In 1927 then-Bishop Angelo Roncalli was Pope Pius XI’s representative in the predominantly Orthodox kingdom of Bulgaria. As there were very few Catholics in the country, it was largely his responsibility to organise and unite the Church, scattered as it was in small groups in far-flung districts, travelling often on poor roads, beset with bandits. Roncalli was often lonely and in danger; he was regarded with suspicion when he first arrived. He wrote to a priest friend:
It is not that the reasons for my troubled mind last year have ceased to exist; no, they are all still there, almost as powerful as before. But I found a reason for life and a reason for suffering; and so I live and suffer willingly…
From the outset of my episcopacy I have recited one of the prayers of the Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and I still say it. Well, one morning when I was suffering more than usual, I became aware that my state indicated precisely that my prayer had been granted.
Receive, O Lord, my whole liberty,
receive my memory, my intelligence,
and all my will.
All that I have and possess
was given to me by you,
I give it back to you entirely.
Do with it as you will.
Give me only thy love with thy grace
and I am rich enough
and ask for nothing more.
From John XXIII by Leone Algisi, Catholic Book Club 1966, p77.
My Catholic primary school taught us stories from the Bible, one between two at a shared desk. We also heard about miracles outside Scripture, including visitations of Our Lady, especially at Lourdes and Fatima. I came to feel the emphasis on these ‘private revelations’ was excessive, but visiting England’s Walsingham, a shrine for almost 1000 years, set me thinking about the role of Mary ever since.
We’d been told that only Catholics honour Mary, yet Walsingham has beautiful Anglican and Orthodox Shrines as well as the Catholic one. Each one made us welcome. We learned that icons like the Mother of Perpetual Succour came from the East. Later, joining ecumenical pilgrimages meant walking and talking, eating and praying together.
This book may inspire the reader to go on pilgrimage to one of the featured shrines, or to turn the pages while voyaging in imagination, beads in your hand, a candle and pilgrim’s shell beside you. The many well-chosen pictures will help you to be there.
Doctor Samuel Johnson, a devout 18th Century Anglican philosopher, had this to say regarding pilgrimage: ‘To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible’. In other words, there is room to be led by feelings as well as by intellectual theology when visiting shrines.
The book may set you thinking about Mary and her place in the life of the Church. When it first opened Walsingham’s Anglican shrine attracted charges of ‘Mariolatry’ – idolising Mary. Less stridently, others judge the honour given to Mary to be obscuring her Son. But on the Feast of the Assumption this year, Pope Francis pointed out that Mary was and remains humble, so that God was able to beget his Son through her and pour out blessings through her, down to today. So it is in humility that we should set out on pilgrimage, on foot, by transport, or through the imagination.
Whoever receives an apparition can expect grief from a naturally sceptical world and a deliberately sceptical Church which has to discern the spirits at work in these incidents. But once the Church has accepted an apparition as genuine, we can follow Johnson’s advice: ‘Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.’
Wincenty Laszewski has limited his explorations to apparitions beginning from the late 19th Century, thus omitting Lourdes which still witnesses renewal of faith as well as physical and emotional healings. Renewal and healing occur at other shrines too, and Laszewski leads us to many across the world.
Fatima, whose Sister Lucia certainly suffered at the hands of the Church, is well known but most of these shrines were new to me. At Beauraing, Belgium, in the 1930s the children who saw and heard Mary came from families indifferent to religion; it was only after the Occupation ended that the local bishop could pronounce the supernatural nature of the events. The children faded into the background, later marrying and raising Christian families. Thus they lived out their response to Mary’s two questions: “Do you love my Son?” and “Do you love me?”
Far from there, in Ngome, South Africa, a German Benedictine missionary received visions in the 1950s. Sister Reinolda heard from Mary that she should be addressed as ‘Tabernacle of the Most High’, as she had held Jesus, the Host, in her womb and in her arms. It was time for Christians to be ‘a sea of hosts’ to bring Christ’s salvation to the world; a poetic but doctrinally orthodox idea. We are the Body of Christ, as Saint Paul proclaims (1 Corinthians 12:27). Mary also asked for a shrine where seven springs come together.
In Egypt it was at a Coptic Orthodox Church dedicated to Mary that she was seen by thousands of Muslims and Christians on a number of occasions. As always there is scepticism from more than one side, theories of mass suggestion or natural phenomena or fakery, as Laszewski makes plain. But in the spirit of ecumenism which characterises Egyptian Christianity, the Catholic Church accepts the judgement of the Orthodox Patriarch’s Commission that the apparitions, and subsequent individual healings, were God’s work.
Scepticism is an honest position to adopt towards apparitions, and always the first stance of the Church which proclaims Christ Crucified, foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). But Mary makes the sign of the cross during many apparitions, indicating that the Cross is central to her message. Those who accept the divine origin of the apparitions should not disdain people who are indifferent or unmoved.
As time goes by, shrines may continue to flourish in ways that the original visionaries could not have expected. Who would have predicted today’s ecumenical scene in Walsingham? Mary was seen here before the Reformation, before even the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity; now it is a place where some of those wounds are being healed. What blessings will be made available to the faithful and the world as these modern shrines find their lasting mission?
A few points regarding Wincenty Laszewski’s labour of love. At p197 he wrongly portrays Frank Duff as seeking permission of St John Paul II to found the Legion of Mary. Duff had begun this work in 1921 in Dublin, more than half a century before meeting the Pope in Poland. Saint Pius X became Pope in 1903, not 1913. Laszewski relates how his predecessor, Leo XIII had a vision of the 20th Century and its evils. The Pope did not reveal details of this event, but Laszewski claims it as a Marian Apparition because Leo championed the Rosary. Pious suppositions are not history!
I would not be alone in scratching my head over Laszewski’s description of Ngome as a place where natural realities came into contact with the supernatural. Springs of water have always been places where contact with the supernatural is a given, as at the Pool of Bethesda, or Lourdes, or many a holy well. In the words Chesterton put into the mouth of Mary, speaking to King Alfred:
The gates of Heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.
Lord, grant us eyes to see with and to discern your presence in the people we meet.
Angelo Roncalli was a 36 year old priest when in 1925 he was unexpectedly consecrated bishop and despatched as Pope Pius XI’s representative in Bulgaria, a largely Orthodox country, when Orthodox and Catholics had yet to learn to trust each other. Bulgaria was already feeling the influence of Soviet Russia. He wrote to priest friends during his pre-consecration retreat:
My mind is calm and my heart at peace … Yes, Obedientia et Pax, that is my episcopal motto. May it always remain so.
But you, my dear colleagues, have the duty to help me at this time by your prayers, especially on the Feast of Saint Joseph. [19 March, when his episcopal ordination was to take place.] Joseph, by the way, is my second name; I am happy to take it, but I would be happier still to take the virtues of that saint, for they form the fundamental qualities of a good representative of the Holy See.
From John XXIII by Leone Algisi, Catholic Book Club 1966, p58.
As a young man I felt ambivalent about Catholic devotion to Mary. I remembered how the Redemptorists who staffed the parish and the teachers in the primary school served up what now seems a sentimental soup of hymns which emphasised the differences between us and the ‘wicked men [who] blaspheme thee.’
My father’s well-thumbed rosary has appeared in these reflections before. His convert’s devotion was not stultifying but I had and have difficulty in seeing the Assumption, today’s feast, as central to my faith. but belief in the Assumption of Mary – he being taken up, bodily to heaven at her death – was required of anyone who sought to become a Catholic Christian. Just as well I was a cradle Catholic!
Walsingham helped reconcile me to some Marian devotion. I think it was to do with the ecumenical nature of the town, with Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches in close proximity and, by the time of my second visit with L’Arche Kent in 1976, living in harmony.
Another pilgrimage, a few years later, threw new light on the place of Mary for me. We were visiting Lichfield Cathedral from the Dominicans’ conference centre at nearby Spode House. ‘We’ were a group of children with learning difficulties, their parents and friends. We had a service in the Cathedral and afterwards looked around. I was grabbed by one boy who wanted to show me a snake, carved on a memorial tablet: ‘It’s an obsession of his’, said his father.
We then realised that little Jenny was missing. Jenny had no speech, we did not know what she might do.
We found her, curled up in the Lady Chapel. ‘I should have known!’ said her foster-mother. Jenny preached without words but with an eloquence that reached one who is liable to let his head rule his heart even when it should be the other way around.
The First Vatican Council attributed absolute authority only to God. It declared that the Pope possesses only that infallibility which God willed to give to the Church, whenever he solemnly and officially defines a doctrine to be held by the whole Church concerning faith or morals.
The question of morals is harder to pinpoint, because it is difficult to determine exactly what a doctrine concerning morals might be. The crucial point is that the Council recognises that the Pope, acting officially in the name of the whole Church, possesses that freedom from error that the whole Church possesses. The Council did not believe the Pope was above the Church with special access to truth, but that he could express the truth already held by the Church. The Pope is dependent on the faith of the whole Church, from which he draws his understanding of revelation. The whole Church means exactly that – the people of God along with clergy and theologians – all must be there.
If faith, as the response to God’s invitation, comes first and the attempt to formulate it in words comes second and is dependent on the uses of language and culture, then common faith can be expressed in different ways. If there is only one right answer and the others are wrong, then infallibility means someone is guaranteed to have the right answer. If there are several right answers, then infallibility has a different meaning. It can be expressed as a guarantee that with one specific formulation a belief is within the common Christian tradition, though there other ways of expressing it.
This would not mean that infallibility once formulated could never be changed. It could be rethought and restated by the same channels by which it first came about, though future generations should respect the words already used. Where the Catholic Church has traditionally used one way of expressing a doctrine, other explanations by Protestant and Orthodox Churches are not necessarily wrong. They may be expressing the same Christian faith from a difference in language, culture and society.
Defined dogmas have been brought up and discussed again [the different accounts of the Holy Spirit given by Western and Eastern Churches were discussed at the Council of Florence – 1431]. As long as the Church is alive, with believers trying to live-out their faith in their own time and place, there will always be new understanding and new ways of expression. Jesus said: the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath – he would say to believers worried over dogmatic formulations that these formulations are for believers, to sustain their faith, rather than the faith of believers being for the sake of keeping formulations intact.
The freedom to reopen discussion is important, because too many believers are finding that dogmatic pronouncements no longer sustain them in their life of faith in their present form. It is important because we are not true to the Gospel unless we retain our power to communicate with non-Christians and give a fully alive witness of what the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ means to us in terms of living in the world we share.
I don’t recall meeting a Balthazar or even a Caspar, and the only Melchior I ever knew was from Slovenia, well west of Palestine. He was not rich enough to offer gold, frankincense or myrrh in any quantity, though he was good company.
I like to think the gifts the Kings – if Kings they were – offered were practical as well as symbolic. Gold coins to set the Holy Family up in Cairo when they got there; incense to cover the smells of stables and possibly worse, and myrrh for a tender young bottom.
Christmas cracker novelties are perhaps the ultimate in unpractical gifts. Not this one. The key that’s in the lock has a black case on its handle which came from a 2016 Christmas cracker. I can distinguish it in the dark and so let myself in. The key of my little kingdom.
It reminds me of the family gathering, a family to be grateful for. And though it’s black, it does its job in the dark, paradoxically I can say ‘lead kindly light’ … I think 6th January is the last day for us Latin or Western Christians to say Happy Christmas to each other – but it’s Christmas day for Orthodox Christians.