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An Interview with Brendan McManus SJ

by Eileen Quinn Knight, PhD Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: This is a time of forgiveness and redemption in the Church with our Pope very much asking God and others for help who understand his vision. How do you think he has inspired the Irish church to be in tune with our faithful?

Father Brendan: I think Pope Francis has modeled by his very being and the style of his pontificate. It is a humble and open approach that underlines mercy and compassion in dealing with people; fundamentally a pastoral approach. The fact that Pope Francis met survivors of clerical sex abuse in Dublin during his recent visit was very significant- he wants to hear from those who are deeply hurt and traumatized, especially by the church. I was actually in the room next door during his meeting with survivors and he met them for 90 minutes; having overran he spent a shorter time with us, I was happy to give up this time knowing that these people were the priority. I feel that the Pope is inviting the Irish church to do the same, to be a ‘field hospital’ for the wounded, engaged with the world.

Dr. Knight: How do you view the current opposition to Pope Francis from within the church?

Father Brendan: As a Jesuit I understand everything that Pope Francis does is in the service of the church and orientating it towards the needs of the world. He is a ‘reformer’ in the best sense, faithful to tradition but engaging a modern world. As Vatican II specifies, we have to bring the Gospel to this broken world, we have to be out on the front lines and frontiers and not be inward looking or defensive. The church is not existing for its own sake but rather for the promotion of the Gospel and message of Jesus, which means inculturation into specific modern contexts and situation, in order to make this 2000 year-old message come alive for today. Opposition, debate and reform is inevitable and necessary, though it does need to be carried out in a respectful and constructive way for the good of the church into the future.

Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a Jesuit priest?

Father Brendan: In the 80s I had a great job with Hewlett-Packard (HP) in England, a girlfriend, a sports car, lots of foreign travel but I had gotten carried away with myself and had forgotten who I was. Another self-centred, materialist value system was operating, however something inside me rebelled and said this is not right; my ‘inner compass’ flagged that something was wrong. When I look back, from the Jesuit point of view, it was ‘desolation’; the sting of conscience. God was calling, shouting at me really, to wake up from this ‘deadening’ career and thankfully the Jesuit life has been a great journey for me, much learning, travel and meeting people and learning how to give to others and help them. It has its challenging moments, but I really love it.

Dr. Knight: How has this call changed over time?

Father Brendan: I would say that the call stays the same but that the way it is expressed in ministry changes over time. For example, originally, I worked with young adults helping people make life decisions through situations similar to ones I had lived as an I.T. professional. Then when my brother died by suicide I was launched into the ministry of bereavement counselling and my book Redemption Road (Grieving on the Camino) spoke to lots of people about how to approach healing spiritually as well as through other means. I have moved on from the suicide/grief work having given it 4/5 years, and now work mainly in Spiritual Direction and retreats, especially around the theme of ‘Finding God in the Mess’, the name of a book/workshop that I co-authored with a lay colleague, Jim Deeds. We have been travelling around Ireland helping people understand that God is always with them at all moments, and how to respond to God’s compassionate invitation. The significant theme is that my own experience becomes the place where you minister from, walking the walk.

Dr. Knight: How about an easy question: what is your favorite film at this time? Book?

Father Brendan: I really enjoyed watching ‘The Shape of Water’ movie recently, it seemed to be an allegory for our times. It highlighted the different approaches of violence/technology/utility versus compassion/humanity/love. I am reading ‘The Robber of Memories’ by Michael Jacobs about a river journey through Colombia which reconnects me with many of the places I visited when I studied theology there 98-02.

Dr. Knight: Can you explain to the reader the difference between what an order priest and a diocesan priest?

Father Brendan: The order priests, such as Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, etc. each have a particular charism or religious lifestyle/ministry that contributes to the life of the church, e.g. poverty/ecology, preaching, monasticism/office/choir. The secular (parish) priests do all of the hard work in parishes through the sacramental life (Eucharist, baptism, marriage, funerals etc.) whereas the order priests perform complementary activities. We are freed from the parish day to day work in order to offer the other elements of Christian life: prayer, retreats, reflection, vocation, ministry etc. For Jesuits, our Ignatian charism is finding God in the world and we are much more able to be missionary and ‘out there’!

Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media in our parishes can assist young people to think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’?

Father Brendan: With my Information Technology (IT) background I am a big supporter and user of social media; Facebook is my office! Quite simply, it is the digital place where people, especially the young, are meeting and conversing these days, so as a Jesuit that is where I need to be, to be part of the conversation and challenging/providing alternatives. For me it is a crucial aspect of my ministry, reaching out to people in a new way. I have been able to converse with people all over the world thanks to discerning use of the technology. Of course, the Irish and British Jesuits have a significant presence through Sacred Space and Pray As You Go, and other websites.

Dr. Knight: As a priest of an order you are able to educate and spiritually form people in society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart as a priest who has concern for the poor and marginalized?

Father Brendan: At the moment my ministry seems to be concerned with those with addiction issues and especially with alcoholism. I recently discovered a strong connection between the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) programme and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. This application of spirituality to those most in need is what motivates me, how to get prayer, retreats and spirituality out of retreat houses and into the world, into the hands and hearts of those who really need it.

Dr. Knight: There have been very influential Irish priests throughout the ages including saints. Who influenced you the most?

Father Brendan: I would have to start with St Brendan the Navigator of course, I think his spirit is in me as I travel a lot and engage in missionary voyages! I also owe a lot to St Kevin and the contemplative beauty of Glendalough, near Dublin, which is where I often go for retreat. From my studies it was Teresa of Avila that inspired me. Inevitably I always seek to walk in the footsteps of our great pilgrim founder, St Ignatius and the discerning wisdom of the recently canonized St Peter Faber.

Dr. Knight: What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society?

Father Brendan: I think that the main issues are: the battle with secularism and how religion has been devalued and removed from public space; how unconstrained capitalism is destroying the Earth ecologically and also people’s souls by promoting empty materialist lives; how people are often lost spiritually these days even with all modern technology and knowledge but very little wisdom or insight; the inequalities in the world which see the gap between rich and poor increasing; the rise of ideologies and fanaticism and the impoverishment of public debate.


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