Francis Fever

I love Papa Francesco

It could be my misanthropic side or maybe I’ve just got a very short attention span or perhaps a combination of the two, means that I’m hoping that Francis fever will shortly subside, once the inauguration Mass has taken place.

That’s not to in any way question our new Holy Father, or throw any of his qualities into doubt, far from it, the Conclave played a blinder with that googlie (indulge me a little Bernard moment to mix my sporting metaphors here) but the constant focus upon Pope Francis, the style of his papacy and his personal gracious humility and simplicity, could I think, become counterproductive.

It’s marvellous that here we have a new Pope who has really got the media buzzing, proving that Catholicism is not as irrelevant as they would have us believe and that coverage has been incredibly positive, aside from one poorly researched attempted hatchet job from the usual suspect, the Guardian, but human nature loves nothing better than to build people up, if only to knock them down again, ably aided and abetted by the media.

My concern is that this important theme of poverty could swiftly start to become jaded and has the capacity to be caricatured and used as a weapon against the Holy Father, when and if, he does something wholly in keeping with his vocation, by a media who may not fully understand the implications of the office and responsibilities of the Vicar of Christ. Such as, for example, when he travels. Fr Ray Blake highlights an essential point, namely in order to be loyal sons and daughters of the Church we really need to get to grips with and actually understand what is meant by poverty. Anyone who thinks that the Vatican museums or Roman churches can or should be sold off to the highest bidder needs a reality check.

I cannot help but think that the very last thing Pope Francis wants is to be revered as some sort of living saint for the fact that he lives out the values of the Gospel and of his religious order. Whilst it’s entirely laudable that he does so, he is not the only priest or bishop to follow in the footsteps of Christ in this way. I know at least one UK diocesan bishop who drives about in an average non descript car, has very little in the way of personal staff and goes about with absolutely no pomp and ceremony whatsoever. A parish volunteer once related to me about how they once told a man that he couldn’t use a particular space in the church car park, because it was reserved for the bishop who was coming to do confirmations, whereupon the response was a fairly nonplussed, ‘I am actually the bishop’ much to the poor man’s mortification! He had been expecting a grand personage in a smart vehicle, not a low-key looking priest.

Pope Francis may well be on his way to sainthood, as are hopefully all of us, but he is not there yet and the very reason that he took us all by surprise is precisely because he had kept an extraordinarily low profile in the run-up to the conclave, he doesn’t do self-promotion and thus had fallen off everybody’s radar, including the most seasoned vaticanisti. This self-effacing man, whilst indicating that his papacy will be very different in style, does not want to be admired, far from it, but to lead us to Christ. The theme could wear thin very quickly not to mention backfire, if it is over-egged or swift conclusions drawn and I can’t help but wonder how soon we may see the satirists draw unkind Uriah Heep portraits. My mind drifted back to how Fluck and Law of Spitting Image portrayed Pope John Paull II, with a shudder.

Pope Benedict XVI was the one who laid the groundwork in terms of demystifying the papacy, not least by resigning it. His several books that were written in his own name, alongside his prolonged interview with Peter Seewald in Light of the World, in which he let people into his own personal reflections, showed, that in his words upon his election in 2005, that he was ‘a simple worker in the vinyard of the Lord’. Pope Francis seems to have the ability to breathe new life into the Church, he seems to be the right man at the right moment, he could do for the Papacy what Princess Diana did for the Royals, not forgetting that Diana’s charism with the poor and the sick was, however inadvertently, following in Christ’s footsteps, Francis is clearly able to speak from the heart, off the cuff, to rip up formal protocols and win hearts and minds for Christ, but he may not have been able to do so, if Benedict had not already shown the way. Pope Francis is very much what the church is aching for, but the likes of Cardinal Mahoney ought to remember that it was thanks to the Emeritus Pope, that this has been made possible. If we are to remember that the papacy is not a personality cult, then we also need to remember to keep some of our admiration and respect in proportion, before going overboard about a people’s pope. I think Pope Francis will do great things for us, but only if we give him the space, instead of projecting our own interpretation onto him.

As for the matters liturgical, I hate to rain on Rorate Caeli’s parade, but it seems to me, they are forgetting one vitally important point here, in that like everybody else, the Pope is a servant of the liturgy. I know liturgy matters, I’m not a traditionalist, but equally I appreciate the importance of the liturgy in orientating us towards Christ and subjugating our will to His. Liturgy is not about how we “feel” and what gives us the warm and fuzzies, but worshiping God as he has instructed us to do so , in a way that is noble, reverent, respectful, transcendent and mysterious. I guess I’m torn on this, because whilst appreciating the desire for a simpler style, there is a part of me that thinks, look, the Vatican has all these wonderful vestments in its various wardrobes, they aren’t going to sell them, go on, they might as well use the sparkly threads every once in a while. The whole thing is very hard to get right. One doesn’t want vestments that are just so ornate and dazzlingly beautiful that they detract from what’s going on in the Mass, equally we don’t want vomit inducing ’70s lairy florescent vulgar murals, neither does one want a priest that appears almost liturgically naked, his very simplicity being a statement and thus a distraction. The mystery and nobility needs to be retained, but I’m absolutely no expert, I’ve no idea how. It would clearly be a shame if Benedict’s reforms went by the wayside, his papacy was about making sure that the entire Church faced in the same direction, towards God (one of the reasons I’m all in favour of ad orientem) and Pope Francis will continue what Benedict did for the liturgy, in terms of prayer and action.

On the subject on nobility, though it’s as the result of a happy accident, I think we also do need to remember that the Pope is also the Head of State (albeit small), a role which enables the Holy See to achieve a vast amount in terms of international relations and behind-the-scenes negotiations and peace agreements so it is only right and proper that a certain respect is accorded to him in this office. Back to the unprepossessing bishops that I can think of, I think we need to remember that even though one may live simply and reflect this in dress or manner of transport, the dignity of office, the fact that a bishop, cardinal or Pope is one of Peter’s apostles, should never ever be forgotten. I know Anglicans who have often been flummoxed by this, forgetting that an appearance can often belie the office. One of the interesting contrasts I find between the Anglican and Catholic bishops I know, is that the Anglicans are all about the ecclesial purple and pectoral crosses and piping, the Catholic Bishops tend to be a lot more discreet in their dress, often leading to others perhaps treating them with inappropriate informality and yet Catholic bishops hold infinitely more power over their diocese than their Anglican counterparts. The commentators on Rorate Caeli need to remember exactly who they are talking about and the allegiance which is owed to him, Pope Francis has the keys of St Peter, the power to bind and lose.

None of this is to diss our new pontiff, but more to add a note of caution. Yes, we should be delighted that so far, the signs are looking promising, but Joseph Shaw has wise words on Papolatry and prudence. I can see attacks on the Church, on our new Holy Father really intensifying in the near future, from all quarters, including from within, as we have already seen. Whilst I take CS Lewis’ guidance to heart about the equal and opposite errors with regards to thinking about the devil, it seems to me that the reaction, the anger, whether that be from Rorate Caeli, the liberal press or hostile Anglicans, seems to flow from one cause. We have a great new Pope, who promises so much in terms of the New Evangelisation and the reinvigoration of the church. One who is going to re-sanctify the church and bring Christ to the world, especially the poor, sick, the needy, the elderly and the unborn in the twenty-first century. Not only that, technically we have TWO Popes, no matter how bizarre that seems. Not one pope, but two. One who will be actively leading us in prayer and holiness and another former pope, who will be storming the heavens on behalf of the church, with a life of prayer and penance. Think about that for a moment. I said in a previous post that we had two-for the-price of one in Pope Francis, with the merger of the Jesuit and Franciscan. Actually we have that in an actual physical sense, two popes together working for the church although in very different ways. One public and one private. They are even meeting privately next week, in order that Benedict may pass on some of his wisdom and experience to help Pope Francis in some of the difficult decisions. This is unprecedented stuff.

The power of two extraordinarily holy, deeply spiritual and wise men, leading the faithful in prayer. It can be no surprise that someone is angry, someone is furious, whenever great good happens, retaliation always occurs. Someone else has got Francis fever, which is why we need to all be on guard.

HeelandtheSerpentB[1]

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(Oh and as aside, to the critics who are claiming that the Church’s teaching on sexuality and priestly celibacy is misguided because it’s difficult but who are lauding the Pope’s zeal for the poor. The response to which is doing what is right, is not always the same as what is easy. I wonder what they would make of being informed that technically they should be giving at least 10% of their income away to charity. That’s not easy either, especially in these troubled times, but does that mean that it’s equally quite so misguided and wrong? If chastity and celibacy are wrong because they are allegedly difficult and challenging then why doesn’t giving a significant proportion of your income away, fall into the same category?)

A Tale of Two Francis

Viva Papa!
Viva Papa!

Here is the full unedited version of a piece I wrote for Mercatornet on our new Holy Father.

The world’s Catholics are reeling with the shock election of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new successor to Peter, even the most seasoned Vaticanistas were not predicting that the runner-up to Ratzinger in the 2005 Conclave was a serious contender, his age and his Jesuit background both seemed to count against him.

Surprise swiftly melted into joy, excitement, anticipation and gratitude upon confirmation that age is clearly no barrier to innovation for the former Cardinal, as signified by his choice of name – the first Pope Francis in almost 2,000 years of Church history.

The name Francis is an indicator as to the future direction of a papacy which will have the themes of simplicity, humility, discipline, reform, rebirth and outreach at its heart. Not only do we have the first ever Pope from Latin America, but in Pope Francis we have something of a two-for-the-price of one, with a fusion of two major religious orders, whose founders both heralded a period of Church renewal and reform. Bergoglio could well prove to be a man for all seasons, combining the spiritual discipline of St Ignatius of Loyola with the humility and simplicity of St Francis of Assisi.

One of the defining qualities of the Jesuit order is that they don’t mess around and always mean business – something that could prove very useful for a Pope for whom reform of the Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucratic arm, is high on the agenda. The recent Vatileaks brouhaha was a symptom of the internecine factionalism that currently besets and hinders this small, but essential part of the Church from running in as efficient a manner as possible. A Pope who could be both governor and enforcer was one of the prerequisite criteria and a key theme emerging from the General Congregations, the meetings that preceded the Conclave. A religious order with a reputation for getting down to business , sorting wheat from the chaff seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered, and those who might doubt whether or not he possess the passion to bang heads together, ought to remember his scorching attack on clericalism, just six months ago in September 2012, when he denounced priests who refused to baptise the babies born outside marriage, as being guilty of “rigorous and hypocritical clericalism”. Pope Francis has no time for what he deems “the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church”.

All of which augurs well, as does his track record of swiftly appointing loyal bishops to troubled dioceses – the Catholic church is not a top-down organisation and depends upon good local governance. Rapid deployment of strong faithful intelligent bishops is key to rooting out decay and planting the seeds of the future.

John Allen, the veteran Vatican observer, has wondered whether or not Bergoglio’s lack of solid experience inside the Vatican itself would prove an obstacle, but an outsider with an Ignatian passion for rigorous discipline and an agenda for change, wholly untainted by insider corruption or personal interests, is ideally placed to implement the much needed root and branch reform. Pope Francis has previous form when it comes to taking action. He rose to prominence following his appointment as the provincial of the Jesuit order in Argentina in 1973, and unlike other Church leaders refused to back the country’s military dictatorship. He held firm against the rising tide of liberation theology sweeping Latin America, discouraging priests from political activism and insisted that Jesuits continued to staff the parishes and chaplaincies where they were needed instead of forming communities. Bergoglio’s insistence on obedience and stamping out of heterodoxy and dissent won him some local enemies, but indicates a desire to get things done, and is a trait that will stand him in good stead when it comes to continuing to root out what the Emeritus Pope Benedict described as the filth of the child abuse scandals, that have rocked the Church in recent years. There can be no doubt that Pope Francis will continue to act with an iron fist when it comes to sorting out sexual transgressions and there will be no room for cover-up. His struggle against the military government of Argentina together with the rise of liberal theology prefigures the battle against the pervasive rise of moral relativism in an increasingly secular West. “After a battle” he reportedly said, “you have to act firmly”.

The previous two pontiffs can be characterized as theological powerhouses, whose teaching was reinforced by a vast canon of personal writings and both of whom could be studied as philosophers and theologians in their own right. Following thirty-five years of academic reflection, many have felt that now is the time for some intellectual breathing space, to give the faithful time to digest and apply what we have been taught by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who unpacked and applied the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Whilst Pope Francis is no intellectual slouch – he trained as a chemist, before joining the priesthood, he has an undisguised passion for literature having taught the subject at University level alongside psychology, philosophy and theology and in true Jesuit tradition has encouraged priests to exercise their cerebral and artistic gifts, few people can pack the cerebral punch of Carol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.

Bergolio’s election is nonetheless a manifestation of the growing desire to see a different style of papacy, one that teaches and leads through its actions as well as words. It can be no surprise that a Cardinal noted for his humility and love of the poor has chosen St Francis of Assisi, the man who reformed the church through simplicity, as his namesake. Of humble origin, born of an Italian immigrant railway worker, Jorge Bergoglio has eschewed all trappings of office, avoiding media interviews and urging people not to spend money on plane tickets to Rome to celebrate his election to the Cardinalate in 2001, but instead to give the money to the poor. Instead of living in a lavish episcopal mansion in Buenos Aires, he chose instead to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals, did his own housework and took the bus around town visiting the poor, rather than a chauffeur driven limousine. True to form, following his election to the papacy, he chose to take the bus back to the hotel instead of using the Holy Father’s car, to spend one final night with the cardinals and emerged suitcases in hand in the hotel lobby, to pay his own bill.

In an era that is reaping the consequences of globalisation and the ravages of a rampant unchecked capitalism, the Christian message of concern for the poor and of social injustice is of paramount import. In Francis, we have a Pope who embodies the compassion of Christ, whether that be by kissing the feet of AIDS victims, or rolling up his sleeves and going out and ministering to the poor, accompanied by a rhetoric that denounces the failures of neo-liberalism.

One of the frustrating aspects of the papacy of the Pope Emeritus was that his constant critiques of an economy based on individualistic greed and mind-blowing masterclasses on natural law and reason were subsumed and ignored by a media only interested in sexual ethics and scandal. Pope Benedict’s problem was not that he was by any means ineffective, it is thanks to him that the Catholic Church now sets the gold standard in terms of child protection issue, but that self-promotion was not his forte and the Vatican failed to communicate the extensive measures that had been taken and neither did they initially understand the nature of a rolling global 24/7 media. At times it appeared that the Vatican press office consisted of an elderly telegraph machine and answerphone, allowing, in the words of Mark Twain, a lie to travel half way around the world, whilst the truth was still putting its shoes on.

The willingness to engage with the media could potentially pose one of the few problems for this naturally modest yet deeply spiritual man. Yet from the moment that the world caught of a glimpse of the new Pope it was clear, that whilst not possessing the natural charisma or showmanship of John Paul II, his prayerful nature demonstrated by breaking with tradition and asking the crowd to pray for him, before giving the customary blessing, this simplicity will be precisely how he will win hearts and minds in the New Evangelisation. Pope Francis is a man whose actions will demonstrate that he is all substance over what will be a very humble style.

Pope Francis has something for everyone, a seamless garment- a man who straddles all aspects of a diverse church, a man who holds the concepts of social justice as close to his heart as issues surrounding the unborn, the elderly and the protection of the nuclear family. His first papal blessing was given to a pregnant woman who happened to have got up early to pray at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he too had gone to pray before the Roman image of the Mother of God. Pope Francis, will be a pope of the people, leading the way forward by example in prayer and in a lifestyle of simple humility.

Whilst there is some concern amongst traditionalists in terms of liturgical preferences, there is no reason to believe that he will be openly hostile to the reforms of Summorum Pontificorum – frankly he has bigger fish to fry and is too canny to alienate a significant proportion of the world’s faithful. Although yesterday’s Mass may have caused some facepalming amongst those delighted in Pope Benedict’s liturgical reform of the reform (‘Holy Father I love you already, but what’s with the polyester and freestanding altar’ said one friend), whilst Pope Francis may see a temporary return to practices that some may have hoped were on the decline, I think we have to remember that if he wishes to face the people, or changes the Benedictine altar set-up, it’s simply because he wants the people to see Christ – it is with good heart and intent, not because he has some secret liturgical agenda.

Though 76 and with only one lung, Pope Francis still has plenty of life to breathe into the Church, combining the evangelical zeal of St Francis Xavier, with the reforming simplicity good works and love of the poor of St Francis of Assisi. Whilst the Church may not be in ruins, this holy man from the South may be just the breath of fresh air that it needs. Jesuit decision-maker and political negotiator melded with poor mendicant friar will sow the seeds for a twenty-first century Catholic revival, in a world grown jaded and weary with the selfish excesses of consumerism. Catholics will need to start putting their money where their mouths are.

Pope Francis on an Argentinian tube
Snapped unaware on the Tube

The Cardinals and reverse psychology

Papal Conclave-005

The words of the Secretariat of State seem particularly prescient in the light of the damaging allegations that have surfaced regarding Cardinal Keith O’Brien in this morning’s Guardian.

Once again the media seem to be disregarding the rules surrounding natural justice and due process that would be followed in any criminal court, namely a presumption of innocence until proof to the contrary, and are commenting upon these allegations as those they were established fact, with the usual suspects rubbing their hands in glee, not least those who thought Cardinal O’Brien’s Bigot of the Year award, fitting.

With regards to the allegations, the following questions present themselves:

  • Why are they only being made now? If the concern has to do with whether or not Cardinal O’Brien should be allowed to vote in the Conclave, why given the age of the alleged incidents, did the accusers not make known their concerns prior to the conclave of 2005, or even earlier in 2001, when it was announced that O’Brien would be elected to the college of cardinals?
  • Do the comments surrounding priestly celibacy have anything to do with this not least in terms of the media exposure of Cardinal O’Brien of late? Does Cardinal O’Brien’s stance on gay marriage have any part to play on behalf of those who would seek to expose or out him? It ties into the first point – the timing seems peculiar.
  • Who leaked the nuncio’s emails to the Guardian and why?
  • If these allegations do turn out to be sadly true, it would not appear that any criminal offence has been committed. These would appear to be consenting adults – there are no accusations of assault. Surely this would be an internal church matter and not within the remit of secular authority? Cardinal O’Brien is due to retire in a month’s time, what action are the priests expecting the church to take? An individual’s sexuality should have no bearing when it comes to prayerfully discerning whom the Holy Spirit might be guiding into the Chair of St Peter. It sets a very dangerous precedent to assume that clerics are guilty of any allegations without due process being followed and neither is it for the secular world to interfere in the internal processes of the church. So far, we have had one side of the story and it would seem very much as though Cardinal O’Brien is subject to trial by media.

All of which brings me neatly onto Cardinal Mahony, who due to his mishandling of priests guilty of sexual abuse in his diocese, is also subject to similar calls to stay away from the conclave. Let’s be clear. Cardinal Mahony, though guilty of severe negligence is not a pedophile or abuser himself. It’s hard to get one’s head around why he didn’t report these abhorrent crimes to the police, or at the very least lock the perpetrators up in a remote monastery somewhere, but as has been documented, times were different then. The psychology of abusers was not understood in the same way, it was genuinely believed that therapy could cure a disordered sexuality, and the abusers’ professions of repentance were taken at face value.

There’s a whole essay into the factors contributing to the abuse that took place and its subsequent cover-up by local diocesan bishops and parallels to be drawn with what happened in other non-Church institutions such as for example the BBC, but it isn’t fair to imply, nor is there evidence to suggest, that those who did cover-up the scandal, did so because they didn’t care about the victims or because they thought that abusers were likely to re-offend and simply didn’t care, what enquiry after enquiry has demonstrated is that they were misdirected out of love for the church and actually ignored the regulations that were already in place which directed bishops to report these crimes to the police. There is no basis for the claim that various bishops simply didn’t care – the credible answer is, that as prelates such as Mahoney have testified, they simply didn’t get it.

Does that mean he should be disbarred from voting in the conclave to satisfy the demands of a baying press? I would posit that a Cardinal who has personally faced the scandal of clerical sex abuse and who has faced widespread criticism and rebuke not only from the outside world, but also from his peers, would be ideally placed to prayerfully reflect upon who should succeed Pope Benedict and which candidate may possess the necessary qualities. Cardinal Mahony indisputably knows the enormity of the scandal and the huge repercussions for those who may get it wrong. There can be no doubt that he does now understand the seriousness of it all. Perhaps a good comparison would be that of the airline industry? Whenever a pilot has been implicated as being at fault in a serious incident, such as the Kegworth disaster in 1989, British Airways always rush to offer that pilot a job, the First Officer in that tragic crash is now a serving Captain with them – the rationale being that they will never make that mistake again.

Cardinal Mahony may well have made a grievous mistake, one for which he has been disciplined by his successor, but that is no reason to doubt his judgement or ability to vote in the conclave. He may well be better placed than many of the others and have a valuable insight into the motivations and catastrophic failures.

Ultimately whether either of the cardinals attend is a matter for them, their consciences and their fellow peers. It is not for the media or general public to judge and were the Vatican to announce that they were succumbing to public pressure and the cardinals disbarred from voting, this would set a very dangerous precedent, besides which no-one has the authority to prevent their attendance. Only they can recuse themselves. No-one can make judgements about others’ hearts. O’Brien may well be innocent, only time will tell.

In the meantime, anyone wishing the cardinals not to exercise their rights, ought to learn the basics of reverse psychology. The louder the calls for non-participation, the greater the guarantee and likelihood that both Cardinal O’Brien and Cardinal Mahony, will attend, and no-one could blame them for doing so.

Beyond Benedict

papal seal

I think that I’m in agreement with Fr Ray’s conceit that our outgoing Pope has left us a legacy of concepts, as follows:

  • the idea that there is a correct and incorrect interpretation of Vatican II,

  • he has gone along way to reconciling the Church’s present to its past, Summorum Pontificum is an important part of this

  • he has gone along to dismantling the political notions of left and right, liberal and conservative (the media hasn’t caught on to this yet) and restoring the notion of Catholic orthodoxy.

  • he has re-presented the idea that Pope is the Bishop of Rome – certainly first amongst equals – (I’ll explore this at a later stage but I think this important).

  • that “Unity” in terms of ecumenism is about looking to those who share (substantially) the catholic faith – hence Ordinariates and looking towards the Orthodox

It’s certainly true that Joseph Ratzinger has done much to reinforce the concept that biblical Christianity does not fit neatly into the left/right praxis of Western democracy, which is why whilst few media commentators have been ignorant enough to label him as a right-wing or Republican type, neither have they picked up on many of his speeches which have a distinctly left-wing bent. This speech on selfish economic models and the value of the family farm was never widely disseminated for example, and neither was his concept of the ecology of mankind, reclaiming territory from the Greens, ever explored nor were his environmentally friendly credentials ever acknowledged or welcomed by the Green party, only being belatedly dredged up by the Guardian who were trying to find something positive to say to balance out their one-sided coverage of the papal resignation which would fit in with their agenda. It begs the question as to when the watermelons are going to cotton on to the environmental effects of their contraceptive comfort blanket.

But Fr Ray, is correct in his identification that Benedict, like his predecessor, has left us a variety of concepts which now need practical application. In both John Paul II and Benedict XVI we have had two towering intellectual giants, two great teaching popes who were both members and architects of the Second Vatican Council, who both understood what the reforms were supposed to achieve, watched their misapplication with dismay and who both unpicked, communicated and attempted to sow the seeds of the genuine spirit and renewal of the church that Vatican II was supposed to engender. Both John Paul II and Benedict left behind great gifts to the church in terms of their theological and academic writings – notably John Paul II’s theology of the body, which will continue to be studied and relevant for many generations to come, and Joseph Ratzinger’s vast body of literary contributions, apostolic letters and speeches out of which it is difficult to chose any of being of most merit, so consistently high is the quality, but my money is on Deus Caritus Est and his biographies of Jesus, which was groundbreaking in that a Pope made complex theological concepts and the historicity of the gospels accessible to the general public for the first time in modern history.

So what next? Is the Pope one of the last intellectuals and is this really such a bad thing? It’s fair to say that whoever is chosen, they are hardly going to be a dullard in the cerebral stakes, given that canon law proscribes that all bishops must either have a doctorate or a licentiate (i.e. a lesser degree than a doctorate but a qualification that enables them to teach in seminaries). The unfortunately titled piece on Catholic Light, (Does the Pope have an S.T.D) gives a comprehensive summary of cardinals’ degrees.

But all Catholics need to be wary of the cult of the intellect, which can lead us astray in terms of admiring people or wishing to elevate them on the basis of intellect alone. Whilst it is vital that those in positions of leadership must have a thorough formation, I don’t think we can discount candidates on the basis that they don’t possess the extraordinary intellectual abilities and gifts of the previous two popes, which were unique and rare gifts. How many people can really count themselves in the same intellectual league as Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger? St Peter wasn’t to be found earnestly studying the laws in minute detail in the synagogue though I think we can safely assume that he knew them well. Being an intellectual powerhouse is no guarantee of spiritual greatness or a burning and passionate desire to spread the good news and safely lead the flock. Being in possession of a great intellect must be tempered with a corresponding humility otherwise the gift takes on a destructive nature. Give me the humble priest who tends to the sick, who feeds the hungry and homeless, comforts the distressed, fights for the oppressed and walks with the outcast as opposed to the remote bookish intellect any day. Some of the most inspirational Catholics in my daily life are not those with the highfaluting terminology, but those who witness simply through their daily lives and everyday words of wisdom and encouragement.

We have been incredibly fortunate in that we’ve had two popes who have bequeathed us so much in terms of intellectual wisdom and insight, my feeling is that it’s now time to pause, take stock, we have to digest and now apply the messages and teachings of our two previous Popes. I think we need some intellectual breathing space, in which we can begin to absorb and apply what we have learnt.

The new pope, whoever it might be, needs to hopefully have something of the showmanship of Karol Wojtyla intermingled with the thoughtfulness and radicalism of Pope Benedict XVI. He must continue to reform the Vatican in terms of how it communicates with the outside world, the Pope’s twitter account has been an excellent start as has the engagement with Catholic bloggers and the redesign of the Vatican portal but these are cosmetic changes, there needs to be a concerted attempt to ensure that it uses the new tools at its disposal for the New Evangelisation. The new pontiff must also possess the courage and vision to be able to give the Curia a red-slippered kick up the backside, it would appear that it needs root and branch reform to bring its admin processes into the twenty-first century and it’s staff need to be brought into line – there should be no time for petty factionalisms and jealousy. Though whoever is appointed will undoubtedly possess intellect, it will not need to be the defining quality of this new papacy. We need, for want of a better word, an applicator and enforcer, someone who will widely disseminate, reinforce and apply the work of the past pontificates.

It’s a shame that due to the nature of global politics that we are unlikely to see Cardinal Dolan (although never say never, the frontrunners in a conclave almost never emerge as the successor), the world is not ready for an American pope and it is unlikely that we will see one for as long as the USA remains as a (albeit declining) global superpower – it would not be good to have a Vatican that Americans could claim as being theirs. Besides which America needs Cardinal Dolan, though no-one will be more delighted than me if I am proven wrong in a few weeks time and I am in sympathy with Fr Lucie-Smith, nationality should not disbar an otherwise ideal candidate. I’m nurturing outrageous secret fantasies, given that the Pope doesn’t technically need to be from among the college of Cardinals, about how wonderful it would be if the Holy Spirit were to whisper the Word on Fire amongst the cardinals in the conclave. Or what if our new Bishop of Portsmouth or Shrewsbury were to have the fastest promotion in ecclesial history?!

At this moment in time, regardless of whether or not he is our last pope (the evidence would indicate otherwise), the successor of Peter does undoubtedly need to feed his flock during a period of transition and flux, which is seeing an end to a society based upon Christian values and ideals. Now is a time to put the words and the intellect of others into action.

Annulment

Unfortunately I’ve received quite a few unpleasant comments over the last few days, none of which I have been prepared to publish, due to the fact that I have an annulled marriage. My stat-counter has also brought up some rather disturbing searches regarding my name, my children and attempts to discover details pertaining to personal circumstances. The implication is that it is highly hypocritical of me to defend marriage, given that due to having a previous marriage behind me I have a part to play in the undermining of the institution. Furthermore there have been allegations that annulments are only available to the rich and well-connected who are able to twist arms and pay for expensive canon lawyers to employ Jesuitical arguments. There are demands for me to disclose the circumstances of my previous attempted marriage – something that is frankly none of anyone’s business.

I’m not going to disclose my private life, not least for the fact that a child resulted from my previous relationship – there are real human beings and relationships at stake, which are far more important than my standing in the eyes of hostile internet commentators. With that in mind, I am aware that I am a (very minor) representative of Catholicism and therefore it might be necessary to put a few bare facts of the matter out there as a matter of record.

Firstly – mea culpa. I did attempt to contract a marriage, but what is also clear is that I didn’t have any understanding of what that involved. Perhaps providentially, I had made enquiries as to getting married in the Catholic church that was the place of my baptism, though the community involved were happy to facilitate, they insisted that some form of marriage preparation was undertaken first. My then fiance refused as he did not wish to be instructed in how to be married by a bunch of celibate Catholics – it was none of their business. So we were ‘married’ instead in an Anglican church with no dispensation from the Catholic church as is required by canon law.

Secondly – one of the basic tenets of a valid sacramental marriage is that it must be open to life or children. Before we got ‘married’ my ex had been explicit on multiple occasions that he did not ever want children and had in fact sought a sterilisation at the age of 22. I was ambivalent on the matter, I certainly had no intention of having any children, but hadn’t ruled it out either. On our wedding day, my former father-in-law was witnessed telling everybody that his son did not want to have any children. When I unexpectedly fell pregnant there was a divergence of opinion as to what the best course of action should be and the relationship was put under enormous pressure, which resulted in my then partner going off to Marie Stopes in Reading for a sterilisation when the baby was 6 weeks old. A process in which I had no involvement – personal bodily autonomy and wishes being of paramount import. As an aside Marie Stopes did not once ask for joint couple counselling and the offer of individual counselling was refused. I don’t know whether or not this may have changed minds, certainly he was adamant that this situation was not going to reoccur.

There are other canonical and legal issues, but that is more than enough information for the public domain. Needless to say, when I married a vicar who usually refused to perform re-marriages, the Church of England having no formal annulment process, it was necessary not only to be very public and open about my situation not only with our parish, but with the then Bishop of Chichester whose formal permission was sought as a matter of courtesy.

What I can testify is that no matter how cordial, friendly and open one keeps relations, divorce is absolutely horrible for children and not something that I could recommend as being the ideal.

My hope is that my children can learn from my example, that they take care to ensure that they marry someone else whose faith and values matches theirs, that they don’t succumb to outside pressures but can prayerfully discern in their choice of spouse and vocation. There is a whole world of difference between being sacramentally married and not. I appreciate every day the graces and blessings that we receive from the sacrament – something that gives us both enormous comfort and strength when times are tough.

Life hasn’t always been plain sailing for me, but I count myself extremely fortunate and blessed in not only having a wonderful spouse who shares my faith, but in being able to have a sacramental marriage. That the church has absolutely no issue with my circumstances was demonstrated by the fact that we were able to have a nuptial Mass and received an apostolic blessing as a gift from the parish.

Annulment isn’t a Catholic divorce or a fudge for those with recourse to huge funds. When applying to a marriage tribunal one has to throw the whole affair into the hands of God and trust in the judgement of Holy Mother church and accept the ruling, whichever way it falls. In my case, no tribunal was needed, it was a very straightforward process which cost me £18 in total!

Annulment presumes that every marriage is valid, until proven otherwise. It is very clear in my situation that no marriage existed, which goes quite a long way to explain many of the difficulties. Like many Catholics, I found the process incredibly healing. Here is a page that dispels some of the common myths, such as illegitimacy of children – an accusation that comes my way fairly often, or that the process is only for rich, famous or well-connected members of the faithful.

The Pope has recently reiterated the need for the annulment process to be rigorous and warned about the danger of contrasting charity with justice. If we as Catholics wish to reinforce the strength of the marriage bond, it causes great scandal if we collude with secular authorities and dissolve marriages for spurious or flimsy reasons. Furthermore it does a great disservice to those of us who indisputably had no previous sacramental bond. Fr Dwight Longnecker also has some very harsh words for those Catholics who collude in the undermining of marriage.

Though I admittedly haven’t always upheld marriage in my past actions – all of us are sinners, I did what I could to remedy what was a heartbreaking and impossible situation whereby convalidation or sanation were unavailable as options. I can also appreciate that though our divorce laws are in urgent need of reform, some civil recourse is often necessary not least for the protection of women and children.

‘Gay marriage’ is the inevitable result in a society that seeks to put individual needs and wants first and seeks to redefine marriage as simply being all about love and commitment. My ex, passionately believed that when he said those vows (despite the fact that children are mentioned in the Anglican marriage service) that children had nothing to do with it and are entirely separate to marriage. I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other at that time, despite having been nominally brought up as a Catholic and having attended Catholic school.

The New Evangelisation must include a reclamation of marriage – what it constitutes and what it most definitely isn’t. We have much to remedy.

(Comment moderation is on)

On the service of Charity

Pope Benedict has just issued an excellent new Motu Propio entitled Intima Ecclesiae Natura in which he speaks about the works of charity in and by the church and has also issued regulations to improve the organisation of the Church’s charitable activity.

“With the present Motu proprio, I intend to provide an organic legislative framework for the better overall ordering of the various organised ecclesial forms of the service of charity, which are closely related to the diaconal [ministerial] nature of the Church and the Episcopal ministry.

Key phrases to note:

It is important, however, to keep in mind that “practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ

i.e. any charitable endeavour must not be a mere fund-raising activity but should be caritas in action, demonstrating Christ’s love in word and action.

The Church’s charitable activity at all levels must avoid the risk of becoming just another form of organized social assistance”.

Perhaps most importantly for Catholic charities not only must they confirm with relevant civil laws but

“there is a need to ensure that they are managed in conformity with the demands of the Church’s teaching and the intentions of the faithful”.

Furthermore charities “may use the name “Catholic” only with the written consent of the competent authority, as laid down by canon 300 CIC.”

Every Bishop has been instructed to encourage a local Caritas service but

It is the duty of the diocesan Bishop and the respective parish priests to see that in this area the faithful are not led into error or misunderstanding; hence they are to prevent publicity being given through parish or diocesan structures to initiatives which, while presenting themselves as charitable, propose choices or methods at odds with the Church’s teaching.”

From my cursory reading it seems that the Holy Father has quite rightly, in accordance with the Catholic principles of subsidiarity, devolved the responsibility for ensuring the promotion of charities and adherence with Catholic principles, into the hands of the episcopacy. Not only does he seem to be wanting to step up Catholic charitable activity and working in the service of Christ, it is a reminder to all of our obligation to work for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the outcast and the needy in deed and word, but also and perhaps crucially, Pope Benedict emphasises that any charity must be wholly in accordance with Catholic doctrine. The Pontifical Council Cor Unum will have overall responsibility for Catholic charities and ensuring guidelines are adhered to.

This can only be good news. Interesting times ahead for various “Catholic-in name-only” charities. The Holy Father is sending out a clear message here, various unholy alliances with pro-abortion groups will need to cease.

Full text here on Rorate Cæli.