Anyone reporting critically on the papacy, however objective their intent, risks being caught in the crossfire between the liberals and conservatives, the scruffies and the neats, as I call them, of our Church. Some years ago, the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, once thought of as a future pope, offered an explanation. He said:
We are not all contemporaries in a biographical sense… some are in the 1990s, some Catholics are still mentally in the 1960s and some in the 1940s, and some even in the nineteenth century; it’s inevitable that there will be clashes of mentalities.
Irish on my mother’s side, English on my father’s, I belong to generations raised as Catholic children before the Second Vatican Council. The supply of priests, so plentiful in those days, relied on encouragement of voca-tions among boys barely out of childhood. The practice went back four hundred years to another attempt at Church reform, the Council of Trent. Down the centuries, large numbers of prepubescent boys were routinely packed off to junior seminaries for priestly formation lasting up to twelve or more years. Premature recruitment for such a drastic vocation, involv-ing a perpetual vow of celibacy, could be absurdly casual.
At 12 years of age, in a “holy Joe” phase, I was an altar server. I loved the dressing up, parading around amidst billowing incense: High Mass, funerals, weddings, street processions. One morn-ing, after serving his Mass, our Irish parish priest asked what I hoped to be when I grew up. I suspect he already knew the answer. An interview with our local bishop followed, and I was accepted as a candidate for the priesthood, to the pride of my devout mother and the puzzlement of my agnostic father – who thought I was more in need of fresh air and football.
Aged 13, I was dispatched 150 miles from home to spend five years in a junior seminary, St Wilfrid’s, Cotton, a chilly hilltop gothic building in the Peak District. It was a cloistered life. We received an excellent classical education, taught by young priests who were stern disciplinarians. We were in and out of church all day long, and fresh air was provided in the form of cross-country runs followed by cold showers.
At 18, I graduated to the senior seminary, Oscott College, close to the city of Birmingham. We were obliged to dress in soutanes and Roman col-lars, clerics in the making. Our studies in philosophy and theology were increasingly abstract, dogmatic, and defensive. The Church was supreme in its truth and holiness, triumphant: the one path to salva-tion. All other Christian denominations, all other faiths, were wrong. We were reminded daily of the special status of our priesthood in prospect, a profound transforma-tion that would descend on us with the oils of ordination.
I found friendship in community, and I loved the beautiful liturgical round, but I felt increasingly imprisoned. I would escape to a cinema down in the city, hiding the Roman collar with a scarf. Then doubts were creeping in, starting with the real presence in the Eucharist, and ending with the entire story of original sin and redemption. It was a lot more than just cold feet about my vocation. One morning I slipped away without farewells or regrets.
At Oxford, I became an increasingly lukewarm Catholic. As a graduate student at Cambridge, I became an agnos-tic. Yet in GK Chesterton’s novel The Innocence of Father Brown, the hero priest speaks of the “unseen hook and an invisible line” long enough to let one “wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring [one] back with a twitch upon the thread”. It took twenty years to feel that twitch. The faith of my wife and children was a factor: their Catholic Christianity bore witness to something deeply missing in my life. I began to explore the power of Christian community and imagina-tion rather than logical proofs and apologetic arguments. Christianity was what you did rather than a set of ideas in your head. There was no return to the Church of certitudes, ultimate truths, and righteousness.
At Mass on Christmas Day the choir sang, “Happy birthday, dear Jesus” at the consecration. Where was the solemnity of the ancient lit-urgy? I had yet to catch up with the significance of the Second Vatican Council, its benefits and its difficulties.
Cardinal Newman wrote a powerful essay, “The Grammar of Assent”, on how one comes to religious belief. The arguments are per-haps equally valid for loss of belief. We come to faith, he declared, not through an effort of the will or logical arguments but a “feeling toward”, or a “yes”, on encountering Christianity’s people, its rituals and practice, the person of Christ, over time. As he puts it, the “popular, practical, personal evi-dence,” backed up by the Church’s “authority”, the magisterium. Yet if this be true of the path to faith, then it is equally true of a resistance to assent, leading to a “feeling against”, or a “no!”.
The journey back to faith, was assailed by renewed bouts of scepticism, and disillusion. I had a niece, married in church at twenty-five, whose husband left her within two years for another woman. They divorced. If she were to marry again she would be characterised as an “adulterer”, unable to receive Communion. She was urged to apply for an annulment, but John Paul had tightened the rules. She asked: “Uncle John, does God hate me that much?”
My youngest brother, divorced after twenty years of marriage, then wishing to marry seven years later, was denied a blessing by his parish priest. So the extended family, prominently Catholic, trooped into the local Anglican church where the vicar happily blessed them as a loving couple promising to live together as Christian souls.
There was a priest friend, bullied by his bishop for conducting a popular service of general absolution during Lent, a service of rec-onciliation banned by John Paul. I had an academic colleague in Cambridge who declined to write a favourable review of a book on women priesthood because it would negatively affect her future career in Catholic education; an actively gay friend refused Communion at the funeral Mass of his mother.
These were Catholics who found themselves discouraged and marginalised, driven away from the sustenance of the sacraments, sometimes in despair of their religion, sometimes moving into communities of faith that had more compassion.
By the late 1990s, the clerical sexual abuse crisis was testing the faith of Catholics throughout the world. The phenomenon was nothing new; it had been kept hidden by institutional clerical secrecy as well as a reluctance on the part of lay the faithful, including victims, to call it out. In the junior seminary we had a priest called Father McCallum (now long dead) who encouraged confessions in his room. He would invite the young penitent to sit in an armchair, rather than kneel, and offered a glass of Tia Maria. One evening, having delivered my laundry list of peccadillos, he asked if he could inspect my penis to discover whether I had a common distortion of the organ that caused unwanted erections. I left the room without a word. I never reported him as I thought I would not be believed. He was eventually moved on to be chaplain to a boarding preparatory school.
The clerical sexual abuse disclosures, once they started, became a torrent with the power to damage the Church’s moral authority, drastically, perhaps irreparably. Like many, I found my faith in Catholicism, rather than Christianity, challenged, as Cardinal Newman put it, by “popular, practical, personal evidence”. John Paul II blamed the clerical abuse on Anglophone clergy, and Benedict blamed the media – he has since blamed the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As the full extent of the worldwide crimes, and their cover-ups, became apparent from the lowest ranks of the priesthood up to bishops, archbishops and cardinals, the culture of clerical secrecy and entitlement came under scrutiny.
In the final years of John Paul II one sensed a yearning among Catholics for a pope who would disrupt the status quo. What if we had a pope who genuinely believed that those who had been abused, those with broken lives, broken relationships, and broken faith, are in great-est need of inclusion and love? A pastoral pope for our time would be a pope who focused his concern on the lost sheep, who ceased to speak of the sinfulness of the faithful, their “culture of death”, “secu-larism”, “indifferentism”, and “selfishness”. He would recognise that each and every pastor is “father” – the original meaning of the word “pope”, within his own faith community. He would envisage the Church as a big tent, welcoming the sinners, the mar-ginalised, the dissidents, the discouraged.
Francis, so patently, has filled that role. While there are constituencies that long to bring back the Church of John Paul II and Benedict, even the Church of Pius XII and Pius X, the disruptions of Francis cannot be undone. Writing of this papacy, eight years on from his election, I found myself thinking of my grandchildren and the kind of Church they will both inherit and help create. Working for three decades in a university, I have a sense of their generation, the young Catholics born in the twenty-first cen-tury. They live in very different time zones and mentalities from the generations of their uncles, aunts, parents, and grandparents – some of whom are still living, as Cardinal Martini said, in the 1960s, and some in the nineteenth century.
I find that my grandchildren are com-mitted to their religion by a free decision rather than fear or blind obedience. They are more open to minorities and other faiths, people of difference. Their values are genuinely Catholic: as James Joyce put it, HEC: Here Comes Everybody. They follow the spirit as well as the letter; their moral concerns are wide, rejecting racism, inequality, and prejudice; relieving poverty and homelessness; combating climate change; they have little interest in theological quarrels or the niceties of liturgical rubrics, or in anathematising fellow Catholics, let alone people of other denomina-tions and faiths. They do not treat their religion as a secure haven from the real world. They are less judgmental, more capable of holding opposites in ten-sion, than my generation or that of my parents.
They face a future of rising world poverty, unemployment, mass migration, the far-reaching consequences of Covid-19, the looming threats of ecological disaster, the increasing danger of proliferating weapons of mass
I believe that Francis has interrupted our Church for the future shocks of their world, and the world their children will inherit. He has disrupted the walls of separation; taught the fraternal interdependence of societies and nature; urged service for the common good sustained by hope in the boundless mercy of God.
Excerpted from Church, Interrupted: Havoc and Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis (Chronicle Prism, £21.99). John Cornwell directs the Science & Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge
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