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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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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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No, I’m not converting – I’m very happy as a Diocesan priest! But I had the joy of being present at the Final Vows of Fr Simon Bishop SJ on Saturday, at the Oratory of St Thomas More in the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy. Fr Simon and I met as undergraduates twenty-five years ago. We’ve been close friends ever since, and we’ve supported each other through the twists and turns of our respective vocational journeys over these years.

St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits

It’s a simple and very moving event. The Mass is celebrated as usual. But as the host is held up by the priest, just before the ‘Behold, the Lamb of God…’, the Jesuit kneels before the altar and addresses these promises to Almighty God himself, in these words:

I, [name] make my profession, and I promise to Almighty God, in the presence of the Virgin Mother, the whole heavenly court, and all those here present, and to you, Reverend Father [provincial’s name], representing the Superior General of the Society of Jesus and his successors and holding the place of God, perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience; and, in conformity with it, special care for the instruction of children, according to the manner of living contained in the apostolic letters of the Society of Jesus and its Constitutions. I further promise a special obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff in regard to the missions according to the same apostolic letters and the Constitutions.

Notice the famous ‘Fourth Vow’ at the end – to obey the Pope in regard to the missions. That is, not to do anything the Pope requests (however wild or subversive or treasonable – cf. English mythology), but to follow the wishes of the Pope insofar as it is his role to discern the wider missionary needs of the universal Church.

In most religious orders, you have to take your final vows before you are ordained; you have to prove, as it were, your commitment to the order (and the order’s commitment to you) before the gift of priesthood is entrusted to you. With the Jesuits, the final vows come a few years after ordination. James Martin SJ has an enlightening post about the meaning of the Jesuit final vows here.

What you choose to put on the back of your final vow booklet is always significant. Fr Simon chose to print some words of St Ignatius from the Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus. It’s the original ‘vision statement’ of the Jesuits, approved by Pope Julius III in 1550. It’s powerful stuff. Here is the full version:

Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the Name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind.

He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the Word of God, and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments.

Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

For the sake of greater devotion in obedience to the Apostolic See, of greater abnegation of our own wills and of surer direction from the Holy Spirit, we have nevertheless judged it to be supremely profitable that each of us and any others who will make the same profession in the future should, in addition to that ordinary bond of the three vows, be bound by this special vow to carry out whatever the present and future Roman Pontiffs may order which pertains to the progress of souls and the propagation of the faith; and to go at once, without subterfuge or excuse, as far as in us lies.

If you want to find out more about the Jesuits in Britain, see their website here.

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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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One of the highlights of the royal wedding was the marriage. I’m not just being clever with words here: we all know how easy it is for the paraphernalia of a wedding day extravaganza to dwarf the marriage ceremony itself.

The simple and solemn words of the wedding vows had such a weight about them; they seemed to ‘hold their own’ – to carry a significance richer than the beauty of the service, more enduring than the dazzle of celebrity and media, deeper even than the monarchy itself. Two people standing before God, promising to love each other and remain faithful to each other for the rest of their lives, whatever happens, and praying for the gift of children.

Much of this is because of the way the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (Revised 1928 version, I think) holds together, in its beautiful language, the heart of the Christian understanding of marriage.

Thank goodness William and Kate chose not to invent their own wedding service. There is so much suspicion today of ‘institutions’, but on Friday you saw what it meant for a couple to enter ‘the institution of marriage’. It means they are taking on something far bigger and more beautiful than they could ever have invented for themselves – no matter how many books of poetry they might have plundered, or how many hours they could have put into phrasing their own heartfelt sentiments for each other and hopes for their future.

The words of marriage, and the meaning they embody, add a seriousness that young people are actually looking for, and remind them that they are not just creating a landscape from their own imagination, but going on a journey into a vast, beautiful, awe-inspiring but unknown, uncharted and slightly risky territory.

The marriage service was still deeply personal – you can’t get more personal than to say, in the first person, before two billion people, ‘I will’. But by celebrating the sacrament of marriage and not just their own transitory affection for each other, by entering into a tradition larger than themselves, they allowed their love to be transformed. The words of ‘the institution of marriage’ challenged them to love in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through their own resources. That’s the point of institutions – or at least it’s meant to be.

And hats off to William for resisting the pressure from his lawyers to insist on a pre-nuptial agreement.

In case you missed it, this is the ‘Introduction’ to the marriage service that took place right at the beginning:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee, and is commended in Holy Writ to be honourable among all men; and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly lightly or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name.

Secondly, It was ordained in order that the natural instincts and affections, implanted by God, should be hallowed and directed aright; that those who are called of God to this holy estate, should continue therein in pureness of living.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.

You can see the whole Official Programme here.

[Interesting that the word paraphernalia is originally connected with marriage; and – as it were – with the original form of a pre-nuptial agreement. I didn’t know this before going to the dictionary this morning. Chambers dictionary says: ‘Formerly, property other than dower than remained under a married woman’s own control, esp. articles of jewellery, dress, personal belongings. From para, beside, beyond, pherne, a dowry]

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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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