“To enter the religious world is to move from living in black and white to living in colour.”
Timothy Radcliffe OP is a Dominican friar and served as Master of the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, for nine years. He inspires in his addresses and retreats in all corners of the globe, and is one of the best loved Christian spiritual teachers of our times.
Father Radcliffe, Pope Francis has recently named you “consultor” of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. What does it mean to you?
I am grateful. The work of the Pontifical Council is very important. It’s a way to support the Pope, who has put this at the heart of his mission. Most people were named by Pope Benedict, but I was named later, a bit out of the blue.
Does this imply you will move to Rome?
I accepted because I am able to continue to preach and lecture around the world while based in Oxford. Whenever the Council needs me I can go to Rome, to offer whatever support I can.
As a Dominican Father what is your relationship to the Pope?
We feel a deep link as he is the centre of unity. Pope Francis is a man for whom I have enormous admiration, so I am very happy to give him any support.
How often have you met him?
I met him in Buenos Aires when he was Archbishop, and then had a long conversation eighteen months ago in the Vatican. Then a third time, in December, I was present for a meeting of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. We had a meeting of Christians (Catholics and Anglicans), Muslims (Shia and Sunni), and an Argentinian rabbi who is a close friend of the Pope.
Do you support the Pope because of his agenda for change? Are there many changes afoot?
I have supported all the Popes, but I love the new freedom that he is breathing into the Church. He believes that the Holy Spirit is poured upon us, and we do not know where it may take us. He realised in a retreat, reflecting on his term as a Jesuit Provincial, that he had been a bit too controlling. You have to trust people. The Spirit is given to each of us. I think the Pope is not trying to push his personal agenda, he is trying to encourage free and open discussion at all levels of the church.
What did you find in your six months of sabbatical when you left your role as Master of the Dominican Order?
The purpose of the six months was to reflect on the meaning of “virtue”. I was once in Slovakia with a Polish brother and he said that for St. Thomas Aquinas the whole point of Christian life was to share God’s joy and God’s freedom. I found this a fascinating thought that I wished to explore. Often people think that morality is about rules you must obey. The pursuit of virtue is about growing strong and joyful in God’s friendship. This is a new way, and also an old way, of seeing the moral life. It was the mediaeval tradition as found in Aquinas.
What are your major concerns today?
I would say the crisis in the Middle East, which is why I went to Baghdad, which used to be a great centre for Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Now there are no more Jews left in Baghdad, who had been there for 2,500 years. They arrived in the Babylonian exile 500 years before Christ, and now they are gone. The Christians too are disappearing, only 10% of what they were. I stayed in the centre of Baghdad where there was a thriving Christian community and now there is almost nobody left. So many states are in crisis: Libya, Syria, Iraq and the Yemen. This has generated a vast movement of people seeking a home in which they can survive. I think it is the great crisis of our time.
What is going to happen?
I don’t know. These migrants are exploited. Networks of traffickers are making money from them and then abandoning them. They queue to come to Europe and there are thousands waiting in Calais to cross to England. Faced with this vast tragedy we have, as Pope Francis said, lost the ability to weep.
Do you think Europe will become a Muslim world?
No, I don’t believe so. I think there is a real crisis of faith for young Muslims in Europe and in the Middle East. I think the new generation in France and the UK have just the same struggle with faith as young Christians do.
It is complex. Because they face secularism and because they experience their own religion as not liberating. Many young Muslims find their faith shaken by the brutality of ISIS and the conflict between Shia and Sunni.
Are people less religious?
People are less religious, certainly in England, one of the most secular societies.
Why is England like this?
In some ways, our society is marked by fundamentalism. There is a scientific fundamentalism, which thinks that everything can be explained by science. The Church has nothing against science as long as it does not make totalitarian claims! Then there is market fundamentalism, which reduces human beings to homo economicus, economic man – people seen as consumers and producers, functions of the market. Religious fundamentalism is a response to these. I think many young people are searching for a vision of humanity which preserves a sense of our beauty and dignity. We have lots of young University students coming to Mass here, so I am not pessimistic at all.
And do they want to join the Order?
We have an increase in vocations in the Dominican Order. Here at Blackfriars we have 28 brothers and an average age of about 35. Religious life is not finished!
Is the Catholic church changing?
I think the big change is that often there have been divisions in the church between progressive and conservative, now we are getting beyond that. The new generation usually transcends that polarisation, which is alien to Catholicism. We are breathing an air which is fresher. When I look at our young Friars here, you cannot describe them as either conservative or progressive, they want to find what is best. I don’t like these categories, for example when people say to me, “O, you are very progressive.” I do not wish to confined by any box!
Is the Catholic church still strong?
Yes and No. It is true that in Western Europe many fewer people are attending Mass every week, and yet religion is more than ever a point of reference. I think if you look at the Pope’s Encyclical on Ecology it is very interesting that many people are saying, “If anybody can get the world to face the ecological crisis it is the Catholic church.” Politicians lack the conviction. Much industry lacks the motivation. Maybe it is only the Pope who can achieve something. So that is a significant strength.
The church has been under siege, with both financial and sexual problems?
And a loss of credibility. Certainly the whole sexual abuse crisis has been absolutely terrible, but I hope and pray that the church is becoming the safest place in the world for children now. We were the first into the crisis, but now it has hit the BBC, government, schools, NHS – you see it very widespread. So I hope the church, with all its humiliation and self-reflection, can now help society to be a better place for children.
And the Pope was very important in this?
He has been very strong and has made powerful moves. We must admit that Pope Benedict began to make important steps. Often we contrast Francis and Benedict too much. There is more continuity between them than is generally admitted.
Are they friends?
I hope so.
Is it strange to have two Popes?
Well, we will get used to it. It think it was very courageous of Pope Benedict to resign.
Because there was huge pressure on John Paul II not to resign. He wanted to, but the pressure on him was not to. Benedict was very clever, he didn’t tell anybody. If he had tried to tell anybody they would have stopped him.
You go around the world to preach. What are people looking for?
They look for hope. The big challenge of our time is to recover hope. Many young people are unemployed, the economic and political crisis all over the Muslim world, our uncertainty about the future of the planet – the most important thing is for people to hope. There is a Eucharistic Congress in the Philippines in January 2016 which will take the theme of hope.
Have people lost hope? The hope of what?
Happiness; The hope of finding meaning. People distrust institutions. Politicians think about the next election, journalists about the next edition, companies the next financial year. We live with a very short term awareness. The Church should embody the long memory of humanity and its long term aspirations.
Is this because of the internet and technical progress?
I think it’s one element, connected with a detachment from the rhythm of nature. Everything has to be instantaneous. In England this is the “Now Generation”. Christianity teaches us to hope by reminding we can dare to hope for a future, even if it comes slowly.
Is there a nervousness?
The English expression is, “Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Which means we have to enjoy life, because tomorrow we may not be. Life is longer, we now know this world was created 13 billion years ago and humanity 400,000 years ago, and each of us is living much longer, so on one hand we have a sense of enormous time, but on the other we want to live for now. It’s the paradox of our culture.
How can we find our spirituality?
We have instant access to information but there is a crisis of superficiality, the attention span is very limited. The Superior General of the Jesuits, Adolfo Nicolás, talked of “the globalisation of superficiality.” We must dare to ask the complex questions which take time to reflect upon. And we must dare to ask these questions in collaboration with those young people who are wrestling with them, whether in literature, art or poetry.
Should religion be simple?
God is utterly simple. So simple that we cannot understand Him. I think the life of religion should make us stronger and more coherent. But it is difficult to become truly simple.
How can you be happy in such a terrible world?
Because I meet wonderful people all the time and I live the contemplative life. I went to Baghdad. It’s not easy in Baghdad, but I met extraordinary people and had a very happy time there. I see great beauty wherever I go. There is a lot of terrible suffering, but people meet suffering with great courage. I used to go to Rwanda during the crisis, once every year. I wanted to give hope, but I found they gave me hope.
Is God a necessity for humans?
People often ask if God is relevant for our lives. No, God is more than that. Everything is relevant in so many as it leads us to God, who is the point and meaning of everything. I think that everyone has some sense of an ultimate meaning, even if they do not call this God.
What is the purpose of religion?
For a Christian, it is that we are made for happiness, which is God. God is pure happiness and that’s what we are made for. Religion is the invitation to share God’s happiness. Religion is not about being good. You are good, not because it is required, but because it’s wonderful, a joy. The French writer Bernanos said the only happiness is to be a saint. To enter the religious world is to move from living in black and white to living in colour.
Have you ever had a crisis in faith?
I wouldn’t say I had doubts about God’s existence. I have had periods of being bored by religion, when I thought God seemed absent, when everything became grey.
What did you do when it all became flat?
You carry on and say your prayers. I once fell in love with a woman and then it was very difficult, because I could imagine a life with her. We remain friends, but I had to say, “I am somebody called to this life, this is the life for me.”
Are you very supportive of gay people?
I think that we should give thanks for the gifts of gay people. I think each person has to find their own way to love. God is present in every love. Personally I do not believe in gay marriage, but that is a long topic. But I do believe gay people are a blessing. Gay people have a lot to give us, and we should welcome their gifts.
As a friar you can’t marry? Or have a sex life?
As friars or monks we have the possibility of fantastic friendship with people, friendship is absolutely the centre of our lives. Chastity frees us for deep intimacy with people.
Are you are tired of all this obsessive sexual interest?
There is a curious obsession with sex while at the same time our society often trivialises it, as if it were merely a recreation. We must welcome people whatever paths they have taken. We must find a way for people who are divorced and remarried to come home to the Eucharist, even if this involves a clear reflection on what happened. We must respect and honour the complexity of people’s lives, and the complex paths by which they come to God. The temptation is to reduce religion to morality, and reduce morality to sex. I think that’s very limiting.
Does education make for less racism and hate?
In Baghdad the Dominicans founded the Baghdad Academy of Human Sciences, with 500 pupils, 70% of whom are Muslims. We teach anthropology, psychology, philosophy and the scientific study of religion, because the best opposition to fundamentalism is education. The enemy is not religion. The enemy is reductionism, fundamentalism. St. Dominic sent the friars to Universities to study, to Bologna, Paris, Oxford.
Are people frightened in the Middle East?
It’s dangerous, but it is their home. I would not say frightened. They live from day to day. One brother of our Order had just arrived in Baghdad from France and he said, “I have never been so happy in my life.”
Because he gives himself. The only happiness is to give oneself.
When you meet a young person, the question is not do they have faith, the question is what do they believe in? Everybody believes something. You have to start with the belief they have and then walk with them as they search. We hope that this will lead them to Christ.
As a priest do you find yourself useful?
Last night I had to go to Bristol as a man has cancer and is dying. I had dinner with him and his wife so we could talk, so he could face this cancer. Afterwards, I talked with a confused young man for an hour who searches for some meaning to his life. Now the next thing I have to do after this interview is go on a soup run, to visit the homeless, to feed them. I do not know whether I am useful! But the world is filled with people with whom I hope to share a small word of hope. But my life is not just helping people. I also have a wonderful life, a very happy life. Sometimes this joy is found with people who are in difficulties. I don’t think you have real joy if you run away from suffering. Often I have the joy of friends, and great literature! I have the joy of nature in its profusion.
What do you think about possessions and money, the main preoccupation and ambition of the contemporary world?
We must not be enslaved by it. As a child I grew up in a family most people would consider wealthy. We had fourteen bedrooms in a big house. But my parents did not think that money was the important thing. My wealthy relatives living in stately homes were not happier. As a child I very quickly saw money does not make you happy. My friends thought I was mad, giving up a wealthy background to become a poor Dominican, but it was not because I wanted less, it was because I wanted more. If that makes sense.
As Master of the Order of Preachers, the worldwide Father General of the Dominican Order, you were a man of real power. You have gone from being a sort of a Pope to being a brother. How was that compared to now?
You only have power so as to empower other people. So, it could be a power over other people, but that would be an abuse. Your power is given to you to make them strong. If you use power to make people weak and to dominate them, you would be very unhappy. In the Dominican Order the highest authority is the General Chapter, the parliament of the Order. When I went to Rome I met a Cardinal who said, “You are the supreme authority in the Order.” I said, “No, I am not. The brethren, the brothers, are the supreme authority.” Now I am just a brother, but then as Master I was also a brother and so the change is not so dramatic. My only obligation is to go to all the General Chapters until I die or go mad!
But you don’t become someone like that unless you are gifted?
It was an election. The brothers interview you in a five day process, and then they vote.
Is the Order doing well?
One in six brothers are in formation, which is very high. So yes, the Order is doing well.
And will you stay in Oxford?
It is for the English Provincial and his Council to decide. I am happy here in this very lively community with wonderful young brothers. It’s a beautiful city, with the stimulation of a great University, and only one hour from Heathrow!
June 12th, 2015