Mark Patrick Hederman
Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in Reality Magazine. December 2010
What has happened to the Catholic Church in Ireland? Why, when it once controlled our lives, has it lost both its power and its influence? This was the question Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal was asking himself.
“I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t ask themselves exactly what has happened,” he says, on the phone from Glenstal.
In pondering the question, Hederman has written a thought provoking book called Underground Cathedrals. He writes movingly, as he studies the history of the church, and hypothesises how we should best, now, get spiritual succour.
“My proposal is that, at this time, the Holy Spirit is unearthing an underground cathedral in Ireland which could help to replace the pretentious, over-elaborate Irish Catholic architecture of the twentieth century,” he says. “An underground cathedral is a metaphor which describes an alternative place and time of worship.”
The church’s problems were inevitable, Hederman feels, because of the way the church was originally set up.
“The problem, for me, was that the Christian Church, at the beginning, mistook what it meant to be spiritual as meaning the flesh was evil.
“I identify Augustine as one of the main purveyors of that doctrine, so that priests, especially, were to be spiritual, and that meant dehumanised. It was then regarded as second rate to be married, whereas being celibate was first rate humanity; and all that was a misjudgement of the reality of the incarnation.
“The truth is, that every great religion has a group of people who are celibate because they have a love relationship with God. That only applies to small minority of mystics, but it was actually forced on all authority and all religious, and it didn’t work. Sexuality, obviously, finds its own way of avoiding the ban, and we now see the result of it.
“Priests thought that they understood human nature, and they knew nothing about it,” he contends. “They were cordoned off from their own nature by the training they got. They were trained to eradicate all beauty; to close their eyes rather than to open them. It was ‘don’t touch.’ It was all to do with purity and chastity.”
The Abbot has huge sympathy for the late John Charles McQuaid, the former Archbishop of Dublin. In bringing a kind of spiritual terrorism to Ireland; in banning books and films with sexual content, as part of his campaign to shield the young from bad influences, he was, Hederman argues, only following the leaders of his day.
“I don’t believe that McQuaid was an evil man,” he says. “He was a well meaning person who was brought up in a particular way. He was a diligent, sincere and absolutely honest man who did his duty as he saw it. By the end of his reign he personally had not changed greatly, but others had.....he stood out as the personal embodiment of all that a new breed of liberals despised and were embarrassed by.”
As for the horror of child-abuse, Hederman contends that McQuaid, along with many other priests, never fully understood it. And whereas children were the victims, nuns and priests are the victims now. And not just the innocent ones.
“We’re always looking for scapegoats, and the priests, even those who were abusers are victims of society. The abuse of children is horrifying; it’s like an epidemic, and it’s not just a church phenomenon. We are still trying to find villains to hunt down, and we’re the other side of the fence. They’re the monsters we can point towards and put in the stocks, but it’s not as simple as that.”
Hederman is wary of the direction in which Pope Benedict is leading the Church.
“The Pope is calling everyone back, almost to Vatican 1. He says, ‘let’s go for a leaner church.’ In other words, weed out anyone who won’t obey the rules. We could end up with a fanatical church, but I don’t think many people in Ireland ate going to be attracted by that, or browbeaten into returning to that.”
Which is why, Hederman feels, we should turn to art and beauty for our spiritual sustenance. He cites playwrights like Brian Friel; artists like Louis le Brocquy; and poets like Seamus Heaney, who can show us the work of the Holy Spirit.
As an example, in 2007, when Hederman went to a retrospective exhibition by the artist Anne Madden, he saw beyond the mere objects in the paintings, and he was profoundly moved.
“It was to see what the eye has not yet imagined and which comes towards us, not as something domesticated and familiar, but as an intense feeling that edges its way towards appearance.”
So what is Hederman’s principal message?
“That we should be dancing to our own rhythms. During the 20th Century, when all those ghastly scandals and all those terrible abuses were taking place, the Holy Spirit was inspiring a number of people with the truth. And the monuments to that truth are all around us. We should all go and visit them and revisit them, and listen and learn.”
Underground Cathedrals by Mark Patrick Hederman is published by Columba Press.