Sunday, 10 October 2021

The Synodal Journey

The BBC are reporting the opening by Pope Francis of the journey towards the Synod of Bishops meeting on synodality under the headline: Pope Franics launches mass consultation on Church reform. That is of course, a gross mis-representation of the intention of the Synodal journey. The BBC reports' citation of a "progessive" and a "conservative" voices demonstrates this mis-understanding:

Some Catholics hope it will lead to change on issues such as women's ordination, married priests and same-sex relationships.

Others fear it will undermine the principles of the Church.

I do recommend reading, instead of the BBC report, the two addresses by Pope Francis in relation to the Synodal journey.

The first is a "moment of reflection" for the opening of the Synodal journey, held in the New Synod Hall on Saturday 9th October. Here Pope Francis speaks about each of the three key words that express more concretely the notion of synodality: communion, participation and mission.

The second is Pope Francis' homily at Mass celebrating the opening of the Synodal journey.

You need to read these in their entirety, if you are to gain a true sense of Pope Francis' intentions with regard to the Synodal process. The BBC report could be covering an event on a different planet! 

The following quotations are only part of the story, though they are the parts that have caught my attention on a quick reading.

How Pope Francis understands the idea of a "listening Church" - prayer and adoration:

The Synod then offers us the opportunity to become a listening Church, to break out of our routine and pause from our pastoral concerns in order to stop and listen.  To listen to the Spirit in adoration and prayer.  Today how much we miss the prayer of adoration; so many people have lost not only the habit but also the very notion of what it means to worship God!  To listen to our brothers and sisters speak of their hopes and of the crises of faith present in different parts of the world, of the need for a renewed pastoral life and of the signals we are receiving from those on the ground.....

As we initiate this process, we too are called to become experts in the art of encounter.  Not so much by organizing events or theorizing about problems, as in taking time to encounter the Lord and one another.  Time to devote to prayer and to adoration – that form of prayer that we so often neglect – devoting time to adoration, and to hearing what the Spirit wants to say to the Church.  Time to look others in the eye and listen to what they have to say, to build rapport, to be sensitive to the questions of our sisters and brothers, to let ourselves be enriched by the variety of charisms, vocations and ministries.  Every encounter – as we know – calls for openness, courage and a willingness to let ourselves be challenged by the presence and the stories of others. 

How Pope Francis understands the idea of "discernment" - adoration, prayer and the word of God:

The Synod is a process of spiritual discernment, of ecclesial discernment, that unfolds in adoration, in prayer and in dialogue with the word of God.  Today’s second reading tells us that God’s word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).  That word summons us to discernment and it brings light to that process.  It guides the Synod, preventing it from becoming a Church convention, a study group or a political gathering, a parliament, but rather a grace-filled event, a process of healing guided by the Spirit.  In these days, Jesus calls us, as he did the rich man in the Gospel, to empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, including our inward-looking and outworn pastoral models; and to ask ourselves what it is that God wants to say to us in this time.  And the direction in which he wants to lead us.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

All the Cathedrals (11): Truro

Zero and I have just returned from a visit to Cornwall, where we stayed in what is very much Daphne du Maurier country. We stayed in the village of Tywardreath, which featured in the du Maurier novel that Zero was reading (The King's General), just a 5 minute drive from Menabilly, where Daphne du Maurier lived for many years, and which recognisably features in both The King's General and in My Cousin Rachel, which I started reading during our time away.

On one of our days, we visited Truro Cathedral, which is sharply distinguished from our earlier Cathedral visits by the fact that it was built relatively recently - that is, in Victorian times. The typical story of a (Norman) monastic house dissolved by Henry VIII's commisioners to become a diocesan cathedral with chapter, subsequent despoliation by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War, and then restoration and (Victorian) repairs, is therefore absent. That having been said, the Gothic style and layout does echo the style and layout of those much older Cathedrals, as does its city centre location, something that our guide suggested was the result of a deliberate attempt to imitate that tradition of cathedral building. The history of the building of the Cathedral can be accessed from this page on the Cathedral website: History

One of the best features of the Cathedral is the reredos behind the high altar. The best online pictures of this I can find are at this blog post - you can enlarge the photographs there by clicking on them. The reredos is very striking, and you can see in it an idea of portraying key moments in salvation history, with Old Testament types of Christ's sacrifice in Calvary, and Eucharistic representations such as the gathering of the manna in the desert.

Another feature of note is the very extensive stained glass. An outline of the themes of the stained glass can be found on the Cathedral website: Stained Glass Windows. A much more detailed account of the planning of the windows, and pictures and exploration of each window can be found in the links from this page (though you might like to jump straight to this page to find links to accounts of the windows themselves).  In some ways, it is the last windows in the order, on the left as you face the high altar from the end of the nave, that allow the visitor to appreciate the one of the intentions of the whole. They show such figures as Queen Victoria, John Keble, Bishop Butler, Richard Hooker, and Lancelot Andrewes - that is, figures that represent the history of the Anglican Church with a specific reference to the High Church tradition in that Church. A Catholic is struck by a certain incongruity in seeing representations of the medieval saints such as Bernard and Francis, the Tudor humanists Thomas More, Dean Colet and Erasmus and key figures of the Reformation such as Wycliffe, Cranmer and Coverdale. Along with the intention to show the history of the Church in England, there is an implied assertion that the Anglican Church of today lies in a continuity with the Church of the medieval times and the times of the Fathers.

So Truro Cathedral is a very different visit than our previous visits to Cathedrals.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

International Eucharistic Congress: President Janos and Patriarch Bartholomew I

 The website of the Budapest International Eucharistic Congress now carries reports of some of the events during the Congress. Two of these events have caught my eye.

The first is the testimony of the President of the Hungarian Republic, given on Friday 10th September, which is reported under the title: A coincidence or the will of the Lord? It is significant that a person who is the representative figure of the Hungarian state should be willing to offer a testimony at a Eucharistic Congress. President Janos testimony referred to three different situations where he believes he has experienced a "coincidence" that was rather a sign of God's presence. Do read the whole of the report to gain a full flavour of President Janos testimony.

The testimony of the President of the Republic of Hungary was closed with the conclusion that searching for and accepting God needs real activity, it cannot be a passive action. “We all receive our signs, and it is up to us whether we take them as a simple story or a parable. It is up to us to see it as a ‘coincidence’ or God’s action.” Áder János is of the belief that “if we well apply the talents we have been entrusted with, if we are looking for God in our hearts, souls, and actions, then we will surely find Him.”

It is also interesting to place this testimony alongside President Janos speech before the Hungarian National Assembly after his election as President in May 2012. A written text of that speech can be found here; a video recording with English subtitles is here. It is worth persevering through to the end, again to gain a sense of the full context. I have not yet had time to read President Janos' other speeches which are linked from those pages.

The second event is the speech of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This was given before the celebration of Mass on the Saturday of the Congress, and the Eucharistic procession which followed the Mass. It is interesting that Patriarch Bartholomew I's speech was so closely linked to the Eucharistic celebration and procession, and there is a clear ecumenical significance in his being present.

Patriarch Bartholomew also spoke at length about the need of the reconciliation the Eastern and Western Churches. He declared: The eucharistic realization of the Church in the common chalice and in the shared Christian witness in the world is the vision and the dream of all of us”. Regarding the schism he cited Father Georges Florovsky who said that according to the plan of God should not have taken place”, since Christians belong to the very same spiritual space, East and West organically belong together in the unity of Christendom” – quoted again Father Florovsky according to whom we can call the two denominations cultural sisters” or even Siamese twins”. The Patriarch of Constantinople invited the pilgrims to pray to the merciful God to strengthen and bless our endeavors to advance on the path to unity”.

Patriarch Bartholomew also used a neat phrase to describe how the presence and actions of those who have celebrated the Eucharist should be lived as a kind of "liturgy after the Liturgy". The report of Patriarch Bartholomew's speech ends by referring to the recognition in the year 2000 of St Stephen of Hungary as a saint to be honoured by the Orthodox churches:

In 2000 in front of the Basilic of Saint Stephen’s Basilica His Holiness Bartholomew I Patriarch in a Holy Mass issued the bull about the honoring as saint of our first king Saint Stephen also in the orthodox church. The orthodox church leader’s gesture was extraordinary because since the schism on behalf of the the orthodox church there has been no example of recognition as own one of the Roman Catholic Church’s saint. The person of Saint Stephen, Hungarian king is a bridge between Eastern and Western Churches. 

Monday, 13 September 2021

March for Life: London 2021

I was not able to take part in this year's March for Life in London on 4th September because of a family commitment - but a report of the march can be found here: March for Life UK - A Resurgence of Life. Videos of the day can be found here: The Talks and Highlights. The videos include testimonies during the rally in Parliament Square, and the talk from Bishop Paul Swarbrick, of Lancaster Diocese.

‘All lives matter! It’s not that some matter more than others but some do need that bit more love, they are so easily overlooked.’

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Assisted dying/euthanasia: three thoughts

Earlier this afternoon, I listened to an item on BBC Radio 4's PM programme. Featuring Baroness Meacher and Robert Winston, it discussed reasons for and against proposed legislation to allow assisted dying/euthanasia. If you are reading this within 29 days of my posting, you will be able to listen to the item on BBC Sounds, here. The item occurs immediately after the news summary at the beginning of the programme.

In two distinct ways, it was the references to suffering and burdensomeness in the discussion that have prompted the following thoughts.

What does it mean if I suggest that "I do not want to be a burden on others"?

For a person who experiences an illness that is, to a small or to a greater extent, life limiting, there is merit in keeping as much independence and self-sufficiency in daily living as long as that is possible. But, as with those who have good health, that independence and self-sufficiency is nevertheless lived in a relation to others and not in an individualised bubble - it encounters bus drivers, shop staff, etc, the people of daily living. Our lives are shared with other, even when we are in good health.

There is nevertheless a graciousness in accepting assistance when that becomes necessary, be that social care or medical care. This graciousness has a reciprocal dimension - it does not just exist from the point of view of the person experiencing illness but also finds a reflecting mirror in the people who provide care. And it does not extend just to those who might provide care to a particular patient but extends to wider society too. 

The recognition of this reciprocal graciousness is sadly absent from our society's conversation about end of life care and so, for some, the conversation is framed in terms of being a burden to others. That framing is often exclusively voiced from the point of view of the patient who is ill, which is to neglect the place of those who are potential carers. Surely our society needs to be much better in encouraging this reciprocal graciousness in our care for those experiencing serious illness.

Experiencing illness as you approach the end of life.

Perhaps we could all do well to think to some extent about what it means to experience serious illness and come to the end of our lives. What it does do is create a very special - and that does not mean that it is easy - time for a patient and their relatives/friends to have together. Clearly, different people will experience this differently, depending upon their individual situations; some will find it more difficult than others. But, at least for many, there is an opportunity for a specially shared time together with the patient who is coming to the end of their life. [This isn't theory on my part, but something I have been privileged to see a number of times.] 

What would happen to this time if, because assisted dying/euthanasia were legally permitted, that possibility were admitted to the conversation? Or if, as has happened with legalized abortion, the offering of the opportunity for assisted dying/euthanasia comes to be seen as a normal practice of health care on the part of medical professionals?

It really is not good enough to say that people would have a freedom to choose assisted dying/euthanasia or to not choose it; so why not permit it for those who would choose it. With legalised assisted dying/euthanasia, everyone is put in a position where they have to make a choice, even if that choice is implicit. Everyone's experience of the end of life is affected, and that special time is irretrievably altered for everyone.

Unnecessary suffering.

I believe that it is entirely possible with proper end of life care for a patient not to have to endure unmanageable pain. And, with sufficient commitment to pastoral care, both the patient and relatives/friends can be supported through what might be termed the anguish that accompanies the end of life. If relatives/friends are worried about unnecessary suffering by  the patient, that is a result of poor care both for the patient and for the relatives/friends. And it is not unusual for an end of life patient to "let go" when they are ready, and a key element of their care is recognising when that can come about. In the mean time, that privileged time that is the end of someone's life deserves to be respected rather than curtailed. 

My two thoughts above, of course, do also feed in to this third thought.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

"... All my springs are in you" :International Eucharistic Congress 2021

Like the Olympic Games, the Budapest International Eucharistic Congress was originally due to take place in 2020 but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is taking place this week, with the closing Statio Orbis Mass to be celebrated by Pope Francis on Sunday 12th September.

The home page for the Congress is here: 52nd International Eucharistic Congress.

The theme of the Congress is taken from Psalm 87, which reads in the RSV translation that is closest to the expression of the adopted theme: 

On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.... 
Singers and dancers alike say
"All my springs are in you".

This video clip rather nicely explains the theme and logo of the Congress: Logo of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress.

A video of the opening Mass of the Congress, celebrated on Sunday last, can be found on Youtube: IEC 2020: Opening Ceremony and Holy Mass. The celebration of Mass itself begins at 2:35:00.

I have yet to find online English texts or videos of the various catecheses and testimonies that are taking place, though a full programme for the Congress can be found here.

A couple of things have caught my eye so far. The first is a report of the theological symposium of the Congress that took place on 6th September. The programme for the symposium is here; the English report is here, with the Italian version of the report here. The English report seems to have suffered a little in the translation, so I offer instead my own translation from the Italian of the part that caught my eye:

[Participants] indicated, among other things, that if we wish to preserve the Liturgy of the Church into the future, instead of a desacralisation and of a deformation, we must continue to consider it as a sacred event, in a strictly formal context. They also said that the Gospel, fertilizing and renewing the history of humanity, must shine its own light and force in the same way in our secularised world.

Hanno indicato tra l’altro, se vorremmo conservare la liturgia della Chiesa anche nel futuro, al posto della desacralizzazione e della deformazione dobbiamo continuare a considerarla come un evento sacro, in un rigido contesto formale. Hanno anche enunciato che il Vangelo, fecondante e rinnovante la storia dell’umanità, deve splendere la sua luce e la sua forza proprio allo stesso modo nel nostro mondo secolarizzato.

The second is the subject of one of the workshops, which will be given by Bishop Massimo Camisasca, ordinary of the diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla. He is a native of Milan, where one of his school teachers was Luigi Giussani. He has a long standing and leading position with respect to Don Giussani's movement Communion and Liberation. His subject is one of immediate relevance to the area of his present pastoral responsibility in the northern part of Italy: the martyrdom of Italian priests after World War II.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

OnlyFans - a frustrated exercise in ethical commerce and a dishonest use of language

 On the 20th August 2021, the subscription only website OnlyFans accounced that it would ban users from posting sexually explicit photographs and videos on its site from October. The BBC report is here: OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content. On the same day, the BBC news website was reporting an investigation that criticised OnlyFans for its approach to moderating and closing accounts that show illegal content, and which also expressed some concerns about content being posted on the site. That report is here: OnlyFans - how it handles illegal sex videos - BBC investigation.

According to the BBC investigation:

On Thursday evening, Only Fans said it would ban sexually explicit content on the site from October. The announcement comes after BBC News approached the company for its response to the leaked documents, and concerns about its handling of accounts posting illegal content.

OnlyFans said it would still allow creators to post nude photos and videos if they were in line with its terms of service, which are to be updated.

The site has more than 120 million subscribers, who pay a monthly fee and tips to "creators" for videos, photos and the ability to send personal messages to them. OnlyFans takes 20% of all payments.

OnlyFans said that the change was being made after pressure from banking partners, again according to the BBC reporting. This in itself represents an interesting development - commercial partners being sufficiently interested to not allow their payment services to be used in the production and communication of sexually explicit material, for which OnlyFans provides a well known platform. In recent times, such threats of commercial pressure have been used by lobbyists wishing to discourage the provision of services to those who support causes that would generally be identified as "conservative" or at least less than "progressive". Its application to the field of sexually explicit content represents a new development.

However, yesterday (25th August) the BBC reported that OnlyFans has announced a supension of its change, in effect allowing the publication of sexually explicit content to continue after 1st October: OnlyFans suspends policy change after backlash.

OnlyFans wrote on twitter that it would "continue to provide a home for all creators".

"Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard," said the company.

"We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned 1 October policy change.

"OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators."

And in an email to its content creators, it said: "The proposed 1 October 2021 changes are no longer required, due to banking partners' assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators. "OnlyFans is committed to providing a sage [sic - presumably intended to be "safe"] and dependable platform for all creators and their fans."

One OnlyFans creator, from London, welcomed the announcement but said those who had already found new homes for their content may still not return.

"So it is short-term good news for sex workers reliant on the platform - and I would like to see this as the start of increased support, celebration and championing of sex-worker rights by OnlyFans," he told BBC News. 

 At least in part, the "backlash" appears to have come from OnlyFans "creators" (essentially those who produce and post sexually explicit content on the site), one of whom I recall hearing interviewed on the BBC's Today programme a few days ago. If I recall correctly, this lady identified as a "sex worker" who had been using OnlyFans to publish subscription based content during the COVID-19 pandemic, and argued that, if she had to return to live working rather than being able to continue online working, she would feel significantly at risk because of the uncertainty inherent in meeting live clients.

OnlyFans capitulation in the face of publicity and what appears to be potential economic losses if makers of sexually explicit content move to other platforms is disappointing. It would also be interesting to know the extent to which OnlyFans "banking partners" also succumbed to pressure.

But the most stunning aspect of the debacle, for me, is the adoption towards makers of sexually explicit material of the language of "diversity" and "inclusion". 

In the first instance: should we be more honest in our use of language, and recognise that what is  now referred to in morally neutral language as "sexually explicit content" is in fact what would previously have been termed rather more honestly as "pornography"?

Should we not also be more hesitant in accepting the use of the term "sex worker", and recognise that the larger part of the work covered by that term could be more honestly termed "prostitution"? This is particularly the case as the aura of legitimacy implied in the term "sex worker" does not capture the significant risk of exploitation and harm that exists in such work.

But the most worrying misuse of language is the development according to which the categories of "diversity" and "inclusion" are applied by OnlyFans to their "creators", that is, to the makers of "sexually explicit" / "pornographic" content which is posted on their site. The implications if such  a use of these categories became widespread in society are mind boggling - think about work place, or even school and college, equalities policies which might be forced to include the accessing of such content as an equalities strand to be supported and promoted.

It is interesting to put the argument for "increased support, celebration and championing of sex-worker rights" alongside the text of Article 29 (2) of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and ask whether we really do want our society to abandon the idea that the law should be able to act in favour of "morality ... and the general welfare in a democratic society":

In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

UPDATE: CARE have reacted to OnlyFans U-turn: 'Shameful OnlyFans u-turn is corporate greed trumping corporate responsibility'. CARE's comment focusses on the risk that "creators" may be being coerced into making content, and is very usefully read alongside my observations above.

“It’s clear what happened here. OnlyFans realised curbing sexually explicit content would affect its profits. Financial backers who initially raised concerns about content on the site and pressured the company towards a ban have either changed their minds or been replaced by others willing to turn a blind eye to concerns. This is a classic case of corporate greed trumping corporate responsibility. It is a shameful.”

Sunday, 22 August 2021

Offerte vobis pacem - a further thought

 In my last post, I reflected on how the absence of the celebration of the sign of peace at Mass during the earlier stages of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted me to think more deeply about the meaning of the dialogue immediately preceding the invitation to the sign of peace: Offerte vobis pacem.

At that time, I also had a thought arising from Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia. In an earlier discussion of this Apostolic Exhortation, I suggested that the pastoral programme of Chapter 8 is focussed on discerning how those in an "objective state of sin" with regard to their marital situation, but with a genuine wish to "seek God", can engage in the Church's mission of charity in order to work out their salvation. The post involved - Correcting the correction ... looks at his question quite carefully.

My further thought was that someone in this kind of situation could be encouraged in their participation in the sign of peace at Mass by recognising the deeper meaning suggested in my post Offerte vobis pacem. An enriched celebration of the sign of peace cannot replace being able to receive Holy Communion itself; but for a person whose objective situation means they cannot receive Communion, it might represent a pastoral proximation to receiving Communion. This discernment could be valuably undertaken alongside that of the way in which a person engages in the mission of charity, as suggested in Correcting the correction ...

Monday, 16 August 2021

Offerte vobis pacem

The celebration of Mass during the months of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the absence of Holy Communion received under the form of the Precious Blood by the faithful and the absence of the invitation for the sign of peace. The celebration of the sign of peace is beginning to occur as we gradually return to a more normal form of celebration, though in my parish it is occurring at a certain initiative of the faithful towards each other and without Father generally offering the invitation. Mass attendance is still reduced compared to pre-pandemic Sundays, and the faithful are still giving attention to social distancing and the wearing of face coverings, though both of these have been indicated as a matter of our own choice.

In the earlier days of the pandemic, it was interesting to find an enhanced sense of the significance of the sign of peace being expressed in the prayer and dialogue that immediately precede the invitation to the sign of peace itself:

Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will. Who live and reign for ever and ever.


The peace of the Lord be with you always.

And with your spirit.

This prayer and dialogue express a peace that is offered by the priest, in his gesture from the altar, towards the faithful; and they capture the essence of the physical sign of peace to which the faithful are then subsequently invited. 

As the celebration of the sign of peace gradually returns to the liturgy, there is perhaps an opportunity for clergy to offer a catechesis on the sign of peace, so that we do not return to the situation where, because it is generally marked by such a-liturgical practices as hand shakes or (in the circumstances of retained social distancing) hand waves, it is celebrated with very little real appreciation of its significance.

There seem to me to be two key elements of such a catechesis. The first is captured by the word "offer" in the invitation to the sign of peace. The sign of peace is not something that is shared in a kind of horizontal, equal way between two people. This is one reason why the a-liturgical hand shake and wave are so poor as expressions of the sign of peace; they are unable to express a dynamic of a sign that is offered by one person and received by the other. In this dynamic of offering/receiving, the person who offers should be seen as representing the person of Christ; and the person who receives should be seen as representing the Church. This gives the same representative character to the sign celebrated between the faithful and that expressed in the dialogue between priest and faithful that precedes it. This understanding alters completely our sense of what we are doing as we celebrate the sign of peace.

The second element of this catechesis is more tricky. It is about encouraging the faithful to adopt a physical way of celebrating the sign of peace that is genuinely liturgical in its character. Perhaps, within families, the father (representing Christ) might be encouraged first to offer the sign of peace to his wife (representing the Church); and then, together, they might offer the sign of peace to their children. Perhaps a bow, such as that customary when the name of Jesus is mentioned in the liturgy, could be offered first to another person, who then, subsequently, returns the bow in receiving the sign. Or, in the spirit of mutual enrichment from the old rite, the embrace in which the person offering the sign offers their outstretched arms with the hands facing downwards to place them above the lower arms of the person receiving, who in their turn reaches out with their hands facing upwards to place them under the lower arms of the person offering. 

The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (n.154) says of the sign of peace:

According to what is decided by the Conference of Bishops, all express to one another peace, communion and charity. While the Sign of Peace is being given, it is permissible to say, The peace of the Lord be with you always, to which the reply is Amen.

The second sentence here certainly suggests a dynamic in which one person offers the sign of peace and the other person receives it. The first sentence is interesting in referring to "peace, communion and charity" rather than to an idea of reconciliation (which would be the meaning of the sign of peace in those rites where it takes place at the beginning of the offertory rite); but I suspect that this is mostly read in a more social and less theological sense than I am suggesting above.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Soul Music - two episodes from BBC Radio 4

More by accident than intention, I listened to two episodes of the BBC Radio 4 programme "Soul Music" this week. Each programme in a series of "Soul Music" takes a piece of music and allows the contributors to give an account of the impact that that piece of music has had on their lives. It also usually offers some insight into the music itself. There have now been some 31 series

The first programme I listened to was devoted to John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads. You can listen to the programme here (I think it will be available for some time after my posting), and it can be downloaded from that page as an .mp3 file. It is particularly moving to listen to Alison Wells speaking about her sister Elizabeth, who lived with Downs Syndrome, and about how her mother cared for Elizabeth. This section occurs at 09:25 - 13.44 in the programme. Elizabeth died in January, after contracting COVID-19.

I caught the second programme on BBC Radio 4 Extra, which presents programmes from the (sometimes distant) past. This programme, dedicated to Beethoven's violin concerto, is from a series first broadcast in 2012. You can listen to it here; it appears to be permanently available, and there is an option to download it as an .mp3 file. I recommend to you the first section, up to 07:24, where Robert Gupta describes how the violin concerto played apart in a key moment of his friendship with Nathanial Ayers, who suffered from mental illness. You could also listen to the final section, starting at 17:44, in which Joe Quigley describes how a recording of the concerto came to be played in his monastery and explains the impact it had on him.

Sunday, 8 August 2021

Who was Edith Stein?

In October 1998, St John Paul II  declared Blessed Teresa Benedicta of the Cross to be a saint.  Saint Teresa is better known as Edith Stein.  In 1999, he added her to the list of patron saints of the European continent. Her feast day is 9th August, and it is celebrated with the Liturgical rank of Feast in the dioceses of Europe. Who was St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross?  What is her importance for us today?

Edith was the youngest child in a large and talented Jewish family.  She was born on 12th October 1891.  Her family lived in the German town of Breslau, a town which is now known as Wroclaw and is part of Poland.  She rejected her Jewish faith, and describes how from the age of 15 she lived without religious faith.  Edith was amongst the first women to study at German universities.  At Gottingen she was able to study with some of the cleverest philosophers of her generation.  Her attempts to gain a permanent university post were blocked, at first because of the fact that she was a woman but later because of growing anti-Jewish feeling.

Through her studies Edith came to meet a number of people who had embraced Christian faith.  She was led first of all to an awareness of the life of religious faith amongst those around her, then to an awareness of the redemptive power of the cross in the life of a Lutheran friend who had suffered bereavement, and finally to faith in the Catholic Church.  Her conversion came about because of her absolute dedication to the truth wherever she found it.  This dedication was an aspect of her philosophical stance, but at the decisive moments in her conversion, the philosophy was incidental.  Instead, it was the series of personal encounters, culminating in her encounter with St Teresa of Avila in reading her Life, that determined her conversion.

As a lay Catholic, Edith lived out much that was later to be emphasised in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.  She lived a life of intense personal prayer, often spending hours on her knees before the Blessed Sacrament.  She developed a tremendous love of the Liturgy, through her visits to the Benedictine Abbey of Beuron - she once described returning from Beuron to her active life as being “almost like dropping from heaven to earth”.  She used the Divine Office for her prayer - decades before it became common for lay people to do so.  For many years Edith taught at St Magdalena’s, the Dominican sisters school in Speyer.  One of her students remembered her like this: “She succeeded in setting the course not only for my studies but for all my future moral aspirations. With her you sensed you were in the presence of something pure, sublime, and noble, something that elevated you and brought you to its own level”.  In a personal apostolate of like to like, she also influenced the lives of many of the trainee teachers and Dominican novices at St Magdalena’s.  Through her collaboration with Fr Erich Pryzwara, she pursued an intellectual apostolate which gained her an international reputation as a lecturer.

Edith was eventually forced out of public life in Germany because of the rise of anti-Jewish persecution under the Nazis.  In 1933 she fulfilled her goal of entering the Carmelite order as an enclosed nun.  All Edith’s active apostolate is to be seen as directed towards this step - it was  undertaken under obedience in response to the suggestions of others, a form of obedience expressed in its fullness in Edith’s life as a religious. Her life can be summed up as one of preferring the religious life.  Edith was transferred from the convent at Cologne to that at Echt in Holland as anti-Jewish persecution in Germany increased.  That was not enough to keep her safe.  In 1942, the Catholic bishops joined other Christian leaders in Holland in a protest against the deportation of Jews by the German occupying authorities, a protest that was at first not made public.  Subsequently, a pastoral letter condemning the German actions was read in all Catholic parishes.  This led the Germans to retaliate by arresting all Catholics of Jewish descent, Edith and her sister Rosa amongst them.  Edith and Rosa were deported with others to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau where they both died immediately after arrival on 9th August 1942.

Edith’s personality combined a very warm love for others with an ability to be severely critical.  Her nephews and nieces adored her - the special aunt who appeared only rarely, no more than twice a year, with a cloud-soft voice and a gentle smile, cool and aloof.  Despite the pain caused by her conversion and entry into Carmel, her family retained a very rich love towards her which she reciprocated.  Edith could kneel for hours in prayer, without moving - and genuinely found it difficult to understand why others could not do the same.  The severe aspect of her character arose from the very high standards that Edith set for herself, rather than any antagonism towards others.  It was also expressed in her implacable opposition to the Nazis - she would have approved entirely of the action of the Dutch bishops which led to her own martyrdom.  At one of her interrogations with the German authorities, before her arrest, she replaced the expected Nazi salute with the words: “Praised be Jesus Christ!”.

Edith Stein is an example to us of the part that lay people have to play in the Church, both in her life of prayer and in her work with others in the world.  She is at the same time an example to us of the part which  religious (nuns, monks and priests) have to play in the Church.  The thread which links these together is her obedience to God’s grace, which led her from unbelief to the Catholic faith, and on to her life as a Carmelite nun.

[An appreciation of Edith Stein alongside John Henry Newman can be found here: St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.]

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

What is important?

Humblepiety has expressed the sadness of a parish priest where the families of first communion and confirmation children do not sustain any practice of their faith: The Diocesan Plan/Vision Reflecting upon the process as a Parish Priest.

What disheartens my priestly ministry at this point of time is the difficulty of bringing the gospel to two, perhaps even three generations of lapsed Catholics.

I also thought this was a sensible post, at iBenedictines, so I link to it: Is the Church Getting It Right — or Getting It Wrong? 

The question troubling me is, do the current public preoccupations of the Church really help to spread the gospel? Are they, in any meaningful sense, meeting the desire for God? Or does the Church have some other reason for being than leading all to salvation in Christ?

Reading Humblepiety's post, and the dialogue in the comments on this second post, prompts me to add two thoughts of my own. 

The workings of grace can be unseen, and such workings are often present at the ordinary, grass roots of Church life in way that all to easily goes unnoticed. In a final analysis, those workings do not admit of a quantifiable measure. I recall some years ago encountering a thought with regard to first communion for people with learning disabilities - and that thought suggested that, since such an individual was not able to consent to sin, a first reception of communion would suffice for fulfilled life of grace. The most vivid life of the Church is there, and it continues despite everything that appears to the contrary.

And there is a mirror to this first thought. Each of us is called to cultivate that part of the Lord's vineyard where we have been placed; and that does not ask us to take a stance on each and every issue that faces the wider Church, or, indeed, to solve every problem that might impinge on our own corner of the vineyard. We are called to persevere in our own task, and perhaps to disregard that which is not pertinent to it, whatever others might broadcast as being important.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Taekwondo commentary and St Ignatius Loyola

I have not been following the Tokyo Olympics closely, and so have only come across Lutalo Muhammad in the Times newspaper today. According to the Times, Lutalo "has won the admiration of fellow broadcasters and athletes for his eloquent commentary" in presenting Tokyo's taekwondo events this last week.

Along with his mellifluous delivery, his commentary has been noted for its poeticism and use of analogy, among them the phrase: "Fear can either fuel you or be the fire that burns you up".

Lutalo attributes his lyrical bent to a life-long love of reading, which was initiated by trips to the local library with his mother when he was a child.

"As a little boy, fun for us was a trip to the library, which all sounds a bit geeky now. But I really do enjoy reading and I love books that chronicle people developing themselves. I'm fascinated by improvement and performance". 

Apparently, Lutalo's mother still reads a book a day, as well as running a taekwondo club in east London, along with Lutalo's father. 

The second reading in the Office of Readings for today, the feast day of St Ignatius Loyola, describes the effect on the saint of the reading that he undertook when recovering from illness.

Ignatius was very addicted to reading aimless and exaggerated books about the illustrious deeds of the famous and when he felt well again he asked for some to pass the time. But there were no books of that type in the house and he was given a book called The Life of Christ and another The Flower of the Saints, both in his native language.

The passage from the Office goes on to describe how St Ignatius reflected on this reading, but at the same time was also distracted back to thoughts of his more worldly reading.

But there was a difference in his two types of subject for thought. When he was intent on his worldly interests he got great pleasure at the time, but whenever he wearied of them and gave them up, he felt dejected and empty. On the other hand, when he thought about the austerities which he found that holy men practised, not only did he find joy in the account of them, but when he stopped thinking of them his joy remained unabated. However, he never noticed the difference or thought about it, until one day it dawned on him, and he began to wonder at it....Afterwards, however, when he had undertaken spiritual exercises, this experience was the starting point for teaching his followers the discernment of spirits.

In these times of on-line reading, of Kindle, and of the smart phone ......there is still something special about holding a real book in your hands ..... and using a real bookmark! 

And St Ignatius gives us a good example of how serious reading is of more value than the celebration of celebrity that is often to be found in television or online sources.

Friday, 30 July 2021

XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops - coming to a diocese near you!

 L’apertura del Sinodo avrà luogo tanto in Vaticano quanto in ciascuna diocesi. Il cammino sarà inaugurato dal Santo Padre in Vaticano: il 9-10 ottobre.

Con le medesime modalità, domenica 17 ottobre, si aprirà nelle diocesi, sotto la presidenza del rispettivo vescovo.

I translate from the Italian version of the Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office, as it seems to make clearer sense than the English:

The opening of the Synod will take place both in the Vatican in in each diocese. The journey will be opened by the Holy Father in the Vatican: 9th-10th October.

It will be opened in the dioceses with the same formalities on Sunday 17th October, under the presidency of the respective bishop. 

 The note from the Synod of Bishops reported in the Bulletin indicates a path of consultation, starting with a phase at diocesan level, and continuing through phases at Episcopal Conference and continental levels, to a phase at the level of the Universal Church with the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023. The subject of this synodal process is "For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission".

Here in England, the Archdiocese of Liverpool has reached the pastoral planning stage after the completion of a synodal process which, affected by the coronavirus pandemic, has stretched over several years. A website for that synodal process can be found here, with a resources page here.

At this point I have noticed a couple of subtle points about the Liverpool experience. The first is a recognition that a number of the ideas that were put forward at a listening stage were "matters outside the remit of the synod". This included ideas favouring the ordination of women, ending the discipline of celibacy for priests, wider use of general absolution for the Sacrament of Penance, and requests around the present liturgical texts. A note about these can be downloaded from the resources page mentioned above.

Might it not be useful, in the light of the forthcoming diocesan phase, for there to be a clear recognition in advance of what lies within the remit of the synodal process and what lies outside that remit? Will the Preparatory Document promised from the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, with its proposals for carrying out the consultation in each local Church, effectively provide this?

The second point was the description of the participants in Liverpool's synod as being "members" rather than "representatives". This is explained at this link. The underlying principle is that members are not representatives of a constituency or of a point of view, be that a majority or a minority point of view; rather they have an office of discernment in the light of their knowledge of the life of the ecclesial community from which they come.

But the language of the Note from the Synod of Bishops is one of "consultation", particularly a "consultation of the People of God" during the diocesan phase that will enable all to take part. It is interesting, however, that, when the Note refers to the consultation of the People of God, it references n.5 and n.6 of Pope Francis' Apostolic Constitution on the Synod of Bishops. I reproduce n.5 below, noting its carefully constructed account of how a Bishop is also a disciple who is able to listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking through his people. I also note the reference in the last sentence to "diocesan institutions whose task it is to advise the Bishop, promoting a loyal and constructive dialogue". Could not the diocesan phase be carried out by means of the already existing mechanisms of consultation in a diocese rather than by the establishing of a separate bureaucracy? And, indeed, is the term "consultation" really the appropriate term to describe that office of the Bishop as both teacher and disciple described in n.5?

It is certainly true, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, that “when Bishops engage in teaching, in communion with the Roman Pontiff, they deserve respect from all, as the witnesses of divine and catholic truth; the faithful must agree with the judgment of their Bishop on faith and morals, which he delivers in the name of Christ; they must give it their adherence with religious assent of the mind”. But it is also true that “for every Bishop the life of the Church and life in the Church is the condition for exercising his mission to teach”.

Hence the Bishop is both teacher and disciple. He is a teacher when, endowed with the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, he proclaims to the faithful the word of truth in the name of Christ, head and shepherd. But he is a disciple when, knowing that the Spirit has been bestowed upon every baptized person, he listens to the voice of Christ speaking through the entire People of God, making it “infallible in credendo. Indeed, “the universal body made up of the faithful, whom the Holy One has anointed (cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27), is incapable of erring in belief. This is a property which belongs to the people as a whole; a supernatural sense of faith is the means by which they make this property manifest, when ‘from Bishops to the last of the lay faithful’, they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals”. So the Bishop is called to lead his flock by “walking in front of them, showing them the way, showing them the path; walking in their midst, to strengthen them in unity; walking behind them, to make sure no one gets left behind but especially, never to lose the scent of the People of God in order to find new roads. A Bishop who lives among his faithful has his ears open to listen to ‘what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev 2:7), and to the ‘voice of the sheep’, also through those diocesan institutions whose task it is to advise the Bishop, promoting a loyal and constructive dialogue”.

For completeness, here is the text of n.6, which describes how the Synod of Bishops can be seen as an expression of the voice of the entire people of God, though in a nuanced way that reflects the distinctive office of the Bishop:

Similarly, the Synod of Bishops must increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God: “For the Synod Fathers we ask the Holy Spirit first of all for the gift of listening: to listen to God, that with him we may hear the cry of the people; to listen to the people until breathing in the desire to which God calls us”.

Although structurally it is essentially configured as an episcopal body, this does not mean that the Synod exists separately from the rest of the faithful. On the contrary, it is a suitable instrument to give voice to the entire People of God, specifically via the Bishops, established by God as “authentic guardians, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church”, demonstrating, from one Assembly to another, that it is an eloquent expression of synodality as a “constitutive element of the Church”.

Therefore, as John Paul II declared, “Every General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is a powerful ecclesial experience, even if some of its practical procedures can always be perfected. The Bishops assembled in Synod represent in the first place their own Churches, but they are also attentive to the contributions of the Episcopal Conferences which selected them and whose views about questions under discussion they then communicate. They thus express the recommendation of the entire hierarchical body of the Church and finally, in a certain sense, the whole Christian people, whose pastors they are”.

Monday, 26 July 2021

Freedom in reading the Scriptures

I have recently been reminded, twice, of a thought that I not infrequently mull over. That thought relates to how one approaches Sacred Scripture as a Catholic. The reading of Scripture within the life of the Catholic Church's tradition and teaching authority at first sight suggests a serious restriction to how an individual Catholic, be they an ordinary member of the faithful or a Scripture scholar, may read the Scriptural text. But what I mull over from time to time is the thought that, though the life of the Church does define how some passages of Scripture are to be understood (for example, on the office of the successor of St Peter and the institution of the Eucharist), these passages are relatively few compared to the entirety of the Scriptural canon, and there is enormous freedom with regard to how much of the Scriptural text can be understood. The Catholic, who reads Scripture in the framework of the tradition and teaching authority, therefore actually has much more freedom in relationship with the text than the Evangelical Christian, whose only source of the content of faith is the text alone and whose relationship to the text is make-or-break on every question.

The first reminder came in a conversation with a lady I have only recently come to know. Over a lunch break, she steered conversation very quickly from asking whether or not I was a believer via the recent decision of the Methodist Church in the UK to allow same sex marriage to asking whether or not I thought the Catholic Church would give in on the issue as well. I pointed out that the arrangements which give the Holy See an existence as an independent state as well as a universal authority of faith protects the Church at a local level from political and social influences that might affect other ecclesial bodies - even if local bishops wanted to give in on the issue, they wouldn't be able to do so. But what struck me was this lady's very brief observation that same sex marriage was against Biblical teaching, which suggested that no other authority sat behind her belief on this question than that. The lady in question did not appear to recognise an insecurity that exists in that basis.

The second reminder came in the homily at Mass this last Sunday. Preaching on St John's account of the feeding of the 5 000, a visiting priest suggested that Jesus' intention in performing this sign was to teach the necessity for the Christian life of caring for the material needs of our neighbour. Noting St John's statement that the event occurred "shortly before the Jewish feast of passover", Father suggested that St John was putting this sign into the context of the first passover, where the Jewish people were to enter the desert with the need there for them to receive earthly nourishment. Father saw this as a first stage in St John's presentation of Jesus teaching, with the later parts of the chapter of his Gospel building up in steps from this first stage. This is not the customary Catholic reading of the text and its parallels in the other Gospels. The more usual reading sees in it, perhaps particularly in St John's Gospel, a sign of the abundance of the Eucharistic gift to the Church (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church n.1335, but see also n.1397, where commitment to the poor is indicated as one of the fruits of reception of the Sacrament). There is a question about the wisdom or otherwise of offering such an unusual interpretation (from the Catholic point of view) during a homily at Sunday Mass in a parish and in the context of a sequence of Sunday Gospel readings that are essentially eucharistic in their intent; but, if that question is put to one side, the interpretation lies within, but perhaps at the boundaries, of the range of freedom that a Catholic exegete has with respect to the Scriptural text.

Monday, 12 July 2021

The Praise of Glory

 MAGNIFICAT for last Sunday uses as its "Meditation of the Day" an extract from St Elizabeth of the Trinity.  The text is published under the title Heaven in Faith in the Institute of Carmelite Studies (ICS) complete works of St Elizabeth, Volume 1. In the following I use the Scripture translations used in the ICS edition, rather than those used by MAGNIFICAT, which use the Jerusalem translations used in the Liturgy (and thereby seem to lose a subtlety in St Elizabeth's thought).

"If you knew the gift of God", Christ said one evening to the Samaritan woman. But what is this gift of God if not Himself? And, the beloved disciple tells us: "He came to His own and His own did not accept Him". St John the Baptist could still say to many souls these words of reproach: "There is one in the midst of you, 'in you', whom you do not know".

The two words "in you" are inserted into, and emphasized, in the quotation of St John the Baptist, and echo a phrase in St Luke's Gospel.

The MAGNIFICAT meditation then omits a following section, losing a Marian reference in St Elizabeth's thought (St Elizabeth may have included this section prompted by the occurrence of the solemnity of the Assumption at the time of her writing):

"If you knew the gift of God..." There is one who know the gift of God, one who did not lose one particle of it, on who was so pure, so luminous that she seemed to be the Light itself: "Speculum justitiae". One whose life was so simple, so lost in God that there is hardly anything we can say about it.

"Virgo fidelis": that is, faithful Virgin, "who kept all these things in her heart".

 The extract then takes up the theme of the praise of glory, quoting St Paul:

"We have been predestined by the decree of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we may be the praise of his glory."

It is St Paul who tells us this, St Paul who was instructed by God Himself. How do we realize this great dream of the Heart of our God, this immutable will for our souls? In a word, how do we correspond to our vocation and become perfect Praises of Glory of the Most Holy Trinity?

"In Heaven" each sould is a praise of glory of the Father, the Word and Holy Spirit, for each soul is established in pure love and "lives no longer its own life, but the life of God". Then it knows Him, St Paul says, as it is known by Him.... St John of the Cross affirms that "the soul surrendered to love, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, is not far from being raised to the degree of which we have just spoken," eve here below! This is what I call a perfect praise of glory!

 Where the Jerusalem translation "..chosen to be, for his greater glory..." appears to be passive in its intent - it is God's action that makes us manifest his greater glory - ".. so that we may be the praise of his glory" suggests an active sense too, on the part of the soul, though active in response to the initiative of God. Whatever the subtleties of the exegesis of the Scriptural text, the idea that the soul should live as a praise of glory of the Trinity is a key part of St Elizabeth's thought.

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Can we just make it up?

In his newsletter for last weekend, our parish priest reflected on martyrdom in the light of several feast days occurring around this time: St Oliver Plunkett, Sts John Fisher and Thomas More, St John the Baptist and, today, Sts Peter and Paul. The italics added below are mine:

Some martyrs were ordered on pain of death to deny Christ and conform to false worship, and refused. Others, like John the Baptist, paid with their lives for preaching a message that was uncomfortable for those in power, or for standing firm on a point of principle, like Thomas More and John Fisher. Perhaps we find the last category most puzzling, in an age when religion is seen as a purely private matter. Yet persecution of a different form certainly occurs when people publicly express opinions that are out of step with certain fashionable orthodoxies, and find themselves, not martyred (in the West at least) but effectively silenced and excluded from discourse. 

More and Fisher were martyrs not only for truth, but also for conscience, and for freedom. Many people today are uncomfortable with the idea of objective truth, a reality that they must accept and conform to, rather than invent for themselves. If truth is considered subjective and relative, conscience is even more so. And being subjective, these things must be kept private, so as not to intrude on the freedom of others, including the freedom not to be challenged by differing points of view: that is the way many people seem to think today. However the Christian faith is one that cannot simply be privatised. It is not just a question of proclaiming Christ to the world, which is indeed the heart of the church’s mission, but even more a matter of simply living out our faith and putting into practice the values of the gospel. If the highest of these values is love, we should remember that love sometimes requires us to speak up for the good of others, rather than simply keep quiet.

Father did not directly refer to it, but his words prompted me to think about one of the "fashionable orthodoxies" of our day, namely, the widespread acceptance of ideas of LGBTQ identities. Public conversation has to all intents and purposes replaced talk of biological sex with talk of gender, a somewhat less exact concept (though, interestingly, when Matthew Paris argued recently in the Times newspaper that the experience of gay men in 1989 was not one of wanting to change in any way their identification as male, he appeared to restore, at least for some within the LGBTQ community, biological sex to contemporary debate). The term "gender assigned at birth", for example, is being promoted as an alternative to biological sex.

.... gender isn’t about someone’s anatomy, it is about who they know them self to be. There are many different gender identities, including male, female, transgender, gender neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, and all, none or a combination of these.

When I read this extract from a website aimed at teenagers (a site called teen talk, with a .ca domain name), I did wonder: are young people being subject to an ideology that essentially says to them "you can choose from a list" as far as "gender" is concerned, rather than learning to grow in a given biological sex, male or female? Is it really sensible to ask young people to, in effect, choose "who they know them self to be", rather than helping them to grow in living the reality of a male or female sex? 

[I was struck on first reading this extract by the last part: "... and all, none or a combination of these". It really does suggest the idea of gender as being something that a young person can make up, separated from any reality of their biological presentation. Indeed, the next paragraph begins: "There are many more gender identities than we have listed..."]

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Matt and Gina: observations on the Zeitgeist

I suspect that the Sun newspaper's video of Matt Hancock, now the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in an intimate clinch with a female aide will turn out to be a classic of its genre.

But it does raise a three interesting questions, not specific to the case of Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo, but with respect to a range of surrounding assumptions, what one might term "the zeitgiest".

Is consent on the part of the man and woman a sufficient condition to make an otherwise morally unjust action morally just? If we were to remove the element of consent on the part of Ms Coladangelo to the action shown in the Sun's video clip (Mr Hancock is shown squeezing her bottom), the video would provide an example of precisely the wrong behaviour of a man in a position of relative power towards a woman in the workplace that has been raised by #Me Too. News reporting suggests that both Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo were being unfaithful to their respective spouses, and the consenting nature of their office clinch does not remove the injustice towards spouses that this involves. Even if one sets this consideration aside, there remains a question as to whether or not that squeezing of the bottom in an office clinch represents a respectful behaviour of a man towards a woman, and whether the woman's consent is sufficient to overcome that lack of respectfulness.  (I don't intend this as a criticism of Mr Hancock as an individual, but as a more general observation about male/female behaviours.) 

The question is of a much wider significance, as much of the contemporary discussion about the safety of women in society, both in social life and in the workplace, focusses on educating men about the nature of consent. But if consent is not a sufficient criterion (though it will be a necessary criterion along with others) for the morality of the actions involved, a focus on consent is not going to resolve the question of the safety and wellbeing of women. We do, perhaps, need to have a conversation about what constitute the boundaries of right and wrong behaviours independently of, and in addition to, the question of consent.

Should we be indifferent to marriage in our public life? Mr Hancock's resignation has with, some emphasis, been connected to his breach of social distancing rules that he himself was responsible for drawing up. In Mr Hancock's own words:

I understand the enormous sacrifices that everybody in this country has made, that you have made, and those of us who make these rules have got to stick by them and that's why I have got to resign.

Reporting, following Mr Hancock's colleagues, have distinguished this reason for resignation from matters of his personal life. The public conversation appears to have a certain style of indifference to the lack of faithfulness to spouses and families shown by Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo; tabloid comment refers to Mr Hancock"cheating on his wife" and Ms Coladangelo as a "cheating aide", but more serious comment is keeping a discreet silence about this. Certainly it would be wrong for public conversation to consist of a witch hunt in the media or hounding on social media; charity is required in this context as in any other, and Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo just happen to represent far more publicly than is typical the circumstances of many others. A certain silence about the specific case might well be the manner in which charity is shown. 

But the BBC are carrying this morning what might be considered a piece of lazy reporting, reflecting I think reporting from the Sun, but which nevertheless is indicative:

Mr Hancock has ended his 15-year marriage to his wife, Martha, and the relationship with Ms Coladangelo is understood to be a serious one.

It would appear that Mr Hancock has left his wife with an immediate effect, announcing his departure abruptly as the Sun broke the story of his office encounter with Ms Coladangelo (according to the Sun, at least); but even in civil law, leaving aside any particular belief that one might have about the permanence of marriage vows, a marriage has not ended until a divorce has been granted.

Whilst one would not want to launch witch hunts in any individual cases, is it really healthy for society that the wider public conversation in the case of Mr Hancock and Ms Coladangelo should remain  indifferent to the the place of marriage in the life of society? Should not the good of marriage, and expectations around that good, be at least a part of the public conversation? 

How should we correctly understand the significance of private life for public life? There are certainly dangers to freedoms when matters of personal life are seen as necessary conditions for participation in public life. But does this mean that how people conduct themselves in their private lives is completely without significance for their public lives? A personal characteristic such as integrity is one that can be common to both a person's private and public life, for example; likewise a characteristic such as honesty.  The commonality of such characteristics to both private and public life does mean that I think we should be able to expect more from those who play a larger part in public life than might be the case of those who play a smaller part (recognising that we all risk failing to live up to expectations, those with a large public profile as much as those without). 

At the very least, I think we should recognise that private life has some significance for public life, and that this is true for all of us, even if our part in public life is relatively small. It might be of greater significance for those who have a large public profile.

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Film Review: The Father

 It is now well over a year since Zero and I last visited the cinema, but this afternoon we went to see the film The Father

The film has its origins in a stage play, Le Pere, by playwight Florian Zeller. It was co-written by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (who previously had translated the stage play in to English), and directed by Florian Zeller.

A first observation to be made is that, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its roots, and the fact that the director is the author of the original stage play, the film does look like a film that has been made from a play script (though it would be wrong to suggest in any way that it is a filmed performance of the stage play). An early scene with just Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins really did have the feel of two actors on a stage set, with Anthony Hopkins on stage as the curtain went up and Olivia Colman entering from stage right.  An aspect of this, too, is a very strong accentuation of themes, that comes close to but just falls back from exaggeration. Watching a stage play in a theatre would make this rather less noticeable, and would indeed be part of an effective use of the art form; but on film it can be a bit disconcerting. In this respect, if I were looking for a film that communicates a more natural experience of dementia, I would probably choose Still Alice, which was in cinemas in 2015.

The reflection of the play script in the film does, however, have a strength in an underlying intention on the part of the writer/producer to portray the confusion experienced by Anthony Hopkins character in such a way that the audience themselves also experience that confusion. As you watch the film you become increasingly unsure of what is reality and what is the product of Anthony's confused imagination. I came out of the cinema, for example, quite unsure as to whether or not Olivia Colman's daughter figure had actually gone to live in Paris leaving Anthony in a nursing home. Even the time sequence of scenes becomes confusing, with uncertainty as to whether you are later in the same day or at the end of the previous day. The film is certainly successful in getting the viewer to share in Anthony's confusion, with perhaps only the closing scene relieving that confusion; the effectiveness of the stage play in this regard must be quite stunning. There is also a more subtle aspect that might be discernable at a second viewing, and that is the extent to which the film at some points places the viewer essentially in the point of view of Anthony and in others in the point of view of Olivia Colman's  daughter figure. Where another film might make such a transition explicit by way of some technical device such as a blurred transition, The Father does not, so you never quite know for sure when you are in the daughter's point of view.

There seem to be one or two suggestions of features that might be typical of memory loss - Anthony's preference for chicken, which Olivia Colman's character cooks for him; Anthony's wanting another daughter to visit who we learn part way through the film had been in an accident and presumably died (though the film does not make that explicit); and Anthony's obsession with his watch. But, on the whole, I did not feel that the film communicated a genuine understanding of the nature of dementia; and Zero suggested that the nurse in the closing scene did not really show the kind of skills that specialist nurses caring for dementia patients might show. As I suggest above, I think that Still Alice would be a better film to go to if you want to understand something of the nature of dementia.

A theme that is clearly portrayed in The Father is the impact that caring for an elderly relative with memory loss/confusion has on the carers' relationship with a "significant other" (in the film, it is not absolutely clear if they are married or not) who is not a blood relative. The tensions between them are perhaps deliberately accentuated in the film, but the challenge is a real one.

Anthony Hopkins portrayal of his character is absolutely gripping, and his Oscar very well deserved. There are several shots where the cinematography places Anthony Hopkins in one half of the screen, perhaps the left hand side; and you eventually realise that your regard has been drawn totally to his portrayal in that part of the screen and you have to make a conscious effort if you want to even notice the right hand side of the screen shot. His acting of his role really is outstanding. Perhaps I undervalued Olivia Colman's portrayal of her part, in the way in which she shows her character's reaction to Anthony's difficult behaviours. Perhaps a second viewing of the film would allow me to appreciate it more; but it does face the challenge of wondering, in the intention of the film maker, how far her character is being portrayed from the point of view of Anthony or from her own point of view.

Another aspect of the cinematography is of interest. Most of the film shots are filmed with a static camera, and it feels as if that is the case as you watch those shots. The setting in a flat lends itself to this... with a room, or a view through a door from one room into another, providing a natural kind of frame for such a "fixed" shot. Such fixed shots of a scene without the presence of the characters also lends itself to the similarity of portrayal of Anthony's own flat in early scenes, of his daughter's flat in the middle section of the film and, with a noticeable change of decor, of the nursing home at the end of the film. It will take me a second viewing of the film in order to appreciate exactly what the film maker is trying to achieve with these shots. [Listen to Florian Zeller's account of this, and Anthony Hopkins' remarks about how the set is another actor in the film, in the interview linked below, which I listened to only after writing this comment.]

Whilst there are moving moments in the film, I am not sure that I would describe the film as a whole by the term "moving". The accentuation of its style, referred to above, and its intention to embroil you in Anthony's own confusion, gives the film an overriding sense of drama rather than of being moving. 

There is an interesting conversation with Florian Zeller, Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman about the film: The Father: Conversation with Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.