The Feast of the Chair of St Peter

Chair of St Peter by Bernini
Chair of St Peter by Bernini

This feast is one that often confuses people or makes them mutter darkly about the ‘strange tendencies of Catholics’. The historically-minded may be tempted to give a little lecture about the two feasts, one associated with Antioch, the other with Rome, and the ninth-century cathedra or episcopal chair which is contained within Bernini’s magnificent reliquary pictured above. The point of the feast, however, is this: not the physical chair but the appointment of Peter as vicar of Christ. Some of the ancient Western liturgies spell this out in detail, and there is an adequate summary here. What interests me is what the feast means to us today. What are we celebrating?

It is no longer fashionable to celebrate the triumph of Christianity over paganism — a triumph that, in any case, looks more and more uncertain in the West. It is no longer fashionable to celebrate the majesty of the papal office which, to many, looks more and more anachronistic as kings and emperors fade into the mists of time. Relics with questionable histories no longer appeal as they once did; so we are left with a chair, a symbol of the teaching office of the papacy. It is worth thinking about that.

Pope Francis, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his predecessors, has undertaken to lead and guide the Church in accordance with what Catholics believe to be the commission given to St Peter. Each is reckoned the immediate successor of Peter, and each speaks with the authority of Peter himself. Our present pope’s emphasis may be different from that of other popes, but his teaching is accepted (or should be) as what the Church needs to hear and act on now. Our role in that is to pray for the pope and to listen attentively to what he says — what the pope actually says, not what the media allege, which may be very different!

As we pray for Pope Francis, let us also pray for the nineteen men, among them Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who will be made cardinals at today’s consistory. The papal office is a lonely one; good and honest advisers are essential. This feast gives us opportunity and motive to pray for them all.

Note on the Illustration
Used under the Creative Commons Licence.


From Mysticism to Mischief-Making by Way of Misunderstanding

A report in the Italian-language edition of Zenit has set the media buzzing again about the reasons for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s resignation. The first problem, as always, is establishing what he actually said, to whom, and in what language. Not surprisingly, we have an unattributable story which has been quoted piecemeal,  without any understanding of the language of prayer and discernment.

According to Zenit, ‘a few weeks ago’ (i.e. before 19 August, when the story was published) Pope Benedict allegedly said to ‘someone’ in a private audience (i.e. an anonymous source in a private meeting, so not intended for formal reporting or publication), in reply to a question about the reason for his resignation, that ‘God told me to’, ‘immediately clarifying that it was not any kind of apparition or phenomenon of that kind, but rather “a mystical experience” in which the Lord gave rise in his heart to an “absolute desire” to remain alone with him in prayer.’

I think most people who pray will have no difficulty with this. Pope Benedict was merely saying that, after much prayer and discernment, he had come to the conclusion that it was time for him to step aside and devote himself to serving the Church by prayer. The reasons he gave publicly earlier in the year are no different from the ones he gave privately to that anonymous source except in their expression. Reported speech doesn’t convey the way in which words are spoken, nor do those who are outside a religious tradition necessarily understand the way in which words are used. ‘God told me to’ is religious shorthand, if you like, for a long process of prayer and discernment. It doesn’t mean a private revelation with Hollywood-style special effects, it means long hours of  searching for God’s will, coming to a conclusion and then testing that conclusion by every means open to one. In Benedict XVI’s case, surely that meant weighing up his own health and the demands of the papacy, the problems faced by the Church and his ability to get on top of them, the ‘talent’ within the College of Cardinals and finally a humble acceptance that he might have done all that he could as pope. The fact that this was accompanied by an ‘absolute desire’ to be alone with God rings true. Every monk and nun has experienced that same desire growing in their heart — and ‘growing’ is the operative word. To one who prays perseveringly, the desire to be with God grows ever greater, no matter how hard or unrewarding the experience of prayer may seem to be.

For many, of course, it is that reference to ‘mystical experience’ which is troublesome; so let us be clear, mystical experience is not what most people think it is. It does not involve apparitions, lights, voices, sweet smells, levitations, extraordinary revelations or anything of the kind, except incidentally and only in the early stages. Any writer on prayer will tell you that such things should be disregarded and are often delusions of the devil. No, mystical experience is beyond all that. It can be dark, painful, searing. It has to do with the will rather than the affections. A better word for it might be contemplative prayer. And as with all prayer, its authenticity must be tested by its fruits, what scripture calls, ‘testing the spirits to see if they come from God’. Is the desire/resolution formed in prayer good or bad, is it consistent with the Church’s doctrine, does it lead to greater charity, and so on.

I don’t think anyone who has read Benedict XVI’s writings can be in any doubt that they proceed from an intense interior life of prayer. By resigning the papacy he has demonstrated that he believes prayer to be the most important service he can offer the Church at this stage of his life. Prayer has no limitations, no boundaries; like love, it can never hurt anyone and achieves victories far greater than many realise. It is at the intersection between time and eternity. The media may want to make a little mischief by misunderstanding what the pope emeritus allegedly said, but all the mischief-making in the world cannot alter the facts. We are blessed to have in Benedict XVI someone who prays for the Church and the world with unremitting zeal and fidelity; and I, for one, am glad of that.


The Future of the Church

Pope Francis has reminded us that the Church is eternally youthful. No matter how old and creaky some of us may feel, the sight of so many young people gathered in Rio for World Youth Day is surely an encouragement. It is in this context that it is useful to remember something Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, long before he became pope. He remarked that the Church was going to have to be a failure before it could be a success; that it was destined to suffer shrinkage and humiliation; that it would have to stop flirting with left and right politically and become a truly spiritual entity. (You can read a good summary here.) I think that shows the continuity of thought and understanding between Francis and Benedict about the nature of the Church and its future development. Many of the things that have become dear to us over the centuries will have to go, but we are too close to them to see exactly what they are. Of this, however, we can be sure: the stripping away of what is loved and familiar will be painful, but it is a necessary part of our purification.

A friend wrote recently that some religious in the south-west were no longer able to wear one of the distinctive items of their habit because it invited loutish behaviour from those who didn’t understand it; that others had even had stones thrown at them — and this in England! The automatic respect that religion was once accorded has now gone. You may think that a good or bad thing — it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is what follows from this change. We need to understand that we are in mission territory. We can no longer go on making the comfortable assumptions we once did. Personally, I have no difficulty with that; but I wonder whether that is true of the Church at large. Are we prepared to be the kind of Church both Benedict and Francis have envisioned, or do we want something else — less challenging perhaps, but more familiar? It is a question each of us must ask him/herself.


Priesthood and the Communal Dimension

A reader has asked me to expand on a brief remark I made a few days ago when I said I hoped Pope Francis’s experience as a member of a religious order, the Jesuits, would enable him to bring greater awareness of the communal dimension to our understanding of priesthood. I was responding to a question asked in the context of the Church’s record on clerical sexual abuse and the ministry of women, but the point I was trying to make is of wider application. I am sure that any priest readers will have their own take on the subject. I write as one who is not, and cannot be, a priest myself but who does have a great love of the Church and therefore of her priests.

By way of preliminary, I ought to say I think Pope Benedict did his best to purify the Church of what he himself called the ‘filth’ of sexual abuse and had to put up with a lot of false accusations about his record. Pope Francis has emphasized that he takes up where Benedict XVI left off. However, where this subject is concerned, enough is never enough: there is always something more one could or should do because of the enormity of abuse; and no one could say that the Vatican has handled the situation well. In PR terms, it has been an unmitigated disaster.

But the Church is not a PR organization, nor is priesthood to be defined in negative terms, or in the light of individual or institutional failures to live up to its obligations. The sexual abuse scandals have highlighted something which disturbs many Catholics — the feeling that many priests are in need of fresh encouragement and inspiration. Some of my own priest friends have spoken very frankly about how low their morale is. They go about their duty perseveringly, but the backlash from the abuse scandals has rocked them. They are often vilified and distrusted simply because they are priests, which makes for a lonely and difficult life.

I take heart from the fact that the pope is a Jesuit and has served as novice master. He has therefore been directly responsible for helping young — and possibly not so young — men to prepare for living a vowed life in which celibate chastity is not merely ‘part of the package deal’ but an explicit, freely chosen, way of following Christ. He is thus familiar, in a way many bishops drawn from the ranks of diocesan clergy are perhaps not so familiar, with the important role of the community in the formation and support of the individual. No one is a priest for himself alone. Equally, no one should be expected to find within himself all the resources he needs to exercise his priestly ministry. It is a kind of two-way contract, but during the past fifty or sixty years, I think we have tended to forget that.

Once a secular (i.e. diocesan) priest has left the seminary, community support can be a rather hit-and-miss affair. The days of the parish priest with a couple of curates a-piece is long gone, and many clergy would much prefer to live on their own anyway — but the need for support remains. I believe that there is something religious orders like the Jesuits can contribute to the understanding of how that can be done and that Pope Francis is uniquely placed to further that understanding.

Why is it important that priests be supported in their ministry by the community? Quite apart from the fact that as Christians we are all responsible for each other, there is the very obvious fact that without support ultimately we won’t have any priests or any community, either. That is why I am hopeful that Pope Francis will lead the way in encouraging and supporting the Church and her priests.

I’m pretty sure some people will land on this page and want to take me to task for abuse in the Catholic Church. That is not what I am writing about above although I had to give the context in which my original remark was made. If you are one of these, please would you take the trouble to do a search in the sidebar where you will find I have written several posts which make my attitude clear. Some may also alert you to aspects you may not have thought about, e.g. the way in which most Catholics feel betrayed by what has happened and the way in which it has been handled. Thank you.