It was good to be at the HTB Leadership Conference on Monday and Tuesday. They filled the Albert Hall, and still managed to sell a few hundred extra tickets for the overflow venue at Holy Trinity Brompton Road.
There were some very powerful talks and interviews; an incredible array of seminar topics; lots of prayer and discussion and networking; and some fantastic music from the Worship Central team. And there was, interestingly, a very strong Catholic presence: Cardinal Schönborn, for example, was one of the keynote speakers; Christopher West led a series of workshops over two whole afternoons about the Theology of the Body; and the Carmelite Church in Kensington was packed for the celebration of Holy Mass (followed by breakfast for all present), as part of the conference programme, on the Tuesday morning.
I won’t even attempt to summarise the content of the talks. The phrase that struck me most was from Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the States. It was a throwaway line in the middle of a very practical talk about creating a vision within your core team. Here is the line: “You know, we sometimes forget this: that it’s natural for churches to grow!” In other words, if a Christian community simply lives its faith to the full; if Christians simply become the disciples they are called to be; if we simply believe and pray and love and hope and serve as we are meant to: then of course our churches will grow. What should baffle us is not why they sometimes do, but why they usually don’t. As St Catherine of Sienna said: ‘If you become who you are meant to be, you will set the world on fire’.
There was an intensity about the conference, a passion for souls, a Christian fervour, that you don’t often experience on an average Sunday morning. I was wondering to myself if this intensity was something attractive only to those ‘professional’ Christians (like myself) who sign up for conferences like this, and whether it might alienate ordinary Christians. But the conference started on Monday, 13 May, and I started to connect it with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.
In the morning, I had celebrated Mass in the local parish in Chelsea and given a short sermon. I spoke about Our Lady of Fatima’s passion for souls, the sense of urgency which she communicated to the three shepherd children, the seriousness of her message, and the unconditional commitment to the gospel message of salvation that she expected from the children and from every Christian. Then I walked up the road to the HTB Leadership Conference. When you see things from the perspective of the call to conversion and the invitation to salvation, there is not a great distance from Fatima to Holy Trinity Brompton.
[For information about Fatima, see here. If you want to book for the leadership conference next year, see here]
Posted in Relationships, Religion | Tagged salvation, Catholic Church, churches, commitment, leadership, HTB, Alpha Course, fervour, Christopher West, Catholic, church growth, Fatima, Our Lady of Fatima | 3 Comments »
When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.
Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.
Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.
How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.
How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.
It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.
He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.
I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.
Posted in Books, Spirituality | Tagged Blessed Sacrament, conversion, Eucharist, faith, Francis of Assisi, Franciscans, liturgy, passages from the bible, poverty, reverence, scripture readings, St Francis of Assisi, suffering, trauma, violence, war | 8 Comments »
Most of us in the seminary are wearing fluorescent green electronic devices clipped to our belts. You might think they were tagging devices, but we find it easier and cheaper to track seminarians by hacking into their mobile phone signals. (Joke! I can imagine some crazy person reading this post too quickly and saying to a friend, ‘Did you know they tag the students at Allen Hall?!’).
In fact, we have splashed out on a job lot of pedometers. We are divided into teams of five, and the aim is to see which team can ‘walk to Rome’ first. I’ve just looked this journey up on Google Maps, and it comes out as 1,089 miles and 356 hours on foot.
This is a much classier version than the ones we have
It’s not communal virtue. It’s self-improvement. Trying to get the activity levels slightly higher, to improve our all-round health and well-being, and giving us the time-honoured incentive of a competition to urge us on.
I know this sounds daft, but in the first two days I walked three miles without going anywhere. What I mean is that I spent the whole time in the building here; and the only time I went out was to give a talk in a parish in west London, and I drove there. So without going anywhere, without walking along a street, I clocked up three miles – just going back and forwards from office to dining room to chapel to photocopier etc. It’s not a big house, and it shows how far you can walk just going about your ordinary business.
I did about ten miles in the first few days. Then…disaster struck. Coming out of the chapel, and straightening myself out after Mass, I caught the blasted pedometer with my right hand, it crashed to the floor, AND IT RE-SET ITSELF TO ZERO!! Ten miles down the drain; ten miles for nothing. I rushed to the college ‘Walking to Rome’ arbitrator, and she said she would give me the benefit of the doubt and add these on at the end. But I understand that now everyone is talking about their pedometers crashing and re-setting, when they had 50, 100, 200, 500 miles on them…
It has made me curious about how much I do walk, and walking in general; and I suppose that’s half the point. I chatted to a friend today and she said that when the pedometer craze broke over the UK years ago (we are very behind here), it was suggested that 10,000 steps was a healthy and realistic distance to aim at each day if you are trying to take this walking thing seriously. That’s about 5 miles.
You can tell I am getting pulled in, because now I want to buy a decent pedometer to replace the unreliable one I’ve got. I’ll try to remember to update you. I’m sure you are fascinated by my personal step-count. Maybe I could do a weekly post about this…
Posted in Science/Technology | Tagged fitness, GPS, health, pedometer, tagging, tagging devices, tracking, walking | 13 Comments »
I was at the Catholic Medical Association Annual Symposium on Saturday. I heard a talk by the barrister Neil Addison about the recent decision in favour of the Scottish midwives, who argued that their conscientious objection to abortion meant they should not be forced to supervise abortions.
Three points that emerged from the judgment stuck in my mind.
First, that ‘treatment’ includes not just the immediate procedure but the whole ‘support’ that is given to the person before and after the procedure; and that someone can therefore object on grounds of conscience to be involved in this wider aspect of treatment.
Second, that if someone is supervising any treatment then they are medically and morally involved in that treatment, even if they are at one stage removed from it.
Third, that if there is some doubt or disagreement, the law should if possible rule in favour of respecting someone’s conscientious objection, in order to avoid putting citizens in the position of having to choose between loyalty to their faith and the law.
This is my summary from memory. Here is the report from Neil Addison’s own blog about the ruling (sorry the text is messy – it hasn’t copied over very well. At least you can read it…).
This a unanimous decision by three Judges of the Inner House of the Court of Session
(equivalent to the English Court of Appeal) and recognises in clear terms that the Conscientious Objection clause in s4 Abortion Act 1967
allows Medical staff to refuse to participate in ALL aspects of Abortion ”treatment”.
The Court rejected the Hospitals suggestion that s4 only covered participation in the immediate act of Abortion and also rejected arguments based on inconvenience to the Hospital. The Court recognised that Abortion is a uniquely controversial aspect of Medical practice and that the right of Conscientious Objection is “a right” which Hospitals have to accommodate regardless of any managerial inconvenience it may cause.
This covers a point I have been involved in as Director of the Thomas More Legal Centre
where I have had to protect Nurses being pressurised to participate in Abortion especially the administration of Abortion inducing Drugs. Frequently Hospitals have suggested that s4 only applied to the actual giving of the Drugs but did not cover other aspects of Nursing work. This Judgment vindicates the Nurses I have represented who have refused to participate in any aspect of Abortion “treatment”
“believers cannot claim an automatic right to be exempted by their beliefs from the laws of the land. At the same time, the state should, wherever reasonably possible, seek to avoid putting believers to extremely painful and intensely burdensome choices of either being true to their faith or else respectful of the law. “
This case could therefore become an important decision in relation to issues of Religious Freedom extending beyond Abortion”
I am also pleased that the Judgment agreed with a criticism I had made of the earlier decision in my Blog last year when I said
“the Judge in what is a rather sparsely reasoned decision decided that what they were doing in supervising the Abortion process did not in law amount to participation in Abortion. She mentions and in large part relies on the wording of the Nurses Contract and the guidelines issued by the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the Royal College of Nurses which is somewhat peculiar in view of the clear wording of s4(1) that the right of conscientious objection overrides any ”contract or .. any statutory or other legal requirement”, that to my mind means that s4(1) should have been considered without any reference to the views of the NMC or the RCN or their guidance.”
In para 33 of the Judgment the court makes clear that even professional guidelines can be legally wrong and cannot overule statute, it says (my emphasis)” Great respect should be given to the advice provided hitherto by the professional bodies, but prior practice does not necessarily dictate interpretation. Moreover, when the subject of the advice concerns a matter of law, there is always the possibility that the advice from the professional body is incorrect. …….It also proceeds on the basis that a midwife has a duty to be non-judgmental and that to be selective is unacceptable, but this ignores the fact that the Act allows a degree of selectivity to those with a conscientious objection”
Even though the Judgment is from a Scottish Court and Scotland is a different jurisdiction to England and Wales the judgment will apply in England and Wales. The Abortion Act 1967 applies in England, Wales and Scotland (but not in Northern Ireland) and wherever Scottish Courts have adjudicated on such “cross border” legislation their decisions have been accepted without question in England and Wales and vice versa.
The Inner House of the Court of Session is equivalent in status to the Court of Appeal and therefore this case will be treated south of the border on exactly the same basis as if it had been a decision of the Court of Appeal.In the judgment it is noticeable that much of the case-law referred to was English but was treated as binding in Scotland because the Scottish Court was dealing with the same piece of legislation as the English Courts.
Posted in Morality, Politics | Tagged abortion, conscientious objection, midwives, NHS, pro-life, supervision | 2 Comments »
I’ve just seen the Lichtenstein exhibition at Tate Modern; it’s on until 27 May if you want to catch it. It’s interesting as a lesson in art history, but disappointing as an artistic experience. Not many of the paintings have any real power or beauty; the tones and colours (from all the different periods) are so limited; and even in terms of line and draftsmanship the images seem either simplistic and without much grace or overcomplicated and unbalanced.
The exception is the famous comic book art from the early 1960s, and I’d almost call these masterpieces: “M-maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio”, “Whaam”, “Oh Jeff I love you too but…”
The history is important. When the Western art establishment was locked into abstract expressionism (which I love), along came Lichtenstein and WHAAM: he put some energy, drama, line and subject matter back into painting. You can argue as much as you like whether it was celebratory or ironic or just commercially clever. The fact is that in almost a single gesture it brought Western art back to where it had been for three thousand years: using images to tell stories. Lichtenstein’s pop art is about recovery and restoration. In the late 1950s, comic books were more in the mainstream of the Western canon than the studios of Manhattan and Chicago, and it took Lichtenstein to remind everyone of that.
It is the aesthetic of the ‘pregnant moment’. If you already know, more or less, the story, then you don’t need to read the whole comic. You just need to choose a single frame, a pregnant moment, which captures the drama and allows us to insert ourselves into the story. This is as true for WHAAM and M-maybe as it is for a painting of the Nativity or the Birth of Venus. The narrative fans out, forwards and backwards, from that key moment, just as the future and the past are continually fanning out from the present in ordinary human experience. We are only ever within a single moment, but we can’t experience or interpret that moment without being conscious of some kind of story.
Laura Cumming has a gushing review here. But Alastair Smart is more critical. Info and tickets are here.
Posted in Art, Culture/Arts | Tagged abstract expressionism, abstraction, aesthetics, Art, artistic experience, beauty, comic book art, comics, drama, images, pope art, realism, Roy Lichtenstein, Tate Modern, Western art, western canon, Whaam | 4 Comments »
Fr Philip Miller has an article about Faith and Science in this month’s edition of the Pastoral Review, going over some of the basic history, theology and scientific theory.
In the section on cosmology he writes about the anthropic principle: the way the universe is tuned in such a precise way as to allow the possibility of human life. I’m not sure about this. I’m not saying it’s untrue, I just haven’t done enough to think through whether I find the argument convincing or not.
What speaks to me more is the simple argument from order: that an ordered universe requires some transcendent foundation for its own order (i.e., outside space and time); and that scientific explanation presupposes that the universe can, at least in theory, be explained, and it therefore assumes that the ultimate explanation for the universe has a foundation which is outside the universe itself (at the metaphysical level – that the universe cannot contain the foundation of its own laws; and at the epistemological level – that science cannot justify the foundations of its own scientific principles).
This is how Fr Philip puts it:
The fundamental question remains, for a multiverse just as for a single universe: what is the underlying, unifying cause? The answer is that there must be a necessary being, that is, some sort of ‘God.’ Universes, being complex, law-governed entities, are not simple, and so cannot be metaphysically necessary (since ‘something’ must cause/explain the underlying unity of the complex whole).
Some of Professor Stephen Hawking’s work has been on the nature of the Big Bang, the proposed initial moment of the universe. Some of his more recent hypotheses have been to provide solutions to the complex physics of the early universe that avoid any suggestion that the Big Bang is, in effect, a creation ex nihilo. Hawking’s collaborator, physicist Neil Turok, developed the idea of the ‘instanton’ model of the Big Bang, which has, in simple terms, ‘no beginning.’ And yet, it is highly instructive to note Turok’s own words about their modelling of the universe’s initial expansion phase, termed ‘inflation’:
“Think of inflation as being the dynamite that produced the Big Bang. Our instanton is a sort of self-lighting fuse that ignites inflation. To have our ‘instanton’ you have to have gravity, matter, space and time. Take any one ingredient away and the ‘instanton’ doesn’t exist. But if you have an ‘instanton’ it will instantly turn into an inflating infinite universe.” [Turok, N., commenting online on his own work]
In other words, even in their attempt to define a universe with no beginning, they still have to assume that there is a pre-existing framework of physical laws just sitting there, which the material universe must obey. The universe clearly doesn’t invent its own laws: it requires a law-giver, and that law-giver has to be outside the universe of matter, space and time; it must be spirit, God Himself.
Which raises the child’s question, ‘But who made God?’ To which the answer is: God is not the kind of thing that needs to be made. Or, to put it in the positive: God is precisely that one ‘thing’ that is not made by another thing; God is eternal (outside time), spirit (outside space and matter), simple (outside the complexity of secondary explanations), and necessary (outside the chain of secondary causes).
What do you think?
You can read the full article here.
Posted in Philosophy, Science/Technology | Tagged anthropic principle, Big Bang, cosmology, faith and reason, first cause, God, multiverse, necessary being, reason, Religion, science, science and religion, truth | 6 Comments »
It was good to be in Cardiff over the weekend for a retreat run by Youth 2000 and promoted by the Archdiocese. It even had the grand title of National Retreat for the Youth of Wales. I had to leave early on Sunday morning, but I heard that Archbishop George Stack was there to celebrate the final Mass and hear some of the testimonies from the young people about how much the weekend had touched them.
It was a great venue, St David’s Catholic Sixth Form College, not far from the centre of the city. We just managed to fit into the college chapel, instead of having to move into the hall. I don’t know the official head-count, but there were certainly over a hundred young people there for the reconciliation service on Saturday evening, so the total number of participants over the weekend must have been even higher.
It was a classic retreat format: Mass, talks about the faith, rosary, confessions, discussion groups, workshops about Christian life and discernment, testimonies; lots of free time and space for socialising and personal prayer; lay people, priests and religious men and women sharing their lives very naturally; good food, and great music. On top of this, part of the Youth 2000 ‘thing’ is having more-or-less perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the main chapel, so that the sacramental presence of Christ is at the heart of everything that happens.
The fact is that it ‘works’. I don’t mean there is some kind of magic formula that can guarantee you a profound spiritual experience or a radical conversion. I just mean that when the Catholic faith is lived joyfully and presented with real integrity, then it touches people. When you see the ‘wholeness’ of the Christian faith – teaching, sacraments, community – and when you see the way this faith transforms the lives of ordinary young people, then you can’t help being moved to question what is important and what this faith might mean to you.
It’s a beautiful thing to see the hearts of young people gradually open up to the Lord as a retreat unfolds; to see them drawing closer to Christ and to see the almost tangible effects of his grace on their lives – a sense of peace and spiritual joy, a knowledge of his mercy, a new sense of purpose, a desire to share their faith, a hope for the future.
Let’s hope there can be another retreat next year.
The next Youth 2000 retreat is the summer festival in Walsingham from 22 to 26 August – see here.
Posted in Religion, Spirituality | Tagged adoration of the blessed sacrament, Archbishop George Stack, Archdiocese of Cardiff, Catholic Church, Church in Wales, confession, Eucharist, faith, happiness, hope, Mass, mercy, Wales, Youth 2000 | Leave a Comment »