I knew a woman who was stunning looking – her richly gleaming auburn hair cascaded luxuriantly unto her shoulders, framing a face with the contours of a film star. Not only was she gloriously attractive, she possessed an appealing and irrepressible personality that endeared her to all. Hers was no empty beauty, because she also had a fine, intelligent mind enabling her to be a competent and flourishing person in the business world. She had a glittering future ahead of her and then she got sick.
When I was ordained just less than fifty years ago, our church had all the signs of being very successful – full churches, retreats that attracted nearly the whole of the Catholic population, an abundance of priests, a parish system that seemed to work effectively. It occupied a place of respect in the Irish State and its leaders were considered to be an important voice in the affairs of the nation; while in Northern Ireland it defended and safeguarded the Catholic people. Then cracks began to appear.
My friend was diagnosed as having cancer and gradually all her glamour was stripped from her. The gorgeous hair began to fall out as a result of the chemotherapy, her energy level drastically diminished, the bloom left her face to be replaced by a sickly pallor, her voice began to weaken and during the operation she required, she began haemorrhaging profusely. She was lucky to survive.
In the church numbers began to lessen as many left us or became ‘occasional’ Catholics. Then emerged the whole child sex abuse scandal when it was revealed that some priests had drastically abused their trust with the most vulnerable of their flock – the young; this awful saga was compounded when a number of church leaders failed to deal adequately with this crime. It became obvious that there was a sickness in the church and it experienced its own form of diminishment and haemorrhage – not of blood but of people as the numbers leaving increased dramatically, not all as a result of the scandal, it must be said, but also as an outcome of the increase of secularism and materialism in society.
The patient after her treatment looked pathetic – her body ravaged by the effects of her sickness – her hair never regained its original magnificence and her good looks did not return. She now looks worn and frail, but she has changed in other ways too. From being the beautiful person in looks and personality she has become a woman of wisdom – in place of the surface beauty she now radiates a magnificence that emanates out of her whole being. She has learned the lesson of the sickness and is now able to call it ‘gift’ – her vulnerability at this stage enables her to view others with compassion and walk with them through the darkness of sickness, grief, hurt and loneliness. People used to admire her and be captivated by her, but now they are transformed by her holiness and radiant inner beauty.
The same journey is possible for our church – to become a weak, humble church that sees its call to walk with people on their journey to God, to learn from its own brush with sickness to bring healing to the broken, to bind up the wounds of humanity with the bandage of tenderness and the ointment of gentleness, to constantly remind the world of the inalienable dignity of every human being and the sacredness of our common home on this earth. This is what spiritual health looks like but sometimes the price of such health can be demanding and painful.
Fr Brian Brady is Parish Priest of Clonmany, Diocese of Derry.