Saturday 28 November 2020

Advent "Waiting in Joyful hope" - and how we need it!

This weekend we begin the season of Advent. Advent is a time for hope. We all need Hope: in a time of pandemic and political divisions, hope, it seems, is needed more than ever.

Advent is a time for hope and promise. We need hope, fundamentally because we live in an imperfect world and divided world.  Hope moves us past this imperfection. Hope is a vital part of human life. Hope is to the human spirit what food is to the human body.

Now to be clear, hope is not some kind of vague optimism.  Hope doesn’t mean sitting back and expecting things to happen. Hope is more than a generally good feeling, hope spurs us on to action, drives us forward. Hope motivates us to build a better world. An important cousin, if you like, of hope is waiting. The process of waiting helps us to build hope. Hope and waiting go together and are important aspects of our Advent journey. In fact, waiting too, is an important part of life. Waiting builds expectation and desire, waiting heightens awareness. 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 builds hope and hope spurs us onward to action. It is precisely because we have hope that we can work so hard to change things. We believe our efforts are worthwhile, that the waiting is worth it, that we can make a difference. Our strength, our commitment, depends to a great extent on the degree and quality of our hope. If we do not have hope, then we tend to give up.

So, if hope is not the same as optimism what is it? Well, Hope, Christian hope is a gift it’s something given to us from God that perfects us as human beings. Hope is essential for the Christian life – in fact, Pope Francis says, our salvation depends on the quality of our hope! It depends on it because hope is the trust that God will fulfill the promises, he has made to us. Our hope is not in a political ideology or a vague notion of a better world, our hope has a face, our hope is a person, our hope is Jesus Christ. Our trust is the God who comes to save us and transform our lives. Christian hope is founded on the God who enters our mess and raises us up.

This season of Advent is a season of hope which expresses in symbol and ritual important and profound truths of the Christian life. In advent we hope and we wait, we hope for the Lord to come and we do so in a three-fold way. Firstly, we hope for the second coming of Christ. The first Christians lived in this expectant hope, a hope that meant that Jesus might return at any moment - this hope created an urgency in their living out of the gospel, they did not hang about, but lived life to the full and shared the gospel message to all whom they met. We need this hope as well, this kind of hope wake us up and make us work for the gospel.

Secondly, we hope and wait to celebrate 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 the God who created the universe, the God who keeps all things in being the Eternal and infinite God burst into our world to act out the drama of our salvation. This is a beautiful truth – we have hope because we can have a real and lasting friendship with the author of hope – Jesus Christ.

Finally, Advent, has a third and often overlooked dimension. As we wait for Christ who is to come, and as we prepare to celebrate the Christ who came 2000 years ago, our spiritual senses are, as it were, heightened and 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 lifechanging friendship with him. Advent alerts us to the daily presence of the God who makes himself small so that he can raise us up.

Advent this year looks very different for most of us. Our worlds have been turned upside down by the coronavirus and the traditional reference points of living have been stripped away. This advent there will be few if any, carol services, nativity plays and the usual Christmas preparations will be, this year, very unusual.  Yet in all of this we are still invited, challenged  to rediscover those things which are essential, those things which are good and lasting. In this advent time, it our duty and our joy as Christians to live as a people of hope. It is our task to keep hope alive and set an example by the hopefulness of our lives. Our hope transforms us, our hope makes us a new people - Christians are to be a people of hope. we do this by living the gospel message, by loving our neighbour as ourselves, by pointing with every fibre of our being to the Christ, to the light of the world, to the hope which chases away fears and helps us to become evermore the people that God has created us to be. As Christians we are reminded that this world will never fulfil our deepest hopes only God can do that. Meanwhile we live in this realm of hope -  a hope which enables us to keep one foot in the world as it is and the other in the world as it should be, a hope that helps bursts through into the brokenness of our lives and makes into agents of God’s Kingdom. As Christians we are to build hope, build unity and communion, build  justice and peace in our lives and in the lives of all around us. In the words of the liturgy we are called to “Wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”



Thursday 19 November 2020

The Problem with Live Streaming Masses

Readers of my blog will notice that it has been many months since I last blogged. Much has happened in the last few months including two lockdowns. One might of assume that the lockdown provided ample opportunity and reason to blog. The problem is, however, that despite keeping oneself busy with all kinds of activities I must admit to suffering from writers’ block. Only now, please God, do I sense that I am moving out of this rather peculiar period.

The last the last nine months or so have been challenging times for all of us in many ways. The reality of the worldwide pandemic and the subsequent restrictions placed upon our day to day life has been extraordinarily difficult for all of us. As a Catholic and as a priest I would like to take the opportunity to reflect, albeit briefly, on a phenomenon that has become in recent months very much the norm: Live Streamed Masses.  I do this as someone who live-streamed Masses 7 days a week in the last lockdown and continues to stream 5 times a week now. There are many fruits and blessings that have come out of live streaming. Broadcasting the Mass over the internet has helped to keep our Catholic Communities together and connected during this most challenging period in recent history. Furthermore, the live streams have reached people who ordinarily would not come through the door of the Church. To be clear, live streaming has its place and has been a necessary lifeline for many people’s faith. There is, however, another side to the live streaming which if goes unchecked could be problematic in the future for the faith and life of the Church.

Talking to my brother priests, it is noticeable how live streaming can give rise to several phenomena that may not be conducive to faith development. I would like to reflect on these in turn: Clericalism of the Eucharist, Commodification/consumerism  of the Eucharist, Spiritual Idleness concerning the Eucharist


Clericalism and the Eucharist

The pandemic has given rise to peculiar way of celebrating the Eucharist, which is at odds with the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. Put bluntly, the Mass has become all-priest focused. The priest presides, reads the readings, sets up and cleans up before and after Mass, performs any servers’ duties, and is the sole communicant (when in lockdown).

The Mass is the action of Christ and as such must always be the action of his whole mystical body: the Church. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was clear on this, encouraging full, active, conscious participation. It is worth quoting here at length:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14)



Whilst it would be wrong and far too simplistic to read this paragraph as meaning: everyone should have a role at Mass, indeed, all people should actively and consciously participate with the source and summit of the Christian life and faith – the Eucharist. The admittedly necessary situation of curtailing lay liturgical ministries, as well as removing singing, has placed all the emphasis back onto the priest. The Mass becomes, therefore, a clerical thing – something the priest does, and the priest does alone. What is more, the level at which one ‘consciously’ participates in a virtual celebration on a phone, tablet, or computer is debatable. It potentially takes more effort and is open to distractions. One can easily watch the Mass, rather than participate in it. Admittedly this risk always exists - even if one is in church but viewing Mass on a screen, if not careful, can simply become that: viewing Mass on a screen.


Commodification/consumerism of the Eucharist

This brings me to my next area for reflection: live streaming can easily turn the Eucharist and specifically, Holy Communion, into a commodity that one simply consumes. The live streaming of a Mass where people are unable to receive Holy Communion risks separating the act of Holy Communion from the rest of Mass. Communion: Communion with Christ and communion with one another, is the fruit of the Eucharistic celebration. In every Eucharist, the whole Church is present, the Church on Earth, the Church in purgatory, and the Church in Heaven. In every Eucharist, the one eternal sacrifice that Christ made is re-presented and we are reconciled to God and to one another. Holy Communion exists because of the Mass to separate Holy Communion from the Mass risks turning the Holy Communion into something that we “go and get”, it risks turning the fruit of the Mass into a commodity that we can give out at will. To be clear, we need Holy Communion and I am not advocating that people do not come to Communion, however, due prudence needs to be observed. Communion is not a “magical product” and it certainly is not a right…Holy Communion is a gift that flows from the source and summit of the Christian faith – the Eucharist. When at all possible the celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of Holy Communion should go hand in hand.

As I have hinted previously, the way in which we now ‘consume’ the Mass on our digital devices is also something to be aware of. It’s possible to pause and watch a recorded Mass at our own convenience, it’s also possible to shop around until we find a Mass we like – vigilance is needed, if we are not careful following Mass online can become little more than watching a spiritual video that we watch on our own terms and consume in our own way.


Spiritual Idleness concerning the Eucharist

Clericalism and commodification of the Eucharist can potentially lead to a lazy attitude towards the Mass. If we can just log on anytime and access the Mass on our terms then there is a danger of taking the Eucharist for granted. It doesn’t mean we will, but the danger exists in a way that it didn’t exist before.  One of the more worrying features of Masses after the first lockdown is the people who haven’t returned to Mass. Whilst it is understandable that a number have to still isolate, there sadly exists a smaller, but no less significant, amount of people who simply don’t. Or at least, are not consistent with their isolation, i.e. they have returned to the shops, the garden centers even pubs and restaurants but still haven’t returned physically to Mass, preferring it would seem to watch from their own homes. If Church has become something to watch on TV, which can  be consumed at one’s own leisure then why bother coming to Mass? One would hope that Holy communion would be the draw to get people back to Church, but sadly this has not always been the case. With the resurgence of the practice of spiritual communion (which is a good and holy thing) some people, it seems,  believe that a spiritual communion is virtually the same (or at least nearly as good) as a Holy Communion. To be clear, it is not! If people are going out and mixing then Mass should be the first thing that people return to, not the last.


To conclude, the pandemic is throwing all kinds of challenges at us but with these challenges have also come great opportunities. I believe in live streaming. Live streaming Masses has its place and it is an important way to keep the people of God together and to reach one another with the Eucharist in these uncertain times. Nevertheless, live streaming also poses some very real challenges, and great care and prudence will need to be exercised to ensure the Eucharist remains in reality the source and summit of the whole Christian life.



Saturday 6 June 2020

Trinity Sunday.....and Dr Who??

Karl Rahner once commented that “we must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain unchanged.” Now, Rahner believed passionately in the Trinity, indeed he recognized it as fundamental to Christian belief, but what he was acknowledging and lamenting here, was that for the most part – in day to day Christian life -  people don’t ‘get’ the Trinity and behave as if God was either One or Three but not Three and One.

Tardis - Wikimedia Commons (aussiegall 2015)

How can God be three and one at the same time? Admittedly if we try to get our heads around it we struggle, but this doesn’t mean we cannot say some important things about the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity is God and God is so far above our understanding that we only ever really glimpse fragments of the mystery – but these fragments are enough for us.  There are, however, certain pointers in nature and in our world that help us to understand something of the vast mystery of the Holy Trinity.  When we think of water, for example, the same substance, H2O can be a liquid: water, a gas: steam and a solid: ice. This is not exactly like the Trinity, because we are not saying that God changes into different forms. If we could somehow have the same molecules of water, molecules of steam, and molecules of ice together at the same place at the same time this would be a better image for us. When we are talking about the Holy Trinity sometimes it is helpful for us to say what it isn’t:

-        The Holy Trinity is not One God who appears as different beings. So it’s not like God wears different hats when he is doing different things. He doesn’t wear the Father hat when he is fatherly and creating, the Son hat when he is being obedient and serving and the Spirit hat when he is loving. This is a wrong understanding of the Holy Trinity.
-        The Father and Son and Holy Spirit are not parts of God. They are all fully God, fully perfect, and fully individual.

Sometimes when we are trying to think about things that are outside our everyday experience, it can be helpful to draw on stories and analogy. Modern science fiction and fantasy can often give us a language and a way of talking about the eternal mysteries of God. Understanding the Holy Trinity poses us with a fundamental problem: how can the same being be different persons?

 The longest-running science fiction program Doctor Who can perhaps help us to think about the Holy Trinity. Whether you have watched the show or not you will probably know that the main character is an alien, a ‘Timelord’ called the Doctor who has been played by several actors.  He is particularly fond of earth and saves our planet and the universe on numerous occasions. Timelords are an interesting race of people. Although they look human and reproduce sexually as humans do, they have very long lives. They can regenerate. A Timelord normally can regenerate twelve times. This means that when a body is old, injured, or dying, every cell in the body regenerates and the Timelord becomes a different person.  The same being, the same Timelord, with the same memories and the same history, but with a completely different body, mannerisms, temperament, voice: a new person. So how does this help us? Well, the character of the Doctor remains the same being, the same Timelord throughout the close to sixty years that the show has been on air, but he becomes literally a different person.

You could say that this is very similar to our ‘One God with three hats scenario’ which I said was wrong and you’d be correct.  So we need to go further than this.  There are times when for complex and not always clear reasons the laws of time are suspended and the Doctor meets up with other incarnations of himself to face off some evil together. On these rare occasions we get a glimpse of a fantasy world which can help us to think about the Holy Trinity.   Most recently in the Fiftieth anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ the actors Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt all played different doctors in the same adventure. These men were all the Doctor, they were the same Timelord.  They had the same memories, a shared history and identity. But they were of course very different from each other. They existed in relationship to each other; they could talk, hug, cry and argue with each other. What is more, David Tennant’s Doctor was not anymore the Doctor than Matt Smith’s and John Hurt’s Doctor, and their Doctors were no more the Doctor than David Tennant.  In that particular episode we saw one being, and three persons, and all were very much the Doctor!

Although this might seem to some (who are not Dr Who fans) a little silly, I think it is a useful illustration of how the Holy Trinity can be both three persons and One God.  For the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of the same being, the same substance, but they are three different persons at the same time.  The Dr Who image is not perfect, it is just an image to help us to try and think about things that are beyond our normal experience.  It is important not to get confused and think that the persons of the Holy Trinity are like avatars or incarnations, they are not different versions of God!  Rather, each person of the Holy Trinity is unique, perfect, and complete. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed - there was not a time when they did not exist!  

Now all of this might seem all well and good, but we may be tempted to ask: what does it mean to me? What difference does the abstract and inner life of God make to my life? The answer: Everything! To believe in the Trinity is to believe in a God of love and to believe in God who exists in a relationship. Because we are made in the image of a loving and relational God, we can have a relationship with him. Through baptism we regenerate! We become new creations and we share the very life of the Triune God. The God who comes to live in us and with us is the God who dances in an eternal dance of love. As Christians, we are invited into the dance of love. We are to learn the movements of the Spirit, to partner with God and share in the dance of love for Eternity.

To dance with God for eternity – that’s what the Trinity means for us, and that is everything!

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Mass in the Time of Lockdown: Fr Luke's Top Ten Tips for Participating in a Virtual Mass

This week the country has gone into complete lockdown and Catholic communities everywhere have discovered a new phenomenon: live-streamed Mass. In many ways, we are so fortunate that this pandemic and subsequent lockdown is happening in the 21st Century where many of us have access to high-speed broadband, computers, tablets, and smartphones. It is sad of course that we are in this situation at all,  especially as we prepare to celebrate the Easter liturgies.
Never-the-less technology enables us to maintain a degree of communion in our communities that, at other times, would be incredibly difficult. Sadly, of course, this is not true for all people. I am deeply aware that there a significant number of parishioners in my parish who are at a technological disadvantage. It’s important that within the constraints that we find ourselves in we continue to support them the best we can.

Concerning live streaming the Eucharist (broadcasting via the internet) I think the first thing to be said is that it is not and can never be a full substitute for being physically present at Mass. Being virtually present is not the same as being physically present. Having said this, of course, it is perfectly possible to be physically present at Mass and be so pre-occupied that you are not actually present. What is of crucial importance always when we attend Mass, however that happens, is that we try to be present to God and each other. We take time to stop and remind ourselves that we are in the presence of God and participating in the act of sublime worship.   Virtual Masses are not the solution to everything, but in the situation, we find ourselves in they are the next best thing, at least they can be - if we allow ourselves to enter fully into the celebration.

The Mass is always the action of the whole Church, so wherever it is celebrated, whether that is with one or a million people it is the whole Church, in communion with each other, that is offering the Mass.  This is true with or without live streaming the Mass. What the streaming does, of course, is bring a degree of virtual proximity to a specific celebration which can help the members of the Church to engage more fully, even remotely, with this central mystery of our faith.

The Eucharist (Mass) remains the source and summit - the beginning and end of our faith because it is the re-presentation of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross.  Jesus died, reconciling us with the Father and this event happened once in time, but through the Eucharist the Holy Spirit allows us to transcend time and space and be ‘plugged-in’ as it were, to Jesus’ eternal sacrifice.  Whether we can receive communion or not we experience the grace and fruits of Jesus' sacrifice in our world and in our lives. This is why the Mass is continually being celebrated for the Church and for the world, every Mass is, a sense, like a portal, a floodgate opening up from Calvary and allowing the grace, mercy, the power of God to flood out and transform us. Priests across the world are offering Masses continually and the fruits of Jesus' death on the cross are continually flowing out from these altars and communities.

Taking part in a virtual Mass can help us to keep the Eucharist, and thus Christ at the center of our lives. Like anything, however, the extent to which it will be fruitful in our own lives depends in no small part on us, so here are my top ten tips to help you participate in Virtual Masses!

1.      Read the Sunday readings beforehand and pray with them during the week. Many people do this already and this is good to do anyway if you were coming to Mass physically on a Sunday or joining us through the internet.
2.      Make a Spiritual Communion – Jesus can’t be received sacramentally via the internet but he can always be received in spirit  (I lead this prayer at Communion at the Masses I stream and invite participants to say the prayer along with me at home)
3.      Keep the Eucharistic Fast: The Church asks that we prepare for Holy Communion by not eating or drinking anything (except water) for a minimum of one hour before Holy Communion. Although you will be making a spiritual Communion and so technically this fast is not needed, it might be a fruitful way of preparing yourself, ahead of time, for spiritual participation at Mass.
4.      Set up an altar/focus for prayer in your house. If possible, prepare a space where you can drape a cloth over a table, light some candles - if you are streaming to a portable device (laptop, phone/tablet) you could put this near or behind the altar
5.      If you have space in your house (corner of a room/spare bedroom) set up a prayer space and ‘go to Mass’ in this room
6.      If you have young children, consider doing your own children’s liturgy with them during the liturgy of the word.
7.      Turn off phones (that you are not using to stream!) set notifications to silent turn off radios and TV’s on other parts of the house
8.      Make sure you participate: i.e. don’t just watch but say the responses at the correct points
9.      Send in Mass Intentions and ask for prayers to be included in the Mass
10  Invite friends (virtually) to stream along with you and participate in the Mass at the same time. Knowing that your friends and family in their own houses are participating in the same Eucharist and watching the same live feed can be enormously encouraging, especially in this time of social isolation.

Hope these are helpful. I stream Mass daily at 10 am and 11 am on Sundays via Hope to see you (albeit virtually!) at Mass! 

Saturday 21 March 2020

Coronavirus: Corona Catholicism and Corona-opportunities - A personal Reflection

Well, a lot has been happening in our world and in our country especially in this last week. If you told me a week ago that I had a week of public ministry left before we go on lockdown, I would have struggled to believe you. “Not in Lent surely!” It’s not that I didn’t think it wasn’t coming eventually, I just didn’t really want to think about it amid the daily pastoral demands and there was certainly enough to keep me busy!

Friday morning came of course, and I celebrated the last public Mass for the immediate and foreseeable future – it was painful, to say the least. It was moving to have a fuller church for a Friday morning Mass, but that Mass will go on my list of the handful occasions where I felt that I would nearly not get through the Mass. The people of God were, as ever, encouraging and the reverence and prayerfulness of Friday’s Mass were beautiful, never-the-less it was a sad and painful occasion for all of us.  

Now, however, we have to get on with things. The period that our Nation has moved into is unchartered territory. It seems to me, at least, that we have a choice: we can either moan, get angry and depressed and complain about the situation or we can learn to live with our new reality, accept it for what it is and learn how to flourish in these difficult times. Everyone will suffer in some greater or lesser way in the foreseeable future - this is happening to all of us. We need to let go of things that we thought gave our lives security, direction and meaning and use this time well to rediscover what is important and what is essential.

It’s not all doom and gloom: families will be forced in many cases to spend more time with each other. There is only so much TV and the Internet (if the broadband holds up) that people can cope with so at some point, people will have to relearn how to sit around a table and talk to each other, play games and read books! Of course, there will be many of us who are isolated, the sick, the elderly and those who, like me, live alone. So, it’s important that we connect with each other using all the technology and resources that are available.

As a priest I am struggling and will continue to struggle with the inability to do what my very life is given over to – the public celebration of the Eucharist and the public administering of the other sacraments, pastoral visits and generally all pastoral contact. It’s going to be difficult to be a shepherd to a virtual flock. Yet these are difficulties and struggles which all my brother priests and ministers are going to struggle with during this time and I feel a strange and new solidarity with my brothers already beginning to blossom.

As Catholics and as Christians the coronavirus time can be a real opportunity for us if we allow it. A time to foster a contemplative heart and re-discover and deepen our relationship with Jesus. A time to learn the value of silence, immerse ourselves in the Word of God and do all those spiritual things that we have “put-off” because we are just too busy.

There are lots of resources and courses online that can help us form our faith and nourish our relationship with Jesus, many are now being offered for free and at heavily discounted prices. Dr. Scott Hahn has put together The Quarantined Catholic Hub:  

And David Payne at Café (Catholic Faith Exploration) is offering lots of courses at discounted prices
I am also streaming live Mass and prayers and content from our Facebook page
(10 am daily and 11 am on Sunday)

These are going to be different and difficult times for all of us, but let’s stay positive and most importantly let us keep our eyes fixed on Christ! Jesus is everything! In this time of isolation, I pray that we can relearn the important lesson that all our hope and trust should be placed in Him! We have been overly-comfortable and self-reliant as a people and a nation for a long time – may we learn and re-learn dependence on each other and dependence on God.  The coronavirus pandemic can be a great opportunity for all of us, and God will if we let him bring great fruit out of what to human eyes look like a disaster – and this, of course, is the substance of our faith. God brings hope out of despair, light out of darkness and resurrection out of death.

Saturday 22 February 2020

The tragedy of Jean Vanier: Saint or Sinner? - A personal reflection

I like many in the Catholic world, am still reeling with shock over the news that broke this morning of allegations against Jean Vanier for sexually abusing six women between 1970 and 2005. According to the internal report initiated by L’Arche International, “sexual relations were instigated by Vanier, usually in the context of giving spiritual guidance.” Although “None of the woman he abused were themselves disabled…these actions are indicative of a deep psychological and spiritual hold that Jean Vanier had on these women”

What are we to make of all this? In the eyes of many Vanier was a living saint. He founded the L’Arche community in 1964 to provide care and dignity for the mentally and physically disabled. Vanier has been an inspiration to many. His homes for the disabled are well respected as places where those with disabilities live and work as equals alongside those with none. His philosophical and spiritual writings display a deep and profound vision of the human person made in the image and likeness of God.  The great and the good have recognised the unique contribution that this disciple of Christ has made to the lives of the weak and the vulnerable. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded both the Companion of the Order of Canada and the Templeton Prize, which he received in 2015 from the Archbishop of Canterbury. I myself heard him speak and met him briefly several years ago and was deeply moved by his words and his manner. And yet today, we have the shocking news that Jean Vanier had another side to him, and it is alleged, he abused the trust of women who came to him for spiritual guidance.

I must confess, I felt absolutely gutted when the news broke this morning. After a few moments of disbelief and then another twenty minutes or so of scouring the internet for different versions of the story, I did, what I should have done straight away, and went to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in my house.

I sat with the Lord for a while and allowed the anger, frustration and disbelief to settle and then sat with simple question: Why? Why him? Why did he do it? Why now after he is dead? Why? And I seemed to get by way of an answer back: Why not him? I was stunned at this answer and sat with this for a moment longer….why not him? Well, I responded to the Lord,  because he is has done X Y and Z for the sake of the Gospel, because he was inspiration, because I liked him… because he is a good man….I waited in prayer but heard  nothing.  Them in the silence, I seemed to hear the words from scripture: ‘Only God is good’.

Only God is good.

It seems to me that Jean Vanier is in a sense both an icon of the Church and of every Christian. Now, before you stone me, hear me out. No one is good, not completely. All of us are sinners in need of the mercy of God, all of us - without exception. It’s no good saying I’m not like that, I haven’t done that….all of us, if we are honest with ourselves, harbour thought of greed, gluttony, anger, lust, pride, deceit, envy, sloth (to name a few!) and, what is more, all of us have acted on these in various ways and to various degrees throughout our lives. If you think you haven’t you are deluded or you are a liar. People are very quick to judge, and social media is full of comments like “He was a vile man” – but this simply is not true. Or at least if it is true, it is true of everyone. Jean Vanier wasn’t a good man, but nor was he a bad man – he was sinner in need of the mercy of God. A sinner who God used for his glory, a sinner who did incredible things for the kingdom and at the same time a sinner who did awful things, and allegedly, terrible things. This is not a defence of his alleged behaviour, rather it is a call to remember to love the sinner and hate the sin. Christ taught us not to judge and not to condemn people – we condemn the behaviour but never the person.  For those of us who are quick to condemn we, all too often, miss the plank in our own eyes whilst pointing out the splinter in our neighbour.

So how is Jean Vanier an icon of the Church and or every Christian?  Well, because the Church, made up of individual Christians, is a body of sinners in need of the mercy of God. There is extraordinary goodness, sublime truth and beauty in the Church and in the lives of individual believers, just as there was in the life of Jean Vanier. Equally, however, this beauty, truth and goodness co-exists alongside evil, filth and corruption in the Church, in our lives and clearly in the life of Jean Vanier.

The mystery of God is that he entrusts his greatness and beauty to us broken and fragile human beings. As St Paul writes, we are simply the ‘clay jars that hold this treasure’ (2.Cor 4:7) It is the treasure we worship, it the treasure that transforms us not the clay jar!

When we are tempted to worship the Church, or we worship ourselves or when we worship and individual (Jean Vanier was a hero to many of us) we will always be left wanting and we will always be disappointed. When, however, we worship God, we remember that he is the one that brings forth beauty truth and goodness. When we remember that only God is good then we will not be so shaken when the human condition reveals its fallen nature – even in the most tragic of ways.

The allegations made against Jean Vanier are indeed tragic, awful and deeply disturbing. Abusive behaviour of any kind must be dealt with and institutions must always find the most appropriate ways to safeguard members. We must pray, we pray particularly for the victims who were courageous enough to come forward and of course we must pray for the L’Arche communities across the world that must be devastated by this news, and of course we pray for Jean Vanier's soul.

I think it’s important to remember, however, that this news, as devastating as it is, does not undo the enormous good that Jean Vanier did. He was a sinner in need of the mercy of God, he did bad things and he did good things. We rightly condemn the bad things and work to repair the damage, we rightly  praise the good things, but we must leave the  judgement of a person to God and to God alone - for only God see’s the full picture, only God can read the human heart.

As Christians and as a Church we are, perhaps, too quick to make heroes and villains out of people. An event like this is perhaps a reminder to us to fix our eyes on Christ - for only he is good. Fixing our eyes on him, let us put everything we have into the hands of the Divine Mercy of God.

As I end, I am reminded of a quote from BBC’s Dr who;

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

The 12th Doctor

Thursday 13 February 2020

Learning to shut-up in the presence of God! Some thoughts on silence, or the lack of it in our lives and in our churches

We live in an ever-increasing noisy world. With social media, Netflix, emails and people we are surrounded by sound all the time. On those rare occasions when we might get the opportunity for silence many instinctively fill the void by watching YouTube, putting the car radio on or calling someone up on the phone. Noise it would seem is not just everywhere, there is also a sense in which we want it - it’s as if we are afraid of what we might face in the silence. What is more, noise is not always audible. This might seem like a bit of contradiction, after all, is noise not sound by definition? Well perhaps on one level it is, but on another level, a spiritual level, noise also refers to the busy-ness that we fill our lives with. The books and articles we read, even spiritual ones – the work that we do, the things that we have. In short, our thoughts can simply become noise and can block out a certain degree of reality by filling our mind with noise. This is problem, not least, because the ultimate  reality that is shut out is God. Noise destroys silence and silence is the language of God.

It is in the silence of our hearts, the silence of our souls, that we encounter most fully and intimately the divine presence. Silence connects us to the still, small, silent voice of God who resides in the depths of our hearts.

I firmly believe that as Christians we need to learn to be people who shut-up in the presence of God. When we love someone or are best friends with someone it is not always necessary to speak – we can see this in couples who have been together for a long time – often it is enough simply to sit and be in each other’s presence,  simply being with the other, that is enough.

I think that we lose something profound and important when we lose the ability to simply sit and be.  Furthermore, one of the big problems that relates to the loss of silence in our world is the confusion that has arisen between function and being. Put simply, our world, our society and even our Church at times seems obsessed with what we do, how successful we are and how productive we are. Ask people how they are, and you invariably get the response ‘busy’ – I’m guilty of it myself. Busy-ness has been turned into a virtue – we feel like we should busy doing stuff all the time. Yet, being busy, filling our time with stuff – even stuff “for the gospel” is not a virtue. In fact, that latter, can be detrimental because the whole gospel endeavour can quickly become about us, about our initiative, and how much we are doing – whilst all the time ignoring that God is the one who is in charge, God is the source, God is the reason – not us.

I am utterly convinced that serious spiritual development cannot take place without silence. One of the things that I try to instil into my own parish community is the need for silence in and around Church and Mass. Silence and reverence are in inextricably related. It is hard to pray in a Church if the people around you are talking incessantly or worse, they try and talk to you whilst you are trying to talk to God!

We have lost, it seems, the instinctive silence and indeed reverence that is required for prayer and worship. It is wonderful that we have vibrant and joyful communities that are happy to see each other and share the weeks news, but this should never happen at the expense of being quiet, still and silent in the presence of God. The fact that our churches contain the greatest of all treasures – Jesus Himself, truly and sacramentally present should invoke real silence and reverence. Sadly, it seems so often that presence of Christ in his Church is obscured by the din of a social gathering rather than revered by prayerful and reverential silence.

In short, we live in a world of noise, but the God of silence calls us out of this noise into a place of rest and peace. If we as individuals and as a Church are to be everything that we are created to be, perhaps we all need to learn and re-learn to shut-up in the presence of God!

Thursday 30 January 2020

Brexit and the Eucharist - A Call to Communion as we leave the European Union

The thirty-first of January is eventually here, and Brexit day has arrived. The day, that many of us thought would be deferred indefinitely has come and Britain formally breaks with the European Union. A lot of ink has been spilt about the various pros and cons of Britain leaving the European Union. I do not want to repeat the arguments here one way or another.   What interests me, and what I think has been all too frequently overlooked is the spiritual dimension to this whole debacle. Again, I’m not wishing to comment on the actual act of Brexit, but rather the role and behaviour of Christians, and Catholic’s in particular in light of our Brexit-reality. I have been struck in recent weeks and months by the polarization and quite frankly the venom in which people have treated and spoken to each other on both sides of the Brexit debate. Social media it seems, has been utilised to create panic-narratives about what Britain will look like if and when we leave the EU. What is striking is the lack of basic charity with which people treat others who have an opposing view. Both sides, have been guilty of demonising the other. What is more, it appears (at least from my social media feeds) that many Catholics and other Christians have been guilty of this behaviour as well. The run up to the general election seemed to exacerbate the poisonous attitudes either side of the Brexit debate.  Whether one is a Brexiteer or a Remainer is not really issue. My concern is that in the heat of debate people have forgotten their common humanity and amongst Christians, their common baptism.

The Catholic Church is unique amongst Christian churches in that it is not a national Church, but a universal Church whose members are incorporated into its body through the waters of Baptism. Furthermore, the source and summit of Catholic faith, life and worship is the Mass, the central component being: Holy Communion.  Communion is everything. The word Communion comes to us via Latin roots and means amongst other things: “participation in something; that which is common to all, union in religious worship, doctrine or discipline. Also, from Old French Comunion – [meaning] community, unity, fellowship - mutual participation, sharing.” (From the Online Etymology Dictionary)  

Communion is the key to unlocking the Catholic faith. A Catholic is Baptised and Confirmed into the Communion of the Church. When a Catholic receives Holy Communion he or she is publicly professing full-communion with all the members Catholic Church on earth, in purgatory and in heaven. This sacramental communion is a deep union with Jesus who is personally present in his Body, Soul and Divinity in Holy Communion. For a Catholic, the reception of Holy Communion should ratify this communion with God and neighbour but it also does something else, it demands of the person receiving Communion to become a person of communion, and agent of communion if you will,  within the context of their daily  lives. This is why we are ‘sent out’ at the end of Mass. In Holy Communion we become what we receive, and we are sent out, nourished by God, with God, to transform the world around us.  In our consumerist culture there is danger of a consumerist attitude towards our faith, and when this occurs we can treat the Eucharist in the same consumerist way and forget this profound truth: That Holy Communion makes demands of us!

“Community, unity, fellowship – mutual participation” – whatever happens in our country post-Brexit, this is what our divided and polarised country needs and Catholic Christians have an important role to play. My prayer is that as a Church in Britain, we will remember our call to communion and work hard to build God’s kingdom amongst all people whatever circumstances life (and government!) throws at us. I pray that we can learn to disagree with each other well.

I believe that people generally want the best for our country and our common home -  we may have opposing views about how this can come about but our shared goal at least, is a shared hope and a point of unity.

As Catholics my prayer is that we become ever more a people of communion in our workplaces, homes, schools and families. The world needs us to be the people that we profess to be and the saints that God calls us to be, so let’s get on with it!

Finally, paraphrasing St Paul, I pray that we remember that: there is neither Remainer nor Brexiteer, neither Labour nor Tory, nor is there Right or Left, for we are all One in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Thursday 23 January 2020

That We May Be One! - A reflection on Christian Unity

In this week of prayer for Christian unity, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the topic of Ecumenism.  As a Catholic priest, whose faith came alive as a teenager whilst visiting a friends Evangelical Church, as someone who has made multiple trips during my formative years to the ecumenical community of TaizĂ© in France, and as someone who has been brought up amongst an extended family of Catholics, Anglicans and Pentecostal Christians, Ecumenism is not just close to my heart, its in my very DNA! 

It is common in Catholic circles to talk about the ‘New Evangelisation’. Successive Popes have urged us, as a Church to engage in this great work of Evangelisation, once again, proposing the gospel in a new a fresh way to our world as well as to those Catholics who are ‘catechised but not evangelised’. I would argue, however, that an important dimension of the New Evangelisation will be a ‘New Ecumenism’.

That Christ founded one Church, and that he prayed for that Church to be one is a foundational tenant of the Christian Faith. Furthermore, it stands to reason that if the Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is One, his body also should be one. The sad truth, however, is that the Church is divided. The two-thousand-year history of the Christian Church has seen significant divisions, the great schism between East and West in the Eleventh Century and then the protestant reformation of the Sixteen century. These divisions occurred for several reasons, but the underlying reason is that the Church is made up of sinful human beings, albeit sinners who are on a pilgrim journey of holiness. Just as we are not content with sin, we should not be content with the fruit of sin: division. It seems to me, that to work for the unity of the Church is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian: a sinner, in need of the mercy of God, who is on a journey of conversion.

In the past, the attitude towards Christian unity from in the Catholic Church could perhaps be summarised as ‘Christian unity means everyone should convert to the One True Faith’. This was not a helpful attitude, but it was not that it was all that different from other Christians either. Whilst, it’s true that Catholics joined the ecumenical movement much later than some other Christians, hostility from other Christians towards the Church of Rome was (and still is, in some quarters) a reality. There is no need to point fingers, suffice to say, all Christian communions bear some responsibility for the divisions in the Church.

This said, as a Catholic I am interested how, as the Catholic Church, we work for unity of Christ’s body, the Church. The Second Vatican Council had a lot to say about the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian believers but sixty years on it is taking time for this important teaching to disseminate and be interiorised by Catholic believers.

The first thing to remind ourselves of is that that other Christians of other churches and communities are our brothers and sisters. They are not heretics who are guilty of crimes, but are fellow pilgrims in the One Church of God. The Council stated clearly: 

"The Children who are born in to these communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin of separation, and the Catholic Church embraces them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptised are in communion with the Catholic Church even thought this communion is imperfect."  (Unitatis Redintegratio 3)

One of the keys ideas, re-articulated by the second Vatican council, is the idea of degrees of communion. This is an important development, that has in my opinion yet to really take hold. Put simply: those baptised members of the Church who hold to the Catholic faith and remain in state of grace are in full-communion. This full-communion is made visible in the act of receiving Holy Communion Mass. This communion, however, can be damaged and disrupted by sin and other factors, so there remains people who, although they are Catholics in communion with the Church, for whatever reason do not enjoy full-communion and so they do not receive Holy Communion. (Until such a time as full-communion is restored.)

As well as Catholics who don’t receive Holy Communion, we must then include our brothers and sisters from other Christian traditions.  (who, because we are not in full-communion would also not receive Holy Communion) In so far as we profess belief in Christ, share the same Scriptures are united by the same Baptism, we are in communion with them, albeit in varying degrees.  These degrees of communion do not, however, undo or denigrate the fact that when we are baptised, we become members of Christ’s body. Is does not change the truth that he or she who professes Christ is my brother and sister. The Vatican Council stated clearly: 

"The differences that exist in varying indeed create many obstacles...But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." (Unitatis Redintegratio 3)  

I believe, all Catholics, indeed all Christians, if we are take faith in Christ and our baptism’s seriously, need to acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters. Yes, we have our difficulties and our differences and we might not ever enjoy full, visible communion – but we are family, Christ’s family. Our uncharitable attitudes hamper our mission and witness to the world. I think the image of a family is a very helpful. Families come in all shapes and sizes and are extended through many relatives and friends. Some of our relatives we are very close to, (physically if we live with them, emotionally and spiritually if we share a specific bond)  other relatives we might not see very much at all - but if we are related then we are related and we cannot change this basic fact!

The church is a family, we are the pilgrim people of God. I pray in this week of prayer for Christian unity that we can see past our divisions and celebrate the Christ who makes us one. In a world and society every more polarized and divided the Church has the power to reach across divides and to bring about communion in Christ.  This will not happen, however, until we can recognise our brothers and sisters in the faith. One way to try and move past the divisions, without downplaying our history and our differences is to change our attitude and way of thinking. For example, I try not to think of  Baptists, Evangelicals or Anglicans as different churches (or ecclesial communions), but rather as catholic- Baptists or catholic-evangelical/catholic-Anglican  brothers and sisters who I am in communion, albeit a partial communion with. This recognition and celebrating of partial communion I believe is to be a constitutive part of a ‘New Ecumenism.’ Whilst I profess and believe that the fullness of Christ’s Church subsists as the Catholic Church, my prayer, especially in this week of Christian unity, is that all the baptised will have the grace to recognise that we belong to One Church - however damaged, and that we will confidently profess One Faith, One Lord and One baptism to our world.  Amen.