Tuesday 19 December 2023

On blessings and on assisted dying

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has published a Declaration on the meaning of blessings, particularly addressing the question of how blessings might be appropriately used with same sex couples and couples whose marriage situations are not fully in accord with Catholic teaching. News reporting inevitably offers a part of the whole, so I do think it is worthwhile going to the website of the Holy See to read the entire document itself: Fiducia Supplicans. There are some careful distinctions that can be easily lost in reporting.

Before highlighting the possibilities of blessings for same sex couples etc,  the Declaration offers a concrete affirmation of Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage:

Therefore, rites and prayers that could create confusion between what constitutes marriage—which is the “exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children”[6]—and what contradicts it are inadmissible. This conviction is grounded in the perennial Catholic doctrine of marriage; it is only in this context that sexual relations find their natural, proper, and fully human meaning. The Church’s doctrine on this point remains firm.

And, subtly, there is also a clear intention that the style of informal blessings envisaged for same sex couples or couples whose marriage situations are not fully in accord with Catholic teaching, is given to those who (my italics added)

....recognizing themselves to be destitute and in need of his help—do not claim a legitimation of their own status, but who beg that all that is true, good, and humanly valid in their lives and their relationships be enriched, healed, and elevated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

And correspondingly:

How often, through a pastor’s simple blessing, which does not claim to sanction or legitimize anything, can people experience the nearness of the Father, beyond all “merits” and “desires”? 

The blessing of a same sex couple that recently took place at an Anglican Church in Felixstowe clearly has, and was seen as having, the character of a legitimization of the status of the couple involved - and would not be countenanced by Fiducia Supplicans

The BBC news website is reporting that  Esther Rantzen, being treated currently for a Stage 4 cancer, has joined the Dignitas assisted dying clinic in Switzerland.

Speaking about her decision to join Dignitas, Dame Esther said it was driven in part by her wish that her family's "last memories of me" are not "painful because if you watch someone you love having a bad death, that memory obliterates all the happy times".

For those, like myself, who do spend time with patients and family/friends as a patient comes to the end of their lives, there are two elements of Esther Rantzen's words that prompt a sadness. Whilst accompanying a loved one as they die is often going to be challenging, we should not assume that it is going to be "bad". It is for those who surround the dying person to use their time with them to create positive memories in that time; and this is a responsibility that is wider than just the immediate carers. It is a matter of creating a culture, that runs alongside the provision of good clinical, palliative care. In visiting with patients and family/friends in these circumstances, there is a very particular opportunity for them to share anew the memories that have been lived before, as well as living together the present experience. It is a question of accompanying, so that the memories of this time will not be ones that exist to the exclusion of all other memories, and so that they are memories that are enhancing rather than debilitating.

Sunday 5 November 2023

A Secular Age - and beyond

The Focolare Movement in Great Britain publishes a magazine 11 times a year, called New City. The name is shared with many editions in other languages published by the Focolare in different parts of the world. Following the charism of unity of the Focolare Movement, the magazine states its mission as follows:

New City works to promote mutual understanding and respect through dialogue. Together with our readers we want to discover how to "build bridges" in the different sectors of society and in personal life. We are convinced that dialogue, based on mutual love, is the only way to build a more united world which is based on universal values such as justice, equality, truth and peace.

The November 2023 issue can be viewed online here; and previous issues can be viewed here.

The November 2023 issue has two articles that address the question of how Christians should feel and act in a world that is recognised to be increasingly "secular" or "secularised". The articles of interest are the interview with Fr Patrick Gilger SJ starting on page 4 and the reflection by Robbie Young on pages 16-17. You will need to follow the link above and read these articles if you wish to understand my comments below.

Fr Patrick identifies three understandings of the idea of secularity: firstly, a political arrangement in which the Church is separate from the State; and secondly, a decline in religious belief and practice in the world around us. In a third understanding, however, Fr Patrick identifies secularity (the wording of the article at this point seems to have chosen this word rather than secularisation) as seeing in the world a plurality of world views and life styles, and therefore a kind of competitive space rather than one that sets out deliberately to target religious belief. The suggestion that follows is that Christians should see the process of secularisation in society as an opportunity for dialogue, as an opportunity to encounter potential collaborators rather than enemies, though they may be collaborators with whom we may never full agree. If, as Fr Patrick points out later in his interview, Jesus is still present in the world, this seeking of dialogue becomes a search to discover how He may be acting in places other than we might expect.

There is an echo of this thought in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, occuring in n.92. at the conclusion of the constitution: 

For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace.

 Robbie Young's survey is, I think, a prescient reflection on the background to our present day situation. I am particularly interested in what he describes as a "bonus" that our Western societies have taken on board, and that may provide that potential for dialogue:

For decades now Western societies have placed all their money on what was believed to be a knock-out combination of liberal democracies, free market economies, and science and technology, with a bonus thrown in that invididuals can choose their own values, moral codes and lifestyles. Perhaps it will be the bonus that will turn out to be the Trojan Horse. If selfishness, licentiousness, and consumeristic hedonism come to characterise the culture, how could it possibly survive?

 It is possible to be both over pessimistic and over optimistic when considering this path way of dialogue between Christians and wider society. The task can seem quite overwhelming if it is viewed in a wide perspective. But, as is the practice of the Focolare Movement, dialogue can be promoted in local and small scale contexts, among the people that you happen to know, with real chances of building unity.

Thursday 24 August 2023

Rimini: Meeting 2023

 This August sees the 44th edition of the Meeting for Friendship among Peoples, held in the Adriatic resort of Rimini. Though not strictly speaking an activity of the movement Communion and Liberation, the annual Rimini meeting is very much associated with that movement. The theme for this year's meeting is "Human existence is an inexhaustible friendship", and it is possible to see in that choice of theme a reflection of Pope Francis' writing and activity in favour of fraternity among peoples. 

The theme is presented in the theme and poster for the Meeting 2023. It is interesting, I think, to offer this reflection on the nature of friendship at a time when the public conversation about LGBTQ+ issues so often features the assertions that "we should be free to love who we choose" or that "love always wins" - without any attention to exactly what that word "love" really means.  Pope Francis' message to the meeting takes up the theme:

Addressing the young, the Holy Father exalted the value of true friendship, which expands the heart: “Faithful friends … are also a reflection of the Lord’s love, his gentle and consoling presence in our lives. The experience of friendship teaches us to be open, understanding and caring towards others, to come out of our own comfortable isolation and to share our lives with others” (Christus vivit, 151). And we can couple this with another reflection from Don Giussani: “The true nature of friendship is to live freely together for destiny. There cannot be friendship among us, we cannot call ourselves friends, if we do not love the destiny of the other above any other thing, leaving aside any advantage” (Attraverso la compagnia dei credenti, Milano 2021, 184).

And it is possible to recognise in this the idea of a love understood as wishing what is true and good for the other (cf, I think, Thomas Aquinas).

A scroll down the programme of the meeting, listing day by day each of the main events, gives an idea of the range of the exploration of the theme. Do persevere down it, to get a feel of the very wide range of te engagement with the idea of friendship.

What particularly attracted my attention in the meeting programme was one of the exhibitions, that dedicated to Eugenio Corti's novel The Red Horse. I am linking to the Italian version of the page describing this exhibition, as it is more complete than the English page: Il Cavallo Rosso di Eugenio Corti.

The exhibition offers a re-reading of the 1280 pages of the work, with particular attention to the dynamics that led the author to conceive the activity of writing as a task assigned to him by Providence. In fact, the path intertwines the biography of the Brianza author with the events narrated in the novel, observing, in some respects, almost an overlap between his life and the content of the work.

Eugenio Corti's novel places its characters in a very wide ranging account of the Italian involvement in the Second World War, from the participation in the German campaign in Russia (Corti himself survived that campaign), through the Italian surrender and the subsequent events in Greece (cf Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and its account of the killing of essentially unarmed Italian soldiers by the Germans), to the fighting by Italian soldiers on the Allied side after the surrender. This latter includes, alongside the better known partisan activity in the mountains of Northern Italy, the much less well known part played by Italian soldiers at Monte Cassino. The novel continues after the war, as its protagonists engage with the post-war election and the campaign on the referendum on divorce. 

Alongside the exhibition, a series of presentations introduced participants to each of the key characters in the novel. There are also a series of more academic presentations about Eugenio Corti and his novel. The one of these that struck me was the one entitled "From The Betrothed to The Red Horse: a Lombard connection". Whilst it is now a few years since I read The Red Horse, it is only a couple of months since I finished a reading of Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed. In their different historical settings, both can be seen as classics of Italian literature; both have a setting based in the Lombardy region of northern Italy; both place their narratives within a historically accurate context; and both contain an expression of a profoundly Catholic culture. It is very striking to read The Betrothed after our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. The narrative of the novel is to a significant extent set against the background of an outbreak of the plague brought to northern Italy and to the city of Milan by an invading army. One can recognise in the account of the experience of the plague a number of things that are familiar to us from the COVID-19 pandemic: plague denial in the early stages, with reluctance to limit population movements; isolation of infected households in the city, though enforced more drastically than for our pandemic; overwhelmed medical provision in so far as such existed at the time; conspiracy theories; and, towards the end of the novel, an instance of meeting out of doors with social distancing that might have been part of our regulations in 2020 or 2021.

And my final thought. Another of the exhibitions is dedicated to Giovanni Guareschi's characters  Don Camillo and Peppone, with the title "Always rivals, but never enemies". Guareschi's writing and life story occur simultaneously with the family story described in The Red Horse - his work on posters for the elections in 1948 is referenced in the novel. I first read Don Camillo stories before I left home, as they were on the bookshelves at home. I now possess a complete set, and am currently re-reading some of them.

Thursday 3 August 2023

Pope Francis in Lisbon: Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and Diplomatic Corps

 Pope Francis met with the political leaders and representatives of civil society in Lisbon, as part of his visit to Portugal for World Youth Day 2023. In much of his address, he drew on Lisbon's connection to the sea, using the idea of the ocean as a connecting theme. This gives Pope Francis' address a certain beauty, particularly when it asks on which course Europe and the West are sailing. Do read the whole here: Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and Diplomatic Corps.

I choose a paragraph to cite below, which gives a flavour of the address as whole, and which expresses Pope Francis' position on abortion, family life and euthanasia:

The ocean, this immense expanse of water, recalls the origins of life. In today’s developed world, paradoxically, the defence of human life, menaced by a creeping utilitarianism that uses life and discards it – a culture that discards life, has now become a priority. I think of so many unborn children, and older persons who are abandoned, of the great challenge of welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating those who come from afar and knock on our doors, and the isolation felt by so many families that find it hard to bring children into the world and raise them. Here too, we might ask: “Where are you sailing, Europe and the West, with the discarding of the elderly, walls of barbed wire, massive numbers of deaths at sea and empty cradles? Where are you sailing? Where are you sailing if, before life’s ills, you offer hasty but mistaken remedies: like easy access to death, a convenient answer that seems ‘sweet’ but is in fact more bitter than the waters of the sea?” I am thinking here of many advanced laws concerning euthanasia.

Later in his address, Pope Francis makes a plea for a reversal in the decline of the birth rate in Europe and the West: 

Young people are the future. Yet they encounter much that is disheartening: lack of jobs, the dizzying pace of contemporary life, hikes in the cost of living, the difficulty of finding housing and, even more disturbing, the fear of forming families and bringing children into the world. In Europe and, more generally, in the West, we are witnessing a decline in the demographic curve: progress seems to be measured by developments in technology and personal comfort, whereas the future calls for reversing the fall in the birth rate and the weakening of the will to live. A healthy politics can accomplish much in this regard; it can be a generator of hope. It is not about holding on to power, but about giving people the ability to hope. Today more than ever, it is about correcting the imbalances of a market economy that produces wealth but fails to distribute it, depriving people of resources and security. Political life is challenged once more to see itself as a generator of life and concern for others. It is called to show foresight by investing in the future, in families and in children, and by promoting intergenerational covenants that do not cancel the past but forge bonds between young and old.  

Saturday 29 July 2023

Francis and Benedict: advocates of inter-generational wisdom


A passage from Pope Francis' Message for the Third World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly struck me as being a complementary articulation of an idea that I recall from Pope Benedict XVI's lecture prepared for a visit to La Sapienza university in Rome, an address which circumstances prevented him from actually delivering. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are suggesting the existence of an inter-generational wisdom that we need to respect for the good of society.

Pope Francis expresses this idea of an inter-generational wisdom in the pastoral context of the relationship between grandparents and the elderly, and young people.

The Lord trusts that young people, through their relationships with the elderly, will realize that they are called to cultivate memory and recognize the beauty of being part of a much larger history. Friendship with an older person can help the young to see life not only in terms of the present and realize that not everything depends on them and their abilities. For the elderly, the presence of a young person in their lives can give them hope that their experience will not be lost and that their dreams can find fulfilment. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and their shared awareness that the Lord’s mercy is from generation to generation remind us that, alone, we cannot move forward, much less save ourselves, and that God’s presence and activity are always part of something greater, the history of a people. Mary herself said this in the Magnificat, as she rejoiced in God, who, in fidelity to the promise he had made to Abraham, had worked new and unexpected wonders (cf. vv. 51-55).

To better appreciate God’s way of acting, let us remember that our life is meant to be lived to the full, and that our greatest hopes and dreams are not achieved instantly but through a process of growth and maturation, in dialogue and in relationship with others. Those who focus only on the here and now, on money and possessions, on “having it all now”, are blind to the way God works. His loving plan spans past, present and future; it embraces and connects the generations. It is greater than we are, yet includes each of us and calls us at every moment to keep pressing forward. For the young, this means being ready to break free from the fleeting present in which virtual reality can entrap us, preventing us from doing something productive. For the elderly, it means not dwelling on the loss of physical strength and thinking with regret about missed opportunities. Let us all look ahead! And allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s grace, which from generation to generation frees us from inertia and from dwelling on the past!

And Pope Benedict expresses it an academic context:

At this point I would like to describe briefly how John Rawls, while denying that comprehensive religious doctrines have the character of “public” reason, nonetheless at least sees their “non-public” reason as one which cannot simply be dismissed by those who maintain a rigidly secularized rationality. Rawls perceives a criterion of this reasonableness among other things in the fact that such doctrines derive from a responsible and well thought-out tradition in which, over lengthy periods, satisfactory arguments have been developed in support of the doctrines concerned. The important thing in this assertion, it seems to me, is the acknowledgment that down through the centuries, experience and demonstration – the historical source of human wisdom – are also a sign of its reasonableness and enduring significance. Faced with an a-historical form of reason that seeks to establish itself exclusively in terms of a-historical rationality, humanity’s wisdom – the wisdom of the great religious traditions – should be valued as a heritage that cannot be cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.

Tuesday 4 July 2023

The Passion for Evangelisation: St Paul VI in the Philippines

 Pope Francis has resumed his General Audience addresses in which he presents witnesses to the Passion for Evangelisation. His most recent address, on 28th June, gave an account of the life and work of St Mary MacKillop. I was particularly interested to note how Mary MacKillop's work founding schools was presented by Pope Francis as a method of evangelisation:

Wisely reading the signs of the times, she understood that for her, the best way to do so was through the education of the young, with the awareness that Catholic education is a form of evangelization. It is a great form of evangelization. In this way, if we can say that “each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel” (Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, 19), then Mary MacKillop was especially so through the founding of schools.

The Office of Readings for the 13th Sunday of the Year, which occurred last Sunday, also offered a striking witness to the passion for evangelisation. The second reading was an extract from a homily given by Pope Paul VI in Manila on 29th November 1970. We are now very used to the Pope undertaking apostolic journeys, but this was a more unusual thing at the time of Pope Paul VI. His trip to West Asia, the far East and Australia in 1970 still appears remarkable. The time that he spent in the Philippines was not without controversy.

The reading in the Office quoted the first part of Pope Paul's homily. 

I Paul, the successor of Saint Peter, charged with the pastoral mission for the whole Church, would never have come from Rome to this far-distant land, unless I had been most firmly convinced of two fundamental things: first, of Christ; and second, of your salvation.

Convinced of Christ: yes, I feel the need to proclaim him, I cannot keep silent. «Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!» (1 Cor. 9: 16). I am sent by him, by Christ himself, to do this. I am an apostle, I am a witness. The more distant the goal, the more difficult my mission the more pressing is the love that urges me to it (Cfr. 2 Cor. 5: 13). I must bear witness to his name: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matth. 16: 16). He reveals the invisible God, he is the firstborn of all creation, the foundation of everything created. He is the Teacher of mankind, and its Redeemer. He was born, he died and he rose again for us. He is the centre of history and of the world; he is the one who knows us and who loves us; he is the companion and the friend of our life. He is the man of sorrows and of hope. It is he who will come and who one day will be our judge and - we hope -the everlasting fulness of our existence, our happiness. I could never finish speaking about him: he is the light and the truth; indeed, he is «the way, the truth and the life» (Io. 14: 6). He is the bread and the spring of living water to satisfy our hunger and our thirst. He is our shepherd, our guide, our model, our comfort, our brother. Like us, and more than us, he has been little, poor, humiliated; he has been a worker; he has known misfortune and been patient. For our sake he spoke, worked miracles and founded a new kingdom where the poor are happy, where peace is the principle for living together, where the pure of heart and those who mourn are raised up and comforted, where those who hunger and thirst after justice have their fill, where sinners can be forgiven, where all are brothers.

And, as if he cannot stop, Pope Paul continues:

Jesus Christ: you have heard him spoken of; indeed the greater part of you are already his: you are Christians. So, to you Christians I repeat his name, to everyone I proclaim him: Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega; he is the king of the new world; he is the secret of history; he is the key to our destiny. He is the mediator, the bridge, between heaven and earth. He is more perfectly than anyone else the Son of Man, because he is the Son of God, eternal and infinite. He is the son of Mary, blessed among all women, his mother according to the flesh, and our mother through the sharing in the Spirit of his Mystical Body. 

Reading the homily, one can sense Pope Paul's passion for evangelisation.

But it is perhaps important to look at the second part of Pope Paul's homily, in which he addresses the context of the then social and political situation in the Philippines.

Yet, as far as the positive and happy development of your social conditions is concerned, we can give a positive answer: Christianity can be salvation also on the earthly and human level. Christ multiplied the loaves also to satisfy the physical hunger of the crowds following him. And Christ continues to work this miracle for those who truly believe in him, and who take from him the principles of a dynamic social order, that is, of an order that is continually progressing and being renewed.

And in turn, Pope Paul suggests how Christ can provide a response to the different influences at play in the society of the time (extract below, but it is worth reading the whole of this section for the full flavour of Pope Paul's words): 

To you who are students and can well grasp these fundamental ideas and these higher values, I would say this: Today while you are challenging the structures of affluent society, the society that is dominated by technology and by the anxious pursuit of productivity and consumption, you are aware of the insufficiency and the deceptiveness of the economic and social materialism that marks our present progress. You are truly able to reaffirm the superiority, richness and relevance of authentic Christian sociology, based on true knowledge of man and of his destiny.

Workers, my message to you is this: While today you have become aware of your strength, take care that in the pursuit of your total rehabilitation you do not adopt formulas that are incomplete and inaccurate. These, while offering you partial victories of an economic and hedonistic nature, under the banner of a selfish and bitter struggle, may later increase the disappointment of having been deprived of the higher values of the spirit, of having been deprived of your religious personality and of your hope in the life that will not end. Let your aspirations be inspired by the vigour and wisdom that only the Gospel of the divine Worker can give you.

Wednesday 28 June 2023

The Office of Peter

 Perhaps the liturgical feast of the Chair of St Peter, celebrated on 22nd February, is most exactly a celebration of the office of the Successor Peter; but I nevertheless find the Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul on 29th June prompt to reflect on that office. I am left at a bit of a loss that clergy seem to shy away from preaching on the Papal office on this feast day.

Hans Urs von Balthasar makes great play of the way in which, though he arrives at the tomb first on Easter morning, St John waits for St Peter to catch up, and then allows that he should enter the tomb first. Though not in time - the first immediate witness is Mary Magdalene - this gives a certain precedence to St Peter's witness to the resurrection. It is reflected at the start of the liturgy of the Easter Sunday Mass in St Peter's Square, when the successor of St Peter venerates an image of the risen Christ in a testimony to the truth of the resurrection. Whilst both the charism of love (St John) and that of hierarchy (St Peter) are essential to the Church, the former charism gives precedence to the latter.

In the figures of St Paul and St Peter, a similar precedence can be seen. St Paul's mission to the Gentiles seeks its confirmation from the apostles gathered around St Peter in Jerusalem. Both represent essential features of the life of the Church; but St Paul shows a deference to St Peter that reflects that of St John.

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Pope Francis: Witness to the Passion for Evangelisation

I continue to find interesting Pope Francis' sequence of General Audience addresses on the passion for evangelisation. He is now dedicating them to witnesses to this zeal drawn from the life of the Church.

He has recently spoken about Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary to China in the late 16th/early 17th century. Pope Francis' General Audience address can be found here, and it is possible to note the element of cultural encounter that formed Matteo Ricci's life in China. A more academic, and complementary, account of his missionary activity can be found at Thinking Faith: Matteo Ricci: Shaped by the Chinese.

Most recently, Pope Francis has spoken about St Therese of Lisieux, a patron saint of missionaries. The Audience address is here. Commenting on the well known story of St Therese's prayer for Enrico Pranzini, Pope Francis observed:

Brothers and sisters, such is the power of intercession moved by charity; such is the engine of mission! Missionaries, in fact — of whom Thérèse is patroness — are not only those who travel long distances, learn new languages, do good works, and are good at proclamation; no, a missionary is also anyone who lives as an instrument of God’s love where they are. Missionaries are those who do everything so that, through their witness, their prayer, their intercession, Jesus might pass by.

This is the apostolic zeal that, let us always remember, never works by proselytism — never  — or constraint, — never — but by attraction. Faith is born by attraction. One does not become Christian because they are forced by someone, but because they have been touched by love. More than having many available means, methods, and structures, which sometimes distract from what is essential, the Church needs hearts like Thérèse’s, hearts that draw people to love and bring people closer to God. And let us ask the saint — we have her relics here — let us ask the saint  for the grace to overcome our selfishness and let us ask for the passion to intercede so that this attraction can be greater in people and so that Jesus might be known and loved.

Saturday 3 June 2023

St Charles Lwanga - and a reflection on ideological colonisation

 In 2015 I posted on St Charles Lwanga and his Companions, whose feast day is celebrated in the Catholic Church on 3rd June each year: St Charles Lwanga and Companions: an opportunity to comment on recent events

I was reminded of that post when I visited a local library during this last week, and encountered its display of LGBT books, set out to mark Pride month. I really did get a sense of a colonisation of a cultural space by a particular ideology. In using the term "ideology" it is worth reminding ourselves of how the working of the concept of ideology is explained by Luigi Guissani in his book The Religious Sense (p.129 in my Ignatius Press copy from 1990):

... it is a theoretical-practical construction based on an aspect of reality, a true aspect, but taken up in such a way that it becomes unilaterally and tendentiously made into an absolute; and this comes about through a philosophy or a political project.

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 theorizes about the problem of this person's need, but the concrete person with his or her concrete need becomes a pretext; the individual in his concreteness is marginalised 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. The view of the intellectuals, which the powers that be find convenient and take up as their own, become common mentality by means of mass media, schools and propaganda...

As we mark their feast day, we can remind ourselves of the witness to Catholic teaching on same sex relations offered by St Charles Lwanga and his companions as they resisted the desires of the Ugandan ruler of their time; and of the witness of Rocco Buttiglione which I also described in my post in 2015.

Friday 26 May 2023

Review: St Francis at the National Gallery

 Earlier this week we were able to visit the exhibition dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, at the National Gallery in London until the end of July 2023. It is well worth visiting, though I would not be as exuberant in my praise of it as some reviewers appear to be. 

Cardinal Vincent Nichols spoke at the reception at the launch of the exhibition. The review at the Guardian website includes several images that will give you a feel for the exhibition. There is also a review at Independent Catholic News. Please look at these sites to gain an idea of the content of the exhibition, before reading my comments below.

My overall view of the exhibition - my "sound byte", if you like - is that it presents St Francis life in a very sympathetic way. So, for example, the several representations of St Francis receiving the stigmata are accompanied by display notes that presume completely the veracity of the stigmata. The room which explores St Francis relation to the natural environment includes a full text of his Canticle of Brother Sun, so that you cannot but recognise the praise expressed through created things is directed towards God. If you knew nothing of St Francis' life before visiting the exhibition, you would leave it with an accurate and sympathetic first knowledge of that life.

Perhaps my favourite parts of the exhibition were Murillo's painting of St Francis embracing Christ, who reaches down to him from the Cross. From the central room of the exhibition, you looked through the arch that gave entry to the room displaying this painting and its central position in the room.  I also liked the way in which the National Gallery's own set of Sasseta's paintings were displayed around the central room of the exhibition, giving a sense of their being displayed in a church which reflects their original intention. A number of the art works displayed show miracles attributed to St Francis, and these are presented in a way that is empathetic to the reality of miraculous events. 

I was not so taken with the exhibition's display of more contemporary representations of St Francis. Antony Gormley's sculpture, which was intended to greet you as you entered the first room of the exhibition, appeared to me, during my visit, to be being generally ignored by visitors. There was nothing particularly attractive about it either in terms of its form or in terms of the materials used. It failed to express the interest in St Francis on the part of the sculptor described in the accompanying object label.

The two series of abstract images in the last room were, if I recall correctly, intended to represent events in the life of St Francis and its themes. They didn't do anything for me, so I essentially ignored them.  A small display on the wall related to a film clip running on a loop in the centre of the room. This display consisted of posters for films featuring St Francis, and a picture of the front cover of a Marvel comic version of his life story. Why full size images of the film posters could not be displayed is a mystery to me - if the Curzon cinema on nearby Shaftesbury Avenue can line the wall of the corridor leading to their rest rooms with full size posters of historic films, surely the National Gallery should be able to display full size posters. The short section of the film loop that I watched was taken from Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1966 film The Hawks and the Sparrows, running silently with the dialogue shown in English subtitles. To really make sense of this, you would need to know something of Pasolini's political background and of the entirety of this particular film - the section referencing St Francis' life is part of a rather different whole. In looking into this after my visit, I have been reminded of another attempt to appropriate St Francis' essentially Christian life to a more secular apologia: Nikos Kazantzakis' novel about the life of St Francis, God's Pauper.

All this having been said, I think the exhibition is well worth a visit for the reasons indicated in my first three paragraphs above. 

Wednesday 24 May 2023

Pope Francis: the apostolic zeal of the believer

 In his sequence of General Audience addresses dedicated to the Passion for Evangelisation: the apostolic zeal of the believer, Pope Francis has begun to offer examples from among the saints of those who witness to that zeal.

Pope Francis first example - not surprising considering his Jesuit background - is St Francis Xavier.

...Saint Francis Xavier was born into a noble but impoverished family in Navarre, northern Spain, in 1506. He went to study in Paris — he was a worldly young man, intelligent, good. There, he met Ignatius of Loyola, who made him do spiritual exercises and changed his life. And he left all his worldly career, to become a missionary. He became a Jesuit, took his vows. Then he became a priest and, sent to the East, he went to evangelize. At that time, the journeys of the missionaries to the East meant being sent to unknown worlds. And he went, because he was filled with apostolic zeal....

He arrived in Goa, India, the capital of the Portuguese East, the cultural and commercial capital. Francis Xavier set up his base there, but did not remain there. He went on to evangelize the poor fishermen of the southern coast of India, teaching catechism and prayers to children, baptizing and caring for the sick. Then, while praying one night at the tomb of the apostle Saint Bartholomew, he felt he needed to go beyond India. He left the work he had already initiated in good hands and courageously set sail for the Maluku Islands, the most distant islands of the Indonesian archipelago....

In Japan, the great dreamer, Xavier, understood that the decisive country for his mission in Asia was another: China. With its culture, its history, its size, it exercised de facto dominance over that part of the world. Even today, China is a cultural centre with a vast history, a beautiful history. He thus returned to Goa, and shortly afterwards embarked again, hoping to enter China. But his plan failed: he died at the gates of China, on an island, the small island of Sancian (Shangchuan), in front of the Chinese shoreline, waiting in vain to be able to land on the mainland near Canton. 

Pope Francis second example is St Andrew Kim Tae-Gon.

But, the first Korean priest: you know something? The evangelisation of Korea was done by the laity! It was the baptized laity who transmitted the faith, there were no priests, because they had none. Then, later... but the first evangelisation was done by the laity. Would we be capable of something like that? Let’s think about it: it’s interesting. And this is one of the first priests, St Andrew. His life was and remains an eloquent testimony of the proclamation of the Gospel, the zeal for this. 

Pope Francis draws our attention to two aspects of St Andrew's life:

The first is the way he used to meet with the faithful. Given the highly intimidating context, the saint was forced to approach Christians in a discreet manner, and always in the presence of other people, as if they had been talking to each other for awhile. Then, to confirm the Christian identity of his interlocutor, St Andrew would implement these devices: first, there was a previously agreed upon sign of recognition: “You will meet with this Christian and he will have this sign on his outfit or in his hand.” “And after that, he would surreptitiously ask the question—but all this under his breath, eh?—“Are you a disciple of Jesus?” Since other people were watching the conversation, the saint had to speak in a low voice, saying only a few words, the most essential ones. So, for Andrew Kim, the expression that summed up the whole identity of the Christian was “disciple of Christ.” “Are you a disciple of Christ?”—but in a soft voice because it was dangerous. It was forbidden to be a Christian there...

One time—think about what St Andrew did—one time, he was walking in the snow, without eating, for so long that he fell to the ground exhausted, risking unconsciousness and freezing. At that point, he suddenly heard a voice, “Get up, walk!” Hearing that voice, Andrew came to his senses, catching a glimpse of something like a shadow of someone guiding him.

This experience of the great Korean witness makes us understand a very important aspect of apostolic zeal; namely, the courage to get back up when one falls.

Those who would criticise Pope Francis when he warns against the dangers of proselytism would do well to read these audience addresses and recognise their authentic sense of the term "evangelisation". 



Saturday 13 May 2023

Coptic Orthodox Martyrs recognised in the Catholic Church

 Pope Francis has spoken of an "ecumenism of blood" on a number of occasions during his ministry as the Successor of St Peter. I commented on this in a post on 16th February 2015: Pope Francis and Ecumenism of Blood. In that post, I related Pope Francis remark to the thought of Pope Benedict XVI expressed during his visit to Cologne for the World Youth Day in 2005; and to a passage from Pope St John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint (n.84), which I quote below:

I have already remarked, and with deep joy, how an imperfect but real communion is preserved and is growing at many levels of ecclesial life. I now add that this communion is already perfect in what we all consider the highest point of the life of grace, martyria unto death, the truest communion possible with Christ who shed his Blood, and by that sacrifice brings near those who once were far off (cf. Eph 2:13).

At his General Audience on 10th May 2023, Pope Francis was accompanied by His Holiness Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, at the beginning of his visit to the Holy See. In his audience address, Pope Francis referred to the martyrdom of twenty one Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya in 2015. Those martyrs were canonised in the Coptic Orthodox Church shortly afterwards.

In his private meeting with His Holiness Tawadros II on the next day, Pope Francis announced that, with His Holiness consent, those martyrs would now be included in the Martyrology of the Roman Catholic Church, with 15th February, the date of their deaths, as the date on which they can now be celebrated in the Liturgy. This action by Pope Francis appears to me a natural implementation of the Pope St John Paul II's words in Ut Unum Sint

To gain a full understanding of Pope Francis' decision, it is worth reading the full text of his address during his private meeting with Pope Tawadros II. Pope Francis indicates that he intends that the inclusion of the Coptic Martyrs is a sign of a spiritual communion uniting the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches. It is also interesting to look at the comment in this article at Catholic World Report: A "bolt out of the blue": Pope Francis sets off an ecumenical earthquake. One thing worthy of note from the latter is the suggestion that a devotion to the Coptic Martyrs has grown up in a "grass roots" kind of way in both the Catholic Church and other Christian communities, separately from a formal recognition by Church authorities. It is also worth noting Pope Francis recent General Audience address dedicated to the witness of martyrs in his series of addresses on the Passion for evangelisation:the apostolic zeal of the believer.

In this journey of friendship we are also accompanied by the martyrs, who testify that "no one has greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends" (Jn 15:13). I have no words to express my gratitude for the precious gift of a relic of the Coptic martyrs killed in Libya on 15 February 2015. These martyrs were baptized not only in water and the Spirit, but also in blood, with a blood that is a seed of unity for all followers of Christ. I am pleased to announce today that, with Your Holiness' consent, these twenty-one martyrs will be included in the Roman Martyrology as a sign of the spiritual communion uniting our two Churches.

Sunday 7 May 2023

Pope Francis , St Paul VI and Humanae Vitae

 One of the striking things about St Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae is that, though it has perhaps been one of the most contested instances of papal teaching in our times, the defence by the Magisterium of the openness to life of the marriage act that is at its centre has not wavered. Whatever the speculation, the Successors of St Peter have held to that teaching. In that context, Pope Francis' recent message to an international conference dedicated to natural family planning comes as no surprise.

Pope Francis expressed his regard for St Paul VI's teaching in January 2015 during his visit to the Philipines. Speaking to a meeting of families, he said:

I think of Blessed Paul VI. At a time when the problem of population growth was being raised, he had the courage to defend openness to life in families. He knew the difficulties that are there in every family, and so in his Encyclical he was very merciful towards particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision: he looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of families being destroyed for lack of children. Paul VI was courageous; he was a good pastor and he warned his flock of the wolves who were coming. From his place in heaven, may he bless this evening!

This visit may also have been the first occasion on which Pope Francis articulated his idea of a "ideological colonisation of the family", a theme he has referred to on a number of occasions since. In that same meeting with families, he set out the theme:

Let us be on guard against colonization by new ideologies. There are forms of ideological colonization which are out to destroy the family. They are not born of dreams, of prayers, of closeness to God or the mission which God gave us; they come from without, and for that reason I am saying that they are forms of colonization. Let’s not lose the freedom of the mission which God has given us, the mission of the family. Just as our peoples, at a certain moment of their history, were mature enough to say “no” to all forms of political colonization, so too in our families we need to be very wise, very shrewd, very strong, in order to say “no” to all attempts at an ideological colonization of our families. We need to ask Saint Joseph, the friend of the angel, to send us the inspiration to know when we can say “yes” and when we have to say “no”.

 Pope Francis returned to the theme in answering a question during the in-flight press conference on the flight back to Rome:

The second: What did I want to say about Paul VI? Openness to life is the condition of the Sacrament of Matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman give it to him, if they are not in agreement on this point, to be open to life. To the point that it can be proven that this man or this woman did not get married with the intention of being open to life, the matrimony is null. It’s a cause of matrimonial nullity. Openness to life. Paul VI studied this with commission, how to help the many cases, many problems, important problems, that are even about love in the family. Everyday problems so many of them.... But there was something more. Paul VI’s rejection was not only with regard to personal problems, for which he then told confessors to be merciful and understand the situation and forgive, to be understanding and merciful. He was watching the universal Neo-Malthusianism that was in progress. And, how does one recognize this Neo-Malthusianism? It is by the less-than-one percent birth rate in Italy, and the same in Spain: that Neo-Malthusianism which seeks to control humanity by [controlling] its powers. This doesn’t mean that a Christian should have a succession of children. I met a woman some months ago in a parish who was pregnant with her eighth child, after having seven caesarean births. Do you want to leave seven orphans? This tempting God. We speak about responsible parenthood. This is the way, responsible parenthood. But, what I wanted to say was that Paul VI did not have an antiquated, closed minded. No, he was a prophet who, with this, told us to beware of Neo-Malthusianism, which is coming. This is what I wanted to say. Thanks.

In his most recent intervention, Pope Francis offers a further insight, which extends the warnings of n.17 of Humanae Vitae about likely consequences of contraceptive practice (my italics added):

In a world dominated by a relativistic and trivialized view of human sexuality, serious education in this area appears increasingly necessary, requiring an anthropological and ethical approach in which doctrinal issues are explored without undue simplifications or inflexible conclusions. In particular, there is a need always to keep in mind the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act (cf. PAUL VI, Humanae Vitae, 12). The former expresses the desire of the spouses to be one, a single life; the latter expresses the shared desire to generate life, which endures even at times of infertility and in old age. When these two meanings are consciously affirmed, the generosity of love is born and strengthened in the hearts of the spouses, disposing them to welcome new life. Lacking this, the experience of sexuality is impoverished, reduced to sensations that soon become self-referential, and its dimensions of humanity and responsibility are lost. The tragedy of violence between sexual partners – including the murder of women – here finds one of its main causes. 


Monday 1 May 2023

Lourdes 2023

We recently returned from a five day visit to Lourdes, staying in a hotel we have used in the past but which had changed ownership since our last visit. Judging from their occupancy during the second week after Easter - ie very early in the pilgrimage season - Lourdes has bounced back reasonably well from the COVID pandemic.  The number of coaches parked also suggested healthy visitor numbers. The French version of the shrine website lists a full pilgrimage programme across the season, which is also an indication of a recovery in the fortunes of the town.  

During our five days in Lourdes, several large French pilgrimages were present. The International Mass on the Wednesday saw the underground basilica with standing room only. The celebrating bishop preached very ably on the pastoral theme of the shrine for this year: " ... that a chapel be built here ...". The video of the full celebration is on Youtube, with the homily beginning at 28:55 (only in French, but at the actual celebration itself, an English translation was shown on screens in the basilica). It was frustrating that the priests celebrating the daily Mass for English speaking pilgrims did not show any awareness of the pastoral theme.

The Eucharistic Procession is being introduced by the trumpet voluntary that I think was first used in Lourdes for the Jubilee of the Year 2000 - and it is followed by the invitation to those waiting at the altar on the prairie to kneel, if they are able, as the Eucharist is processed to the altar. The invitation is also repeated as the Eucharist arrives in the Underground Basilica for a time of silent adoration. I was reminded of an earlier post on this blog describing some of our other experiences of Eucharistic processions.

The torchlight procession on the Wednesday of our stay was as large as I have seen it on previous visits to Lourdes in July and August - though I must admit to finding the way in which the statue of Our Lady is wheeled up the ramps from the steps and into the Rosary Basilica at the end of the celebration a little comic.

On the Thursday of our stay, we walked up from Lourdes to Bartres, and sat for some time at the sheep fold. The skies alternated between A-400M military transport aircraft arriving and departing from the nearby airport and a pair of birds of prey circling - Gerard Manley Hopkins poem The Windhover came to mind as I watched the birds circle.

The Friday morning saw us pray the "high" Stations of the Cross, using the meditations of Benedict XVI for the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum on Good Friday 2005. The way in which individuals, small groups and family groups can be seen visiting the Stations is an impressive witness to faith.

One of the consequences of Britain's departure from the European Union is that there is a (generous) limit to the number of days that British Citizens can spend in the EU without a visa. To audit a visitor's presence in the EU, British visitors now have their passports stamped by passport controls with the date of entry and again with date of departure. So our visit to Lourdes is now recorded by stamps in our passports.

Friday 14 April 2023

Pope Francis: The passion for evangelisation; the apostolic zeal of the believer

 Week by week, the Successor of St Peter meets with the faithful, either in St Peter's Square (summer time) or the Paul VI Audience Hall (winter time), for the General Audience. Whilst the immediate listeners of the Holy Father's catecheses on these occasions are the pilgrims gathered in person with the Pope, the catecheses are also more often than not also intended for a wider audience in the universal Church. 

Two special examples of this are the series of catecheses from St John Paul II that are now known under the title "The Theology of the Body"; and a series of catecheses begun by St John Paul II and concluded by Pope Benedict XVI on the psalms and canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer (I have them in a collection published by the Catholic Truth Society). These exemplify how the General Audience catechesis can have both its specific audience on a particular day in a particular place, and a permanent value for the wider life of the Church.

Pope Francis is currently part way through a series of catecheses on "The passion for evangelisation - the apostolic zeal of the believer". The texts are being posted each week at the website of the Holy See, in the section devoted to Audiences: Audiences 2023. At the time of posting, Pope Francis has reached the ninth catechesis in the series. I have dipped into each of them, and found in each of them something of worth: from the careful distinguishing of evangelisation from proselytism and the account of three steps (seeing, followed by movement and then towards a destination) in the calling of St Matthew in the catechesis of 11th January; through the insistence on 15th February that in evangelising there is "no staying without going and no going without staying"; to the account of witness as essential to evangelisation, drawn from St Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi, in the audience of 22nd March.

Every one of us is called to respond to three fundamental questions, posed in this way by Paul VI: “Do you believe what you are proclaiming? Do you live what you believe? Do you preach what you live?” 

Like the catecheses of St John Paul II and of Pope Benedict XVI, I think these too will have a permanent value for the life of the Church. 

Saturday 8 April 2023

The Way of the Cross at the Colosseum 2023: Voices of Peace in a World at War

 Pope Francis has, on more than one occasion, referred to a Third World War that is currently taking place in a fragmentary way. In the introductory prayer to this year's Good Friday Way of the Cross at the Colosseum, the Holy Father returned to this theme:

Tonight, the way of the cross winds its path behind you, directly from the Holy Land.  We will walk it, listening to your suffering reflected in that of our brothers and sisters who have suffered and still suffer from the lack of peace in the world, allowing ourselves to be pierced by the testimonies and reflections that reached the ears and heart also of the Pope during his visits.  They are echoes of peace that resurface in this “third world war being fought piecemeal”, cries that come from countries and areas torn apart today by violence, injustice and poverty.  All the places where conflict, hatred and persecution are endured are present in the prayer of this Good Friday.

The meditations for each of the Stations describe the experiences of suffering and migration in different parts of the world that are characterised by conflict. We might readily think of migrants seeking to cross the English Channel or the Mediterranean or of the conflict in Ukraine. But it is interesting to read these meditations and recognise that there are other places where violence occurs and has its effect on ordinary people.

Lord Jesus, at your birth the angels in heaven announced: “On earth, peace among those whom he favours” (Lk 2:14).  Now our prayers rise up to heaven to appeal for “Peace on earth,which humanity throughout the ages has so longed for” (Pacem in Terris, 1).  Let us pray, beseeching the peace that you have left us and that we are unable to keep.  Jesus, you embrace the whole world from the cross: forgive our failings, heal our hearts, grant us your peace.

Tuesday 4 April 2023

Freedom of Movement: "Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay"

The website of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development of the Holy See has published an indication of the theme for the 2023 World Day of Migrants and Refugees:
The 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees will be celebrated on Sunday, 24 September 2023. The Holy Father has chosen as the title for his traditional Message, “Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay”, with the intention of fostering renewed reflection on a right that has not yet been codified at the international level: the right not to have to migrate or, in other words, the right to be able to remain in one’s own land.

The fact that many persons are forced to migrate demands a careful consideration of the causes of contemporary migration. The right to remain is older, more deeply rooted and broader than the right to migrate. It includes the possibility of sharing in the common good, the right to live in dignity and to have access to sustainable development. All of these rights should be effectively guaranteed in the nations of origin through a real exercise of shared responsibility on the part of the international community.

 The theme is more fully developed in a paper of the Dicastery from December 2022 entitled The "right" not to have to emigrate. In encouraging local Churches to work with the authorities of their countries and regions in order to alleviate the inequalities that might drive peoples to migrate, this paper notes that the decision to emigrate is not always one that is made with freedom:

While violence, conflict, and climate change contribute most significantly to involuntary migration, economic development is also a major factor. Some regions of the world are more privileged than others, and within each society, access to the common good – work, health, education, welfare – is not always guaranteed. In the absence of opportunities for personal and family fulfillment, migration sometimes emerges as the only truly possible choice.

 There are two points here that I find of interest. The first is that the inability to take a proper part in the economic and social life of a country provides a driver in favour of migration that is just as legitimate as is persecution, a driver that represents a constrained choice rather than a free choice. The right to freedom of movement within one's own country, and the right to leave from and return to that country, enshrined in Article 13 of the UN Universal Declaration, has in part an intention of enabling such migration.

The second point is that, though the intention of the theme chosen for the 2023 World Day of Migrants and Refugees is to focus on creating awareness of what needs to be done so that people have a genuinely free choice with regard to staying in their own country, it also recognises a right to choose to migrate, and a desire that the exercise of such a choice may be made with freedom rather than constraint.

The implication of this for Governments is that they should be willing to commit resources to the integral development of people in less developed nations; and where they are not able to do this, to make provision for the consequent migration.

Saturday 18 March 2023

24 Hours for the Lord 2023: "..a festal encounter that heals the heart and leaves us with inner peace".

 This annual celebration of Eucharistic adoration and recourse to the Sacrament of Penance should be seen as one of Pope Francis' most significant innovations in the life of the Church. In Rome it is celebrated by the Holy Father in one of the parishes of Rome. In dioceses throughout the world, the pattern of 24 hours of continuous adoration and availability of Confession is followed in at least one church of the diocese. Vatican News carries a report of this year's celebration in Rome: With repentant and trusting hearts we receive the gift of God's mercy. The responsible section of the Dicastery for Evangelisation  prepared a pastoral resource for this year's celebration that is well worth a read, and in part provides a backdrop to Pope Francis homily: 24 Hours for the Lord: Pastoral Resource 17-18 March 2023. The homily is at the website of the Holy See: 24 Hours for the Lord.

In an early paragraph of his homily, Pope Francis compares the Gospel story of the Pharisee and the tax collector as the appear in the Temple to what might happen in our parishes:

People who are extremely rich in their own minds, and proud of their religious accomplishments, consider themselves better than others – how frequently does this happen in a parish: “I’m from Catholic Action; I’m going to help the priest; I do the collection... it’s all about me, me, me”; how often people believe themselves better than others; each of us, in our hearts, should reflect on whether this has ever happened – they feel satisfied that they cut a good figure. They feel comfortable, but they have no room for God because they feel no need for him. And many times “good Catholics”, those who feel upright because they go the parish, go to Mass on Sunday and boast of being righteous, say: “No, I don’t need anything, the Lord has saved me”. What has happened?  They have replaced God with their own ego, and although they recite prayers and perform works of piety, they never really engage in dialogue with the Lord.  They perform monologues in place of dialogue and prayer. Scripture tells us that only “the prayer of the humble pierces the clouds” (Sir 35:1), because only those who are poor in spirit, and conscious of their need of salvation and forgiveness, come into the presence of God; they come before him without vaunting their merits, without pretense or presumption. Because they possess nothing, they find everything, because they find the Lord.

Pope Francis contrasts how "The Pharisee stood by himself" while "The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off":

Yet that distance, which expresses his sinfulness before the holiness of God, enables him to experience the loving and merciful embrace of the Father. God could come to him precisely because, by standing far off, he had made room for him. He doesn’t speak about himself, he addresses God and asks for forgiveness.

 Pope Francis then explains how we "stand far off" when we approach the Sacrament of Penance (my italics added):

Brothers and sisters, today let each of us make an examination of conscience, because the Pharisee and the tax collector both dwell deep within us. Let us not hide behind the hypocrisy of appearances, but entrust to the Lord’s mercy our darkness, our mistakes. Let us think about our wretchedness, our mistakes, even those that we feel unable to share because of shame, which is alright, but with God they must show themselves. When we go to confession, we stand “far off”, at the back, like the tax collector, in order to acknowledge the distance between God’s dream for our lives and the reality of who we are each day: poor sinners. At that moment, the Lord draws near to us; he bridges the distance and sets us back on our feet. At that moment, when we realize that we are naked, he clothes us with the festal garment. That is, and that must be, the meaning of the sacrament of Reconciliation: a festal encounter that heals the heart and leaves us with inner peace. Not a human tribunal to approach with dread, but a divine embrace in which to find consolation.

Sunday 12 March 2023

The value of difference

As retired member of the National Education Union, I receive their member magazine, Educate, regularly. The March/April 2023 issue contains coverage of the union's recent and, as I write, ongoing strike action in schools in England. It also has a feature article exploring the charity Lifting Limits. The head of education at the charity is a member of the National Education Union, and is cited in their magazine feature.

There is an aspect of the work of Lifting Limits in schools that emerges from the feature that is quite commendable. This is their work around recognising and challenging roles that are often stereotypically described as being "for boys" or "for girls". This can relate to the sports in which children are expected to participate, to the examples of scientists who feature in the curriculum, to subject choices at A-level and to career choices as they leave school. In all of these areas, and more, there is no reason why children should not be equally encouraged in their choices independently of their sex as male or female. 

However, I do think there is a danger in assuming that role stereotypes based on sex are always going to be harmful. There will be boys and girls whose aspirations match to such stereotypes, and who are quite comfortable with those aspirations. Asking them to question their aspirations, on the grounds that they are stereotypical, is not going to do them any favours. A number of the examples of practice described in the feature in Educate usefully include the contributions of women as well as men; but this is only of value if it offers boys and girls more freedom around their aspirations and is not used to create an ideological opposition to aspirations that follow stereotypes. It should act as an enabler to all aspirations, both those that go against a stereotype and those that go along with it.

The feature refers to another aspect of Lifting Limits work. Citing an example from one primary school:

The school is also teaching children about the use of pronouns and the fact that not everyone identifies as the gender registered at their birth. One year 3 child has a parent who is transgender. "For Fathers' Day they wanted to draw a dress on their card, and they put the transgender flag inside it. It has been easily accepted by all of their peers".

Lifting Limits is keen to break the habit in some schools of labelling children by gender and highlight the things children have in common with one another instead.

"Having school structures and routines that highlight gender is saying, girls and boys are different,", says Kirsty [head of education at Lifiting Limits], adding that this can encourage unhealthy relationships between children.

Certainly it is unhealthy to have a school environment that deliberately plays boys off against girls. But avoiding that is not the same as adopting a reluctance to speak of a difference between boys and girls. This  contrasts sharply with what Pope Francis had to say about gender in a recent interview, where he emphasised the value of such difference: Pope Francis: I dream of a more pastoral, a more open Church:

Pope Francis then stated that he is not writing a new encyclical. In response to a question about whether he has been asked to write a document on the subject of gender, the Pope replied in the negative. On this topic, he reiterated that he “always makes a distinction between pastoral work with people of different sexual orientation” on the one hand, “and gender ideology. They are two different things," he said. "Gender ideology, at this time, is one of the most dangerous ideological colonisations. It goes beyond the sexual sphere. Why is it dangerous? Because it dilutes differences, and the richness of men and women and of all humanity is the tension of differences. It is growing through the tension of differences. The gender question dilutes differences and makes the world equal, all level, all the same. And this goes against the human vocation.”

Thursday 9 March 2023

Politics, ideology and sex education

Teacher unions in England are reported as being concerned that a review of Sex and Relationships Education in schools, recently requested by Rishi Sunak, is politically motivated.

This stance is itself hardly politically neutral. The teacher unions long standing support for the Sex Education Forum is ideologically motivated, and represents support for what Pope Francis would term "the ideological colonisation of the family". It is the outcome of the influence of that organisation on education policy that may now be challenged by the review.

One Conservative MP articulated the concerns that have led to the review in terms that might reflect genuine concerns of parents over what is being taught in schools:

Posing a question to Sunak during prime minister’s questions, [MP Miriam] Cates said: “Graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely, and 72 genders. This is what passes for relationships and sex education in British schools.

“Across the country, children are being subjected to lessons that are age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate, often using resources from unregulated organisations that are actively campaigning to undermine parents.

“This is not a victory for equality – it is a catastrophe for childhood.”

It is to be hoped that genuine parental concerns are not going to be overshadowed in the public debate by a conservative ideology - it is sometimes very difficult to separate a Conservative MP's appeals to a particular political/ideological electoral constituency from a genuine concern about the issue itself (though I do not make this remark of Miriam Cates, quoted above). 

The idea that teaching about 72 genders is in any way genuinely education in sex and relationships defies simple common sense....

Tuesday 28 February 2023

Abortion and Afterwards

In 1988, a few weeks after I had had an abortion, I became destructive and emotionally unstable - moody, tearful, lethargic - I was unable to forget or come to terms with what had happened I had never experienced anything like it before and was both surprised and frightened by the depth and complexity of my feelings. I needed to talk, to hear other women's experiences, to know why they had chosen abortion and how they had coped. I discovered it was a taboo subject, so I turned to books. There was little there ...

I resolved to write a book of my own for my own therapy. And slowly, through words, I began to understand by feelings, and used my knowledge of therapy to guide me through my grief. Through writing I began to understand the enormity of my experience and what had happened to my relationship - I became disturbed at how we 'the aborters' were treated and viewed by others. I had come through my experience and integrated it into my life - I had survived the worst crisis of my life. But what of others?

.... All of the women, and men, I have spoken to  or whose letters I read, have shared, for the most part, a highly distressing and painful experience. They shared their experiences for two reasons:

- it was the first time anyone had asked them about their feelings and wanted to listen;

- in the hope that their experiences might help other women cope.

The above is a significant part of the Preface to a book entitled Abortion and afterwards, written by Vanessa Davies, and first published in 1991. The book was not written from a pro-life perspective; rather it was intended as a source of practical guidance for those facing a decision about abortion, with perhaps a particular target audience amongst those women who make a decision for an abortion. My own copy (second hand) has the stamp "Family Planning Association Information and Research Centre" on the inside front cover.

In the light of recent media coverage of Crisis Pregnancy Centres, Vanessa Davies' book has interesting aspects. Part Two, for example, is entitled "Afterwards: The Healing Process". The first chapter of this part addresses  "Feelings", recognising that "depression, guilt, anger, sadness, euphoria, relief, resentment, anxiety and grief" (p.121) are common themes in the experiences of women who have had an abortion. The second chapter in Part Two carries the title "Grief". The chapters describe, and suggest ways of coping with, these feelings.

It is interesting that a book written from a point of view that is essentially supportive of abortion recognises that a significant process of healing may be necessary after a woman has had an abortion. It gives part of a context for the work of pregnancy counselling services that do not refer for abortion.

Thursday 23 February 2023

"God loves you as you are ..."

The problem with the observation is not that it is untrue, but that it is always only one part of the story. If God loves me as I am, he would also love me to be a bit better than I am. 

I remember some years ago now hearing a story that Monsignor Paul Watson used to tell. The captain of a large oil tanker sailing at night towards a light in the distance desperately tried to contact that smaller ship to tell it to change course, as his ship was too large to do so. When the smaller ship pointed out that it was in fact a light house, the captain of the oil tanker did not need to then be told what to do. He recognised straight away that it was in fact his ship that needed to change course. Monsignor Watson used the story as a parable of a "first conversion" that might occur as a person encounters the Gospel. It indicated a certain style that is needed in primary proclamation and the first steps in catechesis.

Likewise, if someone pitches up in the confessional for the Sacrament of Penance they have already recognised that they want to change something in their lives. It might be appropriate to be reassuring to that person of God's love for them, and perhaps to indicate the part that God's grace plays in the journey to holiness so that they are not discouraged by their own repeated efforts. But to try to do this by saying "God loves you as you are ..." is to rather miss the point, already recognised by the person in their very presence in coming to confession, that they wish to make at least some effort in favour of a conversion of life.

A cause for reflection, I think, as we start the season of the Church's liturgical year when many will approach the Sacrament of Penance....