The Drama of the Synod – hope springs eternal

As if the Synod and its prelude have not been fraught enough, Mgr Charamsa’s strategically-timed exhibitionism in outing himself, complete with beau at his side, has thrown so many into a, not unjustifiable, tizzy. It is a deliberate attempt to pervert the course of the Synod, and for that reason it is not to be ignored (though he is, to be blunt about it). But it was all rather pathetic. The 10 demands of his manifesto reflect a political method now obsolete and ineffective. The demands had little connection with reality. If he’s lucky, history will give him a brief footnote.

Much of the tizz and fizz results from the Vatican statement, which implied quite directly that Mgr Charamsa has lost his curial and teaching positions because his grandstanding constitutes

such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure.

Commentators, again not unreasonably, point out that the Mgr is not being dismissed for his violation of his vows or his immoral lifestyle, but for his poor form and provocativeness. In other words, not because he was a sinner but because he was not a gentleman. So, it is argued, the Vatican is playing down the moral aspect, pandering to the liberals and possible even signalling the tone of the Synod now upon us.

Further and deeper reflection reveals things to be not quite so dire, or so we might hope. Perhaps the Vatican is seeking to defuse the monsignor’s little bomb by refusing to engage with his sexual agenda. Why make a “gay” martyr of him? Why allow him to pose as a victim of “homophobia”? Why feed his cause in the eyes of the secular media? Far more effective, surely, is it to remove him for his grossly crude attempts to manipulate the Synod. Everyone can at least acknowledge the fact that what he did was not cricket, pursuing a political stratagem that carried it with significant risk if he failed in its execution. He did fail, his bluff has been called and he lost. Now we can forget about him, and the secular media will have to do some impressive manipulation themselves if they want to portray him in any convincing way as a martyr of homophobia. To the dispassionate observer he looks an idiot, and the papers are full of those already. Let’s move on; there is nothing to see here.

Indeed such desperation might give us cause to hope that the Synod may prove far better than the pre-synodal guerilla warfare might suggest. While we must avoid the sentimental piety that moves some to say, as at the papal election, that the Holy Spirit will get His way whatever happens. History shows that many councils, and many papal elections, had little of fragrance of the Holy Spirit about them. God permitted missteps as part of His larger scheme, in the service of a deeper aim. If synods, councils and conclaves were automatically conformed to the positive will of God, then why do we have Masses to pray for the Holy Spirit to move with power in these events?

Thus, perhaps it was the Holy Spirit who ensured that the opening Mass of the Synod would hear today’s readings from Genesis and St Mark. Genesis recounts the creation of Eve as the companion of Adam, for which reason “a man leaves his mother and father and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body”. St Mark recounts our Lord’s uncompromising teaching about marriage, that God made male and female, and it is they who can form one body together; and that to leave a wife to marry another woman is adultery, and the same for the woman who leaves her husband to remarry, because what God has joined no man can rightly divide.

Perhaps in this, the Spirit has spoken the judgement that the Synod must inevitably reaffirm. After all, the Synod Fathers all know that St Paul uses our Lord’s teaching on marriage as the basis for understanding not only the sacramentality of marriage, but also the sacramentality of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ, wedded to Him so that they are one Body (cf Ephesians 5, for example). Marriage is the only context for sexual intercourse, and so it must be between a man and a woman. If not, if sexual intercourse it outside marriage or not between man and woman, then it is not in the strict sense Christian.

Let the state do what it will, but the Church can only accept marriage as defined by our Lord because it is contiguous with the relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church. If the Church were to forsake marriage as revealed by God, and thus to forsake God’s intended meaning for sexual intercourse, it would be forsaking its relationship to Christ, shattering the unity of Christ’s Body, and making herself an adulteress. With this in mind, read the following from 1 Corinthians 6, vv 13ff:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.  Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

The matters of marriage, sexual activity and the Church’s identity are so intimately connected that to change teaching on marriage or sexual activity would be to change the Church’s identity. But we cannot. Christ has bought us with is blood; we are not our own. If we rebel on matters of marriage or sexual intercourse, then we might unite our bodies with a prostitute but the we cannot drag the Church with us. She is eternally one with Christ. In fact, and this might shock some, the Church is not free to do or be anything else. Having died for us, Christ will never sign the writ of divorce; the Church certainly cannot.


So the coincidence of the Synod’s overture with the Mass of today alone seems a sure signal that the Spirit has spoken already, once and for all. The only revelation that will come from the Synod is which Fathers will prove themselves faithful, and which (if any) will show themselves time-servers and lovers of the world. Mgr Charamsa has already revealed his choice, and he will now fade into the obscurity that comes with that choice. Let’s look forward to seeing some heroes for that Faith which alone can save.


By the way, go to Adopt a Synod Father, and target your prayers for the Father it gives you to adopt. I was given Archbishop Diego Rafael Padron Sanchez of Cumaná, Venezuela. May the Lord be in his heart and on his lips that he may worthily proclaim the gospel.

On Synod’s Eve

It’s been busy. Little time has been left for blogging. Maybe just as well.

But a few of people have asked in recent days why I have not posted about the Synod, and what do I think about the Synod.

The short answer is that I wish it were not happening. But reality bites.

It’s cheating, but not totally. Last Sunday I preached at the conventual Mass here at Douai, and I had the Synod firmly in mind. Homilies rarely keep their full effect when reduced to the text without the voice. And of course, there is only so much you can say in under ten minutes. Nevertheless, for once I am going to add a homily here, last Sunday’s, as a sort of ferverino for us all on Synod’s Eve.

The Gospel, you might remember was from St Mark, chapter 9:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.

“For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

So with these words of our Lord in mind, you will see what I am on about. Some of you may find it helpful. If you do not,  move on in peace. But do pray for the Synod Fathers.

For better and for worse the Enlightenment of the 18th century happened, and changed almost everything about human life in this world. At its best, it gave free rein to human reason to extend the boundaries of our knowledge of the universe, the earth, and human existence. At its worst, human reason became a god, a golden calf to be worshipped for itself. Indeed after the French revolution Robespierre and his cabal established the Cult of Reason, declaring, “Reason is God”. It is no coincidence that what historians call the Reign of Terror exactly coincided with Robespierre’s Cult of Reason.

Even as human reason expanded our knowledge of the natural world, it reduced our vision and focus more and more to this natural world, shrinking our horizons to what merely could be observed and measured. As our reasoned knowledge grew our vision diminished proportionally. That this should affect the world as it has is no real surprise. But that this diminished vision should condition so much of what happens in our Church is more troubling, and more dangerous.

If you have not heard, next month round two of the Synod of Bishops on Marriage and Family Life will begin in Rome. The lead up to it has been tumultuous and troubling to many. The trouble comes from a loud faction which seeks to change the Church’s consistent teachings on marriage, divorce and sexuality. The arguments are highly emotive and command much attention. These people point out that, say, the divorced who have remarried are often more sinned against than sinning, and that the Church’s refusal to admit them to Holy Communion is to punish them, and to victimize them further.

Of course if our vision, our conceptual and spiritual horizon, is largely limited to this world and this life, then such assertions are compelling. Yet in today’s excerpt from the Gospel of St Mark we find our Lord quite clearly and forcefully directing our vision to beyond this world and this life, reminding us that our horizon extends beyond the kingdom of the world to the Kingdom of God. It is the promise of a life and a world beyond this one that gives meaning to all that we endure and suffer in this life and this world, and gives value to all our good actions and sacrifices here and now.

The Church’s power to teach is not unlimited; it can only, and must only, teach and bind us to the truth that has been revealed by God. The teaching authority of the Church is not a magic wand that can be waved at will to take all our discomfort away. There is no Cross-less Christianity. The psychological, emotional or physical discomfort of this life is as nothing, says our Lord, to the discomfort that might be endured eternally in the next life if we fail to heed the truth as it has actually been revealed. Not to teach the truth is to foster a lie; and, to encourage people in a fantasy which calms the spirit but endangers the soul is hardly charity. Thus our Lord puts it in stark, uncompromising and unmistakable terms: if your eye should cause you to sin, pluck it out for it is better to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to enter hell with both. So what we do here and now has consequences beyond this world and this life, and the Church has a duty to remind us of this and encourage us to keep to the way, the truth and the life.

Human lives are messy, a cloudy and obscure grey. The truth of Christ to which the Church has consistently witnessed possesses the crispness of black and white. The challenge of Christian living, and the Church’s pastoral practice, is to bring our lives more and more into harmony with Christ’s truth as it has been revealed. We do this not by introducing the murky grey of messy humanity into Christ’s truth, but by introducing more of the crisp clarity of Christ’s truth into the murk of human life. Christ always told the sinners he forgave, “Go and sin no more”. Christ’s example must be the Church’s pastoral practice. To refuse to call sin what it is fools only ourselves and merits the millstone.

So our patient endurance now, our sacrifices now, our efforts to live as Christ calls us to live here and now, all have a value that derives from God’s eternity, and have a meaning that derives from the God’s Kingdom. In another place Christ encourages us: Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all that you need will be given to you. He requires only that we honestly seek it, not that we succeed in attaining it, for that will be God’s gift to the sincere heart.

Indeed Christ has a small word of encouragement in today’s gospel that we might easily miss. “If anyone gives you a cup of water for my sake he will not lose his reward”. All our acts of selflessness, of self-sacrifice, of generosity, of endurance will be crowned with a reward in the Kingdom of God. No good act is wasted, no sacrifice for God’s sake is done in vain. But to see that we must look beyond the narrow confines of this little world and this short life, to that eternal Kingdom that Christ ceaselessly calls us to. Let us not cling to the tinsel and lose hold of the gold. The wonder is, if we strive to be the person Christ calls us to be, we will have a little gold even now, as a pledge of the treasure to come.


i-am-the-way blog

A Telling Letter in The Tablet

In the latest issue of The Tablet (22 August) there is a letter from the composer and former director of music for Portsmouth diocese. Here it is:


Melanie had suggested that children be taught more traditional Eucharistic hymns because of their (undeniably) fuller theological content and catechetical utility. Mr Inwood is clearly not impressed, perhaps because if all parishes switched to traditional hymns there would be little work for him to do.

But his last sentence suggests there is more to it than that. It is amazingly bald in its honesty:

That is why there is a whole new generation of hymns that reflect a postconciliar understanding of what we do at Mass.

Here is an expression of the hermeneutic of rupture that Pope Benedict XVI so eloquently warned of in 2005. Mr Inwood seems to think that there is a radical difference between “what we do at Mass” now in our “postconciliar” days, as opposed to pre-conciliar days.

Part of me wants to say that the main agent, or do-er, at Mass is God. But insofar as there is a purely human activity he is right in a sense. We do do things very differently now. Some might here point to the very much emptier churches that we also have now and wonder if we are in fact doing things as we actually should.

Mr Inwood is subtly implying that the changes in what we “do at Mass” in these postconciliar days are mandated by the Second Vatican Council. We might point him to the Council’s great document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and ask to show us where it teaches a new and different understanding  of “what we do at Mass”.

And pace Mr Inwood, it is the same Eucharist at Benediction as at Mass, and at both we adore Christ made present in his sacrificial Body. Let’s go to Pope Benedict again, from a speech he made on 14 March 2009 to the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship (emphasis added):

I therefore willingly accepted the proposal that the Plenary Assembly should address the theme of Eucharistic adoration, trusting that a renewed collegial reflection on this process might help to make clear, within the limits of the Dicastery’s competence, the liturgical and pastoral means with which the Church of our time can promote faith in the Real Presence of the Lord in the Holy Eucharist and guarantee [to] the celebration of Holy Mass the full dimension of adoration. I stressed this aspect in my Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, in which I gathered the fruits of the Eleventh Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod celebrated in October 2005. In it, highlighting the importance of the intrinsic relationship between the celebration of the Eucharist and adoration (cf. n. 66), I cited St Augustine’s teaching: “Nemo autem illam carnem manducat, nisi prius adoraverit; peccemus non adorando” [ie, “no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it”] (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 98, 9: CCL 39, 1385). The Synod Fathers did not omit to express concern at a certain confusion which arose after the Second Vatican Council about the relationship between Mass and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 66).

Mr Inwood seems to express so pithily the very postconciliar confusion that Pope Benedict exposes and seeks to remedy. Notwithstanding those ministers who have necessary roles to fulfil in the sacred liturgy, we would all do well to do a little more adoring at Mass. That is a truly active participation.

Melanie McDonagh, against whom Mr Inwood was complaining, was acting very much in accord with Pope Benedict’s exhortation. Indeed one hymn she refers to more than once is Soul of My Saviour, which seems admirably to combine “static adoration” (whatever that is! we are clearly meant to boo and hiss] with “an active, participatory liturgy” (and here we are clearly meant to cheer) – and so remedy the artificial and illegitimate divorce of these two dynamics that Mr Inwood encourages. It is clearly a hymn about receiving the Blessed Eucharist in an attitude of reverent faith and dynamic adoration:

Soul of my Saviour sanctify my breast,
Body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with waters gushing from thy side.

Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O blessèd Jesus, hear and answer me;
deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
in death’s dread moments make me only thine;
call me and bid me come to thee on high
where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.

Vatican II advocated an understanding of Mass and the celebration of the liturgy that was deliberately consistent with the Church’s understanding for all those centuries leading up to this most recent Council. I fear that Mr Inwood is a spokesman for the “virtual Council”, the “Council of the Media” that Pope Benedict identified as working against the “real Council” at which he was actively present.

Which Council do you choose?


Recently, after Mass, someone articulated some spiritual difficulties, in particular, why doesn’t God do anything when we pray for those migrants in Calais?

It’s that old chestnut, or rather two chestnuts thrown into the blender to make one sludge of bewilderment: why does God not always answer our prayers; and why do bad things happen to the innocent? The answer to both, of course, is sin – human sin, to make it perfectly clear.

However, that is not by itself a satisfying answer to most. Books have been written addressing this real problem in Christians’ spiritual lives, and they often do it very well, and better than I could.

Yet we could still approach the problem from one angle at least.

A few days ago Fr Ray Blake paid me the compliment of advancing a few spiritual reflections on my report of the recent EBC Forum. In particular he noted that the monastic orders often serve as indicators of the health of a particular Church, black canaries down the ecclesial mineshaft. If the air is toxic, foetid or foul the canary will fall sick and even die. Rightly he said that it is not merely an issue of liturgy or doctrine (however important these indeed are). Fr Blake put the issue in spiritual terms: do these monasteries produce saints, or as he aptly put it, “vessels of clay shining with supernatural light”?

Monasteries with holy monks attract vocations. That these monks will celebrate the liturgy worthily and well is not only a cause but an effect of this holiness. It is a symbiotic relationship: a liturgy centred on God will feed holiness, which itself will bear fruit in a liturgy centred on God, not man. Read Church history and you will see more than enough examples of this plain truth.

Alas, if the local Church has lost its vigour, the monasteries will suffer too. If the Church no longer points to eternity as the homeland we need ultimately to worry about and work towards, but rather sees this world’s problems as the focus of its attention, then why would young men (and women) find attractive a life that makes no sense in this-worldly terms?

Of course, authentic Christianity has always placed immense significance on what we now term “social justice”. Yet we should be clear about the fundamental reason why: because what we do here in this fleeting world has direct and potentially irreversible consequences for our lives in the next, and eternal, world. Apart from the fact that basic human decency should bid us have concern for our neighbour wherever and whoever he or she might be, our Christian faith demands that we do. What we do, or fail to do, to our neighbour is done to Christ.

Do we really believe that? Has our earthly life as Christians lost its supernatural flavour? Is our Christianity confined to Sunday attendance at Church and no more? Do we feel smug that at least we go to church, and effectively leave our Christianity at that? Do we consider that our Christianity is a purely private matter and that its intrusion into public life is vulgar, or even intolerant? Do we worry far too much about what people might think of us rather than about what God might think of us?

If the answers to the questions above are mostly “yes” then our Church will not produce vocations, nor bear any fruit that will last except through a freakish and exceptional rogue shoot.

So if we truly want vocations to our monasteries and our seminaries, then we need to start acting like we do. Pray. And keep praying. Fast and do penance, remembering the example of Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh. Live a life that is Christian 24 hours a day, and not just in church on a Sunday.

Likewise if we want our prayers to be answered, then we need to start acting like we do. Do penance. Walk an extra mile. Give to the poor, the orphan and the stranger. Lobby our MPs to have the guts to take a stand in Parliament. Make a stand ourselves, however “vulgar” such displays might seem. And keep praying.

For really, why should God give heed to our prayers if we so feebly and half-heartedly live as Christians? Most talk of God’s love as unconditional is bilge and wastewater. God’s love and grace are indeed umerited, but unconditional?! Really? What then is the covenant in which we stand with God? What is our part in that covenant? What then of Christ’s commandment to love (a doing not a feeling) our neighbour? Why did he bother with the parable of the Good Samaritan? Is it enough that our liturgies too often become human-centred and not “in memory of Me”?

So it seems at least to this writer, and to Fr Blake, that for both the vocations crisis and the problem of evil flourishing in this world despite our prayers, the solution is holiness, personal holiness for every Christian. If our charity never goes beyond prayer, then why should God listen to us? Prayer is wonderful, but if there is never any evidence in our lives that we intend to live as we pray then our prayers are little better than rectal emissions of methane. We owe it to our persecuted brethren in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, not only to pray for them, but to be holy enough that our prayers might bear fruit.


Today is a day of fasting for life, held on the feast of St Maximilian Kolbe, who lived as he prayed, and laid down his life for another in Auschwitz according to the teaching and example of Christ. Some demons, taught Christ can only be expelled by prayer and fasting. So, for once, I am getting of my ample monastic backside and doing at least a little something beyond words in order to fight the evils of abortion and euthanasia. Bread and water only, with maybe a cup of tea to keep my spirits up.

Why don’t you have a go too? You’ve nothing to lose and both the world and eternity to gain. Besides – I need the company.

Good Friday Respite

Good Friday evening is an oasis of peace for this monastic sacristan. It is grey outside, steadily and consistently drizzling, and drab. Even the lambs were subdued (oh yes, we have seven so far – you will meet them soon). Nature has on her mourning cloths

This respite from the recent hurly-burly and hubbub allows a moment to share a thought that came during the proclamation of the Passion according to St John this afternoon. For no apparent reason, what was striking today was the conclusion of the narrative, the denoument after the death of our Lord. The Twelve have disappeared totally from view, they have fled and melted away, though we can take it as implied that John was faithful enough at the end and went off with Mary, now his mother too.

In place of the apostles, the chosen Twelve, we find much lesser disciples, not part of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. The secret (“for fear of the Jews”) disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, emerges from his desired and self-preserving obscurity to attend to our Lord’s lifeless body and place it in his own, fresh tomb. Joining him is another obscure disciple of Jesus, “who had previously come to Jesus by night”, Nicodemus, who brings spices and herbs to make a fitting and decent burial. Together they emerge from the darkness of obscurity and pay a sad but solemn homage to our Lord. Not one of the Twelve is in view.

As we know from other passages, by Sunday morning there is still activity about Jesus’ tomb. Not the Twelve, who are locked away together, in self-imposed confinement arising from fear for their own safety; the women , some hitherto nameless, are coming to the Lord’s body in mournful homage.

So the apostolic element is in self-imposed withdrawal while the lesser lights, the members of the general body of disciples, quietly emerge to pay their respects to the Lord, to do him homage, to cherish his memory and, no doubt, his teaching and his hope-filled words.

The moral that came to me is probably obvious by now. Today, when priests are having to write letters to urge a synod of bishops, successors to the apostles, to uphold Catholic doctrine and all that flows from it; when what appear veiled threats emerge from bishops towards them, who urge them not to make trouble but to conform and keep quiet; when laity are signing petitions to support these priests… well you can see it, can’t you? Bishops perhaps a little too filled with the apostolic Good Friday praxis; mere priests and laity emerging from obscurity in quiet fidelity to the teaching and hope-filled words of our Lord – as the preacher says, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).

For many of us, far distant from those lands where Christians are literally dying with and for the Lord who was crucified for them as for us, we can share in the way of the Cross by a similar fidelity and devotion to the ecclesial and eucharistic Body of Christ, emerging briefly from our obscurity to pay a decent and devoted homage to him who is the Truth. This becomes an urgent duty when many of the apostles of today shrink from the challenge, and lock themselves in hiding out of fear of secular society.

Perhaps, as on Easter morning, our contemporary apostles need the call to witness that the first Apostles heard on Easter morning. While the shepherds feed the flock, the flock is called to gather about the shepherds to support them, encourage them, make clear to the shepherds their mission, and to be fed by them with Truth.

The Church today needs a few more like Nicodemus and Joseph, to emerge briefly from obscurity to assert their adherence to the Lord even as a hostile society looks on, and mocks or casts stones. Coptic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Melkite, Roman, and other Christians are literally dying for Christ. Can we perhaps take a few metaphorical blows for Christ, in solidarity with them?

Simon of Cyrene takes up Jesus' Cross. From the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart church, Beagle Bay (Australia), painted in 1949 by a German Schoenstatt, Sister Roswina.

Simon of Cyrene takes up Jesus’ Cross. From the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart church, Beagle Bay in far north-western Australia (and where my nephew is assistant priest), painted in 1949 by a German Schoenstatt, Sister Roswina.

All this laboured concern over the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, from Holy Communion (and not from the Church, let’s be clear) is all a little too much like fiddling while Rome burns. We all have to share in carrying the Cross, even remarried divorcees. There is no other way if we are to be Christ’s disciples. To take it up or shirk it, the choice will always be ours and no other’s.

Wishing you all the blessings of the Triduum.

The 12th Station, from the Stations of the Cross in Douai Abbey church, carved by Fr Aloysius Bloor OSB and designed by Dame Werburg Welch OSB (Stanbrook)

The 12th Station, from the Stations of the Cross in Douai Abbey church, carved by Fr Aloysius Bloor OSB and designed by Dame Werburg Welch OSB (Stanbrook)

Recognizing the 21 Coptic Martyrs – an Ecumenical Opportunity

It is unnecessary to retell the horrific story of the disgusting martyrdom of the 21 Coptic men in Libya last week, gloatingly displayed to the world in an online video of the sort that ISIS  Daesh* is notorious for producing. Though I have not watched it, those who have say that many of the martyrs had the name of Jesus on their lips as they died. Despite the hair-splitting of the SSPX, whether or not their murder was in revenge for the killing of a senior jihadist is irrelevant: they were murdered because they were Christian, and in hatred of Christ.

*(a name hated by the ISIS jihadists themselves and so most appropriate to give them)

The second objection of the SSPX to granting the title of martyr to the 21 Coptic brethren is that the Copts are heretics. This objection has more weight to it, but how relevant is it to this situation?

Firstly, are Copts actually heretics? Without going into a detailed history of the early Church and its theology, suffice it to say that the Coptic (ie Egyptian) Christians were in communion with the universal Church until the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). After that Council they, with the other Oriental churches, were cast as monophysites (ie those who hold that Christ had only one nature, not two, and that this nature was either totally divine or a divine/human synthesis) and thus heretics. As so often happens, the argument was over vocabulary more than substance. The Copts formally reject monophysitism, and accept the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ in his one Person, though they centre the union of these two natures in one “nature”, rather than in one “person” as do Chalcedonian Christians like the Catholics and the Orthodox.

However, the issue is essentially a dead one. In 1988 the Catholic and Coptic Churches issued an Agreed Statement which affirmed the orthodox understanding of Christ’s identity:

We believe that our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.

At the same time, we anathematize the Doctrines of both Nestorius and Eutyches.

While we cannot ignore the mindset of separation that 1500 years will have naturally produced, this would seem to be weaker with regard to the Copts. Just as, in the wake of another agreed Christological statement with the Assyrian Church of the East, it is now possible for members of either Church to receive Communion in the other under certain conditions, it seems more than possible for the same arrangement to be made with our Coptic brethren.

Heresy is not an issue in reality; schism is, but even there can be found opportunity for progress.

Yet perhaps we can be bolder yet. Yesterday after Mass I was discussing the very issue of these 21 Coptic martyrs with Graham Hutton, Chairman of Aid to the Church in Need (a most worthy Catholic charity indeed). We discussed Pope Francis’ recent comments about an “ecumenism of blood” that unites us with our persecuted, non-Catholic brethren. This was an idea he had raised as far back as December 2013. He has not developed it theologically, which leaves the way for theologians (especially some young ones I know) to take this up and run with it.

Graham and I took this ecumenism of blood a little further in light of the ancient doctrine of Baptism by blood (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1258-1259). In short, dying for Christ effects Baptism for those who die for him while unbaptized. So, we speculated, could it be possible to speak of an absolution by blood, by which dying for Christ would effect the absolution of any grave sins, even the sins of schism or even (formal) heresy? Pope Francis implies this when he said a few days ago that,

The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard… It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.

This is not to minimize differences, nor to turn a blind eye to them as though they did not matter. However, in death divisions among Christians on earth cease to have much bearing. In dying for Christ one has become the perfect disciple, and enters communion with Christ’s Body in heaven.

The Coptic Church has just acclaimed the 21 victims as martyrs by inserting them into their liturgical calendar (15 February), the Coptic Synaxarium, an equivalent process to our own equivalent canonization. Pope Francis has informally identified them as martyrs. Now is the time for theologians to develop this possibility of an ecumenism by (or in) blood, and perhaps also an absolution by blood. This is real ecumenism that respects difference, and respects the essence of Christian discipleship. The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya are role models for all Christians, and surely we can honour them as such. Surely, we as well as Copts can and should call on their martyrs’ intercession before the throne of God in whose presence they now dwell, eternally.

Nothing unites like persecution; nothing builds the Church more than the blood of martyrs. Perhaps here the struggling western Church can find the renewal it so sorely needs.

Coptic martyrs of Libya – pray for us!

Taylor Marshall has kindly listed the names of the martyrs, which I copy here for reference:

The names of the 21 Coptic Martyrs are:

1. Milad Makeen Zaky
2. Abanub Ayad Atiya
3. Maged Solaiman Shehata
4. Yusuf Shukry Yunan
5. Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
6. Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
7. Somaily Astafanus Kamel
8. Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
9. Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
10. Girgis Milad Sinweet
11. Mina Fayez Aziz
12. Hany Abdelmesih Salib
13. Bishoy Adel Khalaf
14. Samuel Alham Wilson
15. A worker from Awr village
16. Ezat Bishri Naseef
17. Loqa Nagaty
18. Gaber Munir Adly
19. Esam Badir Samir
20. Malak Farag Abram
21. Sameh Salah Faruq

The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, an icon drawn by Tony Rezk.

The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, an icon drawn by Tony Rezk.      (click to see a larger version)

In the news: a bishop’s fall, and freedom of speech

Update on Bishop Tebartz van Elst – a consolation prize, but not a bad one for all that.


Word came this week that another bishop has “resigned” under the provisions of Canon 401, paragraph 2. This provides for resignation for “grave cause” or ill-health. Given that the latest resignee, Bishop Le Vert of Quimper in Brittany, is only 55 years old, grave cause seemed to be the catalyst here. In May last year Bishop Le Vert had been “allowed” by Pope Francis to suspend his governance of the diocese for “health reasons”. This is not normal procedure for a bishop who is ill but able likely to recover. In such a situation, normally an auxiliary bishop (if the diocese has one) or the vicar general would govern the diocese. In cases of chronic debilitating illness the bishop would normally resign sooner rather than later. In Bishop Le Vert’s case a retired bishop was parachuted in with full power of governance. And now Bishop Le Vert has jumped, clearly after a hefty push.

Bishop Le Vert

One might reasonably ask what the health issues might have been. Nothing more than stress it seems. The bishop was not popular with a powerful faction among his clergy. Given that Bishop Le Vert is a member of the Community of St Martin, one of the few elements of the Catholic Church in France that is thriving, and which is routinely labelled “conservative” (even by those sympathetic to it), one might have suspected that theological or liturgical tensions had fractures the facade of peace. If La Croix is to be believed, the tensions were in relationships, the senior clergy unhappy that Bishop Le Vert was relying more on an entourage of advisers than on them. There is a troubling pattern emerging under this papacy. One cannot dispute the papal right to remove a bishop in extremis for the good of the Church. This would normally be for heresy, continued and grave insubordination, criminal conduct or some other grave scandal. Before this there would be quiet but firm encouragement for the bishop to resign, to remove himself before he would be removed. Some, like Bishop Le Vert, take the hint. Others, like Bishop Morris, dig in their heels, drawing out an unpleasant situation until the papal hand strikes. But in Bishop Le Vert’s case, there is no misconduct. What there is, on a little closer inspection, is a bishop who did not share his clergy’s liberal outlook on worship and doctrine, and so took his advice from those who shared his outlook and whom he thus trusted more fully. This is a fairly common practice among any new head of an organization who feels himself very much an outsider in his new position. But the clergy who previously held sway resented this immensely and did not accommodate themselves quietly to the new order until things settled down. They actively resisted their new bishop, and the vicar general and some members of the bishop’s council resigned in protest. It is for this – that the bishop and the ascendant clergy in his diocese – did not agree, that Le Vert was removed. In every respect Le Vert was orthodox in theology and, to judge by photos of him in liturgical settings, far from being an ultra-traditionalist. But the screeching of the disaffected among his senior clergy has led to his effective removal. A little glance at the state of the diocese of Quimper is revealing. In 1948, the diocese had a total population of over 738,000, with over 737,000 of them Catholics, with meant that Catholics made up 99.8% of the total population within the diocese. They were served by 1,042 diocesan priests and 52 religious priests. That meant a laity/priest ratio of 637/1. By the time statistics were gathered for 2010, not long after Le Vert was appointed, after a rise in Catholic numbers from the 1970s through the 1990s, the number of Catholics fell precipitately to 722,000, while the total population grew to almost 886,000, meaning Catholics had had fallen to 81.5% of the population, and were served by a meagre 277 diocesan priests and 27 religious priests, which saw the laity/priest ration balloon to 2,375/1. An impartial and disinterested observer would have to conclude something had gone wrong to produce such a decline. What I have not yet found is the rate of Mass attendance among the total number of Catholics, but one could safely bet it is not healthy. So Bishop Le Vert took over an flagging diocese, and seemed ready to place a firm hand on the till to restore some order and vitality (something for which the Community of St Martin is notable). Vested clerical interests were not happy with this change to their comfortable status quo, and have resisted him to the point of making his position untenable in papal eyes. It would not quite so troubling if it were not for the fact that this is fast becoming common under Pope Francis. The Bishop of Limburg (Germany), another young “conservative”, was removed after a nasty smear campaign by some of his senior clergy accusing him of financial extravagance for personal benefit. Pope Francis decided that his position, also, was untenable and forcibly removed him. Bishop Tebartz van Elst blamed his vicar general for creating the situation. Two days after hearing Bishop van Elst’s personal plea, Pope Francis removed him and appointed the agitating vicar general to administer the diocese.


Bishop Tebartz van Elst

The Bishop of Albenga-Imperia (Italy), the Tradition-minded Mario Oliveri, had a coadjutor bishop imposed upon him by Pope Francis last year. He had been castigated by some of his clergy for accepting unsuitable candidates for the priesthood into the diocese (for being traditional, his diocese was attracting vocations). He allowed external priests into the diocese who were found to be less than exemplary from a moral point of view. It is generally accepted that the bishop merely takes too positive a view of people; no one accuses him of any personal misconduct. It is this that has probably saved him from deposition, though the imposition of a coadjutor somewhat neuters him as the bishop. Yet how many other bishops of the last 50 years (till this day) have been guilty of accepting unsuitable candidates? If they were all to disciplined not many Western dioceses would be left untouched.


Bishop Mario Oliveri

The Bishop of Cuidad del Este (Paraguay), Rogelio Livieres Plano, a member of the “conservative” Opus Dei movement, was removed from office last year by Pope Francis. His diocese, teeming with vocations, had attracted some clergy with controversial backgrounds, including one who had been accused of sexual impropriety years before in the United States. This latter priest Bishop Livieres had imprudently appointed as vicar general. However, Bishop Livieres strongly maintains that the priest is innocent of the allegations levelled against him. Nevertheless, it was not the most sensible of appointments, and it became an Achilles heel. But Bishop Livieres was despised by his fellow bishops in Paraguay, not least the Archbishop of Asuncion, whom Livieres had accused of being homosexual (by which is implied activity not merely orientation). While he seems to be quite the maverick, it cannot be denied that his diocese was the healthiest in Paraguay and in fact attracting vocations from the others. His removal was centred precisely, according to the Vatican itself, on the relationship of Livieres with the other bishops of Paraguay.


Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano

These three prelates are guilty of imprudence, a failing which has been shared by thousands of bishops over the last few decades till the present. A swiftly-applied reality check may well have been in order for all of them. But removal? There is something markedly incongruous in that a pope who is actively championing the rights of diocesan bishops over and against the role of the Holy See, seeking to decentralize the Church and move much more power to the provinces, invoking collegiality as the guiding principle – this same pope is ready to remove bishops who are at odds with their clergy or their fellow local bishops. If these clergy complain loud and long enough, they can get the bishop removed, no matter his right to govern the diocese according to the laws of the Church and its doctrine. All three bishops above were pilloried first not by laity, but by clergy. All three were orthodox and attracting vocations. These are the bishops removed. Some see this as a “massacre” of conservative bishops. It certainly looks that way, especially given that clearly misbehaving clergy have been kept on in plum positions by Pope Francis. What sort of collegiality is this? How does this square with Vatican II’s on the dignity of the bishop as pastor of his own diocese? How can we expect a man with clear principles, and who is prepared to act on them, not to be opposed by some, maybe even many? St Athanasius stood as a lone voice against the nearly victorious Arian heresy in the fourth century, so much so that the phrase Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”) was coined, and as a bishop he was in exile for over 17 years, never ceasing to work for truth. With so many clergy against him, St Athanasius would today, no doubt, be removed from his diocese by the pope. If your clerical colleagues do not like you, neither does the pope, or so it seems. What sort of vicious factionalism is this going to foster? Is personality politics now to prosper? Moreover, what should we make of the pope’s move to clarify and codify his power to remove diocesan bishops last November? Fr Ray Blake, in the wake of the pope’s pre-Christmas public dressing down of his curial officials, said that working in the curia today had become a job from hell – who would want it? Given the ease with which a diocesan bishop can be removed or impeded by clerical opposition, one might take the same view of the role of diocesan bishop. Only time-servers will find it comfortable.

Lastly, the sad affair of the Charlie Hebdo massacre has led to a debate about freedom of speech. The cartoonists and other staff were victims of a heinous crime perpetrated by adherents of a vile and absolutist form of Islam. Yet the magazine Charlie Hebdo, is not without vileness of its own, with deliberately provocative cartoons designed not to offer an ironic comment on a situation, but to offend a certain section of society. How can a cartoon of Jesus sodomizing God the Father while the Holy Spirit sodomizes him be anything but gratuitous offensiveness? The magazine reflected the puerile mentality of the student activism and laicïté of the 1960s. They exercised, we have been constantly told these last few weeks, their right to free speech. It was this the terrorists attacked, and it is this we must defend. So we must be Charlie Hebdo too. Yet has absolute freedom of speech ever existed? The fact that most countries have sedition, blasphemy, slander and libel laws tells us immediately that there are limits on what anyone can legally say or write. The new crime of hate speech seeks to criminalize any speech that offends certain (but not all!) minority groups in society. Even canon law recognizes explicitly the right of individual Christians (clergy and prelates included) to their good name and reputation (#220) and criminalizes “a person who in a public show or speech, in published writing, or in other uses of the instruments of social communication utters blasphemy, gravely injures good morals, expresses insults, or excites hatred or contempt against religion or the Church” (#1369). Polly Toynbee, in a deeply-flawed article in The Guardian, defended the right to provoke and offend, especially when it comes to religion, which to her seems to have fewer rights than other minority elements in society. She claims “(r)eligion is gentle only when it’s (sic) powerless”. I wonder if she would extend that insight to such movements as militant LGBT’s, who now they are empowered by equality laws, seek to force owners of patisseries to make cakes supporting “gay marriage” even when it goes against their sincere conscience, and when there are plenty of other patisseries around who would do it? Toynbee claims it is “the role of a satirical magazine… to stick two fingers up to propriety.” Really? I thought satire sought to expose and ridicule hypocrisy and cant, rather than “propriety”. Such a term reveals a fixation in the same sort of Marxist-revolutionary mentality that motivated the anti-bourgeois students of the 1960s. No adolescent is allowed free reign to indulge his or her adolescent rebellion; why should Charlie Hebdo? Freedom of speech is not the issue. Freedom to offend is what they are really seeking. And that is a right no one has, nor should anyone have. What a Catholic can defend is freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. No one should be murdered or persecuted for holding different beliefs or principles. At times it may be morally and socially necessary to impose limits on the expression of an individual’s beliefs. Sometimes these limits will need to be legal. Sometimes, social pressure can effect the same result. Perhaps this social limitation was quietly at work already with regard to Charlie Hebdo before the atrocity:

The magazine’s circulation has dropped over the years. While issues with covers depicting Muhammad sold about 100,000 copies, the magazine often printed 60,000 copies and sales sometimes didn’t (sic) exceed 30,000. (Bloomberg)

30,000 in a country of 66 million. Even when insulting Mohammed (and with all the publicity that went with these stunts) they only sold 100,000. Perhaps the most effective curb on that magazine’s offensiveness will be economic. Anyway, the whole sad situation should make us think carefully about freedom and the use we make of it. Our truest freedom is to speak the truth in charity. Let us keep that in mind when people talk of the right to free speech. speak-the-truth-in-love