31Jul In Pope Francis, the smile of God is back

Our world is very tired with sad stories. We grab any lifebuoy which hints at hope or possibility. It could be the media, milling around the Lindo Wing Hospital, waiting for the birth of a baby – where many journalists ended up interviewing each other or a door (Kay Burley supposedly!) It could be the Chilean miners rescued in 2010; it could be even a dog alive in Oklahoma after the tornado; it could be Mulala speaking in the UN Assembly on her sixteenth birthday; Or Donal Walsh speaking to young people on suicide and on life; or Joanne O Riordan so bubbly – with her banner of ‘no limbs – no limits.’ Or Maureen Grieves on forgiveness for Ashley and Joanathan who killed her husband Alan, on his way to Midnight Mass; Or the sunshine of Summer which has brightened all our hearts; It might even be the announcement of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the 13th March.

John Paul II was 58 when he was elected. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was 76; He had handed in his resignation as Bishop and then he became Pope! Benedict was 78 when he was elected. Pope Francis has appeared at a time when he is most needed. He brings a smile to the world stage. He attracts attention. He speaks a simple language. He doesn’t bother with the accoutrements of office. From his first appearance – he showed he was different.

Those of us who work out in the parishes, sometimes find ourselves, becoming strangers and foreigners in the official Church. The language of the New Missal; the formalities of dress and Ritual were becoming more and more distant from our reality. The rigidity of thought and commentary, meant that we often felt that the HQ Church was moving away from the Church of Jesus Christ that we meet each day in our lives. And we felt we were outsiders.

The Ryan Report/the Murphy Report added to our sense of dismay. The Report on the Magdalene laundries further disheartened us. How could this happen? It felt embarrassing to belong to the official Church. The treatment of people like Sean Fagan and Tony Flannery made us wonder how could the bureaucracy of Rome suffocate the ‘spirit of Jesus Christ’? We were fearful during the debates on the ‘Protection of life during pregnancy Bill’ and what might church spokespersons say even on the ‘excommunication of our politicians’! We worried on how the ‘Establishment’ will deal with same sex marriages. We simply worried on so many fronts because we lacked confidence. Where was the Gospel or the Good News of Jesus gone? We watched people disappear from our Churches, people who now saw it as a service provider (for baptism, Communion, Confirmation, marriages, funerals). God was missing and not missed. We wondered what had we done and what could we do. The God we meet in the lives of our communities was so different from what was now being presented.

And then Francis appeared.

He smiled. He spoke. He chatted. He wasn’t guarded in his comments. He talked of the poor. He told the young people in Brazil some of the following and has made a habit of throwing little gems around as asides :

  • ‘Shake up the status quo;
  • Get out of the stuffy sacristies;
  • Go to the margins of life;
  • Don’t over intellectualise faith;
  • Use a grammar of simplicity;
  • Spread a message of love and forgiveness;
  • Fish for God in the deep waters of his mystery;
  • The Church has appeared as too weak, too distant from the needs of ordinary people even too cold and too caught up in itself;
  • The Church is unfit for the new questions in life;
  • Have warm hearts;
  • Make a noise and a mess/a fuss;
  • Don’t worry about upsetting the CDF – get on with the message and make mistakes;
  • Talk about Jesus Christ;
  • Make sure that Bishops are not careerists;
  • Church diplomats are about Christ and the Gospel and not to become part of the Establishment.’

The stodgy language of Church (sometimes) has little or nothing to say to so many. And Francis appears. As one theologian summed up what Sacrament means – ‘ A smile on the face of God.’ (Schillebeeckz). The ‘smile’ is back. The poetry is here. The artist allows us to breathe. We have fresh air. Francis emphasises simplicity. We know he is right. We know he is sincere. Will he get everything right? He won’t . Will he tidy up everything? He won’t. Has he been surefooted so far? It appears so. Will that continue? It won’t. Many will dig into his history and drag out Yorio and Jalics (two Jesuit priests tortured by the Junta in Argentina). Some suggest that he comes across as so good because he realises his own weakness and mistakes and sins – but if that leads to humility and ‘lack of infallibility’ – how much better it is?

Did some of us like what he had to say about homosexuality (even in the priesthood) in the chat on the plane? We did. It was refreshing. Did we like what he had to say about women and priesthood? Some of us didn’t. But that too is fine. Many of us feel that the spirit of John XXIII is among us again or more truly – the Spirit of Jesus Christ has resurfaced and we are delighted. We know the wonder of God. We know the miracle of faith. We know the marvel of God in all the people around us. But we now have someone who echoes our own simple sentiments and we can feel alive again and hope has reappeared; It is good. We all smile with amazement at how the Spirit was ‘allowed’ to release to us – such a man as Jorge Mario Bergoglio? What indeed went right/or/ wrong at the Conclave? Did we really need the system to collapse so badly for the Spirit to rescue us. Thanks be to God.

— Seamus Ahearne osa, Rivermount Parish, Dublin 11


36 Responses

  1. Soline Humbert

    ” And then Francis appeared”…I am waiting for Clare to appear, and to smile God’s very own smile, as she calls on the Spirit and blesses and breaks the bread with the pope and cardinals, as she did in Assisi 800 years ago….In fact I know She is here and has never left us…

  2. Malcolm R

    “Did some of us like what he had to say about homosexuality (even in the priesthood) in the chat on the plane? We did. It was refreshing.
    Did we like what he had to say about women and priesthood? Some of us didn’t. But that too is fine.”
    On the way to Rio, Francis said he would not give interviews to journalists. On the way home……
    His mind can be changed, but give him time to tackle what is causing scandal.

  3. Con Devree

    As Fr Aherne demonstrates, Pope Francis continues to elude all efforts to classify him. But apart from what he has omitted and apart from some exaggerations Fr Aherne’s effort is quite good. Fr Aherne’s joy is palpable and good to see. I’m not sure where the reference to the CDF comes from, but on Wednesday, 8 May 2013 Pope Francis, yes with that smile and indeed using the grammar of simplicity, said the following:

    “It is an absurd dichotomy to think of living with Christ without the Church, of following Jesus outside his Church, of loving Jesus without loving the Church. Be aware of the responsibility that you have in forming your Institutes in the sound doctrine of the Church, in love for the Church and in the ecclesial spirit.”

    Fr Aherne places great emphasis on the optics of Pope Francis’s style, which does attract attention. But behind all this, and by using the grammar of simplicity, The Pope is posing a real, daunting challenge to everyone to shake themselves up. A clear message to all of us from Rio was to pray better, to attend to the sacraments better and more often, and do more to serve the Church and the poor. This, and not the changing of Church teaching, was the context in which to kick up the fuss.


    Sorry, Seamus: disaster struck (not unexpected, however) with Pope Francis’ comment on women during his flight home. Smiles are not enough.

  5. Tony Butler

    Seamus, thank you. Recently I was listening to a wonderful pianist performing at The Proms. Born blind, his playing was superb. Asked about his inability to see the conductor or orchestra and tempo etc he said: ” I listen to the breathing of the conductor and once in tune with his breathing then I know I am in tune with the music”. I don’t know if Francis is a man of music but I do believe he knows the score.

  6. Darlene Starrs

    There is no question that with Pope Francis that we, the Church, are not necessarily still gasping for air….but, we can never rest too long, when there is more work to be done… Thank you Soline for reminding us about Saint Clare…

  7. Chris McDonnell

    I wrote this the morning after the huge gathering for Mass in Rio.
    Young people are responding with their hearts to Papa Francesco.
    There is indeed a smile again coming from the people of God
    In the night wind

    They gathered waterside
    vast, on a great swath of sand,
    a curved strand, washed
    by the grey, breaking surf
    of the South Atlantic,
    each pressed, body-close
    by the incoming tide.

    A night-cold crowd,
    arms round waists,
    hand-held, whose inclined heads
    rest on shoulder pillows under stars
    listening to the fisherman by the shore
    back home once more

  8. Mary O Vallely

    I do love to read Seamus Ahearne’s posts. He has the soul of a poet. 🙂 I don’t know who it was said that we think too much and feel too little and I know that some of us feel too much and think too little. Having that healthy balance is sometimes hard to achieve but a church which doesn’t have a heart ablaze with love and compassion is not a church of Jesus Christ. This is why Pope Francis is creating such a stir because we have been so used to the ‘too much thinking’ face for so long and the smile of joy and love modelled by this Argentinian is such a tonic -like plunging into a pool of clear, cool water after years in a dusty, dry desert.
    That said, Pope Francis is not going to be a doctrinal trailblazer and thinking of the Serenity prayer perhaps we should focus on what we CAN do together. I would urge you to read Sean O’Conaill’s challenging words on “Priorities for the ACI (and the ACP)” on the ACI site (www.acireland.ie). Just click on the ARTICLES box (top of page) and I think Sean’s article is the second presented in this selection. Well worth reading, reflecting on and discussing.

  9. Soline Humbert

    My personal small addition to St Francis’ prayer for an even broader and more inclusive smile: “Make me a channel of your peace, where there is a closed door, let me open a path of dialogue….”

  10. Brendan Butler

    It’s symptomatic of the state of our church that when we have a Bishop of Rome who resembles what a person of the Gospel should be we become awestruck. We have to be careful not to become so Pope–centred and don’t become so besotten with Francis that we develop into quasi-popeolatrists and become unduly Rome –focussed . We have to be confident that the Spirit also reveals herself in myriad other ways . This week I met up with Brian Robertson and his wife Francoise from South Africa and what was quite amazing was the commonality of our concerns for our church proving that it was the same Spirit working in her people continents apart. So we thank God for Francis as presenting the Gospel message as a passion for justice ; however justice is indivisible and we cannot preach justice to the world without having it as a reality of the kindom of God within our church

  11. martin gordon

    Very please to read such positive comments about Pope Francis. one had only to scan Facebook to observe the good impression he has made on those of little or no religious affiliation. Delighted so read that my near neighbour in Cork,Fr.Tony Butler watched the inspiring performance of the blind pianist at the Proms. Hope he also watched violinist Joshua Bell. If one goes to my website authormartingordon.com, one can listen to my interview with Henry Kelly on BBC radio Berkshire, a couple of weeks ago. I also did a book signing of ‘No Love Here’ at the St.Paul’s bookshop, close by Westminster cathedral. And to think I almost died in January.

    God bless.

  12. markdask

    Seamus your article was a joy to read. I also greet the appointment of Francis as Pope with a tear of thanksgiving. He reminds me of John Paul II, when that wonderful man landed in his mother country and kissed the ground. Even the non-religious loved John Paul for that loving – powerful gesture.

    “Our world is tired with sad stories”. Hold up there a moment. The Mars Curiosity rover is a small car sized toy that we recently dropped on that planet. And among the list of deadly diseases we recently eliminated might have been Aids by now but we have this thing about condoms. I believe in God and I believe “these things are sent to try us”. Real world science is our way of contending with the “slings and arrows”, and any loving Father would be proud of our valiant and noble endeavours both to counter our travails and to exercise our free will to reach out in our understanding of His universe.

    You say Pope Francis “attracts attention” – it is his humble demeanour that is most attractive about the man – yes man. I know of another man who practiced humility, even before John Paul, but that was a long time ago.

    The James Webb telescope is/will be our latest act of courage – it will look back in time itself – unless of course you are a young earth creationist – in which case the red shift is just a lie. I think our God, far from accusing us of the sin of pride in sending up the Hubble, or the James Webb telescope, (soon coming to a screen near you), would be proud of our courage and initiative. Our God would be proud of our unending attempts to better the world for all, such as establishing the World Health Organisation, or the United Nations.

    Our God recently watched while a coach load of pilgrims, recently returning from a visit to the village of Saint/Padre Pio, blew a tyre and crashed headlong into a ravine 100 metres below, violently killing about forty of that party. What possible crime could those folks have committed, or their families committed, to warrant such a violent end? Now I hear you say our God is merciful – “He will smite the wicked”.

    You mention, as one of “the life buoys we cling to”, that profoundly moving moment where Malala, in front of the Youth UN, says “One Teacher….one book….” – that speech will ring around the anals of history as did the words of Dr. King, and for the betterment of all humanity, but fie, isn’t that eminently courageous young girl a Muslim?

    I await the word of Pope Francis as to who qualifies to get into heaven – will Malala qualify? Or take the work of the single biggest contributor to the demise of Nazi Germany – the man who beat the Enigma encryption machine – the man who invented the computer – same man – same man who was convicted of the crime of being gay – who took his own life in consequence. How about sainthood for the man who saved more lives than any other human being in history? Same man – his name was Alan Turing.

    Pope Francis is indeed a fresh and pleasent face to the Catholic Church. Even to an irreligious man like me he is a joy – but not just for his own merits, his charm and humility. Pope Francis is also the man who takes the place of Cardinal Ratzinger, a man who never was Pope – who was quick to condemn and spent most of his life putting out the bush fires of celibacy.

    Let this Pope confess that even a Muslim child, courageous, spirited, Malala, has a place in Heaven for her unbounding courage. Even a gay man like Alan Turing, courageous, spirited…….

    Thank you for reading.

  13. Soline Humbert

    ” But that too is fine”.For whom?
    Some further food for thought on smiles,hope,denial etc…
    Do we need to look deeper as to Who is the true source of the hope that is within us,the One who won’t disappoint us,the One whose smile is within us and for whom there are no closed doors but only an open heart and open arms ?

  14. Los Leandros

    Its a bit sad to see those praising Pope Francis, while using the occasion to have a pop at Pope Benedict. They are both excellent, orthodox Popes, but in their own inimitable ways. Pope Benedict was a quiet intellectual man, but very charismatic for all that. While I’m not really interested in the numbers game, it is interesting that Pope Benedict drew the largest crowds to his weekly audiences. Many of us loved Pope Benedict because of his counter-cultural witness. Good luck to Pope Francis also.

  15. Soline Humbert

    Brazilian Thealogian Ivone Gebara has a thoughtful reflection on the issue.

    ……As far as saying, perhaps as a sort of consolation, that the Virgin Mary is greater than the apostles, it is, once again, a male theological expression of abstract consolation. One loves the distant Virgin focused on personal intimacy, but doesn’t hear the cries of flesh and blood women. It is easier to write poems to the Virgin and kneel before Her image than to pay attention to what is happening to women in many corners of our world. Meanwhile, if men want to affirm the excellence of the Virgin Mary, they ought to fight for the rights of women to be respected through the eradication of the many forms of violence against women. They even ought to be aware of the religious institutions and the theological and moral content they convey that might not only strengthen, but generate other forms of violence against women….
    Full text on

  16. John Healey

    @markdask “Cardinal Ratzinger, a man who never was Pope …” I suspect that you would not wish to be thought a sedevacantist – for even the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre have not denied the validity of popes they do not like, however much they may have disagreed with them.

    As will soon be apparent, the apparent differences between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI are more matters of style than of substance. See Fr Mark Drew for a useful perspective on this: http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2013/08/08/pope-francis-is-a-humble-man-just-like-benedict-xvi/

    Those anticipating changes in definitive teaching on the basis of a change in personality will inevitably be disappointed.

  17. mjt

    John Healey @16 writes, “even the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre have not denied the validity of popes they do not like”, but on the Traditio site, devoted to pre-Vatican 11 forms, the terms used suggest otherwise: here our Mass is called,”The Protestant-Masonic-Pagan Novus Ordo Service” or “New Mess”, or “Novus Ordo Messes”,
    and the pope was/is ” Newpope J.P.11, Newpope Benedict-Ratzinger, Newpope Francis” a term obviously used to deny them legitimacy.

  18. John Healey

    @mjt: Traditio is an avowedly sedevacantist website and not associated with the Lefebvrists. Indeed, there appears to be great hostility between them due to this difference. If you consult p.32 of the so-called Catholic Directory on their website, you will read the following:

    Neo-Society of St Pius X [the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre]. These sites have been associating with the New Order [the mainstream Catholic Church] sect since 2005. Reports of corruptions [to the traditional rite of the SSPX] have been reported.”

    The Traditio sedevacantists and the Lefebvrists cannot therefore be tarred with the same brush in a discussion regarding the validity of Benedict XVI’s papacy.

    However, to return to the focus of my comment, “markdask” appears to have denied the validity of Benedict XVI’s papacy, and the Traditio website you cite should provide ample warning of what happens when disaffected Catholics make such assertions and reject papal authority.

  19. John Healey

    @mjt: PS If you read further in Traditio’s so-called Catholic Directory, you will find that this sect even rejects the reforms of Pius XII that were later incorporated in the Missal of 1962, the last version before the Vatican Council. This is the version used by the followers of Lefebvre and recently restored to general use by Benedict XVI, much to the anger of the Traditio sect you cite. There are any number of schismatic sects on the internet describing themselves as “Traditional” but these are not all the same; just as those churches describing themselves as “Catholic” – the “Polish Catholic Church”, the “Polish National Catholic Church”, the “Old Catholic Church”, etc, many of them based in the USA, are not the same.

  20. mjt

    John Healey@18 and 19, I had known this group accused one of the Levebre followers of selling out, in the last year or so: “Bernie Fellay, His Neo-SSPX Crowd, and the Other Pseudo-traditionalist Cliques.” Otherwise, why would we be discussing the..”…validity of Benedict XVI’s papacy”?
    But as you suggest, it`s a warning about the grave dangers of disunity in the church. Even so, the desire for unity, while a desirable ideal, cannot be allowed to become more important than obedience to conscience about the issues facing the church now, about encouraging and requiring the full and active participation of the baptised at all levels of the church.

  21. John Healey

    @mjt20. Nevertheless, your introduction of the Traditio statement appeared to be produced in order to contradict my statement that even the Lefebvrists had not denied that the Pope was the Pope. Traditio does make such a denial, and their statement on the Mass was inappropriate in reference to the Lefebvrists.

    Regardng concience, as Newman would have it, conscience is indeed to be obeyed, but a Catholic conscience is not some free standing, intuitive feeling, but an informed conscience – informed by the teaching of the Church. Otherwise, we would not have an external barometer against which we could measure our often subjective feelings which are fallible and subject to all kinds of situations and passions, good or bad. A Catholic conscience, in Newman’s terms, is not one that confuses, for example, transitory, non-defined papal teaching on such issues as slavery and secular social organisation down the ages, with definitively held teachings on family life and – to take another issue – women’s ordination. Such a conscience would also be aware of the differences between women’s ordination, impossible in the Catholic Church, and married priesthood, which is not normative in the Latin Church, but which is customary among priests, but not bishops, in several of our Eastern Rite Churches.

  22. Soline Humbert

    “Women’s ordination,impossible in the catholic church…”
    Is it really so impossible, bearing in mind that with God nothing is impossible”…?
    Obviously some of the leading theologians experts on the magisterium are not convinced:
    “The question that remains in my mind is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons as Pope John Paul evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith. Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. .
    Francis A. Sullivan SJ
    And more on the complexity of creeping infallibility http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/complex-questions-papal-infallibility

  23. mjt

    John Healey @21, I accept the differences you show between those groups.
    One of the exciting things about being a Catholic is that to be “informed by the teaching of the church” does not mean blind obedience; it means, I think, exercising one`s moral judgement after due preparation, thought and reflection. That`s not the same thing as forcing oneself to accept what anyone else says, even the pope in Rome. When you write of us being “fallible and subject to all kinds of situations and passions, good or bad” you are merely describing the human condition, which we are told from scripture, actually pleases God, who loves us in spite of our weakness and whose presence in us is alive in our conscience.
    As for the “transitory..teaching..” on “slavery and social organisation” many good judges consider that the teaching now on questions of women being ordained to the Priesthood, or the allowability of same sex marriages, is just that. Like the poor slaves had to, we will have to wait a while longer to see.

  24. John Healey

    @23: An informed conscience, as Newman would have it, is, by definition, not mindless, for a mindless obedience would be almost as damaging to the Church as a mindless disobedience. A Catholic conscience does need to be informed not by the moment, but by the teaching of centuries, through which she has face and survived profound crises from within as well as without. It is not a matter of our own or the pope’s uniformed private judgement, which, were this applied to Church doctrines, would be a protestant, not a Catholic, approach. This approach in the past has led not only to schism but constant fragmentation among those groups which have broken away. An informed conscience is, rather, a matter of adhering to those salient doctrines which have been handed down. Regarding slavery and usury, for example,, many “judges” doubtless would like to think that these are comparable, for it would suit their argument for the mutability of salient doctrines, but there is surely a clear difference between – say – the Nicene Creed, and papal opinions on slavery (which popes condemned long before Wilberforce & co – http://www.cfpeople.org/Apologetics/page51a003.html), or on polyphony, the fortifications of the Castel San Angelo and the maintenance of the papal states, or, more recently, Pope Francis’s private opinions in Lampedusa regarding the causes of and solutions to mass migration from North Africa to Italy. However, in matters categorised as definitive, popes – all popes, not just this one – are constrained by the teachings of the Church. No less than ourselves, they are subjects, not the masters, of Tradition. Were a pope, for example, to proclaim the Virgin Mary as a “fourth” member of the Godhead, such a doctrine would immediately and rightly be regarded by the faithful as both absurd and alien to what the Church has always taught. Popes always have to act in matters of definitive teaching within Tradition, and never operate contrary to or outside of it. Like a rock, or a steady hand on the tiller, the Petrine Office is not something that is swayed by the storm of public opinion of the moment, but is chiefly exercised in the service of protecting and deepening and handing down intact of the faith. It is not a matter of maintaining popularity. Christ (in the Gospel of St John) did not run after the crowds who disbelieved his teaching on the Eucharist; rather he turned to the remaining disciples and asked them whether they too would turn away.

    Other churches act differently and feel themselves authorised to act outside of tradition on a vote of the laity or clergy and on the basis of current cultural trends. It should be noted that the changes that such churches have introduced as a result have by no means arrested their decline, but rather accelerated fragmentation. Neither have such innovations protected them against scandals similar to those that have beset the Catholic Church. The recent child abuse scandals in the Church of England’s diocese of Chichester and the resignation of Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, as Australian Governor-General, testify to this malaise. It is natural that we should expect a far higher moral standard from the Church than from organisations such as the BBC. It is also unfortunate that in Ireland in particular, the hierarchy in the nineteenth century, led by Cardinal Cullen, did not understand Newman’s prophetic voice on the need to develop an informed laity, preferring to keep the laity docile and uninformed. We are feeling the baneful effects of such clericalist shortsightedness now in Ireland and elsewhere in the Catholic world. Without being complacent, however, it is worth pointing out that the Church has not only survived equally serious crises in the past, but that she has been strengthened by these.

    No doctrine is defined until it is threatened, as Newman pointed out, and in the past, great heresies, including those of “leading theologians and experts on the magisterium”, have thrown up great theological definitions. I expect that Pope Francis’s reference to the development of “a theology of women” will be of this kind. The faithful will be made aware not only what the Church teaches, but, in a more fully explained and definitive form, why she teaches thus. Far from being slaves, our consciences will thus be more fully informed.

    @22: It is impossible, for the reasons set out above. Yes, nothing is impossible to God, but even He is constrained by His creation. He could not, for example, take away our free will without negating our humanity. Neither could he change the normative character of our sexual identities that is based or configured on procreation. (I would stress the word “normative” rather than natural.) While it is true that in Christ there is neither male nor female, God chose nevertheless to be incarnated as a man. This was not an arbitrary biological event. Eventually, in response to the current cultural challenge, the Church will elaborate and explain more fully the full significance of this fundamental element of the Incarnation. Perhaps Pope Francis’s “theology of woman” will mark a start in this process. As ever in the Church’s long and tumultuous history, Time will tell.

  25. Soline Humbert

    Pope Francis: “we don’t have yet a deep theology of women”. What does this say about the theology behind the prohibition of women’s ordination in Ordinatio Sacerdatolis? It lacks depth?… Not deep enough to find the pearl of great price, the treasure still buried under centuries of holding women as somehow defective, inferior, lesser images of God… Until the 1960s no woman was considered, because of her gender, to be fit and worthy to be recognised as “Doctor of the church”: Until then they were deemed to be only fit to learn at the feet of men….

  26. Soline Humbert

    Correction to my previous post: I was too early…It was
    NOT UNTIL 1970 that women were finally considered fit to be recognised as doctors of the church….Men of course were ALWAYS recognised as such….No doubt because we have always had a very DEEP THEOLOGY OF MEN in the church: After all they are SO CLEARLY in the image of the triune God…but women? And if female humanity, as well as male humanity, is not assumed in the incarnation, how are we women redeemed? Perhaps the sentence at Mass should be amended for us women :” Like Christ in all things but sin”….and gender!” Most importantly gender! Perish the thought women believe they are as Christlike as their brothers because indwelt by the same Spirit ….

  27. mjt

    John Healey, It’s a fallacy that church teaching has not changed over the course of time.
    But to test the, as you describe it, paramount, surpassing and self-evident excellence of some of these church teachings based on sacred tradition, maybe our discussion could better focus on some more immediate concerns than those you referred to, of slavery and usury. Could we look instead at questions of the sexual abuse of children by clergy, the system of ordination that fomented this, cover-ups of the same by bishops, church teaching on sexuality largely rejected by the faithful, and finally the imposition of the present texts for the Mass that far from promoting a sense of the sacred in our liturgy, actively prevent it? These are not to be dismissed as only matters of bad practice by some weak vessels or rotten apples, but are really the direct consequences of bad teaching.

  28. John Healey

    @27: Of course Church teaching has developed over time. That is the very point I was making, particularly regarding the Church’s response to psst heresies. The Creeds and the Councils of the Church were largely concerned with matters of doctrine which were disputed. Otherwise they would not have been needed.

    As pointed out, the scandals of child abuse and cover-ups are by no means exclusive to the Catholic Church, as they have occurred among clergy across the Churches, including those permitting married clergy, such as the Anglican Communion, as well as in secular institutions such as the BBC, Boy Scout Associations and state-run orphanages. Such horrific abuses against children are most common among married men (and occasionally women). The level of abuse in the other organisations listed is by no means insignificant, when adjusted to scale (the Catholic Church is very many times the size of other churches). In order to attribute these scandals to the system of ordination in the Catholic Church and cover ups (google the Anglican Diocese of Chichester or Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth of Brisbane for similar scandals), you would have to explain why such abuse and cover-ups is found in these other churches and organisations and – most common of all – families – which do not have such ordinations or episcopal authority.

    As regards the imposition of a new liturgy. The changes are minor and it was no more “imposed” than the previous liturgy. The Catholic Church is not and never has been a congregationalist church. Even in congregationalist churches erected on the principle you suggest, it is remarkable how much they have tended to fragmentation, and how soon they too evolve systems of authority to attempt to stem such fragmentation.

    The scandals to which you refer are indeed matters of sin, which unfortunately has been built into the Church since she was founded. Peter betrayed Christ three times. Judas betrayed Him far more seriously, even while sharing the Last Supper with Him. Unfortunately, there has always been sin in the Church, but one has to distinguish between the frailty of her members and her authority to speak on matters of essential doctrine.

    @25/26: The Catholic Church took almost 400 years to canonise St John Fisher and St Thomas More, or indeed to canonise any English person. The delays regarding St Catherine of Siena and other women say as much about the slowness with which Rome has moved on such causes as about sexual discrimination. If you look at the list of Doctors of the Church you will find that many of them had to wait several centuries before being so declared. 600-700 years being quite common, St Catherine of Siena did quite well to get there in less than 400 and St Therese of Lisieux in a century.

    Priestly orders is not a mark of superior status in the sight of God. The Virgin Mary, the highest created being, was not one of the Twelve, even though she more than anyone else formed her Son’s earthly religious education. Women divines were if anything the norm among the religions of the eastern Mediterranean in the time of Christ, so He would have had plenty of contemporary precedents to draw on had He so wished, especially as He was willing to break other fundamental Jewish laws, when He thought these necessary. (In the early Church, those called “deaconesses”, did not perform the same functions as deacons.)

    Nearer our own time, being a priest was not a mark of superiority – St Francis of Assisi, for example, was never ordained a priest and remained a brother, and there are others.

  29. mjt

    John Healey, you`ve worked hard to address some of the issues raised, but I`m afraid good old circle-the-wagons self-congratulatory complacency about these is not going to be helpful to the church or do anything to get it out of the mess it`s in.
    For example, I think you are setting the bar rather low if you find it acceptable that the Catholic Church is no worse in its record on sex-abuse than the BBC, the Boy Scouts, or some state-run orphanages. Under this argument perhaps lurks a suspicion that clergy who abused children and bishops who covered it up were doing no more than everyone else, so it was really very unfair of the media to focus on the crimes of church people. Well, quite simply, more should be expected of clergy, especially because they claim more for themselves.
    @24, it`s obvious that the exercise of papal authority is more likely to be successful if it were exercised in concert with the bishops of the world, and not, as in Humanae Vitae, outrightly opposed to their wisdom.
    I disagree that the changes in the new translation are minor, and from what I`ve read of the process involved over almost two decades, it was imposed, and its ill-effects are being felt across the English-speaking world daily and weekly.
    The problem with the elevation of the status of the ordained priest in insisting on his “ontological difference” is that it often seems to be at the root of the infantilisation of the faithful, the baptised, the People of God, an ill which Pope Francis himself has commented on recently. It leads to the disease of clericalism. I think the church needs to shake off its obstinacy and complacency about this issue in particular.

  30. John Healey

    @29: On the contrary, it appears that you have worked too hard in attempting to link child abuse to Catholic rites of ordination and episcopal authority, in order to advance your views on the wholly unrelated issues of liturgical change, priestly celibacy and women’s ordination. It is not a matter of complacency. Child abuse is a scourge that has affected – in addition to the abused – a range of institutions, but the attempted linkage with liturgical change, priestly celibacy and women’s ordination is entirely unconvincing. Just a small sample of stories listed below regarding the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, the Church of England and an English reformatory, all unaffected by such Catholic issues, indicates how unfortunately widespread these scandals have become and how tempting it has been for many institutions to compound these scandals by attempting to cover them up.


  31. mjt

    John Healey, I don`t wish to seem obstinate but I don`t want to be deflected on these issues. I`m full of faith in our church, and I`m sure it can be great again, I mean alive and joyous with a new spirit of trust and courage. We need change, not insistence on the status quo or a return to something in the past.
    I still think a lot of our problems now stem from abuses of power, the results of various strands of historical evolution, and I think this is shown at a range of levels.
    One is in the imposition of the present translation of the Mass.
    The Language of the New Missal
    in Light of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.)

    Another is in the present system by which nuncios work to identify potential bishops, in flagrant denial of fairer and more enlightened ways to do it.
    Another is the deliberate exclusion of the lay faithful from meaningful participation in the life of the church and the corresponding attempt to hold on to the reins by clergy even as the church is depleted by such practices and policies. You could hardly argue, for example, that over the decades since then the bulk of Irish priests embraced the challenges of Vatican 11 with great enthusiasm, or attempted wholeheartedly to engage the laity, or that the disease of clericalism was solely the fault of the laity.
    Another example of abuse of power, though it seems you are reluctant to admit it has anything to do with the formation of our clergy or in its role and position in our parishes, lies in the child-abuse cases in our church, not in other churches or in other institutions, and then in the attempted cover-ups.
    Another may lie in a certain lack of humility bred into us by the fact that the church has lasted for many centuries. For example, I think that a complacent insistence that the church must always be right even when it obviously has made outlandish mistakes, is not helpful.
    Other people who are more active in the church and more knowledgeable could obviously easily extend the list- these are merely some of those we have touched on.

  32. John Healey

    I’m sorry to say that – even if you do not intend it – you do indeed appear obstinate. It may be recalled that at the beginning of this correspondence, you attempted to tar the SSPX with the views of the wholly separate, antagonistic and sedevacantist Traditio movement, and then retreated somewhat reluctantly from this position in the face of evidence. Then an attempt was made to attribute child abuse to the ordination and episcopal authority within the Catholic Church. When evidence was presented demonstrating that this scourge has been a major problem in other churches, secular agencies and most common of all, families, all of which are not affected by such issues, you ignore the evidence. Simply stating, in light of such evidence, “I still think”, does not convince. You say I am unwilling to admit that child abuse is related to priestly formation. I could not in conscience admit such a thing, for you have not explained why such scandals and cover ups have affected other Churches (for which they too are apologising). Neither have you presented any evidence in support of your position, but simply assertions based on “I feel that…”
    It seems clear that you have a particular agenda, in support of which the wholly unrelated issue of child abuse has been marshalled without any justification. Very serious though these scandals undoubtedly are, the great majority of Catholic priests have never been involved in child abuse, any more than the clergy of other denominations, but it is nonetheless a serious problem in these denominations, as the links I provided underline, but which issues you did not address.
    Leaving that aside, the churches which have adopted most or all of the changes you advocate have not arrested their decline in the developed world, but rather have continued to fragment and empty. Neither have such changes in the least protected them from the scandal of child abuse, a shocking predilection that characteristically affects those culpable long before they study for Holy Orders, marry, or join organisations that provide easy access to children. Apart from the fact that the Catholic Church would not adopt an agenda so demonstrably incapable of arresting decline in the developed world, it is more fundamentally true that she cannot adopt such an agenda. It is not a matter of this or that pope being so persuaded in future. Popes and bishops cannot act outside of the faith they have received. Their first duty is not to innovate, or to be popular, but to conserve and pass on the faith intact. As Benedict XVI pointed out, popes and bishops are not absolute monarchs, but are subject to traditional teaching on salient doctrines (which are quite distinct from the Church’s judgement of Galileo, usury and other secular red herrings). A pope who attempted to change such fundamental doctrines would clearly be acting ultra vires. A pope can only affirm such doctrines, as Pope Francis made clear on his way back from Rio.
    As regards the Church being “in a mess”: being a body perfect in doctrine but frail in its humanity, the Church has always to a greater or lesser extent been in some sort of mess. What is remarkable is that it has nonetheless survived, not only attacks from without, but also from within, even corrupt popes, imprisoned and exiled popes, schisms, wars, invasions. Powerful warlords from Attila the Hun to Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin have counted her out. They have gone, but she remains. In the nineteenth century, it was fashionable to believe that she was about to disappear completely as even the Catholic states of Europe turned against her and began to persecute her. Gladstone was convinced that it was about to disappear, like the Holy Roman Empire. He would doubtless be surprised by the millions who recently turned out in Rio.
    Just as the Church has always been in some sort of mess, there have always been Cassandras forecasting her imminent demise. These come and go, but Catholics should take heart. It has often taken those who grew up outside the Catholic Church to appreciate and highlight her qualities, even when it is fashionable to despise her even from within. Newman provides one of many examples of clergy, writers, intellectuals and artists drawn to her. Another was Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, who converted to the Faith on 11th September 1903. His was a somewhat spectacular conversion (in the eyes of the contemporary media) as his father had been Archbishop of Canterbury and Benson, himself, had been ordained as an Anglican vicar in 1895. In 1904, following his reception into the Church, he was ordained a priest and, by 1911 he was made Monsignor. He wrote many great books, many of them with a prophetic element, but the following excerpt from “Christ in the Church” written in 1911, has particular resonances for us today:
    “I do not for one instant profess to believe that all the world is about to turn Catholic: I am quite sure that it is not; I even think it probable that we are on the verge of a Great Apostasy; but of one point I am as certain as of my own existence, that, fifty years hence there will be no considerable body in the whole of Western Christendom which will be able for one moment to compete with her; and that a thousand years hence, if the world lasts so long, we shall have once more the same situation that we have now.
    On the one side will stand human society ranged against her, in ranks and companies of which hardly two members are agreed upon anything except opposition to her. There will be the New Theologians of that day, as of ours; new schools of thought, changing every instant, new discoveries, new revelations, new presentations and combinations of fragments of old truth. And on the other side will stand the Church of the ages, with the marks of her passion deeper than ever upon her. From one side will go up that all but eternal cry, ‘We have found her out at last; she is forsaken of all except a few fanatics at last; she is dead and buried at last’.
    And on the other side she will stand, then, as always, wounded indeed to death, yet not dead; betrayed by her new-born Judases, judged by her Herods and her Pilates, scourged by those who pity while they strike, despised and rejected, and yet stronger in her Divine foolishness than all the wisdom of men; hung between Heaven and earth, and yet victorious over both; sealed and guarded in her living tomb, and yet always and forever passing out to new life and new victories.
    So, too, then as now, and as at the beginning, there will be secret gardens where she is known and loved, where she will console the penitent as the sun rises on Easter Day; there will be upper rooms where her weeping friends are gathered for fear of the Jews, when, the doors being shut, she will come and stand in the midst and give them Peace; on mountains, and roads, and by the sea, she will walk then, as she has walked always, in the secret splendour of her Resurrection. So once more the wheel will turn; there will be ten thousand Bethlehems where she is born again and again; the kings of earth will bring their glory and honour to lay at her feet, side by side with the shepherds who have no gifts but themselves to offer. Again and again that old and eternal story will be told and re-told as each new civilisation comes into being and passes away – that old drama re-enacted wherever the Love of God confronts the needs of men”.

  33. mjt

    John Healey @32: Impressive knowledge and faith expressed here, and I`m grateful for the effort you put into your explanations, and I agree with a lot of what you say. I couldn`t hope to respond to all of your points separately, so I`ll return to just a few of those that seem most important.
    Your reference to the SSPX as being different from the Traditio group should not obscure the fact that despite the best efforts of Pope Benedict XV1, they remain, still, obstinately separate. At the start of our discussion you used the expression, to which I then responded, “ should not be tarred with the same brush in .. a discussion regarding the validity of Benedict XVI’s papacy.” As the followers of Levebre do not challenge it, why did you use the expression except that they continue to reject the burden of Vatican 11, as expressed in the leadership of that pope?

    Also, I had not needed you to point out the fact that most cases of child abuse happen in families, and have long thought it lamentable that the media has not conducted any kind of serious investigation of that scandal, but I think that is separate from our discussion of the prevalence of it among clergy in our church. If you think that in the case of priests it`s caused by something other than their priestly formation or the unhealthy clericalism encouraged for generations by the church itself, which are things we can do something about, would you say what you think it is? Attributing it to the innate sinfulness of mankind and then calculating that it`s not worse really, or different, by scaling up to the numbers in the Catholic Church, seems an odd way to go about maintaining the idea of the moral integrity of Catholic priests or the exemplary nature of Catholic doctrine by which we try to steer our lives.
    Despite your attribution of it to me, as far as I know I haven`t used the expression “I feel..” in our discussion, or “simply assertions based on `I feel that`…” so I don`t know why you put it in quotation marks in a post addressed to me. I know arguments are better conducted in a rational rather than in an emotional way, even though the most effective ones are informed by passionate feeling.

    From your frequent insistence on the inability of the church to deviate from its traditional teaching, I think you imagine the church to be a prisoner of history, and its task a mere curator`s job of conservation, whereas many see its work properly identified as the challenge in Christ`s “ take up your cross daily and follow me”, that is in each generation`s having to strive to find the right way to express the Faith amidst the challenging circumstances of the contemporary world we have to live in. What we believe in doesn’t change, but the way we profess it and understand it must change according to the world we live in.
    I agree of course when you write of the church, “What is remarkable is that it has nonetheless survived” but I think it did so because creative and passionate people, espousing the faith, found new ways to understand it and express it in each generation, and that`s what I think, and feel, if you don`t mind, is needed now.

  34. John Healey

    You may not have said “I feel that..”, but you did write, in the face of contrary evidence, “I still think that…” which seemed to amount to the same thing.

    You have not in the least established a causal link between child abuse and priestly formation, much less with the liturgy. You have asserted such a connection, seemingly on the basis that this must be the case. The point about the prevalence of child abuse in families and in other churches is that your hypothesis cannot explain these. It is relevant to point out that only yesterday, John Sentamu, Anglican Archbishop of York, has authorised an urgent inquiry into child abuse and cover-ups stretching back decades, something that Anne Lawrence, a campaigner against child abuse in the Church of England, has long been calling for. See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1566826/C-of-E-child-abuse-was-ignored-for-decades.html and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2396085/Diocese-York-look-clergy-files-bid-investigate-child-sex-abuse-claims.html

    For your hypothesis – that child abuse and cover-ups is the result of clerical formation peculiar to the Catholic Church – to be sustained,, you would surely have to point out where and how it differed, for example, from the formation of Anglican clergy, since clerical abuse and covering up in other churches cannot be the result of Catholic clerical formation.

    Child abuse is a predisposition. Priestly formation or celibacy does not make someone into a child abuser. To suggest thus is – however untended – an insult to the great majority of Catholic clergy who have never engaged in such perversion, or covered it up. It is true that clerical positions, in common with the roles of social workers, care home officials, Scout leaders, and most of all, fathers in families, have often afforded greater access to children, but to reiterate, there is no evidence whatsoever to link this scourge exclusively or even predominantly with the Catholic priesthood. You appear to be concerned to build up such a case, without evidence, to support wholly unrelated arguments regarding the liturgy, celibacy, women’s ordination and homosexual marriage
    The point you make about SSPX’s lack of positive response to Pope Benedict XVI’s overtures is correct, but was not in dispute and is entirely off the original point of “markdask”’s denial of the validity of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate. Then you appeared to misattribute the sedevacantist Traditio comments to SSPX. I certainly do not approve of the SSPX’s position, but their position regarding the papacy should not be misrepresented.

  35. John Healey

    @mjt33: Regarding my “frequent insistence on the inability of the church to deviate from its traditional teaching”, this relates only to definitive teaching on salient doctrines, not on ephemera. In stating this I am only repeating the teaching of the Church in Vatican II documents. I certainly do not imagine the Church to be a “prisoner of history” or its role to be that of a “mere curator”, but I do regard her as the custodian and steward of true doctrine, a claim reiterated by her in Vatican II. As regards the changes you seek, it is not so much a matter of the Church, or this or that pope, not being willing to enact these, but that she and they have not the authority to do so. The Church has stated that she is unable to alter certain doctrines that have been entrusted to her by Christ, or teaching that upholds natural law. Plenty of other denominations are available that feel that they possess authority to make such changes. They continue to fragment and lose members. The Catholic Church does not have that kind of authority.

  36. mjt

    John Healey,
    In 31 I identified some of the changes I`d like to see happen in the church, which, if you don`t mind my using the word now, I think would strengthen and protect it, and which I think are by no means threats to the church or even in some cases very radical departures from its teaching. These are the, to use your expression, “changes you seek” and rather than their being revolutionary or radical I think them to be quite reasonable and modest:

    1) A better English version of the Mass than the one we now have. Restore the previous one until a new and better one can be worked out. By implication this would be an admission that the process by which the present version came about was flawed, so it`s unlikely, but eventually change will come in the translation, and we can all hope it will be the best one possible.

    2) Wholehearted involvement by the clergy of the laity in the life of the church. It should have happened over forty years ago, and is hardly happening even yet, so it`s not going to happen tomorrow, alas. But it shouldn`t be treated as if it were an assault on the church as custodian of the truth.

    3) Institute a new and more consultative and representative way by which bishops are identified. Would this shake the foundations? Pope Francis has started the ball rolling here in his address to his nuncios. Would he have done it if he had thought everything had been great?

    4) Give a serious effort to address the crisis in vocations, which will have to include a serious effort to address the roles and call of women in the church. A Pontifical Commission, after all, has thought the matter through and found no basis in scripture for banning the entrance of women to the priesthood. It would be a departure culturally certainly, but would even this quite radical step be an assault on doctrine?

    Finally, despite your coming back again and again to make the point that I`m wrong about the causes of the abuse of children and young people by Catholic clergy, as far as I can see you have not yet explained it. Though any priests I have met have been good, compassionate, humble, hardworking, inspiring, dedicated, and virtuous people, and have not personally known any of the villains, villains there were and no doubt still are in the church. If I`m wrong that the source of the problem of abuse lies in the nature of priestly formation, and especially in the typical role of the priest in parish life, where he was put on a pedestal, and in the all-male nature of the priesthood, would you for once say what you think it is? Unless you think it didn`t happen on the scale suggested by the media and on legal record? Or unless you think we can do nothing to prevent it and will just have to learn to live with it? What changes, if any, do you suppose would help?
    Incidentally, it will not help in this discussion to misrepresent my position. For example, as I had never used the term “I feel”, I have never said that these abuses were “peculiar to the catholic church”. In fact I explicitly stated that it`s amazing the media has not launched an investigation about the incidence of abuse in families for example.
    We may continue to disagree about some of these, and you may continue to think I`m unreasonable, which I don`t much mind, as I know I am not. You may find this unreasonable too, but as the poet said, there`s thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, and then too, we all know one man`s obstinacy is another man`s resolution, one man`s “think” is another man`s “feel”. For example, when I wrote, “I still think” I meant just that, that having looked at the evidence and arguments you brought to bear I still THINK differently, that is, in spite of the points you made, and of course you`re at liberty to do the same.