On Being an Ordinary Catholic

People often say, ‘I’m just an ordinary Catholic’, as though it were nothing much. Yet it is not ‘nothing’ to have been baptized into Christ, nourished by his word and sacraments, and given the pledge of eternal life. Sometimes, calling oneself an ‘ordinary’ Catholic is an attempt to avoid the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ labels beloved of those who believe that they alone are right. Sometimes, it is an attempt to pre-empt criticism for not being quite as sure of an argument or explanation as one thinks one ought to be. In fact, there is really no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ Catholic, but I think most of us who would describe ourselves as such know what we are about, even if we aren’t very good at it. We are trying to live good and religious lives, even though we have become for many Public Enemy No. 1 — and there is no denying that it hurts. We don’t mind being thought ordinary, but being thought evil? No, definitely not.

There is an odd kind of arithmetic at work, by which we cannot claim any part in all the good done by the Church in the two thousand years of her history, but we can be associated with, and blamed for, all her failures. Speaking for myself, I have no desire to claim the good done by others as my own, but I am uncomfortable about being held responsible for the actions of people I’ve never met or who lived long before I was born. Here at the monastery we regularly receive a rain of abusive emails and comments, suggesting that we are somehow implicated in whatever abuse occurred in Ireland. No use explaining that we are nuns not sisters (and therefore not involved in things like the Magdalene laundries), that we aren’t Irish nor were we adults (or in some cases, even alive) at the time the alleged offences took place. It is enough that we are Catholics and wear a habit. (For a thought-provoking comment on the McAleese Report and the popular view of the Magdalene laundries by Brendan O’Neill, an avowed atheist, see http://soc.li/8AVmfmS)

The allegations made against Cardinal O’Brien and the circumstances surrounding his resignation have added further fuel to the fire. Whether true or false, we know that people will suffer and the media will do their best (or worst) to add layer upon layer of tackiness to something that is already bad enough. Predictably, this morning one British newspaper has published a photograph of the cardinal with Jimmy Savile. Character assassination or belated justice, who can say? Oughtn’t we to wait before jumping to conclusions either way?

It is precisely in such circumstances that being an ordinary Catholic really counts. We are not powerful people. We don’t know all the ins and outs of the various subjects discussed by the media. We are not privy to official secrets of any kind and have no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who isn’t. No one is very interested in what we think or feel, but we plug away at believing and acting in accordance with our beliefs. We don’t do great things for God, but we do the little things that mark his presence and action in our lives and so allow his grace to touch the lives of others. ‘Without Him we cannot; without us He will not.’ There is the paradox, and the glory, of the ordinary Catholic which no amount of sin or shame can alter.

So, if you are an ordinary Catholic, be encouraged.


Jimmy Savile and the Spectacle of Shame

Peter Watt has written what is, in my view, the simplest, shortest and most worthwhile comment to date on the Savile scandal. You can read it here (link opens in new window). It has been bothering me that a media circus has been created out of a tragedy; that people who had no connection with Savile have been hounded as though they were responsible for his actions; and all the time, the underlying problem, the lack of respect adults have for children (many of them, anyway) and the quite frightening disregard for their safety has not been addressed. Will it ever be? All the regulations in the world cannot make up for the willingness or otherwise to listen to a scared child blurting out the horror of what they have experienced and then judging whether the child is telling the truth or not. (The presumption is in favour of the child, but let’s not forget that false accusations can be made and we have a duty to ensure that the innocent are not condemned.)

Every day brings fresh allegations. We are told that the scandal may touch a former Prime Minister. One would need to be very naive indeed to believe that politicians are exempt from any kind of wrongdoing, but the thought that first the Church, now the BBC and the political establishment, are to be paraded before us in a spectacle of shame provides no catharsis. Although the sickening cover-ups in the Savile case have helped me to understand better (though not to condone) the failure of bishops and other senior clergy to deal with clerical abuse in years past, I still think we are looking in the wrong direction. We are using the past to shield us from the present, looking at the child’s world with adult eyes.

That perhaps is the big problem. Thinking about events in Rochdale and Rotherham, I wonder whether we are somehow incapable of entering imaginatively into a world we are more and more distant from. ‘Except you change and become as little children,’ said the Lord, ‘you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So often we hear those words and think in terms of conversion, religious change. Maybe we need to think about them in more purely human terms,  as a need for insight and attention to the least powerful, most vulnerable members of society. I don’t know, but it is something I urge you to join me in praying about.


The First Frost

We have just had our first real frost of winter. Everything crunches underfoot and there is a mist rising with the sun and shrouding familiar shapes and forms with an ethereal winding-sheet. Odd, isn’t it, how frost and cold turn our thoughts (my thoughts, anyway) to a half-remembered past, peopled by warriors, kings and thegns, with their bright armour and their strange and wonderful poetry. It would never surprise me to see Beowulf emerging from the mist or some dark Celt moving silently from tree to tree. An over-lively imagination, my mother called it, but for me it is just the necessary mental equipment of the (now lapsed) historian. Without the ability, or at least the desire, to enter into the lives of others remote from us in time and place, I think understanding both past and present is much more difficult.

Today there is much that requires a huge imaginative leap to understand, if we ever can. The allegations against Jimmy Savile have propelled us into the dark world of the abuser; the never-ending violence in Syria and Afghanistan haunts us; Malala Yousafzai struggling for life in Pakistan and the continuing search for the body of little April Jones, they weigh heavy on the spirit. As a Christian I believe that evil does not have the ultimate victory, but to live according to that belief requires more than mere acquiescence. It is never an easy way out. We are called to live our faith in the Resurrection; to do battle with all that is opposed to the goodness of God. This morning the first frost reminds us that some of the most powerful enemies we face come not from the world around us but from within, from our own imaginative failures, from imperfectly accepted personal histories. We all have our own inner demons to overcome.