Saint John Paul II on Love, Truth, the Family and the World

Today is the first official feast day of Pope Saint John Paul II, and I thought it would be appropriate, given that we have just experienced/endured the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, to revisit some of his presentation of what the Church teaches about the family, as expressed in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. Saint John Paul wrote about a great many things, but perhaps his greatest legacy is in the writing he left behind dealing with issues of life (c.f.; Evangelium Vitae) and the family – a body that he rightly recognised as the most fundamental unit of society, the place in which education about ‘first things’ (i.e.; morality, issues of ultimate meaning, the questions of truth and justice) is inculcated in us, and which therefore acts as a ‘domestic church’ (c.f.; Lumen Gentium, 11).

This idea of the family as domestic church – a place where the Faith and central human values are first passed on to us in order to shape our consciences and prepare us to face the world – correlates with the findings of sociologist Mary Eberstadt, who has recognised a proportionality between the decrease in traditional family life and the decline in religious observance (with the former influencing the latter), and must form the basis of any movements the Church makes to engage the wider culture, much of which no longer recognises the traditional model. This is something John Paul recognised, and outlined in the opening of his Apostolic Exhortation:

The family in the modern world, as much as and perhaps more than any other institution, has been beset by the many profound and rapid changes that have affected society and culture. Many families are living this situation in fidelity to those values that constitute the foundation of the institution of the family. Others have become uncertain and bewildered over their role or even doubtful and almost unaware of the ultimate meaning and truth of conjugal and family life. Finally, there are others who are hindered by various situations of injustice in the realization of their fundamental rights.

Knowing that marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values, the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and seek to live it faithfully, to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth, and to those who are unjustly impeded from living freely their family lives. Supporting the first, illuminating the second and assisting the others, the Church offers her services to every person who wonders about the destiny of marriage and the family.

Familiaris Consortio, 1.

            These opening lines recognise that there has been a profound change in the domestic lives of many people, whilst also giving due attention to those who have lived in fidelity to traditional values in accordance with the Church’s teaching. A consistent thread within the Exhortation is that not only should the Church give equal care and attention to both groups, resisting the temptation to focus on irregular situations to the detriment of those who have sacrificed much to remain faithful, but that preservation and promulgation of orthodox teaching on the family must always be a priority in any engagement with the wider culture – we must first strengthen our own sense of what we are for before we can offer it as an alternative to or critique of the modern world:

The Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled…

…At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.

ibid, 3.

            Maintaining the truth about the family is thus not only for the good of individual families, but for the good of society itself. Working to preserve and present positively the truth that lifelong commitments between one man and one woman that are open to life and dedicated to raising children in concert with the inseparable values of Truth and Love, and that are properly ordered to transcendent ends, can only enrich the wider society, providing it with citizens who are well integrated and have learned by example the importance of responsibility and faithfulness, as well as the need to live one’s life in the context of goals wider than one’s own individual concerns.

The education of the moral conscience, which makes every human being capable of judging and of discerning the proper ways to achieve self-realization according to his or her original truth, thus becomes a pressing requirement that cannot be renounced…

…To the injustice originating from sin – which has profoundly penetrated the structures of today’s world – and often hindering the family’s full realization of itself and of its fundamental rights, we must all set ourselves in opposition through a conversion of mind and heart, following Christ Crucified by denying our own selfishness: such a conversion cannot fail to have a beneficial and renewing influence even on the structures of society.

ibid, 8-9.

            Familaris Consortio is a long and rich document, which I cannot possibly do full justice to here, but these opening paragraphs give a strong sense of what sort of vision Saint John Paul had for the Church’s teaching on the family and the role of the family in the world – just as the Church is to be salt and light to the world, the Christian family, as a ‘domestic church’ is to sow the same sort of seeds, offering an alternative to neighbours and leavening the society at large by its example:

…the fruitfulness of conjugal love is not restricted solely to the procreation of children, even understood in its specifically human dimension: it is enlarged and enriched by all those fruits of moral, spiritual and supernatural life which the father and mother are called to hand on to their children, and through the children to the Church and to the world.

ibid, 28.

            The Church and the family are thus called to be effective signs to the world, and neither of them can do this if, in an attempt to reach out to the diverse ways of living in modern life, they compromise those basic values which constitute the very form of what they are meant to be offering as an alternative. An engagement with the world which compromised any aspect of the traditional family model would, in the long run, not help anyone – by weakening the very resources of what the Church is offering to the world, the latter would thereby be left to its own devices and simply continue in the ways it has become accustomed to. If the Church truly believes that it has an alternative vision which is capable of transforming the current situation, then to compromise those resources and leave the world so bereft would not be a loving or merciful thing at all:

To the extent in which the Christian family accepts the Gospel and matures in faith, it becomes an evangelizing community. Let us listen again to Paul VI: “The family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates. In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelize and are evangelized. The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them. And such a family becomes the evangelizer of many other families, and of the neighbourhood of which it forms part.”

ibid, 52.

            It is thus incumbent upon the Church not only to present her teaching with clarity and consistency, that Christian families may be able to better form new generations in the task of evangelising the culture, but also to provide sound and continual pastoral care, so that faith is nourished and sustained, and also that families are accompanied by the Church during periods of difficulty. Again, priority must be given to those families who are faithfully living out the virtues of the Gospel – not as some sort of reward for their faithfulness, but because those who do commit themselves to evangelical living are the foundation and future of that continual mission to spread the light of Christ throughout the surrounding culture.

However, once this is appreciated, due care must also be provided to those in irregular situations, and after addressing the situations of those in difficult circumstances (e.g.; migrant families) and those in mixed marriages, Saint John Paul goes on to examine those who are living outside of the regular framework (e.g.; those in trial marriages, ‘free unions’, and the divorced and remarried). In all these cases, he combines a pastor’s concern for the difficulty of the particular situations and the problem of reconciling them with Church teaching, with an insistence on the impossibility of compromising the truth:

The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life, in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation. But above all there must be a campaign of prevention, by fostering the sense of fidelity in the whole moral and religious training of the young, instructing them concerning the conditions and structures that favour such fidelity, without which there is no true freedom; they must be helped to reach spiritual maturity and enabled to understand the rich human and supernatural reality of marriage as a sacrament.

ibid, 81.

            In his conclusion to the Exhortation, Saint John Paul summarises the essence of what all our present discussions about marriage and the family, both in the Church and in society at large, revolve around – namely that there is such a thing as truth, as the right way for humanity, that at its heart it involves love, and also that true love always involves and requires sacrifice:

The Church knows the path by which the family can reach the heart of the deepest truth about itself. The Church has learned this path at the school of Christ and the school of history interpreted in the light of the Spirit. She does not impose it but she feels an urgent need to propose it to everyone without fear and indeed with great confidence and hope, although she knows that the Good News includes the subject of the Cross. But it is through the Cross that the family can attain the fullness of its being and the perfection of its love.

ibid, 86.

            It is a loss of this sense of sacrifice that is at the root of so many of our problems today – we speak much of love, but only as a feeling; and in a culture of instant gratification have taught ourselves that we have a right to happiness which must be realised without any effort on our part. What Saint John Paul II’s teaching reminds us is that we can never truly find our way to lasting happiness without renouncing the clamouring desires of the self. We want Christ without the Cross, and it is part of the Church’s role in the world to tell us not so much that this is not allowed, but that it is simply not possible – true love always involves the via crucis.

John Paul’s teaching on the family is fundamentally rooted in this truth, and his presentation of the positive vision of the family that the Church offers shows us that the only way in which families can be domestic churches (i.e.; to be seeds of light and life to the surrounding culture) is by creating stable environments where the cruciform love of Christ is central to all other aspects of that environment. The only way to counter the currents of selfishness and atomisation that are so prevalent in our culture is to shape future generations of people who know in their heart that true love is always in service to the truth, and always involves true compassion – the suffering with and for the other.

The creation of families rooted in this love is the only means by which the mercy our culture so desperately needs can be effectively and consistently delivered to it, and the only way in which such families can be both created and sustained is if the Church is vigilant in preserving its teachings in all their fullness, that she might present them in all their beauty to the society at large. In a spiritual desert, it is no good for anybody if the only source of living water itself becomes dried up – this is something that Saint John Paul II saw with great clarity, and why he saw the preservation of the splendour of truth as a necessary precursor for the conveying of divine mercy to a wounded world. He also saw that in a world as wounded as ours, the rescue operation that Christ has entrusted to His Church must start from the ground up – that is, it must start with the family.

The Fundamental Option


During the Synod on the Family, I have sensed behind many of the more ‘progressive’ opinions voiced the shadowy presence of the ‘fundamental option’ theory. This is not something that I am aware has been mentioned explicitly, but I think it forms part of the assumptions of many prelates seeking changes in Church teaching. This is a re-blog of a post on the fundamental option from last year, which also includes some corrective wisdom from Saint John Paul II, whose feast day it is tomorrow (I’ve updated him from ‘Blessed’ to ‘Saint’ in the post accordingly).

Originally posted on Journey Towards Easter:

The theory of the fundamental option is a difficult topic to discuss, for many reasons – the primary one though is that it describes something that is very close to the true state of things, and yet does so in a way that is both misrepresentative of those truths, and very attractive to modern minds; another is that it has a direct emotional relevance to all of us (or at least someone we know). I shall address the first point towards the end of my post, but before I take a look at the second, I will briefly outline the essence of this theory, so that it is clear from the start what I am (and am not) talking about. To set the historical context though, first voice must be given to Karl Rahner, who can be said to be the originator of this theory in its fullest form:

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C. S. Lewis on Sex, Love, Marriage and the ‘Right’ to Happiness

The last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote before his death in November 1963, was a short essay entitled We Have No Right to Happiness, that was published by the Saturday Evening Post in December 1963, and reprinted in the God in the Dock collection many years later (1998). At the beginning of the piece, Lewis considers whether we have any particular ‘right’ to happiness in general, but spends the greater part discussing the issue of whether anyone can be said to have an unlimited right to sexual or romantic happiness, and whether this can ever really be said to justify abandoning one’s marriage vows. The answer to this query may seem obvious to many, but in an age where commitment seems to be ranked lower amongst our priorities than ever, it is a question worth revisiting.

In the essay, Lewis not only provides a strong critique against those who would claim all sorts of things as a ‘right’ which are, by the nature of the case, not so at all, but also draws attention to the validity of certain claims to rights per se, and to the assumptions we all make (even those who wish to contravene or supersede commonly held or traditional moral values) when making such claims, thus highlighting the absurdity of isolating some aspects of those assumptions (i.e.; of the Natural Law) and arbitrarily raising them above the others. Finally, this particular issue is linked to the wider concerns and ramifications of individualism and relativism – things already prevalent in Lewis’ day, but yet to have gained quite as much of a hold over the popular imagination as they have today.

Lewis begins the piece by describing a hypothetical conversation between himself and a woman named Clare, about a man (Mr A.) who had divorced his wife in order to marry another woman (Mrs B. – who had also divorced her husband) on the grounds that they had fallen in love and, because of the ‘right to happiness’, were justified in abandoning their spouses. Whilst there also exist many much more sympathetic reasons for ending a marriage this rationale is unfortunately not only an increasingly common one, but is also now widely seen to be acceptable by our society. I present here the bulk of Lewis’ response to the situation (and Clare’s approval of it):

I went away thinking about the concept of a “right to happiness”. At first this sounds to me as odd as the right to good luck. For I believe – whatever one school or moralists may say – that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.

I can understand a right as a freedom guaranteed me by the laws of the society I live in. Thus, I have a right to travel along the public roads because society gives me that freedom; that’s what we mean by calling the roads “public”. I can also understand a right as a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part. If I have a right to receive £100 from you, this is another way of saying that you have a duty to pay me £100. If the laws allow Mr A. to desert his wife and seduce his neighbour’s wife, then, by definition, Mr A. has a legal right to do so, and we need bring in no talk about “happiness”.

But of course this was not what Clare meant. She meant that he had not only a legal right but a moral right to act as he did. In other words, Clare is – or would be if she thought it out – a classical moralist after the style of Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, Hooker and Locke. She believes that behind the laws of the state there is a Natural Law. I agree with her. I hold this conception to be basic to all civilisation. Without it, the actual laws of the state become an absolute, as in Hegel. They cannot be criticised because there is no norm against which they should be judged.

The ancestry of Clare’s maxim, “They have a right to happiness”, is august. In words that are cherished by all civilised men, but especially by Americans, it has been laid down that one of the rights of man is a right to “the pursuit of happiness”. And now we get to the real point. What did the writers of that august declaration mean?

It is quite certain what they did not mean. They did not mean that man was entitled to pursue happiness by any and every means – including, say, murder, rape, robbery, treason and fraud. No society could be built on such a basis. They meant to “pursue happiness by all lawful means”; that is, by all means which the Law of Nature eternally sanctions and which the laws of the nation shall sanction…

…But the question as to what means are “lawful” – what methods of pursuing happiness are either morally permissible by the Law of Nature or should be declared legally permissible by the legislature of a particular nation – remains exactly where it did. And on that question I disagree with Clare. I don’t think it is obvious that people have the unlimited “right to happiness” which she suggests.

For one thing, I believe that Clare, when she says “happiness”, means simply and solely “sexual happiness”. Partly because women like Clare never use the word “happiness” in any other sense. But also because I never heard Clare talk about the “right” to any other kind. She was rather leftist in her politics, and would have been scandalised if anyone had defended the actions of a ruthless man-eating tycoon on the ground that his happiness consisted in making money and he was pursuing his happiness. She was also a rabid tee-totaller; I never heard her excuse an alcoholic because he was happy when he was drunk. A good many of Clare’s friends, and especially her female friends, often felt – I’ve heard them say so – that their own happiness would be perceptibly increased by boxing her ears. I very much doubt if this would have brought her theory of a right to happiness into play.

Clare, in fact, is doing what the whole western world seems to me to have been doing for the last forty-odd years. When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, “Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat our other impulses.” I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilised people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you’re a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is “four bare legs in a bed”…

…The real situation is skilfully concealed by saying that the question of Mr A.’s “right” to desert his wife is one of “sexual morality”. Robbing an orchard is not an offence against some special morality called “fruit morality”. It is an offence against honesty. Mr A.’s action is an offence against good faith (to solemn promises), against gratitude (towards one whom he was deeply indebted) and against common humanity. Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behaviour which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous and unjust.

Now though I see no good reason for giving sex this privilege, I think I see a strong cause. It is this. It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion – as distinct from a transient fit of appetite – that it makes more towering promises than any other emotion. No doubt all our desires make promises, but not so impressively. To be in love involves the almost irresistible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such doom we sink into fathomless depths of pity.

Unfortunately these promises are found often to be quite untrue. Every experienced adult knows this to be so as regards all erotic passions (except the one he himself is feeling at the moment). We discount the world-without-end pretensions of our friends’ amours easily enough. We know that such things sometimes last – and sometimes don’t. And when they do last, this is not because they promised at the outset to do so. When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also – I must put it crudely – good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.

If we establish a “right to (sexual) happiness” which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behaviour, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience, but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behaviour is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behaviour turns out again and again to be illusory. Everyone (except Mr A. and Mrs B.) knows that Mr A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as deserting his old. He will feel again that all is at stake. He will see himself again as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for the woman…

…Secondly, though the “right to happiness” is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance towards a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilisation will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add “unfortunately” – be swept away.

taken from Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.388-392, Harper Collins.

Charles Sorley: Expectans Expectavi

Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 – 1915) was born in Aberdeen but educated at Marlborough College – the same place that Siegfried Sassoon went to school. This fact is significant as both men would go on to fight in the First World War and to be celebrated for the poetry that they wrote during that same period (Robert Graves considered Sorley to be one of three poets of great importance that were killed during the war – the other two being Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg; he is also one of sixteen war poets whose names are etched into a remembrance stone in the ‘Poet’s Corner’ of Westminster Abbey).   Sorley died in October of 1915, having swiftly risen to the rank of captain in a matter of months, after arriving at the Western Front as a lieutenant.

His poetry was published posthumously in January 1916, and the poem Expectans Expectavi became especially popular, eventually having its last two stanzas set to music by Charles Wood (in 1919), which then became a standard anthem for use in Anglican churches (particularly cathedrals and collegiate chapels). The poem itself is direct and urgent in its language and its rhythm, describing in distinctly unsentimental terms the light and shade of the human heart as it charts its way through the uncertainties of life. Sorley combines a keen sense of insight into the inner life of the individual with the recognition that the bottomless mystery that exists within each human life is deeply interconnected with the mystery within others – that what really unites humanity is not what we can see or touch, or any shared physical quality, but what we grasp at, long for, and (unfortunately) often push away and resist.

The final two stanzas that were later adapted for hymnody bring this existential insight into a wider context – that the reaching in to our innermost selves is always a reaching out to the ultimate Other, to God, of whom Saint Augustine famously said that ‘you were more inward than my most inward part and higher than the highest element within me…you were there before me, but I had departed from myself.’ In accessing the very core of our being, having moved past the distractions of the world outside and the chattering noise of the ego within, we meet God in the ‘sanctuary of our soul’ and are led beyond ourselves to His love, which animates and sustains every part of His creation.

That Charles Sorley was able to write such inspiring words, enjoying the peace of knowing the ceaseless and boundless love of Christ in the midst of brutal war, is inspiring indeed, and a reminder to us of how this Love is always with us, right in the heart of all the things that He has made, and of how important it is to keep a place within us where we may retire to and meet Our Lord, and from where He may restore our soul and give us the strength to do the works given to us to do. It is also however a moving tribute to the faith that is often required in waiting (the title of the poem roughly translates as ‘awaited waiting’ or, more simply, ‘I waited’) for that strength and restoration to arrive:


From morn to midnight, all day through,      

I laugh and play as others do,

I sin and chatter, just the same          

As others with a different name.        


And all year long upon the stage,              

I dance and tumble and do rage        

So vehemently, I scarcely see 

The inner and eternal me.      


I have a temple I do not         

Visit, a heart I have forgot,           

A self that I have never met,  

A secret shrine—and yet, and yet      


This sanctuary of my soul      

Unwitting I keep white and whole,    

Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care              

To enter or to tarry there.  


With parted lips and outstretched hands       

And listening ears Thy servant stands,          

Call Thou early, call Thou late,         

To Thy great service dedicate.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch: Catholicity, Unity and the Primacy of Rome

Saint Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107), whose feast day it is today, was the third bishop of Antioch, and remains a highly important witness to the early years of the Church’s life, especially with respect to ecclesiology, and even more especially regarding the unique role of the Roman see within the episcopal framework. Saint Ignatius was bishop of Antioch from 70 AD until his death – a particularly important position, as Antioch was, as Tradition tells us, one of the sees founded by Saint Peter, and one which the Council of Nicaea stated to have (alongside Alexandria and Rome) a certain sense of primacy amongst the other bishoprics. We also know from Acts 11:26 that it was here that ‘the disciples were for the first time called Christians.

Furthermore, some sources claim that he was a disciple of Saint Peter*, or Saint John – regardless of the truth of these claims** (a legend also arose that he was the child that Our Lord set down amongst the disciples and blessed – c.f.; Matthew 18:1-6), he represents a very close connection to the apostolic era, and provides us with a strong sense of the continuity that existed between generations, as well as the fervency with which the Rule of Faith that had been handed down was guarded. In Saint Ignatius’ writings there is a particular zeal for the Tradition that he had received, and a great emphasis on true catholicity and unity, both through that Deposit or Rule of Faith and the structures instituted in order to protect and transmit it.

This zeal for Christ, the Faith and for the Church would eventually lead Saint Ignatius to die a martyr’s death. Eusebius of Caesarea (260 – 340) tells us that Ignatius was sent to Rome to be fed to wild beasts, on account of his testimony to Christ, and that during his journey there, stopping off at various places along the way, he strengthened the Christian communities there with homilies and exhortations, urging them to reject heresy and hold fast to the teaching that they had received. During this time he also wrote letters (seven in all) to other churches, providing them with counsel and pastoral support. In his letter to the church at Rome (section 6) we see the deep faith that sustained him and those he wrote to during this time:

All the ends of the earth, all the kingdoms of the world would be of no profit to me; so far as I am concerned, to die in Jesus Christ is better than to be monarch of earth’s widest bounds. He who died for us is all that I seek; He who rose again for us is my whole desire. The pangs of birth are upon me; have patience with me, my brothers, and do not shut me out of life, do not wish me to be stillborn. Here is one who only longs to be God’s; do not make a present of him to the world again, or delude him with the things of the earth. Suffer me to attain light, light pure and undefiled; for only when I am come thither shall I be truly a man. Leave me to imitate the Passion of my God.

Early Christian Writings (1987), p.87, Penguin Classics.

            Saint Ignatius’ fervent love for Our Lord was followed closely by a love for His Church and its unity – he knew that the Faith received from the Apostles was a great treasure, as it had its source in Christ Himself, and that it was of the utmost importance to preserve those means that had also been handed down by which the Faith may be preserved. In his letter to the Magnesians (1, 7) he writes of the many churches:

May they be one in their faith, and one in the love which transcends all other virtues; but chiefest of all may they be one with Jesus and the Father, since it is only by enduring in Him all the prince of this world’s indignities, yet still eluding his clutches, that we can come to the presence of God…

…In the same way as the Lord was wholly one with the Father, and never acted independently of Him, either in person or through the Apostles, so you yourselves must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. On no account persuade yourselves that it is right and proper to follow your own private judgement; have a single service of prayer which  everyone attends; one united supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and innocent joyfulness, which is Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is better.

ibid, pp.71-72.

            He also writes to the Smyrneans (section 8 of that letter) that they are to ‘follow the bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Obey your clergy too, as you would the Apostles; give your deacons the same reverence as you would to a command from God…Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the catholic Church’ (ibid, p.103). There is a strong identification with Christ, the Church, the Eucharist (this is what the ‘wherever Jesus Christ is present’ is referring to) and the Deposit of Faith – they are all one, and the faithful cannot give up one without the other.

Catholicity and unity were clearly very important to Saint Ignatius, and he saw that a Church that did not respect the instituted means of preserving them, instead giving precedence to private judgement, could not hold to the apostolic Faith, and would eventually thereby become separated from full union with Christ. Furthermore, he also recognised the especial place that the church at Rome had been afforded in the Church’s life (and thus, according to the deeply Christological ecclesiology witnessed to by Ignatius, an especial place in the economy of salvation), providing early testimony to its primacy in the prologue to his letter to the Romans:

To her who has found mercy in the greatness of the All-Highest Father, and Jesus Christ His only Son; to the church beloved and enlightened in her love to our God Jesus Christ by the will of Him who wills all things; to the church holding chief place in the territories of the district of Rome – worthy of God, worthy of honour, blessing, praise, and success; worthy too in holiness, foremost in love, observing the law of Christ, and bearing the Father’s Name.

ibid, p.85.

            The ‘primacy of love’ Saint Ignatius speaks of here can, by comparison with his other epistles, only really be the love which subsists in unity and by which unity is created – therefore it must be in some way related to the ecclesiological structures by which that unity-in-love is protected and sustained. Interestingly, this is the only one of Ignatius’ epistles where he does not stress the need to be obedient to the bishop or to maintain unity – an omission which can only be explained by the terms in which he addresses the Roman church in his prologue; its exemplary reputation and its primacy meant that no such exhortation was required.

Furthermore, the way in which the Roman see is described (‘the church holding chief place in the territories of the district of Rome’) suggests that he is referring to one particular church amongst many in that region, and later in the epistle he writes that ‘I am not issuing orders to you, as though I were a Peter or a Paul’, confirming that the church in question is the one which had personal contact with the two Apostles. So the church which has ‘primacy of love’ is not only an apostolic see, but the See of Peter, and it is one where Saint Ignatius does not feel that obedience and unity are things he either needs to, or has the authority to, remind anyone about. His words therefore tally very well with his strong belief in the necessity of episcopacy and its need to be rooted in apostolic succession.

Some have claimed that because Ignatius doesn’t explicitly mention a bishop at Rome that therefore no bishop existed there at all in the first and early second centuries; but this seems slightly bizarre given the importance he places on episcopacy and Church hierarchy in general, and the exultant terms with which he refers to the Roman church. It seems much more likely, given Saint Ignatius a.) clearly reveres the Roman church and refers to its having a ‘primacy of love’ – which love, as can be seen in his other writings, is deeply linked to the issue of ecclesiological structure and unity, and b.) recognises the apostolic foundation of the church at Rome, that what we have here is an important early testimony to Rome’s primacy and significance in the life of the Church.

The case for Roman primacy by no means rests upon this one witness of course, and there are many more witnesses to it in the early Church (see here). Nevertheless, Saint Ignatius, who provided a powerful witness to the Christian Faith with his own life, also provides authoritative and compelling evidence for the episcopal structure on which the Church has always based itself, and for the especial place of the See of Peter in that structure. That this witness is provided in the context of a wider testimony to the need for catholicity and unity in the Church is also an important reminder of how important a role the papacy, as its true significance emerged and its function developed over the years, would later play in the maintenance of true catholicity and genuine unity.


* Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393 – 457) even claimed that Saint Peter had ordained Saint Ignatius himself, thereby making him the second bishop of the Antiochian see.

** Though I personally do not doubt that Saint Ignatius was taught by one of the Apostles, it is unclear which one, or by how many. The tradition suggesting he learned at the feet of Saint John has a great deal of support, and it is known that he was on friendly terms with Saint Polycarp, who was a disciple of Saint John.

Saint Teresa of Avila: Doctor of Prayer (and Patience)

Saint Teresa of Avila is remembered for many things – she was a reformer, a mystic, a pre-eminent teacher of the Faith (or, to speak more formally, a Doctor of the Church), a spiritual guide for all times and places, a patriotic Spaniard (and now patron saint of her beloved homeland), a writer of prayers, and fiercely independent yet deeply committed to the Church. Today is her feast day, and therefore affords an excellent opportunity for me to embarrass myself trying to do justice to even one of the many areas of life in the Church that she contributed to. To give myself some help, I have narrowed things down to one area of her teaching – that of her instruction in the life of prayer – and have enlisted the help of another great teacher of the Faith, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Saint Teresa, also known as Saint Teresa of Jesus, whose full name was Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, was born in Gotarrendura (in the province of Avila) in 1515, and so grew up under the shadow of the explosive acts of rebellion that were taking place across Europe at the time (particularly in Germany). Contrary to the expectations of popular imagination, during this period the religious life of Spain was vital and versatile, and had begun to experience a spirit of renewal before what was later termed the Counter Reformation. The difference was that the Spanish Church, perhaps in response to the recent restoration of its Catholic roots after centuries of Islamic occupation, was more determined to remain true to the Faith once received, and less inclined to break from the roots it had so recently recovered.

Be that as it may, Teresa was certainly born into a devout family, and showed great desire for the religious life from an early age – at seven, she ran away from home with her brother to give their lives in preaching to the Moors, hoping to receive martyrdom so that she could see God. At the age of fourteen, her mother died, and at this point she developed a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as her spiritual mother. Not long after this, she was sent to an Augustinian convent at Avila for education, and at the age of twenty she joined the Carmelite Monastery of the Incarnation there, where she would remain for many years (this is also where she took the name Teresa de Jesus).

She experienced much illness during these early years, as well as losing many of her family members – by 1543 her father had died and all her siblings had emigrated to the Americas. In 1554, during Lent, after many years of suffering and struggling through spiritual dryness, she reached something of an epiphany, with a statue of the wounded Christ making a great impression upon her. At the same time, she was overcome by a profound mystical experience where she felt with the utmost realness that God was within her and without her, and that she was wholly immersed in Him. This proved to be a turning point in her prayer life, but also gave shape to her reforming work – she had long felt the Carmelites of her age to have become progressively lax, and in 1562 formed the first Discalced Carmelite convent, with sixteen more to follow over the years.

It is her teaching on prayer that I am particularly interested in commenting on here though – especially the sense in which she sees patience as the key to developing a genuine relationship with God; one that does not depend upon feelings or spiritual reward but that is rooted in an authentic commitment to the will of God and recognition of His love for us. The suffering she endured (which I have so briefly outlined), and the ways in which she responded to them, were almost certainly instrumental in bringing her vision of the spiritual life about – that vision was summarised with great clarity in a General Audience given by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2011:

It is far from easy to sum up in a few words Teresa’s profound and articulate spirituality. I would like to mention a few essential points. In the first place St Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and human life and in particular, detachment from possessions, that is, evangelical poverty, and this concerns all of us; love for one another as an essential element of community and social life; humility as love for the truth; determination as a fruit of Christian daring; theological hope, which she describes as the thirst for living water. Then we should not forget the human virtues: affability, truthfulness, modesty, courtesy, cheerfulness, culture…

…Prayer is life and develops gradually, in pace with the growth of Christian life: it begins with vocal prayer, passes through interiorisation by means of meditation and recollection, until it attains the union of love with Christ and with the Holy Trinity. Obviously, in the development of prayer climbing to the highest steps does not mean abandoning the previous type of prayer. Rather, it is a gradual deepening of the relationship with God that envelops the whole of life.

from the General Audience of February 2nd, 2011, in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

            What is common to all that Pope Benedict describes above is the strong sense of commitment that Saint Teresa urged in her teaching – commitment to God above all things, and to growth in the life that He wants for us – as well as the sense that our prayer life must be integrated with our active life at a deep level (‘prayer is life’). The actual practice of contemplative prayer is akin to a habit that must be learned; this is done again through a deep interior commitment to growing in relationship with God, as well as patience in the actual day-to-day practice of prayer. Saint Teresa’s teaching in this area is very down-to-earth and practical – she (from hard-worn personal experience) knows that there will be times that it is hard and we will want to give up, and knows equally well that these are just the times that we need to re-double our commitment.

For Saint Teresa, patience and perseverance are the key to strengthening and renewing that initial commitment to God and life with Him, as well as to the purifying of our souls – the clearing out of self-interest and our habitual tendency towards distraction that clutter up our prayer lives and prevent us from deepening our relationship with God. She even counsels against paying too much attention to visions or feelings of spiritual ecstasy – as someone who had experienced both she knows that, whilst they have their place in the spiritual life and should not be rejected, they are not the heart and soul of the matter, and too much emphasis should not be placed on them. What is important is the patient development of relationship with God, with growing in love.

Pope Benedict continues to say that Saint Teresa insisted on the life of prayer being something that is never wholly individual, but is conducted in ‘profound harmony with the great biblical figures and eager listening to the word of God’ – by constantly testing the validity of our friendship with God by comparing it to and sharing it with the lives of those who communed closely with God in Sacred Scripture. An authentic Christian life cannot be one which is divorced from, let alone opposed to, the wider traditions and experiences of the Church’s life:

Another subject dear to the Saint is the centrality of Christ’s humanity. For Teresa, in fact, Christian life is the personal relationship with Jesus that culminates in union with him through grace, love and imitation. Hence the importance she attaches to meditation on the Passion and on the Eucharist as the presence of Christ in the Church for the life of every believer, and as the heart of the Liturgy. St Teresa lives out unconditional love for the Church: she shows a lively “sensus Ecclesiae”, in the face of the episodes of division and conflict in the Church of her time.

She reformed the Carmelite Order with the intention of serving and defending the “Holy Roman Catholic Church”, and was willing to give her life for the Church (cf. Vida, 33,5).

A final essential aspect of Teresian doctrine which I would like to emphasize is perfection, as the aspiration of the whole of Christian life and as its ultimate goal. The Saint has a very clear idea of the “fullness” of Christ, relived by the Christian. At the end of the route through The Interior Castle, in the last “room”, Teresa describes this fullness, achieved in the indwelling of the Trinity, in union with Christ through the mystery of his humanity.


            The three points mentioned by Pope Benedict above are all deeply interconnected. It was the profound sense Saint Teresa had of the significance of the Incarnation that led her to see how important it was to think and pray with the whole Church. The connection between Christ and His Church is of course given its most vivid expression and realisation in the Holy Eucharist and the liturgy of the Mass; thus while the active and contemplative life of the Christian cannot be separated from one another, neither can Christian life as a whole be separated from what is prayed and confessed in the liturgy, or Who is received in the Eucharist – they are all of a whole, because Christ and His Church are also one. This recognition and deeply held belief was what enabled Saint Teresa to endure so much discord within the Church during her life.

The final point made by Pope Benedict also flows from this, as the perfection we are all called to is precisely the fullness of Christ’s very own life, and is also precisely what the instruments of the Church – Sacraments, Magisterium, Scripture, Tradition – are there to draw us towards. All the life of the Church is one, not only because it is the Body of Christ, but because it is through that life that we are called to one goal – perfect loving union with Our Lord, by which we will then also achieve perfect participation in the life of the Most Blessed Holy Trinity, itself the very foundation of all life and all love. That Saint Teresa saw these strands of interconnection and unity at such a deep level is why she remains such an important figure for the Church.

This consistency and clarity of vision, coupled with her practical counsel on the need for patience in the life of prayer, and the need to integrate that prayer life with our everyday living, is why Saint Teresa of Avila was honoured with the title of Doctor – her teaching is not only in full concordance with the Catholic Faith, but it presents that Faith with particular lucidity, laying out the path to perfection in a way that is accessible, sensible and realistic, managing to access great depths of mystery and yet imparting them with simplicity. She saw that the strange tension and creative dialogue between mystery and simplicity is at the heart of Christianity, because it is the heart of Christ Himself – disarmingly direct, yet delivering truths that are full of meaning and Life.

Oxford: A City of Aquatint

I have recently been binge-watching episodes of Lewis, the follow-up to Inspector Morse, and they have compounded the feeling of nostalgia and longing that I experience every time I watch something that includes the city of Oxford as its backdrop – which includes Morse itself, its excellent prequel Endeavour, and most famously of all, the televised adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. With respect to the Morse ‘trilogy’, one is presented with so many pictures of dreaming spires, ancient stone buildings bathed in soft receding light, and panoramic views of rolling English countryside (not to mention the frequent wistful visual meditations on dusky riversides and the calm, steady currents of canals), all accompanied by an equally soothing score interspersed with moments of blissful choral music, that it is easy to forget the central premise of the show is a murder investigation.

Add to this the recurrent visits of Lewis and Hathaway to riverside pubs in order to quaff pints of delicious-looking English ale, and you have a sure formula for evocative and reassuring viewing. I am well aware of course that Oxford has as many problems as any other city, as it undoubtedly has done throughout its history, and that the image of it presented by ITV detective series is not a comprehensive or wholly accurate one. Nevertheless, I can’t help loving it, or the city itself, which, despite its flaws, remains one of the most picturesque and evocative places in the world. Therefore, in celebration of Oxford, and of nostalgia, I present to you a passage from the first chapter proper of Brideshead Revisited, and challenge you not to be charmed by its beautiful language describing a beautiful, albeit idealised, city:

That day too, I had come not knowing my destination. It was Eights Week. Oxford – submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in – Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (2011), p.25, Penguin Classics.

            Lovely stuff isn’t it. Nostalgia and idealism are not things upon which one should rest any laurels or base any fundamental theories of reality, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot bathe in their rich, cordial light from time to time. The important thing I suppose is that we do not mistake them for truth and authenticity – if this is remembered, I actually think a great deal of good can come from the occasional dip into nostalgic waters; they refresh our sense of what it is good and beautiful and wash away any feelings of discontent and cynicism that the world may have covered us with. Anyway, for the time being I am going to continue to give reality a miss, quenching my thirst for nostalgia and the romance of antiquity with Lewis; after that I imagine I’ll be sorely tempted to visit the Megabus website and look for cheap tickets down Morseshire way.