November/December 2016

The Year of Mercy: Spiritual works of mercy

Michael A. Hayes

There are over 900 churches in Rome, and all of them have their own story and their own character. At one end of the famous Via Giulia – named for Pope Julius II – is the mighty church of Sant’ Andrea – the church of the Florentine community – at the other end is the much smaller church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (St Mary of Prayer and the Dead) built in the 16th century and rebuilt in 1733. One thing which might strike the passer-by is an engraved marble slab at eye level depicting a skeleton and the words Hodie mihi cras tibi (me today, you tomorrow) and at the base of the slab a coin slot asking for alms for the perpetual lamp in the cemetery. The church has a very specific focus. Like many churches in Rome, it is the home of a religious confraternity; this confraternity took upon itself the task of finding and burying the dead bodies of the poor who were abandoned in the city and its environs. It carried out that task for centuries, until the coming of the Italian state and with the loss of its patronage it had to adapt, and so now its first priority is to pray for the dead. During the month of November the church invites us all to join those members of the confraternity and the whole Church in praying for the dead. The response to death in our modern world can so often be silence and embarrassment, but there is a long tradition amongst Christians of recognising that the baptised remain our sisters and brothers in faith, even after death. And so churches will be resonant this month with Masses offered for the Holy Souls, with people lighting candles for the dead and a general acknowledgement of the duty of the living to intercede for the dead, a practice that is not morbid or sinister, but dutiful and compassionate.

November also marks the close of the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, and in his Bull of Indiction he urged the Church and the world to take mercy as a key attribute of God: ‘Merciful like the Father.’ In that Bull he indicates many ways of expressing mercy, and includes:

‘And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.’ (MV15)

Looking at those seven works of mercy, perhaps we can reflect that in many ways the Church has certainly emphasised some, but has not necessarily had a great deal to say about others. Admonish sinners for example has undoubtedly been high on the list of a great number of preachers and confessors, exercised sometimes with a certain relish. Certainly the Church’s huge deployment of resources in education would suggest that ‘instruct the ignorant’ has always been a priority. The recent emphasis on a ‘new Evangelisation’ would suggest that still has a key place in the Church. The great number of members of the Church – religious and lay – who have dedicated themselves to all aspects of medicine and nursing are a powerful expression of ‘comforting the afflicted’. Perhaps we might expect certain of the spiritual works of mercy to be more personal or private aspects: forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, although as a community of faith we have certainly had to deal with these in recent years, and the so-called ‘cultural wars’ within the Church do not suggest that they have always been understood as part of the necessary life of the Church. I suspect that the demeanour of Pope Francis would count as offering a key interpretation of ‘counselling the doubtful’ – which is not primarily an intellectual, logical task; certainly his style of a non-judgemental open arms approach to people has undoubtedly brought many ‘doubtful’ people back to explore the mercy of God in the Church.

And then there are those like the confraternity of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte, and – during this month at least – all the rest of us who very deliberately pray for the dead. And of course, because they are dear to us, and dear to God, we pray for all those who are living who we know and all people who also need our prayers. That expression of the Christian’s priestly role was very deliberately articulated by the introduction of the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’ in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It is the very nature of the Church that calls us to recognise our responsibility for one another, those who make up the body of Christ, and all others as well, and the spiritual works of mercy are an expression of what that looks like in reality, and so is the confraternity of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte.   

Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council (1)

Gerald O’Collins SJ

The first of two articles which look at how Pope Francis’ leadership of the Church draws on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Gerald O’Collins SJ is adjunct professor of Australia Catholic University.

Different templates are available for assessing where Pope Francis has been leading the Church since his election on 13 March 2013. The fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council on 8 December 2015 has suggested one broad template for interpreting and evaluating the Pope’s continuing contribution. It is not that Pope Francis has been beating the drum about the teaching of Vatican II and how he wants to put it into practice. Yet much of what he has already taught and done shows him picking up themes of the Council’s teaching and taking them further. He is faithful to Vatican II, with a fidelity that is properly creative.
Apropos of those who follow other faiths, Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel; hereafter EG) of the need to ‘maintain and intensify’ the Church’s relationship with ‘non-Christians’ (art. 251).1

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Does God really approve of genocide? Making sense of the Book of Joshua

John Deehan

What can we make of the violence and genocide to be found in the Old Testament Book of Joshua? John Deehan offers a perspective. The author is parish priest of St Thomas More Church, Pinner, in the diocese of Westminster.

The Book of Joshua can be an embarrassment to contemporary Christians. Robert Coote describes it as an ‘an orgy of terror, violence and mayhem! It forms a triumphant finale to the Bible’s foundational epic of liberation, the savage goal toward which God’s creation of Israel and delivery of Israel from slavery in Egypt appears to point to from the start.’1 ‘Much about the book of Joshua is repulsive, starting with ethnic cleansing, the savage dispossession and genocide of native peoples, and the massacre of women and children – all not simply condoned but ordered by God’.2

The condemnation itself may alert the curiosity of some, but those familiar with the Roman lectionary will look in vain for the relevant passages. The Book of Joshua appears only twice in the three year cycle of Sunday readings, and four times in the two year weekly cycle. None of the passages presented, though key to its theology, would prompt the response of Michael Prior that the behaviour of the God of the land traditions of the biblical narrative does not conform to even the minimum conditions for waging war as laid down by the Fourth Geneva Convention.3

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A table in the wilderness

Thomas O’Loughlin

Tables are the most familiar of our household objects yet they connect our everyday lives with the world of faith, writes Thomas O’Loughlin. The author is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ says the proverb, but it would be more precise to say that it breeds blindness: that which is under our eyes all the time is that which we are most likely to ignore, undervalue, and see as ‘just there’ rather than being of any significance to us. For many Christians the place of tables in our memory and worship is just one such item. Tables – ordinary tables: a flat area held up over the floor by (usually) four legs – are not only important in most human cultures, but they have a special value in our story with Jesus as its centre, and they are, quite literally, central to our liturgy. Despite this, we habitually ignore them, fail to see what they tell us about the Christian vision of God, and so we lose a precious connection between the world of faith and ordinary everyday life.

Tables provide the basis for how most urban cultures share their meals – and since sharing food together is at the centre of our humanity, their importance in our cultures is enormous. We may think of early societies sharing stories around a camp fire or some great hearth – but actually most urban cultures have told their stories over the dinner table.

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St Peter Claver and modern slavery

Maria Giertych SSPC

9 September was the feast of St Peter Claver, the ‘saint of the slaves.’ To mark this Bishop Patrick Lynch SSCC celebrated a special Mass at St Edmund’s Church in Beckenham with parishioners and members of the Missionary Sisters of St Peter Claver. Bishop Lynch leads the Catholic Church’s response to the problem of human trafficking and slavery and the celebration was designed to root this response in the Church’s spiritual and liturgical life, under the inspiration of the Jesuit saint. This is an address given at the Mass by the Superior of the Beckenham community of the St Peter Claver Sisters.

Peter Claver was born in 1580 at Verdu, Spain, He died in Cartagena, today Colombia, on 8 September 1654. He had spent 38 of his 74 years in Cartagena ministering to the slaves, who arrived there at the end of the horrific ‘Middle Passage’.

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