Thursday 23 November 2017

Two men: divided by centuries, but are they united by mercy?

Judas The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle By Peter Stanford Hodder & Stoughton (2015) €29.50 HHHHI

This book launched just ahead of Easter - a bold and canny move on the part of the publisher, it has to be said. Even just one week after the celebration of the resurrection, it feels a bit edgy to be talking about a book about a man many consider to be history's greatest criminal, a man whose name has lived in infamy.

After all, to be called a 'Judas' is to be considered the worst sort of betrayer. What could be worse than to be likened to the man who handed Christ over to be crucified?

There is quite a lot to be unpacked from that seemingly straightforward statement, and Peter Stanford is the man to do it.

Having previously written The Devil: An Autobiography, you can't help but think that if anyone was going to tackle this topic for a general readership, he'd be the man to do it.

Certainly, the world of academic writing has approached the subject of Judas Iscariot - and they have certainly provided the bedrock for Stanford's arguments - but as far as the casual reader goes, there's not a whole lot of discourse that's been created for our delectation, and education.

Not that Stanford is talking down to anyone with this wide-ranging and interesting read. Rather, he is taking us on a journey, from Israel and the purported site of Judas' hanging tree in Hakeldama, to Dorset and a church that has a window that depicts the very act of his suicide.

During this journey, Stanford invites us to wonder if history has been unfair to the most loathed apostle; if he hasn't been unjustly maligned for centuries. Starting with that pilgrimage to Hakeldama and the Field of Blood in Jerusalem, through scriptural scholarship to a tour of art history, Stanford keeps us on our toes with a lively amount of information and an infusion of new facts and ideas.

The revision of Judas' history began in the Renaissance, and continues today, and you have to wonder: why are those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and its concomitant benefits to them, maligning the figure who catalysed that outcome?

How is it that Judas' action is not also considered a sacrifice - the sacrifice not only of his body in the apparent suicide, but also of his name?

If God can forgive him - and there is arguably no Christianity without the concept of forgiveness from God - then who are we to judge? It's an interesting question, and Stanford does a thoughtful and informed job of creating the space in which we can dare to ask it.

The Francis Miracle

Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church By John L Allen Jr Time Books (2015) €25 HHHHI

I admit, I borrowed the statement 'who are we to judge' from Pope Francis. It was his response in regards to homosexuality, and it seems to have become the defining statement of his new papacy.

As regards the subject of Judas: in November of 2014, in his homily during Mass in the Vatican, Pope Francis didn't exactly adhere to revised notions of the apostle that Stanford entertains; he still considers Judas a traitor, but also expresses compassion for him, saying that by closing himself off to love, he opened up a path of sin for himself.

This sort of statement seems to be the Pontiff at his most essential: not deviating from Church doctrine, but allowing for the foibles of human nature to be taken into consideration.

This pope has captured the imaginations of people around the world, and not only those of Catholics.

His mission seems to be miraculous indeed, although one wonders if anyone would have been refreshing after the Benedict years. Why does this pope feel revolutionary? Allen sets out to help us understand that feeling.

Allen is a journalist specialising in covering the Catholic Church, having spent 16 years in Rome as a 'Vatican watcher' and an analyst for CNN and NPR.

The tone of the tome is lively and informed, and is imbued with the authority of a writer who not only knows his topic, but also manages to convey a balanced outlook.

This is a lucid timeline of Francis' rise to the highest role in the institution, and it is also a heartfelt account of the man's life and times.

I wonder that it wasn't called 'The Francis Mission', as Allen uses the word over 70 times in the text: Francis is a Jesuit, and one of the order's principles has to do with service and going out into the world to aid the poor, and one of the overriding impressions that Pope Francis' papacy is that of doing the same.

He has done more in two years to rehabilitate the notion of service in the Church than we've seen since John Paul II. (The real miracle might be a reversal on his refusal to entertain any notions of women playing a vital role in the hierarchy of the Church, much less home parishes).

Allen doesn't shy away from dealing with controversies, past and present, that are part of Francis' biography (like a poor record of dealing with child sexual abuse by priests in Buenos Aires); nor does he paper over any issues that look to be unmovable, like that of the role of women in the Church.

The biggest lack? Nary a direct quote from His Holiness. Given Allen's unparalleled access over the years at the Vatican, it is feasible to have expected an interview with the Pope to figure largely.

Perhaps the word 'miracle' is used in the hopes that this papacy does revitalise the Catholic Church in ways that are needed; that it will, as Francis exhorts and Allen repeats often, essentially get its priests out of the churches and into the streets, showing its members that it cares.

Allen isn't so sure that it will be easy, but he seems to think that this one man will have a marked impact on an institution that is the locus of over 1.2 billion souls. Only time will tell...

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