Reflecting on a difficult year for Roman Catholics and a shaky start to the plans for the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Britain in September, Joanna Bogle expresses a new sense of vulnerability, but confidence that great things can be achieved through Anglicanorum Coetibus
It is five years since Pope Benedict was elected – and I wrote an excited piece for New Directions celebrating the event. How cheery I was, and how irritatingly smug as a Roman Catholic, writing for Anglicans. I knew that my ND readership would be warmly supportive of a man whose books they admired, whose courage in defending true doctrine was legendary, and whose extraordinary ability to communicate the Christian message with beauty and conviction was clearly a gift from God. It was easy for me to celebrate him – here was a man of outstanding intellect and humble spirit, clearly able to give of his very best as ‘servant of the servants of God’.
But in my joy and exuberance I had forgotten something important – that my readership might include many who were going through a real personal sense of anguish, because as Anglicans they had for some years been witnessing the destruction of an Anglican heritage that had brought them to God, and the joyful certainties of a Roman Catholic riding the crest of a glorious wave of Catholic momentum, might perhaps have only added to that heartache. While
Rome in joyful sunshine celebrated a Papal Mass, in Britain the CofE continued to get headlines for division, tension, breakaway groups, the apparent unravelling of former certainties on doctrine and morals.
Now, five years on, Catholics who love Pope Benedict are experiencing anguish too. The revelations of hideous sexual abuse on the part of clergy bring heartache. They have naturally also been used in vitriolic attacks on the Pope, and it has been a time of gleeful opportunity for all who hate the Catholic Church.
It is virtually impossible to get a fair discussion, because of course the fact that any priests, at any time, sexually abused young people, and that this abuse was not punished and was even covered up, is a dreadful thing. It obliterates the next part of any discussion, even if that next part is something crucial such as ‘But Pope Benedict was not part of that cover-up’ or even more crucially ‘But it was Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, who stopped the cover-up culture and launched an effective campaign to eliminate what he rightly described as ‘filth’ from the Church.’
This is all happening with a Papal visit to Britain planned. The visit itself has been a source of anguish. It somehow began in a way that was all wrong – a leaked initiative from the Prime Minister in what was widely seen as an attempt to gain ground on the world stage. Prime Ministers do not invite Popes – such an invitation is either a formal State one, done through the Head of State (in this case, the Queen), or a pastoral one done through the local Bishops. Rome delayed in its response. When the final official announcement was made, the possibilities for a sense of joyful momentum were diminished.
Then, and not coincidentally, the concerted attacks began – with extraordinarily effective use of the Internet, where rumour and truth are blended, where blogs and comments swarm with smutty jokes, and nasty innuendoes, and calumny and detraction of every kind. And now here we are, with a Papal visit planned for September, anti-Papal demonstrations promised by gung-ho
atheists, and vile behaviour on the part of our own government officials, with a team of officials at the Foreign Office clearly seeing the whole thing as a ridiculous event worthy only of ignorant sneering.
At parish level, Catholics are increasingly frustrated as it is impossible to know how to get tickets for Papal events or even if we will be able to attend in any reasonable numbers: we feel we are in the dark.
On the surface, things are now officially meant to be levelling out. The Foreign Office apologised for the disgusting jokey memo which had suggested that the Pope should be invited to open an abortion clinic and launch a condom range. The Catholic Bishops Conference has a website dedicated to the Papal visit. And a great many of us are praying – praying very hard indeed – that God will bring something great and good out of what has begun so poorly.
And so here I am writing for New Directions in a style and mood very different from that of 2005 and yet with a message that is still heartfelt. Pope Benedict is a man of real holiness, extraordinary intellect, great personal courtesy and kindness, and a passion for truth. This gentle and thoughtful scholar, with a gift for communicating in language that can be easily understood and with beauty of style and approach, is a voice that we need to hear. There is something frankly Satanic about the way in which, over the past couple of years, a combination of events and circumstances have enabled that voice to be stifled.
If you want to get the real facts behind some of the sex-abuse stories it is fairly easy to do so on the Internet: try
So today this Catholic journalist writing once again for NEw DirEctions has a twofold task : to admit to a sense of lost smugness, and a massive awareness of vulnerability and fear which was absent during the 2005–8 period when the Holy Father was being given
some degree of honeymoon treatment by the media; and to urge that, despite this, and despite a real anxiety about future attacks on the Pope and the Church (verbal, written, broadcast but
also possibly physical) it is still the case that this is Peter, and this is all built on a rock, and this was, and remains, God’s plan from the beginning.
It’s all going to be nastier than we thought. This Papal visit isn’t in 1982, when Britain had a newly-married Prince and Princess, and a buoyant Mrs T., and a winnable Falklands War, and a Foreign Office that was still taken seriously, and a sense of belonging to something called the West which rested on fairly definable cultural and even spiritual values. In 2010 we have a collapsing social structure, with huge numbers of children raised in chaotic serial relationships, gross drunkenness as normative adolescent behaviour, rigid political correctness in an overblown public sector rendering normal communication difficult.
Having a State visit from a Pope means having the visit organized by people who have grown up in an era when Christianity has been systematically marginalized, and who have been nurtured in a culture centred on Facebook and TV soaps and semi-pornographic imagery at every turn, combined with sagging academic standards and minimal education in history, literature, and what we could generally call Western culture.
Sharing in the pain
The year 2010 ushers us into the next decade of the twenty-first century, and it is not going to be an easy decade. When Pope Benedict appealed to Anglicans with Anglicanorum Coetibus he was not and is not offering an easy ride to a cosy haven. He was inviting Anglicans to bring, intact and with a legitimate sense of loving ownership and pride, a glorious heritage that will find its rightful place at the heart of the universal Church.
This will mean a sharing in all that is large and splendid in that Church – her strength, her sense of history, her serene knowledge of Christ’s promises – and it will mean a sharing in her shame at the sins and ineptitudes of her members.
It will also mean, and I hadn’t really thought about this adequately until now, a sharing in the pain and martyrdom that has always been, it seems, an inescapable part of her lot.
But please, please come in. Please bring the strength of your Anglican patrimony. Please be with Peter as he ‘puts out into the deep’. He has been mending the nets. He knows his task is to strengthen the brethren. It’s always meant to be ‘Peter and the other disciples’. It was always planned as a team.
A prophetic call
And if you have ever been irritated with RCs as triumphalist, if we have bragged about our certainties, been smugly confident in our affirmation of unchanging doctrine – then accept from this Catholic writer a genuine and sincere apology.
We enjoyed the surge of interest and massive worldwide media attention in John Paul’s funeral. We relished seeing the election of a worthy successor, and the gracious and seamless way that the achievements of the Polish philosopher and poet could give way to those of the Bavarian theologian and teacher.
We should have known that attacks would come and all the Church’s vulnerability would be laid bare, and that God would have it so because he wants us to depend only on him and not on human popularity. In the words of the hymn, we ask God: ‘Take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride’.
Please, now that things look difficult, now that we have tasted humiliation and will very likely taste more, now that the human rewards look more bleak than ever, please consider Anglicanorum Coetibus. Please consider the possibility that it was a prophetic call at a prophetic time. Please let us all ponder what truly great things there might be if more hands join Peter in tugging on the mended nets. Please consider the new directions in which we could all be heading together as God guides us. ND