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Archive for October, 2011

I was in Newark on Thursday, giving a Day of Reflection about the Internet and the Church (that’s for another time). We met in Holy Trinity Parish, and I had some great conversations about a huge pastoral project they are involved in. Supported by Lottery funding, and with the help of Regenerate Trust, they are part of a Neighbourhood Challenge pilot scheme that’s trying to find new ways of listening to the needs of the community and responding to those needs through the commitment of the community itself. You can read about it here.

Fr Michael gave me one great example of how listening with sensitivity and openness can bring about unexpected changes. Like most parishes, there was a vague feeling that they were not doing enough for young people, and an assumption that they should start some kind of youth club, which reflected another unspoken assumption that young people wanted to be alone together – isolated within their peer group, and cut off from other relationships with their parents, older or younger siblings, parishioners, neighbours etc.

But when, as part of this project, they actually started asking families what the young people really wanted/needed (I know these are not always the same thing), the answer was: a family evening. Not to stop young people gathering together with their peers; but to allow them to do that in a context where the whole family could be together as well, and where other families – and parishioners and neighbours – could spend time together. So they did it. And it worked!

This is from Caroline Hurst’s blog-post:

On Friday 5th August a group of volunteers arrived at the Community Centre a little apprehensive but very excited, waiting to see what the opening night of  Family Friday’s would hold.

It turned out that well over 50 people came down to the centre and the atmosphere was brilliant. Young people were out playing games on the field, people were playing table tennis and pool. The hot dogs were very well received and tasted great (so I am told) and the tuck shop also went down brilliantly with old and young alike! Adults were catching up with one another and young people were either joining in with their families, playing games or sitting having their own conversations. It was fantastic to see people interacting together so freely and the concerns about ages and parents being around appeared to be unfounded as a good time was had by all.

There were people of all ages there from under 5′s to over 60′s and the interactions were wonderful to see. Several people remarked on the night and since how surprised at the numbers and the success of the evening. All we can hope is that Family Fridays continue to grow and develop. When term time starts up hopefully the word will start to spread and that  even more people will interested in coming and seeing what is on offer of Family Friday’s down at Holy Trinity Community and Partnership Centre.

The peer group is important. And young people need space and a certain privacy. But they also value the security of knowing that parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbours, etc are around. In the right context, there can be a magical balance of freedom and belonging in this kind of environment.

You see this, if you are lucky, when extended families get together, and cousins chase around together while aunties and uncles sit and put the world to rights.

You see this in Lourdes, when part of the joy for young people is spending time with the elderly, loving them for who they are, and also being able to escape in their own groups later in the day.

You see this, sometimes, in village schools, where because of the lack of numbers, children are not isolated within their own age group, but have to share a classroom with those younger and older than themselves, with the result that all sorts of relationships can flourish that would be impossible in a single year group.

I know there are problems as well; I just think we should be a bit more critical of the hidden assumption that the deepest desire of everyone between the ages of 11 and 18 is to get away from anyone who isn’t their age.

[I'm just piecing this all together from a quick conversation with Fr Michael. If anyone from the parish wants to say more about the listening process behind the family nights - please do add your thoughts in the comments below].

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When I was on retreat in September I took De Caussade’s Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence with me for spiritual reading, in the translation by Kitty Muggeridge entitled ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment‘. I read it years ago, but it’s good to come back to it again.

There are many other translations available – see these here on Amazon. Another one I have is a reprint of a Burns and Oates edition that has a fantastic selection of letters by De Caussade (Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Father J. P. de Caussade, translated by Father P. H. Ramiere SJ, edited by Father John Joyce SJ, with an introduction by Dom David Knowles. Tan Books, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1987).

This excerpt from a letter to a religious sister contains the kernel of his spiritual doctrine. It’s very simple, and very powerful.

I do not understand your anxieties, my dear Sister; why do you take pleasure in tormenting yourself, as you do, over the future, when your faith teaches you that the future is in the hands of a Father who is infinitely good, who loves you more than you love yourself and who understands your interests far better than you?

Have you forgotten that everything that happens is directed by the orders of divine Providence? But if we know this how can we hesitate to remain in a state of humble submission, in the most trifling as in the greatest events, to all that God wishes or permits? How blind we are when we desire anything other than what God wishes. He alone knows the dangers which threaten us in the future and the help which we shall need.

I am firmly convinced that we should all be lost if God gave us all our desires, and that is why, as St Augustine says, God, in His mercy and compassion for our blindness, does not always grant our prayers, and sometimes gives us the contrary of what we ask as being in reality better for us. In truth, I often think that nearly all of us are in this world in the position of poor sick people who in their frenzy or delirium ask for the very thing that would cause their death and who have to be refused out of pure charity in an enlightened pity.

My God, if this truth were once for all well-known, with what blind self-abandonment should we not submit ourselves to Thy divine Providence. What peace and tranquillity of heart we should enjoy in every circumstance, not only regarding external events, but also with reference to our interior states of soul.

It shows the importance of good theology for any worthwhile spirituality. If you know that God is infinitely loving, and infinitely powerful; that he is guiding all that happens to you, and everything throughout the whole world; and that he only wants what is best for you and for all –  it changes the way you pray.

You still pray and intercede, but it’s no longer out of fear (trying to change God’s mind because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing or doesn’t really care as much as you do). There is a fundamental trust within every prayer, and a reassurance that what is truly best really is unfolding – even if we can’t yet understand how.

It doesn’t lead to passivity or quietism, or to the misguided view that everything that happens is therefore good in itself (because it’s obvious that bad things and sometimes terrible things happen). It just means that there is an underlying trust in the Providence of God: that he only allows this because he desires to bring something greater out of it; that in his mercy he longs to redeem this situation – even in the face of apparent failure and meaninglessness; and that his deepest desire in everything is to lead us to what is for our true happiness and salvation.

Above all, it is a theology of hope.

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The BBC were at Allen Hall recently, not with a film crew, but to take some still photographs for a slideshow about seminary life on their website. You can take a look here.

A view from the garden - one of our photos, not from the BBC

If you have dipped into this blog now and then, and wondered what Allen Hall looks like on the inside, the slideshow is certainly worth looking at. There are some stunning photographs. It’s amazing how a decent camera and a photographer with a good eye can make the most ordinary corner seem interesting or alluring. And it’s equally amazing how many seminarians were engrossed in their studies in the library when the photographer happened to be coming by…

There are also three interviews strung together to make a short commentary over the slides. The Rector of Allen Hall Mgr Mark O’Toole, first year seminarian Damian Ryan and fifth year seminarian Martin Plunkett talk about the challenges of becoming a priest today.

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Sadly I couldn’t afford to fly out to the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco this week. One of the social networking themes discussed was the question of whether there are advantages to sharing less rather than more.

Facebook has pioneered the concept of ‘frictionless sharing’ (a term I just learnt): when your personal information, your consumer choices, your likes and dislikes, your moods, your geographical position, etc, are all shared automatically and seamlessly with your online friends. But this ignores the psychological and sociological evidence that a significant part of friendship and social bonding is choosing what not to share, what not to reveal.

There’s a nice quote from Vic Gundotra who is head of the Google+ project, which tries to be a classier and more selective Facebook:

There is a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth. The core attribute of the human is to curate how others perceive you and what you say. Even something as simple as music – I don’t want all my music shared with everybody. I’m embarrassed I like that one Britney Spears track. I want people to know I like U2. That’s cooler than saying I like Britney Spears. If that’s how I feel about music, how will I feel about things I read? [Quoted in an article by Murad Ahmed, The Times today, p26]

Less is more, not from a sort of reactionary puritanism, but because the way we create ourselves and communicate who we are is always, at some level, through making decisions about what to reveal and what to withhold. This is how we give shape to the person we are, and allow others to come to know us. I like especially that idea that we ‘curate’ ourselves.

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I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love and treasure books. I still have the first book I ever possessed: a pocket King James Bible, given to me on the day of my baptism by my maternal grandparents. I still have the first book I remember ‘reading’ (meaning ‘looking at’ or ‘being read to me’): an illustrated life of St Francis of Assisi for children. And, by the way, the most recent book I bought was Volume 3 of the Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila – ordered on Amazon on Monday evening. I suppose there is a religious thread here…

When I was old enough to get the train to London on my own I spent hours in the second-hand bookshops around Camden Town and Charing Cross Road, snapping up all the hippie books that were de riguere for any self-respecting teenager at the time – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Rules for Radicals, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Tao of Physics, The Faber Book of Modern Verse, etc. This is what formed me! But even while I was hunting out paperback bargains to sit under my Athena posters, I had one covetous eye on the small collection of Folio Society books that sat in the corner of every bookshop.

They were and still are the most beautiful books in the world. The covers, the binding, the print, the paper, the illustrations. And the box cases, with that distinctive curve at the front edges so you can pull the book out without having to shake it. Every one a work of art.

I dreamt of having a whole library of Folio Books. I own one now, Augustine’s Confessionswhich I blogged about last year. The second-hand bookshop round the corner here in Chelsea has its own Folio Society shelf – I might pop round tomorrow and see what I can find.

I write all this simply because there is a feature on the Guardian website about Folio books – more an advertisement really. But it does give a glimpse of what delights exist behind the covers – a taster for anyone who hasn’t come across them before. Here is the main feature. Here are ten classics, with examples of their illustrations. Here is the Folio Society site itself.

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"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter" (a nice photo - but I'm not sure how sturdy this shelter is...)

Two friends got married yesterday. For the first reading, they chose this passage about friendship from Ecclesiasticus (6:14-17):

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
   whoever finds one has found a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price;
   no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
   and those who fear the Lord will find them.
Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright,
   for as they are, so are their neighbours also.

Here are a couple of thoughts – not the whole sermon, just the reflection on friendship:

It’s a lovely thing that they were friends for a good period before they started dating, because it helps them to see that friendship is the foundation even of the great romance that has brought them to marriage.

An enduring friendship, through all the inevitable ups and downs of life, is a key part of what sustains a marriage. It’s why the word ‘honour’ is so important in the marriage rite. You honour a person for who they are, for what their innate dignity deserves, and not just because you happen to love them.

The last verse of the reading is particularly thought-provoking: “Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbour also”. As you are, so will your friend be, so will your spouse be.

A simple interpretation of this is to say that ‘like attracts like’, we are drawn to people who are similar to us – and there is some truth to that.

But a deeper meaning is this: that the person you choose to be at any moment will have a formative effect on your spouse. If you are loving, patient, cheerful, forgiving; this will have an effect, for the good, on your spouse. If you are ratty, resentful, complaining, mistrustful; the chances are, before too long, so will your spouse be too.

Everyone wishes that their husband or wife were more loving, more perfect. The secret is to be more loving yourself. The effects, as anyone knows, are not always immediate (if only they were!). But if you want your spouse to be good, and you want your friendship to last, there is no clearer path than trying to be a good person yourself; and persevering on that path.

And, since I’m cutting and pasting, a final section about the openness of a couple within marriage:

There is a special beauty about a marriage that is open to God and open to the gift of children. It’s hard to describe, but it’s true.

If you live your Catholic faith, and pray together, and make your home and family a place of faith and holiness – in one sense it makes you less intensely focussed on each other.

You can’t say to each other, like in the romantic novels, ‘You are everything to me’ or ‘You are my all’, because it’s simply not true. There’s God also, there’s life after death, there’s the family, there’s all the other stuff too. (Now I’m not a hardliner; and we’ll allow you a bit of romance and exaggerated lovers’ language.)

But in a strange way, the fact that two people are less focussed on each other (because of their faith) allows them to love each other more freely, with more passion and more purity. And you really see this.

It’s not a bargain, as if to say, ‘If you love God, he will bless your marriage’. It’s a spiritual truth, that your openness to God in faith, and your openness to the gift of children that he may send you, will have a direct effect on your openness to each other in love and friendship.

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You know about my love of prehistoric cave paintings. The famous images at Chauvet were painted over 30,000 years ago – quite a distance in time. This makes it all the more astonishing that painting kits used about 100,000 years ago have been discovered in a cave in South Africa, evidence not just of the production of art and the presence of a symbolic imagination, but also of an ability to mix chemicals and store materials.

Etologic horse study from cave at Chauvet

This is the abstract describing the research in Science.

The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represents a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition. Excavations in 2008 at Blombos Cave, South Africa, revealed a processing workshop where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced and stored in two Haliotis midae (abalone) shells 100,000 years ago. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of this production toolkit. The application of the mixture is unknown, but possibilities include decoration and skin protection.

Ian Sample comments:

Two sets of implements for preparing red and yellow ochres to decorate animal skins, body parts or perhaps cave walls were excavated at the Blombos cave on the Southern Cape near the Indian Ocean.

The stone and bone tools for crushing, mixing and applying the pigments were uncovered alongside the shells of giant sea snails that had been used as primitive mixing pots. The snails are indigenous to South African waters.

“This is the first known instance for deliberate planning, production and curation of a compound,” Christopher Henshilwood at the University of Bergen told Science, adding that the finding also marked the first known use of containers. “It’s early chemistry. It casts a whole new light on early Homo sapiens and tells us they were probably a lot more intelligent than we think, and capable of carrying out quite sophisticated acts at least 40,000 to 50,000 years before any other known example of this kind of basic chemistry,” he added.

“You could use this type of mixture to prepare animal skins, to put on as body paint, or to paint on the walls of the cave, but it is difficult to be sure how it was used,” said Francesco d’Errico, a study co-author at the University of Bordeaux. “The discovery is a paradox because we now know much better how the pigment was made than what it is used for.”

So we were there, we Homo sapiens, 100,000 years ago – imagining, thinking, planning, cooperating, collecting, mixing, experimenting, storing, painting; and whatever else this painting led into…

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I posted about the Catholic Voices project last year, which trained a group of young Catholics in the art of speaking about their faith in the quick-fire settings of media interviews and public debates.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the launch of their book Catholic Voices: Putting the Case for the Church in the Era of 24-Hour News, written by two of the project’s founders, Austen Ivereigh and Kathleen Griffin. It should be a great resource for any Catholics wanting to understand what their faith really has to say about any number of controversial contemporary questions, and hoping to learn some tips about how to present it.

Here is some of the blurb [slightly adapted]:

Catholic Voices is a new sort of apologetics, one that helped make the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in September 2010 such an extraordinary PR success for the Church. The book is based on the expert briefings given to the original Catholic Voices team. It combines arguments and facts with practical media skills, hearing the question behind the question and listening for the positive intention behind the criticisms. It gives insider tips on how to present arguments clearly, compellingly and concisely in a quick-fire atmosphere. It is aimed not just at those speaking into a microphone, but at the parish priest, pastoral assistant, catechist, teacher, student – and at every Catholic who is wanting to answer questions on difficult topics in the news and give the reasons for what they believe.

And the author blurb:

Austen Ivereigh is a former public affairs director for the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, a writer and journalist, a regular contributor to the Guardian and America magazine who appears regularly as a commentator on the Catholic Church for radio and TV news programmes. Kathleen Griffin is an award-winning broadcaster, writer and senior lecturer in Broadcast Media at the University of Brighton. For many years a producer and reporter for BBC Radio 4, her many books include The Forgiveness Formula.

The new Catholic Voices website has also been launched recently – take a look if you are interested. There is lots of news about the new Catholic Voices Academy, the launch of another book about the development of the project itself, and the new Northern Speakers’ Programme that started this weekend.

[I must declare an 'interest': I've been the chaplain of the group since it's launch last year. But I think I'd be posting about it even if I weren't...]

They are desperate for funds. Here is their pitch to donors.

Catholic Voices is funded by donations from individuals and foundations and relies on the generosity of donors to continue its work. Please help us to:

√ serve both the Church and media by training informed, media-aware lay voices to articulate Catholic teachings on key issues;

√ support Catholics wanting to better articulate the wisdom of their faith through workshops, briefings, and authoritative arguments and information;

√ bring together Catholics engaged in public activities to develop commonly held propositions which express the insights and beauty of the Christian tradition, in order better to ‘put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum’.

If you feel moved to support this work, you can donate by paypal at the bottom of this page here.

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You can tell how out of things I am, because at least two-thirds of the new words and phrases in the recently updated Collins English Dictionary are gobbledygook to me.

(And having misspelt the word [gobbledygook], I looked it up, and found that it has variations [gobbledygook and gobbledegook]; that it’s a recent word [mid-20th century]; and that it comes from the word ‘gobble’, which I also looked up, and which means not just to eat greedily, swallow hastily etc, but also ‘to make a noise in the throat, as a turkey-cock’, which I didn’t know, which better explains the derivation of gobbledygook!)

See how many of these words you knew:

“Arab Spring” and “mumpreneur” are among the new words and phrases that have entered the latest edition of a major dictionary.

About 70 new terms from the fields of politics, technology, fashion and contemporary culture are included in the 11th edition of the Collins English Dictionary [published recently].

Descriptions of modern lifestyle are reflected in terms such as “mumpreneur”, a woman who combines running a business with looking after her children, and Nick Clegg’s phrase “alarm clock Britain”, workers on moderate incomes whose daily routine involves preparing children for school and going out to work.

For travellers, a new phrase is “cuddle class”, when two airline passengers buy an additional seat so that they can recline together.

The fashion world has inspired the word “mankle” for a man’s bare ankl, “mamil”, a middle-aged man in Lycra, and “mullet dress”, a woman’s skirt cut short at the front but long at the back.

The term “fash pack”, influential people in the fashion industry, has also entered the dictionary.

Developments in technology are reflected in words such as “frape”, which mixes the words Facebook and rape to refer to the altering of information on a person’s profile on the social networking site without their permission.

“Clicktivism” combines the words click and activism to mean using the internet to take direct and often militant action to achieve political or social aims. The word “unfollow” means to stop following someone on Facebook or Twitter.

The revolts in the Middle East and north Africa are reflected in the term “Arab Spring” to describe the Arab people’s clamour for democratic reforms.

Other terms from current affairs include “casino banking”, for bankers who risk losing investors’ money to gain maximum profits, and “emberrorist”, meaning an organisation or person who seeks to reveal potentially embarrassing information, often as a political weapon.

London mayor Boris Johnson has also entered the dictionary with the eponymous “Boris Bike“, the Barclays-sponsored public bicycle-sharing scheme that was launched in July 2010.

From the field of sport, the dance exercise Zumba is included, as is “planking”, involving balancing oneself in a horizontal position on top of unusual objects.

One of the latest examples of that is the term “foodoir”, a book or blog which combines a personal memoir with a series of recipes.

I like this last one especially – both the meaning and the sound. I might take a break from faith and culture and turn to memoir and food. It’s probably easier to sell the screenplay then.

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I have all sorts of philosophical anxieties about disconnecting ‘official time’ from the ‘real time’ that we experience through the rising of the sun and the arc of the stars – I’ll try to post about these anxieties another day.

But there is a huge historical irony in the fact that Greenwich Mean Time will most likely be replaced by Coordinated Universal Time, which is determined by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris, a city that lost its own right to determine the world’s time to London many years ago.

In case you missed the details of the recent recommendations of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Tony Todd reports:

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) may be consigned to history as increasingly complex communications technologies require a more accurate system of measuring the time.

International clocks are set according to Greenwich Mean Time, a system that measures time against the rotation of the earth according to the movement of the sun over a meridian (north-south) line that goes through the Greenwich district of London.

The problem for the scientific community is that the earth’s rotation is not constant: it slows down by about a second every year.

US Navy scientist Ronald Beard chaired the working group at the ITU in Geneva which that last week recommended GMT be scrapped as the global time standard.

He told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday: “GMT has been recognised as flawed by scientists since the 1920s, and since the introduction of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) [measured by highly accurate atomic clocks] in 1972 it has effectively been obsolete.”

UTC solved the problem of earth’s uneven rotation by adding the occasional “leap second” at the end of certain years to keep GMT accurate.

But this piecemeal system is no longer suited to the increasingly sophisticated communications technology and the needs of the scientific community.

“With the development of satellite navigation systems, the internet and mobile phones, timekeeping needs to be accurate to within a thousandth of a second,” said Beard. “It is now more important than ever that this should be done on a continual timescale.”

In effect, what the ITU is proposing is that atomic clocks should govern world time. Instead of using the GMT system and adding leap seconds, time should be allowed to be measured without interruption.

Beard explained that large-scale changes could be made (very occasionally) so that, for example, in 40,000 years time people would not be eating their lunch in the sunshine at “midnight”.

Do you notice that phrase: “Time should be allowed to be measured without interruption”? As if the passage of time itself (the spinning of the earth, the passing of days, the passage of seasons) somehow gets in the way of ‘official’ time – the time on the dial of an atomic clock.

OK, I admit it. As an Englishman I reel at the thought that the ultimate reference point for everything that happens, and in effect for the whole of human history, should be a memorandum issued by a committee in Paris, rather than a line carved into the ground in London.

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Part two of this “Why I am not a Catholic” double post is cunningly called “Why I am a Catholic”.

Fr Chris Ryan is an Australian friend who is a priest with the Missionaries of God’s Love, a new religious order of priests and consecrated men and women committed to the New Evangelisation. He has started a WordPress blog recently entitled Seeing Swans at Night. One of his first posts was a reflection, in the form of a letter, on why he is a Catholic. I’m sure he won’t mind if I quote most of it here, to give a contrasting response to the previous piece.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Emmanuel: God with us.

I’m a Catholic because I believe in the God that Jesus Christ reveals to us: a God of unfathomable love, beauty and goodness.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that the Spirit of Jesus has been given to me through baptism.  And as a consequence of the Spirit’s power at work in me, I know, as the deepest truth of my life, that I am so completely loved by God that the only Son of God was crucified for me and rose from the dead so that I might  participate in the very life of God.  This means that I experience myself as forgiven, loved even in my blackest moments.  And it means that I believe I have already begun to share in the Love that is God.

I believe all this because I have discovered an inexpressible joy that bubbles up when I least expect it, a joy that emerges when it should least be present, because it is the joy of knowing that even death has been defeated by the One who was raised from the grave.

I’m a Catholic because I believe that all of what I have described above is possible because of the mediation of the Church.  It is in and through the Church that I have met and continue to meet the risen Jesus.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in her Sacraments and in the Scriptures.  I experience the saving love of Jesus in the witness of those saints present and past, those publicly canonised and those hidden and almost unknown.  In the Church’s prayer and in her action on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable and rejected members of the human family I meet Jesus the Lord.

I’m a Catholic because the journey is better with friends; in fact they’re indispensable.  Being Catholic means we’re in it together.  And there’s more laughs that way.

I’m a Catholic because Catholicism takes both my brain and my body seriously.  As a Catholic I neither have to leave my mind at the door of the Church nor pretend that I am an angel or merely a spirit.  The Catholic faith has real intellectual depth, and yet it is not a religion of the elite but is good news for those who can become like little children.

The Catholic faith provides the only response to the reality of human suffering that comes close to doing justice to the mystery of human misery that I see in the world. For only Christian faith says that God cared enough about our agony to join us in it. And my faith does justice to my deep sense that such suffering should not be by promising that it will end, for our destiny is a life free from suffering and pain, where every tear will be wiped away.  My Catholic faith commits me to the alleviation of suffering wherever I find it too.

I’m a Catholic because it offers a message of sanity and hope when many are peddling messages that are anti-human and destructive.  I’m a Catholic because our faith tells me that me, you and this world are all fundamentally good, but radically damaged, and that Jesus Christ is the Healer who can return you, me and this world to wholeness and harmony.

I’m a Catholic because I value the teaching office of the Church.  That’s not because I can’t think for myself, but because I trust in the wisdom that has been distilled over two thousand years and because I believe that the Lord promised to continue to guide and care for his Church.

I’m a Catholic because I know that I need to be challenged to truly love others as Jesus has loved me. The teaching of Jesus continually puts forward an ethic of radical loving that is at the same time deeply merciful and compassionate.  Being Catholic means that I am challenged not to be content with mediocrity or superficiality.  God means to make me whole, holy, truly human.  And he won’t be content until I am.

I know too that the Church’s witness to all of this is often disfigured and that her members all too often obscure rather than proclaim the truth of God’s saving love.  I know that I too don’t bear witness to Jesus as faithfully or as fully as I truly desire.  That means that I cannot say that the Church’s failures are simply ‘out there’ , because I fail to love as radically as  the Gospel calls me to too.   The Church has never been completely faithful to her mission to bear witness to Christ.  And so the Church always needs to be renewed through the power of the Spirit.  But I’m convinced that the light of Jesus still shines in and through his Body the Church.

I’m a Catholic because the Catholic faith claims that Love is the meaning of the universe.  I find that immensely beautiful… and true.

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I haven’t converted: this isn’t my article – that’s why I use the quote marks. I just happened to come across two complementary pieces recently, one entitled “Why I am not a Catholic”, the other “Why I am a Catholic”. They are both interesting. So let me post them one after the other as a two-parter.

Thomas Cranmer

The first is by Andrew Brown, editor of the Faith section of the Guardian’s Comment is free. What makes this piece interesting is that Brown is not anti-Catholic, in fact he’s open to the Catholic point of view, and willing to stick his neck out when he thinks that the Catholic Church is being maligned or misrepresented. And on this occasion he’s curious enough about his relationship to Catholicism to reflect on why he isn’t Catholic himself.

Steve Hepburn asked in a previous thread why I am not a Roman Catholic. I know it’s a tease, but it deserves an answer anyway. The first reason is that I am not a Christian. I don’t believe in the historical truth of the gospel stories, and I think that if I were a Christian I ought to do so. I don’t claim that all Christians should. But if there were a God who had a plan for me, I feel that plan should require me to care about the kind of truths that journalists can in principle establish.

But if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t be a Roman Catholic one. I don’t know whether it is papal fallibility or papal infallibility that puts me off more. The crimes of the institution have sometimes been monstrous, and so – always – have its pretensions been. But I can’t believe that either is a mark of supernatural distinction. There are perfectly natural and historical explanations for both.

It’s not that I believe the church is worse than other large and idealist international institutions. But it’s not notably better, either. To believe that it is somehow essential to the salvation of the world, and indeed part of the purpose for which the universe is created, would be a cause for absolute despair.

Not that this argument would upset Catholics. After all, they want to be playing at the biggest table of all. There is a streak of snobbery and smarm in English Catholicism which is almost entirely rebarbative. I say “almost entirely” because I am softened by the very sympathetic treatment of the Catholic officer classes in Luke Jennings’s Blood Knots, a memoir which is not really about fishing. But when these people are not in fact army officers risking their lives but lawyers, diplomats, or journalists, I shudder away from them.

The best reason, I suppose, is that put by the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe in an article in the Tablet at the height of the child abuse scandals. Being a Roman Catholic, he said, made him part of 800 years of continuous thought and argument, all the way back to Thomas Aquinas. That’s a powerful point. I believe that all civilisation is a process of extending tradition by argument, and that often our arguments are wrong, and the tradition is right. But taking a tradition very seriously is not the same as conceding that it is right.

At the moment, Catholic sexual teaching is like a broken computer program. It needs to be rewritten from scratch in a better language. But Catholic social teaching, and the attempts to produce an economics centred around the needs of humans, rather than of money, look like the only thought-through alternatives to unbridled market capitalism – and certainly the only ones which have a chance of widespread popular support.

But still, I remain a thoroughly Protestant atheist. The tradition within which I would rather argue is that of Thomas Cranmer. This isn’t entirely a matter of intellectual preference. The bleak iron language of the prayer book’s funeral service seems to me more true, plainer and more frightening than all of the painted devils in baroque basilicas around the world.

So I’m not a Catholic; I don’t believe what they are supposed to believe, and I don’t want to become one. But none of this liberates me from the obligation to be fair to them and I try to discharge it here.

Every paragraph cries out for comment. But today I’ve only got time to post.

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It’s easy to exaggerate the significance of a single architectural project, but I don’t think anyone can doubt that London will never be the same again when The Shard reaches it’s final height of 310m – just 14m short of the Eiffel tower.

We’ve all been watching it rise up above the Tower of London for the last few months of construction, and it’s already visible from Battersea Bridge at the bottom of my road; but what really made me appreciate it’s presence was a recent drive into London from the west on the A40. I was miles out, at Hangar Lane, and even there, with the rest of the city skyline flattened by the distance, it stood out and made itself known. London is different: however far away you are; whatever angle you look from.

For some breathless statistics, we need the Sun, and writer Carl Stroud:

DWARFING everything else in sight, London’s latest landmark is now officially 800ft tall.

The sleek lines of The Shard dominate the capital’s skyline — and it’s growing ever higher.

When it is completed at the end of the year it will reach an incredible 1,016ft into the air and will take the title of Europe’s tallest building.

But for now, with 72 floors complete, it is just Britain’s tallest building and remains an imposing presence close to the River Thames at London Bridge.

From its summit views stretch for 50 miles in every direction.

Westwards you can see as far as Wembley and, beyond, Heathrow’s control tower. To the east you can see across the whole of the 2012 Olympic site to Dartford.

The £1.3billion glass pyramid will be open to the public when it’s finished.

There will be a viewing gallery at the very top, on level 72. Beneath that will be 12 floors of apartments — expected to cost £10million each.

Then there is the five-star Shangri-La hotel and spa, a restaurant and shops, which will sit above 595,000sq ft of office space.

The statistics for this extreme construction, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and mainly Qatar-owned, are mind-blowing.

They have already poured the equivalent of 22 Olympic swimming pools of concrete, reinforced with 5,000 tons of steel rods to complete the central spine.

Late last year they did a 36-hour continuous pour of concrete — enough to fill the clock tower of Big Ben.

Now the outside surface is being clad with reinforced glass — 11,000 panels of it.

Do I like it? I think so, but I’m not quite sure. I’m biased, because I love monumental architecture, and I’ve thought for ages that we need a really big building in London. I like its simplicity and poise; its non-Mies-van-der-Rohe-angles; its place by the river – so daring to be so close to the Tower, instead of hiding it away in Docklands.

I wish it was slightly more interesting. This is going to be our Eiffel Tower, whether we like it or not; and the Eiffel Tower is far more beautiful. But let’s wait and see. I’ll pass judgement when it’s finished.

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