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....