Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Educating Peter

Sunday's Gospel follows directly on from last week's account of the establishment of the Petrine commission and Peter's great statement of Faith in Jesus as "The Christ, the Son of the Living God". [1] Yet in the space of a week (or a paragraph in the text), Peter had gone from being called "blessed" to being addressed as "Satan" and told to "get behind" Jesus [2]. In my experience, the spiritual life can often be like this - one moment you feel rewarded in the security of your Faith, the next you are confronted abruptly by your sinfulness.

The context for Christ's rather stark words to a man upon whom he has chosen to build up his Church is His own revelation regarding the nature of His commission:

From then onwards Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.

Peter's response is not something gravely offensive but born rather of his great love for Christ:

Then, taking him aside, Peter started to rebuke him. 'Heaven preserve you, Lord,' he said, 'this must not happen to you.'

Jesus' reply however leaves Peter with no room for ambiguity in his understanding of both the essence of His mission and the error of Peter's judgement:

But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do.'

Finally, he indicates that those who wish to follow him will be required to make sacrifices:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me'.

In many ways this discourse is a microcosm of the Christian life. Professing Jesus as the Christ is perhaps the easiest aspect of Faith - surrendering to His Will and accepting "His Way" with the crosses that may follow is far more difficult. In Peter's case, I can perceive three possible and related sources to his refusal to countenance Jesus' predicted suffering: compassion, expectation and fear.

Compassion is a noble sentiment but as Jesus' rebuke makes clear, it can be an obstacle if cripples our capacity for making difficult choices. Many Catholics who dissent from Church teaching often have their reasoning rooted in compassion and it is all too easy for us to criticise them when we ourselves lack the same inner turmoil. As compassion has its root in something fundamentally good, we should have patience with those who consequently struggle with particular aspects of Church teaching, always hopeful that a deepening of Faith will allow them to accept the crosses that bearing witness to that teaching will entail.

Peter's love for Jesus was surely genuine but maybe at this stage of their relationship he had certain expectations which were devastated by Christ's revelations. To a man who believed the Messiah would reign in glory, talk of grievous suffering would have come as a terrible shock. It would have been perfectly natural for Peter to have expected some reward for his faith and instead he has been told that he would not only have to watch his friend suffer and die but that he too would have to take up a cross. We may often feel that our Faith entitles us to better "rub of the green" but any cursory look through scripture will reveal that this simply is not so. In fact, the deeper our Faith, the more will be asked of us.

Peter's compassion is a truly human response but it is a response given according to his fallen nature. Nobody wishes to see a friend suffer and most of us will go to any lengths to avoid it but suffering and how we deal with it is an integral part of what it is to be human because none of us can escape it. As a society, we are terrified of suffering and it is this fear which can be an obstacle to right judgement and an excuse for moral shortcuts. We don't like to be reminded of it and either subconsciously or by design hide it away, particularly when it begins to impinge on our moral sensitivities. Old people are forgotten in nursing homes, the mentally ill are segregated in hospitals, the homeless and destitute are abandoned on the streets. Eventually, we might begin to wonder what we might or should do when quality of life outweighs this suffering and the terminus of such thought is that it is better to end that life. Abortion and euthanasia are frequently justified on the grounds of compassion where individuals are judged to be incapable of attaining a quality of life that outweighs their suffering or the suffering they might cause to others.

Without a salvific understanding of suffering, our fear of it is understandable. It is only Christ's sacrifice on the cross that gives it any meaning and we are called to believe that God allows suffering for a greater good. This purpose may be inscrutable to us we can either trust in God as a loving Father and to make what we can of suffering or give ourselves over to despair. As Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in Salvifici Doloris, "In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. … Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ." [4]

[1] Mt 16: 16 - 20
[2] Mt 16: 21 - 24
[3] http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/08/a-catholic-reflection-on-the-meaning-of-suffering
[4] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris_en.html

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Red Card: Tina Beattie

Tina Beattie gets a Red Card
On Wednesday, The Guardian published an article by Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University entitled "Pope Francis has done little to improve women’s lives" in which she claims "Women do not seem to have a place in the pope’s vision of a Catholic church that cares for the world’s poor people". [1] Professor Beattie's article appears to be a vehicle to demonstrate her perfectly liberal rejection of Catholic teaching on abortion and contraception, justified as a solution to the appalling maternal mortality rate in the world's poorest countries - laying the blame at Francis' feet appears to be ploy for headlines rather than a serious accusation. 

Professor Beattie lambastes the lack of discussion of maternal mortality in official papal encyclicals but one suspects she is being disingenuous in this accusation as a Professor of Catholic Studies should know that papal encyclicals do not directly address specific issues in such a manner. There are no papal encyclicals on AIDS, drug abuse or alcoholism but one cannot conclude that the Church has no position on theses issues nor does anything to try and alleviate them. Sure, she may not address these issues in the manner a liberal minded Professor would like but she has a stance on them nonetheless. Likewise, the church addresses maternal mortality through the prism of it's social and moral teaching and it's encyclicals on motherhood, marriage and the family and economics. Professor Beattie suggests that "the international community must focus on poverty alleviation and the education and empowerment of women and girls, not only because justice demands it but because it has been shown to be the most effective way of tackling the population crisis". As the Catholic Church plays a vital role in the education and care of women in most poor countries throughout the world and has consistently worked towards the alleviation of poverty and an end to exploitative economics, it is disappointing that Professor Beattie did not choose to constructively engage with those aspects of it's mission.

I don't know enough about Professor Beattie to know if she is a Catholic - one does not need to be one to be a Professor of Catholic Studies but one would assume it might help [2]. Aside from the subject of maternal mortality, the major issue her article raises for Catholics who wish to remain loyal to the authentic teaching of the Church is how to deal with such prominent cases of Catholic dissent. Professor Beattie's case is particularly pressing because of her status, her position and her platform. @themunimentroom has suggested that given the censure of protectthepope.com, "it's up to everybody reading this to give it the widest possible dissemination.  Let's make sure our Hierarchy knows what Professor Beattie thinks!". [3] Such dissemination won't do any harm (and maybe this post will contribute to that end in a small way) but given Joseph Shaw's analysis of how like minded bishops within our hierarchy appear to handle dissent, it seems unlikely to do any good. [4]

Though I had reservations about the way in which Deacon Nick pitched his articles and don't think he did himself many favours in the way in which observed his "period of prayer and reflection", I recognise that protectthepope.com was fulfilling a very useful purpose in making challenges to the authentic teaching of the Church known to those who would wish to defend it. [5] Whilst not exactly a conspiracy, I do believe that parties in addition to Bishop Campbell brought about it's censure. Such a recognition of role of Protect the Pope however is a rather damning indictment of our own hierarchy, theologians and educators. Surely it is their vocation to "be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks [us] to give an account for the hope that is in [us]" [6] and to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God"? [7] True, some bishops have spoken out on themes such as the redefinition of marriage but it is rare that an individual is taken to task for propagating dissent in an official capacity.

And so, it is left to ordinary Catholics to challenge dissenting Catholics like Professor Beattie. We may not be able to do so directly but if we encounter the effects of their influence in the people we meet, we may just be able to "give account for the hope that is in us". As Blessed John Henry Newman says we should be a  laity "not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity; I am not denying you are such already: but I mean to be severe, and, as some would say, exorbitant in my demands, I wish you to enlarge your knowledge, to cultivate your reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism" [8]

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/aug/27/pope-francis-womens-lives-catholic-church?CMP=twt_gu
[2] Google suggests she is a "British theologian, writer, broadcaster and practicing Catholic" https://www.google.co.uk/?#q=Tina+Beattie
[3] http://ttonys-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/professor-beattie-rides-again.html
[4] http://www.lmschairman.org/2014/05/protect-pope-double-standards-part-2.html
[5] http://lucascambrensis.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/some-observations-on-protect-pope.html
[6] Peter 3:15
[7] 2 Corinthians 10:15
[8] http://www.newmanreader.org/works/england/lecture9.html

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Catholicism and Depression

Jesus at Gethsemane
On Tuesday, the world woke up to the news that depression had claimed the life of another well loved celebrity. Robin Williams will forever be remembered as a unique and madcap talent, famous for critically acclaimed films like The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, Insomnia, Good Will Hunting, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Awakenings but also for crowd pleasers such as Mrs Doubtfire, Aladdin and Mork and Mindy. Whilst his genius clearly lay in comedy, his acting credits included a range of characters from the psychotic villain of One Hour Photo to the fragile but sympathetic psychologist of Good Will Hunting. It might seem ironic that someone who brought fun and laughter to millions should take their own life but Robin Williams had been battling with depression and drug and alcohol abuse for some time. Perhaps like many, laughter and comedy was a means of keeping the darkness at bay. [1]

Though death, particularly in tragic circumstances, can sometimes lead to somewhat effuse, superfluous hyperbole in eulogy, it appears that Williams was a generous and kindhearted man who was loved by his friends and family. [2] The Beatles suggested that "All you need is love" but that simply is not true. You also need Faith and Hope. People who do decide to take their own lives may no longer have faith in other people or believe that no-one has faith in them. They also do not hope for something better or beyond their suffering.

Sometimes, it is hard to accept depression in a Christian framework. If one is a practising Christian, fully convinced of God's love for them and the complete triumph of Christ on the Cross, what is there to fear? Is depression just a sign of a lack of Faith? Some Christian traditions appear to take this approach seemingly ignorant of Christ's own mental anguish (he was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" and wept at the death of Lazarus [3]) and the whole tradition of lamentation evident in the Old Testament. "While research shows that some believers can be more resistant to depression... it is also true that some approaches to religion can be associated with higher rates of depression and emotional problems. When evaluating the power of belief to protect against emotional problems, the research seems to show that the question isn't "do you believe?" but rather what do you believe, how, and why?" [4]

The Catholic Church has not always had a complete understanding of suicide because previous generations had little understanding of the psychological causes and impact of depression - it was therefore always analysed in purely spiritual terms. Depression does not leave a person completely devoid of freewill, inexorably fixing them on the path to suicide nor can one overcome it by force of character, joyful obstinacy or a rigorous prayer regimen. As Simcha Fisher suggests, "Many people who are severely depressed are suffering from some combination of spiritual and physical ailments... they are dealing with some things that are out of their control and some things that are within their control... they need sacrificial love and patience from friends and family, and also some kind of hard work and self-knowledge in order to make it through the dark times."  [5] In short, depression is best treated through application of Faith and Reason:

My son, when you are sick do not be negligent,
but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you.
 Give up your faults and direct your hands aright,
and cleanse your heart from all sin.
Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice, and a memorial portion of fine flour,
and pour oil on your offering, as much as you can afford.
And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him;
let him not leave you, for there is need of him.
There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians,
for they too will pray to the Lord
that he should grant them success in diagnosis
and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.
He who sins before his Maker,
may he fall into the care of a physician. [6]

Suicide is contrary to the Fifth Commandment and contrary to justice, hope, and charity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbour because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God." [7] It was often believed to be the one sin for which one could not be forgiven because suicide was committed against Hope and the Holy Spirit - the giver of life [8]. For this reason, those who had committed suicide were often denied a Christian burial.

In the Catholic understanding, particular condemnation is reserved for those who encourage suicide as a viable social norm because all life, regardless of how humanity perceives it's value, is precious to God. This view also takes into account the salvific potential of suffering when united to Christ's passion, death and resurrection. "If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law." [9]

Today, the Church understands that as a person needs to be in full control of their faculties to bear the full responsibility of a sin, the gravity of suicide can be mitigated by its circumstances as "grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide." [10] It also actively encourages the faithful to pray for those who have died in such tragic circumstances: "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives." [11] For those who are curious, the Patron Saints for those suffering with depression and anxiety are St Jude and St Dymphna whilst a specifically Catholic outlook on depression can be found in The Catholic Guide to Depression by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Msgr. John Cihak. [12]

Robin Williams' death is a tragedy devoid of blame or endorsement. It has brought out the voyeuristic worst in our celebrity obsessed culture and media [13] and the downright loathsome abuse of those in grief for a man they loved as friend, husband and father [14]. Christ has taken all suffering offered to Him through his passion, death and resurrection and transformed it - maybe in the manner of his death Robin Williams can convince some who need help to find it, just as they may have found solace in the manner of his life on screen. 

May choirs of angels come to greet him and speed him to paradise. May the Lord enfold him in His mercy. May he find eternal life.

The Resurrection

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-28753326
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-28751241
[3] John 11: 33 -35
[4] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithonthecouch/2014/08/dealing-with-depression-getting-the-right-kind-of-help-matters/
[5] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/simchafisher/2014/08/13/faith-reason-depression-and-help/
see http://lifelibertyandcrap.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/guest-postdepressed-catholics-god-wants-you-to-get-help/ also
[6] Sirach 38:9-15
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2281
[8] Mt 12: 31
[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2282
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid, §2283
[12] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/372068/getting-free-interview
[13] http://www.themediablog.co.uk/the-media-blog/2014/08/robin-williams-newspaper-coverage.html
[14] http://mashable.com/2014/08/13/zelda-williams-quits-twitter/

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Attending an Old Rite Latin Mass

On Sunday July 20th, I attended my first Latin Mass with The Confraternity of the Holy Cross at The Sacred Heart in Morriston, presided over by Father Jason Jones, with a congregation of ten or so.

The Altar
I deliberately did no preparation for the Mass so that I might be better able to gauge the differences and relative accessibility of the different rites. What I have to say here is based solely on my perceptions; I'm sure I'll have Old Rite devotees tearing their hair out so I ask them to forgive me!

In general, I found the experience very interesting though I have to admit that I was surprised that even for someone who has attended the New Rite Mass their whole lives (and very much enjoys that rite in Latin), I was often unsure what the priest was doing and how I was supposed to respond. I was totally reliant on recognisable "anchor points" like the Agnus Dei or elevation of Blessed Sacrament. Alas, my GCSE Latin is even rustier than I thought.

I was also surprised to find out that the old rite uses a different set of readings - I knew the liturgical calendar was different but had assumed the Sunday readings would at least be the same. Come to think of it, I don't think the same first reading, psalm, second reading, Gospel format was used either.

The Role of the Priest

One of the most striking differences I perceived between the two rites is that of the role of priest. Though I know that in essence, the role exactly the same, the difference in how I perceived that role was quite striking. For most of the Mass, I felt that the priest was performing his duties quite separate from the congregation, as if I was looking from without through a window. Only when he turned to address us did I seemed to be pulled into the Mass. It is not something I have ever experienced with the new rite even though I am fully aware of the necessarily differing roles of the priest and the laity. I was also quite surprised that many of the prayers which are said by the whole congregation in the new rite are reserved exclusively for the priest in the old.

The priest also uses a different set of gestures and performs certain prayers from different positions on the sanctuary, the purpose of which I was ignorant.


The old rite Mass has numerous silent periods which far exceed the duration of those in the new. I find the silent periods in the new rite Mass of critical importance and get exceedingly irritated for example when a hymn is sung immediately after Communion. With the old rite however, I was unsure how to use the periods of silence. Was I supposed to be praying the prayers I thought the priest was praying or was I free to pray as I wished?

It's Mass Jim, but not as I know it

My overriding impression from attending Mass with the Confraternity of the Holy Cross is that unless one is fluent in Latin, it is imperative to do some research before attending an old rite Mass in order to better understand and pray it. As such, it may be a greater barrier to an "average non-Catholic Joe" who walked off the street compared to the new rite.

I came away from The Sacred Heart more intrigued and curious than spirituality uplifted but I hope that curiosity will eventually lead to spiritual reward as I learn more about what many people insist is a gem of Church tradition.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Spoiling for a vote

Today I exercised my democratic right by spoiling my vote for the elections to the European Parliament. To register my disapproval, I chose to adorn my ballot with a picture of R2D2 and C3PO and the caption "these aren't the candidates we're looking for". I have long since felt disenfranchised by the British political system and I feel little enthusiasm for the European Union.

With regards to Europe, I have no problem with immigration, especially for humanitarian purposes, provided there is a robust screening process which protects our country from people who would seek to harm it. Indeed, I think many European countries have a better social structure than Britain and I have the faint hope that they might help improve our own. I don't see however why any British sovereignty should be held by Brussels - the larger an institution, the more bureaucracy and inertia it creates. I might feel different if I thought the ruling powers of Europe were better than our own but, from what little I have read, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I find your lack of faith disturbing

The importance of voting was drummed into by my grandfather to whom the right to take part in a democracy seemed intrinsically linked with the sacrifices of the two world wars. I suspect this is the case for most of my grandfather's generation, especially as one considers than universal suffrage would have been a new phenomenon for their parents.

My voting habits will always be informed by my faith for as the Catechism suggests, "by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will... It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and maybe to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer." [1]

As a consequence, issues of social justice, religious freedom and morality are of greater importance to me than the economy, though I recognise that the latter often has direct consequences to the former. When I was first able to vote, despite some reservations, the Conservative Party seemed to be the closest match to my conservative social tendencies but voting in such a fashion in a first past the post electoral system is an exercise in futility in South Wales. 

In the present, all the mainstream political parties ascribe to the liberal social and moral juggernaut which inexorably quashes opposition thought if not yet quite by de jure then certainly de facto. The family, the bedrock of society, has been economically and ontologically undermined by successive Labour and Conservative governments, religious freedoms fall foul to so-called equality legislation and faith itself is being forced to resign from the public sphere. If the liberal elite have any courage in their convictions, logic dictates that they must confront religious beliefs at odds with their own not just in public but also Church, Mosque, Synagogue and Temple. Liberality should work both ways but many who march under it's banner only seem interested in taking what they can, while they can, actively seeking confrontation, rejoicing when another opposition voice is forced into silence. Such people would do well to remember the advise of Plato "the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery [arises] out of the most extreme liberty".

It's the economy stupid

Personally, I feel that the greatest single contributing economic factor to the current social malaise is exorbitant house and rent prices. The exponential growth of the cost of housing in proportion to the average wage is a social evil. It ties up the majority of our country's earnings in the hands of a few interested parties (mortgage lenders, banks, estate agents, property portfolios) and perpetuates their strangle hold over society. High housing costs locks up capital which would otherwise be spent across a wide variety of industries, thus increasing commerce, creating demand and consequently more job opportunities. It puts greater pressure on the state to provide benefits for those struggling to afford to keep a home of their own, it forces both parents to work to the detriment of family life and also impinges on the quality time they have to spend with one another.

To my mind, a narrow focus on the economy with little consideration for ethics, is leading the country to ruin. We appear to be stuck in an endless cycle of boom and bust, perpetuated by a moribund political system and established elite: Labour get elected and spend money in a completely irresponsible manner; the Conservatives get elected and then enact sometimes draconian cuts which favour their traditional support base. Successive generations of those caught between an ever diminishing political spectrum are alienated during each round of voting and history repeats itself. The result I fear shall be a larger, more desperate and radical body with no natural political home.

To whom shall we go?

Thus we have a conundrum : Men must be governed. Often not wisely, I will grant you, but governed nonetheless. [2] Politics, as a rule, is one of my least favourite topics. I find it very difficult to watch Question Time and debates from the House of Commons, saturated as they are with brinksmanship, points scoring and waffle. I can therefore offer very little by way of alternative suggestions to governance which might dissuade me of my apathy and cure our social ills. In an ideal world, we would be governed by just men and women who took decisions based on what was right and not politically expedient but such dreams are pure fantasy. I wonder if rule by Privy Council was that dissimilar in outcome from our current democracy? Perhaps Churchill was right, the best we can say about democracy is that "it is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried".

And yet, through our vocation to participate fully in the Kingdom of God in temporal affairs, we are called to exercise God's own authority, delegated to us according to the capacities of our own nature. "The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence." In this regard, I do not envy our politicians! 

Man, as a political animal, is bound to be restless. As St Augustine says however, "Our hearts are restless, until they rest in God". 

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 898
[2] Captain Jack Aubrey, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, 2003
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1884

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Within 25 years, this Church will be a Carpetright

One of the parishes I attend from time-to-time has recently had a new parish priest. As I hadn't attended mass there since before Easter, I didn't know how he was settling in and what sort of man he was.

It just so happened that the priest had decided to give a "state of the nation" type homily at the mass I attended and it was very interesting to watch the reaction of the regular parishioners, especially as his last words were "Within 25 years, this church will be a Carpetright".

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I should begin be stating that I do not believe the parish priest has a hidden Carpetright agenda. To the best of my knowledge, he doesn't hold any shares in the company nor is he related to any of the executive board of directors. Truth be told, I don't think even Carpetright would want the building as it is a stark and uninspiring edifice, typical of the penchant for liturgical iconoclasm present in the church architecture of the nineteen sixties. Think Liverpool Cathedral on a smaller scale. Thankfully, parish life does not mimic this structure as I have always found it to be a relatively active and welcoming community. 

In making this rather alarming statement, the parish priest was placing the potential fate of the parish in the context of declining mass attendance in Menevia which, according to his homily, has seen a 25% reduction since 1986.

And now for something completely different...

The homily which preceded the closing statement largely concerned the renewal of parish life and it brought up some interesting considerations regarding the nature of the relationship between the priest and the community.  These considerations were precipitated as it seems that since the old parish priest had left, the new parish priest had been inundated with requests to reverse previous policies which had probably been in effect for almost 10 years. Thus the parishioners asked for the reintroduction of the May Procession and the restoration of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima to a side chapel. The parish has a long memory.

In responding to these requests, the priest iterated that his primary role was to "preach the word of God" and that he would not let anything prevent him from doing so. He also intonated that he was averse to any model of parish life which prevented the "welling up of the Holy Spirit" in the faithful, especially as to do otherwise would leave the community at the disposition of "the skills, temperament, interests and energy of one man".

As an exemplar, he alluded to the first reading for the day from the Acts of the Apostles where the Hellenists made a complaint against the Hebrews, suggesting that their own widows were being overlooked in the distribution of alms. The Apostles responded

"It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom; we will hand over this duty to them, and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word." [1]

The priest therefore suggested that the parishioners form groups and get on with things themselves. He would be more than happy to attend each group from time-to-time when his involvement was necessary.

Opinion Poll

I'm not quite sure how the parishioners took this homily. As I looked around, there were a few quiet exchanges and furrowed brows. Interpretted in one light, the homily could be taken as a rather damning indictment of the previous parish priest who I know was greatly loved by many parishioners. From another, it could be considered to be a radical empowerment of the laity who were to act when "the spirit moved them". Knowing how fractious parish life can be with it's various power groups and invested interests, that might be a recipe for disaster. What if "the spirit" prompts some groups into hetrodoxy?

What also are we to make of the priest's desire to "restrict" himself to "preaching the word of God"? The examples he gave regarding the reinstitution of the May procession and statue of Our Lady of Fatima seem a little strange in this context as I would suggest that liturgy is one of the primary means in which the Word of God is expounded. Is it not the duty of the priest to foster Faith by making the sacraments freely available and by promoting devotion amongst his parishioners?

I suspect the answer to these questions lies in the partnership between the parishioners and the parish priest, each using the charisms appropriate to their role. The priest is delegated authority by the bishop and is charged with guiding his flock, preserving them from error and nourishing them in Faith. He is also the servant of the parish, called to respond to the unique needs of people under his care. The laity are called to "seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will". [2] Together, as a parish, both priest and laity are initiated into "the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ's saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love." [3]

I look forward to my next visit to the parish to see how things have progressed.

[1] Acts 6:1-7
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §898
[3] Ibid, §2179

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Francis Effect

Resigned to Resignation

I will always remember the morning of 11 February 2013 as one of wildly varied emotion. It started like any other day at work; I'd just got my mid-morning cup of tea and, as was my habbit, I was going to read the Football Transfer Gossip column on the BBC. When I went to the BBC News page however, what I saw filled me consternation - the idiots at the BBC who couldn't get anything right when it came to Catholicism were reporting that Pope Benedict had resigned!

It was only after checking several other websites that I finally had to admit that I had been witness to two unprecedented events: the BBC had reported a story on Catholicism correctly and Pope Benedict had indeed announced his resignation.

After I accept the reality of the resignation, I am afraid to admit that my first sentiments were those of betrayal. I felt that someone who I dearly loved had abandoned me to great uncertainty. It was as if a magnitude 7 earthquake had shook the foundations of my faith, an indication of the great personal investment I had made in the papacy. I sent exclamatory text messages to Catholic friends seeking solace and understanding.

After riding the initial shock, the second emotion I felt was great sadness. As I looked at the pictures of Pope Benedict been streamed by the BBC, I saw a frail and somewhat failing man and this renewed my faith. If Pope Benedict was resigning, being a man of great integrity and intellect, then it would be for the good of the Church.

As I watched the final moments of Benedict XVI's papacy on television on 28 February 2013, this overriding feeling of sadness remained. As he waved his goodbyes from the balcony of Castle Gandolfo, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a good friend who was moving away, never to be seen again.

Habemus Papam

So it was on 13 March 2013 I came to be watching my second Papal election announcement. I'd gained some kudos in work for suggesting Cardinal Ratzinger would succeed Pope John Paul (more wishful thinking than serious conviction) so when the announcement was made in Latin, I had no difficulty recognising who had been made Pope. With the election of Pope Francis however, I had absolutely no idea who George Bergoglio ("Dominum Georgium Marium Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Bergoglio") was.

A cursory look however at Wikipedia and a few articles from various news websites such as the Telegraph [1] filled me with optimism and hope. Our new Pope appeared to be a humble but charismatic man, a resolute defender of church teaching who was deeply concerned with social justice and unafraid to tackle the status quo. In short, he appeared to be the perfect man to ensure that "the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously [2]" and to tackle the most pressing challenges of the Church: reform of the Curia, the preservation of an authentic Christian voice in western society and governance and the continued development of a robust policy to deal with and eradicate abuse perpetrated by its members.

Failure to communicate

It has been almost a year and a month since Pope Francis was introduced to the world as he stepped onto the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica and the most enthusiasm and hope I felt has evaporated leaving confusion and doubt, emotions I am unaccustomed to be subject to when considering the papacy.

My main concerns can be summarised as follows:

1) Mixed Messages

 When one examines Francis' speaches and off the cuff remarks, one could be forgiven for thinking they have two authors. I appreciate that the media has a bias towards reporting stories which they feel will promote their own liberal agenda and seem to have a concerted policy to play Francis off against Benedict * but for every story which appears to show Francis robustly defending church teaching, there is another which casts doubt upon it.

2) Careless Talk

Pope Benedict was very careful with whatever he said but even that didn't ensure that he was (sometimes willfully) misunderstood (e.g. Regensberg and condoms). Pope Francis by constrast seems unnecessarily garrulous, unaware that every word he utters will be dissected and interpreted by all manner of interested parties. What are the consequences of Pope Francis' oratory style? "Who am I to judge?" [3] is fast becoming the banner of dissent (See Fr Z for a plausible take on the phrase [4]) and poor Fr Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, is having to release statements stating that personal and pastoral telephone conversations between the Pope and the faithful do not consistitute an official operation of the teaching authority of the Church. [5]

3) Papal Amnesia
Francis' seemingly careless talk appears to be a consequence of what I believe is an ultimately misguided approach to the Petrine office. As Pope, Francis has frequently referred to himself as Jorge Bergoglio or Fr Bergoglio, as if he can divest himself of his office and then take it back up again. [6] It's possible that in trying to do so, he is forgetting that as Pope, he is no longer dealing with a parish but the worldwide Church. 

Francis has also chosen to favour the appearance of humility over papal custom in his dress (no read shoes or mozzetta) and his desire not to live in the papal apartments. Though humility in office is of course to be lauded, Francis actions are being viewed as a criticism of his "lofty" predecessors [7] and a rejection of church customs which are meant as signs and symbols to the faithful. If Pope Francis appears to undermine the traditions of the papacy, he runs the risk of attempting to be head of the Church via the cult of personality rather than received office.

4) With friends like these

One can often tell much about an individual by the friends one keeps so it is rather alarming that the man dubbed the "Pope's theologian", Cardinal Kasper, is at odds with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. [8] Likewise, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the President of the Synod of Bishops who is charged with arranging the Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization has supported Cardinal Kasper's stance on liberalising Church teaching on remarriage and communion. [9] There's even a suggestion that our own equivocating and faithful bishop blocking Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has the ear of the Pope. [10] Ches over at the Sensible Bond has also noticed a rather worrying intervention in the election of Bishop McMahon as Archbishop of Liverpool, another man who favours altering Church teaching on marriage, divorce and the Eucharist. He goes so far as to suggest "nobody should be in any doubt now about where Pope Francis wants the Church to go on this issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried". [11] At least Papa Benedict still hangs around the Vatican.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

I readily admit that the misgivings I have regarding Pope Francis could be totally without merit in fact. I am, after all, making my observations largely through a media lens which I have stated to be unreliable.

Perhaps there is a method to the Pope's actions? He's certainly got everyone talking - maybe he wants all the cards on the table in order to better prepare the Church's pastoral response to the problems of our age? The recent questionnaire on the family which preceeds the Extraordinary Synod on  the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization maybe an example of this policy. If so, the outcomes of the synod should allow Francis to definitely nail his colours to the mast. James Preece certainly hopes so [12].

Likewise, Francis' Council of Cardinals is also beginning to bear fruit. The first tentative steps towards reforming the much maligned and mired Vatican Bank have been taken and the "C8" will soon wade into the marshland of the Curia. [13]

It seems therefore there is hope after all! Francis hasn't changed one iota of Church teaching or promulgated any new developments of doctrine. 

Maybe the real root of my concern is my own lack of Faith?

Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram ædificabo Ecclesiam meam, et portæ inferi non prævalebunt

Sts Pope John XXIII & Pope John Paul II, Pray for Us!