Author: Thomas G. Casey SJ
Publisher: Messenger Publications
Wisdom at the Crossroads: The Life and Thought of Michael Paul Gallagher SJ follows the journey of this gifted Jesuit priest, theologian, author and educator from the simplicity of an Irish rural childhood to the more complex world he soon encountered. That changing world prompted him to think deeply about the question of faith in our times, the effects of a shifting culture on our perceptions, and the challenge of unbelief and atheism as it manifests itself today. It illuminates Michael Paul’s rare gift – both in personal conversation and in the written word – of helping people to move from a detached consideration of faith to an awareness of what was deepest in their own hearts, for it was from that hidden layer of wonder that he believed the journey of faith could unfold.
The early part of the book covers the first forty years of Michael Paul’s life. This includes a description of his hometown of Collooney in Co. Sligo which the Jesuit was able to recall most vividly upon a return visit with Italian friends many years later. He attended Clongowes Wood College SJ in his early years and studied at UCD and in Caen, France, as a university student. After entering the Jesuit novitiate, Michael Paul studied poetry in Oxford and philosophy in London. Some of his other key experiences during these years included lecturing and further studies; the Charismatic Renewal; work in Kolkata; and the formation of young Jesuits.
Later, Fr Gallagher’s direct dealing with unbelief is explored culminating in the Jesuit’s first and most famous book, Help My Unbelief, aimed at readers who were bewildered at why God was becoming so unreal for them. He continued to write many books including Faith Maps which outlined how three dimensions of faith – the institutional, the critical, and the mystical – correspond to the three ages in life – childhood, youth, and adulthood. He pondered where people were at in terms of the dimensions and ages, encouraging them to ask searching and critical questions about their faith.
Michael Paul loved the culture of the theatre and cinema, but more importantly he appreciated culture as ‘the set of meanings and values that informs a way of life’. In this regard, he spent a year in Latin America where he befriended a seminarian named Eliseo who showed him that faith was not a private matter between God and himself; it was something that was alive in a shared way. Furthermore, although Michael Paul didn’t personally experience Irish Catholicism as repressive, he was aware that for many people of his generation it was associated with a petty vision, confined largely to external rules and narrow moralism. He was in touch with the culture of the people.
Of the seven chapters in this book, it would be worth referring to the sense of wonder in chapter five. Michael Paul loved to communicate the experience of wonder, the ‘ah’ experience to his many students. The author notes that he had a disarming gift for helping people to reach the threshold of wonder in their lives. On one occasion, Fr Gallagher spoke with a former student who struggled to believe in a God who was out of touch with his new passion for science. As the conversation continued, the former student began to think that he wasn’t as far away from faith as he had imagined. He began to wonder about faith in a fresh way, a way that hadn’t been possible when he was very young. Such was the gift of wonder that the Jesuit passed on to others.