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Posts Tagged ‘religious life’

A new poster and prayer card have been produced by the National Office for Vocation. You can find the resources here. Here is the poster:

Capture 1

 

I like it a lot – it’s full of life and joy. No poster can tell the whole story of priesthood or religious life; but this captures something of the vitality and joy, of the ‘being for others’ and ‘being with Christ’, that is at the heart of these vocations.

You can download the pdf here and print copies at home. Why not stick a copy on the fridge door to remind you to pray for this intention over the next few days or weeks. And if you are feeling brave, why not put a copy on the kitchen window (facing outwards!), or somewhere equally public – it might get a good conversation going with the neighbours.

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This report on vocations comes from CVComment, and brings together statistics recently released by the National Office for Vocation. I wouldn’t yet call it a vocations boom, but it is a definite and hugely encouraging upturn, as this graph about recent diocesan ordination figures shows.

vocstats1

Here is the full report:

New figures for 2012 show numbers of men and women entering religious orders have risen for the third year running, while ordinations to the priesthood have reached a ten-year high. There were 29 people entering religious life in 2010, rising to 36 in 2011 and 53 in 2012. Meanwhile, 20 men were ordained to the diocesan priesthood in 2011 and 31 in 2012, with 41 diocesan ordinations projected for 2013.

The ordination figures do not include religious men ordained to the priesthood, nor ordinations to the Ordinariate, of which there were 21 last year.

As these two tables show, current diocesan ordination figures (excluding the Ordinariate and the religious orders) are lower than the 1980s-90s, which were inflated by a sudden influx of former Anglican priests as well as the so-called ‘JPII bounce’ following the Pope’s 1982 visit…

Full breakdown of religious order statistics here, seminary entrances here, and ordinations here, supplied by the National Office for Vocation.

It’s the religious order figures that strike me most: last year 53 men and women joined religious communities in England and Wales, the largest number in sixteen years.

[Note: the pre-1982 figures are being disputed/clarified! But it is the upturn in recent years that interests me most...]

[Another note: see this clarification here from CVComment. I have simplified the quotations above in response, so I think the stats in my present post are correct!]

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In the category of ‘What is X?’ searches for 2012, Google found that the most most popular search for the year was ‘What is love?’ And after love came: iCloud, 3G and Scientology. It’s fascinating what we seek when the door is closed and the computer switched on.

UK love by @doug88888

The Guardian, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the question “once and for all” (I love the emphatic nature of the quest!), gathered writers from the fields of science, psychotherapy, literature, religion and philosophy to give their definition of the much-pondered word ‘love’. This included the perspective of ‘The Nun’, Sr Catherine Wybourne, a Benedictine sister. You can read the responses here.

The most interesting is from Philippa Perry, ‘The Psychotherapist’, who says – just as Pope Benedict did in Deus Caritas Est – that we simply need more words to describe the stuff we usually put under the crude heading of the word ‘love':

Unlike us, the ancients did not lump all the various emotions that we label “love” under the one word. They had several variations, including:

Philia which they saw as a deep but usually non-sexual intimacy between close friends and family members or as a deep bond forged by soldiers as they fought alongside each other in battle.

Ludus describes a more playful affection found in fooling around or flirting.

Pragma is the mature love that develops over a long period of time between long-term couples and involves actively practising goodwill, commitment, compromise and understanding.

Agape is a more generalised love, it’s not about exclusivity but about love for all of humanity.

Philautia is self love, which isn’t as selfish as it sounds. As Aristotle discovered and as any psychotherapist will tell you, in order to care for others you need to be able to care about yourself.

Last, and probably least even though it causes the most trouble, eros is about sexual passion and desire. Unless it morphs into philia and/or pragma, eros will burn itself out.

Love is all of the above. But is it possibly unrealistic to expect to experience all six types with only one person. This is why family and community are important.

And it’s telling that in the Guardian headline to the article (‘What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all’), and in the Perry passage above, the starting assumption is that love is nothing more or less than an emotion. Sr Catherine is brave enough to use the phrase ‘theological virtue’, by which ‘we love God above all things and our neighbours as ourselves for his sake'; but there is not enough space to unpack this in the article, and to explore how love might be much more than simply an emotion.

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

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

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

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

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I was at Blackfriars in Cambridge for Mass last week, which is the novice house for the Dominican Friars of England and Scotland. It was a joy to meet the four new novices over coffee afterwards, just a couple of weeks after they had arrived and exchanged their everyday clothes for the Dominican habit.

And a few days before I happened to be visiting the Carmelite sisters in the monastery at Notting Hill, London. Three women have begun their postulancy here over the last few months, with another due to join them this autumn.

So that’s eight new religious vocations this year in just two random houses! Something is certainly stirring in vocational terms in this country at the moment.

Something is speaking to people: about the value of religious life, the beauty of the evangelical vows (of poverty, consecrated celibacy, and obedience), the importance of prayer and community, the urgency of mission (whether the mission of apostolic work or of monastic prayer), and the adventure of giving your life without reservation to Christ in these particular ways.

Religious life, of course, is not the only way of giving your life to Christ; but to those who are called it becomes a way of living their faith and embracing the radicalism of the Gospel that seems to make sense of everything they have believed and desired before.

If you want to learn a bit more about the Dominicans or Carmelites, I’ve copied a few paragraphs below.

First of all, take a look at this video from the English Dominicans:

This is from the Irish Dominican website:

Dominican friars are engaged in an incredible spiritual adventure: living from the passion for the salvation of souls which, eight centuries ago, set fire to the heart of St Dominic and to the hearts of his first companions. This haste to announce the Gospel in truth produces three characteristics in a Dominican friar.

Men of the Word

A primordial taste for the Word of God marks Dominican friars. The Word demands to be meditated ceaselessly and lived without compromise. Never satisfied, the brothers take every opportunity to promote and engage in the study of the Word of God.

Compassion

Concern for the poorest found in the compassion of St Dominic and of his brothers a never ending response. No element of human existence is foreign to Dominicans. Mercy is the path, the tone and the mystery of the friar preacher. When making his commitment to live as a Dominican friar, a brother’s reply to the question “What do you seek?” is “God’s mercy and yours”.

Proclamation of Christ’s Good News in poverty

The original preaching of St Dominic while in contact with Catharism impressed upon the friars that the proclamation of the Gospel could be done only through authentically evangelical means (see the Gospel according to Mark, chapter six, beginning at verse seven). Joining others and understanding them imposes a lifestyle like that of the apostle: a life that is lived in common and one that is itinerant.

In practice, such a lifestyle is lived as a “religious life” with its own essential characteristics: the four elements particular to the friars preachers.

Conventual Life

Animated by the rule of St Augustine, the friars live together the same call coming from the one person who calls: Christ. Living as brothers, they strive to love each other, to forgive each other and to live the Gospel in community before living it outside the community.

To pass on to others what we have contemplated

Preaching finds its vitality in a life of prayer which is both personal and in common. Preaching, when at its best, is a truly contemplative act. The brothers are called to be simultaneously contemplative and fundamentally missionary.

The vows

Poverty, obedience and chastity make us men who try to consecrate ourselves for the adventure of the Kingdom of God.

Study

All our personal, community, intellectual and spiritual energy makes us useful for the souls of others, whether they be near to us or far away: useful by our word and by our example

We are consecrated for the proclamation of the Word of God, proclamation which is done using all the means available to us: preaching, confession, teaching, publishing, spiritual accompaniment, humble presence… Preaching animates what we do or what we live, to the point that our communities (“priories” or “convents”) have been called the “holy preaching”.

And this is from the Notting Hill Carmel website:

The mission of the Carmelite is to enter, by the total gift of herself, into the saving mission of Christ, who gave himself for us that we might come to a fuller life in God, and who said: Love one another as I have loved you.

The Carmelite is one with all people, everywhere, those who believe, those who search and those who do not know that they are searching, and she identifies with all that is great and worthy of humanity’s endeavour. Yet she is called to a way of life that is in many ways counter-cultural: to live quietly, against the background noise of the city; to live simply and sparingly in an increasingly wasteful age; to live hidden and unnoticed in a competitive society; above all, to live lovingly and generously in an aggressive and violent world.

In her contemplative prayer, the Carmelite carries the needs and hopes of every person before God, lifting the face of humanity to the Father and opening her heart to be a channel of his outpouring love for all.

Carmelite spirituality is profoundly contemplative, born in the hermit tradition and nurtured by the two famous Spanish mystics, St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. It is rooted in the word of God, having had its beginnings in the land of the bible. The earliest Rule instructs us: “In all you do, have the Lord’s word for accompaniment”. The biblical figures of Mary and Elijah are our first inspiration. The prophetic message of Elijah encourages us to proclaim in our own times: “He is alive! The Lord God in whose presence I stand”; and Mary teaches us how to make ourselves fully available to God.

The Church’s liturgy creates the framework of our lives. Seven times a day we come together to pray the psalms, hear the word of God and intercede for the manifold needs of the world, especially for those intentions that have been entrusted to our prayer.

Prayer is Carmel’s particular form of service to the church. We spend an hour each morning and each evening in silent prayer. These times of special openness to God nourish an entire life of prayer that tends towards God in everything.

The measure of silence and solitude necessary for a sustained life of prayer is balanced by the demands of building real community, so that this biblical, contemplative, ecclesial, Marian spirituality becomes also a spirituality of communion.

For the followers of the great Carmelite teachers, the essence of prayer is relationship. This means intimate, personal relationship with God, honest relationship with oneself, and an inclusive, all-embracing relationship with the whole community and the whole wide world.

These are just two examples of religious life in this country. Let’s hope that these houses, and many others, can continue to grow and flourish.

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Helen Croydon’s article about why she isn’t interested in getting married got me thinking again about the meaning of being single for a Christian man or woman.

I think there are two extremes to avoid. One is to say that being single is a meaningless transitional state of frustration and unfulfillment on the way to the endless happiness of marital bliss, priesthood or consecrated life. This is to define singleness negatively, as ‘not-yet-married’ (or ‘not-yet-whatever…’). The other extreme is to suggest that being single, in itself, is a Christian vocation which you are called to embrace wholeheartedly; because many people do not have a sense of being called by God to the single life, it’s just where they happen to be – and perhaps they are longing and praying to move out of it. So to define being single, without qualification, as a vocation, is not quite accurate or fair to people’s experience.

I had to think through some of this when I was writing my pamphlet on How to Discover Your Vocation. I thought it would be worth copying here the ideas I put together about the different meanings of being single.

The single life. People are single for many different reasons. If you are single at this moment, whatever the reason, you can believe that your life right now has immense value. Every person is called to a life of holiness, and in this sense every person who is single is called to live out their Christian vocation, wherever it might be leading them in the future. Your work, your study, your friendships, your care for your family, your service to others – these are all areas of life in which you are meeting Christ and bringing his love to others. Give thanks to God for your life and for the opportunities presented to you.

It would not be quite right to say that every single person has a vocation to be single, in the sense of a lifelong commitment – and we must be careful in the way we talk about the single vocation. It would be best, perhaps, to say that the single life is a concrete vocation only when it has been chosen as a response to a sense of calling; or at least when it has been willingly accepted as a long-term way of life in response to circumstances. This chapter lists some of the situations that single people find themselves in, and gives one or two thoughts about how to approach them.

Just getting on with life. Many people are single and happy about that and just getting on with life. You might be doing some fulfilling and worthwhile work. You might be hard at your studies. You might be involved in some all-consuming project. You might be too young or busy or distracted or happy to be thinking big thoughts about future commitments. That’s fine! Be happy and be holy. Just make sure that now and then you stop to think about your vocation as a Christian, and to ask the Lord in prayer if he has any other plans for you. You have every right to make the most of this situation, without undue anxiety – as long as you are open to other possibilities as well.

Those who are searching. Many single people are hoping to discover a more particular vocation and to make a lifelong commitment to marriage or priesthood or the consecrated life, but they are unsure about which one. Or they are clear about wanting to get married, but still looking for a husband or wife. Or they are dating and wondering if this is the right person. If this is the case, you can follow all the suggestions in this booklet about how to discern your vocation and how, at the right time, to come to a decision. Remember that your happiness does not just lie in the future. God wants you to find peace and to live a life of holiness in this present moment, even if your future is unclear. He wants you to trust him: to do everything you can, but to be patient as well.

Those who are struggling. Some people are single not through choice but through circumstances. They wish they were not single, but they cannot see any way out. Perhaps you are not drawn to marriage, or unable to find a husband or wife. Perhaps you want to be a priest or live a consecrated life, but you have been ‘turned down’ by the diocese or religious order. Perhaps you are caring for a sick relative or a child and you are not able to take on any other commitments. Perhaps you are sick yourself. There may be other difficulties in your life that make you feel you cannot pursue the vocation you would like to. Or perhaps you have a valid marriage, but are now separated from your husband or wife, without any apparent hope of reconciliation or of being granted an annulment; so that your day-to-day life is like that of a single person, only without the possibility of entering into a new marriage.

In all these situations it is so important to trust in God and to believe that he knows what he is doing with your life. There may be very real suffering and disappointment involved, and you can certainly hope and pray that the situation will improve. But you also need to accept that this is God’s will for you in this present moment, tocarry this cross with as much humility and love as is possible. Don’t give in to despair or self-pity. Live your Catholic faith, and trust that this is happening for a reason. Your vocation right now, without a doubt, is to show the love of Christ in these difficult circumstances. And through that love, if it is his will, he will lead you to a new stage, or help you to find new meaning in this present situation.

Committed to the single life. Some people have in effect made a personal commitment to lifelong celibacy, even without taking any formal vows. Some choose celibacy because they wish to give their lives in service to others, or because it allows them to follow a particular path in life. Some recognise that they are unlikely to get married, for all sorts of different reasons, and they willingly accept this and commit their lives to following Christ and living their faith as single people.

Those who accept the single life in this way, for whatever reason, can rightly think of this as their vocation – a call from God to live a life of holiness in this context, which will bear great fruit and will be richly rewarded. But perhaps we should not necessarily think of this form of celibacy as a lifelong vocation, because the circumstances might change. If you are single, and at peace about being single, but then something unexpected comes up, and you feel pulled towards another vocation – then you are perfectly free to look into that!

Consecrated single life. Some people do take lifelong vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, but continue to live and work in the world. Their vows mean that, in the language of the Church, they are living a consecrated life. Those who are consecrated have the assurance of God and of the Church that this is indeed a lifelong commitment and vocation.

What do you think? Does some of this help you to make sense of your single life – at the moment? Or do you have another take on what it all means?

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We have been back at Allen Hall for about ten days – a few days of induction and settling in, and then lectures started properly this Monday. It’s great to get stuck into the new year.

Sixteen new seminarians have arrived at Allen Hall – the largest intake in many years. Most of these are ‘first years’ beginning their formation for Catholic priesthood; one or two began elsewhere and are starting a new stage in their formation here.

I was going to entitle this post ‘seminary numbers increasing’, but then I realised that this is the same title I gave to a post at the beginning of the last academic year – which you can read it here. The good news about vocations seems to be continuing, not just here but in other seminaries as well.

 

The other bit of good news is that after much behind-the-scenes work our new website has just been launched. You can see a snapshot above, and if you want to browse around click here.

It looks fantastic. Yes, it’s a WordPress theme! I wish I could find something as crisp for the blog, but I can’t find anything that quite works for me on the free WordPress options. I feel I need a slight refresh – any ideas about blog themes are gratefully received.

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I’ve been in Leeds for the last three days, for a conference entitled Vatican II, 50 Years On: The New Evangelization, at Leeds Trinity University College – one of the former teacher-training colleges that hopes to become a fully-fledged Catholic university soon. 

There was a great buzz, with the event sold out and over 200 people attending as registered delegates, and many more for the public lectures in the evenings.

It was the usual conference format: keynote speeches and questions from the floor in the main hall, a huge array of shorter papers offered in the parallel sessions, good food, a running track below for when the days get a bit heavy, and lots of time to connect and chat over coffees or in the bar later in the evening (with a TV in the corner so we could watch the agonising Spain/Portugal penalty shootout). But I suppose not every academic conference has an hour’s Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament followed by Mass each morning.

There was a refreshingly diverse mix of people attending for this type of conference: highbrow academics and ecclesiastics swapping experiences and sharing ideas with ordinary ‘practitioners’ of the New Evangelisation – catechists, teachers, diocesan workers, priests, etc. And with every vocation and ‘state of life’ represented: single, married, ordained, consecrated (I even had an enlightening discussion with two members of a new community about how their promises made in a ‘society of apostolic life’ are quite distinct from religious vows and even the commitments made in a secular institute! I can fill you in later if you are interested). It was a tangible experience of the Church, made possible because everyone had such a manifest love for the Church.

The ecclesiastical big-hitters included Archbishop Fisichella on the New Evangelisation, Cardinal Filoni on Mission and the Young Churches, and Cardinal George of Chicago on the Ecclesiology of Communion. Other keynote speakers included Prof Tracey Rowland, Prof Susan Wood, Prof Gavin D’Costa and Mgr Paul Watson.

I won’t even try to summarise the programme, let alone the content of the talks; and I was late so missed the first evening. Here are just one or two thoughts that stayed with me, and that I want to mull over.

Archbishop Fisichella, after a long critique of Western secularism, ducked away from the topic completely and said: the Church doesn’t evangelise because of the challenge of secularism, but simply through obedience to the command of the Lord to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. This is such an important point. You don’t share good news because you are afraid of the ‘threat’ of secularism, afraid of what it is doing to you as a Church or to your culture; you share good news because it is good news, and because the Lord has asked you to do that – in season and out of season.

Cardinal George put the Council in context and explained how one of the major concerns (certainly for Pope John XXIII) was to speak to a world that was becoming more and more fragmented and divided, and in danger of destroying itself because of these divisions. The call for the Church, in this context, was to offer a deeper communion; hence the significance of the theology of communion that emerged in Lumen Gentium.

But the context today is almost the opposite; the world is more and more united (despite serious ongoing and new geo-political conflicts), secular culture (if not secularism) is becoming more and more pervasive and universal, and there is a global consciousness emerging because of our economic, ecological, cultural and technological unity.

The danger today is not fragmentation, said Cardinal George, but a ‘united’ world that is increasingly closed in on itself and cut off from the transcendent. This echoed Archbishop Fisichella’s lovely point that one of the purposes of religions, and above all the encounter with Christ, is not to solve all human enigmas, but to give space for the enigma of human existence to be acknowledged. This acknowledgement is becoming harder and harder in a global secular culture.

It was good to hear Gavin D’Costa for the first time. He’s a very clear thinker, and was at ease stepping away from his text and engaging – joyfully – with the conference participants. He showed how easy it is to find texts in the documents of Vatican II that seem to make mission and evangelisation redundant: the possibility of salvation outside the visible confines of the Church, the seeds of truth and holiness in other religions, the need to respect people’s freedom and conscience. And the reality is that many theologians and pastoral practitioners have concluded that proclaiming the Gospel to non-believers is unnecessary, incoherent, and possibly unjust.

But D’Costa then showed how for every text that points to the work of the Holy Spirit outside the Church or the sacraments, there is another text – usually following on its heels – about the continuing importance of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, and inviting people to share in the graces that come through explicit faith and participation in the life of the Church. It’s not about playing one text off against another; it’s about seeing that the Council is often holding together two truths, that are not contradictory, and that are both vitally important: our need as Catholics to be open to God’s wonderful work in people’s lives outside the Church; and the continuing need to evangelise.

Jon Kirwan, a PhD student from Oxford, gave a very helpful short paper about the historiography of Vatican II, and the three most common schools of interpretation that have grown up in the last 50 years: the Council as radical ‘event’ (in a good sense – creating a positive rupture), promoted by ‘the Bologna School’, creating an obligation to remain faithful to the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ that prompted the event; the Council as radical ‘event’ (in a bad sense – creating a disastrous rupture), promoted by the Lefebvrists and a number of Catholic thinkers still in full-communion, creating an obligation to repudiate as far as possible the work of the Council; and the Council as an important reform, but in clear continuity with the Tradition of the Church, promoted by Pope Benedict and others, creating an obligation to see how the texts and explicit teachings of Vatican II (rather than its ‘spirit’) sit within the continuous Tradition of the Church. Of course this is simplistic, as Jon would have recognised; but it’s good to have some hooks on which to hang some of the ideas you hear about the Council.

The main topic of the conference was the New Evangelisation, so let me finish with a remark from Pauline Danel, who is a member of the Emmanuel Community in France, and gave a testimony about their work in a recent city mission in Paris. She said we shouldn’t feel burdened by the call to evangelise, as if the conversion of the world or of individual souls were our problem. It’s not our problem; the burden belongs to the Holy Spirit. But we do have a responsibility. What is that? She quoted St Bernadette, testifying to the authorities about the visions she saw in Lourdes, who said: ‘I am not here to convince you, but simply to tell you’. The conference was a much-needed reaffirmation of the call to tell others, as best we can, about the love of Jesus Christ; and a reminder that the Holy Spirit will do everything else required.

[You can see the full programme here, and watch some of the talks on video here.]

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There is an informative, positive and completely uncynical article in yesterday’s Times by Ruth Gledhill about how more and more women from the UK are entering religious orders. For those of you without a Times subscription it’s reprinted here in the Australian.

The attraction of religious life to young women today

First of all she looks at the figures:

UNTIL recently, nuns in Britain had fallen out of the habit. In parts of the country, years went by without any women seeking to get themselves to a nunnery. Then, suddenly, convents have reported a spike in interest.

It is not huge in numbers; but in significance it is of a new order. In the past three years the number of women entering the religious life has nearly tripled from six to 17 and there are also many more who have entered convents but have not not yet taken their initial vows. This influx is thought to be a result of the Pope’s visit to Britain last year. Such has been the sudden surge in inquiries that religious orders have had to ask bishops how to cope, so unused to receiving new vocations have they become, and so accepting of the received wisdom that, with many convents closing and being sold off, their way of life was likely to be coming to an end.

Now, if these inquiries result in more women taking their vows and becoming novices, numbers could edge back up to where they were in the early 1980s, when more than a hundred women a year took vows as sisters in enclosed and other religious orders.

This week, the media have reported that even a former girlfriend of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has become a nun called Sister John Mary. “I thought of marriage … then God called,” Laura Adshead, 44, told a television documentary about the Benedectine order she joined, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in the Connecticut hills in the US.

Father Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation, adds some comments:

Many people today, especially the young, find it difficult to listen to their deepest spiritual desires, so the Church needs to offer a structured approach to vocation if the call of Christ is to be heard by more people.

It’s against a background that’s surprisingly upbeat given the general perception of the state of the clergy and religious life in this country. In the last few years, the number of people applying to seminaries has been gradually increasing and, in more recent years, just in the last couple of years, ever since the Papal visit, the number of women approaching women’s congregations has also been increasing.

[It was not fully reflected yet in the figures because it takes time from an initial approach to become a novice, said Father Jamison]. But it is certainly more than anecdotal. There are congregations of women who have been contacting us to say, ‘Could you help us because it’s been a while since we’ve had this sort of response’, and so we are now happily supporting them in dealing with an increase.

Judith Eydmann, development co-ordinator of the National Office for Vocation, gives some interpretation:

“For young women it is not just the life that is attractive. They feel that it is what Christ has called them to, the total dedication of their lives to the service of God. We have moved away from a model of recruitment to one of discernment and that gives people a safe environment in which they can make safe choices.”

She says new Catholic movements such as Youth 2000 have been key to the increase. Among the general Catholic population of more than five million across the UK, about 10 per cent have had contact with new movements but among those entering monasteries, convents and seminaries, the proportion is 50 per cent. In a further new development, one in five of the new vocations are converts to Catholicism, compared with the 1970s when nearly all those seeking to become priests, monks or nuns were cradle Catholics.

And here is Ruth Gledhill’s uncynical and unironic signing off:

Whether these newly formed nuns are finding God, or God is finding them, the religious life is coming back into fashion as one that offers not so much riches, but a way of life exemplified by courage, wisdom and serenity – not bad for women who might be tempted to think they haven’t a prayer.

The only puzzle is why the huge photograph advertising the article on the cover page of Times 2 is clearly of a model posing as a nun – it’s way too posed, and the habit and crucifix are complemented by plenty of lip-gloss and eye-liner. Why didn’t they take the trouble to find a photograph of a real nun? That’s not a criticism of the article, just a question!

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We’ve just finished our half-term break, and for various random reasons I spent the week North of the Watford Gap, an exhilarating experience for a southerner.

Due praise, before anything else, to the Victorian engineers and railway men whose vision and graft allowed me to travel from London to Elgin (near Inverness) on – in effect – an unbroken piece of track, via Lancaster, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh, Leuchars (for St Andrews), Dundee and Aberdeen.

OK, I didn't travel on a stream train - but this captures some of the romance...

You could tell I was in that trainspotter’s twilight zone by the wad of rail tickets stuffed into my wallet. There was a magic moment in Lancaster when I was sorting through them to find the time of the next train to Manchester, and one of my friends who would be on the ‘danger zone’ end of the geekiness scale when it comes to all things public transport couldn’t resist swanning up beside me to note how many journeys I had timetabled for one holiday trip. I impressed myself that I managed to impress him.

Anyway, it wasn’t for love of trains that I set off, but – more or less – for love of the faith. Last Saturday, as I wrote about earlier, was the ordination of John Millar, one of our seminarians, at Lancaster Cathedral; with a great crowd of friends, family, parishioners, priests and fellow seminarians.

That afternoon I got to Leeds, via Manchester, for the evening event of the ‘Love@Leeds’ Youth 2000 retreat for young adults. It was the first time a Youth 2000 retreat had been held in the city, and by all accounts it was a huge success. Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College proved to be a great venue. The school hall provided a dignified place for the worship and services (the chapel would have been far too small), and the dining room was a place not just to eat but to socialise and talk the night away.

For the Reconciliation Service (with individual confessions) and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament that evening there were over 200 young people there, mainly of university age; and I’d guess that a good 150 stayed over for the talks and Mass the following day.

After a couple of days to myself in Edinburgh (I’d never been before) I went to St Andrews as a guest of the Catholic Chaplaincy. I did all the touristy stuff, and went down on one knee to pat the 18th green (it’s all public). I’m not big into golf, but I wanted to experience the moment and have something to tell my golfing friends.

It was great to be in the chaplaincy there, and to meet the students and Fr Andrew the chaplain and parish priest. It has been a powerhouse for vocations over the years, as well as being just a friendly and solid formative environment for young Catholics; and I have known many priests who studied at St Andrews and identify it as the place where their vocation really crystallised.

My talk was entitled, ‘Is there a difference between human happiness and Christian joy?’ I’ll try to post about my reflections sometime soon.

Then, after a huge cooked breakfast in my B&B, I got the train to Aberdeen, had time for a brief look at the Catholic Cathedral, where Abbot Hugh Gilbert has recently been installed as bishop; and ended my journey at Pluscarden Abbey, where Bishop Hugh was from, to catch up with two old friends who are now ‘juniors’ in the monastery. It was my first visit, and I want to post about that later as well, to give it some proper space on the blog.

So that’s my week! Praise to the rail network, which was cheap, and mostly on time. And praise, above all, to the vitality of Catholic life in this country – which is the main reason for posting. An ordination of a man in his young twenties in Lancaster, giving his life to the Lord and to the service of God’s people. A powerful retreat for university students in the heart of Leeds, who chose to be there to deepen their faith when there are so many other pulls on their time and attention. A Catholic chaplaincy, forming its students, sustaining them, as it has done for many years. And a thriving Benedictine monastery in a place of breathtaking beauty that is simply doing what it has always done, and for that reason attracting young men to join it.

Thank God for these wonderful signs of faith in Britain!

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It was a very special weekend for the Diocese of Lancaster. On Saturday morning John Millar, one of our Allen Hall seminarians, was ordained deacon in the Cathedral Church of St Peter in Lancaster, on the diocesan feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. And the following day Sr Margaret Atkins made her final profession as an Augustinian sister in the community at Boarbank Hall.

There are many different reasons why the Lord calls people to diaconal/priestly ministry and to religious life, and the different forms of consecration take on different meanings for the individual, and for the Church and the world – often changing over time. But one of the meanings (not at all exclusive to Orders or to consecrated life) is to give a particular form of example to the Christian community and to the world.

This is phrased beautifully in the Prayer of Consecration at the Diaconal Ordination:

May he excel in every virtue: in love that is sincere, in concern for the sick and the poor, in unassuming authority, in self-discipline, and in holiness of life. May his conduct exemplify your commandments and lead your people to imitate his purity of life. May he remain strong and steadfast in Christ, giving to the world the witness of a pure conscience. May he in this life imitate your Son, who came not to be served but to serve, and one day reign with him in heaven.

Many congratulations to Deacon John and Sister Margaret. May their example and prayers inspire many others to serve Christ as his ordained ministers and consecrated religious.

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This is funny, and perceptive. It’s very home-made, but that is part of it’s charm.

The punch line, of course, is about joining this particular religious order, but most of the video would apply to anyone who is thinking/wondering/worrying about possibly having a religious vocation.

I love the idea that having a great list of reasons why you do not have a religious vocation is a good argument for why you do have one. I know this sounds perverse, some kind of Jesuitical trap: ‘You do think you have a vocation? Great – sign here. You don’t think you have a vocation? Ahhh! Then you probably do!!’ But it’s often true! Ordinary people without a vocation to religious life do not wander round obsessing about all the reasons why they are not called to religious life!

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Here is some information from the Westminster Diocese website about an event for women discerning a call to consecrated life.

Day for Consecrated Life logo

On 4 February 2012 women aged 20-40 are invited to a special day of discernment.

In 1997 Pope John Paul II instituted a ‘World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life’ on February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Each year since then the Church has thanked God for the gift of the different forms of consecrated life, and prayed that our world will continue to be enriched by the lives and witness of consecrated men and women.

In 2012, Westminster Diocese will mark this ‘World Day of Prayer’ in a new way. On Saturday February 4th, there will be a day for women interested in finding out more about consecrated life;  a ‘Come and See’ experience from a ‘neutral’ perspective, held in the Carmelite Priory in Kensington Church Street. The idea is that it will enable women to make a first step into exploring what consecrated life is, with the opportunity to ask questions and interact with religious and with others who are discerning their vocation.

A variety of women religious (representing both active and enclosed congregations) will speak about consecrated life and how to discern if God is calling a person to this way of life. There will also be time set aside for prayer, with both Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

If you, or anyone you know might be interested in attending the day please contact Fr Richard Nesbitt for more details at richardnesbitt@rcdow.org.uk

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Liberal, conservative, progressive, traditionalist: Where is the Church going? The answer, according to John Allen in his post-World Youth Day reflections, is that the Church is going evangelical.

World Youth Day, Toronto 2002

‘Evangelical Catholicism’ is his preferred term to capture our 21st century struggles over Catholic identity, where the political categories of left and right, progressive and conservative, simply don’t make sense any more (if they ever did).

Let me quote a large chunk. It’s well worth reflecting on. He writes:

I define Evangelical Catholicism in terms of three pillars:

  • A strong defense of traditional Catholic identity, meaning attachment to classic markers of Catholic thought (doctrinal orthodoxy) and Catholic practice (liturgical tradition, devotional life, and authority).
  • Robust public proclamation of Catholic teaching, with the accent on Catholicism’s mission ad extra, transforming the culture in light of the Gospel, rather than ad intra, on internal church reform.
  • Faith seen as a matter of personal choice rather than cultural inheritance, which among other things implies that in a highly secular culture, Catholic identity can never be taken for granted. It always has to be proven, defended, and made manifest.

I consciously use the term “Evangelical” to capture all this rather than “conservative,” even though I recognize that many people experience what I’ve just sketched as a conservative impulse. Fundamentally, however, it’s about something else: the hunger for identity in a fragmented world.

Historically speaking, Evangelical Catholicism isn’t really “conservative,” because there’s precious little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. For the same reason, it’s not traditionalist, even though it places a premium upon tradition. If liberals want to dialogue with post-modernity, Evangelicals want to convert it – but neither seeks a return to a status quo ante. Many Evangelical Catholics actually welcome secularization, because it forces religion to be a conscious choice rather than a passive inheritance. As the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, the dictionary definition of an Evangelical Catholic, once put it, “We’re really at the dawn of Christianity.”

Paradoxically, this eagerness to pitch orthodox Catholicism as the most satisfying entrée on the post-modern spiritual smorgasbord, using the tools and tactics of a media-saturated global village, makes Evangelical Catholicism both traditional and contemporary all at once.

Evangelical from the Bottom Up

“Evangelical Catholicism” has been the dominant force at the policy-setting level of the Catholic church since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. If you want to understand Catholic officialdom today — why decisions are being made the way they are in the Vatican, or in the U.S. bishops’ conference, or in an ever-increasing number of dioceses — this is easily the most important trend to wrap your mind around.

You’ll get Evangelical Catholicism badly wrong, however, if you think of it exclusively as a top-down movement. There’s also a strong bottom-up component, which is most palpable among a certain segment of the younger Catholic population.

We’re not talking about the broad mass of twenty- and thirty-something Catholics, who are all over the map in terms of beliefs and values. Instead, we’re talking about that inner core of actively practicing young Catholics who are most likely to discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most likely to enroll in graduate programs of theology, and most likely to pursue a career in the church as a lay person — youth ministers, parish life coordinators, liturgical ministers, diocesan officials, and so on. In that sub-segment of today’s younger Catholic population, there’s an Evangelical energy so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Needless to say, the groups I’ve just described constitute the church’s future leadership.

Once upon a time, the idea that the younger generation of intensely committed Catholics was more “conservative” belonged to the realm of anecdotal impressions. By now, it’s an iron-clad empirical certainty.

Case in point: A 2009 study carried out by Georgetown’s Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate, and sponsored by the National Religious Vocations Conference, found a marked contrast between new members of religious orders in the United States today (the “millennial generation”) and the old guard. In general, younger religious, both men and women, are more likely to prize fidelity to the church and to pick a religious order on the basis of its reputation for fidelity; they’re more interested in wearing the habit, and in traditional modes of spiritual and liturgical expression; and they’re much more positively inclined toward authority.

To gauge which way the winds are blowing, consider women’s orders. The study found that among those which belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, considered the more “liberal” umbrella group, just one percent have at least ten new members; among those which belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, seen as the more “conservative” group, a robust 28 percent have at least ten new members.

For the most part, it’s a mistake to diagnose this trend in ideological terms, as if it’s about the politics of left vs. right. For today’s younger Catholics, it’s more a matter of generational experience. They didn’t grow up in a stuffy, all-controlling church, so they’re not rebelling against it. Instead, they’re rebelling against a rootless secular world, making them eager to embrace clear markers of identity and sources of meaning.

Among youth, Evangelical Catholicism usually becomes ideological only if the older generation paints them into a corner, demanding that they choose sides in the church’s internal battles. That tendency, alas, seems equally pronounced on the left and the right.

Most of this fits with my experience of the Church over recent years. What do you think? 

Perhaps this also gives one interpretative key to the recent introduction of the new translation of the Mass, and the promotion of Friday abstinence – to see them not as victories for the ‘conservatives’ but as concrete manifestations of this evangelical impulse within the Catholic Church today.

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I can’t quite believe it, but somehow the number of seminarians in formation at Allen Hall has reached fifty at the beginning of this new academic year. This includes those living at Allen Hall, together with members of religious orders and other houses of formation who are travelling in each day, and seminarians and deacons who are outside the college on full-time pastoral placements.

It’s certainly a significant step, to reach our half-century; and another sign that even if priestly and religious vocations are not quite booming, things are at least looking more positive than a few years ago and moving in a good direction.

The numbers don't match, because this photo includes some seminarians in formation elsewhere, and is missing some of the Allen Hall seminarians!

You can read my enthusiastic post from this time last year, which includes a few more global stats.

And here is the recent press-release from Westminster Diocese:

16 men have started studying for the Catholic priesthood at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s seminary in London.

The new intake brings the number of men preparing for the priesthood at Allen Hall to 50, up from 46 in 2010 and the sixth consecutive annual increase.

This number includes men who are preparing to become priests in the Diocese of Westminster, other English and overseas diocese including Lancaster, Nottingham, Johannesburg  and Toulon and religious orders including the Salvatorians, Passionists and the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

For the Diocese of Westminster, 32 men are now preparing for the priesthood. 12 men started this September with six studying at Allen Hall, three at the Beda College in Rome and three at the Venerable English College in Rome. A further two men are spending a year ‘discovering priesthood’ at The Royal College of St. Alban, Valladolid, Spain before actually entering seminary.

Damian Ryan is one of the Diocese of Westminster’s new seminarians. He shares some thoughts as he begins this new chapter in his life.

Can you say a little about your journey so far?

After leaving school at 17, I worked as a salesman, a market research supervisor, a chef, and a swimming and football coach. It was then that I realised that I was ready for further studies so at the tender age of 26 I went to study Psychology and Sports studies at the University of Hertfordshire, with the idea of going into sports coaching. God, however, had other ideas!

Looking back, how has God guided you to the seminary?

I felt restless at university about my chosen career path as a sports coach. At the same time I began to want to go to Mass every day, and to learn more about my faith. It was around this time that many people started asking me if I was thinking about priesthood. I thought it was a conspiracy! After talking with my parish priest and chaplain at the university, Fr Mark Vickers, he encouraged me to ‘come and see’ whether or not God was calling me to the priesthood. He kindly offered me a position as parish assistant at St Peter’s Church, Hatfield, to test this. My spiritual director was also fantastic in guiding me with deep wisdom during this period of discernment. As well as receiving encouragement from parishioners at St Peter’s, this journey towards the priesthood has given me an ever-deeper sense of peace which, to me, has been the biggest sign that this is indeed the right step.

How are you feeling as you begin your seminary journey?

Very excited! When I first made the decision to apply to seminary 18 months ago, I wanted to move in straight away! I had to be patient though as God obviously wanted me to wait, and so since then I have continued working in St. Peter’s Church, visiting the sick and housebound, serving at Mass every day, helping with the Chaplaincy, helping and leading catechesis classes, helping to run a youth group, as well as other general parish duties. During this time I’ve come to know the parishioners there, who have been overwhelmingly kind and encouraging, and so, as D-Day approaches, the sense of excitement is tinged with a sadness that I’ll be leaving such a generous, warm, and kind community. But most deeply, as I begin this journey, God willing, towards the priesthood, I feel as if I finally know who I am and who I was made to be. I feel as if the priesthood will complete me in a way that nothing else will.

What advice would you have for anyone else discerning a possible call to the priesthood?

Do not be afraid! Pray, live the Christian life, and frequent the sacraments. If you are a student, going to Mass sometimes during the week is both doable and very good to do. Praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament has helped me enormously, as well as having a good spiritual director. Getting to know good priests, other good Catholics at events such as the ‘Evangelium’ and ‘Faith’ conferences, where you can meet many others who are discerning a possible call to priesthood as well as learning more about our faith, are very good things to do too. The main thing is to be courageous, relax, and to let Jesus do the work. He knows what he’s doing.

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[I gave this homily on Saturday at the First Profession of Sister Mary Benedicta Chinwe Obiora, in the chapel of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, Lymington.]

Most of us here today are guests of the community. I just want to say to Sister Mary Benedicta and to all the community how happy we are to be here with you, and how grateful we are for the chance to witness this profound step you are taking.

We know what an incredible journey this has been for you – to arrive at this day of your First Profession. A geographical journey, from Nigeria to London, and from London to the New Forest, with one or two detours in between. A journey of faith, coming to know the Lord better, drawing closer to him. And above all it has been a journey of vocation, trying to listen to God’s call – his personal call to you, speaking to your heart, and speaking through so many people and events.

Abraham only had to travel a few hundred miles when he heard the call of the Lord, from Haran to the Holy Land. You have travelled many thousands of miles. But then he was travelling on a camel, not a 747; so we should give him some credit [Genesis 12].

A vocation to religious life is a mysterious thing. It’s full of paradoxes, of apparent contradictions. The Scripture readings of the Mass help us to understand them in the right way.

On the one hand, a religious vocation is always an unexpected call. It comes as a surprise. It startles and even shocks us. It’s not something we plan.

At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary quite unexpectedly: ‘Hail, O highly favoured one. The Lord is with you’ [Luke 1:28]. That’s why she was so disturbed. She wasn’t sitting there on the edge of her seat, tapping her watch, thinking ‘When is he going to arrive then?’

This is why, in Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings, Mary is always doing something when the Angel comes: praying, reading, sewing, etc. One of my favourite modern images of the Annunciation depicts Mary hanging out the washing on a blustery afternoon, and the angel almost swoops down between the sheets – to her utter astonishment.

So a vocation is an unexpected call.

On the other hand, a religious vocation is a dream that lies hidden within the heart, because God always calls us to be the person that we long to be, the person we are made to be – even if we don’t quite realise or acknowledge it at the time. It’s his heart speaking to our heart.

This was the phrase of St Francis de Sales, which as we know became the motto of Blessed John Henry Newman: Heart speaks unto heart.

So you are listening to the call of God, and at the same time listening to its echo in your own heart: Who am I? What does God want of me? What do I really seek for myself? Ultimately, they will come together, if we keep listening and keep following.

Another paradox is to do with relationships. On the one hand, we seem to lose so much, to be going further and further away from those we love. This was part of Abraham’s experience, put so starkly in the command that God gave him: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ [Genesis 12:1].

And this is part of Sister Benedicta’s experience. To leave one’s family, one’s home, one’s country; to leave one’s work, one’s parish, one’s set of friends and companions. It’s hard.

But in the Letter to the Romans today, St Paul explains something very important about the spiritual journey. That the closer we come to Christ, the closer we come to others – even if we are separated by a great distance. And the more faithfully we live our own personal vocation, the more connected we will be in Christ’s body, which is the Church.

‘For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness’ [Romans 12:4-8].

We have different gifts, different vocations; but we are all united in the one body. Of course, at the emotional level, we miss people; we wish we could be with them, talking, touching. But at the deepest level of faith, of charity, never forget how close you are to those you love. There is no separation in Christ; and in a mysterious way, your vocation brings you closer to your family and friends, because you are rooted more firmly in the love that binds you together.

A final paradox is about obedience. You are certainly making a lot of promises today! I’ve read the Profession. You promise obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic, to the Prioress, to her successors, to the Master of the Order of Preachers, according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of your Congregation. Lots of obeying! Plenty of people to listen to! You seem to be losing so much freedom.

But this isn’t really true. First, you are making this profession freely, you are embracing this life freely; just as Mary said Yes to the angel with absolute freedom.

And secondly, you are making this profession in order to have a deeper experience of the freedom that comes through religious life, and specifically through the life of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph. You believe that there is something important for you here: the prayer, the love and example of your sisters, the apostolate, the way of St Dominic and St Catherine. You have discovered an inner freedom here, and you want to enter into it more fully.

It’s not a lifelong commitment, but it is nevertheless, for this important period in your life, a wholehearted commitment; so that you can experience with your whole heart, without reservation, the life of this community and this vocation.

When he called Abraham, God promised to bless him and to bless others through him. He makes that same promise to you today.

[Click here if you want to find out more about the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph]

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What do I know about gang culture or St Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite order in 16th century Spain? Very little. But that didn’t stop me making a throwaway remark trying to connect the two in a talk I gave in Avila on the way to World Youth Day. See what you think.

St Teresa joined the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila when she was a young woman, lived there for over twenty years, and then famously moved out to set up her own monastery half a mile away, under the patronage of St Joseph. It’s too easy just to say that monastic life at the Incarnation was ‘lax’, and she wanted to found a ‘strict’ Carmelite convent – as if they simply weren’t following the rules with enough rigour at the Incarnation. She had three quite specific criticisms about the form of religious life that had become established there.

Convent and Church of San José (St Joseph) - St Teresa of Avila's first foundation

First, it was too big to allow true community life to develop, and by that she meant a family-type community where people knew each other well and shared the lives of each other intimately, where they rubbed shoulders rather than simply crossing paths in their day-to-day life of prayer and work. The Incarnation held over 100 people; the ideal size of a reformed Teresian Carmel would be 12 or 13.

Second, there was no real tradition of enclosure at the Incarnation. Nuns could, more or less, come and go as they wished, entertain whichever visitors they liked, and even bring their servants into the convent with them to care for their needs. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of this, but it was a particular form of religious life that seemed to suit a certain kind of woman; it allowed for a more devout life, and a celibate life, but still with one foot in the world. Teresa never ceased to praise the holiness of many of the women who lived there. It worked for some.

But true enclosure became more and more important for Teresa. It was obviously a way of focusing the life of the community and the heart of each individual nun on prayer, on the Lord. It was also a way of getting some critical distance on the habits and expectations of the surrounding culture, and thereby allowing a new culture to emerge, a new vision of life. So enclosure is not just about escape or rejection; it’s about holding a space in which something new can be created.

Third, there was little commitment to poverty at the Incarnation. St Joseph’s would be truly poor. The nuns gave up everything. They lived a simple life, even a harsh one. They relied on Providence. They ate what they received. One of Teresa’s early rules was that at a certain time each evening the sisters were to eat…if they had any food! This kind of radical poverty can sound dualistic (a hatred for the body), or even masochistic (some kind of perverse pleasure in self-denial and suffering). But poverty and penance, for Teresa, when lived authentically and in the context of a balanced faith, helped the nuns to keep their hearts fixed on ‘the one thing necessary’ – on Christ, on his love for them and for the whole world, and on his Providence. Poverty was a way of questioning the values of the world, and re-evaluating the priorities of life within the convent.

What’s all this got to do with gang culture? Well, it struck me in Avila, after the UK riots and all the ensuing discussion about gang membership, that perhaps some young people join gangs for reasons that are not unconnected with those that led Teresa to leave the Incarnation and move to St Joseph’s. They live, perhaps, in a neighbourhood that has little sense of community or natural bonds; their senior school – if they still go to school – may not be an environment where they can connect and be valued; and there may be an lack of stability or even kinship at home. So they seek a smaller community where they are known, where they have a place, where they belong.

Like Teresa, they yearn for enclosure. Not to be confined to a monastery, but in some sense to withdraw from the surrounding culture, to create a protected space, to get some distance. And, at some level, they are exploring the meaning of poverty. I’m stretching the meaning of the word here. I don’t mean, of course, that there is any renunciation of material goods; but, like Teresa, there is a definite desire to distance oneself from the values embraced by the surrounding culture – by ‘the world’ – and create some alternative value structure within the group, one that gives a new meaning and a new perspective.

Don’t worry. I’m not naive; I’m not romanticising gang life – the pressures, the violence, the distorted loyalties, the lack of freedom. And I know that ‘joining’ a gang for many young people is not a choice or an answer to an existential search but a harsh reality they can’t escape from. I’m just finding a small connection between what motivated St Teresa to establish a new kind of community at St Joseph’s, and what might be motivating an alienated teenager who does end up choosing to join a gang. The consequences are hugely different, but some of the underlying motivations may be shared: a hunger for genuine community, for a protected space that is ‘enclosed’ from the world, and for a re-evaluation of the priorities of the prevailing culture.

It was a throwaway remark (now extended to 900 words). What do you think?

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How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?

It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.

I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.

Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:

It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.

That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.

Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.

Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.

This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.

The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.

That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.

I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.

PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:

Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.

Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…

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No-one would pretend that religious life in Britain is booming. Religious congregations are greying; most of them are closing individual houses here and there; and many are winding up their presence in this country altogether, unable to sustain the numbers to keep a province going. This is true for both enclosed and apostolic religious life.

None of this negates the amazing witness and work of religious brothers and sisters in recent generations, but it raises questions about the meaning of religious life and its place in Christian culture.

So it was particularly inspiring to be at the profession of a young sister at the weekend. Despite the travel chaos that kept a number of guests away, Sister Clare Ruvarashe of the Cross made her final profession in the Poor Clare community at Arundel.

Assisi -  Italien - Italy - Monastery - Kirche - Church - "Franz von Assisi" by Ela2007.

Assisi and the Basilica of St Clare

What made her join? Well, it’s not my job to speak for her, you can read her story here. For a shortened explanation, she chose to have these words from the prophet Jeremiah printed on the back of her booklet:

O Lord, You have seduced me, and I have let myself be seduced. Your word in my heart is like a consuming fire burning deep within my bones. [Jer 20:7]

It made me reflect on all the positive signs of religious life in Britain, and how it is not all one tidy story of ageing and exile. Just in my own random experience as a priest over the last few years I have known young women, in this country, who are in formation as Poor Clares, apostolic Franciscans, Benedictines, Assumptionists, Missionaries of Charity, Sisters of the Gospel of Life, Carmelites, the Community of Lady of Walsingham, and as three different ‘types’ of Dominicans. And young men in formation as Franciscans, Benedictines, Dominicans, Salvatorians, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Norbertines, Carmelites, Fransalians, Jesuits, as two ‘types’ of Augustinians, and as Oratorians (not strictly ‘religious’). I’m sure there are many others who have slipped my mind, and I know there are many other congregations and communities with new members that I just don’t happen to know.

It’s not an avalanche, but it shows the continuing attraction of religious life for many young people, and it must be an encouragement to all those religious men and women who have been so faithful to their vocation over the years, and given so much to the Church in this country.

Here are the questions that Sister Clare was asked on Saturday by Bishop Kieran Conry. It’s poweful stuff!

By baptism you have been consecrated to God. Following St Clare, do you wish ‘to love Him totally who gave Himself totally for your love’?

Do you wish to follow the way set out by Clare – ‘to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own and in chastity’?

Clare said to her sisters: ‘Love one another with the love with which Christ has loved you, so that all the sisters may always grow in love for God and for each other’. Do you wish to open your heart to the whole world in this way?

Clare wrote to her friend Sister Agnes in Prague: ‘As a Poor Sister, embrace the poor and crucified Christ, gaze at Him, think about Him and desire to imitate Him’. Do you, by renouncing every kind of possession and privilege, wish to talk along the way of poverty by living with nothing of your own?

Clare says in her Rule: ‘May the sisters desire above all else to possess the Spirit of the Lord, and to pray always to Him with a pure heart’. Do you wish to welcome our Saviour in prayer and silence?

And to each question Sister Clare answered:

Yes, by the grace of God and with the help of my sisters.

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Not many people would know that there is an enclosed monastery of contemplative nuns in a fashionable district of west London. Michael Whyte has just finished a documentary film about life in Notting Hill Carmel and, remarkably, it is getting a national cinematic release in April. You can visit the monastery site here; and the site of the film here (with some beautiful images, and an online trailer).

After ten years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unprecedented access to the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in London’s Notting Hill. The monastery, which was founded in 1878, is home to the Discalced Order of Carmelite Nuns. The nuns lead a cloistered life dedicated to prayer and contemplation, rarely leaving the monastery except to visit a doctor or dentist. Silence is maintained throughout the day with the exception of two periods of recreation.

No Greater Love gives a unique insight into this closed world where the modern world’s materialism is rejected; they have no television, radio or newspapers. The film interweaves a year in the life of the monastery with the daily rhythms of Divine Office and work. Centred in Holy Week, it follows a year in which a novice is professed and one of the senior nuns dies. Though mainly an observational film there are several interviews, which offer insights into their life, faith, moments of doubt and their belief in the power of prayer in the heart of the community.

I was lucky enough to go to a screening this week. I’ve known the community for a few years because they have links with the seminary where I work. A key part of the Carmelite vocation is to pray for priests, and the sisters at Notting Hill pray each day for the priests and seminarians of Westminster Diocese. We visit them once a year in small groups, and chat in the ‘parlour’. So it was a real eye-opener to see what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’ after all this time.

St Therese in  Notting Hill Carmel by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Some of the sisters (at the visit of the relics in October)

I was struck, perhaps inevitably, by the silence; but also by the noises that emerge from this silence. One of the sisters explained that they don’t feel disconnected from the city, because they are there to pray for the city, and to live at its heart. And you could see and hear these very connections in the background: the sound of a siren, of a train pulling out of Paddington Station; the sight of a police helicopter flying over, seen above the arms of a wooden crucifix in the garden.

Some of the sisters talked about their vocations, and about the struggles of prayer. It was very real. Moments of joy; moments of darkness and boredom — sometimes lasting for years. You had a sense, throughout the film, that they knew who they were and what they were doing. Simple things: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for the sick, swapping news and stories (in the time of recreation each evening), kneeling in the chapel. Simple things that add up to a huge commitment of life.

One sister took evident delight in taking a chainsaw to an overgrown tree; and the director seemed to take an equal delight in cutting abruptly to this scene from the silence of the Chapel.

The final shot was breathtaking. Only at the very end, after following the sisters within the confines of the monastery walls for what amounted to a year, did the director use an aerial shot and pan back from the monastery to the surrounding streets and housing estates — and to the whole of west London. You realised that this monastery, so hidden away and unacknowledged, is truly part of the beating heart of London.

I’ll post again when I hear details about when and where the film is showing.

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