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The epic of a digital relic of a saint-to-be

Sunday, 27 April, 2014 0 Comments

Tutto il mondo a San Pietro. That’s the way it will be today in Rome for the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII. Back on 6 April 2005, we joined the crowds in Rome intending to pay their respects to one to the saints-to-be, Pope John Paul II, who was lying in state […]

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A multitude of thorns

Friday, 18 April, 2014 0 Comments

Thorns

“Listening to the Gospel on Palm Sunday, it struck me that many people criticise Pontius Pilate for his role in the affair while letting the multitude go scot free. Pilate did what little he could to dissuade them from the extremely unpleasant course of action on which they were set, but the multitude kept shouting for a crucifixion. Pilate could not have done more without provoking a riot. The crucifixion when it happened was a victory for direct democracy against the effete, liberal paternalism of Pilate.

If I am right, and the crucifixion be seen as an early victory for the principle of direct democracy, then it must follow… that good men should struggle to confound and frustrate the multitude whenever possible.” Auberon Waugh (1939 — 2001)


Calculating Easter

Thursday, 17 April, 2014 0 Comments

One of the most fascinating figures in the history of Easter is Nicholas of Cusa, a lawyer from Trier and a true Renaissance man, whose driving ambition propelled him all the way up from a non-noble birth to being made a cardinal by Pope Eugenius IV.

Nicholas established his reputation at the Council of Basel, which began in 1431 and went on for 18 years. He arrived in the Swiss town to argue the case of the disputed bishopric of Trier but made history by helping to broker an agreement in a bloody dispute between Rome and the Hussites. Then Nicholas turned to a matter that required enormous competence in law, mathematics and religious observance: the calendar. As John Mann writes in The Gutenberg Revolution:

Nicholas of Cusa “The Church was deeply concerned with the calendar because of the need to calculate the date of Easter. A thousand years before, the Council of Nicaea, laying out the ground rules of Christian practice, had decreed that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the full moon following the vernal equinox, one of two dates (in spring and autumn) on which day and night were of equal length. But the calendar of the time contained two errors. It’s year (365.25 days) was 11 minutes and 8 seconds too long, which over 1,000 years amounted to seven days; and the calculations that predicted the lunar cycle were way out as well. Actually, Roger Bacon, philosopher and scientist, had pointed this out seventy years before, but it was considered so intractable a problem that the papal authorities averted their eyes. In his De Reparatione Calendarii (On Revising the Calendar), presented to the Council in 1437, Nicholas expertly reviewed the evidence and proposed the only possible remedy: to adopt a new lunar cycle, leave out a week in the calendar — he suggested Whitsun, because it was a moveable feast and the general public wouldn’t notice — and then, as a final piece of fine tuning, omit a leap year every 304 years. This would have to be done not only with the agreement of the Greeks in Constantinople, because the were co-religionists, but also of the Jews, who would bear the brunt of revising all financial agreements.”

Given the fractured state of the church at the time, nothing was done, however. Reform had to wait for another 80 years when Pope Gregory XII introduced the “Gregorian” calendar, as we now know it. Still, the structure that measures our years and guarantees sweet indulgences in Spring owes an enormous debt to Nicholas of Cusa.


Michael and Francis in a country church

Sunday, 30 March, 2014 0 Comments

On the left: “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven” — Revelation 12:7 On the right: “To depict the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, […]

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Fifty Shades of Grey during Lent

Wednesday, 5 March, 2014 0 Comments

It’s Ash Wednesday today. Time to begin the annual Lenten fast. This year, as usual, it means avoiding alcohol and what we used to call “sweets”, which covers everything from confectionary to chocolate to crème caramel. But Lent isn’t just 40 days and nights of penance. It’s a time of meditation, which is enhanced by listening to music such as Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), an extraordinary choral work by an extraordinary English composer who managed to survive the religious upheavals under Henry VIII, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.

For the listeners to his masterpiece, Tallis implores Domine Deus/ Creator caeli et terrae / respice humilitatem nostrum (Lord God/ Creator of Heaven and Earth / be mindful of our lowliness”), but it is highly unlikely that his idea of lowliness involved the kind of sado-masochism Christina and Anastasia practice in Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling soft-porn novel by EL James. Yet, there it is:

“The singing starts again … building and building, and he rains down blows on me … and I groan and writhe … Lost in him, lost in the astral, seraphic voices … I am completely at the mercy of his expert touch …
“‘What was that music?’ I mumble almost inarticulately.
“‘It’s called Spem in Alium, a 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis.’
“‘It was … overwhelming.'”

Along with Sex On Fire by the Kings of Leon and Toxic by Britney Spears, Spem in alium by The Tallis Scholars appears on the soundtrack of Fifty Shades of Grey. Odd bedfellows to be sure, but EL James knows that the rapture of music is good for the soul. Spem in alium nunquam habui (“I have never put my hope in any other”) is how this great devotional work begins before its tapestry of sound turns into a plea to the One “who absolves all the sins/ of suffering man” omnia peccata hominum/ in tribulatione dimittis.


A Stranger Here

Thursday, 6 February, 2014 0 Comments

The early history of the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire is marked by religious convulsions. In AD 673, Æthelthryth founded an abbey that was destroyed in 870 by Viking invaders and rebuilt by Ethelwold in 970. Construction of Ely’s great cathedral began in 1083 and work continued until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539 during the Reformation.

Following the accession of Mary I to the throne in 1553, attempts were made to enforce Catholic doctrine and during this time, two local men, William Wolsey and Robert Pygot, “were accused of not … believing that the body and blood of Christ were present in the bread and wine of the sacrament of mass”. For this heresy they were burnt at the stake in front of Ely Cathedral on 16 October 1555. Mary’s re-establishment of Catholicism was reversed after her death in 1558 by her half-sister, Elizabeth I, and it was into a Protestant Ely that John Amner was born in 1579. He worked as a chorister and organist at Ely Cathedral and he also wrote songs and verse. This is from his Sacred Hymns For Voices And Viols, which was published in 1615.

A Stranger Here

A stranger here, as all my fathers were
That went before, I wander to and fro;
From earth to heaven is my pilgrimage,
A tedious way for flesh and blood to go:
O Thou that art the way, pity the blind
And teach me how I may Thy dwelling find.

John Amner (1579 — 1641)

Ely Cathedral


Mother and son at Holy Cross Abbey

Sunday, 19 January, 2014 0 Comments

The abbey of Holy Cross near Thurles in County Tipperary takes its name from the True Cross or Holy rood, a fragment of which was brought to Ireland by the Plantagenet Queen, Isabella of Angoulême, around 1233. She bestowed the relic on the Cistercian monastery, which was subsequently named Holy Cross Abbey. The modern Stations […]

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Transfer window: Boston Globe signs John L Allen

Friday, 10 January, 2014 0 Comments

Background: The transfer window is a period during the year in which a football club can purchase players from other teams to strengthen their lineup. With the January window is now open, all kinds of fascinating questions have been raised: Will struggling Manchester United sign the workhorse Diego Costa or the workshy Fabio Coentrão? Can Arsène Wenger find suitable subs for the injury-plagued Arsenal bench? Is the flamboyant Chelsea star David Luiz heading to Barcelona? Was it arrogance or indigence that led Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti to say that he won’t be signing any new players?

The transfer window is not confined to soccer, however. There’s a permanent media version and the Boston Globe made news this week when it signed the superb John L Allen from the National Catholic Reporter. “Allen, widely hailed as the best-sourced and most knowledgeable English-speaking reporter on the Vatican, will help lead coverage of Catholicism and the Vatican as an associate editor of The Globe,” declared the press release. And then comes the really interesting bit: “He will also help us explore the very real possibility of launching a free-standing publication devoted to Catholicism, drawing in other correspondents and leading voices from near and far,” said Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory.

The Globe would be placing a big bet on Pope Francis if this were to happen, but it might pay off nicely. The whirlwind pontiff has set the media industry alight and more headlines are sure to come as he attempts to fill the “God-shaped void”, as Blaise Pascal put it some 300 years ago. While core doctrine is not going to change, Catholic theology is set to become more dynamic and millions of people will want to read all about it. Secular fads like the Occupy craze and the global warming cult offer little of substance to those in need of spiritual comfort so it falls to Francis to curate his global, 2,000-year-old movement in a way that makes it relevant to both sides of the digital divide. There’s no better person to interpret the coming Church changes than John L Allen. Game on!

Francis


What the Time ‘POY’ award tells us about Time

Thursday, 12 December, 2013 0 Comments

Time magazine began its tradition of selecting a “Man of the Year” in 1927, when the honour was conferred on Charles Lindbergh. In 1999, the title was changed to “Person of the Year” and the winner was Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Today, lots of publications copycat the Time idea and just as dog-owners are often said to resemble their pets, the awardees usually mirror the prejudices of those doing the awarding. No wonder, then, that Edward Snowden was voted Guardian person of the year 2013 and no surprise, either, that its German ideological replica, Der Spiegel, followed suit.

Mercifully, Time bypassed the data thief currently residing in Russia, and, instead, it picked Pope Francis. But the award is not quite the occasion for joy that it might appear to be as Freddy Gray points out in The Spectator in a post titled “Why Time’s Person of the Year should be Pope… Benedict”:

“It was telling that, in their blurb about the nominees, Time announced that ‘the first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and minds with his common touch and rejection of church dogma’. Of course Pope Francis has not rejected Church dogma at all. Time were quick to correct themselves, yet their mistake revealed again the liberal bias against Catholicism: Catholics are only praised if they are seen to rebel against their Church. This attitude makes Catholics distinctly uneasy. It can only be a matter of time before the journalists who now laud Francis turn on him. They will say he has disappointed them when he does not embrace all gay rights, condoms, and women popes.”

We should be grateful that the Time award did not go to Assad, Putin or Snowden, but we should be wary of its dogma. After all, it resembles its owners and they’re no friends of the legacy Francis represents.

Time Person of the Year


The community Pope

Friday, 20 September, 2013 1 Comment

In a lengthy and fascinating interview for 16 Jesuit publications around the world, Pope Francis says Catholic leaders must find a “new balance” between their spiritual mission and their involvement in political questions, warning that if they don’t, the church’s foundation will “fall like a house of cards.” And as befits our socially mediated times, Francis goes large on “community”. Despite the many subjects covered in the interview, the liberal media reduces everything he has said to sexuality. Typical is the Irish Times: “Pope seeks ‘new balance’ on abortion, women and gays“. We need a new journalism.

“Community. I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community. And you can tell this by the fact that I am here in Santa Marta. At the time of the conclave I lived in Room 207. (The rooms were assigned by drawing lots.) This room where we are now was a guest room. I chose to live here, in Room 201, because when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a ‘no.’ The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”


God and man in Bavaria

Sunday, 21 July, 2013 0 Comments

Pity the sweat-covered atheist climbers who clamber up the Bavarian Alps this Sunday for they will be greeted by a summit cross (Gipfelkreuz). God meets man on the mountain. The crucifix is part of the identity of the largest and oldest and most Catholic state in the Federal Republic of Germany. In August 2008, a […]

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