A very short story in Dublin’s Irish Times this week probably said more about the great divide between the City of God and the earthly city in the world today than anything else I have read for a long time. All the acres of print we have been reading surrounding the death – effectively his summary execution – of Muammar Gadafy was truly dispiriting in so many ways. If it wasn’t spewing out hatred and vengeance, like News International’s The Sun screaming at us, “That’s for Lockerbie” over a lurid picture of the dead dictator’s corpse, it was sanctimonious posturing on how that was not the way it should have been done. The dignity being moaned about was not the dignity of a dead human being but the dignity of the new state which had just been born.
A somewhat bemused Irish Times – Tuesday, October 25, 2011 – reported that a Catholic priest in North West Ireland actually prayed for Gadafy. Cronan Scanlon wrote, in the language of investigative journalism, “it has emerged” that former Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy was prayed for at Mass in a Donegal church. “The prayers were said on Sunday in St Eunan’s Church, Raphoe, by parish priest Fr Dinny McGettigan (72). The popular priest surprised parishioners when he was praying for local people who had recently died. The last name he read out was that of Muammar Gadafy.” Had the reporter been writing for one of Ireland’s tabloids it might well have described them as “shocked and horrified” rather than as merely surprised by what they heard.
Asked by a local newspaper afterwards why he had prayed for the “ruthless dictator” the priest told the reporter “I would pray for anyone, so I have no problem whatsoever praying for Muammar Gadafy.”
Asked if he thought it was all right to pray for the soul of a man who murdered, maimed and oppressed Libyan citizens for four decades, Fr McGettigan said. “That’s all the more reason to pray for him. They all need our prayers no matter who they are.”
But his parishioners were not shocked. They were edified and had no problem uniting themselves with the prayers of Fr. McGettigan. One of them told the reporter, who was clearly still trying to come to terms with this manifestation of Christian moral theology, “It bothered no one. Fr Dinny is a very Christian man and would pray for anyone. He was stabbed during a break-in at the parochial house 10 years ago. When the matter went to court, Fr McGettigan stood up and pleaded with the judge not to send the man to jail. That’s just the kind of person he is.”
Has the earthly city, in its relentless pursuit of justice and retribution, lost all sight of the bigger picture? Has our pursuit of justice become one-sided? Perhaps it is because of the culture of victimhood which has become so dominant? But it is more likely that it is simply – in Western society, and indeed in most civilizations which at one time carried within them a belief in immortality – the result of the loss of vision of our human condition as an eternal one: a troubled one here, potentially an untroubled one after our time here.
Christians have a principle of life which says, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It is a principle which has many consequences – and one of them was exemplified by Fr. McGettigan. Sadly, it is not often that we seem to encounter it. Perhaps it is because we do not talk of or understand the real nature of sin anymore. We think only of illegality, criminality and injustices – and those only in a totally earthbound sense. Might it be that if we regained a sense of sin then our sense of victimhood might become a truer one? The truth is that whenever injustices are perpetrated all are victims – the sinner as well as the sinned-against. If that sense is pervasive then all will be perceived as in need – the sinned-against needs justice done on his behalf and the sinner needs redemption. The parishioners in a small town in North West Ireland were not as surprised by their priest as the World thought they might be because they probably thought the same way as he did. Muammar Gadafy – despite his terrible crimes – was a human being like themselves and redeemable like themselves. How could they not pray for that redemption and still call themselves Christians, they probably thought.
It was, as a footnote, interesting that three days after it appeared The Irish Times story got only 17 Facebook “likes” and 7 tweets. Only 10 readers thought the story worth sharing.