Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

Marriage equality in Ireland achieved

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

2016-02-20 14.16.47
A picture tells the story better than 1,000 words.

Lord have mercy

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Lord have mercy,

For the times when I, as an Irish Catholic,

Imposed my morality on other people.

Lord have mercy.

Christ have mercy,

For the times when I, in my self-righteousness and smug arrogance,

Campaigned and voted no in referendums that would have made Ireland a fairer and more honest society.

Christ have mercy.

Lord have mercy,

For the times that I obeyed the bishops and voted as they wanted me to vote

Rather than thinking for myself and following my own honest judgement.

Lord have mercy.

Please vote Yes in the marriage equality referendum.

My brother’s death

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

My brother hanged himself this day last month, on 23 March 2015. He was 60.

He took his own life four weeks to the day after I buried my mother.

It’s a lot to take in. I haven’t had asthma for 15 years, but I have it again. Doubtless, stress-related. Grief-related. Struggling for breath as my brother did this day last month.

It’s hard to know what to say. And yet writing is therapy. A poultice. Get it out. Express. Like struggling breath.

David was gay. He had a miserable time at home. And a miserable time in Ireland.

He wanted no prayers at his funeral. He told me so 26 years ago, just after I had left my priestly path. And he told his life partner the very same thing within the last two years.

Ireland was a cold place for gay men. Let us hope that Irishmen and Irishwomen will declare to the world for once and for all in the forthcoming referendum that gay and lesbian people are equal citizens. Let us hope that the fairness and justice of the Irish conscience will triumph over those who seek to muddy the waters.

Those hideous posters that shift the debate from equality – which is what the referendum is about – to canards.

Why is it that people of religious faith so often seek to impose their rules on others who choose not to be of their faith? Who would have gay men and women believe that there is something sick with them. It is the religious mentality that seeks to impose itself on others that is sick.

Why do they not protest to their god whom they claim is in charge of the universe – omnipotent, omnipresent, all powerful – and yet he does nothing about the children who are left orphaned by parents who die. Why don’t religious folk raise their banners and posters against their god found so wanting in compassion for his creatures? And why, instead, take out their unjust ire on minorities like gay and lesbian human beings? Why don’t they protest to their gods and deities, and their priests, about the so-called all-loving god who supposedly wants the little children to come onto him ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ when he inflicts cancers and illnesses upon those whom he supposedly created with love?

But rather than confront their manmade god, they seek to say onto their fellow human beings that equality is not for all. I beg you all: vote Yes for marriage equality.

And for those who seek to deny men like my brother the right to marry in Ireland I say: Shame on you! Be just to all. And be humble. Save your moralizing for your own conscience. Vote Yes!

Atheist Priests/’Oh Me of Little Faith’

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Atheist Priests

Here is the essence of my article about atheist priests and clergy that was published 3 March 2013 in The Sunday Times: ‘Oh Me of Little Faith’  (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/article1223820.ece)

Joe Armstrong talks to the priests who feel trapped in their ministries – because they dare not tell their flocks they have become atheists

While 115 cardinals deliberate upon who will be the next pope, all around the world many priests have a far greater crisis: their unbelief in God.

Atheist clergy – Catholic and Protestant – who have outgrown their religious faith often feel trapped financially, personally and professionally.

Typical is Adam, an atheist clergyman interviewed for an American television documentary using a pseudonym, a disguised voice and being shown on film in heavy shadow lest he be identified. These measures emphasised the huge risks atheist clergy take in going public: job, livelihood, security, home, community, friends and even marriage can be at stake.

A long-time cleric untrained for any secular job, Adam doesn’t want to risk his family’s financial security. “I wear a mask every day,” he said. “I am trapped. My greatest fear is doing nothing and pretending to be someone I am not for the rest of my life.”

He is one of the founders of the Clergy Project, an online community of more than 400 atheist clergy, Catholic and Protestant, a quarter of whom remain in active ministry. Several of its members live in Ireland.

In his bestselling 1980s book Help my Unbelief, Michael Paul Gallagher, a Jesuit priest, included a chapter entitled Saying Mass an Atheist.

“Perhaps I would choose a different term now, because ‘atheism’ usually implies a steady stance of denial and I was talking about a temporary mood of doubt, an eclipse that did not last,” Gallagher said. “I have never become an atheist but I have run into times where God seems painfully unreal. I don’t think this is surprising.”

As proof, Gallagher even cites the former Pope Benedict, who once admitted to having been threatened by the “oppressive strength of unbelief”. Too often, priests give the impression that faith is a fortress of security, Gallagher believes. “That’s not the usual personal experience,” he said.

“There are many big reasons for unbelief: the suffering of the world; the painful silence of God – God’s strange shyness, one might say. A priest runs into all these.”

Kevin Hegarty, sacked as editor of church magazine Intercom in 1994 after publishing an article about clerical child abuse, also admits to doubt: ‘‘I’ve had an experience of saying mass when my faith was very fragile. It can be very fragile,” he said. “Faith ebbs and flows. At times I preach something and wonder, is it really true? I don’t expect exactitude. I’m prepared to work through doubt, bit by bit. There are times when I have my doubts about the doctrinal teachings of the church – but they’ve never been overwhelming.’

For Tom Rastrelli, a US-based member of the Clergy Project who was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 2002, the doubts were overwhelming. “As the abuse scandal worsened and more bishops denied the crimes they’d committed, my belief in church as a divine institution faded,” he said. “In the confessional, I saw the damage that abusive priests and bullying bishops had done to people. There was nothing of divine inspiration in that. In the trenches of ministry, I saw how harmful particular teachings and actions of the church were to people.”

During the final months of his ministry, Rastrelli said, he no longer believed in the authority of the Catholic Church, the Pope, or the bishops. “I didn’t believe in the Marian teachings – the virgin birth, the preservation of Mary’s hymen during childbirth, the immaculate conception, and the assumption.”

He stopped believing in the “real presence” of the eucharist and could no longer say the creed in good conscience. He questioned everything he’d been taught. “Your life and sexuality are a gift, but since you’re gay, if you act on that gift you’re sinning,” he said. “The god in which I’d been taught to believe was vindictive not loving, a human construct to justify atrocious human behaviour, prejudices, and fears.

“No longer believing in the inspiration of the scriptures, I became a fully-fledged agnostic. Within another few months, I was comfortable saying that I didn’t believe in a god. I was no longer afraid of what people thought of me, of the negative stigma surrounding the word ‘atheist’. I felt free to be a fully realised human being. Thousands of years of canonized fear, loathing, shame, and distrust vanished. I owned being an atheist.”

Rastrelli would say he didn’t “lose” his faith. “I evolved beyond it,” he said. “Having witnessed first-hand the damage that people do in the names of their gods, I’m thankful that I did evolve beyond it. Now I’m free to be who I am. I’ve seen how disgustingly judgmental people can be when armed with their gods. I wouldn’t give my integrity in exchange for the coddled security of priestly life.”

Unlike most atheist clergy, John Shuck, a Presbyterian clergyman in good standing in America, is openly atheistic. He doesn’t believe in the existence of God, the divinity of Christ or the resurrection of Jesus – all of which he regards as useful metaphors created by the human imagination.

Asked how fellow ministers regard him, Shuck said: “Many appreciate what I am doing, as they have many of the same convictions. Others think I represent everything that is wrong with my denomination.”

Shuck rejects the charge of hypocrisy. “I am about the most open person I know with regard to what I believe and don’t believe. I have publicly blogged about this for seven years and preached openly for 20.

“The real charge of hypocrisy should be levelled at those who confuse truth with power; self-appointed gate-keepers of traditional belief who say they are about affirming the truth on one hand, then put up fences of dogma around their cherished beliefs on the other. They are unwilling to look at truth and then threaten with excommunication and loss of employment those who do. That is hypocrisy.”

Shuck does not believe in an afterlife. “The core belief has been, in the words of the catechism, ‘to love God and to enjoy God forever’. If you take the supernaturalism out of that and substitute ‘life’ for ‘God’ and ‘my whole life long’ for ‘forever’ you get the real point of religion.

“It is about how to live a good life. The supernatural elements are excess baggage of an age that is fading away.”

Iain and Kyle – not their real names – are two members of the Clergy Project, both atheist ministers within a mainstream Protestant denomination in Ireland. They envy John Shuck’s “coming out” as an atheist and his congregation’s acceptance. Iain and Kyle say their whole worlds would fall apart if their atheism became known.

“I knew I was an atheist from the early 1990s,” said Iain. “My wife knows. She finds it hard to accept. I don’t look at her while I’m preaching.”

His dilemma is that if he told people, his income would stop immediately. “I don’t think I’d be eligible for a pension. I’d have no job. I’d lose my home,’ he said. He has worked in the church all his life, but finds it increasingly difficult to keep up the pretence. “I don’t see how I can keep going to retirement.”

Iain feels worst about deluding children because he agrees with Richard Dawkins, the biologist and atheist campaigner, that inculcating religious faith in minors is a form of child abuse. “I’d love to stand up and tell my congregation the truth,” he said. “But I don’t have the courage, even though many of them know there is no God. My call is just like anyone else’s, [it’s] total and absolute nonsense – a delusion.’

Kyle says he is torn over his unbelief. He tries to carry out all his religious duties without the supernatural background. Funerals can be especially difficult, however, since he is expected to preach about an afterlife.

Although a Protestant minister, Kyle’s atheism was triggered by Catholic clerical child abuse. “I couldn’t believe a god could permit child abuse. It’s impossible,” he said. “The systematic concealing of it doesn’t get God off the hook. Prayers for the sick are never answered. So for me there’s no way I could believe in God anymore.”

Iain feels trapped and would like to leave the ministry. “I feel guilty. I’m taking their money. I’m living in their house,” he said. But Kyle doesn’t want to leave. “I can influence people for the good as a minister. [The church] is a place where the community gathers and has a sing. We support each other and children are safeguarded against drugs. We don’t take religion too seriously. It’s like inventing our own surreal world.”

Mathew – not his real name – is a Roman Catholic priest affiliated to a diocese in America. He became troubled by the theology that a newborn child carried the stain of original sin and needed baptism.

When he realised he didn’t believe, saying mass became a chore he dreaded.

“I felt like a fraud and wondered how long before someone found me out. I worried that I might slip and reveal my lack of belief,” he said. “I felt sorry for the people who came to mass, which I considered empty and meaningless. I wondered, couldn’t their time be better spent?”

He became disgusted by the theological undertones of the eucharist. “The notion of a god demanding a blood sacrifice – from his own son no less – repelled me. I could not believe in a god who would demand a violent death as reparation for the supposed wrongs of humans.

“The sanctuary’s large crucifix with its bloodied and bruised Jesus became a horrible and disgusting sight. Each morning, as I put on my clerical band collar, it felt like I was putting a heavy metal shackle around my neck. I realised that my doubts about every line in the Creed, including the very existence of God, were not going away, no matter how much I tried. Once I accepted my unbelief, I was not nearly as bothered by it as I had imagined. Unbelief felt natural in a way that religion never had.’

For Patrick Semple, a former Church of Ireland rector and atheist, being an atheist is simply a way of trying to make sense of the mystery around us. “People are genuinely atheist. It’s not a badness or a perversity,” he said.

As a priest Semple accepted doctrines rather than believed them, and was never convinced about life after death. He sees a lot of religious security as a regression to childhood. “I abhor the expression ‘lost the faith’ – it sounds like culpable negligence,” he said. “It was a positive decision that I no longer believed. I realised I was not a Christian agnostic – I was atheist.”

Upon realizing his atheism, Semple talked to his bishop, who was not shocked and simply told him to get back to work. When Semple told another Church of Ireland clergyman of his atheism, his fellow cleric replied: “Join the gang!”

* Joe Armstrong’s documentary ‘From Belief to Unbelief’ can be heard at www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/radio-documentary-from-belief-to-unbelief-joe-armstrong-catholic-priesthood.html

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Monday, February 18th, 2013

I watched Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and attended a Q&A session with its director Alex Gibney at the Lighthouse cinema in Dublin last Friday. The documentary about clerical sex abuse in the USA and Ireland  is powerful, well-made and persuasive, as you might expect from the Oscar-winning director. It made the point that, at one stage, every case of clerical child abuse ended up on the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger, the soon-to-retire pope. Given the opprobrium rightly heaped on those very many bishops and religious superiors who did not stop abusing priests from the rape and molestation of children, who did not report such heinous crimes to the police, and who did not inform the parents of children abused of the trauma suffered by their children, I couldn’t understand why the film backed away from taking a closer look at Ratzinger’s failure in this regard too, given that, as the documentary makes clear,  every case landed on his desk.

My only other criticism of the film is that it doesn’t challenge the ludicrous belief which is articulated in the film that a priest is ontologically changed at ordination, becoming just less than an angel. It’s that daft belief that mesmerized so many credulous Catholics into not recognizing vile acts against children for what they are: crimes against humanity perpetuated by vile men, facilitated by senior clerics who retain their positions of power and privilege.

It’s a wonderful life

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

I began watching ‘It’s a wonderful life’ each Christmas a few years ago. It gets to me every time. This year, I cried seven times during it – maybe because of recent high profile suicides. It’s a magnificent celebration of the wonder of life, to be grasped even in the midst of trials and terrors. Although an unbeliever – and possibly even more so on that account – the carefully crafted frame of the story, begun from the perspective of imagined celestial beings that look on us from an alternative viewpoint, and the opening line that the hero isn’t ‘sick’ but, ‘worse than that – he’s discouraged’ sets the tone and vantage point of the psycho-spiritual purpose of the movie: our need for hope against discouragement.
The person on the brink of suicide might find it difficult to bring to mind the positive things they have done in life, and yet that is the tack taken by the ‘angel’ who, charmingly, wants to earn his wings. And so, at the hero’s moment of despair, he is led to people and places familiar to him and he realized that he has not been all bad. Far from it. Yes, he shouted at his kids and crashed his car and money went missing from his workplace during his watch and yes he faced jail and public shaming yet, after his journey with his ‘guardian angel’ he realizes that that is not the sum total of his life. He has done good. And life is to be embraced and rejoiced in, even in the midst of trial and tribulation.
Today, the Meath Hunt gathered in Kells, county Meath, Ireland. It lashed rain but it was a magnificent event: colourful, powerful, energetic, exciting. Riders on their steeds quaffed hot mulled wine while their hounds got friendly with the crowd. I petted two fine hounds and then, after the bugle blew, I and my daughter headed off following them, along with scores of other cars. Kells was a vortex of excitement and smiles, as tourists and locals and horsey people and blow-ins like me savoured the atmosphere. And I felt just like George Bailey, hero of It’s a Wonderful Life, appreciating the moment and thrill of it all.
Before any of us were born, the world spun on its axis and the world knew nought of our non-existence. After our short span is done, the earth will go on spinning without us. Right now, we are alive! Life is wonderful. Relish it, savour it, live each moment to the full.

‘From Belief to Unbelief’ documentary on RTE Radio 1, Sat. 13 October, 2012.

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

I’ve spent more than six months working, with Nicoline Greer from the Documentary on One team at RTE Radio 1, on making a 40-minute documentary called ‘From Belief to Unbelief’.

It charts the story of my journey from belief to unbelief, and also that of two fellow novices, John O’Sullivan and Declan Wynne, who entered the Marist Fathers’ seminary at Mount St Mary’s, Milltown, Dublin, in September 1980.

Of the twenty who entered that year, only three remain in religious life.  I left after nine years. Declan after ordination, having spent thirteen years in the order. John is the most recent to leave: he was a member of the order for some thirty years.

We each speak of the insights, realisations and key events in our personal paths starting with our sense of a call to the priesthood and religious life; entering the seminary; our challenges, questions and crises; our deeply personal and painful decisions to leave religious life; and our contented lives today as unbelievers.

The documentary is not only the personal story of three men: our lives may be seen as a microcosm for the transformation taking place in Irish society in the last 20, 30 or even 50 years. In the early 1980s there were some 40 seminarians in the Marist Fathers’ seminary in Ireland alone. Nowadays, there are no Irish seminarians in the order and Mount Saint Mary’s is no longer a seminary. The chapel which once reverberated to the sound of many young vibrant seminarians now lies silent and is rarely used. As recently as the early 1980s, the houses of the Marist Fathers in Ireland boasted full communities of priests, compared to the small and aging communities remaining today.

Thirty-two years after entering the order, I revisit the former seminary in the company of Father Denis Green SM, now in his nineties, who used to be my spiritual director.

Documentary maker: Joe Armstrong.

Production supervision by Nicoline Greer.

‘From Belief to Unbelief’ is scheduled for broadcast in the Documentary on One slot on RTE Radio One, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, 13 October. It will be repeated the following evening at 7 p.m. From broadcast date it can also be listened to online or downloaded from www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone as an mp3 or Podcast. If it isn’t on the front page of that link, simply search for ‘From Belief to Unbelief’ in the RTE Radio One, Documentary on One search bar, or find it under the ‘Life’ category.

 

 

Tears of Joy at inauguration of President Michael D. Higgins

Friday, November 11th, 2011

I wept several times watching the inauguration of the new premier citizen of Ireland, President Michael D. Higgins. It was so moving. How great that he had a humanist there, Michael D’s initiative. I wept watching him greeting the children, wept as he gave his inaugural address, wept because life isn’t all about money and economics and bank bonds and bailouts. I loved Michael D’s  focus on inclusiveness and creativity and humanity. I loved that he has spoken out in favour of human rights all his life and, as RTE’s John Bowman remarked during the television commentary, the new President was more often outside the US embassy, standing up for human rights, than inside it. I love Michael D’s individuality, his independence of mind. He is a man of integrity and truthfulness. He arranged a wonderfully inclusive ceremony. And I loved that gorgeous rendition of ‘The Deer’s Cry’ by Shaun Davey, sung so beautifully by his wife Rita Connolly.

New publication pending on the Guild of Uriel

Friday, August 19th, 2011

I have just finished writing a booklet on the Guild of Uriel. It is a fascinating group. They arranged meetings outside the glare of publicity between the different sides of the socio-political-religious divide in Northern Ireland, often getting enemies into the same room at the same time to…dialogue. They invited guest speakers and organizations to meet with them. They didn’t judge anyone. Even when the IRA ceasefire broke down, they kept up their quiet, invaluable work. Some criticized them for talking to the political wing of the IRA – Sinn Fein – but they met them nevertheless, convinced that to resolve conflict you have to talk to everyone. Roy Garland was the inspiration behind the Guild. He is a unionist yet he realized the interconnectedness between everyone in Ireland. He discovered his own roots through an examination of the Anglo-Norman history of his family. The truth is, so often, far more complex than the unionist versus nationalist debate that the conflict was so often conceived as. The booklet is being read now by Roy and by Julitta Clancy, both long-time chairs of the Guild. Julitta is well known for her work in the Meath Peace Group and she was awarded an OBE for her work for peace and reconciliation between the peoples of the two islands that constitute Ireland and Great Britain.

A New Dawn for Ireland

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

In Tripoli they have to riot and human rights protesters are massacred. In Ireland, we go to the ballot box and we have massacred our discredited Government. Long live Ireland! God help Libya.