Sunday 24 March 2024

Things Fell Apart

In recent months I was able to listen to some of the episodes in the second series of Jon Ronson's Radio 4 broadcasts/podcasts Things Fell Apart. I haven't listened to all of them, and I haven't listened to the first series. All the episodes from both series can be found on BBC Sounds: Things Fell Apart. The episodes I have listened to suggest that they are all worth hearing. The stories are unexpected and told in a way that holds attention throughout - sometimes it is only in the last moments that the full import of the story's starting point becomes clear.

There are some clear lessons:

posting something to a blog or to Twitter/X that is not true can, down the line, have unpredictable and serious consequences

posting something that is in itself true, but forms only part of a story, can have the same consequences as above

re-tweeting or re-posting without due care and attention is a potentially hazardous game, as it can propagate something that is not true - see above

beware of taking an idea in one context, with its intended meaning in that context, and transferring it into a new context which gives the idea a completely different and potentially damaging meaning

it is easy, both in the ether and in the real world, to hang on to a discredited story and keep repeating it, again with the risk of unpredictable and serious consequences

if you are someone in a position of public influence, you need to be careful not to pick up a part story and use it to your own purposes/ideological intent

we should be careful not to think of ourselves as heroes (see last episode of Series 2).

Things Fell Apart does not address Catholic subjects, at least not in the episodes I have heard (though Episode 7 should be compulsory listening for those who have bought in to Great Resetting), but its lessons have clear application to Catholics who post to the ether.

My blog does indeed have an example of an unpredictable consequence following a post. The post involved is entitled If You Knew SUSY, posted way back in 2010. Looking at blog statistics at the time, there appeared to be a regular appearance of visits from Maryland in the USA which I couldn't understand. In 2013 a comment to the post explained what was happening. The author of the original article about which I had posted appears to have seen my post and was, I think, referring to it in discussions with his students/colleagues at the University of Maryland. See here: Superstring Theoretical Physicist on Codes of Reality.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

On blessings and on assisted dying

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has published a Declaration on the meaning of blessings, particularly addressing the question of how blessings might be appropriately used with same sex couples and couples whose marriage situations are not fully in accord with Catholic teaching. News reporting inevitably offers a part of the whole, so I do think it is worthwhile going to the website of the Holy See to read the entire document itself: Fiducia Supplicans. There are some careful distinctions that can be easily lost in reporting.

Before highlighting the possibilities of blessings for same sex couples etc,  the Declaration offers a concrete affirmation of Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage:

Therefore, rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage—which is the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children”[6]—and what contradicts it are inadmissible. This conviction is grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage; it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning. The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm.

And, subtly, there is also a clear intention that the style of informal blessings envisaged for same sex couples or couples whose marriage situations are not fully in accord with Catholic teaching, is given to those who (my italics added)

....recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

And correspondingly:

How often, through a pastor’s simple blessing, which does not claim to sanction or legitimize anything, can people experience the nearness of the Father, beyond all “merits” and “desires”? 

The blessing of a same sex couple that recently took place at an Anglican Church in Felixstowe clearly has, and was seen as having, the character of a legitimization of the status of the couple involved - and would not be countenanced by Fiducia Supplicans

The BBC news website is reporting that  Esther Rantzen, being treated currently for a Stage 4 cancer, has joined the Dignitas assisted dying clinic in Switzerland.

Speaking about her decision to join Dignitas, Dame Esther said it was driven in part by her wish that her family's "last memories of me" are not "painful because if you watch someone you love having a bad death, that memory obliterates all the happy times".

For those, like myself, who do spend time with patients and family/friends as a patient comes to the end of their lives, there are two elements of Esther Rantzen's words that prompt a sadness. Whilst accompanying a loved one as they die is often going to be challenging, we should not assume that it is going to be "bad". It is for those who surround the dying person to use their time with them to create positive memories in that time; and this is a responsibility that is wider than just the immediate carers. It is a matter of creating a culture, that runs alongside the provision of good clinical, palliative care. In visiting with patients and family/friends in these circumstances, there is a very particular opportunity for them to share anew the memories that have been lived before, as well as living together the present experience. It is a question of accompanying, so that the memories of this time will not be ones that exist to the exclusion of all other memories, and so that they are memories that are enhancing rather than debilitating.

Sunday 5 November 2023

A Secular Age - and beyond

The Focolare Movement in Great Britain publishes a magazine 11 times a year, called New City. The name is shared with many editions in other languages published by the Focolare in different parts of the world. Following the charism of unity of the Focolare Movement, the magazine states its mission as follows:

New City works to promote mutual understanding and respect through dialogue. Together with our readers we want to discover how to "build bridges" in the different sectors of society and in personal life. We are convinced that dialogue, based on mutual love, is the only way to build a more united world which is based on universal values such as justice, equality, truth and peace.

The November 2023 issue can be viewed online here; and previous issues can be viewed here.

The November 2023 issue has two articles that address the question of how Christians should feel and act in a world that is recognised to be increasingly "secular" or "secularised". The articles of interest are the interview with Fr Patrick Gilger SJ starting on page 4 and the reflection by Robbie Young on pages 16-17. You will need to follow the link above and read these articles if you wish to understand my comments below.

Fr Patrick identifies three understandings of the idea of secularity: firstly, a political arrangement in which the Church is separate from the State; and secondly, a decline in religious belief and practice in the world around us. In a third understanding, however, Fr Patrick identifies secularity (the wording of the article at this point seems to have chosen this word rather than secularisation) as seeing in the world a plurality of world views and life styles, and therefore a kind of competitive space rather than one that sets out deliberately to target religious belief. The suggestion that follows is that Christians should see the process of secularisation in society as an opportunity for dialogue, as an opportunity to encounter potential collaborators rather than enemies, though they may be collaborators with whom we may never full agree. If, as Fr Patrick points out later in his interview, Jesus is still present in the world, this seeking of dialogue becomes a search to discover how He may be acting in places other than we might expect.

There is an echo of this thought in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, occuring in n.92. at the conclusion of the constitution: 

For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace.

 Robbie Young's survey is, I think, a prescient reflection on the background to our present day situation. I am particularly interested in what he describes as a "bonus" that our Western societies have taken on board, and that may provide that potential for dialogue:

For decades now Western societies have placed all their money on what was believed to be a knock-out combination of liberal democracies, free market economies, and science and technology, with a bonus thrown in that invididuals can choose their own values, moral codes and lifestyles. Perhaps it will be the bonus that will turn out to be the Trojan Horse. If selfishness, licentiousness, and consumeristic hedonism come to characterise the culture, how could it possibly survive?

 It is possible to be both over pessimistic and over optimistic when considering this path way of dialogue between Christians and wider society. The task can seem quite overwhelming if it is viewed in a wide perspective. But, as is the practice of the Focolare Movement, dialogue can be promoted in local and small scale contexts, among the people that you happen to know, with real chances of building unity.

Thursday 24 August 2023

Rimini: Meeting 2023

 This August sees the 44th edition of the Meeting for Friendship among Peoples, held in the Adriatic resort of Rimini. Though not strictly speaking an activity of the movement Communion and Liberation, the annual Rimini meeting is very much associated with that movement. The theme for this year's meeting is "Human existence is an inexhaustible friendship", and it is possible to see in that choice of theme a reflection of Pope Francis' writing and activity in favour of fraternity among peoples. 

The theme is presented in the theme and poster for the Meeting 2023. It is interesting, I think, to offer this reflection on the nature of friendship at a time when the public conversation about LGBTQ+ issues so often features the assertions that "we should be free to love who we choose" or that "love always wins" - without any attention to exactly what that word "love" really means.  Pope Francis' message to the meeting takes up the theme:

Addressing the young, the Holy Father exalted the value of true friendship, which expands the heart: “Faithful friends … are also a reflection of the Lord’s love, his gentle and consoling presence in our lives. The experience of friendship teaches us to be open, understanding and caring towards others, to come out of our own comfortable isolation and to share our lives with others” (Christus vivit, 151). And we can couple this with another reflection from Don Giussani: “The true nature of friendship is to live freely together for destiny. There cannot be friendship among us, we cannot call ourselves friends, if we do not love the destiny of the other above any other thing, leaving aside any advantage” (Attraverso la compagnia dei credenti, Milano 2021, 184).

And it is possible to recognise in this the idea of a love understood as wishing what is true and good for the other (cf, I think, Thomas Aquinas).

A scroll down the programme of the meeting, listing day by day each of the main events, gives an idea of the range of the exploration of the theme. Do persevere down it, to get a feel of the very wide range of te engagement with the idea of friendship.

What particularly attracted my attention in the meeting programme was one of the exhibitions, that dedicated to Eugenio Corti's novel The Red Horse. I am linking to the Italian version of the page describing this exhibition, as it is more complete than the English page: Il Cavallo Rosso di Eugenio Corti.

The exhibition offers a re-reading of the 1280 pages of the work, with particular attention to the dynamics that led the author to conceive the activity of writing as a task assigned to him by Providence. In fact, the path intertwines the biography of the Brianza author with the events narrated in the novel, observing, in some respects, almost an overlap between his life and the content of the work.

Eugenio Corti's novel places its characters in a very wide ranging account of the Italian involvement in the Second World War, from the participation in the German campaign in Russia (Corti himself survived that campaign), through the Italian surrender and the subsequent events in Greece (cf Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and its account of the killing of essentially unarmed Italian soldiers by the Germans), to the fighting by Italian soldiers on the Allied side after the surrender. This latter includes, alongside the better known partisan activity in the mountains of Northern Italy, the much less well known part played by Italian soldiers at Monte Cassino. The novel continues after the war, as its protagonists engage with the post-war election and the campaign on the referendum on divorce. 

Alongside the exhibition, a series of presentations introduced participants to each of the key characters in the novel. There are also a series of more academic presentations about Eugenio Corti and his novel. The one of these that struck me was the one entitled "From The Betrothed to The Red Horse: a Lombard connection". Whilst it is now a few years since I read The Red Horse, it is only a couple of months since I finished a reading of Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed. In their different historical settings, both can be seen as classics of Italian literature; both have a setting based in the Lombardy region of northern Italy; both place their narratives within a historically accurate context; and both contain an expression of a profoundly Catholic culture. It is very striking to read The Betrothed after our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. The narrative of the novel is to a significant extent set against the background of an outbreak of the plague brought to northern Italy and to the city of Milan by an invading army. One can recognise in the account of the experience of the plague a number of things that are familiar to us from the COVID-19 pandemic: plague denial in the early stages, with reluctance to limit population movements; isolation of infected households in the city, though enforced more drastically than for our pandemic; overwhelmed medical provision in so far as such existed at the time; conspiracy theories; and, towards the end of the novel, an instance of meeting out of doors with social distancing that might have been part of our regulations in 2020 or 2021.

And my final thought. Another of the exhibitions is dedicated to Giovanni Guareschi's characters  Don Camillo and Peppone, with the title "Always rivals, but never enemies". Guareschi's writing and life story occur simultaneously with the family story described in The Red Horse - his work on posters for the elections in 1948 is referenced in the novel. I first read Don Camillo stories before I left home, as they were on the bookshelves at home. I now possess a complete set, and am currently re-reading some of them.

Thursday 3 August 2023

Pope Francis in Lisbon: Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and Diplomatic Corps

 Pope Francis met with the political leaders and representatives of civil society in Lisbon, as part of his visit to Portugal for World Youth Day 2023. In much of his address, he drew on Lisbon's connection to the sea, using the idea of the ocean as a connecting theme. This gives Pope Francis' address a certain beauty, particularly when it asks on which course Europe and the West are sailing. Do read the whole here: Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and Diplomatic Corps.

I choose a paragraph to cite below, which gives a flavour of the address as whole, and which expresses Pope Francis' position on abortion, family life and euthanasia:

The ocean, this immense expanse of water, recalls the origins of life. In today’s developed world, paradoxically, the defence of human life, menaced by a creeping utilitarianism that uses life and discards it – a culture that discards life, has now become a priority. I think of so many unborn children, and older persons who are abandoned, of the great challenge of welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating those who come from afar and knock on our doors, and the isolation felt by so many families that find it hard to bring children into the world and raise them. Here too, we might ask: “Where are you sailing, Europe and the West, with the discarding of the elderly, walls of barbed wire, massive numbers of deaths at sea and empty cradles? Where are you sailing? Where are you sailing if, before life’s ills, you offer hasty but mistaken remedies: like easy access to death, a convenient answer that seems ‘sweet’ but is in fact more bitter than the waters of the sea?” I am thinking here of many advanced laws concerning euthanasia.

Later in his address, Pope Francis makes a plea for a reversal in the decline of the birth rate in Europe and the West: 

Young people are the future. Yet they encounter much that is disheartening: lack of jobs, the dizzying pace of contemporary life, hikes in the cost of living, the difficulty of finding housing and, even more disturbing, the fear of forming families and bringing children into the world. In Europe and, more generally, in the West, we are witnessing a decline in the demographic curve: progress seems to be measured by developments in technology and personal comfort, whereas the future calls for reversing the fall in the birth rate and the weakening of the will to live. A healthy politics can accomplish much in this regard; it can be a generator of hope. It is not about holding on to power, but about giving people the ability to hope. Today more than ever, it is about correcting the imbalances of a market economy that produces wealth but fails to distribute it, depriving people of resources and security. Political life is challenged once more to see itself as a generator of life and concern for others. It is called to show foresight by investing in the future, in families and in children, and by promoting intergenerational covenants that do not cancel the past but forge bonds between young and old.  

Saturday 29 July 2023

Francis and Benedict: advocates of inter-generational wisdom


A passage from Pope Francis' Message for the Third World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly struck me as being a complementary articulation of an idea that I recall from Pope Benedict XVI's lecture prepared for a visit to La Sapienza university in Rome, an address which circumstances prevented him from actually delivering. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are suggesting the existence of an inter-generational wisdom that we need to respect for the good of society.

Pope Francis expresses this idea of an inter-generational wisdom in the pastoral context of the relationship between grandparents and the elderly, and young people.

The Lord trusts that young people, through their relationships with the elderly, will realize that they are called to cultivate memory and recognize the beauty of being part of a much larger history. Friendship with an older person can help the young to see life not only in terms of the present and realize that not everything depends on them and their abilities. For the elderly, the presence of a young person in their lives can give them hope that their experience will not be lost and that their dreams can find fulfilment. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and their shared awareness that the Lord’s mercy is from generation to generation remind us that, alone, we cannot move forward, much less save ourselves, and that God’s presence and activity are always part of something greater, the history of a people. Mary herself said this in the Magnificat, as she rejoiced in God, who, in fidelity to the promise he had made to Abraham, had worked new and unexpected wonders (cf. vv. 51-55).

To better appreciate God’s way of acting, let us remember that our life is meant to be lived to the full, and that our greatest hopes and dreams are not achieved instantly but through a process of growth and maturation, in dialogue and in relationship with others. Those who focus only on the here and now, on money and possessions, on “having it all now”, are blind to the way God works. His loving plan spans past, present and future; it embraces and connects the generations. It is greater than we are, yet includes each of us and calls us at every moment to keep pressing forward. For the young, this means being ready to break free from the fleeting present in which virtual reality can entrap us, preventing us from doing something productive. For the elderly, it means not dwelling on the loss of physical strength and thinking with regret about missed opportunities. Let us all look ahead! And allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s grace, which from generation to generation frees us from inertia and from dwelling on the past!

And Pope Benedict expresses it an academic context:

At this point I would like to describe briefly how John Rawls, while denying that comprehensive religious doctrines have the character of “public” reason, nonetheless at least sees their “non-public” reason as one which cannot simply be dismissed by those who maintain a rigidly secularized rationality. Rawls perceives a criterion of this reasonableness among other things in the fact that such doctrines derive from a responsible and well thought-out tradition in which, over lengthy periods, satisfactory arguments have been developed in support of the doctrines concerned. The important thing in this assertion, it seems to me, is the acknowledgment that down through the centuries, experience and demonstration – the historical source of human wisdom – are also a sign of its reasonableness and enduring significance. Faced with an a-historical form of reason that seeks to establish itself exclusively in terms of a-historical rationality, humanity’s wisdom – the wisdom of the great religious traditions – should be valued as a heritage that cannot be cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.

Tuesday 4 July 2023

The Passion for Evangelisation: St Paul VI in the Philippines

 Pope Francis has resumed his General Audience addresses in which he presents witnesses to the Passion for Evangelisation. His most recent address, on 28th June, gave an account of the life and work of St Mary MacKillop. I was particularly interested to note how Mary MacKillop's work founding schools was presented by Pope Francis as a method of evangelisation:

Wisely reading the signs of the times, she understood that for her, the best way to do so was through the education of the young, with the awareness that Catholic education is a form of evangelization. It is a great form of evangelization. In this way, if we can say that “each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel” (Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, 19), then Mary MacKillop was especially so through the founding of schools.

The Office of Readings for the 13th Sunday of the Year, which occurred last Sunday, also offered a striking witness to the passion for evangelisation. The second reading was an extract from a homily given by Pope Paul VI in Manila on 29th November 1970. We are now very used to the Pope undertaking apostolic journeys, but this was a more unusual thing at the time of Pope Paul VI. His trip to West Asia, the far East and Australia in 1970 still appears remarkable. The time that he spent in the Philippines was not without controversy.

The reading in the Office quoted the first part of Pope Paul's homily. 

I Paul, the successor of Saint Peter, charged with the pastoral mission for the whole Church, would never have come from Rome to this far-distant land, unless I had been most firmly convinced of two fundamental things: first, of Christ; and second, of your salvation.

Convinced of Christ: yes, I feel the need to proclaim him, I cannot keep silent. «Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!» (1 Cor. 9: 16). I am sent by him, by Christ himself, to do this. I am an apostle, I am a witness. The more distant the goal, the more difficult my mission the more pressing is the love that urges me to it (Cfr. 2 Cor. 5: 13). I must bear witness to his name: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matth. 16: 16). He reveals the invisible God, he is the firstborn of all creation, the foundation of everything created. He is the Teacher of mankind, and its Redeemer. He was born, he died and he rose again for us. He is the centre of history and of the world; he is the one who knows us and who loves us; he is the companion and the friend of our life. He is the man of sorrows and of hope. It is he who will come and who one day will be our judge and - we hope -the everlasting fulness of our existence, our happiness. I could never finish speaking about him: he is the light and the truth; indeed, he is «the way, the truth and the life» (Io. 14: 6). He is the bread and the spring of living water to satisfy our hunger and our thirst. He is our shepherd, our guide, our model, our comfort, our brother. Like us, and more than us, he has been little, poor, humiliated; he has been a worker; he has known misfortune and been patient. For our sake he spoke, worked miracles and founded a new kingdom where the poor are happy, where peace is the principle for living together, where the pure of heart and those who mourn are raised up and comforted, where those who hunger and thirst after justice have their fill, where sinners can be forgiven, where all are brothers.

And, as if he cannot stop, Pope Paul continues:

Jesus Christ: you have heard him spoken of; indeed the greater part of you are already his: you are Christians. So, to you Christians I repeat his name, to everyone I proclaim him: Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega; he is the king of the new world; he is the secret of history; he is the key to our destiny. He is the mediator, the bridge, between heaven and earth. He is more perfectly than anyone else the Son of Man, because he is the Son of God, eternal and infinite. He is the son of Mary, blessed among all women, his mother according to the flesh, and our mother through the sharing in the Spirit of his Mystical Body. 

Reading the homily, one can sense Pope Paul's passion for evangelisation.

But it is perhaps important to look at the second part of Pope Paul's homily, in which he addresses the context of the then social and political situation in the Philippines.

Yet, as far as the positive and happy development of your social conditions is concerned, we can give a positive answer: Christianity can be salvation also on the earthly and human level. Christ multiplied the loaves also to satisfy the physical hunger of the crowds following him. And Christ continues to work this miracle for those who truly believe in him, and who take from him the principles of a dynamic social order, that is, of an order that is continually progressing and being renewed.

And in turn, Pope Paul suggests how Christ can provide a response to the different influences at play in the society of the time (extract below, but it is worth reading the whole of this section for the full flavour of Pope Paul's words): 

To you who are students and can well grasp these fundamental ideas and these higher values, I would say this: Today while you are challenging the structures of affluent society, the society that is dominated by technology and by the anxious pursuit of productivity and consumption, you are aware of the insufficiency and the deceptiveness of the economic and social materialism that marks our present progress. You are truly able to reaffirm the superiority, richness and relevance of authentic Christian sociology, based on true knowledge of man and of his destiny.

Workers, my message to you is this: While today you have become aware of your strength, take care that in the pursuit of your total rehabilitation you do not adopt formulas that are incomplete and inaccurate. These, while offering you partial victories of an economic and hedonistic nature, under the banner of a selfish and bitter struggle, may later increase the disappointment of having been deprived of the higher values of the spirit, of having been deprived of your religious personality and of your hope in the life that will not end. Let your aspirations be inspired by the vigour and wisdom that only the Gospel of the divine Worker can give you.