Thursday, 22 January 2009


Of late I've been considering the relationship between passion and courage and what it is that propels these two into radical action, as distinct from their dull counterpoint of rigid orthodoxy which only stultifies and corrupts. Two figures, separated by centuries of time have brought this into sharp focus, the one a young monk in 16th. century Germany the other a 70 year old priest in 21 st century Ireland.
At the Diet of Worms in 1521 the lowly monk informed by the edicts of Scripture and empowered by his personal conviction of faith stood up to the might and authority of the Holy Roman Empire throwing down this historic challenge… “Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason ... I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honourable to act against conscience." Luther had been sickened by the numerous evidences of the corruption of the church which then abounded and as he read the Bible, its words seared into his heart a compulsion to effect a change. ‘Sole fide…Sole Scriptura’ (Faith alone…Scripture alone) was Luther’s rallying call, his own spiritual pathway having being illuminated by the words from Paul's Epistle to the Romans, ‘For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." (Rom 1:17) Unshackled from meaningless religious rite and cant, he was set free to tackle the issues in the church which were corrupting the very core of its ‘gospel’ message. One of the most pernicious practices which exercised him was the crass selling of indulgences, in which the ‘faithful’ were promised on the authority of the pope himself, that in exchange for money their suffering relatives could be released from the torments of Purgatory. These ‘sales’ were sanctioned and promoted by Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz with the tacit support of Pope Leo X, much of the money raised being used for the building of St Peters in Rome. Johann Tetzel, a Dominican preacher was one of the Pontiff’s finest ‘indulgence’ salesmen, filling the coffers with cash duped from the people, after delivering lurid sermons on the graphic fiery trials afflicting souls trapped in Purgatory ! Martin Luther was horrified by Papal excesses and angry that the ordinary folks ignorance of the Scriptures made them fall easy prey to these trick-of-the-loop so called, preachers. Perhaps his most lasting and far reaching act was the translation of the New Testament from Latin to everyday German. Up to this, the Bible was a closed book to the ordinary German as the only available translation was in Latin, a language used by scholars and clergy. The entrance of God’s word always brings light and revelation and so it was, after much turmoil the Protestant Reformation was born.
Roll on nearly 500 years to Saint Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh and the midnight Christmas Eve mass being celebrated by Bishop John Magee. A solitary figure waits outside the magnificent Church building ,leaflets in hand awaiting the exiting congregation. The leaflets contain a Christmas Blessing by John O’Donohue and the man standing out on that cold December night is, Michael Mernagh a Dublin based Augustinian priest. He is a man on a mission , this is the first step in a journey of ‘atonement’ that he is preparing to travel. Waking one night from a disturbing dream, he has become uneasy about his own lack of action in commenting on the clerical sexual-abuse cases that have besmirched the church in Ireland over the last few decades. The Bishop ministering to the faithful on that Christmas Eve has admitted to personal responsibility for mishandling complaints of child sexual abuse, and there have been widespread calls for his resignation. Father Mernagh is angry that members of his own profession have betrayed the sternest of all of Jesus’ commands… "And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.” (Mark 9:42). He is angry that he should have been more aware of what was going on and could have stood up and spoken out to stop the abominations that were being committed. He is also angry at the slow and grudging response of the Catholic hierarchy, even to the present day, to the plight of the victims of the abuse. After the dream and informed by the example of the Old Testament prophet Micah he pondered those ancient words… “ He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) . Now outside the cathedral in Cobh, Co. Cork he was initiating an act that would , just a few days later, have him walk from Cobh to Dublin on a 9 day walk of atonement for the wrongs committed against the innocent victims of clerical sexual abuse. In a subsequent T.V. interview Michael Mernagh held up a Bible and said “ This is my guide and all the rules for life we need are found here.” Later in that interview he advised the Bishops of Ireland to lay aside their legal advisers and speak the ‘language of the heart’, the only language spoken by Jesus in the gospels. He said that the Church needs to respond to the scandals with truth and passion and not with dry legalise designed to protect their status and obfuscate justice. Here is a man, with Bible raised high, who faces the authorities of his Church, calling on them to repent. Infused with the same Spirit which drove the Prophet Micah, Father Mernagh calls on his Superiors to “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Two men, both of the cloth, divided by the centuries ,drawing from the same well and calling down truth and justice in the name of God. Both men informed by what they have seen around them and enlightened by the words of Scripture, their passion carried by their personal courage to effect change and reformation. It is still true that one man or woman with an open Bible and a receptive spirit can rock the nations. Such is the power of God’s Word, so are we created to hear and receive it, so mighty and true are these ancient Scriptures to the tearing down of strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). May each one of us be so led, feeding our passion with His laws, taking our courage in hand, and by his enabling Grace, effect real and lasting change in this topsy-turvy world of ours.

Gerard O'Shea

1 comment:

Tony said...

Excellent comparison!