THE END OF OPPRESSION. Father Timothy Radcliffe is a Roman Catholic priest and Dominican friar of the English Province, and former Master of the Order of Preachers from 1992-2001. He is the only member of the English Province of the Dominicans to have held the office since the Order’s foundation in 1216.
Father Timothy Radcliffe, you have preached all over the world in many different circumstances. What is the message that you convey today in front of this pandemia that is spreading everywhere in the world?
Paradoxically this pandemic requires two things that appear to be in contradiction with each other, isolation and deepened communion. Except for the heroes who are running the health services and other necessities, we need to self-isolate. My community is now entirely shutdown. We cease contact because we do not want to infect other people. We have people who have been infected and we do not want to be the cause of more contagion. It is in a strange way an act of love to isolate.
But it is also a time of intense communication. I am in contact with people whom I have not seen for decades. Also internationally, we need to face this global crisis as a global community. There needs to be a search for the common good of humanity. Do other nations have enough protective equipment, ventilators, medicine? We must not look just after ourselves. There is an international network of scientists together seeking a vaccine. This is not the time for competition or seeking a financial advantage.
So many of us must isolate ourselves but at the same time, we all need to reach out.
Is religion and faith according to you a very powerful antidote vis a vis this unpredictable catastrophe that is touching all of us?
One effect of such a pandemic is fear, and fear can slip into panic. Panic drives people to behave in ways that are destructive and selfish. Panic drives people into stock piling much more than they need. This is symbolized by the way that loo paper has disappeared from the shops! Panic may lead us to neglect neighbours who need someone to shop for them.
If we have faith, we should be able to look at what is happening without being captured by fear. When the disciples are caught in a storm on the lake of Galilee, Jesus comes to them and says, ‘Do not be afraid.’
We do not know what lies ahead. Probably suffering and death for many millions of people. I hope that my own faith will enable me to face suffering and death without fear and so continue to look on other people, regardless of their faith or lack of it, as my brothers and sisters. One of the reasons that pagan Rome was converted to Christianity was that during times of plague, Christians cared for the sick, regardless of whether they were Christian or not.
So we need not be afraid of death. But this does not mean wanting it. The best way to prepare for eternal life is to live life as fully as possible now, with the utmost generosity, and even with fun.
“I know that I am loved, with a love beyond all imagining.”
“All is contained in the Divine Breath, like the day in the morning’s dawn.” Muhyi-d-din Ibn ‘Arabi: The Word of Jesus, The Wisdom of the Prophets (Fusus al-Hikam), Beshara Publications
The view before dawn from the rooftop of the Sisters of Zion Convent in Jerusalem.
Father Timothy Radcliffe, I used the word unpredictable because Pope Francis used the same word in his speech in St. Peter’s Square. What was your impression in front of this unprecedented Papal event? Do you believe that these images of the Pope alone and the empty square will have an iconic meaning in this period for everyone, whatever religion or non-religion he belongs to?
The Pope alone on the balcony was a startling sight. It was a powerful symbol of one consequence of the pandemic, isolation. I am lucky. I live in a large community, and so far we have been able to carry on our common life in some sort of way. But many people are alone or with just one other person.
Isolation deprives us of so much that we need, above all touch. Touch is the necessary nourishment of our humanity. We need touch, even small gentle touches, to give us life. In the Sistine chapel, Michelangelo portrays God touching Adam into life. We need to see the faces of those whom we love. Skype and Zoom are wonderful but not enough.
As a Christian I believe that on the cross, lifted up beyond reach of the crowds, Jesus shared all the isolation, the loneliness that any human being can ever know. He shared the isolation of suffering, of shame, and finally of death. So whenever we feel really alone, Christ is sharing it with us. He has made it his own.
I believe that ultimately none of us are alone. God is at the centre of each of us giving us existence. He is, as St. Augustine wrote, closer to me than I am to myself. If I burrow down deeply enough, there is another, the Other.
In this time when billions are isolated, we need to be inventive of ways to touch those whom we cannot physically touch. All the world was touched by the sight of Italians going onto their balconies to sing. What a gift to the world from a nation most cruelly afflicted!
Do you have a new preaching message, a particular message of consolation to all these people who are unjustly ill or have family members that are ill?
Yesterday I was talking to someone who came up close to me and said, just inches from my face, ‘I am feverish. I think that I have the virus.’ I must confess that my first reaction, which I hid, was anger! Didn’t he realize that there was a good chance that he would pass it to me? And at my age, and as a diabetic, there was a high likelihood that I would die!
Afterwards I realized, with a little shame, that this was not the best reaction. In our global community in which we are all in touch somehow, there is no point in trying to find someone to blame. We live with what happens, even if it means our death.
This is a crisis, but any crisis can be fruitful if we live it in hope. We all come into this world through the great crisis of birth; we live through innumerable crises – being weaned from our mothers’ breasts, puberty, leaving home, quarreling with people, and ultimately death. Human beings grow up through crises. At the centre of our faith is the great crisis of Jesus’ death. On the night before he died, he took that crisis on himself. The disciples were about to flee. Peter would deny him. Judas had already betrayed him. There seemed to be no future. And in this darkest moment he made a gesture of radiant hope. When the community was breaking up, he gave us a community with a radical new depth. He gave himself, saying ‘This is my body given for you.’ ‘This is my blood, the new covenant.’
So my message would be that we should not be overcome by resentment and blame other people. Let us believe that even this terrible crisis may be fruitful for a renewal of the community of humanity.
What is the meaning in a theological and historical and philosophical sense of something like this? Is it comparable to the many pestilences and catastrophes that have been part of the human history and do you see in this some kind of punishment that nature is sending to us vis-a-vis a world excessively anxious troublesome and profit orientated?
An uncle of mine died in the Spanish flu in 1919. Since then we have had many endemics, but nothing as serious as Covid-19. But for all of known human history, humanity has been afflicted with vast pestilences that have wiped out millions. A quarter of the Dominican Order was lost in a short time in the fourteenth century due the Black Death. We are having a taste of what has been normal for all of human history. What is new is that every day I can read about how many people have been afflicted in every country of the world. And so we are living this as a global event in a way that no one has before. Maybe this will strengthen our sense that humanity is a global community, as I said above.
Is it a reaction to the way that humanity has treated the earth, with our unsparing consumption?
Only science can give us the answer. I would not be surprised.
“On one of the first sunny days of this spring, I was delighted to see the air filled with insects!”
Father Timothy Radcliffe, are you afraid or what do you think about the economic consequences of this pandemia? Many people are going to lose their jobs, and many small businesses close. Are you very worried?
Yes, of course. I fear for all the small businesses and the self-employed who were just scraping by. The great mantra of the Conservative party for some time has been ‘We are in in the same boat.’ Until now, this has not been so. But there are signs that we may become so. I was struck by the decision of the British Government to pay 80% of the wages of employees who are laid off instead of being dismissed. Who would have imagined such a move even a month ago? It could be that this crisis will have abiding consequences for how we understand society, and our links with each other.
Do you think that governments and heads of state have acted on the necessary levels or were they unprepared and weak in front of this tsunami? Have the governments been imprudent or too slow in facing what’s going on?
Some governments did react with an extraordinary speed and resolution, such as South Korea and Taiwan. They understood that the key was immediate and widespread testing. European governments were much slower off the mark. Maybe this was because those Asian countries had learnt much from previous outbreaks such as SARS. But it is easy to be wise after the event.
Are you worried that there would be riots if the economic situation with the world gets worse? And that could lead to the temptation of installing dictatorial regimes also in democratic countries?
There was already a rise of illiberal democracies all over the world before this pandemic. In so many countries we see the ascent of strong men, who are seen as national saviours. This has happened in Russia, China, India, Hungary, Turkey and so on. This is partly because global capitalism, with its instantaneous movement of money around the world, is too powerful for any single nation to control. So there is a widespread feeling of powerlessness and insecurity. One day industries are looking for cheap labour in Mexico and the next it may be India. But these strong men (and they all seem to be men at the moment) will always fail, as we see that President Putin is in Russia.
This sense of powerlessness and insecurity will only be increased by the present crisis. I am in no way an expert on politics and economics, but my guess is that we shall only be able to respond effectively through the strengthening of global institutions on the one hand, and local democracy on the other. Government at a national level cannot be the answer to all our needs. It is too small for the big questions and too big for the small ones. So we need stronger instruments of government at a global level to respond to global challenges, but this will need to be counterbalanced by stronger local government that give people a voice in the affairs of their neighbourhood.
Do you have from your experience, from your prayers, any spiritual or practical suggestions to people who are suffering or are worried in this particular moment?
Especially if you are isolated, the challenge is to find a shape to our days that keeps us sane and gives us hope. A friend of mine who is about to be unretired as a GP, has evolved a structure to her day, that includes running and yoga, gardening and making music, and time in the evening to relax with her husband and watch a film. She lives a regular life. As a religious, we pray the liturgy of the hours. This shapes the day. In the evening I pray compline before bed. I let go of the day and its burdens. I must learn to let go of all resentments and anger. St Paul writes, ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ If you are cooped up with people and cannot get out, then irritation can build up. So we need daily moments in which we let go of resentment and forgive each other. Ideally this should happen before we go to sleep, so that we can sleep!
Morning is the time for the new. In Morning Prayer we open ourselves to the Lord who comes. The Risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene in a garden at dawn. We open ourselves to the unexpected gifts of the day, the future. For most people the symbol of the future is their children or grandchildren. Perhaps you cannot touch them or be with them, but one needs to reach out to them, and cherish them as our future.
And at midday, when the sun seems to stand still, we pray to live in the present moment. One can only do this if one has let go the past and is open to the future. So our prayers shape our days to live both in the present and with hope. People will find different forms of regular life, like my friend the GP. But we all need to find a daily structure that gives meaning to our lives.
Do you agree with the fact that there is nothing worse than fear to create fear? Do you think that the press and the medias have related what’s going on in a good way or in an expressive way, considering the fact that people are more interested in bad than good news?
Yes, the papers believe that drama and indignation sell papers. People love being indignant. H.G.Wells called indignation, ‘Envy with a halo!’ And so the tabloids are filled with drama and indignation, with accusation and finger pointing. My hope is that people will get bored with this vacuous emotion and long for clear, just and accurate reporting.
Many people all over the world say that, first of all, because of this general stop of the world, the ecological situation or the climate situation in the world has finally benefited of some relief, and there are no aeroplanes, no cars, no trains, no factories that are polluting the air?
This seems to be case. When I looked out of my window on one of the first sunny days of this spring, I was delighted to see the air filled with insects!
Are you one of those who believe that this planet has been mistreated and oppressed by us?
There is no doubt about that at all. We have succumbed to what Pope Francis called ‘the technocratic paradigm’ which is seeing everything in terms of how we can use it. So the earth has been raped.
How are you spending your days during this period? Meditating, praying, answering questions? What are the most frequent questions that you receive?
I was supposed to be having a sabbatical. Having completed a new book, ‘Alive in God: a Christian imagination’ I looked forward to a time for study and meditation. I did go to Jerusalem for a month to renew my study of the New Testament. But the pandemic has swallowed up the sabbatical. I spend all my time contacting people, responding to emails, Skyping and Zooming, answering phone calls, writing articles, preparing sermons and even….doing interviews! I have never been so busy. If I survive, perhaps I can have the sabbatical next year!
Can you please explain, also for people who are not believers, which are the benefits of prayer? Even if in times like these people cannot get together in churches, synagogues and mosques, or other places of worship because many prayers are normally recited in a community.
People often have the impression that believers pray in order to change God’s mind. God was about to let someone die and then, they think, someone prays and God thinks, ‘Alright. He can return to health.’ But this is a very mechanistic view of how the divine penetrates our world, as if God were a celestial engineer.
Christians, like Jews and Muslims, believe that God gives existence to all that is. We call God, ‘the giver of all good things.’ Prayer is above all an act of gratitude. We open ourselves, with all our needs, our burdens, our joys, to God, to welcome all that God will give us. This may include unexpected healing, wonderful surprises, and relief from suffering. But whether we receive the gifts for which we hoped or not, we trust that God’s kind providence is leading us towards a final happiness with him.
The great prayer for many Christians, including Catholics and the Orthodox, is the Eucharist, which means, ‘Thanksgiving.’ It is tragic that because of Covid-19 many governments have had to order the closing of churches for public worship. We, like many other churches, are livestreaming the Eucharist every day, and we have a vast participation from all over the world. Yesterday I received an email from a Vietnamese Dominican who lives in Saigon, saying that he prays with us every day, as do people from all over the world.
Pope Francis delivers a special Papal Blessing to cities and the world in the time of Covid-19
Recipients of a priestly Passover blessing at the Western Wall, Jerusalem
A stained glass window depicts Jesus the Christ’s empty tomb at Chartres Cathedral, France
Pope Francis delivers his “Urbi et Orbi” blessing in an empty St. Peter’s Square on March 27th 2020
The House of the Virgin Mary, where Jesus’ mother is reputed to have lived after the crucifixion, is well away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Ephesus. Located on Mount Nightingale, it is an internationally acknowledged shrine.
Resurrection Window in the Cathedral of St Paul, Minnesota, USA.
“I hope that my own faith will enable me to face suffering and death without fear.”
Father Timothy Radcliffe, in the ancient civilizations old people were regarded with great respect and dignity. As we know, they are the first ones to be attacked or in danger from this disease. Do you think the communities and the states pay enough attention to it?
In most traditional societies, families looked after their older members. My grandmother came to live with us when my grandfather died. As our sense of family has shrunk, for example in Britain, to the nuclear family, often the old have often been left on their own. This is dangerous in a time of pestilence. So the primary challenge is for families to look after their own.
In hospitals, it is right when that when there are limited resources, we give priority to the young. They are our future. This may mean that the old do not always receive a ventilator, for example. If I were to be taken to hospital with this virus, I am aware that being almost 75 and a diabetic, I would not be at the top of the list to receive scarce resources. And that is right. An old Italian priest gave his ventilator for a young person to use and, as a result, died. Of course, we must give the best possible care to everyone, but sometimes there are choices to be made, and it seems to me that then the young must have priority. Sometimes there is no option but to let the old die, with dignity and care.
It is amazing that all the other illnesses, heart attacks, cancers seem not to exist anymore, but they do. One thing that is astonishing in this period, not only to see empty squares in the cities, the empty airports, and railroad station is the silence. Suddenly this very noisy world was completely silent. Do you believe that this silence somehow is good for meditation? Like for instance, our common friend Cardinal Martini was preaching when he was archbishop of Milano, the importance of silence. Is somehow this silence a kind of meditation? Is this silence terrifying or is this silence an occasion of thinking, of meditating?
The street outside where I live in Oxford is usually at this time of the year filled with buses dropping and collecting tourists. When I was last able to go for a walk, before we were locked down, the street was entirely empty. There was only a solitary person on a bicycle. The trees could breathe pure air, and there was silence.
Some people fear silence. For in silence, suppressed fears and hidden thoughts can surface. But a deep interior silence, when I stop chattering to myself and be quiet, can be lead to a glorious happiness. If I stop fretting about myself and be still, I become aware of what is around me. I see other people with fresh clarity. I see the beauty of ordinary things. In moments of blessing, I become aware of the gentle providence that embraces my life, even when everything seems threatening. I know that I am loved, with a love beyond all imagining.
One of things that I will try to do during these weeks is to listen to more music. Music shapes silence, and gives it form. It is not noise that is opposed to silence, but it opens the soul to the secret delights of silence, the silence between the notes. We can use music to flee silence, or to enter into it more deeply.
We’re going to publish this interview on Easter Day. What is your message to our readers on this day of resurrection which is very symbolic of what we’re all waiting for, the end of this pestilence?
In the psalms we hear the cry ‘How Long O Lord?’ What is so disconcerting is that we do not know how long this will go on. How long will nurses and doctors have to go on working insane hours and at the risk of their lives? How long must other people remain in lockdown? The usual calendars which gives us a sense of time – family events, church celebrations, school terms, the sporting calendar, are all shredded, and so it is hard to find a narrative structure for our lives. They are becoming shapeless!
When Martin Luther King was asked how long the battle against racial oppression would last, he replied, ‘How long? Not long!’ He did not mean that it would soon be over. He said, ‘Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice…’ His time was shaped by hope of ultimate victory. ~Today we celebrate Easter, when that victory was won.
So time will often seem to drag on. We may wonder whether we shall ever return to normality, and go to restaurants and pubs and embrace our friends and families. ‘How long O Lord?’ But a belief in Easter means that all that oppresses humanity will one day be defeated, and even now we can taste the joy that is to come. We are all destined for happiness in the Lord.
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