By Gordon Nary
Gordon: You are an author. Lecturer, poet, philosopher and in my opinion, one of the influential Catholics in the global community. You are married with eight children, self-employed and a “shop window” of your work can be found on http://www.hprweb.com/author/francis-etheredge
You were an Assistant Contributing editor to the Maryvale Research Bulletin; Maryvale Occasional Papers and have contributed to the following newspapers (The Catholic Times; The Universe; Catholic Today) and journals (Inside the Vatican); The Sower; Second Spring; Communio; and Bible Alive. You are also published in the UK Catholic Medical Quarterly and in The National Catholic Bioethical Quarterly of America and in Ethics and Medics
You have several articles on the Homiletic and Pastoral Review website. I suggest that our readers link to http://www.hprweb.com/author/francis-etheredge and, for a range of work on the mystery of conception, link to http://www.whendoesthepersonbegin.info Why did you give a catechesis to over three hundred pilgrims on Edith Stein (St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross), at the Carmelite Monastery in Czerna, Poland on 28th July, 2016?
Francis: Four, then five, then seven out of ten of our family went on the World Youth Day Pilgrimage to Poland. My wife and I were a part of the catechetical team that went from England; and, as such, we were invited to make a contribution to the various catecheses that were a part of the whole pilgrimage. I chose to do a catechesis on Edith Stein as, to begin with, I knew very little about her except that she was a philosopher with a connection to the thought of St. John Paul II. In view of the age group of our fellow pilgrims, I concentrated on works which drew on her life and provided excerpts on her thought; and, very gradually, I saw a number of themes common to her and to the times in which we live as well as to the work of St. John Paul II.
Another motive was to encourage people to be real. Not long before we left for this pilgrimage a wife and mother of two had committed suicide. This young woman was connected to many people on social media but, somehow, the reality of her life had escaped the help she needed. I very much wanted people to meet each other, face to face and, with the help of the word of God, shared experience and various catecheses, to experience a concrete help in their lives. The catechesis itself, however, was given at a Carmelite Monastery and was a “sign”, as it were, of it being a gift from Edith Stein herself. I say this because there were several moments when the catechesis was due to be given and, each time, it seemed to slip through the schedule and looked, at one point, as if it was going to slip right out of the schedule altogether.
In the catechesis itself (a much more developed version of which is on the Homiletic and Pastoral Review website, I took a number of steps in her life in the hope of opening up the possibility that we would find points of contact with her and be drawn, as it were, towards the help that the life of a modern woman saint can give us; and, I have to say, I was also influenced by having encountered a number of aspects of feminism in the course of my studies and in the many conversations I have had with my eldest daughter about men and women. In terms of Edith’s life, then, although she came from a practicing Jewish family, she renounced prayer at fifteen; but, in later years, she saw the pursuit of truth as a kind of prayer that brought her to Christ. She came into contact with a leading modern philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who was developing a philosophy that led a number of people into the Catholic Faith because it invited us to be open to a richly realistic account of what exists.
At the same time, in turning to Christianity, she drew upon the Old Testament figure of Ester, who successfully interceded for her own people, in order to understand her own vocation in the times in which she lived. Edith was also renowned for helping people find work as indeed she suffered a loss of work opportunities in the course of being in an environment increasingly hostile to anyone with Jewish blood. This closing of working doors to her also provided the occasion of recognizing that the moment had come for her enter Carmel. Nevertheless, in view of her Jewish background, she was rounded up and taken to a concentration camp where she died. Edith was a woman of exceptional gifts and gave her life for the love of the enemy. She said that marriage participates in martyrdom; and, as such, her holy realism is an encouragement to live in that expectation of the help of God that we need in daily life.
There is nothing automatic about the reception of the faith that we receive; and, in a certain way, it was the pursuit of truth that ultimately led me back to God – particularly the truth that I was a sinner. In a moment, however, it was God who revealed Himself as the “God who helps”; and, on the basis of this unexpected gift of faith, that He both exists and exists to help, I began to hope in His help and married. Marriage, up until this point, had been impossible; it was like trying to pass through a barbed wire fence and I just could not enter. I was forty and ready for suicide as the number of disappointments were outgrowing the possibility of hoping against hope in the possibility of being happy. Then the gift of faith came through reading in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: If God can create all that exists, He can make a new beginning for the sinner (CCC, 298). I am now married with eleven children, three of whom are in heaven.
Gordon: Why should more Catholics consider making pilgrimages?
Francis: A pilgrimage is an opportunity to live life out of the reality of answering our deepest questions, to experience the providence of God and to participate in the mission of the Church to announce the Good News that God loves us! Before I had experienced the gift of faith, I had begun to turn to the Church for her help and I was sent on a World Youth Day pilgrimage to Denver; and, on that pilgrimage, although it was a few years before it began to be fulfilled, I heard in the Gospel read and preached by St. John Paul II: “I come to give you life and life to the full!” (Jn 10: 10).
Thus, although I was to leave the charism of the Church to which I had turned because, like the man in the Gospel who had not recognized that he was a sinner and had not changed into wedding clothes (Mt 22: 11-12), I was to turn back again when I experienced the mercy of the gift of faith; and, on another pilgrimage, was given the word of Christ to the woman caught in adultery: go and sin no more (Jn 8: 11): a word Christ fulfilled in me and which made marriage possible. Secondly, a pilgrimage is an experience of the providence of God, then, which is so necessary to help us in our daily lives and worries about money, health, work, a home, transport and all the practicalities of life; and, as such, when my wife and I went to the World Meeting of Families in Milan with our eight children and were helped right from the start with money towards tickets, help with accommodation and an Italian guardian angel who managed to get us on a bus when we were lost and tired and trying to find our way back to our host’s home.
Thirdly, then, a pilgrimage brings to light our missionary work of announcing to others the help that God gives us; indeed, just by being in Milan, many ordinary people said: Una Familia? Are you one family? In other words I have experienced the help that God gives to be open to life and to live life to the full even if it is, at the same time, constantly full of difficulties! Thus pilgrimage announces to us and to others that we are going to an encounter with the Lord of the harvest and that we will “take” whatever good He has made possible for us to do enroute.
A book on pilgrimage has just been accepted for publication entitled: “The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends”. Go to the linkedin Post “The Family on Pilgrimage” or to the publisher’s website for update.
Gordon: Why did you go to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin?
Francis: I spoke after the Gospel at a morning mass at St. Bernadette’s, Clogher Road, Dublin, where we were given hospitality by Fr. Brian and his parishioners. He then asked me to write a piece for his parish bulletin. Thinking through our visit once again, I recall that he said: “We need Good News,” he said; and, indeed, we need Good News” like we need sunshine to bring out the beauty in the day and to make flourish what was planted and watered. We went, then, to the World Meeting of Families to experience the giving and receiving of the “Good News” that God loves us! Thus I want to begin, albeit briefly, with the beginning of that “Good News” in my history and then as it has unfolded in this pilgrimage.
“Good News”: An Event of Being Helped!
I am not a “ready-made” Christian and my relationship to the Church was more like an encounter with a “cosmetics” clinic or using plasters for “mortal wounds”; at the same time, however, I recognized the attractiveness of the truth that shone out from the Church and me began to go in search of a theological understanding of the Catholic Faith. But seeking to understand the beauty of the Catholic Faith, however wonderful, is not lived faith; and, in the course of my studies, I failed a moral theology exam and, out of hurt pride, nearly abandoned what was drawing me more and more deeply into the mysteries of God. But “faith”, my faith in God who exists, began as a gift I experienced at forty; and, what is more, God gave it to me when I was once again ready to commit suicide. I could neither renounce sin nor embrace it; indeed, I lived like a fly trapped in a web, dreading the tension as the next opportunity to sin sprang up. Having already lost one child to abortion, the heart can only break so many times before hope fails. In front of a failing, lifeless future, I read that if God can bring everything to exist out of nothing, He can make a new beginning for the sinner (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 298); and, therefore, accepting that I was a sinner in need of salvation, I saw that God acted to help me: God helped me in the concrete event of meeting a woman whom it was possible to marry.
Thus, just as a Christian is not like a packet soup to which we add water, I want to acknowledge that we are not a fake family. We have not fallen from Mars, solved all our difficulties or live as if we do not struggle with the transmission of the Christian faith or daily life. Going on pilgrimage arises out of the concrete facts of our lives, which include when growing children are free, when exam results are out and when it is possible for us all to go, even when we are not always able to “answer” the moaning about going or to be perfectly confident that our plans with come together and not fall apart.
With eight children, from ten to almost twenty-one, it was a miracle of grace for all these facts to come together with the money to go, a people to receive us and the practicalities of traveling resolved –
The Reality out of which God made a “Family-Event”
The possibility of going to Dublin for the World Meeting of Families has existed, as it were, from the first announcement of this event; and, indeed, as we could not afford to go to Philadelphia, in the USA, in 2015, Dublin seemed at first sight more manageable for us! As time went on, however, with only a slight response to our fundraising efforts, the whole project became more and more an object of prayer; but, nevertheless, the promise of £200 to go with us if we managed to raise the rest of the money to go began to be an incentive to continue. So too was remembering how God provided when we went to the World Meeting of Families in Milan, in 2012; indeed, reflecting on the mixture of hospitality, roaming around as a family and attending a few of the religious events, was like recalling a recipe for the possibility of what was to come. On the one hand there are the main events of the Papal Mass and greeting the Pope on the streets of Dublin; but, on the other hand, there are increasingly older children with their own ideas of what to do and when and how to do it.
As our children are getting older, it was important to encourage their own plans; and, therefore, the summer was a very busy period for our older children, as four of them went traveling in Europe on an inter-rail ticket and were naturally preoccupied with their own preparations although there were noticeable exceptions to this. In one sense, then, the possibility of going to Dublin was a part of “focussing” our family life on an event for us all; as, indeed, God has given us the family life we have and, as an expression of this, I hoped that acting as a family would help others to see the action of God in our lives. The World Meeting of Families in Dublin, however, received a very mixed response from our children and did not automatically appeal to all of them. At times, indeed, it looked as if we would not go at all, or not all of us as, at one time or another, one or another of a number of our eight children seemed a bit “wobbly” about going. It seemed as if the demands of work, studies, the fear of missing friends, the off-putting nature of a pilgrimage, the lack of football and basketball were all conspiring against us.
I had also been praying about the unprofitability of the books I have written and, in view of the coming event, it seemed like a good time to write a book on The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends and so, on page 45, I wrote of the possibility of going to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin; but, as time went on, for one reason or another, the book did not come off the press until we had almost left for Dublin. Nevertheless, the possibility of going to Dublin was an inseparable part of the purpose of writing the book: to write about how pilgrimage had both helped me personally, contributed to my marriage and was an experience lived by our family and runs, like a life-giving thread throughout our lives and the history of salvation.
It is true that many people in Ireland have just voted to reject the reality of human rights beginning with the unborn, the most vulnerable among us and seem to think, along with many others, that right are not a part of our relationship to one another. In other words, there cannot be a right to an abortion: a right to end the life of another person; rights are,fundamentally, relational: rights are not rights if they do not recognize the existence of the relationship between people. In view, too, of the mounting press-releases about scandals, the general controversies about how to read the Magisterium of Pope Francis and my own misgivings about whether or not this event would be good for us as a family, I began to rely on the fact that if God made this pilgrimage possible then it would be because God is leading our family history and has, in hand, all the good He wants to accomplish through it.
Against this background, all ten of our family, my mother-in-law and two of our children’s friends, went to Dublin’s Phoenix Park for the Eucharist with Pope Francis and roamed around Dublin for almost a week; and, in addition, another family of seven went before us to the same address, staying one day later, with another father and four of his daughters joining us for the first weekend we were in Dublin. In answer to the question, then, “Why did we go to the World Meeting of Families?”, it was to experience the providence of God! In our mission to transmit faith, God has provided an experience that was a concrete expression of believing that “God helps us in the reality of our daily lives”; and, therefore, whatever the various responses to this event or the imperfection of our motives, God acted to make it possible for us all to go.
The Providence of God: Thoroughly through and through!
Through prayer, we saw that the various obstacles to us going as a family were overcome; and, in a way, it is very much an answer to a father’s desire that his family “be together”. Thus there is a kind of echo in the heart of a father of the Father’s love of the human family. The decision to fly, even though it was to cost a lot more than driving, was to help with the fact that my aged mother-in-law and I, not to mention the children being cramped in the cars, would not have to drive for many hours, making the journey overlong because of the need to make numerous stops. What is more, although our flight was delayed and we arrived later than expected, we were driven “door to door” by people willing to help us to get to Dublin. Through others, we were given a car to sell, a young man to help with his English, a generous response to shaving off my beard as a fundraising event, many donations, and, finally, we were found accommodation after our flights were booked and, in reality, we could not have gone if this help was not given as freely as it was. What is more, we were given our main meals for the first three days of our visit: three of which were abundantly given along with the feeding and company of other pilgrims. Greeting Pope Francis on the streets of Dublin was one of those mixed, “non-events”, as he drove past too briefly for us to be anything other than a blur in his vision or for him to be a glimpse in ours; but, while some found it impossible to find anything in the “moment” of his passing, others enjoyed the singing and the opportunity to talk to people from other parts of the world. Later that day, after a walk through one of the main streets of Dublin, lunch, rest and football in the park, we agreed that a group could “break off” and go back to an art gallery we had visited the day before, while the rest of us came back for a second glimpse of the Pope, after which a number of us met up for an ice-cream and a walk home. The many walks we went on, as well as the times e “bussed it”, were all a “walking sign” of the presence of the families that God had made possible on the streets of Dublin. But it was true, too, that encouraging people to get some sleep, to get up and out in the morning, to help, to dialogue about the whole event, what to do and how to live it, was a constant challenge and call to prayer.
In response to one of our older son’s fears that he was away a lot from his friends, and one of them particularly, we invited one of them to come with us, which indeed she did. While, however, she was not used to getting up and walking so much, after riding in the wheelchair one day she declared how impressed she was with the amount of walking that we did. Some grumpiness about going we could not overcome but when, shortly after arriving, our youngest son could see that there was a good park near to our accommodation, he exclaimed that he will call the park: “God provides”; and, indeed, it was the same son who, after complaining about the whole project of going to Ireland, said “Can we go?”, in response to the Pope announcing that the next World Meeting of Families was to be in Rome. In terms of the weather, too, when one of the singers, in the lead up to the Papal Mass, prayed for the clouds to stop crying, which they did, we experienced the help we needed to have a rest while we waited on Christ and His word and Sacrament. As we came into Phoenix Park, the biggest park in Europe, we encountered many other streams of people converging on the site for the Mass; and, as we left, we saw a herd of deer in the distance, many with antlers and enjoyed a much happier walk home and to one of the great meals we shared with our host and his other guests.
In the midst of Sunday Mass Pope Francis apologized for the suffering caused by various kinds of abuse by members of the Church and, although it is very difficult to hope in the healing of this pain,the barely bright day may yet be a turning point in the battle of prayer to help in the rediscovery of Christ’s Church as a place of salvation. We were here, then, to rediscover the mission of the Church in the life of the world. There is no doubt, however, that this is a “low point” in the life of the modern Church: a low point which goes on swirling with all that needs to be revealed and purified. But in the belief that the Church is the Body of Christ, we persevere in the need for her purification; indeed, as the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church said, reflecting on her mysterious holiness and yet ‘clasping sinners to her bosom’: ‘Christ, “holy, innocent and undefiled” (Heb 7: 26) knew nothing of sin (2 Cor 5: 21), but came only to expiate the sins of the people (cf.Heb 2: 17). The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal’ (Lumen Gentium, 8). In other words, while fearing for our faith, the reality of the Church is greater than our sinfulness even if, at times, it seems as if sin obscures Her nature like an eclipse of the sun; and, therefore, we are all called ‘to the path of penance and renewal’ for, like volcanic dust, many sins can obscure the light of the sun too.
Experiencing, then, the generosity of God and His ministers, the help of local people and the daily difficulties of making our way to and from the main events we managed to get to, we benefitted, too, from the opportunity to roam around the city and to go to a mixture of free and paid activities. While not the whole time, we walked many times through the streets of Dublin and saw many sights, from the many and vast Churches, various kinds of architecture in the suburbs and city centers, statues of famous writers, the Dublin Spire, The National Art Gallery and the Memorial nearby, the Archaeological Museum, various parks, buskers, people in need, shopping areas, pubs and cafes; and, along with many other contributions to our deepening appreciation of Irish history, we went on a walking talk-tour of Dublin itself and a talk-tour of Dublin Castle. It seems, as with many other places and perceptions, the life of women was almost “summed up” in the fact of young women being presented at “the court of Dublin Castle” and yet, on the streets of Dublin, there was a plaque to a religious woman who had founded a hospital in the 1830’s. In other words, in Ireland, as elsewhere, there needs to be a recovery of the whole worth, a variety of lives and contributions of women. We had many conversations with people from near and far; and, in general, we met with helpfulness whenever we needed directions or assistance with how to get where we wanted to go or indeed where it was worth going to visit. In addition to the city and its suburbs, we managed to spend a sunny day at the seaside town called Howth, where we saw three sizes of jellyfish, where some braved the sea and the rocks and where we eat chips, lost some food to seagulls and caught our train back to Dublin.
I came away, then, conscious of the painful past and the suffering in the present, whether on the streets or in recognition of the uncovering of abuse, whether in the ordinary nature of daily life and work or in the wider problems of empty buildings and the economic progress of the country as a whole; but, at the same time, there were many signs of a culturally rich country of monasteries and churches, redolent with religious and secular artifacts, writers and places of beauty, whether monumental or, as it were, the humbler attractions of waterways and walks. There is clearly a drama in the history of Ireland, a drama linked to its own ancient history, the Church, to England and to many countries beyond; but, as with the world as a whole, there is a drama in which the love of God is ever seeking to overcome the ravages of evil and, in a sense, the Emerald Isle needs a new grace to rekindle the wonder of human life and the many gifts that flourished in her soil. Not all changes are for the good; and, indeed, confusion can rein even when striving to benefit those in need. It is necessary to remember that no one chooses to be conceived but, once conceived, there is a right to be cherished and, from being cherished to rise to the cherishing of others: to live a life lived out of love. It is one of the greatest ironies, then, that those who have been given the gift of life are taking that gift from others. Where does a society begin again, if not with a renewed appreciation of the gift of life that makes all other gifts possible?
On returning Home
There is no magic remedy for work, for good relationships with one another and to the needs of the society in which we live; and, just as we go as we are so we return as we are, constantly in need of prayer to help with every aspect of life. One of the many ways that we “make a return” on what we have been given is sharing the whole experience; and, already, this experience has been shared in a variety of ways. Each time this experience is shared it brings to light a slightly different emphasis or response; and, indeed, in one instance a woman wondered why she did not even “think of going” to Dublin. What comes home to me now, however, is how difficult it is to communicate the goodness of the gift of faith: the gift of faith that made possible marriage and ten children, two of whom are in heaven; indeed,amidst the busyness and gifts of the summer, why did God provide a path through everything else to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin? As imperfect as I am, tired and grumpy too, I am increasingly convinced that God wanted us to be there: that He wanted to accomplish an announcement of His help to families.
But this work of love is not a personal possession; indeed, just as many people helped us to get to Dublin, so many people, I hope, will benefit from it being shared! Our fundraising, then, grew out of our family of faith in that the news of a free car came through the “grapevine”, along with the generosity of a tank full of petrol, the car insurance to cover the journey home and the gift of the car itself; and, similarly, many of the people who actually contributed, large or small amounts, Euros or Sterling, were part of an extended Church family. Thus it is almost as if the Christian Community can be like a trampoline, stretched between many people, helping us to experience a “leap of faith”: to make a journey that we could not otherwise have made! At the same time, however, we need a training in prayer, in the word of God, in fellowship, in the self-giving of Christ in the Eucharist, in the power of forgiveness to form us into a Community that can “magnify” the Lord and multiply the little we have (cf.http://enroutebooksandmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Parish-Newsletter-Sept2-2018.pdf).
How essential, then, that the Lord continues to reveal our need of salvation and to respond to it; and, in discovering our need of healing, shows forth the possibility of others being healed too. Being a part, then, of a Christian Community, is about experiencing “the blessing of Christ” that multiplies what we have received: a multiplication that seeks to raise up an expectation that God will go on “coming to our aid”!
Gordon: In the course of what you have said you have reminded us that you are a writer. What books are you currently working on?
Francis: The first book approaching publication is The Prayerful Kiss.
The next book of mine to be published by enroutebooksandmedia is called The Prayerful Kiss. Are a “Prayer” and a “Kiss” irreconcilable? There are prose links between a medley of “moments” which, glimpsed and meditated upon at different times were then jumbled, being updated, and are now laid out as a kind of “word-quilt” that ranges over many years of life and writing.
A dominant theme among these “fragments” of life is the “sharp edge” of an almost endlessly repetitive pain of “passing through” relationships. Marriage, then, emerges as a triumph of God, resolving the apparent contradiction between the “prayer” and the “kiss” in the title.
As Helen Williams says, who wrote the Preface to The Prayerful Kiss: ‘I hope you will enter into Francis’ journey as he writes in poetry and prose. Follow where he leads and you may find some of your own experiences explained in words that you could not form for yourself. I admire the way he can look at something very ordinary and make of it a new and interesting thought. The gift is akin to that of a great list of the word as well of pictures, G.K. Chesterton, of whom Ian Ker writes: Chesterton’s philosophy of wonder at and gratitude for existence is well known … Linked … is his concept of the role of Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, the publisher of The Prayerful Kiss, hopes this will be published in October 2018. Imagination in enabling us to see the familiar afresh, as it were for the first time. (Ian Ker, G.K. Chesterton, A Biography, Preface, OUP, 2011)
A second book approaching completion is Conception: An Icon of the Beginning
This book, on the brink of completion, is a long work entitled Conception: An Icon of the Beginning. Each one of us is a witness to a beginning. Learning to speak about that beginning is a personal work that we share with others. This book, then, takes up those initial questions, sources, and terms that help us to make sense of human conception and to express it “a-freshly”. One of the deepest and most persistent tasks, then, that fall to us, is to make sense, in new and old ways, of being ‘one in body and soul’ (Gaudium et Spes, 14). On the one hand, then, it is necessary to draw on a variety of images, recognizing the help of the imagination. There are, too, the discoveries of modern embryology and the philosophical developments these imply. On the other hand, Scripture employs many imaginative expression which concerns the beginning of human life, both at the beginning of creation and when it comes to understanding the concept of each one of us; and, therefore, there is a dialogue between all these different accounts and our own contemporary need to “revisit” our understanding of conception in the teaching of the Catholic Church.
At the same time, each of us comes to exist through a father and a mother and is embedded in a family; and, even if we are conceived “artificially”, we remain a human being seeking to become conscious of he relationships which have contributed to our identity. Indeed, if to be conceived is to be “conceived-in-relationship” then we are an icon of the beginning: the beginning of all human relationships which “echo”, as it were, the eternal relationships inherent in the Blessed Trinity. Just as “the beginning of creation” expressed the mystery of God, so does the conception of each person; and, therefore, exploring human conception is at the same time an exploration of the mystery of man made in the image and likeness of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Thus, as a whole, while the work draws deeply on how to give a coherent account of soul and body it also grasps, increasingly, the inadequacy of a view of conception that is too individualistic and seeks, therefore, to embrace the reality that each one of us is, from conception, a being-in-relationship.
In the words of one of the several “Words” which contribute to the book, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Tham says, in his Foreword to Chapter 1: ‘In this chapter, the author uses different images to describe the origin and unity of body and soul. Some of them are philosophical, others were taken from everyday examples and others are theological. Since the title of the book uses the word icon, it draws us inevitably to consider the beautiful icons of creation.’ Depending on the delivery date of this work, Dr. Mahfood thinks it could be published in early 2019.
A third book which is undergoing a complete reworking is Humanae Vitae: The Norm Within and Without.
While this year is the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae it is unlikely that this will be finished before the year is out; and, as such, it is still in the process of being revisited and, in many instances, expanded. It began life as an MA thesis and was abbreviated, considerably, in order to fall within the word count which was required. Subsequently, time and the need to make more visible the ideas from which the work sprang, have made it necessary to “write in” a lot of the context to the thought which matured at that time. This last work is the furthest from completion. But, in its own way, the theme is emerging that the truth of Humanae Vitae is not just personalistic and communicative of the interpersonal reality of spouses but it is also a truth that turns out to exist far and wide, almost as a kind of “language of the relationality” of creation.
Gordon: What inspired you to write The Human Person: A Bioethical Word?
Francis: For a long time I have been researching and writing about the mystery of human conception: both a completely human event and an act of God which begins each one of us. One of the expressions of Edith Stein’s philosophy that has continued to make me think is that women perceive phenomenon as a “whole”; and, by contrast, men are more conscious of the parts that make up that whole. Thus Eve does not speak of parts but of the man she has conceived through the help of God (Gn 4: 1). What, then, is a way of writing about the whole human being? Thus, you could say, Edith has challenged me to find ways of expressing the fruits of this extended meditation on the unique nature of the human person that will “speak” to this generation. In other words, what began as a discovery that there were incomplete answers to this question in the teaching of the Catholic Church has opened out into the task of communicating the intricately personal reality of being one in body and soul (Gaudium et Spes, 14) in a way that, hopefully, “speaks” to this generation. Thus, in choosing the expression that each one of us is a ‘bioethical word’, it is part of a general desire to express the unity of being a person: that we are not “parts” but an integral whole; and, if we are an integral whole, what will communicate that sense of the whole which each one of us expresses?
Bringing together, then, ‘bioethical’ and ‘word’ is a way of restating the unitary fact of human being that arises out of an act of divine creativity. On the one hand, each one of us is a “word” of the Creator: a complex expression of many parts that yet make a single ‘word’; and, on the other hand, we are a bioethical word: a word which is at once wholly human and personal. When, therefore, the human being acts, human action expresses the whole being, indivisibly physically spiritual: the spiritual soul being “made visible” in the very visibility of the human being.
Altogether, then, the book sets out an account of the human person as a being-in-relation; and, therefore, it roots the more specifically bioethical discussions of the later chapters in an experiential account of the many relationships and activities that communicate the fullness of human life. When, then, it comes to discussing how to help the unjustly conceived and frozen human embryo, because the book has progressed through an account of human relationships, it is much easier to see that the frozen human embryo is suffering a “relational deficit” to which the child’s very existence and plight appeals to be remedied.
There is a WCAT Radio Interview with Bob Olson which can be found with the book on the publisher’s website:
Gordon: What are the primary challenges of the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom?
Francis: This is a very difficult question in that I am not a part of the national life of the Catholic Church in this country; however, having said that, taking part in a week of evangelization throughout the United Kingdom in the summer of 2017 made me realize that there is a need for “witness”: a witness given in a wide variety of formal and informal ways, ranging from hospitality, sharing a word together, dialogue with people of other religious traditions and those simply willing to speak about their lives and beliefs. As we heard from the people who participated in this “two” by “two”, which was in fact a part of a world-wide initiative of the Neocatechumenal Way, it was clear that that this act of witness meant that many people were “met” in their everyday life; and, where it was wanted, they shared their experience of what their life was actually like. We were not there to promote a particular charism of the Church; but, rather, to speak of the concrete ways that God helps us in our lives: that God loves us. My companion and I visited and prayed in a Synagogue, sharing with our Jewish host our appreciation of their foundational contribution to the history of salvation; and, at the same time, how this word of God the Creator had made a new beginning in my life. We also visited many Anglican Churches, a Quaker Conference Centre, Greek and Ethiopian Churches; and, in general, my impression was of God calling us to pray and to a common witness: to sharing with one another how He actually acts in our lives. Although, then, this “two” by “two” was not organized as an ecumenical or interreligious event, God expressed His providential love in bringing about many helpful encounters between people.
More generally, this country seems to find it difficult to “hear” that God loves us and that that love begins at conception; indeed, that being pro-life does not exclude any human need but, from conception onwards, embraces everyone. In other words, that there is a love that takes us from where we are to where we cannot go without His help. There are specific diocesan policies that reflect a poor understanding of the help of faith in living the vocation to marriage; indeed, it almost seems as if it is unheard of that God helps families to be open to life. Education seems to suffer from an uncritical reception of ideas generally but also from a conception of the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages” and an account of the past as if there were no real opportunities for women in the Church; indeed, whatever the faults of the past, there seems to be a marked lack of a really objective history, not to mention a lack of appreciation of the positive influence of Christianity on science.
At the same time as modern culture values what is contemporary, the Church is ever called to foster reconciliation with the perennial goods in whatever culture or period of history they are to be found. Monasteries and convents, while willing to help others and, at times, very generously, seem to be struggling with aging populations; indeed, it almost seems as if the decline in large families, in the everyday nature of family life generally, is a factor in the widespread decline, not just of vocations but of the value of an everyday family life. At the same time, the unique voice and action of Christ is scarcely a distinct voice; and, therefore, there needs to be lived in the Church herself a new openness to Christ and His life. There is the overwhelming need for people to understand the beauty of the human person and to be attracted to the truth that attracts the love of God to each one of us. Then there are the growing number of employment needs, from warehouses with scarcely any windows to work rising to the point of drowning other activities, to zero contracts which seem to be all about the benefit to the employer of a weak labor force. But then, in the end, it is not about the difficulties of life; it is about every difficulty being an opportunity for God to show His active love for us. One of the primary challenges of the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom is, therefore, to witness to a Love that makes love and life possible, whatever the situation we find ourselves in.
Gordon: What are the primary challenges of the Catholic Church globally?
Francis: In view of the really difficult experiences of illness, finding a home, work and earning a living, to be open to life is an act of faith; and, therefore, one of the primary challenges of the Catholic Church is fostering faith in God who helps: whose help is non-partisan and is for the sake of all. At the same time, however, as fostering faith in God who helps, it is imperative to embrace the many forms of dialogue and solidarity envisaged by the Second Vatican Council. There are so many urgent needs throughout the world, it is essential to foster a collaborative culture. On the one hand, there needs to be a distinctive account of human conception that takes account of empirical and philosophical findings and which is, therefore, capable of appealing to people throughout the world; and, therefore, there is a foundation of human rights on the basis of the common reality that each one of us is a unique gift of being-in-relationship. On the other hand, making the completion of conception a complementary right would naturally entail the almost miraculous rescue of frozen human embryos. What other way is there to acknowledge that each us is a witness to the complementary unfolding of the gift of being conceived. In the other words, whether it is the foundational wisdom of the universality of human rights or the proclamation that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to unfold the way to the Father from the moment of being conceived in the flesh by the Holy Spirit until death, the Church is the loving Mother of the Truth Incarnate; and, therefore, she is the Guardian of the whole human race, the unity of the family of man and the promise of the final consummation of Love’s embrace of everyone.
Announcing the changeless nature of the Love that changes everyone that God touches in a world divided by wealth, power and whether or not we are born, is as indicative of the supernatural nature of the Church’s grace as it is impossible to accomplish without it.
Gordon: Could we close our interview by sharing one of your poems with our readers?
Francis: Autumn is the Fiery Season
Trees-a-bright with coloured notes: greens amidst yellows, browns and reds; what poor words for so many flecks of living lights, ablaze in the dying of the leaves:
What falls of leafy shapes lie scattered, scattering on the breeze,
Almost washed up on the side,
Like cornflakes along the path.
Pavements edged with goblin waste, as if splashing gobs gobbling stolen soggy cereals,
Were washed aside as they rushed through the night-time robbing of cupboards, shops and tables ready for the morning.
Walking is a way of “being with children”, an unfolding of “being with child” in a wonder-world of imaged impressions, arising surprising shapes and their suggestions:
Almost horses edged in luminous fringes, fuzzy arrow feathered angels and darkening mood drains and all kinds of “in betweens”.
What of clouds and storms and sudden, overwhelming changes, looming in the glowering sky, lowering the sky line and dropping upon us? Will flood and wind take what is within as well as what is without? What remains when what is gone threatens an abandoning of what is left?
Fruits end as green tomatoes redden on the window ledge, too late to change on the plant, apples fall and rot the more terribly the more is wasted, sunflowers lean, head-heavy,
Sowing seeds in their splendidly shaped outlandishly eye-browed eyes,
Withering flowers, albeit a few remain, eaten leaves, scarcely green, more
Like lime yellow, yet these old plants bear cup upon cup of seeds to fall,
As if a parable of old age in which the failing health of recent years is
A witness to the “worth” of weakness: a prayer full of
Promises of future ripenings.
Contrast the colourless backs of “phone-heads”, turned ever away elsewhere,
Towards what “other” sights and sounds than those around,
Following whatever fashions billboards, generating conformity:
Let us be the distinguished guest of full humanity – a person
Brimming with communications “old” and “new”.
The older needing interrupted routines and contradicted un-thought through ways
And the younger needing what endures and even benefits from engaging with constant change or is it the other way round?
Like an old married couple, still burning bright,
Flaming trees, feathered in their finest plumage, blooming in the sun, shrouded in mist,
Dripping in the rain, festive even in the wet,
Holding forth a commentary on the slowly silent changes in a life –
Still sparking togetherness amidst the noise and race of traffic –
Still showing forth the treasure of time wasted together:
Glimpsing now in eternity.
Works of Francis Etheredge published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing:
From Truth and truth, Volume 1 - Faithful Reason , Foreword by Dr. Andrew Beards, of the School of the Annunciation: 'Etheredge approaches these philosophical themes, including those of metaphysics and ethics, in a way which utilises the great tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas in conjunction with the phenomenological elements manifest in the thought of St. John Paul II, particularly as these pertain to the theology of the body. However, Francis Etheredge also develops insights from these traditions in novel ways which bring home to the reader his own very reflective appropriation of the philosophical resources he turns to for illumination.'
From Truth and truth, Volume 2 - Faith and Reason in Dialogue, Foreword by Dr. Petroc Willey, Steubenville 'The personal voice is very much present in these chapters as we are offered this opportunity to join in the author's own journey of discovery as he seeks to lace his experiences into the closely woven cloth of reason and revelation. One of the questions that he puts to himself at various points in the text, for example, is what kinds of insight might be gained into the questions he raises from the particular lay and family vocational setting and experiences of his own life. The personal voice, then, is one that is situated firmly in a setting with others. It is also always in dialogue: with the Scriptures in the first place, and then with Karol Wojtyla in particular (who rarely leaves the table). From there the dialogue extends in an open-ended way with numerous figures who come to share the conversation.'
From Truth and truth, Volume 3 - Faith is Married Reason, Foreword by the Rev. Dr. Richard Conrad, Director of the Aquinas Institute Oxford: 'Mr Etheredge picks up my suggestion that Augustine and Aquinas help us to see the Blessed Trinity as "the transcendent Exemplar of unity-in-diversity". Augustine gives us hints that this principle can be applied to our inter-personal relations, and something of this theme echoes down the history of Trinitarian theology, but it seems to me that only in the 20th Century does it really take off, in a phase of doctrinal development in which Pope John Paul II plays a major role. It is in tune with this development that Mr. Etheredge offers us glimpses of how, by creating male and female in His image, our Trinitarian Origin has inscribed a Trinitarian vocation in the interpersonal structure of Marriage and procreation.'
Scripture: A Unique Word, Foreword by the Rev. Dr. Robert Letellier: : 'This collection explores origins, the nature of being, the implications of an anthropology derived from the divine creation story, how this affects our view of God's role in human life, informs our views of fundamental relationships (sexual, conjugal), and has implications for the transmission and propagation of life. Etheredge places these recurring concepts in the context of a divine salvific plan unfolded in revelation, and sustained through the ages in the concept of the covenant.
The author also raises crucial concerns and presuppositions about science, ethics, eschatology and the disciplines of analytical reading (exegesis) and interpretation (hermeneutics).'