WATERFORD News & Star reporter Darren Skelton, a self-confessed religious sceptic, sat down with Priest, Author and Theologian Fr Michael Mullins, to discuss religion, faith and the future of the Catholic Church in this country.
BALLYBRICKEN Parish Priest Fr Michael Mullins has devoted a huge portion of his life to faith and religion. An author of many books about Christianity and the Gospels, the Carrick on Suir man graduated from the National University of Ireland, the Pontifical University, Maynooth, and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome. Essentially, if you want to have a debate about Religion, Catholicism and faith in Waterford, then the 73-year old Fr Mullins is your man.
I met Fr Mullins in the very room that I had interviewed him two years earlier, after he had been held up at knifepoint by a desperate drug user. On that occasion, Fr Mullins showed me the volume of his work and when I came up with idea of asking some faith based questions to a man in-the-know, I had no one else in mind. Surrounded by millions of words about the existence of God, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to test Fr Mullins’s faith or repair my own.
Before I asked him any questions, Fr Mullins wanted to explain where his own faith comes from.
“Faith and belief is not something that I argue towards on a rational basis,” he said. “I receive faith as a gift using the biblical imagery of the Pearl beyond Price. It’s a gift that has been handed on to us from Christ and the Disciples over the generations. I accept this faith as a gift and I work from there, rather that starting on a rationalist basis, wondering about this that and the other. By accepting faith as a gift I let it enrich my life.”
Fr Mullins says that the beauty of the world around us, “which is created by God” underpins his faith. He immediately acknowledges the difficulty of faith, such as “why there is suffering and sin” but then quotes the Book of Job saying “if we receive good from God’s hands, do we not receive these other things as well?”
And then we began the interview/debate.
Darren Skelton: Assuming you believe in Heaven, do you believe that only Christians will get there?
Fr Michael Mullins: That’s God’s decision. It’s a little bit like getting a piece of Waterford Crystal. I believe that in the Christian faith we have the Waterford Crystal of beliefs. That doesn’t mean that every other form of glass is of no value – you can get other beautiful glass as well.
DS: The Old Testament contains a lot of radical words and passages such as Kill disobedient sons (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), Kill those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), Kill blasphemers (Leviticus) – Surely these are not very Christian ideas?
MM: That’s because the Old Testament is not a Christian Book. You have to look on the Old Testament as a developing religion and a developing awareness and sensitivity to God. The prophets come in with a very real, hard hitting story of God’s love, God’s compassion and how we’re to share that with one another. If you look at a line, for example, where it says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ that’s a very misunderstood piece. If you go back to the very ancient law boards, even outside the bible, something like that was framed to put an end to blood feuding. There’s a story in the Book of Genesis about the rape of Dinah. When her father and brothers came home to find what had happened they went into the nearest village and wiped out all the males. They said we ‘might or mightn’t have got the person who did it but we’ve made a good point that nobody will come near our family again’. Against that background, if you look at ‘an eye for an eye’ then it means that justice must be exact, you can’t take two eyes for one eye. Jesus went beyond that and asked us to pray for the offender.
DS: Do you believe in evolution?
MM: I do. If you look at the oak tree, and if you look at the acorn, which is the bigger miracle? To see the little acorn and the oak tree that emerges from would be how I would look at evolution.
DS: So how did humanity begin?
MM: I’m no scientist but I would see humanity coming on the scene –whether it was a direct creation from God at a particular point in evolution or whether it emerged and mankind reached a point of self-awareness which made a very different being to that of the animals.
DS: Considering the fact that the earth is millions of years old, why did Jesus choose the time that he did to arrive?
MM: You’d have to ask the boss that. The Bible addresses that very question though when they talk about the ‘time being fulfilled’ and humanity being ready.
DS: Jesus lived for 33 years. Why is so little written about the years after his birth and before his death – his teenage years for instance?
MM: Because he wasn’t living a public life then. If you look at the scriptures, the witnesses come forward and what’s written is from the people who witnessed what happened. He was living a private life.
DS: But doesn’t the story go that Jesus was sent here to save us? Why then, is there a big fanfare for his birth and then he has, as you say, ‘a private life’ for the next 30 years. How does that make sense?
MM: I don’t see it that way. Like with the prophets, the public life would have begun at a particular time. He as human as well as being divine. He had to grow, speak and learn as a human being. The Gospels are based on his public life – the beginning, the middle and the consummation of his life and the gathering of followers around him.
DS: There are many fundamentalists in the world who believe every word of the bible. Adam and Eve were the first humans, Noah built an Ark etc. Do you believe in these stories?
MM: You have to look at the Bible not as a book, but as a library. In a library you will see shelves that are poetry, some that are drama and some that are history. I believe that you have to look at the Old Testament like that and see what is the nature of the section you are reading. If you look at the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the ones you mentioned there about Adam and Eve and so on, that’s a particular genre and it’s true. However, how historically true it is another question. Truth doesn’t always have to be history. For example, when I used to teach people about the Garden of Eden and the garden became a desert. They used to look at me as if I had two heads when I told them that this was happening all the time with the felling of trees and the drying out of rivers around the world. Adam and Eve represent every man and woman and we see the story playing out all the time.
DS: Have you ever had a faith crisis?
MM: I certainly wouldn’t say crisis but I’ve been faith questioning all my life. I believe that – to a certain extent – questioning one’s faith enriches one’s faith and keeps it from slipping into a fundamentalist kind of approach. The person who hasn’t questions about their faith, hasn’t got any faith at all.
DS: Here’s a strange question for you – do dogs go to heaven?
MM: I haven’t the slightest idea but that all depends on what you believe Heaven to be.
Ds: Okay, so what do you think Heaven is?
MM: Heaven is coming into the life of God in a special way, but it all comes down to how we define that.
DS: And how do you define it?
MM: When I was a student in Maynooth I put that very same question to a friend of mine and he said “if it’s good enough for Christ then it’s good enough for us.”
DS: Isn’t that a bit of a cop out?
MM: Not at all. Christ said that he was preparing a place for us in his father’s house.
DS: But how do we know that? That’s based on the words of someone else, we don’t actually have any words that Jesus Christ wrote himself.
MM: Because it was a non-writing society. They were very accurate. If you look at the New Testament you will see statements obviously coming from Christ. The life, death and resurrection of Christ was witnessed by the Disciples and those first Christians, who were demoralised by the crucifixion of Christ. In their subsequent writings, through their experience of the risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, they confronted the very people who put him to death.
DS: The Greeks and the Romans once believed that there were loads of Gods, but that belief system dissolved over the years. Do you think the same thing could happen with Christianity?
MM: I don’t because I think that of its very nature it’s very different to these other religions, which were intuitions rather than something, which is based on a real historical person and fact, like the coming of Christ.
DS: Surely when you consider the dwindling numbers of people attending Mass and the even smaller number of people choosing to become priests, you much accept that the future of the Church is under threat?
MM: I would say that it has declined in numbers but not in the quality of those that are believers. It’s like the pruning down of a bush, it’s much smaller and it looks very scraggy but it comes back into full life. I think that we’ve made a mistake all along by counting the quality of Catholic life in numbers. When I was a youngster back in the 1950s, you’d go to Mass on a Sunday and how many of the fellas would be lined up along the wall on the other side of the road while the wives and children were in the church? There was an awful amount of non-belief ‘believers’. That’s only being challenged now as it wasn’t the done thing back in those days. Those people have fallen away now and you’re left with the true believers. I believe that a healthy minority religion would be much stronger than a large one filled with non-believers.
DS: Are you trying to make the best of a bad situation?
MM: No. I have no reason to do so. Religion has been under attack since the year 30. Christ was attacked…most of his disciples were martyred. If you look at the year 66/67 when Nero wiped out the Christians in a savage persecution, and all the persecutions that followed in the ensuing years.
DS: Could you put a name on the current persecution of the Catholic Church?
MM: If you had’ve asked me that questions a year or two ago I would have said that it was a persecution of indifference. Now I’d say there’s an element of hostility and they watch every possible thing they can pick up from the church. Everything else is blamed on the church.
DS: Do you believe that religion should be taken out of schools now?
MM: Eaten bread is very soon forgotten. Whatever about taking religion out of schools it seems to be forgotten that there would have been no education in this country if it wasn’t for the religious orders such as Bro Rice and the Mercy and Presentation sisters. They educated the poor and the unwanted in this country and brought them to a level where they could fill the civil service or emigrate to other countries to get great jobs. That’s completely forgotten. It’s a mark of their success that the religious orders are not that needed anymore but nobody ever makes that point. It’s almost spoken of as though the religious orders took over these things. I’d be perfectly happy to see a separation of church and state – I think that would be a healthy thing but you also have to understand how the church and state became so bound together. It’s part of history. The natural leadership of this country during days of an alien anti-Catholic Government came from the church.
DS: Do you ever get angry, or offended, when you’re saying mass to a packed church of people who you know won’t be back next week? For example the families of children who are about to make their first Holy Communion?
MM: I don’t get angry but it definitely saddens me. It’s a sad day when people use the sacraments just for a day out. They spend a whole heap of money on it but what does it really mean to them? That will have to be looked at very seriously. The Catholic Church will need to address that but I’m not a Pope or a Bishop so that’s something that I can change.
DS: Final Question Fr Mullins. If a divine being arrived in this room today and offered you the chance to ask one question only about the mysteries of faith, what would you ask?
MM: If the Lord appeared to me today I would ask ‘how can I best be of service to you in your church for whatever years I have left’?