William Frazer’s Golden Bough begins with an account of the priesthood of Diana of the Woods at Nemi, near Castelgandolfo, a priesthood one attained by killing the incumbent and a priesthood in which one was succeeded by the man who managed to kill you. The prophecy of Malachi ends with the prediction that Elijah will come before the great and terrible day of the Lord to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Mal 4:6). The angel Gabriel quotes this when he tells Zechariah that he is to be the father of John the Baptist, the Elijah who was to come, one of whose tasks is to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children (Luke 1:17). Why would it need to be done? Ought it not to happen naturally, that the hearts of fathers and sons should be turned to each other?
One reason, we can speculate, is because a father’s children represent his mortality as well as his potency. He brings them to be but in doing so is preparing the way for his own demise: to paraphrase John the Baptist at another moment, ‘the children must increase as the father decreases’.
Where the fathers are celibate and do not have natural children of their own this situation is likely to be more fraught. The fact that these are one’s own sons and daughters helps to temper the normal handing over from one generation to the next: in some way one continues to live on in them. But where the succession is celibate then this natural consolation is not present – the threat remains, the reminder of mortality is there, but without the consolation of knowing that these replacements, these successors, are the fruit of your own body. Even if they are not out to kill you off physically (although what restrains them?!) they will want to kill you off in other ways. And it seems right, only natural, that it should be so.
So what happens? Well hatred is one of the things that can happen, in stronger or milder forms. There are likely to be difficulties in relating easily, in working together, and in sharing responsibility. On the other hand people may attempt to establish something like the relationship of natural fathers and sons in this celibate succession. Because it is not natural, this can take strange forms: sponsorship and patronage as older men try to ensure that their particular way, their preferred ideas, and their approach to living our life, is sown in the minds and hearts of the next generation.
It can happen (so my experience tells me) that those who are two generations apart can establish easier relations than those who are just a generation away from each other. Those who are two generations apart have a common enemy, I suppose, the generation in between, whose limitations, weaknesses, compromises and general mediocrity they are each well positioned to appreciate. The grandfathers will be happy to see their sons experiencing some of the problems from the grandsons that they had experienced from them. The laws of action and reaction that seem to govern human life generally, not least in ecclesiastical affairs and theological preferences, will ensure that grandsons will sometimes feel more at home with those two generations away than they will with their own ‘fathers’.
These thoughts come to me in reflecting on my reaction to comments about the 1970s, that most ridiculous of decades. There was a feature in one of the Sunday magazines this week that described the 1970s in just such terms, as the most ridiculous decade of the past fifty years. It was referring to the fashions, music, and general cultural preoccupations of those years. Within the Church you find a similar analysis of the contribution of the 1970s. Naturally I am a bit sensitive about this, since these were the years when I was a student in Tallaght, formed during the second half of the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. Just a year or so after our ordination in 1978, when Pope John Paul II was beginning to show his hand, one of our teachers at Tallaght apologised to a classmate and myself for having prepared us for ‘the wrong church’.
Since I’ve come to live here at Blackfriars (Oxford), comments made in passing, or even directly to me, by clerical students, not all of them Dominicans, nourish my thinking about this. These have included references to the 1970s as the time when things ‘went to pot’, and as a kind of silly season in liturgical and other theological matters. People nod with sad, knowing smiles when the preoccupations of that time are recalled. I know that men from that generation and the one just before are experienced in some places as completely set in their ways, intolerant liberals, obstacles now to progress. ‘Thank God’, one student said to me some years ago, ‘good priests are beginning to be ordained again’. I wasn’t sure how far back the ‘bad priests’ went and may have simply been paranoid in assuming that he included all of my generation in his condemnation!
Where does it leave us? Well, it leaves us where the human race has always been, I suppose, living with the same realities, the same questions, except that we must face them in the form in which they present themselves to us. I can remember when the 1950s was regarded as the most ridiculous of decades so the day may come when people will be nostalgic for the 1970s. Those who imagine that life before Vatican II was some kind of ecclesiastical paradise are as much out of touch as some of the people who taught me and for whom life before Vatican II seemed to be unrelieved and unmitigated nonsense.
I think the 1970s, coming after the 1960s, raised questions and difficulties particularly about authority. All authority and leadership came to be regarded as flawed, ambiguous and invariably self-serving. The revolting students of Paris had obliged General de Gaulle to come to the television screens and explain to France what was going on. Nixon was exposed as a crook and a liar. The reaction to Humanae vitae opened questions about authority in the Church that rumble on to this day.
A film that captures the concerns and problems of the 1970s very well is The Ice Storm, with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. Made in 1997, it is set in 1973. The pullovers are ridiculous, the music is sad, and the teenagers are obnoxious. The adults are appalling: they seem unable or unwilling to grow up, they want to be as young as their children, they have become self-conscious about authority and any exercise of it, and so find it impossible to become adults. It seems like a generation that wants to be teenage forever. You are probably in a better position than me to talk about the impact of that period on later generations and to assess how much truth there might be in what I am saying.
We live from the Word of God in the first place, finding our foundation and our bearings from there. But the history and texts of our own and recent times help us to put shape on the ways in which we must live out some perennial questions: about fatherhood, about authority, about leadership, about relating across generations, about understanding, about love. If I end by quoting Scripture it is not to suggest that our recent experience and the questions it raises are simple to understand or to answer, but simply to point to what ought to be the foundation of our lives and the guiding criterion of our judgements. In the sermon on the mount Jesus says, ‘you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘you shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment, whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, whosever says ‘you fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matt 5:21-22). Whatever we find ourselves thinking about people of another generation, or people of different styles and preferences, we need always to submit our thoughts to the refining judgement of Our Lord’s teaching.