Opening the door in the Year of Mercy

Bridie Stringer

The Year of Mercy begins in December 2015. This personal view asks who the Year might need to speak to the most. Bridie Stringer lectures in Pastoral Theology at St Mary?s University, Twickenham.

Walls pretending to be doors 1
In the Hampshire village where I live, one of the landowners has banned local residents from walking the perimeter of one of his fields which had hitherto been accessible throughout the entire twenty-three years I have lived there. What was a generous concession to local people by the farmer was probably taken for granted by us all, and now that it has been withdrawn we are rather annoyed. Not only has this removed the safe walking for the local dog owners, it has destroyed the opportunity to pass the time of day with neighbours. From my own perspective, it was a place I particularly cherished in the cool of a summer evening as I would pray and reflect, admire the beauty of the crops grown there and the peace of the village nestling at the bottom of the rolling hill. Genesis 3.8 with its account of God walking in the garden in the cool of day often came to mind as I pondered a problem, made plans of some sort, or simply gave thanks for what was good in my life. One particular set of people disadvantaged by the change are those who, over the years, have installed gates in the hedges at the bottom of their gardens where these abutted the farmer?s field. Now that access is no longer permitted, these gates are totally redundant and cannot be used.

This situation rather sprang to mind as I considered how the Church will mark the Year of Mercy (8 December 2015-20 November 2016) and the significance of the doors which are to be the symbolic feature of this Jubilee. Each diocese is encouraged to designate a holy door in its cathedral and through actions of witness and piety ?to recognise that mercy provides a fruitful avenue of dialogue with other Christians, other religions and non-believers and that the practice of mercy teaches us tenderness for the world God has created.?2 However, like my neighbours who can no longer use their garden gates to access the path in the landowner?s field, doors are only helpful if they can be opened and the visitor welcomed in. I am reminded of the description of Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling?s Harry Potter and The Philosopher?s Stone3

Then there were doors that wouldn?t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren?t really doors at all, but solid walls just pretending.

How can we ensure that our cathedrals are not ecclesiastical versions of Hogwarts? Who are the people likely to feel unwelcome, even in the Year of Mercy? Who are the people who would not wish to darken our door in the first place, even a holy door?

To answer the last question first, there is a particular constituency which I bring to mind, having just finished reading three of the most harrowing books I have ever read on the subject of abuse carried out by clergy in the Church. Two of these are by Graham Wilmer4 whose sexual abuse by a lay teacher in a college run by a Roman Catholic religious order resulted initially in a chaotic and reckless lifestyle and eventually a mental breakdown. As a gifted journalist, and now a happily married man with a family, Wilmer has made the transition from victim to survivor and leads The Lantern Project which advocates for victims of institutional abuse, a role for which he was recently awarded an MBE. Many who have experienced this type of trauma may not have the fortitude to make the transition from victim to survivor. The abuse of power in political and civic life has been highlighted in the allegations brought against figures like Lord Janner and the late Cyril Smith and the world of celebrity has seen a long list of entertainers ?brought to book? for what are classified as ?historic cases? of abuse and molestation of minors. The term ?historic? is an interesting one and no doubt refers to incidents which are simply not recent. But how much easier it is to construct a narrative of justice and closure when victims are actually dead. The recent anniversaries relating to WWI gave us pause for thought as we honoured the memory of those who had laid down their lives or were maimed in a war long past. However, it is much easier to read the dead letters on stone memorials rather than the angst-ridden testimonies of those traumatized by current conflicts, people who tend to embarrass the government and its defence ministry for having sent them to war in the first place. Giving justification for war to contemporary bereaved and articulate parents is much more uncomfortable than wreath-laying for Gallipoli or the Somme.

This thinking also pervades the child abuse scandals where the fallout is still being worked through. These matters call for restorative justice, healing and ongoing support for victims. The books which I referred to earlier catalogue denials by superiors of religious orders and evasive action taken by diocesan bishops in moving predatory priests around parishes when their behaviour had been uncovered. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O?Connor?s account of the Michael Hill case and his deep and everlasting regret in not removing Hill from ministry earlier was sincerely expressed in the Cardinal?s recently published memoirs, but of Hill?s victims, nothing was mentioned. Other senior prelates have not been as forthcoming as Cardinal Cormac and it is heartening that those who have knowingly failed to protect minors in their pastoral care will now be called to account in the canonical court. In terms of civil law, if a bishop knew that one of his diocesan priests was a drug dealer and failed to act, would he in effect be aiding and abetting a criminal and likely to be arrested by the police? In my naivety perhaps I would suggest that he would be morally accountable, even if not criminally liable, given the sacred vow of obedience made by the priest to the bishop and his successors at ordination. I think it could be argued that the priest and bishop are closer than an employer and employee and that there is a vicarious liability, as was argued in the High Court in respect of accusations against a deceased priest in the Diocese of Portsmouth5 in 2012. Whilst coverage of these cases is full and detailed in respect of the legal and financial implications, are the victims/survivors likely to find welcome and solace in their local parish church or their cathedral? Will the door of mercy invite them in and affirm and support their healing? Perhaps some form of ritual which is not necessarily ministered by clergy would be a way forward, especially for those whose trust in priests and bishops has been totally destroyed. To offer an opportunity to cross the threshold into places associated with the destruction of innocence and the death of God will take much planning, prayerful reflection and significant pastoral investment.

Joyce Rupp?s Open the Door provides a well crafted framework within which to consider this issue. It comprises a six week reflection programme which can be undertaken by individuals on their own or in groups. Individuals can choose to devote twenty to thirty minutes per day, whilst small groups, meeting weekly, can undertake six sessions which include readings, small group dialogue, large group sharing, music, prayer and making a ?commitment? as part of a way forward. Perhaps this type of programme which is not liturgically scripted by ordained ministers could be provided by teams of spiritual directors, counsellors and therapists who would be available as hosts for the programme and able to assist victims to go forward in their lives and to seek specialist psychological therapy where necessary. Prayer teams might also make themselves available to simply pray with visitors in the manner of spontaneous intercessory prayer rather than formal ceremonies which may have upsetting associations for some visitors. As Lakeland?s book title of 2007 suggests Catholicism at the Crossroads ? How the Laity can Save the Church, the Year of Mercy might be a time when:

the lay/clerical relationship ...move(s) from one of child /parent to one of equality. Adult behaviour among the laity is non-negotiable. Acceptance of the laity as equally adult is non-negotiable for bishops and clergy.

Within this dynamic, perhaps we can ensure that the lay experts in the field of good governance, financial probity and the protection of children and vulnerable adults can be deployed to equip the Church to do and to be what its founder intended ? good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to those who are imprisoned, recover sight for the blind and to set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4.18).

Slipping messages under the door 6
The next constituency which I would wish to consider are those who might feel unwelcome at the holy door of mercy, those who are in ?irregular? relationships and are therefore excluded from the eucharistic table. The compassionate response of parish priests to members of their communities in these situations is matched only by the strident resistance of some in the Roman Curia to any change in Church law which would offer mercy and the opportunity to participate fully at the Lord?s Supper. In this instance, they can attend the banquet of the Lord, but not actually eat. Archbishop Gerhard M?ller, Head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith pointed out in 2013 that:

Even if there is no possibility of admitting remarried divorcees to the sacraments, in view of their intrinsic nature, it is all the more imperative to show pastoral concern for these members of the faithful, so as to point them clearly towards what the theology of revelation and the Magisterium have to say. The path indicated by the Church is not easy for those concerned. Yet they should know and sense that the Church as a community of salvation accompanies them on their journey. Insofar as the parties make an effort to understand the Church?s practice and to abstain from communion, they provide their own testimony to the indissolubility of marriage.7

The document is uncompromising even in cases of physical or psychological abuse within the marriage:

Pastors and Christian communities must therefore take pains to promote paths of reconciliation in these cases too, or, should that not be possible, to help the people concerned to confront their difficult situation in faith.

A counter argument is, however, offered by Cardinal Reinhard Marx who advocates for a more compassionate response. Speaking at Stanford University in January 2015 he spoke of the mercy expressed in Pope Francis? encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, ?we have to see how the Eucharist is medicine for the people, to help the people. We must look for ways for people to receive the Eucharist. It is not about finding ways to keep them out! We must find ways to welcome them. We have to use our imagination in asking, ?Can we do something?? Perhaps it is not possible in some situations. That is not the question. The focus must be on how to welcome people.?

With the imminent Synod on the Family in October 2015, it remains to be seen how welcome ?irregular? spouses will be at the altar. Again, to use Joyce Rupp?s door imagery ?Slipping messages under the door? perhaps best describes their plight. They do not wish to draw attention to their presence but hope that eventually someone will realise that they are there and might, indeed, open the door to welcome them.

Guardians of the threshold 8
The final part of my reflection addresses the first question ? how can we ensure that our cathedrals are not perceived as simply ecclesiastical versions of Hogwarts, with perplexing modes of entry which are off-putting for those who are tentative and unsure? The answer of course lies with the gatekeepers. If these gatekeepers are uncompromising guardians of orthodoxy (or one version of orthodoxy) then perhaps there is a danger of the Church being ?unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security?9. Pope Francis has expressed his hope that ?we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us ?Give them something to eat?.?10 So far the signals coming from Rome indicate a year of creative mission. The logo for the Jubilee Year which shows Jesus and Adam seeing from one another?s perspective expresses an incarnational faith of engagement and not a dichotomy of one as sacred and one as sinner. The Bull of Indiction11 for the Year released in April 2015 is drawn mainly from scripture and it is Luke 6.36 ?Be merciful just as your Father is merciful? which gives the Jubilee year its motto ?merciful like the Father.? Pope Francis has announced that ?missionaries of mercy, specially commissioned confessors, will be sent out during Lent of the Holy Year and these will be authorised to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See.? Pope Francis describes these confessors as ?missionaries of mercy because they will be facilitators of a truly human encounter, a source of liberation, rich with responsibility for overcoming obstacles and taking up the new life of Baptism again.?12

We all look forward to their arrival. ???

1 ??? Rupp, J. 2008. Open the Door ? A Journey to the True Self. Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin Books. p.31.
2 ??? News/Bishops-Plenary-Meetings/Plenary-Apr-2015
3 ??? Rowling, J.K. 1997. Harry Potter and the Philosopher?s Stone. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.p.98. This particular quotation is cited by Rupp in Open the Door p. 31.
4 ??? Wilmer, G. 2007. Conspiracy of Faith. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press and 2014. The Devil?s Advocate: Child Abuse and the Men in Black. See also Scorer, R. 2014. Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis.
5 ??? The Fr Wilfred Baldwin case related to allegations made by an adult woman who claimed she has been beaten by a nun in the care home where she lived and molested by the visiting priest. The Diocese of Portsmouth was held to be vicariously liable for the conduct of the priest, appealed this verdict and was subsequently defeated in the High Court.
6 ??? Rupp uses this as a chapter title in Open the Door p.58.
7 ??? Archbishop Gerhard M?ller?s Testimony to the Power of Grace: On the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Debate Concerning the Civilly remarried and the Sacraments
8 ??? Rupp uses this too as a chapter title in Open the Door. p.104.
9 ??? Pope Francis. 2013. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium para 49.
10??? Evangelii Gaudium para 49
11??? Pope Francis. 2015 Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Misericordiae Vultus.
12??? Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy para 18.