Wednesday 30 December 2020

Are teachers public servants?

 In today's edition of the Times newspaper, there is a Thunderer opinion piece entitled "Obstructive unions give teachers like me a bad name". It is written by a teacher in a state school here in the UK who is relatively new to teaching. The piece argues strongly in favour of continuing face-to-face teaching in the present circumstances and castigates teacher trade unions for advocating a delayed return to schools as the Christmas and New Year holiday ends.

However, the last paragraph of the article contains a give away line (my emphasis added):

Teachers need unions .... However, the unions must not forget that, like nurses and doctors, we are public servants. We have a duty to do our bit in times both difficult and good.

The term "public servants" is clearly open to differing interpretations -  it might refer generically to people who provide a service to members of the public or, in its perhaps more common and specific interpretation, it might refer to those who are in the service of and paid by the government or the state.

Should teachers (or, for that matter, nurses and doctors) really see themselves as servants of the state? Are they not firstly at the service of the families of the children they teach or of the patients they treat? Teachers are collaborators with parents in the fulfilling of the rights and responsibilities of those parents for the education of their children; and medical professionals cooperate with their patients in providing health care to them.

Teachers, nurses and doctors may be paid by the state, as they are in the education and health services of the United Kingdom. But that state funding does not undermine the first relationship between them and the families and patients with whom they work. Rather, the role of that state funding is to provide a mechanism that enables those first relationships to take place and to thrive.

Monday 28 December 2020

The Holy See and the United Nations: Paul VI

 In October 1965, during the meeting of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI paid a visit to the United Nations. The then Secretary General of the United Nations had invited the Holy Father to speak to the General Assembly in marking the twentieth anniversary of the organisation. Paul VI himself described this visit as a moment "bearing the imprint of a unique greatness", both for himself and for the United Nations. The full English text of Pope Paul's address can be found here at the Vatican website; the United Nations website carries a radio report, in English, of his visit here, a report that conveys something of the high expectations surrounding Pope Paul's visit. The address was originally delivered in French: text at the Vatican website here and audio on the United Nations site here

Pope Paul's speech is memorable for its impassioned plea for peace:

Here our message reaches its culmination and we will speak first of all negatively. These are the words you are looking for us to say and the words we cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again!

Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: "Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind." There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your Institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!

 But what I would like to explore is those sections of Pope Paul's address which indicate how he, and in his person the Holy See, understood the nature of the organisation that is the United Nations. 

You offer the many States which can no longer ignore each other a form of coexistence that is extremely simple and fruitful. First of all, you recognize them and distinguish them from each other. Now you certainly do not confer existence on States, but you do qualify each nation as worthy of being seated in the orderly assembly of peoples. You confer recognition of lofty moral and juridical value upon each sovereign national community and you guarantee it an honorable international citizenship.

There are two components in this paragraph. The first is a recognition that each of the individual states is not able to ignore the others; the behaviours of any one state have an influence on the behaviours of other states. And then secondly, in this context, the UN is recognises for each national community a "moral and juridical value" in a relationship to the like value of every other state, what the speech terms "international citizenship". Each national community is recognised as being of account in the consideration of every other national community. "Your vocation is to bring not just some peoples but all peoples together as brothers", to use the words Pope Paul used later in his address. This same paragraph ends with the following sentence which, though it does not require further exposition, is nevertheless significant for its implications for what should govern the relations between states:

You [ie the UN] sanction the great principle that relationships between nations must be regulated by reason, justice, law and negotiation, and not by force, violence, war, nor indeed by fear and deceit.

Pope Paul identifies a mission of working for peace as being characteristic of the nature of the United Nations:

Gentlemen, you have accomplished and are now in the course of accomplishing a great work: you are teaching men peace. The United Nations is the great school where people get this education and we are here in the assembly hall of this school. Anyone who takes his place here becomes a pupil and a teacher in the art of building peace. And when you go outside of this room, the world looks to you as the architects and builders of peace.

As you know very well, peace is not built merely by means of politics and a balance of power and interests. It is built with the mind, with ideas, with the works of peace. You are working at this great endeavor, but you are only at the beginning of your labors.

We do now have many more years experience of the work of the United Nations than were available to Pope Paul in 1965, an experience during which the deliberations of the UN Security Council in particular have not infrequently been the scene of exactly the politics of power and individual interests (think, for example, of the lack of action with regard to Syria since the civil war broke out there) to which Pope Paul drew attention. Reading Pope Paul's words today makes us feel that those words need to be repeated again to recall the members of the United Nations to their essential vocation.

To speak of humaneness and generosity is to echo another constitutional principle of the United Nations, its positive summit: you are working here not just to eliminate conflicts between States, but to make it possible for States to work for each other. You are not content with facilitating coexistence between nations. You are taking a much bigger step forward, one worthy of our praise and our support: you are organizing fraternal collaboration between nations..... This is the finest aspect of the United Nations Organization, its very genuine human side....

What you are proclaiming here are the basic rights and duties of man, his dignity, his liberty and above all his religious liberty. We feel that you are spokesmen for what is loftiest in human wisdom - we might almost say its sacred character - for it is above all a question of human life, and human life is sacred; no one can dare attack it.

We do not need to say anything further on this dimension of the work of the United Nations as identified by Pope Paul, beyond perhaps suggesting that Pope Paul is identifying an idea of international fraternity in its work that would later become the subject of Pope Francis' encyclical Fratelli Tutti.

Whilst these passages indicate something of how Pope Paul understood the nature and mission of the United Nations, an earlier part of his address offers what might rather be seen as a prudential judgement of the UN as being "the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace":

Permit us to say that we have a message, and a happy one, to hand over to each one of you Our message is meant to be first of all a solemn moral ratification of this lofty Institution, and it comes from our experience of history. It is as an "expert on humanity" that we bring this Organization the support and approval of our recent predecessors, that of the Catholic hierarchy, and our own, convinced as we are that this Organization represents the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace.

Whilst it may not be perfect - and Pope Paul recognised that the United Nations was setting out on its path rather than having achieved its purpose - this is an organisation to which support should be given.

[Postscript: it is also worth noting that Pope Paul referred, in a very diplomatic way, to some specific issues in his address - disarmament, birth control, the economic and social progress of poorer nations, literacy and culture.]

Sunday 27 December 2020

...for us...

 I think Pope Francis gave us a very beautiful homily at his Christmas Mass, focussing on those words "for us".

To us a son is given.  ..... the birth of Jesus is the “newness” that enables us to be reborn each year and to find, in him, the strength needed to face every trial.  Why?  Because his birth is for us – for me, for you, for all of us, for everyone.  “For” is a word that appears again and again on this holy night: “For us a child is born”, Isaiah prophesied.  “For us is born this day a Saviour”, we repeated in the Psalm.  Jesus “gave himself for us” (Tit 2:14), Saint Paul tells us, and in the Gospel the angel proclaims: “For to you is born this day a Saviour” (Lk 2:11).  For me, for you.

Yet what do those words – for us – really mean?   They mean that the Son of God, the one who is holy by nature, came to make us, as God’s children, holy by grace.  Yes, God came into the world as a child to make us children of God.  What a magnificent gift!  This day, God amazes us and says to each of us: “You are amazing”.  Dear sister, dear brother, never be discouraged.  Are you tempted to feel you were a mistake?  God tells you, “No, you are my child!”  Do you have a feeling of failure or inadequacy, the fear that you will never emerge from the dark tunnel of trial?  God says to you, “Have courage, I am with you”.  He does this not in words, but by making himself a child with you and for you.  In this way, he reminds you that the starting point of all rebirth is the recognition that we are children of God.  This is the starting point for any rebirth.  This is the undying heart of our hope, the incandescent core that gives warmth and meaning to our life.  Underlying all our strengths and weaknesses, stronger than all our past hurts and failures, or our fears and concerns about the future, there is this great truth: we are beloved sons and daughters.  God’s love for us does not, and never will, depend upon us.  It is completely free love.  Tonight cannot be explained in any other way: it is purely grace.  Everything is grace.  The gift is completely free, unearned by any of us, pure grace.  Tonight, Saint Paul tells us, “the grace of God has appeared” (Tit 2:11).  Nothing is more precious than this....

The angel proclaims to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: a baby lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).  That sign, the Child in the manger, is also a sign for us, to guide us through life.  In Bethlehem, a name that means “House of Bread”, God lies in a manger, as if to remind us that, in order to live, we need him, like the bread we eat.  We need to be filled with his free, unfailing and concrete love.  How often instead, in our hunger for entertainment, success and worldly pleasures, do we nourish life with food that does not satisfy and leaves us empty within!  The Lord, through the prophet Isaiah, complained that, while the ox and the donkey know their master’s crib, we, his people, do not know him, the source of our life (cf. Is 1:2-3).  It is true: in our endless desire for possessions, we run after any number of mangers filled with ephemeral things, and forget the manger of Bethlehem.  That manger, poor in everything yet rich in love, teaches that true nourishment in life comes from letting ourselves be loved by God and loving others in turn.  Jesus gives us the example.  He, the Word of God, becomes an infant; he does not say a word, but offers life.  We, on the other hand, are full of words, but often have so little to say about goodness. 

And towards the end of the homily, Pope Francis offers a thought provoking quotation from a short poem by Emily Dickinson, which reads in full:

WHO has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above. 
God's residence is next to mine, 
His furniture is love. 

Thursday 24 December 2020

Saturday 19 December 2020

Christmas 2020 and religious illiteracy

 As I write, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just announced "Tier 4" restrictions (of a tier system that only included Tiers 1, 2 and 3 before today) for London and other parts of East and South East England, effective pretty much immediately on his announcement. The announcement also included a significant modification of the previous rulings with regard to household mixing over Christmas for the whole of England, modifications that have been mirrored in Scotland and Wales.

The London Evening Standard website headlines its report: Tier 4 rules for London as Christmas cancelled by stay at home lockdown.

Even before Boris Johnson's announcement, the London Times newspaper for today was carrying two letters suggesting that the celebration of Christmas could be moved to another time.


Surely it's all in the marketing. Were the government to declare that Christmas is banned there would be a surge of resentment  and many people would carry on regardless. However, if it were to change its pitch to: "Clearly, celebrating Christmas now is not in anybody's interest, so the government declared Christmas will be celebrated at Easter 2021", this would offer hope rather than despair. Countless lives would be saved and millions of people would breathe a sigh of relief.


Given the restrictions, perhaps we could instead follow the example of Australia. "Christmas in July" would give us six months to vaccinate everyone and would allow families to enjoy the festivities out of doors.

 Whilst allowing for a measure of the tongue-in-cheek, particularly with the first of these letters, nonetheless a sense seems to prevail that the celebration of the Feast of Christmas can readily be moved or cancelled at legislative or social whim. 

The first component of the religious illiteracy that gives rise to this prevailing sense is the feeling that the celebration of the feast has its essence in the gathering of family and friends on Christmas Day. This certainly forms a part of our celebration of the day, when we are able to so gather; but it is not the essence of the Feast, or of what we celebrate in the Feast.

The essence of the Feast is the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the birth in human flesh of the Son of God, who is both true man and true God. When the gathering of friends and family, and the special lunch that may accompany it, becomes completely separated from this celebration of belief in the mystery of the Incarnation, it ceases to possess the character of a piety that reflects a religious faith; it isn't a celebration of Christmas. (Though I would add, in passing, that even where the celebration of Christian faith is weak, there is still the potential for the family gathering to point, even in an indistinct way, towards the event of faith.)

The second component of religious illiteracy that gives rise to this prevailing sense lies in the failure to recognise the connection in the life of faith between the Feast being celebrated and the specific day given over to that celebration. This is about the religious character of time, expressed in the Christian religion by the Liturgical calendar, but also found in Judaism, Islam and other religions which assign their feasts to specific days. The celebration of these religious Feasts simply cannot be moved arbitrarily by powers outside the relevant religious communities, and even within those communities any movement of feasts is constrained to a very high degree. Whilst we cannot expect everyone to share belief in this understanding of a religious character to time, is it too much to ask of journalists and public figures to at least show by how they write or speak about our Feast days that they have an understanding of the concept?

So, in 2020, while the human aspects of the celebration of the Feast of Christmas may be curtailed, the essentially religious celebration remains in its full splendour.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Taking the knee?

 I have a memory of a remark made by Pope Francis early in his pontificate. It was to the effect that popular piety represented the inculturation of the Gospel. I found it an interesting observation at the time, as it suggested an understanding of inculturation that reflected an experience of the ordinary faithful rather than a "project" to be promoted in the Church. What it also suggested was a valuing of those events such as processions and popular festivals, not just as public celebrations of a particular culture, but as lived expressions of the Catholic faith that lies behind them. Pope Francis' remark suggested that we should value such expressions of culture as also being expressions of Christian faith. 

However, a difficulty arises when the form of the cultural expression becomes distanced from a lived experience of Christian faith. Perhaps the most clear example of this is the secular celebration of Christmas in  the developed nations, where the assertion that Christmas is "all about the family getting together" rather overtakes the religious concept of it as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. (As an aside, I often wonder how I would have coped if I had been brought up in Ireland, where large Sunday Mass attendances I have seen during holiday visits have always seemed to suggest a deep faith on the part of the people that was not reflected in the celebrating clergy, leaving me wondering just how much was culture and how much was faith.)

So it is always helpful to remind ourselves of the faith-filled meaning of those gestures that can all too readily become just a habit, a product of a culture. Just as I ask myself exactly what each of those football players feel they are marking when the "take the knee" at the start of their match (and I suspect it is varied), I also ask myself what each of us feels we are marking as we genuflect towards the tabernacle as we enter and leave a Catholic Church. One of the tell tale signs of a culture only weakly informed by faith is the genuflection directed towards the front of the Church when the tabernacle is in a side chapel!

When he offered a catechesis on adoration as part of his homily at the closing Mass of the World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI did not intend it to be an explanation of the genuflection that we direct towards the tabernacle. Hearing it live, though, it immediately struck me as providing exactly that - an understanding of genuflection as an act of adoration, an act of both going down (submission) and loving embrace.

The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood.

We all eat the one bread, and this means that we ourselves become one. In this way, adoration, as we said earlier, becomes union. God no longer simply stands before us as the One who is totally Other. He is within us, and we are in him. His dynamic enters into us and then seeks to spread outwards to others until it fills the world, so that his love can truly become the dominant measure of the world.

I like to illustrate this new step urged upon us by the Last Supper by drawing out the different nuances of the word "adoration" in Greek and in Latin. The Greek word is proskynesis. It refers to the gesture of submission, the recognition of God as our true measure, supplying the norm that we choose to follow. It means that freedom is not simply about enjoying life in total autonomy, but rather about living by the measure of truth and goodness, so that we ourselves can become true and good. This gesture is necessary even if initially our yearning for freedom makes us inclined to resist it.

We can only fully accept it when we take the second step that the Last Supper proposes to us. The Latin word for adoration is ad-oratio - mouth to mouth contact, a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately love. Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is Love. In this way submission acquires a meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within.

I was, of course, also struck as a physicist by Pope Benedict's use of an analogy of nuclear fission earlier in the homily, when talking about the transformation achieved in the Eucharistic celebration:

By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence - the Crucifixion - from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. I Cor 15: 28).

In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world:  violence is transformed into love, and death into life.

Since this act transmutes death into love, death as such is already conquered from within, the Resurrection is already present in it. Death is, so to speak, mortally wounded, so that it can no longer have the last word.

To use an image well known to us today, this is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being - the victory of love over hatred, the victory of love over death. Only this intimate explosion of good conquering evil can then trigger off the series of transformations that little by little will change the world.

Pope Benedict's explanation of adoration can help us to achieve exactly that inculturation of the Gospel in an act of piety - genuflection towards Jesus present in the Eucharist  - foreseen by Pope Francis 

Friday 4 December 2020

Ellen or Elliot?

 Some 12 years ago I saw a film Juno, and commented on it: Film Review: Juno and here.  As I observed at the time, as well as its humour, the film shows how an unplanned pregnancy can be viewed in a positive way and explores how all those involved - the parents, the boyfriend and school friends - respond to the situation. If I recall correctly, it includes a scene where Juno leaves an abortion clinic, in effect making the decision to continue her pregnancy. Wikipedia gives a fuller account of the film here.

The title role of Juno was played by Ellen Page, who has now "come out as 'trans'". It is sad to see just how quickly sources such as Wikipedia, for example, are willing to change the casting in their post about the film from "Ellen" to "Elliot". Because the role of Juno in the film is not just a female role; because of the nature of the film's plot, it is an essentially feminine role, too. 

Whilst there is a courtesy in addressing someone now in the way in which they ask to be addressed, without that implying anything other than courtesy towards the person, it will be unfortunate if a retrospective "re-gendering" should in any way overshadow the essentially female casting of a film that pre-dates transition. Whilst I might greet him now as Elliot, in Juno she remains Ellen Page.