11 December 2014

Papa Coggan?

At a time when B Paul VI was dying, in 1977, Archbishop Donald Coggan made an official visit to Rome. Coggan, it seems, was in an emotional state. He had recently been to Papua New Guinea, where hordes of Catholics had received Communion at his hands, and the local Catholic Bishop, in floods of tears, had embraced him afterwards and said "It will be even better next time you come".

So, preaching in Rome, Coggan called, in effect, for 'Intercommunion' now. He did so as a good, deeply sincere and well-meaning Christian, of very Protestant origins, who had moved a great distance from his background. He simply did not realise how his peremptory, even if praiseworthy, call would be received. Perhaps he thought that this was the moment to cut through Gordian knots; a moment of Grace when a heart-felt call could move a 400 year old log-jam. Perhaps he believed in a God of Surprises!

I thought of Coggan as I watched those clips of Pope Francis seeking a blessing from the Ecumenical Patriarch, 'both for himself and for the Church of Rome'. Here was another good, deeply sincere and well-meaning Christian who was trying to make a dynamic gesture for that most worthy of causes, the Unity of God's people. My assumption is that he meant his request as a captatio benevolentiae: behold, the Successor of S Peter bows himself down to receive the blessing of another ... does not the Letter to the Hebrews make clear that the lesser is blessed by the greater? Had not his chum and 'fellow-bishop' Justin Welby been dead chuffed when he had been asked to bless the Bishop of Rome?

I do not think that this move had been checked out with His All-Holiness beforehand; the Patriarch's action of smiling and kissing the Pope's skull cap looked for all the world like the kindly, indulgent gesture of a wise parent whose impetuously unrealistic child had suddenly asked for a space-rocket in which to go to Pluto and back before nursery school tomorrow morning.

Why is this a tricky area?

There are sections of Orthodoxy which do not approve of gestural politics implying that Jorge Bergoglio is, for Orthodox, the canonical Bishop of Rome. Holding to their belief that Orthodoxy is the One (and only) Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, they neither understand nor sympathise with the whole ecumenical project. Some of them baptise converts from the Latin Church and even do this to former non-Orthodox who have already been received into another Orthodox jurisdiction by the sphragis. I wonder if the Experts of the Pontifical Council are keeping the Pope briefed on the progress of the petition which is at this moment collecting signatures from Greek clergy and academics who violently disagree with what did go on last month in the Phanar ... a document which has already secured the signatures of several metropolitans of the Church of Greece, and which raises the question of removing the name of Patriarch Bartholomew from the diptychs. Since a number of Greek bishoprics are still under the Patriarch and are not technically part of the Autocephalous Church of Greece, this could even involve contentious feelings among Orthodox Christians within Greece. One of these bishoprics is that of the Holy Mountain.

So, officially blessing the 'Church of Rome' (whether that means the Diocese of Rome or, by synecdoche, the whole 'Papic Church', is not very important) is an act about which any Ecumenical Patriarch might well wish to think extremely carefully. Francis probably intended his request to be seen as yet another example of his far-famed 'humility' without realising that there are Orthodox who would understand it as an aggressive and cunning plot to secure validation for the hairesis papike.

If the Holy Father did this without seeking professional advice from his ecumenical advisers in the PCCU, then I think that there ought to be someone in Rome with the guts to explain quietly to him, man to man, a few of the ecumenical complexities. Folks report that nobody says or does much in Rome these days because, if they are deemed to have put a foot wrong, they might find themselves in uncomfortable disfavour. When a game of musical chairs is going on among the Heads of Dicasteries, this may be an even more nervous time than usual. Fair enough. But is there nobody, apart from Burke, big enough to put the interests of the Church before their curial careers by making an individual approach to the Holy Father?

If, on the other hand, the Sovereign Pontiff had taken advice, and been given the OK, then I think some more curial heads, this time in the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, ought to roll.


Fr PJM said...

Forgive me, but they is something bracing, exhilarating about those Orthodox who attack "the ecumenical heresy". It so strongly resembles, to say the least, what was written in the Mortalium animos.

B flat said...

Why do you score so many palpable hits? O joy!
When I read your post on Latin Grammar from early May 2009, I wondered why Pope Benedict was not persuaded to offer you a meaningful post in his private office, which would have been so helpful to the Church. I was glad of all your posts, and the hiatus during your prolonged ordination in the Roman Catholic Church was a painful reminder to pray for you in your effective suspension.
Now I am glad that you are not there. I think it is not so much careers, as heads that are at stake. The Franciscans are a good benchmark of the modus vivendi in Rome compared to the pax Benedictina. Ad multos annos Father.

William Tighe said...

"He did so as a good, deeply sincere and well-meaning Christian, of very Protestant origins, who had moved a great distance from his background."

One of the areas in which he "moved a great distance from his background" was in his almost zealotical, and certainly unqualified, embrace of the cause of the pretended ordination of women.

Stephen said...

One could easily buy the "well-meaning bumbler" as Pope Francis' MO; but what's important is the context, the mega-trends which carry us all regardless of individual moves. When you are running rapids, it doesn't matter that much if you absentmindedly or even purposefully from time to time jump from the well-manned boat with strong oarsmen to a meandering log; either way, your not going upstream from a big picture perspective.

So it is with the whole West-East dynamic. Few seem to recall that Pope John XXIII, now Saint, spent high-quality time in Constantinople before returning to Italy. And maybe he saw that the full notion, understanding of and consensus regarding Papal prerogatives and claims were not fully baked in the West, and so broke the dam - or a least a dam or two - with the East, and now we are all running the rapids.

Jacobi said...


I like your expression “someone in Rome with the guts”. Sadly, such a species does not appear to exist much in today’s feminised Church, particularly in Rome.

But somehow, it is with the Orthodox, difficult, complicated and Byzantine though they be, that the future of ecumenism exists - if at all!

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

My Sister and Bro-in-law lived in Goroka and Lae in PNG for a decade and they used to provide a lot of laughs describing how the nationals would hang their rosaries (gifts) around the necks of their pigs and go from the SDAs on Saturday to the Christian Churches on Sunday to pick-up some gifts from the various missionaries.

O, and they told me that one has not really lived until one's golf game is interrupted by ritual tribal warfare and how one has to wait for up to an hour or more for it to conclude

Athelstane said...

In all honesty, Papa Bergoglio does not strike me as the sort to take and heed advice, regardless of source, at least not on subjects he feels strongly about.

And ecumenical gestures seem to be something he feels strongly about.

Священник села said...

hairesis papike.

And hairless.

Father David said...

It was said that even the prostitutes of Rome were shocked when Archbishop Coggan asked for Intercommunion.
How wise was the Ecumenical Patriarch in kissing the white Skull cap of the Bishop of Rome rather than giving a blessing to the one the Orthodox regard as the first Protestant.