by John Perriam
Luke recalls a poignant moment in Jesus’s life when he says of him, looking upon Jerusalem, “. . . and he wept over it . . . ”. (Luke 19:41) At another point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you slay the prophets and stone those who are sent to you. How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her young under her wings and you refused me.” (Luke 13:34). Jesus was foretelling the demise of Jerusalem.
I have wondered many times about those words, none more so than when I was a young priest. One of my first duties was to hear the Confessions of the children from a local primary school. I well remember coming into the church with another priest and seeing it full of children aged 7 to 12 years. Later that morning, I walked from the church with an uneasy mind. And later still in the silence of my room I tried to reconcile the difference between the “sins” I had heard and the legitimate rights of passage of the growing child as yet incomplete of mind on his or her way to healthy adulthood.
Why were we teaching our children that to go through the stages of development was somehow “sinful”. “I was selfish, I fought with my brother, I did not do what I was told.” All hallmarks of our quest for identity, yet labelled sin.
And I wondered what sort of harvest this approach to Christianity would yield.
The very next month I was appointed as a full time chaplain to a large public hospital. It took me just a little while to come to terms with the shocking immediacy of death and the sadness associated with it. But there was one thing I would never come to terms with.
The fear that not all, but many, many Catholics had about the judgement which they perceived awaited them. This fear displayed by them has never left me. To be overcome with sadness and an extreme sense of loss is appropriate, and to be expected. It is another to be terrified of judgement especially as a corollary of Catholicism.
My mind inevitably went back to my experience regarding the Confessions of the primary school children. The link was there for all to see. The dramatising of minor indiscrepancies, thereby labelling abnormal what was normal, prepared a seedbed for gratuitous guilt. Guilt is a handmaiden of fear. If fear exists in a heart it is at its most potent at time of death.
What has brought this about?
A generation ago and for generations before that, people lived in a more structured society with built-in restraints and practices e.g. codes of dress, a narrow range of behaviours, pressure of perceived rejection within the smaller less mobile communities, fear of being seen to be different. These and other societal beliefs and assumptions contributed to the fabric of people’s lives.
The Christian churches of those times were part of this construct and indeed this manner of living fitted in well with their practised philosophy. Perhaps they took advantage of it. Our Catholic Church, may I respectfully suggest, was very much at the forefront. Its supposition that humankind is born bad and unless its Catholic members follow, let’s say a prescribed formula throughout this life, isolation from and punishment by God will follow throughout eternity.
Weekly Mass, meatless Fridays, non-entry into other Christian churches, no sexual activity outside marriage, no sexual relations within marriage not open to the possibility of conception, no marriage outside the Church, receiving Communion without an appropriate fasting period: Failure to adhere to any of these requirements, without Confession, would lead to eternal separation from God.
Little wonder then that Catholics of 40 years ago and prior were afraid of God’s response at time of death. Little wonder that those whose consciences were set at an early age to search, some obsessively, for a “sin” which if undetected would separate them from God, were prey to such a pervasive and powerful authority.
Patterns of society changed and people walked away. As a result some of the conditions within the formula that I have outlined above have now gone from our Church. Some remain. Huge damage has been done. So many have turned away. The Pew report of 2015 found that 19 per cent of Catholics who leave said they might return. 77 per cent said they would not return. 4 per cent said they were undecided (Coleman-McCarthy, NCR, 18 January 2017).
The facts I have outlined above are not intended to denigrate our Church, but to explain to some extent how the great exodus has come about. It is but part of the story but in these times of comparative urgency where Jesus is missing but not missed, we need to approach the problem with candour, sincerity and honesty. If we are to have a functioning Church, we need it to be based on love not fear.
At the beginning of this article, I spoke of the child confessing as sin, normal developmental milestones. The Church continues this path of guilt and fear with the insistence of Confession before Communion especially for those who are so young. We need then to be presented with a new mindset. The concept of fear, given birth sometime after Christ’s physical presence and partly and simply illustrated in the practice of children’s Confession, should have no place in a Church where “good news” is of its essence. It is in fact the bushel under which our light is hidden.
At the beginning of this opinion piece Luke “had” Jesus looking over Jerusalem, when he said, “And Jesus wept”.
If Luke “had” Jesus looking over his Church today would he say “And Jesus wept”?
I rather think he would.
John Perriam, who lives in north Canterbury, worked as a priest for six years. He then worked as a family counsellor in private practice for 35 years. He married his wife in 1973 and they have five children.