Monday 19 December 2022

Cultural decolonisation or cultural re-colonisation? The example of the Museum of the Home

Is the current anxiety for "decolonisation" of our culture and some of its institutions genuinely about "de-colonising"? Or is it in reality the replacement of a physical/historical colonialism by a new, ideological colonialism - an ideological "re-colonisation"?

In Bristol, this question has arisen around the figure of Edward Colston (this Wikepedia link includes a description of the renaming of a number of institutions in Bristol previously named after Edward Colston). Money that he made in trade at sea, which included a significant governance role in a company that traded in African slaves, was used in part to fund a wide range of philanthropic and civic projects in Bristol.

In Shoreditch, in East London, the question has arisen around the figure of Robert Geffrye. The museum that is now known as the Museum of the Home was formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, and is located on the site of almshouses that were originally endowed by Robert Geffrye. Like Edward Colston, some of the investments from which Robert Geffrye benefitted were related to the slave trade; and, also like Edward Colston, Robert Geffrye was responsible for charitable endowments.

Should figures such as Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye be excised from our contemporary cultural expression? Today we see the trade in African slaves as being akin to a mortal sin; at the times of Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye the prevailing culture did not see it in that way. Thinking philosophically rather than historically, we should recognise that, whatever the prevailing cultural acceptance at the time, participation in the slave trade represented a denial of the dignity and respect due to other human persons (African slaves). In other areas of their activity, however, we should also recognise that figures like Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye acted in a way which favoured the dignity and respect due to other human persons (the beneficiaries of their almshouses or educational institutions).

They are figures who represent a mixture of wheat and tares, to use a Biblical analogy. Until recently, our cultural expression was very willing to reflect the wheat and to disregard the tares; and now it is perhaps very willing to reflect the tares and disregard the wheat. I think that a just cultural expression needs to reflect a correct assessment of both the wheat and the tares; and that cultural re-assessment may not be a correct assessment if its only outcome is the removal of the names of Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye from institutions associated with them. If their presence is excised, the question is not concluded until we look at what replaces that presence; and a recent visit to the Museum of the Home, formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, raises exactly that question of what has replaced the former expression.

In 2021, the museum reopened after an extensive redevelopment, which added a series of exhibition spaces in what had originally been the basements of the almshouses. The museum has also undertaken a process of engagement with its local community in East London, which is reflected in some of the displays in the new exhibition "alcoves" in the basement and in the narratives associated with the long standing "Rooms through Time" along the main corridor above ground. [One might recognise, though, as was suggested by my fellow visitor, that those who have taken part in the resulting displays are of middle or professional class.]

Of the new displays, I found two to be of particular interest. One used recorded video, photos and objects to discuss the range of religious belief that might exist in the locality of the museum, basing it on the objects of religious significance that might be displayed in a person's home. I found the representation of Christianity disappointing in two ways. Firstly, it didn't express the practical act of charity and advocacy in its relation to specific belief about the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus; and secondly it did not refer to Christian churches. The person who spoke came over as if they might be a Christian without any specific denominational affiliation, which whilst it may be fair to the particular individual who contributed, may not be true of the local community as a whole. 

The other display that I found interesting was one that explored what it means to speak of "home". This was represented by photographs and accounts of residents from the local area. I was struck by how many of he displays described people who had lived long term in rented accommodation that they had made "home". This, I thought, was an interesting exploration for a museum whose "charism" is that of representing the physical displays of homes through time.

The "Rooms through Time" displays  show a series of full size recreations of living rooms from different times. Each display includes the decor - carpets, wall paper, windows, curtains - and furniture of the time. From visits that we made before the redevelopment of the museum, I recall these displays being tweaked to reflect the time of year. Our recent visit was in early December, so the narratives associated with the rooms and materials displayed on dining tables reflected Boxing Day or the Jewish feast of Hannukah. In one or two cases, the new narratives did not really reflect the content of the room, with a certain sense that a narrative had been imposed on a room that did not necessarily express the narrative. A room whose narrative was that of an Imperial Airways pilot contained some features of art deco style - Critall windows, an art deco style dining table, a fireplace - that I recall from an earlier visit to the museum being the real point of this particular display. Likewise, a 60s/70s open plan home with a mezannine sleeping area above a kitchen area to one side of the main living space, is now accompanied by a narrative of a lesbian friend who has been kicked out of her home staying overnight after a late night party (a mattress and bedding on the floor having been added to the previously existing display). Here in particular, the "home" being displayed - a style of open plan living - really does not justify the imposed narrative. In both of these examples, the narrative does not produce a style of home-making - furnishings, furniture, displayed objects - that one would expect in a display of a "home".

Which leads to the question raised at the beginning of this post. Has the former Geffrye Museum, in distancing itself from the person of Robert Geffrye, chosen to replace that former association with a historical colonialism with a new, ideological form of colonialisation?  And, at the same time, to make itself less a Museum of the Home?

Monday 5 December 2022

Discernment: Pope Francis' current series of General Audiences

 Each week, the Holy Father speaks to a gathering of the faithful in Rome, in the Audience Hall during the winter months when numbers are smaller, and in St Peter's Square in the summer. The audience to which he speaks is, in the first instance, those who have gathered on that particular day with the Pope. But the Pope's words are also addressed to the wider Church, via subsequent publication in the means of social communication. They also have a degree of permanence, being offered not just for the Church of today but, depending on the subject, to the Church for the future. A particular example of this are the series of General Audience addresses from Pope St John Paul II beginning in September 1979 and ending in November 1984 that are now known under the title "The Theology of the Body". Likewise is the series of audiences devoted to the psalms and canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer, begun by Pope John Paul II in March 2001 and completed by his successor, Benedict XVI, in Feburary 2006, and published in a collection by the Catholic Truth Society.

The subject of Pope Francis' present series of audience addresses is that of discernment. One can see, both in the choice of subject and in the contents of the addresses themselves, the influence of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. The choice is pertinent given the part to be played by discernment in the Synodal process and the part that discernment plays in the teaching of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.

In his third audience in the series, Pope Francis suggests that it is an affective form of prayer that is an important element of discernment:

Discerning what is happening within us is not easy, for appearances are deceptive, but familiarity with God can melt doubts and fears in a gentle way, making our lives increasingly receptive to his “gentle light,” according to the beautiful expression of Saint John Henry Newman. The saints shine with reflected light and show in the simple gestures of their day the loving presence of God, who makes the impossible possible. It is said that two spouses who have lived together for a long time, loving each other, end up resembling each other. Something similar can be said about affective prayer. In a gradual but effective  way, it makes us more and more capable of recognizing what counts through connaturality, as something that springs from the depths of our being. To be in prayer does not mean saying words, words, no: being in prayer means opening my heart to Jesus, drawing close to Jesus, allowing Jesus to enter into my heart and making us feel his presence. And there we can discern when it is Jesus and when it is us with our thoughts, that so many times are far from what Jesus wants.

 In the sixth audience, Pope Francis speaks of how the "book of one's own life" forms one of the elements of discernment, suggesting a slightly different character to a daily examination of conscience:

Discernment is the narrative reading of the good moments and the dark moments, the consolations and desolations we experience in the course of our lives. In discernment, it is the heart that speaks to us about God, and we must learn to understand its language. Let us ask, at the end of the day, for example: what happened today in my heart? Some think that carrying out this examination of conscience is like doing the bookkeeping of the sins we have committed — and we commit many — but it is also about asking oneself, “What happened within me, did I experience joy? What brought me joy? Was I sad? What brought me sadness? And in this way, learning to discern  what happens within us.

The most recent audiences address the questions of desolation and consolation with regard to discernment, themes that are profoundly Ignatian. Perhaps these audiences will prove to be a specifically Ignatian contribution from a Jesuit Pope.

Friday 2 December 2022

Four Thoughts about an Interview

 America magazine, a journal published by the Jesuits in the United States, have recently carried an -interview with Pope Francis. A full text has been published online: Pope Francis discusses Ukraine, U.S. bishops and more.

The first thought is less a thought, but more a feeling that this particular observation by Pope Francis should give every Catholic cause to pause and reflect:

I go to confession every 15 days.

[I suspect that the reference to 15 days might properly translate from Spanish to English as every two weeks.]

The second thought is to suggest that there is some parallel between my previous post on abortion as an ideological or an existential question and Pope Francis' account of abortion as a political or as a pastoral question:

The problem arises when this reality of killing a human being is transformed into a political question, or when a pastor of the church uses political categories.Each time a problem loses the pastoral dimension (pastoralidad), that problem becomes a political problem and becomes more political than pastoral. I mean, let no one hijack this truth, which is universal. It does not belong to one party or another. It is universal. When I see a problem like this one, which is a crime, become strongly, intensely political, there is a failure of pastoral care in approaching this problem. Whether in this question of abortion, or in other problems, one cannot lose sight of the pastoral dimension: A bishop is a pastor, a diocese is the holy people of God with their pastor. We cannot deal with [abortion] as if it is only a civil matter.

In answering a question about the role of women in the Church, Pope Francis spoke of a ministerial or Petrine dimension of the Church and of a feminine or Marian dimension. The theme of the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the Church can be found in Charles Journet's Theology of the Church and, perhaps more explicitly, in Hans Urs von Balthasar's The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church. There is therefore rich hinterland lying behind Pope Francis' references here. Pope Francis then offers a context for his repeated remarks about giving women a greater role in the Church - that there is an administrative principle, which is not theological, but more about the every day running of the Church:

There is a third way: the administrative way. The ministerial way, the ecclesial way, let us say, Marian, and the administrative way, which is not a theological thing, it is something of normal administration. And, in this aspect, I believe we have to give more space to women....

And why can a woman not enter ordained ministry? It is because the Petrine principle has no place for that. Yes, one has to be in the Marian principle, which is more important. Woman is more, she looks more like the church, which is mother and spouse. I believe that we have too often failed in our catechesis when explaining these things. We have relied too much on the administrative principle to explain it, which in the long term does not work. This is an abbreviated explanation, but I wanted to highlight the two theological principles; the Petrine principle and the Marian principle that make up the church. Therefore, that the woman does not enter into the ministerial life is not a deprivation. No. Your place is that which is much more important and which we have yet to develop, the catechesis about women in the way of the Marian principle.

My last thought refers to how Pope Francis understands the relationship between a Bishop and the people of his diocese, a relationship which he characterises by the word "pastoral".  The discussion occurs in a couple of different places in the interview, at one point contrasting it with the role of episcopal conferences:

A bishops’ conference has, ordinarily, to give its opinion on faith and traditions, but above all on diocesan administration and so on. The sacramental part of the pastoral ministry is in the relationship between the pastor and the people of God, between the bishop and his people. And this cannot be delegated to the bishops’ conference.

In the interview, Pope Francis does not connect this to the idea of synodality. I do think, however, that the responsibility of a bishop towards his diocese is one key point on which the practice of synodality turns, and Pope Francis articulation of this responsibility has implications for the synodal pathway.

Sunday 20 November 2022

Abortion: Ideological confrontation or existential question?

 Soon after he was elected to the See of St Peter, Pope Francis descreibed how Christians might come to live as followers of an ideology rather than as followers of Christ. This was at his morning Mass on 17th October 2018, and an account of his words can be found here: Pope Francis vs Ideology. A shorter summary of this meditation on the Holy See website uses the title: Disciples of the Lord and not of Ideology. If I remember rightly, Pope Francis took some criticism for this observation, though it was not original to him. Luigi Giussani's The Religious Sense, first published in 1986, contains a passage which explores the risk of ideology in its examination of the content of religious experience.

Ideology is built up on some starting point offered by our experience; thus, experience itself is taken up as a pretext for an operation that is determined by extraneous or exorbitant preoccupations.

Faced with, for example, the existence of a "poor" person, one theorrizes about the problem of this person's need, but the concrete person with his or her concrete need becomes a pretext; the individiaul in his concreteness is marginalized once he has provided the starting point for the intellectual and his or her opinions or has provided the starting point for the politician so that he can justify and publicise an operation of his.

Is it possible to approach the question of legalized abortion in this ideological way, and hence to leave at the margins those affected by the experience of abortion? An expectation that those in public life should be "pro-life" is certainly valid; we should expect them to legislate and to promote policy initiatives that oppose legalized abortion. But care needs to be taken that this does not become just an ideology pursued in politics that is detached from individuals' experiences of abortion. Likewise, the slogan "a woman's right to choose", which assumes that every woman seeking an abortion is making an entirely free choice without constraining conditions, needs to be clearly recognised for its purely ideological content. 

In countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, there has been access to legalized abortion for many years. In consequence there is a significant history of the experience of legalized abortion, of how it actually works out in practice for individuals, rather than there just being a set of arguments for and against. This is what I mean by referring to abortion as an existential question.

I do not have an extensive bookshelf covering experiences of abortion, but it does include books both from sources that seek to support women in having an abortion and sources that are pro-life. The striking thing about the accounts of women's experiences, whatever the source, is the wide range of influences at play, influences which are different for different women. Some of these influences are material - financial vulnerability, housing, future employment prospects - and others more psychological,social or emotional. They might also be traumatic, such as the situation of the woman whose pre-natal scans indicate or confirm a natal condition that will inevitably in time lead to a miscarriage or still birth. But the thing that these influences have in common is that they can act as constraints on the exercise of a full freedom in decision making; they limit the ability to make a decision that is fully informed and made with a genuine choice of will. They limit the ability to make a choice that a philosopher such as Karol Wojtyla would recognise as leading to an action that is fully human. 

In the context of abortion seen as an existential question, there needs to be a more comprehensive care available to women who might seek an abortion. That care should enable responses to that wide range of factors that might be limiting women's freedom in action as they consider an abortion, so that a choice in full freedom is possible. A financial and societal presumption for abortion in the health care sector should change to, at least, a financial and societal neutrality. Abortion providers should not be preferentially funded (via state funding for the abortions they carry out) compared to agencies providing support for women who choose not to have an abortion. The result of such a more comprehensive care would be a signficant change in the practice of abortion, especially on the part of agencies that are abortion providers. The developing programme of buffer zones around abortion clinics, however, suggests that these providers are not open to such change.

The bringing about of such a change would need a particular expertise in using financial mechanisms in order to achieve particular objectives, in a framework that includes both funding from the state and from civil society organisations. Whatever else one might want to say about the appointment of Mariana Mazzucato to the Pontifical Academy for Life, this is an area in which she has expertise.

Saturday 5 November 2022

A measured comment on the Synodal pathway

 I have previously posted on the Synodal pathway: Synodality - without discernment? and   Synodality: Initial reflections of the Bishops' Conference . My key thought from these posts is that, as it is developing to date, the Synodal process lacks that dimension of discernment that I believe is a key component of the idea of synodality.

I recently came across a more complete assessment of the Synodal process. Unfortunately it has been posted on a blog with a strong antipathy towards Pope Francis, but I have not been able to find an original text elsewhere. I link to it in this location, therefore, with considerable reluctance:  Fr. Jon Bielawski on the Synod. I think Fr Bielawski offers accurate and sensible comment on the reality of the Synodal process. 

I observed in one of my posts that perhaps we should never have expected large numbers of the faithful to take part in parish and diocesan based meetings to reflect on the Synod themes. Fr Bielawski makes a comparable point early in his comments with regard to the ability of most faithful to grasp the purpose of the synodal gatherings:

What was at first very vague, gained a bit more clarity as Pope Francis clearly stated that this synod and synodal process was to be clearly based on the principles of, “communion, participation and mission”. He also stated that it was not to be a platform for personal opinions and agendas but a prayerful exercise invoking the Holy Spirit for discernment. This latter point, I regard as a spiritually high level request which the majority of the faithful would struggle to comprehend or carry out. (In this country, at least, good efforts were made to educate people on these points but it is something that cannot be accomplished in one good talk or exhortation).

Fr Bielawski continued:

Despite these good intentions, in practice, the synodal process was carried out in random
manner and method across the country with varying levels of competency and neutrality. Also, it was carried out in the absence of many priests, who perceived their presence would restrict the process. (In my own parish, 20 took part – each person was allowed to speak on the 4 points but there was no discussion. Notes on the points were recorded. For each point we had some quiet prayer time before the Blessed Sacrament).
Due to this reality, the National Synthesis Document (NSD) was, to a great extent, a compilation of opinions and agendas which is exactly what it was not meant to be. 

After observing that many of the opinions expressed in the Synthesis Documents reflect currents of thought from the wider secular world rather than the inspiration of Catholic faith, Fr Bielawski observes:

It is of vital importance that we do not fudge the damaging impact of these opinions by imprecise language or ambiguous general statements that try to have a superficial conciliatory tone that says everything and nothing at the same time. For example, a ”welcoming church” can simply be that; where a church is, for example, open all day for anyone to enter and has a good “welcoming team” for masses and services. This is quite different to another understanding of “welcoming”, which is wanting to be open and inclusive to LGBT ideology and practice which abandons Catholic morality and attacks our very humanity and reason, causing havoc amongst the youth. 

Father ends his observations by suggesting that we focus on the third of the three Synod principles, that of mission. 

Synod/Synodality has to be at the service of mission and evangelisation and as a means to initiate it. Otherwise it becomes a displacement of, and distraction from the essential mission of the Church. Likewise, it must not provide a platform for a voice which contradicts and undermines the teachings of Christ which are integral with that mission/evangelisation. 

It is worth reading the whole of Fr Bielawski's observations and not just my extracts, so follow the link, though with my word of caution about the blog on which they have been posted. I think he has achieved a realism of comment without that element of antagonism towards the institution of the Church that marrs much other comment.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Film Review: Emily

 Zero and I went to see the new film Emily, about Emily Bronte. The opening scene shows Emily's death bed, and her older sister Charlotte asking her from where she got the inspiration for her novel Wuthering Heights. The film then takes up that theme of a search for the inspiration, not so much for the novel, as for the inspiration that lay in Emily's own life. And it does this by reading into Emily's life episodes from the novel, and adding a bit of fictionalising that is not present in the novel. At the time of seeing the film I had no familiarity at all with Wuthering Heights, and my efforts at reading Anne Bronte some years ago did not go anywhere. Charlotte Bronte, however, has been thoroughly read over the years. As a result of my unfamiliarity with Wuthering Heights, though, I came out of the film completely baffled by it.

As I post, I am now about one third of the way through Wuthering Heights, and so it becomes possible to have a more intelligent appreciation of the film. If you have not read Wuthering Heights, much of this film will pass you by. One interesting aspect of the film is the way in which, by reading episodes of Wuthering Heights into the relationship between Emily and her brother Branwell, it suggests that the novel's portrayal of the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff takes inspiration from that in real life between Emily and Branwell. I suspect that the film makes rather more of this idea than is really there (some of the transference from fiction to life is almost as literal as to be direct quotation), but a comparison of the two relationships is probably worth a master's dissertation for someone. More easily, one can think that the account of Mr Earnshaw's dissipated life in Wuthering Heights drew in part on Emily's experience of her brother's alcohol and drug addiction.

A first element of pure fictionalising in the film is Emily's romantic affair with the curate of the parish, of which her father is the incumbent. A second element is the scene with Branwell, where he and Emily are shown on the moors acclaiming in favour of "freedom in thought", and having those words inscribed on their forearms. The romance in particular is portrayed in somewhat soap operatic way, and lacks real conviction.  And whilst Haworth probably has a tattoo parlour now, I suspect it did not have one in the Bronte's time! Both scenes represent a reading of a theme from the 21st century back into the 19th century in a way that is rather false to the situation of the Bronte family. The film makers might delight in expressing this in terms of making the story attractive to a younger audience, but that is a thin disguise for the falsity involved.

Alongside the more or less blatant fictionalising, there are other ways in which the film attempts to be very realistic. Scenes inside the parsonage at Howarth do look as if they have been filmed in a way that accurately reflects the rooms of the house itself (though it is too long since our visit to Haworth for me to be able to judge that definitively). Branwell's employment on a local railway station is true to life. There is also an attempt to represent the proximity of the moors to the parsonage.  It is easy to recognise that the placing of Wuthering Heights on the moors of Yorkshire draws on Emily's experience of the moors above Haworth; but it's portrayal in Emily is, frankly, embarrassing.

At one point during a "Questions and Answers" at the Toronto International Film Festival 2022, where Emily premiered, there is a question about the cinematography. It occurs at about 14:38 in this Youtube clip: Emily Q & A: TIFF 2022. I have no idea who the cinematrographers referenced in Frances O'Connor's response are, but it was particularly the scenes (supposedly) shot on the moors that left me unconvinced. Even a gently waving tree branch at one point was not enough to drive the possibility from my mind that the scene had been shot in a studio with effects for the backdrop. I certainly do not think anyone would roll down the side of the moor above Haworth as Emily and Branwell are shown doing in the film without coming to grief very quickly on the rough ground. I was highly amused by the scene showing Ellen Nussey jumping down from a stile, which did not show either the stile or the ground onto which Ellen jumped ..... see above about the thoughts of shooting in studio. Filming took place in Yorkshire and, I believe, at least in part in Haworth, in April/May 2021. Perhaps therein lies the clue to its problem in portraying the moors effectively, as this is a rather short filming timescale to capture the different moods of the moors live. Thunder and storms can perhaps readily and fairly be taken from Wuthering Heights into the film, but they appeared to me as badly chosen from a special effects CD that might be used in theatre; and, at one point, as if there were a screen of "rain" played between the camera and the actors. In two scenes, the parsonage window is opened and delightful bird song heard .... again, it sounded too much like a badly chosen track from an effects CD, as I suspect the Yorkshire moors would more typically host the harsher sound of crows or jackdaws. 

There is one point on which the film touches but which it does not in my view fully develop, and that is the relationship between the three Bronte sisters. There are points where Emily's aloofness from her sisters and the resulting drama is portrayed (eg the mask scene) but I want to explore this more fully in reading a biography of the sisters.

Even now that I have gained a greater awareness of the film's intentions through reading Wuthering Heights, I think I am still finding the film to be rather unsatsifying. Which seems to contrast with other reviews ....

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Pope Francis on the anniversary of the opening of Second Vatican Council

On the memorial of St John XXIII, Pope Francis reflected on the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

This is the first way to look at the Church: from above. Indeed, the Church needs first to be viewed from on high, with God’s eyes, eyes full of love. Let us ask ourselves if we, in the Church, start with God and his loving gaze upon us. We are always tempted to start from ourselves rather than from God, to put our own agendas before the Gospel, to let ourselves be caught up in the winds of worldliness in order to chase after the fashions of the moment or to turn our back on the time that Providence has granted us, in order to retrace our steps. Yet let us be careful: both the “progressivism” that lines up behind the world and the “traditionalism” – or “looking backwards” – that longs for a bygone world are not evidence of love, but of infidelity. They are forms of a Pelagian selfishness that puts our own tastes and plans above the love that pleases God, the simple, humble and faithful love that Jesus asked of Peter.

Speaking of the Council, Pope Francis said: 

It led her to return, like Peter in the Gospel, to Galilee, to the sources of her first love; to rediscover God’s holiness in her own poverty (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8c; chapter 5). Each one of us also has his or her own Galilee, the Galilee of our first love, and certainly today we are all called to return to our own Galilee in order to hear the voice of the Lord: “Follow me”. And there, to find once more in the gaze of the crucified and risen Lord a joy that had faded; to focus upon Jesus. To rediscover our joy, for a Church that has lost its joy has lost its love. 

I like that reference to "the Galilee of our first love", a phrase that Pope Francis has used before. The Holy Father indicates a second way to look at the Church:

This is the second way of looking at the Church that we learn from the Council: looking around. In other words, being in the world with others without ever feeling superior to others, being servants of that higher realm which is the Kingdom of God (cf. Lumen Gentium, 5); bringing the good news of the Gospel into people’s lives and languages (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36), sharing their joys and hopes (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1). Being in the midst of the people, not above the people, which is the bad sin of clericalism that kills the sheep rather than guiding them or helping them grow. 

And there is a third way to look at the Church:

Do you love me? The Lord then says: “Feed my sheep”. He does not mean just some of the sheep, but all of them, for he loves them all, affectionately referring to them as “mine”. The Good Shepherd looks out and wants his flock to be united, under the guidance of the Pastors he has given them. He wants us – and this is the third way of looking at the Church – to see the whole, all of us together. The Council reminds us that the Church is a communion in the image of the Trinity (cf. Lumen Gentium, 4.13). The devil, on the other hand, wants to sow the darnel of division. Let us not give in to his enticements or to the temptation of polarization. How often, in the wake of the Council, did Christians prefer to choose sides in the Church, not realizing that they were breaking their Mother’s heart! How many times did they prefer to cheer on their own party rather than being servants of all? To be progressive or conservative rather than being brothers and sisters? To be on the “right” or “left”, rather than with Jesus? To present themselves as “guardians of the truth” or “pioneers of innovation” rather than seeing themselves as humble and grateful children of Holy Mother Church. All of us are children of God, all brothers and sisters in the Church, all of us making up the Church, all of us. That is how the Lord wants us to be. We are his sheep, his flock, and we can only be so together and as one. Let us overcome all polarization and preserve our communion. May all of us increasingly “be one”, as Jesus prayed before sacrificing his life for us (cf. Jn 17:21). And may Mary, Mother of the Church, help us in this. May the yearning for unity grow within us, the desire to commit ourselves to full communion among all those who believe in Christ. 

 I have always felt that living a Catholic life in the light of the Council is to have a deep sense of the Church, a sense that to live a Catholic life is to live an ecclesial life. This makes it at once also the living of a Catholic life that has a Marian character. I think Pope Francis indicates this by choosing in his homily to speak of the ways in which we can look at the Church. Whilst in the course of things we might prefer some ecclesiastical initiatives rather than others, I do not think it is possible to live a genuinely Catholic life and remain in a state of semi-permanent contestation with ecclesial authority, be that from a "progressive" stance or from a "traditionalist" stance.

Almighty ever-living God, 
who chose blessed John the Twenty-Third to preside over your whole people
and benefit them by word and example, 
keep safe, we pray, by his intercession, 
the shepherds of your Church 
along with the flocks entrusted to their care, 
and direct them in the way of eternal salvation.

Saturday 8 October 2022

All the Cathedrals (14): Ripon

During a recent visit to the North East of England, we were able to visit Ripon in North Yorkshire. Geographically, Ripon is just a short drive west of junction 50 of the A1 (M). The cathedral can be described as being both old (the first Church on the site, now the crypt of the cathedral building, dates from the 7th Century) and new (it was only in 1836 that it became the cathedral church of the then newly established Anglican diocese of Ripon). The location of the cathedral is quite central to the town of Ripon. It is adjacent to the branch of a major supermarket, and a narrow road leads from the west door up a gentle sloping hill to the town's market square. A history of the cathedral building, relating the various buildings and rebuildings of the church, can be found on the cathedral website: History timeline. An account of the life of St Wilfrid, responsible for building the first significant church on the cathedral site, the crypt of which still survives, can also be found on the website: St Wilfrid.

A visit to Ripon Cathedral today is deceptive, as what is visible now is the outcome of significant restorative work undertaken after the church was designated as a cathedral. Nothing remains of the shrine of St Wilfrid, which originally existed where the high altar now stands, at the east end of the choir - it was destroyed, and the relics of St Wilfrid discarded, at the time of the reformation in the 16th Century. One can gain the impression that the cathedral retains statues that in other cathedrals might have been destroyed either at the reformation or during a later intrusion of Parliamentary forces during the civil war - but all of those statues date from a Victorian restoration, and the reredos behind the high altar to 1926. The present cathedral does still include structures from the buildings earlier days - the crypt from the 7th Century and the choir screen from medieval times (though the statues are Victorian), for example. The outcome is a structure that appears coherent and unified, despite the several accidents and reconstructions it has experienced over the centuries.

A photograph of the reredos behind the high altar can be seen on flickr: Reredos. It was designed as a First World War memorial, and dedicated in 1922. At the centre of the reredos is a figure of the Virgin Mary and Child; the other figures show saints and Anglo-Saxon historical figures, contemporary to St Wilfrid. Above the reredos, the risen Christ is depicted as a young man, reflecting the youth of those who died in the First World War; On the right is St George and the left St Michael the archangel. The gilding, and its width across the full width of the altar, attracts the eye as you stand in the choir - or as you look through the choir screen, as in this photo on flickr: Reredos through choir screen.

The choir screen separates the main part of the nave from the choir, and dates from the 15th Century. It is thick enough to house a doorway that leads down to the crypt. The original statues in its niches were destroyed at the time of the reformation and/or the visit of Parliamentarian forces. The statues that are now there date from 1947. The stone statues have been painted with the intention that they would convey a sense of how they might have looked at the time the choir screen was first constructed. They feature eight carved and painted kings and bishops who played a part in the history of the cathedral, with another 24 statues of angels in niches above. A full account of the statues, and photographs, can be found here: Choir screen figures.

The stained glass windows in the cathedral are extensive, though I found it difficult to "read" them during our visit. That is, I suspect, something that is of the nature of Victorian stained glass (the original windows were destroyed in the 15/17the Centuries). The windows at the eastern and western ends of the cathedral are particularly impressive. The cathedral bookshop had a small booklet, including photographs, that explained the main features of the stained glass - it is worth purchasing it to inform your visit!

The presence in the cathedral of some more contemporary representations, such as one of the pieta and a chapel with a representation of the actions of the Holy Spirit, are a sign of a cathedral that is still "living", so to speak, rather than of it being a cathedral that is just a historic building. Perhaps we should be positive about that, though I did not find these more contemporary representations to my own taste. Raising a more fundamental question of principle was the fact that, at the time of our visit, the walls along the length of the nave were occupied by paintings/photographs from the Great North Art Show. In other words, the space was functioning as a significant display gallery. I came away with the impression that the nave of the cathedral functions somewhat as an events venue, while it is the choir that retains the dedication to worship more usually associated with a church building.

A final thought: Ripon Cathedral has a very "square" architecture, shown in the shapes of its towers and in the flat eastern wall with its great window. This contrasts, for example, with any expectation that a visitor might have of a semi-circular apse at the eastern end of the church.

Tuesday 20 September 2022

Two Popes in Kazakhstan

There is a striking comparison to be made between the visit of Pope St John Paul II to Kazakhstan in September 2001 and the more recent visit of Pope Francis in September 2022. The records of the two visits can be found at the website of the Holy See: Pastoral Visit to Kazakhstan (John Paul II) and Apostolic Journey to Kazakhstan (Pope Francis).

In his press conference during the flight home from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis said that he had found the social and cultural development of the country a surprise, that he had know little or nothing of the country before his visit. However, his main address during the visit reflected, as did the addresses of St John Paul II during his visit, a familiarity with Abai Kunanbai, perhaps the Kazakhstan's greatest thinker. And, in slightly different ways, both Pope Francis and St John Paul II focussed on the question of freedom of religion and the relationship between religious believers and the society in which they live.

In his 2001 visit, St John Paul II took part in a meeting with representatives of the world of culture. Speaking only a few years after Kazakhstan had gained its independence from the former Soviet Union, he referred to the range of influences that had given rise to a "vibrant local culture, rich in creative developments".

One of your country’s great thinkers, the teacher Abai Kunanbai, put it this way: "A man cannot be a man unless he perceives the evident and the hidden mysteries of the universe, unless he seeks an explanation for everything. Anyone who fails to do this is no different from the animals. God distinguished man from the animals by giving him a soul... It is absolutely necessary that we constantly extend our interests, increasing the knowledge which nourishes our souls. It is important to realize that the goods of the soul are incomparably superior to the benefits of the body, and that carnal needs should be subordinated to the imperatives of the soul" (Sayings of Abai, Chapter 7)....

 St John Paul went on to identify the religious character of such questions, and to give an account of how the Christian believer, whilst convinced that Jesus Christ represents the answer to these questions, bears witness "in full respect for the search which other people of good will are engaged in along different paths":

Questions like this are religious by their very nature, in the sense that they appeal to those supreme values which have God as their ultimate foundation. Religion, for its part, cannot fail to grapple with these existential questions; otherwise it loses contact with life.

Christians know that in Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, a complete answer has been given to the questions dwelling deep in the human heart. Jesus’ words, his actions and, in the end, his Paschal Mystery, have revealed him to be the Redeemer of man and the Saviour of the world. Of this "good news", which for two thousand years has been on the lips of countless men and women in every part of the earth, the Pope of Rome comes before you today as a humble and convinced witness, in full respect for the search which other people of good will are engaged in along different paths. Whoever has encountered the truth in all the splendour of its beauty must necessarily feel drawn to share it with others. Rather than an obligation based on a law, the believer feels the need to share with others the supreme Value of his own life.

St John Paul II goes on to draw the conclusion for the right to religious freedom in the secular state:

Consequently – even in the context of a soundly secular State, which is obliged in any event to guarantee to each citizen, without distinction of sex, race and nationality, the fundamental right to freedom of conscience – there is a need to acknowledge and defend the right of believers to bear public witness to their faith. Authentic religious practice cannot be reduced to the private sphere or narrowly restricted to the edges of society. The beauty of the new houses of worship which are beginning to rise up almost everywhere in the new Kazakhstan is a precious sign of spiritual rebirth and a sign of promise for the future.

The centre piece of Pope Francis' visit in 2022 was his speech at the opening of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. In a passage that has echoes of St John Paul II's earlier visit, Pope Francis urged that "Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society":

Abai challenges us by asking a timeless question: “What is the beauty of life, if one does not go deep?” (Poems, 1898). Another poet, pondering the meaning of life, placed on the lips of a shepherd in these vast lands of Asia an equally essential question: “Where will this, my brief wandering, lead?” (G. LEOPARDI, Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia). Questions like these point to humanity’s need for religion; they remind us that we human beings do not exist so much to satisfy earthly interests or to weave purely economic relationships, as to walk together, as wayfarers, with our eyes raised to the heavens. We need to make sense of the ultimate questions, to cultivate a spirituality; we need, as Abai says, to keep “the soul alive and the mind clear” (Book of WordsWord 6).

Dear brothers and sisters, the world expects us to be examples of souls alive and minds clear; it looks to us for an authentic religiosity. It is time to realize that the fundamentalism defiles and corrupts every creed; time for open and compassionate hearts. It is also time to consign to the history books the kind of talk that for all too long, here and elsewhere, has led to distrust and contempt for religion, as if it were a destabilizing force in modern society. These lands are all too familiar with the legacy of decades of state-imposed atheism: that oppressive and stifling mentality for which the mere mention of the word “religion” was greeted with embarrassed silence. Religion is not a problem, but part of the solution for a more harmonious life in society. The pursuit of transcendence and the sacred value of fraternity can inspire and illumine the decisions that need to be made amid the geopolitical, social, economic, ecological, but fundamentally spiritual crises that many modern institutions, including democracies, are presently experiencing, to the detriment of security and concord among peoples. We need religion, in order to respond to the thirst for world peace and the thirst for the infinite that dwells in the heart of each man and woman.

And like St John Paul II before him, Pope Francis goes on to insist on the necessity of religious freedom, though now with a reference to inter-religious dialogue: "Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it".

For this reason, an essential condition for genuinely human and integral development is religious freedom. Brothers and sisters, we are free. Our Creator “stepped aside for us”; in a manner of speaking, he “limited” his absolute freedom in order to enable us, his creatures, to be free. How can we then presume to coerce our brothers and sisters in his name? “As believers and worshipers”, Abai once again tells us, “we must not claim that we can force others to believe and worship” (Word 45). Religious freedom is a basic, primary and inalienable right needing to be promoted everywhere, one that may not be restricted merely to freedom of worship. Each person has the right to render public testimony to his or her own creed, proposing it without ever imposing it. This is the correct method of preaching, as opposed to proselytism and indoctrination, from which all are called to step back. To relegate to the private sphere our most important beliefs in life would be to deprive society of an immense treasure. On the other hand, to work for a society marked by the respectful coexistence of religious, ethnic and cultural differences is the best way to enhance the distinctive features of each, to bring people together while respecting their diversity, and to promote their loftiest aspirations without compromising their vitality. 

A post at the blog Where Peter is draws attention to four challenges to religions that Pope Francis describes in his address: Pope Francis' message to world religious leaders. H/T to this post for drawing my attention to Pope Francis' visit to Kazakhstan.

From two different angles, one from the point of view of culture and society and the other from the point of view of dialogue between religions and society, St John Paul II and Pope Francis arrive at the same understanding of the importance of religious freedom for the life of (secular) societies.

It is also worth noting the high regard given by both St John Paul II and Pope Francis to the present day situation of Kazakhstan and to its rich cultural history, in part a result of a geographical location which has prompted a particular experience of encounter with different influences at different times.

Wednesday 7 September 2022

Freedom of Religion or Belief - and abortion

 At the beginning of July the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the UK Government hosted an international ministerial meeting on "Freedom of Religion or Belief". My attention was first drawn to this meeting by Mgr Michael Nazir Ali's article in the September/October issue of FAITH Magazine: Is Freedom of Religion or Belief now politically mainstream? My attention was drawn again by the BBC's reporting of the reaction of an abortion provider to the appointment of Therese Coffey as Secretary of State for Health and, indeed, to Liz Truss's appointment as prime minister: Therese Coffey's views on abortion concerning, charity says

Mgr Nazir Ali's article makes reference to "fringe" events that took place on the sidelines of the main conference, addressing violations of freedom of religion and belief in different situations around the world. Aid to the Church in Need ran one of these "fringe" events, discussing the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq: Christian persecution never ended in the Middle East. This page indicates the activities of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the time of the ministerial meeting.

However, though Mgr Nazir Ali does not mention it, there also appears to be an assimilation of an idea of "conscientious choice for abortion" into the notion of freedom of belief, as evidenced by what the executive director of Humanists UK said during the opening ceremony of the main conference:

“If FoRB is to be for everyone everywhere, we must all resist the temptation to impose our beliefs on others. This is how so many violations of FoRB originate. That is true of the Christian in China whose atheist government prevents her from congregating freely as her conscience leads her and of the non-religious woman in the West when Christians in her Government block her conscientious choice of an abortion or any other practice. Illiberal totalitarianism, whether atheist, Christian, Islamic: many forces limit freedom of religion or belief today. All of us are in the minority somewhere and all of us have brothers and sisters subject somewhere to the vilest of persecution.”

 The main conference resulted in number of statements that participating nations were invited to sign up to. The statement that has brought particular attention to Liz Truss, who at the time of the conference was the UK Foreign Secretary, is the one about freedom of religion or belief and gender equality. The "final" version that now appears on the FCDO website is here: Freedom of Religion or Belief and Gender Equality. However, the first bullet point of the original version (my italics added) indicated a commitment to:

uphold and protect gender equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief. Discriminatory personal status laws, laws that allow harmful practices, or restrict women’s and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy, and other laws that justify, condone, or reinforce violence, discrimination, or inequalities on the grounds of religion, belief or gender should be repealed.

That bullet point now reads:

uphold and protect gender equality, non-discrimination and freedom of religion or belief. Challenge discriminatory laws that justify, condone, or reinforce violence, discrimination, or inequalities on the grounds of religion, belief or gender and that restrict women and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of human right.

 The change appears to have been made after the conclusion of the conference, and Liz Truss has defended it in parliament on the grounds that it allows a greater degree of unity among conference participants.

But once again, what is to be seen here is an advocacy in favour of abortion based in a consideration that does not reference the ethical rights or wrongs of abortion but a contrived assimilation of a rather distinct consideration. In the case of America's Roe vs. Wade judgement it was a consideration of privacy as expressed in the US constitution; in the case of the extension of legalised abortion to Northern Ireland it was a consideration of whether or not travel to access abortion was degrading treatment; and now it is a contrived inclusion of gender as a consideration in freedom of religion or belief. 

Whilst Christians should certainly advocate for the freedom of others with regards to their differing religion or belief, in a way that is absolute and universal, there is a need to resist the absorption into that universality advocacy for falsely contrived rights that do not exist as rights properly so called.

Sunday 4 September 2022

The Angel's Salutation

 The Septemer/October 2022 issue of FAITH Magazine contains an article entitled The Angel's Salutation, referring to the greeting offered by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation. Previous issues of the magazine are available online - FAITH Magazine - but this issue has not yet found its way there. If/when it is posted online, it will be worth reading the whole of Fr Conrad's article. The article is a developed version of a homily. UPDATE: The article is now online and can be read here.

One of the ideas indicated by Fr Conrad in the earlier part of his article is that, from a linguistic point of view, the greeting we know in Latin, Dominus Tecum, traced back to Hebrew or Aramaic roots, would have a sense of "Lord with-you". In other words, it is not so much an offering from celebrant to congregation that the "Lord (may) be with you" but a recognition by celebrant for the congregation that "the Lord (is) with you". Fr Conrad traces this usage in several Old Testament episodes.

Towards the end of the article, Fr Conrad draws suggestions from this for the celebration of the Liturgy.

The Angel's Salutation resonates in the Liturgy. At the beginning of Mass the celebrant greets the people: Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord (be) with you". We are gathered in Jesus' Name, hence he is present in our midst. Before reading the Gospel, the deacon repeats Dominus vobiscum. For in the words of the Gospel the Father's Word continues to speak to us, salute us, attune us to his meaning. At the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer the celebrant again says, "The Lord be with you". Jesus comes to us beneath the appearances of bread and wine, as he promised..... Finally, having received the Holy Eucharist, we are sent out with prayer Dominus vobiscum, "The Lord be with you", sent out to live by the Gospel we have heard, to imitate the Sacrifice we have been drawn into, to be what we have received ...

It is the implication of Fr Conrad's reflection for how we understand the greeting at the beginning of Mass that I find most striking. It demonstrates the poverty of a celebration in which "Good morning, everyone...Good morning, Father"  is accepted as the introductory greeting.

This is not the only consideration in this article, and the whole is rich and well worth finding and reading.

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Conservatives, condoms and chocolate

The BBC news website is reporting that free condoms will be distributed to delegates at their forthcoming annual conference: Tory conference: LGBT group unveils politics-themed condoms

This quotation cited in the BBC report makes one wonder, firstly, why "a good time" is assumed to be defined only in terms of sexual activity; and, secondly, how many conference attendees will really believe that the distribution of free condoms really reflects conservative values. 

"We all know people like a good time at conferences, and we're here to help ensure that happens safely."

It is also a point for reflection that the LGBT+ Conservatives have chosen to make their impact at conference with a highly sexualised messaging. Again, does such a highly sexualised presentation reflect genuinely conservative values that might be held by LGBT+ people in the Conservative party?

Whilst the BBC report suggests a humorous intent, one wonders about the political and social maturity of that particular sense of humour.

I am reminded of the incident at Corpus Christi College in the late 1970's, recorded at Fr Tim Finigan's blog: Contraceptives and Chocolate. This occurred when a motion was proposed to install a condom machine in the undergraduate student common room.

Paul Haffner was there at the time so it must have been my first year (1977-8). He lobbied the Catholics at the College to turn out to support an amendment he was intending to propose. There were not all that many of us but a couple of hearties from the Officer Training Corps ensured that we were not entirely overwhelmed.

Paul's moment came and he announced with his very careful and laboured enunciation "I should like to propose an amendment." This was duly noted and he was invited to make his proposition. With similar dramatic effect, he said "That the motion should be amended by replacing the word 'contraceptives' with the word 'chocolate'." This brought the house down and his amendment (and the amended motion) were carried on a wave of enthusiasm.

Now, I wonder .... will Jacob Rees-Mogg organise a campaign for the distribution of free chocolate bars at the Tory party conference, in order to counter the distribution of free condoms?

On a more serious note, I recall reading C P Snow's novel The Corridors of Power in my much younger years and taking away from it the message that, if nuclear disarmament was to be achieved in the UK, it would occur when Conservative politics came to support it. The politics of the left would always be insufficient to achieve it. Likewise, I think what we have seen in the field of LGBT issues is that, when Conservative politics gave way it made possible the "ideological colonisation" of which Pope Francis regularly speaks.

Sunday 7 August 2022

Archie Battersbee

 I have not been able to follow the events of the Archie Battersbee case as they unfolded. I have also been very aware that the case might have involved specific circumstances, not known to the general public, that would affect a judgement of the outcome of the legal case.

A reliable source of comment is the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, who have three posts on their website about the case (linked here in reverse time order): Press Release on the Passing Away of Archie Battersbee A Comment on the Latest High Court Judgement on Archie BattersbeePress Statement on Archie Battersbee – “Very Likely Dead” is not Dead Enough. I think it is worth reading carefully all three of their posts.

There are some aspects of the case that as highlighted by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre that have a wider significance. One is the role of parents as the responsible agents of the best interests of their children.

The Centre has commented frequently that English law habitually fails to recognise the responsibilities and rights of the parents in cases relating to the medical treatment and care of children. This is shown in the present case by the appointment of a guardian to represent the interests of Archie, as though the parents are less well-qualified to represent his interests. Decision-making should not be taken from the parents unless and until they have been shown to be unreasonable and a threat to their child. They remain the people who know their child best.

 Another aspect reflects how a widespread societal perception can be too readily applied by judicial decision, whether or not it is reflected in the specific instance.

If Archie has no hope of recovery, then it seems prima facie reasonable for the hospital to seek to withdraw intensive care (if ordinary treatment and basic care are still provided). The practical conclusion of this judgement may well be defensible. However, the speculation that such withdrawal is what Archie “might have wanted”, and the claim that remaining on intensive care “compromises Archie’s dignity”, involve projections of views or feelings onto him in a way that is both unwarranted and ethically deeply problematic.

It is possible to see here how a widespread societal acceptance of a view about the circumstances of dying can affect, by way of legal decision, the care of those who do not share that view. 

Thursday 28 July 2022

Synodality: Initial reflections of the Bishops' Conference

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales have published a reflection on the national synthesis document of the Synodal process. Both the national synthesis document and the Bishops' reflection can be found at the Bishops' Conference website: Seeking Our Hearts' Desire.

In a section entitled "The bishop's discernment of heart", the reflection recognises the office of discernment that is proper to the bishop in the life of his own diocese. There is also an encapsulation of the essential charism of communion, to which the more everyday, human dimensions of communion direct us:

In every diocese, the unity of the Church is guaranteed through the bond of communion with the bishop, joined in apostolic faith with the successor of Peter.

But in the section entitled "Hearing the broken hearted", we read the following:

The voices of those who feel marginalised or unwelcome because of their marital situation, sexual orientation or gender identity have been raised and heard sincerely. Equally, others who feel excluded from the life of the Church, or identify as being on the peripheries, have not been forgotten in our synodal process of encounter.

I suggested in my previous post Synodality - without discernment? a discernment that could be offered with regard to those who feel marginalised because of their marital situation or LGBT identity. Whilst an "initial reflection" might not be the appropriate place for a full development of this discernment, surely it is the place for an indication of its direction. It would be to put some flesh on the notion of accompaniment that is the subject of the following section of the reflection entitled "The journeying of hearts together".

As a bit of an aside, I must admit to a certain bemusement by this observation in the reflection:

There are communal aspects of our individual diocesan syntheses which are likely to be prominent in our continued synodal conversations. Essential will be trying to engage the ninety percent who attend Sunday Mass but have not yet participated in any process.

It seems to identify participation in the synodal life of the Church in terms of taking part in meetings and the like. But, for the lay person, it is their daily life in their families, work places and participation in the Liturgy that defines their specific charism. Should we have ever had any expectation that more than a minority would choose to take part in parish meetings, and in the subsequent meetings at diocesan level?

Thursday 14 July 2022

Synodality - without discernment?

 In Autumn 2021 I gave some considerable thought to the practical meaning of the term "synodality". I was trying to understand the term, not as a theological or ecclesial concept, but as something that would determine how I might live my life as a lay Catholic (or how a priest/Bishop/religious might live their Catholic lives). The three key words of the synodal process - communion, participation and mission - did not lead me to anything particularly novel.

I ended up thinking that what a synodal ecclesial life demands is that each individual, in their particular office and circumstances in the Church, should live their vocation more fully according to its own principles. The lay person needs to live more fully as a lay person, the parish priest more fully as a parish priest, the bishop more fully as a bishop. And each has its own responsibility that is not derived from the responsibility of other vocations in the Church. It should not be a surprise, I suspect, that an exercise in renewal of Catholic life should attempt to make new what is in a sense "old" and already there to be lived.

Given this sense of the autonomy of the lay life, the thought that, in order to live a synodal life, I should take part in discussions at parish level that would then be fed into deanery or diocesan syntheses appeared contradictory. A choice to volunteer in visiting patients in my local hospital, for example, did not depend on that process at all. I should just get on with it.

So, rightly or wrongly, and perhaps wrongly, I decided that I would not invest any emotional, intellectual or temporal capital in the synodal process.

Now that parish, diocesan and national synthesis documents are available to be read, the common sense of my decision seems to have been borne out. As far as my own diocese is concerned, I cannot fault the way in which the Bishop presented the process and encouraged parishes to undertake their gatherings. I think he perfectly captured Pope Francis' intention in this regard. But reading the synthesis documents I have gained a sense of a "listening" that is being "reported upwards" in a kind of organisational way, without the exercise of discernment that parish priest and bishop, by virtue of their offices in the Church, might have exercised.

It strikes me, for example, that there already exists a discernment that can be offered in response to concerns about the welcome of divorced and LGBT people in the Church. During the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis promoted a very high valuing of participation in the Church's mission of charity and, in the case of those in difficult marriage circumstances, encouraged this as a way of fully engaging in the life of the Church when it may not be possible to be more fully involved in sacramental life (cf Amoris Laetitia Chapter 8).

And it is not synodal to simply pass upwards a discernment that your own office in the Church enables you to make.

Friday 1 July 2022

Desiderio Desideravi: Pope Francis at his best!

I have enjoyed reading Pope Francis' Apostolic Letter Desiderio Desideravi, finding it a wonderfully enriching account of what we are called to experience in the celebration of the Liturgy, particularly the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I find very striking the idea that what draws us to join the celebration of Mass is, before a response on our part, the desire that God has for us:

Before our response to his invitation — well before! — there is his desire for us. We may not even be aware of it, but every time we go to Mass, the first reason is that we are drawn there by his desire for us. For our part, the possible response — which is also the most demanding asceticism — is, as always, that surrender to this love, that letting ourselves be drawn by him. Indeed, every reception of communion of the Body and Blood of Christ was already desired by him in the Last Supper.

Pope Francis develops this idea very beautifully in the first paragraphs of the Apostolic Letter.

A hope of Pope Benedict, expressed if I recall correctly in his letter to Bishops that accompanied the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum , was that there would be a mutual enrichment between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. One perspective from which to read Desiderio Desideravi is that of an indication of how much that could be said of the "antecedent form" of the liturgy can be employed to enrich our celebration of the "unique expression" of the Roman Rite. At the time when Summorum Pontificum was first published, I remember feeling that, whereas I was quite happy to live the ordinary life of the Church's liturgy celebrated according to the missal of Paul VI and John Paul II, I was now being put in a position where I was being asked to adopt a position vis-a-vis the earlier missal when that was something I had no calling to do. Again, I am not reading Desiderio Desideravi in the context of a dialogue with the "antecedent form", and it simply has not occurred to me that I should do so. Part of my pleasure in reading the Apostolic Letter is precisely that it does not ask me to do that, and I believe that those who would read it in that way will not be able to access its richness.

As I never tire of suggesting, I think it is important to read the whole - hence my including the link at the beginning of this post - and I think that is particularly true of Desiderio Desideravi. There is much more than the section in which Pope Francis discusses the art of the priest in his act of presiding at the Eucharistic Celebration which I quote below. Even if  I do not post further on Desiderio Desideravi I will nevertheless be returning to read more carefully the other sections. Why I have chosen to quote this section is that the idea of "presiding" appears to me to have entered into the liturgical vocabulary at the time of Vatican II, and Pope Francis' account is the first I have read that offers a properly theological/liturgical insight into the meaning of "presiding". 

56. The priest lives his characteristic participation in the celebration in virtue of the gift received in the sacrament of Holy Orders, and this is expressed precisely in presiding. Like all the roles he is called to carry out, this is not primarily a duty assigned to him by the community but is rather a consequence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit received in ordination which equips him for such a task. The priest also is formed by his presiding in the celebrating assembly.

57. For this service to be well done — indeed, with art! — it is of fundamental importance that the priest have a keen awareness of being, through God’s mercy, a particular presence of the risen Lord. The ordained minister is himself one of the types of presence of the Lord which render the Christian assembly unique, different from any other assembly. (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7) This fact gives “sacramental” weight (in the broad sense) to all the gestures and words of the one presiding. The assembly has the right to be able to feel in those gestures and words the desire that the Lord has, today as at the Last Supper, to eat the Passover with us. So, the risen Lord is in the leading role, and not our own immaturities, assuming roles and behaviours which are simply not appropriate. The priest himself should be overpowered by this desire for communion that the Lord has toward each person. It is as if he were placed in the middle between Jesus’ burning heart of love and the heart of each of the faithful, which is the object of the Lord’s love. To preside at Eucharist is to be plunged into the furnace of God’s love. When we are given to understand this reality, or even just to intuit something of it, we certainly would no longer need a Directory that would impose the proper behaviour. If we have need of that, then it is because of the hardness of our hearts. The highest norm, and therefore the most demanding, is the reality itself of the Eucharistic celebration, which selects words, gestures, feelings that will make us understand whether or not our use of these are at the level of the reality they serve. It is obvious that this cannot be improvised. It is an art. It requires application on the part of the priest, an assiduous tending to the fire of the love of the Lord that he came to ignite on the earth. (Lk 12:49)

58. When the first community broke bread in obedience to the Lord’s command, it did so under the gaze of Mary who accompanied the first steps of the Church: “these all continued with one accord in prayer with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus.” (Ac 1:14) The Virgin Mother “watches over” the gestures of her Son confided to the Apostles. As she protected the Word made flesh in her womb after receiving the words of the angel Gabriel, she protects once again in the womb of the Church those gestures that form the body of her Son. The priest, who repeats those gestures in virtue of the gift received in the sacrament of Holy Orders, is himself protected in the womb of the Virgin. Do we really need a rule here to tell us how we ought to act?

59. Having become instruments for igniting the fire of the Lord’s love on the earth, protected in the womb of Mary, Virgin made Church (as St Francis sang of her) priests should allow the Holy Spirit to work on them, to bring to completion the work he began in them at their ordination. The action of the Spirit offers to them the possibility of exercising their ministry of presiding in the Eucharistic assembly with the fear of Peter, aware of being a sinner (Lk 5:1-11), with the powerful humility of the suffering servant (cf. Is 42ff), with the desire “to be eaten” by the people entrusted to them in the daily exercise of the ministry. 

60. It is the celebration itself that educates the priest to this level and quality of presiding. It is not, I repeat, a mental adhesion, even if our whole mind as well as all our sensitivity must be engaged in it. So, the priest is formed by presiding over the words and by the gestures that the Liturgy places on his lips and in his hands. He is not seated on a throne because the Lord reigns with the humility of one who serves. He does not rob attention from the centrality of the altar, a sign of Christ, from whose pierced side flowed blood and water, by which were established the Sacraments of the Church and the centre of our praise and thanksgiving.

Desiderio Desideravi is, I think, Pope Francis at his very best! There is a lot here for me still to read and reflect on.

Tuesday 28 June 2022

Roe v. Wade overturned: what next?

I have not been able to keep track of all the reactions to the overturning of the Roe v. Wade judgement by the US Supreme Court. I also have my usual wariness of commenting on a situation whose details are beyond my own immediate knowledge - it is too easy to respond to the reporting of what someone said and to then find out that either they said something slightly different or that the fuller context of the remarks gives the quoted part a rather different sense.

What of President Biden?

His original remarks in response to the Supreme Court judgement can be found on the White House website: Remarks by President Biden on the Supreme Court Decision to Overturn Roe v. Wade. These remarks have worrying aspects to them, and reading them in full adds to that sense concern.

It was three justices named by one President — Donald Trump — who were the core of today’s decision to upend the scales of justice and eliminate a fundamental right for women in this country. 
Make no mistake: This decision is the culmination of a deliberate effort over decades to upset the balance of our law.  It’s a realization of an extreme ideology and a tragic error by the Supreme Court, in my view.

It is the idea that a judgement in law that opens the way to pro-life legislation to take effect in states of the US represents an "extreme ideology" that should give cause for thought. First of all, we should resist the idea that to be pro-life is to be an advocate of an "extreme ideology" - and in this phrase, the word "ideology" is as significant as the word "extreme". An ideology takes an aspect or part of a reality, and absolutises it at the expense of the complete picture; and, in doing so, it adopts a position that separates itself from objective reality itself. To be pro-life on the contrary recognises a reality - that abortion takes the innocent life of an unborn child, an unborn child who would otherwise be able to live their dignity as a human person. To argue, on the other hand, that abortion represents health care is to misrepresent the genuine meaning of the term health care as it would be applied in the wider generality of medical practice.

President Biden's reference to Donald Trump, though, highlights a hazard of that style of pro-life activity that allies itself to a particular political stance, a politics that can be fundamentally ideological in its real intent rather than having a genuine concern for the common good. More is needed to build a genuine culture of life in America than the legislative actions of Republican administrations, and too close an alliance to those legislative actions will be counter-productive to the wider building of a culture of life.

It is also interesting to contrast President Biden's narrative that:

The Court has done what it has never done before: expressly take away a constitutional right that is so fundamental to so many Americans that had already been recognized.

with the rather different narrative from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops statement:

America was founded on the truth that all men and women are created equal, with God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This truth was grievously denied by the U.S. Supreme CourtRoe v. Wade ruling, which legalized and normalized the taking of innocent human life. We thank God today that the Court has now overturned this decision. 

So far as I can tell, the essential import of the judgement to overthrow Roe v. Wade is that abortion should not now be seen in the United States as some form of right guaranteed by the constitution, and should never have been seen in such a way. And yet the barrage of criticism of the decision, following the lead of politicians such as President Biden, ignores this and continues to talk in terms of abortion as some form of human or constitutional right.

What of the culture?

In both the United States and here in the UK, abortion has been legally permitted for so long that it has embedded in medical practice and in the wider culture. The legal permission is only an aspect of that cultural embedding; the widespread hostility shown to the overthrow of Roe v. Wade exemplifies how deep this cultural embedding now is. I have thought for some considerable time now that our conversation about abortion should no longer be one characterised by "a woman's right to choose" or a "woman's right to have control over her own body". The stories of women who have had abortions - both those gathered by supporters of legalised abortion and those opposed - demonstrate the range of constraints that influence their decisions. In many stories, the experiences are such that the word "freedom" (in the full, philosophical sense of the term as applied to human actions) is difficult to apply as a descriptor of the decision making process. I cannot help but feel that, if our public conversation were to focus more clearly on the different narratives of  women seeking abortions, the practice of abortion in our society would change significantly. That conversation would need us to reflect more deeply on the nature of freedom in human acting, and how women seeking abortions can be supported to make decisions that manifest a fuller freedom of choice rather than expressing instead determining constraints. 

Perhaps the jolt given to the idea of abortion as a constitutional right by the recent Supreme Court ruling will enable this wider conversation to take place.