Every Lent and Advent I think of the story of the Irish priest who was driving along a country road in Galway. He wanted to go to Portumna. The west of Ireland is flat, the roads are edged with hedges or stone walls so you can see little and the few road signs there are, are not that reliable. He came across an elderly farmer standing by the side of the road with his cap pulled down. He asked the farmer, “Am I on the road to Portumna?” The farmer was not in the habit of sharing too much information, especially with strangers, but seeing it was a priest he eventually said, “Well, you are, but it would help if you turned your car around.”
Lent and Advent are times when we stop to reflect on the direction of our lives. Our hope is that we are on the right road and not heading in the wrong direction but often we may be stopped, stuttering along or heading slightly bush.
The reason why this story appeals to me is because I am about to take a radical turn. This is my last Director’s Column. I finish as Director on St Columban’s Day, November 23, and Fr Gary Walker will take over and write the column for the November-December issue.
So it is a time for reflection and questions. Most of my life as a missionary priest has been a time for questions. I was ordained in 1969 at the peak of the vocations surge. We were young and energised by Vatican II. There were plenty of priests and sisters. Superiors were in their forties and the Church scandals of those days were minor compared to today. However, priests and religious had begun to leave in worrying numbers. Confronted by the insights of Vatican II, about the worth of other religions and the newly gained independence of many of the countries where we worked, we were asking ourselves some basic questions about our role as missionaries.
I don’t think I ever welcomed any question or pain. But in retrospect I now realise that life would have been very boring and I would have missed out on a lot. As they say in sport, “no pain - no gain”. We never change or learn anything significant until the pain of not changing is greater than that of changing.
I am also reminded of my favourite cartoon, Hagar the Horrible. As you may know Hagar is a big, beefy Viking fond of pillaging castles and not very sensitive or reflective. He has a mate, Lucky Eddie who is even more “mentally challenged”. One day when they are sitting on a rock, the monk philosopher tells them, “As Descartes says, ‘I think, therefore I am’.” Hagar and Lucky Eddie look totally confused and vacant until Lucky Eddie asks, “So where does that leave me?” It is our ability to think and to question which may cause us pain but also brings insight, life and possibilities.
We live in a time of questions. It is the role of theology to enable us to look at things in a new way (re-visioning); to help us live creatively, peacefully and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations.
Thank you for sharing my questions over the past six years. Thank you to those who wrote to me and thanks especially to friends and supporters who share a commitment to mission.