Sunday, 29 September 2013

"Who are catechists?"

Who are catechists? They are people who keep the memory of God alive; they keep it alive in themselves and they are able to revive it in others.
Once again, reading Pope Francis I feel I could be reading Pope Benedict XVI: Pope Francis' homily at the Mass for Catechists.
What is the Catechism itself, if not the memory of God, the memory of his works in history and his drawing near to us in Christ present in his word, in the sacraments, in his Church, in his love? Dear catechists, I ask you: Are we in fact the memory of God? Are we really like sentinels who awaken in others the memory of God which warms the heart?
UPDATE: And in the text of Pope Francis meeting with catechists, in Rome for the Year of Faith pilgrimage, two days earlier:
The heart of a catechist always beats with this systolic and diastolic movement: union with Christ – encounter with others. Both of these: I am one with Jesus and I go forth to encounter others. If one of these movements is missing, the heart no longer beats, it can no longer live. The heart of the catechist receives the gift of the kerygma, and in turn offers it to others as a gift.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

What Maisie Knew

Zero and I went to see this film in London recently. It is a very thought provoking film.

The review of the film at the SIGNIS website gives a very good overview of the film's storyline: What Maisie Knew. To gain a sense of how the film compares - or perhaps does not compare - to Henry James' original novel, the review at the British Film Institute site is informative: Film of the week: What Maisie Knew. I suggest that you read these reviews before continuing with this post.

The film's official UK site appears to be here. It is the summary synopsis from this last site that provides an interesting observation of the intent of the film (my italics added):
A contemporary reimagining of Henry James' novel, WHAT MAISIE KNEW tells the story of a captivating little girl's struggle for grace in the midst of her parents' bitter custody battle. Told through the eyes of the title's heroine, Maisie navigates this ever-widening turmoil with a six-year-old's innocence, charm and generosity of spirit.
In this context, that term "grace" refers most immediately to a certain (human) dignity and presence that is sought amidst the chaos faced by Maisie, and which analogously indicates grace in a theological sense.

The question of marriage and relationships

As the reviews above point out, Henry James' novel was written at a time when divorce and family breakdown were relatively rare or were, at least, not recognised in the public culture of the time. Updating the film to a more contemporary setting asks of its audience a very different question than does the novel. Divorce and remarriage, and families in which parents of children are not married, are now much more common and are accepted as a "normal" part of the public culture.

There is a risk in commenting on What Maisie Knew that the particular narrative portrayed in the film is suggested as the only such narrative that occurs today; there are other narratives than the rather bohemian one shown in the film. This is a narrative starting with a divorce of married parents (though it was not obvious to me in watching the first part of the film that Maisie's parents were actually married), Maisie then being allotted ten day periods turn-and-turn-about with each parent. Re-marriage of both Maisie's parents then brings step-parents for Maisie, neither of those marriages surviving. And Maisie ends up with the (un-married) step parents finally living together in what would today be termed a "relationship".

What the film does attempt to do is to portray all of this from Maisie's point of view. And you cannot come away from the film without reflecting on just how difficult for Maisie is the fluidity and uncertainty in the movements of the marriages/relationships of her various parent figures.  This is perhaps iconically represented by the moment in the film when Maisie says " I want to go home" - and it really is impossible for the film goer at that point in the fim to know where, for Maisie, home actually is. Whilst the film shows a surprising resilience on Maisie's part - the resilience of children in difficult situations can often be under-estimated - and portrays one particular narrative that is not reflected in every experience of family break up, it nevertheless should also leave us asking some hard questions about a public culture which, through its provisions with regard to divorce and re-marriage and its societal acceptance of un-married couples raising families, creates a situation of insecurity in the care of children.

What Maisie Knew makes no reference to same-sex marriage or same-sex partnerships. A re-make in ten years time would in all likelihood do so. But, from the point of view of Maisie, does not this possibility only introduce an additional field of uncertainty and insecurity? Not only would she then face a question of "where is home?" or "who is Mum and who is Dad?" .... but also "what do the words 'Mum' and 'Dad' mean?".

Do we really want a society which brings up our children with this uncertainty in their family relationships?

The question of love

There are perhaps two moments in the film when Maisie demonstrates a sense of the meaning of the word love. One is when she says of Lincoln that she loves him; and the second occurs when Margo has been locked out of her apartment and is at that point homeless - Maisie goes and sits beside Margo on the floor outside the apartment and rests her head on Margo's shoulder. [This  latter is perhaps the most moving scene in the film.]

But throughout the expressions of love offered to Maisie by her birth parents are at once both entirely plausible and lacking in truth. Her Mum is shown dropping off Maisie at Lincoln's workplace, even when he is not there, so that she can go on tour with her band; and Dad leaves Maisie in America as he goes to Europe for work. From Maisie's point of view, there is an experience of the expressions of love made towards her by her parents - and the film portrays the genuineness of these expressions convincingly - and then of how, as she is caught between these expressions of love towards her that at the same time do not include the other parent, she gradually comes to recognise the lack that is buried away behind them. For both her birth parents, something else comes before Maisie - work and a new marriage partner.

The question that is not asked - nor answered - in the final sequence of the film is that about the un-married partnership between Lincoln and Margo. Maisie's choice is to stay with them rather than with her Mum, after she has already been shown making a choice not to accompany her Dad to Europe.

But is it really the case that an un-married relationship will provide Maisie with the security of love that has been denied her in the earlier parts of the film?

But I think What Maisie Knew really does do is pose a question to the film goer: what does the word "love" as used by some of the characters in the film - and as demonstrated by others without words - really mean? Does the protestation of one person for another that they love them really suffice as a basis for family life, or is there a more substantial objective content that needs to sit behind it?

Do we really want a society in which our children grow up with such a poor definition of what it means to love another?

Bring the two questions together

Which does bring us back to our first question about the marriage and relationships.

Today sees news reports from the leader of the Conservative Party  about a proposed tax advantage to be offered for married couples - but not one of any particular generosity and one which according to the BBC news report applies to same sex partners as well:
 "The £1000 marriage tax allowance will apply to straight and gay couples, as well as civil partners. Love is love, commitment is commitment."
David Cameron's defining of marriage only in terms of its profession of love and commitment - and without any further defining of an objective content to either term- seems to encapsulate the worst aspects of Maisie's experience. The Liberal Democrats are reported to be opposed to the measure altogether, I assume on the grounds that it does not favour single parents. They, too, seem to be somewhat adrift of Maisie's experience.

Perhaps our political leaders need to go and see What Maisie Knew. They might have their own narrative about marriage and relationships - but our children would appear to be experiencing a significantly different one. Though it would be wrong to say that the film defends one model of family over another (to use the current jargon), one cannot escape the fact that it does ask of the viewer very serious questions about how our public culture now understands love and marriage/relationships, and asks those questions in terms of what we might want for our children.

Perhaps marriage, understood as between one man and one woman for life, has something better to offer our children.....

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Women in the Life of the Church

A section of Pope Francis' interview that appears not to have caught the attention of the media, be that the main stream media or that of Catholic bloggers, is the section in which he responds to a question about the role of women in the Church. This is something to which Pope Francis has made reference on other occasions, but this paragraph in his interview suggests a more systematic indication of his views on the subject.
“I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo. Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
 What are the suggestions tucked away in this paragraph?

A recognition that women are asking a question about their role in the Church that must be addressed.

The affirmation of a particular charism for "the woman" in the Church, who has a different make-up than a man. This charism is analogous to that of the Virgin Mary, who is "more important than the bishops".

Rather than an effort on behalf of women in the Church that is inspired by a feminist ideology ("female machismo", in Pope Francis' words - and Pope Francis identifies much that he hears about women in the Church as having such an inspiration), we need to engage in the development of a profound theology of "the woman".

Pope Francis draws an interesting distinction between dignity and function in talking of the role of women. The theological effort just referred to can be seen as one that first seeks to address the nature of the dignity of the place of women in the Church and then, consequently to that, to develop an understanding of their function. The function needs to follow from the dignity. Is there perhaps here an indirect reference to Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem?

Pope Francis ends by identifying the challenge facing the Church on this question: the specific place of women in places where authority is exercised for various areas in the Church. His framing of the challenge in this way - in terms of an exercise of authority - seems somewhat un-Francis like until it is read alongside his earlier discussion in his interview of the idea of decision making as discernment.

A feminist agenda for Catholicism it is not.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

A Big Heart Open to God

This is the title under which Thinking Faith have published the long interview with Pope Francis.

Read it directly yourself, and do not rely on extracted quotations which, when read in their place in the whole, might not at all convey the meaning that they gain in isolated quotation.

And read the whole. It is quite fascinating. And there are some particularly beautiful choices of phrase.
The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, "This is not a sin" or something like it. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.... 
The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord's mercy motivates us to do better.. 
And the passages which, when quoted out of the context of the whole, make it look as if Pope Francis is downplaying doctrine or the Church's moral teaching .... Well, a number of them are passages in which Pope Francis is talking about the first stage of evangelisation as taught in, for example the Vatican II decree Ad Gentes, Pope Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi or in the Directory for Catechesis, the stage of "primary proclamation". And seen in that context, the affirmation of the need to focus on the central mystery of God's love for us does not at all imply a rejection of doctrine or moral teaching but rather an appropriate placing of them in the Church's missionary effort. If one is looking for a single recurring motif in the interview, it is that of a "primary proclamation" of God's mercy.

UPDATE: George Weigel appears to understand Pope Francis' interview in the same way, though placing it within the background of Pope Francis' previous pastoral experience: The Christ-Centered Pope.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Archbishop Nichols: "Missionary discipleship fundamental to priestly vocation"

The Bishops of England and Wales met recently with the staff of seminaries and the students for the priesthood from those seminaries. The date and place: 14th September, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, at Walsingham. This meeting followed those with Pope Benedict at Oscott in 2010 and one held to mark the first anniversary of that meeting with Pope Benedict.

The text of Archbishop Nichols' homily at Mass on this occasion is on the website of the Bishops' Conference: Missionary discipleship fundamental to priestly vocation. This homily does not appear to have been remarked upon, but I do think it is worth a read.

The influence of Pope Francis in Archishop Nichols words is unmistakeable - perhaps most poignantly and not a little amusingly as he reflects on the experience of being driven in a silver Mercedes to Canary Wharf.

Pope Francis' themes run throughout the homily - read the whole, beginning to end so that you do not miss any of them. At one level, this is Archbishop Nichols being a bishop in his own "local Church" (okay, not quite literally, but certainly in spirit). At another level, the universal pastoral office of the Successor of Peter towards the faithful - not in a way that undermines that of the local Bishop but in a way that confirms the office of the local Bishop - is very apparent. Is this collegiality/communion at the level of lived experience?

I found it difficult to pull out one paragraph to quote and give a fair reflection of the homily as a whole. My choice has been the paragraph that is most pertinent to one who is a lay person rather than a priest or seminarian. It is the paragraph where Archbishop Nichols describes his encounter at Canary Wharf. I thought the reaction of his audience was very significant.
The conversation at the table of the Financial Services Authority was fascinating. Top professionals struggling with mechanisms of financial control that might restore lost confidence. I had a lovely quote to contribute, from Gandhi: we are dreaming of perfect systems which will mean that no one has to try to be good. So I spoke of the need for virtue in professional life, those qualities which we speak of as ‘cardinal’, which form character and behaviour and which alone make us trustworthy. I spoke of the duties of companies and businesses to foster such virtue rather than minimise them. My remarks were met with a moment of silence, not a hostile silence, but more a curious silence. Afterwards most of the participants approached me to say that they appreciated my words very much indeed, how true they were, and that it needed someone such as me to say them in those circles.

Friday, 6 September 2013

St Patrick's and Pope Francis

During his few words at the end of the Mass to celebrate his 25 years as a priest (brief report by Auntie here), Fr Alex Sherbrooke borrowed the words that Pope Francis uses at the beginning of his Angelus address each Sunday: Buona sera a tutti (Good evening, everyone - but of course Pope Francis uses buon' giorno, given the timing of the mid-day Angelus). At the end of his few words, as he encouraged those present to partake of the refreshments being provided after Mass, he added the Buon appetito with which Pope Francis ends his Sunday meeting with the faithful in St Peter's Square.

But it was a conversation later in the evening, which suggested some disappointment with the resignation of Pope Benedict and the advent of Pope Francis, which prompts the following thought.

Fr Alexander wished that the celebration of his 25 years as a priest would be a celebration of the ordained priesthood as such, and that those attending the celebration would in some way take a part in the mission of his parish in Soho Square. The collection, for example, was to help meet the costs of the parish's twice weekly "open house" which provides a meal for homeless people in the local area.

The thought is: if we look at the themes that Pope Francis has expressed to characterise his mission as Successor of St Peter, they are all lived out in the mission of St Patrick's Soho Square.
Reaching out to those on the margins? The Cenacolo group which meets each week in prayer for those affected by addictions, and their friends or relatives.

A Church for the poor? The twice weekly open house which provides a meal for vulnerable guests in an area of London that contains both extreme poverty and hedonistic wealth (Oxford Street).

Going out to the peripheries? The regular street evangelisation associated with the St Patrick's Evangelisation School, Marian and Eucharistic processions through the nearby streets, taking part with other nearby Catholic churches in Spirit in the City.

The developing of personal relationships with Jesus Christ? Regular times of Eucharistic Adoration and the hosting of Night Fever.
Rather than feeling a loss as Pope Benedict resigned, St Patrick's appears to me a parish that can feel entirely confirmed in its mission by Pope Francis.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Pope Francis appeal: "Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace!"

Reuters would appear to be carrying the story: Pope asks other faiths to join day of prayer for peace in Syria. So far as I can tell, the main stream news outlets in the UK are still running with the build up to American led attacks on Syria. [UPDATE: The Times is reporting the Pope's appeal on an inside page.] The BBC news front page, for example, is here (but if you are reading this retrospectively it will obviously have changed).

The full English text of Pope Francis address at the Angelus yesterday, Sunday 1st September 2013, is at the Vatican website. Reading the Italian text alongside the English is worthwhile, since there is a certain force expressed in the Italian grammar that does not quite come through in the English - though that is powerful enough in itself. Do read it in its entirety, and also watch the CTV video report that is linked from the page with the text.

This Angelus address strikes me as being one of those moments that will be seen as a key moment of Pope Francis' pontificate. It is an impassioned plea for peace and an unqualified condemnation of the evil of war, and in particular of the use of chemical weapons.

Pope Francis words ...
War never again! Never again war! Peace is a precious gift, which must be promoted and protected.
... have a profound echo of Pope Paul VI speaking to the United Nations in October 1965:
..jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre! C'est la paix, la paix, qui doit guider le destin des peuples et de toute l'humanité!  [War never again! War never again! It is peace, peace, that must direct the future of peoples and of all humanity!]
It is tempting to think that an appeal such as this from the Pope is unrealistic and will not have any influence on events that are instead being determined by major political powers. However, history has, many years after the event, revealed the influence that a similar appeal made on the radio by Pope John XXIII had on the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita  Kruschev, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis: John XXIII and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The other major content of Pope Francis Angelus address was his call for a day of prayer and fasting on Saturday, for peace in Syria, the Middle East and throughout the world:
I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on 7 September next, the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world, and I also invite each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.

On 7 September, in Saint Peter’s Square, here, from 19:00 until 24:00, we will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace! I ask all the local churches, in addition to fasting, that they gather to pray for this intention.
At another level, Pope Francis Angelus address can be studied as an exercise of the Papal Office, both ad intra, towards the Church and ad extra, towards the whole world. Ad intra, he has called the universal Church to a time or prayer, fasting and penitence in repentance for the evil of war that is committed and threatened at a particular moment in time. In this context, the use of an inclusive "we" in the wording of the address, a use which does not remove the fact that moral responsibility for the use of chemical weapons rests with those immediately involved, indicates at the same time a certain duty of penance for others. As Pope Francis indicates, citing John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris, it brings to the fore that the building of peace is a responsibility at the level of the individual human person in relation to his or her neighbour, and so involves all of us, not just those immediately involved in the events of warfare.

Ad extra, the Angelus address is an activity of diplomacy on the part of the Holy See, and it is quite fascinating to analyse it in this context. No doubt it is also being followed up by activity on the part of the Papal representatives in different parts of the world. The use of the language of an inclusive "we" has a completely different significance seen in this context. It has allowed Pope Francis to condemn evil actions with all due force whilst at the same time not naming names. The moral condemnation of those responsible for the use of chemical weapons is unmistakeable; and the urgency of the appeal against foreign interventions is equally clear.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A fascination with fractals

In July 2010, I posted If you knew SUSY in response to an article in Physics World, the magazine of the UK Institute of Physics. At the end of that post, I cautiously suggested:
But the suggestion that information is in some way embedded in the heart of reality is thought provoking to say the least, and seems amenable to an analogical theological expression. However, some care needs to be taken to make sure that that analogical expression does not say something that isn't what the physics itself says - the pioneer to whom James Gates makes reference towards the end of his article , John Archibald Wheeler, for example, links the information-theoretic aspect to the problem of measurement, the measurement (subjectively) determining the reality that has been measured. James Gates own work, being theoretical, seems to me to present an information-theoretic basis that is independent of this question of measurement.
In June this year - that is, pretty much three years on from my original post - a comment on If you knew Susy alerted me to the very real possibility that my post had caught the attention of the author of the original Physics World article. A blog post that does sound very much like mine is referred to in a radio interview broadcast in the United States: Uncovering the Codes for Reality with S. James Gates. You need to scroll quite a way down the transcript to find the reference to (my) blog post. The commentor who made the link writes on it here: Superstring Theoretical Physicist on the Codes of Reality.

What is interesting, in the light of my own post on the subject, is that James Gates acknowledges in the interview just how stunning it was to the team of physicists and mathematicians working on string theory that error correction codes had such a role in the equations of string theory:
... the kinds of codes we found, which was the most shocking thing for us, is that there's a class of codes that allow your browsers to work in an accurate way. They're called error-correcting codes. We found a role for error correcting codes in the equations of supersymmetry, and this was just stunning for us.
I do appreciate - assuming that it is indeed my blog post to which he is referring - both the way in which James Gates accurately captures the caution of my own suggestion of an analogical theological expression of  the idea that information is embedded in reality and the way in which he responds to that suggestion:

...if the equations of fundamental physics are based on information theory and essentially information theory is at the very center of string theory, how did it get there? And his implication is that indeed this is something for theologians to contemplate. You know, that was, again, for me a stunning assertion and it still has yet to be fully studied. But it probably will not be studied by physicists ..
The reason for posting on this now is that the September 2013 issue of Physics World carries an article by Richard Taylor entitled "A fascination with fractals". One aspect of the article is an overview of the history of chaos theory and the fractal patterns that occur in graphical representations of chaotic behaviour. This aspect is not novel, but indicates three components of this area of physics:
(1) The evolution over time of complex physical systems that obey deterministic laws is surprisingly sensitive to the original conditions of those systems - the smallest of changes in initial conditions can lead over time to radically different outcomes, rendering unpredictable behaviours that, in principle, are entirely predictable. Systems showing this type of "chaotic" behaviour range from weather systems to chemical reactions and electronic circuits.
(2) A mathematical formulation based on taking a basic pattern or expression (a "seed") and then using another rule (the "generator") to repeatedly apply the basic pattern towards an overall outcome. Mathematicians were doing this type of thing as long ago as 1861. It parallels the iterative application of deterministic laws typical of the chaotic behaviour described at (1).
(3) A geometric representation in which a shape on one scale was repeated and repeated at smaller and smaller scales to produce patterns that were visually surprising. This was about geometric structures that turn out to be "self-similar" - that is, they look the same when viewed as a whole, and when magnified repeatedly to different scales. When computing power enabled the types of mathematical formulations at (2) to be iterated very many times, the patterns emerging were precisely the visually surprising patterns that we now know as fractal patterns. It was also noticed that many phenomena in nature also displayed these fractal patterns - leaf shapes being one such example. The significance of the coming together of the mathematical formulations (that, in principle, reached back about 100 years) and real examples in the physical world was prompted by the employment of computing power not previously available.
None of this is new to physicists. It does represent another situation where the significance of a mathematical formulation for understanding a range of physical phenomena might well be open to an analogical theological expression, as I suggested in my earlier post with regard to superstring theory.
However, what is novel about Richard Taylor's article is that he discusses all of the above in the context of an encounter between art and physics. This is what is, apparently, termed "action art". The kind of action involved is that of taking a freshly painted canvas, attaching it to a car and then driving from Paris to Nice with the canvas exposed to the (chaotic) behaviour of the weather during the journey. The canvas records the patterns of the evolution of a dynamic system, and has something of the nature of a "traditional" fractal. Another example cited in the article is that of holding a tin of paint with a small hole in both hands, over a flat canvas. As the artist moves their arms and body over the canvas an abstract piece of art is produced. Comparing the difference between the outcomes when this was undertaken by a 5-year old and an adult - the latter having a much more developed sense of balance to adjust as they moved the paint can over the canvas - indicated that the resulting fractal patterns reflected the differences in development in the physiology of balance of the respective artists. The author has also explored which types of fractal patterns are most aesthetically pleasing, characterising this by a quantity called the fractal dimension, that is, by a measure of the balance of coarse and fine structures in the fractal patterns. Mid-range fractal dimension fractals appear to be most aesthetically pleasing - and most stress relieving - leading to them being termed biophilic fractals.
It is the final paragraph of Richard Taylor's article that sparked my interest. The author has both a long standing personal interest in the cultural implications of chaos and fractal patterns, and a more recent professional interest (the article is describing his work across physics, psychology and art). Though he is clearly writing of his own experience in this final paragraph, I do think that he nevertheless indicates another level at which the philosopher or theologian might undertake an analogical reflection as to why a style of mathematical formulation and its geometric manifestation might belong both in nature and in the human person's intuition of culture.
In 1959 physicist-turned-novelist CP Snow warned of the growing rift between the arts and science in influential lecture "The two cultures". In my experience, most people misinterpret Snow's treatise as a declaration that this rift is natural and therefore inevitable. In reality, he was highlighting the need for common language across the arts and sciences to defeat the rift. In my own career, the common language of fractals has allowed me to weave chaotically in and out of art school and physics departments. There really does seem to be a pattern in this unintentional process. I cannot help but thinkg that an underlying model describes how we seek out and explore our creative interests, and that - as in nature - this behaviour is fractal.