Could this be a decisive moment in the history of the Church?
The Catholic writer and journalist Joanna Bogle offers her first reactions to Pope Benedict’s initiative and finds it exhilarating and immensely exciting
How prophetic was the choice of the name of this magazine! Following the Popes October initiative, it seems extraordinarily apt.
When Benedict XVI was first elected – and knowing nothing of what he might one day be planning concerning the constituency at which ND is aimed – I sent a tentative feature article to this magazine about him. Describing him as an academic with a passion for truth, a believer for whom an incarnate God is the turning-point of history’ I said “This is a good man, and he’s a good successor to Peter at this time. We are fortunate to have him. There’s work to be done, and Benedict must do it. Keep him in your prayers.’
And now the editor asks if there is anything I want to say about the Holy Father’s astonishing invitation to Anglicans.’ Well, of course there is – lots – and as an RC I say it with hope and with trepidation. I hope I don’t sound pompous or preachy, or downright shrill. It’s very difficult not to shriek ‘Please! Listen to the Holy Father, and come and help us!’
Because Anglican readers need to know – if they don’t already – that the general reaction of many RCs in Britain to the initiative, is not just definitely favourable; it is a cause of considerable enthusiasm. We’ve been chattering and Hogging and praying and thinking about it: it is seen as cutting through the jargon and the bureaucracy and offering something with a feel of a new springtime.
Next – and on this many ND readers, especially clergy, are already extremely well-informed – it is a fact that there are groups within the RC Church who definitely don’t like what the Holy Father has offered. These groups include those who are supportive of the notion of women priests (and who know that there can never be any, but still cling to the idea that this is unjust and like to talk in feminist jargon on the subject), and/or dissent from the Church’s teaching on a range of issues concerning sexual ethics, and/or the nature of the authority he gave to his Church.
They include some who may be in positions where they are able, directly or indirectly, to work out ways of thwarting the best intentions of the Holy Father. They do not – repeat not – reflect the views of most practising RCs and tend, in particular, to be distant from the mood, beliefs, hopes and opinions of the rising generation of clergy.
Third: there’s a cultural thing. Everyone knows – it’s almost become a cliche – that modern RC liturgy has veered from the worst of the old (priest gabbles a rushed Latin Tridentine Mass at ferocious speed, all music banned) to the worst of the new (priest in crimplene vestments injects chatty extempore prayers, unsuitably-clad singer croons into microphone inviting congregational applause, plump middle-aged lady dancers sway up the aisle with an offertory procession).
So of course there’s a delight for all RCs in the thought that we might get some decent Anglican liturgy, singable hymns, reverence, dignity, graceful wording of prayers. We scarcely even dare to think further – use of some enchanting old churches, Mass preceded by a peal of bells, English bells…
And fourth: these are tough times. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, please sit up and notice now that militant atheism currently has a popular flavour, and please don’t let’s have any cliches about ‘Oh, it will pass’ or ‘the pendulum will swing the other way! We are entering a difficult period of Western history.
A European court announces that having crucifixes in Italian classrooms infringes human rights. A Christian woman in Britain is visited by the police after denouncing homosexual activity as sinful. In this situation, the Holy Father is rallying Christians conscious of his duty and terrifying responsibility before God.
Now some generalities. Most practising RCs who know and love their faith are acutely aware that among their Anglican and Evangelical friends and neighbours and colleagues and relations there are people with whom we have more in common than we have with some nominal RCs. We have long experienced this in campaigns on issues concerning marriage, sex, family and the value of human life.
We have found it on an icy street corner singing carols for some worthy cause, or in meetings sending out messages to MPs on pro-life issues. And we have found it, too, at religious gatherings where we have shared with Anglican friends a despairing glare and a rolled eye heavenwards when some particularly mushy does-it-matter-what-we-really-believe speaker has made a gratuitously inane or offensive statement concerning the divinity of Christ or the reality of the Resurrection.
Of course we are well aware – who isn’t? – that in the CofE there
are people who don’t seem to share basic Christian convictions at all, but who see Christianity as something that changes with time and simply casts a veneer of respectability over whatever is the latest trend in society, making it all feel nicer and more pleasant even if it isn’t. And we know, only too well, of Catholics who hold the same slithery version of what Christianity is all about.
What we also know – and I can’t believe there are any readers of New Directions who don’t know it too – is the reality of everyday life in the RC Church.
We know about pupils at Catholic schools who are woefully ignorant of basic Christian truths, about tiresome ex-nuns with tiresome agendas, about truly dreadful modern hymns sung to truly horrible – horrible! – electronic twanging. We know about ugly modern churches, and beautiful old ones that have been wrecked by attempts to ‘renovate for a modern liturgy!
We know, too, about seriously nutty fringe-groups, about anti-semitic ranting, false visionaries, loopy bogus mystics, senders of round-robin letters promising instant results from prayer-chains.
We know – and with anguish – of abused children in Catholic orphanages in the 1950s and 60s, about post-war emigration schemes dumping Catholic children in remote districts in unknown countries with no help or support at hand. We know about hideous crimes by Catholic priests – and we know these have not been confined to the twentieth century.
It is with all this in mind that we say to our Anglican friends – and I say, from the bottom of my heart, to any Anglican reading this – ‘Please, please listen to what the Holy Father is saying.’ Please listen to it very prayerfully. If you truly don’t accept Catholic teaching on, for example, the Mass and the Sacraments and the Petrine office, then this new papal inititive is not one to which you can respond except with a polite “Thank you, but…’
In that instance, let’s all keep praying and working together where we can, and leave the rest to God. If, on the other hand, you can truly state a belief in the teachings presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, then… consider the possibility that you are on the brink of something large, and that the decisions you make will affect generations to come, in our country and overseas and on no small scale.
One doesn’t very often get a chance to be involved in great moment in history. Sometimes what seem to be great moments turn out to less important after all: think of the by-election victories announced as presaging some major realignment in politics that never actually happens, or the royal or national event that is supposed to mark an era but somehow doesn’t. But then there are other times when something larger, deeper, more spiritual is at stake.
When Pope John Paul II was elected, the world held its breath. What could a Polish Pope mean – to a divided Europe marked by the Iron Curtain, Warsaw Pact forces poised against NATO for over a quarter of a century, backed by a mutual nuclear threat? It was not just John Paul who gave the answer – it was the Polish people. Their faith, their tenacity, their courage and restraint in utilising their colossal patriotic spiritual and cultural reserves – it was all this that made that 1979 papal visit to Poland the catalyst that broke the Communist stranglehold and ushered in a new era.
There is a mystery here, the mystery of the Word made flesh. God is in charge of all things. But he gives us free will, and, purely out of love for man, invites our co-operation in the mystery that is mans journey through history.
Because the Catholic Church, though founded by Jesus Christ, has human people involved running it here on earth, often great opportunities are missed and moments of history go wrong. But God also raises up people who do seize the moment – as the Poles did following the election of John
Paul II – and so mans adventure through history continues.
I believe I witnessed history when, as a young woman living in a Berlin divided by a Wall, I lived through events that saw the eventual dismantling of formal atheistic Communism. I believe I could again witness history by seeing the tragedy of a 500-year rift in my country’s Christianity healed through an extraordinary offer by a Pope.
Finally, a note about patriotism. The Church is for everyone, and to be a Catholic is to belong to something universal. Its transcends race or nationality. But Christ, who knew and loved people and places, and wept over Jerusalem, loves our country and the contribution that it has made and yet could make, to the Church universal.
There is an Anglican cultural contribution, with its own unique flavour. Now, at this moment of history, what is he saying to the men and women who know and love that particular culture? What is he whispering, through the accents of a white-haired Bavarian former professor who has inherited the task first given to a Galilean fisherman? And what response will there be