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.

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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.

Note
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.

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Of Nuns and Sisters

Would you object to a little light-heartedness on this wet and windy Friday in Lent? Admittedly, my purpose is serious, but one does not always need a sledge-hammer to make a point.

One of the oddities of the world today is that people talk about nuns when they mean religious sisters and about sisters when they mean nuns. We are indeed all sisters, but not all of us are nuns. Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter (well, not to me, anyway); but there are occasions when precision of meaning matters very much — when dealing with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at the Vatican, for example, or applying the relevant canon law to such things as vows, enclosure (cloister) and the like.

One of the main differences between nuns and sisters is that we nuns are useless. We are ‘wholly ordered towards contemplation’, so we don’t teach, nurse, do social work or anything else that the world values. We may write, speak or do things online or within the enclosure (cloister) of the monastery, such as receiving guests or, as in our case, running an audio book creation and postal loan service for the blind, but our lives are largely hidden from public view. We may run small businesses to support ourselves and fund our charitable outreach, but again, they must be such as can be carried on from within the enclosure. Nuns usually wear habits of varying degrees of antiquity (both senses), sigh over their mountains of unanswered correspondence (no time, no time) and suck their teeth whenever they hear the phrase ‘the good sisters’ or are asked ‘what do you do all day?’.

Religious sisters, by contrast, are very useful indeed. They are out in the thick of things and can be found virtually anywhere, working with the poor and marginalised, the druggies and the drop-outs, teaching at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, specialising in law, physics or what you will. They don’t always wear habits and are often unfairly criticized for not doing so. In this country they tend not to have a very political profile, but elsewhere they challenge existing power structures, bring compassion to death row prisoners and act as a salutary thorn in the side of the establishment. We in the cloister admire them very much: they do what we couldn’t, and we pray for them daily. They in their turn are very supportive of us.

The Church needs both nuns and sisters. It is not that the nuns pray and the sisters act. They represent two vital aspects of the Church, and of course they overlap, are complementary, form part of the ‘seamless robe’ that is Catholicism. St Bernard talked of Mary and Martha as sisters, of the same stock, with different characters, but both equally members of the same family, both necessary. During this past week we have heard Pope Francis give a very clear call to service. That service can only be sustained if it is rooted in prayer and sacrifice, and I am confident that the Church’s nuns and sisters will respond whole-heartedly. Please pray for us all.

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Lent, Popes and Plain Speaking

Depending on your preferred online reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lent had been forgotten amidst all the riot of discordant opinion about Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI.* To say that is a pity is an understatement. We are approaching the holiest time of the Christian year and we need to focus. Inevitably, there is a lot of interest in both Francis and Benedict, but if we are busier scooping up fascinating details about them or speculating about their intentions than living Lent, we may forget what really matters: preparing heart and mind for the solemn feast of Easter.

So, instead of getting into a fret about what may or may not be happening in the Vatican, why not ask yourself some hard questions to which you, and only you, know the answers. How is your prayer, fasting and almsgiving going? Does your Lent still have the purity of intention with which you began? Are you more aware of your own sin and the immense forgiveness of God? The next questions are trickier, and only those around you will be able to judge, if at all, the progress you have made. Have you become more charitable, more patient, in a word, more like our crucified Lord? Or have you been blessed with a grace so glorious and overwhelming that you have forgotten self entirely in your wonder and awe at the infinite goodness of God?

Sometimes a little plain speaking at this point of Lent is all we need to get us back on track. I would not dare to ask these questions had I not already asked them of myself and blushed at the answers I gave.

* I myself find attempts to exalt either pope at the expense of the other profoundly distasteful. I believe the papacy of both men to be important for the Church, but we lack perspective at present. I’d be grateful if readers would not use this blog to air derogatory opinions/engage in an argument which, by its very nature, can have no resolution. Prayer would be much more to the point.

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A Great Joy

‘I announce to you a great joy: we have a pope.’ With these words, spoken in Latin, we learned that that the cardinal electors had completed their task and chosen the man who will lead and direct 1.2 billion of us as Bishop of Rome, 266th successor of St Peter and Vicar of Christ. The video footage from St Peter’s Square showed hundreds and hundreds of faces from all over the world, most of them young, waiting with great anticipation for that moment. When the pope finally appeared on the balcony, dressed in white but without the usual red mozetta, the joy was palpable. The significant choice of name, Francis, the beautiful gesture of bowing before the crowd and asking them to pray for him before he gave his blessing, the silence that accompanied the prayer, all these were reminders that the Church may not make much sense to those who don’t believe, but to those who do, it makes perfect sense.

We rejoice because we have a pope. Every single Catholic, whether Eastern Rite or Western Rite, whether attached to labels like liberal or conservative or utterly indifferent to them, rejoices because without a pope the Church is somehow incomplete. Each and every one of us has a personal connection to this man. At times that connection may be expressed negatively, but if so it will be with the negativity of family membership. For the moment, however, we are still absorbing the fact that we have a pope, and one whose experience ties him more to the southern hemisphere than to the northern. That will inevitably shock many who see the world through the lens of our Western preoccupations about sex and sit more lightly to the Church’s teaching about social justice.

During the next few days there will be many profiles of the pope and much media speculation about what he may or may not do. There is, however, one small fact about Pope Francis which will mean something to those who have any kind of respiratory difficulty. He effectively functions on one lung. Like the saint whose name he has taken, he bears within himself a secret pain, a physical limitation. As he begins his first full day in office, he knows that he must take on the task of rebuilding the Church with God’s strength, not his own. Let us pray for him.

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