Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Attentive Beholding - a reflection inspired by people living with HIV/AIDS

Michelangelo, Rondinini Pietà (16th century)
On Saturday, I was invited to offer a short theological reflection at the end of a day at St. Martins in the Field in London, organised by Catholics for Aids Prevention and Support (CAPS), on the theme, ‘Love Tenderly, Act Justly: Stories of HIV and Christianity Today’. Throughout the day, people from many different churches and cultures spoke simply, generously and profoundly about their experiences of living with HIV/AIDS. There were stories of grief and desolation that were almost too hard to bear, and stories of hope and delight that lifted the soul.

One participant told of losing several close family members to AIDS, and of being HIV positive himself. Another told of her loneliness, the complexity of giving and receiving sexual love in a time of AIDS, her longing to be held and touched. We heard about suicidal darkness and bereavement, but also about the wonder of finding joy in life’s smallest blessings – a flower, the shape of a cloud – gathering ‘five small delights each day to make a handful of hope’. We heard about mothers weeping over their dead children, refusing to be consoled, and about the joy of becoming a mother in spite of the virus. We heard about lovers driven to the point of exhaustion by caring for their dying partners, and of the aching loss that followed those partners’ deaths. We heard about the shock of receiving the diagnosis, and the long dark struggle to accept and adapt.

But we also heard about stigmatisation and rejection, about fear and denial. We heard people who had experienced a deep sense of shame and self-loathing, a dread of making their condition known. We heard too many stories of churches that rejected sufferers on account of their ‘sins’, or refused to allow a space where it was possible to speak and be heard about what it means to live with HIV/AIDS.

A woman told of how she had left the Church when she received her diagnosis, only to return many years later when she found a welcoming community who accepted her fully as the person she was, a person who happened to have a virus. That was repeated several times – HIV is a virus. It should not be a condition that sets a person apart from all others because of some unmentionable shame or secret. She spoke of being a Eucharistic minister: ‘I, a body identified with the leper, the outcast, the untouchable, am offering the body and blood of Christ the victim.’

As I listened and reflected throughout the day, I found myself experiencing an inversion of thought. These were all people who spoke as if they were somehow on the margins of the Church, dependent on those in the centre to receive them and welcome them, to allow them to live as part of the body of Christ. I thought of what it means to place one’s faith in the Word made Flesh, and I realized that it is the people who are marginalised by the self-righteous, the worthy, the pious and the fully included, who are the Church. Theirs are the bodies we must embrace if we are to incarnate our prayers and sacraments in the Body of Christ. It is not for us to accept them. We must ask to be accepted by them. It is not for us to forgive them. We must ask to be forgiven by them. We have nothing to teach and everything to learn, from those who have been called to travel the desolate and lonely path that leads through fear, rejection and abandonment to Calvary – a path that any of us might tread one day, whether through illness, loss or ageing, or through the unthinkable catastrophes that can visit themselves upon a life. Those who have gone ahead of us offer wisdom, shine a light and create a space of warmth and courage within the terror of that cold, dark path of sorrow and sickness.

To say this is not to glorify suffering. It is not to indulge in that obscene suggestion that another person’s suffering is purposeful because it helps to make us compassionate or good or loving. Why should another human being experience dereliction in order to teach me how to love? In one of Simone Weil’s reflections she contemplates the utter desolation of the abjected and degraded person deprived of all dignity and beauty. Stripping away the sentimentality of cheap love, she asks us to consider what it means to say to that person, ‘Who art thou?’ This, she says, only happens in those who have cultivated the habit of attentiveness
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.
Maggie Ross is an Anglican hermit who spends much of her time living in the snowy wilderness of Alaska. Her book, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding, is an extended reflection on the biblical word ‘Behold’, which tends to be translated as ‘look’ or ‘see’ in a way that takes away its depth of meaning. Beholding is our ability to remain open to all that is revealed to us of God through creation, which requires a form of attentiveness and stillness far beyond what we normally understand by words such as ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’. It is the attentive gaze of the inner eye of the soul on the grace of God manifest in the mystery of creation. It calls us out of our solipsistic loneliness and narcissism, and draws us towards the abyss of encounter and silence that constitute our human knowing of God. Ross writes that ‘Silence is context and end, beholding the means. In the final analysis, this is all we need to know’. The silence that we experience as ‘the vast interior landscape that invites us to stillness’ allows us to enter into the presence of the Other through the sense of awareness that comes from beholding.

Beholding and attentiveness – these are the lost arts of insight and discernment in a culture where we flee from silence and solitude with endless technological gadgets and gimmicks. Crowding out the empty spaces, we no longer know how to behold, to say to the other in all her vulnerability and desire: ‘Who art thou?’, knowing that that question also puts us into positions of vulnerability and desire that we do not control.

To behold is to be holding, to be held and to be beholden. It is to open ourselves to embrace the world in all its fragility and sorrow, in all its hope and meaning. It is to overcome fear – that most crippling of emotions from which flows all anger, hatred, violence and envy. ‘Do not be afraid’ is the angelic exhortation that comes to us on wings of prayer and seeds within us the vulnerability of the newborn God. It is the exhortation that calls us to stand with the one who suffers on Calvary, being there in helpless solidarity before the darkened horizons of death. It is the call that quickens our steps and leads us through the early darkness of the city to the tomb of the risen Christ, where with Mary Magdalene we must discover what it means to let go, to relinquish our clinging in order to open ourselves to the billowing abyss of the body that is not there for He is Risen.  Yet still he comes among us in every body that cries out, ‘I thirst’ to an indifferent and terrified world.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
      Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 
      From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, 
      If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
      Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
      I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
      Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
      My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
      So I did sit and eat.

Monday, 20 October 2014

After the Synod - a journey into the unknown

The Synod on the Family - journeying into the unknown
And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say “enough”; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour. There were moments of profound consolation listening to the testimony of true pastors, who wisely carry in their hearts the joys and the tears of their faithful people. Moments of consolation and grace and comfort hearing the testimonies of the families who have participated in the Synod and have shared with us the beauty and the joy of their married life. A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations. And since it is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations ... (Pope Francis, Speech at the Conclusion of the Synod)
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis contrasts the politics of time with the politics of space. The politics of space is utopian, driven by a sense of urgency, seeking to achieve instantaneous fulfilment and therefore always short-term, frozen in time and vulnerable to abuses of power. The politics of time allows for transformation through growth, for change as a process, for acceptance of limitation and finitude, for the seeding of ideas and their gradual nourishment in people's hearts and minds, and in our institutions.

The Synod is a beautiful example of this wisdom at work, with its unfolding of a vision conceived in intense struggle, conflict, disagreement and commitment, that now has a year to germinate and begin to grow. The seeds of change have been sown. Now the whole community of God's prolific, diverse and unruly family must create the fertile soil in which these seeds might eventually bear fruit. That is the soil of prayer and reflection, of lectio divina - prayerful meditation on what the scriptures are saying to us. It is also the soil of open and honest dialogue, among people responsive to Pope Francis's call to travel audaciously to the wild frontiers of faith, and to resist the temptation to domesticate those frontiers and turn them into a laboratory for the analysis of abstract truths.

The Synod document has been published in Italian, with an English translation expected soon. Pope Francis's final speech to the Synod received a standing ovation. Many are expressing disappointment that, in the end, the tentative and pastorally sensitive paragraphs on divorce and remarriage, on those in 'irregular relationships', and on welcoming persons with a homosexual orientation that found space in the interim document were not included in the final version of the Relatio Synodi. However, in the remarkable spirit of openness that has characterised this whole Synod, the excluded paragraphs have still been published. It is worth nothing that, while they did not achieve the two thirds majority which would have allowed them to be included in the official document, they nevertheless received a significant majority of votes. (The paragraph on homosexuality failed to be included by only two votes). You can read them here with a tally of the votes. There is a delicious paradox at work in all this, because if one publishes the excluded paragraphs in a working document, in what meaningful sense can one possibly say they have been excluded? Everything is up for discussion. Nothing is set in stone. Nothing has, in fact, been excluded.

Until the election of Pope Francis, it would have been almost impossible to imagine an event like this happening in the Church in our time. The sclerosis of authoritarianism, the censoriousness of the CDF, the sense of scandal, corruption, cowardice and defensiveness infecting the hierarchy, these were all signs of a Church suffering from a profound sickness of the soul that would surely take generations to heal, if it were not - as some would argue - a church in terminal decline. When Francis was elected, many of us were as incredulous as we were elated, and that incredulity quickly gave rise to scepticism. He is a master rhetorician, a consummate story teller who intuitively understands the power of symbols and gestures to transform beautiful words into deeply moving and meaningful acts of solidarity, compassion and humour. But is there any more to him than that? Is it all style and no substance?

And now, Francis has opened the flood gates. All that was silenced, forbidden and hidden in the name of a burdensome and oppressive conformity can and must be said. The Church faces a year in which each and every one of us must take the opportunity we are being offered. This means entering into dialogue, tearing up the labels, disregarding hierarchical privileges and punishments, and becoming a community of disciples who are willing to go barefoot into the wilderness in order to struggle together to water the seeds of hope and nurture the tender shoots of new beginnings.

Of course there are disappointments. The LGBTQ community has been quick to express its regret about the final document's exclusion of the language of welcome and inclusion. For divorced and remarried Catholics, this will be an anxious year of waiting to see what decisions will be made at the Synod in 2015, regarding the possibility of a process of sacramental reconciliation with the Church. For those in so-called 'irregular relationships' - probably the vast majority of the world's Catholics, if we include not just cohabiting couples, the divorced and remarried and lesbian and gay Catholics, but also those in mixed marriages or in forced marriages, those in polygamous marriages, those many priests with secret lovers and families - the situation remains deeply unresolved. It will take a great deal of patience and courage to address such issues and ask what they mean for the Church's understanding of 'family'.

Challenging though these issues are, the monumental failure of this Synod has been the absence of women capable of representing the vast plurality and diversity of women's lives and struggles in the context of the family. Where are those who would speak for some 800 of the world's poorest women who die every day for want of obstetric care, including those dying from botched abortions? Where are those who would speak for the grandmothers of Africa, raising children orphaned by AIDS? Where are those who would speak for the mothers of the Philippines, leaving their children in the care of others so that they can go and care for the children of the wealthy in a strange land? Where are those who would speak for girls deprived of education and freedom by religious and political regimes which have yet to recognise them as fully human? Where are those who would have turned their attention on that absurd gathering of celibate men and demanded a greater voice for women at all levels of the Church's life?

Women have spoken only as wives and mothers, as one half of a couple carefully selected for its conformity to the Church's vision of 'the family'. This is not to deny that a number of them raised issues concerning those who might be in 'irregular relationships' or who might have gay children, but even so, these couples were speaking as and for the normative and narrow model of what it means to be a Catholic family. That makes it vital that many others speak out during this coming year - single people, including single parents; elderly people, including the bereaved or abandoned; the divorced and remarried; childless couples - I could go on and on. But what about those who have no voice, including the very old and the very young? What about those dying in solitude for want of love, in lonely and neglected homes or in prisons and ghettoes where solitude is an impossible luxury? What of those for whom 'family' is an unending daily grind of hunger, homelessness, violence and despair? What of those for whom 'family' is an impossible dream of wholeness woven against a shattered background of broken promises and hopes betrayed? Often, it is women and girls - as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, siblings - who are in the front line of these situations as both victims and carers. They are the experts, the voices of authority. These are the voices that must be heard during the coming year.

Another vital and related challenge is that of bridging the gulf between the West and the rest, and this will require recognising that the Church truly is a living body that flourishes through unity in diversity. But what is the cost of unity, and how much diversity can be accommodated? That is a challenge to all sides.

By the end of the Synod, it was clear that the African bishops in particular had staked their claim to a say in the Church's teachings, and it was in no small part due to their influence that issues of homosexuality were sidelined. Africa is now home to 130 million of the world's Catholics, and the African Church is a vibrant and flourishing source of material as well as spiritual support to some of the poorest and most marginalised people on earth. It is also home to a burgeoning middle class and to an educated intellectual elite. It is impossible to speak in general terms about 'Africa', for it is a continent that is geographically, culturally, linguistically and religiously more diverse and multi-facetted than Europe. It is true that the fault lines which run through the Church around issues of sexual ethics are by and large those which divide western liberals from Catholics of the global South, but we should not forget that that means that women and oppressed minorities, including gays and lesbians and those belonging to minority religious and ethnic communities, can suffer even more harshly at the hands of those who embody frozen ideas of 'culture' and 'tradition', usually rooted in powerful patriarchal hierarchies.

Let me suggest that, in facing these challenges, we might follow Francis and unify all our endeavours in this mighty time of risk and opportunity around the question of inclusion and exclusion, not on grounds of sexual orientation or marriage, but on grounds of economic justice. As a feminist, I am increasingly aware of the gulf that is growing between socially-minded feminists whose first priority is justice for women who are victims of poverty, violence and various forms of displacement and alienation, and those who are more preoccupied with glass ceilings and career opportunities. If a woman smashes the glass ceiling to get to the top of the economic or political ladder and sends a lacerating shower of injustice down upon women still trapped on the ground, it achieves nothing worth having. (What did Margaret Thatcher do for women)? I think there is an analogy with campaigns for LGBTQ rights.

The LGBTQ community - and really, I think we are talking about gay men, for the voices of women tend to be muffled here too - has the distinct advantage of attracting the attention of the western media as no other group or topic can. Just look at how that issue has been covered to the exclusion of every other issue discussed during the Synod. Can those who enjoy sexual rights - fragile and contested though they often are - use that powerful voice to speak on behalf of all those whose rights are denied, and not just on behalf of their own particular community of exclusion?

If we can find consensus on issues of social and economic justice, then we can ask in what ways women and gay people are particularly affected by injustices that stem from poverty, lack of education, sexual abuse and stigmatisation. But if we focus instead on carte blanche issues of women's rights or gay rights, we risk promoting an agenda heavily biased towards a liberal western elite which, let's face it, in fifty years of gradually accumulated individual rights, including sexual rights, has done nothing to turn the tide of social and economic injustice. On the contrary. The era of individual rights in the West has been accompanied by the rise of a political system that is utterly servile to corporate interests and bereft of any vision of justice or the common good. It has produced a generation of children starved of the most fundamental levels of love and security - not all of them born into material poverty - and a generation of old people abandoned in care homes in helpless dependence on indifferent strangers.  In other words, the era of individual rights has been a  triumph of the politics of space over the politics of time - of avaricious individualism which wants it all and wants it now, over the virtuous pursuit of the good life which knows that the other side of 'all for one' is 'one for all'.

Archbishop Jos Kaigama of Nigeria spoke eloquently at the Synod about Africa's coming of age. He said that Africa does not need international organizations imposing their western ideas and policies, including their liberal sexual ethics, on African cultures and traditions.  That does not necessarily mean he speaks for all Africans. For many Africans, including many, many African women, those cultures and traditions have been promoted and defended by powerful male elites in a way that has ridden roughshod over the needs and rights of the ordinary people. But the Archbishop was surely right when he insisted that what Africa needs is access to education and economic justice. If we ignore these needs by speaking as if sexual rights come before every other right, we should not be surprised if a rift opens up between the West and the rest.

In the coming year, can we find a common language that takes its cue from the lives of the powerless, the excluded and the poor? Let's examine every claim for inclusion, rights and justice in the light of those lives and ask what it means for them. Let's speak not for those experiencing poverty and exclusion (for that only increases the silencing and exclusion), but with them. Let's ensure that their voices are part of the conversation. Then I believe that we can go forward in a dialogue of mutual respect and trust as we grope towards a better understanding of what it means to discover unity in diversity, truth in vulnerability, love in the midst of this kaleidoscopic way of becoming and remaining human that we call 'the family'. It is in these messy, conflicted and committed relationships of our origins and endings, our tending and mending, that the love of God is ever incarnate among us in vulnerability, trust and hope.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Family - "What will survive of us is love" (Philip Larkin)

Two days of encounters, conversations and reflections have left me perplexed, inspired, challenged, and with a keen sense of ‘being there’.

When Vatican II was happening, I was a Presbyterian schoolgirl living in Lusaka, Zambia, attending the Dominican Convent School. I think I registered that something significant was happening when the nuns shed their wimples, one of them auditioned for The Sound of the Music at Lusaka Playhouse, two of them came to my Presbyterian confirmation service, and one left to get married. Dear Sister Ceslaus, the mighty maths teacher who was later murdered in an attack on a mission in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) during UDI, told her Protestant charges: ‘Now girls, don’t go home and tell your parents I told you this, but just remember the words of Martin Luther on his deathbed: “It is easier to live as a Protestant, but it is easier to die as a Catholic.”’ I don’t think Luther actually said that, but obviously her strategy worked.
Since coming to live in Britain in the late 1980s as a new convert to Catholicism, I have become a little bored by the nostalgia for the Council which constitutes a pervasive melancholic aura among liberal Catholics of a certain age. Today, there’s a new generation of Catholics who were born into the postconciliar Church, and many of them simply don’t care about the politics of the Vatican. They practise birth control, cohabit, ‘come out’, do whatever they need to do to survive as Catholics who are both faithful and intelligent. At the other end of the spectrum is a narrow group of ideologues (some of them also young), who believe themselves to be the custodians and progenitors of the One True Church over and against liberals, relativists, feminists, homosexuals, and all the rest of the wicked forces of modernity that are destroying God’s Church. Ho hum.

This week, however, I am so glad to be in Rome, because I suspect that, for the first time since 1968, the spirit of Vatican II is dancing in the streets of this city. The politics, the gossip and the intrigue are compelling. 

The English translation of Monday's interim document has been reworded. The section on gays and lesbians has been retitled from ‘Welcoming homosexual persons’ to ‘Providing for homosexual persons’, and a few other changes have been made to the wording. Cardinal Raymond Burke has apparently confirmed stories that he is on his way out. Similar unconfirmed rumours are circulating about Cardinal Gerhard Müller, President of the CDF. Cardinal Marx has said that doctrine can develop and change. Cardinal Walter Kasper was accused of being a racist on the basis of a report by journalist Edward Pentin, whose impromptu interview with Cardinal Kasper outside the Synod Hall resulted in some comments on Africa by the Cardinal which were construed as racist in some reports, with an ensuing controversy as to who said what and how it was reported. [Please note I have changed the wording of this last sentence, since in two commenst posted below Benedict Ambrose pointed out I had his name wrong, and challenged my interpretation of Pentin's piece. See the first comment for a link to Pentin's clarification]. 

The point Kaspar was making is in my view one of the two central issues of this Synod: how to reconcile the vast cultural differences within the Church, in a Synod that brings together bishops from across the world’s cultures and contexts. It is a reminder that the unity of the Catholic Church is a liturgical and sacramental unity, not a moral and cultural unity. Bishops and cardinals from some African and Muslim countries have apparently been shocked by the open discussion of ‘taboo’ issues such as homosexuality, and there are diverse responses to the question of the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, as I mentioned on a previous blog. Polygamy, forced marriages and similar issues have been on the agenda, but they have not attracted the same media attention as homosexuality.

I fact, I suspect that the media are to blame for giving the impression that this has been a Synod primarily concerned with homosexuality, in a way which suggests (wrongly I think) that fundamental threats to the well-being of families and individuals are being squeezed off the agenda. I heard from somebody that the highly popular Cardinal Taglia of the Philippines said it breaks his heart every time he goes to the airport in Manila, because so many people are leaving the country in search of work. Why is nobody covering the Synod writing about these things? What does it do to a family when a mother emigrates to act as cheap labour caring for other people’s children in London, New York or Rome? Indeed, I am suddenly struck by the extent to which, wherever you go in the world, dark-skinned people wait in attendance on light-skinned people. I find myself looking around with new eyes since hearing Taglia’s comment, and wondering about all these displaced human beings eking out a living on the margins of our modern world – the African men selling handbags on every Roman street, the shabby tour guides and street performers at every attraction, the desperate eyes of those who thrust cheap plastic trinkets and baubles in the faces of tourists, begging them to buy something. And these are the lucky ones. What about the bundles of rags in doorways and piles of clothing huddled on benches, which turn out to be human beings with nowhere else to go?

In a café I sat near a bishop from the Congo. I wondered what stories he might tell about ‘families’, from that context of rape and war and poverty and despair. I remember a few years ago meeting a devout Catholic woman from the Congo, who had spent three years living in the forest with her five children, foraging for food, to escape the raping armies of whatever men were fighting for power at the time. What about her family? What about those from West Africa, where families are being shredded by the Ebola epidemic? And what of the bishops and cardinals from Muslim countries, where Christian and Muslim mothers alike are raped and children are murdered? I hear that some of those church leaders from such societies say that they forbid marriage between Christians and Muslims. Catholics who marry Muslims excommunicate themselves, they say. That is heresy, and surely the seeds of violence are fed the poison they need to flourish in the face of such bigotry. Others have pointed out that in a world of so many mixed marriages, so much cohabitation, so many forms of marriage and family life, the number of marriages that would be truly sacramentally valid in the eyes of the Church might be infinitesimally small.

 Yet one would think, reading about this Synod, that the greatest challenge, opportunity or threat to the modern family (depending on how you see these things) is homosexuality. Having initially been irritated by what I thought was a distorted emphasis in this respect, I have in the last couple of days come to realize that this is indeed a core doctrinal issue, because more than poverty and violence, more than divorce and remarriage, it is a question that goes to the very heart of the Church's sexual anthropology. Is sexuality an intrinsically personal dimension of our need for and capacity to express love in a bodily way that engages our whole being in a relationship of intimacy, trust and vulnerability? Or is sexuality more about genital difference and procreation? Put it like that, and the answer should be obvious. However, Pope John Paul II's 'theology of the body', promoted around the world primarily by way of well-funded American campaigns, holds that sexual difference goes to the very core of our being, and to fail to recognise that is to distort our understanding of what it means to be human. Having spent years researching and writing about 'theology of the body', I think it functions more as a vehicle of resistance to feminism and homosexuality than as a genuinely viable account of human sexuality - notwithstanding the fact that couples who can afford large families, who are psychologically, sexually and spiritually on the same wave length, and/or who are obedient and dutiful servants of the Church, promote it as if encountering the sexual other were second only to the beatific vision. Fine when you're falling in love at the age of twenty, but a bit hard to sustain through forty years and more of married life.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum, there is also something ethically and existentially repellent about those advocates of gendered performativity who would reduce sexual difference to cultural conditioning and nothing more. Our bodies matter, and sex is a very large part of that mattering. We do not yet begin to comprehend that complex interface between culture and nature, where our sexed humanity is both given and constructed, fundamental to who we are in some ways, incidental to who we are in many other ways. However, one thing we can be sure of. Sexual difference functions as a powerful mechanism of exclusion when it comes to women, and nowhere more so than in this most clerical of cities.

This is the second big issue. No - this is THE BIG ISSUE. Where are the women in this Synod? It is beyond belief that, in a Synod on the family, the voices of women have been almost entirely excluded, except insofar as they speak as half of a couple. As one woman journalist observed to me, ‘Women are speaking only as couples. But couples don’t speak. Only men and women can speak.' Where are the mothers and daughters, the sisters and aunts, the members of religious orders who mother the poor and care for those who have nobody else to care for them? Where are those who would cry to the heavens about the fact that 800 of the world's poorest women die every day through causes relating to childbirth, yet they never merit a mention in this church of the poor?  In his latest 'Letter from Rome', Robert Mickens points out that 'In a meeting room filled with more than two hundred people, mostly clerics (bishops, priests and seminarian-aides), only twenty-five are women. It’s not exactly an edifying image of inclusiveness.' As the absence of women begins to gnaw away at me, I find myself in a state of jaw-dropping incredulity. How is it possible for a Synod of more than two hundred people to spend nearly two weeks discussing the family, without a single representative of women being allowed to speak as a woman, on behalf of herself and not on behalf of 'the couple' or 'the family'?

Today, we eagerly await publication of the final document from this Synod, though rumours are that it might not be released until Monday or Tuesday. That is when the important business will really begin, and it is in the interests of every woman, child and man in the Church that we women insist upon having a voice and being heard in the process of deliberation that will occupy the life of the Church between now and the next Synod in October 2015, when the discussions and dialogues opened up this week are finalised and translated into doctrine and practice. That is not long, particularly when one is dealing with two thousand years of history. But do not believe anybody who tells you that those two thousand years have been an unchanging history of ‘the family’ - the semper idemists, as one person called them this week. There is no such thing as The Family. There are only human beings, vulnerable and muddled, woven together of starlight and dust, of memories and dreams, of flesh and fantasy, all of us hungry for only one thing that can truly sustain us and feed us and express what it means to be human – love.

Somebody  only half-jokingly said to me that the Church in Rome is ‘the vortex of dysfunctionality’. I found myself smiling about that phrase through the rest of the day, and I began to think that surely, that could be a good way of describing ‘the family’? This is where each and every one of us learns to love and be loved – for better for worse, for richer or poorer. This is where all our dysfunctionalities are forced out into the open and we go through the painful, unending process of learning who we are and hopefully how to become better at that task of being. To stay committed to love, come what may, in such a context, is perhaps the most challenging task any of us faces, and the fragility of our successes always stands under threat by the woundings of our failures. That's what families are about, but what matters is not ‘the family’ but the love that makes and breaks each person within that communal group that is sometimes about love and cherishing, but that is sometimes also about hatred and violence.

Cardinal Dolan gave us the benefit of his own private fantasy world when he wrote a piece on ‘The Noble Nature of Marriage and Family’, floating away on the ethereal mists of his own eloquence:
Ours is the task of recovering the truth, beauty, and goodness of marriage and family. In a world that wonders if anyone can really say “forever;” if fidelity is possible; if children are a gift and never a burden; we say, yes! We echo what God the Father, His Son, and His Spirit alive in the Church have revealed: that the bond between a man and woman in marriage, faithful and forever, leads to a healthy, sound civilization, with happiness here and in eternity.
We dare to be poets and romantics, reclaiming the foundation of the “civilization of love” and “culture of life” that can transform the world, resisting the temptation to conform to a world that wonders if any love—God’s love, or the love of a man and woman in marriage—can ever be forever. In a world that often answers “no,” we thunder a yes!

That’s my sentiment as I prepare to return home to you, my people, with a renewed admiration for our wonderful married couples and families! I love you!  I thank you! I need you!
Walking home late on Thursday night from St. Peter’s to Trastevere along the river, I noticed flowers and a child’s mementoes attached to the railings of Ponte Mazzini. I stopped to read the notices which explained what had happened. I read the short, unbearable story of Claudio Franceschelli, ‘the angel of Ponte Mazzini’.

Sixteen months old, Claudio, the son of Claudia and Patrizio, was staying with his grandmother in Trastevere. It was early morning – a freezing, snowy February morning.  Claudio was snuggled in bed asleep between his nona, Rita, and his pregnant aunt, Manuela, when his demented father arrived at the apartment. The father took the child out into the icy streets and carried him to the bridge, fighting off everybody who tried to stop him, breaking the desperate grandmother's finger in the process. He threw the dazed child into the river. The English translation of the note on the railings explains that ‘We want to believe that Claudio never touched the chilled water of Trevere, but flied directly in the sky, becoming Ponte Mazzini’s Angel’.
Maybe cardinals who want to write poetically about the family should go and do so on Ponte Mazzini, and pray for inspiration from The Angel of Ponte Mazzini.

Children have a right to be loved. Humans have a right to be loved. From that right flows every other right, and if that right is denied, no other right will ever make us truly human.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Synod on the Family - Reflections from Rome - Wednesday, 15th October (evening)

There are two cities that embody for me the paradoxes and conflicts of the Christian faith – Jerusalem and Rome. In both cities, archaeology transforms time into space, and history into the here and now. In Jerusalem, one encounters the religious history of the Christian faith – a bloody and unresolved history of inter-religious conflict in which abstract ideas batter vulnerable human lives into submission. The idea of a God or a holy place or a sacred text or a chosen people becomes the enemy of the people, the enemy of the ordinary people that we are – Muslims, Christians and Jews – most of us struggling to eke out a meaningful existence in the face of the violent dogmas that our religious leaders proclaim in our name and men of violence go into battle to defend.

Rome is the same. If Jerusalem is the sacred site of the bloody conflicts generated by the Abrahamic religions (what about Sarah and Hagar?), Rome is the sacred site of the bloody conflicts generated by Europe’s cults and creeds – Greek, Roman and Christian. Plus ca change, toujours la meme chose. But those are musings for another time.

This morning, I wrote about my new grandson, and the love that he needs in order to survive. The birth of a grandchild is the birth of a new chapter in the story of a family. Siblings become aunts and uncles, the son becomes the father, the daughter-in-law becomes the awesome bearer of new life. I hold this child in my arms and I know that my love will never be able to uproot itself from him. Whatever happens, until I die this child’s story is inextricably part of mine, and my joy and my hopes and my sorrows and my failings will all in different ways be bound up in his becoming, his story, his life.

But now it is evening after my first day of observing what happens in Rome during a Synod. See the pictures for a flavour of what caught my attention – cardinals at ease, a barefoot bride, couples clasping hands, and an old woman begging in front of St. Peter’s with a family pushing their disabled child’s wheelchair in the background.

This morning I suggested that the child must be our primordial concern when we talk about ‘the family’, but tonight I want to suggest that the elderly also occupy that space of irreducible responsibility. What is the story that old beggar woman might tell? Where is her family? What led her to beg in front of St. Peter’s? How many children did she bear? Where are they? Do they care? In this Synod in which women are permitted to speak only as half of a ‘couple’ (more about that later in the week), is there anybody who has eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to care with regard to these old people begging in the streets of Rome? More than anybody else, it is the very young and the very old who are the victims of the kind of individualism and narcissism that the document on the Synod describes so insightfully. That is why abortion and euthanasia are the issues of our time, but the law is too blunt an instrument to heal the human heart of its deadly alienation. Only a new understanding of love can help us.

My favourite name for the Holy Spirit is ‘Serendipity’. It is surely Serendipity that the readings during the Synod have been the great reflections on the nature of love and law in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

If my newborn grandson evokes in me a love of future possibilities, my ageing mother evokes a very different kind of love. As my grandson grows, we will no doubt accumulate the heavy baggage of love.  Along with joy comes the burden of failure and guilt, along with the elation of togetherness and understanding comes the grief of conflict and separation. As the elderly near the end of their lives, we must deal with that accumulated baggage – and it can be a complex and heavy burden. But there is a surprising grace that comes when we need it most and expect it least, when the dry spaces of resentment and disillusionment become oases we can drink from. When I look at the vulnerability of my mother, I feel a surprising resonance with the love I feel for my baby grandson. It is the love that responds to the gaze of a vulnerable human being whose first and last request is to be loved, to be given the human dignity that love confers, to be sustained and nourished in love, which transforms the necessary sustenance and nourishment of the body into care of the soul.

Some cardinals are grumbling vociferously about the document produced on Monday. They think we need to be reminded about the rules. They think we need to be firmly governed in order to live well, in order to be the right kind of family. Dear Cardinals Burke, Pell and all the rest. May I suggest that you put aside your rulebooks and anxieties and take a stroll through the streets of Rome? Talk to that old woman begging amidst Bernini’s columns. Ask her about her life. Stop and talk to the mother pushing her crying baby through the streets. Ask her what it’s like. Only then will you begin to acquire the authority to speak. Only then will we care what you have to say. Only then will you have anything to say that’s worth listening to.

To be continued.

Synod on the Family - Reflections from Rome - Wednesday, 15th October (Morning)

I'm in Rome this week catching up on news and views on the Synod on the Family (October 5th to 19th), so will try to post a few blogs for those who are interested.

I have skim read the interim document, 'relatio post disceptationem', and will comment on it in more detail when I've had a chance to study it. It was published half way through the Synod on Monday to cries of jubilation and howls of indignation from around the Catholic world. Vociferous reactions ranged from cardinals and bishops to the whole diverse range of lay organisations concerned with making the Church in their image - that all too human desire which gives us the courage and also the folly of our convictions. For conservative family groups the document is a moral disaster. For many gay Catholics, it doesn't go nearly far enough. For what I suspect is a silent majority of bishops and cardinals attending the Synod, it is an opening up of the windows - first opened by Pope John XXIII to let a fresh wind blow through the church at Vatican II, and firmly closed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict against an advancing hurricane. But for a vocal and influential of what I suspect is a small minority of cardinals, all the rhetorical garrisons are being mustered to fight off this anarchic decline into relativism and cultural conformity in defiance of two thousand years of Church teaching. So what now?

The document is provisional, open to modification, and intended to serve as a platform for discussion between now and the decisive Synod on the Family in October 2015. If any substantial changes are made to church teaching and practice, they will be made then. However, the most telling document for now is not this week's interim document, but the one that will be released next Monday at the close of the Synod. The wrangling and negotiations that will play out this week will determine the content of next week's document. Comparing the two will provide something of a barometer as to where the majority stands on these issues, though we should never underestimate the power of that vocal minority, led by figures such as the swashbuckling Cardinal Raymond Burke - surely one of the most sartorially extravagant figures in his tendency to drape himself in swathes of red, which perhaps had something to do with the fact that Pope Francis has quietly demoted him. But this Synod on the Family, vast in its implications and its potential, is not finally about those attending the Synod in Rome and all the hangers-on like me.

This morning, I received an email telling me about how ISIS are beheading children in Northern Iraq because they refuse to renounce their Christian faith, but they are not killing the parents. The mind recoils from such stories and incredulity quickly sets in, yet we know how that tendency to incredulity can lead to so much denial and avoidance of unbearable truths. In West Africa, the horrors of Ebola are leaving children orphaned and starving, with some young girls turning to prostitution to feed themselves and their families.

Before coming to Rome I was having a conversation with someone who works with children in foster care. The stories she told me made me weep. A three year old who took her foster mother's shoes to bed every night, in the belief that if she hid her shoes she couldn't leave the house. Children who wet themselves as it gets to the end of the school day, in terror lest they are abandoned once again. Others who have been abused and abandoned to such an extent that they must destroy every demonstration of love in order to prove to themselves that they truly are loveless, and thus a vicious spiral of negative behaviour sets in which reinforces that belief. There are many forms of torture, and the adult world betrays children in so many, many ways.

Referring to children who live with couples of the same sex, the Synod document emphasizes that 'the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority'. It is wrong to confine that only to the context of same-sex couples. That must surely be the first priority for the whole human family, and when parents are for some reason unable to give love and support to the children they bear, then that responsibility devolves to each and every one of us.

My first grandchild was born in September. As I hold him in my arms, I am overwhelmed by his vulnerability and dependence. As I gaze into the unfathomable depths of those dark eyes, I see the most primordial human need - the need to be loved. If we give everything else but give not love, we give nothing.

That is where any Synod on the Family should start from. And strangely, I think that muddled and conflicted document is about the Church learning to make its peace with human love. Love is messy, muddled and conflicted. But more to follow.