It has been over 2 months since an article was last posted here. Lest this introductory statement should be received as too redolent of the confessional, I might paraphrase St Benedict and observe there are also times when it is prudent to remain silent. As the Rule of St Benedict confirms, a fool is in a hurry to reveal himself. Silence then is a much needed resource. It encourages the heart and mind toward God and, most importantly, is an irreplaceable component in any process of spiritual discernment.
The past months of 'lockdown' have generated numerous issues upon which discernment has been required. One need only consider the issue of the closure of Churches, the debate around the suitability of streaming celebrations of the Eucharist, and, of course, the wider discussion concerning how "normality" might be restored when present restrictions are lifted. Each of these issues, in its own way, requires us to seriously reflect something which is central to our faith: the real presence.
For many, the streaming of the celebration of the Mass has been presented as a cause for celebration; a cause said to be affirmed by the volumes of 'viewers' recorded on parish websites as having watched the Mass in question. Fewer in number, but no less vocal, are those who suggest that the streaming of Mass has served to undermine the dignity of the sacrament. There is force in each of these perspectives. However, one cannot help wondering whether the transmission of the Mass will have proved - in the long run- to reduce the need for physical participation in the sacrament in the minds of the faithful. Have we unintentionally and inadvertently presented the Mass as an event which may 'viewed' rather than shared? Does the celebration of the sacrament now simply hold a slot in the weekly viewing schedule? These are legitimate questions which, whilst difficult, must be considered and resolved in a manner which does not criticise the voices who raise them. But, it may be thought that there is a preliminary question which falls for consideration in advance of these, namely: how did the Churches come to be closed in the first place?
The importance of this question perhaps becomes apparent when one considers that there are two conflicting narratives within the Church on this issue. The first contends that the Church hierarchy determined that churches should be closed; doing so in advance of any direction from the State. The second advances the narrative that the restriction came from the State; its character being such that the Church was obliged to comply. The former would, of course, be a legitimate matter of concern. But even the latter is not free from difficulty. If it is correct that the Church was reacting to the requirements of the State, there are those amongst the faithful who have questioned whether (and if so, to what extent) the Church tested the proportionality of the measures which were implemented or the duration of the restrictions themselves when relaxations for other venues were being introduced.
It might be said that these issues are no longer worthy of consideration or discussion. Others may suggest that time and effort is more appropriately expended in seeking to re-establish the life of the Church as and when we are able to do so. Each constitutes a valid perspective. However, before the Church is able to embark upon a restoration project, it is essential that She has a clear understanding of what is to be restored and why. This is not an invitation to some abstract theological self-examination. However, the understanding must naturally precede how She communicates with the faithful and seeks to re-awaken observance and authentic practice. By way of example, some will be familiar with the mass exodus from the religious life which occurred after Vatican II. Much of the disquiet which followed the Council stemmed from the natural human response that it is not possible to say something is 'doctrine today but not doctrine tomorrow'. If evidence is required of the need for prudence and clarity of communication, one need look no further.
Ultimately, the Church is not merely a community in which members participate on a social level. It is a mystical body to which has been entrusted the salvific mission of Christ Himself. A vital part of this mission is the preservation of the Church's authenticity. Her commitment to preservation of this authenticity and self-determination has - over many centuries- been demonstrated by way of resistance to temporal powers. In our present age, influences are more subtle and the attempts to dilute the Truth more nuanced. The attacks upon the Church are similarly more ideological than physical. But, it would be wrong to suggest that the ideologies which seek to undermine Her, or reconfigure the Church to the model of their own making, are only marshalled by those external to the Church.
It is in times such as these that clarity of purpose, affirmation of belief and the consistent transmission of Truth remain irreplaceable and are in need of unequivocal declaration. This can only be achieved by a very unique form of social distancing; one in which the Church clearly and unequivocally distances Herself from those who would wish to convert Her to the canon of secular thinking and a thinly veiled philosophy which has as its core relativism and the dilution of truth itself. What better means to demonstrate this detachment than in the Church's own affirmation of the Real Presence?
There will be those who consider this to be too 'pious' a perspective. After all, for many, the word 'pious' is no longer a reference to virtue but, rather, a badge of anachronism or, worse still, pretence. Can this be so?
This week we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. A heart which, with every beat, announced His love for the children of God and a yearning to reconcile them to the Father. Nor was Our Saviour slow to instil that same desire in the hearts of those who wished to serve Him. In the coming days, the Dioceses of England and Wales remember three such individuals: St Richard of Chichester; St Thomas More and St John Fisher. In seeking to formulate and preserve the Church's social distance, one need look no further than these.
St Richard was required to exercise his episcopal authority in the face of opposition from Henry III. St Thomas More and St John Fisher require no introduction. Lay and Senior Cleric respectively, they personified commitment to the faith and a recognition of the duty of each member of the Church to uphold the Truth which it professes. These three men also exemplified the recognition of a non-negotiable reality: their resolve to be motivated by the things of God, not the conveniences of man. In the coming weeks, amidst the anticipated relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, we might spare a thought for their witness. As we do so, we might pray for a participation in the same wisdom and grace which emboldened them. We may also hope that, equipped with this same gift of the Holy Spirit, those exercising authority within the Church and called upon to make difficult decisions may hold the resolve of the Saints and the Truth which they represented as their first and last concern. That is: to be in the world, but not of it.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom - pray for us.