A Strange Urbi et Orbi

Yesterday millions of people across the globe joined with Pope Francis in praying for an end to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many were able to watch online as, on a rainy Roman evening, a tired-looking figure dressed in white stood alone in the vastness of St Peter’s Square and addressed the city and the world with a message of hope and trust. The photograph taken by Reuters struck me as the most eloquent I’ve seen so far. It may be copyright, so I’ve put a link to it rather than incorporating it into this post as I would have liked — you can view it here: https://images.app.goo.gl/32mvFoajGQkVBLvr7.

For me that image expresses both the strength and the frailty of faith. What the pope said was a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us in the midst of the storm. I believe that (most of the time) and try to live my life by it. I do so in union with others. Anyone who has ever attended a papal Urbi et Orbi will know the sense of communion with others that being in Rome gives. We stand next to someone whose language we may not speak, whose customs are very different from our own, and yet we are one with them in Christ. That is the strength of faith.

COVID-19, however, has shown us the frailty of faith, too. When the churches are closed and the sacraments unavailable, when we cannot meet one another for worship or fellowship, then we stand like the pope, alone before the Lord. For some, that is a terrifying experience. Faith falters, and we feel abandoned. The less comforting passages of the Old Testament come to mind. We think of punishment and damnation, of drowning in a sea of pain and suffering. But as the pope said, COVID-19 is not a judgement on us, not a condemnation. It is, rather, an invitation to go further, deeper. We are all in the same boat — but with the Lord!

Paradoxical though it may seem, I believe that this Lent we are all being asked to stand alone before the Lord as Moses stood, interceding for his people; as Jesus stood, interceding for the whole of humanity. We are being invited to embrace a vocation much bigger and more demanding than we expected — one that is meant for us all, not just popes and nuns and those we might think of as the ‘professional pray-ers’. That strange but luminous Urbi et Orbi of yesterday was indeed for everyone.

Audio version


Is the Pope a Catholic or Just Latin American?

Very early this morning I listened to Ruth Alexander’s ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ on the BBC World Service (one of its ‘Inquiry’ programmes). I thought it was a fair-minded summary of something that is troubling many Catholics. As I’ve often been asked what I think about the matter, perhaps I could devote a few paragraphs to the subject today.

To simplify hugely, there is a footnote in Amoris Laetitia which many interpret as opening the reception of Holy Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. This interpretation is contrary to the Church’s traditional position on divorce and remarriage and the reception of the Sacraments thereafter (one cannot receive Holy Communion if one is in a state of mortal sin, eg. if one has rejected the Church’s teaching on marriage and contracted a second ‘marriage’ despite still being in a valid union— the subsequent relationship would be considered adulterous.) Catholic readers will be familiar with the Dubia or questions asking for clarification which four cardinals sent the pope, to which he has not replied, and the Letter of Filial Correction, signed by a group of theologians and priests and subsequently signed by various people online, to which he has also not responded.

I have followed closely the theological and canonical arguments put forward by representatives of both sides and what strikes me, overwhelmingly, is that there are two very distinct understandings of the Church and of the way in which the Church does theology. It isn’t a case of is the pope a Catholic so much as how is the pope a Catholic, what is his way of being Catholic and is it consistent with Catholic tradition?

To simplify hugely again, if one sees theology as essentially propositional, i.e. a series of truths to be proclaimed and assented to, one may have difficulty with the idea that theology can also be a process, sometimes messy, often anything but clear-cut, in which one engages. The difference between affirming a truth as absolute and then applying that truth to a particular situation is something most of us agonize about at times. We don’t doubt that what the Church teaches is true, but how do we ourselves apply it in the situation in which we find ourselves? Some will make heroic sacrifices; others won’t. Personally, I read that footnote in Amoris Laetitia with that thought in mind, seeing it as addressed primarily to pastors. It is a bit woolly, which we are not used to seeing in papal documents, but coming from a pope who wants his priests to ‘have the smell of the sheep’ about them, I suppose it is not surprising.

I don’t think Pope Francis has changed the teaching of the Catholic Church (he certainly doesn’t think he has), but I do think his way of doing theology (and as a result, his understanding of the Church and her mission) is very Latin American, the complete antithesis of the propositional model that we in the West have cultivated for centuries. His vision of the Church is less focused on Rome, less formally structured than we are accustomed to. I would go further and say that he seems less interested in sex and more interested in justice and mercy than we may be quite comfortable with; and when a pope breaks the mould, it is bound to be disconcerting. I wonder whether an important underlying question is, have we really grasped the catholicity of the Church and what it means to have an Argentinian as pope? The questions Pope Francis has addressed, the way in which he has responded to them, the very things that infuriate some of his critics, seem to me exactly what one would expect from a pope who has had to confront a political and economic complexity most of us have never experienced.

I cannot end without mentioning my unhappiness at the divisions that seem to have opened up in the Church, with various factions arguing for or against the pope, often arrogating to themselves a degree of infallibility regarding doctrine that is extraordinary. To me that isn’t Catholic, and when it is accompanied by vituperative and slanderous/libellous remarks, I know it does not proceed from a concern for truth. As a very ordinary Catholic, it is my duty to pray for the pope, to do my best to understand and uphold the teaching of the Church, and to follow in the footsteps of the Master as best I can. Ultimately, it is our fidelity to Christ and the love with which we have lived our lives that will count. In short, what matters is holiness; nothing less is asked of us; nothing less will do.

Note: I know many people will take issue with what I’ve said, especially as I’ve tried to write as briefly and non-technically as I can. Please could I ask you to keep your comments succinct and courteous?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Martyrs of Indifference: a Thought for International Women’s Day

Pope Francis used an arresting phrase when he referred to the four Missionaries of Charity killed in last Friday’s attack on a nursing home in Yemen as ‘martyrs of indifference’. Neither the Missionaries themselves nor the twelve people killed with them, mostly volunteers at the home, merited much news coverage. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any outside the Catholic media. Have we really become so indifferent to murder? Or is it that the people who died were linked with the service of the poor and elderly and so of no interest to a world which is much more concerned with youth, money and power? Either way, I think it throws a useful light on International Women’s Day.

While it is undeniably true that women are still at a disadvantage in many areas of life in many parts of the world, including our own, concentrating on that disadvantage can have a dehumanising effect. When we cease to see people as people and crudely categorise them as oppressors and oppressed, for example, we actually destroy the hope of working together to improve conditions for everyone. Surely International Women’s Day, in its celebration of women’s achievements, should not overlook the fact that it is the common good we seek, the good of every man, woman and child on earth?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Mercy and Forgiveness — 4

In this fourth post, I’d like to consider the relationship between mercy and forgiveness and the experience many of us have as ‘average church-goers’. We are not, by and large, theologians or scripture scholars; most of us are lay people, and the majority of us would probably admit to being weighed down at times by a sense of failure or bafflement that, despite our best efforts, we seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. We find it hard to forgive others, and sometimes even harder to forgive ourselves. We are an Easter people with more than a whiff of sulphur about us.

I think it’s perfectly normal to feel like that, but feelings alone are never a very good guide to what is going on. Moreover, mercy and forgiveness are not the whole story, at least, not as we experience life. There are other concepts that, practically speaking, prove just as important: justice, for example, and a multitude of other factors that come into play whenever we talk about sin, love, mercy, all the big things in life. We are complicated and complicating creatures. At times we feel we’re running some kind of race, but it’s not always the one we think we are, and our own muddled thinking may be to blame for some of our problems. God’s mercy isn’t at war with his justice, yet we tend to think it is. Many of our difficulties follow from that false opposition. Let me try to explain.

How often, when we talk of someone’s being merciful, do we mean that they have let somebody else off scot-free (incidentally, a very telling term relating to a tax or settlement of an obligation) and allowed them to escape a punishment that was properly due to them? We forget entirely the biblical origins of the word (see post 1) with its connotations of pity and fellow-feeling. Effectively, we harden our hearts and close ourselves to forgiveness  — a bit like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who was angry that his younger brother should behave badly and then be welcomed back joyfully. The injustice of it! (And if you don’t have a sneaking sympathy for the elder son, believe me, you are very, very virtuous.)

If we don’t rebel against such undeserved good fortune in another, we try to make a distinction between forgiving and forgetting — which is reasonable enough until we recognize that all the effort we are putting into remembering makes it impossible ever really to forgive. The truth is that forgiveness is rarely a once-for-all act. If it were, it would be much easier. We human beings may have to forgive again and again, taking the anger and hurt we have experienced and dashing them against Christ, who alone can draw the poison. We have to insert ourselves into a dynamic of forgiveness, as it were. I’m guessing the elder son in the parable sometimes found his brother’s face at breakfast hard to bear and had to make a conscious effort not to say or do something cutting. It would not be strange if he sometimes failed, just as we do.

We make life harder for ourselves by wanting God’s justice to be exactly like our own. Our modern ideas are associated with law and the scrupulous apportionment of blame and punishment. We talk about ‘justice being done’ in a court case and mean that guilt has been ascertained and punishment meted out. An older idea of justice certainly includes that notion, but it has as its primary focus the restoration of right order, which is a more difficult concept for most of us to grasp. Right order isn’t a wishy-washy attempt to annoy no-one or ‘live and let live’ in a world that has very little to trouble or vex it. Concern for right order implies a powerful and sustained attempt to ensure fairness in a world that is manifestly unfair, flawed, difficult to categorize. It means working to resolve conflicts before they degenerate into hatred or hostility, and a readiness to acknowledge the claims of others in an equable manner. It is really quite exhausting, because justice of this kind can never be automatic, either in its operation or in its sanctions — unlike the fixed-penalty fines for certain transgressions of the civil law.

There is a further problem, of course. We look at the Crucifix and see Jesus hanging there, knowing he has taken on himself our sickness and sin, and we feel guilty (see post 2). We turn our gaze away from him and focus on ourselves, seeing nothing but negativity. Then we remember that it was love, not nails, that kept him there; that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘if I could have suffered more, I would have suffered more’; and all our theoretical ideas about sin and punishment come tumbling round our ankles and we must look Mercy in the face and know him, as for the first time, ruefully admitting that our ideas were too small for so great a Redeemer, one who wants to share his very life with us (see post 3). We speak of sins to be forgiven, debts to be repaid, but he annihilates them all in the abyss of his love! He wants us to be what God intended from the first: true images of himself, whole, healed, beautiful.

One of the great gifts of the monastic order to the Church has been private sacramental confession — an opportunity to meet the mercy of God and experience the joy of being forgiven not just once, on our death-bed, but throughout life, again and again. Over the centuries the Church has articulated the theology of this sacrament with great care. Everyone knows that it is not enough to state one’s sins and express sorrow for them. One must also put right what one can and have a firm purpose of amendment — the desire to change for the better. These are sometimes seen as necessary pre-conditions for forgiveness; and sadly, people often become so focused upon their ability/inability to meet them that they miss the fact that God’s grace is already operating in them, already drawing them to the sacrament to experience his mercy and forgiveness. In an important sense we can say that we have already been forgiven if we seek God’s forgiveness, although we have still to make the changes in our lives that forgiveness demands. A problem comes, however, when we have to apply to others the grace we have ourselves received. Forgiven, yes; but forgiving?

One often hears people say that forgiveness has to be earned, that there has to be evidence of repentance. I don’t think that measures up to the gospel standard. God in Christ forgave us without any evidence of repentance on our part, without our doing anything at all to earn his forgiveness; and I think he expects us to follow his example in relation to others.  We are to make others whole as we have been made whole ourselves. The disciples were told to forgive an uncomfortable number of times. When asked who our neighbour is, Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show how we ourselves must be neighbours to others. We are to concentrate on what we can do, not on what we think someone else should do, but we have a tendency to waste time and effort on their sins and shortcomings which we usually see more clearly than our own. An example will show what I mean.

I have sometimes been questioned about the fate of Judas by those who want absolute certainty regarding something the Church wisely prefers to remain reticent about. It is a little too close to ‘delighting in the sins of others’ for my taste — I have enough sins of my own to worry about — but I can see why it can be troubling. We want a world in which the parameters of good and evil are marked in black and white, where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Having to tread a path that’s largely different shades of grey is more problematic. It means we have to make choices, and how will we know we’re making the right ones? We won’t always, alas, and there’s the difficulty. Where sin is not so much a matter of debts to be calculated and repaid but a sickness to be healed and an estrangement to be ended, our firm footing in the world can look decidedly wobbly. Knowing that we can never fall below the love of God is fine in theory, but in practice we can feel lonely and exposed, buffeted by conflicting opinions and desires. We want to do the right thing but, like St Paul, have the sinking feeling that oftentimes we fail. We forget that Christ came among us to deal with failure and restore us to fullness of life.

In calling on the Church to celebrate an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis is asking us to be stretched in ways we never thought possible. He is asking us to experience more deeply than ever before God’s unfailing love for us, and to share that love with others. I have no doubt that, as the year unfolds, there will be much to ponder, much to do. Pope Francis is asking us to become, in effect, what Mary, the Mother of God, was: an aqueduct, a channel for the life-giving fountain which is Christ. That is no mean task for us all.

Note: the Vatican has set up a special web site of resources for the Holy Year which you can find here. If you feel daunted by the size of the task the Holy Year lays upon us, let’s ask the prayers of St Mark, whose feast-day it is. The short ending of his gospel concludes with the disciples’ feeling afraid, not yet the confident evangelists they were to become. (Mk 16.8) I think most of us can probably identify with that.

Mercy and Forgiveness — 1 (to be continued)

Most of us are very happy to have mercy shown us and to be forgiven when we are conscious of wrong-doing. We are not always quite so happy to show mercy to others or forgive them their failings when we are the injured party, and least of all are we happy when mercy and forgiveness appear to be poured out indiscriminately on those we think unworthy of it. Perhaps I exaggerate and everyone reading theses pages is already much more saintly than I am, I can only speak from my own experience.

When Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, to begin on 8 December 2015 and end on 20 November 2016, there was some muttering in certain quarters. First of all, the whole concept of a Holy Year is widely misunderstood. The first was proclaimed in 1300, but its origins are much older since it is a form of the Jubilee, and I cannot do better than quote from the document which ushered in the Great Jubilee of the Millennium (2000):

A Holy Year, or Jubilee is a great religious event. It is a year of forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin, it is a year of reconciliation between adversaries, of conversion and receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and consequently of solidarity, hope, justice, commitment to serve God with joy and in peace with our brothers and sisters. A Jubilee year is above all the year of Christ, who brings life and grace to humanity.

The origin of the Christian Jubilee goes back to Bible times. The Law of Moses prescribed a special year for the Jewish people: ‘You shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim the liberty throughout the land, to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. This fiftieth year is to be a jubilee year for you: you will not sow, you will not harvest the un-gathered corn, you will not gather the untrimmed vine. The jubilee is to be a holy thing to you, you will eat what comes from the fields.’ (Leviticus 25, 10-14) The trumpet with which this particular year was announced was a goat’s horn called Yobel in Hebrew, and the origin of the word jubilee. The celebration of this year also included the restitution of land to the original owners, the remission of debts, the liberation of slaves and the land was left fallow. In the New Testament, Jesus presents himself as the One who brings the old Jubilee to completion, because he has come to ‘preach the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Isaiah 61: 1-2). . . .

The Jubilee is called Holy Year, not only because its begins, is marked, and ends with solemn holy acts, but also because its purpose is to encourage holiness of life. It was actually convoked to strengthen faith, encourage works of charity and brotherly communion within the Church and in society and to call Christians to be more sincere and coherent in their faith in Christ, the only Saviour.

A Jubilee can be ‘ordinary’ if it falls after the set period of years, and ‘extraordinary’ when it is proclaimed for some outstanding event. . . . The custom of calling ‘extraordinary’ Jubilees began in the 16th century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year. There have been two extraordinary jubilees in [the twentieth century]: 1933 proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption and 1983 proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark 1950 years since the Redemption carried out by Christ through his Death and Resurrection in the year 33. In 1987 Pope John Paul II also proclaimed a Marian year.

So, why the fuss about proclaiming a Holy Year of Mercy?

Saying he has ‘thought often about how the Church can make more evident its mission of being a witness of mercy,’ the Pope announced the new Jubilee Year during a Lenten penitential service in St Peter’s Basilica.

‘I am convinced that the whole Church — that has much need to receive mercy because we are sinners — will find in this jubilee the joy to rediscover and render fruitful the mercy of God, with which we are all called to give consolation to every man and woman of our time. . . . Let us not forget that God pardons and God pardons always, the Pope continued.  ‘Let us never tire of asking for forgiveness. We entrust it as of now to the Mother of Mercy, because she looks to us with her gaze and watches over our way . . . Our penitential way, our way of open hearts, during a year to receive the indulgence of God, to receive the mercy of God.’

The Pope also said he wants the Church to live the upcoming holy year ‘in the light’ of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke: ‘Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.’

Part of the problem, of course, is that some people think Pope Francis too soft on matters they regard as central to their understanding of Catholicism. Part of the problem is confusion about the very meaning of mercy and forgiveness. What do all those Resurrection gospels where Jesus confers the power to forgive sin really mean?

We have to begin with a little exegesis of the language and concepts underlying the gospel. Biblical Hebrew has two closely related words which are sometimes translated in the same way. In the first place there is hesed, which denotes God’s unfailing loving kindness to his people. It expresses God’s fidelity to his covenant with Israel, his bride. See, for example, the references in Hosea 2.18 and Isaiah 54.5. It is a word that contains overtones of tenderness, love and strength,  which the scriptures often link with experience of morning. We awaken to God’s loving fidelity which will accompany us through the day, e.g. Ps. 142.8

In the morning let me know your love (hesed)
for I put my trust in you.
make me know the way I should walk
to you I lift up my soul. (trans. Grail)

There is also the word racham, which corresponds more closely to mercy or compassion in English. The differences can be seen more clearly in these sentences:

In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving kindness (hesed) I will have compassion (racham) on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer. (Is. 54.8)

For the mountains may be removed and the hills may be shaken, but my loving kindness (hesed) will not be removed from you, and my covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord, who has compassion (racham) on you. (Is. 54.10)

The Lord’s loving kindnesses (hesed) indeed never cease, for his compassions (racham) never fail. (Lam. 3.22)

The Septuagint (Greek Bible) usually translates the word hesed as eleos, while the Vulgate (Latin Bible) usually renders it as misericordia, a word which links ‘mercy’ with ‘heart’. The fundamental idea to grasp, however, is that hesed, God’s loving kindness, is sheer gift — completely undeserved but bestowed on us from the first moment of creation and tenderly, faithfully, strongly maintained thereafter. Exodus proclaims the God who is rich in love and fidelity at the very moment the people of Israel have broken their covenant with the Lord. He goes on being faithful when we have failed to be. (cf Ex. 34.6) It is, ultimately, fidelity to a relationship that God has called into being, and in likening it to a marriage bond, the scriptures stress both the obligations it imposes and the huge dignity conferred on us by God.

When we come to the New Testament, mercy and forgiveness come to the fore. God sees our distress and weakness, like that of the straying sheep, and has compassion on us. It is the love of a parent for a child, a tenderness that can never be completely reciprocated. We cannot earn it, we cannot deserve it, it is simply lavished upon us. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post on St Anselm (I hope), connecting mercy and forgiveness with the idea of indebtedness may have blunted our appreciation of what is really going on. We repent of sin, that which destroys (mortal sin) or impairs (venial sin) the relationship with God, because we have been forgiven, not because we seek forgiveness. But because that statement may read to some as heretical, I’ll attempt to explain more fully tomorrow.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

Nun Coshed in Facebook Fight

At the week-end I posted on Facebook a link to Esquire‘s Style Blog which has named Pope Francis the best dressed man of 2013. (You can read the article here.) Little did I realise the storm that would ensue, both on Facebook and even more via email. By Sunday evening I was beginning to feel I had been coshed. What would happen were I to post something SERIOUSLY controversial?

The first thing I noticed was that most people were uninterested in why I had posted the link. Fair enough, but also quite revealing. They either assumed they knew (most of them didn’t), or used the opportunity to put forward their own views on the subject and on others they linked with it (sometimes rather tendentiously). Normally, that can be quite entertaining and sometimes really illuminating, although I do have reservations when the argument turns nasty or personal. What struck me most forcibly, however, was how many people seemed to read the original article selectively and reacted to certain phrases without considering the import of the whole. I think that is becoming more and more noticeable in all forms of online engagement. We talk about ‘surfing’ the web, but increasingly we seem to be skimming through arguments, too. As an advocate of ‘slow reading’ (a.k.a. lectio divina), I’m not very happy about that. If we can’t even absorb the argument of a short piece like that in Esquire, what hope is there for more densely argued pieces?

This morning I posted on Facebook the reply that I gave most of my email correspondents. I said that the article had interested me because of what a secular magazine had to say about clothes and their meaning and the way in which the writer had interpreted papal dress. Without necessarily sharing the writer’s view, I thought it was good for those of us who wear some form of distinctive dress for religious reasons to think about how it appears to those outside the circle of church and monastery. Most people are interested in what we wear and how; they rarely ask why. I found it interesting that a secular magazine had made a stab at trying to understand. In fact, I found it encouraging. What I didn’t find encouraging was the reaction of many (not all) of my fellow Christians, which ranged from the dismissive to the aggressive. In effect, the variety of replies actually confirmed what the Esquire writer had said: dress does matter; it does make statements; but how they are interpreted may not be what the wearer intended.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Francis of Assisi and the Danger of Sentimentality

St. Francis. Sacro Speco at Subiaco. Fresco. 1224 or 1228.

The above image, taken from the Benedictine Monastery of Sacro Speco at Subiaco, is the only known contemporary portrait of St Francis of Assisi. It shows a young, strong, clear-eyed man who could so easily be a campaigner for social justice or ecological issues today. There is a temptation to see Francis in exactly those terms: as a champion of the poor, the marginalised, a lover of animals and plants, a man who was spectacularly ‘alternative’ in his simplicity and poverty, a thorn in the side of the Establishment. All that is true, but there is another portrait of Francis, done long after his death by El Greco, which shows St Francis receiving the stigmata, and I think it captures the other side of the saint, the one that even today makes us uncomfortable: the man of God whose fierce, all-consuming love of Christ led him to identify with his Master in everything, but especially his suffering and sacrifice.

It is easy to sentimentalise St Francis. We can get a warm, fuzzy glow about Franciscan simplicity (especially when it is lived by other people) but without that intense love of God as motive, every renunciation is essentially hollow. It lacks heart, and St Francis never lacked heart no matter what else he and his first companions did not have. His poverty was embraced tenderly and joyously, so we forget that an iron will was also called into service. Francis was an uncompromising realist. For all his exuberance and light-heartedness, there is a steady determination about his desire to live and die in union with Christ.

Today Pope Francis will journey to Assisi and is scheduled to make six(!) speeches in the course of the day. I shall be very surprised if we do not hear something of that more hidden side of St Francis: the call to union with Christ as the well-spring of every action, of every service of the poor. In the meantime, a very happy feastday to all our Franciscan brothers and sisters!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Jerome: Teacher of Asceticism and Love

St Jerome, whose memoria we keep today, was, after St Augustine, the most voluminous writer of Christian Antiquity. Today he is remembered for many things: his translation of the scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate); his embrace of the monastic life in Bethlehem and elsewhere, including Gaza and Syria; his friendships with women, especially Marcella, Paula and Eustochium; his rather prickly temper; a host of treatises on theology and history, the practice of the ascetic life, ecclesiastical controversies and a wonderful collection of letters, to name just a few. Martin Luther’s disdain has done his reputation no harm. However, I think it fair to say that more people refer to Jerome than actually read him; and those who do read him tend to do so in order to throw light on subjects that interest them more than they appear to have interested Jerome himself.

For example, I think the clue to understanding Jerome is his zeal for the ascetic life. He was repulsed by the laxity he saw all around him. Not for him the idea that ‘love is all you need’ without any qualification. Indeed, his understanding of the need for self-discipline in order to be truly loving sometimes led his followers to overstate the case. The death of the young Blaesilla, just four months after adopting the ascetic practices he recommended, stirred up the fury of the Roman mob, but what has never sufficiently been explained, to my mind, is how the rough, tough, curmudgeon of popular fiction could inspire such trust and devotion in the first place. He made people want to lead better lives; he made them want to know the Lord; and he was hard on himself before he was hard on others. True, his writing shows he could deliver a tongue-lashing, but one never gets the sense that he was out of control. With Jerome it is rather a case of ‘zeal for the Lord of hosts consumes me.’ Very few of us can lay claim to such pure-hearted zeal.

One of the big questions facing the Church today is how we hold in tension what Pope Francis has aptly described as the healing mission of the Church — the proclamation of love and mercy — with its teaching mission — which says that in order to be a Christian one does indeed have to live by certain standards, and they can be tough, involving self-renunciation and discipline. It is easy to get hold of the love and mercy bit; much harder to see that self-restraint is necessary if one is to be loving and merciful. It is no accident that Jerome wrote terrifyingly of hell. Sometimes, one needs the shadow to appreciate the sunlight. Perhaps today we could ask his prayers to enable us to see how we need to change our lives to become better disciples. And one more detail I find telling. Jerome could have translated the scriptures from the Septuagint (Greek version) alone but he put himself to the trouble of learning Hebrew as an adult so that he could read the Hebrew versions as well. That is not just the scholar at work, anxious to use every means at his disposal to ascertain truth; that is the man who loves God so ardently that he is driven to find out all he can about Truth himself and is prepared to make every effort to do so. I wonder how many of us measure up to that?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail