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Archive for May, 2011

Many Catholics think that the main step on the road towards priesthood is the decision to go to seminary. There is some truth in this: You think, you pray, you discern; you put in your application. If you are accepted, you take the plunge, and that involves leaving a job, moving home, starting a completely new life, and the challenge of telling friends and family that this is really happening.

Allen Hall Seminary - Front Door

But sometime around the middle of your seminary formation you take the formal step of becoming a ‘candidate’ for ordination. On Saturday evening here at Allen Hall four men celebrated their own candidacy. What’s it all about? How can you become a candidate for ordination when you are already a committed seminarian three or four years down the road to priesthood?

Here are one or two passages from the Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI which set it all up.

Since entrance into the clerical state is deferred until diaconate, there no longer exists the rite of first tonsure, by which a layman used to become a cleric. But a new rite is introduced, by which one who aspires to the diaconate or priesthood publicly manifests his will to offer himself to God and the Church, so that he may exercise a sacred order. The Church, accepting this offering, selects and calls him to prepare himself to receive a sacred order, and in this way he is properly numbered among candidates for the diaconate or priesthood [...]

1. (a) A rite of admission for candidates to the diaconate and to the priesthood is introduced. In order that this admission be properly made, the free petition of the aspirant made out and signed in his own hand, is required, as well as the written acceptance of the competent ecclesiastical superior, by which the selection by the church is brought about. Professed members of clerical congregations who seek the priesthood are not bound to this rite.

(b) The competent superior for this acceptance is the ordinary (the bishop and, in clerical institutes of perfection, the major superior). Those can be accepted who give signs of an authentic vocation and, endowed with good moral qualities and free from mental and physical defects, wish to dedicate their lives to the service of the Church for the glory of God and the good of souls. It is necessary that those who aspire to the transitional diaconate will have completed at least their twentieth year and have begun their course of theological studies.

(c) In virtue of the acceptance the candidate must care for his vocation in a special way and foster it. He also acquires the right to the necessary spiritual assistance by which he can develop his vocation and submit unconditionally to the will of God.

You can see what a special moment this is for each of the candidates, and for the Church. It’s not just a formality or an external recognition that they have ‘put the hours in’. It’s a way of offering oneself to God and to the Church, freely and publicly, and having the Church accept that offering. It’s a new commitment, not just to enter more wholeheartedly into the process of discernment, but to actively foster the priestly vocation. There is a psychological and spiritual shift. From this moment onwards, the assumption is that this man has been called by the Lord to priesthood, and in fact the ceremony itself acts as a public call by the Church.

Candidacy would have the same significance, more or less, as a couple getting engaged. They move from wondering and questioning to committing and planning. It doesn’t mean the wedding or ordination is inevitable, and it’s important that each person still feels completely free – but you’d need a major rethink to call it off.

It was a great evening for everyone involved!

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Very nearly a masterpiece – if you have any doubts about the power of cinema or whether film is the highest form of civilisation known to humankind, you need to see the re-released version of Apocalypse Now on a very large screen straight away.

I kept thinking, ‘How did he do this?’ The cinematography; the set pieces; the editing; the music. It’s breathtaking. It’s a long time since I have giggled with sheer delight at the audacity of  someone’s film-making.

What’s it about? War in general? The Vietnam war in particular? Madness? Morality? The risk of playing at God and thinking someone to be God and knowing that someone is not God? Possibly. Especially in Brando’s speech about the power that lies in the hands of those who are willing to dispense with moral scruples. Or is it about film itself?

This would have been Hitchcock’s answer: Film is not about anything – it’s not the content or meaning that matters – it’s the involvement of the viewer in the unfolding of the film itself, the momentum of desire and longing, the desperate need to know and arrive, and the delayed gratification of a story that is constantly twisting out of view.

It’s only the last half-hour that doesn’t quite work – too slow and too introspective. But then I’m not sure where else Coppola could have gone.

Do see this film on the big screen. It won’t be around for long. Here are the London listings for the next week.

PS – It was a joy to see this at Screen 1 of the Cineworld, Haymarket, just down from Piccadilly Circus, which is a huge old-fashioned screen with its proscenium arch still standing – such a change from the local multiplex.

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The Church in China

I recently went to the AGM of Cultural Exchange with China, a charity whose purpose is ‘building bridges between the Catholic Churches of Britain and China’.

I know Fr Eamonn O’Brien, the Director, who is a Columban father; and over the last few years I’ve met various Chinese Catholics in London who have been sponsored by the charity – lay catechists, for example, who have been in formation at the St Patrick’s Evangelisation School; and a diocesan priest who lived at the seminary where I work for three years while he studied at Heythrop and St Mary’s.

Take a look a their website, which includes this page of links to monthly reports about developments within the Catholic Church in China, and this article about the growth of contemplative communities in China over recent years.

It’s a charity that is well worth supporting. You can donate here, or become a member and supporter here. Of course, with my name and family background, I can’t say I am just a neutral observer when it comes to issues about the Church and China.

Here are the official goals of the charity:

Our principal goal is to build bridges between the Catholic Church of Britain and that of China. Our specific contribution is the training of personnel for the Church of China.

We see the strengthening of formation for priests, sisters and laity as the key ingredient to assist the Church of China to take up the great challenge of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and face the great challenges of modern Chinese society.

We also seek to promote understanding, co-operation and mutually beneficial friendships between the people of Britain and China, based on respect for one another, and in an ecumenical, interfaith and global context.

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The Observer had a piece earlier this month about Britain’s relationship with its intelligentsia, and asked whether we ‘do’ public intellectuals in the way that the French seem to.

Jean-Paul Sartre: the archetypal French intellectual

You can read the views of ten influential thinkers on the topic here. And here are the opening definitions of four of them.

Susie Orbach:

Being able to provoke a different point of view to the standard current ideological or political perspective as played out in conventional newspaper or radio reportage is what a public intellectual does. But it’s not merely about being oppositional, because that’s too negative. Public intellectuals attempt to widen and deepen the public discourse, by adding further analysis and coming at issues in surprising or unexpected ways.

There’s a trend towards soundbites and simplification. We all desire clarity but a way to reach it means understanding at several layers, folding in different kinds of knowledges; in other words complexity. There is a craving for that thoughtfulness which public intellectuals are able to provide.

Will Self:

What the British seem to like are television historians and naturalists, not public intellectuals. You can’t help feeling that’s because one supplies narrative and the other supplies facts, and the British are traditionally empiricists so they/we have a resistance to theory and to theoreticians playing too prominent a role in public life.

Mary Beard:

I think the British have always had this view that France is full of public intellectuals and we are hopeless. I don’t agree. To start with, it’s an awful phrase. Have you ever met anybody who avowed to be a public intellectual? We don’t go in for pontificating to the nation, but if you ask whether we have a vibrant form of political, social and cultural debate in which people who are academic, intellectual, clever – and not just media stars – engage, we have loads of it.

Lionel Shriver:

I guess I understand a public intellectual to be somebody who moves public discourse forward. Someone who either says something new or says something that everybody knows to be true but is afraid to express.

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Take a look at this new blog by a friend who works as a catechetical coordinator in a London parish: Transformed in Christ. Some of the recent topics include: Liturgical catechesis; YouCat; Vocations Sunday; Mystagogia; and ‘Are you a canal or a reservoir catechist’.

Here is the ‘mission statement‘ of the blog:

Over the past two years, I have worked in a wonderful, south London parish, organising the catechesis and sacramental programmes. I didn’t set out to work in catechesis – I was planning to go back to university to study for an MPhil, but somehow, I found myself with this job and loving every moment of it! I discovered the immense joy and privilege of handing on our Faith to others, of preparing people of all ages to receive the sacraments, and of helping people to deepen their knowledge and love for Christ. I have found that catechesis is a joyful mission of the Church, because it is a transmitting of the Faith from person to person in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the Body of the Church. It is about people becoming transformed in Christ – discovering who they truly are in God’s eyes, and living out their lives in accordance with this truth. Now I am studying part-time for an MA in Catechetics, and this study is increasing my wonder at what a beautiful and privileged mission it is to deliver and teach the Faith to others. In the words of Blessed John Paul II:

“If the work of catechesis is to be carried out rigorously and seriously, it is today more difficult and tiring than ever before, because of the obstacles and difficulties of all kinds that it meets; but it is also more consoling, because of the kind of depth of the response it receives from children and young people. This is a treasure which the Church can and should count on in the years ahead.” [Catechesi Tradendae, 40.]

In this blog, I want to share some of the experiences of catechesis in our parish in light of the insight and wisdom of the Church’s vision for catechesis.

And here is the ‘vision statement‘ about the nature of catechesis:

I’ve attempted to outline a brief summary of what the Church teaches us about catechesis. I think these points are clearer when enfleshed in experience, but as an underlying vision, here are some of the key ideas:

1. Catechesis is one of the ‘moments’ of evangelisation as a whole – therefore, it should be evangelising in its nature – a proclamation of the Good News. It should always have a missionary dynamic.

2. The goal of catechesis is to put people into intimacy, into communion with Jesus Christ (see Catechesi Tradendae, 5). That is the only goal! Christ is our only Way into the heart of God, into the life of the Trinity, so catechesis desires, above everything else, to put people into communion with Jesus.

3. How do people come into communion with Jesus? Through understanding and through conversion. When people grow in knowledge of Christ, of the Deposit of Faith he entrusted to the Apostles, and of His Body the Church, they grow in love with Him. John Paul II told us to present Christ as He really is to young people – the Truth is really beautiful, and really attracts, just as it is. As catechesis increases people’s love for Christ, they want to know him more deeply, and change their lives so that they are living more faithfully with Him.

4. Catechesis is above all a work of the Holy Spirit. Just as the angel Gabriel announced great News to Our Lady, so we announce the message that has been handed down to us through the Church. But it is the deep, interior work of the Holy Spirit that enables understanding and conversion to take place. As catechists, there is need for us to strive for excellence in what we do – we want to use all we have (human qualities, intelligence, hard work, building relationships with the people we teach) in the service of the work of catechesis. But it is the Lord who enlightens the mind and heart. Our job is to create the best conditions for this to take place.

These are just four main points, although there are many other principles to explore. The main sources of the Church’s recent teaching on catechesis can be found in Catechesi Tradendae (Catechesis in our time) written by Pope John Paul II in 1979, and the General Directory for Catechesis published in 1997. If you are involved in catechesis, I would really recommend having a look!

Notice it’s a WordPress blog-platform!

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How could someone lie about the films they have seen? How could someone pretend to have seen a film that comes up in the dinner-table conversation and expect to get away with it?

I’m not being self-righteous here; I’m not even talking about the ethics of lying. I just wouldn’t have the courage to start nodding my head as someone describes some breathtaking scene from a recent movie, in the knowledge that they might ask me what I thought, or what happened next, or what colour the wallpaper was. Basically, I’m not a good liar, and the terror of being found out overcomes the terror of facing the consequences of telling the truth.

Yet, it seems, four out of five people lie about the films they have seen in order to impress others; and one in three of us claims to have seen the Godfather when the nearest we’ve been to the film is hearing the theme tune in a lift. Ben Child reports about the lovefilm.com research.

Second on the list is the 1942 Humphrey Bogart tearjerker Casablanca, which perhaps explains why so many people seem to be confused about its most famous line. More than one in 10 said they had fabricated a viewing.

In third place was Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver, from 1976. Eleven per cent of people said they had lied about having seen the director’s drama about a mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran. Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs rounded out the poll’s top five.

Lovefilm editor Helen Cowley said: “Whether it is a small white lie about having seen a cult classic or nodding along to friends as they recount the infamous horse head scene in The Godfather, there are some films that we just do not want to admit we have not watched.”

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Some people would prefer to replace the traditional wedding vows with words they have composed themselves, thinking that this would make their promises more personal and more authentic. I’m not so sure about this.

Amish wedding ring quilt

I did an email interview last week with David Gibson for the website ‘For Your Marriage‘. He was asking me about some of the ideas I sketched in my recent Royal Wedding post. You can read the interview here, and this is the full response I gave to his questions:

In my experience most young people hope to get married one day, despite the prevalence of marriage breakdown and a general suspicion of institutions.

It’s not just the romance of a wedding day. I think they recognise that love finds its deepest fulfilment in a lifelong commitment, in giving oneself to another person without conditions, without reservation. And they know that marriage is a way of making that commitment. It frightens them, because commitment is frightening, at the same time as it attracts them.

The words of the wedding vows are so simple and so profound: ‘To love and honour each other for the rest of your lives… For better for worse, for richer for poorer… Till death do us part’. Young people are not, on the whole, cynical, selfish or hedonistic. They want to fall in love; and when they do, they want that love to last. They know, deep down, that love requires commitment and sacrifice; and they are longing to give themselves to something of lasting value.

They also sense, perhaps without understanding why, that love demands a promise, a definitive Yes; and that this promise needs to be made in public. In other words, the institution of marriage still speaks to young people with great force.

Of course a couple can express their love for each other in many different ways; and they can commit themselves to each other in their own words. They should do this often! But I don’t think this can ever substitute for the traditional words of the wedding vows. This is partly because the words themselves are already so meaningful – it’s simply hard to better them. ‘I promise to love and honour you for the rest of my life… For better for worse, for richer for poorer…’ So to substitute your own words would somehow be a diminishment.

But I also think there is something important about entering into a tradition that is larger than yourself, and freely choosing to use a set of words that you haven’t yourself chosen, because then you allow yourself to be freed from the limitations of your own vision. This ‘humility’ allows your love to be purified, stretched, and transformed into something far deeper than you could have imagined.

To use the solemn words of the wedding ritual, rather than your own composition, is to say ‘there is more to love than we have yet understood, and we choose to let this larger love possess us’. It’s not impersonal to use the formal words of the wedding ritual; it’s a way of lifting what is deeply personal into something larger and even more beautiful.

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