Thursday 5 December 2019

Take down your Christmas Tree - It's not Christmas, it's Advent!

Waiting is an important part of life. Patience is indeed a virtue but is it one that is being eroded by our 24-hour, instant “have-it-now culture”. To be fair, I write this is as someone who is part of this culture and enjoys instant streaming and next day delivery as much as the next person. And yet I fear that there is something important and wonderfully human about waiting that is being lost with our instant, hyper-connected world.  Waiting builds expectation and desire, waiting heightens awareness, waiting can be a journey and so often in life the journey is as important as the destination. When we wait, we slow down, we notice things, we can get our priorities right and focus on the right things as well as getting rid of those things which are not helpful to us. Waiting is a preparation: the waiting of an engaged couple is an important time of preparation for marriage. As they wait, they grow in love for one another and they confirm the choice will hopefully bring them to marriage. Waiting builds perseverance and patience and helps us to appreciate what we have in a deeper way.

It is, therefore, with some regret and sadness, when I see Christmas decorations and Christmas celebrations beginning in November and early December. For these celebrations, however well-meant, destroy something of the beautiful season of Advent. Now, some might retort that I am being a miserable humbug! (and they could be right) After all, most the country is not Christian so we can’t expect Christmas to be kept in the Christian fashion by people who don’t have faith. There is also the argument that it’s better that people celebrate Christmas with tinsel and presents than not at all, if anything else it’s a way-in for the Christian message.  I have some sympathy with this, I’m not against people celebrating Christmas the way that they do, it is after all  the ‘the most wonderful time of the year!’ What I am against, however, is the creeping destruction of the beautiful and important season of Advent, and not by the general population but by Christians!  Never mind the shopping malls and office Christmas parties in late November - it’s the Church Christmas Tree festivals in the first week of Advent, the decorations and trees up in Christian homes by the end of November and the carol services that fill up the first few weeks of Advent. It’s these things that really irritate me!  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not a complete purist! There is a practical dimension to having an ‘Advent Carol Service’ in late December and anticipating Christmas with school Nativity plays and carols concerts. When, however, it becomes normal for Christians to talk and behave as if Christmas has arrived in early December then something has gone terribly wrong - we have allowed ourselves to be evangelised by the culture instead of evangelising the world around us. What is more, when decorations and parties cease a few days after Christmas, I must confess my blood begins to boil! Christmas is a season, which lasts up until the Baptism of the Lord which in 2020 in the UK is 12th January. (That’s more than the 12 days we sing about!) If Christmas celebrations begin, as they should on the 25th December (or 24th with a vigil) then keeping the season to January 12th is easily manageable. Furthermore, the continued air of celebrations bringing a quiet joy to the dark and sombre atmosphere of a British January. If, however, ‘Christmas’ has been celebrated since mid- November then, packing the decorations down before New Year is understandable – it’s just this is not how it is meant to be!

Advent is a beautiful season which expresses in symbol, ritual and rhythm important and profound truths of the Christian life. When we lose Advent to Christmas, we are all the poorer for it. Advent is a season of waiting upon the Lord. It is not a pointless waiting or a boring waiting, but an expectant waiting which builds hope, heightens awareness and helps us to recognize the presence of the mysterious and incarnate God in our daily lives. A good Advent makes for a good Christmas, when we fail to celebrate Advent, we fail to prepare ourselves to receive Christ well when we celebrate Christmas the mystery.

In advent we wait for the Lord to come and we do so in a three-fold way. The first part of advent, up until 16th December is focused on the second coming of Christ. The first Christians lived in this expectant hope, a hope that meant that Jesus might return at any moment to judge the living and the dead. This hope created an urgency in the apostolic activity of the first Christians, they did not hang about, but lived life to the full and shared the gospel message to all whom they met. We talk in the Church, so often, about a New Evangelisation, if we truly lived with the expectant hope of Jesus’ immanent return I imagine our efforts to build God’s kingdom on Earth would take on a new energy and focus!  

The second part of Advent 17th Dec-24th is concerned very much with the first coming of Christ 2000 years ago. We prepare ourselves to receive the Christ child who made himself so small as to be born in the poverty of a stable. The God of the universe became a baby for us so that we could know and love him the way that he knows and loves us – this is an awesome mystery that we can never fully appreciate so, a period of prayerful and attentive preparation as we wait upon his arrival is vital. The waiting and preparation of Advent helps us to discover afresh and appropriate in a new way this central mystery of our faith – the incarnation.

Finally, Advent, has a third and often overlook dimension. As we wait for Christ who is to come, and we prepare to celebrate the Christ who came 2000 years ago, our spiritual senses are, as it were, heightened as we are alerted to the daily coming of Christ. The Christ who stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, each moment of each day, waiting for us to let him in and enter into a deeper more beautiful, more life-changing friendship with him. Advent alerts us to the daily presence of the God who makes himself small so that he can raise us up. The God who ‘shared our humanity so that we can share his divinity.’

This year let us really enter into the season of Advent. Let us hold-fire on putting the decorations up, refrain from those December ‘Merry Christmas’s’ and abstain for a couple more weeks from the mince pies!   Instead let us focus on our Advent journey as wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Monday 11 November 2019

Not Left-Wing, Not Right-Wing, but Catholic! Musings on the Papacy and the Church

A growing phenomenon to be observed in the contemporary Church is the ever increasing partisan mentality that divides Catholics up as left-wing or right-wing, liberal or conservative. It's not that these divisions have not been around for some time - they have. It's just that with the age of social media and twenty-four hour news it becomes increasingly easier to construct religious-political narratives and disseminate them far and wide across multiple digital platforms. This is worrying development, especially, when these narratives are used to drive a wedge between Papacies, and different groups within the Church. 

The recent furore concerning the Amazonian Synod is, I believe is an example of this. A narrative is being created that is attempting to cast Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ, as some kind of a neo-pagan, left-wing liberal heretic. If this was coming from outside the Church I would be less concerned, but the division is emerging from within. A comparatively small but vocal group, among them some theologians and some high ranking clerics, are it seems, hell-bent on creating this self-fulfilling narrative. At present, the crisis does not exist in the minds of most Mass-going Catholics, however, the more it is talked about and hyped up - the more a 'crisis' emerges.

A brief look online and you will come across headlines along the lines of: 'The worst Crisis the Church has ever faced' 'The most Damaging Papacy Ever.' (I mean really? some church history, please!) I am not going to spend time defending Pope Francis here. He is the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, and I trust that the Holy Spirit is with the Church and with the Magisterium just as it always has been. Christ promised to build his Church on the Rock of Peter and the gates of hell would not prevail against it – and Christ's promise is enough for me!

What is worrying, however, is the way in which some Catholics speak about the Pope in the public forum. Some simply refuse to refer to him as the Pope, referring to him as 'Bergoglio'.  Others speak about him using language that is not appropriate for a Christian to speak about anyone, let alone the Vicar of Christ. Communion with the Pope is a mark of Christian unity, so it is deeply concerning that some 'faithful' Catholics and 'Catholic' media outlets are taking to social media and attacking this communion in the most pernicious of ways. To disagree with the Pope is one thing, but to do so publicly, to disrespect him, to mock him, to twist his words and to not give him the benefit of the doubt, is to my mind, sinful.

What lies at the heart of all this? Well I would remiss if I didn't think that there was a spiritual dimension to all of us. The Pope's detractors are quick to use colourful language to infer that what is happening is the work of the devil – they may well be right, it's just that they may be playing a bigger part in the work of the deceiver than they imagine!

Another significant factor I believe is a lack of vision or rather 'focus'. By this I mean that our focus, as faithful disciples, should be on Christ and not on a need to preserve our own fixed idea of what we think right-religion should look like. When we are focused on the wrong things and too-fixed in our ideas it becomes very hard to listen to what the other is saying. Furthermore, when we fail to hear the other person, we fail to see them as a person and it becomes very easy to demonise them; be they another Christian, a politician or even a Pope. One of the gifts that I believe that Pope Francis brings to the Church (from his Jesuit background) is the gift of discernment. Discernment is a process, it takes time and involves listening, talking and reflecting. Sometimes the process of discernment can be unsettling, but it is a necessary process in the path of Christian conversion. To discern properly we must have eyes fixed on Christ. Pope Francis has encouraged us time and time again to “fix our gaze on Jesus' face and become familiar with him.”1 Pope Francis, is I believe, helping the Church to rediscover the gift of discernment at a time when it is desperately needed. The discussions that take place in the Synods are part of the Church's rich discernment process. Theological battles have been fought at many a Synod and Council throughout the Church's long history. Animated by the Spirit, however, the Church discerns the right direction and moves forward confidently fixing her gaze on her divine Saviour.

As Catholics we are invited to have our eyes fixed on Christ, on his kingdom and on what he is doing. To fix our eyes on Christ, however, does not mean that we can ever fully perceive or understand what he is doing. Christ's Church is not some lifeless monolithic entity, in fact it is always moving and changing as the Holy Spirit brings it, evermore, to perfection. Whilst it is true that doctrine and revealed truths never change, the way in which these unchanging truths are communicated to an ever changing mission field inevitably must change. The mission field of course, is anywhere where the Gospel of Christ is lived, taught and preached – in short everywhere the Church is. In order to facilitate authentic change, without jettisoning the essential truths of the faith, the Church is safeguarded by the office of the Papacy and the Magisterium of the Church. This safeguarding does not mean that we do not talk about things, try and look at different perspectives and listen to where people are at. This is all part of the discernment process that the Church is on. If our gaze is fixed on Christ, however, and if we believe that he has not left his Church then this discussion and reflection, even when it encompasses areas that we are unsure about, will be fruitful and peaceful. If on the other hand, we are too fixed and ridged in our views of what we personally think the Church should look like, if we are fixed on maintaining a predominately Western model of being Catholic, then we will begin to panic. Then, we will begin to be moved and motivated by fear. Then, it will become easy to demonise what we don't like and don't understand.

To be a Catholic is not to be right-wing or left-wing, liberal or conservative. To be a Catholic means that we are disciples of Christ, in communion with the Pope, the Vicar of Christ and the Bishop of Rome. To be Catholic means that every member of the body of Christ is our brother and sister and we have an obligation to treat them as such. It means that we are part of Church with a two-thousand year-old living history that continues to unfold as it encompasses our own personal history. To be a Catholic means that we have our gaze fixed firmly on Jesus Christ and trust him for everything. To be a Catholic is to remember that God is in charge of his Church, not us – and thank God, for left to us we would make a right mess of it! 

Thursday 31 October 2019

What does it mean to ask for the prayers of the Saints?

The feast of All Saints reminds us that we are part of the Communion of Saints. The Communion of saints expresses the profound communion that exists between the Church on earth, the Church in Purgatory and the Church in Heaven. In the feast of All Saints we celebrate the Church Triumphant-the Church in Heaven and we are encouraged and spurred on by the witness of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. 

An important dimension to the Communion of Saints is the intercession of the saints. This is something that is frequently misunderstood by many Christians, especially our brothers and sisters who belong to the traditions of the protestant reformation. Put simply, asking the saints to pray for us is no different than asking a brother or sister on earth to pray for us - except, that in the case of the saints, they enjoy a more perfect communion with God. In this sense the prayer and intercession of the saint in heaven is of a more perfect nature than those on earth. The Catechism explains:

Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness. . . . They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus . . . . So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.[1]

Asking the saints to pray for us is not conjuring up the spirits of our ancestors. It certainly should not be understood as communing with the dead in some esoteric way, not least because the are saints are not dead – they are alive in Christ. For God is a God of the living not of the dead![2] Another common objection to asking for the saints intercession refers to multitude of people asking for the saints intercession at any one time. For example, how can St Anthony hear my prayers, and the millions of the others who might be praying to him at any one time? Principally this objection is  a misunderstanding of the very nature of heaven and what it means to be close to God. It is important to remember that God and heaven exists outside of our understanding of time and space. The saints in heaven, participate in the very life of God himself, and in so far as they participate in God’s divine life (and exist outside the constraints of time) they see, hear and perceive existence as God does, they share his vision – the beatific vision.  The saints hear our prayers because God can hear our prayers. It is God’s grace and power, so far beyond our own understanding, that has come to perfection in the saints that enables the saints to intercede for us. The Queen of all saints of course, is Mary the Mother of God. The closeness and intimacy that she had with Jesus in her earthly life is brought to complete fruition now that share her Son’s glory in heaven. She remains close to her divine Son and as members of her Son’s mystical body, we can and should seek her maternal intercession.

To ask for the intercession of the saints, is a good and holy thing to do. We have seen time and time again that God’s MO, his Modus Operandi is to call people to relationship with him. Throughout salvation history God’s call has been to a people (plural), not simply a person (singular). Asking for the intercession of the saints is entirely consistent with the way that God works in the world. When we ask for the saints to pray for us we are forging bonds of holiness with our heavenly brothers and sisters and we are strengthening the familial bonds that bind us together as God’s holy people. The Communion of Saints is profound reminder to us of our connectedness in Christ and teaches us that is never simply me and Jesus, but we and Jesus. This is why we pray to Our Father in heaven, as opposed to simply my Father. Our personal faith and our personal relationship with Jesus Christ is lived, always in the context of our relationship with other believers – for the Communion of Saints is the people of God.

[1] CCC 956
[2] C.f Mk 12:27 Lk 20:38

Monday 14 October 2019

Why Receiving Holy Communion in the Hand can be Good Thing!

As a priest and as a pastor, I am asked, not infrequently, what I think about widespread practice of receiving Holy Communion on the hand. To younger Catholics this might seem like a bit of a non-question. For many of us who have grown up in the English Church within the last forty years our only experience of receiving Holy Communion has been in the hand.

There is, it would seem, much debate and controversy surrounding the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. Just five minutes on the internet will expose anyone who wishes, to view the strongly held and divided views that exist on this issue. The most recent video images that appeared on my Facebook feed from Newman’s canonisation in Rome (Deo Gratias!) showed stewards reminding priests to give Holy Communion on the tongue only. The argument accompanying the feed went along the lines: well this is what Rome is insisting on now, so this is what we should all do. As I understand it, however, the practice of only ministering Holy Communion on the tongue at Vatican Masses has been tightened up on recently to help prevent tourists treating the Host as a souvenir from Rome, and in outdoor Masses particularly, it also prevents the Host blowing away. (Incidentally, I have ministered Holy Communion in St Peter’s at two Masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI and a prohibition of Communion on the Hand was not mentioned, indeed most people received in the hand)

As I understand it, the main thrust of the argument against the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand is that it emerged via the ‘back door’ as it were, after Vatican II. The argument runs that it was not really something that was in the mind of the Church. I find all of this, however, a bit of a red herring.  It’s a non-argument because Church teaching and discipline emerges organically and in many instances the practice of the faithful is constituting factor. However which way it occurred the fact remains that receiving Holy Communion in the hand is licit, and it is normative in large parts of the Catholic Church. The personal opinions of individuals whether they be Cardinals, clerics or laypeople do not change the fact that it is licit to receive Holy Communion in the hand.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, (GIRM) is the go-to document if we want to know how to celebrate a proper, noble and licit celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The GIRM is promulgated by the Holy See, and read alongside the Code of Canon Law, gives us the Church’s liturgical laws and norms. The GIRM also may have documents prepared by the local bishop’s conference.  In our own country ‘Celebrating the Mass’ (CTM) is the document which interprets the GIRM for the territory of England and Wales. The GIRM states that ‘the consecrated host may be received on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant.’ This is reiterated in the English and Welsh Bishops document ‘the conference of Bishops allows the reception of the Body of the Lord in the hand. However, the choice whether to receive in this manner is the prerogative of the communicant.’  (see GIRM 160 and CTM 211)

As a Catholic and as a priest I believe firmly and truly that the Holy Spirit animates the Church and preserves the Church from teaching moral and doctrinal error. I believe that the Bishops in communion with the Pope are successor to the Apostles and are the authentic teachers of the faith.  I have faith and confidence, therefore, that what is taught by them, is put simply, legit! Opinions on these issues, including my own, whether they be from good Catholics or bad, lay or cleric, right-wing  or left-wing do not enjoy the authority and reliability of Church teaching which is promulgated through her Bishops in communion with the Pope.

So, when I’m asked, ‘what do I think about Communion in the hand?’ my first answer is that it is a legitimate way to receive Holy Communion. To be clear,  this does not mean that I am against receiving or giving Holy Communion on the tongue, far from it. I find administering Holy communion on the tongue, and to people kneeling, a deeply moving experience. When people are reverent towards Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, actually, truly and tangibly present in the Eucharistic species I am delighted, and I am moved. Few things pain me more as a priest than the complete lack of awareness and irreverence shown to the Mass and to the reception of Holy Communion in general. When I think of the saints and martyrs and those who gave their lives for their faith, and when I think of our brothers and sisters across the globe who are persecuted and cannot receive the Eucharist or get to Mass as we frequently do, I am deeply disturbed at the cavalier attitude with which many people seem to approach the holy of holies. In some cases and in some parishes, it may well be that kneeling at altar rails for Communion (whether receiving on the tongue or in the hand) could be a good way to  restore a sense of the sacred to what is the most sacred of all acts. Nevertheless, I would hesitate to say that this should be the case in all parishes.

What is more at issue here, however, is how Holy communion is received in the heart. Whether Holy Communion is received on the tongue or in the hand is not the real issue, the real issue is whether it is received with reverence and humility. In some cases, this can be helped by receiving on the tongue, but not always. Receiving on the tongue can become just as mechanised as any other human activity unless the heart and mind is truly engaged. How receive Holy Communion in our heart is the most important thing.

I maintain, however, that receiving Holy Communion on the hand (kneeling or standing) can be a good thing, and it’s a good thing principally because it says something powerful about the nature of the Mass itself.

The Mass is both a Sacrifice and a Meal, it is at once the same sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and it is the paschal banquet instituted by Christ at the Last supper. It is not a sacrifice only nor is it a meal only. These two intrinsic dimensions, meal and sacrifice, therefore, must find expression in our celebration of the liturgy. The altar itself expresses these two profound realities. As an altar it is a place of sacrifice, but furnished with cloth, candles and gathered around it is also the Table of the Lord.

I would argue, however, that during the post Tridentine period, the dominant image of the Mass (up until Vatican II) was the Mass as the Holy Sacrifice. This of course was not wrong; the Mass is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices because it is Jesus’s sacrifice. The problem, however, was that the meal and banquet dimension to the Eucharist was obscured and thus overlooked. One of the major strengths of the revised Roman Rite (Ordinary Form of the Mass) is that it keeps both the sacrifice and meal dimension of the Eucharist in a healthy balance.  One of the ways the meal dimension has been restored is with the strong encouragement for the faithful to receive Holy Communion under the form of consecrated  bread and from the chalice. The catechism reminds us that ‘the sign of Communion is more complete when given under both kinds, since in that form the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly.’ (CCC 1390)

I would argue, then, that the reception of Holy Communion in the hand is a further helpful expression of the meal dimension of the Eucharist where we are fed with Jesus as spiritual food and bread from heaven. Furthermore, it should be noted, that there is not any record in scripture of Christ placing the host on the tongue of his disciples, rather he ‘gave it’ to them and, since they were at a meal, one assumes they took it and ate it, in their hands!

To be clear this does not mean that receiving Holy Communion on the tongue is wrong, rather Communion on the tongue (especially when kneeling) can be an image of kneeling at the foot of Cross and receiving from the side of Christ his very life, as it is poured out into us. Receiving Communion on the hand expresses more clearly being seated around the Master in the upper room and sharing in an intimate meal. Both are correct, both are powerful images, and when both occur at the same celebration, I would argue that they more effectively communicate the essential and profound truth: that the Eucharist is both a Sacrifice and a Meal.

Church practices are not monolithic but develop over time, it’s too easy for us with our limited and Western view of the Church to assume that what we do must be the only way to do things and thus it is universally valid. St Cyril of Jerusalem, reminds that receiving Communion on the tongue cannot have been always universally practised:

In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen.
                                                              (Catechetical lecture 23, par 21. This translation: New Advent)

Whatever way one receives Holy Communion, I believe, the most important thing is that we are properly disposed and receive with the right intention and due reverence. The Church currently allows for Holy Communion on the hand, if this discipline changes then, as a son of the Church I would enthusiastically teach the new discipline. If it did, however, we would have to find other ways to communicate the important teaching that the Eucharist is both a sacrifice and a meal.

Sunday 29 September 2019

Please stop saying children are the future of the Church! - Some thoughts on young families in Church

One of the many joyful and inspiring things I experience as a parish priest is seeing young families come to Mass together. There are so many pressures these days on family life and countless things that compete for the Sunday morning slot that I think it is both a heroic and beautiful thing when I see parents with their children at Mass.

It is with some sadness, then, when I hear the occasional grumblings, albeit from a minority, that do not approve of children’s presence or young voices being heard at Mass. It’s not that I’m a fan of Mass be readily disturbed by screaming children.  If a child (or an adult for that matter!) is having a tantrum then they should of course be taken out until they calm down. Most parent’s do this instinctively and are very good at it, in fact I can’t recall an occasion when this has not happened in a Mass that I have celebrated. I have heard many horror stories, thankfully not in my parish, of people telling parents off, making them feel unwelcome and even, on occasion, priests stopping in the middle of the Mass and calling children or parents to account.

One of the things that I have tried to introduce in my own parish recently is a greater use and awareness of time of silence and quite in and around the celebration Mass. This is not at odds with the welcome that as a parish and as a priest I extend to families. This is because the kind of silence that I encourage (and the kind of silence that is conducive to the liturgy) is not supposed to be an absolute void of sound, but rather the creation of space in which to hear God and prepare our hearts to meet him, which we can create by the absence of endless nattering.

The heart of the issue, as I see it, is whether we take our Baptism seriously or not. Catholic teaching is clear that at Baptism several things happen: we are washed clean of the stain of original sin, we are born again in the waters of Baptism, dying with Christ in order to share his resurrection and we are grafted on to the Body of Christ – the Church. Baptism, which is a free and unmerited grace from God, is the first Sacrament of Initiation, in other words it’s how we become Catholic Christians. Baptism leaves an indelible (permanent) mark on the person’s soul, it can never be repeated, and it means that we belong to Christ. Baptism is how we are born into the Church and all the baptised…that is ALL the baptised, are on a level playing field. This means that no member of the Body of Christ, (the Church) is more valuable or more special than any other. The eldest member, the youngest member, the fittest member, the sickest member, the saintly member, the sinful member, all are equal before God and all have their place in the Church. Children and young people are not “the future of the Church” as many people seem to enthusiastically say. Children and young people along with every other member of the Church are the Present of the Church, the Church of today!  As such they must have a rightful place in the public worship of the Body of Christ.

The Church’s public worship is the liturgy, and our most common experience of the liturgy is when we participate in the source and summit of the Christian the faith – the Eucharist (Mass). It’s important to remember that the Eucharist is always an action of the whole Body of Christ, the whole Church: The Church universal, the Church visible, the Church invisible, the local Church, the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering, all of these realities coincide in every celebration of the Eucharist. This is an important point that needs to be grasped – The Eucharist, The Mass is not a personal prayer. We do not go to Mass as a consumer simply looking at what ‘we can get out of it’. We go to Mass primarily because we are members of the Body of Christ and at Mass, where we are nourished with the Body of Christ we become more fully, the saints that God has called us to be. And he calls us, that’s US to be saints!  That is, he calls a people, a Church, a community. He does not call individuals to isolation but a people to communion. Communion with each other and communion with Him!

The people who grumble at having their private prayers disturbed at Mass, have, however unwittingly, failed to grasp this point: that the Mass is not about you or me, it’s about us! Silent prayer and individual reflection are essential to develop one’s faith, but we should not expect that at Mass. Personal prayer happens apart from the liturgy, is nourished by the liturgy and flows from the liturgy,  but the liturgy,  especially the Eucharist, is never a personal prayer.

If we are tempted to moan or grumble at the young child who merely is doing what a young child does (making a bit of noise) we would do well to remind ourselves that our shared Baptism means that they have just as much right to be in Church as we do and our shared public worship is in fact a richer experience because of it.

When all is said and done, Christian charity should always be our guide. Balance is always needed: If children are throwing a tantrum then the sensible and charitable thing to do it to take them outside. But tantrums aside, we must all as the family of God, be welcoming, compassionate, and tolerant of a little noise from time to time. I have heard people complain that there aren’t any young people in the Church and then moan about the behaviour of young children in the same breath! Well it’s not rocket science folks!  If children don’t feel welcome, they probably won’t feel welcome as young people either! As a Church, as a Christian community, we must always be compassionate. Being a parent is hard, and being a Christian parent is a real challenge in today’s world. Parents must feel welcome to attend Mass with their children, not least because they need to be nourished by the Mass as much as anyone does. Older members of our parish have so much to offer and can be a real support to younger families by acting as spiritual grandparents in the community. All of us, old and young, are members of the one family of Christ and it behoves us to have compassion on each other, especially those who are more vulnerable members of the flock and that can include young families.

In the end, we must as ever follow the example of our Master who said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Mt 19:14

Monday 16 September 2019

The Bible says this and this.... No! Why the Bible doesn’t ‘say’ anything!

If you have ever moved around in Christian circles you will have probably heard people begin a sentence with the phrase ‘the Bible says…’ People, Christians and non-Christians alike, frequently back up their arguments by saying ‘but the Bible says….’ Even those who have fallen away from the faith sometimes critique the Church or justify their own position with the phrase ‘the Bible says…(insert here whatever verse supports your argument)’

This phrase is deeply problematic, quite simply, because the Bible, does not ‘say’ anything.  It cannot ‘say’ anything because it’s a book. It can instruct, teach and inspire, but the Bible on its own does not speak. This is an often-misunderstood concept: the Bible does not speak!

Now, before you brand me a heretic and start preparing the stake and pyre, let me explain what I mean.

Let me be clear from the outset, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It has one author: God, but many different writers. The Alpha course uses a good image to explain this idea: St Paul’s Cathedral in London is a famous architectural masterpiece. If you ask people who built St Paul's’, the answer you would typically get back would ‘Christopher Wren’. Yet Christopher Wren did not, to my knowledge, lay a single brick. He is the architect, the designer, the author even of St Paul's, but the work was carried out by many different individuals, all according to his plan. The same is true with the Bible, it is God’s Word, he is the author, but it is written by many people with their own understanding and perspective of the world.

The Bible is something that every Christian should have, read and use to pray with. In the Bible we discover the story of our salvation. In the pages of the Bible a love affair unfolds between God and his people, and God continues to speak to us through the Bible today. If we read the Bible prayerfully particular verses can ‘jump of the page’ as it were, and penetrate our hearts. God does indeed speak through the Bible. We should not be ignorant about the Bible. As St Jerome, the fifth Century biblical scholar, who translated the Bible into the language of the day (Latin!)  said, ‘ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ’.

The Bible is so important that at every celebration of the Eucharist and every liturgical celebration it is publicly proclaimed. Furthermore, at the end of the reading the reader proclaims, ‘The Word of the Lord’ and we all reply Thanks be to God. At a Sunday Mass, the first section of the Mass is devoted to the Bible: ‘The Liturgy of the Word’. Four readings are proclaimed: An Old Testament reading, a psalm, a New Testament reading and then a Gospel! Sometimes some of our Protestant brothers and sisters dismiss Catholics as being ignorant of the Bible, but really this isn’t the case. A Catholic has the Bible in his/her DNA. The very prayers of the Mass come from the Bible and simply by just turning up to worship at Mass we encounter more scripture than many other Christian communities use in their own worship services.

The Bible is vital, there is no denying this. The Bible is God’s Word and the Bible is true, but, and this is important, the Bible on its own does not ‘say’ anything and here’s why:

The Bible did not drop out of the air, it is not a magic book, rather, it is the Church’s book. The Bible emerged, by God’s providence out of the Christian community, and the Christian community is the Church. The Church reflected, prayed and decided what books were to be considered as inspired  texts and what books were not. This was an organic process, which occurred over a long period of time directed by the power of the Holy Spirit working in sinful human beings through the Church. We should not be surprised by this really, this is consistent with how God works - it’s basically his MO, his Modus Operandi! He partners with human beings. He doesn’t beam down from heaven and perform magical acts, rather, he enters his creation, works in and through it and redeems it. The Bible as we have it now was not even fixed as set collection of books until the fifth century. The common Bible amongst Protestant Christians of 66 books as oppose to the Catholic 73 books was not in fact standardised definitively until 1825 when the British and Foreign Bible Society made the decision that they would work only with a 66-book Bible.

The Bible then, is a collection of divinely inspired texts which grew out of the Church’s life and worship. The Church came before the Bible, it was not the other way around! The Bible cannot be understood apart from the living and sacred Tradition of faith in the Church. Everyone should read the bible, everyone can encounter God through the pages of the Bible, but the Bible should not be interpreted privately or individually without respect to the Tradition of the Church.

One of the big slogans of the Protestant Reformation was Sola Scriptura – Scripture (Bible) alone. This has been taken by many Christians of the reformation as the doctrine par excellence (incidentally not found in in the bible by the way!) The problem with this doctrine is that if you read the Bible alone it’s possible to read all kinds of contradictory things into the Bible. And, has been the case if you don’t agree with a interpretation you can simply find another bunch of people who do, or even start your own branch of a church. Up until the Protestant Reformation (which, by the way, was needed as the Church was in desperate need of reform, the tragedy was the split away from the Catholic Church not the need for reform itself) to be a Christian meant you were either Catholic or Orthodox, after the Solus Scriptura doctrine took hold, the last 500 years has given rise to thousands of Protestant denominations. This disunity in the Church is a tragedy for Christianity as it compromises our united witness and mission in the world.  

The Church’s teaching authority, guarded by the Pope and the bishops of the Church, articulates authentically what the Bible means. God has revealed himself both through Scripture and through Sacred Tradition, these two sacred realities both go hand in hand - you can’t have one without the other. To interpret Scripture without reference to the Church fathers and to the 2000 years of living Christian witness risks a certain arrogance. Some may argue that Scripture was corrupted by the Church, but this argument ignores the way in which God works in the world.  In fact, it was through God’s providence that the Christian community (the Church) encountered amongst other things Greek philosophy and Roman legislation and was thus able to use these wonderful gifts to understand and articulate more fully the divine revelation of Sacred Scripture.

Some Christians today claim that they must follow the Bible alone and seem to tie themselves up in knots trying to makes sense of obscure verses, whilst conveniently ignoring over verses which do not fit their ideas. No. the Bible must not be read and interpreted like this. In fact, I would argue that the Bible can be treated as an idol. A kind of idolatry or biblioatry! An idol in effect is anything that takes the place of God in our lives - that takes the rightful attention and worship owed to God alone. Some Bible alone Christians, risk falling into this trap with the Bible itself. The Bible is not God. It is the Word of God. To be a Christian is not to be a person of the book. To be a Christian is not even to be someone who is immersed in the Word. To be a Christian is to be someone who is immersed in the Word Made Flesh – Jesus Christ. God’s perfect and full revelation is Jesus Christ. The whole of scripture, anticipates, reflects upon, points to and culminates in the Word Made Flesh – Jesus Christ. And scripture cannot be understood apart from the Body of Christ: The Church!

What does the Bible say? Well, read privately irrespective to the Tradition it can say pretty much anything you want it to say, so in effect it says nothing.  Read, however, within the living Body of Christ (the Church) then God speaks! He speaks powerfully, he speaks eternally, he speaks his Eternal Word, his Merciful Word, He speaks Jesus Christ!

Postscript: Our image of God and our understanding of God is affected by how we read and understand the Bible. Reading the Bible apart from the Church’s living and Sacred Tradition can give us a warped image of God. A further danger of Sola Scriptura is a false understanding of God’s actions in the Old Testament and his actions in the New Testament. For more on this please listen to my latest  podcast episode: ‘Christ came to call sinners, Mercy is the supreme face of God’

Sunday 1 September 2019

‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind Father.’ Well, I’m sure God does mind!

‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind Father.’ I imagine many of my brother priests have heard this phrase at some time or another. It’s one I have heard multiple times and is used by lapsed and faithful Catholics alike, in all kinds of circumstances.  There are a few words and phrases which really grate on me (if you have been reading my other blog posts you might have noticed this already!) and this, most certainly is one of them. What is more, it is not a phrase that I think should ever be used by anyone who calls him or herself a Catholic or a Christian, and here’s why:

The problem is with what is actually being said when someone says ‘God doesn’t mind’. To get to the heart of the matter it is necessary for us to go back to basics. To be a Christian is to profess belief in the Trinitarian God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At the heart of our faith is the doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the eternal God enters his creation and becomes fully human. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity becomes Man and shares our human nature in all things, but sin. In becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us God has entered our world. (cf. Jn 1:14) Furthermore, the Church teaches us that ‘by his incarnation the Son of God has united himself, in some way to every human person.’ (Gaudium et Spes 22) Put very simply, God is involved in our world and God has united himself to our world at every level.

It is also true to say that creation only exists because God who is love wills it. On a very basic level, to love is to will the good of another. Existence is a “good” so to will existence, whether that be the existence of a flower or the existence of a person is an act of love. This willing of creation into existence is an act of love, which flows out from the very nature of God himself. The pinnacle of creation is the human person, made in the image and likeness of God. God loves humans so much that he became one of us, died a cruel and shameful death on our behalf and through the resurrection has opened the doors to eternal life with him. To say that God does not mind about anything at all, however unwittingly, demeans God.  God is the supreme mind and he holds all things, at all time in mind. Scripture attest to this when St Luke’s writes, ‘are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God, and even the very hairs on your head are all numbered.’ (Lk 12:7) To say God does not mind is to say that God is indifferent or that something does not matter to God, everything matters to God!  The Christian faith is a faith in a God who is involved at every level of our lives, there is no part of our lives which God is not bothered about.

The deeper issue with this phrase, however, is the way in which it is regularly used. It is often applied to circumstances to justify some kind of lapsed or lukewarm behaviour. Missing Sunday Mass for no good reason, for example. (By the way, being ill is a good reason, having to work to provide for home and family is a good reason, car breaking down is a good reason…going to see family members, or deciding to have a Sunday off is not a good reason!) The phrase is also employed to justify a lack a reverence in Church: talking and treating the Church or the sanctuary like any other meeting place, lack of reverence for the great mysteries we celebrate, lack of reverence for the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Often this lack or reverence manifests in not bothering to genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament or bowing to the altar, because ‘I’m sure God doesn’t mind, father!’

To say that God does not mind about these things is simply a denial of the basic tenants of our faith. God minds, because God holds all things in mind. But what is more, if we want to know what God thinks about these issues then we must examine the way in which we know anything at all about God. We know God, and we know what God wants of us because he communicates to us. He speaks to us and he revels himself to us. Revelation, through Sacred Scripture and Tradition as authentically interpreted by the Body of Christ (the Church), tells us what God is like and what he thinks about certain things. With respect to missing Mass on Sunday, it is hard to argue that God does not mind. Enshrined in the Ten Commandments is the Commandment to keep the Sabbath Holy. The Sabbath in Christian tradition becomes the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection. Every Sunday we are first and foremost to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, worship him and appropriate this reality ever more into our lives. The Church teaches us that going to Sunday Mass, (worshipping God for all of one hour a week!) is the absolute bare minimum that we need in order to be able to live the Christian life – we need to do more if we can, but Sunday’s take priority. Furthermore, when Jesus was asked about which was the most important of the Commandments he said; ‘you must love the Lord your God, with all your heart with all you soul and will all your might, and love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Mt 22:37, Lk 10:27, Mk 12:30) The whole of the law, the whole of Christian life hangs on these two commandments, this is what God thinks on the issue! To people who decide freely not to come to Mass on a Sunday but who maintain that they are Catholics and Christians I ask you: How by keeping away from Sunday celebrations are you loving the Lord your God with all your heart your soul and might?

On the point of reverence, the argument runs in parallel fashion: we know how we are supposed to behave and what we are supposed to do because we are told clearly, by Jesus, through the teachings of his Church. The words and example of Jesus himself should be enough. It is notable that the only time the gospels record Jesus as really angry to the point of throwing furniture around is when he drove the money changers out of the temple. The temple was being used for kinds of profane activities and this was simply not good enough, due reverence was not being shown: ‘my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves’ Jesus says. (Mt 21:13, Mk 11:17, Lk, 19:45 cf, Jer 7:11)

How ever this phrase is used and whenever this phrase is used it is wrong, because God does mind. He minds because he loves us, he cares for us and interested in us, all of us. God loves us so much that everything we do and everything we are matters. God does mind!

Sunday 18 August 2019

“That was a lovely Mass Father” Why I never have (and never will) celebrate a lovely Mass!

Not infrequently, as I greet people after Mass I am met with the saying: ‘that was a lovely Mass Father.’ Mostly, I just say thank you.  Sometimes I respond ‘Well, every Mass is lovely’ but usually that is  just met with something like; ‘but that was an especially lovely Mass.’ Most priests are familiar with this phrase and  whilst on one level, I am grateful and pleased that people have had a positive experience of the Mass, on another level  the phrase really grates on me.  Why? What does it mean? What makes some people experience Masses as lovely and others as not?

I guess my big problem is with the word ‘lovely’. Lovely is word I would use to describe a cup of tea, a slice of cake, a time with family and, at a push, a meal out. It is not a word that I would use to describe the source and the summit of the Christian Faith – the Mass.

The Catholic Faith teaches us that the Mass is indeed the source and summit of the Christian Faith. This is a bold statement. The Source: the origin and root of our faith. The Summit: the highest point of our faith. Its not until we get to the nuts and bolts of what is going in Mass that we begin to see how source and summit are indeed the appropriate terms for the Mass.

Firstly, the Mass is a sacrifice.  It is not any old sacrifice, it is the sacrifice of Christ.  At the heart of the Mass is the un-bloody re-presentation of Christ’s eternal sacrifice. This is a point that many Christian's and sadly not a few Catholic’s also don’t understand: The Mass is Christ’s sacrifice but this does not mean that every time Mass is celebrated Christ is re-sacrificed. Christ died on the cross once and for all. The Mass re-presents that one sacrifice. In effect, time and space collapses in the celebration of the Mass and we are present, by the power of the Spirit, at the foot of cross – at Calvary.

Secondly, the Mass is a meal.  It is not just any meal it is the paschal meal: The Last Supper. At every Mass we are not simply playing out events that happened in the past, but we are remembering them in such away as the one event is taken out of the past and experienced in our present. The Mass punches a hole through the fabric of time and space and we are partakers, with the disciples at the Last Supper.

Thirdly, heaven touches earth in the celebration of the Mass. Jesus is truly present to us in the Mass. He is present in his Word proclaimed from the Scriptures, He present in the Priest, He is present in the people gathered and he is most especially present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharistic species: the bread and wine which is changed into Jesus. In Holy Communion Jesus feeds, us with his very self! We are not just in the presence of God, but God enters our bodies, feeds us and is intimately close to us. At every Mass the King of Kings and Lord of Lord’s comes personally to us to invite us into a deeper share of his divine life. The Mass is indeed the source of our faith because it is the sacrifice of Jesus, it is the summit of the faith because God comes to us. There is no way in this life to be closer to God than to come to Mass, this is why I don’t think ‘lovely’ truly cuts it!

What its more, this happens at every validly celebrated Mass. Every Mass: Ordinary Form or Extraordinary Form, sung or said, High or Low, with two or two million people – every Mass, full stop! To say that one Mass is more lovely than another doe not makes sense! To be fair, what I suspect is really being said is:  ‘I was particularly aware of God’s presence in that Mass Father’, or ‘this Mass was celebrated in such a way that enabled me to really appreciate the awesome mystery it is’ But ‘lovely Mass’ doesn’t really say this.

You see, every Mass is truly lovely, truly beautiful. Christ is present to us in every Mass, the problem is, so often, we are not present to Him!

Whilst appreciate the intended kindness of someone saying ‘lovely Mass Father’ I would love it if people would come out of Mass and say ‘Thank you for Mass, God is awesome’. I don’t believe I have ever offered a lovely Mass and never intend on doing so, an awesome Mass, A beautiful Mass, A glorious Mass perhaps (and that is every Mass!), but a lovely Mass? Just sounds a bit naff to me! 

Thursday 15 August 2019

Happy Assumption Day....listen to my podcast here:

"The assumption necessarily follows on from fact that God became Man in the  womb of Mary. The fact that Mary’s very body housed God in a physical way meant that her body was truly hallowed and blessed. The corruption of death could not touch her body once life incarnate had filled it. Mary’s body, therefore, was preserved, the Ark of the New covenant is incorruptible as she enters now the heaven of her Son where we one day hope to follow." 

Sunday 11 August 2019

My problem with ‘traditional’ Catholicism

I am a young Catholic priest; I have been ordained for just over nine years and have been a parish priest for close to a year. I am child of the Second Vatican Council - in so far as Vatican II Roman Catholicism is my primary experience of what it means to be a Catholic. I am in my mid-thirties which means that I was brought up to experience Mass in an average English suburban parish. It is this Post-Vatican II Catholicism that has nourished me, fostered my relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church, and it is in this context that I felt the Lord call me to serve him as his priest.

At seminary I studied, as did we all, the documents of the Second Vatican Council committing many parts of the constitutions (particularly Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium) to memory. In no way would I consider myself an alien to the Second Vatican Council – it is in my blood. This said, this does not mean that I accept every innovation that has occurred since 1969 in the ‘name of Vatican II’. I have studied the Council too-much to know that nowhere, for example, did the Council envisage the ripping out ornate altars, smashing statues and building bland spaces to worship God in. Nor does being a Vatican II Catholic mean never praying the rosary, never using Latin, poo pooing devotions and treating traditional piety with suspicion. Many of these things, happened immediately after the Council (and often in the name of the Council), but you won’t find them sanctioned in any of the documents. I can understand then, that as a reaction to this kind of reductional expression of the faith, a generation would fight back - trying to restore what was lost. The ‘baby’ was indeed ‘thrown out with the bathwater’ in the post Council period.  Here, however, is the problem – those who are reacting today threaten to throw the same ‘baby out with bath water’ by rejecting many of the authentic developments of Vatican II.  

It seems to me that in recent years there has been a rise in people claiming to call themselves ‘traditional Catholics’. The term normally refers to people who prefer (sometimes exclusively) the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. (Extraordinary Form (EF) refers to the Latin Mass prior to the Missal of Pope St Paul VI often referred to as ‘The Old Mass’ or ‘The Tridentine Mass’.) It also refers to Catholics who prefer the aesthetics of the Mass and Church prior to the Second Vatican Council. (1962-65). What seems to be even more common is the large number of young priests who are coming out of seminary who seem to enjoy wearing biretta’s, dressing in copious amounts of lace, performing as much liturgy as possible in Latin and having a penchant for vestments designed for the EF Mass.

It would be too simple to write these young priests off as eccentric, mad, stupid or stuck in the past. Many of them are good men who have discerned a genuine call to serve God and his people. In the post-Council period it’s fair to say that the priesthood went through something of an identity crisis. Two of the major themes of Vatican II concerned the whole Church as the ‘Pilgrim People of God’ and the renewal of the Episcopate. Notably, what was left off the agenda was anything definitive about priestly identity.  Combine this with the sea of change that happened both from within and from outside the Church in the 60’s and 70’s and it’s not too hard to imagine how we can find ourselves in a situation where people are unclear about what and who the Catholic Priest is. This whole subject of priestly identity is a thesis in itself, but for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the unrest following the council effected the priesthood profoundly.

Move on a few years and a young man who feels called to the priesthood will understandably want to find out everything he can about priesthood and immerse himself in the life of priest. If he does this what role models does he have? What images can be found? If he is to  be inspired, then much of  the inspiration will be drawn from pre-Vatican II sources - quite frankly because there is nineteen hundred and fifty years of material to draw from prior to Vatican II! Furthermore, if no firm model of priesthood and few inspiring models of priesthood were held up by the Church following the 1970’s then it is unsurprising that a young man could very easily revert to a pre-Conciliar model of priesthood?  

Humans need identity and they need to express that identity. Ultimately our identity should be in Christ, but a person will express multiple facets of identity at any one time. If man is a priest, he will need to express that identity in various ways.  For some men, who are still discovering what priesthood means for them, (and in the absence of a favourable alternative) they seem to express their identity in traditional Catholic dress.

Having said all this, I am becoming more and more concerned at the incongruity of so called ‘traditional Catholics’ and ‘traditional Catholic priests’, whatever the argument, put simply, it’s all just a bit weird! I’m all for wearing clerical dress and visible signs of our faith, but in most cases (and in our own country) a grown man walking down the high street wearing essentially a black dress and large brimmed hat, to me just seems bonkers. It doesn’t mean anything to most people, and it doesn’t proclaim the gospel anymore than walking down the street in a hippo outfit would. If anything, it risks presenting the Church as odd, archaic and out of touch. Don’t get me wrong, its not that I think we should not be counter-cultural.  Nor do I think that wearing a cassock is always wrong (I have three!), but dressing like Fr Brown for daily business is, in my opinion, unlikely to win souls.

My biggest problem, however, with ‘traditional Catholicism’ is the name and underlying philosophy. You see, I have a confession to make: I am a traditional Catholic. I am a traditional Catholic because I am a Catholic. You cannot be a Catholic and not be traditional. The Catholic faith is built on Apostolic tradition. Part of being a Catholic means that you have received the faith and you in turn will play a part in handing that faith on. (Traditio (Latin) means to hand on.) The tradition is a living dynamic reality, handed on by the Church which is guided and animated by the Holy Spirit. The Church’s tradition is not static and dead but always developing under the guidance of her pastors and under the authority of the magisterium and the Vicar of Christ: The Pope. Those who try and portion off Church history and treat certain epochs as ideals or as ‘golden ages’, those who try and drive a wedge between pre-Conciliar and post-Conciliar Catholicism, those who attempt to politicise Papacies and talk about conservatives and liberals are not being truly Catholic and they are certainly not ‘traditional!’

I firmly believe that to be a Catholic is to be part of a beautifully rich living and dynamic tradition. We should not be afraid of development but nor should we be afraid of the past. We certainly should not wed ourselves to an age that no longer exists.  As members of the living Body of Christ we must seek communion and be willing to see the continuity that exists between Councils and Popes. Most of all we should, not allow ourselves to be distracted by nonsense but always have our eyes and our hearts fixed firmly on Jesus Christ who is our way, our truth and our life.