Sunday, 24 March 2013

On the Election of Pope Francis I by Fr Julian Large, Provost of the London Oratory


Shortly before his abdication, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI delivered an address to the clergy of the diocese of Rome. He reflected on his experiences as an expert at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and on that Council’s effects on the life of the Church. He spoke mysteriously of a contrast between the Council of the Fathers, meaning the proceedings that actually took place around the Pope in the Vatican, and what he called, a ‘virtual Council’, or a ‘Council of the media’. According to Pope Benedict, the real Council was firmly rooted in Catholic doctrine and aimed at renewing the Faith, while the ‘virtual Council’ as presented to the world through the media had a completely different, political, objective. Pope Benedict explained: "this Council [the ‘virtual’ one] created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality. Seminaries closed, convents closed, the liturgy was trivialised." Pope Benedict even lamented that this ‘virtual Council’ was stronger than the official Council itself.

Whether or not we agree with this interpretation of the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council, we must acknowledge that the media in the world today exerts a formidable power over the information that ultimately determines how we think and live. During the last month we have lived through a ‘Conclave of the media’, in which millions of words were written and spoken in speculation about what sort of man was needed as pope, and who was likely to be elected. In the event, ninety nine and a half per cent of the prophesying turned out to be wrong. Now there is the danger of a ‘virtual Papacy’, in which every utterance and gesture of a new pope is analysed and evaluated, and all sorts of weird and wonderful predictions are made about what this new pontificate will mean.

Would it be going too far to talk about a dictatorship of the media? It sometimes seems that the media insists on setting the agenda for almost every aspect of human life. It creates new messiahs and it judges who are the monsters in our society, depending on how many boxes the chosen public figures tick on the agenda that happens to be current for the moment. Those granted messiah status totter on a wobbly pedestal because nothing sells papers or pushes up ratings better than yesterday’s messiah being exposed as a mere mortal with human failings.

Soon after the election of Pope Francis, the Oratory telephone exchange was crackling with calls from the press. All of the journalists who telephoned seemed to ask the same question: "How will the new pope compare with the old one?" How could one possibly answer? To say it was refreshing to have a pope from the new world and to suggest that we could surely expect a different style of pontificate might look, in print, like a vulgar criticism of Pope Benedict, whose deep humility, selflessness and penetrating insight will be esteemed by all decent men and women for centuries to come. Most of us probably hope that a new pontificate will be marked by continuity with Pope Benedict’s project to re-establish a sense of Catholic identity among the faithful and to restore the mystery that makes us active participants at the most profound level in the Church’s liturgy. To say so much to the press, however, would sound presumptuous, as if we were telling the new Supreme Pontiff how to do his job.

In a sense, comparing popes with their immediate predecessors is fishing for red herrings. Each Pope should be seen primarily as a successor of St Peter rather than as a replacement of any previous tenant of the papal digs in the Vatican. The fact that our new pope even declined to take the name of any preceding Supreme Pontiff helps to emphasise this. A ‘Celestine VI’ or a ‘Julius IV’ would have stimulated a frenzy of fascinating interpretation. The beautiful choice of ‘Francis’, however, is a name that carries no historical baggage as far as the Petrine office is concerned. It is taken from a saint who is loved, if often misunderstood, even beyond the bounds of Christendom. If there are any clues to how the current pontificate might proceed then perhaps they should be sought in a life of the Poverello from Umbria. An excellent one is Francis of Assisi, A New Biography. Written by the Dominican scholar Augustine Thompson, it was read recently from the pulpit in the Oratory refectory during supper. It presents an altogether more robust and complex figure than the fey folk-singing Francis concocted in the psychedelic imagination of the late 1960s.

Another question the journalists have been asking is: "Father, what do you think about the election of this particular archbishop from Argentina to the papacy?" Apart from admitting that it is a novel experience (by no means a disagreeable one) for an Oratorian to find that his immediate religious superior is a Jesuit, the Provost was at a loss for words, not having heard much about Cardinal Bergoglio before his appearance on the balcony. For want of a more original response he was grateful to have at hand a phrase from the Swiss entertainer Hans K√ľng, who when asked earlier in the day for his view on the election result had said: "It was a very happy surprise. I’m extremely delighted."

Reading the newspapers since the election of our new Pope, pious Catholics will find material that fills them with hope and joy and speculations that might give anyone sane a stroke if they happened to be true. We should not allow what we see in the press or on the Internet to disturb our serenity and distract us from prayer. That would be playing into the hands of the devil, who dreads and despises the prayers of the faithful (any timidity one might have about mentioning the devil in these modern times, by the way, has been dissolved by the fact that Pope Francis mentioned that enemy of God and man at least twice, in startlingly direct terms, in sermons on the first days after the election).

So please, do not let your attitude to the Pope be determined by the media. In this age of lightning-speed communication rumours and blatant fabrications on the Internet regularly turn up as ‘information’ in mainstream news sources. And besides, the categories used by secular journalists to judge achievement and failure in the Church are bound to be very different from the spiritual and supernatural considerations that matter to a believer. St Peter, St Paul and St Francis would all be considered blundering gaffe-merchants by the standards of what is deemed politically correct today.

Whatever personal feelings – euphoric, neutral or negative – an individual might experience towards the person of any particular pope are neither here nor there as far as being a good Catholic is concerned. There is, however, a very definite and proper Catholic response to the election of a new Pope. We receive the Successor of St Peter into our hearts with love, and we support him with our loyalty and with our prayers. Charity, or love, here does not mean a fickle sentiment that waxes and wanes depending on whether we are delighted with a pope’s thundering denunciation of gambling one day and then up-in-arms about his reluctance to be carried on the sedia gestatoria the next. Love in this context is something far more constant and practical. It means praying for the Pope every day, so that God’s grace works through his gifts and his limitations for the building up of the Church. It also means that, if ever we speak of the Supreme Pontiff, it is always with the respect that is due to the awe-inspiring dignity of his office.

As Christians, of course, we owe charity to all our fellow men in virtue of the image of God that is intrinsic to every human soul. We also owe a special charity to the Pope. He is the visible head on earth of the Mystical Body of which we are members. He bears an unimaginably heavy burden. Our sacrifices, our almsgiving and our growth in Divine Charity contribute to the strength and health of the whole Church. They help the Pope in his mission of building the Kingdom of God on earth, as well as securing better-appointed accommodation for ourselves in Heaven.

Let us pray for our Holy Father Pope Francis. May Our Blessed Lady, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Philip Neri, and all holy Popes and Martyrs intercede for His Holiness. May his pontificate become a beautiful season of expansion for the One True Catholic and Apostolic Faith in the world. May it be a season of conversion and sanctification in my life and in yours.

Finally, a word of advice from a former journalist: don’t believe too much of what you read in the press.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Beatitudes: The only solution for our times

The situation we face today gives emphasis to the warning words written by Fr H J Coleridge SJ in 1888:

"It is worthwhile, again and again, to urge the truth on a generation like that in which we live, that men without faith in a future life and a sense of responsibility to a judge above them for all their actions, are likely, if they attain power in the world, to shrink from no crime and to rule without mercy."

We face this growing barbarism in the West today at a time when Christ's Church appears to be at its weakest.

To reinforce this concern, the Aid to the Church in Need's "Mirror" Newsletter for February reported the haunting words of a Czechoslovakian priest who was imprisoned for 12 years because he was determined to remain faithful to the Church in Rome and was tortured for refusing to deny the Pope. To this "hero of the faith" the West is in a state of betrayal and he would "rather spend another 12 years in a Communist prison" than stay any longer here in the West: in comparison prison was a joy!

Confronted by such a prevailing anti-Christian climate, is there perhaps a way forward out of the abyss?

Again from the writings of Fr Coleridge in 1876:

"In the catacombs, in the Egyptian deserts, in the great cities of the Empire, in the monasteries which grew up around the sacred places of Palestine, the BEATITUDES were the laws of life before the Western world fell under the invasion of the barbarians, or the Eastern bowed its neck to the yoke of impure prophets. They were the rules by which men lived who saved Europe and the Church from the destruction, and painfully built up a new civilisation out of the combination of old and new races. As their practice has varied or increased so has the Church been in decay or in vigour. When there has come a time of renovation and revival, the inspiration has always been caught from the Beatitudes."

We have to act or be overcome and we of the LMS should, if we are to be true to our support of the Church's Traditions, take a lead in promoting the Beatitudes as a way we will follow and in doing so, follow Christ.

Remember the story of the rich young man who lived faithfully the Commandments but to Jesus this was just not enough. To become a true follower he had to become detached and follow Christ's Narrow Way: the Beatitudes. We, as indicated by the references below, are also obliged to do the same, and the sooner the better. Except for the brief reading of the Beatitudes each year at Mass, little of consequence is said to help the faithful in these obligatory rules of life. We get little informed guidance on what they really mean and what we need to understand in order to follow them. A great silence on this subject appears to have settled over the Western world, apart from a few confused attempts here and there.

I have found Coleridge a true master of this subject and, if prepared to wade through his Victorian prose, many nuggets of practical advice and explanation are to be found. His work, "The Public Life of Our Lord - Preaching of the Beatitudes", Burns & Oates 1876, as well as other volumes, can be downloaded electronically from   The other very useful and less verbose explanation is "The Eight Beatitudes" by George Chevrot, Sinag-tala Publishers Inc, Manila 1998, ISBN 971 554 036 8.

Since the Beatitudes are so important to us all, I am taking the liberty of providing a rendering of essential nuggets to be found in both books over an extended period.

As a starter, please view each Beatitude as a rung within a ladder standing on and supported by the Commandments or Natural Law, Scripture and Traditions of the Church. Proceeding up the ladder requires increasing denial of self and suffering, until the few who manage to reach the top become other Christs, achieving the highest standard of Christian living and holiness. These 8 or 9 rungs are recursive in that within each rung they, to some extent, re-occur. So even if you just achieve full poverty of spirit, you will have also experienced some of the joys and sufferings associated with higher levels of the Beatitude Ladder.
The Beatitudes are Christ's narrow way to Heaven. Living by the Commandments is but the beginning, as Jesus advised us to become perfect and this can be achieved only by living his Beatitudes. These in the modern world are alien but we are obliged to adhere to the rules of life defined by the Beatitudes. More about these rules in the coming months

References on Obligations to live the Beatitudes:

Gaudium et Spes, n72, Vatican II

Apostolicam Actuositatem, n4, Vatican II

Moral Questions, Statement of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, n82, 1971

The Easter People, Message from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, n190, 1980

Christifideles Laici (Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful), Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II, n16, 1988

Veritatis Splendor, Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II, n17, 1993


Canon Laws applicable to the Clergy: 273, 276, 277, 282, 285, 286, 287

Canon Laws applicable to the Laity: 210, 212, 217, 222(2),223

Note: The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) is somewhat unhelpful in its explanation of all the Beatitudes, concentrating on the first Beatitude. However CCC 1965 to 1968 make it abundantly clear the fundamental importance of fulfilling the Decalogue by following the narrow way of the Beatitudes to achieve a truly Christian life prepared for Heaven.


These thoughts were prepared two weeks before the election of Pope Francis I, and it is our prayer that he will earn the supreme title of Saint Francis II, for he does appear to be setting us an example bidding us to follow him following Christ along the Narrow Way.