Friday, 5 October 2012

Visiting the Portiuncula

The General Chapter turned out to be a great experience: full of ups and downs, inspiring and frustrating, and not boring at all – despite being five weeks long. There will be plenty to share as I slowly digest it all over the coming weeks. But in this post I would like to start with a reflection on just a couple of incidents that gave me particular food for thought.

From small beginnings
On my last full day in Italy we travelled back to Rome from San Giovanni Rotondo – a long coach journey through varied terrain. While passing among the mountains I spotted a ruined chapel in the woods, and it occurred to me that if Francesco Bernadone has not answered his call, such might have been the chapel of San Damiano or the Portiuncula. They would be ruins in the forest, near to the small and unregarded town of Assisi.

Thanks be to God, St. Francis did obey the voice of Christ speaking to him in San Damiano. So now that chapel stands as key place of pilgrimage for the millions who visit Assisi. The Portiuncula, meanwhile, not only remains to welcome pilgrims, but is housed in the middle of a huge basilica. A wise woman, after her first trip to Assisi, remarked that the situation of the Portiuncula – a small, simple chapel enclosed by a grand, ornate basilica – is a parable of the Franciscan charism. And while that was said with a certain amount of sorrow at the lost simplicity of Franciscan beginnings, it helped me to understand some positive implications of the Chapter’s visit to the Portiuncula.

A worldwide brotherhood
The brothers gathered at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels numbered a little less than two hundred; and yet, although we were less than 2% of the whole Capuchin Order, we could not in any way fit into the chapel of the Portiuncula. We had to gather in front of it for the liturgy celebrated there. But at the key part of the liturgy we did enter the little chapel, filing through only a few at a time, and then moving on out again into the vast space of the basilica. And as we passed through that place where the Order had its beginnings, the General presented each of us with a lighted candle, exhorting us to “Relight the flame of our charism!” Slowly, therefore, the church was filled with these little flames, each one coming from the little chapel at its heart.

I found this ceremony deeply significant. For a start, the very fact that we could not all fit into the Portiuncula was a reminder that we could not, as a whole Order, go back to the lifestyle of St. Francis and his first companions. We have grown beyond that – even in Francis’ lifetime we had grown beyond that. The huge diversity of Capuchin conditions and ministries today, and the developments of the world, cannot be fitted into that original manner of living the Gospel.

On the other hand, as the General’s gesture showed, we not only can, but we must enter somehow into that original experience if we are to renew our Franciscan life. The flame of our 21st-century charism must be lit from the flame of the 13th-century. What is needed is that desire for 'ressourcement', for a return to the sources, which the Second Vatican Council asked of religious orders, lest our life be completely detached from our founder and drift more and more into worldly ways. And this return to the sources cannot be merely an intellectual experience, but needs also to be a lived reality, a true entering-into our beginnings.

Living the dream
Just as the friars at the Chapter had to file through the Portiuncula a few at a time, so we in the British Province have to take turns to revisit the life of St. Francis and his brothers. As we are thus renewed, we take our rekindled spirits back into the wider fraternity. In fact, one such recurrent experience is already written into our Capuchin life. I refer to the annual retreat, which is a chance to enter again the Portiuncula of prayer, that prayer so foundational to Francis’ life and the life of the first Capuchins. We light again the flame of our contemplative life, and bring it back with us into our fraternities.

In our Province we have been blessed with more extended and more communal visits to the Portiuncula. The friaries at Penmaenmawr, Hollington, and Preston were returns – although only partial returns, it is true – to the primitive manner of Franciscan life, each fraternity developing a different take on that life. Those of us who lived in or otherwise experienced those fraternities have been granted a fresh vision of what is possible, and have carried this flame into the next stage of our Capuchin life.

Many friars can name experiences which have reconnected them to the primitive charism. Now, however, we will turn our minds to other possibilities, to new ways in which friars can enter – a few at a time – our humble beginnings. These ways may be quite similar to recent ventures, or they may be more innovative. We might take a cue from Cantalamessa’s talk at the 2009 Chapter of Mats and focus on experiences of prayer, poverty, and preaching – which he identified as foundational elements of the Franciscan charism. Or we might take our inspiration from other elements, such as Francis’ service to the lepers, which he desired to return to at the end of his life.

Our ongoing formation programme during these 3 years is an opportunity to renew our basic understanding of our Franciscan life, as we reflect on the first sentence of the Rule. We will also reflect on what lived responses that understanding calls for, what ways we can revisit the Portiuncula and the flame of our charism.

The Lord is in charge
We often lack imagination to see the ways forward and are slow to take up the challenges involved. So it may be that Lord in His mercy will place us in the necessary situations, where our only choice will be whether or not to embrace the experience. I am thinking particularly of an inspiring anecdote in the General Minister’s report, with which I will conclude:

“A few days before Easter 2009, Abruzzo (Italy) and in particular the city of Aquila, was struck by a devastating earthquake which claimed many lives. Many parts of our own friary were badly damaged, and it would have been easy enough for our brothers to find hospitality in one of the other friaries of the province. But the friars of Abruzzo decided to stay put, sharing the same conditions as those who had nowhere else to go. I went to visit them! There they were, living in tents or in the compartment of a railway carriage, lining up to get food from the field kitchen, and never once did they cease to make the Lord present by celebrating Mass in the tent they had been assigned.”

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Society of Pope Paul VI

On the letters pages of the latest edition of The Tablet, a correspondent notes that "There's something for almost everyone [in today's Catholic Church], what with the Tridentine/Latin Mass cohort, the ordinariate, and now the proposed Society of St Pius X personal prelature." She goes on to suggest that other Catholics need to "grab a label or two if they are to be noticed and survive", and she observes that "the Vatican II movement... remains curiously, uniquely, unblessed by Rome."

I think this is an excellent point, and it links with a suggestion I've often made to those who are disgruntled with the current Pope's policies – especially things like his overtures to the Society of St. Pius X or the promulgation of the new English translation of the Missal. I suggest that all proponents of 'the spirit of Vatican II' should come together to form the Society of Pope Paul VI. The English-speaking members of this society would be particularly distinguished by their insistence on preserving the purity of the 1973 English translation, and will hold popular Masses using the Missal of Pope Paul VI, with the congregations defiantly shouting the time-honoured response, "And also with you!"

Hopefully, the leader of this Society will be a bishop; because then, in his concern over Pope Benedict's policy of appointing conservative bishops everywhere, he will unilaterally consecrate a few bishops who can preserve the spirit of Vatican II, and thus be promptly excommunicated. The Society will then spend a few decades on the fringes of the Church, but enjoying a much higher profile than its numbers would seem to merit.

Eventually, a more liberal-leaning Pope will welcome the Society of Pope Paul VI back into the fold, much to the chagrin of mainstream Catholics, who will see this as a backwards step.

Friday, 13 January 2012


It has been suggested to me that I should write a post on leadership. I cannot help but feel, however, after my grand total of three months in a position of authority, that I don't yet have the knowledge and experience necessary to say much about leadership. But I do know a lot about The Lord of the Rings, so I will share some of what that story has taught me about leadership.

The Rings of Power
"It began with the forging of the Great Rings... For within these Rings was bound the strength and the will to govern over each race."

Tolkien was very insistent that his writings were not allegorical. What he would allow, however, was that the tales were mythological – and deliberately so. Being mythological, they necessarily deal with universal themes, in ways applicable to 'ordinary' life. He also said that the different races of Middle-Earth – most especially the Elves – represent different aspects or potentialities of the human race. With this in mind, we can reflect how the Rings of Power embody different aspects of power and authority.

The One Ring, of course, embodies the "will to dominate all life." In Tolkien's thought, the great evil of 'Magic', as opposed to the 'Art' of the Elves, is that it is about bending people or things to one's will. This is one way in which leadership can be exercised. So it is significant, of course, that this Ring has a twisting and corrupting influence upon the one who bears it.

Another way, however, can be seen in the Three Rings – the Elven Rings untouched by Sauron in their making. The power of these rings is in preserving, healing, and strengthening. Such is the true purpose of leadership.

Tolkien, therefore, allows us to see in distinction the two divergent paths that those in power can take. By doing so, he sketches out the perennial hope that power can be wielded in a pure and noble manner, such as we see in the Elven Rings. That turns out, however, to be a vain hope: not only does the existence of the One Ring provide a constant threat, and at times a temptation, to the bearers of the Three; but the destruction of that One Ring means that the power of the Three also fails. All of which nicely illustrates that the 'good power' and 'bad power' cannot in reality be separated, for it is not the power itself which is good or bad, but the use to which it is put.

What, then, can I learn from the example of the Ring-bearers? For as I see it, I too am a Ring-bearer.

Let's look first at the bearers of the Three – namely, Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf (this may be a surprise to those who have only seen the films, which reveal the Ring of Galadriel alone). Elrond and Galadriel use their Rings – Vilya and Nenya, respectively – to protect and nurture their realms of Rivendell and Lothlorien. Gandalf, however, rules no place, and uses his Ring, Narya, in his wandering mission of encouraging, strengthening, and guiding the Free Peoples' resistance to Sauron. Gandalf's example is thus more suitable for a Franciscan, because he never takes lasting authority in any place, and has no claim over anyone except those who freely choose to follow his lead.

It is notable that all three of them keep their Rings secret – the threat of Sauron's dominating power means that it is better to keep their own power hidden. And the lesson I draw from this is that even benevolent authority does well to bear itself modestly, or almost hide itself altogether (the 'Messianic Secret' comes to mind here).

Frodo, as the bearer of the One Ring, demonstrates how to handle the corrupting and malign side of power. He exercises true leadership in two ways: firstly, by simply refraining from the use of the Ring; and secondly, by preventing others from using it. For it is part of the service that authority renders, that it prevents power from being wielded to the hurt of others. Very often, it is better that power not be used at all, than it be used in the wrong way. It is an essential part of leadership to sometimes say "No".

A true leader, therefore, restrains and contains the destructive side of authority. But, as in the case of Frodo, this task wears him down – the ever-present temptation to use his power to dominate, to bend others to his will, cannot be humanly (or hobbitly) resisted. So the ultimate mission of the Ring-bearer is to cast away and destroy this corrupting aspect of power. As I noted above, however, this means doing away with power altogether...

So the final example of leadership is Aragorn, who renounces the chance to take and use the One Ring. This enables him to go forward and become a great leader, inspiring rather than forcing others, and to return to Gondor as its king. The destruction of the Ring means that the great temptation to bend others to his will is no longer there, but it also means that the power of the Elven Rings is gone. So the final lesson of The Lord of the Rings seems to be that leadership in the Age of Men can only properly be exercised without recourse to extraneous sources of power.

The Hand of Providence
A few other random lessons that I've gathered from Tolkien's great work may be quickly shared.

"This task was appointed to you, Frodo, and if you do not find a way, no-one will." These words of Galadriel are a good example of the 'divine passive' in The Lord of the Rings. Another example is when Gandalf tells Frodo that he 'was meant' to have the Ring. Who meant him to have, or who appointed the task to him, is left unsaid; but of course Tolkien is implicitly referring to God, Who is guiding the course of events. And in both cases I have mentioned, the further implication is that He knows what He is doing, and therefore Frodo should not doubt that success is possible. So I too can trust in God, that my appointment to this task is no mistake, and that I am under His care.

"You are a Ring-bearer, Frodo: to bear a Ring of Power is to be alone." However much others may help me in my role of leadership, in the end the buck stops with me. No-one can bear that responsibility for me.

That said, although others can't carry the burden for me, they can carry me.

Finally, from Bilbo I learn the lesson of giving up the power when the time comes: when he left Bag End to Frodo, the time had come for him to leave the Ring to him as well. The fact that he gave it up freely, unlike most other bearers of the Ring, is very important. When my time comes, I hope I can do the same, and so live happily ever after, to the end of my days.