July/August/September 2020

Church on the line

Anthony Towey

Covid-19 is a global plague inflicting suffering and death on staggering numbers of victims and their families. It is difficult to say at this stage how far the pathologies of the virus will spread, but there is no doubt that the direct and indirect consequences of this disease will haunt humanity for some time to come. Talk of the benevolence or judgement of God has the harping tone of theological indulgence and even mockery as medical personnel risk their lives to save those of others. Like Job’s comforters, it is probably wiser for most of us to remain silent, to abide with the broken before rationalising tragedy.

At one step removed, lockdown has affected individuals, groups and organisations very differently, none more than the Church which is facing questions relating to its identity, its locus, its sacramentality. Preferred motifs such as the ‘Body of Christ’ and ‘People of God’ are not theologically vitiated by current circumstances, but practical realities mean that their symbolic import is taking a battering. Can you have a sense of being part of the Body of Christ without gathering for Eucharist, or of being the People of God through the portal of a computer? To paraphrase Captain Kirk, ‘it is Church, but not as we know it’ and the threats posed to parish affiliation and the when where and what of Catholic life are obvious.

I recall being perplexed at university that friends in the Christian Union, like honey bees, sought out the most engaging Sunday worship, regardless of their denominational affiliation. Yet as soon as two weeks into lockdown, members of a ‘WhatsApp’ group I belong to were excitedly reporting where they had been to Mass that day – Rome, Chicago, Limerick, Westminster and Staines were among the places virtually visited. The ‘problem’ is that only two of the above could be considered a ‘home’ parish. The old Catholic adage ‘I go for the singer not the song’ is perceptibly menaced in a technological diaspora where ‘where’ is everywhere.

Maybe even more problematically, ‘when’ is also becoming an irrelevant category. Catholic Sunday observance in the UK never recovered from the twin blows of episcopal authorisation of Vigil Masses on Saturday, and political de-regulation of the Sabbath trading laws. Sunday lost its sacred status. The day when you had to go to Mass became optional and Sunday evening Masses disappeared along with the men and youths that frequented them. Yet further unweaving of the threads connecting anamnesis, sacred time and sacramentality is precisely what is happening as participants choose exactly when it is convenient to attend, to pause and to even rewind parts of what is in theory a communal celebration taking place in a kairos moment – an appointed, grace filled time.

Now, arguably the challenges presented by this pestilence merely refine rather than threaten our understanding of what we mean by unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. Piety may change and non-eucharistic liturgy may flourish. To use one example, Night Prayer in our parish is attracting 500 participants, even if some are clearly ‘attending’ the next day before breakfast. Yet the fragmentation of choice is happening at a time when the faithful are already wrestling with a popular conception that we have two popes and a small but noisy sedevacantist minority who claim we don’t even have one.

In short, the unusual times considered by this edition of the Pastoral Review are likely to leave their mark. Accelerated by Covid-19, the internet is perhaps inaugurating a third age of Church comparable to the metamorphoses occasioned by the mission to the Gentiles and the invention of the printing press. Like Eliot’s returning Magi ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation’, it remains to be seen whether this means the future of the Church is online or on the line.

The ‘two popes’ and two kinds of relations between Francis and Benedict

Massimo Faggioli, Professor of Historical Theology at Villanova University, reflects on some of the questions and challenges arising from the transition from Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis.

The expression ‘the two popes’ is as ecclesiologically incorrect as it is hard to beat as far as the media are concerned. The cohabitation between the pope and his predecessor has become part of the landscape of the Vatican since February 2013: Francis, the Bishop of Rome, Pope of the Catholic Church, and Benedict XVI who decided to resign and to call a conclave tasked with the election of a new pope. The novelty of the transition from Benedict XVI to Francis has been the subject not only of journalistic analysis, but also of artistic productions, such as films (The Two Popes, dir. Fernando Meirelles, 2019), TV series (The Young Pope, 2016 and The New Pope, 2020, dir. Paolo Sorrentino) and a theatre play (The White Helicopter, by Alvis Hermanis, with Russian dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI, 2019).
What remains to be done is a historical analysis that is necessary to start the long-term process of building a theological and ecclesiological tradition on this particular development of the papal office or Petrine ministry which could well become a feature of Catholicism in the future.

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Catholic Social Teaching in unprecedented times?

Ashley Beck, a priest of the Southwark archdiocese and Associate Professor at St Mary’s University, discusses the ethical and political challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic in the light of Catholic Social Teaching.

‘Politically, the current situation urges us to take a broad view. In international relations (and in the relations among the Members of the European Union) it is a short-sighted and illusory logic that seeks to give answers in terms of “national interests.” Without effective cooperation and effective coordination, which addresses the inevitable political, commercial, ideological and relational resistances firmly, viruses do not stop. Of course, these are very serious and burdensome decisions: we need an open vision and choices that do not always satisfy the immediate desires of individual populations. But given the markedly global current dynamic, our responses, to be effective, cannot be limited to what happens within one’s own borders’.1

‘Prospect magazine commissioned a linguistic analysis of the angry Brexit debate in the House of Commons on 25 September 2019, during which Prime Minister Boris Johnson used terms like ‘traitors’, ‘betrayal’ and ‘surrender’ of his opponents. The analysis noted that, on average, the Prime Minister used a word from Harvard University’s list of semantically hostile terms every twenty-eight words, roughly every one and a half sentences – an unusual level of aggression. More relevant here is that he used the word ‘I’ 340 times – far more frequently than normal.’2

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Two popes in the light of history

Margaret Harvey, retired senior lecturer in History at Durham University, discusses the history of the Great Western Schism of the fourteenth century and what lessons we might learn from its legacy for today.

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned on 28 February 2013, followed rapidly by the election of Pope Francis on 13 March, thus leaving the Church with a pope and an emeritus, it was frequently pointed out how startlingly unprecedented the resignation was. The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in July 1415 during the Council of Constance, thus ending the Great Western Schism. Another precedent was Pope Celestine V who held office for about six months in 1294, and then resigned and retired back to his hermitage.

Neither of these precedents really resembles the present case. Celestine V certainly resigned, but his successor Boniface VIII in effect imprisoned him to make sure he did not re-emerge. Gregory XII resigned, and though he had been pressured, he seems to have done it freely. He never thereafter claimed to be pope, but he had two rivals who continued to claim the papacy until the Council of Constance deposed them. One of the rivals (John XXIII, 1410–15) accepted his deposition and resigned, but the other (Benedict XIII, 1394–1417, died 1422) maintained his claim and even had successors (with a small rump of supporters) until the 1440s.

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Pastoral notes from lockdown

A priest writes on the challenges and experiences of parish life in lockdown. Philip Dyer-Perry is priest in the Catholic parish of Staines, Diocese of Westminster.

On the refreshment counter of our deserted parish hall there stands an aluminium teapot, forlorn and unused. Over two months have elapsed since anyone poured a cup of tea out of it, and so – lonely and dry – it’s acquired a layer of dust that thickens each passing week.

A different world
At the beginning of March, our hall, separated from the church by a partition, was abuzz. March is one of the busiest times in the parish calendar, with catechetical activities in full swing, a sense of excitement at the start of our Lenten journey to Easter, and the promise of better weather manifesting itself in sign-ups for the next parish trip. The Confirmation group was selling cakes for CAFOD, the St Patrick’s party was in the air, and after a difficult winter marked by a tragic bereavement in one of our families, everyone was looking forward to better times. That shiny teapot, solemnly blessed a month before, was already proving its worth.

It was into the ordinary, joyful, sorrowful, and exhausting world of parish life that the first hints of an approaching storm slipped, almost unnoticed. A couple of parishioners told me they were not taking their Gran to the Rite of Election at the Cathedral because they were worried about ‘going into London now’, but that weekend we were still administering the chalice and shaking hands at the sign of peace, and all three Masses were full and standing. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ seemed to be the order of the day – although the cake sellers wore gloves this time.

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