Sunday 28 December 2014

At the peripheries

Pope Francis' Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas day referred to situations in different parts of the world where people who suffer might feel, with some justification, that they have been abandoned by the international community. In doing this, Pope Francis placed these peripheries at the heart of international attention. Pope Francis spoke in a particularly forceful way about the suffering of children:
May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers; children, so many abused children..... 
The Child Jesus. My thoughts turn to all those children today who are killed and ill-treated, be they infants killed in the womb, deprived of that generous love of their parents and then buried in the egoism of a culture that does not love life; be they children displaced due to war and persecution, abused and taken advantage of before our very eyes and our complicit silence. I think also of those infants massacred in bomb attacks, also those where the Son of God was born. Even today, their impotent silence cries out under the sword of so many Herods. On their blood stands the shadow of contemporary Herods. Truly there are so many tears this Christmas, together with the tears of the Infant Jesus.
On Christmas Day, Cardinal Vincent Nichols was interviewed on BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Christmas (ie the Christmas Day equivalent of the weekly Good Morning Sunday). It was very striking that Cardinal Nichols chose to identify as his highlight of 2014 the work of the Santa Marta Group , which brings together bishops and police authorities from around the world in an effort to prevent people trafficking and provide support to those who are victims of trafficking. The group is led by Cardinal Nichols and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and held its second meeting in London in early December 2014. This page at the website of the Romanian Embassy in London gives some indication of the potential of the Santa Marta Group to engage at the highest international levels. The work of the Group is also linked to the elements of the Bakhita initiative - see this page at the website of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.

Saturday 27 December 2014

A word or two on marriage

The BBC News website reported just before Christmas that Sir Elton John and David Furnish marry. The BBC report includes the sentence:
Mr Furnish and Sir Elton, who have two sons, became civil partners in 2005.
We were all invited to join the ceremony and celebrations by way of the electronic media.

From the point of view of Catholic teaching, of course, Mr Furnish and Sir Elton did not marry. According to Catholic teaching, marriage can only take place between a man and a woman, and not between two men. Their two sons are sons of a surrogate mother, so they are not uniquely the sons of Mr Furnish or Sir Elton, as if two men were able to have children together.

I do think it is worthwhile, from time to time, to explicitly recognise that there is a discordance between the use of language about marriage in the wider world and the use that accurately reflects Catholic teaching. While same-sex marriages now provide an immediate occasion to avert to this, the marriage of celebrity divorcees has been presenting such occasion for decades. It would be unfortunate, in the light of the two Synods dedicated to the mission of the family, if Catholics were to so readily assimilate the two usages of language to each other that they were as a result no longer able to distinguish what is truly Catholic teaching.

The Feast of the Holy Family, celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas Day, is an opportunity to reflect on marriage and family life. In different ways, bishops in England and Wales are doing this in the form of pastoral letters:  Bishop Davies (Shrewsbury) has chosen to affirm Catholic teaching, Bishop Campbell (Lancaster) has thanked Catholic families for the care offered in the circle of the extended family; and Bishop Williams (Brentwood) quotes St Francis:
As we gaze at the scene from Bethlehem we can make some words of Saint Francis our own: “We are mothers of Christ when we carry Him in our heart and body through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience and give birth to Him through a holy activity which must shine as an example before others.”

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Pope Francis invites the Curia - and the Church - to an examination of conscience

When he met with the members of the Curia for the traditional exchange of Christmas greetings, Pope Francis gave an address that was an invitation for both himself and his collaborators in the Holy See to an examination of conscience (English language press release here; at the time of posting no full English text on the Vatican website):
Desidero insieme a voi elevare al Signore un vivo e sentito ringraziamento per l’anno che ci sta lasciando, per gli eventi vissuti e per tutto il bene che Egli ha voluto generosamente compiere attraverso il servizio della Santa Sede, chiedendogli umilmente perdono per le mancanze commesse “in pensieri, parole, opere e omissioni”.
E partendo proprio da questa richiesta di perdono, vorrei che questo nostro incontro e le riflessioni che condividerò con voi diventassero, per tutti noi, un sostegno e uno stimolo a un vero esame di coscienza per preparare il nostro cuore al Santo Natale.
[I wish together with you to offer to the Lord a lively and heartfelt thanksgiving for the year that is just ending, for the events experienced and for all the good that He has wished generously to complete by way of the service of the Holy See, asking Him humbly for pardon for the failures committed "in thought, word, deed and omission". And beginning particularly with this request for pardon, I wish that this our meeting and the reflections that I will share with you will become, for all of us, a help and a prompt to a true examination of conscience to ready our heart for a Holy Christmas]
 And Pope Francis prefaced his "catalogue" of fifteen temptations that face the Curia - and indeed all parts of the Church, of the Mystical Body - with the observation that members of the Curia can only fulfil their mission if they maintain a living relationship with Christ, and that, without that relationship, they become simply bureaucrats.

Pope Francis certainly has a hard hitting turn of phrase as he presents each of the temptations. And sometimes his choice of phrase, removed from its complete context, gives a misleading impression of what was said in the Sala Clementina. A good example is his warning against "spiritual Alzheimer's", where he refers to a very specific circumstance which is lost if the phrase is taken apart from its more developed explanation:
C’è anche la malattia dell’“alzheimer spirituale”: ossia la dimenticanza della propria storia di salvezza, della storia personale con il Signore, del «primo amore» (Ap 2,4). Si tratta di un declino progressivo delle facoltà spirituali che in un più o meno lungo intervallo di tempo causa gravi handicap alla persona facendola diventare incapace di svolgere alcuna attività autonoma, vivendo uno stato di assoluta dipendenza dalle sue vedute spesso immaginarie.
[There is also the illness of "spiritual Alzheimer's": that is the forgetfulness of one's particular history of salvation, of a personal history with the Lord, of "the first love" (Ap.2:4). I am speaking of a progressive decline of the spiritual faculty that in a more or less long passage of time causes a serious handicap to the person, making them become incapable of undertaking any individual activity, living in a state of complete dependence on their views, often imagined.] 
[Do look up the reference to Revelation 2:4, and perhaps read 2:1-2:5.]

 Now this invitation to a shared examination of conscience..... is it fairly described as "sixteen paragraphs of sustained and immoderate abuse"?....... Was it a "stunning and very public 'dressing down' of his staff"?....... Was it "a coruscating and very public critique"?

No. It was an invitation to a shared examination of conscience.

And it is unfortunate that both secular and Catholic media are reporting it otherwise.

It is worth noting that, as with a number of the other statements by Pope Francis that have been taken badly by those of traditionalist inclination, some of the themes articulated here are not original to Pope Francis or original to this particular occasion. I was able to find, for example, an account of "Martha-ism" identical to that of Pope Francis, in a book by Terry Rush, a book written, I think, from an Evangelical Christian background. I expect, too, that the idea headlined "spiritual Alzheimer's" is also part of an ecclesial conversation that precedes Pope Francis' address. If you are not familiar with this wider context to what Pope Francis says then you will end up thinking it is a more specifically directed critique than it in reality is. My own quick look suggests that it is those familiar with the writing and life of the Charismatic Renewal who will most readily recognise the wider conversation of which this address forms a part. [A comment at another blog suggests the Spiritual Exercises and Pope Francis' Jesuit training as a background.] If anyone can shed further light on this aspect of Pope Francis' address, please do so via the comments.

UPDATE: For those who read French, Isabelle de Gaulmyn has posted to suggest that the essence of Pope Francis' proposal for the reform of the Curia is spiritual in nature and not managerial: Curie, la réforme spirituelle du pape François.

Sunday 21 December 2014

SIGNIS - an international public association of the faithful

I noticed a month or so ago, in passing, the recognition by the Pontifical Council for the Laity of the organisation SIGNIS as an international public association of the faithful. A report on SIGNIS website is here.

This recognition does have points of interest. First of all, the organisation that is now known as SIGNIS - "World Catholic Association for Communication" has a long history in two predecessor organisations, one dedicated to the field of radio and television and the other to the field of cinema - see here. The organisation therefore has a background of a genuinely lay engagement of Catholic professionals in these fields of communication, that is, an engagement arising from the professionals themselves and not by delegation from the hierarchy. In the present times of the Church that is something that might be taken for granted, but I suspect that in the early days of the two founder organisations this was something quite novel. [Corrections will be gratefully received in the com box if anyone knows otherwise with regard to the history of these organisations.] The objects of SIGNIS, which are included in their newly approved statutes, are here. The move towards recognition as a public association of the faithful, with an Ecclesiastical Assistant appointed by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, represents an assurance of ecclesial communion alongside the principle of a rightly autonomy of lay expertise in fields that more than many other do require a specialist expertise.

A second point is the way in which SIGNIS contributes to the professional development of Catholics (and others) in the field of cinema, radio and television. This is of particular significance in less developed countries, where funding and technology will be less available. So, for example, SIGNIS trains colleagues to take part in festival juries.

A third point of interest is the strongly ecumenical dimension to SIGNIS work, both in practice and as expressed in its Statutes. One of the most prestigious aspects of SIGNIS work is its presence at major film festivals throughout the world, through a jury that will evaluate films from a Christian perspective (see here). Not infrequently, the juries involved are ecumenical juries - which not only enables a wider Christian dimension but also allows access to a wider range of professional expertise. It is the kind of field in which ecumenical collaboration is almost natural. The presence of these juries - some of them reaching back a long way in the history of the relevant film festival - is, so far as I can tell, accepted readily by festival organisers. It thereby facilitates a dialogue between Christians and their fellow professionals, the presence of Christians in the field being welcomed.

A particular aspect of SIGNIS work that I have found helpful for some time now has been their publication of reviews of, or statements about, recently released films (see here, and the links to recent reviews on this page). Topical at the moment might be their statement on Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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