Monthly Archives: September 2012

New Wine-skins


Friday August 31, 2012, Cardinal Carlos Martini, Archbishop of Milan for 22 years, died aged 85.  He was a man of immense ability, and at one time was thought likely to become Pope after Pope John Paul II.  But he suffered from the same illness as Pope John Paul II, and retired in 2002.

On August 8th this year he was interviewed by fellow-Jesuit Father Georg Sporschill.  The interview was meant to last about ten minutes, but it went on for two hours (The Tablet 9/8/12 p.27).  The interview was published on September 1, 2012, in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.  An English version was published in The Tablet of September 8,2012.

In the course of the interview Cardinal Martini said some surprising things.  He said that the Catholic Church is 200 years behind the times.  In Europe our churches are big and empty; our rituals and dress are pompous, and our administration becomes more and more bureaucratic.  He said the Church is in need of conversion, of healing and a return to the word of God.

On September 7th, one week after Cardinal Martini’s death, the gospel of the daily Mass was Saint Luke’s version of the parable about the new wine and the old wine-skins.  I took the opportunity to speak to the people about Cardinal Martini, and his call for the Church to update herself to meet the needs of the people of the 21st century.

At the beginning of the Church, just after Pentecost, the small community led by Peter and the apostles seemed to think they could fulfill their mission while remaining within the structures of the Jewish religion.  They soon realized that the words of Our Lord were prophetic, “No one pours new wine into old wine skins.  Otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined.  Rather new wine must be poured into fresh wine skins” (Luke 5, 37-38).  The mission of Christ entrusted to them could not find a home in the structures of the Jewish religion.  It must develop its own structures.

For more than two centuries these structures were the very simplest.  Rejected by the Jewish leaders, and under fierce persecution by the Roman empire, the young Church had to struggle for its very existence.  Then in the year 312 of the Christian Era, the persecutions ceased, and the Emperor Constantine granted legal freedom to the Christian religion in the Roman Empire.

The Church was now in a position to organize itself and develop its own structures.  At that time the Roman Empire seemed very successful, and the Church leaders chose the Roman form of government as their model.  So in our Church we have the words like Basilica (borrowed from the Greco-Roman Basilike or Palace/Offices).  We have the term holy orders (borrowed from the Roman word ordo which meant the civil administration service).  We even got the word diocese from the Church’s great persecutor, the Emperor Diocletian, whose name was used to coin the word dioceses for the 12 new administrative units which he created.

Unfortunately the Church did not adopt just the terminology of the Roman government, but also their commanding style of leadership.  This was a far cry from the model given by Our Lord himself when he told the apostles: “The kings of the gentiles lord it over them . . . but it shall not be so among you.  Rather let the greatest among you be the youngest, and the leader as the servant.  For who is greater, the one seated at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one seated at the table?  Yet I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22, 25-27)

That imperial style of leadership in the Church was compounded through time, and by the Middle Ages the bishops of the Church were also civil rulers of the territories entrusted to them.  They were not just Church officials but also princes of the realm, and they dressed and acted as such.  Even to this day the purple robes of our bishops and cardinals have more to do with their former role as princes than with their vocation to serve and guide the People of God.

So Cardinal Martini shortly before his death could lament pomposity in the Church as a sad expression of what we have become.  Perhaps his gentle words of criticism would have been more effective if he had spoken them 10 or 20 years earlier.  Better still if he had actually introduced some new structures in his diocese to express the post Vatican II awareness that all Catholics by their very Baptism are called to play an active part in the running of their Church.

One such structure could be a diocesan Council of lay people to whom the bishop would give a monthly account of happenings in the diocese.  If such Councils had been receiving monthly reports over the past 20 or 30 years, they would have confronted the clerical sex abuse scandal promptly as it emerged, and not have allowed it to become such a damaging crisis. Some bishops may claim that they are accountable only to God, but a wise bishop like Cardinal Martini would accept that as servant of his people he is accountable to them too.

Cardinal Martini’s final challenging interview gives the Church an opportunity to stop and assess what we are doing.  At the moment there seems to be a firm policy to centralize power in the Church, and try to pour the new wine of Vatican II into the old wine-skins of Vatican I or earlier.

It has been said that the Vatican II Council finally gave the Catholic lay people their rightful place in the life and mission of their Church.  It is imperative that the whole Church develop suitable structures to give expression and outlet to this new energy.  Failure to provide new wine-skins for Catholic lay participation in Church government will mean new energy lost for want of an outlet, and old energy deprived of the talent and initiative it so badly needs.


Missing Counsel


Last week journalist Fionnuala O’Connor posted an amusing but provocative article in the Belfast Irish News. The occasion for the piece was a statement from the Most Reverend Noel Treanor, bishop of the diocese of Down and Connor.

In his statement the bishop declared that he wrote to Ian Elliott, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Safeguarding Board for Children in the Catholic Church, withdrawing and apologizing for an earlier assertion regarding the leaking of information to the media.This was surprising because most people were unaware that the bishop had said or done anything needing an apology.  The exact sequence of events has not been clarified, but it seems to be something like this.

In 2006 following the exposure the sexual abuse of children by personnel of the Catholic Church in Ireland, a national board for the safeguarding of children was set up by the Catholic Church.  The Board is sponsored and funded by the Conference of Irish Bishops, the Conference of Religious in Ireland and the Irish Missionary Union.  Mr. Ian Elliott has been Chief Executive Officer of the Board since 2007.

Bishop Treanor’s statement suggests that he informally raised issues with the Board about the leaking of information to the media.  The Board instigated a formal complaints procedure, and appointed a former Supreme Court judge, Catherine McGuinness, to investigate the claims.  Mr. Elliott took a leave of absence while the allegations were being investigated.

In the course of the investigation, officials of the Church and the Board were consulted, and journalists from the print and broadcast media were interviewed.  The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to support the complaint against Mr. Elliott.

Following the conclusion of the investigation, the media carried a certain amount of criticism of Bishop Treanor.  This was followed by the bishop’s clarification statement, in which he referred to his apology to Mr. Elliott and added, “We have moved on from this”.

Ms. O’Connor takes exception to these words of the bishop, “We have moved on”, and she clarifies, “That kind of flat directive to close off discussion no longer works”.  She laments that there was nobody close to the bishop on terms of equality, nobody remotely like a wife, to make the necessary corrective remark, “Would you listen to yourself?  Don’t you hear how you sound?”  An auxiliary bishop wouldn’t dare to give such advice, but a loving wife could, with affection and respect.

Ms. O’Connor may be on to something there.  She isn’t the first to suggest that marriage is a good preparation for being a bishop in the Catholic Church.  Saint Paul was there before her.

In Paul’s first letter to his disciple Timothy, he advises Timothy on the qualities to look for in appointing a bishop.  He told Timothy that a married man who manages his own household well, and keeps his children under control is a good candidate (1 Timothy 3, 2-5).  He has the same advice for his disciple Titus about the appointing of elders or bishops (Titus 1, 5-10).

Jesus, Paul and the early Church accepted the married state as quite compatible with leadership in the Church.  Around the 4th-5th century things began to change, and there was a gradual introduction of the idea that the married state, or the sexual activity that goes with the married state, somehow made a person less suitable for a leadership role in the Church.

Little by little this became incorporated into the legal structure of the Church, so that eventually in the Latin Church only celibates could become clerics, and only clerics could have the power of leadership in the Church.  The result is that today the Code of Canon Law, Canon 129 precisely, leaves the governance of the Church in the hands of clerics, allowing the vast majority of the Church’s members the mere possibility of cooperating with, but not participating in, the governing of their Church.

Much of the tension in the Church today is due to the celibate clergy, who constitute less than 1% of Church membership, having a stranglehold on the power of governance.  It seems incomprehensible, for example, that a small group of male celibates should feel qualified to pronounce on marriage and family life even when their teaching does not match the experience of the vast majority of Catholic married couples.  They seem to forget that the Spirit speaks in the Church through the lived experience of the faithful laity (Vatican II. The Church n.35).

Ms O’Connor may have been writing tongue in cheek when she lamented that the bishop had no one remotely like a wife to offer loving corrective advice when he needed it.   The teaching Church also will also be missing valuable counsel unless it is willing to let the lay faithful, married and single, take their part in Church decision-making at the highest level.

Sancta Maria House


Two days ago, on September 8, 2012, I attended an anniversary celebration in Boston, Massachussetts.  It was the 40th anniversary of the official opening of Sancta Maria House, the first overnight shelter for homeless women in Boston.

The celebration took place in Holy Cross Cathedral in downtown Boston.  There were about 200 people present, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley the Archbishop of Boston, and Mary McHale, the prime mover in acquiring the shelter 40 years ago.

The celebration consisted of a concelebrated Mass followed by sharing refreshments and memories in the community hall attached to the Cathedral.  I was invited to the anniversary by Mary McHale because I was with her in the events which led up to the founding of the shelter.

In 1963 I was assigned to teach theology in one of the Boston colleges preparing young men for the priesthood.  I had spent the previous 7 years as a missionary in the Philippines where I worked as spiritual advisor to the members of the Legion of Mary.  The Legion of Mary is an organization which trains Catholic men and women to bring the message of God’s love to those who may not be aware of it.

When I was assigned to Boston to teach, I wanted to find an opportunity for pastoral work in the wider community, so I sought out the local Legion of Mary.  At one of the coordinating meetings of the Legion I met Mary McHale.  Together we formed two new groups of the Legion.  One group was to staff a religious book-barrow Saturday afternoons on the street in Roxbury.

A few years later we formed a second group, composed entirely of women, to work at night in the “combat zone”. Their purpose was to seek out and befriend young women who were at risk, walking the streets in the hope of earning something by being engaged as an escort for the night.

This second group soon alerted us to our need for a house or a shelter.  We needed a place to bring any of the women who were persuaded to leave the dangers of the “combat zone”.  In 1970 I received a new overseas assignment, but Mary and the other members of the group continued on with their street work and also continued in their search for a suitable house.   It was difficult to find a suitable place at a suitable price, and it might have proved impossible if divine providence had not intervened.

The Legion of Mary has a saying, “Every impossibility is divisible into 39 steps, each one of which is possible”.  Just when it seemed impossible to get a suitable house at a suitable price, Mary McHale met one of the local landlords.  In their conversation he told her he was getting too old for the business, and asked her if she knew anyone who wanted to buy a house.  Mary told him she was in the market for a house, and he promptly offered her his house at a price that she and the Legion of Mary could afford.  That was June 1972.

Within three months the house was ready, and on Friday September 8, 1972, it was blessed by Archbishop Medeiros and officially opened.  Sancta Maria House declares as its mission to “Provide a safe haven each night for 10 women in need, a place where they know they will be treated with respect and courtesy.  Sancta Maria House is a place to rest and renew body and soul in a home-like atmosphere, free of judgment”.

The House is managed by a Director and two women volunteers each night.  This is the way the Sancta Maria House website ( describes itself: “Sancta Maria House is a safe place for homeless women in Boston, that provides everything for our guests – a light meal, a refreshing shower, a change of clothes, and a clean bed in which to have a peaceful night’s rest, safe from the dangers of the city’s streets”.

The house is available to guests from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m.  It is not a permanent residence for anyone, but rather an emergency shelter for 7 consecutive nights while guests are being helped to make provision for a more permanent place to stay

Since its opening in 1972, Sancta Maria House has provided overnight accommodation for more than 120,000 guests.  This is a remarkable achievement considering that it depends entirely on private donations for its financial support.  Tradesmen and construction companies have been generous in helping freely in the maintenance and repair of the building.

In a recent interview Mary McHale was asked if she had any favorite memories from Sancta Maria House.  She replied that what gave her most joy was to see how the guests helped one another, and shared with one another.  It was as if the kindness which they received at Sancta Maria House was contagious, and inspired them in turn to be kind to one another.

It gave me great pleasure to re-connect with the few remaining members of the original team, and to see how they are being replaced by members of the new generation of the Legion of Mary.  Some of these new members were not even born when the original project began.  Their active presence in this ongoing service is living proof that the seed sown in Boston more than 40 years ago continues to bear fruit today.

Bartholomew Again


Last week when I was checking on Saint Bartholomew’s links with the people of Armenia, I found his name associated with another historical event.  That event is known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and it took place in Paris, France on August 24,1572.

After Martin Luther rebelled in 1517, many French nobles were attracted to Protestantism by the teaching of the French theologian John Calvin, who broke from the Catholic Church around 1530.  The French Protestants were known as Huguenots, and they constituted about fifteen per cent of the French population.

Charles IX was king of France.  His mother Catherine de Medici believed that the Protestant nobles were trying to influence her son to go to war against Catholic Spain.  She convinced Charles that they were planning to revolt against him and take over the French throne.

So Charles and Catherine made plans to kill the leaders of the group when they were in Paris to celebrate the marriage of their leader Henry of Navarre to the king’s sister Margaret.

Just before dawn on August 24th the attack began, and the leaders were assassinated.  But it did not stop there.  The mob seemed to take the assassinations as a signal to attack Protestants everywhere in France.  In Paris alone an estimated 3,000 were killed.  This became known as Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.  Despite the king’s pleas for peace, the killings continued for several weeks, and 70,000 more died throughout France.

Pope Gregory XIII, who had become Pope in May of 1572, seemed to interpret these deaths as divine intervention and wanted to associate himself with it.  Perhaps he received poor advice, or maybe he just judged the situation badly.  For whatever reason, he had a medal struck to commemorate the event.

On one side of the medal was Gregory’s facial profile with the words, “Gregorius XIII Pont Max”  On the other side was a winged angel, sword in one hand and cross in the other, standing over several dead bodies, with the words, “Ugonuttorum Strages 1572” (Slaughter of the Huguenots 1572).

This Papal gesture hurt the image of the Catholic Church, and did enormous damage to the promotion of religious tolerance.  It contradicted the very role of one who claimed to be “Pontifex Maximus” (the Supreme Pontiff or Bridge-Builder).

I would rather remember Gregory XIII as the Pope who gave the world the Gregorian calendar in 1582, than as the Pope who ordered the controversial commemorative medal in 1572.

And I prefer to think of Saint Bartholomew in his happy association with the Christian people of Armenia, than of Saint Bartholomew in his involuntary association with one of the darker deeds in the history of France.