Fr Desmond O’Donnell: 'I'm constantly ashamed of my own Church, especially in recent times for the criminal abuse of children and its cover-up'
In conversation with Fr Desmond O’Donnell
Fr Desmond O'Donnell is a registered psychologist, an Oblate priest, based in Dublin, and a regular visitor to Belfast. His main academic interest is the interaction of psychology, culture and faith. He has published a widely acclaimed book, To Love and Be Loved.
He was born in Donegal in 1927 and was ordained as a priest, joining the Oblate Order. He ministered in Australia from 1954 to 1981. His later work, as general counsellor for the 7,500-strong Oblate worldwide congregation, gave him the opportunity to travel extensively across five continents, where he gained experience with the main non-Christian religions.
He returned to the UK and Ireland in 1993, where he has researched, lectured and published on the cultural and religious changes taking place in the modern world. His second publication is Gospel Conversations, published by Dominican Publications in Dublin.
Q How and when did you come to faith?
A Since faith is a gift from God and cannot be passed from one to another, I received it from the love given me by my parents and by our parish community in Donegal. We are all best-prepared for meeting God at our mother's knee and in a loving community.
In that sense, I received the gift of faith gradually. It is part of my daily life. No more than my breathing, faith cannot be turned on or off or departmentalised.
Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith or a gnawing doubt?
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A Because my faith is a growing relationship with God, like any relationship, it has moments of development and decline. My faith is not a noun; it is a verb; I am faith-ing. My faith is not a fixed obsession; it is a beautiful growing and struggling journey. So, for me, faith and doubt go together; they are twin brothers. Jesus experienced deep doubt on the Cross.
I experience faith as a slow-release miracle. Otherwise, I would have what GK Chesterton called "the blinding clarity of a madman". Like a loving parent, my God always stands a hand's distance away, giving me room to grow.
I try to be open before the present, wonderful flow of scientific information coming to us all. I recognise that science can purify my faith from blindness - or superstition - and that my faith can purify my scientific knowledge from idolatry or false absolutes.
As the former Chief Rabbi, Johnathan Sacks, said: "Science takes things apart to see how they work; faith puts them together to see what they are." I often ask myself: who lit the fuse for the Big Bang?
Q Have you ever been angry with God?
A Not since I left childhood. Nor has God - like the father of the prodigal son - ever been angry with me. We both have been occasionally disappointed with each other. I, by my imagined failure of God to meet my expectations, and He at my weak faith in the gift of His love.
Q Have you ever been criticised for your faith?
A No, except in the sense that people of faith must always expect negative comment when they fail to manifest the faith and love they profess. At times like this, I accept deserved criticism.
Q Have you ever been ashamed of your Church?
A Yes, constantly - including my own, for failures to live the Gospel and especially in recent time for the criminal abuse of children and its cover-up. I join Pope John Paul II, who made over two dozen apologies for past and more recent Church failures.
Q Are you afraid to die?
A Certainly not. I have been close to death five times, through partial gassing, near-drowning, a car crash, a serious electric shock and a heart attack. I live in the experience of a loving God, who I know will welcome me and my repented-of sinfulness into the fullness of his mercy when I die. If I am conscious at the time, I will die saying: "Into your hands I commit my spirit."
Of course, approaching death will make me sad at temporary parting from my friends and at their sadness in missing me. "Will someone cry when I die?" is a deep question within all of us. I will die with great gratitude to my God and to my friends.
Q Do you believe in the resurrection?
A Certainly, in Christ's and in my own. Through baptism, resurrection is already an experience in my life. Then I recall Martin Luther's encouraging words: "The Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books, but in every leaf in springtime."
Of course, I have no idea what the final experience will be like, beyond being enveloped in the infinite love of God and of others.
Q What do you think of people of other faiths?
A They are all sincere people, infinitely loved by God. Apart from my Christian brothers and sisters, I have numerous Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist friends, who inspired me by their godly lives during my 12 years among them in Asia. They too are invited to the heavenly banquet.
Q Would you have comfort in stepping out of your own faith?
A Not in leaving it, but I certainly have been enlightened and helped in my own faith by stepping deeply into seeing and understanding the faith of others.
Q Are the Churches here fulfilling their mission?
A Yes, they are, even if imperfectly, as Jesus' closest followers did. I have been inspired during retreats which I was privileged to give to members of other Churches.
As a psychologist, I have been employed by three Churches in Australia and, more recently, by the Church of Ireland, to examine their candidates for ministry, and I found each of them sincerely intent on fulfilling their mission.
Q Why are so many turning their back on organised religion?
A This question cannot be dealt with in any short form. The best minds are searching for an answer. A Secular Age by Charles Taylor has helpful answers. Since the Enlightenment, all false faith is being shredded by a culture of questions and choice that is replacing a culture of blind authority. Only authentic faith will survive the present deluge of secularism.
Church membership will continue to lessen and Church communities will become very small. Jesus did not call mere believers, or followers; he called for disciples. Then, there is always the risk that what is called faith could be little more than good moral, or narrow religious, behaviour.
While authentic Church membership supports and enhances faith, they are not always identical. Many believers today do not belong and many who belong might not be believers. Simone Weil, the Jewess who became a Christian, wrote well about where God finds us outside of churches.
Q Has religion helped or hindered the people of this island?
A Genuine faith in all of the Churches has helped people and always will. However, when any Church gets too close to a political system - as has happened in both the north and south of Ireland - faith is not helped.
In the past, too close a liaison between state and Church, north and south, led to an unjust use of power by the favoured Church and to defensiveness by the others. The future for all authentic religious relationships in Northern Ireland looks hopeful at present.
Q What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A The film would have to be Fiddler on the Roof, the honest struggle of faith in dialogue with God. Favourite book would be An Interrupted Life - about a Jewish woman's (called Etty), life in the Nazi death camps. As for music, Finlandia by Jean Sibelius is rousing, turbulent music describing the journey of the Finnish people to freedom.
Q Where do you feel closest to God?
A While praying the New Testament and when loving others.
Q Have you any major regrets?
A That I took so long on my journey to meet the God, whose friendship I now enjoy, and my slowness to mediate the fullness of his love to others.