Tuesday 17 April 2018

The trouble I've seen

(In an earlier version of this post, I said the father of the child was an atheist. The original Italian, however, says he was a non-believer. I have corrected that here).

These days, before I cast a stone, I like to spend a little time reflecting on my own mediocrity. It usually works and I usually put the stone down. I'm sure at least half the world's problems come from those who throw stones without such reflection. Our Lord said something along the lines of taking out the beam from your own eye before you go rooting out the mote from your brother's.

Something like that happened last night when I watched the footage of the pope comforting a recently bereaved boy. The boy's father, who has died, was a non-believer and the pope spoke to the boy in front of the congregation during a visit to a deprived area of Rome. The boy was crying near the front and the pope beckoned him forward to explain what was wrong. Essentially, the boy had lost his non-believing father who, to his credit, had had all four of his children baptised (no mention of the mother so it is not clear where she is). Thus, the boy asked the pope, "Is my dad in heaven?"

Difficult questions from children are frequent in my experience. But this is where the scene begins to get troubled. How does one answer such a question? It is the action of a civilised adult to want to comfort a child. It is the action of an innocent child - or indeed of anyone not solidly committed to materialism - to wonder where their father is after they die. Two lines of action were on a collision course and the dangers of false consolation or wounded sensibilities were sharp.

I suppose it all depends on your priorities at this point. I know I'm in danger of doing what my American pals used to call Monday-morning quarterbacking, replaying the game from the safety of my kitchen chair. But surely, we are not without some guiding principles here. The immediate duty is to comfort a grieving child. The wider duty is to enlighten his mind. The risk is that we offer false consolation or else cold comfort.

Leaving aside his well-known shortcomings, I believe Pope Francis will live long in public perception in part because he does not appear frightened by public intimacy. Compared to the cold, haughty fish who rule us from government offices round the globe, he appears to know how to cut a figure of approachability and kindness. This is not a fault. Losing what Kipling called "the common touch" is a fairly common vice of successful or powerful assholes the world over.

So what's my problem? Simply that giving warmth without casting light is the property of modernity, just like your corridor radiator. "Everything has been separated from everything else, and everything has grown cold," writes Chesterton (I quote him approximately) in (I think) What's wrong with the world. The pope might have told this child that we confide all our dead to the mercy of God. He might of told him that God alone knows the secrets of the heart. He might have told him simply to pray for his father and to make sure he was a comfort to his mother who must be grieving also.

Instead of which - to my bafflement and I'm sure to that of many others - the pope provided an irrefutable answer there and then that has got the press swooning as usual over his mercy (so tangibly different from that excommunication-throwing German or the weird anti-abortion Pole). He was a good father, was he, says the pope? Well, how could God the Father refuse to welcome him? He had his children baptised, did he, says the pope? Well, that is more difficult for the unbaptised parent than the baptised parent, argued the pope (I confess at this point my mind leapt to the Catholic mothers whose non-believing spouses make them suffer every day for wanting to raise their children Catholic). And thus, he finished: speak to your father, pray to your father, Emanuele.

Don't get me wrong. If I could spray the world with the mercy of God through some huge spiritual hosepipe, I'd do it. Hose it all down: vidi aquam egredientem de hosepipo! Put the world in a coma: we're administering the last rights to all! My model is God: God who wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

But not like this. There is not even hope in this reply: the mystery of salvation is solved because God resists no good. Well, there is some truth in the fact that all good is a share in God in some way. But we cannot solve the mystery of judgment in such ways. We cannot say: he looks good, so he's saved. He did something difficult: he's saved. We can hope. We can hope that God who knows the secrets of the heart is privy to secrets we will never know.

Is that all cold comfort? I don't accept that. On the face of it, falsehoods can sometimes be more comforting than truths but in the long run what we need is what can bring us into conformity with God who is good. Of course we have to deliver milk rather than meat to the little ones. That is true. Their minds are not yet formed; their hearts are not yet strong. So, mustn't we try to initiate them to living with the mystery? Children want to solve everything. They ask the huge questions; they have to learn that some questions cannot be solved.

Well, that in some people's opinion is surely a lot of unfeeling hand wringing. How dare I question how the pope comforts a little boy who has lost his father? But, speaking as a father, I would want my children not only to be warmed by comfort but illuminated by the light. We must pray for the dead and we can hope that God's mercy is greater than the limitations of our knowledge. There is immense comfort in the mystery of God. Perhaps that is what the pope wanted to underline. We can all be caught out by unexpected questions.

But - once again in this papacy of double speak - we have something that is close to the truth but misses it by a country mile. It must be tremendously difficult to be expected to produce words of wisdom and guidance every day and that before the whole world's media. I throw no stones.

But A la douce pitié de Dieu, say I, as Bernanos wrote in his final letter to Charles Maurras. Dead non-believers and living popes have this much in common: we cannot solve the mystery of their actions before God. We can only confide them to the ministry of mercy that heaven conducts in ways we cannot fathom. For those of us who remain, we might remember that the severance of light from warmth is a sin we should all be wary of.

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