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Pastoral ministry for today: Who do you say that I am? Conference papers 2008

30 November, 1999

How to minister in contemporary Irish society is the question addressed by the articles in this interesting book edited by St Patrick’s Missionary Fr Thomas Grenham. Topics include the roles of conversation, presence, systems theory, supervision and reading the signs of the times play in pastoral ministry.

127 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


Preface – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Introduction: Who do you say that I am? – Thomas G. Grenham

  1. Pastoral care in the global village – Timothy Radcliffe
  2. The intercultural reality of pastoral presence – Thomas G. Grenham
  3. The pastoral context as a living system: implications for theology and practice – Anne Codd
  4. Supervision: quality in pastoral ministry – Michael Carroll

Conclusion: Looking to the future – Bairbre de Búrca


Thomas G. Grenham SPS, Ph.D., is the Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Head of the Department of Pastoral Theology at the Milltown Institute, Dublin. He teaches courses on pastoral /practical theology, mission theology and ministry. He has broad experience in ministry, having worked in many parishes in different parts of the world. A member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, he served as a missionary for many years among the Turkana of Kenya. He received his interdisciplinary Ph.D. in theology and education from Boston College, Massachusetts, in 2002 and a Masters in Pastoral Ministry at the same university. His publications include The Unknown God: Religious and Theological Interculturation (Peter Lang, 2005).

Timothy Radcliffe OP was born in London in 1945. He joined the English Province of the Dominican Order in 1965, and was ordained a priest in 1971. He studied at Blackfriars and at St John’s College in Oxford, and in Paris. He was a chaplain to the University of London from 1974-76, before returning to Oxford, where he taught scripture and doctrine for twelve years. Besides teaching and preaching, he was involved in the peace movement and in ministry to people with AIDS. He was Prior of Oxford from 1982-88, when he was elected Provincial of the English Province. He was President of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors. In 1992 he was elected Master General of the Order, finishing his term in 2001. He was Chancellor of the Angelicum University in Rome, S.Tomas in Manila, the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and the Theology Faculty in Fribourg. He is now an itinerant preacher and lecturer, based at Blackfriars, Oxford, spending two-thirds of the year travelling, and is on the board of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. In 2007 he was awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing, and his most recent book is Why Go to Church? (Continuum, 2008).

Michael Carroll, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, a chartered counselling psychologist and a BACP senior registered practitioner. He is an accredited executive coach and an accredited supervisor of executive coaches with the Association for Professional Executive Coaches and Supervisors. He is also Visiting Industrial Professor in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. In 2001 Michael was the winner of the British Psychological Society Award for Distinguished Contributions to Professional Psychology. His books include Integrative Approaches to Supervision (edited with Margaret Tholstrup, 2001); On Being a Superviser: Creating Learning Partnerships (with Maria Gilbert, 2005); and Becoming an Executive Coach (with Maria Gilbert, 2008).

Anne Codd PBVM, Ph.D., a native of Wexford, is a Presentation Sister. She currently works as resource person for the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development. Anne’s undergraduate studies in science and theology paved the way for an abiding interest in a Living Systems approach to social, educational and ecclesial contexts. Having ministered for fifteen years in secondary-level schools in Ireland and the UK, Anne pursued her graduate studies at the University of Liverpool, focusing on the school as an agent of learning in the community. During her subsequent ten years in parish ministry she brought her pastoral practice into dialogue with theology at Trinity College, Dublin, where she completed her doctoral thesis on ‘Church as Community, Theological Foundations and Development in Practice’. As she moved to the field of pastoral training, Anne became increasingly convinced that didactic approaches alone do not foster transformation, and so she joined a training group in consultancy and facilitation at the Craighead Institute, Glasgow. There she enjoyed and appreciated the combination of Ignatian perspectives on organisations combined with human-relations and open-systems approaches to development.

Bairbre de Búrca is a mother and grandmother and lives in the parish of Balally, Co. Dublin. She has over forty years of experience of living in that parish and continues to be an active participant in both parish and community life. She was involved in the introduction of the Parish Development and Renewal programme (PDR) in Balally. She served as a member of Bishop Donal Murray’s area team for PDR and subsequently was nominated as a diocesan representative on the Bishops’ Commission for the Laity. Bairbre has practiced for many years as a psychosynthesis psychotherapist in Eckhart House, Dublin. She is a member of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy (IAHIP). She holds a diploma in Adult and Continuing Education from NUI Maynooth and a Masters degree in Pastoral Leadership from All Hallows College, Dublin. Among her many professional roles within the area of pastoral ministry, she taught on the Family Studies Programme at Marino Institute of Education, Dublin. She is currently chaplain to the students and staff of the Milltown Institute, Dublin.




This book is a compilation of papers delivered at the pastoral conference organised by the Pastoral Theology Department of the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin, in November 2008. The papers presented were the fruit of the reflections of four speakers. The last chapter is a specially solicited chapter from a participant at the conference to provide readers with some reflections and proposals for doing theology and ministry in the future. The title of the conference, ‘Who Do You Say That I Am?’, became the foundation question in the exploration of contemporary pastoral theology and ministry, a question that Jesus asked of his disciples. Jesus wanted to know from them what they and others were thinking about his identity and sense of ministry. This book is about exploring that question.

Ministry is, in many ways, about that question. It is a crucial question in the discovery of a life-giving and meaningful pastoral theology with its challenges and opportunities for ministry in today’s world. The way Jesus ministered in the world of his day was dependent on the evolving sense of his own self in dialogue with the notion of who God was for him. The question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ was about reading the signs of the times in Jesus’ historical era. Some of these signs included cultural taboos, marginalisation of the poor, religious sectarianism/inclusivism, gender inequality, political struggle, racism and suspicion of the stranger. These issues also resonate in our own time. Comprehending the signs, amidst the diversity of cultures and religions in which our identity, in particular our pastoral identity, is shaped, provides markers for effective ministry. For example, how we use language to articulate our deepest feelings and thoughts and the ways in which we decode symbols, rituals and customs to reveal life-giving meaning is challenging for ministers in a multicultural environment. Understanding the signs reflected in values, attitudes and perceptions as well as comprehending the codes of society, politics, economics and religion generally can be difficult. To communicate and disseminate these signs into relevant meaning for the world is at the core of the development of a practical theology. Practical theology gives life and hope to relevant ministry. Practical theologian Terry Veling says that:

To read the signs of the times is one of the most difficult theological tasks, yet it is a theological imperative. Too often we do not behold the announcement of God in our present reality. Rather, we cling to what we already know of God, to tired and weary theological frameworks that have lost their sense of timeliness, to religious truths that lull us to sleep rather than provoke us to wakefulness (1).

The world around us and the diversity of the faith traditions to which we belong shape us in our personhood. It is hoped that this book will assist readers in weaving a life-giving pastoral theology in order to live and work effectively with post-modern uncertainty. The insights presented in this book will help provide opportunities for personal and communal reflection on ministry in contemporary Ireland and beyond. The material will help the reader to engage, reflect and re-imagine their sense of identity in ministry. Readers will find practical hints and suggestions to sustain and foster quality and effectiveness in their task of doing everyday caring ministry.

Given today’s general global and local fragmentation, exacerbated currently by the continuing uncertainty around the world financial system, it is opportune for readers to focus on uncovering the intercultural face of God emerging from the so-called post-modern and globalised world. Economic globalisation has to a large extent driven the way people have lived and settled in many parts of the world. As a result, people of different cultures and faith perspectives are living in close proximity to each other. This reality is a sign of our time that poses certain challenges for ministers, such as how to deal with different perceptions around illness, death, suffering, joy, happiness, life after death, and so on. The meltdown of the global financial system will probably cause a fresh revisioning of how the markets should serve more adequately the peoples of the world. Such a rethinking will inevitably impact on how we perceive and think about each other culturally, politically and religiously. Will this cataclysmic economic meltdown bring us closer together or cause us to separate even further?

Theologically, seeing God’s presence and action among us as the world, and Ireland particularly, grapples with this difficult economic event is a challenge for pastoral agents. Discovering how God is present and active interculturally will demand skilful dialogue within and among the different cultures and faith perspectives in Ireland and beyond. Conversation will be difficult because of difficulties around language and the various cultural and religious perspectives in relation to issues like gender, societal roles, sexuality, and practices around life and death, among others. For Christians, the Christian tradition shows us how to carry out this conversation, and insights for ministry can be gleaned. For example, the historical Jesus, in the context of his time, always engaged people in dialogue. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, his conversations with the Pharisees, his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, his dealings with those on the margins, all demonstrate that God’s presence and action is discovered through the actual process of conversation.

The economic crisis is a particular sign of our time that offers both opportunities and challenges for ministers and theologians. One opportunity for ministers is to be of a consoling, compassionate, understanding and empathetic presence. This means that ministers take time to listen deeply in order to physically understand the other; to listen empathically to the pains, the fears and the struggles for coherence in the midst of personal chaos. To be an effective minister in these economically challenging times is to learn how to have effective and intentional conversations about the priorities and values we hold to be very important for us and why. For example, do we value a caring society more than economic prosperity? How do we care for the aged, the young, the marginalised, the migrant, and others in need of care? For Christians, whatever the burning issues, at the heart of the conversation will be the story and vision of the Christian tradition.

In various ways, the following chapters are a starting point for beginning that conversation. This book is a conversation that brings together both the practice and the theory of theology and ministry. Our lived experience and our religious traditions are essential parts of that conversation to discover and uncover God’s presence and action in our lived reality today.

These chapters hope to stimulate this conversation around particular issues related to pastoral theology and ministry in today’s Church. Hopefully, the specific focus around conversation, identity, presence, structures and supervision will help in understanding the global and local context in which pastoral theology is practiced.

The challenge, and the opportunity, is to create zones of compassion within our communities of faith for people to feel cared for, recognised, valued and loved. These zones are found within the ministers’ own lived experiences and within the lived experience of a faith community. Such zones of comfort and meaningful belonging can gather the suffering, the marginalised and the excluded into life-giving relationships with themselves, others and God. Zones of compassion can be reflected in the home, school and parish.

In the contemporary world, it is not strange to any of us that if something happens in another part of the world, it has implications for all of us, not just on an economic level, but also socially, religiously and politically. An obvious example of this global interdependence is the way that issues affecting oil markets in another part of the world affects prices and supply in Ireland. Another example is the way in which we are all affected financially by the global credit crunch, which has influenced how we live, work and spend our money. We are now learning that what happens in America, Australia, Africa, or the Middle East has direct and indirect implications for the lives of everyone. We are learning about global warming and how the melting of the ice caps in Antarctica affects us in our part of the world. Theology is also affected by this global interdependence.

Theology – the science of God’s revelation and presence – is very much impacted by what happens in the historical, social, political, religious and economic contexts anywhere on the planet. Though theology is done contextually, it is an interdependent reality as contexts are related to each other because of the constants of faith, truth, love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, suffering and life and death that exist in every context. For example, when the tsunami hit Indonesia at Christmas time 2004, many around the world wondered how God was present and active or absent and passive in this particular catastrophe. People wondered what the meaning of suffering was in that particular local context as well as reflecting upon the meaning of suffering in their own lived contexts. People turned to their own cultural and religious traditions for answers. Readers may think of other examples of contexts in which we reflect theologically and see how God’s presence, or absence, for that matter, is revealed and experienced.

Readers can begin with any of the chapters in their study of ministry and their discovery of who Jesus is for them. The first contribution by Timothy Radcliffe focuses on the need for conversation in the Church today. He posits that ‘… all pastoral care is fundamentally conversation, a tiny hint of the conversation which is God. And conversation begins with recognition’. What is so fresh about Radcliffe is his understanding of young people, especially the new generation Y, that is, those in the 15-25 age group. An acknowledgement and understanding of this group is vital for the life of the Church into the future. Jesus recognised the young people and noted how the Kingdom of God belonged to them. In his ministry Jesus knew the significance of recognising people, like the lepers, the tax collectors and the marginalised. Recognition of people is at the heart of effective conversation and, according to Radcliffe, that conversation needs to highlight the importance of three aspirations for people in the so-called global village: happiness, freedom and beauty.

In the second chapter, a detailed overview of the intercultural reality of pastoral presence in the contemporary world is presented. Influenced by my experiences with Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and bereavement, I offer insights into how we can be more effective in our presence to those who may be marginalised, living through fractured relationships, suffering, imprisoned, or close to dying. Personal stories are also included as to my own path to effective ministry, and, like Radcliffe, I suggest that conversation is at the core of ministry. As mentioned earlier, the multicultural and multi-religious reality of Ireland today impacts on ministry in the way we are challenged by language and the struggle to interpret what others are really saying to us. Ministers are challenged by the different cultural and religious understandings around suffering, dignity, gender, role and societal expectations. This chapter explores some aspects of an effective intercultural pastoral presence. As well as situating pastoral presence in the broader world context and the Christian theological experience of incarnation, an outline of how one might conduct a meaningful and life-giving conversation is explored. A list of some guiding principles for conducting a pastoral conversation is also offered.

Living Systems are analysed and explored by Anne Codd in the third chapter. Readers obtain a glimpse of the way in which each of us is enmeshed in a network of structures that organise our lives. Codd examines the impact organic structures or systems have on the way the Church community lives its vision in various contexts. The link between systems theory and theology reveals a unique opportunity for understanding how our ministry is both assisted and sometimes impeded by the structures that surround the construction of life-giving theology and meaningful ministry. Codd offers pointers and suggestions as to how we might manage and
work effectively with the structure of the Church we have at present. Awareness of how systems work can be a great asset to ministers in order to forge an understanding of why people might feel the way they feel about the Church today.

The fourth chapter addresses the issue of quality in ministry and the role of supervision in creating life-giving spaces for support and nurture so that ministry can be effective and meaningful. Practitioner Michael Carroll outlines in great detail the significance of supervision in the everyday life of the minister. Supervision in ministry is a growing profession in Ireland and beyond. More and more, ministers and others from the various caring professions recognise that if people are to be well cared for, the carers need to take care of themselves. Carroll points out that sport professionals, artists, musicians and others take great care of the gifts and talents they have by taking care of themselves. Likewise, ministers need to understand what it is they need to take care of so that they are effectual and helpful in ministry.

Finally, the last chapter looks towards the future, and Bairbre de Búrca offers some helpful ideas and suggestions on how to move on from the present position. In five essential steps, de Búrca continues the conversations by ‘attempting to weave together the rich threads gathered from the papers within a framework of dialogue with self, dialogue within families, dialogue within communities, dialogue with the threat to the Cosmos and dialogue with the Judeo-Christian tradition’. A more detailed list and explanation of the signs of the times are provided in the chapter, which will help the reader come to terms with some of the challenges and opportunities in ministry.

At the end of each chapter are reflective questions. They are provided to help centre the reader’s own thinking about theology and ministry. These open-ended questions, in a limited way, help the reader to claim and name their own life-giving theology. These questions arose from the reflective group process that was at the core of the pastoral conference, with open-ended focusing questions being offered to small groups. Participants at the conference had an important opportunity to engage with the ideas and suggestions put to them by the speakers, and now readers will get a taste of this reflective process as they engage with these reflective questions.


  1. See Terry A. Veling, Practical Theology: ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’. New York, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005, p. 17.






When I prepared this chapter I had quite a time imagining whom I would be addressing. I read the brochure for the conference several times, trying to intuit the expectations. I discovered that ‘this conference will focus on uncovering the intercultural face of God emerging from the post-modern and globalised world’. That sounded very impressive and I imagined people struggling with the post-modern angst of philosophers like Derrida and Foucault. And then I read that ‘it is envisaged that this conference will be of interest to many people engaged in pastoral theological reflection within families, community centres, parishes, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and other workplaces’. And I then thought that such people do not have the time or energy to labour through French philosophers when they come back home at night.

The significance of conversation
I start in this way to make a more fundamental point, which is that all pastoral care should spring out of conversation. I would have liked to have been with you for a while, shared a few pints and discovered what was tugging at your hearts before speaking. In the beginning was the Word. God alone has the first word, and we join in the conversation which the Word has initiated. All pastoral care, all preaching, even in the global village, is essentially dialogical. This is not because when you visit people in hospital or prison you must lull them into a false sense of security by first talking about Manchester United or the weather and then, when their defences are down, suddenly bring in Jesus. Christianity is a faith founded on conversation. We believe in the man who ambled around the Holy Land two thousand years ago, talking with those he met: the woman at the well, the blind man at the pool, beggars and lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes. The Word was made flesh in Jesus’ conversations.

The word ‘homily’ comes from a Greek word which originally meant ‘to converse’. Homilies should not be party political broadcasts launched from the invulnerability of the pulpit. They are moments in the conversation of God’s people. They should help us to talk to each other. The Church is sustained by our innumerable conversations. St Catherine of Siena said that there is no greater pleasure than to talk about God with one’s friends. And the preacher must always remember the old adage: you have two ears and one mouth and should use them accordingly.

If Jesus was a man of conversation, it is because the Trinity is the eternal, loving, equal, undominative conversation of God. Herbert McCabe OP wrote that sharing the life of the Trinity is like a young child listening to a fantastic conversation of adults in a pub:

Think for a moment of a group of three or four intelligent adults relaxing together in one of those conversations that have really taken off. They are being witty and responding quickly to each other – what in Ireland they call ‘the Crack’ (1). Serious ideas may be at issue, but no one is being serious. Nobody is being pompous or solemn (nobody is preaching). There are flights of fancy. There are jokes and puns and irony and mimicry and disrespect and self-parody … Now this child is like us when we hear about the Trinity (2).

The idea of dialogue is held in suspicion by some people in the Church. It is seen to smack of relativism, of suggesting that all theological positions and faiths are equal, of giving up on truth. But I would suggest that since what is at the heart of the gospel is Jesus, the man who conversed with us, and ultimately, the conversation that is the Trinity, then we can only talk truthfully of our faith in dialogue. To do otherwise would be like a pacifist beating up his opponents for disagreeing with him. I was at the Lambeth Conference in 2008 [meeting of the archbishops and bishops of the Anglican Church], and for the Anglican Church, one of the hot topics is: ‘Do we dialogue with Islam, or seek to convert Muslims?’ We can only share our faith with Muslims if we dialogue. And all conversation leads to conversion, with both partners being called to conversion. What form that conversion takes is in God’s hands.

One of my brethren, Pierre Claverie, was the bishop of Oran, Algeria, until he was assassinated in 1996. His passion was dialogue with Islam. He, literally, gave his life to it. His story is documented in a beautiful book entitled A Life Poured Out by Jean Jacques Perennes OP. Pierre’s conversation with Islam led to conversion. There was his conversion, as he discovered Christ in the face of his Muslim friends. There was the conversion of his Muslim friends, who became better Muslims. And some of them, at the risk to their lives, became Christians.

Jesus’ mission begins with recognition
How do we begin a conversation? Jesus’ mission always starts with recognition. He recognises Nathaniel as the person he has seen under the fig tree; he recognises little Zacchaeus up the tree; he recognises Mary in the garden. And because he recognises them, then they may recognise him in return. This is more than saying, ‘Dear Nathaniel, we met last week at the fish market’. Jesus recognises people because, in a sense, he knows them from within. He is the Word of God, the one through whom all things came to be. He recognises strangers because he is the Son of God the creator who gives them being. And does it sound utterly silly to suggest that if we share the life of God lived by his Spirit, then we too somehow, dimly, recognise people from within? Saints like Padre Pio are often said to know you and what you have done before you have said a word, which is why someone like Graham Green was very nervous meeting him, as indeed I would have been too! If we are close to God, the giver of all existence, then we are in touch with the being of the other, even if very obscurely. That is the basis of all pastoral experience.

Many people in the Church are wounded by our failure to grant that recognition. Women most obviously, in our patriarchal Church, but often the poor, or ethnic minorities, or gay people, may feel invisible, or only seen from outside. In Lima I heard of a photographic exhibition of street kids, where under the photo of one desolate waif was written: ‘Saben que existo, pero no me ven’: ‘They know that I exist, but they do not see me.’ They know that I exist as a statistic, as a menace, as a problem, but they do not see me. William James wrote:

No more fiendish punishment could be devised, if such a thing were physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead, and acted as if we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily torture would be a relief.’

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus caritas est: ‘Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love for which they crave:” We live in a society in which increasing numbers of people are invisible. Our names are recorded in a thousand ways, our emails are monitored, CCTV cameras record our movements. Big Brother is always watching, but we may feel unseen. These eyes, like the lens of a camera, merely record the surfaces.

That is why ‘respect’ is such a big word on urban streets these days. Urban violence is often the desperate search for ‘respect’, for recognition. Erinma Bell, the founder of a peace group in Manchester called Carisma and recent recipient of an MBE, said of gang members: ‘They’ve nothing else in their lives apart from their desperate need to feel a sense of power over others on the street … Their days and nights revolve around whether they feel “disrespected” by their peers or whether some petty grievance or other has flared up into a score that needs to be settled’ (5).

Maybe that is why icons play such a big role in many people’s spirituality today. We do not so much look at icons as let them look at us. According to Rowan Williams, ‘the skill of looking at icons, the discipline of “reading” them, is indeed the strange skill of letting yourself be seen, be read’ (6). In a world in which we often feel invisible, or just seen from outside, as objects, we need to bask in the gaze of Christ or Our Lady or a saint who looks at us benevolently, who gives us, in Pope Benedict’s words, the look of love for which we crave. It offers us the compassionate gaze which the CCTV camera does not give.

So, all pastoral care is fundamentally conversation, a tiny hint of the conversation which is God. And conversation begins with recognition. What are the particular challenges of recognition in the global village?

The brochure for this pastoral conference quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘Am I really what others say of me? Or am I only what I know of myself ?’ I would suggest that it is precisely in conversation that I inch towards a proper sense of self-identity. And this happens because my sense of who I am is in negotiation with other people’s understanding of my identity. I do have some privileged sense of who I am. I know lots of things about myself that no one else knows, thanks be to God. But it is also true that I discover who I am in other people’s eyes. Gentle conversation helps me towards a sense of identity that is a convergence between who I know myself to be and who I discover myself to be with the other. Friendship allows us both to discover who we are with each other. So a conversation is pastoral if through it the identities of both people are open to evolution and discovery. I will discover a little bit more of who I am with you, and vice versa. Rowan Williams’ latest book on Dostoevsky demonstrates that this is the key to his understanding of the novel, the open-ended discovery of identity in dialogue.

But this respectful, exploratory conversation starts with who people think they are, with the face they present to the world. That face may be in part a mask, even a disguise, but it is where one begins. If I meet someone who claims to be punk or a goth, or indeed delights in being rich or whatever, then that is where we begin. When Jesus talked with the rich man, he first loved him as he was, rolling in his wealth, before, at a second stage, Jesus could invite him to be poor. He feasted and drank with the prostitutes and tax collectors as they were. The invitation to discover a deeper identity could come later.

Here we get to a major challenge for the Church, and I confess that I do not know the answer to it. Many young people root their identities in families that are broken and ‘irregular’. Their parents may be single, or living with serial partners, with children by different people or in a gay relationship. To recognise these young people is to recognise the relationships that they have. They will say to us, ‘To accept me, you must accept those who are mine’. If we seem to trash their families, in the name of the Christian vision of the family life, then they will think that we are trashing them. I do cherish the Christian vision of family – a man and a woman living together for life and open to the gift of children. We must champion the family. The consequences of its fragility are wounding for society and especially for children. But I must begin where people are, with their fidelities that define their lives. We must hang out with them, accept their hospitality and be their guests. There is no other beginning. So the first stage of pastoral care is conversation, and conversation is based on recognition, and recognition includes beginning where people are, with the identities they claim. Of course my own identity will be called into question as well!

The next question is: what shall we share in our conversation? What will make a conversation come alive? I think that we need to find concerns, topics, aspirations which we both share and yet which we perceive differently. If what tugs at our hearts is utterly different, then conversation may be hard. And if we have exactly the same views, then it will be boring! I would suggest three areas where Christianity intersects with the aspirations of people in the global village: happiness, freedom and beauty. I had thought of talking about truth, a topic dear to Dominicans, but there is not time for everything.

People seek happiness. This is the universal human aspiration. Augustine wrote: ‘Everyone wants to be happy. There is no one who will not agree with me on this almost before the words are out of my mouth’ (7). Christianity, certainly in the tradition of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, believes that we are made to find our happiness in God. So, fundamental to our pastoral interaction is the question of happiness.

The happiness that young people seek is in fact threatened and fragile. Happiness is hard to attain in a fragmented and competitive society. It is menaced by broken families, drug abuse, urban violence and imprisonment. Perhaps even more fundamentally, happiness is often today experienced as an obligation. One must be happy, otherwise one is a failure. And so there is much shame attached to feeling sad. It must be disguised. A survey of Generation Y concludes: ‘Sadness is not easily acknowledged in the face of “achievable” happiness. For this reason, sadness may be a powerful source of hidden shame and loneliness for young people (8). One reason for the epidemic of suicides among the young is an imperative to be joyful which they cannot sustain.

One explanation for this shame for our sorrow is that we have often psychologised it and called it depression. We have turned sorrow, the ordinary human response to life’s suffering, into a mental illness that is to be treated. Two American authors, Horwitz and Wakefield, wrote a book called The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. Of course depression is a real illness which we must treat, but millions of people, they assert, are not suffering from it; they are just sad. And that is the healthy reaction to some situations, and one must learn to live it fruitfully, creatively, with the help of one’s friends and one’s faith.

So in our pastoral conversation I hope that we can embody Christian happiness. And this is odd because it is large enough to have a space for sadness, the sadness that is the inevitable consequence of being alive in a world in which there is suffering. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Mt 28:20). And scholars are largely in agreement that what are in question are the Beatitudes. The disciples are sent to teach the beatitudes, which embody God’s bittersweet happiness: happy are the poor, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven; happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is a strange happiness that is big enough for every sorrow, and that is because it is not the happiness of any single moment but of the whole of Jesus’ life, which goes from birth to death and resurrection. The sorrow of Good Friday is held in a story which is pointed to the joy of the Father.

So this is a happiness which we must embody if our words are to have authority. It is said that St Francis’ preaching made even the fish happy. As a Dominican, I wonder how you can tell a happy fish from a sad one. The most joyful saints are also the most sorrowful, like Francis, or Dominic, who laughed by day with his brethren and wept at night with God. The Abbot Primate of the Benedictines, Notker Wolf, invited some Japanese Buddhist and Shintuist monks to come and stay for two weeks in the monastery of St Ottilien, Bavaria. When they were asked what struck them, they replied, ‘The joy. Why are Catholic monks such joyful people?’ And it is not only monks who should be infected by this joy. It is a tiny glimpse of the beatitude for which we are all created. It is the exuberance of those who have drunk the new wine of the gospel. The new wine which makes you drunk was the favourite metaphor of the early Dominicans for the gospel.

And there is freedom. The European Values Surveys have consistently shown that one of the most fundamental values of young people is freedom. Often this is the freedom of the consumer, to buy what he or she wants. The young generally value money not because they are materialistic, for they are not. Rather, it gives them the freedom to go where they want and be whom they wish.

An advertisement for Levi’s jeans briefly became a potent symbol of this freedom from constraint. It showed people running on walls, along felled trees, jumping over chasms (9). In France there is Yamakasi, from a Congolese root meaning ‘strong person, strong spirit, strong body’. It is a sport whereby one runs through the city turning barriers into steps toward freedom, walls into jumping places. One dances through, over and around all that tries to hem one in. In fact young people are ever less free, more controlled, watched by more CCTV cameras, recorded and even imprisoned. Hence the attractive freedom of the Internet where you can abolish distance, recreate yourself, be anyone you wish. You can join a chat room with people on the other side of the world, and disconnect when you have had enough. If you get bored with a TV programme you can zap to another channel. This you cannot do with a boring sermon!

If the Church is to proclaim the gospel, then we need to meet this hunger for freedom, accept it and lead people on to the deeper freedom of Christ. This is hard because the Church is usually understood as opposing personal autonomy, telling people what they are not allowed to do. As we have seen, religion is feared to mean ‘Thou shalt not …’ The Church does not come across as an oasis of wild freedom, the intoxicating freedom of Jesus, and until it does, then our words will not mean much. Ultimately we need to incarnate the dizzy freedom of Jesus who gave away his life.

Finally, let me say just a few words about beauty. In St John’s gospel, Jesus says: ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself’ (Jn 12:42). Jesus does not bully people into the Church, nor offer belief as a lifestyle option, or the ultimate insurance policy. He draws people to himself. He attracts us by the beauty of his life and his teaching. Gerry O’Collins SJ says in Jesus: A Portrait:

We gladly give our hearts to what is beautiful. We fall in love with beautiful men and women. Those people who are beautiful possess an instant appeal. We hope that they are also good and truthful, but it is their beauty that catches and holds our attention. Jesus is the beauty of God in person. When we fall in love with his beauty, we are well on the way to accepting his truth and imitating his goodness (10).

When I was a boy at Downside, I think that my faith was kept alive by the utter beauty of the great Abbey church and of the singing of the monks. In our society the teaching of the Church is often experienced as arrogant, as intolerant of other beliefs, as oppressive. I do not believe that it is, but that is the subject of another chapter. But where there is resistance to teaching, people can be seduced by beauty. Ann Lamott tells of a woman who simply refused to have anything to do with a man dying of AIDS, until she was touched by the beauty of music: ‘Maybe it is because music is as physical as it gets; your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way’ (11).

Beauty is one of the ways in which our faith may be in dynamic contact with modernity. We should treasure it wherever we find it, whether the artists are believers or not. And we should offer a beautiful liturgy and art as ways of sharing our faith that do not bully or moralise, but gently offer a new way of seeing the world.

I think that we need a new aesthetic to share our faith with our world. Every renaissance of the Church has gone with a fresh beauty. The renewal of the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries went with the renewal of Gregorian chant. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation each had their music; the Methodist revival was linked with the massive creation of hymns. We need artists – singers, musicians, painters, poets, novelists, film directors – to incarnate a glimpse of God’s beauty. And we need to be in touch with the creative people of our society and receive their gifts.

Pastoral care in the global village is founded on conversation. Genuine conversation converts both partners. If we reach out in conversation, it will change us as well. When Jesus conversed with the Canaanite woman, he at first resisted her demands because she was a pagan and he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she led him beyond where he had been. No conversation is real if it does not change us too.

It begins with recognition. We know the other person from within, since if we share the life of God the creator, then we have a tiny participation in God’s knowledge of the other. And if we recognise them, then they may recognise us too. In any conversation the identity of both partners is both given and discovered. I do know myself in some ways, but I also discover myself in the eyes of the other. We must therefore begin with a deep respect for the identities that our interlocutors claim. If that is where they are, then we must be there too, even if we may hope to eventually discover together a deeper identity, as God’s own children.

Our conversation must be founded upon what touches us, our deepest desires. And I have suggested that three of these are happiness, freedom and beauty. There are others. Our words will have authority if they are embedded in a joy which is large enough for sorrow, a freedom deep enough to encompass utter generosity, and a hint of the beauty with which Jesus will draw all to himself.   

I. How we offer the young Christ’s look of recognition?

II. What inhibits our Christian joy?

III. How can we enter more fully into Christ’s freedom?




1. Far be it for me to correct Herbert McCabe’s Irish, but I am told it should be ‘craic’!
2. Herbert McCabe, God, Christ and Us, London: Continuum, 2003, p. 115.
3. From The Principles of Psychology, Boston, 1890, quoted by Alain de Boston in Status Anxiety, London: Vintage, 2004, p. 15.
4. Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 18.
5. Amelia Hill, The Observer, 12 August 2007.
6. Lost Icons, p, 185.
7. De moribus ecclesiae catholicae, 3.4 SCE 18.
8. Sara Savage and Sylvia Collins-Mayo, Making Sense of Generation Y: The World View of 15-25 year-olds, London: Church House, 2006, p. 48.
9. Ibid., p. 40.
10. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2008, p. 1.
11. Ibid., p. 65.



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