When walls talk

When walls talk

The liturgy at this conference had been really beautiful. Yesterday we celebrated Mass in the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, today we celebrated Mass in the basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, and tomorrow we return to St Peter’s Basilica.

A mixed choir from Ireland, the Lassus Scholars, have lead the music at all the conference liturgies. They are outstanding. A sublime mix of plainchant, mediaeval polyphony, and traditional Christmas carols. Sacred music has an extraordinary ability to raise the mind and heart to God.

The beauty of the churches we have prayed in are also a great aid to prayer. But it’s not just the beauty – it’s also the historicity of these places. Cardinal Pell preached yesterday, and he began by relating some of the history of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

It is, apparently, the oldest church in Rome, insofar as it was the first “official house of worship” wherein Christians could publicly pray. In the first few centuries of the Church, Christians in Rome worshipped discreetly, and celebrated Sunday Mass in “house churches” – private homes of the faithful.

Parts of the church are so old that they in fact predate Christianity. The pillars in the nave, for example, are salvaged from several pagan temples. It is an old building, and a dark one. There is no natural light. But although it is dark, it is not gloomy – the mosaics in the sanctuary are luminous.

Santa Maria in Trastevere: dark, but not gloomy

Santa Maria in Trastevere: dark, but not gloomy

Cardinal Pell evoked the theme of light which imbues Christmas and especially Epiphany, but his words played to the church we were in, too. He suggested that the darkness of paganism may ebb and flow in our world, but it will never overcome the light of Christ, and it’s our task to carry the torch and illuminate the shadows of our time.

These words came back to me at today’s Mass at St Paul’s Outside the Walls. This is a very different church. It less than 200 years old, and it is immensely light and airy. It’s also just plain immense. St Paul’s evokes solidity and permanence.

image

St Paul Outside the Walls: even more beautiful than this photo suggests.

During Mass today I prayed especially for the victims of yesterday’s Islamist attack in Paris. As I looked around, I pondered how illusory the permanence of this church is. I contemplated not just the physical basilica, but also the faith in Europe, and the freedoms of liberal democracy. All of these things are threatened by the barbarity and violence of Islamism. Islam is not pagan – strictly speaking, it’s a heresy – but it is, nonetheless, the intellectual and spiritual inspiration of a darkness which threatens to spread through Europe and beyond.

As beautiful and big and bright as St Paul’s Basilica is – evocative of Christ, the Alpha and the Omega – I found more consolation in Santa Maria in Trastevere. Especially in its comparative modesty, and in its warm pockets of light which scatter the shadows.

The confidence and brashness and self-assurance of St Paul’s doesn’t suit the present mood, I think. It is warmth and goodness and heroic courage which these times call for, which is evoked not only in the long history of Santa Maria in Trastevere, but also in its very stones: in its architecture and atmosphere.

CEO of TJH Council

CEO of TJH Council

While I share people’s criticisms of the TJH Council’s latest report, I’d caution against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Francis Sullivan is both knowledgeable and thoughtful. I encourage anyone who hasn’t heard him speak to remedy that. He most certainly merits benefit of the doubt.

“Church links celibacy with abuse”

“Church links celibacy with abuse”

Time to start blogging again! The latest issue of The Priest has gone to press, we’ve closed registrations to the international clergy conference I’m helping to organise, and I’ve finally struck a routine in my new parish. Time to blog!

Unfortunately, my first post in a long time is a critical one. I’m loathe to criticise, when there’s such a need to edify. But sometimes criticism is necessary, in defence of the truth.

Today’s Australian quotes the Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council‘s Activity Report from December. I’m a great advocate of the TJH Council, and in particular its CEO, Francis Sullivan. I have heard him speak on several occasions, and each time he has spoken uncomfortable truths about the Church with prophetic courage.

But this time, the TJH Council has got it wrong. Its December report claims that “obligatory celibacy may also have contributed to abuse in some circumstances.” In a way this isn’t exactly new. At the Victorian State Parliamentary Enquiry into institutional child abuse, Cardinal Pell acknowledged that celibacy could be a cause for sexual abuse.

But this claim flies in the face of qualifiable psychological research that finds no link between professed and self-adhered celibacy and sexual abuse. I’ll try and find some links … tomorrow. Not today.

The TJH Council goes onto to say that “you can’t have an honest and open discussion about the future without having an honest and open discussion about celibacy. We are placing celibacy on the table.”

I wish they’d take it off again. Celibacy is a distraction. The two major issues, I think, are much broader, and demand focused attention. One is an unhealthy closed-shop clericalism which afflicts the Church. The other is the depraved sexual license which afflicts our society.

In other words, the real problems are cultural and highly complex. It’s tempting to raise an easy-fix issue like priestly celibacy, but it isn’t very helpful.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made news earlier this month for his remarks about a young priest wary of ‘the Francis Effect.’ His words as reported — and the response from Ireland’s Association of Catholic Priests — were, I think, justly criticised.

To be fair, I haven’t read the Archbishop’s speech in full. It seems to me that his broader point about ideology was a good one, but his example was imprudent. Be that as it may, when Archbishop Martin speaks, I listen. His 2011 address at the University of Cambridge related to the state of the Church in Ireland, but it is equally applicable to the Church in Australia.

More recently, he shared a compelling vision of what the Church can become in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal:

The Church must not just be transformed into a place where children are safe.  It must also be transformed into a privileged place of healing for survivors. It must be transformed into a place where survivors, with all their reticence and with all their repeated anger towards the Church, can genuinely come to feel that the Church is a place where they will encounter healing.

Ireland co-hosted the 2014 Anglophone Conference in Rome, which brought together bishops from all over the world who shared best practice on how to respond to clerical abuse. I think Archbishop Martin’s introductory speech is worth reading in its entirety. Here’s another worthy extract:

The words of Jesus about leaving the ninety-nine to go out to find the one who is lost, refers also to our attitude to victims.   To some it might seem less than prudent to think that the Church would go out of its way to seek out even more victims and survivors.  There are those who say that that would only create more anguish and litigation and that it would be asking for trouble and would be more than a little ingenuous. The problem is that what Jesus says about leaving the ninety and going out after the one who is lost is in itself unreasonable and imprudent, but, like it or not, that it precisely what Jesus asks us to do.

Gold.

The critical spirit blows where it pleases — even in Korea

The critical spirit blows where it pleases — even in Korea

Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to Korea highlights a local church which makes for fascinating study.

The Church in South Korea has expanded at a phenomenal rate in recent decades. Many reports note the growth of the Church in Korea despite the very low number of foreign-born missionaries.

But maybe the Korean Church grows because of the foreigners’ low numbers. More specifically, maybe success lies in the failure of the West to export to Korea the laxism and mediocrity which typifies “the Spirit of Vatican II.”

Consider first the opinion of Fr Piero Gheddo, an expert in Japanese and Korean sociology, and dean of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Milan:

In Korea Christianity exercises a powerful force of attraction, compared to Confucianism and Buddhism, for at least five reasons.

1. It introduces the idea of the equality of all human beings created by God himself. In Confucian society woman was almost the slave of her husband, girls did not go to school, and woman was inferior to man.

2. Catholics and Protestants distinguished themselves by their active participation in the popular movement against the long military dictatorship between 1961 and 1987. Confucianism and Buddhism, however, promote obedience to the constituted authority.

3. Christianity is a religion of the Book and of a personal God, while shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are not even religions, but systems of human wisdom and life.

4. Catholics and Protestants have built and maintain a large number of schools at all levels, including numerous universities that have asserted themselves as the best in the country.

5. Finally, South Korea has become a developed and even wealthy country in which the ancient religions do not have an answer for the problems of modern life. Christianity, and especially Catholicism, presents itself as the most adequate religion for our time and the most active in assisting the poor.

Fr Gheddo is full of praise. Since 1960, the number of Catholics in Korea has grown from about 100,000 (0.5 per cent) to 5.3 million (over 10 per cent). But others aren’t quite as positive. From the National ‘Catholic’ Reporter:

When Pope Francis arrives here Thursday, he will encounter a vibrant but divided Korean church. It is a church that has grown substantially in numbers in recent decades, but one with significant internal divisions.

“There are actually two churches here,” said Columban Fr Pat Cunningham, “the church of the bishops and the church of the progressive minority.”

The division between Korean bishops and Catholic activists has grown as more conservative bishops have been appointed during the past three decades and Catholic activists have become more vocal.

I have to credit Fr Cunningham for referring to a progressive minority. He paints the scene with an honesty which isn’t typical. Progressives are often depicted as the overwhelming majority. Vox populi, sensum fidelium, and all that.

In America, Europe, Australia, we hear that the Church will grow again, when and only when the Church lets go of traditional moral teaching and doctrine. The progressives’ case has always required historical revisionism, wherein Traditionalists have controlled the agenda, and the episcopacy, since 1968. (Certainly not my experience of the Church in Australia!)

In Korea, the Church is fruitful, so progressives are unable to depict Catholic Tradition as sterile, and present modernism as a panacea. But the same old criticisms are heard: “lost opportunities,” and “clerical structures,” and “conservative bishops.” The critical spirit blows hard.

To what end? Ideology, I think. It confirms my suspicion that the progressive cause which was unleashed after Vatican II is mired in political outlooks and earthly horizons. The cause is not a means to attracting souls; it’s an end in itself. Supernatural outlook is lacking and human interests dominate — not that the forces unleashed are entirely human. The critical spirit has Satan written all over it.

False doctrine is toxic bread

False doctrine is toxic bread

On Tuesday, Ballarat’s Courier published an article about St Columba’s Parish in Ballarat North.

Hundreds of parishioners were surveyed. Almost half had no objection to homosexual behaviour and supported gay marriage. An overwhelming majority supported IVF and favoured divorce and remarriage without annulment.

I bet this article resonates with every one of us. We all struggle with the “hard sayings” of Christ and his Church. That’s why they’re called “hard sayings.” The parable of the wheat and the darnel addresses this.

Darnel is a common weed in the Middle East. It resembles wheat so closely that even the farmer’s practiced eye cannot distinguish it until the stalks begin to mature. Darnel is toxic to humans, and if mixed with wheat flour, it will ruin bread.

Many Church Fathers understand the darnel to be a metaphor for false doctrine, which is not easy to distinguish from the truth, especially at the beginning. But when error is allowed to flourish, it has catastrophic effects on the people of God.

We can see how relevant this parable is today. While Christians have slept, the enemy has sown bad seed with impunity. There’s practically no truth of the Catholic Faith which hasn’t been undermined.

The Courier quoted a parish spokesman, whose words are a good mix of wheat and darnel. Consider this quote from the article:

I’ve always found the Catholic Church to be a rather broad umbrella in which a multitude of views are contained. It seems to me that some non-Catholic commentators see Catholics as unthinking automatons, blindly following decrees from the top. I don’t think it’s ever been like that, to be honest. People have always made up their own minds, and continue to do so.

The Church is a broad umbrella. Catholic means, “here comes everybody.” And Catholics can’t be unthinking automatons. Blind servility offends God. He gave us reason, and He gave us freedom, and we honour God when we exercise these gifts.

But, as Catholics we are also obliged to assent to our Lord’s teachings, and the teachings of his Church. St Peter is our model in this. When Jesus insisted we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to gain eternal life, many of his disciples left him. It was a moment of crisis in our Lord’s public ministry.

He turned to the apostles, who were probably as bewildered as everyone else. Maybe even scandalised. “What about you?” he said to them. “Do you want to go away too?”

Peter spoke for the Twelve. He speaks for us too. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

This is our model of assent. Blind servility, no. Humble faith, yes. When we struggle with one teaching or another, we can’t accept it without thinking, but nor are we free to discard it. We must grapple with it. Pray with it. Ask for Peter’s faith.

Here’s something else the parishioner said:

A lot of people, as we become more educated, are accepting of the modern realities of life. It’s not enough to say “you’ve done this wrong and we don’t agree.” It’s about how we continue to include people who are part of our family or part of the Church … not cutting them off because of their sexuality or decisions.

How true. Isn’t that the crux of our Lord’s parable?

When you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest.

Even while we insist on the truth of our faith, and reject false doctrine, we never write people off, or abandon relationships. We must keep open the channels of grace. It’s not our task to weed out the darnel. Occasionally, it is the task of the Church to “isolate” parts of the crop.

Pope Francis did this last year, when he excommunicated an Australian priest who defiantly celebrated public Mass when his faculties were withdrawn, and repeatedly endorsed gay marriage and the ordination of women. He isolated another part of the crop last month, when he declared members of the mafia were excommunicated.

Excommunication isn’t a nice business, but this act of quarantine takes seriously the second part of today’s Gospel:

At harvest time I shall say to the reapers: ‘First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.’

Darnel ruins bread and false doctrine ruins souls, so we must be judicious. Where is the darnel in my own heart and mind?