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.