Monday, November 25, 2019

Fr. Paul Stenhouse RIP

I got some sad news the other day-- Fr. Paul Stenhouse, the editor of Annals Australasia magazine, has passed away. He had edited the magazine (whose long existence, sadly, ends this very year) since 1966.

Annals published a good few of my articles over the last few years-- perhaps ten or so.

I'd never heard of Annals until I got an email from Fr. Stenhouse, asking me if he could reprint one of my blog posts. I gladly gave permission, of course. He invited me to send him more articles after that.

Many of the articles I had published in the magazine were poetry criticism-- something I appreciated, since most editors won't touch anything to do with poetry.

Fr. Stenhouse was obviously a cultured man-- Annals was full of stand-alone quotations from all sorts of books and authors, many of them old and obscure. He seemed especially keen on G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Christopher Hollis.

When my book was being published, I asked Fr. Stenhouse to contribute a "blurb". Not only did he read the book, but he sub-edited the entire thing, without being asked. He asked me to give him a call about it-- something I did with great reluctance, since my dislike for the telephone cannot be overstated. But now I'm grateful I got to have a conversation with him, and to hear his voice. He had many useful suggestions to make, and his editorial eye also caught a few howlers. It's thanks to Fr. Stenhouse that I didn't have King Henry XVIII dissolving the English monasteries!

There is also rather a poignant connection with my own father (whose eightieth birthday would have been tomorrow). My father would read the copies of Annals Australasia that I was sent, and he had a high opinion of them, especially the articles on the history of Islam. I would pass this praise onto Fr. Stenhouse, who in turn took to regularly asking after my father. I don't think I ever mentioned his passing to him, though.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Thoughts on Pope Francis

I rarely write about Pope Francis on this blog. His pontificate has become an explosive subject among many Catholics and I hesitate to venture into any discussion about him.

However, I thought I would risk a few remarks today. I'm going to write this blog post in the form of a numbered list, which might be appropriate to the subject-- since my thoughts, feeling and ideas about Pope Francis are often conflicted and confused.

1) Pope Francis is the Pope, the legitimate successor of St. Peter.

2) The role of the Pope, and the deference due to him, is defined thus in Lumen Gentium, the Constitution of the Church promulgated at Vatican II: "Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."

3) Much that Pope Francis has said and done during his pontificate has caused me considerable alarm, distress, upset, and anxiety. I know I'm not alone in this. In fact, it's probably true to say that many Catholics now feel an habitual sense of apprehension about the Holy Father's next pronouncement or action.

The apparent compromise on the sanctity of marriage in Amoris Laetita is the chief of these, but there have been others. The change in the text of the Catechism regarding capital punishment also bothered me-- not because I am a fan of execution, but purely because it seemed like a contradiction of previously-held doctrine. The Holy Father's denunciation of "proselytism" is also confusing-- what is the difference between proselytism and evangelization? We should "use words when necessary", but when is it necessary, or even permissible?

4) Many conservative critics of Pope Francis say they acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, but only when he acts in accordance with Catholic doctrine. This, however, seems like an empty formula, as well as a recipe for chaos. If every Catholic could be his or her own judge of doctrine, what would we need a Pope for? Isn't this like saying that you acknowledge a judge as long as he gives the right verdict?

5) Pope Francis often denounces "rigidity" in his homilies. This has become a sort of running joke among conservative Catholics, and we often ironically refer to ourselves as "Neo-Pelagians" and so forth. We also argue that laxity has caused far more damage to the Church than rigidity, in recent decades-- and this seems obviously true to us. Just look at the exodus of priests and the decline of congregations after Vatican II!

And yet, we have to admit...the danger of legalism (and of a complacent piety) is a dominant theme in the Gospels. Since the Scriptures are a living word, can we really write this off as purely historical, referring to the Pharisees and the Sadducees rather than to ourselves? Isn't it fair to say that, on paper, the scribes and priests often seem to have a slam-dunk case against Jesus? Why would this be such a central theme of the Gospels if it was not a continuing danger, relevant after the coming of Jesus as well as before?

6) The lack of charity among both defenders and critics of Pope Francis is lamentable. I have more exposure to his critics, since I am a conservative Catholic myself, and spend much more time listening to conservative Catholics than liberal Catholics. To hear the Pope described as "Bergoglio", mocked, sneered at, parodied, dismissed out of hand whenever he opens his mouth... this is a horrible spectacle.

A conservative priest I much esteem once said to me: "A Catholic should never publicly criticize the Pope." I think that's going too far, but I am more linclined to that priest's attitude than to that of the "Bergoglio bashers".

On the other hand, the defenders of Pope Francis often show a signal lack of charity themselves. They seem to desire "dialogue" and "encounter" with people of all faiths and none... except when it comes to conservative Catholics, who they often treat with a contempt they would never dream of showing to a Muslim, Hindu, atheist, gay rights activist, or pro-abortion feminist.

7) At Corpus Christi this year, I was very moved by a story I heard during a priest's homily, in Dublin's Pro-Cathedral. It concerned a Eucharist miracle which occurred in Buenos Aires in 1996-- a desecrated Eucharist was put into a dish of water and stored in the tabernacle. Upon the tabernacle being opened, it was seen to have become "bloodied flesh". When the bishop was informed, he immediately had the Eucharist photographed and investigated. That bishop is now Pope Francis.

I can't find that this Eucharistic miracle has been officially approved, but it seems convincing. Is it significant that it occurred in the diocese of the future Pope? At any rate, the future Pope's actions in this case certainly show no lack of conviction in the Real Presence.

8) Will Pope Francis's pontificate be looked back upon as a "blip" in Catholic history, a temporary wrong turning? Perhaps. But the current Pope has now appointed many cardinals to the College of Cardinals, and it seems highly unlikely that the next man to walk out on the balcony of St. Peter's will be a much more traditionally-minded Pope. (Unlikely, but not impossible.)

As well as this, when one reads the actual texts of the Pope's documents, homilies, etc. the differences between his pontificate and that of previous popes seem rather less pronounced. And the differences have surely been exaggerated. Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II also had much to say about environmental responsibility, fulfillment of the vision of Vatican II, and dialogue with other religions. Indeed, Pope John Paul II notoriously kissed a copy of the Koran. How does this compare to the presence of Pachama statues at the Amazonian synod?

Let us not forget, either, that the Pope emeritus has repeatedly thanked Pope Francis and affirmed that there is no contradiction between his own pontificate and that of the current Pope. 

9) Having said all this, I find myself somewhat disoriented in the pontificate of Pope Francis. I began to practice my faith during the pontificate of Pope Benedict. Much that I took for granted then now seems less straightforward-- especially, the manner in which we should evangelize and present the claims of the Church. I am more cautious of making a mistake in this regard than I used to be. This makes me less eager to write on explicitly religious or Catholic topics-- or, at least, to depart from the fundamentals.

I am somewhat more inclined, now, to be a Catholic writer on non-Catholic topics, than to write on specifically Catholic topics-- and least of all, controversial topics.

I think it is also true to say that my own faith, as a result of the recent controversies in the Church, has become somewhat more "mystical" and somewhat less doctrinal; more devotional and less intellectualised.

As ever, the thing I am sure of more than anything else in the world is the truth of the Catholic faith-- and, to use the words of the liberal Catholic Lord Acton, that Communion with Rome is "dearer than life".

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Farewell to English-- Well, Not Quite....

Recently I finished reading A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon. I'm not going to write about it here; I've realized (from previous posts) that few people share my interest in diary-writing as a topic. However, I did throughly enjoy the book, which was a commentary on the whole phenomenon of diary-keeping, and which took a look at some famous (and, indeed, obscure) diaries from the time of Samuel Pepys onwards.

Afterwards, though, I regretted reading it, for a reason relevant to this post: I've resolved to stop reading books in English, in favour of reading books in Irish, for the foreseeable future.

I've written about the Irish language on this blog before. My feelings on this score are probably best expressed in this blog post.

I've been reading Irish language journals (An Sagart and Comhar mostly) on my tea-breaks and lunch-breaks, during working hours, for several years now.

The importance of reviving the Irish language-- not simply for its own sake, but as a habitat for a distinctive and traditional Irish culture-- seems more and more important all the time. I feel a deep sense of shame that I have reached my fifth decade without ever making a serious effort to master the Irish language. Indeed, it's a shameful failure on the part of almost all Irish people. You can't be Irish in English.

We shouldn't even speak of being Irish-- we should speak of being Gaelic. Ireland is just a physical territory, Gaelicism is an imaginative and spiritual world of its own.

The problem is, I'm terrible at Irish. Yes, I can have a halting conversation in broken Irish, but nothing more than that. I can barely write a sentence without a string of grammatical and spelling errors.

My reading comprehension has come a long way in the last few years, though. My strategy is to improve through intensive reading, before anything else. After all, that seems to be how I learned English (and English was by far my best subject in school). I never really had any abstract handle on grammar (I still don't), but I read and read and read.

So my resolution is that, for the foreseeable future (perhaps forever), my leisure reading will be entirely through the Irish language. 

I'm talking about print here, rather than online. There isn't really much of an Irish language internet-- and, since the Irish language subculture had become overwhelmingly left-liberal by the time the internet came along, it is quite uncongenial to someone of my views.

But, fortunately, I have access to thousands of Irish language books and magazines in the university library where I work. And they long predate the liberalization of Ireland (which was a fait accompli in Irish language circles long before its conquest of the whole nation).

I'm not putting an absolute ban on reading texts in English. However, I need a very good reason to do so-- for instance, research for something I'm writing. (And I mean necessary research, not just background reading-- I'm not giving myself that dodge.)

I'm continually tempted to return to reading in English, not because I don't actually enjoy reading in Irish-- I do-- but because I'm more likely to come upon a book I particularly want to read in English-- like the diary book.

But all the English reading in the world doesn't have the same value as any amount of Irish reading. (The same applies, even more, to speaking and writing in Irish-- though I wonder if I will ever be fluent in writing.)

Although I'm a galloping romantic, I also suffer from a strong streak of scepticism. So I don't make any claims for the Irish language except that it is my ancestral language and that it is lamentably neglected.

I don't believing there's any utilitarian case for reviving the Irish language, or any language. Daniel O'Connell, an nationalist leader of the nineteenth century, notoriously said that: "It would be of vast advantage to mankind if all the inhabitants of the earth spoke the same language." If you share that view, I don't know how to argue with you. (You also give me the creeps, like one of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

Having paid my dues to scepticism, I must admit I often have very romantic reactions when reading Irish language texts; particular words and phrases make my blood stir. Is it a stir of ancestral recognition? No, I don't really believe that.

The feeling of warmth I experience when reading Irish language texts may have several explanations.

It might be pure nostalgia, pleasant associations from my school days. (My schooling was almost entirely through the Irish language, which makes my ignorance of it even more shameful.)

It might be (and actually, I know it is) a sense of cosiness from inhabiting, as long as I am reading, a smaller cultural universe. So many books have been published in English! It can be dizzying. Irish language culture is on a much, much smaller scale-- a more human scale, perhaps.

And then there is the warm glow that I always experience when I feel I am swimming against the tide.

I am only a nursling when it comes to the Irish language-- still-- but even that is no bad thing. It is like discovering the world afresh-- learning a new word for a familiar thing is, in a way, experiencing the familiar thing for the first time. It is rather like the section of The Magician's Nephew when the protagonists witness Narnia coming into existence.

But there's a long, long way to go, and I don't know if I'm ever going to get there.

The Pleasant Joys of Brotherhood

The Pleasant Joys of Brotherhood

by James Simmons

I love the small hours of the night
When I sit up alone.
I love my family, wife and friends.
I love them when they're gone.
A glass of Power's, a well-slacked fire,
I wind the gramophone.
The pleasant joys of brotherhood
I savour on my own.

An instrument to play upon,
Books, records on the shelf,
And albums crammed with photographs:
I céilí by myself.

I drink to passion, drink to peace,
The silent telephone.
The pleasant joys of brotherhood
I savour on my own.

This is a poem I came across in The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, which I received as a Christmas gift in my late teens. I've never been able to find it transcribed on the internet (and I hope the estate of James Simmons won't come after me for remedying this).

I never knew anything about James Simmons until I looked him up on the internet just now. He was a Derry poet and musician who died in 2001. This lyric is sung to the air of "My Lagan Love" (which I don't know) and you can find recordings of it on the internet.

This poem appeals to me as an introvert! I love people, but I sometimes prefer to love them in their absence.

There is a footnote in The Oxford Book of Comic Verse explaining céilí as "a friendly visit, a social evening".  I would have thought Irish music was essential, but I may be wrong.