I know the word ‘pastoring’ doesn’t really exist, but I wish it did because it expresses something we are apt to forget. Those to whom we look for pastoral care are themselves in need of care and support. Throughout this pandemic we have heard a lot from parishioners who are sad or unhappy at the way in which some clergy have seemed unresponsive to their needs, especially during periods of lockdown or church closure. As one disgruntled man remarked, ‘They think they have done enough by becoming third-rate movie stars with their live-streamed Masses and what not.’ I daresay some have; but most haven’t. They have tried to be good and dutiful priests in a situation none of us has met before. A few have been blessed with the imagination and creativity to meet the new circumstances positively, but many more have struggled and one or two have been utterly crushed by the experience.
Some clergy have felt abandoned by their bishops and left to soldier on, not sure what to do for the best. They have been burdened with an extra load of admin at the very time when those they chiefly rely on to help — mainly more senior members of the parish, who may well be shielding because of age or infirmity — are not available. They live alone; some admit to being close to breaking-point, others cannot bring themselves to articulate their feelings of loneliness and discouragement. For them celebration of the Holy Mysteries is not the only aspect of priesthood that gives joy and purpose to their lives. They miss the interaction with people. More than one has confessed that, being naturally shy and without the ‘excuse’ that coffee after Mass or regular parish meetings of one kind or another provide, they are becoming more and more isolated.
Wrap and Throw Service
Happily, this is where the brotherhood of the priesthood takes on fresh meaning and importance. It has been heartening to learn of the support received from friendly ‘phone calls and video meetings with fellow priests; but it isn’t enough. Here at the monastery we do our best to listen non-judgementally and sympathetically to those who feel the need to unburden themselves of the distress they feel. I hope we manage to reassure them that they are not letting the side down or being a failure because they are not exercising their priesthood in ways familiar to them. We try to give encouragement. In the monastery we refer to this as our ‘Wrap and Throw Service’, meaning we do our best to wrap those who come to us in the love of God and throw them back into their parishes to minister to others. But again, it isn’t enough.
The Role of Parishioners
The people best placed to support the clergy through this time of pandemic are their parishioners. Yes, you! The bishop can only do so much; fellow priests and monasteries can only do so much; but you are there. You know your priest in a way no one else does. It does not take much time to send a friendly email asking how he is and saying you miss seeing him on a regular basis. A word of thanks and appreciation for what he is doing to meet the needs of the parish will never go amiss. An offer of help may be warmly received. Who can tell? Pastoring our pastors isn’t a difficult art. It simply requires a warm heart and the ability to see the human person wearing the collar — someone just as much in need of encouragement as we are ourselves.
Sometimes, I think the fire has gone out of our quest for Christian unity. To some people, it will always matter a great deal. The married couples who long to share Communion together, for example, or those who have been involved in ecumenical endeavours all their adult lives, will probably be more urgent in their desire to see some form of unity given official recognition than those who are happy being Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Free Church or whatever and make a point of concentrating on the commonalities of our Christian faith rather than what divides us. On the whole, I agree; what already unites us is amazing. Our baptism, our sharing of the scriptures, our life in Christ — these are not small things. But being an English Catholic does make one acutely aware of some of the differences and I am wondering whether we need to reconsider them if we are to advance towards a greater degree of unity than we enjoy at present.
An English Catholic Perspective In England, Catholics are a minority; some still suggest that there is an element of ‘Johnny Foreigner’ about us, or that we are socially and educationally an inferior breed. Partly that is a consequence of the Church of England being the Established Church and the indigenous Catholic population having been swelled over the years by successive waves of immigration from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Africa, India and so on. I think it also reflects the fact that, from an English perspective, ecumenism is predominantly about Anglicans and Catholics or Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists, whereas Rome’s eyes are focused on Orthodoxy. It is easy to conclude that because the Churches in England use many of the same words and ceremonies, we believe the same things. The fact is, we don’t; but we aren’t always honest about it. I was thinking this morning of one dear friend — an Anglican priest — who will tell you quite openly that theologically we are sometimes miles apart, but that does not get in the way of our friendship or our essential unity in Christ. It does, however, mean that there must be a constant effort to understand the other’s position. That requires honesty and trust and the willingness to give the process time. Both she and I have learned a lot from each other over the years, and I think that is how ecumenism grows: through seeking understanding, mutual trust, and the conviction that it is worthwhile.
Parallels Between Politics and Ecumenism I think there is an interesting parallel between what has been happening in the U.S.A. recently and the way we often approach ecumenism. Some Catholics believe the best way of promoting pro-life policies in the U.S.A. is to condemn President Biden and demand his excommunication, to force him to change his public policy on abortion. As far as I can see, the same Catholics are not always so vocal about the need to convince others of the truth of their position, that all life is sacred, nor are they always so ready to provide the material and emotional support people need if they are to reject abortion (I write this as someone opposed to abortion and, before I became a nun, deeply involved in the Life movement). We never convince by condemning. We never spread the gospel by hatred. We can never force people to believe. Just as I think a pro-life stance requires thinking deeply, often painfully, about capital punishment, healthcare, gun control, social welfare and the like, so I think Christian unity can only be achieved if we are ready to have our own truths examined and to approach others in a spirit of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. By that I don’t mean some theatrical apology for the sins of our fathers in which we had no share but forgiveness for the little pockets of resentment and distrust most of us will uncover in ourselves if we look hard enough. It is only when we can be honest about how our own beliefs have been shaped that we can get down to the serious business of exploring what we believe and why, of being truly open to the other. Ecumenism doesn’t mean watering down: it means taking fire of the Holy Spirit. And that can lead to some surprising upsets and transformations.
Today we begin re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel. I’ve often commented on it before but this morning I was struck by the fact that Benedict assumes goodwill in others. It seems obvious. Day to day, the monastic enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the community members. How else could it function? But when it comes to policy, to decisions about buildings or work or, whisper it gently, liturgy, there is more scope for less disinterested behaviour — I write as the survivor of many a chapter meeting where I had the feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed.
It is the apparently neutral ground, where we talk about one thing but seem to be busy about another, that makes the assumption of goodwill in others sometimes difficult. The bitter devisions in U.S.A. politics, the never-ending instances of incompetence and cronyism nearer home, are all rightly the subject of discussion and condemnation, but I wonder whether the situation would be as grave as it is were we able to assume goodwill in others.
Why are we reluctant to assume such goodwill? Is it that we fear to be thought naif? Or do we say, a little cynically, that we have been caught out before? As an outsider, I have found the presidential election in the U.S.A. and the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats baffling at times, never more so than when considering the behaviour of President Trump himself. An important element seems to be a reluctance to grant that it is possible for people to act in good faith in ways that we ourselves would not. That applies not just to politics but to most other areas of life as well.
Benedict reminds us that if we are to benefit from the wisdom and insights of others, we must be prepared to listen. Good ideas, good advice, can come from the most unlikely quarters. We may not like what we hear at first, so, like the abbot, we must think things over, give the matter time. But we start with that simplest and most difficult of acts: assuming goodwill in others.
Introduction People readily invoke the need for leadership, especially when things are going wrong or they feel the need to apportion blame; authority has a harder time making a case for itself. Leadership implies some sort of involvement in the choice of leader, so there has to be a measure of consent to being led, even if our personal choice fell on another. That is one of the basic principles of democracy: we agree that whoever won the majority of the electors’ votes forms the government. Authority, on the other hand, is conferred rather than chosen and the degree of consent to its working can be minimal. The hereditary monarch and the bishop are alike in this. We can leave the country or the Church, but we cannot alter the scope of the monarch’s or bishop’s authority. It is beyond our power.
The savvy reader may notice the influence of Walter Ullmann in this brief analysis. In my undergraduate days I sat at his feet and have always been fascinated by his ascending and descending themes of law and government. Francis Oakley’s subsequent attack on him has not lessened my enthusiasm for using Ullmann’s theses as an interpretative tool for the events of our own day.
Ullmann’s Ascending and Descending Themes Many of the medieval disputes Ullmann wrote about, and the rise of Fascism in the mid- twentieth century which sent millions to their death, had to do with questions of leadership and authority. Were medieval popes and emperors equal, or did they have distinct but complementary roles; and in any case, who decided the scope of each? Was Hitler’s popular mandate sufficient warrant for the crimes he subsequently committed — or were they not crimes at all, because he held a popular mandate? In Church and State today different models of leadership and authority are operative, but how do they interact? A democratically elected government derives its power and authority from the electorate, so the man or woman at the top is said to be actualising the will of the people — Ullmann’s ascending theme; but what happens when a government ceases to act within the confines of the law? Does Boris Johnson’s side-stepping of Parliament on some issues mean he has forfeited the right to be seen as a legitimate democratic authority and become a dictator?
The extraordinary events in Washington D.C. last week raise serious questions about the nature of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of President, Congress, Senate, and Judiciary. Access to social media and smartphones has transformed not only our awareness of what is happening but also our assessment of it. Each individual, by virtue of his/her choice of what to read or view, can now claim the ability to judge the rights and wrongs of highly complex situations we might never have known about in previous times. If this is a right, a freedom we claim, then it also comes with the responsibility to judge fairly and to take care how and when we exercise our right.
Religious authority, being derived from God, tends to fan out top/down, as in Ullmann’s descending theme, but very few, in the West at least, would say such authority was absolute, certainly not where Christianity is concerned. We recognize the power and (hopefully) respect the person we consider to have authority over us, but we prefer to talk about ‘leadership’ rather than give a blanket allegiance which may oblige us to an obedience we do not relish. The challenges to the authority of the pope and bishops (sometimes coming from the bishops themselves) are startling to those brought up in an older era of automatic deference. (The historian in me is not convinced the deference was ever quite as complete or automatic as some maintain, but let that pass.) There is definitely an air of ‘we the people’ when the discussion of some subjects comes up, and it has to be admitted that the official response of the Vatican or local hierarchy is often lacklustre. The abuse scandal would not be such a festering wound if the bishops, and a succession of popes, including Pope Francis, had been able to confront the reality of abuse honestly, humbly and compassionately from the beginning.
It is the same with questions of participation in the life of the Church. Many simply do not see that some of the provisions of Cor Orans, for instance, are insulting to women leading the monastic life, or that allowing religious brothers to vote at the Synod on the Family while initially refusing any like participation to women religious made nonsense of the argument that ‘rulership’ is the preserve of the priesthood. The latest change to canon law, admitting women to the ministries of acolyte and lector while denying the possibility of admission to the ordained orders of priest and deacon, probably also caused a few historians to raise their eyebrows. I shall discuss this in more detail below.
The point is, this is the situation we have and we must make the best of it. It helps, I think, that we are currently re-reading St Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot, (RB 2), and can trace there a nuanced and ultimately compelling account of what leadership can and should be, and what real authority looks like when it is placed at the service of others rather than used for personal gain. It also helps that we have four very different monastic saints to commemorate this week, and each of them can cast some light on the subject of leadership and authority. I am referring to Aelred (11 January), Benet Biscop (12 January) and Maurus and Placid (15 January). Anthony (17 January) is superseded by Sunday but would add another interesting dynamic if he were included.
Aelred of Rievaulx: the importance of example I haven’t been able to join in the ‘Our Aelred’ webinar organized under the auspices of English Heritage and others, so it may be that the participants will come away with a much keener appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses than is common. Aelred was undoubtedly a very charismatic figure, who inspired love and devotion in others. He could write like an angel, and the themes he was particularly drawn to — love and friendship — are attractive in every age. Under him, Rievaulx became home to a very large and disparate community which numbered some quite rough characters among them. Despite his suffering considerable ill-health, community numbers steadily increased during his lifetime. His beautiful Pastoral Prayer, part of which I myself say daily, is one that anyone with responsibility for others would do well to pray.
After Aelred’s death, cracks began to show. The community was never again quite as flourishing. It is not difficult to comprehend why. Personal magnetism, like grace, is not easily ‘institutionalised’. Initial fervour is rarely sustained indefinitely and Rievaulx was no exception.
I think that Aelred’s life is not easily understood by anyone who has not lived as a Cistercian him/herself. Asceticism and self-renunciation, not self-indulgence, were part of his routine, but they are alien concepts for many of us today. Many have forgotten — if they ever knew — how disciplined his life must have been, or they have speculated about his friendships or his sexuality without recognizing that such evidence as we have is ambiguous. Aelred himself was a monk first and foremost and might have thought our concerns irrelevant to his own purpose as abbot: bringing a community of monks and conversi to holiness. The Rule of St Benedict provided a model, as did the evolving interpretations of the Cistercians themselves, but his abbacy has his own individual stamp upon it and was by no means ‘text-book’ in every respect. His authority was not absolute, either. He was subject to the scrutiny of others and the decisions of General Chapter, but there was also the daily living in community, the accommodations to individual temperaments and circumstances about which St Benedict writes so eloquently. It was his business to rule by example — and what an example he must have set!
My first set of questions So, my first set of questions about leadership and authority is: where there is no example given, can there be leadership; and if there is no leadership, can there be authority? How would that apply to recent events in the UK or the USA?
Benet Biscop: the importance of taking advice Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He is sometimes dismissed as a seventh-century aesthete, but that is to ignore his physical and mental toughness. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, deemed the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible, is a product of the Jarrow scriptorium (it lacks the Book of Baruch, but that we may regard as a minor detail compared with what it does contain).
Contemporaries remarked on Benet’s patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united, and the attainment of unity requires much patient listening to others. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is recognized as someone who appreciated the wisdom of St Benedict. None of this would have been possible had he not had a gift for seeking out and taking advice. That suggests a humility leaders do not always show. He was certainly not wishy-washy. Bede describes him as being ‘full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.’ That kind of enthusiasm demands clear thinking and a readiness to sift the evidence, taking nothing for granted. I suppose a secular equivalent would be a government minister dutifully working through his despatch boxes or attending briefings, or an employer consulting employees about proposed changes to work schedules or company activities. An ecclesiastical equivalent might be consultation of the laity or any group particularly affected by a proposed decision.
My second set of questions So, my second set of questions about leadership and authority is: how far does the one who leads have a duty to inform him/herself before taking a decision? Is authority compromised when it is based on whim or personal preference rather than the greater good of the whole? How relevant is Catholic Social Teaching to the exercise of authority?
Maurus and Placid: the place of obedience I’ve included Maurus and Placid because they show us another side of the leadership/authority question: that of obedience. Many a Benedictine novice has chafed at the presentation of these two saints as exemplary disciples of St Benedict. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is quickly told. Placid, the youthful disciple, runs to the lake to fetch water and falls in. Benedict, aware of what has happened, orders the older Maurus to go and rescue him, so he sets out and walks on the water in obedience to his abbot’s command. There is a little subsequent disagreement about whether it is the obedience of Maurus or the prayers of the abbot that are responsible for saving the boy’s life, but the unhesitating obedience of Maurus is a model of obedience popular in the Church, even today, when we are assured many things have changed for the better. But have they? I’d argue that the role of the laity, women especially, is still ‘problematic’.
The announcement on Monday that women may now be admitted to the ministries of acolyte and lector was greeted by some as a wonderful advance. Women may now do canonically what they have been doing informally for some time: serve at the altar and read at the ambo. The trouble is, the historical memory involved in this view of things is rather truncated. Women were serving at the altar and reading at the ambo even before these were reserved to men as minor orders, and they have been doing so for some years since Vatican II and the greater use of the vernacular. In 1972 Paul VI designated them ministries, thus freeing them from identification with clerical status. Opening them to both men and women as a function of our common baptismal consecration can therefore be seen as an advance while at the same time firmly closing the door on the (re)admission of women to the diaconate — as Pope Francis did last year. But I think many women will see the change as too little too late, because it has to be viewed alongside some recent decisions quite at odds with it. I have already drawn attention to some of the provisions of Cor Orans which make it clear that nuns are not regarded as having the capacity to make decisions for themselves and are to be closely supervised. Perhaps that helps explain why men seem to be keener on this change in canon law than many women. It formalises and limits without necessarily changing anything more than the text of canon 230 § 1. Law is important, of course, but what is lawful does not always lead to action. In this case, it has directive but not compulsive force. What woman is going be an altar server or read at Mass if the priest objects? Isn’t that the rub?
Some object that in a global Church, cultural norms are challenged by the change. I think that is to disregard the fact that many effectively priestless communities have been kept going for years by lay men and women acting as catechists and adult formators. If I may use an analogy, the excitement expressed over the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President elect of the U.S.A. must have been greeted with a sense of déja-vu in India, Pakistan, Liberia, etc. and many other countries in the so-called ‘developing world’ that have already had a woman as Prime Minister or President. My own feeling is that the change in canon law will be used as a pretext to avoid bigger questions about the role of the laity, women especially. It will be interesting to see how the laity have worked to keep faith communities alive and flourishing during this time of pandemic through the way in which many have addressed the need for fellowship and service, not just worship.
My third set of questions So my third set of questions is this: how do leadership and authority in the Church combine, and are they reserved to men only (not necessarily priests: think about those religious brothers I mentioned earlier)? Is the obedience to be given by women fundamentally different from that to be given by men? Does this reflect the fullness of the Incarnation? Have the laity acted as leaders during the pandemic, not just supporting the clergy but acting to keep communities alive? What can we learn from this?
Conclusion I am conscious of not having dealt in detail with the historical arguments for some of the views I hold but that would require a much longer post, and this is already longer than many of my readers will bear. I think it important to stress that, while recognizing the imperfect nature of the present situation in both Church and State, the alternatives do not appeal. I remain, in the non-party-political sense, a liberal and a democrat and a loyal, if sometimes sorely tried — and doubtless, trying —, Catholic. What the future holds, who can say?
Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments and pealing organ music, ought to be an occasion of pure joy, oughtn’t it? A moment of relaxation in our Advent journey when we rejoice with all our hearts. Then we look at the world about us and sigh. Hundreds of schoolboys abducted from their boarding school in Katsina, Nigeria; post-Brexit trade talks taken to the knife-edge amid threats from the British side to use Royal Navy gunboats to patrol U.K. waters; a dying U.S. presidency which, in the view of many, is storing up trouble for the future; and a pandemic that seems to be regaining much of its original virulence even as it leads to job losses and insecurity among those least equipped to deal with them.
We read Isaiah’s lyrical praise of the Messiah and his mission (Isaiah 61.1-2,10-11), sing the Magnificat in response and allow Paul’s words to the Thessalonians about rejoicing and praying at all times to sink in (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24) and wonder, briefly, whether the Church inhabits the same universe as the rest of us. Then we come to the gospel, (John 1.6-8,19-28), and, as throughout the last few days, focus on the figure of John the Baptist, the saint Jean Daniélou memorably called ‘the one joy man’.
John the Baptist ought to have been a grump, living as he did on the edge of the desert, challenging those who didn’t want to change their ways; but he wasn’t. He was filled with joy, filled with the Spirit, a lamp alight and burning as he waited for the coming of the Son who would be the true Light to enlighten the world. His joy echoes down the centuries. It reminds us that joy doesn’t come from material security or everything going our way. It comes from closeness to the Lord, from trusting him, allowing his light into our darkness. If today the world seems very bleak, we can take courage from John, because there is one very significant fact we need to remember. John wasn’t sure he had encountered the Messiah in the person of Jesus. He questioned. He hesitated. The very one to whom he was forerunner was, in an important sense, unknown to him. I think we can all identify with that — and rejoice, too.
Advent begins quietly, almost stealthily, with a call to stay awake and alert and prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are simply clay, to be fashioned anew by the Potter into the shape most pleasing to him. The emphasis is not on our doing but on his. That gives to the Advent season a wonderful freedom and joy. So, out with those prideful programmes of self-improvement, those ambitious schemes of prayer and fasting! Instead, welcome the silence, the mystery, the quiet pondering of scripture. Become, in the best sense, a child again, filled with wonder and awe at what is unfolding before your eyes. With the humility of Mary, the fidelity of Joseph and the joy of John the Baptist, let us prepare in our hearts a place for the Lord.
You read that right: countdown to Advent, not Christmas. On Saturday evening, when we sing or say First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, we shall enter upon what is, for many of us, the best-loved season of the liturgical year, shot through with silence and mystery and Old Testament prophecy as we await the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The haunting chants of Advent are unforgettable, and as we sing them out into the darkness, hope is reaffirmed. Whatever difficulty we face, whatever loss we experience, we know that God’s love embraces us all. We may not feel it; we may indeed doubt it; but it is there.
Advent allows us to trace the lineaments of his love through what scripture scholars call, a little glibly I sometimes think, salvation history. This year, with Advent beginning in lockdown and several cautions in place about what we may or may not do once the severest restrictions are eased, may I suggest that a good way of preparing for Christmas would be to reflect on our own personal ‘salvation history’? Often we are so busy that we do not have time to note how God has been at work in our lives, or we feel so battered and bruised by negative events that we choose not to dwell on them. The unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves this year may give us a little more time, certainly a different kind of time, in which to do some thinking and praying.
Regular readers know I am no great fan of setting oneself an elaborate programme for Advent. If you can read the daily Mass lessons and find time to say part of the Divine Office to connect with the prayer of the Church throughout the world, you are doing well. If you do a search on this blog, you will find various posts about Advent; and if you go over to our main website, you will find something on the history and traditions of Advent here: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html You will also find great riches available to you on the web — more than ever this year.
The important thing to grasp is that Advent is a time of preparation, a precious time leading to Christmas but not yet Christmas itself. We have only a few short weeks and we do not need to cram them with activity, no matter how good that activity may seem. I myself draw inspiration from the darkness of our Herefordshire skies. It is the blackness that enables us to see the beauty of the moon and stars. Without that large emptiness, we would barely register the dazzling pin-pricks of light in the night sky. Without Advent, and its own special emptiness, we might barely register the glory of the Incarnation at Christmas. Let’s try to make the most of it.
In the last forty-eight hours we have been treated to some very diverse interpretations of what constitutes the common good. In the Netherlands, for example, it is now legal for doctors to sedate patients with dementia before administering euthanasia (so they do not resist). At the same time, Angela Merkel, long the guardian of the European conscience, has urged that COVID-19 vaccines should be available to poor countries as well as rich ones — on grounds of fairness (and possibly, self-interest). Matt Hancock has helpfully informed us that ‘Christmas is a special time of year’ while not, apparently, going as far as one scientific adviser who thinks Christmas should be ‘postponed’ for six months because the new programme of restraints the government has devised for us does not go far enough to protect public health. Religious illiteracy is clearly even more widespread than we thought. Public sector pay is to be held at current levels but the increases for M.P.s are, at the time of writing, still to go ahead. As to what is happening in Hong Kong or the U.S.A., I dare not comment for fear that I should have to go into hiding from all sides. Meanwhile the barque of Peter sails serenely on, according to its own timetable (the liturgical calendar) and its own preoccupations, which are rarely those of politicians or secular society.
In his homily for the solemnity of Christ the King, Pope Francis admonished us not to give up on great dreams. It is easy to be dismissive of the pope. The subjects on which he chooses to speak or write, the language he uses, and the sometimes interminable length of the addresses themselves, can be difficult for English-speakers. But the great dreams to which he alludes are not to be summarily dismissed. We can get bogged down in the minutiae of daily life and mistake the seemingly urgent for the genuinely important, limiting both ourselves and others unnecessarily. The headlines dominating our news or engaging our social media streams are sometimes petty and leave us making bad or selfish choices. Our thinking can become muddled, and when that happens, so, frequently, does our conduct.
Advent is still a few days away but it provides an excellent opportunity to simplify, reassess what truly matters and act accordingly. That is why I always think these days between Christ the King and the first Sunday of Advent are a precious time of preparation. We may be choosing an Advent book to provide a fresh perspective on what we are celebrating or drawing up a routine which will ensure we read the Mass readings every day and make time for prayer. Here in the monastery we like to begin with three days of almost perfect silence. Apart from the Divine Office and necessary conversation with the butcher, the baker and the candle-stick maker, so to say, we try to keep quiet and allow the silence to lead us. That isn’t possible for everyone, nor would it be advisable in all cases. We have to use common sense as well as spiritual sense in our decision-making. Whatever we decide to do, I have a hunch that if we use this time imaginatively and ask the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall discover that the common good and our own personal good are more closely aligned than we may have thought. But it may take some hard thinking and hard praying to work that out.
I’ll probably lose a few friends and several readers with this post, but I think we need to stop grumbling about how much we are suffering because of COVID-19 restrictions, especially the restrictions on public communal worship. At one level, we can argue that observing lockdown restrictions is merely a way in which we can put the common good before our own. That is what I call the functional approach. At another, I think we have to consider where the Church’s true good lies and what is being asked of us both as individuals and as an institution. Increasingly, I have come to believe that lockdown represents a opportunity to recover a faith and holiness the Church currently lacks; but let’s take the COVID situation first.
The impact of COVID-19on worship Those who have or have had COVID, those who have lost people dear to them or their homes and livelihoods, those battling the pandemic right now, they have something to complain about; but do the rest of us? We can see that for those most at risk, the virus is scary; for those who are lonely or depressed or anxious, it is a daily struggle; but for the majority of us, it is more of an inconvenience than anything else. We have to take more care about hygiene, think before we go anywhere, keep our distance from family and friends for fear of spreading a disease we may not even know we have, abandon, at least for a while, much that is familiar or pleasurable, but our essential freedom to worship God has not altered. In saying that, I am aware that opinion is divided about the risk to public health that meeting together in church constitutes. I’m also aware of the statement issued by Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop McMahon in response to the government’s proposals. However, if we concentrate too much on the negative, we may miss an opportunity — a moment of grace, if you like, that could potentially transform our lives and the lives of those with whom we come into contact.
Deepening our life of prayer If the bedrock of our religious practice is daily or weekly Mass, lockdown provides us with opportunities to see how the Eucharist fits into a much wider context of scripture and ‘private’ prayer. Praying the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours not only joins us with the whole Church in every age, it provides a sacred rhythm for the present. It extends the celebration of the Eucharist and hallows time. We can forget that it is possible to become very individualistic, even selfish, in our approach to worship and the sacraments, allowing our routines to provide an assurance more apparent than real. I go to Mass, so I’m alright spiritually, am I not? If I can’t go to Mass, for whatever reason, life suddenly becomes much more alarming, doesn’t it? I’m not so confident any more. My faith doesn’t stretch that far. Once we recall that it is Christ who prays in us and that the words of scripture, the psalms especially, are his prayer, a temporary restriction on meeting together and celebrating the sacraments looks less like a loss and more like an encouragement to re-think some of our old ideas. How many of us have asked ourselves whether lockdown is an invitation to deepen our knowledge and love of scripture, grow in prayer, and become closer to Christ in a new way?
Being aware of God’s presence Most of you know I am not a fan of live-streamed worship. Many are, but I have never found it necessary or helpful. I’m also unenthusiastic about many devotions from which others derive great comfort and support. That isn’t because I don’t value them or see the good in them but because I am aware of God’s presence here, in my monastic cell, in the chapel, wherever I happen to be and whatever I happen to be doing. It is all-embracing, and I attribute that to my formation as a Benedictine and long years of trying to practise lectio divina. I’m not suggesting that everyone should become a monk or nun — heaven forbid! — but I do wonder whether key elements of the monastic tradition of reading and prayer could helpfully be rediscovered by the Church at this time.
What is normal? Many priests and pastors are doing their imaginative best to support those who feel bereft, but some talk only of ‘when things return to normal’ and, to be honest, I question whether that will ever come about. It is not just that, however successful vaccines prove to be in controlling the spread and severity of the virus, there are many other changes that will take much longer to work through. The shift in work patterns, the economic consequences of actions taken by government, the effects of delayed healthcare interventions, the disruption to education, to say nothing of climate change and political re-alignments, they are all going to have an effect on our future lives. Add to that the loss of trust that the IICSA reports and the McCarrick report have produced, and I question whether anyone in the Church can honestly go on talking about a return to normality. What normality are we talking about? The tired, rather inward-looking normality that seems to have become characteristic of the Church in Europe and North America in recent years?
Worshiping together is only one aspect of what church-going means. Fellowship and service of others are also important. However, I’d like to stay with worship a little longer because I think it is there that we can identify a lack we need to address. Here in the West we are not accustomed to being unable to receive the sacraments. The fact that such has been the experience of the Church at many times in her history and still is her experience in many places outside Europe and North America is one of those uncomfortable truths we prefer not to acknowledge. Could it be that the Lord is allowing us to experience something of the same because we have become too complacent? Do we ever ask ourselves why spiritual riches are lavished upon us and whether we have responded to them as we ought?
A changing Church I’ve said often enough that I think the territorial parish is no longer central or necessary to most people’s experience of church, and I think that trend will continue. But if the traditional parish goes, and with it the economic and financial basis of much church organization and activity, there will be a knock-on effect on how we understand priesthood, both of the ordained presbyterate and the priesthood of all the baptized. If the buildings are closed, we go on being the Church but we can no longer make the same assumptions about what that means or how it is expressed. Are we ready for that? Can lockdown restrictions help us?
Recovering faith and holiness I think our most urgent need is to recover what I think we have sometimes lost: a sense of God’s transcendence. So much of our church activity, our thinking and planning, concentrates on being of service to others, perhaps to the point where it has all gone slightly out of balance. Faith and holiness are not just ‘nice extras’ for some: they are for all. Where faith is lacking, we find the most appalling sin and corruption. Where there is no striving for holiness, there is only emptiness and routine. The emptiness may look glorious, the routine may be attractive, but we have forgotten the jar of nard, the call into the desert, the being alone with the Alone.
Romantic rubbish? I daresay some will think it so. Parish priests mesmerised by new technologies but grieving the loss of the physical presence of their parishioners will be scratching their heads and asking themselves what more can they do to keep their congregations together. A return to what is familiar will be their top priority. Parish treasurers, faced with a big drop in income, will be wondering how to make up the shortfall. What can we keep, what will have to go? And those who lovingly place their talents at the service of the liturgy in a thousand different ways, from making music to mopping the floors, will be torn by the desire to go on doing exactly that. For the less obviously talented, the mythical ‘person in the pew,’ there may be fewer conflicts but still there will be hard choices to make.
We are dealing with what, for most of us, is a new situation, for which there isn’t really any precedent. We can read about martyrs and those who kept the faith in times past; we can reflect on Israel’s forty years of wandering in the desert; but that was then and now is now. There aren’t easy solutions to the challenges we face. The danger is that we may rush to decide how we should meet them before we have really formulated the questions or examined them in any detail — still less given God a chance to have his say.
Grumbling about not being able to go to church in the way we’re used to is understandable, but it would be a tragedy if our own noise blocked out the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing,’ says the Lord in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.19). What is he doing now? Are we sure we know? To put it bluntly, should we be asking ourselves anew how we are to be the Church, how we are to cultivate faith and holiness ? Perhaps this Advent we shall begin to find out.
This is the second of my ‘thinking aloud’ posts about the new situation I believe confronts us. I am, as always, more interested in your thoughts than my own, but here are a few remarks that may prompt a response from you. I admit to have flown a few kites, so beware of assuming everything I’ve written is to be taken literally.
Western Society and the Idea of the Common Good Catholic Social Teaching does not always make for easy reading. Since the late nineteenth century, the Church has articulated a view of the social order that has often been rejected, in whole or in part, even by some of her members. Most readers of this blog will probably agree that recognizing human dignity and working for the common good of society is important; but once these abstract ideals are linked to concrete matters, such as the role of the state, subsidiarity, social organization, concern for social justice, oppression, inequality and wealth distribution, difficulties begin. For example, we have all met people who claim to be fervently pro-life but turn out to be only pro-birth — that is to say, they oppose abortion but are unwilling to finance through tax or other measures the support needed to raise and educate the children who are born. Even on less contentious issues, it can be difficult to find common ground, much less agreement, especially now that Western society has become, in theory at least, multicultural. Is it possible to agree what constitutes the common good if we cannot agree on common values?
While British society could claim to be in some sense a Christian society, however tangential an individual’s connection might be (e.g. attendance at a few church services, such as weddings and funerals), and as long as a modicum of knowledge of the Bible was deemed necessary to understand English literature, it could be argued that society possessed many values in common. There was broad agreement about how to behave — being law-abiding, truthful, charitable to the less fortunate, and so on. Violence was looked on askance, unless war were involved, when it became a solemn duty — at least for some — or, as in the case of capital punishment, was the result of judicial process. Women were respected, though not always treated well. Religion could be mocked, sometimes savagely, but it had a place in society that was acknowledged if not always welcomed. By and large, I suppose we could say that a positive understanding of goodness as articulated by Judaeo-Christian tradition was a shared ideal to which everyone aspired.
Multiculturalism and its Effect I am not convinced that that is still true. For example, there are some living in Britain today who exalt a warrior ideal, especially in defence of their own religious values. It would be simplistic to condemn Islamist violence without considering what underlies it. We may not agree with the violence — I certainly don’t — but we cannot ignore the presuppositions on which it rests. We cannot simply say, ‘You should not act in that way.’ Yet that is what talk of assimilation effectively does. It obliges one party to change on the basis that others reject its values and underlying motivation. It is reactive and springs from a predominantly negative idea of what is acceptable.
To take another example. One aspect of the Black Lives Matter campaign which has troubled me almost as much as the enduring racism that gave rise to it is the way in which history is frequently treated unhistorically. Taking down statues, re-naming buildings and roads, erasing or covering up monuments deemed to be unacceptable and re-writing narratives, so that the only form of slavery that counts is Black Slavery, distorts our understanding of what was, and is, a very complex matter. It has also made it difficult to express any view that does not conform to the current orthodoxy. It has also had the unintended consequence of blinding many to the scandal of modern slavery. We no longer agree, it seems to me, that slavery is wrong because we believe freedom is good. We now believe slavery is wrong because it allows us to express a grievance, a sense of injustice.
A third example, then I’m done. I wear a face-covering in order to protect others from any potential infection from COVID-19. It isn’t easy because I have breathing difficulties, but it is manageable; and I’m happy to put up with the inconvenience for the sake of others. I don’t know whether the science behind mask-wearing is proved or not, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Those who refuse to wear a mask when they come to the house are demonstrating either that they know better than we do (quite possible, though none so far has been an epidemiologist) or wish to assert their personal freedom to behave as they wish. Again, I’d say that is behaviour that springs from an individualistic and largely negative conception of the common good. It privatises what is beneficial.
Do We Still Have a Common Purpose? Can we draw any conclusions from the three examples I’ve given, or any others that occur to you and which you may wish to share? The one I find most compelling is what I’d call the loss of a sense of common purpose and therefore agreement on what constitutes the core values of society. For me, as a Catholic Christian, those core values include acknowledging the importance of the group (which may involve self-sacrifice by the individual) and take their inspiration from what I believe to be good and positive (love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, etc). I often fail to live up to them, but they remain the ideal to which I aspire and inform my understanding of the common good. How about you? Am I talking complete nonsense, or has something changed, something we need to think and pray about because it will affect the future even more than it affects the present?