Sunday, 19 June 2016

Why I'm In

I am glad to be a British citizen. And an Englishman. And a Midlander. And a native of Warwickshire. And a Coventrian. Patriotism can and does work on several levels. So I'm also glad to be a European. I've grown up as an EU citizen, and it's part of my identity.

I'm also a Christian, specifically a Catholic, which helps to give me a more universal viewpoint than might otherwise be the case ('catholicos' = 'all-encompassing'). Believing that every human being's fundamental value comes from being made in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ puts other markers of identity in perspective (while not eliminating them – see above paragraph). And let's not forget that the EU flag is based on the twelve-star crown of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Add to that the fact that I'm now a member of an international religious order, with members in most countries of the world, including Europe. The free movement of people within the EU is not only practically useful to us Capuchins – it also helps to strengthen our fundamental identity as brothers, regardless of nationality and race.

I'm also sympathetic to the original inspiration of the EU, which was to counteract the sad tendency of the European powers to be at war with each other every generation or so. It was in the aftermath of the Second World War that the idea was conceived to make the countries of Europe more interdependent through trade and therefore less likely to become antagonists. It's been over seventy years since the last major European war, so that idea might be working. I'm not claiming that leaving the EU will lead to World War III; but anything that furthers peace is not to be given up lightly.

This peace-making consideration has been reinforced for me by my recent visit to Ireland. The Irish are quite worried by the possibility of Brexit; not just because of the economic impact on them, but also because they fear a return to the bad old days of border controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The free movement between both parts of Ireland has considerably helped the peace process.

All of the above is in order to briefly explain why I'm in principle and almost instinctively in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. And that means that during the course of the referendum debate I've tended to see the burden of proof as lying with the Leave campaign. If there are practical disadvantages to our membership of the EU that might outweigh the principled reasons for remaining, I've been willing to listen. So far, however, the Brexiteers are nowhere near convincing me.

I'll deal with the economics argument first, not because it's most important but because it's been most prominent in the debate. Economics has always seemed something of a dark art to me, so like most voters I'm left confused by the arguments being played back and forth. But the fact that many if not most businessmen and economists warn against Brexit suggests to me that the economic advantages to leaving are at least doubtful. And as a complete amateur, I would think that free movement of goods is bound to be good for trade on the whole.

Another major area of concern is about the effects of immigration. I think this whole area can be summarised under two headings: economic and cultural. The economic concern is that immigrants take jobs from British people and put pressure on housing and public services. On the other hand, many immigrants take jobs which British people don't seem to want (e.g. working in care homes or fruit-picking in our fields) or for which we don't have enough qualified people (e.g. nursing). By the same token, houses are being built and hospitals staffed by immigrants – think what a pressure our system would be under without them. In fact, even the Leave campaigners admit that high levels of immigration would have to continue, because the UK needs people of working-age to fill the demographic gap from decades of low birth-rate. When analysed closely, the Leave campaign's real point is to be able to 'control' immigration. I will touch further upon this whole issue of 'taking back control' a bit later. But for now I note that I don't see any evidence that immigration is badly out of control – rather, as just noted, the immigrants are mostly doing good work. Furthermore, the free movement of people is a two-way street, which many British citizens have been able to take advantage of.

The cultural impact of immigration is one for which I have more sympathy. It is undoubtedly true that it's harder to maintain our British culture when large numbers of people from other cultures are moving in. I would submit, however, that immigrants still form a small minority of our population, so a healthy culture shouldn't have any trouble integrating them. The problem is that British culture is not healthy, partly because of a growing historical illiteracy and partly through the loss of Christian faith. If we really want to protect our culture, those are the problems to address, along with the low birth-rate.

Another argument of the Brexiteers is that the EU is undemocratic. It is certainly true that European Commissioners are unelected; but there are several points to make about this. Firstly, the members of the European Parliament are elected. Secondly, the Commissioners are appointed by our elected representatives, so they are not far removed from democratic accountability. Thirdly, no one objects to judges, for example, being unelected – and in fact no system can practically run entirely on elected posts. Finally, Commissioners are unelected because the EU is a fundamentally a treaty between sovereign states, not a democracy in its own right. Anyone who wants to make the EU more democratic would have to move more towards the European super-state that people seem to so much dread.

The rhetoric about 'taking back control' doesn't impress me much. Imagine, for example, there was a move for my home town Coventry to 'take back control' from Westminster. Romantically though the notion of a city-state would appeal to me, I would want to ask what actual advantages it would bring. The reason Britain is not a collection of city-states or that England no longer consists of its original Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is that there are many advantages to becoming part of a greater whole. We transfer a lot of decision-making to that greater whole in return for those advantages. So any argument to reverse that process needs to clearly explain the benefits such a reversal would bring. Thus far I have seen nothing satisfactory in the way of such an explanation. The assumption often seems to be that 'taking back control' is automatically a good thing.

I also reflect that the 'control' currently wielded by the EU would return to a British Government which was elected by a minority of the British people and which I personally do not trust to act for the common good.

It's not as if the EU has that much control over us anyway. Most decisions that greatly affect us are taken at the national level. The electorate, I think, understand this in that they pay far more interest to a General Election than to European elections.

Another complaint against the EU is that it is grossly inefficient to the point of corruption. People on all sides seem to concede this point to at least some degree, so I won't contest it. But I will ask how inefficient the EU is in comparison to other levels of government, which often aren't particularly impressive either. With regard to other levels of government, we do not seek to abolish them because of their inefficiency or corruption; rather we seek to reform them. Why should we not do the same with the EU?

The Brexiteers have therefore failed to convince me that there are any major advantages to leaving the European Union. This is not least because no one is able to predict what actually will happen in the event of our leaving. But I also find the whole tenor of the Leave campaign distasteful, in that it has an overall attitude of 'Us and Them'. Whether 'They' are immigrants or faceless Eurocrats, the attitude is one of opposition to an outside enemy. I do not want a Britain based on that attitude.

To summarise: I have many principled reasons to remain in the EU, and I am wholly unconvinced that there are good practical reasons to leave.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

On not being a thief in the night

On Ash Wednesday I often think of the following passage from 'The Fellowship of the Ring':

Putting [the horn] to his lips he blew a blast, and the echoes leapt from rock to rock, and all that heard that voice in Rivendell sprang to their feet.
'Slow should you be to wind that horn again, Boromir,' said Elrond, 'until you stand once more on the borders of your land, and dire need is on you.'
'Maybe,' said Boromir. 'But always I have let my horn cry at setting forth, and though thereafter we may walk in the shadows, I will not go forth as a thief in the night.'

The connection with this holy day may not be obvious. I first thought of this passage not because of the line 'Sound the trumpet in Zion!' in today's first reading (although I will gladly take it as further justification), but because of some reflection on an apparent contradiction in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.

In the Gospel reading Jesus tells us to fast in secret, unlike the hypocrites who 'pull long faces to let men know they are fasting.' He tells us to 'wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting...' And then a few minutes later we're all queuing up to get ash on our foreheads, so that we can all walk out of church with a big mark that says, 'I'm starting Lent!'

Not wanting to assume that we're all just ignoring Jesus, I tried to think how this fits together. And the above-quoted passage from Tolkien somehow came to mind. Because I think what we're doing in our Ash Wednesday liturgy is like Boromir blowing his horn as he sets off, even though prudence will keep him from doing so again for many days to come. The safety of our souls will keep us from advertising our penances to others during the season of Lent, lest we fall into pride and vanity; but as we begin the journey we encourage each other and declare our intent to remain steadfast through the trials.

The smudge of ash on my forehead declares that I stand with all my brothers and sisters who are embarking on the same quest. The penances we undertake may be known to each one alone, but the fact that we're in the battle together is publicly acknowledged.

As the Collect for the Mass puts it, 'Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service... as we take up battle against spiritual evils'. 'Sound the trumpet in Zion', because we will not go forth like thieves in the night!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Book review: 'I Am Margaret'

Ever heard the phrase, "I can't do maths to save my life"? Well, imagine if your life really did depend on passing a maths exam... That's the situation faced by Margaret, the titular heroine of this book, the first published by my friend Corinna Turner.

Margaret lives in the not-too-distant and not-too-unbelievable future, in a society that has a utilitarian approach to people's value. As one character puts it, "the human race is made up of... useful people and useless people". Those deemed 'useless' do, however, have one contribution they can make to society: their body parts. Make that 'many contributions' - Corinna makes it clear for us that very few parts of the unfortunate 'reAssignees' are left to waste.

The distinction between the useful and the useless is made at age 18, when everyone goes through 'Sorting' - a series of tests in various subjects, as well as a measure of the person's physical fitness. Margaret Verrall, otherwise highly intelligent and healthy, has a mental block when it comes to maths, so she fails her Sorting. But her boyfriend, who passes his Sorting, has no intention of leaving her in the Facility, where reAssignees are prepared for 'dismantlement'.

Corinna has a gift for gripping narrative - the book took me along fascinated, most chapters ending in such a way that it took quite an effort of will not to carry on to the next chapter, and the next... Written from a first-person viewpoint, the story keeps us well-acquainted with Margaret's fears, hopes, and dreams (especially her dreams of Bane, her boyfriend and fiance). The writing is at turns eloquent and punchy, and mixes humour and tragedy. There are many pleasing turns of phrase, the most memorable for me being, "It felt like cutting my heart out with my tongue."

As in all good fiction, we are slowly introduced to the world of the characters, little details at various points helping to piece together the sub-creation's inner logic. It's not until quite a while into the book, for example, that we find out that cars run on hydrogen - an important detail in a world that's dealing with the after-effects of climate change - yet Corinna does not labour the point and leaves the reader to make the connection.

But the greatest and most frequent pleasure in reading this book came from another important element in Margaret's peril: she's a Christian. In reading fiction, I have often had in the back of my mind the realisation that the characters would act a whole lot differently if they were Christians and true disciples of Christ. There's a constant slight dissatisfaction that the attitude of faith is not portrayed in so much otherwise-good fiction. Imagine my thrill, therefore, to read of Christians realistically portrayed - Margaret's prayers, her moral dilemmas, and her fears are all quite believable. And moving: I was particularly touched by a scene in which Margaret receives Communion for the first time in ages.

I said that being a Christian adds to Margaret's peril - that's because belief in God is illegal, and carries the death penalty. She and her family have lived their lives in the fear of being found out by the authorities; a danger compounded by the fact that the family home is a secret Mass centre. That and many other details echo the situation of Catholics in England during 'penal times' - a parallel emphasised by a quote from St Margaret Clitherow, the English martyr, which prefixes the narrative. The martyrdom scenario is helpfully clarified by the fact that Christians (or indeed any other believers in God) can escape the death penalty simply by making 'the Divine Denial'. As a judge puts it, "What's four little words? There. Is. No. God. That's all you have to say."

The normal death penalty is to be 'dismantled' while unconscious; but those found guilty of 'Inciting and Promoting Superstition' do not have the luxury of being unconscious for the process. Which leads me to a small 'health warning' - this book is not for the faint of heart. While Corinna does not go into unnecessary detail, she leaves us in no doubt about the suffering and terror that some characters have to go through. Most of the story is set within the Facility, which adds a claustrophobic atmosphere to the trials of the heroine and her fellow-inmates. I found myself emotionally worn out by the time I finished the book, after a rollercoaster ride of feelings.

All this, however, continually poses questions for the believer: Would I be able to cope? Would I keep true to love of God and of neighbour when in mortal peril? Would I make the Divine Denial?

Without the faith element, I would probably have merely liked this book. With it, however, I loved it.

Another warning: this book is the first in a series of four, and if you read it you will want to read the next in the series - 'The Three Most Wanted'.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Visiting the Portiuncula

The General Chapter turned out to be a great experience: full of ups and downs, inspiring and frustrating, and not boring at all – despite being five weeks long. There will be plenty to share as I slowly digest it all over the coming weeks. But in this post I would like to start with a reflection on just a couple of incidents that gave me particular food for thought.

From small beginnings
On my last full day in Italy we travelled back to Rome from San Giovanni Rotondo – a long coach journey through varied terrain. While passing among the mountains I spotted a ruined chapel in the woods, and it occurred to me that if Francesco Bernadone has not answered his call, such might have been the chapel of San Damiano or the Portiuncula. They would be ruins in the forest, near to the small and unregarded town of Assisi.

Thanks be to God, St. Francis did obey the voice of Christ speaking to him in San Damiano. So now that chapel stands as key place of pilgrimage for the millions who visit Assisi. The Portiuncula, meanwhile, not only remains to welcome pilgrims, but is housed in the middle of a huge basilica. A wise woman, after her first trip to Assisi, remarked that the situation of the Portiuncula – a small, simple chapel enclosed by a grand, ornate basilica – is a parable of the Franciscan charism. And while that was said with a certain amount of sorrow at the lost simplicity of Franciscan beginnings, it helped me to understand some positive implications of the Chapter’s visit to the Portiuncula.

A worldwide brotherhood
The brothers gathered at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels numbered a little less than two hundred; and yet, although we were less than 2% of the whole Capuchin Order, we could not in any way fit into the chapel of the Portiuncula. We had to gather in front of it for the liturgy celebrated there. But at the key part of the liturgy we did enter the little chapel, filing through only a few at a time, and then moving on out again into the vast space of the basilica. And as we passed through that place where the Order had its beginnings, the General presented each of us with a lighted candle, exhorting us to “Relight the flame of our charism!” Slowly, therefore, the church was filled with these little flames, each one coming from the little chapel at its heart.

I found this ceremony deeply significant. For a start, the very fact that we could not all fit into the Portiuncula was a reminder that we could not, as a whole Order, go back to the lifestyle of St. Francis and his first companions. We have grown beyond that – even in Francis’ lifetime we had grown beyond that. The huge diversity of Capuchin conditions and ministries today, and the developments of the world, cannot be fitted into that original manner of living the Gospel.

On the other hand, as the General’s gesture showed, we not only can, but we must enter somehow into that original experience if we are to renew our Franciscan life. The flame of our 21st-century charism must be lit from the flame of the 13th-century. What is needed is that desire for 'ressourcement', for a return to the sources, which the Second Vatican Council asked of religious orders, lest our life be completely detached from our founder and drift more and more into worldly ways. And this return to the sources cannot be merely an intellectual experience, but needs also to be a lived reality, a true entering-into our beginnings.

Living the dream
Just as the friars at the Chapter had to file through the Portiuncula a few at a time, so we in the British Province have to take turns to revisit the life of St. Francis and his brothers. As we are thus renewed, we take our rekindled spirits back into the wider fraternity. In fact, one such recurrent experience is already written into our Capuchin life. I refer to the annual retreat, which is a chance to enter again the Portiuncula of prayer, that prayer so foundational to Francis’ life and the life of the first Capuchins. We light again the flame of our contemplative life, and bring it back with us into our fraternities.

In our Province we have been blessed with more extended and more communal visits to the Portiuncula. The friaries at Penmaenmawr, Hollington, and Preston were returns – although only partial returns, it is true – to the primitive manner of Franciscan life, each fraternity developing a different take on that life. Those of us who lived in or otherwise experienced those fraternities have been granted a fresh vision of what is possible, and have carried this flame into the next stage of our Capuchin life.

Many friars can name experiences which have reconnected them to the primitive charism. Now, however, we will turn our minds to other possibilities, to new ways in which friars can enter – a few at a time – our humble beginnings. These ways may be quite similar to recent ventures, or they may be more innovative. We might take a cue from Cantalamessa’s talk at the 2009 Chapter of Mats and focus on experiences of prayer, poverty, and preaching – which he identified as foundational elements of the Franciscan charism. Or we might take our inspiration from other elements, such as Francis’ service to the lepers, which he desired to return to at the end of his life.

Our ongoing formation programme during these 3 years is an opportunity to renew our basic understanding of our Franciscan life, as we reflect on the first sentence of the Rule. We will also reflect on what lived responses that understanding calls for, what ways we can revisit the Portiuncula and the flame of our charism.

The Lord is in charge
We often lack imagination to see the ways forward and are slow to take up the challenges involved. So it may be that Lord in His mercy will place us in the necessary situations, where our only choice will be whether or not to embrace the experience. I am thinking particularly of an inspiring anecdote in the General Minister’s report, with which I will conclude:

“A few days before Easter 2009, Abruzzo (Italy) and in particular the city of Aquila, was struck by a devastating earthquake which claimed many lives. Many parts of our own friary were badly damaged, and it would have been easy enough for our brothers to find hospitality in one of the other friaries of the province. But the friars of Abruzzo decided to stay put, sharing the same conditions as those who had nowhere else to go. I went to visit them! There they were, living in tents or in the compartment of a railway carriage, lining up to get food from the field kitchen, and never once did they cease to make the Lord present by celebrating Mass in the tent they had been assigned.”

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Society of Pope Paul VI

On the letters pages of the latest edition of The Tablet, a correspondent notes that "There's something for almost everyone [in today's Catholic Church], what with the Tridentine/Latin Mass cohort, the ordinariate, and now the proposed Society of St Pius X personal prelature." She goes on to suggest that other Catholics need to "grab a label or two if they are to be noticed and survive", and she observes that "the Vatican II movement... remains curiously, uniquely, unblessed by Rome."

I think this is an excellent point, and it links with a suggestion I've often made to those who are disgruntled with the current Pope's policies – especially things like his overtures to the Society of St. Pius X or the promulgation of the new English translation of the Missal. I suggest that all proponents of 'the spirit of Vatican II' should come together to form the Society of Pope Paul VI. The English-speaking members of this society would be particularly distinguished by their insistence on preserving the purity of the 1973 English translation, and will hold popular Masses using the Missal of Pope Paul VI, with the congregations defiantly shouting the time-honoured response, "And also with you!"

Hopefully, the leader of this Society will be a bishop; because then, in his concern over Pope Benedict's policy of appointing conservative bishops everywhere, he will unilaterally consecrate a few bishops who can preserve the spirit of Vatican II, and thus be promptly excommunicated. The Society will then spend a few decades on the fringes of the Church, but enjoying a much higher profile than its numbers would seem to merit.

Eventually, a more liberal-leaning Pope will welcome the Society of Pope Paul VI back into the fold, much to the chagrin of mainstream Catholics, who will see this as a backwards step.

Friday, 13 January 2012


It has been suggested to me that I should write a post on leadership. I cannot help but feel, however, after my grand total of three months in a position of authority, that I don't yet have the knowledge and experience necessary to say much about leadership. But I do know a lot about The Lord of the Rings, so I will share some of what that story has taught me about leadership.

The Rings of Power
"It began with the forging of the Great Rings... For within these Rings was bound the strength and the will to govern over each race."

Tolkien was very insistent that his writings were not allegorical. What he would allow, however, was that the tales were mythological – and deliberately so. Being mythological, they necessarily deal with universal themes, in ways applicable to 'ordinary' life. He also said that the different races of Middle-Earth – most especially the Elves – represent different aspects or potentialities of the human race. With this in mind, we can reflect how the Rings of Power embody different aspects of power and authority.

The One Ring, of course, embodies the "will to dominate all life." In Tolkien's thought, the great evil of 'Magic', as opposed to the 'Art' of the Elves, is that it is about bending people or things to one's will. This is one way in which leadership can be exercised. So it is significant, of course, that this Ring has a twisting and corrupting influence upon the one who bears it.

Another way, however, can be seen in the Three Rings – the Elven Rings untouched by Sauron in their making. The power of these rings is in preserving, healing, and strengthening. Such is the true purpose of leadership.

Tolkien, therefore, allows us to see in distinction the two divergent paths that those in power can take. By doing so, he sketches out the perennial hope that power can be wielded in a pure and noble manner, such as we see in the Elven Rings. That turns out, however, to be a vain hope: not only does the existence of the One Ring provide a constant threat, and at times a temptation, to the bearers of the Three; but the destruction of that One Ring means that the power of the Three also fails. All of which nicely illustrates that the 'good power' and 'bad power' cannot in reality be separated, for it is not the power itself which is good or bad, but the use to which it is put.

What, then, can I learn from the example of the Ring-bearers? For as I see it, I too am a Ring-bearer.

Let's look first at the bearers of the Three – namely, Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf (this may be a surprise to those who have only seen the films, which reveal the Ring of Galadriel alone). Elrond and Galadriel use their Rings – Vilya and Nenya, respectively – to protect and nurture their realms of Rivendell and Lothlorien. Gandalf, however, rules no place, and uses his Ring, Narya, in his wandering mission of encouraging, strengthening, and guiding the Free Peoples' resistance to Sauron. Gandalf's example is thus more suitable for a Franciscan, because he never takes lasting authority in any place, and has no claim over anyone except those who freely choose to follow his lead.

It is notable that all three of them keep their Rings secret – the threat of Sauron's dominating power means that it is better to keep their own power hidden. And the lesson I draw from this is that even benevolent authority does well to bear itself modestly, or almost hide itself altogether (the 'Messianic Secret' comes to mind here).

Frodo, as the bearer of the One Ring, demonstrates how to handle the corrupting and malign side of power. He exercises true leadership in two ways: firstly, by simply refraining from the use of the Ring; and secondly, by preventing others from using it. For it is part of the service that authority renders, that it prevents power from being wielded to the hurt of others. Very often, it is better that power not be used at all, than it be used in the wrong way. It is an essential part of leadership to sometimes say "No".

A true leader, therefore, restrains and contains the destructive side of authority. But, as in the case of Frodo, this task wears him down – the ever-present temptation to use his power to dominate, to bend others to his will, cannot be humanly (or hobbitly) resisted. So the ultimate mission of the Ring-bearer is to cast away and destroy this corrupting aspect of power. As I noted above, however, this means doing away with power altogether...

So the final example of leadership is Aragorn, who renounces the chance to take and use the One Ring. This enables him to go forward and become a great leader, inspiring rather than forcing others, and to return to Gondor as its king. The destruction of the Ring means that the great temptation to bend others to his will is no longer there, but it also means that the power of the Elven Rings is gone. So the final lesson of The Lord of the Rings seems to be that leadership in the Age of Men can only properly be exercised without recourse to extraneous sources of power.

The Hand of Providence
A few other random lessons that I've gathered from Tolkien's great work may be quickly shared.

"This task was appointed to you, Frodo, and if you do not find a way, no-one will." These words of Galadriel are a good example of the 'divine passive' in The Lord of the Rings. Another example is when Gandalf tells Frodo that he 'was meant' to have the Ring. Who meant him to have, or who appointed the task to him, is left unsaid; but of course Tolkien is implicitly referring to God, Who is guiding the course of events. And in both cases I have mentioned, the further implication is that He knows what He is doing, and therefore Frodo should not doubt that success is possible. So I too can trust in God, that my appointment to this task is no mistake, and that I am under His care.

"You are a Ring-bearer, Frodo: to bear a Ring of Power is to be alone." However much others may help me in my role of leadership, in the end the buck stops with me. No-one can bear that responsibility for me.

That said, although others can't carry the burden for me, they can carry me.

Finally, from Bilbo I learn the lesson of giving up the power when the time comes: when he left Bag End to Frodo, the time had come for him to leave the Ring to him as well. The fact that he gave it up freely, unlike most other bearers of the Ring, is very important. When my time comes, I hope I can do the same, and so live happily ever after, to the end of my days.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas letter to the friars

1. the act or state of travelling from place to place.
2. persons, collectively, whose occupation obliges them to travel constantly.

May the Lord give you peace.

We are entering the season of Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of Christ, Who left his heavenly home to live and move among us. So I want to offer you a few thoughts concerning our ‘movability’.

The Exemplar of itinerancy

One can say that the biggest move of all is the Incarnation. From the heights of heaven the Son of God comes to the lowest places of the earth; from the unlimited life of divinity to finite and fragile humanity. True, He does not lose His divine nature in this ‘self-emptying’; but even in this there is a lesson for us – that we do not lose our true selves when we change our location, whatever else we may lose.

In the Franciscan tradition we contemplate the marvellous humility of God, in that the Lord of heaven and earth is laid in a manger, because there was no place for Him at the inn. Shortly thereafter, His parents had to flee with Him to Egypt. So even from His beginnings, He experienced some of that itinerancy He would model for us during His ministry. "The Son of Man," He said, "has nowhere to lay His head"(Matt 8:20).

Another saying of Jesus is particularly relevant, given our tendency to make the needs of ministry a reason not to move on: 'The people would have kept Him from leaving them; but He said to them, "I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose"'(Luke 4:43).

The experience of itinerancy

As we complete the changes to our fraternities, it is a good time for all of us – whether we have moved or not – to reflect on the place of itinerancy in our Capuchin life. Each one of us has moved from one place to another during his time in the Order – from the novice who’s recently left the postulancy house and expects another move next year, to the old friar who’s moved umpteen times and now just hopes to be left in peace. We’re often told that the three most stressful experiences people can have are bereavement, divorce, and moving house. For us friars, moving house shouldn’t be quite as stressful as for others, because we don’t have so much to take with us. But it’s usually a challenge, nonetheless.

Moving house is an experience of loss: we leave behind friends, established ministries, and familiar surroundings. There’s also the challenge of the new: whether it’s new people, new ministries, or new surroundings. In the particular case of religious life, there’s often the added element that the move is unexpected or unwanted. I, for example, expected to be in Canterbury right now, pursuing Franciscan studies.

Everyone in a friary shares in the effects of itinerancy when brothers come and go. Even if particular individuals don't move, the fraternity moves around them. It’s often remarked that if you change one friar, you change the whole fraternity, the whole dynamic of the relationships in that house. For all of us, then – those who move and those who don’t – the itinerant element of our life involves the challenge of change.

The value of itinerancy

We can appreciate how our movability is of practical value for our ministry, in that it allows us to respond to changing circumstances and to accept new missions at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I have heard of a friar describing the Capuchins as 'the paratroopers of the Church'. We are dropped into a new situation, do our mission, and then get out again.

PCO VII also linked itinerancy together with our formation in poverty and minority.  "Such a choice [of itinerancy] favours our life in fraternity and offers individual brothers the possibility of personal growth by enabling them to make new relationships and to assume new responsibilities"(PCO VII, 25.). Here, I think, we are coming to the nub of what itinerancy offers us. For just as our exterior poverty is worthless unless it leads to and is animated by that inner poverty we call minority, so physical itinerancy is worthless without an 'inner itinerancy', which is conversion.

"The concept of immovability is not simply physical" – and neither, therefore, is the concept of movability simply physical – "Immovability can be more ingrained in habitual ways of thinking and judging, which often become obstacles to genuine conversion"(PCO VII, 24). My itinerancy, on the other hand, provides opportunities for my conversion, and is (or should be) an expression of my desire for conversion.

The place of itinerancy in Capuchin tradition

The preceding reflections may help to solve a little puzzle about our Capuchin tradition. It is often observed, in the context of discussions about Capuchin itinerancy, that many of our great saints spent the majority of their lives in one place – St. Pio, for example, in San Giovanni di Rotondo, or St. Conrad in Altotting. Yet if the concept of itinerancy is not simply physical, but also and more importantly about walking the path of spiritual conversion, then it is evident these saints were very itinerant.

It’s also true that our saints had a deeply missionary spirit, and one practical upshot of my thoughts is this: I am quite willing to consider requests from any brothers who feel inspired to minister among the more newly-established churches – to go on the missions, in other words. We still have a comparatively high religious/priests-to-laity ratio in our part of the world, so we should be willing to help out our brothers and sisters who are not so richly blessed (Constitutions 176).

The Road goes ever on

I hope these reflections will be of use to you, even if only by prompting your own (and perhaps very different) reflections. Let us all, however, go forward in the grace we have received. This time of Christmas speaks to us of beginnings, so let us begin to serve the Lord, for up till now we have done little or nothing.

May the Babe of Bethlehem be born in you anew.