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Saturday was an extraordinary day. Eight deacons were ordained to the Sacred Priesthood in Westminster Cathedral: Oscar Ardila, Jeffrey Downie, Fortunato Pantisano, Giles Pinnock, Martin Plunkett, Jeffrey Steel, Martin Tate and Mark Walker. Seven are from Allen Hall Seminary in London, one is from the Beda in Rome; all are for the Diocese of Westminster.

Fr Mark Walker is from my home parish in Harpenden, and it was a particular joy to be back home on Sunday morning to join him at his first Mass in the parish church of Our Lady of Lourdes.

If you haven’t been to an ordination before, the text below gives you a flavour of some of the prayers and promises from the rite:

Homily

14.  Then all sit, and the bishop addresses the people and the candidate on the duties of a priest.  He may use these words:

This man, your relative and friend, is now to be raised to the order of priests.  Consider carefully the position to which he is to be promoted in the Church.

It is true that God has made his entire people a royal priesthood in Christ.  But our High Priest, Jesus Christ, also chose some of his followers to carry out publicly in the Church a priestly ministry in his name on behalf of mankind.  He was sent by the Father, and he in turn sent the apostles into the world; through them and their successors, the bishops, he continues his work as Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd.  Priests are co-workers of the order of bishops.  They are joined to the bishops in the priestly office and are called to serve God’s people.

Our brother has seriously considered this step and is now to be ordained to priesthood in the presbyteral order.  He is to serve Christ the Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd in his ministry which is to make his own body, the Church, grow into the people of God, a holy temple.

He is called to share in the priesthood of the bishops and to be molded into the likeness of Christ, the supreme and eternal Priest.  By consecration he will be made a true priest of the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, sustain God’s people, and celebrate the liturgy, above all, the Lord’s sacrifice.

He then addresses the candidate:

My son, you are now to be advanced to the order of the presbyterate.  You must apply your energies to the duty of teaching in the name of Christ, the chief Teacher.  Share with all mankind the word of God you have received with joy.  Meditate on the law of God, believe what you read, teach what you believer, and put into practice what you teach.

Let the doctrine you teach be true nourishment for the people of God.  Let the example of your life attract the followers of Christ, so that by word and action you may build up the house which is God’s Church.

In the same way you must carry out your mission of sanctifying in the power of Christ.  Your ministry will perfect the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful by uniting it with Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrifice which is offered sacramentally through your hands.  Know what you are doing and imitate the mystery you celebrate.  In the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection, make every effort to die to sin and to walk in the new life of Christ.

When you baptize, you will bring men and women into the people of God.  In the sacrament of penance, you will forgive sins in the name of Christ and the Church.  With holy oil you will relieve and console the sick.  You will celebrate the liturgy and offer thanks and praise to God throughout the day, praying not only for the people of God but for the whole world.  Remember that you are chosen from among God’s people and appointed to act for them in relation to God.  Do your part in the work of Christ the Priest with genuine joy and love, and attend to the concerns of Christ before your own.

Finally, conscious of sharing in the work of Christ, the Head and Shepherd of the Church, and united with the bishop and subject to him, seek to bring the faithful together into a unified family and to lead them effectively, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, to God the Father.  Always remember the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served by to serve, and to seek out and rescue those who were lost.

Examination of the Candidate

15.  The candidate then stands before the bishop who questions him:

My son, before you proceed to the order of the presbyterate, declare before the people your intention to undertake the priestly office.

Are you resolved, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of priesthood in the presbyteral order as a conscientious fellow worker with the bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?

The candidate answers: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to celebrate the mysteries of Christ faithfully and religiously as the Church has handed them down to us for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ’s people?

Candidate: I am.

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

Candidate: I am.

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

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, preaching the gospel and explaining the Catholic faith?

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to consecrate your life to God for the salvation of his people, and to unite yourself more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a perfect sacrifice?

Candidate: I am, with the help of God.

Promise of Obedience

16.  Then the candidate goes to the bishop and, kneeling before him, places his joined hands between those of the bishop.  If this gesture seems less suitable in some places, the conference of bishops may choose another gesture or sign.

If the bishop is the candidate’s own Ordinary, he asks: Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?

Candidate: I do.

If the bishop is not the candidate’s own Ordinary, he asks: Do you promise respect and obedience to your Ordinary?

Candidate: I do.

Bishop: May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment.

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It was good to visit the relics of St John Bosco at Westminster Cathedral at the weekend. You may have seen the photos: it wasn’t just a relic-sized casket, but a life-sized effigy of the great man himself, in his priestly vestments, looking very serene.

Don Bosco Relics Pilgrimages to Westminster Cathedral  by © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

I had a classic pilgrimage moment. I got in the queue, waited patiently for three minutes, started analysing why the queue wasn’t moving quicker (it was incredibly slow), began to lose my patience; then a moment of self-knowledge – realising that I was in ‘Tesco-queue’ mode, like a Pavlovian response, dashing to get out the door; then a grace-filled letting go, just being in the queue with my fellow pilgrims, remembering that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, praying, thinking, interceding; then a moment of shame and interior humiliation, as I got near the destination and realised that the reason the line was moving so slowly was not because of some inefficiency in the logistics of the operation, but because people at the casket were actually (wait for it…) praying – devoutly, humbly, reverently, silently, patiently, taking their time, showing their heartfelt love for Don Bosco; and then, when it was my turn, I tried to do the same.

I’m not proud of this – I’m just sharing the interior craziness that often goes on in my soul when I step from the rush and distractions of Victoria Street and my own worldliness into the sanctuary of the Cathedral and in this case to St John Bosco’s shrine. Maybe (I say this to console myself) this is not too uncommon – the fact that the transition takes a few minutes, and that being in a place of sanctuary is what creates the possibility of seeing the habits of mind (healthy and unhealthy) that have unconsciously been shaping one’s life in the ordinariness of everyday living.

I have a great devotion to St John Bosco. For about ten years, I spent two or three weeks each summer as a helper (a ‘brother’) on the St John Bosco Boys’ Camp in Colchester. It’s run by the Society of St Vincent de Paul, but the whole philosophy of the camp is very Salesian, modelled on the educational vision of Don Bosco. It was great fun; and I learnt a huge amount; and I’m not sure I would be here today as a priest (or at least my vocation would have taken a very different path) if I hadn’t been touched by the priests, religious and laypeople on the camp – and the boys.

I don’t want to pretend to understand the whole Salesian pedagogy, but there were some simple principles about working with children that lay at the heart of the work there, and I think they go back to Don Bosco himself: keep them busy; lots of fun, lots of physical activity; always be kind; be a good example, a good role model; slip in some prayer and mini-catechesis during the day, but not too heavy and not too long; use stories and examples to bring the beauty and heroism of faith alive; and always be kind. Now I think about it, I’m sure there was some Salesian motto that was on the wall of the office somewhere, something like: ‘Reason, Religion, Kindness’. You can remind me in the comment box. And that wonderful photo of Don Bosco smiling benevolently.

When I went to Rome in 1992 to start seminary formation at the English College, I took the train from London (via boat – this was before the Chunnel) and stopped off at Turin to say hello to Don Bosco in thanksgiving and to ask for his prayers. His main shrine is there, in the church he built, next to school he founded. What an amazing priest he was. It’s good to meet him again here in London, and give him some more intentions!

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Following on from the last post, here is the section of the interview I gave recently that dealt with questions of faith and religion in a city as multi-cultural as London.

LLO: As a catholic priest and philosopher, how important would you say religion is in people’s lives in London today compared to when you started out in your career?
SW:
There are various crosscurrents: some people are much more secular, hardened in their secularism, and dismissive of religion. Yet many more people seem interested in religion who are not believers — as if they are more open to spiritual and transcendent questions, more open to the idea of spirituality and prayer. And religion is a bigger cultural and political reality than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Plus the new immigrants tend to be people of faith (indeed anyone coming to London from outside Western Europe tends to be a person of faith!)

LLO: You recently contributed to a BBC Online article about celibacy, sharing your own experiences. The post on your blog includes tags “happiness” and “loneliness”. Is this commitment one you ever regret or are you content in your decision?
SW:
I don’t regret the decision I have made at all. The whole life of being a priest, including celibacy, has brought me enormous happiness. And the celibacy itself has given me a real freedom, a freedom of heart – to be present with other people in all sorts of wonderful ways; and to pray in a way that would be difficult if I had the responsibilities of family life. I couldn’t live this way without the love of friends and extended family and the communities I have lived in over this time.

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us should know about.
SW:
One secular and unknown: The Clockmakers’ Museum at Guildhall, a single room containing the whole history of clocks and watches, including John Harrison’s 5th marine timekeeper made famous by the book Longitude. One religious and very well known, but I’m still amazed by how many Londoners have never been in it: Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey), an oasis of calm and devotion near Victoria Station, full of amazing art and architecture.

LLO: With Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others living side by side in London, what sort of atmosphere is created when people of every religion mingle in this melting pot city?
SW:
The whole world is here in London, and probably every language and religion. It’s good that we can live side by side, and in peace. Perhaps people don’t talk enough: We occupy the same social space, but often stay within our own mental worlds – unless there is something like a school or sports club or whatever to bring people together. London Citizens is a wonderful grassroots example of people of all faiths and none coming together for justice issues and forming real bonds through that common work. When I get back from Lourdes I want to start talking to strangers in London, but very soon I realize I am becoming one of those crazy people that Londoners fear…

LLO: What do you say to people who are suspicious of religion as being manipulative or deceptive?
SW:
It’s true that religion can sometimes be manipulative and deceptive – we have to admit that and watch out for it very carefully. And as a Catholic priest I wouldn’t push the abstract idea of ‘religion’ for its own sake. But religions can also be sources of spirituality, community, liberation and healing for many people. That’s something to be open to and not afraid of.

LLO: What’s your favourite part about living in your postcode?
SW:
Being near the river; living close to three cinemas; the number 19 bus.

[The clock pictured above is not from the Clockmakers' Museum, but (I think) from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. This is the tag that comes with the photo: "Peter Clare, a local clockmaker, made this clock for Manchester Corporation. From 1848, this was the official clock for Manchester, showing the current time as measured at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. At first, astronomy was used to regulate the clock to Greenwich Time. After 1852, the Royal Observatory transmitted the time hourly by telegraph. The clock stood in the Town Hall on King Street where people could use it to set the time on their own watches and clocks. Greenwich Mean Time was not adopted as the national standard time until 1880. The clock was moved to the City Art Gallery in 1912. It was moved here in 1998 when the Art Gallery closed for major building work."]

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

St Vincent the Deacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When I was thinking about starting this blog, I wanted to call it Borderlands and Bridges. I’d just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Borderlands trilogy – which had blown me away. I liked the image of the threshold – a place between other places. Not just somewhere you pass through, or pass over, but a place where unexpected things happen; where you get lost or even trapped; where worlds collide; where your identity is in question. In the end, the blog title was simply too long for a manageable web-address, so I went off at a tangent instead…

There was an experience of the ‘borderland’ this week in central London. The relics of St Thérèse were in Westminster Cathedral for four days. It was an extraordinary experience for all those who came – many with a deep faith hoping that it would be renewed, some hardly knowing why they were there. But what made it so interesting was the threshold between the religious space of the Cathedral and the secular space of the city.

Westminster Cathedral by Reigh LeBlanc.

The queuing took place in the piazza in front of the Cathedral. Thousands of people winding their way patiently through the labyrinth of metal barriers. A huge screen broadcasting the services from inside. A fish and chips kiosk set up on the street by the Cathedral authorities. McDonalds on one corner. Clarke’s shoe shop on the other. And many more thousands of people passing along Victoria Street – shopping, working, drifting – wondering what it was all about.

It wasn’t just the carnival atmosphere (which is felt at any street party or sporting event). It was the fact that this witness of faith flowed out from the confines of the religious building into the streets, and this allowed people to wonder, to show a natural human interest, and even to ask deeper questions about life that might not come to the surface otherwise. The public expression of faith in the piazza gave people permission to reflect on the place of faith in their lives – not just the committed and the devout, but those who were full of doubts or simply passing by.

Not everyone wants to visit relics or stand around in Victoria Street for two hours. But there is a public aspect to Christian faith that was expressed here in a particularly powerful way. Catholics were happy to show that they were Catholics, to talk about what was important to them. Not in a showy or arrogant way, but in a way that was simple, natural, honest, uninhibited.

It doesn’t mean that Christianity wants to impose itself on a pluralistic culture. But it hopes to have a place in that culture. Why? Above all, so that the culture is set free to discover human and spiritual depths that might otherwise be forgotten.

[To get a glimpse of what has been happening with the tour of the relics over the last five weeks see the excellent official blog of the visit.]

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The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have arrived in Britain, as they begin a month long tour of the country. They are stopping at numerous churches, monasteries and Cathedrals (including York Minster), with time to take in a hospice for the dying and Wormwood Scrubs prison. They will spend the final week in London, ending with four days in Westminster Cathedral. There are so many articles you can read about the visit – here is a recent one from the Guardian, and from the Telegraph.

St Thérèse in England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Just to get the facts: These are some bones of a young nineteenth century French nun, carried around in an ornate casket for people to venerate. To any hardened secularists it must be baffling; and to many Protestants it will be a confirmation that the Catholic Church is stuck in an age of superstition and medieval heresy. But to Catholics it is the most natural thing in the world to pray to the saints, to visit a shrine, and by extension to go on pilgrimage to those places where the memory and the mortal remains of the saints are preserved. The tour of St Thérèse’s relics is a pilgrimage in reverse – she comes to us and saves us the bother of taking the ferry to Normandy.

I won’t give a big theological explanation of the meaning of relics. There is lots of information on the official website of the Catholic Church. I just want to point to the sound instincts that lie behind the desire to venerate relics and draw closer to the saints. There is a human instinct to honour the dead, to visit their graves, and to believe that their relationship with us is not just a memory but a continuing presence – one that is strengthened by our love and devotion. There is a Christian instinct to ask others to pray for us, especially those who seem close to God, and to believe that these bonds of prayer and love aren’t broken by death. Why would someone pray less or love less just because they had gone to Heaven?

And there is the instinct of all those in need to seek out help wherever they can find it. The overwhelming evidence from history and recent experience is that people’s lives are changed when they come to the relics of a saint with faith and an open heart. So it is no surprise that ‘the poor’ – whether their poverty is material or emotional or spiritual – are flocking to St Thérèse. It’s not desperation; it’s just an honest confession of weakness and need; and an acknowledgement that here is someone who understands, someone who can help. Not someone who takes us away from God, but someone who helps us draw closer to him. Not someone who distracts us from believing in Christ, but someone who helps us to see what that belief really involves, and gives us the spiritual support we need to live it.

The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux travelled through Eurotunnel and arrived in Kent today for an historic first visit to England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

There are not many places in our culture outside the confessional or the therapist’s lounge where you can express your deepest human and spiritual needs, and believe that there might be a way of meeting them. How wonderful that for a few weeks now people can go to Thérèse, and in her company go to God, with honest and expectant hearts.

[I gave a retreat about the life and significance of Thérèse this summer. Click here if you want to listen to the talks.]

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