With friends like these…

Pope Benedict’s trip to Britain was a success. Efforts by local organizers and public statements by British bishops were another story.

Everyone agreed that they were embarrassing. The only question was whether they were “excruciatingly embarrassing” or “cringe-making.”

The subject was the pamphlets that were prepared by organizers of the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom. One pamphlet provided a helpful glossary of terms, for the benefit of civic officials who might not be familiar with Catholic terms. The pamphlet explained, for instance, that a “Pilgrim Pass” was a ticket to one of the papal ceremonies. Fair enough. Let’s hope that none of the officials providing security for the papal visit were so dumb that they didn’t recognize the words “spiritual” and “uplifting.” But if such dolts did exist, the organizers were ready to help them out with words they might understand: “enjoyable, fun, exciting.” You know, as in the Enjoyable Fun Exciting Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Maybe the people who wrote these pamphlets were disclosing something about themselves when they said that “liturgists” were “performers, artists.” But when they say that “Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion,” could be understood as “Bread and Wine,” they were falling into an error that no believing Catholic should ever make—not merely dumbing down the terminology of Catholic worship, but encouraging a heretical belief. Notice, by the way, that among the glossary terms on this list, the only one that requires any explanation at all was the “Pilgrim Pass.” That may be because “Pilgrim Pass” is not a term ordinarily used in Catholic worship, but a term invented by the same crew of marketing geniuses that produced this pamphlet.

Unfortunately the “cringe-making” pamphlet was not the only cause for embarrassment provided by local Church leaders before, during, and after the papal visit. Prior to the Pontiff’s arrival, the British media focused in on Catholicism, and reporters put local prelates through their paces. This was a familiar drill, for which any intelligent bishop should have been fully prepared. The reporters would ask a few softball questions about planning for the events, and give the bishops a chance to say something nice about the overall impact of the papal visit. But sooner or later the niceties would end and the reporters would ask the questions that were really on their minds. In one form or another, those questions would boil down to this: When will the Church change her enduring doctrines, to bring them in line with the zeitgeist of the early 21st century?

For the reporter, this is a win-win situation. If the bishop defends a controversial Church teaching, that’s worth a headline. If he fudges, and leaves the impression that the Church teaching could change, that’s headline material as well. Thus the Guardian asked Cardinal Keith O’Brien whether the Church would eventually follow the publicopinion polls and ordain women. The cardinal answered: No. Nicely done. The Daily Telegraph asked Archbishop Vincent Nichols: “Will the Church one day accept the reality of gay partnerships?” The archbishop responded: “I don’t know.” Not helpful.

To be fair, the question was ambiguous. There are gay partnerships; that is a reality. But Archbishop Nichols didn’t ask for clarification. Instead he stumbled through a few sentences about Church teaching regarding sexuality, and concluded: “I’m not sure many people have ever observed it in its totality, but it doesn’t mean to say it has no sense.” So from his initial “don’t know,” the most prominent Catholic bishop in England had now developed his argument to the point where he said that Church teaching is not necessarily devoid of sense. Thanks a lot.

The Birmingham Mail asked Archbishop Bernard Longley how he could justify all the fancy vestments used in papal ceremonies. He replied: “The cloaks and cassocks aren’t used to set the clergy apart from the Catholic laity. They are symbols of service to God, not earthly pride.” A bad answer to the wrong question, from another prelate who should have been prepared.

Only in the fever-swamps of anti- Catholicism will you find people who object to “cloaks and cassocks.” The question obviously refers to miters and chasubles. Yes, these vestments are “symbols of service to God,” in a way. But laymen too should be dedicated to the service of God, and they don’t wear these vestments. The priests’ vestments are worn precisely to set the sacred ministers apart from the laity: to signify that when they wear these vestments, these priests are not acting as ordinary men act.

We’ve only just recently concluded the Year for Priests, called by Pope Benedict to help priests and bishops regain a full appreciation for their distinctive ministry. If this is the outcome, we might need another year.

Then Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton was asked the same question that Cardinal O’Brien had answered so simply: would the Church eventually ordained women to the priesthood? He answered: “Well, according to Pope John Paul II, this was a definitive statement, wasn’t it, so … [laughs] I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Actually you could comment, Your Grace. You could offer your support, your assent, to the teaching of the universal Church. Maybe even take a shot at explaining it. Assuming, that is, that you do assent, and you can explain it.


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