Faith beyond the Shadow of the Abuse Crisis: Review of Aidan Donaldson’s The Beatitudes of Pope Francis

There is no doubt that Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland has been overshadowed by the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

On Radio Ulster’s Talkback discussion on the eve of the visit, presenter William Crawley strained to steer the conversation in any direction other than abuse. Slugger’s own Brian Walker focused on abuse in his post-visit analysis. And in my own reflections, I argued that the visit ‘had become an unofficial referendum on the Papal handling of clerical sexual abuse – and on the future of a Church that once dominated almost every aspect of Irish life.’

If one only considers the abuse crisis and how the Catholic Church has responded to it, the future of the Church looks very grim indeed.

But a book published last week, The Beatitudes of Pope Francis: A Manifesto for the Modern Christian, offers a different perspective. Written by Aidan Donaldson, an associate consultant in ethos and Catholic schools for the Diocese of Down and Connor and a former chaplain at St Mary’s Grammar School in Belfast, the book profiles Irish Christians who are living out a gospel of compassion and striving to change the world around them for the better.

In doing so, The Beatitudes of Pope Francis reminds us that the Catholic Church is much more than its institutional structures: it is also the people whose faith inspires them to live in ways that challenge injustices. When one considers their examples, the future of the Church looks much more promising.

The book is organised around the so-called ‘Beatitudes of Pope Francis’, which Francis outlined during a homily on the Sermon on the Mount in Malmo, Sweden, in 2016. Donaldson describes these six ‘new’ beatitudes as (p. 11):

… a countercultural manifesto that places the merciful, the poor, the marginalised, and our suffering planet at the heart of the Christian enterprise.

After a brief chapter introducing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, six chapters follow, focusing on each of Francis’ beatitudes. Donaldson relates each new beatitude to Gospel texts or Francis’ writings, before profiling an Irish Christian whose life witnesses to it. It is the stories of these Christians which speak most powerfully, putting flesh and blood on Francis’ words.

The Beatitudes and the Christians profiled are:

Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others and forgive them from their heart. Richard Moore, a Derry man who was blinded by a British soldier’s rubber bullet when he was just ten years old. Moore went on to start the international charity Children in Crossfire.

Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalised and show them their closeness. Don O’Leary of the Life Centre in Cork, whose work gives vulnerable young people another chance at education.

Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others also discover him. Belfast-based Sr Regina Caffrey, who works with the Society of St Vincent de Paul. St Vincent de Paul provides a range of services for some of society’s most vulnerable people, and is Ireland’s largest voluntary charitable organisation with more than 11,000 active members.

Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home. Lorna Gold, a theologian and Head of Policy and Advocacy at Trócaire, who reflects on the implications of Francis’ papal encyclical on the environment, On Care for our Common Home. Gold reminds us that environmental degradation blights the lives of the world’s poorest, and that those of us in the West cannot escape our environmental responsibilities.

Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others. Dublin-born Pat Fanning and his wife Emer, who took early retirement to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Zambia on projects with street children and children suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians. Here I must confess a bias and a conflict of interest – Donaldson interviewed me about Christians in Northern Ireland who have worked for Christian unity. My contribution focuses on the 4 Corners Festival, of which I am a committee member; and the late Redemptorist priest Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard Monastery (d. 2015). Reynolds’ ceaseless activism and prayer inspired better ecumenical relationships and contributed to peacebuilding in Belfast and beyond.

The Beatitudes of Pope Francis is in many ways a devotional aid, designed to exhort Christians to see social justice as integral to their faith – and to live that way.

Yet the book also may be of interest to people outside the Christian churches, who are curious to gain other perspectives on what faith in Ireland looks like beyond the long shadow of the abuse crisis.

The Beatitudes of Pope Francis is published by Veritas for €7.99.


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