Friday 30 March 2018

Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum

Over the years, the meditations written for the Stations of the Cross led by the Holy Father have given rise to some excellent spiritual reflections. They have sometimes taken advantage of the freedom that goes with a devotional practice and perhaps not restricted themselves to the traditional stations; and they vary in style from author to author. It is, each year, a remarkable encounter of faith and culture in the heart of Rome.

This year's meditations have been written by a group of young people, and can be found on the website of the Holy See here, along with an explanation of how they came to be written. I have yet to pray them fully, but they do look to be well written and a testimony to the faith of the young people who have written them.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Pope Francis: "Closeness is more than the name of a specific virtue..."

Pope Francis' homily at the celebration of the Chrism Mass in the Vatican Basilica encourages priests in their closeness to Christ and in their closeness to their people. Pope Francis' words, as is often the case with Pope Francis, reflect the charism of a pastor:
Closeness is more than the name of a specific virtue; it is an attitude that engages the whole person, our way of relating, our way of being attentive both to ourselves and to others... When people say of a priest, “he is close to us”, they usually mean two things. The first is that “he is always there” (as opposed to never being there: in that case, they always begin by saying, “Father, I know you are very busy...”). The other is that he has a word for everyone. “He talks to everybody”, they say, with adults and children alike, with the poor, with those who do not believe... Priests who are “close”, available, priests who are there for people, who talk to everyone... street priests.
Pope Francis suggests that we should recognise closeness as as the key to truth, and he does this by proposing the two dimensions of "truth as definition" and "truth as fidelity":
Closeness, dear brothers, is crucial for an evangelizer because it is a key attitude in the Gospel (the Lord uses it to describe his Kingdom). We can be certain that closeness is the key to mercy, for mercy would not be mercy unless, like a Good Samaritan, it finds ways to shorten distances. But I also think we need to realize even more that closeness is also the key to truth; not just the key to mercy, but the key to truth. Can distances really be shortened where truth is concerned? Yes, they can. Because truth is not only the definition of situations and things from a certain distance, by abstract and logical reasoning. It is more than that. Truth is also fidelity (émeth). It makes you name people with their real name, as the Lord names them, before categorizing them or defining “their situation”. There is a distasteful habit, is there not, of following a “culture of the adjective”: this is so, this is such and such, this is like… No! This is a child of God. Then come the virtues or defects, but [first] the faithful truth of the person and not the adjective regarded as the substance.
He then goes on to speak of three particular moments of closeness for priests:
Closeness in spiritual conversation. Let us reflect on this by considering the encounter of the Lord with the Samaritan woman. The Lord teaches her to discern first how to worship, in spirit and in truth. Then, he gently helps her to acknowledge her sin, without offending her. And finally, the Lord infects her with his missionary spirit and goes with her to evangelize her village. The Lord gives us a model of spiritual conversation; he knows how to bring the sin of the Samaritan woman to light without its overshadowing her prayer of adoration or casting doubt on her missionary vocation.
Closeness in confession. Let us reflect on this by considering the passage of the woman caught in adultery. It is clear that here closeness is everything, because the truths of Jesus always approach and can be spoken face to face. Looking the other in the eye, like the Lord, who, after kneeling next to the adulteress about to be stoned, stood up and said to her, “Nor do I condemn you” (Jn 8:11). This is not to go against the law. We too can add, “Go and sin no more”, not with the legalistic tone of truth as definition – the tone of those who feel that that they have to determine the parameters of divine mercy. On the contrary, those words need to be spoken with the tone of truth as fidelity, to enable the sinner to look ahead and not behind. The right tone of the words “sin no more” is seen in the confessor who speaks them and is willing to repeat them seventy times seven.
Finally, closeness in preaching. Let us reflect on this by thinking of those who are far away, and listening to Peter’s first sermon, which is part of the Pentecost event. Peter declares that the word is “for all that are far off” (Acts 2:39), and he preaches in such a way that they were “cut to the heart” by the kerygma, which led them to ask: “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). A question, as we said, we must always raise and answer in a Marian and ecclesial tone. The homily is the touchstone “for judging a pastor’s closeness and ability to communicate to his people” (Evangelii Gaudium, 135). In the homily, we can see how close we have been to God in prayer and how close we are to our people in their daily lives.
Now, if Pope Francis' words are read for what they actually say, rather than for what some might like the Holy Father to have said instead, they are rather beautiful - particularly the three Scriptural images that are used to represent the three instances of closeness.  They reflect the "pastoral conversion" to which Pope Francis has repeatedly called the Church, including with his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Do read the whole, from the original source, rather than relying on commentary.

Thursday 22 March 2018

Pope Francis and St Pio

Pope Francis recent pastoral visit to the birth place of St Pio of Pietrelcina and San Giovanni Rotondo was covered significantly by Vatican News, but appears to have attracted very little comment in the wider electronic media.

I was struck, following the visit last weekend, by a sense of how well Pope Francis knew the life and the charism of St Pio, who is a saint without an immediate attraction for me. The visit marked the centenary of the appearance of St Pio's stigmata and the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The address to the faithful in Pietrelcina and the homily at the celebration of Mass in San Giovanni Rotondo are, at the time of writing, not available in English on the website of the Holy See. Reading Pope Francis words during his visit, I am prompted to think that we can recognise in St Pio at least two key features of Pope Francis pontificate: his manner of speaking about the reality of the devil and his manner of speaking about the sacrament of Penance.

The most striking thing about the address in Pietrelcina is Pope Francis - and St Pio's - vivid sense of the reality of the Devil.

In quei terribili momenti padre Pio trasse linfa vitale dalla preghiera continua e dalla fiducia che seppe riporre nel Signore: «Tutti i brutti fantasmi – così diceva – che il demonio mi va introducendo nella mente spariscono allorché fiducioso mi abbandono nelle braccia di Gesù». Qui c’è tutta la teologia! Tu hai un problema, tu sei triste, sei ammalato: abbandonati nelle braccia di Gesù. E questo ha fatto lui. Amava Gesù e si fidava di Lui. Così scriveva al Ministro provinciale, asserendo che il proprio cuore si sentiva «attratto da una forza superiore prima di unirsi a Lui la mattina in sacramento». «E questa fame e sete anziché rimanere appagata», dopo averlo ricevuto, «si accresce[va] sempre più» (Lettera 31, in Epistolario I, p. 217). Padre Pio si immerse quindi nella preghiera per aderire sempre meglio ai disegni divini. Attraverso la celebrazione della Santa Messa, che costituiva il cuore di ogni sua giornata e la pienezza della sua spiritualità, raggiunse un elevato livello di unione con il Signore. In questo periodo, ricevette dall’alto speciali doni mistici, che precedettero il manifestarsi nelle sue carni dei segni della passione di Cristo.
[In these terrible moments Padre Pio drew his life blood from continuous prayer and from trust that they could be given over in the Lord: "All the horrible images", he said "that the devil introduced in the mind vanished as soon as I abandoned myself in the arms of Jesus". This is the whole of theology! If you have a problem, if you are sad, if you are sick: abandon yourself in the arms of Jesus. And this is what he did. He loved Jesus and entrusted himself to Him. This is what he wrote to the Provincial, assuring that his own heart felt "attracted by a higher force before uniting himself with HIm in the morning in the Sacrament". Padre Pio therefore immersed himself in prayer so as to always adhere more to the divine plans. By way of the celebration of Holy Mass, that constituted the heart of his every day and the fullness of his spirituality, he rose to a higher level of union with the Lord. In this time, he received from above special mystical gifts, the preceded the manifestation in his flesh of the signs of the passion of Christ.]

In the light of what I have written here about the relationship between St Pio's stigmata and his celebration of Mass, I find Pope Francis remarks at the end of this paragraph particularly interesting.

Preaching at Mass in San Giovanni Rotondo, Pope Francis spoke of three words from the scripture readings of the Liturgy -  prayer, smallness, and wisdom - relating each to the life and charism of St Pio.
Conoscere Lui, cioè incontrarlo, come Dio che salva e perdona: questa è la via della sapienza. Nel Vangelo Gesù ribadisce: «Venite a me, voi tutti che siete stanchi e oppressi» (Mt 11,28). Chi di noi può sentirsi escluso dall’invito? Chi può dire: “Non ne ho bisogno”?. San Pio ha offerto la vita e innumerevoli sofferenze per far incontrare il Signore ai fratelli. E il mezzo decisivo per incontrarlo era la Confessione, il sacramento della Riconciliazione. Lì comincia e ricomincia una vita sapiente, amata e perdonata, lì inizia la guarigione del cuore. Padre Pio è stato un apostolo del confessionale. Anche oggi ci invita lì; e ci dice: “Dove vai? Da Gesù o dalle tue tristezze? Dove torni? Da colui che ti salva o nei tuoi abbattimenti, nei tuoi rimpianti, nei tuoi peccati? Vieni, vieni, il Signore ti aspetta. Coraggio, non c’è nessun motivo così grave che ti escluda dalla sua misericordia”. [To know him, that is, to encounter him, as God who saves and pardons: this is the way of wisdom. In the Gospel Jesus confirms: "Come to me, you who are tired and oppressed" (Mt 11:28). Who among us can feel themselves excluded from the invitation? Who can say: "I have no need of it?" St Pio offered his life and innumerable sufferings to enable the Lord to encounter his brothers. And the decisive means of encountering him was Confession, the sacrament of Reconciliation. There begins and begins again a life that is wise, loved and pardoned, the start of a healing of the heart. Padre Pio was an apostle of the confessional. Today also he invites us there; and he says: "Where are you going? To Jesus even in your anguish? Where do you turn?  Towards him who saves you even in your despondency, in your regrets, in your sins?  Come, come, the Lord is waiting for you. Courage, there is no reason so serious that it excludes from his mercy".]
One can recognise here the language that Pope Francis has frequently used in encouraging confession, particularly during the Year of Mercy.
I gruppi di preghiera, gli ammalati della Casa Sollievo, il confessionale; tre segni visibili, che ci ricordano tre eredità preziose: la preghiera, la piccolezza e la sapienza di vita. Chiediamo la grazia di coltivarle ogni giorno. [The prayer groups, the sick of the Casa Sollievo, the confessional: three visible signs, that remind us of three precious inheritances: prayer, smallness and wisdom of life. Let us ask for the grace to cultivate them every day.]

Monday 12 March 2018

Pope Benedict XVI: there is continuity with Pope Francis' Pontificate -UPDATED

Read here and watch the video clip here.

According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, there is a profound continuity between his pontificate and that of Pope Francis, granted a difference in style and in theological language.

Do we need a "hermeneutic of continuity" rather than the "hermeneutic of rupture" that is a fashion for some?

UPDATE: The full text of Pope Benedict's letter is now available. My source here, with the original Italian source here.
Thank you for your kind letter of 12 January and the attached gift of the eleven small volumes edited by Roberto Repole.
I applaud this initiative that wants to oppose and react to the foolish prejudice in which Pope Francis is just a practical man without particular theological or philosophical formation, while I have been only a theorist of theology with little understanding of the concrete life of a Christian today. 
The small volumes show, rightly, that Pope Francis is a man of profound philosophical and theological formation, and they therefore help to see the inner continuity between the two pontificates, despite all the differences of style and temperament.
However, I don’t feel like writing a short and dense theological passage on them because throughout my life it has always been clear that I would write and express myself only on books I had read really well. Unfortunately, if only for physical reasons, I am unable to read the eleven volumes in the near future, especially as other commitments await me that I have already made.
I am sure you will understand and cordially greet you.
If we read it for what it actually says, rather than reading into it what we might want to read into it (that really is the way to create "fake news"), the suggestion by Pope Benedict of an "inner continuity" between his pontificate and that of Pope Francis remains perfectly intact. If Vatican News might be fairly criticised (and I don't altogether accept that they can) for omitting reference to the fourth paragraph, then those who would use that paragraph to undermine the insistence on continuity are equally guilty of selective quotation to suit a purpose.

Sunday 11 March 2018

Two new saints: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI

I am delighted with the news of the forthcoming canonisations of Archbishop Romero and Pope Paul VI, which emerged this last week.  Bishop Campbell has posted accounts of both the future saints at his weekly blog: Two new Saints for the Church.

As far as Archbishop Romero is concerned, I think it is important to go to original sources to learn about him as a person and about his work as a Bishop. I am unconvinced by the narrative of "sudden conversion" that is a feature of some accounts of his life.  I have always sensed an absolute continuity of faith, but a faith that responded to his changing mission in the Church. I recall, for example, a number of years ago attending a Paul VI lecture organised by CAFOD at which Maria Lopez Vigil spoke about Archbishop Romero. She was asked a question after her talk (by Peter Hebblethwaite, if I recall correctly - corrections via the comments if I have this wrong) which framed Archbishop Romero within the narrative of "sudden conversion". I remember chuckling to myself as Ms Lopez Vigil's answer to the question declined to take up such a view. Soon after Archbishop Romero's death, I placed him alongside Fr Jerzy Popieluszko in a talk, identifying both of them as martyrs for the truth about the human person (cf now the provisions of Maiorem Hac Dilectionem)

I remain convinced that, in recent decades, we have had Popes who have quite immediately been the most appropriate for their particular times. I include in that Pope Paul VI, who I consider to be very much underestimated, and Pope Francis. The denigration that both receive from certain quarters is, in my view, greatly to the discredit of those responsible for that denigration. There are a number of aspects of Christian life that I take for granted, and which have their modern day roots in the pontificate of Pope Paul VI: a vivid sense of the Christian life as an ecclesial life (witness for, example, Paul VI's Year of Faith and the Credo of the People of God), a vivid sense of the Marian dimension to ecclesial life (witness his proposal of the title Mother of the Church when the Council fathers had not taken it up, a proposal now taken up by Pope Francis in establishing a memoria in the universal calendar with precisely that dedication); and a deep responsiveness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit (it may never be possible to verify it historically, but I like to speculate that, at least in a general sense, that Humanae Vitae was written at a prompting of the Holy Spirit). All of these themes are recognisable in the exercise of his office by Pope Francis.

Sunday 4 March 2018

Placuit Deo

I have been finding the recent Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation a somewhat difficult read. As an attempt to explain the way in which two particular references in the ordinary magisterium of Pope Francis should be understood, my first instinct is to think that such an exploration might have more suitably come from the International Theological Commission rather than from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The authorship by the Congregation appears to me to constrain the range of the conversation contained in the letter to more strictly doctrinal/dogmatic sources (cf the footnotes to the Letter).

I suspect strongly that, if we want to really grasp Pope Francis use of the terms "neo-Pelagianism" and "Gnosticism", we need to look at his familiarity with the charism and life of Communion and Liberation, just as this familiarity also enables us to understand what Francis meant when he referred to the possibility that the Christian life can be lived as an "ideology".

See here for my post on Pope Francis' talk when presenting Luigi Giussani's book The Religious Sense in Argentina in 1999. The text of Pope Francis' address can be downloaded from this page.

See here for an account of his talk when presenting the book The Attraction that is Jesus, also by Giussani. I do not have a copy of this book, so cannot fully verify Pope Francis' words in relation to what might be considered their original source. I posted on this when part of it was used as a meditation in MAGNIFICAT.

This address during Pope Francis' visit to Brazil also expands on the three themes of ideology, Pelagianism and Gnosticism, and suggests an origin in the Aparecida meeting of Pope Francis' thinking.

Those who are not familiar with these wider conversations in the life of the Church will inevitably find Pope Francis' references to ideology, neo-Pelagianism and Gnosticism somewhat disconcerting.

There is a further term in Pope Francis' lexicon that is worth a similar background search. One place in which the term "ideal" is used is in Amoris Laetitia n.292:
Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society. Some forms of union radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way.
Those who might want to criticise the use of the word "ideal" here might do well to carefully read how that term is understood in the early experience of the Focolare Movement (cf the text entitled "The Beginnings" in Chiara Lubich's Essential Writings) and in Luigi Giussani's Generating Traces in the History of the World.