Sunday 28 September 2014

In the news ....

Once again today's news demonstrate the power of sexual scandal to bring about a resignation from political office, and also from ecclesial office. Particularly as far as the resignation from political office is concerned, there is a certain irony that this can still occur in times that are by and large characterised by indifference to questions of moral right and wrong in the realm of sexual conduct.

As far as Brooks Newmark is concerned, events reported today remind all of us that our private lives can and do impact on our public lives. We are not just Christians on Sunday, but throughout the rest of the week, too. Our calling is to put our faith into practice in our public life.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith has written what I believe is a most authentically Catholic response to Bishop Conry's resignation: There is always a way back for everyone who fails. The suggestion that part of our response to this situation should be to go to the Sacrament of Penance appears to me particularly pertinent. A nuance of the word "Confession" used to describe this Sacrament is the sense of carrying, yes our own immediate sins, but also of carrying with the Church as a whole, the burden of the sins of others too. (I think this is one of the themes developed by Adrienne von Speyr in her book Confession, which, written before the Council, insists on the use of the word "confession" for the Sacrament.)

Also today, the papers are full of the news of the marriage of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin. And, of course, most Catholics will happily speak in terms of the two now being married. But, in the light of the forthcoming Synods devoted to marriage and family life, should we not perhaps be a little more critical in asking whether or not their union is in fact a valid marriage (valid, but not sacramental)? The question is relevant, less from the point of view of being critical of George and Amal, but more from the point of view of how our attitude to their wedding is actually colouring our own understanding of what marriage is.  According to this BBC report:
Clooney was previously married to Talia Balsam, who he divorced in 1993.
If a Catholic couple marry with an understanding of marriage formed by that of George and Amal, it is not going to be a valid marriage. This ambient culture, antithetical to a Catholic understanding of marriage, does represent a pastoral challenge among the others that the Synod faces. It is naïve not to recognise how this culture impacts young people in the Catholic community.

Friday 26 September 2014

Appreciating Paul VI: part 7

Humane Vitae.

Francis Phillips has already said essentially what I would want to say about Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae: The future Blessed Pope Paul VI was a great champion of family life (but I think one can safely ignore the comments on Francis' post).

That Popes subsequent to Pope Paul have not only held to the teaching of Humanae Vitae but have offered able and contemporary defences of its teaching strikes me as being very significant.

And I suspect that a complete sociological analysis of the response of Catholics to Humanae Vitae will, as well as verifying the extent to which its teaching may have been ignored, also reveal the extent of faithful living out of the teaching by many. This latter group, of course, do not catch the media attention of the former.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

St Pio of Pietrelcina

St Pio is not a saint to whom I take naturally, so it was rather a challenge at the time of his canonisation to engage with the stories of his life and to try and understand that life as a charism and a mission for the Church. Below is part of an article I wrote at that time. It tries to identify exactly what was St Pio's mission in and for the Church. I think the prime source for the account of the pain he experienced during the celebration of Mass is the testimony of American soldiers and airmen who attended his Mass while serving nearby during the Second World War.
Padre Pio is a witness to the reality of a supernatural existence.  Just as he lived in the physical world, he also experienced ecstatic encounters with Jesus and the saints in heaven.  These joyful encounters were matched by an acute sense of his own sinfulness and a despairing experience of temptation; Padre Pio’s spiritual experience was that of an oscillation between heaven and hell.  Whilst this might appear remarkable to us, it is an experience shared by the great mystics St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and expressed in the poetry of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament: “Then I rose to open to my Beloved….but he had turned his back and gone!”.   
There are countless stories of healings in response to intercession by Padre Pio, some better attested than others.  When he was in Rome as a Bishop for the Second Vatican Council, Karol Wojtyla asked Padre Pio to pray for one of his closest friends and collaborators in Krakow.  When he telephoned Krakow the day after major surgery was due, he learned that Wanda Poltawska had returned home healed of her cancer without having undergone the surgery.  The effectiveness of Padre Pio’s intercession arises from his self-offering to God as a victim for others.
The core of Padre Pio’s active apostolate and his spiritual mission in the Church, however, is his being marked with the wounds of Christ, the stigmata.  The visible marks are an outward sign of a lived experience of the crucifixion, both as a willing self-offering on the part of the person involved and as a gift from God of being able to take part in the suffering of Jesus himself.  Padre Pio is distinguished from his contemporary stigmatists (Marthe Robin, Adrienne von Speyr, Therese Neumann) as a man and as a priest.  Where their experience of the Passion is associated with time - from Thursday evening to Sunday morning or the period of the Easter Triduum - Padre Pio’s experience is associated with his celebration of the Eucharist.  Eyewitness accounts describe the intense pain that he experienced in his hands, feet and whole body as he celebrated Mass.  At the words of Consecration, said hesitantly and with frequent repeating of words, “he is literally on the cross with Christ”.  Blood flowed from the wounds in Padre Pio’s hands, feet and side.  After his Mass, Padre Pio would spend many hours celebrating the Sacrament of Penance.  This aspect of his mission in the Church can also be seen in the light of the stigmata.  In this sacrament, the Church bears the burden of sin “for others” and for Padre Pio this was explicit in the way in which he offered himself as a victim for others.  Whilst there are many stories of Padre Pio’s supernatural insight into the lives of those who came to him for confession, he was for the majority of people simply a very good confessor and counsellor.
St Pio would also appear to have had a somewhat wicked sense of humour. My article relates a prank he organised at the expense of some of his fellow Franciscans that involved exaggerating the pain of a cholera inoculation they were all receiving  - to the extent that one fellow priest fainted and another approached the doctor having gone as white as a sheet. My favourite anecdote, however, relates to St Pio's expressed views in favour of the refrigerator and against the television, delivered, if my memory is correct, in the community room of his friary. "The inventor of the refrigerator ..."[pointing upwards]; "... the inventor of the television ..." [pointing downwards].

Sunday 21 September 2014

Shock and Awe

I suspect that Blackfen is not the only parish in the country to have recently, or to be about to, experience a change in parish clergy. Such changes can lead to a certain shock among parishioners as new clergy with inclinations and pastoral orientations different than those of their predecessors establish their wishes in a parish. I suspect that it has ever been thus, and this is not a phenomenon that is particularly new to the Church of our own times. I recall my mother, for example, speaking of a Fr McCormack, who served in their Lancashire mill town parish in the early 1940's, as being a priest who inspired people and got things going (perhaps most remarkably two YCW sections, in which my mother and at least one of her sisters played a significant role). When he moved to other pastoral duties, I think I can reasonably surmise that a certain amount of disappointment was felt by some at least in the parish.

Part of the cause of such shock may be failings in charity on the part of arriving clergy - but remember, the clergy are as human as the rest of us, and we might well find similar failings among ourselves. But in our own times, I think there may be a more structural aspect, too. At the time that my own diocese learnt of the appointment of a new bishop, I commented on what I might hope for in the new appointment in a post entitled Hopes for a new bishop:
The experience of living in the diocese is that there are some parishes where I am happy to attend Mass and some parishes where I am not happy to attend Mass ... and most parishes that sit somewhere in between, not scaring me away but not exerting a positive attraction either. This is usually down to the parish priest because, for all the talk about lay ministry, it is still the parish priest who drives what happens in a parish. I am atypical in that, not having lived in the diocese when I was young, I do not enjoy a strong affiliation to one parish rather than another. So I look to the new bishop to achieve a greater unity among the priests of the diocese, so that lay folk like myself can live a greater unity of ecclesial experience from one parish to another. A unity in the celebration of the Liturgy and catechetical life seem essential to me in this regard.
A diversity in charisms and gifts among clergy is to be expected; but that does not militate against an underlying unity in the celebration of the Liturgy and in the catechetical life of a diocese. Indeed, the articulation of that diversity might well be linked to the charisms of religious serving in a parish or to the charisms of ecclesial movements with a presence in a parish, all of which can be lived within an underlying unity of diocesan life.
It does also have to be recognised that, at a human level, a new parish priest who wishes to make changes will be able to establish those changes more easily if he moves to implement them as soon as possible after his arrival.
All of which is leading me to suggest that the shock being experienced by some in Blackfen may have arisen most fundamentally from a situation of a lack of unity in the Liturgical and catechetical life of dioceses in general, and rather less from questions relating directly to the celebration of the Extraordinary Form. [The celebration of the principle Mass on Sundays and Days of Obligation in the Extraordinary Form could arguably itself have been out of sympathy with Pope Benedict's observation in his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum that it would remain the Missal of Pope Paul VI, celebrated with a reverence and obedience to rubrics, that would unite parish communities.] As such, it is a shock alike to that which may be experienced in other parishes. It's only unusual dimension is that it has attracted national and international attention.
And now for the awe. Mgr Marcus Stock has been appointed as the new bishop of Leeds. A blog post at the Tablet describes him as being "among the most able clergy of his generation" and "quietly orthodox". I think he is unlikely to do something one of his predecessors, the then Bishop Heenan did. After an early round of clergy moves, the clergy of Leeds in Bishop Heenan's time reportedly greeted each other with the words "where are you?" rather than "how are you?" The attention that Mgr Stock is indicating towards the priests of the diocese matches both Pope Francis' thoughts and, indirectly, my wishes for my own new bishop referred to above. I have wondered what I would feel is an appropriate state of mind of a newly appointed bishop. I would suggest "awe", not just at the human level in reacting to the scale of the task to be undertaken, but at the nature of the office (in the Balthasarian sense) that is about to be assumed. There is a rightful awe in the power of the priest to celebrate Mass and to forgive sins in the person of Christ. But the bishop is a successor of the Apostles, the person whose presence in the particular geographical location represents the corner stone on which all other ecclesial stones in that geographical location are aligned in order to have "communion" with the universal Church and the Successor of Peter (and, indeed, since the announcement of his appointment, Mgr Stock has expressed his fidelity to the Successor of Peter).
Many years ago now, Mgr Mario Oliveri expressed this in a talk that I heard in Oxford, giving an account of the teaching of Vatican II's decree on the Pastoral office of Bishops in this regard:
The essential characteristics of a Diocese or of a particular Church are ...:
(a) a community of the faithful;
(b) The presence in them of a Bishop as Shepherd to whom the pastoral care is entrusted and who is assisted by a Presbyterate (Sacred Ministries);
(c) the adherence of the faithful to the Bishop;
(d) the unity of the faithful in the Holy Spirit realised by the Bishop through the Gospel and the Eucharist (faith and sacraments).
Mgr Oliveri identified a further characteristic as being essential so that in the local Church the universal Church of Christ might be present and active, a characteristic which impinges particularly on the office of the Bishop:
It is necessary that the individual Church should be in communion with all the other (local) Churches and their respective Pastors and particularly with that Church which has the Successor of Peter as its Pastor and which alone can definitively guarantee the authenticity of Faith and fidelity to Christ.
This office of the Bishop is something that rightly fills with awe.

Sunday 14 September 2014

In Exaltatione Sanctae Crucis- UPDATED

As the Nazis imposed their terror across Europe, particularly directing it against the Jewish people, Edith Stein wrote of a cross being laid upon the Jewish people. Her request to her superiors to be allowed to offer her life in Carmel as a particular offering on the behalf of a people who she still considered as her own arose as she sensed that it was those who knew of the mystery of the cross who had a responsibility to bear it on the behalf of others.

In our own times, events in Iraq and Syria (and other parts of the world, too, Nigeria and Ukraine coming most readily to mind) demonstrate the existence of an evil that it is difficult to comprehend in the comfort of homes in the developed nations of Europe and the Americas. Indeed, a cross is placed upon many peoples, Christians and non-Christians, in our own times. In a very different way, the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa also represents a cross laid particularly upon the poorer peoples of the region.

That cross is first of all a sign of witness - and the stories of those who, threatened with death if they did not abandon their Christian faith in favour of Islam, inspire in a way that is a very particular grace for  those of us who are able to live our Christian lives in relative comfort. It was striking last Sunday to join a demonstration on Whitehall calling for a UN protected safe haven for the peoples of the Nineveh plains and to see, among the placards of a more political nature, a number of demonstrators holding up crosses. I think there is an interesting reflection to be made upon the meaning of the cross held up on such an occasion. I am also reminded of a passage from Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint, where he suggests that the fullness of Christian unity is already achieved at that moment when witness to the point of death, martyrdom, is exacted of the Christian believer. There is a profound unity lived out among the different Christian denominations who share a common experience of terror in Syria and Iraq.

The cross is also a sign in favour of the dignity of the human person. It is a sign that says that suffering is not without meaning and that, whilst suffering remains in a true sense an evil that is to be overcome, it can be turned to good. It is also a sign that says that God made man in Jesus Christ, and the Church that is his mystical body on earth, stand with those who are the subjects of the mystery of evil, the mysterium iniquitatis to which I think both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI referred. In this sense, it is a sign that is offered to all peoples, whether or not they are Christians.

In his homily at Mass this morning, Father spoke of the cross as a key that opens three doors, the doors of love, of faith and of hope. In a way that was rich in a spirit of the new movements, Father suggested that the cross is the key that opens to us a door through which we can perceive God's love for us, and come to recognise just how much we are loved by Him. He then suggested that the cross is a door through which we can see what the future promises us in eternity; as we encounter the cross we are brought into touch with eternity. And finally, Father suggested that the cross enables us to see that the difficulties and pain that we meet in life have a reason and a meaning. The cross offers us love, faith and hope.

The celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on a Sunday is perhaps particularly fortuitous in 2014, offering an opportunity for all of us to recognise our call to take up the cross and to carry it on the behalf of, and in solidarity with, those upon whom, through the workings of the mysterium iniquitatis, it is laid involuntarily in our own time.

Saturday 13 September 2014

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family: some thoughts

I recall an observation to the effect that there were two Vatican II's, one being the Council as it took place within the Vatican Basilica and the various meetings associated with the Council itself, and the second being that which took place in the news media. One might perhaps add a third: the one which, again making use of the news media, looks back to the Council through its own slanted perspective. I have found it quite an eye-opener, for example, to read the text of some of the addresses given by Cardinal Augustin Bea, Pope John XXIII's right hand man in developing the Catholic Church's ecumenical engagement at the time of the Council. What they portray as the principles of ecumenical activity on the part of the Catholic Church would now be seen as decidedly "conservative", though ecumenical endeavour was one of the "liberal" motivations to emerge from the Council. The point, though, is that they probably represent rather better than much else a genuine understanding of where the Catholic Church stands on ecumenism.

Likewise the Synod on the Family. There is the "real" Synod and the "media" Synod, the Synod that recognises that, in the world wide preparatory questionnaire there was not one single question asking for views about the truth or otherwise of Catholic teaching, and the Synod that calls for change or "dialogue" about the Church's teaching on the grounds of responses to the questionnaire that show that many Catholics do not follow the teaching. And there is also the focus of media discussion on the question of the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion.

My first thought is that the question of marriage and family life is indeed a major pastoral priority/concern for the Catholic Church. Many years ago now, I was part of a conversation reflecting on what it was that enabled some families to successfully hand on the practice of the Catholic faith to their children as those children moved into adult life and what it was that meant that other families did not succeed in that. Irregularity in marriage situations was a clear part of the latter experience of some taking part in that conversation, with the marriage situation leading to loss of practice of the faith.

My second thought is that the concerns that will be brought to the Synod in October will differ according to the part of the world that the Bishops come from. The concerns of the developed nations are not going to be the same as the concerns of the African nations, for example. Isabelle de Gaulmyn reflected on this on the site of La Croix, commenting on a visit to Benin in West Africa:
D’une certaine manière, les sujets abordés en Afrique sont plus graves, plus urgents, touchent les problématiques économiques et culturelles de la société. On ne se polarise pas sur les divorcés remariés.
Mais il est question des femmes, de leur dignité, du mariage forcé, des enfants esclaves, de la polygamie, largement admise : que doit dire le pasteur, sur le terrain ? Quelle attitude ? Jusqu’où condamner ? Comment accompagner ? Plus généralement, l’Église est partagée entre une vision plus « moderne » et individualiste du couple et de la famille, revendiquée d’ailleurs par les jeunes générations, et des traditions de solidarité familiale qui peuvent parfois involontairement étouffer les personnes.
[In a certain way, the subjects arising in Africa are more serious, more urgent, touching on the economic and cultural problems of society. People do not divide over the divorced and remarried.
But it is a question of women, of their dignity, of forced marriage, of child slavery, of polygamy, largely accepted. What must the pastor say, on the ground? What attitude should be taken? Only as far as condemning? How should they accompany? More generally, the Church is caught between a more "modern"  and individualistic vision of the couple and of the family, shared moreover by the young generations, and traditions of family solidarity which can sometimes by accident repress persons.]
Certainly, it will not be the case that the only voice to be heard at the Synod is that of the news media calling for change in the Church's teaching.

I suspect that the address that Bishop Egan gave to SPUC's annual conference recently will not have been everything that those of a traditionalist frame of mind would have wished to hear, with its suggestion that outcomes from the Synod might and should represent development in doctrine in Newman's sense. Bishop Egan's address gives a useful account of what Pope Francis has said about the origins of the themes for the extraordinary synod due this October and the ordinary synod that will follow next year, in particular pointing out that there is a much wider context to the synods than just the question of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. At the end of his address, Bishop Egan indicates the situation of the person who wishes to be received into the Catholic Church but who, at that point, encounters something irregular in their marital situation that becomes a barrier to their entry into the Church. It seems to me that the question of admitting remarried persons to Communion is not a question that refers to one single narrative; there are a whole range of different situations that might admit of different pastoral resolutions with due reference to the truth of Catholic teaching and the demand of mercy.

My fourth thought arises from the legislation in a number of countries in favour of marriage for same-sex persons. In the UK, the campaign against this development used the idea of "redefining marriage" as its strapline; in France, it was instead the right of the child to a mother and father and resistance to gender ideology. But what I think emerges from the discussions about Holy Communion for the remarried prompted by the theme of the Synod is that for many people in wider society, and therefore for many Catholics who are not immune to the influences of wider society, marriage had already been re-defined almost out of existence. Do we, for example, recognise that the understanding of marriage represented by celebrities who divorce and remarry, with their second and third marriages gaining high profile media coverage, is far distant from what Catholic teaching understands by marriage? And if we do recognise that, what do we really believe we are doing when we ourselves get married, with all the implications of the answer to that question for the nature of the consent that is given and is necessary for he validity of the marriage? There is certainly a pastoral challenge to be faced here, both in terms of the quality if marriage preparation and in terms of the care towards those who are remarried. The terms in which Gaudium et Spes analyses the situation of marriage in its introduction to its treatment of marriage are strikingly prescient (cf n.47):
Yet the excellence of [marriage] is not everywhere reflected with equal brilliance, since polygamy, the plague of divorce, so-called free love and other disfigurements have an obscuring effect. In addition, married love is too often profaned by excessive self-love, the worship of pleasure and illicit practices against human generation. Moreover, serious disturbances are caused in families by modern economic conditions, by influences at once social and psychological, and by the demands of civil society. Finally, in certain parts of the world problems resulting from population growth are generating concern.
One can almost suggest that the situation faced by the Synods in 2014 and 2015 was foreseen by the Council in 1965. We can share Bishop Egan's hope that the Synods will enable the brilliance of marriage to shine forth more beautifully in the world.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Those Photographs

The news media are reporting the leaking on line of "intimate photographs" of a number of celebrities: BBC news report here, and I assume a range of reporting elsewhere in today's electronic and print media.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary offers for this context the following definition of the word "modest":
(esp of woman) decorous in manner and conduct, scrupulously chaste 
My edition dates back to 1982, so the qualification "esp of woman" might have been removed from more recent editions. Modesty clearly applies just as  much to men as it does to women.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses modesty in the context of the Ninth Commandment and in reference to purity and chastity.
2521 ....Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.
2522 Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.
2523 There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies.
2524 The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. It is born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.
2525 Christian purity requires a purification of the social climate. It requires of the communications media that their presentations show concern for respect and restraint. Purity of heart brings freedom from widespread eroticism and avoids entertainment inclined to voyeurism and illusion. 
The BBC report linked above suggests that in at least one case the leaked photographs are not recent, and suggests that the celebrity involved may recognise in some way a certain regret about them, reportedly having deleted them herself a long time ago.

The media reporting, however, seems to focus exclusively on the "scandal" caused by a security breach that has revealed photographs from private electronic accounts. A privacy lawyer is quoted in The Times' coverage, for example, as saying:
... the leak was a "shocking" violation of privacy given its scale and content.
The security breach and the violation of privacy seem to be more the cause of scandal than the content of the photographs themselves (but see Fr Alex' comment here).

Should not the question of modesty - in reference to both the taking of the original photographs and in reference to their publication - not also be part of the media conversation? Clearly the different photographs will have been taken in a range of different circumstances, and it would therefore be quite wrong to adopt an attitude of condemnation towards those the details of whose actions are not known to us. But at a time when the use of smart phones by young people to share "intimate photographs" of each other ("sexting") is a serious concern, does not this occurrence provide a salutary warning in favour of modesty? The question of what photographs it is - or is not - appropriate to take seems to me an important part of the public debate, and we might begin to expect celebrities to set a good example in this regard.

[Modesty is not just a question for those who hold religious beliefs. Its relation to the dignity of the person means that it is a notion accessible also to those who hold no religious belief.]