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Posts Tagged ‘Christ’

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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I’m just back from the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. Eighteen of us went to represent the seminary, and we had a fantastic week – despite the patchy weather. They talk about the rain in Ireland being ‘soft’, but for the two hours of the Mass for Reconciliation on Thursday afternoon it got distinctly hard. I’ve never worn my alb over two jackets before, and under a liturgical rain-repelling poncho, but every inch of extra clothing – whether liturgical or not – was welcome. I bumped into lots of old friends, and had some wonderful conversations with other visitors and pilgrims.

The exhibition “Through the Eyes of the Apostles” at the IEC

We arrived for the Eucharistic procession on Wednesday, and stayed on until yesterday morning. The main Congress events took place at the RDS – a big stadium surrounded by conference halls, meeting rooms, hotels and restaurants. It managed to combine the feel of a village fete and an international festival. On the one hand, people wandering round the central green with hot-dogs and ice creams, working out which stalls to visit and whether this particular shower warrants taking the back-pack off and getting the umbrella out or not. On the other hand, for the final Statio Orbis Mass at Croke Park stadium, about 70,000 people gathered from possibly every nation in the world, celebrating both the Irishness of the Irish Church, and the catholicity of vision and culture that come from belonging to a Church that is not just a national body.

What made it such a great week for us was the hospitality we received in the parish of Ratoath, just north of Dublin. They put up the whole seminary group in families around the town, fed us royally, and even gave us the time and space to watch the England/Sweden game. It was much more than just an International Congress for us, it was an experience of the goodness and kindness of ordinary Irish people, and a glimpse of how important the faith still is for many Catholics in Ireland, despite the difficulties.

Breda O’Brien, one of the speakers at the Congress, gives a flavour of the event:

This week’s Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was a fantastic, life-giving experience for many

‘THEY HAVE brought purgatory to the International Eucharistic Congress,” my friend muttered, looking at the long queues for the various workshops. He had come along five minutes before a talk was due to start, bless him.

He had probably been lulled into a false sense of security by the headlines about empty seats at the congress. Yes, there were empty arena seats, but it holds 25,000. The 160 workshops have all been packed, and some people queued patiently for up to two hours to hear their chosen speaker.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, ever benign and obliging, gave his talk twice with only a 15-minute break between, in order not to disappoint pilgrims. The organisers showed his recorded talk later as well. It was amazing to see people standing on sodden grass in the pouring rain in front of a screen, just to hear him.

There was no favouritism regarding those who were turned away from full-up workshops, because they included a former taoiseach, a Senator, several bishops, and one speaker’s mother. In fact, the Senator got turned away from three different talks in a row.

I began to feel that if Pope Benedict turned up after the number mandated by health and safety regulations had taken their seats, he would have been turned away, too.

The workshops are one of the real lessons of the congress. The demand for them shows there is a real hunger for spiritual and intellectual nourishment among Catholics. Milton’s line, The hungry sheep look up and are not fed, has often run through my head regarding the Irish Catholic Church, but they were fed royally at the congress.

There was a bewildering array of topics on offer, everything from reaching lapsed Catholics to justice for the developing world.

O’Brien goes on to write about the profile of the participants:

There were 2,000 volunteers, of which a significant minority were young. The majority of the people attending the congress were a similar age profile to the 1,000 who gathered for the Association of Catholic Priests’ meeting; that is, the so-called grey brigade.

There was one difference. There were only a handful of young people at the priests’ meeting. I’m not saying it in a point-scoring way, but there were hundreds of Irish people in their late teens and early 20s at the congress. In fact, there were even several hundred who came to a youth session that included confession on the night of the Ireland v Spain match.

The 30- and 40-somethings were the biggest missing group. The reasons why would probably make for an interesting sociological study.

Survivors of child abuse were not forgotten, either. The media queried the lack of an Irish speaker on clerical abuse, but it may have been evidence of a new humility, an awareness of needing to listen to and learn from people outside the country.

My friend might have declared the queues to be purgatory, but I think for most people, the congress has been unforgettable in a good way.

Sarah MacDonald gives the youth perspective here:

Many of those young people attending or volunteering at the International Eucharistic Congress cite World Youth Day as a primary influence in the development of their faith. Many are affiliated with groups such as Youth 2000, Catholic Youth Care, Taize or gospel choirs.

Eimear Felle, a 27-year-old Dubliner volunteering at the Congress, told Catholic News Service she was at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 and in Sydney in 2008.

“I received so much from these. That’s why I decided to volunteer at the Congress,” she said. “I wanted to give something back instead of always receiving. I felt it was time to reverse the roles.”

She said she believes that, for Ireland, the 50th International Eucharistic Congress is “a huge opportunity which we may never see again.”

She links her decision to volunteer to her understanding of the Eucharist.

“When a man came to my parish to talk about the Congress and the need for volunteers, I didn’t have to think twice about volunteering — after all, the Eucharist is about sharing,” she said.

Felle works in the family business and so was able to take off June 10-17 to help pilgrims at an information stand in the mornings before spending each afternoon volunteering at the hotel where most of the visiting prelates stayed. This latter role gave her “a new insight into the cardinals and bishops. I see their human side, and they are just like the rest of us,” she said, laughing.

But the eucharistic congress is being held against a backdrop of anger over the clerical abuse scandals in Ireland as well as declining Mass attendance and a more aggressively secular culture. Felle said many people in Ireland “are letting their anger overshadow the positive aspects” of the church’s work.

“It is very easy to do, but if they could just open their minds a little bit and see what is going on …,” she said, adding, “I really feel something good is going to come out of this — Ireland really needs this.”

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, had just finished celebrating Mass in the main arena of the Royal Dublin Society. One of his altar servers was Joseph Merrick, a 25-year-old schoolteacher from Dublin.

“There is a great vibe around the campus,” he said, remarking on how it reminded him of World Youth Day in Madrid and Sydney.

“I chose to become a volunteer for the week because the church has done an awful lot for me, and this is one small way of giving something back.” He added that having attended two World Youth Day events, “It’s an opportunity to give a little back to the people who hosted me in their countries.”

Merrick is involved with a number of faith-based groups, including Youth 2000 and the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, an order that raises money for Christians in the Holy Land. He also has been a spokesman for St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society, a lay-run organization that promotes priesthood and support for seminarians; it is Eucharist-centered.

The 25-year-old said it can be difficult to explain to his peers what his faith means to him.

“All you can do is be patient and explain as best you can to your peers why you believe this or do that. Maybe in some small way seeds might be sown,” he said.

And one of my own highlights was an exhibition organised by Communion and Liberation about Capernaum, and in particular about the house of St Peter there; it was called Through the Eyes of the Apostles. I’d never thought about the significance of this house – which would have been a base for the whole Galilean mission of Jesus and his disciples, and the place where much of the work of the early church was developed. This summary is from David Couchman:

At Capernaum, there are the remains of an octagonal church which was built in the fifth century (Byzantine period), and remained in use until the 7th century.

In 1968, archaeologists re-discovered the remains of a much earlier church underneath the 5th century church.

This earlier church had been built around what was originally a private house. One room of the house showed signs that it had been used as a meeting place from very early in the Christian era – during the second half of the first century. From the earliest times, followers of Jesus Christ believed that this house was the home of Simon Peter, the leader of Jesus’s disciples. It was pointed out as such to early pilgrims such as Egeria, the mother of emperor Constantine.

The walls of this room had been plastered, and visitors had scratched prayers mentioning the name of Jesus on the plaster. The name of Peter is also mentioned in the inscriptions. In the fourth century AD this ‘house church’ was enlarged and enclosed within the walls of its own compound, separating it from the rest of the town.

So it seems clear that, from the earliest times, followers of Christ preserved a memory that this was Peter’s house. There is no reason to doubt this tradition. The remains that can still be seen today may be the exact place where Jesus lived.

A modern Franciscan church has been built over the earlier remains.

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Bruno Forte, Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto in Italy, gave a talk to the clergy of Westminster Diocese last week about the New Evangelisation. He gave a nice explanation of the meaning of beauty, which is whatever allows us ‘to see the whole in fragments’; it may not be original, but I hadn’t heard it before.

He put this in the context of post-modern culture, where there is such a suspicion of grand narratives, ideologies, and large claims about truth; so the only possibility of helping people to glimpse and then grasp the truth is through fragments – but fragments that eventually allow one to take hold of a greater truth. ‘Witness’ would be another important notion here: we can’t always convince others by argument, but we can still witness to something bigger than ourselves, to a more luminous beauty hidden within the ordinariness of this particular encounter. This is true for all truth, not just religious truth.

Here are a few paragraphs from his talk, which you can read in full here.

The “post-modern” side of this crisis turns into a denial of any ideological standpoint as totalitarian and violent. Typically, ideologies forces the post-modern man to live on fragments: as a period of contamination (everything is contaminated, nothing is worthy) and fruition (it is better to live intensely, enjoying pleasures), the post-modern era turns out to be an era of frustration, a long good-bye to any sense of security (Gianni Vattimo).

Religion is also compared with ideologies, and, therefore, is rejected because of its prejudices. It becomes necessary, then, to clarify the character of the God of Christian faith as totally unlike the totalitarian violence of ideological reason: a God who decided to choose the abandonment of the Cross to show the world the depth of his endless love. Moreover, the denial of the possibility of universal outlook pushes many post-modern people to withdraw into themselves. A return to this kind of produces in fact a “crowd of loners”. The force of Christian charity must be commended as a remedy for loneliness and as a way of creating points of contact and solidarity with others.

Christianity sees the whole in fragments as when the Son who had been abandoned on the Cross is then resurrected to new life. Seeing “the whole in a fragment” can be considered another name for “beauty”. It is important, therefore, in the post-modern era that Christianity show itself as the disclosure of a humble, yet saving beauty—in the most beautiful realisation of our humanity, in the resurrection of the Crucified.

The cultural movements referred to produce ethical consequences. The scattered islands created by the post-modern fragmentation turns others into “moral strangers” whom we must be wary of. This defines the so-called “liquid modernity”, which has been often described by the British sociologist and philosopher of Jewish-Polish origins, Zygmunt Bauman. Nowadays, there are no “given” nor “axiomatic” models and patterns: there are simply too many conflicting instances so that all of them end by losing their force authority. Since there are no absolute points of reference, everything can be justified in terms of the current fashion. Ethical standards, given to the Western World through the Bible, now appear weakened, concealed and hardly evident.

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I’m staggered by Keith Ward’s suggestion in a recent article that the Church of England should ‘modify it’s traditional basis’ so that ‘it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts’. His vision for the Church of England has hardly any room for revelation, truth, authority, scripture or the supernatural.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

The Christian community becomes a place where people can express themselves, their aspirations, their questions, their explorations, and their tentative answers; Jesus hardly gets a mention; and even when Ward proposes, as an alternative to ‘the acceptance of some formal creed’, a basic commitment to ‘an objective morality, and loyalty to a God believed to be revealed in and through Jesus’, he qualifies this by stating that ‘many interpretations of that revelation’ will be possible.

It’s a fairly hollow version of Christianity. Or, to be less judgemental and more theological, it’s a presentation of Anglicanism in this country as a purely natural religion, a holding place for all our human religious and quasi-religious longings and instincts, but nothing more.

You probably think I’m exaggerating, but just read a few paragraphs here:

The opportunity for the C of E today is so to modify its traditional basis that it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts.

The Protestant heritage can best be expressed today as the encouragement of freedom of thought and rational criticism of all authority. The church should raise the big questions about human meaning, purpose and value, and encourage their exploration, without pretending it has the final answers.

The national basis of the church must today take fully into account the diversity of modern England, and aim to be fully inclusive — open to all without exception, but not seeking to decry alternative options of thought and belief where they are conducive to human well-being. It will never be, and never has been, the church of all English people. But it can be a national church, in expressing the moral and spiritual ideals of our society and aiming to promote compassion and spirituality throughout society.

Establishment in its present form may not remain. But the church can continue to reflect and help to shape the moral and spiritual values upon which our society at its best is founded — freedom, democracy, justice, a concern for the flourishing of all persons, and a concern for the weak and disadvantaged. All religious and humanist groups can co-operate in this, but it is beneficial to have a national institution formally committed to promoting those values.

This requires a liberal and humane approach to the Christian faith, a commitment which is not narrowly restrictive and doctrinally inflexible, but which preserves a distinctive vision of God as morally demanding, unrestrictedly loving and personally enabling. That vision is seen in many different ways in the person of Jesus and the inner power of the Spirit which filled his life and is present in human hearts. There is no thought here that God is not seen in other ways, too. But this is a way that should attract by a desire to love the good for its own sake, not by a fear of punishment by a basically vindictive God.

Many — I hope, most — Anglicans in England already believe this. But there can be a certain timidity about making senior appointments in the church which, afraid of the anger of those who want a much more exclusive and doctrinally divisive church, and who seem obsessed with gender and sexuality, will opt for a safe and therefore insipid archbishop. What the Church of England needs is an uncompromisingly liberal archbishop, who can lead a Protestant (which must now mean critical and questioning), national (which must now mean inclusive and tolerant) and established (which must now mean committed to the promotion of broad humane and spiritual values) church in an age of rapid scientific advance and moral change.

There is a mistrust of certainty that makes it impossible to believe or propose anything as being true, and Ward states this quite clearly:

[This new Church of England] would have to stop any ordained ministers from pretending that they alone are ‘true’ Christians, and get them to accept, as a condition of ordination, that they are part of one inclusive church with many diverse interpretations of Scripture and tradition, none of them certain and unchangeable.

Has this version of Anglicanism got legs?

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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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When I was searching for images of the Harrowing of Hell on Flickr on Saturday, I came across this other image from a fresco in a church in Chora in Istanbul, together with a beautiful meditation by Jim Forest.

Here is the meditation on the picture, from his book Praying with Icons, revised edition, Orbis Books 2008.

The Paschal icon most often painted by iconographers and most frequently found in Orthodox churches and homes is the Anastasis — Christ’s Descent into Hell. It is also the first Paschal icon to be displayed in the center of the church each year, for it is venerated on Great and Holy Saturday.

The Apostles’ Creed proclaims that, before rising from the dead, Christ “descended into hell.” This is what the icon shows us. Beneath his feet, falling into a pit of darkness, are the broken gates of hell, often shown as a cruciform platform upholding the Savior. “You have descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ,” the Church sings at Pascha, “and have broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and like Jonah after three days in the whale, You have risen from the tomb.”

The gates that seemed capable of imprisoning the dead throughout eternity are, through Christ’s death on the cross, reduced to ruins. All others who have died have come to the land of death as captives, but Christ — in a white or golden robe and surrounded by a mandorla, a symbol of glory and radiant truth — comes as conqueror and rescuer. (In some versions of the icon, there is a scroll in his left hand. When the inscription is shown, it reads, “The record of Adam is torn up, the power of darkness is shattered.”) Beneath the gates of hell, Satan is seen falling into his kingdom of night and disconnection.

The principal figures to the left and right of Christ being raised from their tombs are the parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, while behind them are gathered kings, prophets and the righteous of Israel, among them David and Solomon, Moses, Daniel, Zechariah and John the Baptist.

Second only to Christ in the icon are Adam and Eve, our mysterious original ancestors — so much like us! We live in a culture in which we’re encouraged to find others to blame (and maybe sue) for our troubles — parents, teachers, neighbors, pastors, doctors, spouses, Hollywood, the mass media, big business, the government. But self-justification by finger pointing is nothing new — Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake.

While not forgetting that there is truly much wrong with the structures we live in and thus much that we need to resist and reform in this world, a very different way of looking at things is to focus, first of all, on our own failings.

One of the tougher prayers in the Orthodox Church is the prayer we recite before receiving Communion. It begins, “I believe, O Lord, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”

Perhaps no historian will be tempted to list me among the all-time great sinners, but such a prayer challenges me to stop making myself look relatively good by comparing myself to people who impress me as being much worse — a nice method for finding myself not guilty by reason of comparative innocence.

If the failure of Adam and Eve in Paradise represents the primary catastrophe in human history, the event at the roots of time from which all alienation, division and cruelty has its source, surely this image of divine mercy toward them must be a source of consolation to everyone living in hope of God’s mercy. “Delivered from her chains,” comments an ancient Paschal hymn, “Eve cries out in her joy” — and so may we.

It is only after his conquest of hell that Christ returns to his despairing disciples. “When He had freed those who were bound from the beginning of time,” wrote Saint John of Damascus, “Christ returned from among the dead, having opened for us the way of resurrection.”

The icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell can be linked with our prayer not to live a fear-driven life. We live in what is often a terrifying world. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in — fear of violent crime, fear of terrorists, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, fear of collapse of our pollution-burdened environment, fear of war, and finally fear of death. A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread. There were many elderly people who died in a heat wave in Chicago one summer simply because they didn’t dare leave their apartments in order to get to the air-conditioned shelters the city had provided. Anxious about being mugged, they died of fear.

We can easily get ourselves into a paralyzing state of fear that is truly hellish. The icon reminds us that Christ can enter not just some other hell but the particular hell we happen to be in, grab us by the hands, and lift us out of our tombs.

There is also a modern version of this image – less mystical, but where you can see the details more clearly. (For info about the picture see the Flickr site here).

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We celebrated ‘Tenebrae’ this morning in the college chapel, which consisted of the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday, with an additional longer reading, combined with Morning Prayer.

Detail from the 12th century Byzantine mosaic of the Last Judgement in Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello. The photographer writes: 'I love the way in which keys are scattered around the broken doors of hell, as though there have been many unsuccessful attempts to open them previously'.

Many of you have probably seen the remarkable Second Reading for Holy Saturday before, about the Lord’s descent into hell. Just in case you haven’t, here it is. I don’t know the author, or anything about it’s background. It’s just entitled ‘a reading from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday’. If you do know anything else about it, please do post in the comment box.

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

The final prayer reads:

Almighty, ever-living God, whose Only-begotten Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory, grant that your faithful people, who were buried with him in baptism, may, by his resurrection, obtain eternal life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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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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Catholic devotions are fantastic! Last night, after Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Night Prayer, we processed to the lobby by the front door of the seminary to bless the Epiphany Chalk. Then the Rector took the Holy Chalk, stood on the Holy Step-Ladder, and wrote on the Holy Lintel of the Holy Front Door.

Here is a door from Bamberg marked in the year 2007

OK, I’m getting carried away with the step-ladder, and I know how easily this could all sound a bit mad, or superstitious. But when you realise that it is about faith – that blessings and chalk and inscriptions above doorways can be an outward expression of faith in Christ, and in his power to work in this world and to work through the intercession of his saints – then it makes eminent sense.

Chalk, in itself, doesn’t have any power; but blessed chalk, through our faith in Christ, and in the blessing he gives through his ministers, can be a means for our hearts to be more open to him and our homes to be kept under his protection.

Here is the explanation we were given last night:

The Solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany is associated with many traditions of popular piety. One such is the blessing of homes, through the intercession of the three wise men, using blessed chalk.

An inscription is made above the front door to entrust the home to God’s protection for the new year and ensure all who enter or leave may enjoy God’s blessing. It looks like this:

20 + C + M + B + 12

The number designates the new year, while the ‘CMB’ stands for the traditional names of the wise men – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – and also the prayer Christus mansionem benedicat which means ‘May Christ bless this dwelling’.

This blessing is common especially in Central Europe and is often accompanied by processions of children and their parents.

[Cf. Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 118]

Often broken pieces of chalk are blessed at the end of the Epiphany Mass, using the traditional formula found in the Rituale:

O Lord God, bless this chalk that it may be used for the salvation of the human race.

Through the invocation of Thy most Holy Name, grant that whoever shall take of this chalk and write with it upon the doors of his house the names of Thy saints, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession receive health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The problem, when I got to my own room and made the inscription, was that the door-frame and the walls are all white. Oh well, it’s there for the angels to see.

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I’ve been at the Youth 2000 retreat in Balham for the last three days. Each afternoon I lead an ‘open forum’ workshop where participants bring random questions about faith and Christian life. It’s not that I necessarily provide expert answers, but as a group we thrash the questions around, and if I can shed any light I try to do that.

In yesterday’s session, we went beyond the usual questions about doctrine and morality, and someone asked about the Marian title ‘Co-Redemptrix’. We had a great discussion, just thinking through what we knew about Mary’s role in salvation from the scriptures and the tradition.

I came home this afternoon and found a book by Josef Weiger called Mary, Mother of Faith (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company: 1959), which is more a meditation on the Marian scripture passages than a doctrinal exposition. He has sections on ‘Co-Redemptrix’ and ‘Universal Mediation’.

First of all, he makes it quite clear what the title Co-Redemptrix does not mean.

What it does not mean is that our salvation depends on Mary; that Jesus’ mother is the source of our sanctity; that her own personal sanctity comes from herself; that she possesses a supernatural nature independent of the grace of her divine Son. Nor does it mean that Mary stood in no need of redemption.

Our redeemer is Christ; our Mediator is Christ; he has redeemed us by his death; and all are redeemed by him; all without exception; including Jesus’ holy mother.

Having said all that, which certainly needs saying, because the title can so easily be misunderstood, Weiger goes on to reflect on what it truly means.

At the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to invite her to give her consent to God’s plans:

God bound his will to the will of one of his creatures – the choicest of them, no doubt, and the most endowed with grace; still, the will of a human being was to help decide God’s plan for salvation; in fact, God made the salvation of the world dependent upon the freely-given consent of a human heart [...].

Divine Wisdom made our redemption part-dependent on the Yes or No of the Virgin. Our Redeemer had no desire to force himself on people or to assert himself by deploying rights and opportunities easily available to his almightiness. The salvation of the world was to become a reality in an act of faith, and through the faith of a virgin heart. Mary was to be a partner in our redemption. That is the meaning of her title, Co-Redemptrix. Without the Virgin’s faith, there would be no redemption by Christ. Through her faith Mary gave the Word of God a human home. Our Lord’s incarnation and the Virgin’s faith are an indivisible whole.

If we wonder what it is that distinguishes Mary’s faith from that of other saints – hers was necessary to bring about the salvation of the world in Christ; and that can be said of no other human being. Other people’s faith is necessary for their own salvation. The Virgin’s faith and her Son’s achievements are prerequisites, for without Mary’s faith and Christ’s death and glorification, it would be impossible. It is in fact on quite a different plane. Thus one person’s lack of faith cannot jeopardize the salvation of the whole world… So belief in her part in redemption implies belief in the irreplaceable and representative character of her faith [...].

Mary was no mere passive instrument of the Incarnation, she took an active part in it; so much so that, lacking her faith and her faithfulness, the salvation of the world would have been jeopardized [pp. 90-100].

This all makes theological sense to me. It’s hard to deny that the Virgin Mary, in a unique manner, cooperated in the work of our redemption; that in this limited but crucial sense she was a Co-Redemptrix. The big question, which we didn’t all agree on, is whether the doctrine should be defined!

[Lots of stuff here if you want to follow up the scripture, history, theology, patristics, Magisterium, FAQs, objections, etc: http://www.fifthmariandogma.com/ ]

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There are lots of these videos floating around that show some aspect of faith or the Christian story through the lens of social media. This is one of my favourites, from Igniter Media. Called ‘Follow’, it shows very simply and very powerfully how the events of Jesus’s life might have been communicated if there had been Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. The immediacy of the messages brought to life for me not just the story itself, but the ordinary humanity of the people involved – people I treat too often as just characters in a book.

It’s not specifically a Christmas video. But anyway: Happy Christmas!

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In my recent talk about the saints, I was developing an idea about how human maturity and sanctity involve learning to depend on others rather than learning to be more independent and self-sufficient. I linked this to a particular interpretation of Original Sin and the Fall. Here is the passage:

Let me look at the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. This is my speculation and not Catholic doctrine.

Adam and Eve leave Eden

One of the tragedies of the Fall, even before the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, was the fact that when Eve was tempted, instead of sharing this problem with Adam or with the Lord, she tried to argue with the serpent on her own. She didn’t turn to another and ask for help; she faced the challenge alone, trusted in herself too much, and in effect asserted her autonomy instead of allowing herself to receive the support of another. And I’m not making a point about woman’s need for man here. Adam, even though he was enticed by Eve and complicit with her choice, also acted alone. He didn’t stop to talk or reason with Eve or with the Lord. He just acted (Genesis Ch 3).

It’s the same with Cain and Abel in the following chapter of Genesis (Genesis Ch 4). This is a difficult passage to interpret, but at its heart it’s about two brothers faced with difficulties and temptations. When Cain was struggling with the Lord (because for some reason his offering was not acceptable to the Lord), instead of turning to his brother Abel, confiding in him, asking for his support and help and advice – he killed him. And when the Lord confronts him and says ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain replies, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ He should have been his brother’s keeper, but he was not – and this is the heart of the tragedy.

And even more so (this is my interpretation), Cain should have allowed his brother Abel to be his keeper; he could have turned to his younger brother in this moment of crisis, in this struggle with the Lord, and asked for his help. But instead, he depended on his own resources and turned against his brother. Think of what Abel could have done for Cain if Cain he had opened his heart to him and confided in him?

The passage continues: “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” This is usually interpreted as meaning that the blood of Abel is crying out in vengeance against his brother, broadcasting the truth of his murder – and this is surely the primary meaning of the text.

But perhaps there is another hidden meaning here, which is that Abel’s blood is crying out in petition for his brother. Abel, in this story, is the just man, the innocent victim, like Christ. Just as Abel (we can suppose) wished he could have cried out to support his brother in that moment of temptation and crisis, now he cries out to the Lord, offering his own forgiveness, asking for forgiveness from the Lord for Cain, and praying for a sinner – his brother – just as Christ would pray for sinners from the Cross.

The point here is that Cain failed to be his brother’s keeper – he chose independence rather than dependence on another. Abel, in contrast, is the one who would have wanted to be his brother’s keeper, but wasn’t given the opportunity in this life. And now in death his blood cries out not just to indict his brother, but to intercede for him.

So part of our own healing and reconciliation as Christians is learning to become more dependent on others, learning to need others, when the constant temptation is to go it alone and isolate ourselves.

We see this healing and reconciliation taking place in many ways, one of which is in praying for each other, and asking others to pray for us.

A profound vision of redeemed Christian life is expressed whenever we pray to the saints. We turn to them not just because we want to get something from them, but also because we want to acknowledge our dependence on others, to show how much we need the help of the people God has made part of our lives.

Depending on the saints undermines the false idea that autonomy is the highest human goal. We are not made to be autonomous or self-sufficient; we are made to depend on each other – to be ‘keepers’ of our brothers and sisters, and to allow our brothers and sisters (at the appropriate times) to ‘keep’ us.

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I’m just back from World Youth Day in Madrid. We took the non-budget option, thank goodness; so instead of staying on school floors and going for a communal ‘hose-down’ in the yard each morning (as some friends had to do), we had the relative luxury of beds and hot showers. You can’t imagine the Madrid heat if you haven’t experienced it. It was 39°C walking to the Vigil on Saturday afternoon (that’s over 100°F), with rucksacks and sleeping bags on our shoulders. No wonder the medical services were stretched.

There were 121 pilgrims in the group from Westminster Diocese. At the beginning we had four glorious days in Salamanca. I’m glad, this time, that we didn’t stay with Spanish host families, because we needed time to get to know each other. Many of the young people came as representatives of their home parishes, and so wouldn’t have known many others before. Salamanca gave us the chance just to be with each other before the madness of Madrid; with time for prayer, catechesis, discussion, and plenty of opportunities to explore the city, to soak up the pre-World Youth Day atmosphere, and learn the meaning of ‘tapas’ and ‘cerveza’.

For some, the highlight was doing the conga round the Plaza Mayor, perhaps the most beautiful square in Europe, with several hundred Koreans, Zambians and Australians, as the clock struck midnight. For others, it was a frenzied search, instigated by our irrepressible Spanish guide, for a mythical frog carved into the facade of the university which – if found – would guarantee you delivery of a faithful and loving spouse. Pretty high stakes.

After a day in Avila, visiting all the Teresian sights, we got to our accommodation in Madrid on Monday evening last week.

What is World Youth Day? Let me give you the basics, in case you haven’t heard much before; and then a couple of reflections. Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics converge on a different city every two or three years to celebrate their faith and meet the Pope. At the beginning of the week, there is a Mass of welcome, which is the first time that you get a sense of how many people are there. This time it took place in the centre of the city around the Cibeles area. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there is a pattern of smaller-scale local catechesis in the morning, with the afternoons and evenings free to join in the ‘Festival of Youth’.

The catechesis takes place in language groups, often in a local church, but sometimes in a big stadium or conference hall. It’s usually a package of music, drama, testimonies, etc., organised by a particular youth group. The centrepiece is a chunky catechetical talk from a bishop, together with a Q&A session. It’s one of the rare occasions when young people get the chance to fire questions at a bishop – any questions at all – and to hear his spontaneous responses. And the morning session ends with Mass.

The ‘Festival of Youth’ is a vast jamboree of events that take place over the city during the week. Hundreds of concerts, exhibitions, prayer services, talks, panels, and much more. You can spend hours just browsing through the programme, and the challenge is to select just one or two things each day that sound especially appealing and try to make them. Or you can eat. Or you can sleep. Or just hang out. It’s hard to do everything. And in the intense heat of Madrid I did a lot less than I wished and usually opted for a long lunch and a siesta, with the odd venture out into the city.

Midweek the Pope arrives, which is an excuse for another huge central celebration. Sometime on the Friday there is traditionally a World Youth Day Stations of the Cross. And then everyone who is registered, together with hundreds of thousands of others, head to a vast out-of-town venue for the Prayer Vigil on Saturday evening and the final Mass on Sunday morning. In Madrid it took place at Cuatro Vientos, an airfield in the south of the city.

By the time we got there, about 5.30pm, the main area – which holds 800,000 people – was already full. It gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the event. In our overflow area, which was meant for the day visitors the following morning, there must have been two or three hundred thousand people by the time the Vigil started; so I can quite believe that with the addition of ordinary Spanish parishioners who came for Mass the next day there were over 1.5 million people and even nearer to 2 million, as the organisers claim. Just take a look at the aerial photos. I’ve since heard that some groups didn’t even get into the overflow area because that was full.

On the one hand, it was incredibly frustrating for us to be ‘outside’, given that we had reserved tickets for sector E1 in the airfield itself. Someone had done their calculations wrong, or opened the gates without any scrutiny of the passes. And there was a shocking lack of care for the hundreds of thousands of young people in the overflow area – above all the lack of drinking water and food (our designated food parcels were inside the complex and we were not allowed in to collect them), and the complete absence of information or hands on assistance. On the other hand, people were very patient and accepting, recognising without the need for any sermons that there is a grace in not having the best seat and bearing this kind of small deprivation humbly. We could see a screen easily; emergency supplies arrived at 3 in the morning; and the advantage of being on the outside was having space to stretch out and as many portaloos as you could wish for – unlike those penned inside.

Just as the Pope came out, about 8.30pm, an incredible storm came over the area; lightning, thunder, horizontal rain. It was pretty scary, and the organisers obviously didn’t know what to do, so they just stood there behind their white umbrellas, trying to keep the Pope dry; and we huddled together; and the less trusting ones amongst us – me included – wondered whether we should leave while the underground trains were still running.

Eventually the storm passed, and there was an incredibly profound twenty minutes of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s quite something to kneel in silence before the Lord with over a million people, and have a sense of how the silence and prayer are taking you deeper and deeper. People commented on this when we had Exposition in Hyde Park on the Saturday of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain; and I felt it even more in Cuatro Vientos – the power of silent Adoration, not just as a psychological manifestation of being united in such a huge group, but something spiritual, the power of Christ’s Presence.

We slept under the stars, when the singing and dancing finally died down in the early hours, and woke for Mass at 9.30. With some other Westminster priests, I managed to use my ‘sacerdote’ pass to get into the main airfield, and then to the seating just in front of the sanctuary reserved for concelebrating priests – thousands of us. One of the first things I did was stand on my seat just to take a look at the crowds behind me – a staggering sight, although it made me appreciate the numbers that must have been at the World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000, which seemed to be even greater. I slept in my seat before things started, and then managed to stay awake for Mass. It was heartbreaking that Holy Communion couldn’t be distributed to most of the congregation, because most of the chapels scattered round the airfield that were meant to hold the consecrated hosts were literally blown away in the storm the night before.

The storm coming in during the Saturday evening Vigil

Somehow we got back to base after the Mass; showered and slept a bit; had a final evening together in the hostel; and came home on the Monday.

I’m just writing about external events, and it’s hard to convey the deeper currents that flow through the week-long celebration, and through the hearts and minds of each group and each individual. What is it about World Youth Day that touches the people involved so profoundly and so personally? I think that there is a real grace to the event, a grace of conversion, of being renewed in faith, of glimpsing something of God and of the Church and of oneself as if for the first time – I’ve seen this on every World Youth Day I’ve been on (and this is my fifth…). It’s far more than some kind of mass hysteria; far more than an over-blown youth festival or an outdated homage to John Paul II (as some might think).

First, I think it’s an experience of the Church. The ordinary, simple reality of the Church, that is simply not seen very often. People being together, knowing each other, sharing each other’s lives. The beauty of the faith explained, in ways that speak to the heart and connect with the ordinary realities of life. The sacraments celebrated worthily, joyfully, with some solid catechesis behind them. The diversity of what it means to he Catholic, and the unity of the Catholic faith – at the same time. And of course meeting the Pope, praying with him and with so many others in such a visible expression of Christian communion. I don’t think there is some great secret to Catholic youth work – it’s just about living the Catholic faith, and creating a context in which it can be lived, in all its fullness.

Second, it’s obviously an experience of pilgrimage, in a particular form. So all the well-known graces of this experience are allowed to flourish – getting away from things, making sacrifices, travelling to a holy destination, carrying a particular intention, meeting new people, putting ordinary life in perspective, having extra time to pray and reflect, etc. This is true for Lourdes and Walsingham and a thousand other pilgrimages.

Third, I think World Youth Day allows young people to experience not just the Church as Church (faith, sacraments, Pope, community, etc.), but the way one’s whole life can be transformed by a living faith. Maybe because people are trying harder, maybe because they are liberated from some of the struggles that plague them back home, maybe because it’s easier when you are constantly being reminded about the meaning of faith and noticing it in the lives of those around you – but you really see what it means to love Christ and to share his love with others, and you see how much better the world is because of that. You see how the Catholic faith makes sense of life; how it makes life more alive.

You see how different life is when it is founded on prayer, generosity, service, sacrifice, forgiveness, joy, humility, and all the other virtues that can so easily be forgotten or even dismissed. You see how different life is when people are really living their Catholic faith and founding it on the love of Christ, even with all their human weaknesses; and when a community is trying to live it, not just for their own integrity, but for the sake of others too. It really works; it shines and sometimes dazzles. It’s just not put to the test very often. When you see it, on these strange occasions like a World Youth Day pilgrimage, you can’t but be affected. And no wonder the young people coming home are coming back a little bit different.

You can see some of our Westminster photos on Flickr here, and the official Spanish WYD photos here.

Apologies for the long post – it’s been quite an intense few days!

I’m off to Walsingham on Thursday for another huge youth event, this time the annual Youth 2000 summer festival. It’s like a mini-World Youth Day, only in Norfolk, England! So if you are between 16 and 35, and didn’t get the chance to go to Madrid, why not think about coming along. Or even if you did. It’s from Thursday 25 August to Monday 29. The details are here.

And to finish. One of the few disappointments from Madrid was this year’s theme song. So here is the one from Sydney three years ago, one of my favourite ‘worship songs’ of all time (if it comes under that category):

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I’m not trying to argue someone into accepting the importance of celibacy for Catholic priests (I’ve already given my own personal perspective in a previous post); but if you want you want to have a summary of the meaning of celibacy in the life of the Catholic priest and deacon, as the Church understands it, there is no better place to look than the ordination rite for a ‘transitional’ deacon who is on the road to priesthood.

This image is from last year's ordinations, but Lorenzo (holding the book) was one of the three ordained this year!

Three of the seminarians from Allen Hall were ordained deacons at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday. The beautifully phrased words of their commitment to celibacy really struck me, and reminded me of what my own commitment (made fourteen years ago) is meant to mean in all its richness.

Here are the words the bishop uses:

By your own free choice you seek to enter the order of deacons. You shall exercise this ministry in the celibate state for celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.

By living in this state with total dedication, moved by a sincere love for Christ the Lord, you are consecrated to him in a new and special way.

By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart; you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth.

By your life and character you will give witness to your brothers and sisters in faith that God must be loved above all else, and that it is he whom you serve in others.

Therefore, I ask you:

In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?

The candidate replies: ‘I am.’ There is quite a lot contained in those two short words.

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What’s the place of religion on the internet, and the significance of the internet for religion? Pope Benedict comes back to these themes in his latest document Verbum Domini about the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.

Spot the relevant app...

He encourages Catholics to make serious efforts to be more present in the world of the mass media. But he also warns that virtual relationships will only become meaningful if they are a means to some kind of personal contact between those using them.

Here are the relevant paragraphs.

Linked to the relationship between the word of God and culture is the need for a careful and intelligent use of the communications media, both old and new. The Synod Fathers called for a proper knowledge of these media; they noted their rapid development and different levels of interaction, and asked for greater efforts to be made in gaining expertise in the various sectors involved, particularly in the new media, such as the internet.

The Church already has a significant presence in the world of mass communications, and her magisterium has frequently intervened on the subject, beginning with the Second Vatican Council.[360] Discovering new methods of transmitting the Gospel message is part of the continuing evangelizing outreach of those who believe. Communications today take place through a worldwide network, and thus give new meaning to Christ’s words: “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops” (Mt 10:27).

God’s word should resound not only in the print media, but in other forms of communication as well.[361] For this reason, together with the Synod Fathers, I express gratitude to those Catholics who are making serious efforts to promote a significant presence in the world of the media, and I ask for an ever wider and more qualified commitment in this regard.[362]

Among the new forms of mass communication, nowadays we need to recognize the increased role of the internet, which represents a new forum for making the Gospel heard. Yet we also need to be aware that the virtual world will never be able to replace the real world, and that evangelization will be able to make use of the virtual world offered by the new media in order to create meaningful relationships only if it is able to offer the personal contact which remains indispensable.

In the world of the internet, which enables billions of images to appear on millions of screens throughout the world, the face of Christ needs to be seen and his voice heard, for “if there is no room for Christ, there is no room for man”.[363]

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Four men from Allen Hall were ordained to the diaconate at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful end to the seminary year. Archbishop Vincent said that a deacon is consecrated to a life of service to others, and that this spirit of service is like a seal that is imprinted on his very being. You can read a full report about the service here, which includes a few paragraphs from each of the new deacons about their own story and what helped them in their vocation.

St Vincent the Deacon

If you have never been to an ordination, here are the questions that the bishop puts to the candidates before they prostrate themselves for the litany of saints. It’s very powerful to hear a group of young men make these lifelong commitments in front of so many people. The answer to each question, by the way, is ‘I am’!

Are you willing to be ordained for the Church’s ministry by the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Are you resolved to discharge the office of deacon with humility and love in order to assist the bishop and the priests and to serve the people of Christ?

Are you resolved to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, as the Apostle urges, and to proclaim this faith in word and action as it is taught by the Gospel and the Church’s tradition?

Are you resolved to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?

Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?

And after the prayer of consecration and the putting on of the stole and dalmatic (the deacon’s vestments), the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hand of the new deacon and says:

Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.

A reminder that you do not have to be a saint in order to preach the Gospel, just a believer, but that you do need to have a desire to live by your own preaching.

(Lawrence OP gives the following commentary on the image above: “According to legend, after being martyted, ravens protected St Vincent’s body from being devoured by wild animals, until his followers could recover the body. This painting in Burgos Cathedral depicts that miraculous event.”)

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If Mary and Joseph were turned away this evening from the local bed and breakfast, where would they end up? Quite possibly in a bus stop. This is the suggestion made by ChurchAds.Net, which wants to re-tell the nativity story in a modern, secular context. The aim of the campaign is to reach out to the 88% of adults in Britain who hardly know the Christmas story, and to remind them that ‘Christmas starts with Christ’.

I only saw the poster for the first time yesterday evening, driving through West Hampstead. Here is it (the artist is Andrew Gadd):

I like the image. It’s unsettling and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t undermine the more traditional depictions of the nativity. The tenderness of the scene remains, but the vulnerability and precariousness of their existence comes to the fore. Some people are curious; some are more interested in looking out for the bus; one person kneels in worship. The plastic carrier bag is crucial – visually, and perhaps theologically.

This is what it means for God to come amongst us, for the Word to be made flesh. He takes on the ‘condition’ as well as the ‘nature’ of humanity. He doesn’t just live (in the abstract), he actually shares our life, however dark or dangerous that life may be.

Years ago I heard of a film about the birth of Jesus set in a housing estate in New York. The Angel Gabriel coming to this American teenager. The Saviour born into the rough-edged reality of twentieth-century urban life. I was never able to track the film down. Please leave a comment if you know what it was called.

I like the sentimentality of Christmas; the nostalgia and the traditions; even the contemporary bling. But it’s good to have a few images within our culture that help us to remember that it was real; and that it is still real.

[Olivia has since sent me a link to this wonderful article (with photos) about the history of crib-making, with some recent examples of cribs that have been set in the contemporary urban landscape.]

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It is wrong to mention religion in public? I’m just skimming through a careers advice book called ‘What Color is your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers’ by Richard Nelson Bolles. (I’m not in a crisis; I just bought it for a friend. Really!) It’s a secular book, aimed at the secular market, recommended to me by a management consultant. It’s obviously one of the leaders in its field (9 million copies sold by the time of my 2008 edition). And here is the final paragraph of the author’s preface:

In closing, I must not fail to mention my profound thanks to The Great Lord God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who all my life has been as real to me as breathing, and Who has been my Rock through every trial, tragedy, and misfortune in my life, including the assassination of my only brother, Don Bolles. I thank God for giving me strength, and carrying me through — everything. I am grateful beyond measure for such a life, and such a mission as ‘He’ has given me: to help people find meaning for their lives. He is the source of whatever grace, wisdom, or compassion I have ever found, or shared with others.

This really took me aback. And it’s my own reactions that I find interesting. I thought, quite spontaneously: This is a bit over the top! Why is he telling me about his faith? Is this really the place for a sermon? Isn’t this going to put people off? Isn’t this a little bit inappropriate?

And then I thought: But why not? Where do I get this idea that ordinary people can’t talk about their everyday faith in the normal circumstances of daily life? Is it because I’m English and my culture has persuaded me to censor my conversation and avoid the topics of religion and politics? Or is it because I have been fooled into thinking that religion is purely a ‘private’ affair and must therefore remain hidden from the gaze of normal society — like an embarrassing secret we share only with intimate friends or our doctor.

Thank You God! by Daniel Y. Go.

Richard Bolles could have thanked anyone else (or anything else) and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. In a standard author’s preface you can honour your parents, your publisher, your agent, your neighbours, your cat, your therapist, your muse, your guru. You can acknowledge the inspiration brought to you by a shower of leaves on an autumn day, or by the inaudible voices of your ancestors. But if you thank God in such a public manner, it makes someone like me feel just slightly uncomfortable. As I said, it’s my own reactions that I am questioning…

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Does it matter which way a church faces? The scripture readings this weekend were about the end of the world, and the second coming of the Son of Man. I chose to speak about the physical orientation of Christian churches: how it is an ancient tradition to build them on an east-west axis, so that you enter through the west door and face the sanctuary/altar at the east end. In this way you have a double symbolism: of Christ coming to meet you, like the rising sun, in the liturgy that you are celebrating; and Christ coming to meet you (soon, but not quite yet), at the end of time. So the sanctuary is a threshold that allows us to meet the divine now and to await the divine in the future.

This is all well-known, and doesn’t need blogging about. (See, for example, Part II, Chapter 3, of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.) What was interesting though was preaching about this in a church in Clerkenwell in the centre of London, with two medieval examples just a stone’s throw away. Today’s St Paul’s Cathedral is of course not medieval, but I assume (please correct me) that it roughly follows the floor plan of the previous cathedral. It’s like an arrow on a huge compass at the centre of London, running perfectly east-west. Yes, it happens to sit tidily on the line of the river Thames at that point too; but it illustrates the way the geography of a Christian city can reflect the spiritual longings of the human soul – for a saviour, for God’s final Word to greet us at the end of our lives, and at the end of time.

Inside St Etheldreda's by Lawrence OP.

The second example, just down the road from Clerkenwell, is St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, in Holburn. This church does not sit at all tidily into its present environment. The east end faces the street, so there is no easy access, and you have to enter the church through a warren of corridors and steps. But once you are there, the same spiritual/geographical truth is apparent, that you enter from the west, from the darkness, and look towards the east, towards the hope of Christ’s coming - in this case represented by a glorious wall of stained-glass above the altar.

There will be hundreds of other examples. It was good to have these at hand on Sunday.

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The Benediction of Saint Patrick by starbeard.Sunday was the feast of All Saints. I gave a talk about the meaning of devotion to the saints at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in central London. You can listen to it [click OPEN] or download it [click SAVE] from here; and read the handout here.

I spoke about the obvious things: how we learn from their example; how we enjoy their friendship; how we are helped by their prayers. But I added another point: that our dependence on the prayers of the saints teaches us a deeper truth about our identity as human beings [Go to 45:23 in the download].

In the story of the Garden of Eden, there are two tragedies that unfold. One is the Fall, the Original Sin when Eve and then Adam took the forbidden fruit and ate from it. But this depends on the tragedy that comes before: that when Eve is tempted, when she is faced with this moment of monumental crisis, she faces it alone, she doesn’t ask for help or advice or support from God or from her husband. And I don’t mean this in a sexist way as if to say that the woman should have sought help from the man; I mean it in a way that would apply to Adam as much as to Eve. Neither of them was meant to face the serpent alone; and how different it could have been if they had turned to each other and to God. When she looked at the fruit, with the serpent whispering in her ear, and took that decision on her own, it was – perhaps – already too late.

The same is true with Cain and Abel. It’s a difficult passage to interpret, but it reflects the scene between Adam and Eve. Cain is tempted, and struggles with the Lord. But instead of seeking God’s help, or seeking the help of his brother Abel – he kills him. When the Lord asks him “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?!” – the answer is, “Yes, you should have been”. But even more importantly, he should have allowed Abel to be his keeper when he was facing his own demons; Cain should have turned to his brother, leant on him, and shared his concerns with him.

So part of our salvation, part of our healing, is the restoration of human relationships. The Fall involved a pride, a false notion of independence, a distorted idea of autonomy, of self-reliance. And in the healing process that Christ brings we learn – in certain respects – to become more dependent on others; we learn that we are not alone; we learn that we are not meant to cope on our own. It’s OK to need others, it’s OK to ask for their help.

This is one reason why devotion to the saints is so important. In praying for others, and in asking others to pray for us, we learn to depend on their help – and our proper identity as children of God and as brothers and sisters is restored.

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There is still a mystique about film sets. The idea of being involved in some great project, in the magic of cinema; of seeing the director at work, or of meeting the stars. For most of us, it will never happen. For some, the only way in is to become an extra.

ARD Film set by nicholas macgowan.

Richard Johnson writes here about the reality of life as a ‘supporting artist’. It’s everything you’d expect: lots of waiting around; endless worrying about whether you have the right look; the free lunch; the modest fee; if you are lucky, a smile from one of the cast.

I’ve never been an extra on a film set, but I have been an unwanted intruder on a photo shoot. When my brother and I were little, on family holidays, we would play a game of trying to sneak into other people’s photographs. When we spotted someone about to take a photo, we’d do whatever it took to get in the frame – there was more time in those days, when people struggled with the focus and the light meters.

We had two strategies: You could take a long, sideways run into the far background, and stand there innocently, unobtrusively, as part of the distant scenery. Or you could walk boldly just a few feet behind those being shot, at just the right moment. It you timed it right, you made a big splash; but there was always the risk of moving too soon. 

It was a bit of holiday fun. And perhaps something more. A childlike longing, not for fame, but perhaps for immortality. I used to imagine this photo sitting in a frame on a French coffee table, or a German mantelpiece, years later; our cheeky grins jumping out from the background; our new friends wondering who these strangers were, and what they were doing.

mantelpiece by carbide.

Are these normal thoughts? Maybe not. But I do think there are some simple and almost universal longings at work here in our childish pranks and in the pull of the film set: To be part of something bigger; to have a place in the lives of others; to be remembered; to leave a mark. It’s easy to scoff at the contemporary obsession with fame, and the almost compulsive need there is to connect in all sorts of superficial ways. But maybe we should try to understand more what is at the root of these human needs – the desire to belong.

It makes you appreciate what a revolution the first Christian communities were in those highly stratified ancient societies. Places where anyone, absolutely anyone, could belong. Where no-one was excluded because of race or sex or social status or economic power. Where a new and deeper kind of belonging was possible, because of what Christ had done for everyone, and because of the hope he offered to all.

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I finally got to Trafalgar Square to see One & Other. The artist Antony Gormley has signed up 2,400 ‘ordinary people’ to occupy the Fourth Plinth for an hour each. You can see what is happening on their webcam in real time now.

Here is someone as an example:

One & Other by erase.

I saw a middle-aged man in a baseball cap throwing fluorescent plastic men into the crowds below. Each figure, about 2 inches tall, had a parachute. If he was lucky, he threw them over the safety net. Part of the fun, the tension, was not knowing if the daring plastic soldier would make it. And part of the ‘art of unintended consequences’ (or perhaps he had cunningly thought this through beforehand) was that the figures that didn’t make it down were stuck in the net, hanging there, like those films where paratroopers are off course and stuck in the trees. Each figure had to be unwrapped before it could be thrown. The guy looked noncholant, a bit bored; like a street vendor shelling his hot chestnuts. The greatest unspoken thrill of watching was wondering whether he would jump over the edge with his own parachute when the hour was up.

There was so much to enjoy and reflect on. The children below were having a ball; with a frisson of danger too, because the parachutists were landing on some steps – so you couldn’t lunge easily. And the sociologists could have had a field day. At first it was an image of innocent, playground fun. Then I realised the complications: their parents. They had the height advantage, so it became a contest between which parent was tallest or most desperate; they then passed the toy onto their child, who took it not as a personal victory but as a reward for having a pushy parent. Eventually, the parents got bored, and it was back to the children – genuine, devlish innocence.

The star of the show is the JCB crane/tractor/digger that swaps the participants over. It is a thing of beauty: that JCB yellow/orange, polished by the sponsors; the grace of a carefully designed machine; the awesome size of each tyre; the memories of Tonka-toys; and the performance itself – people in fluorescent jackets parting the crowd like circus artists going before an elephant.

There was a palpable sense of disappointment when the next person got up and the crowd realised she was going to do… nothing. Nothing but sit in a pink chair, take photos, write some notes, and wave to the crowd now and then – without any regal affectation. I went through a surprising range of emotions: frustration (why can’t you do something interesting?); anger (you have had weeks to think about this – and now it’s wasted); forgiveness (I guess you have every right to do what you like); to appreciation (wow – you are just there). And perhaps that’s the point, if there needs to be one: she is there; with enough self-confidence to just sit on the plinth and look at others, at us; to invert the artistic experience; a middle-aged woman in a green T-shirt and jeans looking at the artistic event of Trafalgar Square itself. The banality, the glory, the sheer fun of humanity itself – up there on the plinth, and down here in the crowd.

And the first person who ever stood on the plinth? Christ, in the form of Mark Wallinger’s sculpture Ecce homo in 1999. All the same questions about is it art and who is he and why is he there and what is he doing; only with the added poignancy that he stood for everyone. The only photo I can find is copyrighted – see it here.

 

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