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I believed in Santa Claus before I believed in God.

And when I was taught first about the baby Jesus, the story to start with was the one about the little poor baby who got presents for Christmas, brought by men who looked a bit like Santa in their colourful robes and head gear, who came from very far away, following a star and probably said things like Ho Ho Ho.

I didn’t think much of the gifts that Jesus got, the gold and frankincense and a mirror. I doubt he was keen on them himself. But the lesson of the story was that, like Jesus, you should always be glad of what you get and not complain, as I should be glad of the things Santa had brought me, which weren’t exactly what I had asked for.

So, my first religious faith was in Santa Claus, not in Jesus, who was just too complicated, who set an example for children that was not really attainable.

This was not how the nuns had intended to direct me, but if they had thought it through they would have seen that this was an inevitable consequence. What child wanted gold, frankincense and a mirror for Christmas? None that I knew.

There were other mysterious fat men in big coats in the Christmas stories. Like Good King Wences who last Last looked out on the feast of Stephen. I had trouble placing King Wences in the narrative. How he actually met his end was not clear to me either.

All I knew was that he never looked out again.

It was as well we weren’t relying on him to deliver the presents.

Or on God either.

When my theological education advanced a little further I understood how the story of Santa Claus integrates with the Christian one. He was St Nicholas. Say it quickly and Sanicklaus is Santa Claus.

This reconciliation of the two mythologies saved me for a time for Christianity and without it my entire spiritual development would have been focused on Santa Claus, a divine being who was bountiful and good and uncomplicated.

There were no stories in the lore about Santa which presented him as smiting cities, sending plagues, even asking people to sacrifice sheep for him. True, Jesus was an improvement on the old God, for when shepherds brought lambs to him he didn’t asked them to kill them. But he was still a moody God.

I have heard of a Japanese department store in which the intertwining of the stories of Jesus and Santa was so confused that Santa was depicted crucified. Santa was never crucified; he never would have been crucified because – well he never annoyed anybody – not anybody at all.

In recognition of the integration of my faith in Santa with my faith in Jesus, when the time came round for my confirmation and I had to choose a name by which to be more fully inducted into the church as a soldier of Christ, I chose the name Nicholas.

I am Malachi John Nicholas O’Doherty.

In some countries little boys could take or be given the name of Jesus, or Haysoose, as they pronounce it. And in Hindu tradition almost all boys have a name of God, Vishnu, Ram, Ishvar.

I was very young and I wasn’t declaring with any heretical confidence that Nicholas, Santa Claus, was senior to Jesus in the celestial hierarchy; but essentially that is what I felt.

For, if we wanted Jesus we went to his house, the church, to pray to him and to receive him in communion.

But, Santa came to our house.

Jesus gave you this little bit of bread which wasn’t like any bread we ever ate at home. And you were supposed to be very solemnly grateful, though it stuck to the roof of your mouth and you weren’t supposed to use your finger to get it off but to let it dissolve.

Santa gave you plastic helicopters, guns, Indian head dresses, games of Ludo and Snakes and Ladders and books.

And yet, despite this obvious contrast between them, the church and your teachers and even your parents told you emphatically and over and over again, that the one who would look after you and get you into Heaven if you were nice to him was Jesus. Jesus would give you a harp and a cloud to sit on after you died.

Santa would give you a chemistry set.

The two men even looked starkly different from each other. Santa was big and jolly and fat and Jesus was scrawny and he bled. I began to wonder if Jesus’s problem was that he didn’t believe in Santa.

For all that Jesus was good and cured sick people and woke them up when they were dead, he never seemed exactly happy. And I knew who I would rather spend a dark and wintry night with.

In truth though, Santa had his limitations too.

In the weeks before Christmas my mother would take me to Woolworths and the Co-op to see what presents I might like Santa to being me.

That is where I discovered the Johnny Seven gun. This was an amazing toy. It fired seven different types of projectile.

‘You’ll only lose them’, said my mother. ‘Why don’t you trust Santa to bring your something that will last you longer.’

She even brought me to see Santa in the Co-op. We had to go in a space ship. Or rather, we had to get into a spaceship, which then rocked about and discharged us through a different door when it stopped.

I was beginning to understand that there was an element of make believe about this, that this wasn’t really a space ship, and that therefore this wasn’t Santa, whose knee I was sat upon, but that if I went along with this pretence, I had a better chance of getting what I wanted for Christmas.

For it was also coming clear to me that not all of my presents came from Santa.

My mother was buying some of them.

I also began to realise that some people stopped believing in Santa Claus altogether and were content to only have the presents that their parents bought for them.

Many of them, indeed, carried on believing in Jesus after they had stopped believing in Santa Claus. They preferred, or found more plausible, a God who might punish them, who had a rule book, who wanted you to suffer with good grace and trust to everything being better after you died.

How could this, I wondered, be preferable to Santa who, come what may, would every year bring you gifts.

People bemoan the something for nothing culture but that’s only because they don’t get enough for nothing themselves. There is nothing better than getting something for nothing. And I think the followers of Jesus who open food banks and give to the poor embody Santa Claus.

True, your parents said he would only come if you behaved yourself through the year, but this patently wasn’t true, for the gifts came whether you were good or not.

Jesus said, inasmuch as you fed the hungry and clothed the naked you did it onto me, and that’s what gets you into Heaven. Santa does that too, but he also brings gifts to children who aren’t hungry, who aren’t naked, who aren’t in prison.

He’s the one who’s looking after the likes of you and me.

And they still gifts come. There are still times when life surprises me with unwarranted bounty and good fortune.

I have been that person who, stuck for a bob, found a pound note down the back of the sofa. I have been lucky many times in life, and unlucky too, I suppose.

But whether good things come to me or not seems little to do with justice.

I know about the world that demands obedience and patience and stoical acceptance of the bad breaks, the world that Jesus talks about, that we should put up with because we’ll be better off when we die. Much of what he teaches me, life teaches me anyway, though what he promises me I still can’t be sure of.

He forgives us as we forgive others – there’s too much of the balance sheet in that thinking.

But Santa Claus still happens along occasionally without a tally in his hand, without an accountant at his side, and gives you what you don’t deserve, and that is what I hope for most in life.

Therefore do I still place my hopes and faith in him.

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I was invited today to sit on a panel discussing diversity and division at the DUP party conference. This was chaired by Sammy Douglas and also there were Fr Tim Bartlett, Jeffrey Donaldson and David Hume, for the Orange Order.
The first question is for Fr Tim.

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It’s not hard to imagine the jaws dropping onto desktops when the
letter arrived from Culture Minister Nelson McCausland asking museum
heads to pay a bit more attention to matters of vital concern to him
like the Ulster Scots heritage, the Orange Order and the origin of the
universe.
On reflection, museum managers might have considered a range of
options short of telling him to get stuffed.
Mr McCausland’s view is that a museum should reflect the culture and
beliefs of the community it serves. In seeking to refute this, the
museums might seek to actively explain the world to a community with
reference to the gaps in the understanding of even its leading
cultural funders.
In short, if Mr McCausland wants the university to offer discussion of
Intelligent Design theory, let them do it. There are a lot of people
among us who believe that religion can still hold out against
scientific discovery. They would have been on the side of the Pope
against Gallileo and they still think they can refute Darwin. They
want to retain the conviction within scientific institutions like
universities and museums that God created the world in seven days.
Well, let them try.
The first comfort for museum heads is that Intelligent Design theory
is already a concession to science. It is a relaxation of the demand
by religious creationists that the Book of Genesis be taken as a
sufficient account of the emergence of the universe, life and
consciousness.
The court cases in the United States, around the demand for the
teaching of Intelligent Design , were attempts by religious
fundamentalists to argue science with scientists, conceding in effect
that there was no point in trying to impress them with scripture.
Scientists and secularists saw this as a threat. It was in fact, the
movement of religious fundamentalists on to ground on which scientists
can defeat them, if they are confident of the strength of their case.
Why shouldn’t we have an exhibition on Intelligent Design
incorporating a discussion of the arguments around it in the museum?
People like Nelson McCausland might soon discover that there is no
comfort in it for them. If they are hopeful that Intelligent Design
restores the Christian explanation of the Universe to them, then they
may be well served by having the full case and its implications laid
out for them.
The problem for creationists is that their argument, if won, might
only establish that an intelligence initiated the Big Bang.
For all they know, that intelligent being might have been killed in the blast.
He, she or it may reside still in another universe and have lost all
interest in this one. There are no grounds for supposing that that
being knows about us or has any benign intentions towards us. There
are no grounds even for supposing that it is an infinite Deity. There
may be another universe in which children spark off Big Bangs with
their chemistry sets. They may not even know that they are doing it.
They will live in a different time frame so our whole span of
existence in this universe may be just a blink to them.
The problem for Intelligent Design freaks is that they don’t read
enough science fiction.
Rationalists might say this is absurd. But we are already making black
holes under Geneva ourselves with the CERN project, so what is so
implausible about an intelligence more advanced than our own
conducting similar or more radical experiments elsewhere?
What Intelligent Design believers do read – some of them – is the
theories of John Polkinghorne, a scientist and minister of the Church
of England who won the £1m Templeton Prize for research that
reconciles science and religion.
The usual experience of religion in the contest with science is that
literal interpretation of scripture loses every encounter. Then those
who continue to insist that religion retains lost ground begin to
sound more desperate and absurd in the secular world. Scientists feel
little need to go on arguing points that they feel that they have won,
like natural selection. Some scientists like Richard Dawkins continue
to wave the victory in the faces of the religious defeated, but there
is no scientific need for them to do so.
Polkinghorne said that the universe looks like a ‘put up job’. If the
pull of gravity was fractionally greater than it is, the universe
would compact into a hard ball; if less, it would scatter like vapour.
It has to be just right if you are to have solar systems and planets.
Look at the Earth. Without a wobble in its revolutions there would be
no seasons and without seasons no cycle of nature. Without our
unstable crust there would have been no volcanoes and we would be a
ball of ice, but the instability has to be just enough to allow life,
not enough to destroy it.
So, what is the scientific answer to the perfect ‘just-rightness’ of
this universe for life? One answer, seriously put forward, is that
there are millions of failed universes, or universes that turned out
differently, and that this is the one that by chance is just suited to
us. That explains our survival agains the odds.
In other words, the answer is a call to faith in the existence of the
unknowable; the sort of thing that religious people come up with.
The difficulty in this debate is that both the religious and the
scientific contenders have cranks on their side; adamant Christians
who think the Bible tells them everything they need to know and ardent
rationalists who fantasise that the job of explaining the universe is
complete.
What about an exhibition at the Ulster Museum that acknowledges the
mystery of our being here as mortal but self conscious beings in an
unlikely universe?
Would Nelson be happy with that?
I suspect he would want to see models of humans hunting dinosaurs, but
it is easy to deny him myths for which there are no evidence.
But just because we have a crank for a culture minister doesn’t mean
that the unexplained universe shouldn’t enthrall us.
And some smarty pants in the museum is bound to agree that a serious
discussion of intelligent design theory would tick the right box to
get Nelson off his back.

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A few private thoughts will have circulated among churchmen and their
critics when the news came through on Tuesday night that Cardinal Sean
Brady had been rushed to hospital.
Those who love and defend the Cardinal, as many do, will have worried
that this was the outworking of the pressure put on him by media
manipulators and scandal mongers who have never understood the
Catholic church or known what a good man he is.
Others will have thought, more deviously; Isn’t this convenient?
At 70 the Cardinal does not look like a spry and durable man but he
climbed the pilgrim mountain Croagh Patrick just a few years ago and
he may have a more robust body under that black suit than is suggested
by his ambling manner.
He is not due to retire until he is 75 but an early retirement on
health grounds might be the best diplomatic response to the pressure
on him to resign.
In 1975 Fr Sean Brady, as he then was, administered an oath of secrecy
to young people who had been abused by the horrific Brendan Smyth.
Smyth was one of the most prolific predators on children to have
emerged from a church that has, we now know, never been short of the
type.
Cardinal Brady told his congregation on St Patrick’s Day that he would
take the season of Lent to reflect upon his position. That now extends
to Pentecost. Other bishops similarly tainted by their association
with inadequate episcopal procedures for curtailing paedophiles –
usually by shifting them to other parishes – had offered to stand
down.
Brady was heartened that his congregation applauded him and he said
that we wanted to consider whether the church still had a place for a
wounded healer, comparing himself to St Patrick.
If this seemed not the right tone for a man who was conceding that he
had done wrong, few in the pews seem to have been offended.
One of the concerns of many Catholics in Armagh is that Sean Brady is
being reviled for doing what any other priest of his standing at the
times would have done, he followed the instructions of his bishop, to
whom he had sworn obedience.
Another concern is the old rivalry btween Dublin and Armagh over who
leads the Irish church. Armagh is proud to be the seat of the Primate
and to have a primate who is a cardinal.  Some would worry that the
centre of gravity of the irish church would shift south and that the
historic ecclesiastical capital would lose it shine.
And in Dublin there is an archbishop who now makes a more credible
case for himself as a champion of the new clean up in the church.
Of course, the church is making such a botch of presenting itself as
more concerned to protect children than to preserve its good name,
that it can not be safely assumed that men like Archbishop Diarmuid
Martin will prevail anyway.
After the publication of the Murphy Report, disclosing the scale of
abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin last year, the church had seemed
ready to accept radical change.
Since then it has made a series of horrific mistakes.
The pastoral letter to the people of Ireland from the Pope himself
plainly dismissed the claim that the application of canon Law had been
part of the problem. It said that Canon Law had simply not been
properly applied.
So it was still, in his eyes, the job of the church to punish
paedophile priests, though the state should be deferred to in its
‘areas of competence’.
The latest smug riposte was the drivel from Cardinal Bertoni in
Brazil, suggesting that child abuse was more likely to stem from
homosexuality than celibacy.
Other senior churchmen have maintained the line that the church is
under attack from the media.
One said last week that he had heard the persecution of the church
compared to the persecution of the Jews.
The men who would be the moral leaders of the whole world may preach
the parable of the mote and beam but many appear not to have grasped
its meaning.
And this deepening defensiveness within the church comes in the run up
to a papal visit to the UK.
And anger is growing there, so much that it seems unlikely that the
Papal visit can proceed without protest.
Gays will not accept that they are more likely to rape children than
are men who commit themselves to living celibately for God.
And the legal case that the Pope is himself answerable for the cover
up of abuse all over the world now seems strong enough to warrant
testing if there was a court he could be brought before.
In all of this, there must be many in the church who realise that the
only way to prove good intention and a proper sense of moral
responsibility is to sacrifice a sacred cow.
And there he goes, striding the holy hills of Armagh, fit as a sandboy
but succumbing to pressure.
They may hope there are medical grounds for prompting him to make a
dignified stand down. On the other hand, they may be starting to
realise that sacking him out right would be the better face saver.
More likely they will do nothing, for this is a church as frail as the
dim old men who lead it, men unfit for clear action or moral courage,
hobbling through every crisis.

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I saw this protest outside the church of St Nicolas in Nantes last week, March 13. The Catholics on the church steps were conducting a service around an icon, the protesters were objecting to Catholic teaching on abortion and women’s rights, and the police were in the middle.

You can hear both the protest chanting and the prayers in this clip below.

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A humanistic view of marital infidelity would ask if both partners should take responsibility for one of them wandering. Lucky Peter Robinson; he gets his wife to take all the blame and then forgives her on national television.

Here’s a piece I publish in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph:

Part of the indignity for Iris Robinson is that her disclosures about
an affair contrast with an image which she has presented of herself as
a morally assertive and sexually prim woman.
There have been sexual infidelities in other political families in
Northern Ireland that have not brought people to the extremes of
attempted suicide and public confession.
The striking thing about the confessions we heard last night is that
no clear motive for them was made plain.
Peter Robinson said that part of the motivation was to end speculation
that his personal problems and recent absence from public life were
grounded in illegal financial dealings. And it is clear that he now
wants the media to stop investigating the affair that Iris had.

Spotlight on Spotlight

The Spotlight programme on BBC Northern Ireland has said that it is
still waiting for answers to a series of questions put to the
Robinsons. Presumably, a good result for Peter and Iris would be that
the planned Spotlight programme would be pulled. The Spotlight team
are now faced with the suggestion that humiliating Iris with further
disclosures would be bad for her mental health, and might cost her
life.
If there is any more to the First Couple’s desire to make this
heartrending public confession, other than to morally constrain
Spotlight, then it is perhaps indicative of a naivete about the rest
of the world’s expectations of them.
Iris, in particular, presents herself as almost legalistically religious.
At the time she was having her affair she was pontificating in the
media about the ‘abomination’ of homosexuality.
She brought heaps of grief upon herself over that whole argument.
She was ridiculed in much of the media and lampooned as a ridiculous
hate figure, most colourfully on the Gay Pride parade through Belfast.
Yesterday, on social networking sites, Iris was being traduced as a hypocrite.
It is hard to escape the sense that her own sexual frailties would not
have brought her such pain had she not succumbed to the fantasy that
she was pure and holy enough to dictate right and wrong to others.
You get a flavour of that smugness in the interviews she gave to
writer Lorraine Wylie three years ago for a book described as ‘An
Intimate Portrait’.
The book included accounts of life lived almost as a soap opera. One
memorable yarn recounts how the Robinsons got so sunburned on holiday
that they couldn’t put clothes on over their tender skin and set up an
arrangement whereby Iris would order room service from under the
bedclothes while Peter hid naked in the bathroom. The outworking of
that, as told in the book, was that Peter ‘glowing like a Sellafield
fish’ misheard his cue to come back into the bedroom and presented his
full glory to the waitress.
Iris also wrote of her fury at the vicious rumours about her marriage
and her husband. She said, ‘it never ceases to amaze me what
imagination can conjure up. I’ve heard my husband accused of
everything from infidelity to domestic abuse and even murder.’
The initial impact of the disclosures on last night’s news appears to
have been highly sympathetic.

God and Conscience

Journalists who were present when Peter Robinson made his statement
were clearly deeply moved by it.
Some will have been reading backwards to the extraordinary flashes of
temper from him in the past year and perhaps concluding that these are
more intelligible against the background of marital stress. And
religious people will note that both Iris and Peter emphasised the
power of God and conscience in their lives. It was guilt which drove
Iris to an attempt at suicide; it is the conviction that God himself
has forgiven her which consoles Peter.

And it is not only sexual indiscretion which Iris has owned up to.

The statement says that she provided financial support for her lover and encouraged others to as well.

But if they talk sometimes as if they are not quite human themselves,
they certainly appear a lot more human to the rest of us now.
Sexual infidelity is human. The grief of a betrayed spouse is human.
And it is human to plead in extremis for mercy from an investigative
media which might drag out the pain, even if it does not unearth more
dirt.
For Iris, now, political life is at an end.
This is a tragedy for someone who was a gifted parliamentary performer.
Sometimes the focus of her interest appears to have been punitive and
moralistic. A reading of the questions that she has asked in
Westminster over recent years shows a primary concern with the
treatment of prisoners and particularly of sex offenders.
She enjoyed politics. There was something almost exultant in the wrath
which she turned on Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in the assembly
and others. Being married to Peter Robinson may have been a political
advantage to her but it may also have carried considerable benefits to
him too. She seemed to soften him a bit. She was one of the more
colourful and intriguing characters. Life will be much more
embarrassing at church and among her own circle now that it is clear
how human and ordinary she is, but there are people who will like her
the better for it.
The other question is whether her marriage to the First Minister will
survive. He himself says that is not guaranteed and it may be that  he
was suggesting that the decision is still more with her.
She described her depressive illness as ‘personality changing’.
If she stays with Peter and accepts his forgiveness and can be happy
there, well and good.
If she moves on, and casts off some of that prissy conviction that she
flaunted so lavishly before, then who knows what she might be?
A potential embarrassment to the party if she no longer feels bound by
loyalty to it?
A wiser better person if she will let herself be ordinary and
vulnerable without feeling the need to expunge your own life when the
ardent facade breaks?
Or will she go into some kind of shameful purda?
Well, now that wouldn’t be the Iris we know at all.

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