Graham Greene’s last “priest errant”

Imonsignorquixote‘ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s 1982 novel, Monsignor Quixote.

On one level, it’s The Power and the Glory played for laughs – the parallel being evidenced most clearly by this exchange:

“Have another glass of wine, father.”

“In your company I fear if I’m not careful I shall become what I’ve heard called a whisky priest”. (p.82)

Indeed, I laughed out loud on several occasions, which isn’t typical for a Greene novel. But I burst into tears at the end.

Set in post-Franco Spain, it’s the story of a parish priest, Father Quixote, descendant of the great Don Quixote. Father Quixote – having been promoted unexpectedly (and unwillingly) to the rank of monsignor – departs his parish and embarks on a chaotic road trip in his battered old Seat, Rocinante, with the deposed Communist mayor, “Sancho”, for company.

Quixote and Sancho spend most of their trip drinking wine and debating Catholicism and Communism, and it’s hard not to read their dialogue as Greene working through his own issues with faith and the Church. See also, of course: every other Graham Greene novel ever. But the veil between author and creation seems thinner here – perhaps because Greene was in his mid-70s as he wrote. For example:

“I know I’m a poor priest errant, travelling God knows where. I know that there are absurdities in some of my books as there were in the books of chivalry my ancestor collected. That didn’t mean that all chivalry was absurd. Whatever absurdities you can dig out of my books I still have faith…”

“In what?”

“In a historic fact. That Christ died and rose again.”

“The greatest absurdity of all.”

“It’s an absurd world or we wouldn’t be here together.” (pp.77f.)

But in the end, what gives this book its heart (and prevents it from being nothing more than an entertaining but light curiosity of Greene’s later years) is that it is a book about love. This is made abundantly clear in the closing pages (hence my tears), though I’m not going to spoiler it by quoting them. But a hint is given earlier in the novel, as Father Quixote addresses Sancho about the work of the pernickety moral theologian Fr Heribert Jone, whose book of casuistry Quixote had brought with him:

You may laugh at Father Jone and I have laughed with you, God forgive me. But, Sancho, Moral Theology is not the Church. And Father Jone is not among my old books of chivalry. His book is only like a book of military regulations. St Francis de Sales wrote a book of eight hundred pages called The Love of God. The word love doesn’t come into Father Jone’s rules and I think, perhaps I am wrong, that you won’t find the phrase “mortal sin” in St Francis’s book. (p.83)

“Moral Theology is not the Church.” And there, ladies and gentlemen, we have the entire works of Graham Greene summarised for us in a sentence.

Some quick thoughts on Evangelii Gaudium

Pope FrancisI’m currently working my way through Pope Francis’s “apostolic exhortation”, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). So far, there’s a lot in there to like. For example:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. (para 2)

Or this prayer that Francis encourages each of us to pray “now”:

Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace. (ibid.)

But one bit that particularly struck me was the following, seemingly throwaway, remark at the start of the section on “pastoral activity and conversion”:

I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten. Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences.

I think those two sentences hold a key to understanding Pope Francis. The first thing that is apparent is his winsome, and genuine, humility:

I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten.

You can see the twinkle in his eye as he says this, the “aw, shucks, this old thing?” gesture as he bats away people’s compliments. But under this affable image there is a steelier awareness of the authority of his role and of what he is called to achieve in it, as he tells his church that what he is “trying to express here”:

has a programmatic significance and important consequences.

In short, he is not a man to be underestimated.

Just passing through

Roman Missal, New TranslationI’ve written before about the painful contrast between Archbishop Cranmer’s translation of the collect for the fourth Sunday after Trinity, and the translation used by the Catholic Church between 1973 and 2011.

In his essay “An Apology for Grief, Fear and Anger”, from his book Faith of our Fathers, Eamon Duffy discusses the same collect, and draws a similar conclusion. Prof Duffy begins by quoting the Latin version of the prayer:

Protector in te sperantium, Deus, sine quo nihil est validum, nihil sanctum: multiplica super nos misericordiam tuam, ut, te rectore, te duce, sic transeamus per bona temporalia, ut non amittamus æterna. Per Dominum Nostrum I.C.

Duffy then quotes Cranmer’s version, which “translates this almost perfectly”:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

The one point on which Duffy criticises Cranmer is his “not sufficiently bringing out the meaning of the phrase bona temporalia“. The tension in the original prayer arises from the need to pass through the good things of this world; to affirm the goodness of this world, but still to “keep moving”. As Duffy observes:

To us who live in a grossly materialist culture, which rates people’s value by their earning and spending power, and assesses human happiness by the possession of good things, it is difficult to imagine a more salutary and necessary emphasis.

Prof Duffy then turns to what was, at the time he wrote his essay, the current version in use in the Catholic Church:

God our Father and protector, without you nothing is holy, nothing has value. Guide us to everlasting life by helping us to use wisely the blessings you have given to the world.

Why is this so awful? Because, as Prof Duffy notes, it robs the prayer of its tension; it removes “the notion of danger, and the sense of journeying“:

All that is left is a rather banal prayer for the sensible use of a good creation. No message here for post-Thatcher Britain.

However, since Prof Duffy wrote his essay, the Catholic Church has adopted the New Translation of the Mass. This, by all accounts, strongly divided opinion when it was introduced, and the new version of this collect perhaps provides a good example of both why the new Mass is loved by some and loathed by others:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.

Overall, this is much better than the ICEL translation, and restores something of the Latin prayer’s tension. Equally, though, I can see why the new translation is not to everyone’s taste. As a piece of English prose, this new collect falls a long way short of Cranmer, lacking his sense of rhythm and his economy of language.

Personally, though, I think the improvements outweigh any remaining deficiencies. Using this collect as an example helps me understand why, on my own relatively limited exposure to both the old and new translations, I’ve found myself preferring the new – that and the fact that, every time I hear the response “And also with you” in modern Lutheran or Anglican liturgies, I now find myself hankering for “And with your spirit”…

Note: for more on the Prayer Book version of this collect, see this 2004 post discussing C.S. Lewis’ essay, “A Slip of the Tongue”

Christianity done well vs Christianity done badly

Holy Trinity BromptonAn excellent piece by Damian Thompson in this week’s Spectator on Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the Alpha course, epicentre of charismatic Anglicanism (in both senses of the word “charismatic”) and one-time church home of the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Thompson observes that HTB has lost some of the threatening, “cultish” quality that led Welby’s predecessor Robert Runcie to fear that it (and similar parishes) were a American-style evangelical cuckoo in the Anglican nest. The current vicar (and former curate) Nicky Gumbel now expresses warm regard for Catholicism, and it seems the feeling is mutual: “Gumbel has friends and supporters in the upper reaches of the Vatican,” notes Thompson. And HTB’s church planting activities – once portrayed as a form of happy-clappy entryism – now reflect a respect for different churchmanships:

One of its most recent plants, St Augustine’s in Queensgate, has kept its Sung Eucharist, vestments and incense. The internal divisions of churchmanship are collapsing here. No one should be surprised that Bishop Welby remains very close to HTB while also drawing on Benedictine spirituality.

HTB does reflect a division in contemporary Christianity, but no longer a division between “Protestant” and “Catholic” (or even evangelical and Anglo-Catholic):

If we set aside, for a moment, important theological differences, we can see a chasm that runs through rather than between denominations. It divides Christianity done well and Christianity done badly.

This leads Thompson to argue that the professionalism of HTB’s Christian rock anthems has more in common with “the Palestrina and Victoria sung at the London Oratory” (virtually next door to HTB) than with “the disgusting racket of ‘folk Masses’ inflicted on Catholics throughout Britain”. Well, maybe…

But this is a theme that Thompson has written on before. When Benedict XVI became pope, Thompson wrote a very interesting piece (whose predictions look to have held up pretty well, especially as regards renewing the Mass), in which he argues that:

One of the discoveries in the sociology of religion in the last 25 years has been the extent to which, mutatis mutandis, patterns of religious allegiance in a pluralist society resemble those of consumption in the marketplace. People are attracted to strong brands that protect their identity; they enjoy products that suspend the boring reality of everyday life; and they demand near-infallible standards of professionalism.

In other words, what attracts people in to Christian worship is seeing it done well – whether that’s evangelicalism done well, or Catholicism done well, or whatever. I suspect there’s a lot in that, though it can be taken to extremes (in which worship becomes more of a performance than an encounter with God among his people). Certainly, shoddy and amateurish worship can be a major stumbling block for believers and non-believers alike.

As Thompson concludes in his latest piece:

A spirit of amateurism has been sucking the life out of English Christianity for decades now; we’ll know very soon if Justin Welby can use the lessons of HTB to breathe some of it back in.

From Catholic confession to Protestant institution

Like my master the king, I am a faithful son of the holy Catholic church. Only just now we are not in communion with the Pope.

– Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, p.101.

I’m currently reading Eric W. Gritsch’s book A History of Lutheranism, and in one chapter he describes how Lutheran “confessional identity” developed between the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (which established an uneasy modus vivendi between Lutheran and Roman Catholic states within the Holy Roman Empire) and 1580 (when the Lutheran confessions of faith took their final form in the Book of Concord).

Gritsch emphasises that, throughout this period, the Lutherans were seeking to retain their self-identification as reformers within Catholicism, rather than a new church or denomination. Hence the Lutheran emphasis on retaining, so far as possible, the inherited traditions of the church, such as the liturgy of the Mass, private confession and (in Sweden at least) the historic episcopate – albeit with the removal of “abuses” in each case. “Lutherans agreed with the ancient wisdom that abuse should not eliminate proper use,” Gritsch writes, summarising the position as follows:

Lutherans wanted to be reformed Catholics who lived in harmony with Scripture and tradition as faithful witnesses of Christ in the world. Although the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 prescribed a territorial settlement of religious issues (“whoever rules the region determines its religion”), Lutherans tried to make the best of it by remaining committed to Christian unity, even though it seemed to become an increasingly elusive goal. For the Book of Concord understood Lutheranism as a reform movement within the church catholic, indeed within sixteenth-century Catholicism. At stake was the retrieval of the ancient Christian convictions for all of Christendom, and Lutheranism became the inevitable historical constellation for such a retrieval, even though it became an organized church when medieval Christendom refused reform.

The Lutheran confessions – especially the Augsburg confession – are expressed as a voice within the Catholic Church. To put it another way, Lutheranism as a confession is, at heart, a Catholic movement. However, given Rome’s rejection of the Lutheran confessors’ agenda for reform, and the polarising effects of the century of division and war following the Reformation, it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up where we are now: where to be in the church that holds to the Lutheran confessions is to be in a Protestant denomination.

Which explains the tension that I can often find myself in (and my periodic susceptibility to bouts of “Roman fever”): because to be a Lutheran now, particularly in a country where Lutheranism’s presence within the wider “church catholic” is so miniscule, is to be in a situation which our own confessors would not have chosen, and which is fundamentally unnatural within the terms of our own confessions.

The three unknowables

I can’t recall the source, but I’ve always enjoyed the joke I read some years ago suggesting that there are three things that God doesn’t know. From memory, these were:

  1. What a Jesuit is going to say next.
  2. How many female religious orders there are in the Roman Catholic Church.
  3. Where the Benedictines get their money.

Well, we now have at least part of the answer to the third question: from selling beer. Bottom’s up!

Too catholic to be Catholic?

Peter Leithart has written an interesting post on a question that he is asked (with varying degrees of friendliness or hostility, depending on source): why not just swim the Tiber already?

Leithart talks of the pain which the church’s divisions cause him, which I think many of us can share:

The division of the church, especially since the Reformation, has largely been a story of horror and tragedy, with the occasional act of faithful separation thrown in.  I regard the division of the church as one of the great evils of the modern world, which has seen more than its share of evils (many of which are, I believe, quite closely related to the division of the church).  What more horrific sight can we imagine than to see Christ again crucified?  Christ is not divided.  I think our main response to this half-millennium of Western division, and millennium-plus of East-West division, should be deep mourning and repentance.

However, he continues, “it’s because I am so passionate to see the church reunited that I, not grudgingly but cheerfully, stay where I am”. He then presents two broad arguments as to why he considers himself to be “too catholic to become Catholic or Orthodox”.

The first is a fairly familiar list of objections to Catholic teachings (though I’ve been a Lutheran for long enough to do a double-take at his suggestion that iconoclasm is part of “true catholicism”):

Certain Catholic teachings and practices obscure the free grace of God in Jesus Christ; prayers through Mary and the saints are not encouraged or permitted by Scripture, and they distract from the one Mediator, Jesus; I do not accept the Papal claims of Vatican I; I believe iconodules violate the second commandment by engaging in liturgical idolatry; venerating the Host is also liturgical idolatry; in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, tradition muzzles the word of God.

These are not, however, the “primary driving reasons” for Leithart to remain Protestant (probably just as well, I suspect a Catholic reader of that list would observe). Far more important to him is the question of what becoming a Catholic would say about his former Christian life, and the life and faith of those he left behind:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? […] Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist.  To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus.  […] Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that?  I’m too catholic to do that.

I do wonder how “catholic” Leithart really is here, though. After all, his list of objections to Catholic and Orthodox teachings imply that Catholics and Orthodox believers are obscuring the free grace of God, muzzling the word of God, and engaging in systematic idolatry in almost every element of their worship. It’s hard to see how that is any better than the Catholic Church calling Peter Leithart a “separated brother” or claiming that he is not validly ordained.

Setting that aside, it seems to me there are two slightly separate issues here: the question of whether one could be a Catholic, and the question of whether one could become a Catholic. What Leithart sees as the errors of Catholicism would prevent him from being a Catholic, and what he sees as the sectarianism of Catholicism would prevent him from becoming a Catholic. Or to put it another way: however truly “catholicity” might be found in the Roman Catholic Church (as it clearly is, for Leithart, even if in his view mixed with errors), the costs of becoming a Catholic would only be worth paying if to do so were absolutely necessary. And for Leithart, it is not necessary.

O mystic rose

This magnificent window is the thirteenth-century north rose window at Notre-Dame de Paris. St Thomas Aquinas would have seen this window when it was brand new – a pretty mind-boggling thought.

That observation is made by Fr Robert Barron in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of Faith (see previous post). Fr Barron continues by describing the window as a demonstration of St Thomas’s description of beauty as “occurring at the intersection of three elements: wholeness, harmony and radiance”.

But as Fr Barron goes on to point out, this window’s beauty is more than skin-deep. It is rich in symbolism intended to give “a foretaste of the beauty of the beatific vision”.

First, there is its numerical symbolism:

Around the central figures of Christ and his mother are eight small circles. Then on the next major row we find sixteen circular images (medaillons in French), and on the next twice sixteen, or thirty-two, images, and then finally another row of thirty-two. If we add thirty-two, thirty-two, sixteen, and eight, we arrive at eighty-eight. In a word, the entire window is an artistic meditation on the number eight.

Eight is “a symbol of eternity, since it stands immediately outside of seven, which evokes the seven days of the week, or the completed cycle of time”.

A second important area of symbolism is the window’s complexity. When Fr Barron first visited Paris as a young man, he returned to Notre-Dame every day to look at this window, “partly because there was so much to take in”. He continues:

The vision of God is like that. Saint Bernard said that heaven will slake our thirst, but the very slaking will, paradoxically, make us thirsty for more. We will know all that we want to know, but that very satisfaction will convince us how much we don’t know. Thomas Aquinas said that what the saints in heaven grasp for the first time is just how incomprehensible God is and therefore just what an adventure the life of heaven will be.

The north rose window at Notre-Dame reflects only one tiny facet of the incomprehensible, inexhaustible God who has revealed himself to us in Christ and whom we encounter in his church. But what a facet!

Pope John Paul II on preparing ourselves for suffering

I’ve been reading Pope John Paul II’s remarkable 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). One of John Paul II’s chief concerns in this encyclical is the legalisation of euthanasia, against which he is (unsurprisingly) uncompromising in his opposition. However, I don’t want to discuss that issue as such – no, really, I mean it – but rather to look at what the late Pope has to say to those of us who are in the blessed (but fragile) position of knowing that our suffering in life lies in the future rather than the past or the present.

In particular, I wanted to look at what John Paul has to say about our attitude, as a culture, towards suffering – because it’s hard for those of us who have known little real suffering in our lives to presume to discuss this subject, knowing how unqualified we are for it; but the result of that is to leave us unprepared for when suffering arrives, with our mental and spiritual muscles atrophied.

So this is very much a personal reflection, from someone who knows he has had, and is having, a remarkably easy life so far, but who knows how undeveloped, as a consequence, are those areas of understanding, belief and character that will be needed when suffering does arrive – as it must. No doubt to those of you on the other side of that arrival what I say will seem naive at best and grotesque at worst, but please bear with me. And please believe me that when I say “we” in this post, I mean “I”.

The first point to make about “the easy life” before suffering is that it comes to feel like our birthright, like something which it would be an unimaginable affront to have taken from us. We become very conscious of our “quality of life”, conceived in terms of “economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure”:

In such a context suffering, an inescapable burden of human existence but also a factor of possible personal growth, is “censored”, rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided. When it cannot be avoided and the prospect of even some future well-being vanishes, then life appears to have lost all meaning and the temptation grows in man to claim the right to suppress it. (para 23)

This can tempt us to see death – the loss of life itself – as preferable to suffering: the loss of our quality of life:

In a social and cultural context which makes it more difficult to face and accept suffering, the temptation becomes all the greater to resolve the problem of suffering by eliminating it at the root, by hastening death so that it occurs at the moment considered most suitable. […]

All this is aggravated by a cultural climate which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs. (para 15)

Hence the prospect of suffering becomes something we dread, something we find pre-emptively intolerable:

When the prevailing tendency is to value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being, suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs. Death is considered “senseless” if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and interesting experiences. But it becomes a “rightful liberation” once life is held to be no longer meaningful because it is filled with pain and inexorably doomed to even greater suffering. (para 64)

But what “meaning or value” can we find in suffering? Supremely, love:

Love also gives meaning to suffering and death; despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events. (para 81)

For Christians, this experience of love leads us to a greater identification with Christ:

Living to the Lord also means recognizing that suffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good. It becomes such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing, by God’s gracious gift and one’s own personal and free choice, in the suffering of Christ Crucified. (para 67)

However, for all of us, suffering involves a yearning for love and relationship with others, rather than for extinction:

The request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail. (para 67)

So how do we prepare ourselves for this experience? Partly, this is intellectual: simply being aware that suffering is something in which others (whether Christians or otherwise) have found meaning and value, and consequently knowing that this possibility is there for us also.

But more than that, it is a question of how we look at the world now:

[W]e need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. … It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift. […] This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity. (para 83)

Above all, this outlook “arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a ‘wonder'”, “discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image”. But I don’t think that this steady commitment to the “gratuity and beauty” of life, and to the call to find meaning and solidarity in every circumstance, are the unique possession of Christians or of those of any other religion.

For Christians, though, there are specific aids to developing and maintaining this outlook:

Particularly important in this regard are the Sacraments, the efficacious signs of the presence and saving action of the Lord Jesus in Christian life. The Sacraments make us sharers in divine life, and provide the spiritual strength necessary to experience life, suffering and death in their fullest meaning. (para 84)

Family life, too, is critical to forming this understanding of life, above all through the practical and concrete realities of family relationships across generations:

The parents’ mission as educators also includes teaching and giving their children an example of the true meaning of suffering and death. They will be able to do this if they are sensitive to all kinds of suffering around them and, even more, if they succeed in fostering attitudes of closeness, assistance and sharing towards sick or elderly members of the family. (para 92)

In short, the message is one which is difficult for the head to accept when we live in comfort, and I expect ten times more difficult for the heart to accept when suffering comes to us in all its terror, but one which we need at least to have some grasp of if we are to prepare ourselves at all for its arrival:

[S]uffering and death … are a part of human existence, and it is futile, not to say misleading, to try to hide them or ignore them. On the contrary, people must be helped to understand their profound mystery in all its harsh reality. Even pain and suffering have meaning and value when they are experienced in close connection with love received and given. (para 97)

Faith and hope in the midst of suffering and on the threshold of death: a hard truth of which Pope John Paul II not only wrote eloquently in his 1995 encyclical, but over the following ten years (and especially in his final appearances during March 2005) would became a living demonstration.