very brothers and sisters, a threat instead of an asset! Instead of welcoming you as co-workers for Jesus, they adopt the business-like model of employer and employee. They hold the power! Ian Paisley’s familiar defiant slogan, ‘no surrender,’ has had a lasting impact on them!

Your leaders over-exaggerate the thinking that they are fully responsible for you. To be sure, they do have a measure of responsibility but they must not develop a messianic complex and play God. You are God’s people first and they must never forget that. The homilist pulled no punches in reminding my bishop of this at his ordination. Looking him right in the eye he said: `Remember, the people of this diocese are God’s people first.’ He could draw his own conclusions! When commissioning Peter, Jesus did not say, ‘Feed your lambs; feed your sheep.’ Rather, `Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.’ We are first and foremost his and no religious leader must engage in sheep-stealing!

Jesus is the only way
Bishops and priests rooted and grounded in Jesus are free people. Like a sunflower, they have to be daily turning towards him who drives out fear and insecurity. This involves spending time with him in prayer following the example of the apostles. As the late Pope John Paul II repeatedly reminded all of us, including your leaders, we need to have a ‘fresh encounter with Jesus’ and, `contemplate the face of Christ.’


The year 2008 was dedicated to St. Paul the apostle. Nobody proclaimed Jesus better than Paul, pure and simple. Hopefully something of Paul’s excitement, single-mindedness and enthusiasm that Jesus be proclaimed in season and out of season, has rubbed off on your leaders. Pope John Paul I lived for just a month. But he will be remembered for what he said to Cardinal Bernardin Gantin on the day before he died in 1978: ‘It is Jesus Christ alone we must present to the world. Outside of this, we have no reason to exist.’ Wouldn’t it be great if your leaders made this their mantra! Much more recently in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, made a similar strong invitation: ‘If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.’ Only when we let him into our lives, will we be a Philip for you and be able to lead you to see Jesus.

Having done a bit of riding as a teenager, I know that a steeplechase jockey’s worst nightmare is to have a loose horse around him as he approaches a five-foot birch fence at thirtymiles-an-hour. Without his jockey the horse is totally unpredictable galloping in and out between the rest causing chaos. Within a few strides of the fence he often changes his mind and runs to the side carrying out one or more with him. It means of course you are disqualified and have to pull up, maybe when you would have easily won. But it is much worse if he carries you crashing through the wing of the fence and it is one of the nastiest falls in steeplechasing. Murphy had a horse like that who would be a mile ahead and lose the race by running out at the last fence. His friend, Casey, had the perfect solution: ‘Put a few lumps of lead in his left ear,’ and that would cure him once and for all. ‘And what do I use to do that,’ asked a delighted Murphy. ‘Your gun,’ replied Casey!

All too often your leaders are like that loose horse. I am not suggesting you put a few lumps of lead in their left ear! When bishops and priests lose sight of Jesus, inevitably they lose their way in ministry. Like the horse who doesn’t keep a straight course, they are all over the place because they have lost their focus. A leader without Jesus and a horse without a jockey have something in common. Losing sight of Jesus they resort to being administrators, producers, workaholics and simply ‘doers.’ Naturally this rubs off on you and, like the loose horse; they carry you with them into a spirituality characterized by activity. You would not be far out if you described us as loose cannons!

No amount of work and ‘doing’ will enhance your relationship with Jesus or bring you closer to God. However, they lead you to believe that you have to ‘gain’ salvation, ‘work at’ your relationship with God; that you have to ‘earn’ God’s love and that you must ‘merit’ eternal life. To teach this is to be guilty of a heresy that was condemned by the church around four hundred years after Jesus. Your relationship with God is always and primarily a matter of ‘being.’ You are a child of God and a loved sinner simply because you exist and so ‘being’ is your primary status before God. Whatever you ‘do’ is your response to God’s free gift and never an effort to earn, gain, merit or work at anything.

Asking the right question
Just about very parent, asks his/her child the same question: `What do you want to do when you grow up?’ It’s the wrong question. But you can hardly blame them because they are immersed in a culture that has only one goal in life that is expressed in success, power and productivity. Right from an early age children are taught to identify with these to the point that the whole meaning and purpose of life revolves around them. They believe that it is in them alone they will find their self-worth and develop a good self-image. This convinces them that they are only as good as they are successful, powerful, and highly productive, but this is an impossible ideal to live up to as you and I know too well. They are driven by ‘doing.’ You and your leaders have all been there!


The correct question parents should be asking is: ‘Who do you want to be when you grow up?’ This is a personal and value-oriented question that does not look to being a ‘doer’ for one’s identity. Knowing you are a child of God and a loved sinner, you, parents already have your identity. Since you are the best of teachers, this rubs off on your children and in turn they experience their identity through you. Because you affirm them, love them for who they are and not for what they do, they are at home in their own skin as it were. They do not need to go after success, power and production for their self-worth. As they grow up they might articulate their answer to your question somewhat like this: ‘I would like to contribute something to humankind in gratitude for all I have received and leave the planet a better place than I found it. In the workplace I want to be known as a person of integrity who can be trusted to give an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.’ Because of their healthy self-image men and women like this are able to look outside themselves and are unlikely to be drawn into a culture of me-ism.

You have probably come to your own conclusion by now that ‘Father does not know everything!’ Unfortunately, since your leaders tend to be more into ‘doing’ than ‘being’ they ask the wrong question. They are victims of an inadequate seminary formation that led them to believe they had all the answers and therefore have no questions! An honest training would have sent them out with more questions than answers. Because bishops and priests often have a low self-esteem, they lose themselves in their work and like to boast about how busy they are and how much they ‘do.’ Have you ever noticed when you ask them, ‘how are you?’ they reply with what is now their mantra, ‘oh, I am so busy with all I have to do.’ Of course they are bragging, not complaining!

Shepherding you from this shallowness, they keep you living life from a finite instead of an infinite horizon. There is a saying, ‘like father like son,’ (‘like mother like daughter’), meaning we imitate who we see. You do the same and mimic your leaders, ‘like leader like parishioners,’ so that yours also is a spirituality of ‘doing.’ We substitute a relationship with Jesus for activity. Doing good things of course, but here is where the good becomes the enemy of the best. The main sin of good people, including religious leaders, is that we settle for the good.

It’s the same as the spouse asked to describe her relationship, say as a wife: ‘I hold down a full-time job because I want the best for my children. On the weekends I do the laundry, the housecleaning and get the groceries. I am a good mother, can cook a decent meal and keep the house spotless.’ Now you cannot fault her on that! But, recall what Jesus said to the man desperate to follow him: ‘There is one thing lacking.’ Likewise, there is one thing missing in this description: her husband and their relationship. No mention at all! Here’s an example of being asked
the right question and giving the wrong answer!

Your leaders sell you short when, in their complacency, they keep you as ‘good’ Catholics. They fail to bring the best out of you and to help you to become the great people God calls you to be. They fail in assisting you to develop your full potential as a child of God and loved sinner. The ‘good’ leaders they are, and with the best of intentions, nevertheless, they strip you of your birthright. Like old Pharaoh they keep you in bondage in Egypt. It is time that they acted like Moses: go down into Egypt, lead you out so that you can taste the freedom that goes with being God’s beloved children. This would be returning your birthright to you.

Giving the right answer
One Moses-like shepherd you can admire, and rely on to bat for you, is the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin. He is a fearless leaving no stone unturned till full justice is done in the Irish sex-abuse scandal. He is a breath of fresh air, fully transparent and calls for the same from his brother bishops. In his homily on New Year’s Day he clearly demonstrated that he has his finger on the pulse of the leadership of the church in Ireland. `God,’ he said, ‘is the one who protects. Too often we have turned that God into one who judges; who judges almost behind our back, keeping note only of our failings and misdeeds. Our readings remind us that God is one who blesses and protects and is gracious to us.’ Such lavish affirmation like this must feel like music to your ears! This is the God whose child you are, who loves you warts and all, not for what you do but simply for who you are.


The archbishop holds his fellow bishops and priests responsible for the harsh images of God they present, along with a model of church based more on power than service. Their actions, more than any other factor, contribute to the drop-off in church attendance, particularly among the young. He continued: ‘I am convinced that so many young people reject God because they have never been presented with the true God; God the friend and protector, rather than a judge. “They reject a God of the church” because the church structures and many believers so often do not witness to God, as God reveals himself. We have built false models of God and we have built false models of church which become ideology or rule book or power structure rather than the place where, in our vacillation, we can turn to a God who is always faithful and who will bless us and protect us.’ The archbishop raises you up to your proper status and challenges priests and bishops to do likewise. For this to happen your leaders will need to have a radical change of mindset. With leaders like the archbishop I am very hopeful. May you be as well.

Give it less thought
There is a lot of truth in the popular saying that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus.’ My interpretation of this is that men are more thinkers and women are more feelers. Not absolutely of course because both sexes area mixture of thinking and feeling. We call this our anima and animus. Men tend to live mainly from their animus, their maleness, and do not get in touch with their anima, their femaleness. The reverse is the case with women: it is their anima, their femaleness, which predominates, while their maleness, their animus is often less developed.

Your leaders argue from a biblical and theological perspective why they exclude women from ordination. But there is no valid reason for excluding them from administration and decision-making. The truth is that women are a thorn in the side of most bishops and priests. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me quickly clarify! We men cannot deal with women too close to us, primarily because they are constant and persistent reminders of something we do not want to deal with: our feelings or emotions. It’s not that we do not like women. Rather, it is what women stir up in us and remind us of that we do not like in ourselves. So if we keep them at a distance our problem will go away – so we wrongly think!

It goes without saying that men in general, particularly in the western world, find it difficult to admit they have feelings. We live in a kind of denial because our culture teaches us it is the manly thing to do. Living this lie makes it almost impossible for us to share our feelings or express our emotions. After all, ‘big men don’t cry’ is what we were taught from childhood. Since the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are all male we have men, who, because of our training and inadequate appreciation of celibacy, can be like blocks of ice! There are exceptions of course but for the most part your leaders are not comfortable with their emotions. Apart from the obstacles it presents in leading you to an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, it is downright unhealthy.

Sad to say but we men have such a warped view of our feelings that we do not trust them. I can only lay the blame here at the feet of priests and bishops for the poor education we were given. The result is that many, if not most of us, go around with a guilt-complex simply because we have emotions! Our malformed conscience tells us that feelings are dangerous and even sinful, certainly not to be accepted and appreciated.

Mr. Duffy’s problem
In his short story, ‘A Painful Case’ from Dubliners, James Joyce hits the nail on the head in describing the problem men have with their feelings. He dramatizes it so well in the story of the narcissistic Mr. Duffy who flirts asexually with Mrs. Sinico: ‘He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature.’ When the relationship moves from intellectual to physical, when Mrs. Sinico clutches his hand to her cheek, he flees, and when she is again overcome with emotion he exits with thoughts of his own preservation: ‘Fearing another collapse, he bade her good-bye quickly and left her.’ Mrs. Sinico later takes to drink and is mowed down by a train.


Mrs. Sinico was a mirror in which the narcissistic Mr. Duffy, could see no further than his own face, and a means by which he proves to himself his intellectual strength. The limits he placed on the relationship ensured that he remained securely in charge. His relationship with Mrs. Sinico was conducted in the same way he lived his life. He lived at a distance from his emotions and failed to take the opportunity to discover anything that might contradict the image of himself. We, men, are Mr. Duffy living at a distance from our feelings. Consequently, as leaders, we are severely handicapped. The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), offers male leaders help and points us in the right direction when he writes, ‘all our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling.’

The truth is that feelings, emotions, do not have any morality at all. Feelings just are. It is what we do, how we act on our feelings that is right or wrong. We could say they are negative or positive but that does not give them any moral value. To be sure, I was not taught this at home or in school. Neither did I hear it in the seminary where we studied moral theology but I never heard a thing about feelings having no morality! Come to think of it, neither staff nor students spoke about feelings. Personal stuff like this was taboo to be avoided like the plague! It is like the novice master teaching the young religious about the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. He spent three months on obedience. One on poverty and a day on chastity!

Since feelings have no morality, there is no such thing as a good or a bad feeling. Your leaders’ thinking and attitude do not bear this out when you look at how we live, speak and act. As long as religious leaders behave like this they will continue to live in bondage, fear and guilt, and not experience the freedom of being a child of God and a loved sinner. When they do come to accept the truth they find a heavy burden lifted and replaced with joy, freedom and deep inner peace. How right Jesus was when he said ‘the truth will set your free.’

Since leaders function mainly from their heads, they make the perennial mistake of teaching you the truth. Because they fill your head with a lot of facts, you now have the truth, they think. But all you end up with is a headache! The truth of the matter is that biblical truth is less about acquiring, but more about discovering the truth already revealed to us. What you need is an open heart to accept and embrace it and then you experience freedom.

Not having arrived at this level of freedom bishops and priests are unable to live comfortable emotional lives and be at home with their feelings. So they escape into their heads and it’s no wonder we say men are from Mars! That’s how remote your leaders can be from real life! Men are primarily thinkers and proud of the fact (lie) that only thought matters. It is from this limited level that your leaders minister to you and of course they believe it is the be-all and end-all of life! For men, your leaders, thought reigns supreme!

The brilliant Saint Augustine, had more than a few brains to burn! He was an intellectual genius and a prolific writer. However important thought was for him he was wise enough to know it had limitations. He wrote:

‘Enter then into your heart
and if you have faith you will find Christ there.
There He speaks to you.
I, the preacher must raise my voice,
But He instructs you more effectively
in the silence.
I speak in sounding words.
He speaks within. ‘

Feelings and Christmas
There is an important connection between feelings and Christmas. It keeps us from being too abstract about God. This occurred to me because I am writing during the Christmas season which, by the way, is from Christmas-eve to January 11, the Baptism of The Lord, and not from October to Christmas-day! Yesterday, January 5, I had my hair cut and the barber asked how my Christmas was. ‘I am still celebrating,’ I replied, and she was nonplus! Her response to my explanation was, ‘well you learn something new every day!’ I figured ninety-nine per cent of the population would say the same.


The very message of Christmas is that God became human in Jesus. God is no longer a thought, an idea, but is flesh and blood in the person of Jesus. Now if God is comfortable with being fully human, feelings and all, how come we men are reluctant to embrace the fullness of our humanity? Saint Irenaeus was born around the year 130 AD, and later became bishop of what is now Lyons, in France. Evidently he was a fully rounded man, not corpulent, because of his famous saying: ‘The glory of God is man [people] fully alive.’ Now you cannot be fully alive only in your head! We are the glory of God when we live what we call ‘holistic’ lives. This means fully integrating our thoughts with our bodies and feelings in a deep gratitude for God’s gift to us. Like love and marriage, and horse and carriage, they must always go together!

‘It is of little consequence whether God exists or became incarnate if he does not come to birth in the soul,’ warns the German mystic, Meister Eckhart. One way that God comes to birth in our souls is when we, men in particular, do as God did: become fully human. Writing and preaching about the existence of God and the incarnation are useless, if they are not transforming every fibre of our being. When God is born in my body as well as my mind, then it is no longer speculation or mere theory. Rather, I write and speak from experience about God and the incarnation. We call this incarnational’ theology. Down-to-earth theology! This is precisely what you want to hear from your bishops and priests: who God is for us, and what God is doing in our lives. You want less preaching and more witnessing. You want more feeling and less thinking!

Nobody did it better than Jesus. Literally, he was down to earth when it came to embracing his humanity. He was at home with his feelings, in touch with them and was not embarrassed to express them. He wept openly in full public view on hearing of the death of his good friend, Lazarus. Jesus had a very close relationship with his two sisters, Martha and Mary. He was angry with the people buying and selling in the temple. Fearful of the next day, on his knees in the garden, he cried out to God to spare him. Jesus didn’t minister to his people merely out of his head. Many times the Gospel writers tell us how Jesus ‘had compassion for the people.’ He felt their pain and hunger. He felt sorry for them because they were lost, like sheep without a shepherd. Like the rest of us, he felt tired and fell asleep in the boat of one of his disciples.

The best is below
When thought reigns supreme in your leaders they are like icebergs, not only in the sense that they are cold and insensitive, but because only one-tenth of the iceberg is visible while nine-tenths are below the surface. So often they present themselves in reverse: the best, they believe, is in their heads. The truth, however, is that the best is below. Thinking keeps us on the surface, and as long as we stay there we do not put down deep roots. We may have a lot of knowledge but to be wise leaders we must go below. Nobody can argue their way into wisdom and relationships. Instead, we feel our way like we do when we hunt for the candles in a power-outage!


There is what we call ‘pre-conceptual’ knowledge that is more akin to wisdom. Conceptual knowledge is what we are aware of or conscious of. We so much associate this with our ego that many believe it is the most important part of who we are. On the contrary, our ego is only the one-tenth of the iceberg that we are! Pre-conceptual knowledge on the other hand lies deep beyond our awareness, our ego, and is experienced rather than known. Knowledge and thought tend to feed our ego, and it follows that your leaders nourish your ego instead of your spirit. When we lead from this level, we put all our energy into convincing, educating, persuading and talking you into discipleship with little success.

The writer, Joseph Campbell, suggests a much better approach: ‘Preachers err when they talk people into belief. Better they reveal the radiance of their own discovery.’ You know too well from Sunday homilies that you come alive when priests and bishops share something of their own experiences of who Jesus is for them, and what he is doing in their lives. This is where there is a meeting of hearts, as opposed to minds, and you can relate to them because they are sharing from the nine-tenths of the iceberg where we all have more in common. And it is this quality of affirmation that confirms you in your birthright.

Experience superior to thought
Although it is more than fifty years ago, the first time I sat on a thoroughbred steeplechaser is as fresh in my memory today as then. I had just ust begun my apprenticeship with one of the greatest jockeys of all times, Pat Taaffe, who won the English Grand National the year before on Quare Times. Since Pat was still riding, it was illegal for him to be training in the first place along with taking me on as an apprentice. In those days the Irish Turf Club did not permit professional jockeys to train. However, as in everything else in life, there are ways of getting around trivial things like that! By the way, your leaders do the same! There is no precept in Canon Law that a good canon lawyer cannot circumvent! Maybe I am telling tales out of school!


Pat’s father trained not far away in Rathcoole. When Pat ran a horse in a race it went to his father’s stables the day before so his father was the legitimate trainer in the eyes of the Irish Turf Club. So all was a kind of above-board! It was his father too who applied to the ITC to have me apprenticed, so again all seemed legal! But in fact it was with Pat that I served my time – as an apprentice jockey that is, not in prison!

One day after the horses came in from exercising, and tired, Pat called me and without any introduction took my left leg and hoisted me onto the gigantic Overseer! I felt like I was sitting on Mount Everest! He was a beautiful chestnut with four white socks and blaze. After lowering the stirrups, all the instructions I got was, ‘hold on tight and jog him up and down the lane till I call you.’

This was my first experience of riding a thoroughbred! Since my father rode, maybe I was born a jockey, because I quickly got in sync with Overseer’s trotting rhythm: up down, up down, instead of being bounced all over the place which is hard on the rear end! The saddle too kept pace with the rhythm as the leather squeaked each time I came down on it like a child pressing a squeaky toy! Like the rest after galloping and jumping, Overseer was sweating profusely. Unlike humans’ B.O., his did not trouble me at all! On the contrary, I soon associated sweating horses with my first ride and the two always went together.

From the first time I watched Pat ride I admired him and longed for the day when I might imitate him. Day and night I thought about it and when my turn came I was ecstatic, and a little nervous! What I have learned since is that thought and experience are as different as night and day. You cannot think your way into experience. You feel it. Neither do you plan experience. Also, experience is like a gift: you do not possess it. Rather, it is given to you and always surprises you. In this sense experience is something done to us. Imagine if I demanded that I ride Overseer! Pat would have chased me out of the yard with a pitchfork! Since that first ride was unplanned by me it came as a great surprise. Pat was the donor and I was the receiver. I should tell you that soon after when I rode Overseer before he was galloped by Pat, he buried me in the ground! My first of many falls!

The Irish writer, John O’Donohue, is emphatic that experience is gift: ‘Because we tend to see our experience as a product, we have lost the ability to be surprised by experience. It is interesting how contemporary English has the phrase “to have an experience,” with the suggestion of possession, property and ownership. In the folk culture of the Celtic Imagination, experience was not a thing to be produced or to be owned. For the Celtic Imagination the focus was more on the experience as
participation in something more ultimate than one’s needs, projections or ego: it was the sacred arena in which the individual entered into contact with the eternal. Experience in this sense was an event of revelation. In such a world, experience was always lit by spirit; the mind was not a closed compartment “processing” its own private impressions, the mind always had at least one window facing the eternal’ (1).

Experience is an epiphany, an awakening, always practical, and hands-on. You do not apply for a job that calls for experience unless you can give practical examples of the work you did. Alas, but it’s not so with your leaders! You are saddled with us for better or for worse! The only experience required of us is that we ‘know’ a bit of theology, scripture, canon law, administration and never, ever forget the collection! Whether or not we have integrated them is irrelevant. I have yet to hear of a bishop or priest being asked for his experience of Jesus, of prayer, of mystical theology and of meditation, before he is appointed to a parish or diocese! So what you get are leaders with heads full of thought and lives empty of experience. Meanwhile, you are demanding, ‘don’t tell me what you think but show me by your experience.’ After all, a picture is worth a thousand words!

The same writer, John O’Donohue, is perfectly in tune with your yearning and describes you well: ‘We grow increasingly deaf to the worn platitudes of staid authority. Their forced, didactic tones no longer reach our need. Now we want the experience itself, not the analysis or the membership card to some new syndrome. Notions of self-improvement have become banal and wearisome. The zealots of analysis have become blind’ (2). Leaders are like a broken record when they minister to you only from thought. Words do not set you on fire even when we preach a hell-fire sermon! We have to embody thought to the point it takes on flesh, and then we speak from experience.

Thought appeals more to us because we are men and men love to argue about, debate and defend religion. We have no problem whatsoever telling you what we think but when you ask us how we feel about a certain issue we don’t even attempt to answer the question! Invariably we reply, ‘well, I think….’ The Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, said somewhere that ‘religion is a defence against the experience of God.’ When leaders marry religion and thought together, they become an obstacle to a relationship with Jesus. It’s like being near the church and far from God!

Another writer makes the clear distinction between the search for meaning and the experience of meaning. When we engage in the search for meaning we are essentially into thought processing. There is a place for this so long as we do not put all our eggs in the one basket, which your leaders tend to do. Standing at the side of the swimming pool thinking about jumping in, doesn’t get you wet! It is a whole different dynamic to get involved with the experience of meaning. Here we are no longer thinking but applying it and living it in daily life. When you take the plunge then you experience the frigid water!

Birthmother and godmother
Since leaders operate primarily from a power mindset, they truly believe that they put you in a relationship with God. This is not true. You came into this world already in an intimate relationship with God because it cannot be otherwise. As someone once said, `if we came from somewhere we had to be somewhere.’ And that somewhere was in the mind of God. God then is our birthmother. The church as institution is our godmother. As is so often the case, bishops and priests reverse the roles. By the way, the primary role of godparents at baptism is to help the parents raise their child as a disciple of Jesus. Therefore, the parents not the child, is to be their prime responsibility. Unfortunately, this is not the case and the result is that all the attention is given to the child.


Jesus made it abundantly clear that the role of leaders, the godmothers, is to serve you, the people of God. Unlike us, he did not just talk about it. He put it into action because actions speak louder than words and a picture is worth a thousand words! In his culture only slaves and servants washed peoples’ feet. This is exactly what he did at a meal with his disciples just before he died. And his parting orders were that they must imitate him. Clearly then, to lead is to serve. Your leaders, according to Jesus, are servants! In practice, we treat you as the servants even though you are ninety-nine per cent of the Church! We reverse things so that the majority serves the minority!

Because your priests and bishops view you as not having all the tools of the trade as it were, and so are not well equipped, they think, you have to lean on and depend totally on them. They believe they have all the answers and come across as superior to you. Keeping you in this state of dependence and bondage makes you feel inferior and scared to take any initiative. Only when they are humble enough to admit that, like you, they do not have all the answers and are also searching, will you warm to them. An ancient Sanskrit verse assures leaders that it – is okay to be ignorant:

He who thinks he knows
doesn’t know.
He who knows that he doesn’t know knows.
For in this context
to know is not to know
And not to know is to know.

With the stigma that went with adoption quickly disappearing, greater effort is made to put the child in touch with his or her birthmother. Thanks to studies in child psychology we believe this is healthy and must be encouraged. Since your leaders are godmothers, not your parents, it is their responsibility to put you in touch with your birthmother: God. In this sense a good description of a leader is ‘one who makes the introduction.’ You see this at functions like weddings where the two families and their friends are introduced to each other. Leaders must take their cue from John the Baptist who saw his mission as that of introducing people to Jesus and letting them go: ‘Look,’ said John to his two followers, ‘there is the lamb of God.’ Hearing this, the two disciples followed Jesus (John 1:36). Good leaders are always working themselves out of a job!


Prayer of affirmation and gratitude
The people who wrote the psalms were not learned theologians but ordinary everyday folk, responding as best they could to God’s love. They had such trust that when they were angry with God they expressed it in the form of a prayer. When they were happy they did likewise. Psalm 139 is a beautiful prayer of gratitude that you can make your own in thanksgiving for your birthright:

O Lord, you search me and you know me,
you know my resting and my rising,
you discern my purpose from afar
You mark when I walk or lie down,
all my ways lie open to you.
Before ever a word is on my tongue
you know it, O Lord, through and through.
Behind and before you besiege me,
your hand ever laid upon me.
Too wonderful for me this knowledge,
too high beyond my reach.
O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there,
If I lie in the grave you are there.
If I take the winds of the dawn
and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me,
your right hand would hold me fast.
If I say: ‘Let the darkness hide me
and the light around me be night,
even darkness is not dark for you
and the night is as clear as the day.
For it was you who created my being,
knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you for the wonder of my being,
for the wonder of all your creation.
Already you knew my soul,
my body held no secret from you
when I was being fashioned in secret
and moulded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw all my actions,
they were all of them written in your book;
every one of my days was decreed
before one of them came into being.
To me, how mysterious your thoughts,
the sum of them not to be numbered!
If I count them, they are more than the sand;
to finish, I must be eternal, like you.
O search me, God, and know my heart.
O test me and know my thoughts.
See that I follow not the wrong path
and lead me in the path of life eternal.

1 John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, 132
2 Ibid., 30

Chapter 2


Best-kept secret
Imagine a pharmaceutical company has had the cure for cancer for the past fifty years but will not release the drug. They keep all this knowledge to themselves while people die every day from cancer. You would feel angry with them and rightly so for withholding what the world desperately needs. It’s not stretching the imagination too far to think that your leaders are acting in a similar fashion. We are keeping to ourselves a best-kept secret that you have a right to know: You can experience God now. My goal here is to help you believe this and then show you how you can experience God now.

You, and every Catholic whether single, married, separated, bad or good, educated or illiterate can experience God right now. Not in some distant future but at this very moment as you read. I am not saying that you can know God but that you can experience God. There is no elite spirituality for the chosen few. Nor are their degrees of spirituality that you have to work your way through like going from primary to university level of education. However, you are unaware of this and are kept in the dark because your leaders have not released a best-kept secret! On the contrary, they have so complicated spirituality over the centuries to the point that you, the laity, are somewhere down the field in the ‘also ran!’ I hear you saying that you didn’t even get in the race at all!

A third-best spirituality
My uncle Peter and aunt Nelly were exemplary Catholics whom I admired immensely. Naturally I didn’t know then what I know now. They used to tell us a lot about the Third Order of the Franciscans to which they belonged. As in so many other areas of church, it was hierarchical with the priests belonging to the First


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