Accepting our Union with the Cosmos

Veni, Creator Spiritus

The awesome act of accepting our union with the Cosmos.


(A Response To: “Saint Patrick and the New Evangelization: Why Mission Matters” by Fr. Billy Swan, Director of Formation, Pontifical Irish College Seminary, Rome)



“The Apostolic concern leading Us to carefully survey the signs of the times and to make every effort to adapt the means and methods of the holy apostolate to the changing circumstances and need of our day………”  (Paul V1 “Motu proprio” Apostolica sollicitudo, 1965 (AAS 57 [1865] 775-780)


To celebrate our national patron on our national day is much welcome given the mood and predicament we find ourselves in at the Spring of the year in 2012: financial austerity bringing a new poverty to Ireland, a new exodus of young people unable to find work and most importantly a new poor self image of ourselves and our nation in the world. We have acted foolishly and squandered our resources in the midst of corruption and nepotism. And spiritually we are ashamed and angry in the wake of scandal, and the abuse of our children. It is not my purpose here to explore these ills nor to analyze the causes or harangue the guilty; this has all been done. I want to critically look somewhat in the spirit of Paul the Sixth at how we in Ireland may “adapt the means of the holy apostolate to the changing circumstances and need of our day…” This is in a sense not my vocation or calling and I tread warily on the specializations of others more learned. I hope I do so fully respecting the trauma that I know some of great integrity have suffered.

 I am still learning about the Irish saints, my grandfather’s house in County Derry is called “Iona House” after the great saint of Derry, St. Columba (always called by my father “Colum Cille”) who settled on that Scottish island in 563; after, it is claimed, he copied a manuscript without permission. I still want to visit the island of Iona and meditate there before I die. I imagine a place of great peace, sanctity and pilgrimage. So it is with interest I read Fr. Billy’s article about Patrick’s great single-minded sense of mission and purpose. Nevertheless, I worry about the desire to look back “to the early Church for inspiration and to saints who point us in the right direction….and seek new ways of witnessing to the Good News in the world”.


I worry for two reasons: firstly, I worry because there is always a tendency at times of crisis and lack of spiritual direction to look back to an ideal time when everything was better. Old people are fond of doing this; wistfully regretting the passing of a more wholesome time when the young knew how to behave and everything was simpler and values were more shared.  We have witnessed a number of catastrophic political movements in the recent past when leaders also sought to look back and re-establish imagined lost ideals often from some aspect of classical antiquity. It is of course doubtful whether such an idealized time ever really existed and it is often the result of an unwillingness to accept change and to look forward with hope and meet new challenges. In this lies my second reason for worry; the response of many in the world both political and spiritual to our present ills is to resist change and to limit the creative response of “spirit” to our future destiny. Looking back can mask this need.  


The General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which Fr. Billy looks forward to this October, was set up to meet just such a challenge by Paul VI at the request of the Second Vatican Council, which he summoned; my quote from “Motu Proprio” above refers to this. This Council was a dramatic event for change and renewal for those who lived through it. I was 12 yrs. old when our bishop came to talk to our school class about his forthcoming journey to Rome and asked us (an amazing gesture at the time) which way we thought he ought to vote in Council on the issue of the use of the vernacular in the Liturgy.  We were nearly all, as I remember, in favour of English.

I was taught then that the Church believes that the summons for the convening of a General Council is the inspiration of The Holy Spirit, its edicts belong to the same divine source, and that on this very belief, in the enduring abiding of Spirit, the very “magisterium” of the Vicar of Christ and his bishops rests. In view of this, it was with some puzzlement that Irish Catholics read in the Pastoral Letter addressed to them in March 2010 that the tendency of their clergy to misinterpret the Council’s programme of renewal was perhaps a factor in the recent child abuse scandals and that with specific reference to the programme of renewal “it was far from easy to know how best to implement it.”  But it is a programme of renewal that is now our concern and such attitudes to that early John XXIII-Paul VI legacy are hard to reconcile.


It might be advantageous to reflect how different our worldview is now to that of Patrick and how we may need to adapt, as Paul VI envisaged, in the fulfillment of any mission to evangelize. This is so obvious that to mention it seems patronizing but recent attitudes make it necessary I feel. First, however, let me reflect on a changed use of words in order to illustrate a conservative attitude to the concept of “mission” and “evangelism” before I consider some pressing aspects of this changed worldview which I believe we are “in denial” about.


Words do matter and their usage reflects clearly, different attitudes to the world we find ourselves in and how we experience that world. Fr. Billy quotes Matthew 28:19:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….”

The version I have always known has:

 “Going, therefore, teach ye all nations;”

This change from the use of an active verb to a noun suggests a processed state of being, e.g. discipleship, (one feels that if one could get away with it one might say “disciple-ized”).

Similarly, I would be used to the verb “evangelize” but much less used to the noun “evangelization”; I have similar feelings about the noun, “Christianization”. Again, we change from the idea of proclaiming the good news, i.e. to evangelize, to a state of processed “evangelization”, which also suggests the idea of instilling new information not far removed, perhaps, from “indoctrinating”. I find this language suggestive of a fundamentalist approach to Mission and not one I personally find wholesome.  It is a little different, but we could also compare the very word “mission” with the more spiritual concept of Paul VI, “ The holy apostolate”, suggesting as it does the idea of our state of being as the apostles, rather than, focusing on a people needing to be converted. In this sense, “the holy apostolate”, is a concept that implies the need for example and holiness rather than simply “preaching”. In all these instances one has to be sensitive to how some people with hurtful memories of the recent past (in Spain and in the Ireland of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid for example) might view the approach to “mission” I critique here.


Mission for me, in the sense of  “the holy apostolate”, is for the committed Christian (and the non Christian by necessity too) something that ideally ones whole life should reflect, wherever one is at any moment in time and no matter what one’s calling.  From the moment of offering to God one’s day, its words, thoughts, acts, and prayer as in the Christian tradition or from the moment in meditative practice of acknowledging that one is part of the immanence of Spirit then all becomes a reflection of Spirit manifest in the world. This implies a faith that Spirit works to manifest “the way”, it abides in all who resolve to accept the awesome belief that we are always a part of its creative fulfillment. It abides in all, everywhere, but needs the conscious awareness of our intuition, the recognition that our whole being is its expression and that it leads us and holds us in its care. This involves a listening to its voice in others and in ourselves here and now.  More controversially, I believe, Spirit affects, as it changes me, my response to the world I find myself in. This is what Patrick found yes! But what I must find for myself.  


I would like to illustrate this creative power of Spirit by an example.  I have waited from St. Patrick’s Day, when I received this reflection on the importance of mission, until the Resurrection to get my slow thoughts together. I wonder how differently I now see this event from past interpretations of the account of the women who first witnessed it.  It is inconceivable, when I consider the journey of Spirit in the Cosmos, that I should see things exactly the way they did. My world is inconceivably different from theirs. My attitude to death is radically different. The historical context of the Roman and Jewish world of that time has changed to a Cosmological Era in which I see the elements of life on my planet created by dying stars light years distant and,

“How incomprehensible are His judgments, and how unsearchable his ways”,

 (Romans 11. 33-36)


Nevertheless, his path has brought me to this point in his great act of creativity.


The simple act of Jesus returning his body to “life as it was” before his crucifixion, a coming back from the dead, would mean little to me unless it contained a massive transformation of the very form of that life or perhaps a birth (or revelation if you prefer) of what was already present but somehow hidden. I like to think of this as a cosmic reordering, a change to the very essence of Spirit itself. Scripturally, the idea is contained in his  “do not touch me” (John 20 17). It is a totally different event from Lazarus’s coming out of the tomb. And Jesus appears and disappears at will, is unrecognized and then recognized, not by his appearance but by his action of breaking bread (Luke 24 31). Jesus’s resurrection is a Cosmic Event constantly being redefined as our understanding grows or it is a scriptural anachronism blocked by the edict of dogmatic belief and finally subject to a mythologizing (and here I mean a processing of doubt over time).


Of course this kind of view is not only frowned on but if I were a teacher in a Catholic theological school I would be suspended.  And yet it only returns us to an ancient hermeneutic tradition of meditative scriptural interpretation common in Jewish Rabbinic practice. I read with interest recently Professor Brant Pitre’s “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” (Pitre 2011) and was left wondering what else he might have said had his career at Notre Dame University not been at stake. It is still true that while we grow weary of the number of times the church is expected to apologise for its condemnation of Galileo, it still bans the manifesto of the time, “De hominus dignitate” by Pico della Mirandola. (1486); one is left wondering if it really has taken on board the average young person’s Cosmic worldview.  More tragically the entire works of the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who died in 1955, are still forbidden reading. Mission if it is to be successful in this Cosmological Era must open it self to an enormous shift in our knowledge and understanding.  I believe at present this failure to grow in Spirit and listen to all its emanations does a disservice to all humanity, leaving it so often with a stark choice of imaginative and spiritual growth or directionless disillusionment.


In conclusion: I feel if we look back, as medievalist historians or as psychologists, it must be with the utmost care. We must do so armed with a full knowledge of where we are now. In a recent BBC 4 TV documentary, “Inside the Medieval Mind”, presented by Robert Bartlett, and in a “Time Team Special” (also BBC 4) dealing with Sutton Hoo (Suffolk) and the Staffordshire Hoard, I was surprised and disappointed to find an inability to grasp the different psychological perspective of the medieval artists and craftsmen who so beautifully created the objects found. Commenting on the decoration on a sword hilt, showing a human face that from its profile also resembled an animal (possibly a wolf), it was said that the medieval craftsman loved to be ambiguous, often a little obscure, without any comment on the fact that this dichotomy was part of a different world view, based on a different belief system, a different reality. Mission must acknowledge this, indeed religious belief must adapt to it not because change is always good or we want to reject any kind of universal truth but because Spirit is leading us to see its creation more clearly. Of course, some energy of commitment to spirituality may have been lost in our exponential growth and evolution into the Cosmic Era but to reawaken this we need more than a return to Patrick’s mission. “Retreat” in the traditional sense of that experience, a search for stillness and holiness, taking inspiration from the energy of past workers, all this is very valid in order to regain the collective mark of Holiness[1] many find missing in the institutionalized Church of this difficult time but we must open up to our connection with Spirit in the Cosmos.


Tony Hegarty,

The Anchorhold,

The Feast of St. Patrick, 2012.










[1] The four marks of the Church: She is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. (Nicene Creed)

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