A Review of From the Outside by Chris McDonnell

From the outside, looking in

Chris McDonnell CT December 04 2020


Belonging to a social group, a sports club, a political party or a local community association involves accepting certain rules and patterns of behavior. Our behavior is modified for the greater good of all. Breaking the rules might lead to a minor sanction or, ultimately, to expulsion if the matter is considered serious enough. I would like to explore this week the implications of ‘belonging’ and the consequences of finding oneself on the outside, consequences for the group and for the individual concerned.


Our membership of any group is usually a voluntary action. No one forces you to become of card-carrying member of a political party nor demands that you join the local golf club. It is a course of action that we undertake for personal reasons. Our social commitment leads us to associate ourselves with a particular group, so we confirm our point of view by joining our voice to theirs. We apply for membership of a sports club or gym in order to share activity with others. Both actions benefit the group we join as well as ourselves.


But joining does not nullify our own voice. In fact most groups have clear ‘Standing Orders’ that enable member’s opinions to be heard for the greater good.


Expressing a critical comment should not imply disloyalty, rather the opposite. Very often it is because we care for the greater good that we feel compelled to speak up. The Member of Parliament, David Lammy, recently said “You can be critical of your own country but still love it”.


We should always be aware of the prejudice of the group. Every group has a prepared position on a variety of subjects. For example a football crowd have very clear loyalties during a match and are usually vocal in expressing their opinion.


All very well, but what happens when disagreement with the group leads to rejection, how is that managed?


I have just finished reading Fr Tony Flannery’s latest book, ‘From the Outside’, an account of the last eight years since his public ministry of priesthood has been forbidden by the CDF. An Irish member of the Redemptorist Order, he has spent a lifetime caring for very many people across the Island of Ireland, preaching and leading retreats It is a challenging read that demands the attention of the reader, calling to question the management of his position by Rome and his own religious order over a long period of time. A farmer friend of Flannery’s described it as “a book of religion for adults”, indeed an apt description. Asking questions is an integral part of a fulfilled faith, even if some of the answers are uncomfortable. I have always encouraged young people to ask questions but not always to expect a neatly packaged answer. There is a mystery in life that remains in spite of everything.


A compassionate argument listens to both sides, hears both points of view before reaching a conclusion demanding action. Being placed on the outside without the opportunity of dialogue only exacerbates the position when there is disagreement. At times of such stress and loneliness we should reflect on the words of the Nobel Laureate, Albert Camus who wrote:”Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend”. We expect friendship even when there is disagreement over principle.


Rejection and exclusion are cul-de-sac solutions when a disagreement occurs. It is often said that a family can be defined as the place where it is safe to disagree with one another, being aware that a relationship of love exists that is strong and lasting.

Trust and the comfort of personal security allow honest views to be expressed as each person within the group strives to experience an understanding of another’s point of view.


We sometimes use the phrase ‘speaking when the time is right’. We all know that we can exaggerate disagreement by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sometimes it is best to let a point ride to a later date when a dispassionate exchange may take place in a more conducive atmosphere.


In the light of the recent news that the seminary at Wonersh is to close due to a lack of new students, Flannery’s reflection on his experience of seminary life offer much food for thought. His description of a narrow and tightly controlled atmosphere challenges the suitability of seminary training for the future priestly ministry of its students.


With the recent publication of the IICSA report on abusive behavior within the Catholic Church in England, surely the time has come to re-examine the context of vocation and preparation of our priests? One practical outcome from this whole sorry mess would be for our hierarchy to establish a National Commission on the nature of priesthood, patterns of preparation for ministry and options for parish life.


It is no longer possible to continue with a model of priesthood that is outmoded and is, in so many ways, dysfunctional. That will mean confronting issues that some would rather not face. We should expect that those with the courage to speak out are listened to and their opinions valued. Another perspective must be sought if we are to find credible solutions.

We shouldn’t be fearful of such honest discussion; rather we should welcome it as our opportunity to contribute to Mission. At every moment the Church exists in historical time. In our ‘otherness’ we might attempt to ignore the society that it is our lot to share. We may agree or disagree with the surrounding milieu that we experience, but we cannot ignore it.


Our appreciation of scriptural narrative is testimony to expert scholarship over many years. Some of the conclusions drawn from such scholarship might be uncomfortable for us to assimilate but rejection out of hand limits our honesty and challenges our integrity.


So why not call a National Commission on priesthood where our voices, many and varied, might be heard for the greater good of all? We have a narrow window of opportunity before church doors are locked as the age profile of our priests advances. Closure will not be temporary as with COVID, but long term due to a structural failure of our Catholic Community to recognize the need for radical change before it is too late.


Reflect back some sixty years to the time when John XXIII considered calling a Council. Knowing what he knew about the entrenched views of the Roman Curia, he must have been fearful of opening the windows to let fresh air in. But he did so from a position of faith, he trusted in the Holy Spirit and that trust enabled him to act.


Too often, when someone offers a dissenting opinion, rather than address their point of view, we accuse them of acting in bad faith, of not understanding the details of the argument. Their journey in faith becomes a lonely trek in an arid desert wilderness.


Tony Flannery writes from the experience of such a personal desert journey, his words challenge many preconceptions that are accepted without question. He is to be thanked for this honest contribution to a journey that it is ours to share.