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On Friday the seminary went on pilgrimage to St Albans to visit the shrine of the great saint, England’s first martyr. Just getting out of London was a revelation for some of the seminarians; and many of them couldn’t quite believe that we were still in Westminster Diocese (which takes in the whole of Hertfordshire as well as its London elements). I was born in London but grew up in Harpenden, and went to senior school in St Albans; so I felt very proud to show them that there is life beyond the M25, and that the Diocese extends beyond Enfield.

We started in the Roman museum in the beautiful park below, and then walked up to the Abbey Cathedral for a tour and the celebration of Mass in the medieval Lady Chapel. Our Anglican hosts were very gracious to us in their welcome and in allowing us to celebrate Mass.

shrine to st alban by avail

The restored shrine of St Alban in St Albans Cathedral

The shrine itself was completely destroyed during the Reformation. In recent years it has been gloriously restored, and they have an authentic relic of St Alban that was given to the Abbey by a church in Cologne. What an incredible grace, that after the tragedy of the destruction of the shrine, St Alban is now honoured ecumenically nearly five hundred years later. There is a thriving annual pilgrimage around the time of his feast day in late June each year.

I always think we should make more of him as Catholics, especially in Westminster Diocese. We have the shrine of England’s first martyr in the geographical centre of the diocese, but many people know hardly anything about him.

Here is the short biography from the Cathedral website:

A man called Alban, believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the Roman town of Verulamium around the end of the 3rd century, gave shelter to an itinerant Christian priest, later called Amphibalus.

Impressed by what he heard Alban was converted to Christianity by him.

When a period of persecution, ordered by the Emperor, brought soldiers in search of the priest, Alban exchanged clothes with him allowing him to escape and it was Alban who was arrested in his place.

Standing trial and asked to prove his loyalty by making offerings to the Roman gods, Alban bravely declared his faith in “the true and living God who created all things”. This statement condemned Alban to death. He was led out of the city, across the river and up a hillside where he was beheaded.

As with all good stories the legend grew with time. Bede, writing in the 8th century elaborates the story, adding that the river miraculously divided to let him pass and a spring of water appeared to provide a drink for the saint. He also adds that the executioner’s eyes dropped out as he beheaded the saint, a detail that has often been depicted with relish since. At the time of Bede there was a church and shrine near the spot, pilgrims travelled to visit, and it became an established place of healing. He describes the hill as “adorned with wild flowers of every kind” and as a spot “whose natural beauty had long fitted it as a place to be hallowed by the blood of a blessed martyr”.

There is an even earlier record of St.Germanus visiting the shrine around 429.

Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery to the south of the present Abbey Church. Recent finds suggest an early basilica over the spot and later a Saxon Benedictine monastery was founded, probably by King Offa around 793. This was replaced in 1077 by the large Norman church and monastery, the remains of which are still partly visible in the tower and central part of the present cathedral.

St Alban’s martyrdom is particularly remembered on and around 22nd June each year with a major festival pilgrimage and Passio; an exploration of the martyrdom through carnival.

And you can read the wonderful account by St Bede at this site, which includes these passages:

This Alban, being yet a pagan, at the time when at the bidding of unbelieving rulers all manner of cruelty was practised against the Christians, gave entertainment in his house to a certain clerk, flying from his persecutors. This man he observed to be engaged in continual prayer and watching day and night; when on a sudden the Divine grace shining on him, he began to imitate the example of faith and piety which was set before him, and being gradually instructed by his wholesome admonitions, he cast off the darkness of idolatry, and became a Christian in all sincerity of heart.

The aforesaid clerk having been some days entertained by him, it came to the ears of the impious prince, that a confessor of Christ, to whom a martyr’s place had not yet been assigned, was concealed at Alban’s house. Whereupon he sent some soldiers to make a strict search after him. When they came to the martyr’s hut, St. Alban presently came forth to the soldiers, instead of his guest and master, in the habit or long coat which he wore, and was bound and led before the judge.

It happened that the judge, at the time when Alban was carried before him, was standing at the altar, and offering sacrifice to devils. When he saw Alban, being much enraged that he should thus, of his own accord, dare to put himself into the hands of the soldiers, and incur such danger on behalf of the guest whom he had harboured, he commanded him to be dragged to the images of the devils, before which he stood, saying, “Because you have chosen to conceal a rebellious and sacrilegious man, rather than to deliver him up to the soldiers, that his contempt of the gods might meet with the penalty due to such blasphemy, you shall undergo all the punishment that was due to him, if you seek to abandon the worship of our religion.”

But St. Alban, who had voluntarily declared himself a Christian to the persecutors of the faith, was not at all daunted by the prince’s threats, but putting on the armour of spiritual warfare, publicly declared that he would not obey his command. Then said the judge, “Of what family or race are you?” – “What does it concern you,” answered Alban, “of what stock I am? If you desire to hear the truth of my religion, be it known to you, that I am now a Christian, and free to fulfil Christian duties.” – “I ask your name,” said the judge; “tell me it immediately.” “I am called Alban by my parents,” replied he; “and I worship ever and adore the true and living God, Who created all things.” Then the judge, filled with anger, said, “If you would enjoy the happiness of eternal life, do not delay to offer sacrifice to the great gods.” Alban rejoined, “These sacrifices, which by you are offered to devils, neither can avail the worshippers, nor fulfil the desires and petitions of the suppliants. Rather, whosoever shall offer sacrifice to these images, shall receive the everlasting pains of hell for his reward.”

The judge, hearing these words, and being much incensed, ordered this holy confessor of God to be scourged by the executioners, believing that he might by stripes shake that constancy of heart, on which he could not prevail by words. He, being most cruelly tortured, bore the same patiently, or rather joyfully, for our Lord’s sake. When the judge perceived that he was not to be overcome by tortures, or withdrawn from the exercise of the Christian religion, he ordered him to be put to death.

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We had a wonderful talk on Wednesday by Fr Ashley Beck about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. Everyone has their different take on Dorothy Day, their own way of summarising what this vision was all about. Fr Beck put her mission under three headings:

(i) An unconditional love for the poor. The key word here is unconditional. She set up houses of hospitality; not temporary refuges or drop in centres, but homes, where someone would live without conditions, as a sister or brother, a member of the family, who didn’t need to do anything in order to belong.

(ii) Pacifism. To do anything and everything in the cause of peace, but never to cross the line into violence. Even when the Church has recognised that there is such a thing as a just war, and that self-defence is sometimes a legitimate stance, Dorothy Day held to her pacifist principles, believing that if one was to follow Jesus Christ wholeheartedly, and to take seriously the principles of the Gospel, this meant refraining from violence.

(iii) A love for the devotional life of the Catholic Church. That her mission of peace and love for the poor was not just a human endeavour, but sprang from her Catholic faith, and was constantly nourished by the prayer and liturgy of the Church, by the witness and teaching of the Church, and by the love and support of her fellow Christians.

Fr Beck also put us onto a set of YouTube videos about the Sainthood Cause of Dorothy Day, which you can find here. Here are the first two, about Dorothy Day’s life, and then about the process of canonisation that is underway (gradually!).

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The book we were reading during the retreat, by the way, was The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints, by Robert Ellsberg.

I’ve always liked Ellsberg’s writing, and he is the one who has brought Dorothy Day so much closer to us by editing and publishing her letters and diaries.

This is the blurb about the retreat book from the US publishers.

In All Saints—published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind—Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints to answer the questions: What is happiness, and how might we find it?

Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists in a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of “lessons” in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship, and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives.

In these “lessons,” our guides are the saints: historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of “life in abundance,” the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.

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

Here is a door from Bamberg marked in the year 2007

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

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

Here is the explanation we were given last night:

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

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

20 + C + M + B + 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s the fourteenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood today. The weather was exactly the same – storms raging across the whole of the UK. Some people couldn’t make it because many of the trains were cancelled or stranded.

I was always disappointed that the date chosen wasn’t a feast day in the Church’s calendar (for various reasons it had to be the first Saturday of the year). I’ve always loved the serendipity of special occasions aligning with significant feast days – and in this case there was none!

So I am delighted that with the new translation of the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal, today is now the restored feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. So I can thank the Lord not just for the gift of ordination, but for the impetus to think and pray more deeply about what this Name means for me and for my ministry.

Mary Elizabeth Sperry has an article on the USCCB website about the new saints and feasts included in the 3rd edition:

 The new Missal will include 17 additions to the Proper of Saints, the part of the Missal that includes prayers for the observances of saints’ days. The Proper of Saints follows a calendar established by the Vatican and modified by the bishops of each country to include saints of local importance. Any changes to a national or diocesan calendar require the consent of the Vatican.

The saints new to the third edition of the Roman Missal include saints, like Saint Augustine Zhao Rong, who were canonized after the second edition of the Roman Missal was published in 1985.  Some of these saints, including Saint Lawrence Ruiz and Saint Andrew Dung-Lac, have been on the U.S. calendar for years.  However, the new Missal will be the first time their prayer texts have been available in the printed book.  Other added saints appeared on the liturgical calendar until 1969, when the calendar was simplified and many saints’ observances were removed.  Also restored to the calendar are observances for the Most Holy Name of Jesus and the Most Holy Name of Mary.  Still others saints and observances added to the Missal highlight important teachings of the Church such as the teaching on Mary (Our Lady of Fatima) and on the Eucharist as the Sacrament of Christ’s love (as promoted by Saint Peter Julian Eymard).

By canonizing these holy men and women, the Church presents them as models of Christian living.  The added saints come from all eras and areas of the Church’s life – from the fourth century (Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Apollinaris) to the twentieth century (Saint Josephine Bakhita, Saint Christopher Magallenes and Saint Pio of Pietrelcina) – and from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.  They include priests, religious women, martyrs, a married woman and missionaries.

With the exception of the memorials of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (better known as Edith Stein) and Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (better known as Padre Pio), all of the new observances are optional memorials.

And here is the complete list:

New saints and observances in the third edition of the Roman Missal

January 3 – Most Holy Name of Jesus — This is part of the Church’s celebration of Christmas, recognizing that God “bestowed on [Jesus] the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:9). February 8 – St. Josephine Bakhita, virgin – Born in Darfur, Josephine survived kidnapping and slavery to become a nun who embraced and lived hope as a redeemed child of God. April 23 – St. Adalbert, bishop and martyr – Martyred near the end of the first millennium, Adalbert was a missionary in the countries of central Europe, striving to bring unity to God’s people. April 28 – St. Louis Mary de Montfort, priest – This French priest is best known for his devotion to Mary, encouraging the faithful to approach Jesus through his mother. May 13 – Our Lady of Fatima – The Virgin Mary appeared to three children in the Portuguese town of Fatima in 1917.  During these apparitions, she encouraged penance and praying the rosary. May 21 – Sts. Christopher Magallanes, priest and martyr, & Companions, martyrs – Martyred in 1927, this Mexican priest was noted for his care of the native peoples of Mexico and for his work to support vocations to the priesthood. May 22 – St. Rita of Cascia, religious – A wife, mother, widow, and nun, Saint Rita was known for her patience and humility in spite on many hardships.  Conforming herself to the crucified Christ, she bore a wound on her forehead similar to one inflicted by a crown of thorns. July 9 – Sts. Augustine Zhao Rong, priest and martyr, & Companions, martyrs –Canonized with 119 other Chinese martyrs, Augustine began his career as a soldier.  Inspired by the martyrs, he was baptized and eventually became a priest and martyr himself. July 20 – St. Apollinaris, bishop and martyr – Martyred in the second century, Apollinarius was the Bishop of Ravenna in Italy.  He was known as a great preacher and miracle worker. July 24 – St. Sharbel Makhluf, priest – A Maronite priest in Lebanon, Saint Sharbel spent much of his life as a hermit in the desert, living of life of extreme penance. August 2 – St. Peter Julian Eymard, priest – Founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, Saint Peter devoted his life to promoting First Communions and devotion to the Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s love. August 9 – St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, virgin and martyr – Born of Jewish parents as Edith Stein, she received academic renown as a philosopher.  After her conversion to Catholicism, she became a Carmelite nun.  She died in Auschwitz in 1942. September 12 – Most Holy Name of Mary – After beginning in Spain in 1513, this celebration became a universal feast in the seventeenth century.  A companion to the Memorial of The Most Holy Name of Jesus, it follows the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. September 23 – St. Pio of Pietrelcina, priest – Padre Pio was known throughout Italy and the world for his patient hearing of confessions and for his spiritual guidance.  In poor health for much of his life, he conformed his sufferings to those of Christ. September 28 – Sts. Lawrence Ruiz & Companions, martyrs – Saint Lawrence and his companions spread the Gospel in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.  Saint Lawrence was born in Manila and was a husband and father, November 24 – Sts. Andrew Dũng-Lạc, priest and martyr, & Companions, martyrs – Saint Andrew and his 107 companions, both priests and laity, were martyred in Vietnam in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.  Through their preaching, lives of faith, and witness unto death, they strengthened the Church in Vietnam. November 25 – St. Catherine of Alexandria, virgin and martyr – Martyred in the early part of the fourth century, Catherine was known for her intelligence, her deep faith, and the power of her intercession.

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

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

Adam and Eve leave Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I gave a talk about the saints a few days ago, together with Hannah Vaughan-Spruce. I did some ‘theory’ about what devotion to the saints really means, and how much it can help us in our life and faith; Hannah brought this alive by giving examples of some 20th century saints who really speak to us today. You can watch the talks here:

Or if you are having problems, see them on the Westminster site here.

Hannah is the catechetical coordinator in a big south London parish. She writes an excellent blog, Transformed in Christ, about catechesis.

These two talks are part of the Faith Matters series in central London, which continues on two more Tuesday evenings (15 and 22 Nov). Details here.

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