Recently, I attended the English and Welsh bishops’ Low Week meeting. This year the gathering took place at Palazzola, the home of the Venerable English College on Lake Albano, instead of the usual venue of Hinsley Hall in Leeds. We were looked after magnificently.
The meeting normally lasts three days but this time it was a whole week. The conference included an “in-service” course. The topic was the hot-button one of theological anthropology: what does it mean to be human in God’s plan today? We looked at the Church’s vision of being male and female, the Theology of the Body, sexuality and marriage, the role of imagination and conscience, and also at the impact and use of the internet.
The Church’s teaching about God and about Man are like two pillars, the central “diptych” of our faith. The loss of faith in God in today’s world has led to a morass of conflicting views about what it means to be human. In history, the Church has faced many controversies, such as over the sacraments in the Middle Ages and at the Reformation over the nature of the Church. But now in the 21st century, the big issue is anthropology: what is Man? What does it mean to be human? What is natural? What does it mean to be male and female? What is the divine purpose of sexual intercourse? What about same-sex attraction?
The nub of the argument is about sex and authority. What is the truth about sexuality? Who may tell me how to live my life?
Over the past decades, the easy availability of contraceptives has led many to a revised understanding of what sex is about. No longer is sexual intercourse the preserve of married life, an expression of total commitment and fidelity between husband and wife. Many today see sex as an end in itself, and some view it as a kind of leisure activity. This has brought about some grim social consequences: broken family relationships, an explosion of addictive behaviours marked by despair, shame and guilt, and the trafficking of people for prostitution and pornography.
Today, two polar opposite views about being human are current. Are humans higher animals or transcendent persons? Are we machines or creatures with limits? Are people objects to be manipulated for pleasure, gain or power, or subjects to be respected, with meaning, purpose and dignity? The battle here is between two different visions of anthropology, one the offspring of Enlightenment, aided and abetted by a distorted view of science and human freedom, the other, the fruit of divinely revealed faith, coupled to the wisdom of the ages. The first promises liberation yet fails to deliver. It leads to nihilism and control. The other is about the natural way of life. It is the Way of the Cross and responsibility, but it offers true freedom and salvation.
At the English College, our discussions were set against the background of the forthcoming synod on the family. The whole Church is currently reflecting on the teaching of Jesus on marriage and family life, on the valid and joyful celebration of marriage in today’s context, on the preparation of couples for marriage, on the pastoral care and support of families, and on new ways of showing God’s mercy to those in difficulty. Pope Francis has called us to prepare for the synod less by chatter and more by prayer. This is exactly why I wanted to do something special for the people of our Diocese of Portsmouth.
I have invited the relics of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux, to the diocese this month. Louis and Zélie were one of the first married couples to be beatified and it is said that during the forthcoming synod Pope Francis will canonise them as an example of Christian married love. Louis, a jeweller and watchmaker, and Zélie married in 1858. They had nine children, four of whom died young, leaving five sisters, with Thérèse the youngest. Remarkably, all these girls entered religious life.
Louis and Zélie were of different temperaments yet perfectly matched, united and faithful. Daily Mass-goers and ever charitable to the poor, they created a home full of Christian faith, joy and simplicity. There is a splendid website about them, louisandzeliemartin.org.
After a six-day visit to the Diocese of Plymouth, the relics will visit the Diocese of Portsmouth and there is already growing excitement. Our three-day programme begins on Wednesday (May 20) with a liturgy of reception and Mass at St Theresa’s, Totton, in Southampton, before a day of veneration with Mass and Vespers in the cathedral at St John’s Cathedral, Portsmouth. The visitation concludes with Mass at Christ the King, Reading, on Friday. Our newly designed diocesan website, portsmouthdiocese.org.uk, has more details. Some of our religious communities will be singing the Divine Office. Confessions will be available. Schools will be visiting for prayer and married couples will be invited to renew their vows.
When the relics of St Thérèse visited Britain in 2009, thousands turned out at the cathedral in Portsmouth to venerate her and to seek her prayers. Now, fittingly, the relics of her parents are coming. My hope is that this holy married couple will evoke a deeper faith and enkindle a real celebration of Christian marriage.
I pray that this saintly married couple, along with Mary and Joseph, will renew us all with the joy of the Gospel. May they inspire our married couples and our families, especially those in difficulty, to have complete trust in God, and to be more united and faithful. Above all, in this period of preparation for the synod in October, may Blessed Louis and Blessed Zélie assist the universal Church to prepare worthily and well.
The Rt Rev Philip Egan is Bishop of Portsmouth
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (15/5/15).