St Basil & All Saints, Hough Green Road, Widnes WA8 4SZ
Tel: 0151-424-6641 firstname.lastname@example.org
How on earth am I going to thank everyone who was involved in preparing or providing last weekend’s celebration. Since the bubble of secrecy burst, I have been discovering that lots and lots of people were involved in all sorts of ways and in all kinds of capacities. Discovering who they are will be a major task, especially for one so stupid as to be unaware that anything was going on!!! These pages are not an attempt to name and thank all involved. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage that. Instead, I simply want to offer my personal reflection on the wonderful and extraordinary experience we have all shared in our different and unique ways.
Since the spot-light was on me in the celebration, let me begin with myself. Despite a couple of unguarded remarks by Austin Smith (which I had assumed were about some possible celebration of my retirement in June 2008), I was truly completely in the dark until two phone calls from friends began to alert my suspicions the evening before Gerard and Phil broke the news to me at a lovely meal they cooked for me two days before the actual event. Even then they did not reveal all – no hint of any honorary doctorate. They left me with impression that a festschrift had been prepared with papers in my honour but not focussed on me in any way. Gerard had told me a while ago about a gathering of moral theologians he had arranged and had told me I would be welcome at any of the sessions. He also said that some of the participants would probably come to the Saturday evening Mass at St Basil & All Saints. That pleased me since I am always happy when my different worlds intermingle. However, their possible visit did not arouse my suspicions since Gerard and Phil sometimes come along to that Mass. At the pre-conference meal Gerard told me that all the participants would be coming and that it would be a shared Eucharist, followed by an Irish Ceili in the school with refreshments provided by the parishioners. All this was already rather overwhelming, but there was more to come. As Chris Lappine drove me to pick up Charlie Curran from Runcorn station she showed me a draft of the programme for the weekend. That alerted me to the Honorary Doctorate. I also found that my name featured in the titles of almost all the talks and presentations on Friday and the whole of Sunday morning was made up of a long series of tributes to me!
The rest of this reflection is my attempt to make some sense of all this.
As I arrived for the opening of the conference on Friday, I met Michael Lane. (He offered a hilarious, though profound, contribution on Sunday morning). His remark as we met was typical of him: “I’m dying to hear John Battle’s talk to see how humility fits into all this.” Some others had remarked that I would find it difficult and embarrassing to be the centre of attention. A few speakers even prefaced their words by saying I was probably the person feeling least at home with the whole celebration.
As the full extent of what was happening gradually dawned on me, I quickly realised that a prodigious amount of work had been put into preparing the conference and celebration, principally by Gerard Mannion and Philomena Cullen, but also by so many others in the parish, at Hope and far beyond. Many very busy people had given up a precious weekend to be part of it and/or had prepared papers for it. As soon as my eyes were opened to the wonder of all that, I became determined to enjoy every minute of it. What a gift I was being given – a lovely coming together of so many people who were precious to me and who had all influenced my life so much! As with any celebration, it was something we were all invited to enjoy together. To have refused to enjoy it would have been churlish of me. And the whole atmosphere was so positive that the enjoyment was shared by everyone. It was a real celebration from beginning to end. In fact, I found it a profoundly grace-filled experience. Let me expand that.
There is something deep in me that longs to be loved and enjoys being loved. That is a profoundly God-like dimension of all of us. God loves to be loved. In fact, the very inner life of God is about loving and being loved. God is a communion of love. We are made in God’s image. God has loved each and all of us into existence and invited us to love each other as he has loved us. That is surely why all of us long to be loved and enjoy being loved.
However, I find there is also something deep in me which resists being loved, a kind of inner voice which tells me I am not really lovable. It cuts me a-sunder from other people – and ‘sunder’ is the root of the word ‘sin’. This resistance to be loved separates us from each other – and so from God – and ultimately from our true selves. That is why it is truly something demonic. It is a refusal of communion.
I felt the urge of that demonic impulse in me from time to time over the weekend. When people were saying, “You are loved by a lot of people” or “How wonderful that so many people think so highly of you”, my demon kept trying to pop up to stop me appreciating and being grateful for such love and praise.
That prompted a different train of thought in me. In Baptism we are given the family name of the Trinity, the communion of love with God. This name-giving does not separate us (sunder us) from those not baptised. Rather it opens our eyes to who we are – and who they are too. It reveals that, precisely as human beings, we are called to be ‘communion people’. Enda McDonagh put that beautifully in his amazing and inspiring talk when he spoke of God as the host, inviting us all as guests to share in the delights of the Garden of life, but also to be hosts to our fellow guests. That rang a bell with something I say at the baptism of a baby. After focussing on the baby as a unique image of God, I go on to say that the baptismal promises remind us that the fashioning and shaping of this unique image of God is largely the work of human hands – principally its parents and family, but also including all who will have a positive influence on it throughout life.
I suddenly became aware that what I was experiencing during our celebration was the amazing reality of this relational and interdependent dimension of who I am (and who we all are) as human persons, images of the communion of love within the Godhead. The gathering was representative of all the people who had played a role in shaping me into the person I have become. I am sure people were able to see where my moral theology had come from as they listened to many of my former colleagues describe the situations we had shared and how we had helped each other respond to the new challenges we faced.
In my closing words on Sunday morning, I read out a short passage from my friend and moral theology colleague, Peter Harvey:
“I am either one with all creation, linked indivisibly with everyone and everything else, or I am nothing but illusion. It is not that I exist only in relationship, it is that I am relationship from the beginning. At no point can I stand outside the web, for there is nowhere to stand.” The Morals of Jesus, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1991, p.61
It dawned on me that the love and praise (“God saw that it was good”) I was experiencing was all within the one web of relationships of love to which we all belong – brought out in the ‘one body of Christ’ image and even more widely in the ‘cosmic Christ’ image.
Everyone had remarked on the warmness of the atmosphere throughout the whole conference and celebration. Although a few had jokingly described it as a ‘KEVIN-fest’, it struck me that it was an ‘WE-fest’, a celebration of the communion of love of which we are all part, a kind of foretaste and glimpse of the joy promised us in the Kingdom. We experienced this ‘joyful communion’ very tangibly in a whole variety of ways throughout the weekend, not least in the beautiful simultaneous shared Eucharist (graciously, though surreptitiously!, arranged by Peter) with the Ceili immediately after, all prepared with such care and commitment by the parish community. What a striking interpenetration between both parts of that unforgettable evening, dazzling homilies in each by Charlie Curran and Keith Austin, and the communion-building energy of music and movement (the parish musicians, Ursula, Trish and Gerard in church – and the Irish Ceili Band in school, bringing together separately-seated groups to mingle as one on the dance-floor) and, of course, sharing as guests (and co-hosts) at the Lord’s table both in church and at the fabulous banquet prepared and hosted by parishioners and the school. The Head, Win Douglas, played a God-like role in enabling this truly ‘educational’ experience to take place. An extra-special gift was large Kelly family turn-out, with Steve’s witty slides revealing all!
At one level the parish was saying, “We love Kevin. He is our friend… And so his family, friends and fellow-moral theologians are our friends – and family – also.” At an even deeper level, I believe that what we were experiencing together was the Spirit of loving communion breathing in and through us (‘in-spiring us’). The inspired word was: “Enjoy the wonder of each other. In doing so you will appreciate just how lovable you all are and you will drive away the demon which tries to cut you asunder from each other.” That is why a ‘WE-fest’ is a truer description of the event than a ‘KEVIN-fest’
I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. I even enjoyed all the expressions of love and praise I was given, even though I kept feeling the demonic in me whispering, “You shouldn’t be enjoying it”!!!
The more I’ve thought about the weekend, the more I feel that it has helped me confront another demon, another inclination trying to ‘sunder’ me. It is the demon which tempts me, and all of us, to feel pride in the gifts people are praising in us. It is a demon tempting me to say, “These are my gifts. In fact, they are not gifts at all. They are my private possessions. I can use them just as I like and no one else has any claim on them.” If we are all members of one body, all interlocking strands in the one web Peter Harvey refers to, the gifts of each of us are given for the service of the whole.
I may have been stupid enough not to cotton on to what was happening. I hope I am wise enough to recognise that we could have had an alternative event high-lighting the weaknesses of Kevin Kelly as a moral theologian, his shadow side as a Christian and his failings as a priest and pastor. But that is another story. I am sure God, the co-author of all our stories, can cope with that part of the story.
‘Seminar leader’ is probably the best paradigm for teaching authority in a community where the Spirit is poured out into the hearts of all members as well as breathing where it will. A major role of a seminar leader is to convene the group and enable all to benefit from the wisdom of each. Gerard Mannion had the courage and faith to take on that role as a service to all of us. He has given us a fine example of lay leadership and teaching authority. However, it is a role which he could not have carried out on his own. Philomena Cullen stands at the head of a huge team of collaborators (I nearly wrote ‘conspirators’!). It must certainly have been hard labour – very hard at times – but it has clearly been a labour of love.
Thank you for such a grace-filled gift to me – and to all of us. And a very heartfelt thank you, also, to everyone involved in whatever way.
A sad postscript
On Sunday evening, the eight remaining moral theologians gathered here in the presbytery with me for a home-delivery pizza meal. Chris Lappine, ‘temp’ chauffeuse for Charlie and me over the weekend, joined us later, a welcome parish representative. Our conversation included a rich flow of memories of the celebration. However, the joy of the evening was marred by a telephone call informing us that it seems certain that sometime in the next few weeks the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) would issue a condemnation of what Jon Sobrino has written about the person of Christ. Jon, as we all know, is someone who lives with painful but glorious memories. He was a member of the Jesuit community in El Salvador who were all murdered, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, because of the stand they were taking to defend the poor in their country from massive injustice. They are truly worthy to be venerated as martyrs. As the 1971 Synod, Justice in the World, said: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.” Jon was away on a lecture tour when their martyrdom took place. He now interprets faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ as demanding that he continue their mission and keep their memory alive. A better use of the teaching authority of the CDF would be to arrange a Festschrift in honour of Jon Sobrino (and his martyr companions) and call together a group not dissimilar in character to those Gerard invited to last weekend. I could imagine it embracing theologians and biblical scholars who have explored the theme of justice in the bible, tradition and the church’s teaching and practice; but also Christians who have committed themselves to the struggle for justice in the world. Women should obviously be given their rightful place at such a meeting. The gathering might perhaps be ecumenical, even inter-Faith. I suspect such a meeting would more truly honour Christ and be a more credible witness of discipleship than what the CDF seem to have in mind. As we thank God for the grace-filled experience we have shared, let us pray for Jon – and also for the CDF.