Stone by stone

Homily at the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Wales Conference (Carmarthen) for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time.

On Friday at the Conference, I offered a comprehensive summary of the content of Evangelii Gaudium.

On Saturday at the Conference, my sermon was a brief description of the five thresholds of Making Intentional Disciples: Trust, Curiosity, Commitment, Catechesis and Discipleship.

Medallions of Popes John 23 thru Francis from the Basilica of St Paul's Outside the WallsWhen Cardinal Newman was declared ‘Blessed‘ a few years ago, Radio 4 broadcast a play about Newman’s life. The playwright imagined that Newman’s guardian angel met him at the moment of his death and declared to him – ‘You are to become a saint!’

‘Oh no!’ said Newman. ‘Not a saint! I shall be sliced up like salami and made into bite-sized lessons for schoolchildren!’

The playwright had a point. In the Church’s official prayerbook, the Divine Office, each saint’s day begins with a short paragraph, only a few lines long, summarising the person whom the Church celebrates. In the case of an obscure martyr or founder of a Celtic church, perhaps there are only a few lines to tell. But in the case of someone like Cardinal Newman, or a Pope, who produced volumes of writings during their lifetime, a short paragraph only begins to scratch the surface. A handful of scholars will be able to tell you in minute detail what that person said and thought. But for most of us in the Church, all we get is a caricature, a few highlights – a life summed up in a tweet!

Today’s Gospel recalls how Our Lord identified Simon Peter as the rock on which he would establish his church. Since that day, many men have filled the shoes of the fisherman as Bishop of Rome, and the Lord continues to build his Church of living stones in each generation.

So far this weekend, we have paid close attention to what Pope Francis has been teaching us through his document, The Joy of the Gospel. This morning I would like us to take a step back and see how the Lord has been building up his church through the Popes that we have been blessed with in recent decades. Inevitably, I will describe each Pope by a caricature, a salami-slice of history. But that’s OK – because even before the age of Twitter, we human beings have had a habit of summing up complex situations by simple headlines. Each Pope is God’s gift to us, and part of that gift is what each Pope represents.

Our Church is called Catholic, because it is a universal Church, a church which all people are invited to belong to. There is room for many shades of opinion and different kinds of religious practice within our church. When the man at the top wants to shift opinion, he will do so by presenting one or two simple ideas. We have a tendency, as human beings, to cluster around one big idea and say “this is it!”, and so the pendulum swings from one pole to another. Then the next Pope comes along and issues a correction so those who have swung too far are encouraged back towards the centre ground. It’s imperfect – it’s messy – and it’s human. Why does God allow that rather than giving us precise instructions on how to run the Church in the Bible? If St Paul dare not speculate about God’s motives and methods to the Romans, I am not going to attempt to do so, either!

Instead, come with me on a historical tour, starting in the 16th Century. Yes, 500 years ago, some of our bishops were already proposing change. Not so many people spoke Latin any more – couldn’t we have Mass in the local languages? For a long time, centuries indeed, to avoid spills, the Precious Blood had not been offered to the people at Mass; but hadn’t Jesus said, ‘Take this all of you, and drink it’?

We very nearly had significant change half a millennium ago – but we didn’t. Why? Because some radicals were pushing too hard. The Protestant Reformers – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and their followers – were saying that worship was worthless if the people couldn’t understand it, and it wasn’t proper communion if some people didn’t drink from the chalice. Our bishops reacted by saying ‘Just to prove the Mass is valid in God’s eyes the old-fashioned way, will keep in Latin and not give the people the chalice.’ They set down the rules, and those rules stayed with us into the 20th Century.

Then the Lord gave us St John XXIII. After centuries of stability, and a string of Popes named Pius, one dared to break the mould. ‘We need change!’ he cried. ‘Open the windows of the church and let the fresh air in!’ He asked Catholics around the world to pray for the Lord to send the Spirit to renew the Church ‘as by a new Pentecost’. ‘We need a council!’ – and so Vatican II was called into being. Our first salami slice – St John XXIII, the Pope of radical change.

For four years, until the end of 1965, the world’s bishops met in Rome to refresh the Church’s teaching. Good Pope John only saw the first session; the Lord had another in mind to complete the process. Pope Paul VI presided over most of the Council, and the task of implementing it in the years which followed. Paul VI is perhaps most famous for insisting that using artificial contraception is sinful – a position he only settled on after long and fervent prayer – and for issuing the new Missal which was then translated into English, but he was also a Pope who called the Church to evangelise. He made several predictions of how society would change if we stopped treating human life as a God-given gift; sadly, these have indeed come to pass. It was during his reign that God blessed the Church with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal – and he welcomed it as a ‘chance for the church’. So our next salami slice is Paul VI, the Pope of limited change – the one to stop the pendulum swinging too far. Some will invoke ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ to defend any radical change of a teaching which seems restrictive; but rather, the true spirit of Vatican II is to aim for the new balance point set out by the bishops, in the documents issued by the Council.

Pope John Paul I, the pope who reigned for mere weeks, followed. This was no accident. His vocation was to be an enabler of change – because even cardinals are human. Only through the Lord saying ‘think again’ in such a dramatic fashion could the cardinals overcome their doubts about the direction God was nudging them in – a young, Polish Bishop called Karol Wojtyla. The Polish newcomer agreed with John Paul I that the style of Papacy needed was a balancing of the radical thrust of John XXIII and the rootedness of Paul VI.

St John Paul II, John Paul the Great! The Pope of hope and truth, of love and life. By training he was a philosopher. This meant he tried to explain the church’s stance on issues by using pure reasoning rather than the Bible. On matters of love and life, he asked the question: what if human relationships were driven by pure unselfishness? Then no-one would use sex for their own pleasure, only to make their partner happy; and the ultimate unselfishness is openness to new life. We would care for the unborn child and the aged parent because to do so is perfect love. He was willing to rethink the role of the Pope if it could improve relations with the Eastern Churches; he pointed us to HOPE, to a knowledge that there was a heavenly life beyond this one, and recognised that saints from many nations were already enjoying heavenly bliss. At the end of his life, he practised what he preached, showing the dignity of human love through the way he endured his illness and kept up his duties as best he could. St John Paul II, who called the world away from communism and from capitalism, to radical unselfishness.

Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus. A scripture scholar, the Pope of beauty and of faith. He used his expertise to write three volumes on Jesus of Nazareth, assuring us that despite the doubts expressed by other scholars, we could be confident in holding the traditional understanding that Christ was born of a Virgin, performed miracles, was crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose from death on the third day. He recognised that some Catholics had their faith nourished by the traditional Latin Mass, and that there was room for Anglicans to bring their own way of praying under the umbrella of Rome. He declared a Year of Faith, invited us to be attentive to our roots, and explore the treasures of the Church’s liturgy through performing us well as it was set down in the books. St John Paul II gave us the example of duty performed to one’s last breath; Benedict XVI set the equally important precedent of knowing when it was time to quit. Both examples are Godly; each one of us will face trials in life where we must seek God’s direction on whether to persevere or step aside. Under Benedict, the pendulum swung closer to tradition and not losing touch with our heritage.

And so to Francis! The ‘salami-slice’ Francis is the Pope of goodness, love and charity. He is swinging the pendulum away from precision towards messiness, from moral discipline, to understanding of human weakness… or so the media would have us believe.

The Church will always need to return to love when she has spent time with her attention elsewhere. As the pendulum swings, the people who heed the Pope’s teaching most diligently are often the ones who least need to; those who are straying do not always compensate, while those who are faithful may overcompensate. But this is the human condition!

Yet the Popes are not so different from one another. Everything that Pope Francis is saying about religious freedom, dialogue with other religions, and engaging with all people who seek truth – that is the teaching of Vatican II and has been echoed by each of the Popes named above. A compassionate understanding of how slowly people take the Church’s moral teaching on board was official Vatican policy years before Francis. Yes, in Francis we find a stronger call that every Christian must be a missionary disciple, must work personally for the good of the poor, and must lobby for structural change in society. But none of his predecessors would object to that!

We are called to love God and love our neighbour; a balanced faith requires us to look in both directions. When we turn too far towards human comfort, we are in danger of losing sight of God’s principles. We end up being uncritical of the world’s demands. When we look towards faithfulness to God’s revelation, we end up arguing among ourselves – does the Bible mean this or that? How much weight should we give to this prophecy or that vision? Here it is the role of the successor of Peter to bring balance. In the world, ‘I was just following orders’ is no defence. But before God’s judgment seat, ‘I was just following the Pope’s teaching’ is always a good defence, because we have the words of the Lord himself: You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.

Stone by stone, slice by slice, the Lord is building His church. We are built on John and Paul, Benedict and Francis. Right now, it is Francis who sets our direction, mindful of the Lord’s command to his namesake: rebuild my church. If you have time to read the Popes in depth, do so – their writings are rich. But if not, a salami slice will keep you going. As part of the Body of Christ, you are bread for the world. With a slice of Francis, you will surely be Good News for the Poor!