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Priest with confidence in a very modest God

20 December 2019

Fr Timothy Radcliffe gives his views to Madeleine Davies on resisting gloom about the state of the Church


The Most Revd Timothy Radcliffe OP during a meeting organised by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, at the Vatican, last month

The Most Revd Timothy Radcliffe OP during a meeting organised by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, at the Vatican, last mon...

THE setting for the new book by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP is dinner with old friends, and a conversation about their two children: one is an enthusiastic Roman Catholic; the other seems to have no interest in religion at all.

“It is nothing to do with their intelligence or goodness,” Fr Radcliffe says. “Both are bright young people who care about justice and want to do their bit for the planet. It is just that one is untouched by religion, while for the other it lights up the world.”

Over the years, he estimates, he has had conversations with hundreds of parents who blame themselves for failing to hand on their faith to their children. “But, for millions of young people, the language of faith simply means nothing to them. It is as outmoded as the typewriter. It belongs to another world, and speaks another language.”

His aim in Alive in God: A Christian imagination (Books, 15 November) is to suggest ways in which Christians might communicate better — to “explore how Christian faith can make sense to our contemporaries”. After all, he argues, we do not live in a “weird fantasy bubble, disconnected from the experiences and aspirations of other people.

“Because it is about choosing life, the fullness of life, its core beliefs intersect with the hopes and dreams of everyone who wants to live rather than just survive.” If we are going to ignite hearts, as Jesus’s words did on the road to Emmaus, we are going to have to offer a “richer language”, he suggests.


IN THE chapters that follow, Fr Radcliffe mines a wealth of writing for such language: there is barely a page that does not contain a footnote sending you to a source. Some are familiar names, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Simone Weil, but it is clear that whatever notebooks have been kept meticulously also contain plenty of references to contemporary films and fiction. “Every novel, poem, film, or painting that opens us to our invisible brothers and sisters is an ally of the sacramental imagination,” he observes.

Ordained in 1971, Fr Radcliffe was attracted to the Dominicans — an order of which he was global Master from 1992 until 2001 — by its motto, Veritas. He has since become a popular speaker and writer of books, including What is the Point of Being a Christian? (Burns & Oates, 2005), and Why Go To Church? (Continuum, 2008).

When we arrive at his lamp-lit office on an upper floor of the priory at Blackfriars, in Oxford, there is a sense that his library could take over at any time. At one point, there’s the sound of a small landslide on a shelf (“A sign from God!”), and, later, trying to locate a picture of the new Master of the Order, he observes cheerfully that things tend to disappear and “re-emerge” at some point.

DAVID HARTLEY/CHURCH TIMESThe Most Revd Timothy Radcliffe OP at Christ Church, Oxford, for the 2017 Festival of Preaching

Before our interview, we have discussed some of my questions by email, most of which revolve around what it’s like to be a Christian in a secular age — including the discomfort and anxiety it can engender — and the possibility of connection, of conversation. Dominicans are, after all, the Order of Preachers.

“The challenge we face today is not so much angry atheism, which is a form of belief, in the non-existence of God,” he writes in one email. (Richard Dawkins’s militant atheism is, he suggests, “rather passé. He almost seems to be a nineteenth-century figure.”) “Rather, many people have no idea what religion is about. Twice recently, when preparing people for marriage, I have engaged with intelligent and friendly young people who simply cannot make any sense of what I am talking about.”

So, where does he start?

“I would often quite casually ask what television programmes they watch,” he tells me. “I want to know the songs they like, because I want to understand them as querying, questing, searching people. Just as when Jesus goes to Emmaus: his first question is ‘What are you talking about?’ . . . I actually believe that there is nothing more exciting than our faith; but I can’t communicate it unless I discover what excites them.”

He would find it “intensely embarrassing”, he says, if someone were to rush up and tell him “I want you to know Jesus really loves you!” Jesus appeared “with great discretion and modesty,” he says. “I’m always very moved by the fact that, normally, his first question is: ‘What can I do for you?’ . . . We have a very modest God who appears in the most humble fashion in this little tiny outpost of the empire. . . Confidence is not opposed to modesty”.

CONFIDENCE is a central message of the new Evangelism and Discipleship team of the Church of England, whose vision is to “motivate the million regular worshippers to pray, articulate, and live out their faith seven days a week”. Its paper to the General Synod this year emphasised the need among these worshippers to address “a total lack of confidence in talking about faith at all, and with anyone”.

Fr Radcliffe agrees that “we need to be confident,” but returns repeatedly to the importance of dialogue: “Our faith can be shared only in life-giving conversation with others, in which we confidently share our faith, but also are confident enough to listen to other people’s convictions.”

The cover illustration of Alive in God is La Danse, by Matisse. Fr Radcliffe has never watched Strictly Come Dancing, he admits, but believes that “a good proclamation of our faith is like a dance. It requires that we be both confident in our beliefs but also deeply responsive to the other person, the language they use, the fears they have, their doubts, what makes them laugh.”

I ask him whether conversations about faith emerge naturally, in his experience. The Bible advises: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But what if this opening never arrives?

It is “at the great moments of transition: birth, marriage, and death”, that they “naturally bubble up”, he suggests. “Often, when people ask me ‘Who are you? What do you do?’ I say ‘I’m a Catholic priest.’ Often, they will immediately try to change the conversation — ‘Oh, my God, we haven’t got one of these people!’ — but, what you have to do is be natural.

”I love the fact that, after Jesus has been betrayed three times by Peter, they meet on the beach. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘We’re going to have to have a talk about this, you know.’ He does it discreetly: ‘Do you love me?’ He enables there to be a threefold affirmation, naturally.”

ALAMYThe Trappist community at Tibhirine decide to stay, despite the Islamist threat, in the film Of Gods of Men (2010)

Over time, Fr Radcliffe suggests, “you realise that you are not there to say something to them. You are there to share something with them, and they will share something with you.” When he first began preaching, he recalls, “every sermon, I thought I had to stand up and say everything. So I produced very long and very boring sermons. Now, I know that, actually, you just say something little. So I have short boring sermons now.”

He quotes William Hill, an American Dominican friar: “‘God cannot do without our stumbling words.’ It’s beautiful: ‘our stumbling words’. Fragile words. And the more people boom, the more you know that they are probably not very confident.”

IN HIS own encounters with people who do not believe, Fr Radcliffe seeks to “connect with some moment when the world lit up for them”. In the course of our email conversation, he puts forward the argument that “no one has an entirely secular imagination.”

His own earliest experiences of the transcendent were linked with nature. “I grew up in the countryside, and I delighted to walk in the woods as dusk was falling. I tiptoed into a world which escaped human mastery, where innumerable animals — birds, foxes, badgers, rabbits, insects — went about their busy lives. Just to pause, listen, be still, was to be transported beyond a world dominated by humanity. . .

“I also had a couple of experiences of silence in church, in which the world seemed momentarily transparent to infinity, and I felt touched by the divine. In their teenage years, most people have these experiences, even if fleetingly. They are, in the original sense of the word, ‘ecstatic’. One stands outside of oneself.”

It is in this release from the “fat relentless ego” (Iris Murdoch) into a wider communion that the Church comes in, he suggests. “We gather in cold churches and listen to tedious sermons because these experiences of transcendence are always a summons to be liberated from the self and to belong. Even that small huddle of ageing people is a fragile sign of the cosmic communion into which we are invited.”

The size of these “huddles” is a cause of anxiety in the Church, I remark. How much should we worry about the number crossing the threshold into our churches?

In an email, he suggests that “to say that it is up to God and not us to put the bums on the seats” is “to misunderstand how God is at work in our lives. — Yes, the growth does indeed come from God, but God may give us that growth as a fruit of our efforts.

“If we believe that our faith is true, we show our respect for other people’s dignity as deserving the truth by sharing our faith,” he writes. “Not to do so is patronising. And our faith is a joy and delight, which we should want to share, too.

“But it may happen that, despite all that we do, our congregations still shrink. That makes the witness of the remnant all the more beautiful and necessary. So, especially when we are few, our presence shows that we do not think of ourselves as a failing business, but as a fragile but lovely sign of the future unity of all humanity in the Kingdom. All will be gathered in.”

When we are speaking in his office, he offers a story from his childhood: his mother’s habit of briefly going into church whenever she took her children shopping. “We’d light a candle, we’d say a prayer, and be quiet for a couple of minutes.”

There is, he suggests, “an interesting relationship between the church as a place of gathering; but the church also is the place where you can pop in and be. Often, people actually learn to come back because they have found the pleasure of going in and sitting there, and then they are more ready to come there on a Sunday.”

ALAMYLa Danse, by Henri Matisse (1910), State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

He quotes a “famous French peasant” who, when asked why he went into church every day, replied “Il me regarde; je le regarde” (He looks at me; I look at him). “I think we have to be very careful not to think of the church just as a place where you meet on a Sunday, or even meet every day. It’s a space which signifies how God is always and everywhere all the time. . .

“If we want people to come to our gatherings, we should go to their gatherings. And where do people gather? A lot of people go to the pub; so let’s go to the pub!” He mentions the pubs built within priories by his Belgian Brothers who brew their own beer.

SURVEYING the contemporary landscape in Alive in God, Fr Radcliffe laments “the banality of much contemporary language”. What subverts faith in God is not secularism so much as what the Jesuit Adolfo Nicolás called “the globalisation of superficiality”, he suggests. When it comes to the Church, he fears that, as people drift away, it has become tempting to sell “a nice and safe Christianity, not too demanding”. But Christianity is attractive, he argues, “because it invites us to be daring and give away our lives without condition. It is our doorway to infinity.”

He is a regular visitor to the Middle East, and I am reminded of a recent talk he gave in which he suggested that “it is encounter with martyrdom that will bring people back to their own faith” (News, 12 July). During the course of our conversation, he mentions Charles de Foucauld, a hermit who lived among the Tuareg in the Sahara, and also a young missionary mother whose children grew up amid conflict in East Timor, and who, at one point, developed an enormous facial tumour.

“There is a certain folly in the Christian idea of being alive, an attraction to the impossible, the infinite, the unbounded,” he writes. “We should refuse to be confined by what the world deems possible and thinkable.” A film he returns to throughout the book is Of Gods and Men, the French drama that told the story of the Trappist monks assassinated during the Algerian Civil War after deciding not to flee their home.

In his writing, Fr Radcliffe celebrates Christians who inspire others, and, while he is willing to criticise where the Church gets things wrong, he does not evince anxiety about its future. In The Benedict Option, the American Orthodox writer Rod Dreher argues: “Jesus Christ promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church, but He did not promise that Hell would not prevail against His Church in the West. That depends on us, and the choices we make right here, right now.”

Fr Radcliffe is more sanguine. Christians have shown “extraordinary institutional creativity during our history”, he notes. “Can we find ways to live our hope that the young will recognise? It has happened so often before when the Church seemed in terminal decline.

“The Catholic Church in France went through times of terrible desolation with the Revolution: Notre-Dame was turned into a place for a sterile cult of Reason. At the beginning of the 20th century, religious orders were banned from France. And yet it was from France that came much of the impetus for the vast renewal of the Second Vatican Council. So I do not lose hope.

“Dorothy Day said that the history of the Church is the history of its saints. In one of the collects, we pray to God who ‘raises up saints in every generation’. No doubt they are being born even now, and we cannot guess what they will do. There are probably young St Francises of Assisi, young Catherines of Siena, and even Dominics, who are embarking on a renewal of the Church that we cannot imagine.”

ALTHOUGH the priory in which we met dates only from 1921, it is not hard to take a long view of history in the presence of a Dominican. The English Order was founded in 1221, the Brothers having arrived at the command of St Dominic himself. At the time of the Reformation, there were 57 Dominican houses in England alone — all of which were subsequently destroyed. The names of streets and areas called “Blackfriars” are now “vestigial reminders” of this past.

There are about 30 Brothers based here in Oxford at any one time, in addition to about 50 students for whom it is a hall of residence. Worldwide, the Order is present in more than 100 countries: there are 6500 friars, 4000 nuns, 35,000 active Sisters, and more than 100,000 lay Dominicans.

Waiting in the lobby for our interview, I was struck by how young some of Fr Radcliffe’s fellow friars are. Worldwide, he estimates that about 20 per cent of the friars are in the early stages of formation. One of the things that attracts young vocations, he suggests, is “that we are very definitely brothers, and sisters. We are a big family. . .

“The great important titles of Christianity are ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’,” he says. “Whether you are ‘Reverend’ or ‘Most Reverend’ or ‘Extremely Oily Reverend’, or whatever, these are the most important: Brother and Sister. . .

“In fact, in the Order, when you address each other, you should never use the word ‘Father’, because we are brothers. . . I knew when I was Master of the Order, if I tried to be more than one of the brethren, it would be a disaster!”

Another attraction is the Order’s “vigorous, open tradition”, he says. “We have a tradition of thought going back to Aquinas — almost 800 years. He was a brilliant, extraordinary, wonderful thinker. But it’s not a closed tradition; so we can appeal, we hope, to people whose inclinations are both more traditionalist and people who are more exploratory.”

He saw evidence of the Order’s ability to avoid polarisation at a chapter meeting in Vietnam over the summer: “We came from all parts of the theological spectrum, and we are brothers. And everybody was listened to. I think that is very attractive for the young, because they like a solid tradition, but they also like to ask questions.”

RETURNING to the opening scene of Alive in God, and, in expectation of Christmas, which often brings disparate families together under the same roof, I ask whether he has any advice for parents who feel sad that their children no longer believe.

“Parents often wonder what they did wrong,” he replies. “The answer is usually that they did nothing wrong at all. We must trust in the Lord who seeks out the lost sheep and brings it home. God is on the case! We do not communicate a confidence in a loving God if we fret over the eternal destiny of our children.

“Secondly, if the child rejects our faith because he or she is searching, that search is somehow bringing them closer to God, even when they are apparently drifting away. And so we must walk with them, even when they seem to be going in the wrong direction. Think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They flee Jerusalem, the place of resurrection, and yet the Lord walks with them.

”So, if God is searching for them, and they are searching, even a tiny bit, for the truth, then all will be well. If they see in us this peace of heart, they are more likely to come home to belief in the end, when they are ready. The father of the Prodigal Son waits. He knows that his child will come back.”

Parents take different approaches, he tells me. His own father would have “lists of questions” ready whenever he came home, while his mother would simply observe “I am sure it’s all true, my dear.”

Christianity has a “2000-year-old history of searching”, he says, turning to the story of Edith Stein, who, on reading the autobiography of St Teresa of Ávila, came to the realisation: “That’s true!”

With a nod to the motto that first attracted him to the Order as a young man, he says: “If you hone your instinct for truth, however you do it, you will be attentive, you will be alert, and you will meet some holy person, or you will read the scriptures, or read about Teresa of Ávila or something — and say ‘That’s true!’”

Alive in God: A Christian imagination is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church times Bookshop £10.99).

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