Sunday, 31 October 2010

Saints never grow old

Saints never grow old.
They never become figures of the past,
in fact they belong to the future,
and are witnesses of the world to come.
[Pope John Paul II]

More and more we have saints of whom we have photographs or film images, and not just drawings or paintings that hand down to us an image "from the past". More than ever we can have this sense of the saints as being figures of our own time, and figures for the future, and not just figures from the past.

Forty Days for Life: a meditation

I had hoped to spend some time at the London vigil for the Forty Days for Life, but circumstances have conspired against.

However, I share the dialogue below from Ingrid Betancourt's Even Silence Has and End, which I read yesterday evening. This book tells the story of Ingrid's six years as a captive of the FARC guerillas in the Colombian jungle. Clara was with Ingrid as a member of her election campaign team when both were seized by the guerillas. During their time in captivity, they found it very difficult to get on with each other. Some six months or so before this dialogue, Clara had expressed a wish to have a child with one of the guerillas, since she was worried she would be too old to have children after her release. This dialogue occurs just as Clara has revealed her pregnancy to Ingrid, and takes place about two years into their six years of captivity:
"You're the first to know. Can I give you a hug?"
"Of course you can. I'm happy for you. It's the worst time and the worst place, but a child is always a blessing from above".
Clara sat down next to me and took my hand and said, "I'm going to call her Raquel."
"Fine. But think about some boys' names, too, just in case."
She remained thoughtful, staring into space. "I'll be a father and a mother at the same time."
"The child has a father. You have to tell him."
"No! Never!"
She got up to go, took a step, and then turned round again. "Ingrid?"
"I'm afraid."
"Don't be afraid. Everything will be fine."
"Am I beautiful?"
"Yes, Clara, you're beautiful. A pregnant woman is always beautiful".

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Children at Mass

I came across this post about children at Mass when I should have been doing something else. I think it makes for an interesting read.

I do believe that being single, and therefore not having children to take to Mass, leaves me some right of pontification on this issue - if only because, not being occupied with children on a Sunday morning, I have more opportunity to observe what is going on around me.

First: I absolutely agree with Michelle Therese's suggestion that children should be welcomed at Mass, in the spirit of the words of Jesus that she quotes at the beginning of her post. In a very real sense, I don't mind children being at Mass and the element of disturbance that that can cause to single folk like me. What I do find difficult, and what drives me to Sunday evening Mass at the moment, is when I see a total lack of any effort by parents or parishes to achieve a proper participation by children at Mass (see seventhly below).

Secondly: Michelle Therese has experienced the way in which even young children can have a real sense of "the sacred" when they enter a Church or attend Mass. I would argue that this is so from principle rather than from experience (because I don't have any)... but the wee mites gain that sense of the sacred from seeing it in those around them, their parents firstly, but other adults at Mass, too. Oh, and in the way in which the celebrating priest conducts himself. The "good morning, everyone"/"good morning, father" approach to the Liturgy ain't goin' to deliver on this ...

Thirdly: Children need to see, from the very beginning, that going to Church for Mass is "different". They need to be asked to behave differently - with reverence, silence - and to see that others behave in the same way. They won't do it every time, that's children for you, but that they have been asked to do it communicates a message.

Fourthly: Children aren't going to pray by understanding the meaning of all the words (indeed many an adult will not understand all the words of the Liturgy), but that doesn't mean they can't participate. They can pray with their bodily postures - standing, sitting, kneeling, holding their hands together in prayer, watching what is happening in the sanctuary - and Michelle Therese's post bears witness to this. They can recognise that we stand for the Gospel after sitting for the other readings, something that might well be lost if they have trooped out for "children's liturgy".

Fifthly: Families should sit at the front where the children can see! And, yes, a few years ago, I gave this advice to a Mum with two children who were sometimes difficult in Church, and then watched over the following months as she followed it and the children's participation during Mass improved.

Sixthly: Give children something to watch at Mass! Gospel procession, acolytes, incense - all the works. This was always a hidden pastoral intent to my activity as a parish MC. And it makes life more exciting for the altar servers. The last time I was MC for a Bishop's visitation and confirmation, the minimum number of servers I needed was thirteen!

Seventhly: For all the efforts at "children's liturgy" and first communion programmes, my experience of seeing families at Mass on a Sunday morning is generally one of watching a pastoral disaster, and this seems to be the case whichever the parish and wherever the parish (at the moment I am generally hiding away at a Sunday evening Mass for my own sanity). The majority of families, both parents and children, simply do not participate in any sense, and do not seem to make any effort to participate. I have thought for some time now that it would be a good idea to scrap "childrens liturgy" and instead arrange for catechists to work with families during Mass to help them participate - modelling reverence in posture, genuflection, silence, the simpler responses, attentiveness to what is happening in the sanctuary. There appears to be as much a work to be done with the parents as with the children!
Michelle Therese's post does demonstrate what is possible and what can be done in this regard with a suitable pastoral intent.
Pontification over; now back to what I should have been doing for the last half hour ....

Night of Light

I first came across the idea of celebrating All Saints Eve with a "night of light" a few years ago. That particular celebration turned out to be a one off that was not taken up again the next year.

So I was rather pleased to see this initiative on the website of the Catholic Bishops Conference: Shine a Light to Witness to Christian Faith. The site of the initiative itself is here: Night of Light. This site contains a number of suggestions for taking part in the event. In England and Wales, the Solemnity of All Saints has been transferred to be celebrated on 31st October - so a celebration of the Eve coincides liturgically with the celebration of the day itself.

Two easy ways that everyone can participate. Place a light in your window (safely - be very careful with candles) as a sign that Christ is our light. And wear an item of white clothing as a sign of Christian faith.

Some Christians have a very strong sense of Halloween as a pagan celebration, while others are more accepting of it, considering it to be more neutral and harmless. Whichever view is taken, it seems to me a good thing to make more of the Solemnity of All Saints than we usually do in this country.

PS. tigerish waters posts splendidly about a scary old bat routine - and she's not referring to Strictly ..

Friday, 29 October 2010


tigerish waters has posted on Choice?, a post which prompts the following thoughts.

1. When "no choice" really is a choice.

I had reason at a point during the last academic year to enquire of colleagues responsible for PSHE about the evidence that made it vital to teach Year 8 pupils (12-13 years) about "safe sex" in response to the rates of teenage pregnancies in our local authority area. (This claim was made in their e-mailed apology to colleagues about the appearance of condoms around the school, as they were being used in PSHE lessons, asking that we could return any that appeared in our lessons ... It sounds as if our Year 8 were taking the whole thing very seriously - not!). The reply I received was interesting. The staff in the school referred me to the relevant local authority advisory teacher, and to the "minimum expectations" promoted by the local authority for schools, which included this topic in their expectations for Year 8.

Were the PSHE staff really willing to take responsibility for what they taught in the school? Or where they just treating the situation as one of having no choice except that of following local authority curriculum guidance?

I think this is one of those all-too-common situations where people do really have a choice of how to act - but others behave as if they don't, and they therefore do not recognise that they have. It is a situation where a betrayal of the idea of conscience takes place without anyone noticing.

2. Choice or freedom?

tigerish waters gives an example of a friend of hers who made a choice for abortion, and the advice that she received from an enclosed nun to indicate that this was not a matter open to choice. Now, clearly, just as a matter of freedom, the friend was able to choose to undergo an abortion and she could have chosen not to do so. The law in the UK, and the willingness of medical practitioners to carry out the relevant procedures, makes that freedom one that can be readily exercised. The enclosed nun, in saying that this is not a matter for choice, is indicating that the choosing of an abortion is never going to be a morally just choice.

In both the case of abortion, and the case of the PSHE teachers mentioned above, perhaps the key question is one of the circumscribing of the freedom that should properly belong to the person involved. What in every day experience would be expressed as "having no choice" is actually a failure to recognise the freedom proper to the person (on the part of the person themselves) and an attempt, undertaken more or less consciously, to suppress that freedom on the part of others (the local authority in the case of  our PSHE teachers).

3. The first principle of natural law: that good should be done and evil avoided

tigerish waters suggests that an ethical methodology based on a concept of choices (or of "ethical dilemmas") is not a correct methodology. If we argue the case for the freedom of the person in the face of their deciding upon a course of action, then we are insisting that the person is able to choose how they act. But where the "ethical dilemmas" approach might suggest that one choice is as equally legitimate as another - that it is a matter of choice in the wrong sense of the word - insisting on the freedom of the person goes hand in hand with the idea that there is a morally just course of action that can be followed and that other courses of action are not morally just.

It can be expressed as the first principle of natural law, but it could also be argued as being part of the common heritage of the human race: in our chosen courses of action, what is good is what should be done and what is evil is what should be avoided. It is perhaps ironic that both those who in practice deny their own freedom - we have to follow "guidance" - and those who advocate an ethics of "choices" fail to live up to this first principle of natural law.

Is the whole question of "choices" therefore, at heart, a question of recognising the existence of good and evil, and of recognising the first principle of natural law though one might not frame it in such language? And does it not manifest too often in the ordinary lives of many individuals an indifference before good and evil? And, in a small number of cases, in a deliberate choice for evil?

4. An afterthought

Does our society not believe that it is good that should be done and evil avoided?

In the context of inter-religious dialogue, it is not unusual to identify the "golden rule" (treat your neighbour as you would want to be treated yourself) as representing a commonality across all religions. This commonality can also reach to those of no religious faith.

Perhaps we should recognise the first principle of natural law as representing a similar commonality across religions, seek to give this a prominence in inter-religious dialogue.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Santiago de Compostela (or "hug an apostle")

The little gap in blogging occurred because Zero and I were away for a little holiday. Our choice of Santiago de Compostela had, at the time we were booking flights, as much to do with the fact that the cost of the flight to Santiago was turning out rather lower than that to our other possible destinations. Subsequently, we realised that it is a Holy Year in Santiago (we have 14 days left to get to confession for that plenary indulgence) and that Pope Benedict will be visiting the city ten days after us (he chose to follow us when we went to Assissi two years ago, too).

The poster above was displayed at the entrance to the Holy Door of the Cathedral, through which one enters as part of the celebration of the Holy Year. It gives access to the steps behind the statue of St James over the high altar of the Cathedral, and to the tomb of the apostle in the crypt below the high altar. The pilgrimage custom is to embrace the statue of the apostle and then visit the crypt to pray at the tomb.

This clip at Romereports, about Pope Benedict's forthcoming visit, gives some idea of what is involved in the pilgrimage to the Cathedral and gives a brief glimpse of "hugging the apostle".

It was quite impressive to see how seriously the Holy Year and the pilgrimage are being taken in Santiago. So far as we could tell, there was a continuous stream of pilgrims making their way to "hug the apostle and visit the tomb" all day long. At peak times, the queue extended round two sides of the square outside the Holy Door, but at other times it extended only within the door itself. Whilst there was clearly an element of tourism among those making their visit, the atmosphere was nevertheless very reverent and prayerful.

The Cathedral hosts four pilgrimage Masses each day, two in the morning and two in the evening. The impression we gained is that these Masses attract a full congregation each time, with a special pilgrimage group offering a testimony of faith before the homily at the principle morning and evening Mass. The Cathedral manages them very well, to maintain an environment of silence and prayerfulness despite the nature of the Cathedral as in part being a tourist attraction. There is also daily Eucharistic Adoration in one of the side chapels. For the prayerful visitor this is something that, perhaps without explicitly intending that it should be so, is very welcoming and of which we availed ourselves on two occasions.

[During our visit, a lot of restoration work was taking place in the Cathedral, with some parts inaccessible or partly hidden by scaffolding.This meant that not all the displayed information about where things were turned out to be quite accurate.]

Pope Paul VI Lecture 2010

A few years ago, I went to CAFOD'S Paul VI Memorial Lecture when the lecturer was a lady called Maria Lopez Vigil. She had been a collaborator with Archbishop Oscar Romero and, at the time of the lecture, had just published a book Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic. The book is a collection of people's memories of Archbishop Romero. I went because I was interested in meeting someone who had worked with Archbishop Romero and would be able to communicate something of the man - not that I had any intention of speaking to her individually but that, when you hear someone speaking in person, you gain a sense of them as a person as well as a sense of their thought.

Maria Lopez does recognise in the introduction to her book that Archbishop Romero experienced a "conversion" as he took up his office as Archbishop of San Salvador; but my memory of her talk is that she did not present this "conversion" as a change from being an arch-conservative (in both ecclesiological and political terms) to an arch-liberal (again in both ecclesiological and political terms), a way in which he is often presented but which, in my view, has no basis in Archbishop Romero's own writings. I found it a very interesting occasion, and was very pleased to have attended.

In a similar way, when I learnt that the 2010 Paul VI Memorial Lecture would be given by a speaker who is Secretary General of Pax Christi International and a former Prime Minister of Haiti, my interest was caught. I am looking forward to an "encounter" with someone who has held political and public office and, as she has done so, has tried to put her faith into practice. Claudette Werleigh's CV can be found on Pax Christi International's website. I am expecting that, whatever one might think of CAFOD, this will be an interesting evening.

It is interesting to explore the Pax Christi International website, perhaps particularly the page which tells the history of the movement. Pax Christi has an authentically Catholic charism, which can be seen both in its original inspiration in France in the wake of the Second World War and in its recognition within the Catholic Church. Those of a more conservative mind might not be comfortable with the charism of Pax Christi, and might feel that some of its personalities have not always been faithful to the Church's life. But this should not detract from the fact that Pax Christi does have an authentic charism in the Church.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The public sector and the C of E

"The public sector" - this is a term that generally refers to areas of work where the employer is either directly, or a little indirectly, the government. Typically it exists in three forms - central government departments, local authority services, and and organisations like schools and the National Health Service that are funded by the government.

Today's Times has several pages devoted to "The Public Sector".

Intriguing to see that these pages include a feature about the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England headlined: Are women bishops a good idea?

Is being the "established Church" really the same as being part of the "Public Sector"?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Update: International Eucharistic Congress 2012

The website of the International Eucharistic Congress 2012 has published the October 2010 issue of their e-Congress newsletter.

Page 7 of the newsletter describes the "Congress bell":
Bells have been associated with prayer and gathering in community for thousands of years. In Ireland we have many old bells, reminiscent of important moments of gathering, both religious and social. The Pastoral Committee has identified a bell as one of the key symbols of the Congress. The Congress Bell will be a reminder of the call to faith and the call to prayer in ancient times and in more recent times; the invitation to gather as a Christian community. Our Eucharistic Congress Bell has been donated for this purpose by the Dominican Sisters in Cabra. The Bell – in the near future to be housed in a special housing or vehicle – will be carried and pushed all around Ireland. It will be offered to dioceses, parish communities, festivals of faith and places of pilgrimage. We hope it will be carried by many volunteers, parish to parish, community to community. Resources are being devised to accompany the Bell so that, as it is rung, it will be heard by many people as a form of invitation. They may ask “what is it?” They may go further and ask, as the rich young man in the Gospel asked, “Good master what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Prayers and ceremonies will be created for prayer occasions. It is envisaged that every diocese, cathedral, community and hopefully many religious sites as well as the schools and other institutions will get involved in this project. A steering committee will soon be established in order to co-ordinate this task.
I had been wondering what Ireland would do to compare with the Ark of the New Covenant that was a major feature of the preparation for and celebration of the 2008 Eucharistic Congress in Quebec. At first sight, the photograph of the "Congress bell" in the e-Congress newsletter seems rather underwhelming.

However, the idea that it should travel Ireland during the period leading up to the 2012 Congress strongly reflects the idea of the Ark of the New Covenant in relation to the Quebec congress. Once the bell has been mounted in a frame or on a vehicle I expect that it will appear more substantial and more appropriate to its purpose.

I do like the idea of a bell:
  • It is very appropriate, as a call to communion, for the 2012 Congress theme, The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with One Another.
  • In the context of the "new evangelisation", it represents a call to Ireland and, through Ireland to all the nations of Europe, to return to their Christian heritage
  • At a time when Christian-Islamic relations are such a significant question for Europe, it represents a public call for Christians to turn to prayer, in parallel the public call to prayer of the muezzin, and so has a strong implication for inter-religious dialogue.
The newsletter also links to extensive pastoral resources for the first part of the programme of preparation for the Congress.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

I went back to work on Monday for a rest ....

... after a rather busy weekend.

On the Saturday, Zero and I were at Aid to the Church in Need's event "Hope without Fear" at Westminster Cathedral. I will leave Auntie Joanna to describe the day. ACN's own report of the day is here. In addition to what these reports describe, the update by John Pontifex on the situation in Pakistan was also very moving. There were perhaps two common themes to the situation in Sudan and in Pakistan that were apparent during the day. The first is the situation of Christianity within the environment of an extremist  and violent interpretation of Islam. The second is the way in which Catholic prelates find themselves, in the exercise of their essentially pastoral and evangelical mission, taking a position within the political arena. So, for example, the Catholic Church in Sudan is strictly neutral with regard to the outcome of the forthcoming referendum about the future of southern Sudan. But the Church is very involved in teaching about the underlying principles that should determine how people vote in the referendum - Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, Sudan articulated this with the strap-line "Choose life". By this strap-line he intended that a vote should be cast in favour of what will promote justice, reduce violence, reduce fear and promote respect for the dignity of peoples.

On Sunday, I went to see "Of Gods and Men". This has had two screenings in London as part of the 2010 London Film Festival. My previous posts on this film can be found here and here, so I will not repeat what I say there. Booking was open to the general public after the "priority booking" period on 27th September. Both screenings were sold out by 28th September. WindowstotheSoul has a commentary on this film after she saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. My viewing of the film on Sunday bears out all that she has to say, so I am going to assume that you go and read her commentary first. I would add to it the following thoughts.

The earliest scenes reminded me of the film Into Great Silence, which portrayed the life of the monks at La Grande Chartreuse. The intention of these scenes is to present to the audience the every day life of the monks, from dawn to dusk, and it does this in a manner that struck me as being by way of images and, in a certain sense, "without words" (not quite literally without words, but with only the occasional exchange of dialogue).  It also shows the insertion of the monks in the life of their neighbours, something that WindowstotheSoul comments on.

The film is very powerful, and has some intensely moving moments. I think that my knowledge of the story of the monks before seeing the film made it only more powerful, because I was able to recognise the significance of some of the exchanges more readily as a result. In the question and answer session with the writer/producer after the screening (I was only able to stay for the first 20 minutes or so of this), he described how, in some respects, the producer and director wanted to achieve an absolute authenticity to the original events whilst at other times they were trying to convey the sense or spirit of the events. (This reminds me somewhat of Jessica Hausner's Lourdes, which I saw this time last year, also at the London Film Festival.)  So, the actors were chosen and made up to physically resemble as closely as possible the monks they were playing. They learnt to sing and pray the office, so when the film portrays the monks together in prayer the sound we here is the singing of the actors themselves and not an overdub. The chapel at the monastery was reconstructed on location exactly as it was in the original monastery. The dialogue between Christian de Cherge, the prior, and the guerilla leader when he comes to the monastery - a key moment in the film and in the historical events - is portrayed exactly as it is reported to have happened. Comparing the portrayal of the event in the film and in John Kiser's book, the film understates, I think, the assertiveness of the prior in this situation - according to the book, Christian was quite genuinely angry that weapons had been brought into the monastery and so ordered them out. Another remark that describes the monastery as the branches on which the birds of the surrounding community perch and shelter - a key expression of the way in which the monks were viewed by the nearby villagers - is also included in one of the dialogues in the film. The way in which the monks grew together in their fear and as a result of their collective decision (based in each monk's own individual conviction that they could not leave) to stay in the monastery despite the danger is portrayed in an invented scene, however. This shows the monks at dinner with Swan Lake playing on the tape recorder, the camera moving from one monk to another, showing their tense smiles and their tears expressing the mixed emotion of fear and communion. More than once, a monk is shown lifting a small glass of wine to their lips, hesitating and then putting it down again, a quite amazing image of the way in which they are coming to terms with possible martyrdom.

The film ends with the quotation of part of Christian de Cherge's testament, contained in a letter sent much earlier to a family member and only to be opened in the event of his death. The appeal for interreligious dialogue that it makes has only become more relevant in the years since the monks died. The producer described how, in France, where the film has the added sensitivity of referring to the French role in the recent history of Algeria, many screenings have been arranged in local communities as an encouragement to dialogue within those communities. What interests me, though, and something I would have liked to ask the producer had I had the chance, is that the dialogue portrayed in the film is one of one religion (Christianity/Catholicism) with another religion (Islam, and in part a violent corruption of Islam). It is not a dialogue between secularism and Islam - so do secularised developed societies need to rediscover their religious roots as a basis for entering into the dialogue shown in this film?

A final thought. The producer recognised that the film has different levels: human, political, religious. He himself has no religious belief, but nevertheless the story of the monks has captured his attention, and he has worked on a film that portrays religious life very accurately and positively. It is encouraging that a producer and director should engage with a strongly religious theme with such enthusiasm and integrity as has been the case here.

Friday, 15 October 2010

"The 33"

Not being possessed of a television, the impact of the rescue of the miners in Chile has been somewhat reduced for me. I did catch some live coverage on BBC Radio 4 during the Today and PM programmes, which communicated something of the spirit of the events, but this was not the same as the impact of television pictures. Nonetheless, just how emotionally moving the rescue was did get through to me.

A first thought is about how this rescue constitutes an event of international solidarity. This can be understood in two ways. The first way is to think about the collaboration of countries other than Chile in the provision of expertise and equipment in the rescue mission itself. But the second way, that of the concern and attention of people from all over the world, particularly as the rescue came to its climax, is perhaps the most fundamental sense of the international solidarity. People all over the world have cared about "the 33" and about their successful rescue. Pope Benedict expressed this when he sent blessed rosaries for the miners during their time underground.

A second thought is about how this rescue constitutes a moment of national solidarity in Chile. The whole nation appears to have rallied around in support of the rescue of "the 33". There is a real sense that the presence of the President of Chile as the rescued miners came to the surface was not just the presence of a political leader but the presence of the whole nation. It probably would not occur to anyone in this country, for example, to sing the national anthem in circumstances such as these. But the singing of the national anthem does express something of what it meant for the people of Chile to be a nation at this moment, an experience of tremendous hope that could so easily have been a moment of utter tragedy. This BBC news report conveys something of this.

A third thought that one can have about these events is a thought about the nature of hope. Once the miners had been discovered to be still alive after 17 days trapped underground, one can see the living out of an experience of hope in the sense of a looking forward to a successful outcome, a working towards a successful rescue. One can think about the different ways in which hope was experienced by those trapped underground, by their families and friends, and by those working at the surface to bring about a rescue. And, as the rescue came to a successful conclusion, we can see a fulfilled hope expressed in the celebrations of the rescue. The blogged coverage on the BBC News website expressed it like this:
In the end, a potential tragedy in a remote corner of the world has been utterly transformed into one of the greatest tales of good news ever told.
 But I do not think that this does justice to the phenomenon of hope that we have seen here.

The fourth aspect of these events is their religious aspect. Many of the miners prayed as they were released from the mine. Reports also indicate that they prayed regularly during their time trapped in the mine. This profoundly religious aspect to the events appears to have been quite natural to those involved. To us in Europe it appears rather odd. According to this report, the feeling of the miners was that they were 34 and not 33:
'We were not 33, we were 34 because Jesus Christ was with us down there.'
William Oddie describes the religious aspect of the events in Chile, the vigils, the Masses offered, in this post at the Catholic Herald website.

Perhaps the most interesting point on which to reflect is how this religious aspect of the events in Chile informs the three other aspects I have mentioned. And, in this, there might be a very interesting lesson for secularised Europe.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Work of our Redemption

The Work of our Redemption - this is the title of a book written by Fr Clifford Howell SJ. My copy is a revised edition dated 1969, though the first edition of the book dates from 1953. The chapters in the book began life in 1950 and 1951 as a series of journal articles intended to introduce Catholics who had no "liturgical background" to the ideas being discussed in the journal. The chapters as they stand in the 1969 edition of the book are re-written/revised/deleted in the light of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, but they pre-date the lived experience of the Missal of Pope Paul VI. The title of the book is taken from Pope Pius XII's encyclical letter Mediator Dei:
The work of our redemption is continued, and its fruits are imparted to us during the celebration of the liturgy.
I haven't persevered in reading the book from cover to cover, but have dipped into a few of its chapters from time to time. What is interesting about the book, particularly my 1969 edition, is what it reveals about the assumptions about liturgy and what one might call "liturgical theology" as they are presented by one of the foremost liturgists of the time. Many of those assumptions would now be seen as very "traditional", and it is interesting to be reminded that they were the ordinary content of the Liturgical conversation at that time. There are chapters that present a sound understanding of grace and of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ in which we come to share in the Divine life. The first chapter strongly affirms the necessity of worship of God as part of the human vocation. The chapter that includes an account of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick also includes an explanation of the plenary indulgence offered to the faithful at the time of death when the receive the Apostolic Blessing from the priest (how many Catholics even know about that nowadays? My observation about it is that, between the Sacrament of Anointing and the Apostolic Blessing, even the most nominal of practising Catholics would have to be rather negligent to end up in purgatory).

A second point of note is that there are very able - by which I mean both doctrinally sound and catechetically effective - explanations of many of the key theological ideas involved. Many a contemporary catechist could look to this book as a source of ideas about how to present liturgical ideas in a parish context.

One might have a different view of the history of the Liturgical movement than that presented by Fr Howell (I have still to read those chapters properly). But nevertheless, as a witness to "where things were at" during the times of the Second Vatican Council itself, I think this is a very useful book.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Ingrid Betancourt on Woman's Hour

Ingrid Betancourt was held hostage in the Colombian jungle for a period of six years. She was captured by the FARC guerrillas whilst campaigning as a candidate in a presidential election. I posted in July 2008 (links from this post to the Lourdes blog no longer work - but the video of Ingrid Betancourt's visit to the grotto can be seen here on the main Lourdes website - look out for the exchange of looks between Ingrid and her mother to which I refer in my July 2008 post) about the visit that Ingrid Betancourt made to Lourdes, with her mother and other family members, following her release. Ingrid has now written a book about her experience of captivity, which has just been published. Her interview on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour this week is in connection with the promotion of the book.

You can find the interview at this link. I think that this is a permanent link, so am expecting that it will remain available.

There are two particularly interesting sections in the interview. The first is where Ingrid talks about what she felt made her captors brutal towards her and her fellow hostages. She identified three factors which she felt, in combination, made their brutality possible, and suggested that these factors could apply in any organisation. They were in very exceptional situation which brought out the worst in human beings, making her captors cruel, sadistic and humiliating. In a manner reminiscent of Catholic teaching on original sin, Ingrid observes that there is something like this in all of us. The factors Ingrid identified are: the power her captors had over their captives (represented by their possession of weapons and strength); a hierarchy which allowed them to have a lack of responsibility for their own actions (manifested in the explanation that they were just obeying orders from others); and a lack of witnesses due to the isolation of the jungle (so that their captors could do what they wished without any accountability to others).

One can think of any number of situations in our own country where the explanation that "we are following Government policy" or "this is what the guidance says" is used to avoid taking a personal responsibility for a course of action.

The second very interesting section is where Ingrid answers the question about how she was able to cope with the hardship of her prolonged captivity.  She talks about love. Firstly, she cherished the moments of love she had spent with her parents and her children in the past, and these moments gave her a desire to get back to that life. Love because she had the sensation that God was there, that the situation was not the chaos it appeared, that her situation was something that she must go through for it to have a meaning. And finally she speaks of the love of her fellow captives, who she describes as being her "heroes".

UPDATE: There is an an article based on an interview with Ingrid Betancourt in the Guardian, which gives some wider background to her experiences as a hostage.

Saturday, 9 October 2010


.... can have some delight added to them by the venue.

The Schools Forum on Tuesday was engaged in some study of the rules by which the local authority allocates funding to individual schools; all of this being overshadowed by 20th October (announcement of those bits of the cuts in the Comprehensive Spending Review that have not been unveiled ahead of time to soften up the populace), after which there will no doubt be rather less to be allocated. Believe it or not, Eastbury Manor House is tucked away in a square just a stone's throw from the (very busy) A13 and a three or four minute drive from Barking town centre. It's location couldn't really be much more "East End", but you wouldn't think so from the photograph.

My trade union has an annual two day residential Branch Secretaries Conference (this year also overshadowed by 20th October). Again, the venue, Crewe Hall (history here), was everything.

And the inside of the old building, including a chapel (the venue is used for weddings):

The morning after the night before (the house had hosted our dinner, a wedding reception and another dinner on the Friday evening):

We were, of course, far too busy to have time to make use of the leisure and spa facilities. And, in case you think we were wasting our members subscriptions on unnecessary expense, I am sure our conference organiser negotiated us an economic deal with the hotel.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Responsible parenthood? "Choice" and the "role of the state"

In a follow up to the announcement at the Conservative Party Conference that a "cap" (with some qualifications) will be introduced, I think in 2013, to the amount that a family might receive in benefit payments, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt gave an interview in which he commented on how this might apply in the case of large families. It is worth looking at exactly what he did say, and noting that what he did say was very carefully worded and does not in itself constitute an "attack on large families":
"The number of children that you have is a choice and what we're saying is that if people are living on benefits then they make choices but they also have to have responsibility for those choices," he said.

"It's not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices."

Mr Hunt added: "You can have children but if you are going to ask for support that is more than the average wage that people earn then we're saying no, the state shouldn't support that.

"That's not fair on working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits."
I offer reflections on these remarks under three headings, and a concluding remark.

1. Perceptions of large families

I can't find it at the moment, but a little while ago another blogger posted on the reaction of people in the street or around and about when they encounter a family with lots of children. I have some experience of this when taking my sister's children out to the park for an afternoon - if any of them are still at home, I have sometimes taken great delight in pointing out that there are "two more at home". More than once I have taken them into a cafe for ice cream or cake, and found the staff having a more positive and supportive attitude. In one case, the staff remembered us from when I had taken the children in during the previous summer holiday. I saw the less positive reaction again just a couple of weeks ago, stood as a marshal for LIFE's "Ten Bridges Walk" near the lift on one of the Jubilee Bridges across the Thames, when a family group with several children across a range of ages emerged from the lift.

One part of today's news story is the perception of children, particularly children in families that have more than two children, as being a burden or a cost to society. Jeremy Hunt's observation about it "[not being] fair on working people who have to pay the taxes to pay those benefits" cannot but contribute to this perception, and is unfortunate for that reason.

2. "Choices" or responsible parenthood

When the Culture Secretary spoke about choice with regard to the number of children that parents' have, I do not think that he had in mind the teaching of Humanae Vitae. However, the situation of a family whose circumstances mean that they are reliant on benefits might well be a situation included within the teaching of the following paragraph from Humanae Vitae n.10:
With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.

There is, however, clear water between the teaching of Humanae Vitae and the words of the Jeremy Hunt in two respects. The teaching of Humanae Vitae is clear that it is the parents who have responsibility for the decision making, and that they should have the freedom to make those decisions, and that parenthood is equally responsible if it chooses in favour of more children. Whilst Jeremy Hunt is careful to respect this in the first paragraph quoted above, the import of the benefits cap is to provide an element of external coercion in this decision making. I also suspect that the "methods" involved in the choice of family size in the minds of many listening to Jeremy Hunt's words will be methods of contraception, sterilisation or, even, abortion, all of which are incompatible with the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

3. The role of the state

My reflection here returns to the idea that children are seen as a cost or burden to society. Fundamentally, children should not be seen in this way. As future adult citizens, children are a good for society. One aspect of this being a good for society is economic. The children who are supported by benefits now are those who, in the majoirty of cases, will pay taxes in the future that contribute to the common good of the nation. But the economic is not the only aspect of the way in which children are a good for society. Children can already, as children, contribute to the social capital of society; and, as adults, they will in many cases make an even bigger contribution to the good of society expressed in its non-economic aspects. So, even in cases where the support given in benefits now will not be repaid in taxation revenue in the future, there will be a repayment in terms of social capital. Expressed in one way, those who are needy in society are just as much members of society as those who are wealthy and talented. Society has a duty to share with them its financial benefits.

"It is not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices". It can be very much the role of the state, acting through a system of financial benefits, to be the mechanism by which society meets obligations to its members, obligations that would otherwise not be met at lower levels in society (cf an idea of subsidiarity). It should not be the role of the state to provide a coercive preference for one choice over another. What Jeremy Hunt's observation here does not do justice to is the right balance between how "the state" relates to society as a whole.

4. A concluding remark

From a Catholic point of view, there is another consideration to the question of how many children one might have in one's family. This is that children are viewed, and welcomed, as a gift to a married couple and to wider society. This introduces a more theological and explicitly religious dimension to the question of family size, a theological and religious dimension that will inform a Catholic reaction to Jeremy Hunt's remarks.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Nobel Prize for Medicine 2010 - more coverage

The World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (website not up-to-date) have issued a statement in response to the award of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Medicine to Dr Robert Edwards.
"Although IVF has brought happiness to the many couples who have conceived through this process, it has done so at an enormous cost," a statement from the federation (FIAMC) affirmed. "That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person. Many millions of embryos have been created and discarded during the IVF process...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Nobel Prize for Medicine 2010 - further coverage

ZENIT are reporting a statement by the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life in response to the award of the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Dr Robert Edwards.
The president of the Pontifical Academy for Life is acknowledging that the winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine is a scientist to be recognized, but he says he would have voted for other candidates.

Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula released a statement in response to Robert Edwards, the doctor who invented in vitro fertilization, winning today the 2010 Nobel for medicine.

The bishop observed that giving the Nobel to Edwards caused "a lot of support and not a little perplexity, as was to be expected."

"Personally," the prelate added, "I would have voted for other candidates, such as [Earnest] McCulloch and [James] Till, who discovered stem cells, or [Shinya] Yamanaka, who was the first to create an induced pluripotent cell (iPS)."
I note with interest the way in which the other candidates for whom Bishop de Paula would have voted are scientists whose work follows the approach I suggested at the end of my previous post on this subject, referring to the work of Professor Jerome Lejeune.

At the moment I can't find the full text of this statement, but I will link to it when I have found it.

Bridges and Tangents makes an interesting comment on the leader article in today's Times: The power of language in ethical argument.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Nobel Prize for Medicine 2010

Today has seen the announcement that the 2010 Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to Dr Robert Edwards, in recognition of his work in developing IVF techniques for the treatment of human infertility. This prompts a number of reflections that arise from the implications of this award in terms of the ethics and culture of the practice of medicine.

Firstly, one might take the point of view that this award can be seen as a recognition of the scientific work undertaken by Dr Edwards and his colleagues, and that it prescinds from any ethical judgement in favour of or against that work. This point of view would hold that one can separate a recognition of the scientific work from its ethical evaluation. I think there is some validity in this point of view, but only in so far as one might wish to respect the autonomy of the scientific enterprise with respect to the religious sphere, and therefore might wish to refrain from imposing onto the "secular" (in the best sense of that term) scientific world the ethical point of view of one particular religion. On the other hand, though, if by taking this point of view we mean that scientific activity is intrinsically neutral from a moral point of view, and that the evaluation of scientific activity has no ethical component; then I would not consider it valid. Perhaps the most famous discussion of this idea of moral neutrality in science - and rejection of it - is that of C P Snow.

The second thought follows from this first. IVF treatment is subject to different ethical evaluations, as is recognised at least implicitly, if not explicitly, in one sentence of the announcement of the award to Dr Edwards. It might, therefore, have been possible for the Nobel Committee, in making the award, to remain itself neutral with regard to the different ethical evaluations of IVF treatment and therefore of Dr Edwards work. This would not be to suggest that Dr Edwards' work has no ethical "content"; but it would be a reciprocal stance to that of not wishing to impose onto the scientific world the ethical point of view of one particular religion, a reciprocal stance that refrains from imposing onto the wider world of politics, ethics, religion and human culture a single ethical stance from within the scientific community.

I do believe that this kind of respect by science for a kind-of-autonomy of the wider culture represented a real possibility for the Nobel Committee. A careful reading of the press release of the announcement, and a careful listen to the video of the presentation of the award (it is in English!), will reveal no explicit ethical endorsement of IVF. One can, however, read in to the announcement an implicit ethical endorsement, and this arises from three aspects of the announcement. The first is the unqualified description of Dr Edwards contribution as being a "milestone in the development of modern medicine"; the second is the recognition in the announcement that IVF is now an "established therapy throughout the world"; and the third is the way in which the announcement refers to the "joy" that IVF has brought to couples who would otherwise have been childless. The following comment, from the BBC news report carries this implicit ethical endorsement further:
Professor Basil Tarlatzis, past-president of the International Federation of Fertility Societies, said: "This is a well deserved honour.

"IVF has opened new avenues of hope for millions of couples throughout the world.

"Edwards and Steptoe were real pioneers, and the award of the Nobel Prize honours not just their work, but the whole field of reproductive science...
One might do well to notice the implicit nature of the ethical endorsement of IVF expressed in this award; and to notice that it is implicit and not explicit. One could make a case that the award of the Nobel Prize does not, in itself, represent an ethical endorsement of IVF but, more than anything else, is a recognition of a widespread use of IVF in medicine. Whilst that implies an ethical endorsement, that is all that it does; and one can challenge the implication without denying the legitimacy of the Prize.

The Nobel Prize announcement does suggest a very positive view of the experience of IVF treatment by couples who undergo that treatment. Others will have better experience than I have to comment on the experience of repeat IVF cycles, which may constitute a less positive experience.

I think it was about the year 1972 that a French physician committed himself to working in defence of pre-born children, particularly those suffering from trisomy. This followed a television programme in his country that first suggested that those diagnosed within the womb as suffering from a disability might be aborted. That eminent physician's daughter relates how Professor Jerome Lejeune had already spoken at the United Nations in defence of the life of the unborn child. And the evening that he had done that, writing to his wife, he noted:
This afternoon I lost my Nobel Prize
Professor Lejeune discovered the particular genetic abnormality that gives rise to Down's Syndrome. It was the first ever identification of a connection between one particular genetic fault and the illness or disability that it caused. It is the discovery that lies at the beginning of the search for genetic treatments for illnesses, a search that is now expressed in different forms of stem cell research, some that Professor Lejeune would not have considered ethically just and others that he would have supported.

I wonder if, when that research comes to its fruition, and medical treatment undergoes the revolutionary change to genetically based treatments; I wonder if at that point the work of Professor Lejeune will be considered worthy of a Nobel Prize, in the same way that Dr Edwards has been awarded his prize as the results of his work have become an everyday experience in the medical world? Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, so no prize could actually be awarded; but it would be nice to think that Professor Lejeune's contribution to the field were recognised in some way. It would represent a genuine "secularity" of the world of science in respect to a particular ethic of science itself.

Saturday, 2 October 2010


Allegedly (as at July 2008):
Nowadays in Britain and elsewhere, the Government is "imposing" the use of birth control, including abortion, on families; and the Catholic Church authorities in England and Wales are co-operating with the government in imposing it in England - by welcoming into its schools Connexions whose job it is to make abortion and contraception available to children, without parental knowledge or consent..
Now, if one looks at the reader co-written by the Catholic Education Service which appears to have been available in 2004 and can currently be accessed from the Catholic Education Service website, commissioned by Connexions, one will find the following paragraph on page 27:
Section C 15 – Working within School Policies

In a Catholic school or college there are likely to be the same number of policies as in other schools and colleges but they will be significantly different because of the very nature of the school. All policy statements are rooted in the mission statement and ethos statement which is incorporated in the Instrument of Government. It specifies that:

‘The school/college is to be conducted as a Catholic school in accordance with canon law and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and in accordance with the Trust Deed.

The Headteacher and Foundation Governors have responsibilities for the Catholic character of the school. Accordingly, Governors have greater responsibilities in law for the curriculum in Catholic schools’.

There may be occasions when external agencies (including the Connexions service) will need to take account of the unique policy framework when working within the Catholic sector. For example materials or activities may need to be modified before Governors may adopt them for use in a school; or the normal follow-up activities may not be possible because of the catchment area served by the school as defined in the admissions policy.
Whilst one might have hoped that the cautions expressed in this paragraph on page 27 were highlighted in the introduction or an executive summary -

We warmly commend to you this reader, which has been produced by the DfES in collaboration with the Catholic Education Service and the Catholic Youth Service. The joint working which has produced this reader reflects the close collaboration which we hope to see grow increasingly between the Connexions service and Catholic schools, colleges and youth organisations. This collaboration should be based on the common view we hold of the inherent dignity and worth of every young person and our wish to support them in fulfilling their potential.
 - the cautions are nevertheless present in the document, and could not really be stated much more clearly. The caution that they indicate to governors and staff in Catholic schools is very clear - any arrangements with Connexions must be undertaken in accordance with the teaching of the Catholic Church. The idea of joint working/collaboration expressed in the introduction to the reader can be seen, at least in principle, as an attempt at the dialogue between "secular rationality" and "religious belief" of which Pope Benedict XVI spoke in Westminster Hall; there is not, prima facie, any reason why the Catholic Education Service should not have collaborated with other agencies, including government, in this sort of way. The allegation that Church authorities are co-operating in the imposition of contraception and abortion by welcoming Connexions into its schools is not justified on the basis of this evidence.

Of course, at the level of each school, it all depends on what the governors and staff, and representatives of other agencies, make of the guidance offered in this "reader". All the episcopal direction in the world will not replace that part in the living of Catholic life that is the responsibility of the lay faithful in their particular place in the world, an observation that I think I made in the context of the closure or transfer out of Catholic trusteeship of formerly Catholic adoption agencies.

There is a saying about not believing everything you read in the newspapers. A modern version might be about not believing everything you read in the blogosphere. The problem of the "domino effect", though, is much more pronounced with the blogosphere than it is with the print media. A blog that is seen by some to be above criticism is always taken as a reliable source, it's material is uncritically reproduced or linked by others, the first blog repeats the story again and again, the other blogs run it again and again, and, from one first domino of doubtful perspicacity,  a story runs round in its own circle gaining a quite unjustified volume as it goes.

Which is by way of explanation as to why I do not link to some blogs that, previously, I used to link to.