CAPUCHIN priest Fr Silvester O’Flynn is all too aware that we live in the age of the sound bite, where social media competes for our attention, to the detriment of activities that require more time and thought.
To this end, he has used his experience of 50 years of preaching to put together a book — his tenth — that offers reflections on the daily Mass readings.
Homily Hints And Prayers offers two short reflections for each of the daily gospels. They can be read in two minutes.
Fr O’Flynn, who has published liturgical aids on the Mass readings, was told by the sales-person at Columba/Currach Press that there was a gap in the religious books market for a book on reflections on Mass readings.
“It was actually an idea that was simmering in my mind,” says Fr O’Flynn, who is attached to Holy Trinity Church in Cork. “This was the push I needed.
“The book is ideally intended for priests. I give hints, so the idea is that somebody wouldn’t actually recite what exactly I’ve written but it would get their mind working and they will get inspiration.”
In the age of the sound bite, priests have to “change their style,” he says.
“Pope Francis is a great hit worldwide. I follow four words that he recommends for homilies. They are simple, clear, direct and well-adapted so that anyone can follow them.
“You should really be able to summarise your homily in one sentence.”
According to research, the average attention span five years ago was eight seconds whereas twenty years ago, it was twelve seconds. Fr O’Flynn says it is probably less than eight seconds today.
“That doesn’t mean people can’t pay attention. I still believe a good speaker will hold the attention of people, like a film does.”
But it takes a determined effort to be attention-grabbing.
“Church is probably the one place that people get this strange thing called silence,” said Fr O’Flynn. “They can relax in it. It brings people into a different mental zone.”
But Mass attendances are dwindling. “It’s nothing like what is was thirty or forty years ago,” he acknowledges, “the congregation is old. You’d wonder how many of them will be there in ten years time.”
Fr O’Flynn, aged 77, would welcome women priests, and added: “I can’t see it happening in the immediate future but nothing can stop the momentum of an idea which has reached its time.
“The role of women in public life today was utterly unthinkable 100 years ago when women got the vote. The problem of the distinction between Jew and gentile was solved in the first century, the problem of slavery was solved in the nineteenth century. But the male and female problem hasn’t been solved yet.”
Fr O’Flynn doesn’t hold with kissing bishops’ rings, saying: “I never had any time for that.”
But he always had time for the priesthood, never doubting his faith.
The middle child of seven children, Fr O’Flynn was born and reared in Ringaskiddy. Both his parents were primary school teachers in Shanbally.
“When I went to primary school, I had four years with my mother as my teacher and then four years with my father as my teacher.
“To me, it was normal. I didn’t know anything else. I started school at three and a half years old. It was the cheapest way of babysitting.”
Fr O’Flynn then went on to Rochestown College where he was a boarder. “I didn’t like being away from home but I had an older brother there to look after me,” he said.
Academically inclined and also keen on sports, Fr O’Flynn says that since his earliest memories, he always wanted to be a priest.
“I had three uncles on my mother’s side who were priests and in virtually every branch of the family, there were priests and nuns.
“I was never pushed into the priesthood. I got on very well with the Capuchins at Rochestown College. Thank God there were no complaints of abuse there. Most of the teachers were priests. They were men that impressed me.”
After his Leaving Certificate, Fr O’Flynn went straight into the Capuchins for his first year noviciate in Kilkenny.
After that, he studied philosophy and Latin at UCC. “College was tough going,” he recalled. “We were living a full religious life, getting up at 5am for prayers. I think I was still growing at the time. I needed far more sleep than I got.”
While Fr O’Flynn got through his exams, he says he doesn’t have a philosophical mindset.
“We went on to Donegal and started our theology studies there. Scripture was a big part of it. I took to scripture like a horse takes to a field of hay.
“I’ve never specialised in academic studies. That surprises people but I’ve always been working away by myself.
“My approach to scripture is through working with people, taking what the scholars were saying and breaking it down into simple language. I get great satisfaction out of it.
“I’d like to think it meant something to people as well.”
Fr O’Flynn knows the New Testament particularly well. He has always been strong in his faith.
“I could never see any alternative to it,2 he said. “Perhaps I’m fortunate in that way. It’s a religion of God’s love. I’ve never seen anything more appealing.
“It gives a wonderful meaning to life and a wonderful future where we can look forward to meeting up with our ancestors again.”
If he ever feels sorry for himself, Fr O’Flynn tells himself to “cop on”.
He added: “If you’re an hour sitting in the confessional, you know what real problems are.
“There can be pain in family life, struggles, worrying about children, alcoholism and abuse.
“I’ve been blessed with good health all my life so why would I feel sorry for myself? I put it into perspective and get over it in five minutes.”
Retirement is not something that Fr O’Flynn is interested in.
“Men like me prefer to work into our eighties,” he added.
Fr O’Flynn clearly has plenty of job satisfaction from his vocation.
THERE is a famous novel called To Kill A Mocking Bird, about a lawyer, Atticus Finch, who has to defend a young black man accused of attacking a young white woman. The story is set in a very bigoted, racist town.
Mr Finch has a conversation with his daughter, Scout, who has been in trouble at school because of her fiery temper. Her dad tells her: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Jesus wants us to develop the virtue of compassion. That is why he sat with sinners. He did not look down on them. He ate and drank with them. He felt for them. Who am I to judge others? Who am I who never climbed into that person’s background or personal experience? There is a saying that to understand all is to forgive.
The Scripture readings for Lent were chosen to challenge our complacency and shake up any smug satisfaction that ‘I am OK while other people are sinners’. We are challenged to ask ourselves: do I practice what I preach? Do I expect higher standards from others than I would apply to myself? In other words, do I find excuses for my own failings but allow no excuses for others?
In God’s eyes, earthly honours or titles are of no value. What God values is humble service. “The greatest among you must be your servant.”
In the world of sport, some coaches have the motto, hammer the hammer. It means go for the leaders of the other team and hammer them. Minimise the leaders and you are on the way.
Satan uses the same tactic. Go after the leaders of the Church. Pick up their human frailties. Let authority go to their heads. Clothe them like princes, call them by titles of eminence, kiss their rings, set them on an upward career.
Pope Francis referred to ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s which makes one forget his original spiritual vocation. Satan targeted the apostles with a certain amount of success. He continues to do so today. That is why we must always pray for those who are called to leadership in the Church.
In our time, many have rejected the Church. Some have rejected all religion. This can be seen as a challenge to the Church to renew enthusiasm for the ideals of God’s Kingdom. We might have to let go of certain regulations and procedures which were useful in the past but give out the wrong message today. When the Church is seen to produce the fruits of the Spirit, then people will be attracted to Christ.
A stone arch will collapse unless there is a proper keystone to hold everything together. When life falls apart one needs to find a source of meaning and unity. The challenge of the New Evangelisation is to witness that Jesus is the keystone to fullness of life. In the words of Pope Francis: “Jesus wants evangelisers who proclaim the Good News not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence.”
A heroic person during World War II was Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman in Holland, who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Speaking one day with her friend who was a communist she said: “Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all he thinks he must destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable.”
Her communist friend interrupted: “But this is nothing, only Christianity!”
Etty replied: “Yes, Christianity, and why ever not!”
This young Jewish woman understood in mind and heart the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Moral decisions are far too serious to be left to the whims and fashions of the popular vote or opinion poll.
A referendum is sometimes called in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy which has whipped up a massive surge of emotion. Recent referenda and elections in various countries have been directed by the social media. Slogans and emotive words have replaced reasoned debate. The Gospel tells of one opinion poll. By this popular vote, Jesus was condemned to death while Barabbas, a criminal, was released.
We live in a world of rapid change. Too much change leaves people without any solid foundation. Sadly, in a culture that lacks solid beliefs and accepted guidelines, suicide has become an epidemic. The lovers of your law have great peace: they never stumble.
Nowadays, there is a great deal of confusion between freedom and permissiveness. Permissiveness wants to be free of any restrictions. The right to choose has become a slogan on posters and placards. But do we have the right to choose what is morally wrong?
In the days of horse and carriage, a wealthy man bought a pair of magnificent, horses. He tried to train them but no way could he control these frisky animals. So, he sent them to a well-known trainer. A few weeks later, the horses were returned, now perfectly disciplined. What made the difference? The trainer explained: “You were training them to do what they wanted to do. I trained them to do what they ought to do.”
Freedom is not the permission to do whatever we want to do. True freedom is internal. It is the strength to do what we ought to do.