Since posting “Sitting Ducks” earlier today, I have been continuing to read Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”.  Lesson No.10 is entitled “Terrorism.  Don’t Panic”.  Its two final paragraphs sum up perfectly what I tried to say.  Here they are, in my own translation from the French edition :

“Terrorists capture our imagination and turn it back against us.  On the stage of our mind, we never stop replaying the terrorist attacks – remembering 9/11 or the latest suicide attacks.  Terrorists kill 100 people and push 100,000,000 to imagine a murderer behind every tree.  It is up to each citizen to free his imagination of terrorists and to recall the real dimension of the threat.  It is our private terror that feeds the media’s obsession with terrorism and pushes the State to overreact.

“The success or failure of terrorism therefore depends on us.  If we let terrorists take over our imagination and if we overreact to our fears, terrorism will triumph.  If we liberate our imagination from terrorists and react calmly and coolly, it will fail.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it even more succinctly : “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.




Few of us are naïve enough to believe that the present lull in major terrorist attacks is indicative of a change in Daech’s intent to annihilate “infidels” – let alone desist entirely from their criminal, supposedly divinely inspired, mission.  Their military defeat or at least containment has put mass-murder operations beyond their financial and organizational capacities.  Moreover, they have discovered that in fact minor operations by individuals, armed simply with a knife or behind the wheel of a car or a truck, can achieve the desired effect of instilling terror in the potential victims we all are.  But even these less prestigious acts of murder and mayhem seem to be less frequent at present.  We know, of course, that before the end of the day, literally, TODAY, your own town or village could become the scene of a carnage rivaling the Bataclan or even 9/11 (Daech is not our only enemy . . . ).  We are all “sitting ducks”.

The expression occurred to me yesterday in Paris.  In spite of the increasingly cold Autumn weather, Parisians continue to favor lunch on sunny sidewalks.  I could not help wondering whether the people enjoying their plat du jour, seated outside a restaurant on the plaza of the Palais Royal, realized that there were no concrete blocks protecting them from a “camion-bélier” – a truck which all of a sudden could enter the plaza to plough through the unsuspecting lunch crowd.  The thought, naturally, occurred to none of them.  But the possibility raises the question as to whether or not we should avoid such danger-spots, or perhaps write to the Mayor to petition protective blocks of concrete around them.  Must we potential targets assume a “fortress” mentality – just in case ?

Such barriers already exist.  It is not certain that clients seek out the restaurants thus protected, rather than risk exposure in one that is not.  A grenade thrown over the barrier by an unidentifiable, helmeted motorcyclist could easily cancel the protection afforded by the concrete blocks.

We know the danger we are in, and realize that 100% protection is impossible.  We also know that the fear instilled in us by even “minor” terrorist attacks achieves the fanatics’ goal : to weaken our resistance to the projected imposition of Charia law.  There is a massive monument in Paris, and set in stone in many other cities throughout France, which expresses the motto of the French Resistance in World War 2 : ” NE  PAS  SUBIR ” (” NEVER  SUBMIT “).  We need to display a similar courage, a similar resistance.  Thanks to our grit (and not to God), we shall overcome.



After every terrorist attack, like the one recently in Melbourne, the authorities’ priority – besides identifying possible accomplices, instigators and financial backers – is to discover the murderers’ ( ‘s) motive.  To avoid seeming to blame the religion of Islam – the vast majority of terrorist attacks are committed by Muslims – spokespersons are careful to brand the perpetrators as “Islamic”, meaning not followers of the Prophet but radical, fanatical, maniacal criminals.  Analysts of the radicalization of Muslim youth seem never to attribute a religious motive to terrorist acts, but find their roots in juvenile delinquency, poverty, and in home and social environment.  At all costs we must avoid seeming to condemn Islam as such.

It is, after all, true that the vast majority of God-fearing (!), “moderate”, everyday, “normal” Muslims – the people who sell you vegetables and wait with you to pick up the kids from school or . . . operate on you in hospital or represent you in public office – are regular citizens who practise their religion with discretion and dignity.  You see them frequenting the Halal counters in supermarkets, often in unmistakable clothing, but they are no more inclined to violence, especially religiously motivated violence, than you are.  But when the videos, the witnesses and the survivors attest to the “Allah achbah !” which terrorists often scream before they detonate the bombs they are wearing, one has to deduce that their suicide could be motivated only by sincere belief (play-acting is unthinkable), supported by the Koran, that they are fulfilling the will of God who will reward them as martyrs because of their courage in assassinating “infidels”.  God-fearing, devout, “normal” Muslims should not content themselves with denials of such religious motivation, but take responsibility for rooting out the potential fanatics in their families and communities.  Families, friends, teachers, imams cannot not notice signs of growing radicalization in their entourage.  They should go further, and discover why their very religion and its sacred texts clearly encourage and promote terrorist acts.  They should take a leaf out of the book of Jews and Christians (both in the metaphorical and literal sense of the expression), who long ago refused to take literally, and out of historical context, certain murderous injunctions of their own sacred texts.

Islamic terrorism will be eradicated by enlightened non-Islamic Muslims, or it will continue to destroy not only “infidels” like us but “normal” Muslims like themselves.  That conclusion deserves to be shouted from the rooftops, and from the minaret where the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.



I don’t remember a single theologian, ancient or modern, asking the question whether the Infant Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem put His Godhead on hold.  How could Christians not wonder, contemplating the Christmas crib, whether the divine-human baby in swaddling clothes (bands of cloth become a mini-straight jacket for newborns) could understand what the folks around Him were saying ?  His Mum kept mum, as did Joseph His presumptive father, but the shepherds and those kings with their precious gifts could not have imagined that this divine child was taking in all they were saying; as God, Jesus must have understood what was being said, although apparently He said nothing, content to burp and to gurgle like any other baby.  Unless, of course, right from the gitgo, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity had decided, with the Other Two, to keep His divinity under wraps and play His humanity to the hilt.  Later in His life, He would give people opportunities to cotton on that He was God.  He would drop a few hints (“I and the Father are one”) and work spectacular “miracles” suggesting (though not proving) His divinity, but for the most part He confused the issue : when He spoke to God, He prayed like us, to the wholly Other, Someone Else, as in “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ?”.

Believers – and even theologians – never ask themselves questions like this.  Judaism and Islam consider the Trinity and the Incarnation blasphemous nonsense.  Hard to blame them.  It is difficult enough to believe that God exists without expecting people to swallow His trinitarian identity, based on the vague claims of an eccentric street-preacher.

One gets the impression that Christians are ready to believe just about anything.  The sad fact is that they are.  Catholics eat Jesus’ body at Mass : that consecrated wafer still looks like food for goldfish, but they believe it is now human flesh.  That chubby infant in the manger looked like an ordinary baby but in fact He was God.  I am embarrassed that I used to be as unquestioning as other Catholics – and find it hard to forgive myself for having, as a priest, exploited their credulity.


P.S.  For some unknown reason, wordpress has declared it impossible to submit comments on this post.  First time ever.  I’m working on it.  Along with the Trinity, another mystery.

P.S.2  I have already received a comment by e-mail (address given to few).  MAW could not resist commenting : “Editors of the Bible missed that inconsistency.  Pretty slack.  Perhaps they were confused too.”  Thanks, dear Meg.  You beat the system !  Sapienti sat.


You say you do.  Whether you are American or not, you say or at least agree that “In God we trust”.  You even say you LOVE Him.  But do you LIKE Him ?  Is He really likeable ?  Do you enjoy His . . . company ?  Would you want to spend your vacation with Him ?  Would you want to spend eternity with Him ?

To ask such questions may make some realize how little they really know about their “God”.  They have heard and read what the specialists say He’s like, but they are unsure whether the “experts” know Him any better than they themselves do.  Let’s face it : they’ve never faced Him.  Neither they nor we have ever seen even a photo of Him, let alone had a two-way chat with Him (prayer is a soliloquy, not to say blowin’ in the wind).

Are you really sure He is the God of Love, the Good Shepherd, you’ve been told about ?  Have you forgotten about His flooding the world with the Mother of All Tsunamis,  frequently ordering the slaughter of innocent people and threatening us with an eternity in the fires of Hell ?  Personally I find it impossible to believe in, to love or even to like such a horrible fictional character to the point of making Him the center of my life and the source of the meaning I give it.  I used to do that.  I also used to believe in Santa Claus.  I stopped believing in Father Christmas but for several decades after that I continued to believe in God the Father.  Are you telling me you still do ?  OMG !



Of course not – if we’re talking about when you and I were kids.  We not only believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy but in our parents.  Our mother was the most beautiful in the world (mine really was) and Daddy was the strongest bloke on the block (not quite).  We grew up with – and out of – many childhood fantasies.  But what about religious beliefs ?  Guardian Angels did not survive our puberty, or perhaps even our 8th birthday.  We may smile now at having saved those lollies during Lent for the Easter orgy.  We may marvel at our having celebrated Jesus’ Ascension or His Mum’s Assumption on Holy Days of Obligation, but not a lot of Catholics today really believe that either of them had Lift-Off into the Ether.  But some of you reading this (all ten of you ?) may still hang on to beliefs like the Divine Inspiration of Scripture, the Real Presence of Jesus in that wafer of bread, or at least Pie in the Sky when you Die.  Fair enough : it’s hard to shake off stuff that is part of one’s comfort zone.  I just hope that one day, as a Prisoner on the Brink if you haven’t yet broken those remaining chains, you’ll recognize credulity for what it is : blindfaithblindfolly.

Personally I’m not so much embarrassed as amazed to think that for half of my eighty years I not only believed, but for seven whole years preached, all that !  50% sight beats 100% blindness.  That’s not conceit but relief.



Before they started wearing civvies, priests used to wear distinctive black suits (with a plastic white collar in place of the layman’s phallic tie), black hats, black shoes and black socks.  They were meant to stand out as different from the rest of the population.  They shed their suits to dress in colorful, flowing, full-length, embroidered vestments when they performed the ritual they called the Sacrifice of the Mass.  Sometimes in the street but especially in their “presbyteries”, homes they were given free of charge, they wore a long black soutane, and maybe a sash, black or red depending on their rank, and added an effeminate white short frock called a surplice on certain ceremonial occasions, such as processions, in which they often carried a “monstrance” to display a white circular wafer which people believed was the “transubstantiated” body of a man called Jesus (who died 2000 years earlier), or following some men carrying on their shoulders a statue of Jesus’ mother, Mary.  Sometimes they put a “stole” around their neck, for example when they sat in a dark cupboard to listen to kneeling penitents’ confession, or when they were dabbing the victim of an accident or dying hospital patients with the oil they carried in a small metal phial adorned with a cross.

You see very few priests today in public wearing their clerical suits.  But in Israel you see many men, who, apart from their curious, dainty curls, look like Catholic clergy, wearing similar black attire including oversized black hats.  They are ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, 50% of whom – like the Catholic clergy – do no work but spend their day studying Sacred Scripture and performing religious rituals.  Unlike Catholic priests, they have wives who work (to pay the bills).  They are poor but are financially supported, not by the faithful as are in most countries the Catholic clergy, but by the government of Israel !

“Priest-Workers” : the words could be a good example of an oxymoron.  In fact the words are used to describe a post World War 2 movement among, initially, French priests who felt they should have a job and work for their living like everyone else, while they continued to minister to the faithful, especially their fellow-workers.  They shifted their ministry from the comfortable bourgeois parishes of the well-heeled and joined the workers in factories.  Their ideological coziness with Communism led the notoriously anti-Communist Pope, Pius XII (who overlooked Hitler’s crimes because of his opposition to Stalin and atheist Russia) to condemn the movement in 1954.  Eleven years later Pope Paul VI reinstated the priest-workers and blessed their ministry.  In 1976 there were 800 worker-priests in France and a short time later only 400, of whom only 80 actually worked, rather than merely “ministering” in the work-place.

(A personal anecdote :  My doctoral thesis-director, Father Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., was a famous Vatican 2 “peritus” (expert) and specialist in medieval Theology; my thesis was a study of that of the Franciscan contemporary of St Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure.  Father Chenu, like his confrere Fr Yves Congar, was a strong supporter of the worker-priests.  Pius XII twice put their books on the Index of Prohibited Books, but Fr Chenu was in good standing with the Church when I worked with him on my thesis in 1967.  I left the priesthood in 1968.)

Today the ranks of the clergy are seriously depleted and destined to extinction.  Apart from priests with “late vocations” who had worked as laymen before being ordained, none of them ever worked a day in his life – anymore than I did myself during the seven years of my (non-worker !) priesthood.  Franciscans are a “mendicant” (begging) Religious Order anyhow, but members of the diocesan clergy, like my late brother Jim, never worked for a living.  Curiously, that word “living” is the term used in the Anglican Church to designate the income-producing gift which is the parish assigned by the Church to its priests, who though usually not wealthy, will henceforth want for nothing.  Curiously, parishioners as a rule do not complain about providing that “living”, and are happy to contribute (meagerly, but sometimes extravagantly) to their upkeep.  Priests are, in reality, “kept” men.  It is a scam long embedded in the clerical caste-system, though in the very early Church its ministers, like the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, a tent-maker, worked for a . . .  livng.

As a priest, I was considered a professional, like a doctor or a lawyer.  But the latter have agendas full of consecutive appointments.  Priests in presbyteries may, on occasion, find someone at the door or on the phone, asking for advice (or a hand-out).  But priests do not have a schedule of back-to-back clients.  That used to happen only on Saturday afternoons when people actually queued up to go to Confession (an hour and a half, max, often much less).  I heard a confrere quip once : “Priests have a pretty easy life – except for the weekend”.  The Church and its clergy got away with it for ages.

There are, of course – there have always been – priests totally dedicated to their ministry in which they were full-time occupied with counseling, encouraging, supporting, helping people in need, giving them hope when everything seemed hopeless, bringing them joy when it seemed forever out of reach, reconciling them with others and with themselves and, they believed, with God.  Priests still in the ministry today are often tireless servants of Christ, doing whatever they can to bring light and love into the lives of those they call the People of God.  A pity that so many of them missed out on the life I was lucky enough to discover and to live since I abandoned their and my illusions and found fulfillment as a family man, without the folly of either blind faith or a black suit.



Some people say that it is “incredible” (they mean hard, not impossible, to believe; it is not even “amazing” and far from “awesome”) that some people still think they are being original when they preface their response to an obnoxious opponent or even a gentle journo, with this empty flattery.  The question may in fact be pertinent, topical, even insightful.  But it is pointless to say so.  Just answer it, for heaven’s (and our) sake !  The person you’re talking to is not only impervious to this obvious rhetorical attempt at empathy, intended to win his good graces for the pursuit of the exchange, but s/he is already alienated by it.  S/he knows his/her question is a good one and doesn’t need or want to be told so.

In religious debates the questions asked are often not at all good questions.  Some are deliberately offensive, as for example when a protagonist asks his opponent : “Do you seriously believe that ?”, or thinks his interlocutor cannot recognize a false question when he sees one, as in : “Don’t you think it is absurd to believe that ?” – which is merely a statement of one’s own conviction and in no way a genuine enquiry.  In both cases the better question to ask is : “Why do you believe that ?”

Atheists know that when believers are not appealing to the numbers of people who share their beliefs (“counting noses”), the most common justification for religious belief is the religion’s sacred text, believed to be the inspired, infallible revelation of God Himself.  This, in discussions (dialogues ?) with atheists is not only a begging of the question (God’s existence), but an appeal to a claim without a shred of evidence.  “Miracles” are supposed to back up talmudic, biblical and koranic divine inspiration.  But these too are the product of myth and credulity.

There is a (good) question we atheists should ask ourselves before deciding to debate with a true believer.  Is there any hope that the believer will in fact consider ANY of our questions “good” ?  Jousting may be fun for both of us and entertainment for our public.  But unless you are a truly erudite and experienced apologist with exceptional debating skills and gifts in interpersonal communication, you have little chance of changing a convinced believer’s mind, though you might succeed in denting his armor and in sowing a doubt in his mind – already quite an accomplishment !

I save my questions for Believers on the Brink.  If the believer has never doubted any of the articles of his or her faith, it is unlikely that you – or at least I – will succeed in piercing the coat of mail of his/her absolute certitude.  Whence my advice : find a flaw and flog it !  If the believer has already recognized the absurdity of certain preposterous previously-held beliefs, he or she may be worth trying to convince to ditch the whole ball of wax – on the condition that the questions we ask are truly good ones (for example : “What do like most and like least in what you have just read in this post ?”).

P.S.  Richard Dawkins, after his 2008 TV interview with Wendy Wright – a well-known but light-weight creationist – was questioned as to whether or not he expected to change her mind.  He admitted that he had not, but added that he did the interview to attempt to sow doubts in the minds of the millions of viewers, many of whom he called “people sitting on the fence” : our “Believers on the Brink” !



The former include public telephones in the street, ice-chests in the kitchen and alarm clocks you had to wind up.  Among the latter, in the near future, will be cash, drivers’ licenses and books made with paper.  Within fifty years, in the new era of Artificial Intelligence, the second list will include doctors, lawyers and members of professions we still think are indispensable.  Call it progress if you like.  If you don’t like it, you’ll just have to lump it.

The atheist’s wise-crack to a believer : “Keep the faith; I don’t need it”, is a bit too tired to bear repeating.  But it still expresses a pertinent, profound truth.  Faith and religion are born of the human need most people feel to make sense of mysteries they cannot fathom and to help them face dangers they cannot avoid.  These needs give birth to another : the need for … clergy.  The gurus, sorcerers and witch-doctors who invented the myths that became tribal beliefs, in the process created livelihoods for themselves.  Credulous people needed them to explain the doctrines their clergy had dreamt up and for the sacrifices and the rituals they alone could perform and which they decreed to be necessary to appease the gods they had invented.  Tribes needed a special clerical caste, and were prepared to house and feed them and provide for their material needs, just as the priests took care of their parishioners’ “spiritual” needs.

A 2011 movie about Catholic exorcists – a specialist function recently ressuscitated in Rome – starring Anthony Hopkins (“The Rite”), has a priest remark that the average age of nuns today is 69, and that 3000 parishes in the U.S. no longer have priests to minister to them.  The obvious reason for their inevitable, imminent extinction is that folks no longer feel the need for them.  The surviving clerical dinosaurs will be wiped out, not by an astronoid but by their former flocks’ indifference to the services they offer – as useless as that of the town-crier of yore or of the ticket-puncher in the Paris métro forty-five years ago.  The latter stopped punching tickets just five years after I stopped preaching sermons, celebrating Mass and forgiving sins.



Very soon we will all forget what happened yesterday in that synagogue in Pittsburg : one little lad circumcized and eleven people killed.  Anti-semitism exists, even in the U.S.  But that country has always been vociferously pro-Israel.  Why ?  Because many of its people (the Protestant majority) identify with it.  Americans believe they are the New Israel, and have been since their beginnings (check out the verso of a dollar bill and admire the Great Seal of the United States with its inscriptions “Annuit Coeptis” (“He has blessed our beginnings”) and “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (A New Order of the Ages”).

Before I go any further, let me suggest that some readers have already switched on their alert-button : he is going to say something anti-semitic !  I found, during my ten years in the States, and during the numerous seminars I conducted later in many of them, that as soon as you mention the word “Jew” or “Israel”, some people think you are going to attack them, their country or their religion.  My sister converted to Judaism and is the mother of a family of practising Jews.  As a student and professor of Theology and with a life-time behind me of fascination with the phenomenon of religion, I am more familiar than most non-Jews with the history of this persecuted people.  If anything, I am pro-semitic, an admirer of the courage and accomplishments of this “race” (!), though not of their – or anyone else’s – religion.  Which does not mean that I am anti-Arab or anti-Palestine.  The two-state solution is, in my view, the only . . . solution ( a word we can no longer hear without thinking of the abomination of desolation which was the Holocaust, the Shoah, Hitler’s “Final Solution”).

To return to my point.  America, like ancient and modern Israel, was born of an exodus.  It was not the Pharaoh or the Führer who forced the 102 Protestant pilgrims on the “Mayflower” to seek asylum in America but the English monarch James 1.  In their first colony in Massachusetts, their legal code was the Bible.  The first project for the Great Seal of America, supported by Benjamin Franklin, was an illustration of the Hebrew crossing of the Red (reed) Sea, with the inscription “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.  Congress actually proposed that in the embryonic United States (thirteen at the time) English be replaced by the Hebrew language !  The motion, like the proposed Seal, failed to be approved, but courses at Yale, Princeton and Columbia universities were given in Hebrew, as were students’ final dissertations.  No wonder that the city I lived in for seven years – Tulsa, Oklahoma – was called “the Buckle” of the “Bible Belt”, as H.L. Mencken in the 1920s had baptized a wide area of ultra-conservative southern States (dear to the Donald . . .).

I doubt that many Bible-Belters have ever heard of any of this.  Then again, Rednecks are not renowned for their erudition or even general knowledge.  If that sounds arrogant – I knew it would get some backs up – let me reassure you that I learned all this myself only recently . . .