Pope Francis and John Donne: Any child’s death diminishes me

Pope Francis recently commented, in a homily at Santa Marta, upon the tendency of many modern-day Catholics to compromise with the secular culture that surrounds them. The homily in which he made these comments was given on the passages in First Maccabees wherein some of the Jewish people at the time of Antiochus Epiphanes made compromises with the culture of their time (e.g.; sacrificing to idols, profaning the Sabbath, deliberately contravening the precepts of the Law), although (and this is important to remember for our own times) ‘many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant’ (1 Maccabees 1:62-63).

Pope Francis also drew attention to the gravity and degree of this compromise in today’s culture, by using some highly challenging language clearly alluding to the casual attitude of many Catholics to life-issues such as abortion and euthanasia – ‘What do you think? That today human sacrifices are not made? Many, many people make human sacrifices and there are laws that protect them.’ Using the language of human sacrifice with regard to these issues creates a real sense of their horror; our culture is virtually indifferent to the murder of human beings on an enormous scale, simply because the means by which these acts are carried out has been sterilised through careful changes in language – clinical phrases like ‘termination’ and ‘foetus’ – designed to mask the reality of what is happening.

I hope therefore, that this homily attracts as least as much interest as some of the other things the Holy Father has said, both so that those who have taken some of his remarks out of their proper context and appropriated them for their own ends will see that Francis really is a son of the Church in the truest possible sense, and also that our society can be confronted with the seriousness of what it is happening to it. This latter point brings me to some well-known words of John Donne, who, in richly imaginative language, describes the organic solidarity of humankind, and the responsibility we have to one another because of our common humanity:

..All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another…

…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

excerpt from Meditation XVII (Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris) in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624).

            In this passage, Donne draws our attention to the inescapable fact that, despite contemporary attitudes to the contrary, we do not operate within bubbles of autonomy where decisions we make affect only us, and furthermore, ‘because I am involved in mankind’ the death of someone else is not incidental to my own life. This principle, it seems to me, could be applied to the topics discussed by Pope Francis in his homily. If we can regain some sense of the corporate nature of humanity, how can we fail to be appalled at the wholesale murder of innocent human beings that take place daily in our countries? Moreover, how can anyone possessed of the truth that not only are we bound to one another, but that each and every human life is sacred, possibly compromise with a culture that promotes this sort of behaviour?

Pope Francis’ comments are a call to all Catholics to rediscover what being Catholic means – to be salt and light to the world. If the Church itself becomes part of a culture that advocates the things that are becoming commonplace in today’s society, who will be left to put the brakes on later down the road; if salt loses its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? And John Donne’s words remind us that if we do not confront the surrounding culture, do not provide a challenge to the culture of death, then we can be sure that the rot that is setting in will indeed catch us all in the end – ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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One thought on “Pope Francis and John Donne: Any child’s death diminishes me

  1. Pingback: G. K. Chesterton – A Second Childhood | Journey Towards Easter

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