Pope Francis’ empty chair: what it means for the Year of Faith

Well, we all knew it would not be long until the next piece of papal perfervidness. It came with the pope’s no-show at a long-standing engagement in the papal diary inherited from Pope Benedict, a concert as part of the Year of Faith held at the Vatican under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Playing was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One does not need to be a culture vulture to recognize at least one movement of the symphony.

The pope, the guest of honour, did not turn up. His non-attendance was only announced on the night. The official line from Archbishop Fisichella was that Pope Francis had an “urgent task that cannot be put off but must be dealt with at the present moment”. This, of course, only raises more questions than it settles. Some are saying it reflects his priority on simplicity and solidarity with the poor (though why these pundits think the poor are against fine music is beyond me). Some have spread word that the pope told his officials that he is not “some Renaissance prince who would listen to music when there is work to be done” – a statement that conjures up images of Nero fiddling while Rome burned –  though why he would be working on Saturday night is not addressed. Fr Z wonders if the pope has taken the opportunity of having all the officials out of the house to get some off-the-record meetings in, though how this would not get back to his officials in good time is not addressed. Fr Ray Blake addresses such issues sanely.

Sandro Magister dodges the reasons, and sees an opportunity lost:

“I am not a Renaissance prince who listens to music instead of working”: this is the phrase that was put into his mouth by some of the “papists” of the curia, unaware that they were only doing him harm with this.

For Church historian Alberto Melloni, the gesture has the grandeur of “a solemn, severe peal” that confirms the innovative style of Francis.

But in reality, it has made the beginning of this pontificate even more indecipherable.

The evangelizing impulse of Pope Francis, his wanting to reach the “existential peripheries” of humanity, would in fact seem to have precisely in the language of great music a vehicle of extraordinary efficacy.

In Beethoven’s Ninth this language reaches sublime heights, makes itself comprehensible beyond all boundaries of faith, becomes a “Courtyard of the Gentiles” of incomparable evocativeness.

Benedict XVI followed his public attendance at each concert with reflections that touched the minds and hearts of those present. One year ago, after listening to none other than the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven at the theater of La Scala in Milan, pope Joseph Ratzinger concluded as follows:

“After this concert many will go to the Eucharistic Adoration, to the God who immersed himself in our suffering and continues to do so, to the God who suffers with us and for us and thus made men and women capable of sharing the suffering of the other and transforming it into love. It is precisely to this that we feel called by this concert.”

One thing I think is clear, whatever the real reason for the pope’s non attendance (and for now further speculation will prove fruitless). The Year of Faith is dead. The upcoming encyclical on Faith to be co-authored by Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict will be used by the former for other purposes: perhaps as part of a hermeneutic of continuity linking his papacy with Benedict’s; perhaps as a convenient way to get an early encyclical out and add some gravitas to a largely populist papacy.

However he has not pushed the Year of Faith at all. He honoured Benedict’s commitment as pope to lead the worldwide Eucharistic Adoration on 2 June, but only confirming it at relatively short notice (and so preventing my monastery from pursuing our original plans for a day of activities surrounding the Adoration). For some reason the Year of Faith has not featured in his papal rhetoric and agenda. It seems not to suit him or his priorities so he has been letting it die. And on Saturday night, he probably gave it the coup de grâce.

Perhaps even sadder is the fact that this concert was organised by the Council for the New Evangelization. It might not be dead, but it did suffer a humiliation: it has not enough clout to get the pope to attend one of its major events.

Pope Francis has different priorities. We had best get used to it. And pray for him.

The Empty Chair

(Photo: Reuters)

Aleteia – a great new Catholic web resource

A couple of days ago a wonderful new resource graduated from its beta testing phase to its live phase. Aleteia (and those who know their Greek will recognise the Greek word for truth) is a world-wide Catholic network for the sharing of faith resources, in service of the Truth. It is a collaboration with Google (Italy) to bring together the trending topics of interest to Catholics and all seekers of Truth. They call this approach “web-listening”.

The virtue of web-listening is that it can discover what really are the topics of interest to Catholics on the internet, those issues for which they, and others, are searching for answers. So this morning it showed as trending topics: immigration reform, gun control, Mali, Islam, religious persecution and the worldwide phenomenon of the March for Life. On the home page there are links for exploring in greater depth recent trending topics.


It is an up-to-date web initiative, so you can follow Aleteia not only by visiting its main web site but also on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ . At the bottom of the homepage is a link to two very useful resources. One is a Powerpoint presentation on Web Listening and Spirituality (while the link is in Italian, the download includes an English version of the presentation). It reveals, among other things, that last year 71% of all discussions online concerning ethics and religion came from the USA, and that 46% of all discussion on ethics and religion is conducted via social networks like Facebook and blogs. The three biggest topics in 2012 were abortion, the nature of marriage and the Year of Faith.

The second resource is an app for the Year of Faith for Android-based smartphones and tablets (it can be found on Google Play Store here – there are also versions for iPhones and iPads). It is called Porta Fidei, and has information on all the papal catechesis for the Year of Faith, as well as resources on the Creed, the Trinity and the Church, including the catecheses of Bl. John Paul II on the Creed, and also Paul VI’s Credo of the People of God. It has relevant multimedia links, and news from Aleteia on the Year of Faith. On loading it will show a thought for the day. It is, of course, free so there is no excuse not to download it as a means of deepening your involvement in the Year of Faith.

porta fidei

St Edmund’s Day

The embroidered image of St Edmund on the chasuble the Abbot will wear at Mass today.

Slowly I am emerging from a nasty dose of ‘flu. Appropriately my first full, if woozy, day back on deck will be that of the Solemnity of our patron at Douai Abbey, St Edmund, King and Martyr. Two years back I posted something on the good young king. For this year’s feast, falling as it does in the Year of Faith, one element of the story of St Edmund’s passion is worthy of particular note. It comes from Abbo’s Life of St Edmund:

Eventually it happened that the Danes came with a ship-army, harrying and slaying widely throughout the land, as is their custom… Soon afterwards he [ie Ivar, the Danes’ chieftan] sent to King Edmund a threatening message, that Edmund should submit to his allegiance, if he cared for his life. The messenger came to King Edmund and boldly announced Ivar’s message: “Ivar, our king, bold and victorious on sea and on land, has dominion over many peoples, and has now come to this country with his army to take up winter-quarters with his men. He commands that you share your hidden gold-hordes and your ancestral possessions with him straight away, and that you become his vassal-king, if you want to stay alive, since you now do not have the forces to resist him.”

Then said King Edmund, since he was completely brave: “This I heartily wish and desire, that I not be the only survivor after my beloved thegns are slain in their beds with their children and wives by these pirates. It was never my way to flee. I would rather die for my country if I need to. Almighty God knows that I will never turn from worship of Him, nor from love of His truth. If I die, I live.”

After these words he turned to the messenger who Ivar had sent him, and, undaunted, said to him: “In truth you deserve to be slain now, but I will not defile my clean hands with your vile blood, because I follow Christ who so instructed us by his example; and I happily will be slain by you if God so ordain it. Go now quickly and tell your fierce lord: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen warlord, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.'”

King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Saviour, threw out his weapons. He wanted to match the example of Christ, who forbade Peter to win the cruel Jews with weapons…

Young St Edmund seemingly had two choices: to submit to bondage to the heathen Danes and so preserve the earthly lives of his Christian people (perhaps! – the Danes were not foremost in keeping their word), or to resist against overwhelming odds in the hope of winning a pyrrhic victory for honour and Christian liberty at the cost of his peoples’ lives.

The king however found a third way.  It was an evangelizing way. He would witness to faith in Christ first by imitating His non-violence, and secondly by offering to submit to Ivar if Ivar would submit in his turn to Christ. A masterstroke: a non-violent way of upholding the primacy of faith in Christ. The fault then became doubly that of Ivar: he not only slaughtered an innocent and unarmed man, but did so explicitly rejecting Christ. In the midst of his cruelties Ivar was offered the chance to repent and believe the Gospel. St Edmund set before him life and death, and Ivar chose death; not merely the physical death of St Edmund, but his own spiritual death.

The boss of St Edmund in the roof vaulting of Douai Abbey church.

In the modern context St Edmund’s example is a reminder that Christ comes first, not least Christ crucified: whoever would follow Christ must, at some stage at least, carry the Cross with Him. No Cross, no glory. St Edmund’s death is a reminder too that non-violence is most truly the Christian response. This is not to reject the morality of self-defence. Yet in a gun-saturated world obsessed with retaliation in the face of wrong, the only certain way of ending the cycle of violence is for one party finally to repent of violence, even to the point of death. How much of Himself would Christ see in the gun-toting, gun-loving minority of Christians in the USA?

Which brings us to the last lesson of St Edmund’s passion and death: that physical life must yield in importance to spiritual life, and that our sufferings now are as nothing compared to the glory that awaits those who stand firm in Christ. St Paul puts it better:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
(Romans 8:16-18 ESV)

Happy feast!

St Edmund, King and Martyr – pray for us.