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Posts Tagged ‘Eucharist’

When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.

assisi

Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.

Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.

How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.

How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.

It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.

He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.

I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.

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It was good to be in Cardiff over the weekend for a retreat run by Youth 2000 and promoted by the Archdiocese. It even had the grand title of National Retreat for the Youth of Wales. I had to leave early on Sunday morning, but I heard that Archbishop George Stack was there to celebrate the final Mass and hear some of the testimonies from the young people about how much the weekend had touched them.

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It was a great venue, St David’s Catholic Sixth Form College, not far from the centre of the city. We just managed to fit into the college chapel, instead of having to move into the hall. I don’t know the official head-count, but there were certainly over a hundred young people there for the reconciliation service on Saturday evening, so the total number of participants over the weekend must have been even higher.

It was a classic retreat format: Mass, talks about the faith, rosary, confessions, discussion groups, workshops about Christian life and discernment, testimonies; lots of free time and space for socialising and personal prayer; lay people, priests and religious men and women sharing their lives very naturally; good food, and great music. On top of this, part of the Youth 2000 ‘thing’ is having more-or-less perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the main chapel, so that the sacramental presence of Christ is at the heart of everything that happens.

The fact is that it ‘works’. I don’t mean there is some kind of magic formula that can guarantee you a profound spiritual experience or a radical conversion. I just mean that when the Catholic faith is lived joyfully and presented with real integrity, then it touches people. When you see the ‘wholeness’ of the Christian faith – teaching, sacraments, community – and when you see the way this faith transforms the lives of ordinary young people, then you can’t help being moved to question what is important and what this faith might mean to you.

It’s a beautiful thing to see the hearts of young people gradually open up to the Lord as a retreat unfolds; to see them drawing closer to Christ and to see the almost tangible effects of his grace on their lives – a sense of peace and spiritual joy, a knowledge of his mercy, a new sense of purpose, a desire to share their faith, a hope for the future.

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Let’s hope there can be another retreat next year.

The next Youth 2000 retreat is the summer festival in Walsingham from 22 to 26 August – see here.

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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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As part of the vocation leaflet project, I was asked to write about the meaning of the Catholic priesthood in 1100 words. When you have so little space, it really forces you to think, and work out what seems most important!

This is what I came up with:

The Catholic priesthood is an extraordinary vocation. Every Christian is called to bring the love of Christ to others. The ministerial priest, through the sacrament of ordination, is called to show that love in a special way.

His vocation is to preach the Gospel and teach the Catholic faith; to lead God’s people in love, as a shepherd, as a spiritual father; and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, ‘for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ’s people’ (Rite of Ordination). His whole being is transformed, so that he can be an icon of Christ for others, filled with the Holy Spirit, and a minister of grace.

Catholic priests are ordinary men who never lose their humanity. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They have different backgrounds and personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. Yet they have all been called like the first disciples: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mt 4).

This is not just an ‘external’ call to do something for Jesus, but an invitation to draw closer to him and share his life more intimately; just as the Apostles, before they were sent out to preach and heal, spent time with the Lord in friendship.

Many priests belong to religious congregations. As monks, friars or missionaries they take the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their ministry is defined by the particular work of the congregation.

The diocesan priest, however, commits his life to serving the Church in his local diocese. It’s a ‘geographical’ commitment to work with his bishop and serve the people of this local area, usually where he has grown up or come to work or study. He is a ‘secular’ priest, which means he lives ‘in the world’ rather than in a monastery, sharing closely in the lives and experiences of others.

Some of the great priests of recent centuries have been diocesan priests: for example, St Francis de Sales, St John Vianney, Blessed John Paul II.

In practice, most diocesan priests live and work in parishes. This is their ‘default’ ministry, where their heart lies. They work in collaboration with their brother priests, with laypeople, and consecrated men and women; caring for the parish together, supporting each other.

Parish ministry is incredibly varied. In a single day a priest might visit children in the school, bring Holy Communion to the sick, support a bereaved family, help a couple prepare for their wedding, hear someone’s confession, prepare sandwiches for the homeless, and lead a sacramental programme in the evening. And so much of priesthood is simply being with others – sitting, listening, talking, praying.

The heart of each day is the celebration of Mass, when all these concerns are offered to the Father in the Holy Sacrifice, and the priest leads his people in worship, repentance, thanksgiving and intercession.

Some diocesan priests work full-time in more specialised ministries, for example, as chaplains in prisons, hospitals, universities or the armed forces. Some even work abroad as missionaries – a reminder that every priest is called to evangelise.

All diocesan priests make three promises. They promise obedience to their bishop, to take up whatever ministry he asks. This helps them to be open to the pastoral needs within the diocese, and it stops them getting attached to their personal preferences. It keeps them humble, open and generous-hearted in the service of the Lord.

They promise consecrated celibacy – to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives. This allows a priest to give himself to Christ with an undivided heart, and to love others with an inner freedom and an extra generosity. Even though many Eastern Catholic Churches have a different practice, for Catholics in the Latin (Western) Church celibacy is central to the vision of priesthood as a life of total self-giving.

Finally, they promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully each day. By praying this ‘Prayer of the Church’ at the appointed times, they sanctify every moment of each day. They centre their lives on prayer, praying for the Church and for the whole world.

With these three promises the diocesan priest is rooted in Christ. He is free to follow the Lord, wherever he is sent; free to give his life in love and service. His priestly heart, like the heart of the Good Shepherd, is completely dedicated to God’s people.

The priesthood brings incredible joys, especially in seeing God’s grace transform people’s lives, and in the special bonds that are formed with laypeople and brother priests.

There are also real difficulties and challenges. These can be in the spiritual life, in ministry, or in the ordinary human struggles that afflict everyone at different moments: tiredness, loneliness, stress, failure, sin. Like every Christian, the priest tries to live through his difficulties with faith and hope, staying close to the Lord, trusting in him.

How do you know if God is calling you to be a diocesan priest? First, the basics: only baptised men can become Catholic priests. This is not a form of prejudice or sexism, it is the Church being faithful to Christ and to the Christian Tradition, where only men are appointed to stand ‘in the person of Christ the Head’ as Catholic priests. Women with a genuine call to ministry and service in the Church will find that fulfilled in other ways instead.

Second, you need to have an open heart as you discern your vocation. Any Catholic man who is single and unsure about his future should be able to say, ‘Lord, what is your will for my life? What are you calling me to do?’ What matters is to be open to God’s will, and to pray for his help and guidance.

Third, there are some common signs of a priestly vocation. These include: a simple desire to be a priest or to do the things that priests do (celebrate Mass, preach, pray with people, serve others, etc.); an admiration for priests you know; a sense of being pulled or pushed into the priesthood; suggestions from other people that you might make a good priest; and a desire to pray more and to take your faith more seriously. A feeling of unworthiness can be a sign of humility before such an awe-inspiring vocation; and even a desire to marry, sometimes, can point to a fatherly heart that may be fulfilled in the celibate priesthood – if these other signs are there too.

Finally, you need to talk to someone. There is only so much thinking and praying you can do on your own. This might be a trusted friend or relation, or a priest you know, and ultimately the Vocations Director in your Diocese. Don’t be afraid. The Lord will guide you.

[You can buy bulk copies of this leaflet here at the CTS website.]

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I’d heard rumours about this, and it turns out it’s true: Buzz Aldrin celebrated a service of Holy Communion in the lunar module on 20th July 1969, before he and Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon.

Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church near Houston. He received permission from the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly to administer Holy Communion to himself. I presume he took the ‘consecrated elements’ of bread and wine from a Communion service back home (and you can see that I am not sure about the Eucharistic terminology or theology of Webster Presbyterian Church!).

This is the message that he radioed to Nasa, as recorded in his book Magnificent Desolation:

I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.

And in an article for Guideposts magazine, he described what happened:

I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.

I take all this from a piece by Matthew Cresswell, who goes on to explain the fraught politics of the situation.

The story of the secret communion service only emerged after the mission. Aldrin had originally planned to share the event with the world over the radio. However, at the time Nasa was still reeling from a lawsuit filed by the firebrand atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, resulting in the ceremony never being broadcast. The founder of American Atheists and self-titled “most hated woman in America” had taken on Nasa, as well as many other public organisation. Most famously, she successfully fought mandatory school prayer and bible recitation in US public schools.

After the Apollo 8 crew had read out the Genesis creation account in orbit, O’Hair wanted a ban on Nasa astronauts practising religion on earth, in space or “around and about the moon” while on duty. She believed it violated the constitutional separation between church and state. In Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin explains how astronaut Deke Slayton, who ran the Apollo 11 flight crew operations, told him to tone down his lunar communiqué. “Go ahead and have communion, but keep your comments more general,” he advised [...]

O’Hair’s case against Nasa eventually fizzled out, but it dramatically changed the tone of the Apollo 11 landing. Aldrin had originally intended a much more pioneering Christopher Columbus-style ceremony on the moon. That was never to be.

But at Webster Presbyterian church – the spiritual home of many astronauts – Aldrin’s communion service is still celebrated every July, known as Lunar Communion Sunday. Pastor Helen DeLeon told me how they replay the tape of Aldrin on the moon and recite Psalm eight, which he had quoted on his return trip to Earth (“… what is man that thou art mindful of him”). The church still holds the chalice that Aldrin brought back with him. Judy Allton, a geologist and historian of Webster Presbyterian church, produced a paper, presented at a Nasa conference, arguing that communion could be an essential part of future manned space travel. She claims that rituals such as Aldrin’s communion “reinforce the homelink”.

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I’ve just spent five days in a field a mile outside Walsingham, where the annual Youth 2000 summer festival took place last weekend. This little village, as one of the speakers said, is not just in the middle of nowhere; it’s on the very outer fringes of nowhere, and it’s a miracle that anyone gets there at all. (Apologies for this very London-centric view of North Norfolk…)

A glimpse of the congregation before Mass

One of the young people arriving said they had got into a conversation in a shop on the way, and when they said they were going to a youth festival, the other person asked, ‘So who is headlining then?’ No-one could agree on the best answer: Jesus, the Bishop, or the Youth 2000 Music Ministry.

It’s a time of grace, of witnessing the beauty of the Christian faith, and of real conversion. It’s also a very ordinary experience of the Church, and by that I mean there is nothing extraordinary about the content of the weekend. It’s just Catholicism pure and simple. That’s probably why it ‘works’, and why it makes such a profound impression on people. The Eucharist at the very centre; dignified and joyful worship; devotion to Our Lady; the teaching of the Catholic Church presented in a straightforward, unapologetic, inspiring and practical way; the power of conversion through the sacrament of confession; the challenge of connecting faith with everyday life, study, work, relationships; the call to vocation, witness and service; prayer, music, food, fellowship, fun.

Keeping vigil during the night before the Exposed Blessed Sacrament

You see young people serving other young people, and witnessing to their own personal faith. It was striking, as well, how many people were here for the first time – brought by someone who had come before and wanted to share the experience. You see a wonderful integration of the different vocations of lay people, priests, and religious and consecrated people. One of the lovely small innovations this year was creating a cafe-style atmosphere in the dining tent, so that people could relax together in the evening when the services had finished. Another innovation was the hot showers!

It’s easy to make a list of all the events and activities that take place; it’s harder to describe the almost tangible sense of faith and spiritual joy that permeates the main tent when nearly a thousand people are there worshipping the Lord in silence or in song, or listening to the Word of God opened up for them, or hearing a teenager describe the moment when they really began to believe and to see their life changing through the touch of Christ.

There are many wonderful initiatives for renewal and evangelisation taking place within the Catholic Church in our country – this is just one of them. They all point to a genuine renewal in the Church, a sense that something important is happening, that lives are really being changed. The catechetical blog “Transformed in Christ” catches something of this in these reflections on the festival:

One of the beautiful things about Youth 2000 is that it brings you right back again to the fresh experience of conversion. It brings you back to basics – being simple and humble, open and intimate with Christ. It is so beautiful to see this journey beginning in young souls. I don’t have dramatic experiences of God’s love anymore like I did when I was going to retreats at 17 and 18. God needed to get my attention back then, and now my faith has deepened and strengthened, so now it is more a daily experience of his love in my life.

But on Sunday night, we heard testimony after testimony from young people, all aged between 16 and 21, of the powerful experiences of God’s love they had received through Confession and the Eucharist. They often articulated them nervously, but an authentic, unmediated experience of joy, peace and freedom from having just been touched by Christ, radiated from each one.

I am sure that, this hidden work of the Holy Spirit and the open response of each individual, young soul is the most precious thing in the whole Church, the whole world!

When I was 17 I didn’t quite realise how precious it was, and perhaps those young people who with such courage and faith got up to give their testimony, don’t either. No one gets to see these miracles within souls. The humility of the Lord in working in such a hidden way is exquisite. But this is exactly what is beautiful about being a Catholic – the joy of being touched by Christ. If we ever lose sight of that, we are lost!

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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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It’s hard talking to strangers. I don’t mean when a friend introduces you to one of their friends; or when someone rings the door selling bargain tea-towels; or when you swap health stories in a hospital ward. These are all situations where the context allows you to make conversation, even if it is only for a short time. I mean walking up to someone in the street on a Saturday afternoon because you hope to engage them in a discussion about the meaning of life.

Last weekend I was involved in the Spirit in the City festival. This is a project run by the Catholic parishes in central London – an attempt to make their presence better known to the locals, and to show to the hundreds of thousands of people visiting the West End that there is more to this area than restaurants and night clubs.

On Friday evening I joined a Eucharistic procession from Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, to the French Church in Leicester Place. Three or four hundred people, with a marching band, a few banners, and piles of leaflets and prayer cards to hand out, walking with the Body of the Lord through Covent Garden and Leicester Square. It was a glorious summer evening, and the pavements were thronged with people spilling out of the pubs and bars, either finishing the working day or starting the evening.

An image from the procession in 2007

On Saturday the organisers somehow got permission from the local council to take over Leicester Square itself. A music stage, a prayer tent with continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a tent for confessions, another for discussion. And hoards of young volunteers in turquoise T-shirts handing out prayer cards and trying to engage people in discussion.

I spent a couple of hours on the main pavement between the street cartoonists and the Empire Cinema. Here are the stats (very approximate): I tried to offer a card to everyone who passed. I used a line like, ‘Did you get one of these?’ or ‘Can I give you a card?’ I’d say that about 1 in 6 actually accepted one. When someone did, I tried to start a conversation in a very unthreatening way, for example, ‘There’s a festival on in the square today…’ or ‘We are from the local Catholic churches…’ Of those who took a card, about 1 in 6 stopped to listen. And of these, about half were interested enough to have a conversation. So that means, very roughly, that I had a proper talk with about 1 in 72 people. The ratio was much higher than I expected!

I’m wearing the clerical collar, so they know I’m a Christian. And I found the best line to get a decent conversation going was, ‘Are you religious yourself?’ It allowed people to say ‘No’, and without me asking they nearly always told me why they weren’t. Or to say ‘Yes’ or ‘Sort of…’ and to say what it meant to them.

I had some amazing conversations. I won’t post about them – I feel it’s crossing a line to blog about personal conversations as a priest, even if they are anonymous. But it showed me how open many people are to talking about faith and religion; and how it’s possible to do that without any edge or antagonism – even with strangers. I think the sun helped too.

What’s the point of it all? Ah…the million dollar question. Most people don’t want to talk to strangers about anything, let alone religion. But many do – a surprising number. Genuine conversations. I think that is a good thing in itself, being able to talk and share and explore things. And it’s a sign to others that ordinary Christians like myself (I was one of many) care about their faith and about others enough to want to meet people and talk – it’s a witness. Then, perhaps, these kinds of conversations open something up in the hearts and minds of those who have them, something that might not have come to the surface without this random encounter. Both for the one drawn into the conversation, and for the one who starts it. And they get the free prayer card!

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A simple story quoted in a book I’m reading: Fr Victor Galeone was working as a priest in Baltimore, and this is how he described one pastoral encounter in his journal:

Yesterday, after an emergency call at the nursing home, I was about to exit when I noticed a man in the hallway. He was sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, tenderly holding her hands. Not a word was spoken. He just sat there, looking intently into her eyes. I walked over and engaged him in conversation:

“Your wife, I take it?”

“That’s right, of forty-seven years.”

“Do you visit her often?”

“Every single day. Haven’t missed a day in four years, except for that blizzard last year.”

“She’s not saying anything.”

“That’s right. Hasn’t been able to for the last eighteen months – ever since her stroke. She has Alzheimer’s too.”

“Alzheimer’s! Does she know who you are?”

“Not really. But that doesn’t matter. I now who she is.”

[From Stephen Rossetti's Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests pp. 101-102]

It made me think about all the different relationships we have where the knowledge is not always equal – and how that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes we know someone better than they know us; sometimes someone knows us better than we know them; sometimes someone knows us better than we know ourselves.

Husbands and wives talk about how there are hidden depths (or shallows!) to their spouse that they realise will always remain a mystery. Parents know things about their children that the children won’t discover for years. A child, even a baby at the breast, knows something about his or her parents – as parents - that no-one else will ever know. In friendship, the relationship often shuffles along, a moment of discovery on one side, and then on the other, building into something that is definitely mutual, but not necessarily equal or stabilised.

2008-06-07 Bus 50 (Open-Top Bus, Swanage to Bournemouth) 09 Swanage, Elderly Couple on Hill Overlooking the Beach by that_james.

And in this beautiful example of an elderly couple, one lost in dementia, the “being-known” becomes more than the knowing itself; the lost memory of once-having-loved is absorbed into an ever present reality of being-loved. This can be true of those at the end of life, of the unborn, of the estranged, and of all those who cannot or will not let the love they receive from others grow into a personal response.

Love – and indeed being human, being a person – is not just about your capacity to love or think or act, it is also about the fact that you are loved, by someone, somewhere. And even where that someone seems almost completely absent, it is the fact that you could be loved – that you are loveable. Our dignity is not conferred by others; but we need others to make explicit what is too often hidden and unacknowledged.

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