Prayed Out: God in Dark Places

 John Michael Hanvey, Prayed Out: God in Dark Places, (Columba Press, Dublin, 2005)

When I was a teenager I attended a church where the parish priest was a drunk. He was difficult at best, objectionable at worst, and at times too unsteady on his feet to manage Mass except by clinging to the altar, while the congregation looked on anxiously, ready to catch him if he fell. He offended many, who never returned to the parish community, but drunk or sober, he had an intensity of presence while celebrating Mass that I have rarely found elsewhere, and his sermons were so impressive that they kept copies of them at the public library.

I was drawn to this honest and prayerful book because it gives an account from the inside of a priest whose story has some resonances with those memories. We often only see the external failures in such a situation, but this offers an insight into the hidden faith and struggle that can persist even amidst the most humiliating degradation. John Michael Hanvey, a former confessor to the Cardinal of St Andrews and Edinburgh, describes with raw honesty a history of traumatic childhood abuse, a tragic homosexual relationship and his descent into alcoholism and despair while struggling to maintain faith in God and himself. In the darkness of his deep loneliness and alienation, he nevertheless reaches out to the distant God and to those whose pain he shares. A member now of T.H.O.M.A.S. (Those on the Margins of a Society), this son of St Francis knows what it is to be crucified by life but this has given him greater understanding of and insight into those of the many whom society rejects.

Confessional books can make for tricky reading, swamping the reader either in despair, whining self-pity or cringe-making detail. This one manages to avoid such traps, though at times it so cryptic that the reader struggles to make sense of the process the author describes. The situation of the homosexual priest is, if anything, more painful and dangerous today than it was in the 1960s, when Hanvey entered the Franciscan order. The regime at the therapeutic centre for distressed priests he attended has caused some controversy, and it would have been interesting to hear more about how it worked for him and how he assesses it now. Generous to most of the bishops and clergy with whom he has had dealings, he is unable to find much that is positive to say about his own order. The treatment of troubled members of religious communities can be an extremely challenging matter for their superiors, but is also of concern to the wider Catholic community, and here, too, the author is tantalising in his brevity.

Like many gay Catholics Hanvey has found comfort in the work of theologian James Alison. We are not dealing with a gay pride warrior here, but a serious, cultured, prayerful man whose challenge to the way in which the Catholic community deals with the phenomenon of homosexuality is worth listening to, even by those who cannot share his views. That someone with such a history had been able to remain faithful to his priesthood is a remarkable example of grace shining through human weakness.

first published LONDON - 27 June 2007 - 548 words

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