Saturday 28 February 2015

The Year of Consecrated Life (5): consecrated life "in the world"?

Fr Christian de Cherge was the prior of the Cistercian monastery at Tibhirine in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, whose community were martyred by people who would now be known as "Islamist extremists". The monks had remained in Algeria at a time when it was dangerous for them to do so. Within the village of Tibhirine, they enjoyed good relations with their Muslim neighbours, among other actions providing a pharmacy/clinic at which one of the monks provided medical care to all comers. A brief account of the aspect of inter-religious dialogue in Fr de Cherge's life can be found here; and the Testament that he wrote, in view of his death, and which was opened only after his death, can be downloaded from this page. In Christian Salenson's study of the thought of Fr de Cherge - Christian de Cherge: Une theologie de L'Esperance - there is a chapter which considers prayer in the context of inter-religious dialogue, particularly dialogue between Christians and Muslims, and in the context of the life of the particular community at Tibhirine. The chapter is entitled "Priants parmi d'autres priants" - "Those who pray among others who pray" - referring to a monastic life lived in a Muslim milieu. At a time when the community was at considerable risk, this term came to define for the monks the specificity of their vocation in the particular location of Tibhirine, and part of their reason for staying rather than leaving. One cannot fail to see a parallel between the liturgical times of prayer in the monastery and the times of prayer among the Muslim community living "in the world" around the monastery.

In a not dissimilar vein, I have for some time been attracted by an observation made in the opening sentences of the Preface to Louis Bouyer's book The Meaning of the Monastic Life:
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.
Fr Bouyer was writing at the request of a community of monks - hence his non-inclusive language - so I think we can safely extend the intention of his words to nuns and lay women, too. If his observation is correct, then it indicates, not so much the monastic life as such, but at least a form of consecrated life akin to it, as a way in which the lay person might live the vocation of their baptism "to the farthest limits of its irresistible demands".

The lesson that we might take from the experience of Fr de Cherge and the monks of Tibhirine is that, just as the monastery at Tibherine existed as a place of prayer among a people of prayer in a Muslim milieu, so, in a Christian milieu, a monastery should exist among a people who pray. In the context of the Year for Consecrated Life, it suggests that we should look for consecrated life to be lived, not only in the seclusion of the monastery, but also out and about in the life of Christians "in the world".

And from Fr Bouyer we might take the lesson that the living of a Christian life "in the world" should carry with it the same radicalness of response to the demands represented by the call of the Lord as does the response of the monk, a radicalness represented by the vows characteristic of consecrated life.

Saturday 21 February 2015

The Barque of St Peter

..... doesn't have any lifeboats.

Just a thought....
.... for the "faithful Catholics"....
.... for the fierce "defenders of the faith" .... 
.... for those who know better than Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II and Pope ... you get the idea...), and cannot stop from telling us so ....
.... and who are in danger of falling overboard as a result of their own pig-headedness.

There is more than one way to climb aboard, though ....

.... and we might all have need of one or other of them at some point.

Monday 16 February 2015

Pope Francis and Ecumenism of Blood

I have been very interested in Pope Francis' recent use of the term "ecumenism of blood".

When he spoke to leaders of Christian communities during his visit to Cologne for World Youth Day in 2005, it was Pope Benedict's suggestion that we should not take so much for granted the commonality of witness, founded in Baptism, that struck me:
I feel the fact that we consider one another brothers and sisters, that we love one another, that together we are witnesses of Jesus Christ, should not be taken so much for granted. I believe that this brotherhood is in itself a very important fruit of dialogue that we must rejoice in, continue to foster and to practice.
Among Christians, fraternity is not just a vague sentiment, nor is it a sign of indifference to truth. As you just said, Bishop, it is grounded in the supernatural reality of the one Baptism which makes us all members of the one Body of Christ (cf. I Cor 12: 13; Gal 3: 28; Col 2: 12).
Together we confess that Jesus Christ is God and Lord; together we acknowledge him as the one mediator between God and man (cf. I Tm 2: 5), and we emphasize that together we are members of his Body (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 22; Ut Unum Sint, n. 42).
Based on this essential foundation of Baptism, a reality comes from him which is a way of being, then of professing, believing and acting. Based on this crucial foundation, dialogue has borne its fruits and will continue to do so.
And I have long been struck by a perhaps little known passage from Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Ut Unum sint (n.84). That passage suggests that, at the moment of martyrdom, Christian unity is lived in its fullness. It has opened up, to my thinking at least, the possibility that Christian martyrs from communities other than the Catholic Church can be recognised as saints by the Catholic Church:
I have already remarked, and with deep joy, how an imperfect but real communion is preserved and is growing at many levels of ecclesial life. I now add that this communion is already perfect in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who once were far off (cf. Eph 2:13).
So when Pope Francis speaks of an "ecumenism of blood", as he has done again today, he draws our attention to the profoundly ecumenical implication of the martyrdoms that have been experienced in recent days and months. All Christians, irrespective of denomination or Church adherence, are living these martyrdoms as a shared, a common experience. Pope Francis' words remind those of us who are at a physical distance from these events that we too should live them in the same way. They also say to the Christian communities most immediately affected that we too share in their suffering.
Today I have read about the execution of those twenty-one or twenty-two Coptic Christians. They said only: 'Jesus, help me'. They were assassinated for the mere fact of being Christians. You, Brother, in your discourse, referred to what is happening in Jesus' land. The blood of our Christian brothers is a testimony that calls to us. Regardless of whether they are Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Lutherans – this does not matter, they are Christians. And blood is the same. Their blood confesses Christ. In remembrance of these brothers of ours who have died for the mere fact of confessing Christ, I ask that we encourage each other to go ahead with this ecumenism, that is giving us strength, this ecumenism of blood. The martyrs are all Christians. Let us all pray for each other”.
To suggest that Pope Francis' words "hijack people's deaths for [an agenda]" misrepresents the Holy Father's words entirely, and does so in a most crass and ill-informed way.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

A sacrament for everyone?

Many of the Catholic faithful - certainly if my experience of Catholic life in England and Wales is anything to go by - could be forgiven for thinking that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament intended to be received by any Catholic whatever their circumstances. This misunderstanding is driven by the practice that will no doubt be seen in many parishes tomorrow of Father inviting anyone who wishes to receive the sacrament to do so, without any discernment as to their individual situations.

The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the annual World Day of Prayer for the Sick, is certainly an appropriate occasion to administer the sacrament - for those for whom it is appropriate.

So, who is the sacrament of Anointing intended for? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.1514:
The Anointing of the Sick "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived."
This is qualified in the Code of Canon Law c.1005 by the indication that, in case of doubt, the sacrament should be conferred:
This sacrament is to be administered in a case of doubt whether the sick person has attained the use of reason, is dangerously ill, or is dead.
The Catechism also indicates that it is appropriate to repeat the sacrament if, during an illness a person's condition becomes more serious, or in the case of frailty due to old age that frailty becomes more pronounced, or a person is about to undergo a serious operation.

All of this certainly indicates that a priest should be generous in his interpretation as to when the conditions for receiving the sacrament are met; and for those who suffer a chronic or long lasting illness, that occasions such as the World Day of Prayer for the Sick are an appropriate moment for them to receive the sacrament again.

But it does not justify the practice of anointing all and sundry (and justifying that practice, when justification is offered, on the grounds that "everyone is spiritually sick if they are not physically sick" - a superficial argument if ever there was one).

Pastorally, this question does matter. How can we expect those who are dangerously ill to truly value the sacrament at the point of their serious illness if they have passed a life time of Catholic practice seeing the sacrament being offered to everyone regardless of their being sick or not?

It is interesting, by way of conclusion, to read what the Catechism has to say about the effects of the celebration of the sacrament (Catechism of the Catholic Church nn.1250 - 1523). These effects are offered under three headings:
A particular gift of the Holy Spirit..... This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God's will.135 Furthermore, "if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven".
An ecclesial grace. The sick who receive this sacrament, "by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ," "contribute to the good of the People of God".... 
A preparation for the final journey. If the sacrament of anointing of the sick is given to all who suffer from serious illness and infirmity, even more rightly is it given to those at the point of departing this life; so it is also called sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing). The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father's house. 
Though it is less relevant to the circumstances in which the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick will be conferred tomorrow, this last consideration is perhaps somewhat neglected in our present practice of the sacrament. It offers a certain "hermeneutic of continuity" with the earlier understanding of the sacrament as described here by Fr Tim: The wonderful sacrament of anointing the sick:
So it is a wonderful thing to be called out to visit people who may have neglected the practice of their faith, yet have identified themselves as Catholic and can be assumed to have at least some habitual desire for the sacraments, and as a priest, to minister the sacrament of anointing and the Apostolic blessing with the plenary indulgence, and know that they have been helped on a fast track to heaven.
Or, at a time when I was a lay pastoral visitor in a hospital, to offer a referral for a visit from a Catholic priest that would have provided the occasion for such a "wonderful thing".

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Mitochondrial DNA transfer

As I drove home yesterday with the radio on in the car, I heard Andrew Miller, the Labour MP who chairs the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology and who has a well known parliamentary engagement with questions of science and technology, observe that, in respect of the vote in favour of three-parent IVF by the House of Commons:
"Scientific evidence triumphed over belief".
That comment gains some context from part of  his contribution during the Parliamentary debate itself:
The ethical basis on which science is conducted in this country is world leading. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should be immensely proud of the successes—again—of our scientific community in a range of life science disciplines....
We are in a society where people are entitled to have their beliefs, and I respect those beliefs; everyone should be entitled to express their opinion. But this is about focusing on the needs of that small part of the population that I mentioned. I urge the House, in coming to a conclusion this afternoon, to think about those families, to focus on their needs and to set aside general beliefs in the overwhelming interest of that small part of the population who have suffered immensely and who have an opportunity at their disposal because of the extraordinary science that has been advanced. 
[In parentheses, The BBC News website also reports, under the headline MPs say yes to three person babies views like the following:
Proponents said the backing was "good news for progressive medicine".
"This is world leading science within a highly respected regulatory regime." (Public Health Minister Jane Ellison )] 
I am clearly citing only two dimensions within yesterday's debate in Parliament, but they do strike me as being a very worrying dimensions. The first represents what one might call a "scientific ambition", in which, for some at least, the wish to go ahead with the techniques of mitochondrial DNA transfer is informed and/or motivated by a sense of pride in UK science. That references are made by two  Parliamentarians with particular prominence in the field of health and science to "world leading science" and "extraordinary science" when, for the families involved, the question at stake is not the status of the science as science but rather the efficacy of the science as a treatment, seems to me to have been exceptionally misguided.

The second dimension is the way in which Andrew Miller refers to "beliefs" as if they should be of no account in the debate. He indicates his respect for the beliefs that others hold, but then goes on to say that those "general beliefs" should be set aside. "Beliefs" can be respected; but they should not be allowed to influence the outcome of the debate or of the practice of science and medicine that will be consequent upon that outcome. It is, of course, an exaltation of the knowledge that is gained by scientific study over and above that knowledge that is gained through other fields of study - scientism. In so far as Andrew Miller's position has any ethical content, it is simply that of consequences that are expected to be positive in the respect of offspring born to the families affected - consequentialism. That in itself represents an ethical "belief"; but other ethical methodologies that examine what is right or wrong from an understanding of persons and the good of persons and might come to a different conclusion than a consequentialist approach are to be set aside.

Just as Andrew Miller believes his own belief - in scientific evidence - should be allowed a play in society, so should the different belief of others also be allowed a play. That is the quintessential British value of democracy (though I would suggest that its value does not arise from anything British but from the nature of democracy itself). And to play off scientific evidence against ethical or religious belief as if they conflict is also wrong. Reason, of which scientific endeavour forms a dimension, and what Andrew Miller denotes by the word "belief" should go alongside each other in the search for what is morally right.

When Pope Benedict XVI spoke in Westminster Hall, within the same precincts in which yesterday's debate took place, he observed:
The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles....
Religion (is) .... a vital contributor to the national conversation....
I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life. 
Perhaps Andrew Miller might like to take note.