I have been thinking a lot about Pope Francis’s ‘Eldest Son Problem’. If you remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother who has worked hard and kept the rules all the time seethes with resentment as the dissolute younger brother is forgiven and embraced by the father. In fact his resentment at the Father (Gods) unlimited mercy and forgiveness stops him from going in and enjoying the banquet. They appear to be a sizeable group – particularly in The States, often an elite of some type or other, who seems to resent the popularity of Pope Francis outside of the borders of the church. It;s as if they don’t want the wrong type of people included in their church which has become a comfortable country club. They can seem to dominate the English Language Catholic Blogosphere and so they appear to be many, but in reality they create an ‘echo chamber’ and they are not representative of most Catholics.
Francis’ inspiring model of the ‘field hospital church’ that gets out there in the middle of the messiness of life, that tends wounds and listens to those hurting, is very threatening to some people, even if it may well be very close to Jesus’s vision. So an alternative ecclesiology is at play – rather than the field hospital church it is the ‘officers mess‘ church. They create an elitist Catholicism, have an ideological spin on history, often use the labels of tradition and orthodoxy as weapons and don’t seem to take into account the reality of many peoples messy lives. So they create a type of Virtual Gated Community – and their criticisms of Francis are out in the open, relentless and already they are splintering (always a sign of the bad spirit). What worries me is the effect that these blogs are having on some of my students – perhaps even on some of our bishops. The less you are pastorally engaged – the more tempting it is to live in these echo chambers, and feel good about your Catholic Identity.
So how do we bring these dissenters along with us? I think we can learn something from the Japanese here and how they discharged soldiers. After the defeat in the Second World War, many returning soldiers were not fit to return to their communities. Their only identity for their formative years had to be a loyal soldier for their country and now they needed a broader identity. So some very wise communities created a public ceremony where they were welcomed back and praised effusively for what they had done. The community realised that they needed to move on so they created this ritual for closure and transition for ex-soldiers to return to civilization. After the praise and thanksgiving, an elder would stand and declare ‘The war is now over – The community needs you to let go to what has served you until now, the community needs you to return as a man, a citizen and something more than a soldier.’ Maybe the Pope needs to do the same with some of our culture-warriors that are finding it difficult to move with him.
Last year there was the remarkable story, here in the UK, of the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester. Killed in 1485, he was the last Plantagenet King and it brought an end to the grim War of the Roses (which George R R Martin claims Game of Thrones is based on). Richards reputation is as unpleasant as most of the characters in the imaginary Westeros and beyond (did he really kill his nephews in the tower?) His bloody death would probably fit right in to one of GOT’s episodes ‘My Kingdom for a Horse….’ and all that, and the refusal of the Tudors to give him a Christian Burial shows the ruthlessness of the time.
Despite his bad reputation, which many say is exaggerated by Shakespeare, it was decided to give him a Christian burial in a place of honour in Leicester Cathedral. With thousands lining the streets to honour his coffin (only in England!). Then there was an interesting discussion whether or not as a Catholic King – The C of E (a Tudor development) hadn’t even been thought off – if he was to be laid to rest in a place of honour in Leicester Cathedral at least he should have a Catholic Funeral . Finally there was an ecumenically sensitive reburial presided over by Justin Welby with Cardinal Nichols in attendance which was broadcast live on Channel 4 (the Cardinal had said mass for his soul a few days before at All Souls Priory in Leicester).
So as 5000-1 Leicester City are crowned champions and make worldwide news, the same evening as another man from Leicester is crowned world Snooker Champion, is this a sign that the moral order of the universe has been restored? Is this the fruit of dignifying a King with the hallowed grounds of a Cathedral. On the BBC this morning was a wonderful fairy tale ‘The Fox and the Ghost King’ written by the childrens author, Michael Morpurgo (War Horse). Or could it be the Buddhist monk Phra Prommangkalachan who the Thai owners revere? Leicester Fans are already flocking to his temple!
Although this is obviously tongue in cheek – One of the Corporal Works of Mercy is Burying the Dead. In this year of Mercy we are asked to remember the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. Usually burying the dead means helping those without the resources to have the dignity of a funeral – rather than just be tossed into a paupers grave. Following the example of some of the Jesuit High Schools in the US, I have asked our SVP group to negotiate with Manchester Council on offering a dignified funeral here at the Holy Name for those homeless who die on the streets of Manchester. We think of all those buried in unmarked graves in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. We also pray for Burundi and the alarming noises being made by the president of the senate about ‘Spraying cockroaches with bullets ‘ and ‘Starting Work’ (echoes of Rwanda) . There are growing fears of a Tutsi genocide in Burundi, more unmarked graves, more mass burials.
As Pope Francis beatifies 124 martyrs from Korea today, with huge crowds turning out in Seoul to meet the Pope, it may be opportune to look at unique origins of the church in Korea. Catholicism has grown rapidly in South Korea from 1% of the population ten years ago to over 10% now. South Korea is a fascinating country that has seen rapid development and economic growth. It is the only country in the history of the world that has gone from being a foreign aid recipient to being a major foreign aid donor in only one generation. It also has huge ‘soft power’ now, not only as the home of Samsung. and being a technology leader in many fields – but also in the popularity of their films, soap operas and music – Remember Gangnam Style? K-Pop has overtaken Japan’s J Pop as the music on the iphones in the Pacific Rim and further afield. I remember when I was in the Philippines I would often ask the young people which country they would most like to visit, and the answer universally wasn’t US, or the UK but South Korea.
The origins of the Catholic Church in Korea are fascinating. Christianity has struggled to make inroads into Asia – and the exceptions – Philippines, East Timor which received Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, the Korean Catholic Church grew for the first hundred years without any priests or visits from missionaries. Christianity was brought to Korea by a Korean diplomat who had encountered the books of Matteo Ricci in the court in Beijing. Ricci is an incredible character, an Italian Jesuit, who missionary work was so successful that he gained access to the Forbidden City – the first westerner to do so. His appreciation of Chinese culture and the peoples admiration of him as a learned scholar gave Ricci great inroads. He was the first to translate Kong Fuzi’s teachings into Latin – thus coining the name Confucius – Ricci became a bridge between the east and the west.
The book that probably marks his greatest legacy was ‘The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ which argues that Confucianism and Christianity are not opposed and in fact are remarkably similar in key ways. It was a way of explaining Christian doctrine into Confucian thought and proved to be very successful. Ricci used this treatise in his missionary effort to convert Chinese intellectuals, men who were educated in Confucianism and the Chinese classics. It was this book that brought Christianity to Korea in 1603, where it was to grow, without access to the sacraments, without any active priestly ministry.