Studies: Light in dark times
The Winter 2022 Studies leads with a short series of essays that, in very different ways, illustrate the theme of ‘Light in dark times’. Each of them identifies a source of hope in the close and dynamic contact between God’s providential presence and diverse dimensions of life: the social order in Anna Rowlands’ essay on Catholic Social Teaching; the signs of the times in Brendan Leahy’s essay on the Irish Catholic Church since Vatican II; and lived human experience in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s personal narrative about growing up Catholic in Ireland.
In her essay ‘Illuminating Dark Times: The Surprising Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching’, Anna Rowlands confronts the pressing question of how the Christian understanding of communion may constitute a distinctive call to be what she calls ‘the extension of the enfleshment of Christ in the world, without end’. She acknowledges that the ‘common good’ is not a specifically Christian idea, and she recognizes Hannah Arendt’s criticisms of the notion of ‘communion’ in relation to public life, especially as it can be weaponized for exclusionary purposes; yet she argues a case for embracing ‘communion’ and for advancing an understanding of the ‘common good’ in accordance with the rich tradition of CST. In the first instance, she says, we are ‘not doers but receivers of the common good. Only then do we become ‘co-creators and participants within an active process in history’.
In ‘“Going Deep, Going Forth, Going Together”, Part II’, Bishop Brendan Leahy follows up on the first part of his essay, which was published in the last issue, summer 2022. In Part I he addressed the impact of Vatican II on the Church in Ireland and expressed cautious optimism that the fruits of the Council, especially through the development of synodality, can succeed in setting the Church on a healthier footing. In Part II, ‘Seeking Meaning in a Transformed World’, he continues to find grounds for hope that the Church in Ireland can learn to ‘go deep’ on the spiritual, cultural and social fronts, but this can only happen if serious critical attention is paid to the signs of the times. Ireland has been transformed beyond recognition in recent decades. A dominant form of Catholicism has been ‘dethroned’; the Catholic consensus has been dissipated; autonomy, self-determination, and freedom of thought and expression are ‘the operative keys’ in people’s lives; and the ‘national trauma’ of clerical sexual abuse has disclosed multiple deficiencies in the structure and culture of Ireland’s Catholic past. A brighter future is possible for the Church, but only by shedding its ‘self-referentiality’ and recognizing that ‘To be synodal, at all levels, is the vocation of the Church’.
Central to the process of synodality is encouraging open and courageous speech and creating spaces in which that speech may be heard. As Johann Baptist Metz puts it, the personal narratives of the children of God ‘are not peripheral to the enterprise of theology but the very thing itself’. Stories of conversion and of exodus, he says, are not ‘dramatic window-dressing for a preformulated “pure” theology’; they belong, rather, to the fundamental way theology operates. There are strains of both conversion and exodus in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s affecting narrative about growing up in a narrow and often nasty Catholic culture in Ireland and having to negotiate a damaged and damaging world as he grew into the knowledge that he was gay. The conversion element involves surprising moments of illumination and finding God in unexpected places.
The winter Studies also contains many other essays on diverse themes. Two of them, John O’Hagan’s ‘Taking Back Control: The Role of the EU’ and Erik Jones’s ‘Sovereignty and the National Interest’ continue the discussion begun in the summer 2022 issue with contributions from Michael Sanfey’s workshop on sovereignty in the European University Institute, Florence, on 17 March. O’Hagan identifies some problematic aspects of pooled decision making in the European Union. Matters such as these need to be addressed, he concludes, but what is most needed is a deeper understanding of the structure and purpose of the EU. By now, its rationale and legitimacy should be beyond all doubt. Jones considers some current threats to the liberal democratic tradition, especially from national populism, and both democrats and populists must acknowledge that the world’s needs cannot be effectively met when governments hold too narrow a notion of the national interest.
In Part II of his essay on Dante and Ireland, ‘A Dantean Afterlife’ (Part I was published in the summer issue of Studies), Daragh O’Connell follows up his earlier account of the possible influence of medieval Irish representations of the afterlife on Dante’s Commedia. Now in Part II he examines the flipside of this relationship of influence. Dante’s work is a presence in the work of many of Ireland’s modern writers – in Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, to be sure, but most especially in Seamus Heaney. Dante provided these writers with a rich set of images and tropes which became, in their hands, ‘imaginative keys to unlick much that is valuable for us today’.
In ‘“The Queen she came to call on us”’, Dermot McCarthy recounts the story behind Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011, from his point of view as Secretary General to the Irish Government and Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach. He recalls the behind-the-scene negotiations and the logistical complications, but mostly he remembers the warm welcome that was extended to the Queen and her own graciousness.
Máirín MacCarron spent a year working on a biographical project about Magdalen Taylor (1832-1900), the foundress of a women’s congregation in England, the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. In ‘Writing History with Female Religious Communities: Medieval and Modern Hagiography’. As a medieval historian, she wonders if the present-day experience of helping to prepare the life of someone with a reputation for sanctity might cast any light on the earlier hagiographic tradition. In both cases, she observes, there is a ‘community of believers’ behind the project that have a bearing on how the work is conducted and who should not be forgotten.
Renowned Australian Jesuit Gerald O’Collins has penned an essay for this issue of Studies on an aspect of the poetic work of his fellow-Australian Jesuit Peter Steele, now deceased. In ‘Three Parables from Luke: The Vision of Peter Steele SJ’, O’Collins conducts a close reading of three short poems by Steele on the Gospel parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. The readings act as a kind of lectio divina.
In the final essay of this issue, John Hedigan tells the fascinating story of Henry Edgeworth, cousin of author Maria Edgeworth of Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford, who became a Catholic priest and lived most of his priestly life in France. In ‘Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont: Confessor to the King’, Hedigan relates how the Abbé ministered to King Louis XVI as the latter awaited execution by guillotine in January 1793. The Abbé’s remarkable bravery and devotion both during those last days of the king and in the aftermath are recounted. He died in 1807.