I was brought up, a ‘cradle Catholic’, in what I now know was a very traditional Irish Catholic religious environment. When I was young the spiritual message was clearly: “If you are good, God will love you and reward you – in the next life” – pretty much the opposite of what Jesus taught. Sin was everywhere and each sin was clearly measured in degree of severity, with some sins leaving you teetering on the verge of eternal damnation. God was judge and executioner – after all, look what He had required of His own Son Jesus. And while daily life for a working class kid in London of the 1960s was okay, there was certainly a constant backdrop of fear. Weekly churchgoing, and all the various practices of Catholic school, were a kind of eternal insurance policy, what some have facetiously called a ‘fire insurance policy’. Sad to say, there was little encouragement to develop any depth relationship with God, but how could you when He was so scary?
No wonder then that the vast majority of my fellow Catholic kids effectively gave up on any pretence at religious practice, and maybe even any belief in God. Some commentators actually attribute the rise of atheism and agnosticism in Western countries as largely the result of this fear-based religion.
How was it then that I became a priest in the 1970s and 80s? Certainly the much needed and long overdue reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 65) were hugely influential in my becoming a member of a religious order and then a priest. Sad to say that the ‘fresh air’ of Vatican II has been largely stifled by a traditionalist reaction which has been in many ways encouraged by a number of popes. Even so, the post conciliar Church is light years away from the old sin-soaked and punitive religion of my childhood. In this sense I was a ‘Vat II priest’, trying to emphasise a God of love, stressing original blessing rather than original sin, and I hope and pray that in my years as an active priest I brought consolation and hope to many good and decent Catholic folk.
Yet I think the wonderful renewal brought about by Vat II is only part of my story. In my poem The Family Rosary I try to express how it was that I seemed to have a ‘sense of God’ as a child. Somehow, in my old fashioned and traditional upbringing there was a kernel of spiritual awareness that was no result of my own doing. It was a pure gift. It might be too simplistic to simply attribute it to experiencing nightly rosaries with the larger family, but I do think this had a deep effect on me. I’ve tried to express this in an earlier blog A Sense of God. As I say, this has been a gift – a gift from God, that was mediated by the faith of my parents and grandparents and wider family. It has little to do with my own efforts, and I can only be thankful for having received this ‘treasure’. What I have done with this treasure is entirely another matter.
My Catholicism is alive and well. It is a long way from the faith of my childhood, and I acknowledge that much in the Catholic world is still entrenched in negativity, but God is with His Church and will never forsake it. Neither will I.
At this stage in my life now I feel that I am only just beginning to understand some key truths, and part of this new awareness is leading me to find wisdom within my Catholic tradition and also in other spiritual traditions. Spirit-filled teachers such as Fr Daniel O’Leary and Richard Rohr are foremost in my searchings, and if I say anything of value in these blogs, much credit has to be given to these men and other like-minded teachers. Isn’t it so true that all pilgrim searchers stand on the shoulders of giants?
I pray you also find wise and loving spiritual guides – they do exist – but we need to constantly discern and recognise the Spirit by the fruits thereof. And we need to not just search, listen and discern, but also to practice a daily contemplation to internalise this wisdom and adopt a radical attitude of gratitude.
Let me conclude by stating: God is love, life is good, and all is gift.