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!