Friday, August 28, 2015

Reading 'Pope Francis: Untying the Knots' by Paul Vallely

Some time ago a friend kindly lent me 'Pope Francis: Untying the Knots', a biography of the Holy Father by Paul Vallely.  It is an absorbing and pacy book: I remember its being published remarkably soon after the election, and read it bearing in mind that speed had been of the essence when was being researched and written.

Vallely works through the run of Jorge Bergoglio's life with methodical detail and also sprinkles it with some wonderful vignettes.  For instance, he discovered his vocation in a confessional  which he had only entered on second thoughts on his way to make a proposal of marriage.  His mother used to gather the children around radio to hear broadcasts of whole operas.  Then there is the nickname of El Chabon that he is given in villa 31, a slum of Buenos Aires, which apparently translates as 'The Dude'.

Paul Vallely's contention throughout the book is that Pope Francis' characteristic humility, simplicity, authenticity and concern for the downtrodden pour forth now so startlingly only because of difficult trials he underwent in the past.  For instance, Vallely paints a picture of his time as superior of the Jesuit province in Argentina, soon after the Second Vatican Council, in which he apparently reacted fiercely against new movements and ideas (such as Liberation Theology or modern ecclesiastical architecture) and thus divided Argentinian Jesuits into supporters and adversaries.  Then there were the difficulties of the Argentinian 'Dirty War' of 1976-1983 in which a military regime, trying to stamp out any hint of Communism, included in its long list of political enemies priests who seemed too attached to the cause of workers or slum-dwellers.  Moreover, Vallely describes various examples of collusion between representatives of the Church and the regime; even within the Church, it was difficult for Jorge Bergoglio to know where and with whom he stood.  Vallely also dwells at length upon an incident involving two priests from whom, because they had expressly disobeyed his request to stop working in the slums for their safety, Jorge Bergoglio removed the licence to say Mass and therefore, in the military's eyes, the Church's protection.  These priests were kidnapped shortly afterwards and, it seems, were fortunate to avoid death, let alone to be released. 

It was against this background, Vallely tells us, that Jorge Bergoglio was sent to Bavaria in 1986 to research a Ph.D.  Here, in the church of St. Peter am Perlach in Augsburg, he encountered a painting of Our Lady entitled 'Mary, Untier of Knots'.  This image resonated with him precisely because of the troubles he had faced in Argentina, and he took back copies of the painting on his return.  Vallely's belief is that this picture played no small part in a conversion, or something like it, that the future Pope underwent.  After this change of heart and mind, we read that he came to believe that poverty could not be eradicated without a conversion of society; he became less opposed to Liberation Theology and he set himself the challenge of adopting humility as a 'religious decision'.  It was the experience of division and disunity in the Church, of murkiness with regard to the 1976-1983 regime and the unassuaged plight of the Argentinian poor that forged the Pope Francis who now unsettles us and challenges us with his humility and directness.

It is a tale compellingly told.  I have misgivings about one aspect of its telling, however.  This portrait of Pope Francis often reads as if meant to be considered in contrast to, even in rupture with the recent history of the Church and indeed Pope Benedict in particular.  Vallely's use of the word 'conservative' (a word which I think ought particularly to be avoided in Church affairs) might justly be described as liberal, and he does not mean it as a compliment.  How thinly Vallely has veiled his disapproval of the Church's administration can be told by his use of phrases like 'Vatican crackdown' or 'conservative hierarchy'; see also his description of Benedict XVI's liturgical formality as a 'predilection for lace and Latin'.  It seems fair enough for Vallely to pit Francis against the Curia, since the Curia has certainly been in need of reform, but the assumption is made that the Curia's problems come from attachment to tradition, or antipathy towards modernity, rather than from nepotism, insularity or, come to that, from sin.  There is even the implication that, before his 'conversion', in his antipathy towards revolution, readiness to assert authority and decision to decorate a bare modernist chapel interior, Jorge Bergoglio had resembled Joseph Ratzinger, and that the new version is an improvement precisely because he apparently no longer does so.

In the first instance I find this unfair to Benedict, whose character and mission might have been different from Francis', but was far from deficient (I have sung B16's praises here).  It is certainly true that Benedict was a man of words and thoughts where Francis is more obviously a man of action and gesture, but a contemplative approach does not necessarily lead to a 'Church turned in on its inner spirituality'.  As I see it, Benedict knew his strengths and their limits — a deep understanding of Europe, along with the intelligence to grapple with it.  So, in his seven years, although he never forgot that he was Pope for all the world's Catholics, he laid down the intellectual and spiritual foundations of the New Evangelisation in Europe in particular.  He confronted the dictatorship of relativism on the very fronts on which it had declared war on the Church, and did not waver when the Western media retaliated.  He provided European Christians with the intellectual equipment to engage with the New Atheism, gender theory, the dictatorship of relativism and consumerism, and fought sin's particular footholds in Western society.  Simply by insisting that we can speak of such a thing as absolute truth, that comes from God, he did a great service for hope.

If he revived Papal fashions and invited the European faithful to a careful consideration of the liturgy, it was not to flee from the plight of the world's poor.  Rather, it dealt with one of the greatest threats to Western Christianity, namely the wholesale abolition of an awareness of its past.  How tempting it is to believe that this is the greatest of ages simply by virtue of our living in it, and consequently that our ancestors' way of life is entirely obsolete (how often do we hear this or that idea hastened along 'because it's the twenty-first century'?).  By reviving traditions in the Church, Benedict reminded us that wisdom is gained not by rejecting the past solely on the grounds of its mistakes, but by sifting carefully through the ages, avoiding its errors and, better still, embracing its triumphs.  It was a way of asking the New Evangelisation's great question to Europe: 'Do you remember that we believed because it is true?'.  

Benedict was aware that Europe carries ever less weight in the Christian world.  I think it is reasonable to suppose that one reason for his resignation was to open the way for someone more knowledgeable about the non-European Church.  So in the end, he allowed himself seven years to lay the foundations of the New Evangelisation in the West (foundations that we are to build upon with his legacy), which in turn allowed Pope Francis to concentrate on his own strengths.

This does not mean that we can afford to pay less attention to Pope Francis (who himself has said that 'every age has but a meagre awareness of its own limitations').  I simply think that Pope Benedict had a particular mission, as Pope Francis has his.  Modern Europe is not like the rest of the world: the challenge of building the Church is very different, even to the extent of needing two different kinds of Pope at different times.  This is illustrated by Vallely's own description of Argentinean popular piety and the informal, exuberant mood at Mass in the slums of Buenos Aires.  Coming from a place where the Christian faith has life like that, Pope Francis could be excused if he were baffled by European cynicism and sulky reticence towards any discussion of faith, though Laudato Si shows that he understands it very well indeed.  I see these two Popes in continuity with each other; they may have different characters and gifts, but both put these at the service of the servants of God.

Vallely's (and others') frame of thought, in which two apparently distinct halves vie for supremacy - liturgically and morally doctrinaire 'conservatives' versus energetic upholders of social justice -  is not only over-simplistic, but also produces a thoroughly disillusioning vision of the Church, which at any moment might be lost to the wrong side.  Of course there exist within the Church divisions, disagreements and (fundamentally) sin, but I do not think that these align themselves along battle-lines in the way that Vallely describes.  Vallely says, for instance: 'For all his growing sense of the need for social justice, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was doctrinally orthodox and mainstream', as if the two were incompatible.  Yet concern for social justice is a pillar of Catholic doctrine, set out clearly in Catholic Social Teaching, and social justice is achieved precisely by a universal, willing adherence to the Church's teachings.  It may be that some of the faithful are overly concerned by liturgy and rubrics, and that others have an excessively political and secular conception of social injustice, but the ideal is a combination of both spirituality and action, two things which do not contradict each other but go together in the same direction, just as Benedict's and Francis' papacies do.  All are called to the harvest (which, we are told, is rich, and the labourers few); each must bring what he can.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

'His Music Lives. It was his own, and drawn from vital fountains'

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (picture from
Today is the 140th anniversary of the birth, in Holborn in London, of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the late nineteenth-century composer (as distinct from the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge!).  Coleridge-Taylor never knew his father, a doctor from Sierra Leone, who in turn had returned there without knowing he had a son.  His mother Alice moved to Croydon; there Samuel was brought up and lived for the rest of his life.

He learnt the violin and sang in two church choirs, and polished his talent diligently enough that, in 1890, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.  Here he was taught by Stanford, knew Holst and Vaughan Williams, and had his first publications.  A few years later he received a commission for the Three Choirs Festival on the recommendation of Sir Edward Elgar, who called him 'the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men'.  

Not long afterwards came his greatest success.  This was 'Hiawatha's Wedding Feast', the first of a trilogy of cantatas, which catapulted him to his greatest fame, but, alas, not to riches.  He had sold the rights outright for a trifling fee, and all his life had to work hard for a living, not least after his marriage to Jessie Walmisley and the births of his son Hiawatha and daughter Gwendolyn.  

Here is the first movement of his violin concerto in G minor (the second movement and the third movement are also available to listen to):

His African background led him to take a deep interest in African and African-American culture and history; he collaborated with the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and travelled to the U.S.A. on conducting tours.  He also made haunting arrangements of spiritual melodies, and saw himself as doing much the same work as Dvořák and Grieg had for the folk-music of their own cultures:

Coleridge-Taylor died, having collapsed at West Croydon railway station and succumbed a few days later to pneumonia, at the catastrophically early age of thirty-seven, and so never wore, as he might deservedly have done, the laurels of a great twentieth-century British composer.  He is buried within a few miles of his home in the cemetery at Bandon Hill in Wallington.  His life seems under-remembered today in his own south London, but all the same 'his music lives', as the epitaph on his grave, by his friend Alfred Noyes, proclaims: 'It was his own, and drawn from vital fountains.  It pulsed with his own life, but now it is his immortality.  He lives while music lives'.

Further reading and listening:

Fear in the Modern Age

Crossing a fog-enveloped West Country camp-site in the early hours of the morning and seeing nothing in the thick damp darkness, I was recently surprised by a sudden sheer aversion to - even fear of - the night around me.  Any city-dweller might be unused to the utterness of country darkness, but I had not expected the dread seeping into me as intangibly as the fog.  I realised what an ordeal such a night presented to lighthouse-keepers (let alone to seafarers).  All they had about them were ears, the imagination (and its tricks), and the taunting tingling of dampness on their cheeks.  How greatly they must have feared a shipwreck and how they must have longed for dawn.

Since in such circumstances it is suddenly very easy to believe wholeheartedly in God, and every residue of supercilious rationalism crumbles away, I wonder whether one of the reasons for secularism's rise might well be our attempted abolition of night, and of fear with it.  Most of us live in towns or suburbs which we are content to have drenched in bronze light,  so as to make us think that our senses' dominion over our surroundings is absolute.  I had no particular reason to feel much more at ease inside my torch-lit tent - the same night was only on the other side of the canvas - but I did, and could quench my unease at the touch of a button.  Robert Macfarlane, at the other end of the country, has much of interest to say on the subject in this video:

Afterwards I had second thoughts, and became less sure that twenty-first century Britain has quite seen off fear.  I think that many people are still afraid of various things, but fear privately, and also seek consolation elsewhere than in church.  People are afraid of permanence; they are afraid of marriage; they are afraid of their own weaknesses.  This is borne out, I think, by the way in which the National Health Service, for instance, is regarded in public life.  Somewhere, somebody has said that the N.H.S. is now really the national religion.  Certainly it makes sense, since people have always worried about physical health, that the nation should turn to a national service, and that there should be fierce opposition to any attempt by the Government to prune it back, and that politicians tend consequently to speak reverently of 'our N.H.S.' in order to win their audience over.  The N.H.S. also has direct involvement in many people's lives, either as employer or physician.  Then there are the reports that come out from time to time suggesting that medication is consumed by the British at a staggering rate.  (I should make it clear that this is not to say that people do not necessarily need such medication).  It makes sense, in a secular mind, that health in this world should take the place of salvation in the next.

It has also occurred to me that the lack of self-restraint in modern British culture actually conceals a fear in its very swagger; this time the inward fear of feelings and conscience.  The famous British restraint once subdued feelings for the sake of politeness.  The louder tone of conversation and behaviour that replaced it is still, however, a kind of discipline, since it still finds a disclosure of the inmost heart embarrassing, and indeed has much less patience for it.  This also goes some way to explain the roughness of our culture.  Once steeped in a televisual culture of violence, swearing and ungentleness, as night-time city streets are in fake light, nobody has any need to worry about others' behaviour, to be afraid of causing undue offence or the bonds of civility between human beings.  Any suggestion otherwise is to be fled from.

Modern fear, it seems to me, is worth bearing in mind for the New Evangelisation, not so that we should frighten people into church attendance, but because people really do, in spite of appearances and in spite of themselves, still have their fears.  We can remind them, and ourselves, where they can be sure of safety.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Conversation with a Grandmother

Several weeks ago, at Sunday morning Mass, a newborn parishioner was baptised in our church.  Afterwards we were invited to dinner with the family, who are Nigerian - the child's grandmother had travelled from Nigeria to be present.  We fell into conversation with her, and the subject came round to churchgoing in her home country.  In her parish, she told us, there are four Masses on Sundays (6 a.m., 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and an evening Mass).  She laughed as she told us that the morning Masses all overrun, so that the 8 and 10 o'clock services begin hopelessly late, even to the order of hours!  This is not least due to the fact that the parish church, which holds two thousand worshippers, is actually overflowing on Sundays.  This is not in a particularly large urban area, but in a town between Abuja and the coast.

Nigeria is a country which bears, and has borne, much suffering.  There is still material poverty and political instability.  It is well-known that much of the north-east of the country is threatened by Boko Haram, which is convulsed with hatred for Christianity and has had bombs set off in full churches.  Martyrdom is real and even familiar. I had been aware that the Church in Nigeria was growing nevertheless, but this vignette seems to me to give startling hope.  The new grandmother herself radiated a kind of forthright joy which gave rise to outbursts of 'To God be the glory!'... her British interlocutors struggled to supply the hearty echoes required!

This hope is not only for Nigeria; it overflows into other lands, I think, much as the churches overflow.  This is what the Church is like outside Europe.  Surely this flourishing will beget many vocations - I am thinking of the priesthood in particular.  Among Nigeria's sons, perhaps among those being baptised even now, will surely be counted a great number of priests, many of whom might well relish the challenge of the New Evangelisation in the West.  Their confident and joyful faith would make them tremendous missionaries in our sulky, disillusioned culture.