Saturday 26 February 2022

Ash Wednesday: A day of prayer and fasting for peace

Pope Francis has made two significant interventions in respect of the war that has broken out in the Ukraine, following the incursion of Russian forces there.

On Friday (25th February), he visited the Russian embassy to the Holy See on the Via della Conciliazione to express his concerns over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Whilst this is being reported as an unprecedented move in terms of diplomatic protocol, in geographical terms it is rather like popping round the corner. Reuters report of the Pope's visit is here: Departing from protocol, pope goes to Russian embassy over Ukraine. The Vatican News reporting is here: War in Ukraine: Pope Francis goes to Russian embassy to express concern.  The Reuters report also indicates that, after visiting the Russian embassy, Pope Francis telephoned the Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. A report of the phone call is at Catholic News Service: Pope phones Ukrainian archbishop, offers encouragement, prayers

Archbishop Shevchuk’s office said that, during the phone call, Pope Francis asked him about the situation in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine on the second full day of the Russian attack. According to multiple news reports, Russian troops were advancing on the capital, Kyiv, where the archbishop has remained.

Pope Francis asked about the bishops and priests in the areas of heaviest fighting, the Ukrainian Catholic press office said. And he thanked the church for its closeness to the people.

“In particular, the pope praised the decision to remain with the people and to be at the service of the neediest,” including by opening the basement of Resurrection Cathedral in Kyiv as a bomb shelter, which already was being used by dozens of people, including families with children.

Already, at the end of the General  Audience on the day before the Russian attack on Ukraine began, Pope Francis had made an appeal for peace, and invited all to join in a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Ukraine and in the world on 2nd March, which is kept in the Christian calendar as Ash Wednesday:

My heart aches greatly at the worsening situation in Ukraine. Despite the diplomatic efforts of the last few weeks, increasingly alarming scenarios are opening up. Like me, many people all over the world are feeling anguish and concern. Once again the peace of all is threatened by partisan interests. I would like to appeal to those with political responsibility to examine their consciences seriously before God, who is the God of peace and not of war; who is the Father of all, not just of some, who wants us to be brothers and not enemies. I pray that all the parties involved refrain from any action that would cause even more suffering to the people, destabilising coexistence between nations and bringing international law into disrepute.

And now I would like to appeal to everyone, believers and non-believers alike. Jesus taught us that the diabolical senselessness of violence is answered with God's weapons, with prayer and fasting. I invite everyone to make next 2 March, Ash Wednesday, a Day of Fasting for Peace. I encourage believers in a special way to dedicate themselves intensely to prayer and fasting on that day. May the Queen of Peace preserve the world from the madness of war.

This appeal was recalled by the Secretary of State to the Holy See in the statement issued after the Russian action began:

This appeal has taken on dramatic urgency following the beginning of Russian military operations in Ukrainian territory. The tragic scenarios that everyone feared are becoming a reality. Yet there is still time for goodwill, there is still room for negotiation, there is still a place for the exercise of a wisdom that can prevent the predominance of partisan interest, safeguard the legitimate aspirations of everyone, and spare the world from the folly and horrors of war.

As believers, we do not lose hope for a glimmer of conscience on the part of those who hold in their hands the fortunes of the world. And we continue to pray and fast — as we shall do this coming Ash Wednesday — for peace in Ukraine and in the entire world. 

Monday 21 February 2022

The Chair of St Peter: 22nd February 2022

I am always mystified by those priests who, in the celebration of the Feast of the Chair of St Peter, focus in their homily on how Christians today might react to the question asked of the disciples in the Gospel of today's Mass: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" It is a nice pious thought for the edification of their congregation. 

But it misses the point that the feast that is being celebrated is determined, not by the question, but by how Jesus reacts to St Peter's answer to the question: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church".

The feast day celebrates the office of the successor of St Peter, and it escapes me why clergy seem to be so hesitant to preach on the nature of that office when it is the very subject of the feast day. 

There appear to me to be two aspects of the life of the Church in 2022 that make this feast day particularly relevant. 

Firstly, there is the Synodal Pathway that we have been invited to experience at the local, parish level at this time, and for which the first of three key themes is that of "communion". Ecclesial communion is a hierarchical communion, and particularly a communion with the bishop of the diocese and with the Pope. One measure of the action of the Holy Spirit in the Synodal Pathway is the extent to which it promotes this hierarchical communion rather than undermining it. It should draw us closer to the successor of St Peter, and not separate us from him.

Secondly, there is the excoriation of Pope Francis that can be heard from certain quarters. Whatever else one might say about it, and however "learned" it may appear, this certainly does not represent either an authentically Catholic stance nor a genuinely traditional one. The further away from the successor of St Peter one places oneself, so much further does one distance oneself from the heart of the Church. The celebration of the feast of the Chair of St Peter should give cause for considerable reflection in these quarters.

According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The Pope, bishop of Rome and the successor of St Peter, is the perpetual, visible source and foundation of the unity of the Church. He is the vicar of Christ, the head of the college of bishops and pastor of the universal Church over which he has by divine institution full, supreme, immediate and universal power.

There are a couple of nice observations from Pope Benedict XVI, in the early pages of his book length interview with Peter Seewald published as Light of the World. After observing that the faithful are not the employees or subordinates of the Pope, he writes:

... the Pope is, on the one hand a completely powerless man. On the other hand , he bears a great responsibility.

And commenting on the large number of Catholics in the world, and the suggestion that this makes him the most powerful Pope of all time, Pope Benedict writes:

Among those 1.2 billion Catholics are many who inwardly are not there. Saint Augustine said even in his day: There are many outside who seem to be inside, and there are many inside who seem to be outside. In a matter like faith - like membership in the Catholic Church - inside and outside are mysteriously intertwined with each other. 

Monday 7 February 2022

Pope Francis: "Forgiveness is a Human Right" UPDATED

Pope Francis was recently interviewed on Italian television. An Italian account of the interview is here: Francesco: "Il perdono e un diritto umano", with an abridged English translation here: Pope Francis: "Forgiveness is a human right". The interview covered a wide range of issues, but two particular things stand out.

In tema di vicinanza, Fazio ricorda la nota frase del Papa: “Un uomo può guardare un altro uomo dall’alto in basso solo quando lo aiuta a rialzarsi”. Francesco approfondisce il concetto: “È vero – dice -. Nella società vediamo quante volte si guardano gli altri dall’alto in basso per dominarli, sottometterli, e non per aiutarli a rialzarsi. Pensa soltanto - è una storia triste, ma di tutti i giorni - a quegli impiegati che devono pagare col proprio corpo la stabilità lavorativa, perché il loro capo li guarda dall’alto in basso, ma per dominarli. È un esempio di tutti i giorni”. [On the theme of closeness, Fazio (the interviewer) recalled a well known expression of the Pope: "A man can look down on another man only when he helps him to rise up". Pope Francis deepened the concept: "It is true", he said, "In society we see how many times people look at down on others to dominate them, to subdue them, and not to help them to rise up. We think alone - it is a sad story, but happens every day - of those employees who have to pay with their own body for job security, because their manager looks down on them, but to dominate them. It happens every day".]

It was in response to a specific question of the interviewer that Pope Francis suggested that forgiveness is a human right, a suggestion at least in part determined by the wording of the question itself:

“C’è qualcuno che non merita il perdono e la misericordia di Dio o il perdono degli uomini?”, domanda il conduttore. “La capacità di essere perdonato è un diritto umano", replica il Pontefice dicendo che questa è "una cosa che forse farà scandalizzare qualcuno”. Tutti noi abbiamo il diritto di essere perdonati se chiediamo perdono. È un diritto che nasce proprio dalla natura di Dio ed è stato dato in eredità agli uomini. Noi abbiamo dimenticato che qualcuno che chiede perdono ha il diritto di essere perdonato. Tu hai fatto qualcosa, lo paghi. No! Hai il diritto di essere perdonato, e se poi tu hai qualche debito con la società arrangiati per pagarlo, ma con il perdono”. ["Is there anyone who does not deserve the forgiveness and the mercy of God or the forgiveness of mankind?", asked the interviewer. " The ability to be forgiven is a human right", replied the Pope saying that this is "something that perhaps will shock some people". We all have the right to be forgiven if we ask for forgiveness. It is a right that is born itself from the nature of God and is bequeathed to mankind. We have forgotten that someone who asks for forgiveness has the right to be forgiven. You have done something, you must pay for it. No! You have the right to be forgiven, and if then you have some debt with society, arrange to pay it, but with forgiveness".]

Though it does appear to be well known, this is the first time that I recall encountering Pope Francis' remark about looking down on someone only to raise them up. It strikes me as a particularly Pope Francis expression.

As far as the suggestion that there is a human right for people to be forgiven if they ask for forgiveness is concerned, I have three observations. Firstly, if Pope Francis' remarks are read in full, it should be clear that he is not suggesting that forgiveness should replace the provisions of justice in, for example, a legal judgement. He is suggesting, I think, that forgiveness is exercised in parallel to the workings of justice. This seems to indicate some precedent for Pope Francis' remarks in the principles underpinning the practice of restorative justice.

Secondly, there is something that Pope Francis does not appear to explore in his remarks. As a mirror to a right of someone to be forgiven is a duty of another person to offer that forgiveness. But in tragic circumstances, it can be very difficult for an aggrieved party to reach the point where they are able to forgive. It does not really belong to others to forgive on the behalf of the aggrieved party, which means that a person who is seen as having a right to forgiveness may not in practice be able to benefit from that right. But there is a subtlety in some of Pope Francis' words that has been lost between the text as reported on the Vatican News site and the headline that the same site uses (true in all three of the languages that I am able to read). The text quotes Pope Francis, presumably verbatim, as speaking initially of a "capacity to be forgiven" as being a human right, before going on to speak more directly of a right to be forgiven.

Perhaps not unrelated to this difficulty is my third observation. I think Pope Francis is suggesting that the right to be forgiven, or at least the "capacity to be forgiven", has in some way been established by God "in the beginning" as a part of what it means to be a human society. From a theological point of view, we can perhaps see this right, or capacity, being restored to its original integrity in the salvific work of Jesus Christ, and the Church therefore having a particular mission in favour of forgiveness in the world. 

There are perhaps a couple of precedents in Pope Francis' ministry that act as a source for his response in this interview. In 2014, he wrote a letter to a meeting of two associations of penal lawyers. The letter identifies three elements of Christian tradition with regard to justice:

From the very earliest Christian times, the disciples of Jesus have sought to confront the fragility of the human heart, so often weak. In different ways and with various initiatives, they have accompanied and supported those who are buckling under the weight of sin and evil. Despite the historical changes, three elements have been consistent: reparation or compensation for the injury caused; confession, through which man expresses his own internal conversion; and contrition in order to reach the encounter with God’s merciful and healing love.

 Towards the end of his letter, Pope Francis writes:

The manner of God, who is there even before the human sinner, waiting and offering him his forgiveness, thus reveals a higher justice which is, at the same time impartial and compassionate, without contradiction in these two aspects. Forgiveness, in fact, neither eliminates nor diminishes the need for correction, precisely that of justice, nor does it overlook the need for personal conversion, instead it goes further, seeking to reestablish relationships and reintegrate people into society. To me, this seems to be the great challenge that we all must face together, so that the measures adopted against evil are not satisfied by restraining, dissuading and isolating the many who have caused it, but also helps them to reflect, to travel the paths of good, to be authentic persons who, removed from their own hardships, become merciful themselves. The Church, therefore, proposes a humanizing, genuinely reconciling justice, a justice that leads the criminal, through educational development and brave atonement, to rehabilitation and reintegration into the community.

Implicit in this notion of a "reconciling justice" is the need, or perhaps a "right", for the criminal to have access to forgiveness on the part of wider society.

The Year of Mercy celebrated by the Church also provides a background to Pope Francis' suggestion of a type of right to forgiveness. A passage from the Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera that closed that Year offers an almost exact precedent for Pope Francis' answer to the question he was asked in this interview (my italics added):

... lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year,[14] is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary. I wish to restate as firmly as I can that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life. In the same way, however, I can and must state that there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart seeking to be reconciled with the Father. May every priest, therefore, be a guide, support and comfort to penitents on this journey of special reconciliation.

 There is a hint here, too, of the idea that the seeking of forgiveness should readily meet with the granting of that forgiveness. In his interview, Pope Francis seems to wish to extend this idea from the field of the sacramental economy to the world at large.

Friday 4 February 2022

Thoughts on matters LGBT+

The dignity of each and every human person derives precisely from their being a human person, and not from a characteristic of the person.  For this reason, the rights that derive from the dignity of the person are described as being universal (ie they apply to each and every person without discrimination) and inalienable (ie they apply to each and every person whatever their actions may be). This idea of the universality and inalienability of human rights can be found both in Catholic teaching and in internationally recognised human rights instruments, such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pope Francis captured something of this during a television encounter with a gay man, when he observed that "it is the person that comes first, the adjective comes after".

What are we to make of this month when local authorities here in the UK choose to fly a "Progressive Pride" flag, and to hold events "as a symbol of solidarity and support for the LGBT+ community" (see here for the reporting in my own local authority)? Is this act of flying a particular flag simply a recognition that the same dignity as persons is to be respected in members of the LGBT+ community as in those who are not part of that community - an act of solidarity with persons? Or is it an act of promotion of a distinct LGBT+ culture to wider society - an act of support for a culture? 

We could also ask how far, for the society that accepts the flying of this flag, we are in reality seeing an example of Vaclav Havel's "greengrocer's slogan", on which I commented here: The greengrocer's slogan: updated for 2021. Public conversation on LGBT+ matters uses the terms "sex" (as in a characteristic of human persons), "sex" (as in the activity of human persons), "gender" and "love" in indiscriminate and ill-defined ways, ways that can mask an underlying intent by using the latter two terms to intend, to a greater or lesser extent, the former two. I suspect that very few ordinary people really think through the implications of that "Progressive Pride" flag, or of the injudicious use of language in our public conversation.

Question 487 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:

God has created human beings as male and female, equal in personal dignity, and has called them to a vocation of love and of communion. Everyone should accept his or her identity as male or female, recognizing its importance for the whole of the person, its specificity and complementarity.

 Question 488 then reads:

Chastity means the positive integration of sexuality within the person. Sexuality becomes truly human when it is integrated in a correct way into the relationship of one person to another.

 There is already here much that would challenge an LGBT+ culture - a given physiological sex that is a characteristic of our identity to be accepted rather than being considered "fluid"; the complementing of male and female sexes, particularly with regard to openness to new life of children; that there is a correct activity of human sexuality which accords with being a person of a male or female physiological sex and is oriented towards a person of the opposite sex.

I think we need to be conscious that a concern to respect the dignity of all persons is not construed as supporting what Pope Francis has termed an "ideological colonisation" of the family, and of our culture.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Day for Consecrated Life 2022

For the feast of the Presentation of the Lord this year, MAGNIFICAT has chosen extracts from Pope Francis' homily on 2nd February 2015 as the "Meditation of the Day". The homily was preached at Mass celebrated to mark the World Day of Consecrated Life.

Before our eyes we can picture Mother Mary as she walks, carrying the Baby Jesus in her arms. She brings him to the Temple; she brings him to meet his people. The arms of Mother Mary are like the “ladder” on which the Son of God comes down to us, the ladder of God’s condescension. This is what we heard in the first reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews: Christ became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest". This is the twofold path taken by Jesus: he descended, he became like us, in order then to ascend with us to the Father, making us like himself. In our heart we can contemplate this double movement by imagining the Gospel scene of Mary who enters the Temple holding the Child in her arms. The Mother walks, yet it is the Child who goes before her. She carries him, yet he is leading her along the path of the God who comes to us so that we might go to him....

The Gospel speaks to us of Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the “law of the Lord”. Jesus came not to do his own will, but the will of the Father. This way – he tells us – was his “food” (cf. Jn 4:34). In the same way, all those who follow Jesus must set out on the path of obedience.

 In speaking of Simeon and Anna, Pope Francis describes their representing wisdom:

In the account of Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple, wisdom is represented by two elderly persons, Simeon and Anna: persons docile to the Holy Spirit, led by him, inspired by him. The Lord granted them wisdom as the fruit of a long journey along the path of obedience to his law, an obedience which likewise humbles and abases, but which also lifts up and protects hope, making them creative, for they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Simeon praises the Lord and Anna “proclaims” salvation (cf. Lk 2:28-32, 38). As with Mary, the elderly man holds the Child, but in fact it is the Child who guides the elderly man.  Mary, the young mother, and Simeon, the kindly old man, hold the Child in their arms, yet it is the Child himself who guides them both.

The original homily included remarks specifically applying this to the living of the consecrated life, though MAGNIFICAT has not included those remarks in its extract. Pope Francis refers to obedience to the rule of a particular institute as a specific way in which consecrated persons live out the call to obedience typical of the Christian life as a whole:

For us, as consecrated persons, this path takes the form of the rule, marked by the charism of the founder. For all of us, the essential rule remains the Gospel, yet the Holy Spirit, in his infinite creativity, also gives it expression in the various rules of the consecrated life which are born of the sequela Christi, and thus from this journey of abasing oneself by serving...

In persevering along the path of obedience, personal and communal wisdom matures, and thus it also becomes possible to adapt rules to the times. For true “aggiornamento” is the fruit of wisdom forged in docility and obedience.

The strengthening and renewal of consecrated life are the result of great love for the rule, and also the ability to look to and heed the elders of one’s congregation. In this way, the “deposit”, the charism of each religious family, is preserved by obedience and by wisdom, working together.