Friday 29 April 2022

The Church: a hostelry or a field hospital? Or both?

Today is the feast of St Catherine of Sienna, Virgin and Doctor of the Church, and one of the six co-patrons of the continent of Europe. It is one of those feast days the celebration of which is enriched by my having visited St Catherine's Shrine in Sienna a number of years ago.

I am reminded of St Catherine's image of Christ as a Bridge that joins earth and heaven, a way across which we must walk to gain salvation. Part of the saint's description of the Bridge is headed by this introduction:

How this Bridge is built of stones which signify virtues; and how on the Bridge is a hostelry where food is given to the travellers; and how he who goes over the Bridge goes to life, while he who goes under It goes to perdition and death.

The section of the following passage that describes the hostelry reads:

His also is the Hostelry in the Garden of the Holy Church, which  keeps and ministers the Bread of Life, and gives to drink of the Blood, so that My creatures, journeying on their pilgrimage, may not, through weariness, faint by the way; and for this reason My love has ordained that the Blood and the Body of My only-begotten Son, wholly God and wholly man, may be ministered to you. 

As I am reminded of this image of St Catherine, I am also prompted to think of Pope Francis' characterisation of the Church as a field hospital. The two images strike me as being entirely complementary to each other.

As I briefly re-read St Catherine in order to write this post, I notice too her emphasis on the Blood of Christ - in the passage referred to above, she describes it as moistening the mortar binding the stones of the Bridge. When our post-pandemic practice allows a return to receiving Holy Communion in both kinds, St Catherine would make valuable reading to inform that renewed practice.

Tuesday 26 April 2022

All the Cathedrals (12): Lichfield

 Zero and I are once again taking up our visits to Cathedral towns (aided at the moment by the half price rail fare offer - we made it to Lichfield and back from East London yesterday for the ridiculous price of £6 each!).

The website of Lichfield City Council has an informative page on the Cathedral: Lichfield Cathedral. The Cathedral has its own website here. Wikipedia provides a detailed account of St Chad, with the section on "Cult and Relics" indicating how his life is marked in the history of Lichfield Cathedral: Chad of Mercia. In the present day Cathedral, an icon showing St Chad stands as a shrine, positioned above the point where St Chad was buried behind the high altar of the original cathedral. The relics of St Chad are now located above the high altar of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Birmingham. Again, Wikipedia includes an account of how the relics come to be in the possession of the Catholic diocese.

As you visit Lichfield Cathedral today, you see a unified Gothic cathedral that dates from the mediaeval period. The shrine to St Chad which was previously to be found in the apse behind the high altar was removed at the time of Henry VIII's reign, though the present day building does not show any destructive signs of the dissolution of the shrine. The years of the Civil War, however, led to much greater destruction due to war damage and troop occupation. Where another town might have had a castle that would have been a focus for defence and attack, it was the Cathedral and its close that played that part in Lichfield. After the end of the Civil War, and the restoration of the monarchy, Bishop Hackett and his collaborators undertook a major repair of the damage, so the present day cathedral again does not readily show the destruction that occurred.

Highlights to see: (1) The Lichfield Angel - the account here also indicates something of the two previous Cathedral buildings that exist underneath the present Cathedral, but which are not apparent to the visitor to today's Cathedral; (2) the St Chad Gospels. (3) The stained glass windows in the apse of the Lady Chapel - known as the "Herkenrode glass", but I can't find a convenient link for this. We were unable to take part in a tour of the Cathedral, but I suspect that the tour would have given us a fuller impression of the history of the Cathedral.

Lichfield is also the birth place of Samuel Johnson. The town house in which he was born is now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace, Museum and Bookshop. The museum is well worth a visit - we took particular interest in leafing through a (replica) copy of Samuel Johnson's encyclopaedia next to an original copy enclosed in a glass case. The museum enables you to get a feel both for Samuel Johnson himself and for the climate in which he lived and wrote. His life's work reads something like that of a present day newspaper columnist and author, with his eventual "fame" being akin to what we today would call "celebrity". Not surprisingly, a couple of charities have good bookshops on the same street as the Samuel Johnson museum!

Sunday 17 April 2022

Peter: witness to the Resurrection

 In his homily at the Easter Vigil last night, Pope Francis preached on the three words that describe the behaviour of the women who first arrived at the tomb early on that first Easter morning: they saw, they heard and they proclaimed. The Holy Father ended his homily thus:

Let us make Jesus, the Living One, rise again from all those tombs in which we have sealed him.  Let us set him free from the narrow cells in which we have so often imprisoned him.  Let us awaken from our peaceful slumber and let him disturb and inconvenience us.  Let us bring him into our everyday lives: through gestures of peace in these days marked by the horrors of war, through acts of reconciliation amid broken relationships, acts of compassion towards those in need, acts of justice amid situations of inequality and of truth in the midst of lies.  And above all, through works of love and fraternity.

Brothers and sisters our hope has a name: the name of Jesus.  He entered the tomb of our sin; he descended to those depths where we feel most lost; he wove his way through the tangles of our fears, bore the weight of our burdens and from the dark abyss of death restored us to life and turned our mourning into joy.  Let us celebrate Easter with Christ!  He is alive!  Today, too, he walks in our midst, changes us and sets us free.  Thanks to him, evil has been robbed of its power; failure can no longer hold us back from starting anew; and death has become a passage to the stirrings of new life.  For with Jesus, the Risen Lord, no night will last forever; and even in the darkest night, in that darkness, the morning star continues to shine.

In this darkness that you are living, Mr. Mayor, Parliamentarians, the thick darkness of war, of cruelty, we are all praying, praying with you and for you this night. We are praying for all the suffering. We can only give you our company, our prayer and say to you: “Courage! We are accompanying you!” And also to say to you the greatest thing we are celebrating today: Christòs voskrés! Christ is risen!

When the Pope celebrates Mass in St Peter's Square on the morning of Easter Sunday, a first act is a witness of the Holy Father to the resurrection, modelled on that of St Peter at the tomb. As the doors covering an icon of the Holy Redeemer are opened, the deacon sings, alternating with the three fold Alleluia of the choir and congregation:

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. 

The Lord has risen from the tomb, who hung on the cross for us. 

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.  

(At this point the deacon turns to face towards the Holy Father.) 

The Lord has truly risen, and has appeared to Peter.

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.  

 And the Successor of St Peter venerates the icon representing the risen Lord.

Saturday 16 April 2022


 I was in central London yesterday, Good Friday, for the passion play in Trafalgar Square and for the 3pm liturgy. Extinction Rebellion were evident at Trafalgar Square and, credit to them, as they walked round the outside of the square at one point during the 12 noon performance of the passion play, they did so in silence and without beating their drums. They did get media attention, and prompted the deployment of the police helicopter with its attendant use of fossil fuels, though the headline on the Evening Standard website strikes me as a great exaggeration compared to the experience of many in London yesterday: XR did not bring London to a standstill.

So far as I could judge, the numbers who participated in the two performances of the Wintershall passion play will have far exceeded those taking part in XR protests yesterday. We can add to that the number of people who will have attended the 3pm liturgy in central London churches yesterday, or taken part in processions or other services to mark Good Friday. 

Which of these events is really the most worthy of news coverage?

Tuesday 12 April 2022

Pope Francis on two signs of the times

There are a couple of things said by Pope Francis in recent months that have caught my attention, though they are only one part of a more wide ranging speech. The first comes from Pope Francis' address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See at the beginning of January (I have added the italics):

The diminished effectiveness of many international organizations is also due to their members entertaining differing visions of the ends they wish to pursue. Not infrequently, the centre of interest has shifted to matters that by their divisive nature do not strictly belong to the aims of the organization. As a result, agendas are increasingly dictated by a mindset that rejects the natural foundations of humanity and the cultural roots that constitute the identity of many peoples. As I have stated on other occasions, I consider this a form of ideological colonization, one that leaves no room for freedom of expression and is now taking the form of the “cancel culture” invading many circles and public institutions. Under the guise of defending diversity, it ends up cancelling all sense of identity, with the risk of silencing positions that defend a respectful and balanced understanding of various sensibilities. A kind of dangerous “one-track thinking” [pensée unique] is taking shape, one constrained to deny history or, worse yet, to rewrite it in terms of present-day categories, whereas any historical situation must be interpreted in the light of a hermeneutics of that particular time, not that of today.

The wording is, as one might expect of its context, couched in a diplomatic way; but I think Pope Francis' intention is clear. And it is not only international organisations that have come to be taken up by an LGBT+ agenda that does not really belong to their aims; there are many trade unions, commercial enterprises, and employers that have allowed the same to happen to them. By speaking out against a "mindset that rejects the natural foundations of humanity" - that is, a mindset that denies the nature of human persons as biologically male or female - Pope Francis allows others to take up that conversation in the public realm. There is also a useful warning about the nature of identity. Today it seems a truism that the LGBT+ person should be able to express that identity in their lives, and there is some merit in this when it is considered at the level of the individual person. But when viewed at the level of society as a whole, where the question is one about the impact for others, Pope Francis warns about an undermining of all sense of identity affecting society as a whlole. We have yet to really see how this works out in the years to come, as a younger generation grows up with a predominance of this mindset.

The second observation came during Pope Francis' visit to Malta, when he met with the diplomatic corps, the local authorities and representatives of civil society. Again, I have added the italics.

If the complexity of the migration issue is to be properly addressed, it needs to be situated within a broader context of time and space.  Time, in the sense that the migration phenomenon is not a temporary situation, but a sign of our times.  It brings with it the burden of past injustice, exploitation, climatic changes and tragic conflicts, whose effects are now making themselves felt.  From the poor and densely populated south, great numbers of people are moving to the wealthy north: this is a fact, and it cannot be ignored by adopting an anachronistic isolationism, which will not produce prosperity and integration. From the standpoint of space, the growing migration emergency — here we can think of the refugees from war-torn Ukraine — calls for a broad-based and shared response.  Some countries cannot respond to the entire problem, while others remain indifferent onlookers

What has caught my attention here is the suggestion that the question of migration is a permanent feature of our times, and a feature that should not be considered as limited to certain countries and not others. In other words, an accomodation of migrants should be of the essential make up of more prosperous societies, both in a legal sense and in the provisions of actors in civil society.