The Mirror

Resentment, bigotry, prejudice… When we hear people talking with bitterness and trashing someone who did not deserve such treatment, it is heartbreaking. I have lived through the death of Pope Benedict XVI – from a distance. I have also lived through years of seminary since the mid 1980’s and the conflict within Roman Catholicism. Latterly, I had computers and the internet, and previously I had libraries, a little radio with an earphone for discretion and talks given by my superior who also had a job in the Congregation of Oriental Churches. During my time at Fribourg, I had contacts and friends from whom I learned many things and was able to build up a bigger picture. Now, I have the internet and am able to listen to YouTube videos and read articles. I can also order books which I would not find in a bookshop anywhere near where I live. From the capital cities of London, Paris and Rome, to the university city of Fribourg, to the baroque theatre of Gricigliano – and now to the remote village in that area of France called the Mayenne between Normandy and Brittany… I am alive and informed. I am thankful for my slowness to judge and my sceptical attitude. I do not deny the existence of truth, but I reserve my judgement as I await more convincing evidence and seek a higher truth than what we can attain in this life.

Joseph Ratzinger as an intellectual, a bishop, a Vatican bureaucrat and Pope towered above me as did another personality who died at a very old age in 2022, Dr Francis Jackson who was organist of York Minster from just after World War II and through the short years I was at school just up the road from the Minster. These men were not merely pop stars to be fans of, but they inspired us. I still had men of that generation as theology professors at university, men for whom education was not mere indoctrination but conveying the art of critical thinking and fair debate. I would never dare to approach these men or presume in any way, I as someone so small and insignificant, but a spirit came down to me. I only have a tiny fraction of Ratzinger’s theological knowledge, and I come nowhere near Francis Jackson’s virtuoso musicianship. Interestingly, Ratzinger appreciated music and played the piano as an amateur.

Sometimes there are personalities and events that enable me to understand myself as never before. It is my psychoanalysis and therapy, not at the hands of an expensive professional in this domain, but in real life. God sometimes sends us events and persons for us to see ourselves like in a mirror. St Paul comes up with that enigmatic expression in a glass darkly from that famous Hymn to Charity:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. I Corinthians xiii 12

The “glass” is not necessarily a window to see what is on the other side, but a mirror to see ourselves. An old-fashioned term for a mirror is a looking-glass. We can know God when we know ourselves. I am very fond of the spiritual writings of Aelred of Rievaulx, especially the dialogue on spiritual friendship and the Mirror of Charity. A mirror in the bathroom is essential to spruce up our appearance, but this kind of mirror enables us to get our whole selves straight with ourselves and God.

The experience I have been through these last weeks consisted of spending a few days in Brittany with a friend who has a remarkable amount of knowledge is many fields. He is an architect and I got know him through dinghy sailing. He is very left wing in his political views, something I respect and only share some aspects. As for all of us, his is a complex personality. He emptied his sack (French expression) on the subject of Benedict XVI, revealing an “alternative truth” to which I could not subscribe. I was too “little” to relate to the great man, but so many who knew him would talk to me or I would read their writings. The views of my friend are quite similar to those of an American lawyer – The Death of “God’s Rottweiler”?

Always the snarling Nazi guard dog analogy! However, what came through was Ratzinger’s paradoxical inability to live up to the stereotype. Perhaps a clerical equivalent of Heinrich Himmler or Hitler himself would have brought about a more efficient Roman Curia. Just take the heretics out to the back yard and shoot them with a machine gun! We are faced with an utter contradiction between the Nazi stereotype and the shyness of the German intellectual and fatherly teacher with noble ideals.

So Ratzinger was unable to deal with the “gay mafia” and the cocaine-fuelled orgies going on somewhere. Our American lawyer laments that Ratzinger chased after “liberation theologians” instead of having the homosexual clergy taken out to be shot.

I would agree with the Ordinariate mess, after my time spent in 2007 in Portsmouth with the TAC bishops and the hope that this would be the core of a new movement in communion with Rome, drawing in elements from elsewhere and countering the fragmentation of continuing Anglicanism. The whole thing was badly handled both by Archbishop Hepworth and Rome, and nothing was clear between about 2010 to early 2012. Hepworth had no credibility through being a former Roman Catholic priest and being in a state of canonical irregularity. The Ordinariate could not be founded on such a base. The Ordinariates as they exist now are not my problem and I am not qualified to criticise them, but I do observe certain difficulties as expressed by men like Gavin Ashendon.

Ratzinger is criticised for his excess of authority and lack of authority. It is then refreshing to read Rod Dreher’s The Real Benedict XVI. Rod Dreher left Roman Catholicism to become Orthodox. He and I share the bitter experience of a failed marriage. The wonderful thing about writing is that life is not only about friendship and relationships, but being able to share goodness with all who read. This is what I feel about being a priest and my ministry being through prayer and writing. Oddly, it is the one thing I share with Ratzinger in the latter part of his life. He was not celebrating public Mass, visiting the sick, hearing confessions, managing a parish. He was the Pope. I was simply a deacon in a rural parish who could no longer live with the contradictions and wearing down of my morale. I was faced with the badly-informed choice I had made to become a Roman Catholic. This reality had hit me several times over the years from 1981.

I am writing this article not to reproduce what others, better qualified, have written. We find ourselves through empathy with others, feeling their sufferings – spiritual, mental and physical. I am thankful for the good health with which I have been blessed. I have pills for high blood pressure and my knees get achy in this wet winter weather – but compared with people much younger than I who are really sick in body and mind! I have lost noble-minded friends to sickness. Benedict XVI did not enjoy good health, and he suffered silently as he offered his life for his vocation as a priest and teacher. Dreher’s article is most revealing of truths he read from the better-informed.

The media is more odious than many of us can imagine. I bewail the ignorance, often factual ignorance, of journalists who think they know everything. Worse, some of them at least manipulate falsehood and make it truth in some kind of Orwellian paradigm. They would cover current events through the gloss of their ideological agendas. Simply don’t believe what you read in the media. Use the internet and Google words and combinations of words, and sometimes you can find alternative sources – which may also be glossed over with ideological agendas. Be critical as some of us were taught at school and university. It isn’t easy, and even then we are left unsure and confused, the truth escaping us through the fog of lies.

My interest in this man was not so much through his job. I was tempted to write to him in something like 2011 in view of being forgiven and regularised. I decided not to because I knew he could only say no, to refuse. Not to do so would be failing in his job. I could not return to a Roman Catholicism that tormented me for so many years. I perceived it as Catholic Christianity with a toxic and imprisoning ideological shell. Call it ultra-papalism, scholasticism, Fatima-fanaticism, merits and indulgences, whatever.

Ratzinger, the good professor he was, taught me the essential. The Church can represent our aspirations to the sacred, the transcendent, these very qualities that unit us to the Universal, the World of Ideas – or it can represent a parody that is entirely secular, political, meaningless claptrap. I am struck by this:

Ratzinger had ‘an almost girlish softness’,

which was quoted from another intellectual and legal expert. This is something I understand myself as someone who has been diagnosed with the variety of autism that used to be called Aspergers Syndrome. I cannot compete and relate to the incredibly complex system of the social life of most people. I sympathise with the idea that “If might is right…”, I have no place in this world. For me, might is not right. Love, beauty, truth and goodness are. I have seen this in the “mirror”. I too am naive about human nature, and having to admit that someone is evil is profoundly shocking for me. I have been “had” too many times. Now I live in the countryside and can be more discerning in my relationships with other human beings, not through pride or arrogance, but simply to defend what little I have left. Oh yes, this is something I can understand.

As for Ratzinger’s so-called conservatism, I wrote this ten years ago: Reflections on Ressourcement Theology. I read theology at Fribourg which has been reputed for this kind of work. It enabled me to distinguish between “Modernism” as secular ideology dressed up with religious vocabulary and a real desire to present Christianity in terms that are accessible to our contemporaries who are educated in a scientific and rationalistic frame of mind.

‘The point is to rescue the faith from the rigidity of the system and reawaken its original vital power, without giving up what is really valid in it.’

Exactly. How refreshing to read authors like Jean Daniélou, Louis Bouyer, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu and Hans Urs von Balthasar! And Ratzinger. I can read the French authors in their own language, but unfortunately my German isn’t good enough for me not to need a translation.

We have to distinguish between renewal by going back to the Fathers – and this crackpot revolution that is suffocating everything, cancelling God no less!

Like Tyrell, I have sailed between Scylla and Charybdis (as I have done literally between the rocks in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc – use GPS and Navionics together with a good chart!), between what amounts to atheistic totalitarianism and the rigid parody of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Both can sink the boat. In medio stat virtus. The notion of via media in Anglicanism is often mistaken for a lack of character or conviction, but is the place where truth is often encountered. Try it…

Ratzinger has become known for his idea of the “smaller, purer” church. Rod Dreher presents this idea of a Christian intentional community in The Benedict Option. I have not heard of such a community existing in Europe, and the Brüderhof seem to be something else. There are small churches like continuing Anglicans and traditionalists like the Fraternity of St Peter or the Institute of Christ the King. The clergy have a structured community life and the laity can go to their churches and help with catechism, the Scouts and the various parish activities. My time in Italy showed me the existence of old of very small dioceses like Gaëta and Montefiascone. Paul VI merged many of them together and they lost their parish-like intimacy. Many parishes these days are poisoned with bureaucracy and corporate management. Those old Italian dioceses had just a few parishes, a monastery or two and a tiny little seminary. Anyone could go and see the Bishop like a good friendly parish priest. Are there any of those tiny dioceses left in Italy, free to carry on their lives without ideological interference? In the Anglican Catholic Church, anyone can go and meet Bishop Damien Mead who is informal and fatherly, and I hope to meet my Archbishop this coming April in England. Our Church may be imperfect, but we don’t have that nastiness and intrigue, that lust for power and money!

We need to get away from that “we and them” of traditionalists and progressives, or even the idea that “we are the Church”. In Dreher’s words:

What carries the church through such times of uncertainty is the persistence of the faith of communities, in which the union of past, present and future is demonstrated and endures, beyond traditionalism and progressivism: in the reality of a life today lived by the Creed.

The real enemy is atheism and the nature of its totalitarianism, Stalin and the Gulag, the spectre of Orwell’s 1984. It is like the cow contemplating its fate at the slaughterhouse. Our salvation is not measured in terms of wealth or poverty but the person of Christ. A few of us are beginning to understand this prophetic view, turning away from the masses to find the true nobility of spirit as expressed by men like Thomas Mann and Rob Riemen. We miss the lovely gothic and baroque churches, many of which will be lost or transformed beyond recognition, but the real treasure is within us and approached with faith, hope and love.

We Anglican Catholics are sometimes unkindly called Angry Catholics, because some of us react with anger and resentment to the injustice we have suffered. Anger is sometimes justified. Christ became angry as he chased the money-changers out of the Temple. What is very soul-destroying is lasting resentment. We have to find a way to move on. My time with the Institute of Christ the King had a similar effect on me as my failed marriage. Resentment can lead to mental illness, even a kind of diabolical possession. I have seen it in others and it is a warning to me. In terms of the Church, I have found a home in the Anglican Catholic Church and my faith has not changed. In personal terms as a single man again, I am about to buy a house in Champgenéteux (Mayenne) after having rented for two years, thankful for my late father’s legacy. It is time to be grateful and rediscover innocence and beauty. I will name the house Rievaulx in honour of the great St Aelred of that Abbey and the part of England where my paternal roots lie.

Resentment and obsession must be banished from our lives. Like Rod Dreher, I failed to find a home among traditionalist Roman Catholics. The priests like Fr Montgomery-Wright and Fr Jacques Pecha, parish priests of old, have died and their churches were closed down. Bouloire is very fortunate to have been entrusted to the Fraternity of St Peter. Dreher became Orthodox, and I hope and pray he has found his spiritual home there. I was accepted into the TAC by Archbishop Hepworth in 2005, and I am grateful to him for giving me a legitimate mission as a priest. That all fell apart in 2012 because he misrepresented the Ordinariate project and found himself deposed by those TAC bishops who did not go to the Ordinariates individually. I then found the pastoral welcome and friendship of Bishop Damien Mead of the ACC in England, and I was transferred to the Metropolitan’s Patrimony under Archbishop Mark Haverland simply for the sake of canonical coherence. Without that opportunity, I would have had to conclude that I was not called to the priesthood by the Church. I would have found a new way somehow after a time of spiritual healing.

Yes, back in 2005, I felt the personality of Benedict XVI as he became Pope and essentially remained a university professor who could be approached by his students with their questions and doubts. I joined the TAC and lived through a story of failure and disappointment shared between Archbishop Hepworth and Pope Benedict for different reasons. Archbishop Hepworth felt it to be necessary to create illusions to fill the emptiness until his downfall. Benedict did his best, but abdicated through his genuinely poor physical health and his coming up against a wall. Like Dreher my own marriage was in a bad state by 2013 and nothing could repair it other than my capitulation and destruction of my personality. I am thankful that we had no children, and she and I will be divorced this year. I am glad that it had to be two years of separation so that I bear no resentment or ill will. For me, it is a legal process to bring about the conclusion. She will have to assume her life as I assume mine.

Ratzinger must have gone through intense sufferings, partly through the fault of others and through his own choices and inaptitude to assume such a weight as the Papacy. I feel for him and offer to God my own break from the Institute of Christ the King and the RC Church and from my marriage (of doubtful validity). This is why I cannot assume the judgement stance of my sailing friend who has never been in clerical circles and has his own idea about God or gods. We will remain friends and my hand remains outstretched. We will see each other at the Semaine du Golfe even though he is in Flotilla 2 and I am in Flotilla 3b. We all get together on the Ile d’Arz where there will be crowds, food cooking and traditional Breton dancing and folk music. Our boats will be moored like horses at the saloon in the Wild West! Enjoying ourselves is also a part of being human.

I recognise my own life in the humble expression of Rod Dreher. Why am I not in England or America doing real parish work? Simply, I do not have the money for it and the events of my life have kept me in France. This is something I accept with both happiness and sadness. My life is one of a hermit, but without the discipline and rule of a real one! I still have to heal from the old wounds and learn to be myself, not the caricatures and parodies projected by other people.

The esteem of Christianity is now so low. The general feeling is that the scandal that has occurred in the RC Church (sexual, financial, corruption, etc.) cannot be eliminated without doing away with Christianity. And replacing it with what? Islam? Atheism? Neo-feudalism à la Soros and Schwab? Out of that lot, I would prefer the Borgias!!! Less flippantly, the Church will lose its worldly prosperity and embrace poverty, not in the fashion of liberation theologians but in truth and humility. We have to seek integrity instead of trying to make ourselves acceptable to the media and “mass humanity”. The catharsis will have to be complete, and it is happening. We have to turn away from power, money, sexual lust, false appearances, fraud and illusion.

My own vocation seems to resemble that of Fr Guy Gilbert, le prêtre des loubards. So I thought as I went into a bar with my friend and was taken for a rocker on account of my long hair. I explained that my musical tastes were very different and that I was a priest. That profoundly shocked the young men who were quite drunk and drawing false tattoos on each other’s backs. Douarnenez is fundamentally a working class fishing town and quite bohemian. I would certainly not be successful at trying to convert these guys to Christianity! For what? Maybe, they would ask questions and approach an answer in some unconventional way. At least it would be sincere. Being unconventional and eccentric have been positive things in my life. My identity is not someone else’s cliché. The idea of the юродивый – Russian for “fool for Christ” comes into my mind. I don’t care what others think. I felt close to those guys in the bar getting drunk and expressing their enjoyment, whilst I was not drunk and preferred to keep my lucidity. I find the same solidarity when meeting men who live on their boats. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is not about having no money but no vanity, nothing to lose. My mind returns to the article I wrote in 2014 on Sexagesima Sunday Libenter suffertis insipientens : cum sitis ipsi sapientes. In particular I think about Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and that wonderful expression of Sebastian’s sister Cordelia. Can we bring them Christ’s love without getting anything in return? There is the spirit of Christ and the future of the Church.

I return to the criticisms made by my friend. Was it wrong of Ratzinger to pursue proponents of Liberation Theology, those who wanted the Church the other way up, without the poor depending on the condescending charity of the wealthy? Do we have to “cancel culture” in order to restore justice to those who suffer from poverty and the indifference of the privileged? As with many things, there has to be a via media, a preferential option for the poor whilst promoting culture – which does not make anyone poor. Suppose they sell the Vatican to give the money to the poor (housing, creation of jobs, social care, etc.), someone has to buy the buildings. Only plutocrats could afford them. What would they use them for? Would they not be the next lot of oligarchs to take to the guillotine? So, perhaps you “cancel” them, destroy the buildings in the same way that Hitler wanted Germany destroyed when he knew that his defeat was complete – a blazing Götterdämmerung! This kind of thinking is diabolical.

The Christian way is to withdraw from the world, but not to go and live in a cave. There are the heroes (not all Christians), those who lived on top of columns, Bernard Moitessier sailing the fury of the Southern Ocean in a yacht, generations of monks in the desert, mountains and the woods. I admire the monastic vocation but I could never accept its collectivism and totalitarianism, as the Abbot of Triors admitted to me. Could Benedictine monasteries be any other way. I believe that innovation would be possible in the way of balancing the individual person and the community, encouraging creativity and inspiration – but I know of no such community. Perhaps someone reading this might enlighten me… The dream of a Benedict Option will remain nothing more than a dream unless someone comes up with original ideas and makes it work in spite of human sin.

Returning the Dreher’s appraisal of the late Pope is characterised by modesty and generosity of spirit.

If he really had been the “Panzer Kardinal” or “God’s Rottweiler,” the Catholic Church might be in better shape today. In fact, he was a kindly old German professor, a lover of prayer, music and gentleness. He could absorb the hatred of his lessers because he didn’t take himself too seriously.

I leave you with that lovely quote from St Paul:

For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed… (2 Cor. iv)

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1 Response to The Mirror

  1. Stuart says:

    There is room in the world for the Don Quixote – Pope Benedict (as Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote movingly of how the world regretted when the Ingenious Hidalgo came to his senses, when the apparent “madness” had passed. It was a colder world, even for the mondains.

    An intentional community is perhaps a workable idea. Braziers, in Oxfordshire (an intentional community), might offer a suitable model – individual priests/laypeople sharing a common life of thought and prayer with a suitable financial stake/share in the enterprise. It is not quite Franciscan, but it would help ensure the interests and security of each person there.

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