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CaFE have just published a new DVD resource called The Sacraments: Transforming Everyday Life. Take a look at the promotional video here. Stay with it (it’s only 7 minutes): as well as the teaching input at the beginning, there are some wonderful short interviews with lay people about how their lives have been transformed by their faith, and a brief introduction to your hosts Paschal and Pippa as they wander around Rome. They should be given their own TV series.

You can order the DVD pack from the CaFE website here.

Here is the blurb:

The Sacraments (Part 1) is a four session, TV quality series by CaFE, exploring the topics (i) Why Sacraments? (ii) Baptism. (iii) Confirmation. (iv) The Eucharist.

Each session includes a short film featuring laypeople living out the sacrament in their daily lives, plus in-depth explanations from experts on the theology of the sacrament, with examples of practical application. Ideal for those exploring the Church, and for Mass-goers seeking to refresh their faith. It is also suitable for use in schools and with confirmation groups (of all ages) and their parents.

Presented by Paschal Uche and Pippa Baker, with an introduction from Archbishop Bernard Longley. Filmed on location in Rome and around the UK.

Featuring Sr Catherine Droste OP, Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, Jo Boyce, Stephen Rooney, Fr David Oakley, David Wells, Barry and Margaret Mizen, Fr Paul Keane, Fr Stephen Wang, and more…

I get a few minutes in each film, sitting in a cafe (a real one!) near the station in St Albans, pretending to drink tea, being grilled by Paschal and Pippa. Maybe next time I will get the trip to Rome…

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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I gave a talk about baptism this weekend at a retreat, and by sheer coincidence/providence I happened to visit – for the first time ever as an adult – the church of my own baptism in west London. I knew it was there; I’d just never made the time to go and find it.

The talk was part of the wonderful Expression 2012 – a retreat for young people in Salisbury, now in its third year. The topic I had been asked to speak about was ‘living your faith in the world’. So instead of making up my own list of ‘spiritual resources’ that could be helpful for any young Catholic trying to live their faith, I spoke about the ‘resources’ that the Church herself gives to each one of us at our baptism: a set of godparents (representing the support of the whole Church), a creed (representing the richness of the whole Catholic faith), a baptismal robe (representing our new-found dignity as a children of God and the purity of heart that we hope to preserve), and a baptismal candle (representing the light and love of Christ).

I know we are given many other things as well, but these very concrete and visual gifts gave me an opportunity to talk about some of the habits that make living one’s faith easier and more joyful than it might be, and make it less likely that we will lose it: trying to find Catholic friends and groups that will support you; reading the bible and learning about your faith; trying to live by your Catholic values and be a person of kindness and charity; and coming to know the love of Christ in a personal and intimate way through prayer and the sacraments.

So baptism was on my mind this weekend, but not particularly in a personal way. Then I got a lift back to London with a friend, who dropped me off at Gunnersbury station. Then I find that the tube is closed for the weekend, and there is the dreaded bus replacement service in its place. I try to ‘relax into’ the ordeal, as I’m in no rush to get back. The bus comes, and it drops everyone off at Turnham Green station to pick up the District Line. And there, directly opposite the station, is the Anglican church where I was baptised 45 years ago! St Michael and All Saints, Bedford Park.

It was incredibly moving to step inside for the first time in all these years, especially after the reflection at the weekend, and after being very touched by the adult baptisms in  Westminster Cathedral at the Easter Vigil. This is the place where my Christian faith began – where I was clothed in Christ all those years ago, cleansed from original sin, adopted as a child of God, incorporated into Christ’s body the Church, and made a sharer in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. I had a good look at the font – I assume it was the one in use back in the ’60s – and said a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the grace of baptism, and for the faith of my parents and godparents that brought me there.

It’s a beautiful and highly distinctive church – see the image above. The font is at the back, with an enormous ‘lid/cap’ (technical term please?) hanging from the ceiling. I pushed it aside a couple of inches to see inside, but then became terrified that the whole contraption would collapse around me.

The church seems to be very Anglo-Catholic, but I’m not very good at telling these things: the seven windows in the east wall depict the seven sacraments; there are votive candles and Stations of the Cross; a tabernacle above the high altar in the sanctuary; and even a statue of St Joan of Arc!

In case anyone is confused – my parents were both Anglican when I was born, hence my baptism here at the Anglican parish church in Turnham Green (off Chiswick High Road).

I’m always telling parents to celebrate the anniversary of their children’s baptisms each year, with as much festivity as they would their birthdays. It was good to remember my own baptism this weekend.

[Update: I just found a photo of the baptismal font on Flickr! Here it is:]

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I led a study day on the New Evangelisation last week. The first talk was simply about what it all means.

In one sense, it’s an odd phrase: Isn’t evangelisation always new?

Even Blessed John Paul II’s famous tag-line is not too helpful in this respect. He said we need an evangelisation that is ‘new in its ardour, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression’. But there is nothing new about needing this newness – haven’t we always needed new ardour, new expressions, new methods? And hasn’t the Church always (well, nearly always) responded with some magnificent and unexpected and new embodiment of the missionary spirit?

Blessed Pope John Paul II during a General Audience

On the other hand, perhaps there is something truly new about the present situation, meaning the situation of the Church during and since Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate. Some of the new factors might include: the crisis of ‘missiology’ (the theology of mission and evangelisation) in the second half of the twentieth century, and the corresponding crisis within the Church’s missionary  outreach; the number of baptised people, of people who have been ‘initiated’ sacramentally, who have not really heard the Gospel message in a personal way, who have not been evangelised themselves, or perhaps have not been well catechised after their initiation; the need to re-evangelise former Christian cultures and societies (this isn’t new, but it is certainly pressing and it feels new to those living through it); or the challenge for Western societies to hold onto their Christian moral and spiritual roots before they truly slip into a post-Christian secularism – one of Pope Benedict’s themes.

I’m just summarising. If you are interested, please listen to the talk yourself.

You can listen here.

You can download the talk here.

[I post about the second half of the study day here, which includes the audio links: The New Evangelisation in practice: five UK initiatives and their significance for the wider Church]

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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’ve been saving this up for a quiet weekend post. These are throwaway comments in the context of a journalistic interview, but there are some serious questions in the background.

Alok Jah reports:

Guy Consolmagno, who is one of the pope’s astronomers, said he would be “delighted” if intelligent life was found among the stars. “But the odds of us finding it, of it being intelligent and us being able to communicate with it – when you add them up it’s probably not a practical question.”

He said that the traditional definition of a soul was to have intelligence, free will, freedom to love and freedom to make decisions. “Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.” Would he baptise an alien? “Only if they asked.”

Meeting intelligent extra-terrestrial life-forms would open up a lot of theological issues. Do they have a spiritual soul? What is our relationship with them? How do they fit into God’s plan of salvation? If they asked me to baptise them my main question would be: Do they need baptism? Any thoughts in the comment boxes please.

Alien baptism was not the focus of the interview. Consolmagno spent much more time talking about the positive relationship that is possible between science and faith.

Consolmagno, who became interested in science through reading science fiction, said that the Vatican was well aware of the latest goings-on in scientific research. “You’d be surprised,” he said.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which Stephen Hawking is a member, keeps the senior cardinals and the pope up-to-date with the latest scientific developments. Responding to Hawking’s recent comments that the laws of physics removed the need for God, Consolmagno said: “Steven Hawking is a brilliant physicist and when it comes to theology I can say he’s a brilliant physicist.”

Consolmagno curates the pope’s meteorite collection and is a trained astronomer and planetary scientist at the Vatican’s observatory. He dismissed the ideas of intelligent design – a pseudoscientific version of creationism. “The word has been hijacked by a narrow group of creationist fundamentalists in America to mean something it didn’t originally mean at all. It’s another form of the God of the gaps. It’s bad theology in that it turns God once again into the pagan god of thunder and lightning.”

Consolmagno’s comments came as the pope made his own remarks about science at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham. Speaking to pupils, he encouraged them to look at the bigger picture, over and above the subjects they studied. “The world needs good scientists, but a scientific outlook becomes dangerously narrow if it ignores the religious or ethical dimension of life, just as religion becomes narrow if it rejects the legitimate contribution of science to our understanding of the world,” he said. “We need good historians and philosophers and economists, but if the account they give of human life within their particular field is too narrowly focused, they can lead us seriously astray.”

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I gave a talk at the weekend to the Catholic Society of the University of Hertfordshire, which meets for Mass and a social every Sunday evening at St Peter’s parish in Hatfield.

I was asked to speak about ‘the universal call to holiness’, which gave me an excuse to re-read chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, the document about the Church from the Second Vatican Council.

An anonymous saint

One of the themes touched on there goes to the very heart of the Christian mystery: that holiness is both a sheer, unmerited gift; and also something that we have to choose and strive after. And even the choosing, somehow, is a gift. ‘By God’s gift, [Christians] must hold onto and complete in their lives this holiness they have received.’

It reminded me of that well-known phrase: ‘Act as if everything depended on you; and pray as if everything depended on God’. I’m quoting from memory. Is it St Augustine? But then I read someone else saying that it is equally profound, and challenging in a different way, to reverse the endings: ‘Pray as if everything depended on you; and act as if everything depended on God’.

Meaning (I think): Pray really hard for God’s help, as if your prayers really matter (which they do), and as if the actions about which you are praying will have enormous consequences (which they will). But then act with an inner detachment, even with a sort of ‘holy indifference’ to the consequences, because you know that God alone is guiding the unfolding of events, and God alone can bring true good out of the situation. So the inner resignation brings a kind of serenity to one’s actions, it takes away the sense of panic or despair that can arise with an unhealthy sense of one’s own importance, without taking away from the wholehearted commitment to the task at hand.

I think both versions are helpful.

Here is how paragraph 40 of Lumen Gentium puts it. (You’ll have to look up the footnotes online.)

The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection, preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: “Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”.(216)(2*) Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength(217) and that they might love each other as Christ loves them.(218) The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. They are warned by the Apostle to live “as becomes saints”,(219) and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience”,(220) and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness.(221) Since truly we all offend in many things (222) we all need God’s mercies continually and we all must daily pray: “Forgive us our debts”(223)(3*)

Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity;(4*) by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.

(216 Mt. 5, 48. 217 Cf. Mc. 12, 30. 218 Cf Jn. 13, 34; 15, 12. 219 Eph. 5, 3. 220 Col . 3, 12. 221 Cf. Gal. 5, 22; Rom. 6, 22. 222 Cf. Jas. 3, 2. 223 1 Mt. 6, 12.)

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