Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Year for Consecrated Life: No to "temporary commitment"

A blog post at The Tablet for the beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life suggests that a form of temporary participation in religious life should be offered alongside the permanent commitment that is the traditional form of such life in the Church: Commitment-shy young people need mini tasters of consecrated life.

Bishop Hugh of Aberdeen has observed that, since Vatican II, one area of the Church's life that has not shown a great flourishing is that of the religious life. The Year for Consecrated Life certainly provides an opportunity for those who live other vocations in the Church to gain some experience of consecrated life, perhaps by spending some time with religious communities or sharing in the apostolic activity of such communities. One impact of the decline in religious life has been that a typical parish now has little or no visibility of religious in the day to day life of the parish - and so young Catholics grow up without any direct experience of consecrated life. So, not only might the lay faithful spend some time in an experience of religious life, but also religious might make a particular effort during this year to be more visible to the Church at large.

But is the kind of "temporary commitment" suggested in The Tablet blog post really the way forward?

Louis Bouyer observes in the Preface to his book The Meaning of the Monastic Life (with my italics added):
The purpose of this book is primarily to point out to monks that their vocation in the Church is not, and never has been, a special vocation. The vocation of the monk is, but is no more than, the vocation of the baptized man. But it is the vocation of the baptized man carried, I would say, to the farthest limits of its irresistible demands. All men who have put on Christ have heard the call to seek God. The monk is one for whom this call has become so urgent that there can be no question of postponing his response to it: he must accept forthwith.
And Pope Francis said something similar in an interview, cited in the letter from the Congregation for Institute of Consecrated Life linked above (again with my italics added):
“It is a question of leaving everything to follow the Lord. No, I do not want to say ‘radical’. Evangelical radicalness is not only for religious: it is demanded of all. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. It is this witness that I expect of you. Religious should be men and women able to wake the world up.”
Can this evangelical radicalness admit of a temporary response, a temporary commitment to consecrated life?

In two complementary essays in his book Elucidations, first published as long ago as 1971, Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that the evangelical counsels so characteristic of consecrated life are the form in the Church of a decisive act of discipleship, a decisive choice to follow Jesus Christ:
But nothing has been said about the attitude of the man who gives himself....[The counsels] mean discipleship, not only material, but above all, spiritual discipleship. They mean precisely and centrally our total offering of ourselves to be disposed of by the Lord, just as he puts himself totally at the disposition of the Father's will.
And in an essay entitled "Temporary Christians", von Balthasar challenges explicitly ideas of temporary commitment in marriage, in the priesthood and in religious profession:
For here the very basic act of the Christian life is put in question, namely that God in Jesus Christ can dispose of a man's life once and for all and that this man is enabled to ratify that act of God's disposing. 
Recognising that the Church might by way of dispensations free those who might otherwise break under the demands of a task they have taken on; and recognising that "temporary vows" or first profession exist as a step towards a final and complete consecration; von Balthasar nevertheless argues that, if the permanence of the commitment in the Christian life of discipleship ceases to be the expected norm in favour of the "limiting cases", then it is all up for the essence of such discipleship.
The fear of lifelong decision gnaws today at the marrow of the life of society, most dangerously in the Church. Perhaps young people speak about commitment so much today because they are frightened of the "once for all" character of decision. They seek refuge in provisional commitments which for their limited period are meaningful (a spell of work in overseas development), which hold open the possibility of changing over to something else later. They imagine that they are being serious about it but in truth, a truth which is hidden to them, they are only flirting like half-virgins who have all kinds of experience but not the decisive one: namely, that of finally giving oneself...
.... ultimately what stands behind these three programmes, "temporary marriage", "temporary priests", "temporary vows", is the unsaid "temporary Christians"....
 [It is interesting to see in this essay how vividly von Balthasar compares the commitment of man and wife in marriage to what is to be expected of commitment to consecrated life.]

There will always be those who start out on the way of religious life, with every intention of persevering, but who do not stay the full course and leave before permanent consecration. Some might even try several times, and in different institutes. This kind of temporary participation in consecrated life there will always be.

But it is quite different than the acceptance in principle of "temporary commitment", of commitment that knowingly and deliberately from the beginning is going to be temporary. The kind of temporary commitment that undermines the authentic decision for Christian discipleship, not just for the religious, but for the lay faithful too.

Whatever initiatives are undertaken during the Year for Consecrated Life to make such life better known and lived in the Church, they should avoid any encouragement of a sense of temporary commitment as the norm.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Pope Francis speaks to Europe

The early BBC news reporting of Pope Francis' address to the European Parliament is utterly woeful - even to the extent of suggesting the figure of 200 years as the extent of the Christian influence on Europe rather than the 2000 years that appears in the full text. Presumably some correction, and fuller reporting, will follow in due course, but I would not rely on it.

Read the complete text: Pope Francis’s address to the European Parliament in full. I think it will reveal a side to Pope Francis that many have not wanted to recognise. Not for the first time, I have read Pope Francis and been reminded of Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (and this happens before you even look at the footnotes). This is Pope Francis in an absolute line of continuity with his immediate predecessors. Do read the whole, because it is only then that you can really appreciate the import of any small extracts you will see in news reporting - even the extracts below, which I offer in the expectation that they will be missed out of most media reporting:
Men and women risk being reduced to mere cogs in a machine that treats them as items of consumption to be exploited, with the result that – as is so tragically apparent – whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, it is discarded with few qualms, as in the case of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb....
The family, united, fruitful and indissoluble, possesses the elements fundamental for fostering hope in the future. Without this solid basis, the future ends up being built on sand, with dire social consequences....
A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul and that “humanistic spirit” which it still loves and defends.
Taking as a starting point this opening to the transcendent, I would like to reaffirm the centrality of the human person, which otherwise is at the mercy of the whims and the powers of the moment. I consider to be fundamental not only the legacy that Christianity has offered in the past to the social and cultural formation of the continent, but above all the contribution which it desires to offer today, and in the future, to Europe’s growth. This contribution does not represent a threat to the secularity of states or to the independence of the institutions of the European Union, but rather an enrichment. This is clear from the ideals which shaped Europe from the beginning, such as peace, subsidiarity and reciprocal solidarity, and a humanism centred on respect for the dignity of the human person....
The absence of mutual support within the European Union runs the risk of encouraging particularistic solutions to the problem, solutions which fail to take into account the human dignity of immigrants, and thus contribute to slave labour and continuing social tensions. Europe will be able to confront the problems associated with immigration only if it is capable of clearly asserting its own cultural identity and enacting adequate legislation to protect the rights of European citizens and to ensure the acceptance of immigrants. Only if it is capable of adopting fair, courageous and realistic policies which can assist the countries of origin in their own social and political development and in their efforts to resolve internal conflicts – the principal cause of this phenomenon – rather than adopting policies motivated by self-interest, which increase and feed such conflicts. We need to take action against the causes and not only the effects....
 And the concluding paragraph:
Dear Members of the European Parliament, the time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values. In building a Europe which courageously embraces its past and confidently looks to its future in order fully to experience the hope of its present. The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well. A Europe which contemplates the heavens and pursues lofty ideals. A Europe which cares for, defends and protects man, every man and woman. A Europe which bestrides the earth surely and securely, a precious point of reference for all humanity!
UPDATED: Pope Francis' address to the Council of Europe - also well worth reading in full - is here: Pope Francis’s speech to the Council of Europe in full. I must admit to not having yet fully understood the notions of "multipolarity" and "transversality", but I am going to make sure I do within the next few days!

See also the following recent addresses by Pope Francis, which have not received as much attention as they might have done (Aunty is right again!):

Address to Participants in the International Colloquium on the Complementarity between Man and Woman

[And Lord Sacks' address to the same colloquium: In full: Lord Sacks speech that brought Vatican conference to its feet .]

Address to Participants in the Commemorative Conference of the Italian Catholic Physician's Association

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Church we are in

Introduction

Writing in 1935, in the interval between the First Vatican Council and the Second, Dom Anscar Vonier wrote in the Foreword to his book The Spirit and the Bride:
I have noticed with a feeling of pain how several recent books by Catholic writers of fame make a distinction that is a surrender to Protestant feeling between an ideal Church and the real Church. Being themselves very orthodox Catholics the writers in question abound, of course, in their encomiums of the beauty of the Church conceived ideally. But after that they seem to gloat on the Church's human infirmities, piling it on and letting the Protestant have it his own way with his century-old fault-finding. Different, indeed, was the mentality of the Vatican Council [ie the First] which considered the Church in her actuality to be a testimonium irrefragibile, a "witness that cannot be gainsaid", of her divine mission: The Church, through herself, on account of her admirable extension (propagationem), her exceeding sanctity (eximiam sanctitatem), her inexhaustible stability, is a great and everlasting motive of credibility and a witness to her divine mission that cannot be gainsaid (Vatican I, sess, III, cap. 3,7).
The Council means, of course, the actual living Church, not an ideal, or a mere system of the means of sanctification. To say the least, it is very bad taste on the part of a Catholic to represent Catholicism as a divine religion and to speak of Catholics as having been the world's worst sinners.... The eximia sanctitatis, "exceptional holiness", which the last of the General Councils perceived in the Church is the true portrait of what exists.
In a subsequent chapter entitled "The Great Metaphors", Dom Vonier insists that the titles used of the Church in the Scriptural writings of St Paul and of Revelation refer, not to an "ideal" Church of some kind, but to the actual living experience of the Church in the immediately apostolic period.

There is a limited parallel to the quoted passage from Vatican I in the constitution Lumen Gentium of Vatican II (nn.39-40, my italics added to draw out the parallel):
....in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: "For this is the will of God, your sanctification". However, this holiness of the Church is unceasingly manifested, and must be manifested, in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful; it is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others...
Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.....  In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the passage from Vatican I, though with slight difference in translation compared to Abbot Vonier (n.812), referring to the historical manifestations of the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the Church as speaking clearly to human reason of the truthfulness of her mission. Hans Urs von Balthasar, in a passage of The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (p.196 ff in the Ignatius Press translation), suggests the figure of Mary as the point, theologically speaking, where the temptation to divide the Church into "ideal" and "earthly" realities is overcome.

Abbot Vonier was speaking to a very different ecclesial context than the one that pertains today; and clearly he was not denying the human frailties that must have been as much present in the Church of his time as they are in the Church of our own time. (If the Church of our own time has offered sorrow and repentance for failings of the past, then so to has the Protestant ceased from using those failings as an argument to denigrate the Catholic Church.)

But it is of value, I think, to take Abbot Vonier's fundamental insight - that there is no distinction to be made between a Church "ideal" in its faithfulness to Christ and a Church "real" in the vagaries of its earthly life - and use it to reflect on the Church during the papacy of Pope Francis.

Reform-minded Catholics

As an example of the movement that self-identifies as a "reform movement" in Catholicism we have ACTA. On 25th October 2014, they held a national conference at Liverpool Hope University. One of the talks was entitled "Remarriage and the Eucharist - after the Synod". You have to dig down to page 10 of the text on the ACTA website (it is the talk by Fr Buckley) to find the suggestion that indicates just how far away from an authentically Catholic position it is (my italics added):
....we have been willing to accept that we understand more about the psychology of human relations and therefore the possibility that the bond of marriage may not have been validly formed for many more reasons than hitherto thought possible, but we don’t seem willing or able to question a theological notion that has tied us up in knots and leaves us with little or no room for manoeuvre. If we are willing to accept the judgement of a tribunal on whether or not an indissoluble bond was formed, why can we not also accept that the very fact that two people subsequently become totally estranged and unable to live out their marriage commitment is itself a sign that the bond was never properly formed? I fail to see how such a judgement would mean that we had abandoned our belief in the sanctity and permanence of marriage. It would simply acknowledge that there is much that we will never know for certain on this earth, in spite of our best efforts.
Unfortunately, and somewhat inaccurately, Fr Buckley has earlier in his talk given the impression that Pope Francis appears to support his position, even though I am not aware of any suggestions that Pope Francis would accept the idea that marital breakdown is sufficient evidence for invalidity of the original marriage:
..... I sense that more and more people’s instincts now lead them to conclude as I did that the official position simply doesn’t add up and it is a relief to find that it would seem that the Pope himself thinks likewise.
It is Professor Mary Grey's comments on the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood - see pages 5-6 of the text of her talk at the ACTA website - that reveal how far she is from a truly Catholic position:
.... some Roman Catholic women of great courage have sought to authenticate their own call to ordained ministry. One group is the well publicised ordination on a boat on the Danube in 2002. These pioneering women are referred to as “The Danube Seven”. This event was swiftly followed by excommunication from Rome, even though technically speaking, the ordinations might be reckoned as valid. Dramatic consequences ensued: nine further women sought ordination in the Roman Catholic Church on July 25 2005, in the international waters at the mouth of the St Lawrence Seaway (known as the St Lawrence Nine). Two other women Catholic theologians, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria, and Gisela Forster of Germany, now bishops, came to the St Lawrence River to ordain these women. Other ordinations have followed, and now, as WOW (Women's Ordination Worldwide) attests, there are increasing numbers of women being ordained and practising ministry especially in the United States...
Fr Tony Flannery's blog reveals something of the extent of this latter development in posts during his tour of America: here  and here. Elizabeth Scalia posted recently on Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger here.

Traditional Catholics

But equally absurd in its distance from being an authentic Catholic position is the following, commenting on Archbishop Nichols pastoral letter after the October 2014 Synod on the Family (my italics added):
.... it makes for incredibly concerning reading in the wake of the Synod. Cardinal Vincent Nichols uses some striking language that prompt more questions over the 'mind' of Pope Francis and the safety, in his hands, of the Deposit of Faith.
 Or this, from the same source:
To Muslims, Jews, Evangelicals and other religions, Pope Francis has only good things and words of encouragement to say (though actual pagans could be offended by recent remarks).
Yet, I am beginning to wonder whether he believes in and prays to the same God as Cardinal Burke and many others. Where is the "fraternity" and "brotherhood" for those who uphold the Magisterium and defend Church teaching from pagans and the 'enemies of the Cross of Christ'? They don't seem to be terribly welcome in Rome.
Sitting in the background to these more explicit comments is an array of more discretely expressed antipathy towards the papacy of Pope Francis, which appears very rational and mature, until recognised as an incessant carping that undermines the office of the Successor of St Peter. Some blogs have a greater discretion than others - compare Fr Ray to Eponymous Flower, for example - but nevertheless maintain the same line of thought. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote many years ago of an "anti-Roman attitude" or "anti-Petrine attitude" on the part of some Catholics. It is difficult to read the Traditionalist blogs today without being reminded of such an attitude.
 
Elizabeth Scalia has written tellingly of how both the Traditionalist and Reform-minded in the Church are creating idols of Cardinal Burke on the one hand, and of Pope Francis on the other.
It takes conceit to imagine that the Holy Spirit is not to be trusted, does not know what it is about, and needs the instruction and exhortation of liberal writers to sustain a direction — or of traditionalist bloggers to “turn the course” — of an event like the recent synod.
Yes, one might want to support the position of Cardinals Burke, Pell et al with regard to the controversies of the recent Synod (or, if one is so minded, the proposals of Cardinal Kasper), and to do so with the energy that questions of faith will prompt. But when the former are given adulation at the expense of the Office of Peter and the latter excoriated as encouraging the Church to accept mortal sin; or Pope Francis is adored for incorrect assumptions of radical change to come; then we are in the realm of idols in Elizabeth Scalia's sense of the term.

A conclusion: the Church we are in

To return to the reflection based on Abbot Vonier's notion that the Church should not be seen as divided into an "ideal" and a "real", but exists as a single entity whose beauty and holiness shine out to the world. If we look around us during the papacy of Pope Francis, we see the Church that we are in, and some of it - perhaps more on the reform-minded side than on the Traditionalist side - appears pretty far off the wall. But if we take Abbot Vonier's insight seriously, there is an abiding beauty and splendour that is there in all of it. And we need to trust that it is there and that it does still shine out.

The touchstone of that shining out is, as it has ever been, the office of the Successor of Peter. Nothing is to be gained by excoriating - or mis-representing -  its holder.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Giovanni Battista Moroni at the Royal Academy

Another visit that Zero and I managed during half term was to the exhibition of paintings by Moroni at the Royal Academy.

The exhibition divides itself in two, with one part being the portraits and the other Moroni's religious work. Moroni was a literal contemporary of the Council of Trent, which took place within his home region, and of the counter-reformation in the Catholic Church. The religious work takes the form of altar pieces, some of which have a drabness about them that would be very much at home in the somewhat shabby pretend-baroque that one can find in a certain type of provincial Italian Church. One example, that showing the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, can be seen on the exhibition home page linked above. However, what is interesting about the religious work is that it usually shows a devout person in contemplation of the biblical scene shown - a representation in art of the use of imagination to place oneself "within" a Scriptural scene that is a feature of the contemplations of St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises.

But it is really the portraits that are the high point of the exhibition - so much so that, rather than asking yourself as you leave which of the paintings you would like to take home, you instead ask yourself who it is that you would like to take home.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Poppies@theTower

Yesterday evening I was able to visit the display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. They form an evolving installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. There is an interview with the ceramic artist responsible for making the poppies embedded in this BBC news report of the large number of visitors to the Tower of London, drawn by the installation. It is worth watching the interview to gain some sense of what is going in to the making of the installation.

 


Even at 8 pm there were significant numbers of people visiting. It was very thought provoking and, whilst to an extent ordinary Saturday night life continued, there was a certain sense of the dignified among those who were looking at the poppies. It was certainly possible to find quiet places to stop and reflect.

This installation has captured the public imagination in quite a surprising way - as the artist says in his interview, it isn't really his work any more, but rather a work that belongs to everyone. Part of that capturing of the imagination arises, I think, from the way in which an iconic London landmark - the Tower of London - provides a unique backdrop to the sea of red.

All Saints

It seems to have become an unquestionable absolute that the homily at Mass should be based upon the Scripture readings - but the rubric actually reads (General Instruction n.65, with my italics added):
The Homily is part of the Liturgy and is highly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of Christian life. It should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.
So, for a feast like that of All Saints, it is quite legitimate to use the Liturgical texts other than the readings to explain exactly what it is that the feast celebrates. And this is an interesting exercise, and one that itself is not lacking in Scriptural reference.

From the Preface, which has a title in the Missal of "The glory of Jerusalem, our mother":
... today by your gift we celebrate the festival of your city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother ... Towards her we eagerly hasten as pilgrims advancing by faith ...
The proper prayers of the Mass also indicate an important characteristic of the Feast, namely that of our need for the intercession of the saints. The Prayer over the Offerings, for example:
May these offerings we bring in honour of all the Saints be pleasing to you, O Lord, and grant that, just as we believe the Saints to be already assured of immortality, so we may experience their concern for our salvation.
What is striking too is something that emerges from the hymns at Vespers and Lauds for the feast day. It is very apparent in the Latin hymns, rather less so but not absent from the hymns in the English "Liturgy of the Hours". These hymns refer in turn to the Virgin Mary, the angels, patriarchs and prophets, the apostles, martyrs and confessors, virgins and religious, in turn asking each category of saint to intercede for us.

I suspect that it is common place for the feast to be explained as a celebration of those who are in heaven but have not been formally declared saints by the Church - and it is certainly that. It may well refer to people whom we have known and who have lived their Christian vocation in a way that has inspired others - and I do feel that this "ordinary sanctity" of parish life can too often go unnoticed.

But the office hymns suggest challenging models of the road to sanctity followed by the saints. The celebration of the feast asks us to learn how these models can be lived in the contemporary world.  Those who live the married vocation in fidelity to Catholic teaching, for example, might well in future times be seen as confessors of the faith in their particular circumstances of life; current events in the Middle East also clearly show confessors and martyrs in the more usual sense.

All Saints is a good example of a feast day on which a homily limited to explaining  the Scripture readings will miss out important aspects of what the feast itself actually celebrates.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Auntie's advice ....

"Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?"

How much consternation would be avoided if we were always to ask even the first of these questions before posting, linking or commenting ...?