Wednesday, 25th November 2020

Review – Seanchas Ard Mhacha

I must confess I approached this book with a degree of apprehension.  Would it be a paean of praise to the emeritus Prelate of Ireland?  Was it an attempt to buff up the hapless Archbishop of Dublin, whose standing had been savaged by the media?  That it revealed none of these ulterior motives came as both a relief and as a cause of self-chastisement.

The title draws from the Cardinal’s Episcopal motto:  secundum verbum tuum and the text is an anthology of the papers presented at a colloquium in Rome to mark the 80th birthday of Desmond Connell on 24 March 2006.  The gathering of august philosophers, metaphysicians, theologians and liturgists was organised by the editor, Monsignor Liam Bergin, and included clerics, lecturers, cardinal Angelo Sodano (formerly dean of the college of cardinals), William Cardinal Levada (President of the Internal Theological Commission & the Pontifical Biblical Commission), and the current Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin.

The first part of the book dwells on the ‘beautiful dangers of being’ tracing the hazards of rationalising our existence from logic to faith.  The latter section examines the risks and fruits of effective evangelism; from the role of the diocesan bishop to sacramental nature of the episcopal office.

If there is one criticism of the collection, it is that some of the papers engage in such arcane and needlessly over complex language that they lose even the most diligent reader. These authors pale in comparison to the contributions of Andrew G. McGrady (Registar of the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin) who spoke with clear, uncluttered eloquence on the current state of the Irish Church, holding that ‘our dominant experience today is one of brokenness’, and that of Thomas G. Casey SJ exhorting us against the relegation of religion to the private sphere:

Because of the confinement of faith to the private realm, many Christians do not realise that it is impossible to integrate Christianity and law, that business can be studied from a Christian perspective, that the healing miracles of Jesus can speak to the world of medicine.  We are living in a western-dominated world culture that does not associate Christianity with life-enhancing wisdom or penetrating intelligence.

Two articles especially moved me, and left me thinking.  Michael Duignan’s exhortation to reinstate the Holy Spirit to its rightfully-understood co-equal place in the trinity is coherent and stimulating, and Joseph Murphy’s review of the attempt by Pope Benedict XVI to realign the priesthood with its proper ideal as, concurrently, priest (minister): prophet (preacher of Good News) and king (leader of the faith community).

The consummate essay is from Monsignor Bergin.  Beautifully reproducing Titian’s Noli me Tangere he forensically steers the reader through every square inch of this masterpiece, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, interpreting for the uninitiated reader how the artist depicted the risen Lord breaking the boundaries between the sacred and the profane as he meets Mary of Magdala (not to be confused with Mary of Bethany, or – indeed – the adulteress in John 8: 1 – 11) on Easter Day.  This painting is a reminder that the sources of evangelism surround us, if only we open our eyes and our minds to the aids to sacramental life. It says to us that the works of all creation can form alter priesthoods: ministering, teaching and leading our intellects to the source of that creative process.  Gazing at Mary as she prostates herself before Christ, Liam Bergin counsels that:

Titian’s Christ gazes at Mary but his feet are facing us.  Inherently there is an invitation addressed to every viewer.  It is a call to faith. It is a challenge to enter the ecclesial space opened up by the encounter between Christ and Mary. Like Mary, we too often inhabit a troubled place: we too reach out hoping to touch the divine; we too want to cling to The risen Lord… With Mary we are called by name; we are clothed in the white garment of rebirth … “Noli me tangere –Do not cling”.  Titian reminds us to “go and tell” the Good News.

To be reassured that this is the mission of every Christian – whether priest, prophet, king, cardinal, mother, student, worker or aged – is exciting and daunting in equal measure.  The Saviour asks us not to dither, or to treasure our Irish brokenness, but to arise and be on our way.  That Bergin’s wonderful writing style – devoid of the pedantic over-writing on display from others – managed to provoke these impulses speaks volumes as much for his skilfully simple syntax as it does for  Titian’s equal mastery of his medium 450 years ago.  Liam Bergin left me wanting more, and I feel he should develop his gift as a guide to the splendours of catechesis that surround us.  Television beckons.

The best articles in this lavishly-produced book are stimulating and excited my imagination and curiosity.  No doubt, in his carer as a lecturer and minister, Desmond Connell likewise sought to stir similar movement in his students.  If that is so, According To Your Word evidences that his mentoring legacy is bequeathed into safe and profitable hands.

Martin G. O’Brien, in Seanchas Ard Mhacha, Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, Vol. 21 No. 2, Vol 22 No. 1  pp 468 469.