Feb 28 2011

Spiritual but not religious – Jim Neilan

Published by under Talks

Spiritual but not religious
Jim Neilan. 24.2.11.

I almost used the title, “Pilgrim’s search for truth” -something we all have in common –a search for truth and meaning in life.

My pilgrimage has had many ups and downs and turnings in 75 years.
I’ve been fortunate to have had many opportunities and experiences
And the questions still seem to be outstripping the answers.

What I will be saying comes from my Christian (Catholic) background.
I hope it will be of interest.

I was born and brought up on a small farm out of Lawrence – Catholic family and most of my schooling at Catholic schools with Dominican Sisters and Christian Brothers. I did farm work, agricultural contracting  and had seven years in the BNZ.

The practice of my religion meant a lot to me, I like to think, –  not because I had to line up for the observances, but because it gave an extra dimension to my life.
After some promptings I decided to try out seminary life with the intention that if it didn’t appeal I could always leave.

I took to the studies of philosophy (three years) and theology (four years) with real enjoyment and enthusiasm – it opened up new way of thinking about life.
I used to wish that everyone could have the opportunity to have guidance in getting away from looking at things in the way were taught as children –  to confront objections and to look for rational answers.
At the age of thirty I was ordained as a Catholic priest. After a year or so of doing supplies in four or five parishes – Invercargill, Queenstown and Dunedin, the bishop sent me to Rome for post graduate studies in Moral Theology.

I discovered that life in Rome was a little different from life in Lawrence.
I lived at a residential college for mission country priests –  of the 139 residents, only five of us  were white –  they were mainly from Africa, India and Asia.
Each day we’d go off to whatever university we were studying at.
I had to travel right across the city. It wasn’t long before I joined the army of Vespa riders – weaving through 8 lanes of crazy Italian drivers racing round the Colosseum twice a day.

Living in such a multi-cultural mix was a great broadening experience – things I had taken for granted e.g. the way I had understood theology or some church teachings would be seen in  quite a different way by someone from a different culture.
Even the difference between the Anglo-Saxon way of looking at laws compared with the Italian way: to us, a red traffic light is a command – to Italians it’s more of  a suggestion.

I was also lucky in having my thinking processes broadened during the university vacation periods. There was no way we could pop home and work during the holidays to fund ourselves for the next year.
Fortunately with our international connections in Rome we got to hear of parishes that were willing to employ one of these missionary country priests. I worked in four places and could not have wished for a greater variety. I had two months at Southwark cathedral in London, and two in an affluent parish on Staten Island, New York. But what I enjoyed most were two small parishes where I was by myself and had a much closer relationship with the people – one in a parish in Florida (right where the first racial riots of that summer took place, while I was there) and a small very anti-Catholic mining community in Scotland.

Culture shock was not only about physical location – in Rome:  it was also about theological/religious thought.

I soon discovered that the approach to Theology had little resemblance to what I had been taught in Mosgiel. The emphasis in lectures and text books had been unchanged for generations – based on the idea that the church has all the answers. There were unchanging truths and dogmas and from these you could deduce answers to all the questions about living a christian life.

In Rome, (at least in my university) I found this approach turned on its head.  The starting point is human nature – before you attempt to make moral judgments you need to know what you can learn from sciences such as psychology, sociology and anthropology: need to take into account the study of linguistics – how meanings of words change, how truth has often been expressed more powerfully in metaphor than in dogmatic propositions; – morality is not a matter of avoiding sin but of  accepting the invitation to live our lives to their full potential – realising our own dignity and the dignity of other people and the sacredness of creation – as a Christian this meant accepting the invitation of Jesus to follow his example and to carry on his presence. This is the basis of morality.

Then there was the culture shock of the Vatican Council.
Pope John XXIII (elected as a stop-gap because he would be safe and not rock the boat of Peter) stunned the Catholic world (especially the Vatican hierarchy) by calling an ecumenical council – of the world-wide church.
He used the Italian word aggiornamento –  to throw open the windows and let some fresh air in. He said the church needed to look at the signs of the times in order to meet the needs of the times. The Church had developed a sub-culture – talking only to itself.
Most of Vatican Curia were stunned at the thought of common bishops coming on to their patch. They tried to ensure that they kept control – they’d get the council  over in a few weeks and things would get back to normal.
Remember that their idea of a good Holy Roman Catholic Church was to see the ‘world’ out there as unholy and, of course, anything that smacked of Protestantism was anathema. So they drew up the agenda for the council meeting with the idea of preserving the status quo.

The council has been described as the biggest, most famous adult education ever held. There were four sessions over three years with 2½ thousand bishops along with advisors and staff.

One of the first things the bishops did was to throw out the prepared agenda. They had brought periti (experts) with them – and the bishops sat at the feet of scripture scholars, theologians and historians to learn how they could (in words of John XXIII) “restore the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth”.

Over the four sessions they came up with the documents of the Council.
I was in Rome for the final session and the closing of the Council on Dec 8 1965.
It was a most exciting time, realising that history was being made. I was present in St Peters only three times (had to be invited). At the breaks it was intriguing to be rubbing shoulders with cardinals and bishops who at home were put on a pedestal, but here they had to push and shove for a cup of coffee like everyone else – a great leveller. The two coffee bars had been dubbed Bar Abbas and Bar Jonah.

I was fortunate, as well, that two of my professors were periti. They were known as being at the vanguard of moral theology. For decades they, and many others had been developing fresh insights into theology   – so much so that they were looked upon as dangerous by those guardians of the deposit of faith – sometimes their writings were suppressed. It was a sign of the times that they were chosen to be advisors (one to the German bishops and one to Irish). At lectures they had many tales to tell us of the goings on the council chamber.
I became quite friendly with another of my professors, American, Francis Xavier Murphy. He was contracted to write ’behind the scenes’ articles for the New Yorker. These were developed into four books on the council. He, too was a fund of gossip!

I suppose if you wanted one word to sum up the spirit of the council and the documents, it would be  openness:.  Aggiornamento – the fresh way of thinking which was  well expressed in one of the most important documents of the council, The Church in the Modern World.

There was a new emphasis on ecumenism – relationships with other churches and faiths.
Bishops were the ones who best knew their own people and so they were to work in collegiality with the pope, rather than be dictated to by Vatican officials.
Lay people were seen, not just as members who were there to pray, pay and obey – their involvement in the world is a vital part of the church’s mission to bring the values and virtues of godness into reality.
There had been compromises in finalising the teachings – diehards against any change remained, but all the documents were signed off with only a handful of dissenters.

Council came to an end in December 1965 and the bishops went home with the realisation that a giant step had been taken and the church would never be the same again.

There is no way you could say the council was on overnight success story.
All the proceedings had been in Latin and most of it went over the bishops’ mitres. Most of the value came from unstructured meetings – where various language groups would get together with their periti (theologians) and keep up to date in this way. Not every bishop took advantage of this and so many were not well equipped to explain to their clergy and people what the implications were.
One had to realise that their own training had been rigid and secure in the knowledge that the church has all the answers if you knew where to look.

We have to remember, as well what the world of the late sixties was like – a time of unrest and protest, when every form of authority came under scrutiny. (great example was the Vietnam war).
It was a time of great social change, not least the availability of the contraceptive pill allowing control over fertility and what that meant for women’s rights.
So we had  a time of society in disarray and a church admitting its limitations – a combination bound to cause some confusion.

The first change to affect ordinary parishioners was the change from Latin to English in the mass/liturgy.  The Latin thing was another throwback to the Reformation – because Luther and the reformers made the change from Latin to the vernacular, Rome had to do the opposite and stick with a language that became more and more unintelligible to most people.
Lay people were encouraged to take their proper place in church life.
Parish and diocesan councils were encouraged (which would seem old hat to those of other churches).
The programs for teaching children were updated in line with the new approach to theology.
Sermons or homilies should have reflected the same change of emphasis – but depended on how convinced individual priests were of the value of the changes.
There was dialogue with other churches – ministers had meetings.
The seminary at Mosgiel shared lectures with Knox college.

There were great advances in social teaching – movements like liberation theology:
Church involvement in political movements against unjust regimes – (in biblical words) working to build a kingdom of justice and peace.

This was happening at one level – people taking the spirit of the council seriously.
But in the Vatican the power structure and the fear of losing control never faded out.
Paul VI set up a synod of bishops to meet regularly so that they could work together in collegiality.  But soon it was apparent that they would have no real say – and some local bishops admit they were treated like altar boys by the officials in Rome – many of whom had no experience of working in ordinary parishes.

In 1968 came a pronouncement that would have huge and lasting impact.  This was the papal encyclical (letter to the universal church) called “humanae vitae”. Although it had many positive points to make about the sacredness of marriage, it will forever be remembered for one thing – it reaffirmed the traditional church teaching that any form of artificial birth control was contrary to the laws of nature and so was sinful.

There is an interesting background to this: for years, many theologians and bishops had questioned the traditional teaching. Naturally, they thought that the council provided a good opportunity to debate this. John XXIII would probably have welcomed this, but he had died and the new pope, Paul VI (a much more timid man) withdrew it from the agenda and instead set up a commissions to study the whole question in depth.  To his credit, he appointed some lay married people to the group.
One of my professors was on the commission and I knew that he had no doubt about the need for change. And the general expectation was that there would be change.
After thorough research and deliberation the majority of the commission said that the traditional ban on artificial contraception as a means of responsible parenthood, could not be justified in the light of modern insights from sciences and a better understanding of the earlier teachings. A minority (dominated by Roman clerics) disagreed and put pressure on the Pope. And so he ignored the majority of his own commission. His fear was that if people saw that this teaching could change, they would have no confidence in any church teaching.  Little did he realise that it had exactly the opposite effect. Thousands of people took the view that if the pope is so out of touch with the way we are trying to live responsible lives, we’ll make up our own minds – the church teaching is irrelevant.

So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 1968 was a watershed year in the history of the modern day church. Paul VI was shocked by the reaction to his encyclical and died without having much more impact on the church’s life.

Paul’s successor, John Paul I died suddenly after only a month in office and then there was the great excitement of a non- Italian pope – the Polish John Paul II.
And slowly the effects of the council began to be undone.
There is no doubt about his personal charism and his impact on the world scene –  he knew how to play the media, but he was steeped in the traditions of Polish Catholicism with its deep resistance to outside forces. He was extremely authoritarian and by 2005  after 26 years at the top he had put a chokehold on the agenda of the 1960s council.

One of the great benefits of being in Rome during the council was being able to go and hear various well known progressive  theologians giving  talks at different venues around the city.  One of these was Fr Ratzinger. He was an advisor to the German bishops and was progressive in his thought – in favour of reforming the curia in Rome – reducing their influence and increasing the collegiality of local bishops.
It’s hard to recognise the same man now (Pope Benedict) as he carries on from John Paul II in getting further and further away from the spirit of the council.

Conservatism is the order of the day – a bending over backwards to accommodate those who wish to go back to the Mass in Latin while condemning those who suggest looking at the possibility of women priests or abandoning compulsory celibacy for the clergy. And, of course, the most public of recent issues – the refusal to face up to a real enquiry as to how clerical abuse of young people was able to come about.

So there is a widening gap in the Catholic population.
There are those who smugly settle back into the security of the “church the way we knew it” offering stability and certitude – and many who have given up on the church – or are just hanging in there, with all the hopes which they saw arising from the council evaporating.
If all ex-Catholics in States were to form a single church they would constitute the second largest church in the nation.

Unfortunately those ‘looking backwards’ include many young priests and students for the priesthood. Some describe themselves as JPII priests as opposed to Vat II priests.
They are even distinguishable by their uniform – neat black suits with roman collars – appearances and externals take on an exaggerated importance.

So, with this widening gap, where do I stand?
I resigned from the official ministry in the church nearly 30 years ago and have now been married for 27 years. I remain a practising Catholic and take an active part in my local parish. Theology and church matters were so much part of a long period of my life that I try to keep up to date with the latest of what is going on.
Don asked me to suggest two or three points for discussion and what I put down were just the sort of questions I ask myself without having definite answers and it’s up to you if you want to use them.

First, there’s a point of view which impressed me recently.
It bears directly on the theme of being spiritual without being religious.
Last year I made a copy of an address by the Chief Rabbi of London, Jonathan Sacks.x
I hope I can summarise his thoughts about the value of religion.

He spoke of walking through London with his granddaughter.
They pass Parliament Buildings –“what happens there?”, she asks. “Politics”. “What’s politics about?”  “About creation and distribution of power”.
They pass the Bank of England – “what happens there?”  “Economics”. “What’s economics about?”  “The creation and distribution of wealth.”
For the past 50 years our lives have been dominated by these two institutions; politics and economics, the state and the market. There are two ways of getting people to do what you want them to do – force them – the way of power: or you pay them – the way of wealth. Both are arenas of competition – someone wins, someone loses. These have become the dominant forces in modern society.

Sacks points out that there is a third way. After they had passed the parliament and the bank, they came to St Paul’s. “What happens there?”  “Worship.”  “ What does worship produce, create and distribute?” A very good question. Rabbi Sacks uses the term ‘covenant goods’. The more you share out power and wealth the less you have left for yourself. But with covenant goods, the more you share the more you have. These ‘goods’ are things like love, friendship, knowledge, trust. The more I give away, the more I have – we both win.
Where do you find these covenant goods – not in the market or the state but in communities – in marriages, in families, in congregations.  A covenant (differing from a contract which is an agreement between two or more each pursuing their own interests) a covenant is two or more, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other come together in  a bond of trust and love to share their interests (sometimes their lives) in faithfulness – to do together what they cannot do alone. Covenants transform people, in contrast to contracts, which merely benefit people.
Sociologists and Darwinists confirmed the fact that individuals survive only as parts of groups – and groups only survive on the basis of co-operation: and, for humans, cooperation needs this covenant – bonds of reciprocity and trust.
Traditionally, says the rabbi, this was the domain of religion – this is what religion creates and distributes. The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin root word ‘to bind’ to bind people or things together. If you have only competition, but not cooperation, if you only have the state and the market and not covenant, then society will not survive. So what happens when religion wanes and there is nothing covenantal to take its place? What happens is that relationships break down. Marriages grow weak. Family life becomes fragile. Communities atrophy and people begin to feel vulnerable and alone. They turn those feelings outward and the result is often anger – or worse, violence. Or they can turn their feelings inwards and the result is depression, stress-related syndromes, eating disorders and drug or alcohol abuse. When covenant wanes, when religion wanes you will find spiritual poverty, even in the midst of material affluence. This disintegration happens gradually in societies without covenants and without institutions needed to inspire and sustain them.

So, if we say that religion has this important/vital role to play in human life, the next question to me is how well does the church fulfil this role?

In this context, I ask myself, what is church? (Again, speaking as Catholic).  One thing I am sure of, the church is not the Vatican or the hierarchy. Individually these are often good men but the system and culture which they are closed into gets more and more remote from the ups and downs of ordinary life.  Jesus did not set up a church as we know it. The letters which St Paul wrote probably give us the best insight into the organisation of the followers of Jesus (it’s many years before we find the word ‘christian’). Paul travelled around various groups of these followers. He didn’t set up structures based around him – each group sorted out their own way of living the Way of Jesus with their own particular needs reflected in their community. As he said, different people had different gifts and talents like the different parts of a human body. Being human, there was always the temptation for some to seek power or to let selfish needs override the needs of others. And so we have some of his letters ticking them off and telling them to get things back on to the Way of Jesus.
It was only later that we find they needed to establish more formal structures to preserve these covenant communities.
And then once Christianity became linked with the Roman Empire we’re into titles and hierarchies and possessions and all the abuses that can, and often did, arise.

So I like to think of a church community as one that resembles a community of those early days.  In “Catholic speak” we say the church is a sacrament – a living sign, through its members of the effective presence of the spirit of Jesus in our time and space.
How and where can we experience this community? Or perhaps a more important question is ‘how can I/we  actively help to make such a community possible?”

One of the common ways is through a parish. I belong to Sacred Heart parish – Sunday after Sunday, there’s a great mix of people: families into 5th generation of being in the Valley, old people, professors and a judge, students of all nationalities, a man who spends his time picking up rubbish from the streets in a bag. A severely handicapped young man who shares the wine of communion by his mother feeding it into a tube to his stomach.

Pastors come and go – the standard of sermons rise and fall – but the community with all its shortcomings survives as a caring community – not based on power or wealth, but as a covenant community. This, to me is an example of what church is.

I see value in the liturgical seasons, Advent leading up to Christmas and Lent to Easter. Times of celebration and times of self discipline.
I see value in the individual and group support that I see for the sick and the needy.
I see value in the various celebrations – even funerals strengthen the bonds.

Within this community in the Valley, we have the community of a parish school –  it forms a vital part of a caring parish. I happen to be on the board of trustees and I’m amazed at the spirit between pupils, teachers and parents.
I’m amazed at the content of the curriculum – how so many values are instilled through the normal subjects of a primary school.
They have their own student council. I was sceptical but their feedback to the Board is amazing – suggestions and insights are completely unselfish – their concerns are for the school community and especially for those with particular difficulties.
Here too we have a covenant community in its own way.

How do we translate this into a wider sphere of influence? All suggestions welcome!

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