Page 11, 18th May 2001

18th May 2001
Page 11
Page 11, 18th May 2001 — Doubts

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Locations: Lancaster, Rome


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Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions Q. In our parish newsletter recently there was a notice to the effect that general absolution would be given out and that all that was necessary would be the confession of one general sin penance would be optional Surely if we go down this mad we shall be likened to the magic practised by New Age sects and the individualism of reformation communities?

Nor LONG Ann I attended an Advent service of reconciliation which we had not been told beforehand would involve the above "Rite or as it is now called "Enigma Variation 2". 1 was struck by the absence of any kind of compassion shown by the parish priest for the faithful and how imperious he was to the ordinary meat and potatoes of everyday parish life.

He wanted saints not sinners in his parish and he could not abide the grubby little secrets of his people. Maybe the poor chap was suffering from a superiority complex not altogether unknown among the liturgical wizards of tomorrow's Church. Readers will know that by definition tomorrow's Church never comes.

So at the risk of covering similar ground to that which we looked at during the last Christmas of the 20th century, what is the official position on Enigma Variations on the sacrament of penance?

At a press conference in Rome recently the Cardinal responsible for the discipline of the clergy reminded reporters that this sacrament ordinarily requires individual confession and that a GA (general absolution) is licit only in exceptional circumstances. He was commenting on the Pope's letter to priests, issued every Maundy Thursday, and which this year involved a reflection on the sacrament of penance.

Ever the resourceful D & Q man, I called up an expert on sacraments in Oscott College, formerly the premier seminary in England and now a rudderless rump without its sure-fire rector, Mgr, now bishop, McDonald. Anyway the professor there assured me that there were grounds for calling into question the validity itself of a GA where the conditions were not satisfied as per the above example from a reader in the Diocese of Lancaster. "Probably invalid", he said confidently.

I was taken aback and ran to my copy of Catholic World Report, as you do for the latest gen on most issues. Therein I found a report of Cardinal Castrillon's remarks. He said that the Code of Canon Law allows only for three different forms of celebrating the sacrament (not twenty seven variations on a badly mauled theme). The first is ordinary individual confession; the second is communal penitential service with individuals making their confessions privately during the course of that service. The third is general absolution. This last form he said should only be used in the most urgent situations and furthermore, he laid down, it could only be done

with the approval of the diocesan bishop (not at the pleasure of some indolent parish priest).

So it appears parish priests who schedule magical rituals that look like penance services but which do not satisfy the above conditions are either experimenting on their guinea pig parishioners and giving them nothing except some private assurance that they are really saints OR they are aware that a nuclear airburst is about to take place over Isleworth and have scheduled a GA to respond to the emergency. More sensible people would insist on confession.

Q. Where does the sign of the cross come from is it just a Catholic thing of the 19th Century?


sometimes be a source of confusion rather than of light. Rather like the confusion that surrounds the letters IHS which one will find all over the Catholic Church.

There are many who assume that it means what the Romans thought it meant. IHS does not mean In hoc signo vinces (in this sign you will conquer) the inspiration which drove Constantine to victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (not far from the Scots College) but rather Jesus hnmintun salvator (Jesus Saviour of humankind) as propounded and expounded by St Bernardine of Siena (13801444) in a renewal of the Gospel in late medieval Italy.

So the sign of the cross as we have it today does not come from the 19th Century memorabilia of the Victorian Church but rather was used as a military symbol by Christian troops in the late Roman Empire while serving on foreign soil. It was usually made with soil rather than with water as a symbol of conversion, and was designed to imitate the soil that was customarily thrown upon Itinerary pyres by Christian priests and subsequently to imitate the ash that was left upon one's forehead on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday as a symbol of repentance.

In fact the old Roman epigram memento humu quia ndvis es (Recall 0 human that thou art dust) is a military one too and a noble one when found oil the lips of any soldier before joining battle.

Back to the sign of the cross. It is not recorded in the earliest sources but there is a reference to it in the works of Tertullian when he turns round the abbreviation C.C.C. to refer to the threefold sign that Christian troops made when they went in to battle. Still to this day, echoing the ancient practice American troops made almost the same gesture in the sands of Iraq during the Gulf War. Kenneth Branagh also had the English troops at Agincourt make the same sign in the clay of Agincourt for the screen version of flenry V.

But returning to the opening sentiment concerning the

abbreviation IHS, it now appears likely that the sign of the cross spelling a "v" over the chest gives away its Roman origin, as indeed the true sign which abbreviates the military blessing in hue signo limes in this sign you will conquer.

Today it is made by many sportsmen; but its role here must not become u totem. In such a context making the sign of the cross should be a sign not of superstition hut of tribute to the Divinity that shapes our ends and gives us skills.

Q. Secular self-help literature is full of the need to have goals and targets for life and to construct plans, maintain projects and ambitions, and work toward them in order to improve oneself and one's circumstances. Is this approach to work reconcilable with Christian moral teaching?

GAIUS J CAI iSAR met his match as a strategist when he marched into Germania and found himself facing the fast-flowing and lethally inconstant Rhine. Being a practical man, though, he set about devising a bridge.

Rather like those who make plans for themselves 15 years in advance without much forethought, I found myself pondering the pontoon from Caesar's Gallic War the night before my ordination. There have been two broad approaches in Christianity to the question of ambition. One may be called the quietist tradition retreat into holy huddles and let God do the rest one is reminded of the siege of Munsterin in 1534 or the siege of the Jesuit missions in the Portuguese Empire a little later. The other approach, as exemplified by figures such as Augustine the historian, Oscar Romero and Karol Wotijla, involves a kind of intelligent commitment to prudence, but here understood as an active virtue of intervention in affairs.

Since time is always turning up surprises for us, it seems that like the fast-flowing and impossibly broad stretches of the Rhine, it is time itself that defeats every courageous human act of endeavour. Consequently we ask what to do when one is faced with the constant now of time like some vast Stygian loch that is too deep to cross without a serious commitment to camaraderie or to agreed and blueprinted plans for the future. Can our blueprints take into account the magic of life itself, let alone the crucial factor in all planning the unknown variable?

Every blueprint or planning exercise is rather like the meeting of human skill and the postponed goal. Self-help literature is rather like building a raft to cross Victoria Falls often one is overtaken by events beyond one's control. 'The principle of self-help is quite sound though, and we do subscribe to the axiom that God helps those who help themselves. Victorians, indeed, such as Livingstone and Stanley, would have spoken of improving oneself and there was something to commend in this notion of education. Today though, we say that environment mediates possibility; St Augustine would have put it more prosaically pray as if all depends on God and act as if all depends on you.

At present most Christians are quietists they feel that it is good to be ambitious but they feel they personally are not to seize the tiller. Christians are supposed to be "nice" people and as business environments are aggressive at times there can be no room for a sallowskinned bible-basher in the boardroom. Sometimes, however, it is action that is called for and not simply piein-the-sky piety. There is a spirituality of action for Christians today but it is often tinged with Marxist ideology, and though called liberation theology, it plunges people into ideological slavery.

Alternatively, workers could take a leaf from the book of Caesar instead of driving the supporting beams of his bridge straight down into the silt, where they would have crumpled, he had them lean forward at a uniform slope so that they inclined in the direction of the stream. Today we would say he knew how to harness the natural forces of opposition. Sometimes it is safer not to trust in one's own hardened instincts but rather to roll with the punches and make plans that provide for some built-in fail-safe principle. In terms of a simple formula one would have it so: x = y but if c then x + z = 2y, where x is the blueprint, y the goal to be achieved and c the unknown variable to which z is the antidote. By using baulks held together by the force of water, Caesar's bridge was up and river-worthy in 10 days. Furthermore Caesar provided for unknown objects colliding with his bridge by placing piles upstream to take their impact.

There is a lesson here for every Christian. True humility is not about undervaluing oneself or underperforming. The desire to succeed in one's chosen profession is not a vice but a virtue and when frustrated by inept personnel can lead to grievance and a low morale in any company.

Reward mechanisms and promotion are therefore goods in every society or company and Christians should strive to distinguish themselves above and beyond other competitors.

Every Christian should be able, with Augustus, though with more real humility, to say of their workplace "I found it in brick I left it in marble."

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