Saturday, 25 February 2017

Hell: a literary investigation

In the light of the centenary of the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, I have recently been reading Sr Lucia's accounts, published in English under the title Fatima in Lucia's own words. In her account of the apparition on 13th July 1917 (see page 178 of the English text), Sr Lucia describes the vision of Hell shown to them by Our Lady:
As Our Lady spoke these last words, she opened her hands once more, as she had done during the two previous months. The rays of light seemed to penetrate the earth, and we saw as it were a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke now falling back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear (It must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me). The demons could be distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. Terrified and as if to plead for succour, we looked up at Our Lady, who said to us, so kindly and so sadly: 
“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart....
I then went on to re-read the description of Hell given by Georges Bernanos in The Diary of a Country Priest. It is uttered by the parish priest in a vehement response to Madame la Comtesse:
'You won't hate, you'll cease to know one another.'....
'...what have you laymen made of hell? A kind of penal servitude for eternity, on the lines of your convict prisons on earth, to which you condemn in advance all the wretched felons your police have hunted from the beginning - "enemies of society" as you call them. You're kind enough to include blasphemers and the profane. What proud or reasonable man could stomach such a notion of God's justice?.... Hell is judged by the standards of the world, and hell is not of this world, it is of the other world, and still less of this Christian society. An eternal expiation - ! The miracle is that we on earth were ever able to think of such a thing, when scarcely has our sin gone out of us, and one look, a sign, a dumb appeal suffices for grace and pardon to swoop down, as an eagle from topmost skies. It's because the lowest of human beings, even though he no longer thinks he can love, still has in him the power of loving. Our very hate is resplendent, and the least tormented of the fiends would warm himself in what we call our despair, as in a morning of glittering sunshine. Hell is not to love any more! That sounds quite ordinary to you. To a human being still alive, it means to love less or to love elsewhere. To understand is still a way of loving. But suppose this faculty which seem so inseparably ours, of our very essence, should disappear! Oh, prodigy. To stop loving, to stop understanding - and yet to live..... if a living man, the vilest, most compatible of the living, were cast into these burning depths, I should still be ready to share his suffering, I would claim him from his executioner .... To share his suffering! The sorrow, the unutterable loss of those charred stones which once were men, is that they have nothing more to be shared."
My next stop on the road to hell was the account of Adrienne von Speyr's charismatic insight into Jesus' descent into Hell on Holy Saturday given by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr:
It is Christ's final act of obedience towards his Father that he descends "into hell" (or "underworld", Hades, Sheol). Because hell is (already in the Old Covenant) the place where God is absent, wher there is no longer the light of faith, hope, love, of participation in God's life; hell is what the judging God condemned and cast out of his creation; it is filled with all that is irreconcilable with God, from which he turns away for all eternity. It is filled with the reality of all the world's godlessness, with the sum of the world's sin; therefore, with precisely all of that from which the Crucified has freed the world. In hell he encounters his own work of salvation, not in Easter triumph, but in the uttermost night of obedience truly the "obedience of a corpse". He encounters the horror of sin separated from men. He "walks" through sin (without leaving a trace, since, in hell and in death, there is neither time nor direction); and, traversing its formlessness, he experiences a second chaos. While bereft of any spiritual light emanating from the Father, in sheer obedience, he must seek the Father where hi cannot find him under any circumstances. And yet, this hell is a final mystery of the Father as creator (who made allowances for the freedom of man). And so, in this darkness, the Incarnate Son learns "experientially" what until then was "reserved" for the Father. Hell, seen in this way, is, in its final possibility, a Trinitarian event. On Good Friday the Father hands the "key" to it over to the Son....
What Adrienne experienced is actually more horrible than the hell depicted for us by medieval imagination; it is the knowledge of having lost God forever; it is being engulfed in the chaotic mire of the anti-divine; the absence of faith, hope and love the loss, as well, therefore, of any human communication... Her experience of it was so real that, in view of it, it would be ridiculous and blasphemous to speak of the nonexistence of hell or even just of apokatastsis [a universal salvation] in the "systematic" sense....[Adrienne's experience] justifies the exaltation of Christian hope over fear, and yet, through its Trinitarian interpretation, gives the whole problem an altogether Christian seriousness, perhaps never before known.
My final destination was the title of a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle. It portrays life in a Soviet research institution, where the researchers are not free academics but an imprisoned intelligentsia. The full import to that title, with its reference to Dante,  can only be grasped in relation to Solzhenitsyn's account of hell on earth that is The Gulag Archipelago - a wide ranging and at times abrasively cutting account of the prison camp system under Soviet Russia. Which of course brings us back to the context of the Marian apparitions at Fatima.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

SSPX: a flawed proposal?

When he issued the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI also wrote an accompanying letter to the bishops of the world. That letter explained the intentions behind the juridical provisions of the motu proprio itself. It is worth noting two points from the letter:

In the first place, there is the fear that the document detracts from the authority of the Second Vatican Council, one of whose essential decisions – the liturgical reform – is being called into question. Firstly, in responding to the concern that the greater provision for celebration of the Extraordinary Form would call in to question the Liturgical reforms since Vatican II:
This fear is unfounded.  In this regard, it must first be said that the Missal published by Paul VI and then republished in two subsequent editions by John Paul II, obviously is and continues to be the normal Form – the Forma ordinaria – of the Eucharistic Liturgy.  The last version of the Missale Romanum prior to the Council, which was published with the authority of Pope John XXIII in 1962 and used during the Council, will now be able to be used as a Forma extraordinaria of the liturgical celebration.  It is not appropriate to speak of these two versions of the Roman Missal as if they were “two Rites”.  Rather, it is a matter of a twofold use of one and the same rite.
And secondly, Pope Benedict clearly demonstrated an expectation that it is the Missal of Paul VI, and not that of John XXIII, that should unite parish communities:
...the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching: new Saints and some of the new Prefaces can and should be inserted in the old Missal.  The “Ecclesia Dei” Commission, in contact with various bodies devoted to the usus antiquior, will study the practical possibilities in this regard. The celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.  The most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this Missal. 
Summorum Pontificum appears to me to have had two unfortunate consequences, neither of which were intended when it was promulgated. The first, which was largely transitory, was that Catholics with no attachment to the Extraordinary Form felt that they had to "take a stance", one way or another, with regard to the Extraordinary Form, when the living of a Catholic life demanded no such thing. This has largely dissipated with the passage of time (though a train of thought among Traditionalists is perhaps bringing it to the fore again). The second has been the legitimacy given to a subsequent promotion of the Extraordinary Form, more or less over and against the Ordinary Form, within the Traditionalist movement, and from within the Traditionalist movement to the wider community of the Church. The initial "headline" back in 2007-8, and maintained today, was the continued use of the term "Traditional Latin Mass", with its inherent suggestion that, juridically speaking, the Extraordinary Form was more "traditional" than the Ordinary Form, when the letter to bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum , in speaking of two forms of the same rite, indicates that the one form is as "traditional" as the other. This has reached its ultimate destination in the recent efforts of Dr Shaw to claim the Extraordinary Form as the (only) place to find authentic Catholicism (here), something that I do not think was at all envisaged by Benedict XVI.

In summary, the Traditionalist movement has taken Summorum Pontificum as legitimising a promotion of the Extraordinary Form in  a manner and a context that has no justification whatsoever in Summorum Pontificum and the accompanying letter to bishops themselves.

So what will happen if the Society of St Pius X is allowed to become a Personal Prelature and its situation with respect to the universal Church is "regularised"? Bishop Fellay's recent television interview, which gave rise to speculation about this possibility, is now online with English subtitles (my sample viewing suggests that the subtitles are very accurate to the original French); and this post, though it draws largely on a different interview, appears to me to correctly present the position of Bishop Fellay articulated in the television interview.

Bishop Fellay suggests that a number of things are already in place as far as the every day life of the Society of St Pius X is concerned that represent a degree of "regularisation" of their situation: the permission of Pope Francis that allows their priests to validly / licitly confer absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, and a certain recognition of the (strictly speaking illicit) ordination of priests by local dioceses in the place of ordination are examples. The new situation of the Extraordinary Form created by Summorum Pontificum is also relevant here, in a way that is entirely consonant with the intentions expressed by Pope Benedict in his letter to bishops. But Bishop Fellay is equally clear with regard to the Society's non-negotiables - see from about 07:20 onwards in the television interview and the paragraph "A Battle of Ideas" in this post. In summary, with regard to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that have been controverted by the Society over the years, there is no movement on the part of the Society whatsoever. The question for Bishop Fellay and the Society is whether a suggestion that these controverted points can in some way not be considered essential as part of what is termed "Catholic" would allow them, from a "regularised" position within the Church, to continue to fight their position over and against that generally accepted in the wider Church and upheld by the conciliar and post-conciliar teaching office of the Church. Though Bishop Fellay sees some signs of this possibility being offered, he appears far from certain as to whether or not it will materialise in a full reality. Given how clear Bishop Fellay is in the interview, it is surprising to me that the speculation about a possible "regularisation" has gained as much traction in the media as it has.

Why do I find the prospect of a "regularisation" of the situation of the Society of St Pius X concerning?

Given the lack of movement of the Society over controverted issues, any "regularisation" is going to legitimise to the wider Traditionalist movement the notion that certain key teachings of the Second Vatican Council are in some way "optional" as far as being Catholic is concerned. (We are not talking here of developments after the Council that are contrary to the substance of its teaching, but of the teaching itself.) Should the Holy See be explicit in ruling this out, it appears to me unlikely that the Society will accept regularisation. Should, in the interests of charity and the promotion of communion and to avoid a rejection of the proposal by the Society, some form of "future discussion" be allowed within the process of regularisation, the precedent of the response to Summorum Pontificum and the more recent advocacy of the Extraordinary Form as the locus of authentic Catholicism, is that the Traditionalist movement will in any case conclude that the controverted issues are "optional" and seek to drive a coach and horses through the attaching conditions, to the confusion both of their own adherents and others (though I suspect that Bishop Fellay himself, on the basis of what I have seen in his television interview, has an intelligence and integrity that would not lead him to encourage such a misapprehension).

Whilst - irony of ironies - one might wish to position the controverted issues at a lower or higher place within a "hierarchy of truths" as the basis for possible future discussions between the Society and the Holy See after "regularisation", and therefore arrive at an evaluation of how central they are to being "Catholic" as a step to "regularisation", that does not make the teaching of the Council optional. But there is a nicety in this that the Traditionalist movement is unlikely to respect.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift.

Pope Francis opens his message for Lent 2017 with a call to conversion:
Lent is a new beginning, a path leading to the certain goal of Easter, Christ’s victory over death. This season urgently calls us to conversion. Christians are asked to return to God “with all their hearts” (Joel 2:12), to refuse to settle for mediocrity and to grow in friendship with the Lord. Jesus is the faithful friend who never abandons us. Even when we sin, he patiently awaits our return; by that patient expectation, he shows us his readiness to forgive...
He ends it, encouraging us to renew our encounter with Christ:
Dear friends, Lent is the favourable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbour. The Lord, who overcame the deceptions of the Tempter during the forty days in the desert, shows us the path we must take. May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need. 
The heart of Pope Francis' message is an exegesis of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, an exegesis which put me in mind of the kind of exegesis that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI might have offered.

The encouragement to "serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need" prompted another thought on my part. In this message it is reflected in the needs of the person of Lazarus, and in this short exhortation at the end. But, during the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis' particularly modelled the practice of the corporal works of mercy by his Friday visits. I felt that he was trying to teach us that what, in Amoris Laetitia n.306, is referred to as the via caritatis, is at the very heart of the living of the Christian life and the journey into the life of grace. Pope Francis was trying to enhance the value given by the Church to living this way of charity.

My reading of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia is that the discernment and pastoral accompaniment of those whose marriage situations are "irregular" or reflect human weakness is primarily focussed on recognising which of the dimensions of the way of charity can be undertaken within the limits of the particular situation. If we share with Pope Francis a high valuing of this life of charity then, for those in difficult marriage situations, we can also value the accompaniment offered by Amoris Laetitia to take part in this life as allowing them to make substantial progress in the life of grace. The question of access to the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion becomes an incidental question to the core question of living the via caritatis (though one can see how progress in the via caritatis can bring one closer to experience of these sacraments).