Ecumenism update

For once I was too quick to post rather than too slow. I have just found a news item from the Vatican which reports Pope Benedict’s address to the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

His words are consistent with what he has said or hinted at in the past. He states clearly that the most urgent and intense ecumenical dialogue is with the Orthodox churches, with whom the Catholic Church has the “closest intimacy”. Nevertheless no ecumenical dialogue must ever relapse into a search for and satisfaction with compromise, that is, into “political categories, in which negotiating ability or greater capacity to reach compromise come into play, and in which the participants hope that, as good mediators, after a certain period they will reach an agreement acceptable to everyone”.

Then the Holy Father articulates the “dual dynamic” of ecumenical activity. “On the one hand it means searching dedicatedly, passionately and tenaciously for all the unity in truth”, for without common acceptance of the one truth there can be no unity; and on the other hand we must realise that all ecumenical activity is subject to the will of God, for “we do not know the time that the unity of all Christ’s disciples will be achieved, and we cannot know it because we do not ‘make’ unity, God ‘makes’ it; it comes from on high…” In other words our part is to work for unity in truth while accepting that this can only come about by God’s power, in God’s good time.

There is in ecumenical endeavour the same delicate balance that marks all Christian activity, between “acting and suffering, activity and patience, fatigue and joy”. Ecumenism is one with all Christian activity on earth, which will never bear fruit unless it is one with the vine and founded on prayer. Thus, says the Holy father, “the unity of Christians is and remains prayer, it dwells in prayer”. It is of course the prayer that issues forth in charity and truth.

The Pope’s liturgical example

Those of you who read Damian Thompson’s Holy Smoke blog on the The Daily Telegraph’s website will know that he is not backward in coming forward. Indeed his in-your-face style is a little too much for some. That said, sometimes he hits the nail on the head, or comes very close to it.

In a recent post on his blog he quotes with approval a leading article in The Catholic Herald which held that the Pope showed us in his visit to the UK that the Ordinary Form of the Mass can be celebrated with solemnity, dignity and beauty. Indeed this is true.

He then highlights the welcome papal practice of celebrating the Mass facing a crucifix on the altar. In so doing the Pope is making it clear that, though he might be facing towards the people, his inner and liturgical direction is to the east, towards Christ who is the focus of the Mass, especially as the priest makes present on the altar Christ’s self-sacrifice to the Father. How often have we seen a priest reciting the Eucharistic Prayer with grand gestures and exaggerated intonation of voice that make it obvious his focus is on the people. This is the natural consequence of his facing the people, with no other visual reminder of his proper direction and focus.

The altar crucifix is a happy compromise between the ancient and (until the 1960s) consistent practice of the priest facing east at Mass, and not alienating the majority of the laity who, not having been catechised properly as to what happens at Mass and why, would imagine (and sometimes mischievously be told) that the priest is celebrating with his back to them (negative spin which masks the true reason – that the priest is one with the people facing Christ). The altar crucifix represents what is called liturgical east. The benefits are enormous. The focus is immediately taken off the priest, who all too often feels (often unconsciously) that he is the star of the show, and must thus perform to keep people’s interest and attention. This is a relief for most priests, and probably would be a relief for most laity!

But back to Mr Thompson’s blog. He concludes by asking if the reader’s parish priest uses an altar crucifix, concluding that the priests who do not use one will be making a statement (one of defiance to the Pope) rather than those who do. This is a telling point though it may not be universally applicable. Never underestimate the strength of inertia. Some priests will not adopt the altar crucifix because it never occurs to them to do so, and if it does, the change is too much hassle. Moreover there may be some priests who would like to adopt it but fear a backlash from the more militant and nasty among their parishioners (and they do exist), or a backlash from among their fellow clergy or religious. So perhaps we should not be too quick to judge if we do not see an altar crucifix in our churches by Christmas.

That said, there may be some places where, having used an altar crucifix for some time, the priest now decides to get rid of it. Now that would be making a statement!

“New agenda” for British Catholics

The most senior bishop in England and Wales, Archbishop Nichols of Westminster, believes that the papal visit has set British Catholics a new agenda. The agenda has four items as he sees it – (1) that the voice of faith needs to be heard in society more than ever, and that we must speak from a faith viewpoint persuasively rather than polemically; (2) that our witness should be one of holiness that comes from a relationship with the living Christ; (3) that Catholics must focus on the eternal sacrifice of Christ (though I am not quite exactly how he means this – renewed commitment to the Mass in our lives? This would make sense in light of the new, or rather, corrected, Missal coming to our churches next year); and (4) that Catholics should work more harmoniously with the state for the common good. You can read the article here.

The only reservation might be for the archbishop’s last point, though I am not working from the full text on which the press bulletin is based, which may have more meat to it. Yes we should work for the common good, but the Holy Father also made it clear that Catholic agencies and institutions should be able to fulfil their mission in accord with their faith and not be tied to a secularist, atheist agenda. We need only think of all the Catholic adoption agencies that have closed in the last few years after the government refused to grant them exemption from equality legislation, effectively forcing them to adopt children to homosexual couples. Indeed we must work with the government for the common good, but always remembering that the government has no monopoly on defining the common good, driven very often as it is by political expediency and pragmatism.

Some sense regarding the papal visit

If you find yourself wilting under the barrage of criticisms of the papal visit, and especially those which assert that the British taxpayer had to pay the bills of a freeloader who had come to see only a small minority of  Britons, then you might take heart from this sensible argument, which provides some much needed perspective.

The Pope meets a young man outside Westminster Cathedral

Papal Visit to Britain

The visit of Pope Benedict is not long over, and it will take some time to digest his many speeches and homilies. Yet it is clear already that, despite the barrage of hatred before his arrival, the visit was a great success. He was true to his own personality and did not try to be a crowd-pleaser.

That said, he drew far bigger crowds than expected, and the young especially came out to see and to hear him. He spoke to Catholics to encourage them especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. He celebrated the Mass in a way that was truly Catholic – no showmanship, no attempt to “improve” the texts by excessive intonation of the voice or ad-libbing, the focus clearly on Christ and not on the people or himself, solemnity without frippery, and with a judicious use of Latin. He called young Catholics to consider their vocations, to beware of celebrity culture, and to be saints!

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he spoke to the nation at large, and the nation, if the media are any guide, listened. He warned against the loud and intolerant secularism that seeks to remove religion from the public square and deny not only its right to take part in debate on important issues, but also its right to govern its own institutions according to legitimate religious beliefs. He met the leaders of other denominations and religions and encouraged them too. He was very much, in action and without ‘attitude’, the universal pastor.

In the flesh, his quiet and humble personality won ordinary Britons over. This probably explains why the haters became even more shrill, hysterical and intolerant, and in doing so they exposed the emptiness of their rhetoric and their own self-obsession. In never rising to their bait, the Pope cut the ground from beneath them.

Strikingly, he came in person to beatify Cardinal Newman in Birmingham. This is a rare event indeed for this pope, and a singular honour. It was a great gift to the English Church, as Newman’s thought is both profound and accessible, and couched in terms that reach Protestant as well as Catholic ears. Blessed John Henry will gird the loins of the Catholic Church in England, and provide an attractive point of meeting for those of other denominations, especially Anglicans.

I had the honour to be at the beatification Mass, and I managed to snap these pictures as the Popemobile came past before Mass. Pray for Pope Benedict: his ministry is burdensome, his body ageing but his mind and spirit strong – long may he reign!