Something for Liturgists to Remember

We are almost at the end of the liturgical code in the Rule of St Benedict. We have read through the chapters that tell us how many and which psalms and canticles are to be said at the various Hours of the day and noted Benedict’s instructions about the way in which they are to be performed. We stand in honour of the gospel; we sing the Invitatory psalm of Vigils rather slowly, so that latecomers have time to arrive; we know when to sing alleluia and when not. But it is only after all these regulations that we come to chapter 19 and Benedict’s treatment of the dispositions we need to sing the Divine Office worthily. How many liturgists today would think of leaving to the end of their treatise what most of us would think of as the starting-point?

Benedict reminds us that God and his angels are always present and urges us to ‘sing the psalms in such a way that mind and voice may be in harmony.’ (RB 19.7) There are times when the routine of the Office may overtake us, when we sing the words and perform the ritual gestures with less than full attention, but that is clearly not the ideal. I think the placing of this chapter is an oblique comment on the temptation to think that the correct performance of the liturgy is enough; it isn’t. Our hearts and minds must be fully engaged, too, and as anyone committed to reciting the Divine Office every day will admit, that is not always easy. Moreover, although Benedict makes plain elsewhere that he isn’t keen on those with very modest singing or reading abilities acting as cantors or giving out antiphons, he assumes that the choral office will be the prayer of the whole community. It is not the preserve of the chosen few. The corollary is, of course, that everyone has the duty to prepare properly. Those who need better knowledge of the psalms and lessons, for example, are told to devote the time between Vigils and Lauds to studying them (RB 8.3). As we shall see elsewhere in the Rule, mistakes caused by negligence are subject to correction. Benedict will not excuse any slovenliness or inattention.

So, what can we take from this for today, especially if we are not monks or nuns? I think in the first instance we can take heart. Prayer is important, and the common prayer of the community, be it the local congregation or that of the universal Church, has special value. It requires of us more than mechanical participation. It is a means of entering into the prayer of Christ himself, ‘the chief prayer of the psalms’ as St Augustine calls him, which means we must make an effort to be attentive. Little by little prayer changes us. One day, we may change the world — but only insofar as we have allowed Christ to become all in all to us.

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That Sinking Feeling

It’s very foggy outside this morning, but that is as nothing to the gloom inside. The turmoil over Brexit, the divisions in the Church, even the fact that I failed to bake some promised brownies yesterday, all contribute to a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. I can solve the problem of the uncooked brownies, but what about the others? Can you or I do anything about them?

The trouble with Brexit is that we all have our own ideas, and because the Referendum from which the present turmoil stems required simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response and the Government of the day failed to make clear whether the referendum was to be merely advisory or legislatively binding, we have had two years of acrimonious bickering, with everyone claiming that their interpretation of the result and what they would like to see represents the will of the people. Rarely has the ‘will of the people’ been invoked so often in British politics, and with so little regard for consequences. I have made no secret of the fact that I think the decision to end our membership of the E.U. is bad for Britain, for Europe as a whole, and for the world in general; and I have based my arguments on exactly the same facts and figures as many of those advocating leaving, but with this difference. I am distrustful of ‘economic’ arguments deployed by people with little or no understanding of economics (don’t start me on the misuse of the ranking of world economies, for example) or of assumptions that have no basis in fact (£350 million a week extra for the NHS, for instance, promised by the Leave campaign). The problem for me is that my irritation with those kinds of argument may detract from what I consider to be the most important. I see the unity of Europe as the best protection we have against war and civil unrest, the best guarantee of mutual flourishing and benefit. I can keep saying that, to anyone who will listen, but can I actually do anything about it? The answer, alas, is ‘no’. You and I, unless we are politicians or civil servants, can only watch what is unfolding, pray, and wonder how it will end.

So, what about the divisions in the Church? There again, I have no desire to add to the cacophony of voices screaming for attention and claiming to represent true Catholicism, but I admit to being very, very concerned. The Hierarchy has mishandled the abuse crisis: I think we can all admit that; but there are many other matters which have not been dealt with in the way we might have expected. Hopes have been dashed; areas of doubt have been opened up, and there is a kind of free-for-all that ignores one of the fundamental tenets of Catholicism — the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, the Body of Christ, not some merely human institution. We cling to the Church, believing her to be what she always has been, but a niggle remains. Can we do anything? Again, we can protest about this or that, we can visit the Dicasteries in Rome to make our point, but we end up recognizing that we are just one among more than a billion, ultimately no more likely to have heard the Holy Spirit aright than anyone else.

The two examples I have cited, the dilemma over Brexit and the divisions in the Church, are examples of the kind of helplessness we may feel in the face of something that matters enormously to us but which appears to be entirely beyond our control. It isn’t easy to live with that kind of helplessness, but there are a couple of points to note.

First, we live in a democracy, an imperfect democracy, but thankfully one in which the rule of law still functions. We cannot take our freedom to express our opinions for granted, however. Already the law circumscribes what we may say or do (think, ‘hate’ crime, etc), and Social Media effectively circumscribe it yet further (think trolling, etc). We need to be on guard against the whittling away of such freedoms, especially at the present time. It has occasionally crossed my mind that the kind of debacle I foresee over Brexit could lead to major civil unrest and something like dictatorship — which nobody wants and nobody believes will happen, until it does. Gloomy? Yes. But it has reminded me to weigh my words, to listen carefully to those with whom I disagree, and to resolve that, insofar as in me lies, I will do my best to make whatever the outcome is workable. In other words, the current political impasse has reinforced my sense of being a citizen and of being engaged with society.

Second, with regard to the Church, I can only urge patience and prayer. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s prophecy that the Church of the future is likely to be very small strikes me as being accurate — but I do not share the certainty of those who believe that they, and they alone, will be that Church. The Holy Spirit has a way of surprising us all. Our job, if I may put it like that, is to wait patiently on the Lord, living virtuously, trusting him. That is to reaffirm our membership of the Church, our faith and our determination to do what is right, whatever it costs. In  other words, it is to renew the promises we made at our baptism and refuse to allow the powers of darkness to overwhelm us.

So, you see, my interior fog has one or two rays of light and warmth to pierce it. They may not be rays of light or warmth to you. We must each find our own but always, I would suggest, aware that we can never fall lower than God’s mercy. We are graven on the palms of his hands, we are the apple of his eye, and his are the everlasting arms beneath us.

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The Need for Co-Operation

This could be called a political post, but it is not a party political post. The distinction is important because there are those who argue that the Church (meaning usually clergy and religious) should never express any opinion, either as individuals or as an organization, about the way in which society functions, the laws that govern it or the values it seeks to express. I don’t subscribe to that view for the simple reason that the Church (which is more than just clergy and religious) is concerned with life on earth as much as life hereafter. Those familiar with the political thought of St Thomas Aquinas know that he called the state societas christiana. In other words, the fundamental relationship between citizens is meant to be what is implied by the word ‘society’ — friendly, companionable, mutually beneficial. Sadly, I’m not sure we can say that British society reflects that; we definitely cannot assert it of international relations.

You do not need me to list all the matters that contribute to widespread unease about where we are going either as a country or as a world. Different factors affect us in different degree, according to our personal experience or feelings of vulnerability, and there are a host of proposed solutions vying for our attention. I think, however, one need stands out above all others: the need for co-operation. At a time when many are pursuing ‘go it alone’ policies, it is increasingly clear that we cannot actually do that. We cannot solve the problem of climate change without action on a global scale. We cannot maintain the economic structures of America and Europe without reference to Asia or Africa. Perhaps most important of all, we cannot retain our own humanity without acknowledging and valuing the humanity of others.

This morning, as I glanced at the BBC headlines, I was struck by how much pain and suffering is caused by our wanting to dominate rather than co-operate. Those who live in community know how hard it can be to co-operate with others, but is there really any alternative? Do we want a world in which a few grab all there is to grab and the rest are condemned to a form of slavery? Don’t we want to live as friends to each other, despite our differences? That is not a mere rhetorical question. It is one we must ask ourselves every day because the answer we give will determine our conduct and the shape of the society — remember that word! — in which we live. For Christians, it also has an eschatalogical dimension: it should make us uncomfortable; it should make us act.

I began with Aristotle, mediated by Aquinas, but I’ll end with Plato: ‘it is no mean topic that engages us, for our subject is, how we should order our life.’ (Republic, 352.D)

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In the Eye of the Beholder

I have not been able to find a photo of David Hockney’s new window for Westminster Abbey that is not subject to copyright, but I trust most people have seen it. Personally, I do not care for it. I can cope with the fact that it makes no reference to God or the Queen, such as one might have expected given its setting and the subject it commemorates, but those great splashes of primary colour that look, to me, like a nightmare vision of octopus tentacles, no. Other people, of course, are enthusiastic, seeing in the window depths of meaning and beauty that escape me. Close-up photos of the window under construction have revealed details of the craftsmanship that has gone into its making which I can, and do, admire; but the window as a whole, no. Yet it would not be fair to say that I have no appreciation of or liking for contemporary art. I just happen not to like this particular work.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the problems that confronts us whenever a new church is planned or an old one is restored or has something new added to it. Personal taste counts for such a lot. Sometimes, too, there can be an artistic overload of things good in themselves but which do not work together. I still remember the frisson of horror I experienced when the Rubens altarpiece was placed below the East window of King’s College, Cambridge: window, painting and altar frontal all vying for attention. I decided that the window ‘won’ but I think I am in a minority on that.

There is, however, one point I hope is less controversial. It is encouraging that churches are still keen to commission original works of art. Not every generation will throw up a Julius II or Dean Hussey, nor artists of the stature of those whom they commissioned, but we have not abandoned the quest to enrich the buildings in which we worship, or the articles set aside for use in the liturgy, with every form of beauty we can. Long may we continue to do so!

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Prisoners of the Past?

The debate about Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for appointment to the U.S.A. Supreme Court has raised questions of wider application, i.e. this post is not about Mr Kavanaugh or his fitness or otherwise for the office for which he is under consideration, it is about how far ‘the child is father of the man.’ In other words, how far back do we go in anyone’s past to assure ourselves of their fitness for office now, and what are the crimes/sins/offences that we judge to be inadmissible?

For example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received a lot of criticism in some quarters because at the age of sixteen he belonged to a Nazi youth organisation. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history would know that it would have been very difficult for him not to belong, and nothing in his subsequent life suggests that he subscribed to Nazi ideology, yet that has not stopped the criticisms. I daresay most of us can look back on the things we said or did when we were teenagers and shudder, without taking into account the political or economic circumstances of the day. But what about when we are older, when we are in our twenties, say? It begins to be less easy to dismiss criticisms of our beliefs or behaviour, and of course, the media have their favourite forms of wrongdoing to castigate. The politicians who smoked pot in their youth, the philanderers, the British Nationalist/Communist Party activists, those who joined weird and whacky cults, we have our suspicions of them all, and the media delight in feeding our suspicions.

Christians believe in the possibility of conversion and the reality of forgiveness, but that does not stop us being hard-headed about the risks associated with certain kinds of behaviour. Someone who takes drugs, for example, or regularly drinks him- or her-self into a stupour is not the person most of us would want to have a finger on the nuclear button. Nor would we want someone with a sense of sexual entitlement to have the power to force himself on another. The trouble is, we have to weigh up what we know of the person we see now with what is disclosed about his/her past and exercise some very delicate judgement.

One of the good things to have come out of the #MeToo movement is the increased openness with which people are acknowledging abuse suffered in the past. One of the not so good things has been a noticeable tendency to vilify those coming forward with their stories. There is a parallel with what is happening in the Catholic Church. The sheer awfulness of the suffering endured by so many is finally being admitted yet, at the same time, there has been a kind of counter-movement by some to minimize the suffering inflicted or apportion blame in such a way that ‘it touches us not. Our withers are unwrung.’ It leaves the rest of us wondering where truth and justice lie.

I myself have a divided mind about how far back in anyone’s past we should go for evidence of unfitness for office, but it is not a question I can ignore any more than you can. In the end, I suppose we have to be pragmatic. If X was a virulent anti-Semite in their youth, have we evidence of a change of heart? If Y was a sexual predator, has their behaviour changed with marriage and family? The one exception I think I would make is that paedophiles and psychopaths do not seem able to change, so I would be very wary indeed of knowingly placing them in situations where they could do harm. None of us wishes anyone to be a prisoner of their past. Equally, none of us wants to have on our conscience suffering we could have prevented.

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The Korean Church: a Lay Initiative

The feast of the Korean Martyrs is one of those liturgical celebrations that tends to make little impact on me. I don’t know many Koreans, and my knowledge of Korean history, especially Korean Church history, is sketchy; but there is one fact I do recall and about which I think we would all do well to reflect. The history of Christianity in Korea is largely the history of a lay initiative. We don’t know when the first Koreans became Christians, but it was probably in the seventeenth century. There were no priests that we know of. In the eighteenth century there are records of persecution, with an estimated ten thousand men, women and children executed for refusing to perform the usual sacrifices on the death of family members or otherwise failing to observe the usual customs.The first priest of whom we have definite note was, I believe, a Frenchman, who entered the country in 1836 and was beheaded three years later. The first Korean priest was Andrew Kim Taegǒn, who trained secretly in Macao, went back to Korea in 1845 and was martyred in 1846. As Pope St John Paul II remarked when he canonised the Korean Martyrs in 1984,

The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.

We are familiar with the story of the fidelity of lay Christians in many parts of the world — the Nagasaki Christians, for example — but I wonder how often we take to heart the lesson they provide. It is not merely their obvious love of the Lord, their courage and fidelity, that we applaud. There is something chastening (in a good sense) about the way in which they constitute the Church. At present, when many Catholics are expressing anger and disappointment at the way in which bishops and clergy have often failed to get to grips with the evil of abuse, the history of the Korean Church is a stark reminder of the role of the laity and the responsibility we all have for the Church’s growth in number and holiness. We do not abandon the Church because she is not all we should like her to be. We stay and work to ensure that she becomes what the Lord desires she should be — and that applies to all of us, whether we be bishops, priests, laity or religious. We all have a part to play, and though our roles differ, none can be regarded as ‘secondary’ or ‘unimportant’. The feast of the Korean Martyrs is a reminder to laypeople of the greatness of the lay vocation, a gentle warning to bishops and clergy that the power of ruling is not the only one to be valued in the Church, and an encouragement to us all that grace will be given in time of need. Thank God for that.

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An Inspiration for Older People and Others

Today is the feast of St Theodore of Tarsus who is credited with having set up the parish system we are familiar with in England and whose reputation both as a scholar and administrator persists to this day. What is less widely known is that he is a good example of European Man: born in Greece, he became a monk in Italy and did his greatest work in England. What is even less widely known is that he was 65 when he was ordained, just before becoming archbishop of Canterbury. Think of that — at a time when average life expectancy was probably somewhere in the forties, even for the most affluent, Theodore was not yet ready for the task that lay before him. He needed more experience, more testing; and what a test it must have been, to set off in his sixties for a country he didn’t know and to be given the task of bringing order and discipline to its Church!

The so-called Penitential of Theodore is not by him, although it contains a number of the judgements that he issued. Of particular interest to many historians today is section 22, ‘On the rites performable by women and their ministry in the Church’. This strikes a very contemporary note but, sadly, I haven’t the actual text to hand and am reluctant to quote from memory (if I remember correctly, the judgement says that women may prepare the altar and gifts and do whatever male deacons do but I forget the exact wording or what occasioned the judgement: context is always important, and it is likely, though not certain, that what we have in the Penitential are the responses of Theodore to questions put to him by young clerics studying in the Canterbury School). However, the fact that Theodore’s decisions were thought worth recording and referring to in later generations is significant. He was what we might call a creative administrator, not just one who stuck rigidly to someone else’s rule-book.

I think St Theodore is a great encouragement to those who are growing older, to those who are monks or clergy, and to those who have come to Britain from other countries to live and work. He is at once both highly traditional — the monk-bishop who becomes a saint — and a man who breaks the mould by virtue of his age and background. Something to ponder there, I suggest.

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To Bless or Not to Bless

I see Pope Francis has refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing twice recently: to the Italian Red Cross and to a Youth Meeting in Sicily*. The reasons he gave for not doing so were that in both cases the audience was made up of many who were not Catholics — Christians of other denominations, followers of other religions, agnostics and atheists — and he did not wish to give offence. I presume that the pope was being very exact about the liturgical significance of blessing, understood as a prayer or rite performed in the name of the Church and by a duly qualified minister by which persons or things are set apart or sanctified to the service of God or God’s favour is invoked upon them. Not being Italian, I don’t know whether papal blessings are a source of outrage to those who are not Catholic. Having encountered a little hostility to the habit on visits to Rome, I suspect that the question arouses more emotion in Italy than it would here. Perhaps the pope judged the situation accurately. I don’t know, but it has prompted me to think more about blessing in general.

Most readers will be familiar with the many instances of blessing in the Old Testament while some will know and love the beautiful blessings used in contemporary Judaism. In addition to liturgical blessings, the Church has always allowed for a wider use of blessing formulae. As praise and thanksgiving many of us use various forms of blessing throughout the day — before and after meals, for example. St Benedict was very keen on blessing as part of the ritual courtesy of the cloister and as the necessary prelude to entering upon any task or service. For him, it was an invocation of God’s help, as in kitchen service, or recognition of  the grace of God in the other person, as in the greeting of a guest or fellow community member, as well as a means of giving glory to God. This kind of blessing is not reserved to the clergy, and perhaps we should all be more courageous about its use.

I have mentioned before that over the years I have become less reserved about expressing my faith in public. You are not likely to see me carrying a banner or flopping to my knees in a public place, but you may well see me using the ritual gestures as I pray the Office in a quiet corner of the hospital or hear me responding to someone with ‘May God bless you!’ I have not yet encountered any hostility for doing so, though I know that the expression of Christian belief or practice in the workplace is now very problematic in Britain. I find that sad. It is a measure of how far we have strayed from even a residual understanding of Christianity. I would agree that aggressive attempts to proselytise are unacceptable, but I do not see why wishing well to another (blessing) should be seen as an attack on another’s freedom or personal integrity. I’d say it isn’t blessing that hurts another but cursing, and the world is full of that.

So, this Sunday morning, whatever you are doing, please spare a thought for the role of blessing in your life. A blessing doesn’t necessarily have to be spoken aloud nor accompanied with any particular gesture. It is enough that mind and heart should agree to bless, to praise, and to give thanks; and we could all do with more of that, couldn’t we?

*Update
I now have more information about what happened in Palermo and wish to correct the misleading impression given by my words, viz. that ‘the pope refused to give the customary Apostolic Blessing’. Although the pope did not give a blessing in Trinitarian form (as he would have done had he used the liturgical format) he did indeed bless all the young people present, using the name of God and adapting his words to the occasion. I am sorry that some have used this as an opportunity to attack the pope. In any case, my post is about our blessing of others, not the pope’s!

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Re-Imagining the Church: the Triumph of the Cross 2018

For some, today will be coloured chiefly by the liturgy as we celebrate the Triumph or Exaltation of the Cross. For others, there will be a remembrance of the death of Dante, surely among the greatest of all poets and Christian thinkers. For those who dwell in monasteries, especially those who serve as cook, there will be some more worldly concerns as we begin the winter fast. The link between all three is membership of the Church. The liturgy for this day reminds us very firmly of the central mystery of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Dante’s vast, imaginative sweep gives expression to centuries of meditation on that same mystery, while the monastic cook ensures that we feel in our flesh something of what that mystery demands. All well and good, but for many more, if they think about the Church at all, it will be to ask what is being done about the abuse scandals in the absence of any coherent answer from the pope and bishops beyond an exhortation to prayer and penance and the promise of a synod of bishops some months hence. As some have pointed out, asking the laity to do penance for what is largely a sin of clergy and religious strikes something of a false note. Of course we recognize that we are all involved, that our membership of the Church means we have a collective responsibility, but I do not think it works out in quite the way that those outside the Church assume. If we spend too much time on what we’d like the Church to be, we shall be in danger of missing or misunderstanding what she actually is. We need to do a little re-imagining, and I think today’s feast is an encouragement to do so.

Today’s gospel ends with the words

God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved. (John 3.17)

Have we lost sight of that in our preoccupation with how we would like the Church to be? So many of the disputes within the Catholic Church tend to be an attempt to refashion the Church according to our own notions. We would like the Church to be ‘traditional’. The problem with that is that we tend to interpret the word according to our own ideas, locating the ‘perfect’ Church in a particular time and form, ignoring all the rest. Alternatively, we would like the Church to be ‘liberal’. The problem with that is that our ideas may stray quite far from the teaching of the Church, leading us into heresy of one kind or another. We forget what today’s feast and today’s gospel insist upon: the Church exists to bring us all to salvation. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a step back, as it were, from our own experience of the Church and ask how the Church’s mission might best be accomplished in the world in which we live and why she is as she is. Her structures will not change overnight; the Truth she teaches will not change, although the way in which she presents it may (just think how much we have learned about the universe since Dante wrote of ‘the Love that moves the sun and lesser stars’!). Above all, human nature remains essentially the same. Our re-imagining of the Church must take account of all these. Perhaps what we most need at this time is humility and a willingness to let go of our own ideas. The problems we confront, from environmental pollution to Artificial Intelligence and its as yet undreamed-of ramifications, will stretch us, no doubt about that. But in the midst of it all, at the very centre of whatever worlds there are, stands the Cross, unmoving. That gives us hope. It also provides the impetus to question, to reflect, to pray.

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Sitting on a Fence or Jumping on a Band-waggon?

The events of the last few days have shaken many ordinary Catholics — not in our faith, but in our perception of the Church’s leadership and its ability to deal with the apparently never-ending revelations of abuse, corruption and cover-ups. Archbishop Viganò’s letter is merely the latest but potentially most damning accusation of all. That fact makes me want to repeat something I have said many times already: unless or until we know the full facts, we should be wary of adding further fuel to the fire by rash accusations or counter-accusations of our own. Sitting on a fence may not seem very brave — it is certainly uncomfortable — but it is better than jumping on a band-waggon. Just think for a moment. To make a false accusation against another is calumny and defamation of character. It is a serious matter. At the moment both Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò are having very grave allegations made against them. Most of us are not in a position to judge. We may have our suspicions, but suspicions are not evidence and usually reflect our own previous opinions about various matters. Unfortunately, this has led to some very ugly in-fighting made public online and soon, no doubt, in the press. I daresay that is exactly what the devil wants. Destroying the unity of the Church, setting us against one another, creating an atmosphere of chaos and toxic distrust, is not the work of the Holy Spirit! Those using the opportunity this discord brings to advance an agenda of their own should ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering those who have suffered or could be exposed, now or in the future, to abuse — which is, after all, where we began and is the terrible sin the Church must address.

I was thinking about this in the context of St Monica’s feast today. She is conventionally portrayed as ‘merely’ the mother of a much greater figure, St Augustine of Hippo, and as such often given rather short shrift. She had an impossible husband and a drink problem, and the years of her widowhood were far from easy. It all sounds rather dreary, so no wonder we look at the son and tend to forget the mother. But there is something about St Monica that I think we do well to remember: she was a woman of extraordinary persistence in prayer. Would Augustine have become a saint without her? Who can say, but surely those ceaseless prayers, that persevering faith, count for something. St Monica encourages us ordinary Catholics to go on praying, believing, hoping and, above all, trying to maintain the bond of charity which unites the Church. The unholy glee with which some Catholics have greeted the latest revelations is, indeed, unholy and destructive. May we never be party to it. May we not fail those whose wounds the whole Church now knows about and must try to heal.

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