Unto Us

In the time it took the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly to kill 17 people, around 500,000 children were killed in the wombs of their mothers.

One of the consequences of 24 hour news and social media is that you get to observe the moral confusion that would normally go on solely in people’s minds were they not to have a laptop in front of them. Ill considered, irrational, ‘extreme’ actions tend to provoke the same response, and now we get to see what they look like. For example, one minute a person will proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’, and you can almost see the thought process, like the guys who can read the code in the Matrix, “Oh wait, Charlie Hebdo was a right wing mag. That’s bad, isn’t it?” Next status update: ‘Je suis Ahmed!’, and so it goes on. When I think of my electronic trail, I shudder. My confused little brain splattered all over the web forever.

One moment, reported after the event, troubled me. It was the interview with Michele Catalano, the Kouachi brothers’ final hostage. Captured by these ‘monsters’, he found that they were quite polite, friendly even. They shook hands and assured him that they did not intend to kill him. He made them cups of coffee, dressed wounds and was eventually set free. “Damn”, the unarticulated word in my heart, “they’re human now”. They too, were some mother’s sons, brought to birth in pain and love (they necessarily go together in this life). I wished I hadn’t heard that, because now I felt for them. My moral confusion had been transformed into moral obligation by the revelation of their humanity. So I prayed for them.

The humanity of the subjects concerned in most debates over abortion usually involve one casualty, if not materially, then always notionally. Abortion is ‘the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth’ (Evangelium Vitae #58). This is no more than a strict rational and scientific definition of the act, no judgment is yet implied. From facts, we can move to judgments of the moral quality of an action. Thank God, most people today deem the death penalty for criminals to be morally unjustifiable, and even those who don’t would hold that ending innocent life is wrong. Seeing as the human being in the womb could not be more innocent, there would seem to be no category of person for whom the killing of an unborn child is morally justifiable. And yet… 500,000.

For such a number to die (the global annual figure is around 50 million), a state of collective, mutual forgetfulness must take place, of many of those who champion the right to choose abortion and those who champion the right to life of the unborn child. The opposed views can both agree – I’m not saying that they always do, but they can – that there are two subjects directly involved in the question of abortion, the mother and the unborn child, and that they are both human beings. Reason dictates that they do. What can be so easily forgotten is the humanity, so to speak, of the human beings in question. The unborn child is in a more precarious situation because he or she lacks even the simplest form of defense: ‘He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears’ (Evangelium Vitae #59). I’m sure that legislation for abortion is defended by many good hearted and compassionate men and woman who can visibly see and experience the suffering of women who have been made pregnant as a result of rape or long term abuse. The humanity of these victims is evident, their suffering is evident, and compassion for the one who can be seen takes over. We want to take the problem away, or ease the pain of suffering. However, if we take too long to meditate on the humanity of the person in the womb, helping the person before our eyes becomes more difficult, because now we assume the moral obligation to care for both equally. From the ‘pro-life’ perspective, the noble desire to defend the defenceless can often lead us to forget or at least sideline the concerns and needs of the vulnerable mother, often alone, abused, and afraid. It is easy to bemoan the immorality of present society, or a consumerist culture which allows abortion for even the most trivial reasons, but do we weep for the abused, the unloved and afraid? Do we give of our own resources, do we give of our own time and convenience, engaging with the fragile human face of the mother? If not, can we truly say that we are pro-life?

The extreme cases do not justify the morally unjustifiable, but unless our response is extreme love, love which sacrifices all to save both lives from oblivion, then a true culture of life will never be fostered. We need to feel the pain of those who suffer, the broken heart of the mother who mourns her child but feels she has no one to turn to. We need to surround with love the 11-year-old rape victim who cannot even comprehend what is happening to her. God created the world in an eternal act of love and redeemed it with a supreme sacrificial gift. How can life be won if it is not borne of self-sacrificing, compassionate love?

One of the hurdles that a young man has to leap in his application for seminary is to have a psychological examination. Mine consisted of an interview with a psychologist from Brighton. The dilemma he presented to me that day still resonates. He asked me:

“What would you do if a woman came to you and told you she’d just had an abortion?”

“I would try to help her to think on it and ask if she wanted to go to confession”

“No, no. She has thought on it. She is convinced it was the right thing to do”

“Then I would have to try to convince her otherwise.”

“That’s not going to work. She is crying, she is distraught. She has come to you. What are you going to do?”

“…. I guess I’ll just hold her”

He had forced me into a corner. I was trying to solve a problem, but the doctor would not let me escape the human face of the person so desperately in need of love. I would not be able to save the life of the child already dead, but I could be part of the redemption of the life of the one I held, and those she bore in future. We all have a chance to be a part of such privileged moments. On those moments, a culture of life is built.

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The Son of God Became a Man for Me

I think I’m going to make an annual habit of coming to Rome for the 6th of January. This morning – with my fellow pilgrims Roisin and Aisling, I was at Mass over the tomb of St Peter with Pope Francis for the feast of the Epiphany, and in the evening, I concelebrated Mass over the tomb of his holy namesake, St Francis of Assisi. Quite a day!

You might well ask, “Gosh Father, haven’t you had enough religion over Christmas?” My answer would be a flat no. Christmas is a busy time for everybody, in one way or another, and I’m sure many of my brothers will understand what that means for a priest. Congregations swell over Christmas Eve and Christmas day as people add that final Christmassy tingle to their festivities before falling in a heap on Boxing Day and wanting it to be over. So just as Christmas has finally begun, its life has been sucked out. It’s sales time, after all.

Christmas – the celebration of the Birth of the Word Made Flesh, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – has been literally consumed, in England, by CHRISTMAS: a big fat mouth that just wants to eat your wallet. The increasingly pathetic attempts by our advertisers and TV producers to manufacture ‘that Christmas feeling’ without Christ makes for depressing viewing. It’s boring, and the Christian air in this country has become so thin as to be unbreathable. Thank God for good friends of faith.

I remember the story of Cardinal Basil Hume, approached by a Television reporter. The reporter asked him, “so Cardinal Hume, what does Christmas mean for you?” to which he simply responded “the Son of God became a man for me.” That is the awe-filled mystery of Christmas. A thousand lifetimes of contemplation could not do it justice. Thank God we have at least twelve days a year to feast our minds on it.

Shamefully, I rarely do. But this year was a bit different. New Year’s Day began with a midnight celebration of Mass on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, preceded by a Holy Hour before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament – I was pleased by the turnout; it’s a keeper – and then a flight to Rome at the crack of dawn. In the intervening days, we have climbed the Scala Sancta (the staircase of Pontius Pilate’s palace, where Jesus was tried) on our knees, prayed at the four major Basilicas, the shrine of St Paul’s martyrdom, at a newly discovered Marian Shrine (Our Lady of the Revelation, she deserves her own blog!), before the true Cross of Christ in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme…. way too much stuff to keep on listing! This has been crowned by the daily celebration of Mass at the Altar of the Crib in Saint Mary Major. Above the altar, encased in glass, is what is believed to be a relic of the Sacred Crib, in which the child Jesus slept his first nights on earth. Who knows? However, the fact that this sacred relic had carried the prayers of so many men and women over the centuries, that they had pinned their hopes on the one who became a man for them, really moved me as I looked forward at the elevation of the host. My hands, the sacred crib, both holding the Word Made Flesh. Simply awesome.

A great crowd was gathered on the main square of Assisi this evening, as we walked to the Basilica of St Francis for Mass. Befana, the Epiphany Witch, was climbing down the tower, cheered on by children and filmed by the adults with their ‘selfie-sticks’. Befana is bigger than Father Christmas in Italy, and her origins are entirely Christian. Legend has it that she bumped into the Magi a few days before they found Jesus. They asked her where they might find the infant king, but she had no clue. However, being a good host, she invited the Magi to rest at her home that night. The next day, they set off, and invited her to join them on their quest. She refused, but later had a change of heart and set out in search of the wise men and Jesus. She’s still looking today, and pops by every Epiphany eve to fill the stockings of children with sweets. A cultural icon, still ‘in cammino’ – to quote our Holy Father’s homily this morning – toward the child Jesus, like all of us who love him. How much more ‘Christmassy’ can Christmas get?

Today is the last full day, and we set off to the tombs of St Francis and St Clare. Brother and sister in Christ, joined more closely than any fleshly bond will allow, they found their true life bound up in the Christmas mystery, in the one who became exceedingly poor on earth so that he may make us exceedingly rich in the things of heaven. I’ll be back next year!