Sunday, 31 January 2010

St Edith Stein: A reflection for Education Sunday


The photograph above shows Edith Stein as a student at Gottingen University (1913-1916). She moved from Breslau to Gottingen to study philosophy( in the school of phenomenology) under Edmund Husserl . This period of her life can be characterised as a “search for the truth”, and it was this sense of what phenomenology was about that drew Edith to Gottingen. Edith herself, arriving at Gottingen without any living faith of her own though she was from a Jewish family, describes her encounter with religious phenomena recognised as an area worthy of phenomenological study. She also met  people who commanded her respect and were religious believers (generally Protestant Christians). And in a particular encounter with the widow of one of here colleagues, she describes her first encounter with the power of the Cross. After reading the autobiography of St Teresa of Avila, Edith was received into the Catholic Church.


This second photo shows Edith Stein while on the staff of the Dominican Convent in Speyer (photo taken in 1931, at the end of her time on the staff of the Convent). Edith taught there for eight years after becoming a Catholic, working with trainee teachers at the school as well as teaching the pupils; she lived an almost religious life with the nuns. These are the memories of two of Edith's students from this time:
"With very few words - just by her personality and everything which emanated from her - she set me on my way, not only in my studies but in my whole moral life. With her you felt that you were in an atmosphere of everything noble, pure and sublime which simply carried you up with it”.

“She really gave us everything. We were still very young, but none of us has forgotten the charm of her personality…Her heart stood wide open for everything noble and beautiful to take its place beside her union with God. That is how she stands before us still”.

Standing up for Vatican II: being accurate

A couple of interesting posts reporting on the inaugural meeting of Standup4Vatican2:

Fantasy, reality and Valerie Stroud and Getting it right: a reply to Valerie Stroud.

These posts are both from the new blog Reclaiming Vatican II. This blog is written in the literary genre of a "controversialist" - I do believe there is a legitimate blog genre of this type, and one has to read the element of satire in context and not jump to a lack of charity on the part of the writer. But what interests me more about this blog is that it engages with Catholic blogs that are not of its own mind. There is a very progressive word for this: dialogue. As well as the satire, there is engagement with the issues being raised, and I hope the blog will develop in that way.

I think this dialogue with blogs of a different mind might become important in the coming year, as it looks as if those involved with Standup4Vatican2 are taking to the blogosphere. I have not quite worked out how to do it yet, but I do want to have a "dialogue" section in my blogroll to encourage this.

Will the "tradosphere" and the "trendosphere" intersect or just by-pass each other?

H/T to Dolphinarium.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Film review: It's Complicated

The billing of this film as a "romantic comedy", and the impression of the film being communicated through the media, are deceptive. That's not to say that they are innaccurate; it is to say that there is an element of depth present in the film that is not expressed in the label "romantic comedy".

The Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops movie site review can be found here (but they have mixed part of the text with text from the review of another film), and it classifies the film as follows; the rating in the UK is 15:
The film contains complex moral issues; skewed values; implied sexual activity, some of it adulterous; off-screen masturbation; fleeting rear nudity; considerable drug use; some sexual references and humor; and a half-dozen crude or crass terms. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

The film is certainly very funny, with scenes that had the whole cinema (and it was full on a Friday evening) laughing out loud. It is interesting to compare the cinematography to that of Up in the Air. In some ways Up in the Air is a well filmed film; but It's Complicated outclasses it in terms of its communication of facial expressions, what a sociologist might term the non-verbal communication. This is largely, I felt, down to Meryl Streep, the portrayal of whose character attracts the descriptor "well delineated" in the USCCB review. The first paragraphs of the review on the Guardian website suggest a particular genre to which It's Complicated is a modern day successor; the account given in the notes on the film's own website, particularly the "questions and answers" with the writer/director/producer Nancy Meyers - go here, and scroll down to around page 23, - suggest a more autobiographical origin. The relationship of the film to the producer's own experience would be interesting to explore further - as you will see below, I thought there was a moral questioning on the part of Meryl Streep's character that the producer does not seem to refer to in the notes and I wonder whether it is perhaps latent in Nancy Meyer's own experience of divorce, and life after divorce.

What are the ethically problematical aspects of the film? Looked at in one way, the film reflects the experience of divorce that may be widespread in American and British society now - divorce, and more significantly, the possibility of re-marriage after divorce, have been possible for so long now that very few people are unaffected by it. But, from the point of view of Catholics who see this film, there is value in recognising the way in which it assumes divorce and re-marriage as normal parts of life, and retaining some sense of challenge to that assumption of their normality. There is a similar assumption about the place of sexual activity in peoples lives. Despite the discretion appropriate to a film rated 15, the message being communicated by the film is that there was nothing ethically wrong with the sexual encounters between Meryl Streep's character and Alec Baldwin's - and, by extension, what one might term "irregular" sexual activity in general is fine. The subtlety of the fact that, in the eyes of the Catholic Church they might still be seen as married, does not overcome the injustice towards Alec Baldwin's second wife that is expressed in these encounters. The worrying thing is that this message is almost subliminal - I suspect that most cinema goers will not identify this as a message in the film at all. I think the USCCB rating's reference to "problematic content" very nicely expresses what I am trying to say here.

I thought the film had an interesting portrayal of age, though perhaps that might be better expressed as a portrayal of a difference between the generation of Meryl Streep's, Alec Baldwin's and Steve Martin's characters and the generation of their children (or between those brought up in the 60's/70's generation and those who are young now?). The film shows the older generation going first in drug taking, for example, and in sexual activity. Was there an implicit intention to suggest that the relationship between oldest daughter and fiance, shown planning their wedding during the course of the film, is still chaste? The oldies are really the rebels, undergoing their second adolescence. Or, as the review on the Daily Mirror blog says:
It's Complicated is a sophisticated sex comedy for the middle-aged... a goodnatured romp in which well-to-do people act like teenagers, deal with unexpected emotions and fumble around a few mildly sexual escapades.
I don't really agree with the Mirror's reviewer, as I think there is a serious side to the film that he has missed and the sexual escapades are rather central to the storyline. There is, I think, an interesting exploration of a number of issues around the experience of divorce. The one most explicitly shown is that of the impact of the divorce - and the possibility of later rapprochement - on the children involved. Meryl and Alec's children are still shown having a genuine affection for their Dad, even though he has re-married, and are shocked when, at one point, Meryl is trying to send him away from the house. Towards the end of the film, when Meryl is explaining that she is not going to get together with their Dad again, one the children does say that they are still trying to get over the effects of the divorce. Another is the anxiety to have children in the second marriage. And yet another is the question of justice in the network of relations that results after a divorce - the injustice, perhaps with a two-way nature, in the relationship between those who have divorced, an injustice of the second wife's relationship to the husband in its relation to the first wife. In the context of the storyline of the film, there is also an injustice of Alec Baldwin's character towards his second wife and, as she goes along with the affair, an injustice towards the second wife by Meryl Streep's character.

But if one is looking for a positive moral tone in the film I think it lies in a fundamental difference between the character portrayed by Alec Baldwin and that portrayed by Meryl Streep. Alec's motiviation in the affair with Meryl appears primarily sexual; it is the bed that matters, and he is unable to read Meryl's efforts to say "no", seeing it as "why do you always say no before you say yes". His betrayal of his second wife is clear, movingly portrayed in the scene where he puts her son Pedro to bed, and at no point during the affair does he show any moral sensitivity at all. Meryl's character does, however, ask the question as to whether she is doing the right thing. The film hesitates to express this in terms of a moral questioning and shows it instead in a more psychological/social light; and the questions and answers in the notes on the film express it in terms of Meryl's character in some way seeking the approval of those around her . When Meryl goes to see her psychiatrist about this, she directly asks him to tell her whether or not she is doing the right thing if she goes ahead with this affair, recognising that in doing so she is going quite counter to the non-directive nature of counselling.

But it does look very much like someone wrestling with their conscience, knowing deep down that going ahead with this affair is wrong, and trying to find a definitive answer to an essentially moral question. At the end of the film, when it is clear Meryl and Alec are not going to get back together, he asks her whether or not she regrets at least having tried to give things another go. Meryl answers "no, she doesn't regret it", but that is not very convincing when compared to her earlier questioning of its rightness. This late scene, however, expresses something that is latent in the whole story: it is Alec's character who leads Meryl's character astray, into doing things that, left to herself, she would not have done, and in which she recognised the injustice; this even extends to her expression of "no regrets", which I do not think she would have made unprompted. It is a cute ending to a film; but only really shows Alec's character seeking a last possibility of approval for actions that are inexcusable.

A gender role reversal: Adam is offering the apple to Eve who at first takes it, but then struggles through to give it back.

I suspect that a moral sense was not directly intentional on the part of Nancy Meyer, the writer/producer/director (cf the notes on the film website); but It's Complicated left me wondering how much it might be part of an experience of living after divorce.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Church in the Service of Love for the Suffering

This is the title of a three day seminar/conference being hosted by the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care in Rome 9-11th February 2010. The title refers, not to a love of suffering itself but to a love for those who suffer - to avoid any misunderstanding!

The three days celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (first day), the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care (second day) and the eighteenth World Day for the Sick (third day).

The programme for the three days can be found at the link above. It includes an address from the Director of the World Health Organisation. I will also be interested to read the reports of a round table: Pain and Suffering in the experience of a Chaplain, a Medical Doctor, a Nurse, a Patient, a Family and a Volunteer.

Teacups, "ho ho" theology and Sir Humphrey

The following gems can be found in the "Lives remembered" piece in today's edition of The Times. This little section allows people to write in with additional anecdotes about those whose obituaries have recently appeared in the paper.

These witicisms are related by Rt Rev Geoffrey Rowell, the Anglican Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, about his fellow Bishop Colin James. Bishop James appears to have had a great skill in his use of English.

On one occasion, during a meeting, Geoffrey Rowell observed of the matter under laborious discussion that it was all a storm in a teacup. "You are quite right", was Bishop James reply, "But if you are in the teacup it is still a storm". Bishop Rowell gained his advocacy of a theology of "Ho ho" from an occasion when Bishop James ended an inconclusive discussion with the words "Oh well, ho ho" - this theology recognising that even a Bishop can't solve every problem! "Well played, Sir Humphrey" is reported as stopping a long winded bureaucrat in his tracks, and leading to an end to any further mention of the scheme concerned.

[What prompted me to read these observations was that they were written by Bishop Rowell. During my time as an undergraduate in Oxford, he was the chaplain at Keble, so I had some limited contact with him then. Nothing wrong with the occasional name drop, is there ..]

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Asides on "Stand up .."

This week's Tablet (ie the issue of 30th January - editorial here) carries a report of the Stand Up for Vatican II inaugural meeting. It reports an attendance of over 200 people, though some present, according to the report, expressed concern that the majority of those present were aged over 60.

I found an interesting juxtaposition between the calls for smaller parishes (extra priests to be provided by lifting the obligation of celibacy), elected diocesan pastoral councils (only 5 dioceses currently have these, my own of Brentwood being one, though I have never been aware of any mechanism that has extended a franchise to me in terms of electing its members - but, to be fair, as someone said to me once "Oh, you don't do [parish] AGM's, do you?", though I have occasionally been known to do the party afterwards; and whether or not they really give bishops a way of knowing what the ordinary parishioner in the pew is thinking is rather a moot point), peaceful protest against the curia, another lay pastoral congress (I suspect that, should such an event take place again, the participation of the new movements will alter its character completely, and not in the way intended by Stand up ...) etc ... and a report being carried by ZENIT today.

This latter presents the contribution of Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, to a seminar in Rome organized by the Emanuel Community and the Pierre Goursat University Institute, in collaboration with the Pontifical Institute "Redemptor Hominis.": Cardinal offers new style for Priest-Lay Teamwork.  In part, this contribution discusses the type of collaboration that exists between priests and lay people in the new movements, suggesting that this can be a model for that collaboration in parishes.
Priests must guard against "paternalistic and authoritarian attitudes in the governance of parish communities," he said, and they should take care to respect the true lay vocation, never using it as an excuse to get out of "their own pastoral duties toward the Christian community."

Oddly enough, the experience of the movements suggests that, where there is a firm unity of laity and religious or clergy in living a particular charism in faithfulness to the Church, then precisely that "familiarity" of lay-priest relations advocated by the "liberal tendency" who do not major on ecclesial faithfulness, becomes a living reality.

As a postscript: The Tablet report of the Stand up ... meeting gives an impression of the agendas that are being pursued: end to clerical celibacy (when the new movements bear witness to a renewal of the evangelical counsels, but the willingness to ordain married former-Anglican clergy is a frustrating-for-some counter witness to celibacy); more lay responsibility for internal diocesan and parish structures; ordination of women; concern at "losing the whole impetus of the vision of the Vatican council and that it might even drift into oblivion" (though it is not made explicit in the Tablet's report to what "impetus of the vision" refers).

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Equality - it's OK for us but not for you

Michael Cashman is Labour MEP for the West Midlands. The biography on his website indicates that he is a founder member and first chairman of the lesbian, gay and bisexual lobby group Stonewall. He was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, in the light of reports of the most recent British Social Attitudes survey and after the House of Lords had voted to remove provisions of the Equality Bill that were of concern to Churches. (Further coverage here.) Referring to the rapid change in society's perceptions of homosexuality, and observing that there were still bastions of intolerance, Michael Cashman observed:

We haven't won that argument with organised religion yet, but we will.
The content of Stonewall's own website is usually rather careful to disguise an anti-religious intent - its "bigot of the year" competition gave the game away a few years ago when Archbishop Nichols was a nominee for the award because of his opposition to the sexual orientation regulations during the preceding year.

But Michael Cashman's words express an explicit intent on the part of gay activists to attack religious convictions on this question, and to refuse them the rights in the public square that they are claiming for themselves. I think we should view the "entry-ism" of groups such as Cutting Edge Consortium (and note the track back to the British Humanist Association) in the context of the declared intention of gay activists in this regard.

One can be forgiven for thinking that, as far as gay equality is concerned - equality for us, but not for anyone who disagrees with us.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Yet another parish newsletter notice

THE NEW MISSAL is causing confusion among some of the faithful e.g. instead of saying, "And also with you", you will say, "And with your spirit". The idea is to get as close to the literal meaning of Latin as possible. In the opinion of many these alterations are clumsy and in some cases theologically suspect. If you have strong feelings about it, you can voice your opinion on
[If you wish to voice a strong view in favour of a prompt implementation of the new translations, there is another petition to sign instead: Fr Tim posted about it here.]

How many typical/ordinary parishioners will know what "Father" is referring to here, let alone know enough about it to be "confused"? Of them, how many will have had sufficient sight of the new texts to be able to have any formed opinion one way or another about them? And, of them, how many will just go along with things as they happen? An image of a wooden spoon being moved in a circular fashion comes to mind here ...

The coverage of the same issue in this week's Tablet (I believe there was coverage last week, too, which is probably where dear Father got the prompt for his newsletter notice above) has a couple of interesting aspects. And that's in addition to its regular "Listen to the Word" feature, where "study" translations of the prayers of the Mass are used rather than the translations from the Missal itself, thereby illustrating vividly the whole question of the liturgical translations.

The Letters Page

A photograph showing parishioners "returning the peace greeting during Mass in Cape Town, South Africa". It shows the parishioners with hands extended forwards, presumably towards the altar. Now, in my recent reflection on the sign of peace I have thought that what is needed is a clearly sacred sign of greeting/response - and that a handshake is not a sign with such a sacred character, rather the contrary. Perhaps our bishops could consider changing the form of the sign that they expect to that of a mutual extending of hands similar to that shown in the Tablet's photograph. This seems quite a practical way of doing things, and it reflects a liturgical sign already present in the Liturgy in the extension of the priest's hands during the greeting "The Lord be with you".

"Our liturgical life is too important for rushed decisions taken without consultation".
"The imposition of a new translation of the Missal, without dialogue or consultation ...".
Date of publication of the 3rd editio typica of the Roman Missal: 2000. Date of finalisation of the English translation of that 3rd edition: 2009. Rushed? Hardly! Others will know better than I the number of meetings, drafts, re-drafts etc that have been undertaken during that nine years by ICEL and the relevant Bishops Conferences. This does sound rather like "consultation" to me.

And a rather ironic decrying of "persistent disobedience" in the Church by one who would have us "just say wait"!

Clifford Longley

This column appears much more supportive of the idea of the new translation of the Missal than one might have expected. The comment that the prospective changes in wording at Mass are "already causing nervous breakdowns all over the country" seems far fetched to me. I suspect that the impact so far in most parishes is the same as that of Summorum Pontificum - and that is "not a lot". One should be careful about reading the headline to Clifford's piece - it refers to the current translation that is due for replacement - and is followed by one or two further specific criticisms of that translation:
It has 1969 stamped all over it - except even the Beatles were writing better English.
And Clifford ends up by appearing to suggest that English is not a suitable language for the Liturgy ... is Latin the more suitable alternative then?
The heart of the problem is that the English language has lost its solemn and cermonial register - a victim of the First World War, I've seen it argued - and hasn't found an alternative. I've never found a modern liturgy, in any denomination, that sounded just right. They all seem synthetic and self-conscious. English is not a good liturgical language, just as it is not a good operatic language. The latest translation is bound to be defective. Just like all the possible options.
But, perhaps the point is that our Liturgy is not a "modern liturgy" - in the sense of being something that we write from scratch ourselves - but a renewal of an ancient liturgy. The Church of England's choral tradition might also be an exemplification of a successful use of English as a liturgical language, it too having something of a heritage behind it. The principle of a translation into English that is as faithful as possible to the Latin original ... seems quite reasonable to me.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Film review: Up in the Air

Zero and I went to see this film yesterday, as one of us (I'm not saying who) had a birthday.  It is interesting to compare reviews. This from Thinking Faith, the Jesuit on-line journal:
I would certainly recommend Up In The Air as a brilliantly acted, well produced movie, that owing to its stellar cast, will no doubt gain a fistful of awards in the coming months. But a somewhat lacking ending will prevent this film from true greatness.
And this from the United States Catholic Bishops Conference movie reviews site:

The film contains off-screen adulterous and nonmarital sexual activity, brief rear nudity, much sexual talk including lesbianism and masturbation references, a few uses of profanity and much rough and crude language. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
 The film classification here in the UK is a 15 - no-one under the age of 15 may watch this film in a cinema, or purchase it on video. That Thinking Faith's reviewer does not see the sexual content and foul language in the film as worthy of comment in her review is a cause for reflection for a review published on a Catholic site. Whilst I wouldn't want to say that this is a film that Catholics should boycott, I certainly think that, should they see it and comment on it, they should do so with a suitably critical mind.

I found the use of the F*** word, and the sexualised talk in a number of the scenes, problematical in two regards. The first is that the film gives the impression that the use of such language is quite the normal thing in professional working environments - when it isn't, and would be seen as bullying or harrassment. Anyone with even the slightest human resources experience (and I have some of that, through my trade union work) knows the problems that the use of such language creates in most working environments, and the case work that can result. The exchange of (essentially obscene) text messages shown in one scene, for example, would be grist to the mill of a gross misconduct dismissal, particularly if it had been conducted over mobile phones provided by the employer. The second regard is its portrayal of HR specialists as being very ready users of this sort of language. If my own experience is anything to go by, they are just too much aware of the potential pitfalls (ie, being "let go" - but without notice and without any severance package!) to even think about taking the risk involved. Perhaps it is meant to be funny - but I didn't hear anyone laughing in the cinema as the text messages were shown on screen.

The sad thing is that all of this detracts from what in other respects is an interesting and thought provoking film. Like the same producer's earlier film, Juno, some interesting issues are explored - but probably lost on most of the cinema goers who will see the film. Casual sexual encounter is there to be contrasted with the permanent commitment of marriage; a young employee who moves town only to then be dropped by the boy friend she has followed; an individualistic self reliance (ulitmately, I think, portrayed in the film as not being satisfying) contrasted with the more settled network of a nuclear and extended family (but this is not portrayed as completely wholesome, with a counter-example of a marriage that has broken up and a groom who is just rescued - somewhat ironically by George Clooney's anti-hero character - from cold feet on the morning of his wedding). At one level the film works as a portrayal of the very ordinary human experiences that we, or people we know, might have in life these days. At another level, it should perhaps prompt us to reflect more on that experience, and come to an evaluation of it.

The outcome of the film itself leaves you with the feeling of not having come to an evaluation of all of these issues, with the exception of a feeling of complete let down when George Clooney's character achieves his ambition to achieve 10 million air miles - this on his return flight from finding out that his hotel fling is in fact a married woman with children and not the independent, available soul he had thought she was. This is the "somewhat lacking" ending to which the Thinking Faith reviewer refers.

Like Juno, the film contains some very well crafted and humorous exchanges. Some of the reactions of those who have just been sacked are quite moving (these, according to the USCCB review, were filmed using real workers who had recently been laid off), though others are obviously a bit over acted. An interesting aspect of the film that it is easy to overlook is the portrayal of the relationships between the different members of the family of George Clooney's character, briefly shown at the wedding of that character's sister.

I was not the only male in the cinema, but, females were in a decided majority. As Zero suggested during the final credits, perhaps it is a "girls film" with "gorgeous George" as the main attraction ...

John Henry Newman: phenomenologist or transcendental Thomist?

"Burning the midnight oil" often refers to the student desperately trying to finish an essay or assignment that is due in the next day, which might not have been started, and which simply has to be done before retiring to bed (or not retiring at all, if one is really taking the experience seriously!). For those of us for whom student days are a distant memory, it usually means that we haven't been sufficiently organised to get to bed and have instead just stayed up reading.
It is the characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgement on the things that come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.

Of the judgements thus made, ... some are mere opinions which come and go.... Others are firmly fixed in our minds.... Many of them attach to one and the same object, which is variously viewed ..... some are only not inconsistent with each other, in that they have a common origin: some, as being actually incompatible with each other, are, one or other, falsely associated in our minds with their object, and in any case they may be nothing more than ideas, which we mistake for things.
I will definitely show my age - or at least the era of my philosophical education - when I say that the two immediate thougths that came into my mind on reading this first section of Chapter I of Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine were the following:

Was Newman, without realising it, following the same sort of school of thought as would later be taken by Husserl and the phenomenological school? "Idea", the concern for "things", the delineation of the content of an idea apprehended? And, indeed, the very style of analytical writing?

Or was he a transcendental Thomist before such a thing was even thought of? Doesn't the first paragraph put one in mind of Lonergan? "Apprehend", "abstract" "judgement"?

You do not have to read very far into the Essay on Development to come across the much abused quotation:
In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
And recognising the context, is, of course, the key to understanding what Newman intended in this sentence. First of all, Newman has in the preceding pages given a phenomenological account of the way in which an idea can develop in human society as it encounters different ideas and situations and so shows itself in different aspects. And then the sentence immediately preceding the oft quoted one is:
It [ie the idea] changes with them [ie the surrounding circumstances, the history of its encounter with other ideas, etc] in order to remain the same.
In the preceding pages, Newman has clearly expressed an idea of development in ideas as
... the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field. On the other hand this process will not be a development, unless the assemblage of aspects, which constitute its ultimate shape, really belongs to the idea from which they start.
And if the "assemblage of aspects" does not meet this criterion it is not a development but a "corruption" (the word Newman himself uses at points in these same pages).

Newman uses the oft quoted sentence in a philosophical context, and not a directly theological one; this makes its simplistic use to suggest that Catholic teaching should change in order to live rather misleading. In its proper context, the sentence is just as much a statement about continuity as it is about change; and its application to a theological context needs to be made analagously and not literally.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Holy Mary, Mother of Unity

In the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, among the Masses indicated for use during the Ordinary Time of the liturgical year, is a Mass with the title "Holy Mary, Mother of Unity". The catechetical introduction to the texts of this Mass starts by referring to the words of Christ recorded in the Gospel of St John that "they all may be one", and describes them as an encouragement to the disciples of Christ that they be committed to prayer for Christian unity. Developing this in reference to the Catholic Church's "zeal for the unity of Christians, and indeed of the whole human family", the introduction goes on to say that Pope Paul VI more than once spoke of the Blessed Virgin as "mother of unity".

The Preface of this Mass is as follows:
[Jesus Christ our Lord] is the one who makes whole,
the lover of unity,
who chose for his mother
a woman unstained in heart and body,
and for his Bride
the one and undivided Church.

Lifted high above the earth,
in the presence of his mother,
he gathered your scattered children into unity,
joining them to himself
with bonds of love.

Returning to you
and seated at your right hand,
he sent upon the Blessed Virgin,
at prayer with the apostles,
the Spiritu of concord and unity,
of peace and forgiveness.
The texts of the proper prayers of the Mass reflect these three themes in the Preface. First, the Opening Prayer, where a reference to Mary as "mother of the human race" is best understood when Mary is seen as the "second Eve", Eve having been referred to in the Genesis accounts as "mother of the living":
All-holy Father,
fountain of unity and wellspring of harmony,
grant that all the families of nations,
through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
mother of the human race,
may be gathered together
to form the one people of the New Covenant.
And the Prayer over the Gifts:
as we honour the memory of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
in whose virginal womb
your Son united divine and human nature,
we earnestly beg
that this offering my become
the sacrament of our worship,
the sign of our unity,
and the bond of love.
And, finally, the Prayer after Communion:
Lord God,
through your holy gifts
which we have received
on this memorial of holy Mary, mother of unity,
pour out upon us
the Spirit of gentleness and peace,
that we may work together in harmony
and so hasten the coming of your kingdom.

"My hope .. is that when my moment of weakness comes, I will be able to accept it and rejoice over what is given to me"

The following is among the news items from ZENIT today. It is a report of a conference at UNESCO to be given by Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, on 10th February this year. This is the eve of the World Day for the Sick, on 11th February. Jean Vanier gives a conference each year, organised by the French Christian Office for People with a Disability (OCH).

I was struck by the following, towards the end of ZENIT's short report (the added emphasis is mine):
Vanier himself will turn 82 this year. The Christian Office for People With a Disability asked him to describe his experience of this stage of life.

"My hope and my prayer is that when my moment of weakness comes, I will be able to accept it and rejoice over what is given to me," Vanier said. "Human life begins in frailty and ends in frailty. During our whole life we remain avid for security and dependent on tenderness..."
This reflects something that I find myself saying quite regularly when I meet people who are sick. It's OK to need other people to help you; there will have been times when you have helped someone else, and it's OK now when you, in your turn, need someone else to help you.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Islam and Christianity

As a comment to my earlier post on Islam and Christianity, I received a link to the following blog (though one might think of it more as a website than a blog, since there is no indication of regular posting): The blog/site is explicitly apologetic in intent, trying to convince its visitors of the truth of Islam and answer misinformation about Islam.

Towards the bottom of the page, among the links, is one to an article about the Koran and modern science. I think I am fair in saying that what this article attempts is a reading of passages from the Koran in such a way that they are seen as literal expressions of modern scientific understanding. The Koran was written down in some 1400 years ago, before many of these modern discoveries. Ergo, the Koran must be of divine origin. A remark on page 8 suggests that the Koran is a book of "signs" rather than a book of science, but the interpretations in the later chapters are fairly literal.

I haven't read the whole booklet, but a quick read of the physics related sections suggests that the texts from the Koran are interpreted as fairly literal expressions of the science. At best, I think some of the presentations indicate a compatibility of the Koran and science but not any kind of effective prediction of that science; other among the presentations, though, seem quite stretched. One of my pupils recently lent me an Islamic catechetical text, a section of which presented arguments similar to those in this article. This attempt at understanding the text of the Koran as offering a literal understanding of scientific ideas stands in a sharp contrast to contemporary Christian approaches to interpretation of the Biblical texts, where the only parallel can be found among fundamentalist Christian communities.

A writer such as Stanley Jaki suggests that it is only from within a Christian matrix, particularly with regard to a Christian doctrine of creation, that it was possible for science to emerge as a self-sustaining enterprise. Outside of this matrix, as a matter of history, the attempts at developing science were not able to issue in science becoming an independent, and self-sustaining enterprise. This is reflected in the history of Christian interpretation of the Biblical texts, where, as science emerged in a self-sustaining way, the Biblical texts came no longer to be seen as sources of literal scientific knowledge. The result today is that it really would be rare to find a Christian scholar trying to read into selected Biblical texts literal understandings of modern science. The text offered by this blog/site suggests that at least one section of Islamic thought, rather than trying to develop a due autonomy of science from the authority of the religious text, is trying to develop a mutual dependence of science and the Koran. We could expect this to have a constraining and limiting effect on the development of science.

Commenting on the Koran's presentation of God's will, Stanley Jaki suggests that this might at times be a willfulness rather than a will. A similar thought was expressed in a conversation I had at the weekend: "Islam does not have any idea of analogy" (analogy here being intended in its philosophical sense). The creation of a world governed by its own unity, rationality and purpose - willed by God, in the sense in which a Christian would mean that - does not allow for a capricious exercise of a divine will that Jaki suggests is present in some places in the Koran and Islamic thought. It is such a unity and rational purpose that provides a philosophical underpinning to the idea of scientific study of the physical world; without it, science cannot become a self-sustaining enterprise.

This discussion raises two questions about Islam as compared to Christianity. The first is about the possibilities of human reason in the two religions. Both in terms of scientific endeavour and in terms of philosophical and theological study - reason can approach God through analogy - Christianity seems to offer the greater scope for the play of reason. The Islamic position seems to limit the scope and possibilities of reason. The second question is about the nature of God, and in particular about his accessibility to human knowledge and communion. Again, Christianity seems to offer this accessibility to and communion with God - par excellence through the Incarnation of the Word, but not just through that; and Islam seems to reduce that possibility. Does this make for a difference in the way in which different trends in Islam act in the world?

Friday, 15 January 2010

Vatican II: a language of "intention"

In an article on the STANDUP4VATICAN2 website, Nicholas Lash writes "In Memory of Vatican II". At one point, he writes: is of paramount importance that what it did and aimed to do is accurately remembered.
I have emphasised the "aimed to do", as it reflects also a language of "intention of the Council" that can be found in other commentaries on Vatican II. One useful such commentary is the site Vatican II - Voice of the Church, useful because a significant amount of what is posted on the site can be described as original documentation of the Council and of the experiences of those who took part. The home page of this site uses the language of the "intentions" of the Council, or the "intentions of the Council Fathers", at least as much if not rather more so than the language of the "spirit of Vatican II". It makes an interesting reference to a contrasting tendency to "interpret the Council solely through the texts":
The Symposium of 2002 [entitled, I think, "Abbot Butler and the Council"]  is a major section of the website. It marked the twin anniversaries of the centenary of Butler’s birth and the fortieth anniversary of the opening of The Council. The Symposium papers were delivered well before the development of a tendency to interpret the Council solely through the texts. The Symposium papers are open, scholarly accounts particularly informed by the rare privilege that two surviving Council Fathers were present and gave invaluable papers.
When one reads the historical accounts of the Council - whether it is Wiltgen's The Rhine flows into the Tiber, O,Malley's What happend at Vatican II or the magisterial five volumes of Alberigo's History of Vatican II - one gains a very clear glimpse of that aspect of the Church's nature that can be described as its human aspect. Interventions on the floor of the Council not infrequently urged contrary positions with regard to the texts under discussion; and one can see clear points where the resulting promulgated text represents, in their human aspect, a compromise or balancing of different views. The risk involved in developing an interpretation of the Council based on the "intentions of the Council" is that (i) at the level of interventions on a particular topic, different Bishops said a range of different things, so that one can identify a range of intentions in terms of how they might have spoken - and voted - in the Council; (ii) even in voting overwhelmingly for a final form of a document, the elements of compromise (in human terms) in the document could easily mean that Bishops of one inclination might have voted for it with an intention to support X when others had more of an intention to support the balancing cautions included in the document; and consequently (iii) it is very easy to adopt the intentions of one particular Bishop, or of one particular influence at the Council, as if those intentions represent the intentions of the whole, whereas to gain any balanced view of a single "intention" one should really look at each and every intervention and develop some sort of synthesis of the variety of views expressed therein. At this human level, one should perhaps acknowledge that different contributors approached the questions asked of them at the Council with different intentions - but, one trusts, with a recogntion of the operation of the Holy Spirit through their own actions and the actions of other participants in the Council.

It is also necessary to avoid an unhepful promulgation of an overall "intention of the Council" that over-rides the specific provisions of the Council documents themselves - this is to use the  word "intention" in just the same way that the (apparently) discarded term "spirit" has been used to justify turning away from the content of the texts themselves and to ignore the plurality of intentions existing at the human level. Whilst one can rightly formulate an overarching aim or intention - perhaps from the remarks of Pope John XXIII in his statements about the Council, or from an overview of the documents of the Council as a whole - we need to remember that that intention is articulated in the specific provisions of the Council itself.
In the end, I think one has to be willing to discuss the individual provisions of the Council's teaching, and to do that one has to return to the promulgated texts themselves.

A good example of this is the iconic question of the relative places of Latin and the vernacular in the Church's liturgy. Implicit in this, too, is the question of the relative competences of the Holy See and the local territorial ecclesiastical authority (the Bishop's conference). An account of the debates, with their wide range of different contributions, both in drafting and in debate, can be found in O'Malley pp.129ff  and in Wiltgen pp.24ff. The resulting text from Sacrosanctum Concilium n.36 is:
The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings, directives and in some prayers and chants. Regulations governing this will be given separately in subsequent chapters. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority .. to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used. Its decrees have to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Mystery of Suffering and the Mystery of Good: reflecting on the earthquake in Haiti

ZENIT carries a report today of the situation in Haiti, following the earthquake that happened two days ago. The Catholic News Agency carries a report here, which includes the call of Pope Benedict for prayers and practical assistance to the people of Haiti. As well as giving some indication of the situation of the people of Port-au-Prince and of the religious and seminarians, the reports say that the Archbishop of the diocese of Port-au-Prince is one of those who have been killed by the earthquake. The most recent BBC News website coverage is here.

The Today Programme - BBC Radio's flagship news/current affairs programme - this morning carried a package that asked the question: "Where is God in Haiti?". The package opens with an account of a testimony published in the Guardian newspaper, and there follows an interview with the Archbishop of York.

Archbishop Sentamu  answers this question by saying that, in the light of Christmas when God becomes man, we should say that God is with the people of Haiti, beside them at this time. He also points out that God is like Christ - who was broken and mutilated on the cross. In that sense, for the Christian, we can try to understand the experience of the people of Haiti as a sharing in the suffering experience of God himself. Quite rightly, Archbishop Sentamu rejects any suggestion that an event such as this is a punishment for wrong doing that can be attributed in any way, however remotely, to those who are suffering.

But, as Archbishop Sentamu was asked in the interview, why does an all powerful and merciful God allow such an event? [It is interesting that such a question can be asked of God as understood in Islam, as well as of God as understood in Christianity.] The first part of an academic answer to this question needs to recognise that what we learn about God from the events of the world around us, and what we learn about God from the sources of his revelation to us, cannot in principle be opposed. In a theological language, it is the same God who is both creator and saviour/redeemer.

The second step is to recognise the reality of the suffering (or, if one wants to use the term, the physical evil) that is shown in the consequences of an event such as the earthquake in Haiti. It is truly awful, horrible, indescribable - shocking to the extent that it really should disturb us. It represents in the fullest and deepest sense part of the mystery of suffering, a mystery that we are challenged to understand. Part of this mystery, expressed in the testimony quoted at the beginning of the BBC Today Programme package, is the question of why one person might survive when another does not, why an earthquake might devastate Haiti but not the London.

For the Christian, however, this mystery of suffering includes a "new" element. Through his suffering on the Cross, Jesus redeems this mystery of suffering and, without denying its reality as a mystery of suffering which it still remains, enables it to have an orientation towards a mystery of good. In the living of the Christian life, this is most fundamentally a matter of grace - God's freely given gift of himself to his people - and so it makes absolute sense for the Christian to engage with it in the realm of grace. This is why Christians pray for those who are suffering, pray for the relief of their suffering and the healing and welfare of the survivors; and they say that they are doing so as an act of solidarity that makes visible the solidarity existing in the realm of grace.

This mystery of good also has its physical expression in practical solidarity and aid being sent to the people of Haiti. The mystery of good is both individual and institutional - so the aid, both practical in terms of skilled personnel and equipment and material in the form of food, medicines etc, that come from the nations and aid agencies of the world are a participation in the mystery of good. And, of course, it is not only believers who take part in this mystery of good.

At this moment, in reflecting on a particularly awful and powerful manifestation of the mystery of suffering which is still part of our headline news, it is perhaps not appropriate to ask how that mystery of suffering comes to be part of our world. Such a question is for another time. But, for the moment, we can keep in mind that mystery of good which is a counterpart to the mystery of suffering. The new media - the internet and satellite telephone communication - enable us who are far from these events to have an experience of this that would not otherwise be possible.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Malaysia update

Two interesting updates on the situation in Malaysia, where Christian Churches (both Catholic and Protestant) have been attacked in the light of a controversy over the use of the word "Allah" by Christians to translate the word God in the Malay language.

ZENIT and Fides are reporting (here and here respectively) responses from the Muslim community in Malaysia that reflect the solidarity that I referred to in my earlier post as occurring in India and Pakistan. The clearest expression of this, from the ZENIT report:
In fact, Fides reported, moderate Muslim groups have organized watches in churches to prevent a repeat of the violence.
The first paragraph of Fides report suggests a political motivation for the situation that has arisen:

The dispute over the name "Allah" contains political undertones, not theological ones. It is the attempt by the ruling party, the UMNO (United Malays National Organization), to regain the support they have progressively lost, as was evident in the last elections in 2008. This is what emerges from the interventions, discussions, and debates underway among Malaysian Christians and among the churches of various denominations present in Malaysia. As Fides learns from local sources, this idea is also shared by the opposition parties, many of whom are Muslims who condemn "the attempt to polarize Malaysian society on religious grounds."

Monday, 11 January 2010

Pope Benedict's address to the Diplomatic Corps

This address will no doubt attract headlines as Pope Benedict once again "attacking gays". Dolphinarium gives a taste, and the link to the Reuters report gives us an example of how this will look in the main stream media over the next day or two. The address concerned is that given at an annual new year meeting that the Holy Father has with diplomats from around the world who are accredited to the Holy See.

I write this post as an act of support for, and solidarity with, Benedict XVI and what he has to say in this address.

The Holy Father's address is very wide ranging, covering as it does many different topics relating to the  protection of the environment and diplomatic activity in favour of that protection. Subjects such as poverty, the huge sums spent on weaponry, prevention of conflict .... As usual, to get a full picture of what the Pope says it is necessary to read the whole and not just to take one or two aspects out from the whole, giving the impression that they are the sum total of the entire address. The text of the full address is here, at the ZENIT website. Humble Piety communicates something of the balance of the address when seen as whole.

Now, ignoring what I have just written (!), I quote below the passages that are likely to be attracting media attention:
To carry our reflection further, we must remember that the problem of the environment is complex; one might compare it to a multifaceted prism. Creatures differ from one another and can be protected, or endangered, in different ways, as we know from daily experience. One such attack comes from laws or proposals which, in the name of fighting discrimination, strike at the biological basis of the difference between the sexes. I am thinking, for example, of certain countries in Europe or North and South America. Saint Columban stated that: "If you take away freedom, you take away dignity" (Ep. 4 ad Attela, in S. Columbani Opera, Dublin, 1957, p. 34). Yet freedom cannot be absolute, since man is not himself God, but the image of God, God’s creation. For man, the path to be taken cannot be determined by caprice or willfulness, but must rather correspond to the structure willed by the Creator.
As a science teacher (physics specialist, but I have taught general science in the lower years of secondary school, so will claim experience here) I really have wondered how it is possible to defend homosexual or lesbian behaviour as being equivalent to heterosexual behaviour when one considers the clearly heterosexual nature of the physical human body, male and female. And, indeed, the move from asexual reproduction in the lower plants/animals to sexual reproduction in the higher. There is a question of truth here, which all the discussions of the social construction of sexual behaviour really ought to face up to. Pope Benedict is saying nothing other than this, and it appears to me well founded.
It is proper, however, that this concern and commitment for the environment should be situated within the larger framework of the great challenges now facing mankind. If we wish to build true peace, how can we separate, or even set at odds, the protection of the environment and the protection of human life, including the life of the unborn? It is in man’s respect for himself that his sense of responsibility for creation is shown. As Saint Thomas Aquinas has taught, man represents all that is most noble in the universe (cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 29, a. 3). Furthermore, as I noted during the recent FAO World Summit on Food Security, "the world has enough food for all its inhabitants" (Address of 16 November 2009, No. 2) provided that selfishness does not lead some to hoard the goods which are intended for all.
Perhaps central to properly understanding why Pope Benedict feels able to address issues such as abortion and gay rights in an address to the diplomatic corps is this next passage, where he talks about an appropriate secularity. In the text of the address, this paragraph occurs immediately before the first quotation above:
Ladies and Gentlemen, to this point I have alluded only to a few aspects of the problem of the environment. Yet the causes of the situation which is now evident to everyone are of the moral order, and the question must be faced within the framework of a great programme of education aimed at promoting an effective change of thinking and at creating new lifestyles. The community of believers can and wants to take part in this, but, for it to do so, its public role must be recognized. Sadly, in certain countries, mainly in the West, one increasingly encounters in political and cultural circles, as well in the media, scarce respect and at times hostility, if not scorn, directed towards religion and towards Christianity in particular. It is clear that if relativism is considered an essential element of democracy, one risks viewing secularity solely in the sense of excluding or, more precisely, denying the social importance of religion. But such an approach creates confrontation and division, disturbs peace, harms human ecology and, by rejecting in principle approaches other than its own, finishes in a dead end. There is thus an urgent need to delineate a positive and open secularity which, grounded in the just autonomy of the temporal order and the spiritual order, can foster healthy cooperation and a spirit of shared responsibility. Here I think of Europe, which, now that the Lisbon Treaty has taken effect, has entered a new phase in its process of integration, a process which the Holy See will continue to follow with close attention. Noting with satisfaction that the Treaty provides for the European Union to maintain an "open, transparent and regular" dialogue with the Churches (Art. 17), I express my hope that in building its future, Europe will always draw upon the wellsprings of its Christian identity. As I said during my Apostolic Visit last September to the Czech Republic, Europe has an irreplaceable role to play "for the formation of the conscience of each generation and the promotion of a basic ethical consensus that serves every person who calls this continent 'home'" (Meeting with Political and Civil Authorities and with the Diplomatic Corps, 26 September 2009).
As for Catholics, and other Christians who hold orthodox views with regard to human sexuality, I would encourage you not to be dismayed when the media tries to portray Pope Benedict as inhumane, backward, a persecutor of gays, full of intolerance etc. Go to the original source, and read the whole of the address, not just the bits extracted by the media. See that Pope Benedict is intelligent, has a very wide ranging and clear minded grasp of the issues at stake, is thoroughly modern in his presentation of the issues within a framework of environmental concern.

And, as Dolphinarium suggests in her own style, we really should not be surprised when the Pope argues, in the context of international diplomacy, the implications for that context of Roman Catholic teaching.

Sorry, Chris

.... I thought the three cheers for Moira Stewart just after the 7 am news bulletin was quite cute (it was repeated after the 8 am bulletin, too, on my way to school).

But when the Beatle's anthem to moral relativism was played as your first record this morning, I switched back to Radio 4 to escape. Apart from any philosophical dislike I have for it, this song is just too dreary for words (or, for that matter, for music).

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Christianity and Islam

The situation in Malaysia is reported here at Unam Sanctam. This post, and the earlier ones on Unam Sanctam to which this post links, indicate two points.

The first is that the understanding of God that Muslims have, and for who their name is Allah, is not the same as the understanding of God that is held by Christians. One might argue that, from the point of view of the one-ness of God and setting aside the doctrine of the Trinity (on the grounds that it can only be known through Christian revelation and not through reason), Christians and Muslims worship the same God. However, I would suggest that, even without an explicit reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, the sense of a God who draws near to us (through the becoming flesh of the Second Person of the Trinity) that is central to Christian faith has its comparison to a God in the faith of Muslims who is quite distant. Experentially, I would suggest that the Christian can feel a warmth from/for the God they worship, whereas the Muslim might feel a coldness from/coldness to God. This reflects back from what Christians believe about the nature of God as Triune and whose Second Person becomes flesh into their understanding of God seen as One. In art, for example, the Christian feels able to represent God and the good things of creation, whereas the Muslim does not feel able to represent either; Christian churches are decorated with images of saints and of the events of the Bible, whereas a mosque is decorated with symmetric designs.

Unam Sanctam writes, in part of his post There is only One God and Jesus is His Son:
In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Muslims are called those who "professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind." The key word here is 'professing to hold' for the Church takes them at their word that they hold the faith of Abraham and acknowledges that with Christians, they adore the one merciful God. The document speaks of Muslims but does not mention Muhammad or Islam. Islam sees itself as a correction and explicit denial of the Christian claims of the Divinity of Jesus. They deny the fact that Jesus was crucified, died and rose again. Muslims reject that God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. They know of no God except the he who IS NOT the Father of the crucified and risen Jesus. Christians on the other hand, know of no other God except He who IS the Father of the crucified and risen Jesus. Can we then truly say that the Allah of Islam is the same God and Father of Jesus Christ whom Christians worship?

We need to distinguish between the God of Muslims or the God of the Hindus or the God of whoever and the god of Islam, Hinduism etc. God is the God of all people and all creation and all things. But the deities of the various religions are not that God.
The second point indicated is the occurrence of violence against Christians when a Muslim population, or at least sections of it, perceive a grievance against the Christian community, whether or not that grievance is well founded. This is similar - and with a trigger of a similar nature, viz perception of disrespect for the Koran or persecution under a blasphemy law that protects the name of Allah - to events in Pakistan and India.

There are certainly those in the Muslim community who recognise that such occurrence of violence cannot be morally justified. When the Archbishop of Faisalabad spoke at an Aid to the Church in Need event in London last October, he recounted how Muslim business leaders and others had rallied to provide material aid to Christian communities affected by violence.

But for those Muslims who do commit the violence, is there a connection between that violence and their understanding of the nature of God?

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Mary and the Epiphany of the Lord; Mary, Mother of the Saviour

One of the Masses in the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, allocated to celebration during the Christmas season, is that of "Mary and the Epiphany of the Lord".  The preface of this Mass is as follows:
Through the ministry of the Blessed Virgin
you draw the families of all peoples
to faith in the Gospel.

The shepherds, bathed in your glory
and enlightened by choirs of angels,
acknowledged Christ as the Saviour
and became the first fruits of the Church
form the people of Israel.

The wise men, inspired by grace
and led by a shining star,
entered a lowly house,
found the child with his mother,
and, as the first fruits of the Church from the Gentiles,
worshiped his as God,
proclaimed his as King,
and acknowledged him as Redeemer.
It is interesting, in the light of the discussion about the coming of Christ as Saviour and as Redeemer, that the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary contains, in the section for the Christmas season, a Mass of "Mary, Mother of the Saviour". Whilst the texts of this Mass do seem to reflect the distinction between the manner of Saviour and the manner of Redeemer referred to in my earlier post, one might say that the text of the preface, for example, contains an implicit reference to the manner of Redeemer in its expression of the manner of Saviour:
When Mary brought forth her child
from the secret shrine of her virginal womb
you revealed as a light for all nations
the sign and source of our salvation,
your Son, Jesus Christ.

Like the rising sun,
the Bridegroom of the Church
has dawned upon us
to rescue us from darkness and the shadow of death
and to make us a kingdom of unfailing light.
Given the shortness of the Christmas season, I feel that some of the Masses allocated to the Christmas season could be reasonably celebrated during the period of Ordinary Time between Christmas and the beginning of Lent without thereby losing their meaning for the time of the Liturgical Year. The Mass of "Mary and the Presentation of the Lord" could clearly be celebrated on the Saturday nearest the Feast of the Presentation, for example, if other celebrations permit. The Mass of "Our Lady of Cana", because of its reference forward to the Lord's "hour", could I feel be justifiably used just before the beginning of Lent, or perhaps even on the first Saturday of Lent.

Papal Liturgy as celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI

As I write there are two documents available on the internet that have relevance to understanding developments in the celebration of Papal liturgies by Pope Benedict XVI.

The first of these is the lecture given by Mgr Guido Marini, Master of Pontifical Ceremonies, to the conference for priests from the English speaking world. This conference was held in Rome, to mark the Year for Priests. Entitled "Introducing the Spirit of the Liturgy", the lecture reflects in many ways the book by then-Cardinal Ratzinger "The Spiriti of the Liturgy". The full text of the lecture has been posted at New Liturgical Movement.

The second is an interview with  Father Mauro Gagliardi, one of the consultors to the office of Pontifical Ceremonies, and it is published at the ZENIT site. This has been published under the title "Benedict XVI's 'novel' traditions". There is something slightly mischievous in this title, though I don't think that mischievousness should be attributed to the person being interviewed or, perhaps, even to ZENIT. I recall a time when some innovative (in the unhelpful sense) liturgical practices were justified on the basis of being "the tradition followed here" and the saying became that you just have to do something once for it to become a tradition.

Where Mgr Marini takes as a reference point in his lecture Pope Benedict's writings before he was elected Pope, Fr Gagliardi addresses more explicitly developments in recent Papal celebrations. In both cases, the citation of particular passages can give an unfair view of the whole, so I would recommend reading the full texts in both cases. I quote the following question and answer from the interview with Fr Gagliardi because it is the one that has most practical import; I have added an emphasis to one paragraph:
ZENIT: Accattoli cites other changes, which we could say have more to do with substance: A concern for the moments of silence, celebrations facing the crucifix and with the back to the people, and Communion distributed to the faithful on their tongues as they are kneeling.

Father Gagliardi: These are elements of great significance, which, obviously, I cannot analyze here in a detailed way but only touch on briefly. The “Institutio Generalis” of the Roman Missal published by Paul VI prescribes that sacred silence be observed in different moments [of the liturgy]. The papal liturgy’s attention to this aspect, then, does nothing more than put the established norms into practice.

In regard to celebrations facing the crucifix, we see that normally the Holy Father is maintaining the so-called "versus popolum" position both in St. Peter’s and elsewhere. He has celebrated facing the crucifix only a few times, in particular, in the Sistine Chapel and in the Pauline Chapel, which has been recently renovated. Since the celebration of every Mass, whatever the celebrant’s physical position, is a celebration toward the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit and never "versus populum" or the assembly, save for the few moments of dialogue, it is not strange that the celebrant of the Eucharist can also physically position himself "toward the Lord." Especially in the Sistine Chapel, where the altar is against the wall, it is natural and faithful to the norms to celebrate on the fixed and dedicated altar, thus turned toward the crucifix, rather than adding a free-standing altar for the occasion.

Finally, in regard to the way of distributing Holy Communion to the faithful, one needs to distinguish the aspect of receiving it kneeling from that of receiving it on the tongue. In the actual ordinary form of the Roman Rite -- or the Mass of Paul VI -- the faithful have a right to receive Communion standing or kneeling. If the Holy Father has decided to have communicants kneel, I think -- obviously this is only my personal opinion -- that he holds this to be the more appropriate posture to express the sense of adoration that we must always cultivate before the gift of the Eucharist. It is an aid that the Pope gives to those who receive Communion from him, which helps them to consider attentively who He is who is received in the most holy Eucharist.

On the other hand, in “Sacramentum Caritatis,” citing St. Augustine, the Holy Father recalled that in receiving the Eucharistic Bread we must adore it, because we would sin if we received it without adoring it. Before receiving Communion, the priest himself genuflects before the Host -- why not help the faithful cultivate the sense of proper adoration through a similar gesture?

In regard to Communion in the hand, it must be remembered that this is possible in many places today -- possible but not obligatory -- but that it is, and remains, a concession, a dispensation from the ordinary norm that affirms that Communion is received on the tongue. This concession was made to individual bishops’ conferences that asked for it and it is not the Holy See that suggests it or promotes it. And, in any case, no bishop, as a member of a bishops’ conference that has asked for and obtained the indult, is obliged to accept it and apply it in his diocese: Every bishop can always decide to apply the universal norm -- which is still in force -- in his diocese. According to this norm, the faithful must receive Holy Communion on the tongue. If no bishop in the world is obliged to take advantage of the indult, how can the Pope be obliged? In fact, it is important that the Holy Father maintain the traditional rule, confirmed by Paul VI, who prohibited the faithful from receiving Communion in the hand (for further details, see Mauro Gagliardi, “La Liturgia: Fonte di Vita” [Verona: Fede & Cultura, 2009, p. 170-181]).
I think my emphasised paragraph has two implications. One is the need for a catechesis about what we are actually doing when we receive Holy Communion - an act made up of adoration in its two components of acknowledging the greatness of the God who comes to us and of reaching out in an expression of love towards that same God (the stricter sense of the word communion). The second is the part to be played by Eucharistic Adoration outside of the celebration of Mass - as an act of adoration/communion that leads us back, enriched, to the adoration/communion of the Liturgy. Where Eucharistic Adoration is encouraged, so is the celebration of the Liturgy itself.

Fr Gagliardi says, near the end of his interview:
To me it seems that what is being attempted is a wise joining of the ancient with the new, to actuate in spirit and letter, as much as possible, the indications of the Second Vatican Council, and to do this in such a way that the pontifical celebrations are exemplary in all aspects. Those present at the papal liturgy should be able to say: “Ah, this is how you do it! This is how we should do it in our diocese too, in our parish!”

Friday, 8 January 2010

Letters to the Editor

The Times letters page today has one or two items of interest.

1. Unrevealed pleasure
Robert Crampton (Notebook, Jan 5) only wants books he has read on his shelves. Surely the whole point of keeping books is because they represent a store of future pleasure. Some will be worth rereading, but for most there is pleasure in the unrevealed. I like having books on my shelves that I have not read, just as I like keeping bottles of wine that I have not drunk.
This letter presupposes that a book on one's bookshelves falls into one of two categories: a book I have read, or a book I have not read.

However, there is a third category that might be considered. That is the one of being a book that I have "dipped into". I usually argue, if I am pushed into using just the "read" or "not read" categories, that these books belong in the former category.
On my bookshelves, these third category books are represented by inserted bookmarks, there for future reference. I have now started using post-it notes to mark these pages - they have a better chance of remaining in place - so this particular shelf shows some books that were "read" some time ago.

2. Nazi church flags
This letter, written from first hand experience as a child in Nazi Germany, responds to earlier corresponence: in reverse order, here, here and here. The correspondence followed adverse reporting in connection with the recognition of the heroic virtues of Pope Pius XII by the Holy See.
I believe that there are two additional observations that need to be added to the discussion in these letters. The first is to recognise that, though some Catholic lay people and ministers may not have provided the example and leadership that one might have hoped, there are others who did provide such leadership. Bishop von Galen, the "lion of Munster" comes to mind, but he is not the only such Catholic cleric. His homilies were circulated secretly in Nazi Germany, and the impression that they made on Hans Scholl ("Finally a man has had the courage to speak out" - source: Inge Scholl "The White Rose: Munich 1942-43) is precisely that of recognising the leadership being given.
The second observation is to recognise the element of coercion. This might still mean that we want to say that more Catholics in Germany should have been willing to stand up and be counted, even under coercion from the Nazi authorities. But without a recognition of the climate of force and coercion we do not properly understand the events being considered. It is a very different thing to have complied under coercion in an immoral policy or practice than it is to have embraced with willing and positive complicity such policy or practice.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Two comments on Brideshead (the film, that is)

I happened to read the statement about the 2008 film of Brideshead Revisited on the SIGNIS website two or three days ago.It does, quite transparently, try to score a particular point with regard to the Catholicism represented in the film (and, by implication, in Evelyn Waugh's book?). To quote from the review that follows the statement:
The rituals and devotions of the times evoke memories for older Catholics but may not mean much to younger Catholics at all: rosary beads, holy water and genuflections, the family chapel with night prayer and the singing of the Salve Regina, the family chaplain, the last rites. These are some of the practices.
The family chaplain might not be something of which most of us have experience ... but I think all the other practices are still here!

Madame Evangelista reviews it here (do read the comments, as well as the main post).

I have never been able to get terribly excited by the book and never saw the television series. Recusant family background - check; mother a cotton factory worker, then in the Army - doesn't check; father down the pit as a Bevin boy, then in the Army -doesn't check. I suppose I'm a bit too working class .....

The Genesee Diary: here and there

In at least two different places in his diary (I haven't finished reading it yet, so there might be others as well) Henri Nouwen comments on events taking place in other parts of the world. He writes with feeling of events in Chile and Africa, and about testimonies to persecution and to shortages of basic foods in these distant parts of the world. The depth of feeling with which Fr Nouwen writes makes an impression on the reader.

For the monk, more than for the lay person, there might be the sense that events such as these are "distant". It is easy to see them as not being something we should worry about; instead we should focus on our own lives, and the fulfilling of God's will in our own lives.

When discussing the question raised by this, it is easy to play these two polarities off against each other. In the Christian life, this might be expressed by a tendency to let one's commitment to "the third world" provide a gloss over things that are wrong in our immediate living of Christian life in our own circumstances. The dichotomy is one that isn't as apparent now as it was perhaps in the 1960's and 1970's.

An authentic Christian response is a "both-and" rather than an "either-or". Perhaps primarily, we should focus on living in our own, immediate circumstances. The challenges that this presents to us represent the vocation that, in the providence of God, is our particular one. Our first call, then, is to answer that vocation, and so achieve a fruitfulness in the Christian life. However, this does not mean that we should exclude that part of Christian living that might be expressed by the word "solidarity".

If we understand the monastic life as Christian living taken to its most radical form, and so see it as a model for all Christian living, it can teach us the lesson of this "both-and" very well. The monk is confined to one place - the monastery - which prompts the focus on living the Christian life in the place where he finds himself. But, at the same time, the monk can be extraordinarily well informed about what is going on in the wider world. Which opens up to the monk the possibilities of solidarity in his prayer and penance.

Advance notice: World Day for the Sick 11th February 2010

On the Feast of Christ the King, in November 2009, Pope Benedict's message for the 2010 World Day for the Sick was released. The international celebration of the Day is this year taking place at the Vatican Basilica. No particular theme appears to be identified for this year's Day. The Day does coincide with the 25th anniversary of the establishing by Pope John Paul II of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral of Health Care.

Unfortunately, the Pontifical Council does not have a terribly well organised presence on the World Wide Web. It is not, therefore, a surprise that its work is not well known - even among priests who are hospital chaplains! Summarising the activity of the Council:

1. Organising an annual conference, usually held in Rome and dedicated to a theme within the health care field. This usually takes place in November each year - the 2009 Conference was devoted to the care of those who are deaf. The conferences are multi-disciplinary in their scope - looking at the clinical/medical aspects, ethical and theological aspects, the pastoral aspects and aspects of ecumenical/inter-religious dialogue.

2. The Pontifical Council normally leads in the celebration of the World Day for the Sick.

3. The Pontifical Council publishes a journal, Dolentium Hominum, in French, English and Spanish. The journal publishes the papers from the annual conference, and from other occasional events.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A portion of Isaiah

I had reason yesterday to visit some patients in the hospital near where I live (actually, I can see the hospital from my back windows). This is the passage of Scripture that I shared with a couple of the Christian patients I met. It is Isaiah 58:8-9a, and I chose it becaue of its appropriateness to the Advent/Christmas season.
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your protection.  Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.
Another passage that I sometimes use is the following, from Revelation 22:1-2, a passage to be found almost at the very end of the New Testament:
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
There is a stained glass window in the hospital chapel which shows the leaves of the tree of life, which is why I use this passage.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Seriously single

A few days ago, I ranted over single person households being described as "family", in a rather non-discriminating use of the term "family": Redefining the Family.

I was therefore interested to read this post about being Seriously Single, and the original post of the same title from which it took its cue.

One of the points I noted from the first of these posts is the idea that, if you are living a single life, you should not try to live it as a kind of scaled down family life. Or, in practical terms, set up your house to suit yourself, or at least to fit in with your lifestyle. It's OK not to have a television if you don't watch television; and its OK to only have in the cupboards the food that you actually like!

Another interesting thought was that contained in the quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cited in both posts. This thought was the one that families could show a welcome and hospitality towards single people - a ministry of hospitality, if you like. By implication, singles could show a ministry of hospitality and accompaniment towards each other, sharing holidays and days out. Of course, what never quite works is a special "singles club" ... This kind of hospitality/fellowship needs to be spontaneous and, one might say, in the best sense, charismatic.

Being single, though, does have its amusing, or perhaps ironic, moments. 

Like having Hero choosing the fleece you buy in the sales on Kensington High  Street. Or carefully trying to negotiate whether to go to Points of View at the British Library, or on religious picture trail at the National Gallery/National Portrait Gallery .... and after goint to Points of View (and being disappointed by it, as it wasn't at all what either of us had expected), because you thought that was "first" on the other person's list .... you realise that it was the religious picture trail that was really what the other person wanted to do. Now, what happened to those communication skills ....

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Epiphany: or three feasts for the price of one

Today the star led the Magi to the manger.

Today water was changed into wine at the marriage feast.

Today Christ desired to be baptised by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns." Hark, your watchmen lift up their voice, together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7-10)

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Genesee Diary: "Mary's return"

I recently posted, referring to the fact that I was reading Henri Nouwen's The Genesee Diary, and suggested that it might offer some insights into how monastic life can be understood in relation to the life of a lay person.

I think it is fair for me to observe that Fr Nouwen approached his Catholic life from what one might term a more "liberal" perspective rather than from a "conservative" perspective. But that isn't to say that Fr Nouwen isn't open to the working of grace in the monastery. Take, for example, his account of his re-discovery of the part to be played by the Virgin Mary in his prayer life:

When I was a child she played a very important role in my religious development. The May and October devotions in my family are a real part of my childhood memories ... But after my seminary years, a certain antidevotionalism developed in the circles where I lived, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, became less and less important in my religious life.

But this week "she returned". Not by an conscious attempt to restore my devotion to Our Lady .. but without any intrusiveness I found her in the heart of my search for a more contemplative life. If anything helped, it was the Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir in the Abbey chapel. ...

With a somewhat sad, melancholic gaze, Mary looks at you and points with her right hand to the child she holds on her left arm. The child is embracing her in a very affectionate way. The intimacy of the child's embrace is expressed by the little hand that, appearing from under the veil covering Mary's head, gently touches her left cheek. The child looks like a small adult ina  monk's habit.

I keep looking at this intimate scene, and peace invades my soul. Mary speaks to me about Jesus. To him she directs me ... it seems that she invites me to share in the intimacy between her and her child.

This week I often experienced resitance toward private prayer... But when I knelt in front of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, it was different. In some way my resistance against meditation subsided, and I simply enjoyed being invited to enter into the intimacy between Jesus and Mary.
Fr Nouwen goes on to discuss how the monk acting as his spiritual guide during his stay at Genesee pointed out the psychological implications of this. Fr Nouwen was encouraged to give more space for his receptive, contemplative side - his feminine side.  More fundamentally, they might have reflected on an ecclesial implication - the contemplative nature of the monastic life as sharing in Mary's openess and receptivity to the Holy Spirit and to the coming of the Word made flesh, and the monk as an exemplar of Mary-the Church who still makes Christ present in the world.