Daily Archives: July 12, 2011

Of Old Women, Joy, And The Vale Of Tears

Michelangelo, " Pieta' "

Perhaps it is just me, but I do not remember hearing so much talk of “joy” from Catholics when I was living in Italy, or Germany. Actually, not anywhere near as much. On the contrary, I remember a different accent being put on things: that life is a vale of tears I have heard infinite times as a child, and that we must bear sufferance with resignation was another leitmotiv.

Notice here that the people from whom I heard these words (mainly my grandmothers, and their sisters) where, generally speaking – and as most Italians, by the grace of God, undoubtedly are – rather serene, reasonably happy, good-natured and good-humoured people. So much so, that as a child – eagerly registering every word of the adults – you have some problems in reconciling these mostly jovial, smiling, loving old women with the affirmations they were spreading around as if they were the most natural things on earth.

When I came here, I started to hear a different tune. You talk with some Catholic and you think that they have just come from some Protestant superchurch, or spent a couple of hours listening to protestant tv evangelists. I am not talking only of people in the pews here, but also of priests. I’ll never forget the Franciscan in Notting Hill who thought he was a fat and bald version of Joel Osteen, and felt undoubtedly very cool in being so. You listened to him and you thought that life is just a huge amusement park, and your duty to enjoy every moment of the fun whilst shouting “praise the Lord” all the time. Sufferance was just swept aside.

Granted, such priests will tell you that the joy is about the Good News, but crucially, notice that these are invariably the priests you’ll very rarely hear focusing on….. the bad news: the very real, ever-present possibility of hell and the unavoidable reality of sufferance and trial, of disease and death, of bereavement and bitter tears. They just sweep all of this aside, and then you understand that all this talking of “joy” is actually a big process of removal of the unpleasant realities of life and, more often than not, of the unpleasant duties of a Catholic. If you want additional evidence of this, think of another show of Protestantism utterly unknown in the world in which I grew up: the turning of funerals into “celebrations”.
When you have become a party master you can never allow the party to be interrupted, lest the guests notice that the party is not such a great fun after all, and the party master a bit of a smoke seller.

All this focusing on joy sounds very much “new age” to me, and dangerously shallow. It seems to me that those people of a couple of generations ago – those you never heard talking of such things – had a better measure of Catholicism, and of life. They didn’t invite sufferance for sure, but they were under no childish illusion about the nature of our journey on earth. What they appeared to have most in mind was not really their supposed joy, but rather Our Lords’ Passion. As a result, they were acutely aware of the significance and richness of a correct dealing with sufferance in a proper Catholic fashion. The “vale of tears” was reminded to them every time they recited the “Hail, Holy Queen” – which must have been, for many of them, daily -, and this kind of preparedness allowed them to both cope better with the reverses of life, and to make the most of them spiritually.

I don’t see much of this today. Rather I see – as in other matters, too – a protestantisation of English Catholicism; a desire to be like the neighbour attending the church at the other end of the road, shouting his “joyous” message and fully immersed in his “feelings”; and then, possibly, divorcing his spouse because no one told him about the vale of tears. A dangerous thing, joy. If I am supposed to be oh so joyful a witness for Christ, why shouldn’t I divorce if this allows me to give God my joy, be a luminous witness of my joy in Christ, & Co? Is it such a surprise that as the perception of life as a vale of tears fades in the background, the number of divorced Catholics increases? How is it that as the accent shifts on our joy, the serenity of our children slowly fades in the background? “It is better for them, too”. Really?

In traditionally Catholic countries it worked -and, I would say, it largely still works – differently. This fixation with being “witnesses of joy” is just not there – not at the popular, everyday level I mean – because the Protestant neighbour with the amusement park mentality is just not there, either. I met the first chap telling me that he had “met Jesus” and wanted to “share his joy” outside of Italy, already in my twenties; he was a Canadian and I thought that he had some screws loose, so unusual, outlandish was his entire way of thinking and talking. We didn’t grow up with this “joy” thing, at all. We didn’t “meet” Jesus. Rather, your grandma would put you in front of a crucifix and make you kneel and pray, this was our “meeting Jesus”. Again, our ancestors didn’t share much the “joy” thing, as they did the Passion. What I distinctly remember, though, was the immense respect for people, like Padre Pio, who had suffered all their lives. This is what, if you ask me, I’d say that sat – and probably still sits – deepest in people’s consciousness.

And this is also what allowed them to carry on; what gave strenght to the widows; what consoled the wives with a husband and father, or with a son on the front line; what helped men to work hard, alone, in another continent, for the ones they loved; what helped people to help each other as they helped themselves. I know this, because I am old enough to have directly experienced, or heard from eyewitnesses,  the way that generation coped with sufferance and misery, and made of it a treasure. Believe me, it worked.

You might think that this is an old-fashioned way to look at things; that it goes together with the fire and brimstone about which the abovementioned old ladies also talked without any problem; fire and brimstone that you will, tellingly, rarely find on the lips of the apostles of “joy”, the idea of gnashing of teeth being a bit of a theological party pooper. I think, on the other hand, that this is more authentic Catholic fare: not so sweet perhaps, but healthier in the end, and truly nourishing.

It’s not a walk in the park, the old ladies were saying. It’s serious. Literally, deadly serious. But this doesn’t mean that they were funereal people themselves! Actually, the contrary is the case! They were simply much better equipped to cope with life, and to get to heaven, than the present generation is. Their absence of illusions made them, in the end, more serene people, giving them more of exactly that “joy” the others are so focused about.

If I compare the old Catholic mentality with the new protestantised version I found here in England, it is not a surprise to me that divorce be so widespread among modern Catholics. They are just not equipped to deal with the, alas, harsh realities of life; they have been raised in a world where happiness is expected, nay, demanded and considered a right. By all the focusing on the joy, no one has told them of the sorrow, and the tears, and the hard gym this life is for everyone of us.

Those old women of the past had a wisdom in them that no trendy priest will ever get near to. Divorce would have seemed absurd to them, the search for individual happiness at the cost of disobedience a thing of the devil.

No much talk of “joy” there. But I am in no doubt as to who lived, and died, better.


The Disease And The Wrong Cure

A dedicated, strong priest never looks ridiculous or weak. Never.

Read here an article of the National Catholic Reporter about the vocation crisis among the US Hispanics.

The article is particularly interesting for some, I think, rather extraordinary affirmations of Auxiliary Bishop Nevares of Phoenix; affirmations that I would like to share with you:

Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares of Phoenix believes that because Hispanics have such a strong sense of family that they don’t want to leave to attend seminary

This is very interesting. We learn from this that in the past, when Mexico and Latin America didn’t even know how to spell “vocation crisis”, the sense of the family must not have been so strong. Bad times, I suppose.

Even better is the second explanation:

Additionally, young Hispanic men have a sense of obligation to help support the family financially, which they cannot do in the seminary.

This is also very instructive, because it teaches us that in the past, when Mexico was infinitely poorer than the Hispanics today living in the US are, young boys did not hesitate in plunging their families into destitution and utter misery.

Bishop Nevares’s conclusion is, then, perfectly aligned with his “pass the buck” premises:

“We need to persuade young married people that having a son that is a priest is honorable and will bring many blessings to a family,” said the bishop. “It is a wonderful gift to have a child that is a priest.”

Yes, let us make a bit of marketing for the priesthood, says the bishop. If we just could explain. Perhaps a Power Point presentation would be useful? This way the bishop could impress the family, who would then say to him “Pedro and Armando are already too much into wine and songs, but we’ll talk to our youngest, Benito, who might be interested”.

It seems to me that bishop Nevares looks for the culprit in the wrong place – the society out there – rather than where he should – inside the Church structures, and in the mentality reigning within her -.

The mere idea of a bishop thinking that priesthood be a matter of mentality of his faithful is not very reassuring. This is an entirely secular thinking, which in turn cannot but reflect the way a diocese organises its affairs and, in turn, the way it is seen by its faithful. A Church focused on the world will never have enough vocations, a Church focused on God always will.

Is it a surprise that the Hispanic population, who has been so systematically deprived of the very bases of Catholic instruction – at the point of giving massive support to Obama in the 2008 election – does not produce vocations? Where is the relentless defence of Catholic values that would allow the Hispanic families to rediscover the importance and dignity of the priestly office? Where are the brave, manly priests able to inflame a child’s heart with love for God and to let him desire to be, one day, himself on that pulpit, fighting God’s fight? Where is the constant stress of the role of the priest as Alter Christus, the explanation and constant reminding of his unique role in the economy of salvation, the constant stressing of the miracle which takes place daily through him?

If you make of a priest a vaguely pathetic wannabe social worker who can’t marry – and rather often not even a very masculine one at that – is it a surprise that this priest will not be taken as model, will not inspire anyone to want to become as largely irrelevant and vaguely superfluous as they themselves are? Vocations are the result of the young being taught properly and being instructed about the role of the priest, and of the young seeing these priest both taking their sacramental role seriously and fighting the good fight. Prestige is not a matter of marketing or of persuasion, and the uniqueness of the priest’s role can’t be properly transmitted if the rest of the church’s activity, and the daily actions of the priests themselves, contradict the marketing slogans.

I wonder how many Traditional Masses these dioceses with vocation problems have, because I do not know any situation in which a massive use of the Tridentine Mass doesn’t go together with healthy, or very healthy, vocations. For crying out loud, the SSPX is in imperfect communion and they don’t know where to put all their seminarians – seminarians who look forward to suspensio a divinis the day they are ordained! – and reasonably wealthy, growing communities of dioceses perfectly aligned to Rome complain about vocations and blame the “secular mentality” out there? Where do they think the conservative/traditionalist orders live, on Mars?

Again, both the analysis of the bishop and the proposed solution show where the problem lie: the consciousness that vocations will come when Catholicism (in the liturgy; in the instruction of the faithful; in the defence of Catholic values) is taken seriously again is just not there.


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