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

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!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Canonisation: A New Hope

Do not be afraid!

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam! Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum, Dominum Carolum Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem Wojtyła, qui sibi nomen imposuit Ioannis Pauli

I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope! The Most Eminent and Reverend Lord, Lord Karol, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Wojtyła,
Who takes to himself the name John Paul.

On October 16th 1978, thirteen months before I was born, the world was introduced to Pope John Paul II. In a time of uncertainty both within the church and among nations his first words rang out: "Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!". Almost thirty six years later on April 27th 2014, almost one million people crammed into every nook and cranny of Saint Peter's Square and it's surrounding streets to bear witness to the canonisation of man who inspired a generation of Catholics to love Christ and His Church. I was one of the faces in the crowd; Pope John Paul was and is my hero. I am still afraid, but he gives me hope.


My first memories of Pope John Paul II are of a kindly looking man, dressed in white, with a beaming smile. I was three years old when he made his historic visit to the United Kingdom and I believe these early impression were formed by the pictures I saw on television and the portraits hung in my church and home. He reminded me of my grandfather, Bampa Sid, another of my heroes who gave me hope and lived his life with a thoughtful and infectious smile. This resemblance was to last a lifetime, even to the end: Pope John Paul suffered from Parkinson's Disease and my grandfather suffered a stroke but neither lost that winning smile.

Life; but not as we know it

As a child, I gradually became aware of my identity as a Catholic. I was fascinated by the stories in the Gospel and tales of the saints; my Faith was nurtured both and home and in school; God, the Angels and the Saints were my friends. From time to time I would see Pope John Paul on television as he emerged from a plane, kissed the ground and embraced the people who had come to meet him. It was some how reassuring to know that he was out there, representing us and letting people know all about Jesus.

As I grew older, the feelings I had regarding God, the Angels and Saints became more fleeting but I was always able to remember that I once had them, even if I never experienced that childlike conviction. I began to embrace Christ and the Church with my mind, finding a source of great beauty which gave answers to the questions posed by the human condition. I became a student and disciple of Pope John Paul, listening to him as he encouraged us to develop a relationship with the risen Christ through his Church and the sacraments.

As a student, I became profoundly aware of the brokenness of the human condition in a personal and social sense. I found solace in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, the only thing which gave meaning to what I observed in myself and the world. I was deeply struck by the witness given by the Pope in his teaching on morality and social justice and his example in taking up his own cross as he suffered with ill-health. In August 2000, I was fortunate enough to attend the Jubilee of Students, my first visit to the Vatican and Rome. I still recall the sense of wonder and awe the whole trip invoked within me; seeing Saint Peter's Basilica and piazza for the first time and feeling that I was home, descending into the Scavi to view the tomb of Saint Peter, drinking in the history and culture of the Church. My fondest memory however was getting a glimpse of Pope John Paul at a general assembly of students. The auditorium was silent as we eagerly anticipated his arrival. Slowly, the large doors opened and through it stepped a frail man, supported by a stick and two aides on either side. As the cheers went up, Pope John Paul seemed to gain strength, he left his aides behind and raised his stick above his head with both hands as he proceeded to encourage us to love Christ and build up his Church. Since that day, Pope John Paul II and Yoda have been inseparable in my mind.

As an adult, the actions, teachings and example of Pope John II accompany me on my pilgrimage through life. Besides his charismatic leadership and great witness of Faith, perhaps his greatest gifts to the Church are the Feast of Divine Mercy, the Catechism and selections of his writings which are beginning to evolve into a comprehensive Theology of the Body. I remember the sadness I felt at his death on April 2nd 2005 but I could not begrudge him his final rest - just like Yoda, he had earned it. The only Pope I had ever known was dead but in death as in life, he gave me hope.

Santo Subito!

So it was that on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27th 2014, I came to be half way up the Via della Conciliazione with four friends, surrounded by pilgrims from Poland, France, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Lithuania, Japan, Sardinia, Lebanon, the Ivory Coast, China, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Uruguay, The USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Portugal, Belgium and Ukraine (as evidenced from a sea of flags) at 5am, 5 hours early for Mass. I had been fortunate enough to pray the rosary at the tomb of Blessed Pope John Paul and the Divine Mercy chaplet at Santo Spirito in Sassia the day before for friends and family and now, slightly squashed and rather tired, I was attending a unique event in the history of the Church - the canonisation of two popes, St John XIII and St Pope John Paul II in the presence of two popes, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

The actual rite of Canonisation occurs immediately before the Gloria and my friends and I found it to be extremely moving. Three petitions are presented to the Pope on behalf of the Church beseeching that the candidates be recognised as saints. The Pope responds to each petition by offering his own prayers to implore God's blessing. At the end of the second petition, the Pope invites the faithful to invoke the power of the Holy Spirit through the singing of the Veni, Creator Spiritus. Finally, the Pope pronounces the canonisation formula:

For the honour of the Blessed Trinity, the exultation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother Bishops, we declare and define Blessed John XVIII and John Paul II be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints, decreeing they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [1]

Despite the early start, the cramped conditions and invasion of personal space, the whole event was one of heartfelt joy and celebration. There is something quite ethereal in the realisation that you have something in common with every single person in a crowd of one million people. Pope John Paul II had brought the majority of us together and though most of us were unable to speak to one-another in words, we were able to communicate via the sacraments, a common witness and our smiles.

"Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!"

I will always be a sinner and I am still afraid but I hope than one day, I will put aside my fear and rather than have them slightly ajar, I will open wide the doors to Christ.

Saint Pope John Paul, Pray for Us!


Friday, 2 May 2014

Some Observations on Protect the Pope

The Brewing Storm

In the last few days, the saga surrounding the silencing of Deacon Nick of seems to have come to an end. Last week, Deacon Nick announced that Bishop Campbell of Lancaster was disinclined to acquiesce to his desire continue blogging and that consequently, was to shut down. Most supporters of the blog were outraged by this decision and many took to Twitter or the blogosphere to vent their frustrations. Fueled by slightly obfuscating tweets from Deacon Nick, rumour and counter-rumour threatened to turn the swell into a storm as the saga went international [1].

Personally, though I questioned the tone of the articles on as perhaps lacking in due compassion, I believed it to be a necessary tool in a media driven world and was impressed by it willingness to engage with open dissent [2]. As such, I thought the decision to prevent Deacon Nick from blogging was outrageous but that it was useless to speculate on the motivation behind it as the details were, understandably, not forthcoming from either party.

In the absence of a definitive reason for the silencing of Deacon Nick, open criticism of Bishop Campbell was beginning to build as commentators questioned the motives behind the censure of a blog which was ostensibly faithful to Church teaching. Today, Bishop Campbell finally responded, issuing a definitive statement which he hopes will put the matter to rest [3].

Statement of Intent

Bishop Campbell's statement appears to have been written by a man rather irked by its necessity. In this, he may share an affinity with Fr Federico Lombardi who is having to deal with the fallout surrounding Pope Francis' phone calls. Again, in an increasingly communicative world, I suspect Bishops will be spending far more of their time dealing with the media.

In his consideration of, Bishop Campbell brings attention to a shift in its objective from "a defence of Church teaching from those outside the Church to alleged internal dissent within the Church" and suggests that it came to see itself as a "doctrinal watchdog". Bishop Campbell's primary reason for insisting that Deacon Nick refrain from blogging appears to be the tone of his articles, stating that they were becoming increasing ad hominem and personal in their focus. He was also concerned that though Deacon Nick was blogging in a private capacity, the Diocese of Lancaster would be implicated by association.

I'm not totally convinced that has a particularly ad hominem bent (which I would classify as being up personal details tangential to the matter under discussion) but it certainly engaged with dissenting individuals in addition to broad concepts.

Bishop Campbell goes on to iterate that he made several requests to Deacon Nick to refrain from ad hominem and personal challenges to "individuals in the Church of opposing views" before requesting that he observe a "period of prayer and reflection upon his position as an ordained cleric with regards to Protect the Pope and his own duties towards unity, truth and charity". He also laments that what was to remain a personal dialogue between a deacon and his Bishop was made public and then "misinterpreted by third parties".

Two Pennies

I have two main trains of thought at the conclusion of this saga. The first is that it is all to easy to get caught up in the swell without giving due consideration to what conclusions can actually be drawn from the facts at hand. Given the contents of the statement and my own reservations regarding the tone of, I believe that Bishop Campbell's actions were not unreasonable, especially given repeated requests for moderation. Though Deacon Nick did refrain from blogging, one may question the wholeheartedness of this submission as he frequently alluded to his suspension and retweeted support for his cause, some of which was provocative enough to undermine the position of Bishop Campbell.

I believe that Deacon Nick is an erudite, intelligent and perceptive individual; a faithful Catholic who loves God and the Church. I am sure that he will continue to support the Church in his office as Deacon and I hope, in time, he will be able to do so in the media.

My second observation concerns, as Bishop Campbell puts it, "internal dissent within the Church... the writings and sayings of individuals, that is, of bishops, clergy and theologians". If Bishops won't engage with these individuals and they prevent clergy, deacons and religious from doing do, what are the faithful to do?

Monday, 24 March 2014

Give me a drink...

We are family...

In recent months, following the announcement of an Extraordinary Consistory on the Family, Cardinal Kasper has suggested that the Church might consider permitting second marriages and the admission of individuals in a second marriage to Holy Communion [1]. The Cardinal's comments were born of a genuine crisis in the pastoral mission of the Church as the family, the bedrock of society and image of the Trinity, experiences an identity crisis provoked by the incredible pressures placed upon it by modern life. It was this recognition that prompted Pope Francis to call the consistory and to take a "pastoral census" on issues related to family life. Indeed, the crisis and the fundamental importance of the family was recognised by Cardinal Sodano as he opened the the consistory:

"The family nowadays is regarded with disdain and maltreated, and what we ask for is recognition of how beautiful, true and good it is to form a family, to be a family today; how indispensable this is for the life of the world, for the future of humanity." [2]

Holding back the tide

It appears that many within the Church want to submit to the onslaught against the family, recognising its denudation as a fait accompli, establishing in the process a new moral and pastoral basis from which to proceed.

Take for example, Bishop Terence Drainey of Middlesborough who has suggested that the consistory should consider a "radical re-examination of human sexuality that could lead to a development in church teaching in areas such as contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage and cohabitation". [3] Such comments appear patently contrary to Scripture, Tradition and the teaching of the Church but that need not be an insurmountable obstacle if you write for the Tablet which laments the inadequacy of God's plan for the human condition, incredulously suggesting that "the Church has based its teaching about sex, marriage and family life on biblical revelation and natural law... that approach has manifestly failed". [4]
Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce is made clear in the Catechism [5] which bases its understanding on Jesus' own words: "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder" [6] and "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." [7]

On the issue of Communion for remarried divorcees, the comments of Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood usefully summarise the dissenting position where he suggests "provisions could be made for those Catholics [remarried divorcees] to receive the Eucharist in the same way that non-Catholic Christians are permitted to share Communion." [3]

Again, the Catechism rules out this possibility as the civilly remarried "find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law... they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists". [4] As Pope Francis has alluded to, this teaching is not meant as some form of punishment - it is based on the reality of Eucharist itself - the body and blood of Christ. St Paul warns us, "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord". Those who must refrain from the Eucharist for whatever reason are actually paying testament to the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ, a sacrifice which may obtain for them the graces they require to overcome that which necessitates their abstention.

Wishing Well

Cardinal Kasper's comments are not wholly without merit. He gets to the crux of the issue when he juxtaposes the Church's teaching on marriage with its understanding of hope and mercy: “The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage and the impossibility of a new marriage while the other partner is still alive is part of the binding tradition of the faith of the church and cannot be abandoned or dissolved by appealing to a superficial understanding of mercy at a discount price” at the same time, "there is no human situation absolutely without hope or solution” [3]. How are we to achieve a balance between the two?

As always, the answer lies in the person and attitude of our Lord, conveniently put forward in the Gospel of today where He meets the women at Jacob's Well. [8] Jesus begins the encounter by asking the woman for a drink, and uses it as a pretext to reveal himself as the Living Water. The exchange between Jesus and the woman is extraordinary because it reveals the depths of his mercy - he recognises that the woman is a sinner and elicits in her a desire for salvation; when it is she who should be asking him for a drink, Christ's request is an invitation to serve Him. As Jesus gradually allows the women to see who He is and to understand that He is the source of salvation, He also encourages her to confess those things which are obstacle to her, namely the fact that the man she is with is not her husband. Indeed, it is Jesus' knowledge of this that partly convinces the woman of his authenticity - where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

The Church has a clear duty to the pastoral needs of those who, like the woman at the well, find themselves in situations which offer a potentially significant impediment to their salvation. This cannot however be at the expense of truths which are at the very heart of the Faith and the wellspring of that salvation. Jesus did not spurn the woman - he was willing to spend time with her and to help her with her doubts and difficulties. Like Christ, we have to be patient and do whatever we can can to encourage others to respond to his invitation, recognising always that we too are sinners, subject to the same reliance on grace and mercy.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1650
[6] Mark 10:9
[7] Matthew 19:9
[8] 1 Corinthians 11:27
[9] John 4:5-42

Friday, 14 March 2014

To whom shall we go...

This is in tolerable
The scene is set in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus has just taught his disciples that He is "The Bread of Life". We pick up the narrative :
"When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?... The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?' [1] And Jesus said to them "In the future, men shall be able to go to your successors, to lament my teaching and they, desiring a quiet life, will heed their cries, silencing those who offend with my teaching".
Silence of the lambs
This as yet undiscovered passage sheds light of the rather troubling news that a prominent Catholic blogger, Deacon Nick Donnolly of, has been asked to refrain from blogging and observe a period of prayer and penance by his own bishop, Bishop Campbell of Lancaster. [2]
I am all for bishops constructively disciplining errant members of their flock but Deacon Connolly's analysis of events, if sometimes rather brash and perhaps lacking in the compassion which would be required for authentic dialogue, is right out of the pages of Catechism. Under Holy Obedience, Deacon Donnolly has rightly submitted to the request of his Bishop and I hope that in time, he will be allowed to continue his posts.
As I understand it, was set up prior to the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK as a bulwark to the nonsense which was being reported in the media regarding the Pontiff. After the visit, it expanded it's brief somewhat to cover issues of dissent across the whole church, becoming in the process a sentinel for many who self identify as traditionalists. 
A read through can be a rather depressing foray into Catholic blogging. The nature of its remit doesn't leave much room for posts which will enrich one's spiritual life (unless one is inclined to wax lyrical about the ordinariate or Extraordinary Form Mass in the comments section) and it does have the unfortunate tendency to foster a self-satisfied orthodoxy amongst its readership. For all these shortcomings however, I unfortunately recognise that given the current climate of dissent from church teaching, the blog does fulfil a purpose (I say unfortunately because divisions within the Church are a terrible blight on its mission to evangelise). The battle for future of the Church is increasingly being played out in the media and those faithful to the authentic teaching of Christ need voices that understand the terms of engagement.
The Usual Suspects
As Deacon Donnolly spends his time in prayer and reflection on his enforced gardening leave, his treatment is all the more galling as it is difficult to imagine a dissenting blogger being dealt with in a similar fashion. I recognise that the care of souls sometimes requires that the reeds blow in the wind but we have to stop short of breaking those reeds if the totality of the Faith is to be preserved and observed. Groups like ACTA (which include clergy) who are openly pursuing causes of dissent, thus undermining the teaching authority of the Church, appear to be given free reign in many diocese.
The Church will gain nothing by making accommodations on issues of dissent with the world. The world cannot reciprocate as it nothing to offer which could possibly ameliorate the loss of the Church's very identity. The more the Church acquiesces, the less relevant it will become, indistinguishable from a thousand other well meaning but ultimately impotent institutions - a vision of the Church which Pope Francis' has rejected as inconsequential NGO. 
[1] John 6: 60

Thursday, 21 November 2013

God's gift and Man's best friend

Last month I sadly lost one of my best friends. We'd been inseparable since I was 16, regularly going for walks in the parks and on the beaches around Swansea, playing in the garden after school or work, staying up late to watch Match of the Day or to pray the rosary. He was often the first to greet me in the morning and the last to say good night before I went to bed. When I was sad, he cheered me up. When I was stressed he helped me to relax. When I was in pain, he helped me bear the burden. When I was happy, he shared my joy. When he passed away, I sobbed for a good hour and though I have nothing but happy memories of our time together, I feel the loss most acutely in the little things. I can no longer expect to see him strolling up the drive to meet me after work or to literally chew the bacon on a Saturday morning nor can I pay him a visit when I'm troubled and can't sleep. His name was Buzz and he was the best of buddies.

Buzz in his prime
I get an immense amount of spiritual consolation from the natural world, be it in marvelling at the grandeur of the cosmos, the intricacies of the laws of physics, a beautiful panorama or amazing animal. This appreciation is so strong that for me, it is an irrefutable proof of God's existence. It is a grace which is not given to all but without which I may have struggled in my Faith. "Credo ut intelligam",  "I believe that I may understand", as St Anselm says.

Some of my favourite stories about the saints include their interaction with animals. St Francis is well known for his great love for nature and this love was expressed most beautifully in his Canticle of Creation, Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Saint Francis' inspiration for the canticle was undoubtedly Daniel 3:57-88, one of my favourite bible passages, where creation itself is called upon to worship the creator:

And you, sun and moon, O bless The Lord,
And you, the stars of the heavens, O bless The Lord,
And you, showers and rain, O bless The Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise forever.

The "Fioretti" or "little flowers" of Saint Francis, a collection of hagiographical stories on the life of the saint, are filled with anecdotes of his interaction with creation. My  favourite tales include the story of the Wolf of Gubbio who Francis convinced to protect rather than terrorise the local village by shaking its paw, a dance to music supplied by crickets and a sermon to the birds. The Franciscans have retained Francis' fascination with nature in their art and culture and I am reminded of a beautiful Franciscan Church in Rome (the name escapes me, as do the pictures I took of it) which has frescoes of the Stations of the Cross which depict animals tending to the wounds of Christ as he moves towards Cavalry. I like to think that we were originally designed to have a far deeper relationship with nature and creation but that bond has been damaged by the spiritual turmoil which ensued after The Fall. Saints like Francis offer us a glimpse of how we might have been, better able to interpret the natural world and act accordingly.

Buzz and Brother Snarf
One of the first things I remember studying as part of my Theology & Philosophy A-Level was St Thomas Aquinas' teachings on matter and form. We looked at the difference between anima or spirit and a rational soul and marvelled at the vagarious implications for the created order. For example, plants have spirits (which maybe why my father talks to his tomatoes and why children play with food) and each angel is effectively its own species. Contrary to received wisdom and with great concern, we learned that according to Aquinas, All Dogs Do Not Go to Heaven as this was the dwelling place of rational souls worthy of the beatific vision.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that "the seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity." [1] To put it briefly, the whole of creation is designed to give glory to God and serve mankind in its earthly existence. Man's dominion over nature is evidenced in the Genesis creation stories where each animal is brought forth to be named by Adam but this dominion is not inalienable - creation belongs first and foremost to God and Man's dominion therefore includes a duty of stewardship. The Catechism tells us that "God surrounds animals with his providential care" and that by their mere existence, they are able to bless and give Him glory. A dog can be no more or less a dog; it fulfills its nature of doginess perfectly. We therefore "owe animals our kindness" and it is "contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly". [2] It is however possible to anthropomorphise animals to such a degree that it undermines both human dignity and the dignity of animals within the created order. It is truly exasperating to see people treating animals like human babies or children. It is certainly possible to love animals without directing the kind of affection which is properly due to people.

So where does this leave Buzz? We do not know what the New Heaven and the New Earth will look like but we do know that the bodily resurrection applies only to those rational souls who have died in Christ. I like to think however that in the resurrection, we shall take with us all that is good in this life, having shed all that is bad. This would certainly include my memories of Buzz and the "good" of creation itself. Perhaps there is hope too from the Book of Revelation which describes the heavenly liturgy where "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea...", cries out: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour, glory and power, forever and ever"[3] Maybe Buzz is sharing a truce with the glorious postmen of heaven, praising God before his throne. Failing that, I'll just imagine he is happy chasing squirrels in Elysium. I wonder what he will do if he ever catches one?

Buzz enjoying the snow

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Catholic Church, 2415
[2] ibid, 2416-2417
[3] Revelation 5:13