Sunday, 29 January 2012
Mourning those who have left us
I read an article in The Guardian a couple of days ago about how the culture of mourning has developed over time. The custom of wearing black ended at about the time of the First World War, it said: the national trauma meant that it no longer seemed appropriate to mark particular deaths. Increasingly, since then, grief has been confined, in British culture, to the private sphere. The article suggested that this unnecesary containment of grief had led to illness: sorrow needs to be expressed if it is to be processed. Anybody who reads Dickens - the bicentenary of whose birth we are currently celebrating - knows that a good proportion of the female population of nineteenth century England was walking around in black. And it's still very common in southern Italy to see women dressed like this. We often see Mediterranean countries as exercising a humanising influence on northern Europeans because their inhabitants take time to eat well. We seldom note that they similarly take time to mourn well.
I mention the necessity of mourning because I think that priests have a need to mourn - in an extended sense of that word - those who have turned their backs on the family of the Church. In acknowledging our sadness we can find relief. I meet so many students every week who have in all practical respects rejected the Christianity in which they were brought up. Many Catholic students - on whom I have the foremost pastoral claim, so to speak - slough off the practice of their faith - insofar as this ever existed - with sadness, often with some shame, but for the majority, in my limited experience, permanently. If, as I explored a couple of posts ago, I am their father, how am I to respond? I cannot ignore the deep emotions which ministering in a diminishing Church stirs up in me. Anger is useless and misplaced and corrosive and self-indulgent and indicates self-importance. Rationalising - "I'm sure they'll be all right" - is worse: it ignores the hurt; and how do we know that they will be? Criticising the institutional Church - "It is failing to speak to them" - is an evasion of our co-responsibility. No, the only good and human thing to do, it seems to me, is simply to mourn that our beloved sons and daughters have turned their back on our family, in the certain knowledge that he from whom all fatherhood proceeds, and whose love for those whom we love makes our love seem tiny, shares our pain.