Encounters with Difference #PopeinIreland

On a cabin porch high in the mountains I watched a hummingbird. I heard it before I saw it, the percussive buzz of its almost invisible wings transporting it effortlessly and instantly from one end of the wooden deck to the other.

One second it hovered in front of a purple flower, the next it was barely a yard or two from my face studying my presence. The bird’s movement was almost science fiction in its immediacy and to it, I must have looked like an immobile, lumbering lump of stone.

I thought of this watching the visit of Pope Francis over the weekend. I thought of it after listening to the self-confident yet gracious speech of the Taoiseach. I thought of it watching the pomp and ceremony, the procedural order of events and the repeated cries for change from those who have been hurt by the church in recent decades.

I thought of the buzzing, rapid movement of the hummingbird when I watched this relatively new state, barely one hundred years old, express the imperative of a new relationship with this enormous institution which measures movement across millennia.

The blur of change on this island in recent decades has been head spinning in its velocity, but what this weekend has confirmed is that despite the transformational reordering of life here, the island retains a strong spiritual sensitivity and our cultural mindset is still shaped by the experience and aesthetic of faith, particularly in its Catholic form.

But it will never be what it was and, in the decades since the last papal visit, people appear to have embraced the change quicker than those who lead our various Christian denominations. Leo Varadkar’s speech expressed this clearly, in its desire for a new covenant with faith institutions, one fit for the 21st century. And there were hints that the Pope understands this too, particularly in his acknowledgement at Knock that Irishness embraces Christians, Moslems, Jews and others.

The change will continue no doubt. For some the transformation will be far too quick, for others glacially slow. For some it is to be embraced enthusiastically, others fear it, along with the corresponding loss of status or power for the institution. But perhaps there is some comfort for all in the generous words of the angel to the women in the immediate aftermath of the resurrection “Do not be afraid, I know you seek Jesus who was crucified.”

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Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Ulster, broadcast on Monday, 27 August 2018

I chose the particular verse at the end there because I have a sense of the generosity of the angel. Fear can make people do all sorts of strange things that they wouldn’t do in more stable circumstances. We say things we don’t really mean; we pass laws we don’t really intend; we act aggressively and violently in ways that are often counter to our character in other situations.

The generosity of the angel permits something new by halting the women in their tracks. They may be taken aback by the acknowledgement that, however haltingly, however mistakenly, these women are seeking Jesus. Everything then depends on their response to this generosity.

They can reciprocate, allowing the possibility that both parties together might find Jesus. Or they can prove the angel wrong by giving in to their fear and seek security rather than encounter.

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