Monday, October 29, 2018

Youth, the Faith and Vocation: seven thoughts

On the list of urgent matters to discuss in this world waist-deep in crisis, I can easily see that the lives of young adults do not come first.  More immediately pressing matters tend to push their hopes and anxieties into the background.  Still, these hopes and anxieties are there; they do not go away, and behind the louder elements, whose politicised protests are seldom representative of the whole, they accumulate into a silent mountain to which it is difficult to do justice.  

The world's bishops, assisted by young lay representatives and others, has recently had a go at doing them justice, though, gathering in Rome for a Synod over the course of October to discuss 'Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment'.  'What is life like for you?', the Catholic Church has been asking its young members, those aged 16-29, this past year.  'How do you find your faith and work out your calling?  And what about young people who are not in the Church... or no longer in the Church?... What are your lives like; what meaning do you think the Church has?'  It is the Church's business to help is in working out the meaning and purpose of our lives.

The Synod's final report has just been released.  I have been meaning to write about it here long before now — ever since it was announced, in fact — not least because I fall squarely into the age bracket in question.  It is not a lack of interest that has silenced my keyboard.  I have been thinking and reading quite a lot about it all, and following the Synod's progress.  I filled in the Church's official online questionnaire earlier this year, and in the early summer attended three invigorating meetings of young adults with the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, before he went off to the Synod.  So I feel that I have managed to repay the bishops' frank appeal for views with some considered answers.  But I have not added much to the online conversation, having been left with too many thoughts to hammer out easily into a concise blog article.  Only now have I managed to boil them down to these seven, so that, for my own satisfaction at least, I can record my own point of view before I read the final document.  What do any readers think — do these sound true and fair?

1.  How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

Human nature never changes; one of many thunderbolts to strike me wile at university was to read the Pensées of Pascal with their freshness of informal jottings.  But history does change, of course, and just now even seems to be actually accelerating into the ever-uncharted territory of the future, even as mankind's joys and sorrows remain the same.  So the Church's mission, to go out and bring mankind home to God's house, is desperately urgent, especially where history is changing most quickly: among young people.

I am an ordinary rank-and-file pew-filling Mass-goer, living and working amid the pulsing tumult of London, belonging proudly to the 'Benedict Generation' who came of age in faith under Pope Benedict XVI's gently determined steersmanship.  To me the Church is truth and home.  But for huge numbers of young people my age this is clearly not the case.  To most of my contemporaries, even those of good will, the Church means little or nothing: an unnecessary and obsolescent encumbrance, rather than a life-giving stronghold of joy and encouragement.   I think also of the members of my parish's Youth Choir, aged between nine and sixteen, who will be young adults themselves sooner than we suppose, and the scale of our task weighs heavily on me.  I think of the forces ranged against them, all the other ideas and lifestyles that clamour for their allegiance, the dazzling superficiality of the secular universe, and of the gulf of distraction and misunderstanding that threatens to separate them, or already separates them from the hearth of the Church.

The Synod has come not a moment too soon.  I know, because I have grown up with them, how deeply relativism and individualism have sunk their teeth into the young men and women of my generation here in the West, and how far away and foreign the Church appears to them.  The name Jesus Christ means, to many, merely a harmless spiritual teacher who lived long ago and may have had some sensible things to say which have since been improved on anyway.  The shocking idea that He was God, and then that He took on our nature, body and soul, walked and breathed and worked as we do, and suffered as we do to the point of death, and then was resurrected, thereby giving us too real hope in resurrection after death, is not merely strange to them, but it has never really been articulated to them.  The same goes for the idea that He may be still be encountered and befriended.  It is gone: if this knowledge was understood in previous generations, it has not been passed on and is forgotten now.  In the Church I think we already know this... but have somehow been slow, or even afraid, to contemplate the reality unblinkingly for ourselves (though I know that some observers' gaze has been very clear and unwavering).  The New Evangelisation is urgent; it was urgent twenty, thirty, seventy years ago.  The reality is that many good people have no religious sense at all.

But nature abhors a vacuum.  Into the new void other ways of thinking and believing — new creeds, though they would never describe themselves in that way — have come rushing, and they are increasingly making their presence felt.  They do not necessarily declare themselves overtly to be enemies of the Church.  They sound nice and reasonable, at least at first, and certainly seem to make life easier.  They may even contain a great deal of truth, but in comparison to the Christian faith they are short-sighted and half-hearted, proclaiming a truncated, stooped vision of man, because they lack the sure, crazy foundation of love.  These new religions encourage us to place the weight of our faith in scientific progress, or governments, or unfettered liberty, or in political action, or social engineering, or in Me, the Ego, to solve our problems and fill the chasm of longing within.  
In placing the individual at the centre of our lives, they leave us with an alarmingly blank slate when it comes to morality: we can do just as we please, provided we do not prevent anybody else from doing the same.  The new creeds claim to be harmless heralds of peace and freedom for all, but a nastier side can be revealed when they encounter resistance in the form of the Church's teaching.  This is the dictatorship of relativism, which has nothing to say to those who hunger for more than the 'OK culture', and hope to live life to the full, to work out what life is really all about and to pursue heroic holiness, nor to those conscious of having done wrong and who search for true forgiveness, not for mere excuses.  In twenty-first century Britain, people still prove themselves capable of breathtaking acts of goodness, but a willing myopia shies away from asking why.  What lies beneath our common urge towards kindness, and behind the mystery of our simultaneous aversion towards and tendency to surrender to evil?  Nobody asks; it is as if we would rather not know.  Most of the moral values and ideas that survive in the secular world have a Christian origin, but that origin is allowed to be obscured, and the ancient philosophical pillars of strength that underlie them, and the revelation that lightened them, are not spoken of.  And anyway, in modern life, there is simply no time to think too much about these things, nor to seek anything approaching transcendence.  There is always something else that needs doing. Ours is a tired, unhappy culture, atomised in its homogenaeity; we are a great crowd of lonely individuals, constantly in search of something new to place on the altar where God should be.

In such a world, reverence is revolutionary and orthodoxy is rebellion. Going to Mass, even, often has a deliciously conspiratorial feeling about it, as if the Church were an underground resistance movement.  (That is partly because it is).  If for our parents' generation it already took courage to go to church and to assent to the Creed with a straight face, for ours it is now actually subversive.   It really is counter-cultural and there really are people who hate the Church.  To be Catholic in these circumstances is often bracing for young people with fire in the blood.  But often it is tiring and isolating, too.

2.  The Question of Trust

There are many reasons why I am Catholic, and also many different kinds of reasons.  Among those reasons are people whose example vindicates the faith in my mind.  I am not the first, having traced good things to their roots, to decide that if such roots are good enough for certain people I have known, they are good enough for me.  Having admired and been impressed by these people, I have come to have trust the moral foundation on which they have built their lives.  I have confidence in what Church says about life.

I hardly need reminding of the wrongdoing that goes on in the Church.  I know that trust is its first casualty.   I do not wish to dismiss it glibly, but am aware it needs its own article if it is to be dealt with properly.  For now I will say that the first hope is this: that the Church has always acknowledged unequivocally that such wrongdoing directly contradicts her own standards, which are totally set in stone.  No excuses can be made for it.  Mercy is always there, it is true, but on Heaven's terms, not our own.

But meanwhile it is hard to overstate how urgently the Church needs to make herself trustworthy.  Young people are in particular need of something to trust, and there is no shortage of movements in search of their confidence who could easily win too much of it: advertisers, political movements, Twitterers in search of disciples, professional cliques, gangs, to say nothing of those currents of thought that directly oppose the Church in their view of the dignity of life, marriage, wisdom, the law, the poor and so on.  All of those movements, though, have ulterior motives.  Who will love and affirm young people in their own right, for their own sake?  Above all the Church, it seems to me.  Dear reader, the Church will always affirm the absolute and irreducible dignity of your life, even when nobody else will — even if you yourself deny it  and what is more, can tell you why.

Young people want to do good, but often need confidence first.  The Church can give them that confidence and encourage them in difficulty.  We cannot outdo the secular world in slickness, but it is we who have authenticity.  So we need to be radiantly authentic.  That means that we must become good examples and living proof that the Church's message is as valid and as fresh as it has ever been... living proof of the unwavering presence of Christ in the world.

3. Boldness
Our situation is now that the Church has to work hard to earn the trust that is placed in it, whether from within or without.  The Church should also repay this trust.  And I feel that one of the best ways to repay it is to be proclaim its own message boldly and confidently.  The Church needs to speak with authority, which does not mean with aggression or arrogance, but it does imply the courage to lock horns with the world if necessary.  I cannot be the only young Catholic whose experience of modern British culture is generally that of a head-wind.  It is so easy to sense our courage sapping without the Church at full steam beside us, trusting in God, reassuring us that the counter-cultural course we have set is worth the risk.

And the Church can do this because this authority comes from above.  This is at least one advantage we have over the secular world: we assert things not only because they sound good and we want them to be true, but because they are true, whether we like it or not.

4. The Vanguard of Anti-Cynicism
At one of the meetings of young adults at Archbishop's House, Cardinal Vincent made some striking remarks about cynicism.  Answering a question on another topic, he suddenly spoke with some feeling of cynicism's 'corrosive effects' on society and on individuals.  I wanted to applaud: he had articulated something I realise I have felt for a long time.  After the meeting I managed to thank him for his words, and again he lamented the prevalence of this cynical atmosphere; it was "everywhere in the papers", he said.  It is a kind of hardening of heart, and there are places in which it is so pervasive as to be more or less compulsory.  For example, it held absolute sway over my schoolmates between the ages of twelve and eighteen, so that it was seldom possible to have a serious conversation with anyone, and hardly anything anyone said was actually meant.  No high ideals, no hero-worships, no debates with any sincerity.  I know that this attitude is often adopted simply for the sake of self-preservation, but this does not make it any less caustic.  Even now that my generation has reached adulthood I often hear it lurking just beneath the surface, curdling laughter into sniggering, riddling the meanings of words with holes like wood-worm, corroding the sword of justice with sardonic resignation or bitter indifference, and hardening people against each other.  Some of my peers seem unable to turn it off.  It also gnaws away at beauty.  Look at what it has done to our art, music and poetry; look at the lovers of beauty it has beleagured.

But the Church is a stronghold against this caustic cynicism and irony.   I believe that we  lovers and defenders of good and gentle things  have no better fortress than the  Church from which to launch gleeful raids against cynicism, armed with the words and artistry to speak of beauty, delight, diamond innocence, and the pathos of the human condition.

This is not to overlook the cynicism that many feel about the Church.  For this reason, too, the battle for trust must be fought piece by piece: see part two, above.

5. We must be 'smart and beautiful'
'Smart and beautiful' is how Bishop Robert Barron describes the Christian faith, and in doing so captures two things that draw young people to it: its intelligence and its poetic beauty.  

Catholicism is a serious, grown-up, intelligent faith that affirms and sanctifies everything I was right to love as a child.  It has more than enough intellectual fuel for any restless, curious mind; it is inexhaustible.  It is remarkable how deep it is possible to go and never reach the bottom, and others have descended far deeper than I have.   When I was a student, I was fortunate enough to have a chaplaincy where the chaplains gave homilies as fulfilling and stretching as lectures, and weekly talks with unforgettable thoughts: 'If, when thinking about God, you do not experience intellectual vertigo, you are not thinking about God', or that the news of the sack of Rome in 410 A.D.  'would have been as if we heard that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Paris'.  University chaplaincies can give tremendously stimulating moral, historical formation, and the Church must give them as much support as she can afford.  In general, I think the Church could make much more of her intelligence and brilliance.  Young people can all respond willingly to Pope Benedict's exhortation to 'know your faith with that same precision with which an IT specialist knows the inner workings of a computer'.  'You need to know what you believe', is his invigorating challenge.

Yet this intelligence is not pretentious or supercilious.  At the same time, the Church could also afford to emphasise her down-to-earthness.  This is a religion of incarnation: of oil, of water, of wheat, of salt, of dust, of blood, of a baby in a cattle-shed, of carpenters and fishermen.  There is nothing airy-fairy about it.  And notwithstanding her intelligence, the Church is for us all, whatever our minds' wattage.  The ranks of the Doctors of the Church include such a person as Thérèse of Lisieux as well as St. Thomas Aquinas. 

And as for beauty, the Church lies at the ideal strategic position from which to launch a new evangelisation in art.  We live in a culture that is remarkable for its inhuman ugliness, yet people, being human, still hunger for beauty, and indeed are often to be found seeking it in church buildings.  New movements of Catholic artists, composers, novelists, architects or poets, in single-minded search of beauty and generous with their findings, could answer our culture's unuttered cry to God for consolation.  Not browbeating the culture around us but enlightening it, we could could have quiet but deep influence in the coming years, and be of great consolation to people of good will.

6. Togetherness
And in an age of division we will thrive if we remind ourselves, often, of our togetherness in the Church all over the world, present, past and future.  Great occasions such as World Youth Day, pilgrimages and outdoor gatherings, as well as renewed attention to the words of the liturgy ('so that from east to west a perfect sacrifice will be offered to your name...') resound long in the memory.  Pope Benedict's visit to Britain in 2010 fired me up tremendously, and not just because, I confess, the media's considerable hostility to Church in the preceding weeks and months only served to goad me into greater pro-Benedict enthusiasm and vigour.  I simply enjoyed, and will never forget, the uplifting yet unfamiliar feeling of kneeling with eighty thousand others with Pope Benedict in Hyde Park for Eucharistic Adoration (at the vigil of John Henry Newman's beatification).  We need the confidence and resources to mount more such events, if we can, because their effects last well into the lean times of isolation.

Togetherness in the Church also means vigilance in ordinary life, however, so that legitimate disagreements do not sour into division, whether at the scale of parishes, of dioceses or of the Church on earth as a whole.  We all have different charisms — some, perhaps, are more inclined to social justice, say; others to liturgy, and most of us are somewhere in between.  Provided we all sign up to the Catechism and the Creed, and sincerely found our lives on Christ's companionship, we are more or less all right.  Another point: if people struggle honestly to accept the Church's teaching, and are not being deliberately belligerent about their difficulties, I think we should be as patient and kindly as we are resolute in affirming the truth.  Faith is a gift, and Christ never promised to make our lives easy.  It is often uncomfortable to be counter-cultural; a lot of people struggle with it.  We must be capable of working out disagreement between ourselves without giving anybody cause to feel undermined by their own side.

I am also convinced of the necessity of a determinedly ecumenical attitude.  The divisions between the churches, though much healed in the past century, still represent a great wound.  However distant unity seems, we must work very hard to maintain close friendship with our brothers and sisters in other churches.  The old disagreements cannot be brushed aside and should not be trivialised, and the pain of riven communion remains unhealed, but any survey of the terrain today will makes it plain that everyone who is signed up to the Creed is more or less on the same side now.  So, unless there is unequivocal evidence to the contrary, I think we must consider any serious churchgoer these days to be an ally.

7. 'Young People Want Great Things'
Finally, I am very glad that this Synod has given such prominence to the idea of vocation.  It is tremendously important.  The sense of being called, rather than merely having floated or emerged into being, transfigures us.  It gives the longed-for direction to life that many others seek vainly in wealth, political action or Progress.  It gives meaning to days and years, to mere instants and whole epochs alike.  It can so convincingly capture the imagination for the side of light — within the soul, in the Church as a whole and throughout the world  that I think it should be made a mainstay of the New Evangelisation.  (This blog takes its name from Cardinal Newman's prayer-meditation on vocation, incidentally).  Certainly in the West, where the dictatorship of relativism, the tyranny of mediocrity, reigns supreme, the idea that we might be called to a mission greater than ourselves, beyond our own desires, appetites and knowledge, is invigoratingly counter-cultural.  Also, as people tire of the dictatorship of relativism's constant, off-hand instruction to make up a meaning for our lives, not caring a jot what we come up with, and as people detect the indifference that underlies this instruction (existentialism's nasty backhand), they will look, in increasing numbers and with increasing determination, for something else  which they will know they have found when they encounter the idea of vocation compellingly expressed, and realise that they have one.  This is the Church's secret weapon in our time.  

'Young People Want Great Things', said Pope Benedict early in his pontificate, and the words leave very little else to say.  Young people are full of fire; we brim with energy.  But we need to to know what to do with it, so that we can set to confidently, with God-given gumption.  We have the energy to purify first the Church, then the world.  In this age of destruction we yearn to build.  

Dear Bishops — Thank you for asking us your questions.  This is what we would like in the Church, please.  We want a challenge, but not without the Church beside us.  We want companionship so that we have the strength to face the isolating world.  We want more than the insipid, malnutritious menu presented to us by the world, in which anything goes and nothing really matters, but we also want to be able to speak with compassion to people who think that this fare is satisfactory.  We want to know how to have the courage, in a world which mistakes lesser evils for positive good, to announce what is really good all the way through — the Gospel, the electrifying news of hope  in a straightforward, calm, sane, unhectoring way, with our example as much as our words.  We want the miraculous triumph of the friendship of men and women that we call marriage; we want motherhood and fatherhood, defiantly raising families to the glory of God, or simply to be motherly and fatherly to those around us.  We want to be saints and artists and philosophers, holy and humble priests and nuns, teachers and scientists and gardeners and nurses; we want to be good companions.  We want to help people and to console them.  We want interesting things to read, homely places in which to discuss them, and like-minded people to discuss them with.  We want beautiful, beloved churches and energetic movements and associations. And our friends outside the Church want these things too, whether they know it or not.

Belonging to the Church is both a great joy and a lot of hard work.  But it could be more joyful still. We know that we need help, and instruction, and often forgiveness.  We need the gold standard of justice and, being every one of us broken, the medicine of mercy.  And, above all, youth wants truth.  And the Church's strange and loving founder can give us all of this.  Long may the Church make a nuisance of itself by calling us all to greatness.

Some revisions made (to improve phrasing) in March 2019.

'Excelsam Pauli gloria' — Westminster Cathedral Choir.

Monday, October 01, 2018

150 years of St Pancras Station

St. Pancras station on the morning of its 150th birthday, 1st October, 2018.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the opening of St. Pancras station in London.  The Midland Railway began services from its new terminus on the 1st October 1868, having constructed an edifice fit to beckon travellers to the Kingdom of Heaven, never mind Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, or Sheffield (and eventually Manchester and Scotland).  No expense had been spared in the effort to blow King's Cross next door, and their rivals the Great Northern Railway, out of the water.  George Gilbert Scott was the architect of the Midland Hotel, which forms the station's façade onto the Euston Road, and William Barlow's cast-iron overall train-shed roof contained the 'widest and largest undivided space' enclosed by any structure in the world at the time of its completion.

St. Pancras station from Midland Road, September 2018.
It has occurred to me recently how unfortunate it was that the Gothic Revival coincided so squarely with the Industrial Revolution.  For no sooner than these great buildings were finished than they were exposed to the grime and acidic rain of the cities they had been meant to dignify.   The arches and spires that should have soared luminously and goldenly skywards, just as they would have done in the Middle Ages, were gradually blackened and darkened by Victorian dust and soot until, a century later, they had been transformed into the world-weary hulks so detested by modernist architects.  Yet, of course, the Gothic revival had been meant largely as a romantic answer to the Industrial Revolution.  So perhaps it is simply a tale of noble defeat in its battle against utilitarian commercial enterprise.

Or was it?  For there were those like John Betjeman, Jane Fawcett, Bernard Kaukas and others who, when public affection for Victorian architecture was at its lowest ebb, saw through the grime to the glory beneath.  Now, thank goodness, most of the building has been restored to its original splendour.

Exactly the same anniversary is celebrated today by the Peckham Rye – Sutton line in south London, which the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway opened also on October 1st, 1868.  East Dulwich, North Dulwich, Tulse Hill, Streatham, Mitcham Junction, Hackbridge and Carshalton stations also celebrate their 150th birthdays today.  This line, which is probably too ordinary to be called quirky but still not straightforward enough to be wholly dull, diverges just west of Peckham Rye from the South London line that originates at London Bridge, burrows in a cutting through Dulwich, is carried aloft across a valley of surprising green, climbs through a tunnel to Tulse Hill, descends to Streatham, crosses the Wandle plain, and works its way uphill again through Carshalton to join the older line from West Croydon at Sutton, all the time undulating and curving this way and that, threading its way through existing routes.  It is a railway that fills in missing links, is not always altogether clear where it is heading, and merrily duplicates other lines.  It is still generally used only in sections, rather than from end to end as a through route, except in weekday peak hours.

There must have been a sense in 1868 that the main task of building Britain's railways was accomplished, and that only the finishing touches were needed.  It is true that the Severn estuary and the Firth of Forth had not yet been conquered, but it must have seemed that there was not much left for the insatiable builders to achieve.  Barely forty years after the railway age had begun, the engineer's task was nearly a matter either of crowning the railways with glory (it must have been hard to imagine what could surpass St. Pancras station) or of filling in any last gaps in the suburbs and the countryside to eliminate any doubt about the system's comprehensiveness.

It will have been someone's onerous duty to polish off this enormous cake!