The poor and homeless ARE messy

In an astonishing and frankly scandalous piece of ‘journalism’, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have both launched in to Fr Ray Blake for his ‘scathing and un-Christian attack’ on the poor and homeless in a recent blog piece. Neither paper had the courtesy to link to the original post, which makes one wonder whether they bothered to even read it, as it was abundantly clear that far from attacking. blasting, condemning or whatever other hyperbole was used, Fr was actually reflecting upon his own attitude one which is probably shared by many of, us which he believes, falls short at times. What any reasonable or thoughtful reader would have taken away from that, is that the poor are challenging, and if we are to live out Gospel values, then we must be shaken out of our complacency and be prepared to get our hands dirty and help.

I’m not going to launch into a premature hagiography of Fr Ray, not least because he’d undoubtedly be mortified, but there are a few points I want to make. As most people are aware, Fr Ray’s parish is in the heart of Brighton which is beset by homelessness and drug addiction. Fr Ray is therefore in a good position, as indeed are most Brighton and Hove clergy of all denominations to comment on this, because it is the local churches who are doing much to mop up and alleviate the social problems, together with various local charities. Far from attacking the poor, the parish of St Mary Magdalen (I note the Daily Mail can’t even get the name of the parish right), under Fr Ray’s leadership, has a soup run, providing soup and sandwiches to the homeless on a daily basis. Fr Ray frequently joins them and for anyone cynical as to his motives, as he says here, the food comes with no ’emotional conditions’ or devotional element, they feed the hungry because that is what Christ commands us to do.

A brief glance at the comments underneath Fr’s post, shows him passionately advocating for a compassionate attitude to the poor and homeless, specifically even giving money if required, which isn’t a popular attitude in today’s society. Another fact that has not been alluded to is that Fr Ray has given over a substantial portion of the presbytery to house asylum seekers. So this is not a priest who dislikes or attacks the poor by any imagination, quite the contrary, he sets a stunning example by word and deed, from which clergy half his age could learn.

Anyone who regularly reads Fr Ray’s blog will see how his words are always infused with compassion, which is why those of us who know him, either in real life, or simply by virtue of his blog, will be quite so incensed by this misrepresentation. What I will say about Fr Ray, aside from the fact that my 9 year old thinks he’s quite the nicest confessor in the whole wide world (which when you’ve got a daughter happy to go to confession thanks to a kindly priest is some feat), is that he is one of the few people whom I would feel comfortable phoning up in an emergency and knowing that he would do his best to help, regardless of whether or not you are his parishioner.  There is a sense of genuine ‘care’, even if it means sometimes saying the things that one doesn’t always want to hear.

Moreover, Fr Ray is right, when he talks about how the poor are messy and complicated and turn our lives upside down. There is an unhealthy tendency to believe that Christians are somehow immune to squalor, filth, disease and deprivation, by virtue of our faith. It’s almost as if we are expected to walk around with a ‘Ready-Brek’ glow, meaning that we don’t notice the stink of stale urine, or the open weeping sores and that somehow our belief allows us to transcend the more sordid elements of humanity. Whilst ideally we should all wipe the backsides of the poor, elderly and disabled with a beatific and happy smile on our faces, giving thanks that we can be of service, it’s much easier said than done.

This is what was at the heart of Fr Ray’s post, pointing out how physically difficult and challenging the poor and homeless  can be, but this is why we are commanded to love, because it doesn’t come easily or naturally to most of us, particularly when faced with the earthy reality.  There was no element of blame attached, but equally we need to be careful about a glib and patronising characterisation of any group in society, just because people are poor, it does not mean that somehow they are without fault, unable to put a foot wrong, as this clerical blogger points out.

As a fellow Brighton and Hove resident, I also want to point out how the homeless challenge me on a regular basis. This isn’t to attach blame or fault, but to point out the reality, which does force us to respond.

When I moved into the Rectory I was alarmed to discover a bevvy of double locks and panic button by the front door. The reason being that by virtue of being a Rectory, the homeless would come knocking on a regular basis. Robin had previously given money and thus earned a reputation as being a ‘soft touch’, so much so that on one occasion when he genuinely didn’t have any cash in the house, an addict was so desperate for money that he kicked the front door down  in anger.

As a result of living next door to a Church and homeless shelter, we frequently get people knocking on the door, and as Fr Ray relates, the story almost always involves needing a train fare to go somewhere, usually a Catholic funeral. The same person will come and tell you a myriad of different tales, but all variations on a theme. We live on a busy street and often discover people have urinated or defecated in our front garden or against our wall. It’s sometimes troubling when you are trying to leave the house with a multitude of babies and toddlers in tow, wanting to pick up the gravel or cigarette stubs and who can’t play very safely in our front garden. A challenging inconvenience in fact.

Most often the knock at the door comes in the early evening. Usually when the children have just finished dinner, are tired, running about naked before bath-time and a dirty dishevelled, wild-eyed man smelling of urine, stale tobacco and with bleeding sores comes to your door. If I were a good Christian, I’d invite him in and feed him, perhaps even offer him the spare bed in the insulated shed in our back garden. Instead, I panic about the children running out of the front door, worry about him coming in and casing the joint or touching the children, ask him to sit on the bench outside our front door and hastily make him some kind of packed lunch, sandwiches, crisps, fruit, a chocolate bar and a can of fizzy pop to take on his way, rather than actually having to engage. I do what I need to do, but is it out of love, or simply duty? Am I being too comfortable and middle-class, a better woman than I would no doubt invite him in and in so doing act as a model of caritas for the children.

Another example might be having to remind my daughter to step away from the piles of vomit, urine and used needles often found around St Andrew’s Church on Church Road, while walking to school. Or not taking the short-cut, around the back of Tescos, in order to avoid the homeless and drug addicts who congregate there.

I’m not going to defend my actions, I know full well that I ought to take more time than a brief 5 minute chat with the local Big Issue vendor or making a hasty packed lunch or dinner, or giving out the odd cup of tea to the homeless. I need to overcome my natural aversion to dirt and mess and smell. But it isn’t easy, it is challenging, I haven’t yet discovered that regular Mass attendance, prayer life and access to the sacraments gives me a magical imperviousness to either physical or spiritual murkiness. But what it does do is remind me of the example that we are called to follow.

Christ wasn’t afraid to touch the unclean, we have to pray for similar fortitude and rise to the challenge, no matter how much it takes us out of our comfort zone.

Still, Catholic priest reminds us of  our obligation to the poor doesn’t make such a great headline.

NB, Just before hitting publish, I spied Fr Ray has officially responded here. 

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.



(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?)