At yesterday’s audience in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict said:

“We live amid great confusion about the fundamental choices of our life; there are so many contrasting philosophies, which arise and disappear, creating confusion about the fundamental decisions”.

However, as promised in the Gospel, the Lord has compassion on his “sheep without a shepherd,” and the Pontiff then continued:

“The Lord, moved by compassion, interpreted the word of God; he himself is the Word of God, and thus he gave guidance. This is the function ‘In persona Christi’ of the priest: to render present, in the confusion and disorientation of our times, the light of the Word of God, the light that is Christ, himself, in this our world.”

The Holy Father then went on to explain that the priest,

“… … does not teach his own ideas, a philosophy that he himself has invented, has found and that pleases him; [... …] but, in the confusion of all the philosophies, the priest teaches in the name of Christ present, he proposes the truth that is Christ himself, his word, his way of living and of going forward.”

But the one who epitomises confusion – confusion personified, if you like! – was Jesus on the Cross, when he felt that he had lost his relationship with his Father – the centre of his life.


Jesus Forsaken on the Cross

The waters grow muddier, however, because all this comes at a time when, I must confess, that recent newspaper and media articles about scandals among priests, accusations against Bishops and even the Pope, himself, had left me confused and rather depressed. How are we to cope in confusing times? 

I would like to illustrate from some more stories of priests that I have known: they are three monks of our Abbey that nobody outside the abbey would have known. All have died, and all were contemporaries more or less in our monastery as they joined in the same year, about 1936. They each helped me in moments of confusion and doubt for me.

Fr. Bruno Donovan, was an Irishman from Galway. He was my novice master and, because of his great gifts of empathy, sense of humour, compassion and kindness, God used him to enable me to make a firm decision and remain a monk of the Abbey.

Fr. Bruno Donovan OSB

Without any shadow of doubt, Fr. Bruno had a real and profound understanding of human beings: he, himself, had suffered in life, because he had a slight physical deformity – a hair-lip. I remember he told me, while I was still a novice, that for 30 years he was very self-conscious of this: but then, at some point, he managed to accept it and from then it did not bother him. Furthermore, he was a scatter-brain, a gifted talker and raconteur, but no organiser.  Consequently, he almost always arrived late for prayer duties, and, at once, “swung himself” into his place in choir (i.e. where we meet as monks seven times each day to pray). He ‘swung’ by grabbing the edge of the wooden choir stall and pulling himself round into his seat in one hectic movement – quite erratic! He had mannerisms that were, at the same time, endearing and annoying: one ‘cropped up’ in his teaching of Scripture or the Rule of St. Benedict – even in his homilies – when he would add the little phrase “you see” quite often, between sentences. On one occasion, we novices decided to count how many times he ‘used’ it in one session and the total was well over 50! His other ‘problem’ was that he was Irish, and our monastery – in the middle of the English countryside – had a majority of monks who were English. He felt ‘out of it’ he confided, though he could well ‘fight his own corner’.  Even so, this was a challenge. To make matters worse, he could not sing well, and this frustrated him, because as monks, we do a lot of singing, each day, in Church.

His greatest gift was that of friendship with people, and many used to come and consult with him, ask his advice, and share their problems – myself among them.  My experience of him was that he never gave the ‘standard’ answer: rather, I should think things through for myself, though he would stand beside me. I remember one crucial moment when I posed the question, “Should I leave the monastery, or stay?” At this, he did not say to me, “Of course you must stay.”  (By that time, I had already been in the monastery for a few years). Rather, he told me to consider my decision carefully and prayerfully. Still in confusion, I remember my firm decision to stay, coming – in the midst of my turmoil – when Fr. Bruno caught my eye across the Church and gave me a wry smile – a smile full of affectionate kindness. Isn’t it strange; isn’t if ‘funny’ how God works! Now, is that not an expression of the ‘Word of God’ in a person, expressing itself, not in speaking, but in a whole and long-lasting relationship of friendship? Fr. Bruno used to say of himself: “I am always glad to see my name in the Benedictine Yearbook each year – it’s still there despite everything”.  I am sure it was his ‘suffering’ that made him so wise.

Fr. Robert Coverdale was solidly English. Just look at his name! It reminds me of the Coverdale Bible –  the first full Bible in English – and from the reformers in the 16th century.

Fr. Robert Coverdale OSB

He was a very independent man, and for years the ‘Procurator’ at Ampleforth. He did not ‘take fools gladly’, had quite a ‘short fuse’ and found the monastic life not really ‘congenial’ to his temperament. Yet he remained a loyal and steadfast servant of our community right ‘to the end’. One day, I plucked up courage and went to him for confession, and from then on, he was my confessor for some years, until 1973 when I moved to my first parish. Going to him was one of the best things I ever did. He was a human being of high quality – even ‘nobility’ – in his outlook.  One day I told him of my usual problems, which were all to do with problematic relationships, in that a lady had ‘latched’ herself onto me, and it was difficult to know how to handle the situation. I well remember, he used to say to me: “Jonathan, God did not make you an angel: he made you a human being with all the weaknesses and difficulties that we face – so don’t worry too much. Had He wanted to He could have made all human beings like angels, but God didn’t want that.” This was just the sort of advice and support I needed in my confusion. On another occasion, when I confessed to reading a novel, and it was against the rules to read novels except in holiday time, he said that it was probably the best thing I could have done, because had I not had some time to relax, I might have had a nervous break-down, and then the rest of the community would have had to ‘pick up’ all the work I was doing: so much better, to relax, than to fall by the wayside! “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, and his advice made sense to me, even if ‘rules are rules’. His wisdom came from his evident perseverance in the monastic life, despite its way of life not really being a way conducive to him.

My final ‘example’ is that of Fr. Aelred Graham. He wrote various books and one of his last had a double meaning: “The End of Religion”.

Fr. Aelred Graham OSB

Fr. Aelred had been asked to become the Prior of Portsmouth Abbey (then called Priory) in the USA, and after a few years, the monks elected him as their Prior. After 16 years in the job he had become very interested and attracted by Buddhism, so much so, that on his retirement back to the Abbey at Ampleforth, and after a sabbatical touring the Far East – meeting up with Buddhist and Hindu gurus –  some of the brethren thought him more of a Buddhist than a Christian. I always liked him, and never felt that way about him. He was so calm – like an oriental Buddhist monk who has found his way – very friendly and fascinating in his ideas.  Because of him, I read the Upanishads and other Hindu and Buddhist literature. I found the writings beautiful, spiritual and helpful. Later, I was to learn that the second Vatican Council teaches that there are ‘seeds’ of the Word of God, in all the great religions of the world, and this ‘confirmed’ my enjoyment in ‘dipping’ into those Hindu and Buddhist writings. It was a confusing time during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Some of our monks became a bit ‘too interested’ in non-Christian religions: but then, monastic life pre-dates Christianity – the Buddha lived about 500 years before Jesus – and there are influences of the Oriental religions, certainly, in the Gospels.  Also it should be said, many Christian monks feel an ‘affinity’ with the non-Christian monks.  Fr. Aelred ‘suffered’ in a way because of his being so different to the traditional English Catholic ways of our Ampleforth brethren. Yet, he always seemed to me to be able to resist criticism, peacefully keeping to the path that he had found, and over the years, he continued to influence and to help me. Those years – post Vatican Council – were confusing times, however, and there was a tendency to see all religions as if on an equal footing, and I, too, was confused. Fr. Aelred died a loyal and respected member of our Ampleforth community, and for me, he illuminated a whole new world – a new theology – that still fascinates me, as dialogue between the Catholic Church and the entire world religions continues to this day.

My conclusion in the confusing times in which we live is to recognise that this is ‘nothing’ compared with the confusion Jesus suffered when he thought he no longer had a relationship with God his Father, when on the Cross.

Pope Benedict said yesterday: “In the confusion of all the philosophies, the priest teaches in the name of Christ present, he proposes the truth that is Christ himself, his word, his way of living and of going forward.” Jesus, in his sense of being forsaken on the cross, lost the whole meaning of his life which was founded in his relationship with his Father. That was taken away from him, and so He then, taking on the most serious confusion that He could experience, is really fully the Word of God who throws light onto the situations we find so confusing in life. Every one of our confusions is found in what Jesus experienced. Jesus remained suffering in that confusion, and in great faith and love said just before He died, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit”.

It is confusing and distressing to read about all the present scandals within the Church: perhaps, some Catholics will actually leave the Church as a result. I feel very sad, downcast at times, and upset for the victims of any maltreatment. I find the accusations against clerics very disheartening, especially, the evident satisfaction the publicity seems to provide for those who are enemies of the Church and all its values, and those involved in the media. Then I see the face of Jesus suffering on his Cross; Jesus is suffering today in this situation in me, probably in many laity, priests and Bishops and even in the Pope. There are plenty of other sufferings also: but in all this, I see the suffering of those three monks. Their sufferings led them to become role models for me – role models for me to learn from and to follow. I, too, can stay in my confusion and share the same faith as Jesus, continuing to hope against hope that God will sort it out. And the teacher of those three monks? I believe they learned from the One in whom they lived – and moved – and had their being, and in this way they became the ‘Word’ for me and in that I found a solution to my confusions. Jesus, himself, was their role model! I hope he is mine and yours too, and in Him we find the solution to any present confusions!