Friday 31 December 2021

The end of a year: how have we lived the time that God has given us?

MAGNIFICAT for today, the eve of a new year, uses as its "Meditation of the Day" an extract from Pope Francis' homily at the Te Deum and celebration of Vespers on this corresponding day in 2013.  

The biblical and Christian vision of time and history is not cyclical but linear: it is a journey that moves toward completion. A year which has passed, then, does not lead us to a reality which ends but to a reality which is being fulfilled, it is a further step toward the destination that awaits us: a destination of hope and a destination of happiness, for we shall encounter God, who is the reason for our hope and the source of our happiness.

As 2013 draws to a close, we gather up, as in a basket, the days, weeks and months we have lived in order to offer them all to the Lord. And let us courageously ask ourselves: how have we lived the time which He has given us? Have we used it primarily for ourselves, for our own interests, or have we also sought to spend it on others? How much time have we reserved for being with God, in prayer, in silence, in adoration?

Pope Francis then directed his attention to the city of Rome, on what was his first New Year as Pope. (MAGNIFICAT did not include this section in its extract.) We can, however, take the words that he addressed to what is now his home and apply them to our own towns and cities.

It is the last day of the year. What shall we do, how shall we act in the coming year in order to make our City a little better? In the new year, Rome will have an even more beautiful face if it is richer in humanity, more hospitable and welcoming; if we are all considerate and generous to those in difficulty; if we cooperate with a constructive and caring spirit for the good of all. Rome in the new year will be better if people do not observe it as “from afar”, on a postcard, if they do not only watch life pass by “from the balcony” without becoming involved in the many human problems, in the problems of men and women, who in the end... and from the beginning, whether we like it or not, are our brothers and sisters. 

Pope Francis' homily concluded with the following passage, included in the MAGNIFICAT extract:

This evening let us conclude the Year of the Lord 2013 by giving thanks and also by asking for forgiveness. The two together: giving thanks and asking for forgiveness. Let us give thanks for all the blessings which God has bestowed on us, especially for his patience and his faithfulness, which are manifest over the course of time, but in a singular way in the fullness of time, when “God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Gal 4:4). May the Mother of God, in whose name tomorrow we begin a new phase of our earthly pilgrimage, teach us to welcome God made man, so that every year, every month, every day may be filled with his eternal Love. 

Wednesday 29 December 2021

The Paradoxes of Christmas in Pope Francis' Christmas homily

 My familiarity with G K Chesterton is very limited - the Father Brown stories being my main reading of Chesterton. I understand, however, that the paradox is a staple of his prose, and I do have a memory of trying to read a passage of his that became incomprehensible as the paradoxes tripped over each other one after another.

Pope Francis' opened his homily at the Mass of Christmas this year with paradoxes that makes one think of Chesterton:

The Gospel emphasizes this contrast. It relates the birth of Jesus beginning with Caesar Augustus, who orders the census of the whole world: it presents the first Emperor in all his grandeur. Yet immediately thereafter it brings us to Bethlehem, where there is no grandeur at all: just a poor child wrapped in swaddling cloths, with shepherds standing by. That is where God is, in littleness. This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what really matters.

Brothers and sisters, standing before the crib, we contemplate what is central, beyond all the pretty lights and decorations. We contemplate the child. In his littleness, God is completely present. Let us acknowledge this: “Baby Jesus, you are God, the God who becomes a child”. Let us be amazed by this scandalous truth. The One who embraces the universe needs to be held in another’s arms. The One who created the sun needs to be warmed. Tenderness incarnate needs to be coddled. Infinite love has a miniscule heart that beats softly. The eternal Word is an “infant”, a speechless child. The Bread of life needs to be nourished. The Creator of the world has no home. Today, all is turned upside down: God comes into the world in littleness. His grandeur appears in littleness.

Let us ask ourselves: can we accept God’s way of doing things? This is the challenge of Christmas: God reveals himself, but men and women fail to understand. He makes himself little in the eyes of the world, while we continue to seek grandeur in the eyes of the world, perhaps even in his name. God lowers himself and we try to become great. The Most High goes in search of shepherds, the unseen in our midst, and we look for visibility; we want to be seen. Jesus is born in order to serve, and we spend a lifetime pursuing success. God does not seek power and might; he asks for tender love and interior littleness.

Pope Francis then goes on to tease out the message of this littleness for us today:

This is what we should ask Jesus for at Christmas: the grace of littleness. “Lord, teach us to love littleness. Help us to understand that littleness is the way to authentic greatness”. What does it mean, concretely, to accept littleness? In the first place, it is to believe that God desires to come into the little things of our life; he wants to inhabit our daily lives, the things we do each day at home, in our families, at school and in the workplace. Amid our ordinary lived experience, he wants to do extraordinary things. His is a message of immense hope. Jesus asks us to rediscover and value the little things in life. If he is present there, what else do we need?  Let us stop pining for a grandeur that is not ours to have. Let us put aside our complaints and our gloomy faces, and the greed that never satisfies! Littleness and the amazement of that little child: this is the message.

Yet there is more. Jesus does not want to come merely in the little things of our lives, but also in our own littleness: in our experience of feeling weak, frail, inadequate, perhaps even “messed up”. Dear sister or brother, if, as in Bethlehem, the darkness of night overwhelms you, if you feel surrounded by cold indifference, if the hurt you carry inside cries out, “You are of little account; you are worthless; you will never be loved the way you want”, tonight, if this is what you are feeling, God answers back. He tells you: “I love you just as you are. Your littleness does not frighten me, your failings do not trouble me. I became little for your sake. To be your God, I became your brother. Dear brother, dear sister, don’t be afraid of me. Find in me your measure of greatness. I am close to you, and one thing only do I ask: trust me and open your heart to me”.

To accept littleness means something else too. It means embracing Jesus in the little ones of today. Loving him, that is, in the least of our brothers and sisters. Serving him in the poor, those most like Jesus who was born in poverty. It is in them that he wants to be honoured. On this night of love, may we have only one fear: that of offending God’s love, hurting him by despising the poor with our indifference. Jesus loves them dearly, and one day they will welcome us to heaven. A poet once wrote: “Who has found the heaven – below – Will fail of it above” (E. DICKINSON, Poems, P96-17). Let us not lose sight of heaven; let us care for Jesus now, caressing him in the needy, because in them he makes himself known. 

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Pope Francis' message for the World Day of Peace 2022

 The first of three "paths" to which Pope Francis refers in his message for the 55th World Day of Peace is one about which he has spoken on a number of occasions before, that is, the need for a dialogue between those who are elderly and those who are young. He returns again to the idea that there is wisdom to be found among those who are older in life from which those who are younger have much to learn:

Although technological and economic development has tended to create a divide between generations, our current crises show the urgent need for an intergenerational partnership. Young people need the wisdom and experience of the elderly, while those who are older need the support, affection, creativity and dynamism of the young.

Great social challenges and peace processes necessarily call for dialogue between the keepers of memory – the elderly – and those who move history forward – the young. Each must be willing to make room for others and not to insist on monopolizing the entire scene by pursuing their own immediate interests, as if there were no past and future. The global crisis we are experiencing makes it clear that encounter and dialogue between generations should be the driving force behind a healthy politics, that is not content to manage the present “with piecemeal solutions or quick fixes”, but views itself as an outstanding form of love for others, in the search for shared and sustainable projects for the future.

If, amid difficulties, we can practise this kind of intergenerational dialogue, “we can be firmly rooted in the present, and from here, revisit the past and look to the future. To revisit the past in order to learn from history and heal old wounds that at times still trouble us. To look to the future in order to nourish our enthusiasm, cause dreams to emerge, awaken prophecies and enable hope to blossom. Together, we can learn from one another”. For without roots, how can trees grow and bear fruit?

Pope Francis' second "path" is that of education, and he particularly indicates the disproportion between expenditure on military hardware and that on education:

In recent years, there has been a significant reduction worldwide in funding for education and training; these have been seen more as expenditures than investments. Yet they are the primary means of promoting integral human development; they make individuals more free and responsible, and they are essential for the defence and promotion of peace. In a word, teaching and education are the foundations of a cohesive civil society capable of generating hope, prosperity and progress.

Military expenditures, on the other hand, have increased beyond the levels at the end of the Cold War and they seem certain to grow exorbitantly. 

It is high time, then, that governments develop economic policies aimed at inverting the proportion of public funds spent on education and on weaponry. The pursuit of a genuine process of international disarmament can only prove beneficial for the development of peoples and nations, freeing up financial resources better used for health care, schools, infrastructure, care of the land and so forth.

The third "path" is that of work, and Pope Francis highlights the difficulties faced by many different aspects of the field of work that have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic:

It is more urgent than ever to promote, throughout our world, decent and dignified working conditions, oriented to the common good and to the safeguarding of creation. The freedom of entrepreneurial initiatives needs to be ensured and supported; at the same time, efforts must be made to encourage a renewed sense of social responsibility, so that profit will not be the sole guiding criterion.

In light of this, there is a need to promote, welcome and support initiatives that, on all levels, urge companies to respect the fundamental human rights of workers, raising awareness not only on the part of institutions, but also among consumers, civil society and entrepreneurial entities. As the latter become more and more conscious of their role in society, the more they will become places where human dignity is respected. In this way, they will contribute to building peace. Here, politics is called to play an active role by promoting a fair balance between economic freedom and social justice. All who work in this field, starting with Catholic workers and entrepreneurs, can find sure guidelines in the Church’s social doctrine. 

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Human Rights and Forced Adoption

 At the end of BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, there was a piece about the way in which single women who became pregnant were, as recently as the 1970's,  pressured and shamed into giving up there babies for adoption. You can listen to the clip on BBC Sounds for the next 29 days - the item starts at 2:44:00.

The interview is with Harriet Harman, the longest serving female MP in the House of Commons, and chair of the Parliamentary select committee on Human Rights. The committee is launching an enquiry into the forced adoptions, on the basis that the birth mothers involved may have been deprived of their right to a family life (cf both the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 12 and the European Convention on Human Rights Article 8) by the persuasion/coercion applied to them to give up their babies for adoption.

Ms Harman makes a number of remarks in her interview that gave me reason to pause for thought.

Firstly, she is already clear that women who found themselves in the situation of pregnancy were effectively forced into giving up their babies for adoption, even though there was a perception at the time that they were making a choice to give up their babies. The clip before her interview certainly seems to bear out Ms Harman's suggestion, but, from the point of view of the person who is going to lead on an enquiry into the matter, one might expect this to be something that she says at the end of the enquiry after hearing the evidence rather than being a  position adopted before the committee has heard its evidence. I think this does indicate something about the nature of select committee enquiries and reports, namely, that they have an element of political direction in their initiation rather than being intentionally neutral. (I recall feeling something the same with regard to Robert Halfon and the Education Select committee when they launched an enquiry into home schooling with an intention of considering that education needing to be subject to registration and inspection.)

In referring to the shame, indeed stigma, attaching to pregnancy outside marriage at the time, Ms Harman adds that this was a time when there was "no sex education, no contraception and no abortion". Ms Harman clearly feels that this is something of relevance to the situation of these women, though it is difficult to be exactly sure what relevance she intends. If nowadays a young girl presents with a pregnancy outside marriage or a fixed relationship, how far do sexual health professionals act with a different shaming that asks why the girl was not "taking precautions" when, in an earlier time, that shaming might have been instead on the basis of her not being married? And might there not now be a presumption on the part of professionals in favour of abortion that parallels the earlier presumption in favour of adoption? And does this latter possibility not also raise the question of whether or not there has been a violation of the right to a family life, which would bring it within the remit of Ms Harman's enquiry?

When she articulates the meaning of the right to family life, Ms Harman speaks of "the right of a mother to keep her child and the right of a child to be brought up by her mother". Whilst this is straightforward in the immediate context, it raises an interesting question for such different contexts as  a surrogate mother acting for a male same sex couple; and, if the similar right is recognised for the father of a child, for a sperm donor acting with respect to a female same sex couple or a single lady. Whilst these two contexts do have the major difference of a genuine consent to the giving up of the child, I suspect that Ms Harman did not intend her remark to suggest that what was happening in these situations is a voluntary renunciation of a right to a family life.

And finally, I noted Ms Harman's suggestion of the need for an official record that would allow these  voices of women about their motherhood to be heard, in a way that those voices were not heard in an earlier time. This seemed to me to be a laudable aim of her committee's enquiry.

Saturday 11 December 2021

Freedom and the Common Good

As the governments of the United Kingdom begin to put in place measures in an attempt to limit the increasing number of COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, a narrative from the right of the political spectrum speaks of these measures as a reprehensible denial of our freedom, to be opposed at all costs.

But that is to see the question of freedom only in the negative term of "freedom from ..", rather than in its positive term of "freedom to ...". In this positive conception, the proper end of the exercise of human freedom is that which is true and good, that is, our own good and the good of our neighbour. This is expressed in n.365 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

365. Why does everyone have a right to exercise freedom?
The right to the exercise of freedom belongs to everyone because it is inseparable from his or her dignity as a human person. Therefore this right must always be respected, especially in moral and religious matters, and it must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and a just public order.
That reference to "the limits of the common good" defines the purpose towards which the exercise of human freedom in society is directed, and recognises a qualification to any idea that freedom means freedom to do whatever one likes in the exercise of rights, regardless of the interests of our neighbour.

A similar qualification to the exercise of human rights and freedoms exists in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where Article 29 n.2 reads as follows, the term "the general welfare in a democratic society" expressing the idea of a common good:
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.

So a narrative which seeks to oppose the establishment of measures in law intended to limit the adverse effects of COVID-19 variants in society only on the grounds of their being infringements of human freedom is a partial perspective, neglecting the recognition in major human rights instruments of the limitation to that freedom that can be applied in the interests of the common good. And as a partial perspective, pursued alone, it becomes an ideology of freedom rather than an advocacy of true freedom.

[One might want to argue that the proposed measures are not actually required by the common good... but that is to then enter into a debate about the (scientific) evidence, and that is a rather different position to adopt.]

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Pope Francis on evangelization and proselytism during his journey to Cyprus and Greece

Some of the comment on Pope Francis' recent apostolic journey to Cyprus and Greece selects out his observation on proselytism for criticism. But it is interesting to be able to read what Pope Francis actually said on the subject, in its full context, rather than in the selectivity of a headline or soundbite.  I copy key texts below.

Further comment, in the wider news media, has focussed on Pope Francis' words with regard to migration and the welcome that is due to migrants today. Pope Francis' voice is perhaps a universal call to the consciences of all peoples, and his visit to meet refugees a sign to the leaders of our nations:

How many conditions exist that are unworthy of human beings! How many hotspots where migrants and refugees live in borderline conditions, without glimpsing solutions on the horizon! Yet respect for individuals and for human rights, especially on this continent, which is constantly promoting them worldwide, should always be upheld, and the dignity of each person ought to come before all else. It is distressing to hear of proposals that common funds be used to build walls and barbed wire as a solution. We are in the age of walls and barbed wire. To be sure, we can appreciate people’s fears and insecurities, the difficulties and dangers involved, and the general sense of fatigue and frustration, exacerbated by the economic and pandemic crises. Yet problems are not resolved and coexistence improved by building walls higher, but by joining forces to care for others according to the concrete possibilities of each and in respect for the law, always giving primacy to the inalienable value of the life of every human being. For as Elie Wiesel also said: “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders become irrelevant” (Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 10 December 1986).

From the homily of Pope Francis at Mass in Nicosia, during his recent visit to Cyprus, in which he refers explicitly to proselytism:

And now, the third step: They joyfully proclaimed the Good News.  After Jesus healed them, the two men in Gospel, in whom we can see a reflection of ourselves, began to spread the good news to the entire region, the talk about it everywhere. There is a bit of irony in this. Jesus had told them to tell no one what had happened, yet they do exactly the opposite (cf. Mt 9:30-31).  From what we are told, it is clear that their intention was not to disobey the Lord; they were simply unable to contain their excitement at their healing and the joy of their encounter with Jesus. This is another distinctive sign of the Christian: the irrepressible joy of the Gospel, which “fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1); the joy of the Gospel naturally leads to witness and frees us from the risk of a private, gloomy and querulous faith.

Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see you living with joy the liberating message of the Gospel. I thank you for this. It is not proselytism – please, never engage in proselytism! – but witness; not a moralism that judges but a mercy that embraces; not superficial piety but love lived out. I encourage you to keep advancing on this path. Like the two blind men in the Gospel, let us ourselves once more encounter Jesus, and come out of ourselves to be fearless witnesses of Jesus to all whom we meet! Let us go forth, carrying the light we have received. Let us go forth to illuminate the night that often surrounds us! We need enlightened Christians, but above all those who are light-filled, those who can touch the blindness of our brothers and sisters with tender love and with gestures and words of consolation that kindle the light of hope amid the darkness. Christians who can sow the seeds of the Gospel in the parched fields of everyday life, and bring warmth to the wastelands of suffering and poverty.

From Pope Francis' meeting with bishops, priests, religious, consecrated persons, seminarians and catechists in Athens, in which he places a reference to proselytism in the context of evangelization:

I would now like to highlight a second attitude shown by Paul before the Areopagus, and that is acceptance, the interior disposition essential for evangelization. An attitude of acceptance does not try to occupy the space and life of others, but to sow the good news in the soil of their lives; it learns to recognize and appreciate the seeds that God already planted in their hearts before we came on the scene. Let us remember that God always precedes us, God always sows before we do. Evangelizing is not about filling an empty container; it is ultimately about bringing to light what God has already begun to accomplish. And this was the remarkable pedagogy that the Apostle adopted with the Athenians. He did not tell them: “You have it all wrong”, or “Now I will teach you the truth”. Instead, he began by accepting their religious spirit: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23). He draws from the rich patrimony of the Athenians. The Apostle dignified his hearers and welcomed their religiosity. Even though the streets of Athens were full of idols, which had made him “deeply distressed” (v. 16), Paul acknowledged the desire for God hidden in the hearts of those people, and wanted gently to share with them the amazing gift of faith. He did not impose; he proposed. His “style” was never based on proselytizing, but on the meekness of Jesus. This was possible because Paul had a spiritual outlook on reality. He believed that the Holy Spirit works in the human heart above and beyond religious labels. We heard this in the witness given by Rokos. At a certain point, children fall away from religious practice, yet the Holy Spirit continues to do his work, and so they believe in unity, in fraternity with others. The Holy Spirit always does more than what we can see from the outside. Let us not forget this. In every age, the attitude of the apostle begins with accepting others. For “grace presupposes culture, and the gift of God is embodied in the culture of those who receive it” (Evangelii Gaudium, 115). There is no abstract grace flying above our heads; grace is always incarnated in a culture.

Reflecting on Paul’s visit to the Areopagus, Pope Benedict XVI noted that we must have at heart those who are agnostics or atheists, but take care that, when we speak of a new evangelization, they not be put off. “They do not want to see themselves as a target of the mission, nor do they want to give up their freedom of thought and will” (Address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2009).  Today we too are asked to cultivate an attitude of welcome, a style of hospitality, a heart desirous of creating communion amid human, cultural or religious differences. The challenge is to develop a passion for the whole, which can lead us – Catholics, Orthodox, brothers and sisters of other creeds, and also our agnostic brothers and sisters, everyone – to listen to one another, to dream and work together, to cultivate the “mystique” of fraternity (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 87). Past hurts remain on the path towards such a welcoming dialogue, but let us courageously embrace today’s challenge! 

Sunday 5 December 2021


 Posted following a suggestion from our parish priest as to one way in which we might look forward to the coming of Christ in our homes ...

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Believing in Two

 Believing in Two is the title of the September 2021 issue of the magazine Women Church World, published as a supplement to L'Osservatore Romano. This issue seeks to explore spiritual relationships between men and women in the mission of the Church. 

The theme of the issue is introduced in an article entitled Equality:

... in the September edition of Women Church World we are taking a journey to explore great spiritual friendships between men and women. These articles demonstrate that common and co-responsible work, as an inclusive “combination”, has always been fruitful in the life of the Church. In fact, it is often precisely these “couples” who have initiated innovative processes.
The male-female pairings treated in the issue are those of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr ( A double mission in the Church); Romana Guarnieri and Giuseppe de Luca (The "singular friendship"..);St Clare and St Francis (Clare's gift); Raissa and Jacques Maritain (Between Faith and Reason); St Jane Frances de Chantal and St Francis de Sales (The social force of friendship); Armida Barelli and Agostino Gemelli (Culture in action). There is also a discussion of the standing of St Scholastica (in relation to St Benedict) and St Clare (in relation to St Francis), as being independent saints, not just women subordinate in some way to their respective siblings (To be saints without living in the shadow of saints).

In our own times, a defence of the complementarity between male and female is part of the Church's mission with regard to marriage and an authentic understanding of human sexuality. But Believing in Two draws our attention to another aspect of this complementarity, namely its spiritual dimension in terms of charisms in the life of the Church. We should expect to be able to see it in our own experience of life in the Church.

These relationships of the masculine and the feminine reflect the spousal relationship between Christ (masculine) and the Church (who, in the figure of the Virgin Mary, is feminine). There is, therefore, a rich ecclesial and theological theme to be developed from these, and the many other, examples of masculine/feminine complementarity.