A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Shame, Hope and the Church: A Journey with Mary

by Thomas Ryan, SM
St Pauls Publications 2020

Reviewed by Fr Brian Cummings SM

With so much having been written about the sexual abuse crisis within the Church, and, no doubt, with still much to be written, there can be a certain sense of weariness when faced with yet another book on the topic.

However, Marist priest Thomas Ryan’s Shame, Hope and the Church: A Journey with Mary, provides a key element that is so often missing from other treatments of this topic: namely, a way forward in hope for the individual Christian and for the Church.

Ryan sets out from the very opening words of the book what his desire in writing it is: “Feeling ashamed is something we have all experienced. Whenever we hear the word ‘shame’, we immediately think of ‘blushing’ or of hiding one’s face from the gaze of others. Words like ‘disgrace’ and ‘humiliation’ are readily associated with shame. These are very human experiences, found across all cultures.

“But is that all there is to shame? Is there anything positive that can be said about it?”

The uniqueness in Ryan’s approach lies in his insight in focussing on Mary as an individual in her culture and time and expanding that into a faith response as well as a human response to the challenges of her life as the Mother of Jesus.

As widely known anthropologist and fellow Marist, Fr Gerald Arbuckle, has remarked: “This book ... accompanies Mary in her own moments of shame and, even, public humiliation. It explores how such disruptive events can offer positive opportunities, with Mary, to learn, to grow and, importantly, to renew hope for our troubled Church”.

Although a comparatively short book, at 151 pages, the book covers a great deal of ground succinctly and insightfully. Ryan moves from the general to the particular and then expands again into looking at the Church through nine chapters: Shame: A Very Human Experience; Jesus: Sharing Our Common Humanity and Limitations; The Jewish Mary’s Shame and Jesus’ Birth; Mary and Her Troublesome Son: Family Matters; With Mary at the Foot of the Cross; Mary in the Early Church: Faith and Shame Transformed; Listening to Victims with Mary; A Church Disgraced: Guideposts from Mary; With Mary: Beginning and New Beginnings.

Each chapter usefully concludes with a number of questions for reflection which helps readers to focus and allows them to assimilate the material on a personal level.
It has to be acknowledged that this is a challenging read: both because of the subject matter and the approach to the topic of shame that Ryan uses. It is not a book to be rushed through or skimmed over lightly.

In Chapter 8 – A Church Disgraced: Guideposts from Mary – Ryan has a section entitled “Pondering with Mary”, where he suggests “Pondering, as we know, is used of Mary early in Luke’s Gospel. Later, it is couched in terms of Mary as the model disciple, one who ‘hears the word of God and puts it into practice’. Here, our focus is one particular aspect of ‘pondering’, namely, putting on the ‘mind of Christ’ by entering into his mysteries. … through ‘pondering’ such events or moments in the life of Jesus or Mary, as we have been doing in this book, the grace of the ‘mysteries’ can impregnate our head, heart and hands”.

Indeed, in a broader sense, ‘pondering’ is the key to approaching this book – it needs to be read slowly; reflected upon and personalised. It is sensitive to victims; honest about the Church and its failures – and written at a time of great anger and outrage towards and at the Church and its leading figures in Australia, as expressed especially through the Royal Commission and the trial and conviction of Cardinal Pell.

It is precisely because of that, that the book also has to be read in the light of the recent acquittal by the High Court of Cardinal Pell. The acquittal itself, and the response to it in the media and by individuals, have highlighted the fact that the cardinal suffered shame by presumption, prejudice and pre-judgement.

None of that in any way negates or contradicts the points Ryan makes, but it does serve to remind us all that addressing and righting huge injustices cannot be achieved by committing other injustices.

And that is where Shame, Hope and the Church: A Journey with Mary is both so timely and so relevant. Rather than encouraging an attitude of despair or of extreme defensiveness through a negative or limited understanding of shame, it gives us a way forward in hope and in company with Mary. And that, as Ryan says, is a journey towards healing through forgiveness, acceptance, and ultimately, complete inclusion.

Available from Pleroma
at $31.99 per copy

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