Enda McDonagh Book Review: Theology in Winter Light. Reflections for Good Friday

image The Epilogue to Enda McDonagh’s latest book, Theology in Winter Light (Columba, 2010) is titled ‘A Crucified People.’ It opens with a quotation from the Gospel of Mark (15.33): And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole earth until the ninth hour.

McDonagh’s epilogue was written last November in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Murphy Report into clerical abuse in the Dublin diocese. McDonagh powerfully identifies the victims and survivors of clerical sex abuse with the experience of Christ on Good Friday. This is not a facile attempt to induce victims to pray or have a stronger faith – as some have accused the Pope of doing in his pastoral letter to the Irish Catholic Church.

Although McDonagh claims that his epilogue is ‘inevitably inadequate,’ there is much in his seven-page reflection that I think could speak meaningfully to the ‘ordinary’ members of the Irish Catholic Church, still reeling from the relentless onslaught of bad news about their church leaders.

Since the publication of the Murphy Report, McDonagh, Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, has been one of the most insistent voices advocating reform of the Irish Catholic Church. Last month his ‘12 Step Recovery Programme’ for the Irish Catholic Church circulated among the public.

McDonagh’s 12 Steps pick up many of the themes he explored in more depth in this epilogue, which – along with the two chapters that proceed it on ‘A Communion of Sinners’ and ‘…should Vatican two survive …’ — are the most original and timely contributions in the book.

Most importantly:

1. McDonagh invites us to identify with the victims and survivors. This is not something that can be done blithely or easily, so he uses the desolation of Good Friday as an entry point. He says (p. 163-164),

This brief meditation is an attempt to surrender to the horror as it enveloped the victims of clerical and religious sex-abuse. To be inhabited by the abused in their suffering as a gesture of solidarity and reparation could be a possible basis for our forgiveness and reconciliation; responses from the victims and from their God and ours, to which of course we have no right. The ‘we’ in question includes not just the individual abusers and their culpably protecting superiors such as bishops but the whole community, certainly of ordained and of professional clerical and religious. That ‘we’, without all necessarily turning a blind eye, were involved in benefitting from and supporting a culture of institutional prestige and privilege which enabled their abusing colleagues to continue their abuse, immune from the rigours of canon or civil law.

2. McDonagh places the real and authentic spirit of the Irish Catholic Church in those whom he calls its ‘crucified people.’ He writes (p. 164-165),

Yet the presence and power and indeed grace of the now openly ‘crucified people’, of the clerically and religiously abused, may provide the basis, the energy and the direction for the healing and transformation which the whole church so badly needs.

3. McDonagh calls on priests to seek to understand the suffering of victims by actually meditating on the reports in their private devotions. He thinks this could work as an antidote to what many laypeople see as the Church’s attempt to put institutional survival before the healing of victims. He says (p. 166),

Sections of the reports focusing on the detail of the suffering should form part of their [priests’] daily prayerful meditation in conjunction with parallel gospel readings from Christ’s passion narrative. By this practice their protective armour may be breached and they will get beyond the recent, careful and no doubt sincere apologies and the promises of better and better implemented guidelines. Only by the repeated surrender to the recorded sufferings of those for whom they had responsibility will they undergo the grace of humiliation without which any claim to humility remains unreal.

4. McDonagh describes how parishes might organise a series of healing liturgical services, incorporating readings from the reports and passion narratives. He includes recommended passages from the Murphy and Ryan Reports, as well as suggested Gospel readings.

There is much more packed into this epilogue, including his musings that negligent bishops should willingly resign or voluntarily take up lesser roles, such as curates, as well as his call for substantial changes in the clerical culture of the Irish Catholic Church.

This book is worth picking up if only to read the epilogue, but there is much else in it besides. It is divided into three parts: Old Themes, New Dreams, and In Winter Light. As I’ve indicated, I found that the chapters from ‘In Winter Light’ seemed the most relevant for today’s churches in Ireland. In addition, his incorporation of the insights of Irish poets and artists in many of the chapters in ‘New Dreams’ serve as gentle suggestions about how people might be drawn into a deeper spirituality through the arts.

One thought on “Enda McDonagh Book Review: Theology in Winter Light. Reflections for Good Friday”

  1. I have been wondering how we engage with the stories of clerical abuse victims in a way that is not self-indulgent or patronising. From your review, McDonagh’s invitation to juxtapose the suffering of abused children with the suffering of Christ on Good Friday potentially sparks off a powerful and genuinely challenging thought process. It not only inspires reverence for the children who suffered under the auspices of their church, but also relates Christ’s suffering to an experience that is real, in our midst, and ongoing for many abuse survivors. We are invited to consider our own guilt when we consider the notion that we as a society may share some complicitness in the cover-up of institutionalised child abuse, but I hope this will be practised without relativising the church’s role in allowing child abuse to proliferate.

    I hope that the meditations suggested by McDonagh will inspire readers to seek renewal both for themselves, their churches and their communities, in the spirit of the Easter message.

    Happy Easter

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