I made the photograph above in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, the oldest part of the Abbey, completed around 1255. Here, the monks would gather and read the Rule of St Benedict. It is also the place where the King’s Great Council first met in 1257, this later becoming what we now know as the British Parliament.
It’s strange being in a place where the same faith I profess was being practised more than seven hundred and fifty years ago. It is the same faith, yet it is a different expression of that faith today. The essentials are unchanged, of course, but our understanding of the faith, what it means, and how it should best be lived, has developed enormously across those years.
That sense of development and deepening in the understanding – and application – of faith is very apparent in the Church today, at this particular moment of human history. There are many things which once would have been considered permissible by the Church and yet which now, we would certainly not countenance – amongst these, slavery stands out, as does the burning of those thought to be witches.
Similarly, the very thought of the ‘Holy Inquisition’ is not considered now to be a work of God, but an work of immense evil which resulted in countless deaths; and while it was all done in the name of religion, a real and living faith had nothing to do with it and was certainly not reflected in it.
Clearly, then, it is possible – indeed, downright easy – to separate the practice of a religion from the authentic living out of faith.
The problems seem to start when the religion itself (and not the faith it points toward) becomes the goal – in this way, that religion assumes the proportions of an idol in its own right. It is no longer the means to finding something true and good and beautiful, but has become an end in its own right.
The ‘perfect’ adherence to religion often seems to be in inverse proportion to the authentic living out of faith. And the reason for this is fairly self-evident, I suppose – when we focus on how well we are sticking to the rules, we tend to forget what those rules are intended to direct us toward; and as we do so, we find ourselves getting further and further away from a true faith, and closer and closer to becoming what the Scriptures call “a whitened sepulchre” – something seemingly clean and pure on the outside, but filled with decay interiorly.
Pope Francis touches on these themes frequently and often. He sees clearly that we are in danger of thinking of the Church as nothing more than a set of rules which we need to keep (for want of a better word) ‘religiously’.
The Holy Father is trying his best to lead us in a process of what might be called ‘re-authentication’ – he would much prefer that we authentically live out our faith, even in the midst of getting things wrong and making a mess of things, so long as it is based on a real relationship with Christ and looks always toward Him, and Him alone. There is a need for rules, certainly – but ‘Church’ is far, far more than simply obeying rules.
It is perfectly possible to outwardly follow all the rules while inwardly having no faith whatsoever. Conversely, it is also possible to often break the rules, get things wrong, make all sorts of mistakes and yet still find ourselves moving ever closer to Christ the Lord. It is the trying and the moving forward that matter, not how well we obey the rules in all the minute detail. There is a very good reason why in His own day, Christ so vehemently criticised the Pharisees, whose good appearance was skin deep only. Like Christ, Pope Francis would much refer a Church which is properly holy and humble and poor.
Speaking about some of these themes, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM, of Parramatta in Australia, had this to say in a homily he gave recently –
“Pope Francis is intent on steering the Barque of Peter away from the old way of being Church which is steeped in a culture of triumphalism, worldly power and splendour. Indeed, he has inverted the pyramid model with its penchant for ostentation, pomp and circumstance. In his teachings and symbolic gestures, he has challenged us to embrace the Church of simplicity, poverty and humility. As an embodiment of the Gospel, we endeavour to be the compassionate face of God for the poor and afflicted.”
Although speaking in a particular way to clerics, the Bishop offers a warning which applies to all of us, when he says “we must confront the question of how much our practice of religion has to do with integrity, servant-leadership and vulnerability, and how much it has to do with the cultivation of our image”.
If our faith is not about service, not about seeing Christ in others and treating them accordingly, then it is not faith – it is mere religion. If our religion is about nothing more than how well we are doing it, so that it is purely self-referential, then we have become our own gods, a living idol in our own eyes. The Bishop tells us that in this case, “We need to be purified of the shallow, self-serving and false holiness”.
Looking around social media, there seems to be a lot of that shallowness on display – we seem to have learned little from the days of the Pharisees.
Of course, there is an inherent danger that while we perceive such attitudes to be present in others, we may also fail to see them within ourselves. And so, even as I write all this, I am in need of asking myself – at least often, but preferably frequently – am I describing myself here, too? And that can be a hard question to answer, if we are seeking to do so properly. But again, the important thing is that we are trying to ask the question and trying to change ourselves as necessary, depending on the answers we give ourselves.
It is all too easy, I find, to look broadly at “the Church” and see all sorts of issues. And there may indeed be all sorts of issues there to be seen. However, I am not the Holy Father, so my primary responsibility is not “the Church” – my first job is my own sanctification, followed swiftly by leading by example for the sanctification of others. I have to remind myself that sanctification is simply not possible without being built firmly on the foundation-stone of humility. The former cannot exist except in the presence of the latter.
That remembrance alone ought to remind me that more often than speaking, I should perhaps stop and consider what it is I am inclined to say and ask myself what good it will achieve. On many of those occasions, I might find that I conclude it is better for me to remain silent than to speak. And in that silence, perhaps I ought to be listening a little more than I am doing at present, having chosen carefully the voices to which I will listen. That of the Pope is always a good place to start.
Or, as the Bishop wrote when he touched on something similar –
“To use a biblical metaphor, God has poured a new wine through the papacy of Francis. This new wine needs new wineskins of humility, mutuality, compassion and powerlessness. The old wineskins of triumphalism, authoritarianism and self-reference abetted by clerical power, superiority, and rigidity are broken. The servant leadership of Pope Francis is indicative of the new era of hope, even if we are struggling to find our way in the emerging and unfamiliar landscape.”
In short, then, what I should be seeking is my own conversion – and that conversion is an on-going, never-ending process; a journey (and an exciting one!) which does not end this side of death. And it is only on the otters side of it that we will find out how well we have done.
Of course, it doesn’t end with me, nor with any one of us – remember the second part of our task, that of leading by example to sanctify others? Well, if we get it sufficiently right, with the grace of God which alone makes this possible, then we might find that we change the Church and even the whole world.
Sanctification is a funny old thing. Look at the Apostles. How often they got it wrong! How many times Peter denied the Lord! How frequently they broke the rules, got into arguments and then realised their numerous errors along the way. And yet they became Saints. Not only this, but they are the very foundations of the Church.
Looking to their example, then, we see perfectly well that all I describe here is perfectly possible. Yes, the Saints got it wrong – and often. But they didn’t;lt stop when they did so – they kept trying, ket getting up when they fell, and kept moving forward toward the Lord.
Today, this is the journey Pope Francis asks us to make – that individual process of on-going conversion. But he knows full well that if enough of us begin the journey, then we will take the Church along with us, because we are the Church. But it has to start with humility, littleness, accompaniment, compassion, mercy; perhaps the antithesis of what we often perceive within ourselves – but there is hope. There is always hope. And our hope does not deceive us. In this way, a personal conversion can ultimately become a collective conversion.
Today, then, I will start with me. I will try to do just a little better than I did yesterday. And tomorrow I will try to do a little better than I am doing today. And so I shall continue.
Why not join me in doing so.