What makes a site sacred?


Funny BitsSt. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is introduced by a marmoreal document called the Principle and Foundation: “The human person is made to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save their soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other things in so far as they help towards one’s end.”

The statement has been criticised for being cold in the way it speaks of 'other things'. It encourages people to be calculating and heavy in the way they relate to the world and to other people, and to forget that the world is sacred. In my own occasional moods of self-examination, however, I wonder whether it breeds a rather indecent lightness of spirit.

I wonder how the Principle influences my response to stories about funny business in the Catholic Church. July marked the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s strong speech in Alice Springs, in which he endorsed the dignity and the right to land of indigenous Australians. To mark the occasion a Mass was celebrated in the largely indigenous parish of Redfern. People had asked prior to the celebrations if they could put a mural in the church, but their request was refused. Before the Mass, a group broke into the Church, with the result that when the community arrived the next day, they saw facing them a large and splendidly executed mural. It enshrined the Pope’s words in Alice Springs. The visiting celebrant innocently blessed the mural and prayed that it remain there in perpetuity. The parish priest commented that this mob knew nothing about obedience. But he was left with an unpalatable dilemma: leave the mural there, or whitewash Pope John Paul II.

Now any sober-minded person would judge that these doings were disgraceful, and that they clearly echoed Adam’s raid on the apple tree. But my response was not to mourn at such great sinfulness, but to laugh loud and long. The story made my day. After due reflection, however, I recognised that the reason why I had failed to respond with proper gravity was that this story is really less about obedience than about property. It is about how we use things, including churches, to praise, love and reverence God. It is full of ironies—of invading a sacred site, of consecration through desecration, of respecting land rights through disrespecting land rights. Ultimately the story lightened my spirit because it made sport of property rights and put property into play.

Before you praise the moral acuity of my response, you should know that I also laugh when I hear stories of the United States' Jesuit Dan Berrigan and his friends. They were jailed for cavalier disregard for government property after charges that they had poured blood on draft cards and assaulted a nuclear warhead. They failed to persuade the judges that the government was perverting the proper use of such things by dedicating them to a war that brought human beings to a totally improper end. I also confess to smiling secretly two months ago when an Irish jury found Ciaran O’Reilly and his companions not guilty. They had been tried for taking to a United States military plane at Shannon Airport with a hatchet. They argued that in receiving such planes, used for military operations in Iraq, Ireland was allowing its property to be used improperly.

To add to this catalogue of moral perversity, my sins also include laughing at raids on property undertaken purely out of greed. After a false priest was detected ministering for a considerable period of time in a rural town, for example, the parishioners took up a petition to have him remain. Best pastor they had ever had, they said. Not to mention a range of priests who were suspected of rigging raffles, and convicted for running ringers at country race meetings. Trouble was, everybody knew, and had got on the nags.

Dan Berrigan SJ and his matesI confess that I laughed at such impropriety, even though it sullied our Catholic Church. But is it really reprehensible to laugh at such violations of property rights? Jesus seemed to display a similarly cavalier attitude to property. He told his disciples to go fish for the temple tax he owed. He attacked the economic base of Jerusalem when he whipped the stall holders out of the temple. He also told a story about a crook manager whom his master praised for cooking the books in order to ensure his future employability.

The praise puzzled generations of scriptural scholars who held property to be almost sacred. Mind you, they also had to work hard at the saying about the rich man and the eye of the needle. Perhaps the real affront in this story is not that the master praised his manager, but that Jesus enjoyed the story. He wasn’t in favour of rigging the books. But he laughed at the manager’s fraud because in his world, as in ours, people took money too seriously. They built their law around property rights, and made property sacred. For Jesus, as for Ignatius’ Principle, property is to enable all human beings to live well. It has a social bond. So stories, even of scoundrels, that enable us to laugh at the pretentiousness of giving our lives to keep and guard property, are precious.

On hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan, a young girl asked why the robbers could not have been nice robbers, and just stolen the traveller’s money, instead of beating him. That is the world of the First Principle. In it robbery is wrong, property is not king but servant of human beings, and laughter is free.



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Existing comments

Well done, Andrew, you gave me a good laugh too. Thank you for your human and Christian reponse to a tragic situation at Redfern.
David Strong SJ | 05 September 2006

Aboriginal people have a more attitude to sharing than in our European culture. My amusement was a misguided (I guess) enjoyment of the discomfiture of one was so concerned at the "disobedience" to his illconsidered ban on posting an excellent mural. How about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?
Kel Hutton | 05 September 2006

Oh, so true. Irony and truth can work so well in tandem. Thanks Andrew for spelling out the humour so central to our belief systems.
john hill | 05 September 2006

shame on you for encouraging the ongoing humiliation, of a brother priest, by a small group of fanatics in that parish.The same group who gave the previous priest a nervous breakdown. shame
mark | 05 September 2006

The spiritual challenge here is for all involved to reflect, charitably and justify their respective attitude and position. If this doesn't lead to a charitable reconciliation then there really is a problem much, much more significant than the mural. It should remain more than ever as a reminder of how not to behave. Spirit must be the winner here - not rules!!
Neville Ward | 05 September 2006

Witty but irresponsible. Since moving to Redfern, the Neo-cats have been subject to a campaign of on-gong vilification as instanced by the Church Mouse website. It's sad that Jesuits seem to find this a topic for light-hearted amusement.
Brett Doyle | 05 September 2006

Father Hamilton, you are so uncharitable in your charity. "The visiting celebrant innocently blessed the mural and prayed ... "! Oh, really! You really would have us believe that the ubiquitous Fr Frank Brennan SJ did not know what was going on? Yet in your view, the poor long-suffering Parish Priest could only comment "that this mob knew nothing about obedience". You ought to be ashamed of yourself.
Mark Dugdale | 05 September 2006

I must admit - I do the same
Kirsty Whitfield | 05 September 2006

Ah Andrew, how neatly you have pricked the balloons of our arrogance and myopic views of what is really important.The dignity of the human person is still supreme. Bravo
Ted Mson | 06 September 2006

Marie Dullard | 06 September 2006

Dear Andrew, your contribution wins you recognition in the hall of Holy Irritants!! The "writing is on the wall" not only for Redfern, but for all who turn the tables in the cause of "funny businss" in the Catholic Church. We are weighed down by a new culture of "Church Inc" and the spirit of the larikin and the holy irritant needs to be nurtured and celebrated.
Tony Robertson | 06 September 2006

Let's laugh together! If enough people join in, perhaps a few pretentious bubbles would be pricked.
Margot Kerby | 06 September 2006

Dear Andrew,
As an American i am not familiar with all the nuances of Australian culture, but in my humble opinion, what Cardinal Pell neeeds to do is replace the Neocats with a priest who can relate to the Aboriginal people much better as Father Kennedy did. As we in America have a habit of saying, "What would Jesus do"? Isn't church all about serving The Lord in the way that He would like, not the way that we would like?

Francis Ray Jr. | 06 September 2006

Fr. Hamilton's laughter is both cruel and subversive. What if we Catholics never knew from week to week if our churches were going to be broken into, our priest was the real thing, the atom bombs that defend us had been tinkered with, and our horses were running fairly? It would be a nightmare world. Property rights are the strong wall of the religion that Fr. Hamilton was ordained to uphold. Paul knew that when he sent a runaway slave back to his master, and told slaves to obey their masters.
James Divesson, LA
James Divesson | 07 September 2006

It is a shame,(comments by mark last tuesday) that the parishioners at Redfern only became known as fanatics after the arrival of the new order. Before that they would have been described as a sometime fanatical prayerful and hardworking community, as they really still are .
Suzanne Wicks | 07 September 2006

Thank God for a priest like Fr Hamilton who has both a sense of humour aka perspective and a real sense of what being Christian i.e. a follower of Jesus means! When I was reading his article I also found myself asking in relation to Church buildings - who are they for? the priest or the people? While, like Fr Hamilton, I don't condone break-ins and lawlessness, on the other hand, I find myself wondering why the aboriginal people were locked out in the first place by the priest and why their mural was refused. I can't believe that this would have happened during Fr Ted Kennedy's time.

Judith M. Woodward | 08 September 2006

I always felt that Robin Hood had integrity. Thankyou Andy for your enlightened story around our paranoia over property and ownership!A sacred site always begins with our own sense of the sacred. The fifth pilgrims annotation best sums this up for me. "Places are made holy by their story, the spritit in which you journey to them, receive their gift and leave."

jo dallimore | 16 September 2006

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