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Francis: Faith Beyond the Fringe of Fear - by Chris McDonnell


Already Within book cover - D. O'Leary

Over recent weeks, many have asked what Francis has achieved in the first year or so of his being Bishop of Rome, the first pope to take the name of Francis and the first member of the Society of Jesus to occupy the See of Peter.

Many answers have been given by those both within the Church and beyond. Let me consider just one suggestion, the movement beyond the fringe of fear.

Over the years, the Christian message of hope in the Gospel has often been coloured by a mostly hidden culture of fear. That may seem to be a broad brush stroke, but it is a fact that has been underlying our difficulties in recent years.

This fear has been rooted in our distorted view of papal jurisdiction, operating as a total and final backstop when change was being discussed. The evident need for Collegiality, shown to us in the document of the Council, Lumen Gentium, was never fully explored or realised with the closure of the Council. We must ask why. In a letter published recently in the Tablet, I wrote

"The courage of the local bishops is called upon to seek honest solutions within the context of the local need. It is reflective of the recent comment by Cardinal Karl Lehmann when he said that "We need to be more courageous in dialogue within the Church. We complain that Rome is over-powerful but the reason why Rome is so strong is because we are too weak."  That was a significant remark."

For me this is what has changed with Francis. He has not made sweeping statements that discard the roots of tradition, nor offered a whole tranche of new ideas. But he has shown a willingness to discuss our present difficulties, honestly and openly, in a spirit of faith. This is the first stage towards crossing the fringe of fear. It offers to all the opportunity to review, in the context of genuine dialogue, the issues facing us in these early years of the 21st Century. The Lord of our faith is not one of fear and trepidation but an open, welcoming God of love who is within each one of us.

At every layer of our Church structure, there has been a degree of fear and hesitancy in respect to those above, bishops in respect of Rome, priests in respect of their bishops who exercise their immediate management and people in respect of their priests whose word in earlier years was total and final. The reality of being a Christian demands that we look forward in hope, without the hesitancy of looking over our shoulder checking out the consequences of our faith.

Yet the vision of Church that is emerging is of an informed laity whose faith involves the courage to articulate views that break the acceptance of a clerical diktat, seeking dialogue. And priests themselves, are beginning to have courageous conversations with each other and with their Bishops. The emergence of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, with a membership of over 1000 priests and the recent formation in the United States of a similar group as well as the gatherings in Europe, are signs of a stirring in courage, of essential faith overcoming an incipient fear.

Daniel O'Leary, writing in his book "Already Within" notes that

"...it is a pity, I now think, that, especially within our church institution, we are all so fearful of disagreeing with ‘authority' , of upsetting the status quo, of telling our truth"

The potentiality of the acorn to become a great tree is well illustrated in the cover of his book that heads this posting. From a small seed grows a strong tree. The courage to talk, to listen in faith, to trust that our journey in the Lord is not unfounded, even when challenged, is the gift of the Holy Spirit through the blessing on the Church of a Pope from South America.

It is fundamental to our freedom as Christian pilgrims that fear is not part of the package. We welcome the Christ into the centre of our lives and through our lives, show him to others. In August 1996, three weeks before he died, Henri Nouwen wrote

"Often we praise prophets after they are dead. Are we willing to be prophets while we are alive?"

That's worth thinking about.

Daniel O'Leary's most recent book is: Treasured and Transformed: Vision for the Heart; Understanding for the Mind.


About Chris McDonnell.

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