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Posts Tagged ‘Pope John Paul II’

I led a study day on the New Evangelisation last week. The first talk was simply about what it all means.

In one sense, it’s an odd phrase: Isn’t evangelisation always new?

Even Blessed John Paul II’s famous tag-line is not too helpful in this respect. He said we need an evangelisation that is ‘new in its ardour, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression’. But there is nothing new about needing this newness – haven’t we always needed new ardour, new expressions, new methods? And hasn’t the Church always (well, nearly always) responded with some magnificent and unexpected and new embodiment of the missionary spirit?

Blessed Pope John Paul II during a General Audience

On the other hand, perhaps there is something truly new about the present situation, meaning the situation of the Church during and since Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate. Some of the new factors might include: the crisis of ‘missiology’ (the theology of mission and evangelisation) in the second half of the twentieth century, and the corresponding crisis within the Church’s missionary  outreach; the number of baptised people, of people who have been ‘initiated’ sacramentally, who have not really heard the Gospel message in a personal way, who have not been evangelised themselves, or perhaps have not been well catechised after their initiation; the need to re-evangelise former Christian cultures and societies (this isn’t new, but it is certainly pressing and it feels new to those living through it); or the challenge for Western societies to hold onto their Christian moral and spiritual roots before they truly slip into a post-Christian secularism – one of Pope Benedict’s themes.

I’m just summarising. If you are interested, please listen to the talk yourself.

You can listen here.

You can download the talk here.

[I post about the second half of the study day here, which includes the audio links: The New Evangelisation in practice: five UK initiatives and their significance for the wider Church]

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For anyone interested in questions about marriage and the family, Maryvale Institute in Birmingham is taking new students for the MA course which beings again this January. [This is last year’s poster.]

To save time I’m just copying this helpful summary from the Witness to Love website from earlier this year:

A new course has just begun at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic distance-learning College. It is an MA programme in Marriage and Family based on the teaching and vision of John Paul II (especially his Theology of the Body) drawn up in close collaboration with the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. The new MA programme runs via distance learning on somewhat similar lines to Open University courses and promises to be a really exciting and innovative way to bring the wisdom and beauty of John Paul II’s teaching to others.

The Maryvale Institute was also the home of Blessed John Newman in 1846 after his conversion when he lived there with a small community. Maryvale is also a former seminary (1794-1838) and orphanage (1851-1980) run by the Sisters of Mercy. It houses the historic and beautiful Chapel of the Sacred Heart from its seminary period and has also today houses a convent for Bridgettine sisters since 1999.
The new MA pathway “seeks to develop an ‘adequate anthropology’ through the study of God’s plan for marriage and family” (see pathway No. 6 here). It is therefore interdisciplinary and could be of interest to students from a wide variety of backgrounds such as teachers, priests, youth workers, those involved in marriage care, medicine or family law.

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It was announced some months ago that Pope Benedict will go to Assisi in October to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s interreligious meeting there in 1986.

Assisi

The stated aim is to witness to peace, and not – as some people have feared – to pray together or to deny the uniqueness of Christ. As Cindy Wooden wrote in January:

He did not actually say anything about praying with members of other religions. Announcing the October gathering, he said he would go to Assisi on pilgrimage and would like representatives of other Christian confessions and other world religions to join him there to commemorate Pope John Paul’s “historic gesture” and to “solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service in the cause of peace.”

While Pope Benedict may be more open to interreligious dialogue than some of the most conservative Christians would like, he continues to insist that dialogue must be honest about the differences existing between religions and that joint activities should acknowledge those differences.

John Allen, more recently, looks as the significance of the coming meeting.

Movers and shakers in Rome are well aware that John Paul II’s 1986 interreligious summit was among the iconic moments of his papacy. It helped make the pope a global point of reference, it enhanced the effectiveness of Vatican diplomacy, and it boosted the moral authority of the church.

Today, the Vatican could use another win like that in the court of public opinion. In the West, it faces a hostile political and legal environment, with Ireland even threatening to breach the sanctity of the confessional. In other parts of the world, it needs the good will of governments and leaders of other faiths to protect Christians under fire. Tuesday’s car bomb attack against a Syro-Catholic church in Kirkuk, Iraq, offers tragic proof of the point.

A high-profile public event such as Assisi, which showcases the papacy’s unique capacity to bring religions together, could be a real boon — provided, of course, it doesn’t turn in to another PR debacle.

Assisi is also important to Benedict XVI. Although he’s made great strides in inter-faith relations, especially with Islam, in some quarters he’s still dogged by the image of a cultural warrior associated with a September 2006 speech in Regensburg, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor critical of Muhammad.

Given all that, one can expect Vatican officials to act with alacrity to put out any potential fires related to the Assisi summit.

Naturally, the fact that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among those seen as ambivalent about Assisi back in ’86 also lends subtext to the October edition. In light of that history, Vatican officials will bend over backwards to insist that this is not, as Koch put it, a “syncretistic act.”

I look forward to seeing what actually happens, as well as listening to what is said, since the visual symbolism of these meetings can often say far more than the words that are spoken.

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A young couple fall in love and panic about the consequences of commitment. A woman hides away in the bathroom at her own fortieth birthday party because she can’t face being reminded of so many years lost in an unhappy marriage. A young man confronts his widowed mother because she doesn’t seem to trust the woman he wants to marry.

There were constant glimpses of the beauty and the fragility of human love, and the way it inevitably uncovers a longing for something even deeper, something more mysterious. An indescribable longing, as one of the characters says.

You might expect a Polish bishop to preach about some of these themes, but not to dramatise them and bring them to the underground theatre of his day.

It was a marvellous play. I wish I could urge you all to go and see it, but there were only two performances. Martin O’Brien is the artistic director of Ten Ten Theatre. He’s adapted a play called The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.

It’s hard to present profound spiritual themes in the context of our contemporary culture without trivialising them, or sounding preachy. The most fruitful way is often through the medium of human experience. We live in the age of Big Brother and YouTube. Lives are exposed. We are constantly confronted with an unmediated human experience. So when grace is working through that ordinary human experience, it gives an opportunity to touch the fringe of God’s cloak and be lifted up for a moment into the transcendent, without stepping into church or lighting a candle.

Formal religion and popular devotions have lost none of their significance, but the fact is they are outside the bounds of most people’s reality. That’s why a bishop in the late 1950s, and a cutting-edge playwright in our own time, have tried to put the focus on everyday human relationships. Through those relationships, with the ambiguous longings of the human heart exposed so clearly, we catch a glimpse of the divine; just a whisper – quiet enough to be missed, clear enough to unsettle and enchant.

The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla is published by Ignatius Press. The Jeweller, by Martin O’Brien, was performed at Leicester Square Theatre on 22 June, directed by Paul Jepson, as part of the Spirit in the City festival. If you can help Ten Ten Theatre put on a longer run of this wonderful play, see their fundraising page here.

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One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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Take a look at this new blog by a friend who works as a catechetical coordinator in a London parish: Transformed in Christ. Some of the recent topics include: Liturgical catechesis; YouCat; Vocations Sunday; Mystagogia; and ‘Are you a canal or a reservoir catechist’.

Here is the ‘mission statement‘ of the blog:

Over the past two years, I have worked in a wonderful, south London parish, organising the catechesis and sacramental programmes. I didn’t set out to work in catechesis – I was planning to go back to university to study for an MPhil, but somehow, I found myself with this job and loving every moment of it! I discovered the immense joy and privilege of handing on our Faith to others, of preparing people of all ages to receive the sacraments, and of helping people to deepen their knowledge and love for Christ. I have found that catechesis is a joyful mission of the Church, because it is a transmitting of the Faith from person to person in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the Body of the Church. It is about people becoming transformed in Christ – discovering who they truly are in God’s eyes, and living out their lives in accordance with this truth. Now I am studying part-time for an MA in Catechetics, and this study is increasing my wonder at what a beautiful and privileged mission it is to deliver and teach the Faith to others. In the words of Blessed John Paul II:

“If the work of catechesis is to be carried out rigorously and seriously, it is today more difficult and tiring than ever before, because of the obstacles and difficulties of all kinds that it meets; but it is also more consoling, because of the kind of depth of the response it receives from children and young people. This is a treasure which the Church can and should count on in the years ahead.” [Catechesi Tradendae, 40.]

In this blog, I want to share some of the experiences of catechesis in our parish in light of the insight and wisdom of the Church’s vision for catechesis.

And here is the ‘vision statement‘ about the nature of catechesis:

I’ve attempted to outline a brief summary of what the Church teaches us about catechesis. I think these points are clearer when enfleshed in experience, but as an underlying vision, here are some of the key ideas:

1. Catechesis is one of the ‘moments’ of evangelisation as a whole – therefore, it should be evangelising in its nature – a proclamation of the Good News. It should always have a missionary dynamic.

2. The goal of catechesis is to put people into intimacy, into communion with Jesus Christ (see Catechesi Tradendae, 5). That is the only goal! Christ is our only Way into the heart of God, into the life of the Trinity, so catechesis desires, above everything else, to put people into communion with Jesus.

3. How do people come into communion with Jesus? Through understanding and through conversion. When people grow in knowledge of Christ, of the Deposit of Faith he entrusted to the Apostles, and of His Body the Church, they grow in love with Him. John Paul II told us to present Christ as He really is to young people – the Truth is really beautiful, and really attracts, just as it is. As catechesis increases people’s love for Christ, they want to know him more deeply, and change their lives so that they are living more faithfully with Him.

4. Catechesis is above all a work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the angel Gabriel announced great News to Our Lady, so we announce the message that has been handed down to us through the Church. But it is the deep, interior work of the Holy Spirit that enables understanding and conversion to take place. As catechists, there is need for us to strive for excellence in what we do – we want to use all we have (human qualities, intelligence, hard work, building relationships with the people we teach) in the service of the work of catechesis. But it is the Lord who enlightens the mind and heart. Our job is to create the best conditions for this to take place.

These are just four main points, although there are many other principles to explore. The main sources of the Church’s recent teaching on catechesis can be found in Catechesi Tradendae (Catechesis in our time) written by Pope John Paul II in 1979, and the General Directory for Catechesis published in 1997. If you are involved in catechesis, I would really recommend having a look!

Notice it’s a WordPress blog-platform!

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Pope John Paul II has been a huge inspiration for me in my faith and my vocation as a priest. I was at seminary at the English College in Rome, from 1992 to 1997, and the Sunday timetable was designed so that we could get to St Peter’s for the Pope’s Angelus address between Mass and lunch.

It was wonderful to wander down to St Peter’s Square and join the crowds, especially if you had visitors staying with you; not just to see him – as a kind of tourist event or cultural icon – but to listen to him and above all to pray with him. The sense of ‘being in communion’ with the worldwide Church through your prayerful communion with St Peter’s successor was very strong.

Two personal memories stand out. Each year we had a different pastoral placement in Rome – some pastoral project that we got involved in once a week. One of these, for me, was working in a youth centre near St Peter’s. One week the team was invited to the Pope’s early morning Mass in his private chapel. We arrived all excited, like fans wanting to gawp at a celebrity, but we were suddenly caught up in an atmosphere of profound stillness and contemplation. He was there praying before the tabernacle. That’s all. But it felt as if he was carrying the needs of the whole Church in his heart, and as if the mystery and holiness of God were a living reality for him.

I think he was a contemplative, who lived continually in the presence of God. I was so keen not to reduce this prayerful encounter to an anecdote that I passed by the chance to buy the photo of our brief meeting afterwards – which I regret deeply now!

The other memory is the World Youth Day that took place in Rome in 2000. He was elderly and already quite frail, but when he came out to meet the young people – nearly two million of them – you could see how energised and open he was to them.

He was like a father, who somehow communicated a genuine love for everyone there, an almost personal concern, and a longing for them to know the beauty of Christ and the beauty of a life that is given to Christ. It seemed to touch everyone personally in a profound way.

He was a great teacher, a great leader; but it’s these personal memories of his goodness and holiness that seem to stand out for people – even those who never met him.

I don’t have the photo from that ‘private Mass’, just the memory; but I’ve got his Apostolic Blessing on the wall beside my desk, from the day of my ordination in 1998 – which makes up for it!

If you want some further reading about the beatification, here are some links to John Allen’s recent posts and articles:

NCR postings

Other media outlets

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There is some controversy about Pope John Paul’s beatification this coming weekend. Is it too quick? Can we really understand the significance of someone’s pontificate when we are still so close to it? Surely he took some false steps and made some decisions that with hindsight seem to have been unwise?

I think it’s important to remember that when you beatify a person you are not beatifying every decision they ever made. The Church makes a judgment about their holiness, about their love for God and for their neighbour, and knows enough to say that their deepest intentions were good and their underlying motivations were pure – even if, in their human frailty and weakness, they made mistakes. You can honour a saint without having to pretend that you agree with every opinion they held or every choice they made.

This thoughtful piece by John Thavis explains how someone is beatified for their holiness – for the way their faith, hope and charity have shone out in the world and touched the lives of other.

As church officials keep emphasizing, Pope John Paul II is being beatified not for his performance as pope, but for how he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. When the Vatican’s sainthood experts interviewed witnesses about the Polish pontiff, the focus of their investigation was on holiness, not achievement.

What emerged was a spiritual portrait of Pope John Paul, one that reflected lifelong practices of prayer and devotion, a strong sense of his priestly vocation and a reliance on faith to guide his most important decisions. More than leadership or managerial skills, these spiritual qualities were the key to his accomplishments–both before and after his election as pope in 1978.

From an early age, Karol Wojtyla faced hardships that tested his trust in God. His mother died when he was 9, and three years later he lost his only brother to scarlet fever. His father died when he was 20, and friends said Wojtyla knelt for 12 hours in prayer and sorrow at his bedside.

His calling to the priesthood was not something that happened overnight. It took shape during the dramatic years of World War II, after a wide variety of other experiences: Among other things, he had acted with a theater group, split stone at a quarry, written poetry and supported a network that smuggled Jews to safety.

Wojtyla’s friends of that era always remembered his contemplative side and his habit of intense prayer. A daily Mass-goer, he cultivated a special devotion to Mary. In 1938, he began working toward a philosophy degree at the University of Krakow. A year later, the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland left the country in ruins.

During the German occupation, Wojtyla began attending weekly meetings called the “living rosary” led by Jan Tyranowski, a Catholic layman who soon became his spiritual mentor. Tyranowski introduced him to the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, who would greatly influence the future pope. Wojtyla called Tyranowski an “apostle” and later wrote of him: “He showed us God much more immediately than any sermons or books; he proved to us that God could not only be studied, but also lived.”

At a spiritual crossroads in 1942, Wojtyla entered Krakow’s clandestine theological seminary. In the pope’s 1996 book, “Gift and Mystery,” he remembered his joy at being called to the priesthood, but his sadness at being cut off from acquaintances and other interests. He said he always felt a debt to friends who suffered “on the great altar of history” during World War II, while he pursued his underground seminary studies.  As a seminarian, he continued to be attracted to monastic contemplation. Twice during these years he petitioned to join the Discalced Carmelites but was said to have been turned away with the advice: “You are destined for greater things.”

He was ordained four years later, as Poland’s new communist regime was enacting restrictions on the Catholic Church. After two years of study in Rome, he returned to Poland in 1948 and worked as a young pastor. From the beginning, he focused much of his attention on young people, especially university students — the beginning of a lifelong pastoral interest. Students would join him on hiking and camping trips, which always included prayer, outdoor Masses and discussions about the faith.

Father Wojtyla earned a doctorate in moral theology and began teaching at Lublin University, at the same time publishing articles and books on ethics and other subjects. In 1958, at age 38, he was named an auxiliary bishop of Poland, becoming the youngest bishop in Poland’s history. He became archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and played a key role in the Second Vatican Council, helping to draft texts on religious liberty and the church in the modern world.

He was elected Pope in 1978, and it didn’t stop him deepening his spiritual life.

Pope John Paul’s private prayer life was intense, and visitors who attended his morning Mass described him as immersed in an almost mystical form of meditation. He prayed the liturgy of the hours, he withdrew for hours of silent contemplation and eucharistic adoration, and he said the rosary often — eventually adding five new luminous mysteries to this traditional form of prayer…

Pope John Paul canonized 482 people, more than all his predecessors combined. Although the Vatican was sometimes humorously referred to as a “saint factory” under Pope John Paul, the pope was making a very serious effort to underline what he called the “universal call to holiness” — the idea that all Christians, in all walks of life, are called to sanctity. “There can never be enough saints,” he once remarked.

He was convinced that God sometimes speaks to the world through simple and uneducated people. St. Faustina was one, and he also canonized St. Padre Pio, the Italian mystic, and St. Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant who had visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The world knows Pope John Paul largely because of his travels to 129 countries. For him, they were spiritual journeys. As he told his top advisers in 1980: “These are trips of faith and of prayer, and they always have at their heart the meditation and proclamation of the word of God, the celebration of the Eucharist and the invocation of Mary.”

Pope John Paul never forgot that he was, above all, a priest. In his later years, he said repeatedly that what kept him going was not the power of the papacy but the spiritual strength that flowed from his priestly vocation. He told some 300,000 young people in 1997: “With the passing of time, the most important and beautiful thing for me is that I have been a priest for more than 50 years, because every day I can celebrate Holy Mass!”

In his final years, the suffering brought on by Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and other afflictions became part of the pope’s spiritual pilgrimage, demonstrating in an unusually public way his willingness to embrace the cross. With his beatification, the church is proposing not a model pope but a model Christian, one who witnessed inner holiness in the real world, and who, through words and example, challenged people to believe, to hope and to love.

This is the man who is being beatified this weekend.

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I’ve just had an article published about the New Evangelisation in the Catholic Church. Here is the opening section about the importance of conviction for those involved in this work:

A quarter of a million people pass through Leicester Square in central London every day. By some kind of miracle, the four Catholic parishes in the area received permission from Westminster City Council to take over the square for a Saturday last summer under the banner ‘Spirit in the City’.

The event involved a stage with non-stop music and talks; a line of stalls promoting various Catholic charities, movements and religious orders; a series of workshops about every aspect of Christian faith; a team of street evangelists greeting people and handing out prayer cards; a makeshift confessional with a rota of priests; and a suitably dignified tent-cum-chapel with the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration and personal prayer.

It was the strangest experience to emerge from Burger King and then kneel before the Lord in the centre of Leicester Square – a sanctuary of silence in the madness of the city.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the recently established Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, has a magnificent desk and a blank piece of paper. He has been charged by Pope Benedict with re-evangelising the West in an age of secularism and moral relativism and talks himself of the West living “in a cultural crisis” (see ‘Taking on the world’, The Tablet, 8 January).

He could do worse than pay a visit to Britain for some inspiration. It’s striking how many evangelisation initiatives have sprung up over the last few years, from small parish projects to national programmes, many of them focused on young people. And while they don’t all fit neatly into one model, there are some common ideas at the heart of them.

Those who are committed to evangelisation have a real love for Christ and for the Church, as many Catholics do. But they also have a conviction that the Christian faith is something too precious to be kept to oneself. The Sion Community is the largest ‘home mission’ organisation in the UK. It’s involved in parish missions, youth ministry, residential training, and in forming others for the task of evangelisation.

I recently led a study day about Christian motivation at their centre in Brentwood. At the end of the morning session someone asked, ‘And how can this help us share the Gospel more effectively with the people we meet?’ They simply wanted to connect my topic with their deepest concern – which was helping others to know Christ. And the way this question instinctively arose helped me to see how focussed the community is on the explicit work of proclaiming and communicating the Gospel.

This approach is in sharp contrast to a reticence still felt by many Catholics about the very idea of evangelisation. I think there are different reasons for this, not all of them negative: a desire to witness unobtrusively through one’s personal example; a respect for the presence of God in people of other faiths or of no faith; a fear of appearing triumphalistic, arrogant or judgemental.

But the reticence can also reflect a subtle relativism that sometimes casts its spell, persuading Catholics that all beliefs are equally true, or that all truths are equally important. Many people aren’t convinced that evangelisation is ‘the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity’ (Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul). But at the Sion Community, they believe in the importance of moving from ‘witness’ to ‘proclamation’. [The Tablet, 22 Jan 2011, p10]

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St Hilda of Whitby, Abbess

I’ve just written a piece about women and the priesthood, in response to this week’s bus campaign promoting women’s ordination. It was posted on Independent Catholic News, and then used as the basis for an article on CNN’s Belief Blog, which has so far received a staggering 1087 comments! Not all of them very edifying…

Anyway, the copyright is mine, so I can paste the original article here for anyone who is interested:

Last year the religious slogans on London’s buses were hesitant, and ended with gentle exhortations: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Now they end with a shout: “Pope Benedict – Ordain Women Now!”

The latest posters, timed to coincide with the Papal visit, are funded by the campaigning group Catholic Women’s Ordination. It’s unlikely that Pope Benedict will be using his Oystercard, but the hope must be that if his Popemobile gets stuck in traffic, one of these buses will glide by and catch his attention.

The Catholic insistence that only men can be ordained as priests is incomprehensible to many people, and the cause of much personal anger and ecumenical heartache. Pope John Paul II seemed to close the door to any revision when he wrote in 1994 that this teaching “is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”.

He took a surprising approach. He didn’t stamp his feet and shout: I won’t! Instead he said: I simply can’t. I don’t have the authority to change something that has been such a fundamental part of Christian identity from the very beginning. The argument is not about holding onto the past for its own sake, but trying to be faithful to what Jesus wanted for his Church.

In the New Testament, Jesus chose twelve men to represent him as his first priests, as the Twelve Apostles. Every generation of Catholics (and Orthodox) since then has understood this to have been a choice that was deliberate and significant, not just for that first period of history, but for every age.

Some argue that Jesus couldn’t have done otherwise in the Jewish society of his time. This doesn’t stand up, as he was quite willing to involve women in other aspects of his mission and ministry, in ways that would have seemed revolutionary.

Others say that women’s ordination, even if Jesus had wanted it, simply wasn’t conceivable in the pre-feminist religious cultures of the last 2000 years. But this ignores the staggering diversity of cultures in which Christianity has been embedded.

Even in societies that have been broadly matriarchal (with rich Roman matrons running the early Christian house churches, or powerful medieval abbesses ruling ‘double’ monasteries of men and women); even when women ‘priestesses’ were an established part of the surrounding religious milieu – Christians still took for granted the idea of the male priesthood.

This is why Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict, are saying that this is much more than a time-bound cultural norm that needs updating. It’s something deeper that touches on the very meaning of priesthood.

This teaching is not at all a judgment on women’s abilities or dignity or rights. It says something about the specific role of the priest in Catholic understanding – which is to represent Jesus, to stand in his place. The Church is saying something quite radical. On the one hand, there is a fundamental equality between all human beings, between men and women. On the other hand, this does not mean that our sexual identity as men and women is interchangeable. Gender is not just an accident.

People sense this. If I announced that I was making a film about Jesus or King Arthur or Wayne Rooney, no-one would be surprised if I said I wanted a male actor to play the lead. It’s a weak analogy, but it shows how the notion of ‘representation’ can only be stretched so far. A woman, as much as a man, can reflect the love of Jesus, and help others to know his presence through her faith and witness. But it shouldn’t surprise us if we expect a man to stand ‘in the person of Christ’ as a priest, to represent Jesus in his humanity – a humanity that is not sexually neutral.

Where does this leave women in the Catholic Church? In the same position as the majority of men (that is, all those who are not priests). It leaves them to live their faith passionately in the service of others, to use their many gifts to the full, and to realise that ordination is not the measure of an individual’s worth in the Church.

The young Catholic women I know, especially those with a strong sense of vocation in the Church, are channelling their energies into all sorts of creative projects and life choices. Some of these choices are very humble and hidden; others involve more public responsibilities – in politics, education, social work, Christian mission, the media, etc. Most are working ‘in the world’, but some have very significant roles within the Church itself.

These young women seem less interested in internal debates about ordination, and more concerned with rolling their sleeves up and putting their faith into practice. They are Christian feminists, whether they like the title or not. But it is a feminism that is untroubled by this Catholic understanding of the male priesthood.

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