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

Synodalia: Fathers, here’s a thought.

Synodalia: Jottings on the margins of the Synod

Many of us will remember that much of the justification for the liturgical reform lay in an appeal to the early Church, a return to the sources and primitive purity, when liturgy had not yet acquired the accretions and “useless repetitions” of more recent centuries. It is more than open to debate that the subsequent reform has been successful. In part this is due to a failure to see that rituals can legitimately develop as the understanding of their significance expands. Some might argue that the liturgical reform’s exaltation of the primitive involved selling off a Porsche 911 in order to obtain a Model-T Ford.

However, with Christian truth, there can be no change. We might understand it more fully, express it in a more accessible way, apply it more fruitfully as time goes on – but truth remains true. So for theology it is legitimate to look back to the early Church to see the sapling form of our doctrinal oaks of today.

So, for example, the Synod Fathers might like to look back to the Didache, among the oldest extant pieces of Christian instruction dating from the mid-1st century and pre-dates most, if not all, the New Testament. Some labour its significance in some areas, but it is clearly written by Christians still in touch with at least one of the apostles. There are two clear principles (at least) about the Eucharist and ecclesial communion that might help the Synod today.

The first is simply and quickly put: Regarding admission to Eucharistic Communion, the teaching is from our Lord Himself: Do not give what is holy to the dogs. (9:5) Clearly, not everyone was admitted to the Eucharist even then. Now, it might be argued, that this comes explicitly in the context of excluding the non-baptized. However, a little later it teaches When gathering on the Lord’s Day, break bread and make Eucharist, confessing your sins beforehand so that your sacrifice may be worthy (14:1). As the Orthodox still proclaim before the reception of Communion,  it is a case of Holy things for the holy.

Surely the modern obsession with avoiding any possibility that people might feel excluded or isolated is not totally new. Surely even in the early years of the Church there were some who felt a keen sympathy, even pity, for the public sinner doing penance or the non-baptized enquirer who was dismissed from the Mass after the homily. Both were not permitted to approach the altar to receive. Were they so hard of heart that they rigidly applied doctrine without a second thought?

In fact, the Didache reveals that early Christians acted far more in authentic solidarity with those not in communion than those who advocate an open-table for those in grave sin or outside communion. The relevant section is brief and spare, but pregnant with significance:

And prior to baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can. (7:4)

So not only was the one preparing to enter communion told to fast, but so too the clergy and as many of the congregation as possible. This was their act of solidarity with the one not yet admitted to communion, and Communion. It is not a private matter for the neophyte alone. Says the scholar Thomas O’Loughlin:

If one accepts the notion… that they imagined a universe where spiritual benefits could be transferred from one person to another, then it may be that the fast of the various members of the church was to produce a benefit that could be transferred from them to their new brother/sister to enable the initiate to turn away from his or her sins and to enter Christ. […]

… the involvement of the minister and preferably others in the community points to the fast being a collective act of intercession for the candidate. If the demons are to be confronted and ejected, then all involved must work together to bring about their casting out from the individual. (1)

Now, this is nothing but a reference to the treasury of the Church’s merits as we understand it today. The Church offers prayer and fasting in order to prosper the admission of the neophyte to the Church and so to the altar. The Church, in the tangible form of her members, stands in active solidarity with those not yet in Communion. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this works also for those outside Communion due to sin. The Church can offer prayer and fasting that the sinner might be freed from his or her sin and restored to Communion.

From the catacombs of St Callistus

From the catacombs of St Callistus

So, instead of fabricating false solutions or running down dead-end paths, why could the Synod not exhort the Church to show real solidarity with the active homosexual or the remarried divorcee: to pray earnestly and fast fervently that they might be liberated from sin and restored to Communion. They do not need a sop to their feelings, but help to their salvation.

It’s just a thought….


(1) Thomas O’Loughlin ‘The Didache as a Source for Picturing the Earliest Christian Communities: The Case of the Practice of Fasting’ in K. O’Mahony ed., Christian Origins: Worship, Belief and Society [Journal for the Study of the New Testament: Supplement Series 241], Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003, p.97.

Synodalia: Have you noticed what’s missing?

One thing sadly, disastrously, absent from the Synod from the scanty information we have been permitted to receive, is eternity. We look to the woefully deficient Relatio, or working document, that was so unwisely released (perhaps as a belated gesture of transparency and consultation). In its opening paragraphs it seeks to set the synodal discussions in a context, and that context is purely this-worldly. It is as if it is only this life, this world, that truly matters. The focus is entirely socio-anthropological. The closest it comes to moving our eyes away from our navels is the exhortation to have our “gaze on Christ” (#4, et infra). Yet this phrase is never adequately unpacked, except that we look to Christ for teaching on marriage.


As Archbishop Sheen was so fond of reminding us, Christ came to die. That was his mission: that by the self-sacrificial death on the Cross of his mortal human body we might share in his divine life for eternity. Christ made a condition of following him that we deny ourselves and take up our cross to share in the eternal fruit of his Cross. So intent was his own gaze on eternity that he admitted that following him would divide families, setting one against another. His moral teaching was oriented toward a full identification with him in every aspect of our lives and our dealing with others. He commanded us to love, yes; but then taught us that love is essentially and necessarily selfless, its summit found in laying down one’s life for another. As Christ did for us. We know not that day nor the hour. Live, he bids us, so that you are ready for death and judgment.

What the Relatio calls the “Gospel of the family” can only make sense if it is related to the core gospel of Christ. Family, marriage and sexuality for a Christian must serve eternity and help prepare us for it. Yet the Relatio seems intent on trying to make things as easy as possible in this life for people who do not follow the core Gospel of Christ. If eating and drinking unworthily of the Eucharist brings dire judgment upon us (1 Cor 11:29), and if unworthily has always been defined as labouring under grave, unremitted, sin, then how can granting those in grave sin the Eucharist be helpful to them? Only if our focus is not on eternity, but on here and now, feeling accepted, included and the like. Nowhere in the Relatio do we hear the fundamental gospel proclamation: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

The temporal, secular focus of this document is lamentable. We see now through a glass darkly, but then face to face (1 Cor 13:12). Surely the Synod needs to be reminding the Church that what we experience and feel now is no guide to anything but the nature and degree of our need for God and his truth. The answer, then, is to satisfy this need for God and his truth by focusing on that which he has definitely revealed to us through scripture and the timeless teaching of the Church.

The bottom line of Christianity is that it is to prepare us for death and eternity, the last things that are so starkly absent from the Relatio. There is comfort in the knowledge that the Relatio is only a “working document”; but if it is representative of the Synod’s work, they have been wasting a great deal of time and money. It has no binding force whatsoever. It should, must, be ignored.

Instead, for now let us live well as the Church has always taught us in fidelity to Christ, with our eyes set in hope on death, and eternity.

Synodalia: What is Love?

Anthony Fisher OP, Archbishop-Elect of my hometown, Sydney, has penned an article posted on the website of his new diocese. Its context is the Synod, and he addresses some very topical issues. But it is his opening lines that arrested this reader’s attention:

I think the biggest challenge to the family today is that people have forgotten how to love. That sounds odd, I know, but what I’m getting at is the cross-shaped Easter sort of loving rather than the heart-shaped Valentine’s sort of loving. We are less and less willing to commit, for the long haul, to another person or a small community of persons, come what may, even when the loving is hard. We are less and less willing to engage in the self-sacrifice that requires, the compromising of our willfulness, even unto death.

One of my homiletic preoccupations (obsessions?), as the boys at this morning’s Mass at Winchester College will attest, is to replace the concept of love that is rammed down our throats by amusing but vacuous romantic comedies, sitcoms, light literature and substance-less magazines – of emotional intoxication with another: “falling in love” – with the Christian concept of love. The Christian concept of love – Christian because perfectly modelled in the person of Jesus Christ – has less to do with transient emotions and more to do with selflessness and self-sacrifice. This is not love as a state of being or an emotional state; but love as a state of doing, a way of living.







This love is pithily and effectively summed up by Archbishop Fisher: it is Cross-shaped, not valentine-shaped. for when the emotional buzz of what is often mistakenly called love (instead of infatuation or even, sometimes, lust) has passed, what are we left with? All too often today the result is broken marriages, or broken relationships since so many do not make that permanent commitment which is the basis of marital love. When “love” is defined by what I feel rather than what I give, we are dealing with a chimera at best, a counterfeit at worst.

This is not to deny that love has an emotional element. Christ does not advocate a soul-less, robotic form of loving. Rather, it is that the emotional element – the “buzz”, the high, the pleasure, the sweetness, the joy – is meant to come after, or at least concurrently with, the doing of love, the self-giving, the self-sacrifice. Emotions come and go, so they can be no real test of love. Commitment, self-denial, self-sacrifice, self-giving: these are the marks of authentic love.

“Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for a friend; you are my friends if you do as I command you”. And what did Christ command: to love God and to love our neighbour. Christ laid down his life for us, and we prove ourselves at least partly worthy by doing as he did. “I have left you an example”. “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross, and follow me”. God’s love, Christ’s love, is cross-shaped.

It is this commitment to self-less self-giving that is the best, yea the only, human foundation of marital love. So if the Church’s, which is to say Christ’s, teaching on love – its duties and its limits and its measure – leaves some people feeling exposed or judged, the problem lies not with the teaching but with people’s faulty living, imperfect choices, unwise decisions. Shooting the messenger will help no one. Denying the message will do even worse damage. If Christ has taught us the truth about love, the love that brings us to life eternal, though vales of tears and dales of joy, then there is only one message the Church can teach, and only one choice we can legitimately make for our own good.

The Christian teaching of two millenia on love have the guarantee of Christ and the validation of experience in the lives of those who all too often do not make the news, the women’s magazine or the lad-mag, or popular music. But these do not reflect the reality of most people’s lives. Most people’s lives are too mundane to make for arresting music or literature or cinema. They set up an ideal impossible to attain; indeed it is no ideal at all. It is a snare, trapping the unwary in the vicious circle of self-obsession.

Perhaps the greatest need today in popular theology, and certainly in the homiletics of our parishes and chaplaincies, is to recover and promote the truth about love and expose the toxic sham that modern secular culture substitutes for it. Love is, as the archbishop said, cross-shaped not valentine-shaped, and our loving will be vain until we fully comprehend this.

Synodalia: A Mixed Bag

Rome is proving to be as much a hotbed of intrigue  as it ever was. This Synod is frightening in that, given this day and age, so little direct information is coming from it. Yet some are doing their detective work, and some of the news is heartening, some of it not.

From Rorate comes a fascinating bulletin, containing a little joy to balance its affliction. The joy is that Cardinal Burke is not the pariah some have been making him out to be. A few weeks ago came the ominous rumour that he was about to be removed from the Signatura, and thus from the Curia, and into a benign and powerless sinecure. Then some (as noted in the Rorate artcile) said his interventions at the Synod were received coldly. We cannot know for sure given the information quasi-blackout. Yet Rorate took a factual list and deduced quite soundly that he cannot be in such low esteem with the bishops given that a group of them have elected him moderator of one of the groups preparing a final submission. If this is an accurate measure of the esteem in which he is held, it will be a brave move indeed to move him out of the Curia. However, Pope Francis is not timid.

Cardinal Burke

Cardinal Burke

Indeed it seems several very orthodox bishops have been elected to these reporting committees. Now we can see why Cardinal Kasper might want a news blackout, and why Cardinal Mueller wants every bishop’s speech published. Cardinal Mueller’s logic is quite defensible: all Catholics have the right to know what their bishops have said. But with so many orthodox, hold-the-line bishops being elected, Pope Francis’ “ad hoc, and without prior announcement” appointment of six extra prelates to help the (orthodox) Cardinal Erdö of Budapest compose the final document to be sent to the pope, we see what can not unreasonably be seen as an attempt to head off the orthodox school. Given that Cardinal Kasper regularly falls back on “I have discussed this with Pope Francis” as his defence of last resort, one could deduce with some confidence that he has had a hand in these appointments.

Has Fr Z and Fr Hunwicke have pointed out, among these new appointees will be found no Africans. Three hispanics, but no Africans. The Africans have very strong views on family and marriage in their local context, as witnessed by South African Cardinal Napier this week, and he makes some excellent points. The Africans speak boldly. They represent the fastest growing region of the Church. They are not trusted to help draft the final relatio. A pity.

Cardinal Napier

Cardinal Napier

So Burke waxes, and transparency wanes. Let’s all stay tuned.