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.

Homily Podcast: Are we ready for the Lord?

Listen to the most recent episode of my podcast: Homily for 19th Sunday Year C

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Ordinary Grace - The Joy of Baptism

When someone is seriously ill and is in danger of death, the normal process for Christian initiation is dispensed with and any priest can Baptise, Confirm and receive someone into the Catholic Church. Yesterday evening I had the great privilege of doing exactly this for my step-grandfather, Ian. He is sadly, extremely unwell and we are not sure how long he has left. He was very emotional yet a deep joy and peace settled over the three of us (My grandmother, Ian and I) as we began the sacramental celebration.
 It was a strange going back to Peterborough hospital. Just over eight years ago, I rushed to the hospital from Norwich to be at the death bed of my paternal grandfather. One of the most beautiful and powerful moments of my priesthood was experienced that night as I anointed him and, gathered with my grandmother, father, auntie and uncle, we prayed my grandfather through his final journey to God. The parallels were not lost on me: I was heading to the same hospital, rushing across the diocese to see another grandfather and to minister to him, this time, however, was also different.   Apart from not driving through a snowstorm, I knew that Ian’s situation was slightly different. Ian and I had talked at various points over the years about his desire to become a Catholic. In recent years Ian, however, had suffered from dementia and struggled with deafness so it was difficult to envisage how he could join a traditional RCIA programme and prepare for baptism. Not being his parish priest, and not sure how to proceed, I confess to not being overly proactive in doing anything about it. Partly because I wasn’t sure how serious he was and partly because, as a busy parish priest, I live away from family and I don’t see them as much as I should.  

Image result for sacrament of the sick

It is with great joy and relief that God granted me the grace to baptise Ian. As he resolutely and enthusiastically professed his faith in Jesus and his Church he seemed to gain strength and peace. God works with what he’s got! Through the faith of my grandmother, mother, and I, God has reached Ian, and for that I am truly thankful. 

Reflecting on this experience, one is struck by both the ordinariness and extraordinariness of God’s grace in the sacraments. If you were an onlooker looking in, the whole affair would seem very mundane if not a bit archaic: a few words were said, water was poured, hands were laid in prayer, oil was used for anointing and what looked like bread was consumed. Yet what occurred in these ancient gestures, handed on and administered by the Church in the name of Christ was anything but mundane. New and divine life poured through Ian, yesterday as he was regenerated in the waters in baptism. He was strengthened and sealed with the Holy Spirit and nourished by the Bread of Life as Jesus entered him in Holy Communion. Yesterday evening my step-grandfather became part of the Catholic Church, he was grafted onto the Body of Christ and became a member of the People of God. He enjoys a relationship that cannot be destroyed by death, indeed our prayer is that as he died in with Christ in the waters of Baptism, he will share with Christ in the joy of his resurrection. 

The sacraments are not simple rituals or gestures but privileged moments of grace. The transformation that took part in Ian was tangible and the atmosphere at the end of our visit significantly different to that at the beginning. Sometimes I think, even for a priest, it takes moments like this to remind ourselves of the power of sacraments and the great gift of the priesthood. 

Yet we shouldn’t be surprised that God works through the apparent ordinariness of the sacraments. It’s basically his M.O! Two thousand years ago God became Man as Jesus Christ. People then, as they do now, failed to recognise the glory and power of God, they could not see past the sublime humanity of Jesus. If people passed the stable in Bethlehem, what did they see? The God who keeps all thing in being or a teenage mother and a newborn baby? In fact, for thirty years or so of Jesus, by all accounts, lived an ordinary life. Even during the three years of his earthly ministry, few if any people truly recognised that Jesus was God made man. Few people knew then as now that when they saw Jesus they saw the fullness of God, who loved them, created them, and sustained them. Jesus’ very earthly life was one that combined the ordinary with the extraordinary.  Only with eyes of faith does the ‘veil lift’ and we see the glory of God. The word become flesh and dwelt amongst us (Jn 1:14) Eternity and time, Word and Spirit, Glory and Flesh coincide in the person of Jesus Christ. The incarnation – the en-fleshment of God, is God’s way of working, and the sacraments are a continuation of this profound and beautiful truth. 

Today is the 7th August 2019, Ian has been a Catholic for a day now, please pray for him, my grandmother and my family as he continues his journey in this life in the joyful hope of being with God in the next.

Monday 5 August 2019

What we believe: ‘I believe…. in One God.’ Reflections on the Creed by Fr Luke Goymour

Humans are religious beings. The modern world likes to reduce humanity to the level of an animal. Some people seem to think that humans are just one animal among many, a sophisticated animal perhaps, but an animal none-the-less. This narrative is at odds with the Catholic understanding of the human person and is in fact at odds with established facts. Humans are not mere animals. We are spiritual and intellectual beings.  We have the capacity for love, for reflective thought, for art and creativity. We can debate questions about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe’s existence. We have political views and opinions and have the capacity for complex argument and discussion. Even the most sophisticated of species in the animal kingdom cannot compare to the majesty, dignity and complexity of the human person. Christian belief teaches us that humans are made in the image of God: this means that humans are more than animals - our very nature images that of God himself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) puts it like this:

The divine image is present in every human being… Endowed with "a spiritual and immortal" soul, the human person is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake." From his/her conception, he/she is destined for eternal beatitude.[1]

Human beings, then, are more than mere animals. We are spiritual and physical, we have a mortal body and an immortal soul. Furthermore, a constant theme in the history of the humanity is religious belief – humans have the capacity for religious belief and faith:

Humans are created spiritual beings; it is as if we are hard wired for God. Cars are made for humans to drive on roads, boats are made for humans to float on water and we are made to be loved by God - we are created for God. It is interesting that throughout human experience we can see that almost universally humanity has tried to grapple with the great spiritual questions.  Archaeological evidence points to belief in an afterlife almost from the first moments of civilised humanity. The cave paintings at Lascaux in France are understood by many to have been an interpretation of the star charts and part of a religious ritual. The burial practices of the ancients both in our own country with burial places like Avebury and West Kennet Long Barrow, to the great pyramids of the Egyptians points to a widely held belief in an existence which is greater than this one.[2]

To profess a religious belief is not irrational or stupid, it is in fact a very human thing to do.  Only relatively recently in the history of humanity has atheism become a mainstream, normative world view. Christian faith, however, is more than simply religious belief. It starts, as we say in our creed, with belief in One God. In fact, this belief is only really possible because God has revealed himself to us. God shows himself to be One and that He desires a friendship, a real relationship with us his creatures.  Christian faith then, is ultimately about relationship. It is the difference between knowing all the biographical details about someone but never meeting them, and knowing someone intimately and personally.

Having said this then, we should ask, what does it mean when we say that we believe in One God? The Catechism can help us with this:

The confession of God's oneness, which has its roots in the divine revelation of the Old Covenant, is inseparable from the profession of God's existence and is equally fundamental. God is unique; there is only one God…At the same time Jesus gives us to understand that he himself is "the Lord".7 To confess that Jesus is Lord is distinctive of Christian faith. This is not contrary to belief in the One God. Nor does believing in the Holy Spirit as "Lord and giver of life" introduce any division into the One God:[3]

There is a lot in this passage, more than we can adequately cover in one article. That said, it is worth drawing out several points. Firstly, God’s oneness is something that has been divinely revealed to us. This means that God has shown us who He is and that He is One. In the ancient world, religious belief was common as were multiple creation myths and legends. In very broad terms Ancient religions were an attempt for human beings to ‘attain god’. In other words, god’s and the world of the god’s, were so far removed from human life that through ritual, story and sacrifice humans tried to please, appease and get themselves up to the level of gods. This in many ways was to be expected, human beings, as religious beings will always try and meet that spiritual need – on our own though it is not enough. In the ancient world, this desire was articulated through belief in multiple gods who vied for control of the cosmos but they had little care for puny humanity. Through religious acts, it was hoped that humans perhaps could win the favour of these divine beings. Then, however, something remarkable happened: amongst all these competing and sometimes strange beliefs, God showed Himself to the people of Israel. The Catechism teaches:

God revealed himself to his people Israel by making his name known to them…God revealed himself progressively and under different names to his people, but the revelation that proved to be the fundamental one for both the Old and the New Covenants was the revelation of the divine name to Moses in the theophany of the burning bush, on the threshold of the Exodus and of the covenant on Sinai.[4]

God showed himself as The One God: The Source of all things, furthermore, he showed that he desired to enter into a relationship with this people. And so, in a remote part of what now is called the middle-east, the knowledge of One God, a God who cared and was interested in the world emerged, monotheistic belief began, and it was not the work of humans – it was the work of God!

The Christian faith teaches in fact, that God has made us for himself, as St Augustine writes, “you have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”[5] As we have noted, there is a natural and human thirst for God which can be seen across history and cultures. This thirst manifests itself in every epoch of human history and if it is not quenched by God then people try and quench it with other things. Bernard Levin, perhaps the greatest newspaper columnist of the 20th century put it like this:

"Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them, and that however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and TV sets they stuff it with, however many well balanced children and loyal friends they parade around the edges of aches."[6]

Put simply: we need God so that we can be the people we have been created to be. Things of this world are not bad in and of themselves but nothing and nobody can truly answer the deepest longing of the human heart. Only God can do that.

The Christian faith reveals how the God of love, the God who we are all searching for, desired so much to be in a relationship with us that he entered our world and became one of us. The incarnation and the oneness of God in the communion of persons that we refer to as the Holy Trinity, will be reflected on later. For now, let us remember that God has shown himself to us: God has a face, God is knowable, God is Jesus Christ. The Christian Faith is not about knowing facts about Jesus, it is about knowing Jesus personally, as a friend, as saviour, as the only person who gives the ultimate meaning to our lives. This is what is ultimately meant when, as Catholic Christians we say, ‘I believe in One God’.

[1] CCC 1702 and 1703
[2] Goymour, Luke, p.40, Intelligent Faith, 2015, Verbum Publications, London.
[3] CCC 200 and 202
[4] CCC 203/204
[5] Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, I,1. accessed 22-04-15
[6] Levin, Bernard: accessed 23-3-14