Tuesday, March 20, 2012

12-03-18: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent

2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23 / Psalm 137 / Ephesians 2:4-10 / John 3:14-21

History is filled with ironies. Just think of the import reflected in today’s first reading about Cyrus the Persian, responsible for the repatriation of exiled Jews back to Israel in the sixth century BC and then for rebuilding the Temple after having been destroyed by the Babylonians fifty years earlier. Cyrus the Persian, Cyrus the proto-Iranian if you will, was so admired and appreciated by the Jews that he is even given the title “Messiah” in the scriptures. Fast forward 2,500 years and Cyrus’s descendents, the Iranian ayatollahs, are Israel’s sworn enemies and the greatest threat to Jewish existence.

This weekend we’ll be celebrating the memory of Saint Patrick who, virtually single-handedly, converted the entire people of Ireland to Christianity. All the more remarkable when we realize that Patrick, probably from Roman Britain, had been kidnapped and enslaved by Irish pirates and, upon his escape, felt an interior call to return to Ireland as a priest and preach the gospel to his former captors. The legacy of the Catholic Faith that Patrick left in Ireland helped preserve the faith of an entire Europe during the barbarian invasions. Now, after the priest sex-abuse scandals and subsequent cover up by the Irish bishops, we see the Irish Church imploding and the Irish people themselves rejecting their ancient faith.

Comparisons could be made. Iran is an Islamic theocracy that seeks to govern on Qur’anic principles. Ireland was the closest thing to a theocracy in the modern West till very recently. The Catholic Church in Ireland wielded enormous influence and political power. But the problem with theocracies, no matter when and where we find them, is that the power entrusted to a religious elite is often easily abused. That has happened in both Iran and Ireland. One just needs to listen to the ranting of the Iranian ayatollah or remember the abuse of power in the hands of a former Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.

Against that bleak backdrop there emerges an unexpected diamond in the rough – Diarmuid Martin, the current archbishop of Dublin, recently interviewed on 60 Minutes. Archbishop Martin seems a maverick among his brother bishops, not willing to go along blindly either with them or the Vatican. A seeming humble man, named to his post from outside the usual source of candidates, he came to near tears in the interview when talking of visiting a school and seeing the innocence of the children all the while remembering the stories of abuse told him by sex-abuse survivors. He’s no fool though. When pressed to speak about the recent rift in relations between the Irish government and the Vatican (Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See and the pope recalled his nuncio) he politely refuses to speculate. And, no doubt, 60 Minutes was told not to mention the Pope’s refusal to accept certain bishops’ resignations over the scandal or ask for Martin’s response. Yet Martin seems a light in the darkness now engulfing the Irish Church – perhaps the only light amid a bevy of bishops running in all directions; including Cardinal Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland and, thus, successor to St. Patrick himself, who has admitted to “silencing” sex-abuse victims years before lest they cause scandal to the church. While there’s little doubt Martin’s church career will go no further - he’ll not succeed Brady as Primate - one can’t help but think Martin is, in fact, Patrick’s worthy successor. If anyone will be able to begin to rebuild the Irish Church from this low point in its history, Martin seems to be the one.

Ireland and Iran are separated by a lot of geography but their attempt at workable theocracies bears more than a little similarity. And students of comparative linguistics have long known that both Persian Farsi and Irish Gaelic are distantly related, belonging to the same Indo-European family of languages. Interestingly, a case has been made for the remarkable theory that the place names, Ireland and Iran, share the same root, “Ar”- the same root of the name Aryan – an ancient and mysterious people who seem to have emerged from the Russian steppe some 4,000 years ago, spreading in all directions and leaving vestiges of their language and religion within disparate cultures. Let’s hope that the example of Cyrus the Persian, that proto-Iranian defender of the Jews, and Saint Patrick, that messenger of the Gospel to the Irish who once enslaved him, will win the day in both modern Iran and Ireland. And let’s pray that any attempt at theocratic government, from whatever religious background, will be seen for what it actually is: tyrannical despotism – albeit clothed in attractive religious garb.

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