Ash Wednesday – the Church’s shame & Lenten penance for Pope Benedict

The ash and the Cross

As we  launch today into this joyful season of lenten penance, perhaps our joy should be tempered by our sorrow at all that Pope Benedict has endured these last 8-odd years. Surely the wilful misrepresentations of his teachings, the arrogant refusal to accept his attempts to reconcile those drifting from the Church and to restore order to the life and liturgy of the Church, the scandalous opprobrium heaped on him for the abuse crisis when he was one of the few who so clearly and consistently stood against it, the bile and venom spat at him – and not just by the world but especially by Catholics: all this is an indictment of God’s people just as much as of the world. How could a man of such sensitivity be expected to withstand the torments of the world while being so maligned, so undermined, from within his own Church by the people God called him to lead?

The obedience of Christ on the Cross puts us to shame, especially those who have so wilfully disobeyed Pope Benedict. They have made their choice for “me”, not for God, or justice, or equality or any other self-serving camouflage. May God forgive them, and convert them.

This Lent let us double our penance, and take no short-cuts nor allow ourselves anything but the most truly justified breaks from our penance, and offer it up especially in reparation for the failure of the Church to support its supreme earthly Pastor as he deserved, and God demands.

And let us pray that in the Lenten conclave God will grant us the pope we should desire and not the one we have deserved by our culpable action, or inaction.

The Pope’s abdication brings shame – not to him, but on us.

Repent and believe the Gospel.


Also in the news: sounds and smells

A couple of less meaty news items, though perhaps more substantial than the lambs (more of them coming soon!), received notice.

First, Fr Stephen spotted an item regarding a new scent designed for Pope Benedict. Not in honour of him, but literally for him. A top flight Italian perfumer, or “nose”, Silvana Casoli, has created the scent for him exclusively (unlike the one created in honour of his diamond jubilee of priesthood and available to be purchased), and described what she tried to encapsulate in the fragrance:

…the Pope’s personality and theological outlook….pure and clean, recalling the idea of peace… the smells the Pope would smell when praying at the Grotto of Lourdes…

No doubt some will mock this, but that would be to take a cheap shot. It sounds like the Pope acted after hearing rave reviews from priests for earlier fragrances Ms Casoli blended for the Church. If Popes in centuries commissioned works of art and music, why not the far more modest undertaking of commissioning a scent. It seems like a suitably modern expression of artistic patronage, and will add a little more sensory substance to the Pope’s subtle odour of sanctity. Since it will not be for sale but for the Pope’s use only, if he ever gives away a bottle or two, the gift will increase exponentially in value due to its rarity. Come to think of it, it really is time I sought an audience with him…

Secondly, Cathnews has a story about an apparently ordinary parish choir in Adelaide that has embraced the musical heritage of the Church’s liturgy by singing Gregorian chant at Mass. Now being a monk who sings chant daily, I find this wonderful. What is even more heartening is the effect that chant is already having in the parish:

Since the introduction of Gregorian Chant to the Edwardstown Parish last Easter, the St Anthony’s Church Choir has grown to about 15 regular members – the youngest being 14-years-old. Last April, there were just four in the choir.

A choir member, all of 15 years of age, says

…she enjoys the traditional context of the chanting and its connection to the gospel and the readings of the Mass. “They mean a bit more now that we sing them, rather than just say them”…

That girl has got it. The music at too many Masses is all too often undiscerningly chosen, or chosen because of the personal preferences of the music leader, or because it matches a “theme” supposedly in the Mass of the day. However, true church music, and Gregorian chant should have pride of place in it according to Vatican II, is at the service of the liturgy not the music director, drawing not so much on a theme (real or otherwise) as the actual words of the readings at Mass, or the details of the feast being kept. The parish priest there puts it so well (my emphases):

“The congregation is now singing the Mass rather than singing at Mass, with the invitation to all present to embrace the meaning and significance of the texts reflectively and prayerfully.”

This sounds a lot more like authentic active participation than the mere activity that is often rashly dignified with that description. You can see the story in the Adelaide diocesan newspaper here. This parish seems to be setting a fruitful example for others to follow. It has lectio divina groups as well. Do I smell a Benedictine lurking …?

Pope Benedict to the Australian Bishops

At the conclusion of their ad limina visit to Rome, the Australian bishops gathered today to listen to Pope Benedict (who yesterday opened the new Australian pilgrimage centre in Rome, Domus Australia). Pope Benedict concluded his address with special mention of the celebration of the liturgy in Australia:

You are conscious of your special duty to care for the celebration of the liturgy. The new translation of the Roman Missal, which is the fruit of a remarkable cooperation of the Holy See, the bishops and experts from all over the world, is intended to enrich and deepen the sacrifice of praise offered to God by His people. Help your clergy to welcome and to appreciate what has been achieved, so that they in turn may assist the faithful as everyone adjusts to the new translation. As we know, the sacred liturgy and its forms are written deeply in the heart of every Catholic. Make every effort to help catechists and musicians in their respective preparations to render the celebration of the Roman Rite in your dioceses a moment of greater grace and beauty, worthy of the Lord and spiritually enriching for everyone.


A salutary blast from the past – on the Ordinariate and Vatican II

A bad cold has knocked me out these last 5 days, but now some clear-headedness is returning. Two issues have been in the Catholic press (and beyond) lately have caught my attention. One is the continuing momentum of the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham for Anglicans who wish to enter collectively into full communion with the Catholic Church; the other is a call by a Catholic bishop for a new syllabus of errors focused on erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.

Professor Tina BeattieThe Ordinariate has been picking up pace, and all over England Ordinariate groups are forming in which Anglicans can discuss the implications and desirability of taking up the Holy Father’s offer to return to the Church by means of the Ordinariate. Also there has been coverage of Professor Tina Beattie’s negative remarks about the Ordinariate on Radio 4 (and her blog). Of particular interest to me were her comments on Radio 4 regarding the Ordinariate. The first were that “many of us are perplexed about what this means in terms of the Catholic Communion, and indeed obviously for relations between our two Churches” (and here she seems to make the Anglican communion into a “Church” of equal validity with the Catholic Church).

The second comments were in answer to the question “And is your objection partly to do with the fact that you don’t like what they stand for? Particularly on the question of women’s role in the Church?” Her answer is revealing:

I’m not happy about that, no. And I think actually, dare I say it, it’s a peculiarly Protestant thing to join a church because of what one doesn’t like, as a gesture of protest – that’s where the word comes from. It would be wonderful if they were coming in for the positives, and the joy, and the wonders of being part of this worldwide Communion.

To be honest, with regard to the first comments, I do not understand her perplexity. It seems quite simple: it means that a goodly number of Anglicans and their clergy will be entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. Moreover, surely their arrival will only enrich the diversity of the Catholic Church, as they bring their own traditions, or “patrimony”, of liturgical worthiness, pastoral sensitivity and biblical engagement. They will speak an idiom clearly understood by Anglicans, who may then, we pray, feel moved to explore further the path to full communion by means of this familiar idiom.

Here, one suspects, is her problem. The Ordinariate reveals clearly that for the Catholic Church ecumenism is not about ongoing “dialogue” for its own sake. It is about encouraging and convincing Christians to enter into full communion with the Church, from which they are estranged due to actions centuries ago. If it means anything regarding the relations between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church it is that the Church has only one goal, ultimately, for ecumenical dialogue with Anglicans: that they return to the Church. This may disturb many Anglicans, for sure, but that is no reason to stop the progress of ecumenism.

Her second comments raised the eyebrows as she describes the actions of Ordinariate Catholics as “Protestant”. How it can be Protestant to enter into Communion with the Catholic Church is beyond me! Perhaps it has something to do with her description of the Catholic Church as “a church”, as if it were equivalent to one of the multitude of Protestant denominations. That she sees the Ordinariate as merely a group of refugees protesting against women’s ordination is an unfortunate refusal to engage with these people beyond her own narrowly-defined limits. These are people who have long considered the Roman option, and baulked at its consequences. For them, women’s ordination is not the only issue, but it is something of a litmus test for the validity of the claims of the Anglican communion. The Ordinariate has removed some of the sting of leaving their long-time spiritual home. And why should they not join the Church which they know will not ordain women, not because of prejudice, but because it has no power to do so? Perhaps here is the real problem for Professor Beattie: the Ordinariate increases the majority of Catholics who do not countenance women’s ordination.

Bishop Athanasius SchneiderThe second issue in recent weeks has been the call by Bishop Athanasius Schneider for a new syllabus of errors focused on the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. It is arguable whether a “syllabus of errors” in the style of Pope Bl. Pius IX’s original would speak to the people of today. But this is really the latest development in the ongoing debate about the Council, and whether it should be interpreted as creating a whole new vision for the Church (the “hermeneutic of rupture” with the past), or whether it is to be interpreted within the tradition of the Church (the “hermeneutic of continuity” with the past). The term “hermeneutic of continuity” became an established part of ecclesial vocabulary in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Roman Curia in December, 2005, when he quite clearly stated the Council, like all councils, stands within the tradition of the Church and only within that tradition can it be validly interpreted.

So it was a curious thing when I stumbled upon an address made by Pope John Paul II to a conference of bishops, theologians, historians and catechists held in Rome in 2000 on the implementation of the Council. Here we find the hermeneutic of continuity presented in everything but that exact phrase; and we also find some reflections on the Council’s teaching on the Church as communion. It is a wonderful blast from the past.

Regarding the interpretation of the Council Pope John Paul II says:

The Church has always known the rules for a correct hermeneutic of the contents of dogma. These rules are set within the fabric of faith and not outside it. To interpret the Council on the supposition that it marks a break with the past, when in reality it stands in continuity with the faith of all times, is a definite mistake.

When Pope Benedict addressed the Curia in 2005, he was not re-orienting the Church according to an approach peculiar to himself. He was picking up on the teaching set forth by his predecessor. It is itself an act that exemplifies the hermeneutic of continuity, in this case particular continuity with the pope who preceded him. It is this principle of continuity that in part explains why the ordination of women is not possible – it would be a rupture in the theology of both the eastern and western Churches.

Regarding communion Pope John Paul, in the same speech, says:

Communio is the foundation on which the Church’s reality is based. It is a koinonia that has its source in the very mystery of the Triune God and extends to all the baptized, who are therefore called to full unity in Christ. This communion becomes evident in the various institutional forms in which the ecclesial ministry is carried out and in the role of the Successor of Peter as the visible sign of the unity of all believers. Everyone knows that the Second Vatican Council enthusiastically made the “ecumenical” yearning its own. The movement of encounter and clarification, which has been carried out with all the baptized brethren, is irreversible. It is the power of the Spirit who calls all believers to obedience, so that unity may be an effective source of evangelization.

Pope John Paul IIThis is a rich text. Pope John Paul holds communion – communio in Latin or koinonia in Greek – to be not only the foundation of the Church’s identity but also the goal of the ecumenical “movement of encounter and clarification” that has been part of the Church’s mission in especially strong terms since the Council, and which is “irreversible”. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the true “spirit of Vatican II”. Pope John Paul shows that since the visible sign of the Church’s communion is the Pope himself, as successor to St Peter, then communion with the Church gathered around the Pope is the end-game of ecumenism. He further teaches that only when that unity, that full communion, is realised will the Church be able to complete her mission of evangelising the world.

Pope John Paul’s speech led me to see that the Ordinariate is itself only able to be understood within the hermeneutic of continuity. It is a logical fruit of the renewed ecumenical endeavour inspired by the Council. This ecumenical endeavour is not something new, and itself must be seen in the context of the history and teaching of the Church, the hermeneutic of continuity. The Ordinariate is the fruit of this endeavour because it brings many more into full communion with the Church centred on Peter’s successor. It is the fruit of the irreversible work of the Holy Spirit. And it brings closer the day when the Church will be able to fulfill its mission from Christ himself, to proclaim the good news to all the world – a mission that is an essential part of the continuity of the Church. Until then, its evangelisation of the world is impeded by the divisions among Christians. In a world of increasing militant secularism and an even more militant Islam, the Church’s mission is ever more urgent, and thus so too is the ecumenism which will fully enable this mission.

Come back to the Church, and save the world. It is not so silly as it might sound.

Pope Benedict’s manifesto for Benedictines

When the present Holy Father adopted Benedict as his pontifical name it was quickly recognised as an homage to St Benedict, the Father of western monastic life and patron of Europe (though, in part, it was also a tip of the mitre in the direction of Benedict XV ‘the peacemaker’, who reigned throughout the First World War).

Given his fondness for our holy founder it strikes me as worthwhile taking note of what Benedict XVI says or writes about the saint and those who follow his Rule. It seems a particularly Advent thing to do. Of interest is his address to the monks of Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria, a Cistercian monastery and so following a stricter interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. He visited this abbey in 2007 during his papal visit to Austria. In his address he expresses what he sees, through the eyes both of a scholar and a pastor, as essential to the Benedictine charism. It is fruitful reading for any monastery following the Rule of St Benedict. In effect, it is the papal manifesto for Benedictine life today. It should also be seen in the light of his ongoing programme to reform and reinvigorate the liturgy of the Church.

That St Benedict and Benedictine monasticism figure large in the Pope’s thinking on the Church is clear from his stated purpose in coming to the ancient monastery of Heiligenkreuz:

I wished to come to this place so rich in history in order to draw attention to the fundamental directive of Saint Benedict, according to whose Rule Cistercians also live. Quite simply, Benedict insisted that “nothing be put before the divine office”.

“For this reason” he continues, “in a monastery of Benedictine spirit, the praise of God, which the monks sing as a solemn choral prayer, always has priority.” It is for this reason, he notes, that the early Fathers likened monastic life to that of the angels, whose “very life is worship”. The Holy Father elaborates:

This should hold true also for monks. Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised… Such prayer for its own sake, intended as pure divine service, is rightly called officium*. It is “service” par excellence, the “sacred service” of monks.

* Officium, translated liturgically as “office”, is Latin for duty, obligation, service, office.

For Pope Benedict the worship of God for his own sake is definitive, a sine qua non of Benedictine life. Monks offer divine service in choir not, fundamentally, for any pragmatic goal but because God deserves our praise. In fact it is our duty to praise him, and in large measure the monastic choirs praise God on behalf of and in the name of all the Church.

As a result, the monastic commitment to worship in the divine office above all other things is truly a gift to the Church, since it is “also a sacred service to men and women, a testimony offered to them”. Since it is a universal truth that all people have “a yearning for definitive fulfilment, for supreme happiness, and thus, ultimately, for God”, the fact that monks gather together to worship God at the set times throughout the day “testifies to the fact that this primordial human longing does not go unfulfilled”. Indeed our basic human longing has already been fulfilled because “God has shone forth in our darkness with his light, with his Son Jesus Christ”. Christ, in whom God has come to us so intimately that he is one of us, is the one thing necessary which will complete us as human beings: a person, not a doctrine, who is “(o)ur light, our truth, our goal, our fulfilment, our life”.

In speaking of the centrality of Christ for every human being, Benedict seems to be echoing St Paul in his letter to the Romans when he says that “(o)ver and above any ability of our own to seek and to desire God, we ourselves were already sought and desired, and indeed, found and redeemed by him!”. Even before we come to the point when we can start our tentative search for God, he has already found us in Christ, and in him offers us a way to a happiness that will endure beyond this passing world.

It is to this truth that the monastic community witnesses, especially when it is gathered for worship, for the “sacred service” it renders to God for the benefit of the Church, and all the world. Moreover, the Holy Father reminds us, the monastic office has enriched the whole Church also in that all clerics and consecrated religious now likewise pray the divine office. This “official” prayer is also a school of prayer, revealing prayer’s rich structure by means of its “hymns and psalms, with thanksgiving and pure petition”. It is this dutiful yet joyful God-centred worship that enables the Church to receive more fully and fruitfully the wonders of God’s love:

When God is faithfully praised and worshipped, his blessings are unfailing.

In light of all this, the importance of the divine office and the Church’s worship of God, Pope Benedict reaches the logical conclusion, one that echoes St Benedict, or rather confirms his teaching to Benedictines today:

Your primary service to this world must therefore be your prayer and the celebration of the divine office.The interior disposition of each priest, and of each consecrated person, must be that of “putting nothing before the divine office”.

Such a spirit of devotion to the liturgical worship of God will have two clear results according to the Pope. First, the beauty of such commitment will itself beautify the liturgy infinitely more than any technique or method we can devise:

The beauty of this inner attitude will find expression in the beauty of the liturgy, so that wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity.

Benedict’s tip for achieving this foreshadows the description he gives to Peter Seewald of his own prayer life that was noted a few days back:

I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place.

Our worship, as too our personal prayer, is always focused on God yet conscious of the Church universal, both living in this world and living in the next. Worship and prayer take us out of the narrow confines of our own little personal worlds, enlarge our perspective on life and so rescue us from a crippling self-centredness.

The second result of such a commitment to God-centred worship concerns the monastery itself. If it is truly a place where “God ‘is put first’ “, a monastery becomes a “spiritual oasis” and “reminds today’s world of the most important, and indeed, in the end, the only decisive thing: that there is an ultimate reason why life is worth living: God and his unfathomable love”. It is as if the Pope is saying that if a monastery wishes to be relevant to the world of today it must continue to reveal the answer to the deepest needs of humanity by drawing its gaze to God. Then monasteries are truly being what they are called to be,

… not mere strongholds of culture and tradition, or even simple business enterprises. Structure, organization and finances are necessary in the Church too, but they are not what is essential. A monastery is above all this: a place of spiritual power.

In this address to the Cistercians of Heiligenkreuz Pope Benedict tells all followers of the Rule of St Benedict what he expects of them today, and indeed what the Church and the world need from them today. We might reasonably suspect that there is more than one monastery that is more focused on its own agenda rather than the one St Benedict, confirmed by Pope and Church, proposes for it. If it is unfaithful to its essential purpose it will eventually die, perhaps not physically, but certainly spiritually, a whitened sepulchre.

The Pope has also posed a question for each individual Benedictine: to what extent does he (or she) embody this principle of preferring nothing to the worship of God? It is more than a question of how regular a monk is in attending the office, of physical presence in the church or oratory. It is also a matter of the attitude with which a monk attends office. Is his heart in tune with his lips? Is he attentive to what he is doing, both in mind and in body? Does he seek in worship the glory of God and so hope to merit the vision of God’s glory?

Needless to say, the Pope’s words raise fundamental questions for every Christian about commitment to prayer and to worship. How often do I pray? How often do I go to Mass? And when I pray or attend Mass, is it from a grudging sense of duty, or because I desire to find in prayer and worship what they truly offer: the pearl of great price, the one thing necessary?

How the Pope prays

I have just begun reading the recently-released book of the interview Pope Benedict gave to Peter Seewald during the summer, entitled Light of the World. Not too far into the interview Seewald asks the Pope how he prays.

In light of the fact that the Pope is, and has been for decades, a first-rank theologian, I was half expecting a weighty and perhaps even complex approach to prayer. Instead he is as direct and to the point as it is possible to be, and reveals a beautifully simple and authentic prayer life. To the person familiar with his writings both as theologian and as Pope it becomes clear that the spirituality of his theology is distilled to its essence in his prayer, which is situated right in the heart of the Church as the communion of saints, and its rich and profound traditions, focused on the Lord with whom he relates as “by old acquaintance”.

As I did, you might want to read his answer and learn about the prayer that matters, the prayer that endures more readily our human weakness and inconstancy (it might help to know that as a young theologian his doctoral and post-doctoral dissertations were on St Augustine and St Bonaventure respectively):

As far as the Pope is concerned, he too is a simple beggar before God – even more than all other people. Naturally I always pray first and foremost to our Lord, with whom I am united simply by old acquaintance, so to speak. But I also invoke the saints. I am friends with Augustine, Bonaventure, with Thomas Aquinas. Then one says to such saints also: Help me! And the Mother of God is, in any case, always a major point of reference. In this sense I commend myself to the communion of saints. With them, strengthened by them, I then talk with the dear Lord also, begging, for the most part, but also in thanksgiving – or quite simply being joyful. (p.17)

Given his relative isolation from close acquaintance as pope, it is no wonder that Pope Benedict turns especially to the saints, fellow members of the Church, unseen but ever-present, and not subject to the security measures necessary to keep popes safe nowadays, measures which sadly must tend to breed loneliness. Pope Benedict reminds that us in the Church, though no other person be physically present with us, we are never alone. Prayer attunes our spiritual senses to recognise the saints and angels who are always at our side to encourage us, to listen to us and to pray for us to God in whose very presence they live.

Ave, gratia plena!

At our pontifical Mass this morning for today’s Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Abbot referred to the Holy Father’s words before leading the recitation of the Angelus at Cofton Park in September. Pope Benedict noted that Blessed John Henry Newman’s priestly life was one of filial devotion to Mary, and then quoted one of Newman’s sermons:

Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ? What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom He was bound by nature to revere and look up to; the one appointed to train and educate Him, to instruct Him day by day, as He grew in wisdom and in stature?”

Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception – that is, her being so full of grace from the very beginning of her life that she was preserved from any sin in virtue of the divine Son she was to bear – did not make her any less human or more “divine” than we are. Nevertheless, she is placed higher than us by God as one whose faith was unbroken to the point that the grace of her Son could work unobstructed in her. As Bl John Henry notes, she was the only earthly near relative of the incarnate Word, indeed Christ’s mother. As her son in the flesh Jesus was bound by the divine law, in particular the fourth commandment, to honour and obey her.

God made man, Jesus Christ, was bound by divine law to obey a human person! Indeed Mary is blessed among women, among us all. No wonder Christians have from earliest times called upon her intercession in the confidence that, subject to the divine will, Christ can refuse her nothing.

But this feast reveals as much about us as about Mary. It reveals the power of faith, and the effects of grace that such faith unlocks. Nothing is beneath God in his work of saving us, even to taking on a human body and all the limitations that entails, and of subjecting himself in his human life to one of his creatures. God subject to man! Even to the Cross. No wonder St Paul could acknowledge that this was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). But of course, faith knows as does St Paul that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25).

So we are called to abandon ourselves to the foolishness of God, whose love for us knows no bounds, and who will reward true faith with grace beyond our logic to conceive, and make of us bearers of Christ to the world. In this, may the Blessed Virgin Mary ever be our guide and our intercessor.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. (Luke 1:28)

The Pope speaks to consecrated religious

On Friday Pope Benedict addressed the assembly in Rome of the superiors of religious orders and congregations. The full address at the moment is only available on the Vatican website in Italian – the English version normally takes a few days to be released.

The Holy Father reminded the assembled superiors that all renewal in religious life must be based on the Word of God, which is central to the religious life. The living out of the Gospel “every day is what makes the consecrated life intriguing and beautiful”. To provide a true and reliable option for Christians in modern society, consecrated men and women must meet the primary expectation that both world and Church have of them: “to be a living Gospel”.

One aspect of this living out of the Gospel the Pope highlights is fraternity. It is the communal life and its spirit of fraternity that attract young people, and it is the living of community life in a fraternal spirit that is “an important prophetic element you offer to a highly fragmented society”. In a world increasingly individualistic and even selfish, the consecrated religious is called to live a life in community that embodies the Gospel values of mutual service and self-sacrifice. In so doing the religious community, be it apostolic and active, or contemplative and monastic, becomes an icon of the universal Church living in obedience to Christ’s great commandments to love God and our neighbour. By implication, a community that lacks this fraternal and communal spirit, this fidelity to the Gospel in daily life, is one that will not meet the needs of either the contemporary Church or the world.

To avoid this, the Pope reminded the superiors of the need “for serious and constant discernment in order to listen to what the Spirit is telling the community, in order to recognise what comes from the Lord and what is contrary to Him”. It is very easy for a community or a congregation to be so fixated on its own agenda and its own self-chosen set of priorities that it fails to meet the most pressing needs of the Church and world, which are primarily spiritual and moral needs. When a community thus serves itself rather than the Lord who speaks and acts through the Church in the contemporary world then it will not attract others to its life. Therefore, “without discernment, accompanied by prayer and reflection, consecrated life risks basing itself on the criteria of this world: individualism, consumerism, materialism; criteria that undermine fraternity and cause consecrated life to lose its allure”.

Which brought the Holy Father to the concept of mission. Mission is essential to the consecrated life and always involves a mandate “to bring the Gospel to everyone, without borders”. Such an openness to encountering the world will only be fruitful if it is “supported by a strong experience of God, solid formation and fraternal life in the community”. Without these elements, the products of prayer, study and fraternity, the religious community risks being shaped by the world rather than itself shaping the world. A religious community that ruins to a worldly agenda is a failed community. Perhaps here lies part of the reason for the decline in religious life in Europe and the West.

For all its decline, religious life is a constant in the life of the Church: “the difficulties must not make us forget that consecrated life has its origins in the Lord; chosen by Him for the edification and sanctity of His Church. Thus consecrated life ‘will never be lacking’ in the Church”. While particular communities and congregations may pass away, either because they no longer serve a pressing need in the Church in the world or because they have strayed from the essentials of their vocation, the consecrated life will remain a God-given factor in the life of the Church. The consecrated life, be it active or contemplative, always links the spiritual welfare of its members to the service of the Church. Where that service is lacking or mis-directed, the consecrated life becomes sterile and doomed to die.

The Pope has effectively given the religious superiors a particular and pressing task: to discern afresh the role of religious communities in serving the Church. What are the needs that religious are called to meet? Pope Benedict has given us many clues over the last few years:

  • to restore worship as the central activity of the Church, worship offered not only for the Church but also on behalf of all the world;
  • to counteract the increasing materialism, rationalism, atheism and individualism of the modern world by preaching, in word and in action, the reality of God and the primacy in healthy human existence of God’s universal call to self-sacrificial love;
  • to bear witness to the centrality of the Church, not only in the life of Christians but also in that of the world; and
  • to promote the dignity of all human life, from conception to the grave, and beyond.

For those who are considering religious or monastic life, you will probably need to ask yourselves two questions: (1) does this describe the sort of life to which you are attracted and to which you may therefore be called; and, (2) in which community or monastery, given your personal gifts and strengths, will you best fulfill God’s call to you?

Pope Benedict & condoms: the media strike again

Having finished our titular feast of King St Edmund, and celebrating now Christ the King, I had hoped to have a few days free from writing. However the media have struck again, with headlines announcing that Pope Benedict has allowed that condoms can be used in some cases. Such headlines are bound to attract attention and cause surprise or even shock, as I am sure they were intended to do. The catalyst has been the release of advance excerpts of a new book that contains a long interview with the Holy father by journalist Peter Seewald. Since we have only the released excerpts to go on, any comments I make, let alone those of the media, are provisional at best, as we await the release of the book in a few days.

However the BBC has published the particular question Seewald put to Pope Benedict and the Holy Father’s answer. A reading of that excerpt alone, out of its full context as it is, gives the lie to the headline. Popes, scholars or anyone who addresses issues in a detailed and logical way are difficult for the media to report. Such people do not work in the world of word-grabs and sound-bites and so are open to mis-representation. Except in the better standard of journal, the media provide only small, highly edited reports which of their nature cannot give a true picture of what was said but only the reporter’s interpretation of it. Whether this is because the media have short attention spans, or whether they think most of their readers and listeners do, is something I cannot answer yet.

So what did the Pope say? You will see if you go to the link given above that the Pope begins answering the first question by hearkening back to his controversial trip to Africa, during which he said, quite sensibly, the condoms are not the solution to the AIDS/HIV crisis in Africa:

In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.

As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen.

His point is quite sound – the Church cannot prevent anyone getting condoms; despite free access to them there is still a problem; obviously condoms are not the solution. He then goes on to make a deeper observation on the clamour for condoms:

This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

Condoms, in the Catholic view espoused by Pope Benedict, reduces sexuality and its physical expression to a banal and lifeless self-gratification rather than an outflow of love of one for another in the context of a lifelong commitment of mutual self-giving between a man and a woman, of which sexual intercourse is the physical expression. And herein lies one of the great dangers at the heart of the contraceptive mentality: that we seek our own gratification without at the same time being prepared to accept the social and biological consequences of our actions. It is a pursuit of action without consequences, an avoidance of personal responsibility. Whether we like it or not, as free individuals we are always responsible for our actions, even if we are not brought to face our responsibility till after death.

Now we come to the part of the Pope’s answer that has caused the frenzy:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.

It must be read carefully as the Pope has chosen his words also carefully. In highly limited situations, such as a male prostitute, use of a condom can be the “first step” in the “direction” towards the goal of “moralization”, that is, “a first assumption of morality”. This is quite clearly not an approval of condom use, nor does it grant it any moral validity other than seeing in it, perhaps in some cases, the first glimmerings of an emerging personal responsibility, a first realisation that one’s actions have consequences for which one is responsible. In the example the Holy Father uses,then, the male prostitute in using a condom shows the first signs that he realises that his sexual activity has negative consequences both for himself and for others and seeks to prevent those consequences, an implicit if unconscious acceptance that he is responsible for what he does. But, says the Holy Father, the use of the condom here is not the answer to the problem, only the beginning of the journey towards the answer.

Then Seewald, perhaps seeing the potential for mis-interpretation, asks directly if the CHurch might then not be opposed to condoms in principle. The Pope gives a soft but clear answer expressing the consistent teaching of the Church:

She [the Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

The answer is clearly the logical conclusion of all the Pope has just said previously. The use of condoms is not a “moral solution”, and so cannot be not a valid moral option, though it may, “in this or that case”, sometimes be the start of a journey towards a moral, “more human way… of living sexuality”. In his answer to the previous question the Holy Father said that the answer to the crisis of human sexuality and its disease lies “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality”. Morality is synonymous with true humanity in Catholic teaching. A truly human and moral sexuality does not use others for personal gratification and then seek to avoid the potential natural consequences; rather it is the expression of total and mutual self-giving between a man and a woman, a commitment of all of one’s life to the other, a commitment which reflects not only the deepest human need but also the relationship God has with all humanity in Christ and though the Church, Christ’s body.

So Pope Benedict’s words, far from approving the use of condoms, actually reaffirm that the Church does not see in them a moral solution to human misuse of sexuality, but reveal the pastor’s heart which sees that their use could be the beginning, in some people, of an emerging sense of responsibility and the beginning of a journey towards a fully moral, and so fully human, solution to the drama of their lives.

As always it is better to take the time to read the Pope’s words yourself than to rely on the media’s reporting of them. Soundbites and a few words quoted out of context do not do justice to any careful, logical argument.