The Fragile Face of Dignity

Chris McDonnell

Catholic Times,  September 14th2018

Speaking four years ago, in September 2014, Pope Francis reminded us that ‘things have a price and can be for sale, but people have a dignity that is priceless and worth far more than things.’ In his own person, Francis has shown us the meaning of a dignified life, by his actions, his words, his understanding and the tolerance he continually displays.

He showed that dignity in no small measure during the recent visit to Ireland, a visit that included a tense meeting with survivors of abuse, listening to their heart-felt stories with compassion at the end of a long, tiring day.

It was sad that the letter from the retired US Nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, was published at the conclusion of the Irish visit, its timing designed for the greatest hostile impact with the media. Vigano raised many questions, not only in the unsubstantiated allegations he made of the Pope’s knowledge of the background to the McCarrick affair but also about his own motives. Dignity was lacking. His obvious attempt to damage this papacy was apparent for all to see.

The use of the crude Hispanic term ‘caca’ by Francis in reference to abuse was direct and unequivocal. We know clearly where he stands; he now has to repair the damage arising from years of clerical cover-up, both in the Vatican and within Diocesan communities around the world.

In recent days we have witnessed two funerals in the US, that of Aretha Franklin the great gospel singer from Detroit and that of John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona. The disdain shown by the US President for McCain was unbelievable. He failed to recognise that at such a time, the Head of State has a greater task than that of the partisan politician, he has to stand above political division and recognise achievement, he has to show dignity. He failed on both counts.

That weekend I wrote these few lines.

A multitude of song birds
gathered round fallen feathers
singing with open joy
and speaking in considered dignity,
each to his own particular tune,
telling and re-telling a story.

Perched high in hilltop branches
of a distant tree
a lone black carrion crow
screeched in disdain, uttering
through a sharpened yellow beak
his unending liturgy of turgid rain.

We recognize a dignified response when we see it, the choice of words, the composure of presentation, the avoidance of pettiness. Speaking at John McCain’s funeral, ex-President Obama used these words“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear. John called on us to be bigger than that. He called on us to be better than that.”

If ever a man in public life understood and so clearly demonstrated dignity, it is Obama.

Now the Church must itself face difficult days, days of challenge and rebuke, of claim and counter-claim, of recognizing where there has been falsehood and cover-up. If ever there was a time when faith is being challenged by experience, this is it. The pain cannot be avoided, nor should it be, for the detail that is now emerging has been festering too long. Only by confronting uncomfortable truth can reality be acknowledged and progress made.

It is a task that will involve the whole Church. Renewal and repair is not only a clerical task, for clericalism has been one of the deep seated roots from which have grown our present dysfunctional state. The laity must willingly accept the burden of reformation, bringing their skills, talents and experience to the service of faith. And they must be listened to, not brushed aside as an inconvenient irritant as has so often been the case. Parish councils, Diocesan councils are not an optional feature but play an essential part of our journey, they facilitate meaningful exchange.

How long the Church will be led by the simple example of dignity that is the present blessing from the See of Rome, is not ours to know. If however those intent on damaging this papacy, such as the ex-Nuncio to Washington, have full unfettered reign, a task in progress, Vatican reform, could come to a stuttering halt.

We talk of a person having ‘a dignified bearing’, of their speaking in ‘a dignified manner’, of their ‘respecting the dignity of others’. All of that comes from an inner core of personal conviction and sincerely held belief. Their real self shines through and belittles trivia. The things that we possess, buy and sell, strike bargains over, bear no comparison in worth to whom we should be, dignified people of principle.

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