There was a time when the Catholic Church might decline to bestow a full Christian burial on individuals whose public lives were judged to be less than exemplary. The French writer Colette (recently portrayed by Keira Knightley in the eponymous film) was refused a church funeral because her life had been “scandalous”. The lady herself would not have denied the charge.
But things have changed, and in death moral judgments about a person’s life are less likely to be articulated. The late president of France, Jacques Chirac, attracted somewhat mixed obituaries in the British press, and although he was successful as a politician, it was pointed out that he had been convicted of financial corruption and embezzlement – and that he was a serial philanderer, with, apparently, a boudoir built into his personal bus as mayor of Paris.
As the Sunday Times columnist Camilla Long wrote, “His lack of control in his private life matched a lack of control in his public life.”
Yet the French public chose not to count a man’s failings, in death, but to emphasise his achievements, as a well-liked political leader, who had wisely kept France out of the Iraq War. Church and state co-ordinated, in Paris, to provide Monsieur Chirac with an impressive farewell, as the line of mourners stretched over a mile to pay their respects.
His magnificent Requiem Mass was concelebrated at the exquisite Church of Saint-Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement, attended by many dignitaries, and, of course, his family (though his dutiful and long-suffering wife, Bernadette, a practising Catholic, was too frail to attend). The Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, preached to the packed church from the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy, emphasising our duty to pray for those who govern us.
Today, the Church consigns a man’s life to the forgiveness of the Almighty. It is left to an increasingly sharp-tongued media to focus on the failings.
There’s been some alarming talk, recently, about the possibility of riots occurring in the streets of Britain as part of political conflict. If this vignette from history is a guide, it’s unlikely to happen.
Maud Gonne, who became a renowned figure in Irish revolutionary history (as well as being the muse who inspired the poet WB Yeats) was English by birth. As a young woman, she was attracted to the growing socialist movement in Britain, and enthusiastically attended a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, addressed by the legendary Labour leader Keir Hardie.
It was a tumultuous occasion, with militant trade unionists and working-class radicals in the crowd. Then, at the end of the rally, came an announcement that the police had requested an orderly dispersal. In compliance with respect for the rule of law, the London socialists quietly broke up and went home.
Maud Gonne was disgusted and concluded that the English would never have a real revolution, with tumult in the streets. Thereafter, she pinned her insurrectionary hopes on Ireland.
There have been angry marches and demonstrations since, and even clashes with the police. But I think Maud’s prediction is essentially right: the English character isn’t given to violent street riots, at least for revolutionary ends.
We all know the Parable of the Lost Sheep, as told in Luke 15:3-7 and Matthew 18:12-14 (so beautifully painted by Sir John Everett Millais, among others). I thought of it last week when our cat, Pussolini, disappeared for five days.
I feared she might have been run over by a car, attacked by M Renard, the local fox who roams the town by night, or just strayed somewhere. Her empty cat basket looked so forlorn. Then a mewling was heard from a locked garage, and my son found her therein. She had survived for 120 hours without food or water. She was hungry and needy, but alive.
After that we spoiled and petted her continuously, so grateful to have found the lost cat who had strayed. The parable really resonates.
Last week in this magazine Tom Holland mentioned Fr Tom Heneghan, of Corpus Christi Church in south London, who died in 2013. I would love to hear from anyone else who knew Fr Heneghan. I can be contacted at [email protected], or by letter via the Catholic Herald.
Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4