Three years ago – in 2015 – when we first heard that Rome had decided that the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) would be held in Dublin, the feeling was that while the idea of a WMOF seemed a bit strange, at least it would be a good excuse to welcome Pope Francis to Ireland.
The first question to emerge was: what do we mean by ‘family’? This was against the backdrop of the widening of the definition of family that has taken place in Irish society in recent years, not least after the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015.
We were quickly assured that everyone would be welcome. But after the excising of photographs from a WMOF publication as well as a snippet of a comment from an American bishop from a WMOF video, a large question-mark now looms over who might not be welcome and indeed over the credibility of the event itself.
Who took out the photographs? Who re-edited the video? Why were the changes made when it’s quite clear that they run counter to the widening of acceptance of LGBT people that Pope Francis has made clear is now part of the pastoral response of the Church to gay Catholics? And who made the actual decisions?
The suggestion is that powerful right-wing Catholic groups, sourcing their funds from similarly aligned groups in America, are exerting a pressure way beyond their numerical strength or indeed their grasp of theology or indeed reality.
Such groups couldn’t cope with the reforms emanating from the Second Vatican Council and have fought a robust rear-guard reaction against them. With Pope Paul VI, a nervous and scrupulous personality, worriedly pulling back from the logic of Vatican Two and successive popes, John Paul and Benedict, compounding the retreat away from reform, ultra-conservative groups in America thought all their Christmases had come together. Ditto the more than slightly strange extreme Catholic groups in Ireland and England.
When Benedict gave them permission to have the Latin Mass and their associates to introduce a Latinate version of English in the New Missal, it seemed only a matter of time before we found ourselves back in the nineteenth century in the arms of the Council of Trent.
Then, from the pampas of Argentina, emerged an unlikely knight, a Don Quixote figure, tilting at some of the extreme windmills of Catholicism and suggesting that the reforms, envisaged by Vatican Two (and effectively shelved by his predecessors) were back on the Church’s agenda. Pope Francis, a liberator for those who longed for the reforms of Vatican Two to be eventually implemented, is regarded as something of a nightmare by the extreme Catholic groups.
What followed and continues is a civil war in the Church – well documented, not least in this column – between those who want reform and those who oppose it.
As time goes on what’s becoming more and more apparent is not just the gulf between both sides but how bizzare are some of the positions being adopted by the extreme right in the Catholic Church.
An example is the recent outburst of Cardinal Robert Sarah, at present still incredibly head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship who, in an introduction to a new book, described the now almost universal practice of Catholics receiving Communion in the hand as an ‘insidious diabolical attack’ on the Blessed Sacrament, organised by Satan himself.
Sarah advocates receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling as being more in line with tradition and more respectful than receiving it on the tongue.
He’s wrong on both counts.
Firstly, it isn’t true that people always received Communion on the tongue. In fact the opposite is the case. Receiving on the hand is a practice we’ve inherited from the early Church and, in fact, receiving on the tongue is a much more recent innovation. The Vatican website tells us that ‘the most ancient practice of distributing Holy Communion was, with all probability, to give Communion to the faithful in the palm of the hand’. In the early fifth century St Cyril of Jerusalem directed the people, when receiving Communion, ‘to make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive to receive a King’.
Secondly, as children our mothers fed us directly into our mouths not because it was respectful but because we were children, unable to feed ourselves. Respect has to do with the attitude people bring to approaching Communion rather than how they receive or what posture they assume.
Cardinal Sarah, of course, is well-known as an enthusiast of the old Latin liturgy and some time ago went so far as to say that priests should only say Mass facing east with their backs to the people, a comment that earned him a stiff rebuke from Pope Francis. No doubt his recent rant will bring him once again to Francis’s attention and possibly earn him an appointment more suited to his needs and the good of the Church.
Even though Francis seems extraordinarily patient with cardinals who have sworn oaths of obedience to him but who disobey him at will, one wonders how long someone who is so out of sync with the almost universal practice of the Church can expect to remain in the highest liturgical office in the Vatican.
It’s time for Francis to move on this dissident cardinal and time too for the Irish bishops to confront those other dissidents who have come to believe that they can dictate what family means in the Catholic Church.