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Light in Dark Times. Vol 111, No. 444

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In his conversation with the editors of Jesuit journals in Europe last May (see Studies, autumn 2022), Pope Francis recalled the acute hostility of some conservative Catholics towards the Second Vatican Council during its aftermath, even among the Jesuits themselves. Some Jesuits tried to derail the efforts of Pedro Arrupe, Superior General from 1965 to 1984, to take the Council to heart and see the promotion of justice as ‘an absolute requirement’ of the service of faith, and to reframe the Society’s mission accordingly. Francis remembered one Jesuit ranting bitterly against Arrupe and his General Assistant, Jean-Yves Calvez, saying, ‘The happiest day of my life will be when I see them hanging from the gallows in St Peter’s Square’.

Why was Pope Francis making so much of this? Because, he said, ‘the non-acceptance of the Council’ has once again become a critical problem for the Church. ‘Restorationism has come to gag the Council,’ he remarked, the ‘restorers’ being traditionalists, many of whom see their partial or total rejection of Vatican II and their deep dislike of Francis as emblems of their fidelity to a Church that will not and cannot change. According to their understanding, it is not only the formal teachings of the Church that are unchangeable, but also an array of longstanding perspectives, judgements, and practices which, taken together, constitute a normative Catholic stance, and – despite the best efforts of rogue popes and bishops – the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

What is on show here is what Bernard Lonergan SJ characterised as a ‘classicist worldview’. It stresses the fixed identity of human nature rather than its contingent elements. Its method is to move from the eternal and the universal to the temporal and the specific. For traditionalists with this worldview, human history is mostly a sorry tale of departure from an original ideal, of deviation from the straight path of the past; it began with a fall, and the temporal order (literally, the ‘secular’) has borne the mark of Adam ever since. It is for the Church then to defend the unchangeable against the constant pressure to change, a pressure which, since the Reformation at least, could be expected to come from outside. And what is needed for this defence is strong centralised government and a magisterial culture of censure and condemnation.

But Vatican II, according to this narrative, changed everything. It was when the Church decided to negotiate with the enemy rather than continue to fight the good fight against it. A new view of things in the Church began to take shape at the Council, but this was nothing but a masquerade, traditionalists believe, a veil of churchy language draped over a body of secular pieties. What the Council did, they say, is little more than appropriate the values of the 18th century Enlightenment and the revolutionary era which followed – appropriate, that is, the very tenets it had railed against for over 150 years: liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the other ‘simple and incontestable principles’ of the French Declaration of Human Rights. How could these have been false then but true now? Truth, if it is truth at all, is unchanging. But at Vatican II, so this narrative goes, the secularising modernists won, and the Church, as St Paul said of his fellow-worker Demas, fell in love with the present world. The Council fathers sought the approval of the secular culture around them, so no surprise if the new spirit they introduced bore the mark of the immanentist ideologies that emerged from the age of reason – liberalism, Marxism, positivism, relativism, and the like.

There is, however, another way to read the history of the modern Church. It corresponds in good part to the worldview which Lonergan posed as classicism’s opposite. He called it ‘historical consciousness’ or ‘historical mindedness’. It means recognising that apart from immutable human nature there is also variable human historicity, and what this brings to our endeavours is a need for ‘changing forms, structures, methods’. According to this understanding, existence in history is not an incidental aspect of our nature – or indeed of the life of the Church. It is constitutive. And our historical situatedness, with all the limitations it sets on our capacity to apprehend eternal truths, presents us with a sense of tradition as culturally and linguistically mediated, and as always in need of interrogation in the light of new realities. Truth, of course, is not relative, but our apprehension of it most certainly is.

Lonergan’s distinction between classicism and historical mindedness should not be applied too rigidly, but it does hold a definite heuristic value. It helps to identify where the fault line lies in the Church these days – the line that distinguishes those who are perturbed to a greater or lesser extent by rumours of change in the Church from those who are not. It should be noted, though, that these worldviews are not, in the first place, drawn from theology, whatever their exponents might claim. They are standpoints that are fixed by a set of undergirding principles and presuppositions which themselves need to be examined and justified. There is work to be done here by Catholics of both stripes if they are ever to find themselves on the same page: each needs to pay respectful attention to the other’s examination and justification of their own standpoint. This is where fruitful disputation may take place.

If traditionalists are to take serious issue with the judgements or changes introduced by the Council or the Pope, it is imperative that they give close attention to the principles and presuppositions which underlie them. It has happened many times in the history of the Church that the received understanding of a doctrine has shown itself to be inadequate to the task of making sense of emerging concrete circumstances. At such times the Church must revisit the doctrine in the light of the foundational truths of revelation. There have been dramatic shifts in the Church’s understanding of, for example, the necessity of the Church for salvation, the nature of sin, pardon and penance, the relationship between Christ and his Church and the Eucharist, the fate of unbaptized infants, freedom of conscience and religion, and so on, precisely because new political, intellectual or pastoral situations required a re-think about the meaning or consequences of more ‘determinative’ doctrines – doctrines such as the universal salvific will, God’s infinite justice and mercy, or the dignity of the human person. This, you could say, is traditionally how the Church has understood tradition – not as, in the phrase of Yves Congar, ‘the mechanical transmission of a passive deposit’ but as the dynamic reception of revelation by living subjects who live in history, a history that responds to the questions of time. Present-day traditionalism, by contrast, is a novelty.

One determinative doctrine of the Church in particular helped to set the programme of reform and renewal in the Council. It is the doctrine of the imago Dei, the revelation that every person bears the stamp of God’s image and has the infinite dignity that goes with that. Also, that human personhood is essentially relational, given that the God in whose image we are made is in fact a dynamic community of persons – a Trinity. Our selfhood is therefore constitutively implicated in the lives of other selves. We exist to be in solidarity with them. What this insight gave the Council, to put it in hermeneutical terms, was a horizon of assumptions and values which shaped its concrete insights and judgements about the world. A new worldview, precisely.

The opening pages of Henri de Lubac’s magisterial book Catholicism (first published in 1938) effectively prefigures all of this. Drawing heavily on the Fathers of the Church, de Lubac emphasizes that the supernatural dignity of baptized Christians rests on the natural dignity of all of humankind. Also, that the unity of the Church supposes a prior unity of the whole human race. You can’t have one without the other. And both rest on the doctrine, which first appears in Genesis and is never far from the pages of either scripture or the early Fathers, that all persons were made ‘in the one image of the one God’ and that ‘the divine image does not differ from one individual to another’.

This is immensely consequential. In a sense, all the main doctrines of the Council concerning the Church itself can be traced back to the equal dignity of its baptized members, and all the main doctrines concerning the Church in the world can be traced back to the equal natural dignity of all people. Hence, the ecclesiology of the constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, begins with the unity of all members in the body of Christ and the participation of each one of them in Christ’s three-fold office of priest, prophet, and king. Only after this affirmation can differentiations of office or vocation be made. Much follows from this: the doctrine of the common priesthood of the faithful; the need for the active participation of the laity in the liturgy; the recognition of the lay state as a vocation; the emphasis on authority in the Church as service; the role of collegiality; the nuancing of the distinction between the teaching and the learning Church; the role of the sensus fidei (the instinct of faith of every believer); and so on.

And so too with the Council’s teachings concerning the world at large. They reflect the Church’s conviction of the natural dignity of every human being and the unity of the human race. Gaudium et Spes, the constitution on the Church in the modern world, is the stand-out document in this regard. It sees the imago Dei as the basis for the unity of all humankind as a ‘single people’, and as the basis of human dignity, equality and freedom. Again, much follows from this: the importance of the human stewardship of creation; the need for justice in the socio-economic world; the fundamental value of dialogue; and the primacy of the common good. The other council documents add to this litany. Restoring unity among Christians, establishing fellowship with people of all religions, sharing in the concerns of the whole world, respecting the inviolability of conscience – all of these values are couched in the background understanding of every person as a bearer of God’s image. Through these documents, the Council confirmed the tradition of Catholic social teaching and clearly established that it is an integral constituent of Church doctrine. ‘The love of God,’ says Gaudium et Spes, ‘cannot be separated from love of neighbor’.

But for many traditionalists – and this is one reason why they seek to ‘gag the Council’ – the social teaching of the Church is merely peripheral to the Gospel. The real Catholic business is the life of the sacraments, of piety, and of a certain understanding of doctrinal orthodoxy. Justice, solidarity, and human freedom come a distant second and are as likely as not to be the concerns of those who are more on the side of the world than on that of God. Pope Francis categorically disagrees. ‘Everything is interconnected,’ he wrote in Laudato Si’, and it has been a mainstay of his teaching throughout his pontificate. He resolutely defends the affirmative, integral vision that Vatican II advanced.

Of course, this vision of the Council did indeed mark a decisive break from the negative ecclesiology that dominated during the previous centuries – the supposition that the Church of its nature is contra mundum, pitched in enmity against the world beyond its bounds, and committed to hierarchy and strong authority against the democratizing principle which prevailed elsewhere. But that darker vision of the Church and the world was for the greater part merely a product of post-Reformation polemics and later of the Catholic Counter-Enlightenment. In many respects it was a departure from the ancient theological anthropology that the Council retrieved, one that saw as foundational the fraternity and solidarity of the whole human race. And it is the Council’s vision that has enabled the Church of recent decades to make what Jurgen Habermas has called the ‘semantic potential’ of its doctrines available to public discourse beyond its confines. There are considerable grounds for hope here.

Vatican II took place within the living memory of two horrendous world wars. It sought to renew the Church’s understanding of its own nature and mission so that it could offer light to a dark world – so that it could ‘bring the light of Christ’ to people everywhere, Christ who is the lumen gentium, the ‘light of nations’. These are dark times too. The mission stays the same.

 

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The intimate connectedness of the life of God and the life of God’s creation should have a deep impact on theology. The first set of essays in this issue illustrate this. They indicate some of the sources of light that may be discerned in dark times, especially by bringing theological reflection into close and dynamic connection with all dimensions of life – with the social order in Anna Rowlands’ essay on Catholic Social Teaching; with the signs of the times in Brendan Leahy’s essay on the Irish Catholic Church; and with lived human experience in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s personal narrative about growing up Catholic in Ireland.

Nothing is peripheral. No aspect of life – neither historical realities nor the social gospel, care of our common home, personal experience, or any other aspect of what Pope Francis calls ‘integral ecology’ – can be remote from the business of establishing the conditions of faith. As Johann Baptist Metz asserts in the course of mapping out the parameters of what he calls a practical fundamental theology, ‘The Christian idea of God is in itself a practical idea’. One does not first think about God and then consider what implications belief might have. ‘God simply cannot be thought,’ Metz writes, ‘without this idea irritating and disrupting the immediate interests of the one who is trying to think it’. Put otherwise: The very moment we think of God we are subject to the challenge of seeing all creation as God sees it, which must mean loving it, wanting it to flourish, and wanting it to be ruled by love and justice.

The modern Catholic Social Teaching (CST) tradition, which first takes shape in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), is a fruit of such an insight. The starting point for Leo was the imago Dei, and that same fundamental orientation is apparent in the many magisterial documents concerning CST since. ‘What difference does it make to our building of communities, states or social orders,’ these texts ask in effect, ‘that the whole enterprise lies at the heart of the human relationship with God  – not merely as a second-order operation, an afterthought, or a practical application of the more important vita contemplativa, but as a living out of Christian love, which is the law of the Gospel?

In her essay ‘Illuminating Dark Times: The Surprising Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching’, Anna Rowlands confronts the pressing question of how the Christian understanding of communion may constitute a distinctive call to be what she calls ‘the extension of the enfleshment of Christ in the world, without end’. She acknowledges that the ‘common good’ is not a specifically Christian idea, and she recognizes Hannah Arendt’s criticisms of the notion of ‘communion’ in relation to public life, especially as it can be weaponized for exclusionary purposes; yet she argues a case for embracing ‘communion’ and for advancing an understanding of the ‘common good’ in accordance with the rich tradition of CST. In the first instance, she says, we are ‘not doers but receivers of the common good. Only then do we become ‘co-creators and participants within an active process in history’.

In ‘“Going Deep, Going Forth, Going Together”, Part II’, Bishop Brendan Leahy follows up on the first part of his essay, which was published in the last issue, summer 2022. In Part I he addressed the impact of Vatican II on the Church in Ireland and expressed cautious optimism that the fruits of the Council, especially through the development of synodality, can succeed in setting the Church on a healthier footing. In Part II, ‘Seeking Meaning in a Transformed World’, he continues to find grounds for hope that the Church in Ireland can learn to ‘go deep’ on the spiritual, cultural and social fronts, but this can only happen if serious critical attention is paid to the signs of the times. Ireland has been transformed beyond recognition in recent decades. A dominant form of Catholicism has been ‘dethroned’; the Catholic consensus has been dissipated; autonomy, self-determination, and freedom of thought and expression are ‘the operative keys’ in people’s lives; and the ‘national trauma’ of clerical sexual abuse has disclosed multiple deficiencies in the structure and culture of Ireland’s Catholic past. A brighter future is possible for the Church, but only by shedding its ‘self-referentiality’ and recognizing that ‘To be synodal, at all levels, is the vocation of the Church’.

Central to the process of synodality is encouraging open and courageous speech and creating spaces in which that speech may be heard. As Metz puts it, the personal narratives of the children of God ‘are not peripheral to the enterprise of theology but the very thing itself’. Stories of conversion and of exodus, he says, are not ‘dramatic window-dressing for a preformulated “pure” theology’; they belong, rather, to the fundamental way theology operates. There are strains of both conversion and exodus in Pádraig Ó Tuama’s affecting narrative about growing up in a narrow and often nasty Catholic culture in Ireland and having to negotiate a damaged and damaging world as he grew into the knowledge that he was gay. The conversion element involves surprising moments of illumination and finding God in unexpected places.

 

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The other contributions to this issue of Studies cover a wide range of disparate topics. Two essays, John O’Hagan’s ‘Taking Back Control: The Role of the EU’ and Erik Jones’s ‘Sovereignty and the National Interest’ continue the discussion begun in the summer 2022 issue with contributions from Michael Sanfey’s workshop on sovereignty in the European University Institute, Florence, on 17 March. O’Hagan identifies some problematic aspects of pooled decision making in the European Union. Matters such as these need to be addressed, he concludes, but a deeper understanding of the structure and purpose are needed too, and by now its rationale and legitimacy should be beyond all doubt. Jones considers some current threats to the liberal democratic tradition, especially from national populism, and both democrats and populists must acknowledge that the world’s needs cannot be effectively met when governments hold too narrow a notion of the national interest.

In Part II of his essay on Dante and Ireland, ‘A Dantean Afterlife’ (Part I was published in the summer issue of Studies), Daragh O’Connell follows up his earlier account of the possible influence of medieval Irish representations of the afterlife on Dante’s Commedia. Now in Part II he examines the flipside of this relationship of influence. Dante’s work is a presence in the work of many of Ireland’s modern writers – in Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, to be sure, but most especially in Seamus Heaney. Dante provided these writers with a rich set of images and tropes which became, in their hands, ‘imaginative keys to unlick much that is valuable for us today’.

In ‘”The Queen she came to call on us”’, Dermot McCarthy recounts the story behind Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011, from his point of view as Secretary General to the Irish Government and Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach. He recalls the behind-the-scene negotiations and the logistical complications, but mostly he remembers the warm welcome that was extended to the Queen and her own graciousness.

Máirín MacCarron spent a year working on a biographical project about Magdalen Taylor (1832-1900), the foundress of a women’s congregation in England, the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. In ‘Writing History with Female Religious Communities: Medieval and Modern Hagiography’. As a medieval historian, she wonders if the present-day experience of helping to prepare the life of someone with a reputation for sanctity might cast any light on the earlier hagiographic tradition. In both cases, she observes, there is a ‘community of believers’ behind the project that have a bearing on how the work is conducted and who should not be forgotten.

Renowned Australian Jesuit Gerald O’Collins has penned an essay for this issue of Studies on an aspect of the poetic work of his fellow-Australian Jesuit Peter Steele, now deceased. In ‘Three Parables from Luke: The Vision of Peter Steele SJ’, O’Collins conducts a close reading of three short poems by Steele on the Gospel parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. The readings act as a kind of lectio divina.

In the final essay of this issue, John Hedigan tells the fascinating story of Henry Edgeworth, cousin of author Maria Edgeworth of Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford, who became a Catholic priest and lived most of his priestly life in France. In ‘Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont: Confessor to the King’, Hedigan relates how the Abbé ministered to King Louis XVI as the latter awaited execution by guillotine in January 1793. The Abbé’s remarkable bravery and devotion both during those last days of the king and in the aftermath are recounted. He died in 1807.

 

 

Contents

  • ‘The Queen She Came to Call on Us’

    Dermot McCarthy

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    The rituals of state visits rarely excite much interest beyond the narrow range of those obliged to participate. Their set format is designed to standardise expressions of esteem between the host country and that of the visiting dignitary.

    The state visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011 burst the constraints of routine formality. As the first state visit by a British monarch, every detail was invested with a significance, which was reflected in the careful preparations.

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  • A Human Being Fully Alive

    Pádraig Ó Tuama

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    Growing up we said a decade of the rosary in Irish every night. Me, my six siblings, my parents. Each of us, kneeling into a chair, turned away from whatever was in the centre of the room. ‘Sé do bheatha a Mhuire’, we’d recite. The nightly prayer time started after my parents joined a charismatic Catholic prayer group, around the time I was eight or nine. They made lovely new friends. Top of the Pops was suddenly banned because the American mother-group of charismatic Catholics didn’t approve of popular music. It was the smell of sex that was objectionable in pop music, as other music was sexless.

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  • Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont- Confessor to the King

    John Hedigan

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    On the 21 January 1793, as he faced the guillotine, Louis XVI, King of France, was attended by an Irish-born priest, Henry Edgeworth, known in France as Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont. Writing of the grim events of that day, René de Chateaubriand wrote bitterly, ‘a foreigner sustained the Monarch at his last hour – it seemed as if there were not a single Frenchman left who was loyal to his sovereign’. There was, however, somewhat more to the story than that.

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  • An Irish Dante, Part II- A Dantean Afterlife

    Daragh O’Connell

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    In Part I of this essay on an ‘Irish Dante’, I noted that Ireland’s unique relationship with the Florentine poet begins with the possibility that medieval Irish vision literature may have influenced the Commedia profoundly. Literary representations of the afterlife, especially in the narratives of the knights Owein and Tnugdalus and in the voyage narrative of St Brendan, find echoes in Dante’s work. In Part II, I want to examine instances from modern Irish literature in which the stream of influence flows in the other direction. Just as Dante himself drew on earlier medieval vision narratives in order to bring forth a monumental and original composition, so too we find a translational and creative engagement with Dante’s legacy in the leading literary figures of twentieth-century Ireland.

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  • Going Deep, Going Forth, Going Together’, Part II- Seeking Meaning in a Transformed World

    Brendan Leahy

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    In the first part of this article,1 I looked at the reception of the Second Vatican Council’s teachings, indicating briefly how Pope Francis’s papacy is marking a phase in that reception. I want now to offer a reflection on how three of the social and cultural developments in Ireland of the past decades, when read in the light of Vatican II as reflected in Pope Francis’s teaching and actions, indicate directions for our deeper reception of the Council in Ireland.

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  • Illuminating Dark Times- The Surprising Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching

    Anna Rowlands

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    In 1968 the social philosopher and sometime critic of Christianity Hannah Arendt published a book in homage to Bertolt Brecht’s poem, ‘To Posterity’, which begins with the following stanza:

    Indeed I live in the dark times!
    A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens
    A hard heart. He who laughs
    Has not yet heard
    The terrible tidings.

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  • Partition- Are there two nations on the Island of Ireland, and could they be Fused into One?

    John Bruton

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    There are increasingly loud calls to prepare for a border poll, one outcome of which might be the unification of Ireland, the end of partition, and the end of UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland. These calls rely on the provision in the Belfast Agreement of 1998 that says that, if the British secretary of state is of the opinion that a majority in Northern Ireland would support unification with the rest of Ireland, he or she shall hold a poll in Northern Ireland to allow the electorate there to make that choice.

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  • Sovereignity and the National Interest

    Erik Jones

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    Much of the world today is torn between national populists and liberal democrats. The national populists put the nation first; the liberal democrats argue for something closer to multicultural multilateralism. In doing so, they offer distinct visions of how sovereignty and the national interest interact. For national populists, sovereignty is an expression of the national interest; whoever wields sovereign authority should ensure that the national interest is served. For liberal democrats, sovereignty is the responsibility to determine what is in the nation’s best interests and then to reconcile competing claims and distribute scarce resources accordingly. The two groups also offer contrasting views of world order. The national populists focus on self-help and mutual respect. The liberal democrats emphasise integration, cooperation, and solidarity.

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  • Taking Back Control- The Role of the EU

    John O’Hagan

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    It was noted by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) that there are some issues whose influence permeates national boundaries and give rise to problems which individual states, or even limited coalitions of states, are no longer able to influence, let alone control (see Habermas, 2012). Habermas was writing shortly after the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. Since then, of course, we have had the climate crisis issue, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine.

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  • Three Parables from Luke- The Vision of Peter Steele SJ

    Gerald O’Collins

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    Three parables from St Luke’s Gospel provide themes for sonnets composed by Australian Jesuit, the late Peter Steele (1939–2012) and are quoted here with permission: ‘Man on Donkey’ (Lk 10:25–37), ‘Prodigal’ (15:11–32), and ‘Lazarus at the Gate’ (16:19–31). In none of the three cases does the poet attempt to translate into verse the entire parable. His sonnets regularly take up only sections of the parables.

    Beaten, still breathing, as awkward as a dog,
    He swags across the donkey, unaware
    Of who’s beside them, footsore in the slog
    Uphill for shelter and a kind of care.

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  • Writing History with Female Religious Communities- Medieval and Modern Hagiography

    Máirín MacCarron

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    The importance of hagiographies for the study of early medieval history cannot be overstated. These texts are used to illuminate contemporary social, religious, and political practices, and to understand the intellectual environment of hagiographers. However, an over-emphasis on the hagiographer’s agenda, though crucial for understanding a work’s historical context, sometimes introduces too great a separation between their endeavour as an individual and the role of their protagonist’s community in preserving and curating their own history. This disparity can be particularly pronounced for female religious figures, as the earliest surviving sources concerning their lives often came from outside their monasteries and were written by men.

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