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Archive for October, 2012

The National Office for Vocation, in association with the Catholic Truth Society, is publishing a new series of leaflets about the different Christian vocations. Take a look at the CTS website here for more information.

They should be very useful, not least because of their size and cost (and of course they are beautifully produced and full of inspiring stories and information!): You get a pack of 25 leaflets for £5.95, so it is easy for a parish or school to splash out, buy a few packs, and distribute the leaflets to various groups without worrying about breaking the bank. Or as an individual you can keep a few in your pocket and hand them out to people on the bus or tube as a form of evangelisation!

The first three were published this month, on marriage, religious life, and diocesan priesthood.

You can also see the new site about religious life from the National Office for Vocation, which also has a micro-site about religious life for 10-16 year olds!

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Two English academics from the Maryvale Institute have been speaking about the importance of the Catechism at the Synod for the New Evangelisation.

Here are my own reflections that I gave recently about the Catechism and the Year of Faith:

How can you share and defend your faith if you do not know it?

This is one part of the Year of Faith: appreciating the astonishing gift that we have received in the Catechism, appreciating the richness within it. As a Church, we have had the Catechism for twenty years now; but I feel as if we hardly know it.

Many of us are scared of big books, and this is certainly an extremely large book. And even if we want to understand and use it, we tend to pick and choose and filter – death by a thousand cuts. But Pope Benedict calls us to embrace the whole vision of faith presented here, instead of reducing it to our own limited vision.

In my experience of working with different groups over the last few years, there is a tremendous hunger for Catholic teaching, whether we are talking about teenagers, young adults, engaged couples, parents, enquirers – indeed everywhere.

I don’t mean that this teaching is always understood or accepted straightaway; I don’t mean that people are unquestioning or without struggles and doubts. But they want to know what is what; they find the Catholic faith interesting, challenging, fascinating – whenever it is opened up honestly and with some enthusiasm and conviction.

They want to know about the doctrines, the liturgy, the sacraments, the moral life, prayer, spirituality, etc; they want to wrestle with something solid and serious; they want to believe that it matters; and they feel bored, impatient and slightly let down if the faith is presented in a watered-down version, or with a particular spin.

And let’s face it, anyone can search on Google to find what the Church really teaches; so there is something slightly disappointing for them if the preaching, teaching or catechesis they receive is giving them less than they can find on the smart phone in their pockets.

And see this report about Maryvale and the Synod:

Two senior academics from the Maryvale Institute on the outskirts of Birmingham in England are calling on the Synod fathers to promote better knowledge and understanding of the riches of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Dr. Petroc Willey, dean of graduate research and Dr Caroline Farey, head of catechetical formation at Maryvale are both taking part in the Synod of Bishops on New Evangelisation and believe the value of Catechism is still to be discovered, 20 years on from its publication.

Dr Farey describes the volume as ‘a pearl of great price’, words she repeated to Pope Benedict as she received a copy from his hands at the conclusion of the Mass in St Peter’s Square marking the opening of the Year of Faith. Dr Petroc says it’s still not well enough known and understood, often being seen as “content only…..and while that’s the case it will remain a dry, dusty book. But it’s been written to engage for new evangelisation with the spiritual life of the person, to promote conversion to Christ, enshrining how to teach the faith, as well as what the faith is…..

Listen to Philippa Hitchen’s interview with Dr Farey and Dr Willey: 

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When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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When I was in Cardiff two weeks ago I had a couple of hours to visit the National Museum. It was the first time I had seen a life-size version of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss. What really threw me was not the sculpture itself, but the textual explanation on the side. I had no idea before what the image actually depicted: two lovers in an adulterous embrace who will later be slain by the woman’s jilted husband.

It was a real hermeneutical challenge to me, showing how one’s lifelong perception of a situation or event can be partial or distorted or misleading.

I’d always taken this beautiful sculpture to be a symbol of intimacy, tenderness, passion and romantic love – which in many ways it still is. But when you know the story, it shows how something so pure, beautiful and even ‘innocent’ as romance can sometimes do such damage, when it causes someone to separate themselves from everything else that has been important to them – from all their other loves and commitments.

Passion and romance seem to justify themselves, in the heat of the moment, and to justify all the decisions that flow from them. Love, in our culture, often seems to have the final, decisive word; as if there is no possibility of having another perspective on it, or putting it in a larger context.

Don’t misunderstand me: love, passion, romance – these are good things; as long as they help us to deepen and make sense of the life we have, rather than destroying it. (And nor does the understandable passion of the betrayed husband justify him murdering the lovers…)

Here is the caption from the Tate website (referring to their marble version):

The Tate’s The Kiss is one of three full-scale versions made in Rodin’s lifetime. Its blend of eroticism and idealism makes it one of the great images of sexual love. However, Rodin considered it overly traditional, calling The Kiss ‘a large sculpted knick-knack following the usual formula.’ The couple are the adulterous lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, who were slain by Francesca’s outraged husband. They appear in Dante’s Inferno, which describes how their passion grew as they read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere together. The book can just be seen in Paolo’s hand.

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There are so many reports in the press and adverts on the tube for IVF that you’d think it was the only form of fertility treatment on offer to couples who are struggling to conceive a child.

A friend of mine,  Leonora Paasche Butau, has been studying bioethics, theology of the body, and fertility management for the last few years. I recently read this report from her on the ICN website about the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, and the pioneering alternatives to IVF that they have been developing.

The Pope Paul VI Institute is the brainchild of the bold and courageous Dr Thomas Hilgers, MD and his wife Sue Hilgers who founded the institute in 1985 as a response to the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI, in this encyclical letter, expressed the Catholic Church’s longstanding tradition on marital life and love and called on “men of science” to direct their research to reproductive healthcare which fully respects life and the dignity of marriage and women. Dr Hilgers, as a young medical student in 1968, felt that the Church was speaking directly to him through this letter and by December of that same year he started his first research project to better understand natural fertility regulation and women’s health care.

The results of years of study and research have been phenomenal. The Pope Paul VI Institute has developed a new and superior approach to women’s reproductive health care which embodies the best principles of medicine and builds up the culture of life in a world which finds its solutions in contraception, sterilisation and abortion.

The Institutes 30+ years of research has seen the development of the highly successful Creighton Model Fertility Care System (CrMS) and NaProTechnology (Natural Procreative Technology) which has reached 14 countries around the world.

NaProTechnology allows a couple to observe certain biological markers to determine when they are naturally fertile and infertile so that they can either avoid or achieve pregnancy. In addition to this, it is a very effective tool in identifying and treating underlying causes of infertility with success rates up to three times higher than In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). It would seem that the current philosophy of reproductive medicine does not seek to treat underlying diseases meaning that millions of women suffer from infertility without ever knowing the reason. Although IVF is by far the most common approach to the treatment of infertility, the women who undergo treatment using IVF would still remain with the underlying diseases which are causing the infertility to begin with.

As well as being used to treat infertility, NaProTechnology helps to obtain proper diagnosis and effective treatment for a range of other health and gynaecological problems and abnormalities such as recurrent miscarriage, premenstrual syndrome, postpartum depression and abnormal bleeding ‒ offering great hope to women.

Another of the unique contributions of NaProTechnology is the empowerment of women that comes with the knowledge and self-awareness of their bodies and their reproductive cycles.

Dr Anne Carus, a NaPro Specialist doctor from Life Fertility Care in Leamington Spa, states: “with NaProTechnology couples cycle charting empowers them through education.  We find couples value the active contribution that they are able to make to the diagnostic and treatment process. NaProTechnology provides an individualised medical support. Our annual audit indicates that 89% of our clients would have found it helpful to receive information about NaProTechnology from their GP practice. Couples find it difficult to find real support to natural conception within the NHS.”

The research of Dr Thomas Hilgers – at a time when it is difficult for many obstetrician-gynecologists to practice their profession without prescribing oral contraceptives, carrying out sterilisations or referring patients for procedures such as IVF ‒ is testament to his faith in Christ and commitment to responding to the challenges of Humanae Vitae.

For more information see the website of the Institute here. See the articles here from the UK Life Fertility Care site. And for more general issues about fertility and for practical help in the UK see the Life Fertility Care site itself.

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I was in Cardiff last week to give a talk about the Year of Faith. I was meditating on the words of Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei, and in particular on the need for us to ‘rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith’. These are the concluding thoughts I gave.

Not the Allen Hall Chapel! But a Cimabue Crucifix from the Basilica of San Domenico

I work at Allen Hall, which is the seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster in central London. Our chapel is over fifty years old, and it is in desperate need of refurbishment.

We have a huge sanctuary with a high ceiling and a beautiful sense of space, but it is sparsely furnished and what little furnishing there is looks very tired. As part of the refurbishment, we are thinking about commissioning a large Cimabue-style crucifix to hang above the altar. Last week, as an experiment, a very roughly produced crucifix was hung in the centre of the sanctuary, just to see how it ‘sits’, how it ‘feels’.

It’s about 7 feet high, made of crudely cut whitewashed wood, with just a charcoal sketch of the outline of Jesus’s crucified body, and the heads of Mary and John placed symbolically at the end of each arm.

It has utterly transformed the sanctuary. You have an immediate sense of the presence of Christ, standing there powerfully in the centre of the church. Everything within the sanctuary is suddenly seen in a new perspective. Of course he was always there before – above all in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle – but now we really realise that he is there, visually, spatially, emotionally; with the eyes and the heart as well as with the head.

When you are looking at the altar, the priest, the ambo or the tabernacle, you are constantly aware, at the edge of your vision, of the powerful presence of Jesus who died for us and rose from the dead for our salvation. It’s as if he has crashed through the roof, and broken open our complacency and forgetfulness.

It reminds me of the gospel story about the paralysed man, only in reverse (Mk 2). You remember that his friends brought him to meet Jesus, but there were so many people gathered round that they could not get in the door. So instead of giving up, they went to the top of the house, broke through the roof, and lowered their friend down on a stretcher to where Jesus was standing.

For us, in the chapel at Allen Hall, it’s the opposite. It’s as if we are sitting in this sacred space, often distracted, sometimes lost in our own concerns or anxieties, forgetting what really matters. So Jesus breaks through the roof, lowers himself down into the centre of the sanctuary – just above the altar – and stands there before us in all his glory.

It’s as if he is saying: ‘Wake up! Remember! I’m here!’ The fact that the two strands of white rope hang there so ostentatiously reinforces the perception that he has just descended from above.

This says something to us about the Year of Faith. We need to allow Jesus to break into our lives again, so that we can rediscover his face, hear his voice more clearly, and appreciate his life-giving presence.

Our faith is real. It really matters. He is here amongst us. If only we could see him more clearly, and deepen and intensify our faith. If only we could let our hearts be broken open by his love, our minds be transformed by his truth, and our vision expand to take in the vast horizon of the gospel.

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This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

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