Monday, 20 September 2010

The Pope has flown

I woke up this morning wondering whether Pope Benedict was having a lie-in. I sincerely hope so. I trust his private secretary wasn't knocking on his door at 5 am telling him it was time for prayers, and then there was a pile of business waiting on his desk which had built up from his jaunt to the UK - because whatever else it was his state visit here was no jolly holiday. What an incredibly punishing schedule for an 83-year old! And we saw only the public bits - I've no doubt he maintained his spiritual disciplines, had his briefings, and held his private meetings. I don't suppose he had much time for listening to his iPod. How well he stayed the course.

Something I observed about his speeches was how understated they were. He did use emphasis, but there were no rhetorical flourishes either in content or in delivery. He appeared to trust that the truth reasonably presented would speak and convince on its own. Anyway he spoke quietly, but with a gentle passion. A friend of mine recently pleaded for a return of oratory to preaching. I prefer the Papa Benny style!

I have to take my hat off (again) to the BBC for their coverage of the actual events. I suppose it was an official visit, but I thought they did get in very good 'experts' to explain the significance of what was going on and not least of the worship. One of my favourite moments was before the Hyde Park Vigil when the commentator said something like, "And there's the big chair, the symbol of power and authority!" And quietly from stage left came the voice of, I think, Father Jameson, correcting her, "- of service and authority!" In reply to the spluttering of the commentator, there followed a brief explanation of Christ's example and the Church's paradoxical teaching of authority. So although I felt the run-up left something to be desired, the visit itself was well covered.

It's just possible that in the late nineteenth century, a Birmingham accountant might have met an old Cardinal walking on Rednal Hill at the south-west edge of the city. The cardinal of course was John Henry Newman, whose Oratory community had a retreat house there. The businessman was Alfred Ebenezer Wenham who, a few year's before the cardinal's death in 1890, built himself a house a few hundred yards away. He was my great-grandfather. I'd like to think they met, but I suspect Alfred wouldn't have been very keen on the cardinal's faith. He later retired to Oban in Scotland where he was a faithful member of the "Wee Frees", the austere Free Presbyterians. But they might have shared a passion for honesty, justice and conscience.  About six years after Alfred moved to the Lickey Hills, a dying mother and her sons moved into Fern Cottage nearby: they were the Tolkiens and JRR was one of the sons. It's said that Rivendell in the Hobbit novels is derived from Rednal (Wreodan Healh).
So it was with especial interest that I viewed the Beatification Mass of John Henry Newman, in Crofton Park cheek by jowl with Rednal Hill. The venue for the Pope's final mass had been moved from Coventry to Crofton Park to be near Newman's burial place in the retreat house cemetery. Again the BBC had done well with its experts who explained without banality or mystifying such things as relics and beatification. And so Newman was pronounced to be recognised as "Blessed" (as I think all those who have not seen and yet believed - blessed that is). In his homily, the Pope returned to the theme of some definite service - which each individual has. I love the prayer of Cardinal Newman that comes from, which I didn't know before:
"God has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.
I have my mission - I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work;
I shall be a preacher of Truth in my own place, while not intending it,
if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore, my God, I will put myself without reserve into your hands.
What have I in heaven, and apart from you what do I want upon earth?
My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the God of my heart."

And a final reflection from me - probably! I've seen some sniping at the visit from fellow-Christians in the blogosphere. That for me is a big no-no. For one thing the positives and the positive good done by the four days far outweighs the negatives. The best efforts of the National Secular Society were spectacular own goals as they drew more publicity to it and more interest, bigger crowds and more coverage. For another, the Pope was hugely Christ-centred. In other words, in every service and every sermon he kept talking about Jesus' love for us, and that the heart of faith is loving Him. It reminded me of the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, when asked what his faith was at heart, replying: "Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so." And thirdly I seem to recall reading The Final Quest by Rick Joyner, an allegorical vision in which he sees the embattled church firing arrows which fall on the backs of those fighting in front of them. "Why are they attacking their own side?" Good question.

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