The silent God?

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“Thus religious truth is neither light nor darkness, but both together; it is like the dim view of a country seen in the twilight, which forms half extricated from the darkness, with broken lines and isolated masses.”

Religion without dogma made no sense to Newman; without that it was “mere sentiment” – and that was a foundation of sand. But he was well aware of the limits of humanity and acknowledged that the application of the intellect to religious matters might well produce a diminution of faith. It was, he commented, as though it was assumed that theologians were “too intellectual to be spiritual” and thus “more occupied with the truths of doctrine than with its reality.”

For Catholics the Church is the rock upon which dogma rests; we accept the historical reality of the Revelation it transmits to us. But intellect alone will not suffice; that is where prayer and devotional practices are needed; we do not worship by brain-power. For Newman,“Revealed religion should be especially poetical – and it is so in fact.” Prose was inadequate to convey the Truth of revealed religion, but, without an Authority to pronounce on revelation and tradition, private judgement would simply lead to the sort of chaos he came to discern within the Church of England in his own day. Thus, the mixture of light and dark in the quotation which heads up this essay.

Although we are each the subject of our own experiences, and whilst Christ came to save each of us, our egos are but a vehicle when it comes to understanding that Christ Himself is at the centre of our Faith. The central truth of the Christian Faith is the Incarnation. God became man and died that we should have eternal life. And yet knowing this, we can, nonetheless, in times such as this lose sight of this and, in despair, wonder why God is silent in the face of our prayers for healing and safety.

Much prose has been given over to the problem of why God allows mankind to suffer – the technical term is theodicy. But the intervention which speaks most to my heart is the poem, “Denaill” by George Herbert:

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder

This is no intellectual exercise, it is the heart-felt anguish of the poet who agonises at what he feels is God’s refusal of his prayerful requests. He feels abandoned, as though his soul has no mooring. It is only in close reading that we see that the poet is, himself, in “denial”. Each stanza concludes with a last line which does not rhyme – except for the last one which concludes:

 O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favours granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhym

Which, of course, is a rhyme. God has answered, it is the poet who has been in denial. God’s answer may not be the one we expect; it maybe that we are not listening.

We are made in God’s image; but we are not God. How much we long for a God whom we can understand, as well as worship, how often we think that God is absent; but how often to we think that it is we who are absent, we who are deaf?

T.S. Eliot, as so often, expresses it best in the first part of Little Gidding:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

We have to put away our worldly concerns. Our intellects can rest secure on the rock of the dogma proclaimed by the Church. What should concern us is prayer, and even the best of prayers is but the antechamber to our encounter with God. We intersect with the past and the present, the living and dead, and above all with Him whose Kingdom shall have no end.

God is not silent; we lack the ears with which to hear Him if we think so.

Acts of quiet heroism

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As might be expected of it, our news media remains in “gotcha” mode, and it is swift to report acts of selfishness and greed in this pandemic. It makes, and rightly so, an exception for Health workers and those who keep the shops running; but it could, and should do more to celebrate what one might call “acts of quiet heroism.” It is in that vein that I will write about more parochial matters than usual.

Two weeks ago I came home, as usual from University; well, not quite “as usual.” The railway termini I traverse were eerily quiet, and when I bought my usual bite to eat for the train, the cheerful man at the kiosk told me he would not be working on the morrow as “business is right down.” Little did we know then what was to come, though, having a portent of it, I had taken care to pack a case as though I were going home for a vacation; though I knew that was was coming would be far from that.

Like most universities, mine exists to teach, and that teaching is mostly done face-to-face. My colleagues love their teaching and give so much to our students; but was it possible to replicate this on-line? It was with that conundrum that a few of us had been struggling for the previous two weeks. The previous day we had announced that we would be moving to on-line teaching after the week-end. It was a bold promise – could we keep it? Did it matter? This was a pandemic, surely the only thing that mattered was that people were “safe?”

As a Catholic university we celebrate our “ethos”; this would test it – and with it, us. A major restructure two years previously had done something odd for our times, it had aimed at the principle of subsidiarity – letting academics have as much freedom as possible to decide how they did what they did best. Would that survive in this time of trial? How would staff rise to the occasion? How would students respond? It was not as though most of us were adepts at this on-line learning lark. The Senior team had been meeting daily to plan for what was coming – but all I could tell my colleagues was to hold their breath and wait to see what the first week of on-line teaching would bring. As things turned out, it was the dog that did not bark in the night.

Assuredly not everything technical went smoothly, but something more important did – the spirit of generosity which we pride ourselves on cultivating. There was plenty to ignite that fractious spirit which rejoices in pointing out the shortcomings of others, and which asks why x or y was not thought of in advance, as well as more than enough material for anyone who wanted to blame someone else. None of that happened; that spirit proved to be a damp squib. Not only did colleagues prove themselves even more innovative and adaptable than even I had expected (and some of the examples we have collected of good practice are simply amazing), they were generous in mutual aid, good temper and generosity of spirit. If, as they do, times like this test whether you live your values, then colleagues – and students – came through.

Conscious that not all our students would have laptops, our IT team sourced and supplied them to those who needed it; its members went above and beyond the call of duty in helping staff and students. Our students mucked in an got on with it, responding to the evident enthusiasm and “can do” spirit of their teachers. I have never felt so proud of leading my teams.

For those students who had to stay in residence, the cleaning and catering staff continued to provide the usual service – albeit at a distance. Some of us even learned what 2 metres looks like! The security staff were there as ever, doing what they do best – providing a reassuring presence for anyone who needed it, knowing that colleagues in Counselling and Student Welfare were on hand for those who needed it.

What emerged warmed the heart. We really  were a community. We pulled together with but one thought – that our students needed us and needed to continue with their studies. From the lowest to highest in the hierarchy we all served, doing whatever was necessary. We did not simply our duty, but whatever the spirit of service demanded. I had wondered what a Catholic university could look like – and amidst the fog of war I saw the vision emerge. Multiple acts of quiet heroism motivated by the ethos which tells us that everyone matters, and that there is no act of service which is too much. The chapel may have had to close, but we, those of all faiths and none, were out there evidencing the spirit of a Catholic university.

Nor, of course, are we the only ones. As I talk (remotely, of course) to colleagues elsewhere, I see the same story. Universities (and their managers) often get a bad press, and sometimes it is even deserved, but what I see (remotely) of my own university and others, makes me want to send up a quiet prayer of gratitude.

I miss walking the historic grounds of my university, and I miss my colleagues and the endless cups of coffee while we try to put things to rights, and I miss the students and their enthusiasm. But I know that these things will be there to come back to. But I know something even better, that we have drawn together as a community in a way we can all take pride in. What faces us yet, we cannot fully know, but with such a spirit, I dare hope that our patroness – the Queen of Heaven – will not think we have failed to rise to the occasion.

Render unto Caesar …

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Christ is clear that in matters which relate to Caesar, Christians are to deliver him his due. It is in the nature of Caesar to demand far more than his due; that is where two millennia of Christians wrestling with the issue comes in. There have always been those who wish to define what is Caesar’s so narrowly that they will yield almost nothing to him; there have also always been those prepared to accommodate themselves with whatever Ceasar wishes to demand, not least in times of crisis.

Many of the early Christian martyrs were men and woman who refused Ceasar when he demanded more than their consciences would allow. To many Romans the idea of not treating Ceasar as a god, or indeed, of treating all gods equally was anathema – akin to treason. For a Christian that was impossible. There was one God. So, whether it was Caesar or, later, Allah, or still later the various manifestations of the State, Christians have died rather than betray Jesus. In the piping days of peace and tranquillity it is easy to both admire the stand they took and to assume one would do the same.

Thus, as Catholic Bishops across the world respond the the Coronavirus pandemic by closing their churches, the temptation to point out that even during the two world wars this was not done is an easy one to which to yeild; that is why it is done so often. But a pandemic is not a bomb. A pandemic spreads from person to person, and as everyone is vulnerable, the paraellel is not with a war but with a time of plague. There we know from history that churches have been closed for the protection of the people.

In the third century St Cyprian’s response to the great pandemic which devastated the Roman world was to emphasis the teaching of Christ – we were to love our neighbour more than ourselves and we were to bring consolation,l comfort and practical help to the suffering. The plague was not a capricious act of malign Fate, in the was the product of a fallen civilisation in revolt against a loving God. The care which Christians took of others marked them out from their fellow citizens, and the example they set helped make our Faith more acceptable to the Romans. The first hospitals in Europe were founded as hygienic places to provide care during times of plague, on the understanding that negligence that spread disease further was, in fact, murder. If we take that last point, we can, I think, see why our Bishops have closed down churches for the duration of the pandemic.

Yes, of course, there will be those who argue that this is over-hyped and that people should behave in what they would call an heroic manner. But there is nothing “heroic” in spreading Covid19. The heroism to which we are called is a smaller example. We are called to deny ourselves the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist, and of the Church community.

But that does not mean that we are not called to vigilence. Where we hear of those in authority threatening to permanently close churches which do not comply with government guidance, we have a legitimate cause for concern. Closure should last for as long as the medical advice tends in that direction. When the great Lord Action said that “power has a tendency to corrupt, and absolute power has a tendency to corrupt absolutely,” he neglected to add that those invested with a little power tend to abuse it.

There is nothing which can separate us from the love of God. Let us do what Caesar says in this time of trial, but let us be vigilant that, as his his wont, Caesar does not overshoot the mark.

In Isolation

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We are advised to practice something called “social distancing.” As some wag said to me the other day, that shouldn’t be hard for a practising Catholic and a self-identified conservative in Higher Education! But, joking apart, we need to reflect on what this really means. We are social animals, and outside of social groupings we run risks, especially those of us who suffer from anxiety which can lead to mental health problems. Donne was right, no one is an island, however much we may imagine we are.

The word “ecclesia,” from which we derive the word “Church,” was originally an assembly of Athenian citizens debating. A Church is a gathering of the faithful (and the rest of us too). Thus, for the Churches to close at this juncture is a double blow. We are deprived, most obviously of the spiritual nourishment of the Holy Eucharist. There’s a case that in the modern Church we have come to take frequent Communion for granted in a way our ancestors would have found surprising; but there is no case for an indefinite Eucharistic fast. Many, like me will, I suspect, be offering it up as part of our Lenten penance. Is it hard? Yes, and therefore all the more efficacious, I suspect.

But there is a second blow to us; the cessation of the Church community. However much some may protest about noise before the Service starts, and people leaving early, and all the other things which annoy them, for most, the interaction with our felow Church-goers is an important part of our Church life; its sudden ending leaves a void.

To some extent, we can engage, electronically, in on-line Services, but they are not the same; they are, however, better than nothing.

What some Churches, including my own, have done, is to keep in touch by telephone with parishioners, with an offer, where necessary, of practical help. Such gestures, small in themselves, mean a lot to people who now find themselves alone. On line Services have their place, but they cannot replace the “ecclesia.”

But, even as the business of the outside world grinds almost to a halt, there is an opportunity, if we seize it. In the middle of a world disfigured by sin and suffering, the Christian is heir to the blessing of the joy of Christ and the Good News He brings. Our prayers express that joy, and prayer binds us together as a Christian community. This is an opportunity to deepen our prayer life. I have always found praying the Rosary helpful, but now, more then ever, reflecting on its mysteries unites me to the millions of others doing the same. The Psalmist tells us to pray in the evening, the morning and at noon – it is advice which many of us neglect; now might be a good time to get into the habit of so doing.

Wherever we find ourselves, God is there. Prayer is not a matter of shouting out to someone who is socially-distancing Himself from us, it is an intimate conversation through Jesus who taught us to pray the “Our Father.” Our Father is there with us and for us, and if we have felt a distance, then that comes from us, not from Him. St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that prayer takes us directly to Heaven and puts us in God’s presence. When we pray for the forgiveness of our sins, we are taught to pray as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Do we do that? We ask God to do for us as we have done. This is a moment to remind ourselves of that. Prayer, in short, heals our relations with others, if we will allow it, and if we have the humility so to do.

None of us wanted to be given the opportunity to draw closer to God in the way it has been presented to us, but we have been given it. As Pope Francis said last week, there is a judgement involved in all of this; what is it that we value most?

 

The Church and ourselves

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What an astonishing institution the papacy is, that it can bring us so intimately close to the people of the seemingly distant 6th century, & allow us to feel a bond of communion with Rome and Italy in a very different period of agony.

Thus, Tom Holland on Twitter a few days ago.

He is of course correct. There is no other institution which can take us back to the days of the Roman Empire. For Catholics it takes us back even further, to St Peter himself. And if the Church is Eternal and bears the imprint of it Founder, Christ, it also bears the mark of its first leader. In that, it brings it closer to us all.

Is it perfect? No more than we are. Is it, like St Peter, sometimes impulsive, sometimes failing to understand the first time? Well, so are we. Does it mean well but fail to follow through at times? Well, in that it is like us. Nor is this surprising. We are not yet what we shall become through Grace, and whilst the Church is protected from mortal error, it is not, in this world, free from erring, any more than was St Peter. The great error of clericalism was to forget that bishops and priests are also like St Peter too; they can err and stray from the way as can we all. It was the failure to face that fact which allowed the abuse scandal to continue for so long.

Some will object here. We all have in our mind’s eye the Church as it should be; perhaps we also have in the same place an image of how we should be: one day it will be so, through God’s Grace. One reason I can’t join in the arguments about the current Pope is that either the Church is what it is, that is founded by Christ Himself, or it isn’t. If it is then we have His promise that even the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it. If it isn’t, then as St Paul put it in a related context, our faith is in vain. There is no middle position.

I find, and always have found, St Peter a reassuring companion. No organization founded by men would have identified such a fallible figure as its first leader; or if it had, it would never have written about him the way the Gospels do. He is hot-headed. He fails to understand what Jesus is saying, He is vainglorious, promising to stand by Jesus whatever befalls Him, and then denying Him when the heat is on. Peter is all of us. Yet despite that, or maybe because of that, Jesus chose him as the leader of His Church.

Jesus did not write a book of instructions, neither did He have an angel dictate His thoughts to the Evangelists who wrote what we recognise as Holy Scripture. What ‘we’ recognise is what the Church has canonised, and we read it in the light of the teaching of the Church. No merely human institution would have proceeded in such a way, but then, although run by human beings, the Church is not merely a human institution. It is of Divine origin and its purposes of those of God Himself.

It is this knowledge which makes us anxious about what happens in the Church. We have, all of us, our views of which parts of our rich heritage matter, and we wish to see that emphasised; being human, we can do that to the detriment of Christian charity. Blind to the beam in our own eye, how quick we can be to recognise the mote in the eye of others. Anxious about the ark of our Salvation, how quick we can be to complain when others seem, in our eyes, to be endangering it. Being human, how quick we can be to forget Christ’s promise about the Church prevailing even against the Gates of Hell.

It is, in its own way, reassuring to see how like St Peter we all are. It is reassuring because, for all his failings, Christ forgave Him and restored him. We know so little about his later life, but a later story about the end of his life on earth has about it the ring of truth.

The Apochryphal Acts of Peter, finds him fleeing Rome during the Neronian persecution; a perfectly sensible thing to do. Then, at a crossroads,where the Appian Way meets the Via Ardeatina, he meets our risen Lord.

Quo vadis?” Peter asks, to which Jesus replies:

Romam vado iterum crucifigi.” [I am going to Rome to be crucified again].

Peter then does what we have come to expect of him by now. He turns back to certain death in solidarity with Jesus. To the end he is an example to us all.

The God who is love, the Son who died that we might be saved, the Church which He founded and which is the barque of St Peter want only one thing; that we should turn from sin, repent, and be renewed in Christ Jesus. If this were easy or simple, Christ need not have died for us. If we were capable of doing this without Grace, we should have no need of the Church, we could rely on our reading of the Bible and our feelings. But like Peter and the Apostles, left to ourselves we should err and stray like the lost sheep we are.

Like Peter, we will go astray, but like him, if we listen to the Lord and pay heed to the Church He founded, then we can see the route to our salvation.

During this time of trial each of us has the opportunity, as this Lent draws to an unprecedented close, to decide “quo vadis?” Let us pray for the discernment to behave as St Peter did.

Mary’s Dowry

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Today, at noon (UK time) England will be rededicated to Our Lady. The illustration above is the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. As long-time readers of this blog will know, Walsingham is close to the heart of Jessica, who founded this blog and who has written most movingly about it in pieces to which links can be found here.

In the Middle Ages, Walsingham – ‘England’s Nazareth’ was a Marian shrine of a size which rivalled Compostella. It owed its origin to Richeldis de Faverches the Saxon wife of a Norman lord. Richeldis had a deep faith in God and devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and was well known for her good works.

In 1061, Richeldis was privileged to have a vision of the Blessed Virgin. She was transported, in her vision, to Nazareth and saw the holy house where the Holy Family lived. Our Lady made it clear she wanted it rebuilt in England’s green and pleasant land:

“Do all this unto my special praise and honour. And all who are distressed or in need, let them seek me here in that little house you have made me in Walsingham. To all that seek me there I will give my help. And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when Saint Gabriel told me that through humility, I should become the Mother of the Son of God.”

Legend has it that when the masons attempted to build the house, the ground would not yield to their spades, but that in the morning the angels had built it – as she intended.

Skilled craftsmen were commissioned  to carve a statue of Our Lady. Our Lady was enthroned on the Throne of Wisdom and crowned as the Queen of Heaven and Earth. She herself was a throne for the Christ-Child, Who was represented holding out the Gospels to the world. Her right hand pointed to Him, and He extended His arm in a double gesture of blessing and protection of His Mother. Each part of the statue was rich in symbolism, such as the seven rings on the throne standing for the Seven Sacraments, which Henry VIII defended centuries later, and the flowering lily-sceptre which she held in her right hand. It symbolised her Perpetual Virginity, and, in the teachings of the Cistercian saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, that She is the Flower of the Rod of Jesse. Miracles of healing were performed there from the start.

In 1381, in the middle of the turmoil we call the “Peasants’ Revolt,” King Richard II dedicated his realm to Our Lady in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey; this meant that England was given over to her protection. The prayer of Entrustment for 2020 can be found here.

This moment has been three years in the planning, and no-one could have envisaged then the circumstances in which it will now take place. I had hoped, being in Norfolk, to be able to be there; now none of us will be.

The illustration above is the Wilton Diptych, a late medieval portable altarpiece which depicts the Dedication of England to Our Lady. It was painted toward the end of Richard’s reign, one which had seen the realm ravaged by the Plague and by civil strife; the King himself would soon be overthrown by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, and part of whose legacy would be the rivalry between the Houses of Lancaster and York which would plunge England into years of civil strife.

It would be Bolingbroke’s son, Henry V, who would invoke the help of England’s Protectoress on the eve of Agincourt; his appeal enjoyed more success than that of his dead cousin, Richard II. Like every other king of England since its construction, Henry V visited the Holy site. The last one so to do was Henry VIII, who was responsible for its destruction during the orgy of iconoclasm which followed his break from Rome.

One effect of the Reformation and its legacy was that for hundreds of years the tradition of Marian veneration was lost in this country. No doubt in Recusant houses in half-forgotten corners of the realm Our Lady was held in reverence; but that really was a faith which could not speak its name. But the tradition was not wholly lost in Angicanism, and divines like Launcelot Andrewes, continued the ancient tradition, as I explained here.

The Oxford Movement helped create the context in which a Shrine was once more estabished at Walsingham in the late nineteenth century. In 2016 the old Slipper Chapel became a Catholic Basilica, and under the formidable Rector, Mgr. John Armitage  huge strides have been made toward making the Shrine what it was in medieval times – a centre of international pilgrimage. The Rededication was meant to mark a milestone in this process, and will do so, but not in the way planned at the time.

With England on lockdown because of the Coronavirus, everything will have to take place at a distance except for those on the ground doing the Rededication. But perhaps, as has happened elsewhere, more will follow on-line than might have done in normal times.

There will, of course, always be those who protest at Marian “idolatry,” but for faith illiteracy which seeks not to remedy its own ignorance there is no remedy. I have written elsewhere in this blog on the subject, and those who wish to rehearse the arguments can find them set out in that place. For my part, I prefer the simply piety expressed by Jessica in a moving post here.

Christ is the Word made flesh. Our Lady was chosen by God to bear Him and to raise Him, and she chose willingly to accept that responsibility; she was the gateway through which the author of our salvation entered the world. Of all of us, she is the best. What more natural sentiment could there be than to be grateful to Our Lady? What more natural reaction in times of travail could there be for the pious king than to seek her as protector for the realm? As the history of Walsignham shows, Our Lady is deeply threaded into the history of England.

So it is, in God’s Providence, that this special moment, long in the planning, takes on a significance far deeper than any of us could have imagined. As we sit in our homes in the shadow of this pestilence, after a period of political turmoil, we are all, alas, better placed to empathise with Richard II and the emotions which prompted him to the Dedication in the first place. Let us pray, in hope, for the spiritual blessings which wil follow on this act of national piety. And let us remember the Marian prayer of Pope Francis for this time:

O Mary, you shine continuously on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope.

We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick.

At the foot of the Cross you participated in Jesus’ pain,

with steadfast faith.

You, Salvation of the Roman People, know what we need.

We are certain that you will provide, so that,

as you did at Cana of Galilee,

joy and feasting might return after this moment of trial.

Help us, Mother of Divine Love,

to conform ourselves to the Father’s will

and to do what Jesus tells us:

He who took our sufferings upon Himself, and bore our sorrows to bring us,

through the Cross, to the joy of the Resurrection. Amen.

We seek refuge under your protection, O Holy Mother of God.

Do not despise our pleas – we who are put to the test – and deliver us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

Let me conclude with one of the moving prayers which forms part of the Rededication:

We your faithful people assembled here offer you this country in which we live. Once it was yours, all its children were your children and you were honoured throughout England as its Protectress and its Queen. Again do we consecrate it as your Dowry, and entrust it to your maternal care.

In this time of trial

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Pope Francis has been a controversial figure, at least in Catholic circles; the general public, happily ignorant of the internal strife, has tended to see him differently. After yesterday’s extraordinary “Urbi et orbi” address, perhaps we can lay aside rancour and strife and agree that in this time of trial he rose to the occasion magnificently? I know I was not the only one who, in the viewing of it, was moved.

It has been a long time since I have contributed to this blog, but these are extraordinary times, and for a while, at least, I shall be here.

The “urbi et orbi” address is usually confined to Christmas and Easter, so the delivery of one at this time was, in itself, extraordinary; the circumstances which prompted it, and in which it was delivered, made it even more so.

The usually crowded St Peter’s square was empty. The rain poured down as it can in Rome. As he stood there, with the rain falling, he used the two resources available to the heir of St Peter – words and symbols: together they made a compelling and moving spectacle.

In the beginning was the Word, and the words of the Pope spoke to our hearts:

“For weeks now it has been evening, thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice it in people’s gestures, their glances give them away.”

We have all felt this in our daily lives as the depth of the crisis sinks in. The ordinary niceties of everyday life are suddenly rendered exotic: there is no handshaking, no hugs, no kisses; there is something rather like passing by on the other side. Under the bravado lies an understandable fear; people cope with this in various ways; but it is palpable, all the same.

In these circumstance Mark 4:35-41 were especially apposite. As the deluge continued, almost illustrating the Pope’s words, he reminded us of the frightened Disciples at sea who woke Jesus because they feared for their lives amid a strom of the sea of Gallille:

39 Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace,[a] be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. 40 But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How[b] is it that you have no faith?” 41 And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!”

Like the Disciples, we are fearful, but the Pope reminded us of something pertinent. The storm exposes:

 “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules” and lays bare “all those attempts to anesthetize ourselves”.

In this crisis, our blithe expectation that we could stay well in a sick world looks like what it is – folly. The Christian knows this. We know that only the saving grace of Christ can heal and save us; but how often, amid the hustle and bustle of daily life do we recall this, even to ourselves? Now, as the Pope said, our common humanity is highlighted; in Christ we are one.

We see this, too, in our new everyday reality. For each example of someone behaving badly, we see examples of people doing the opposite. I much appreciated a call from my own church to see if I was “okay” or “needed anything.” Daily acts of such kindnesses bind us back together; they remind us that God is love, and even as He poured His love out for us, we can imitate that example by helping each other.

Some have said that this pandemic is a judgement on mankind. God alone knows what we deserved and need, and not being Him, I leave such things to Him. The Pope, reminding us that Jesus is calling out to us to follow Him, reminded us that there is a judgment to be made – by us. Now is our “time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not.” Faith begins, he reminded the world, “when we realize we are in need of salvation” and are not self-sufficient.”

If we would turn to Jesus then He will do for us what He did for the Disciples. He will calm our fears: “Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.”

His words moved me close to tears:

Jesus’ cross, said Pope Francis, is the anchor that has saved us, the rudder that has redeemed us, and our hope, because “by His cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from His redeeming love.”

“In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things,” he said, “let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: He is risen and is living by our side.”

So we embrace His cross in the hardships of the present time, and make room in our hearts “for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring.”

The Pope spoke in the presence of that great symbol of suffering and redemption, the Crucifix; but this was a special crucifix. Usually displayed in the church of San Marcello on the city’s Via del Corso, the Crucifix we all saw dates from the fourteenth century as has survived fire and plague. St Pope John Paul II embraced it in the year 2000 to mark the Day of Forgiveness during that Jubillee year.

The other symbol was the ancient icon of Mary Salus Populi Romani – usually housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. In 593 Pope St. Gregory the Great carried the icon in procession to stop a plague. And in 1837 Pope Gregory XVI invoked her to put an end to a cholera epidemic. The Pope’s devotion to this icon is well-known, and this act of Marian devotion culminated in a moving appeal:

“Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, ‘cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us’ (cf. 1Pet 5:7).”

In the shadow of the Cross, and through the Grace of Our Lady, the Pope provided a perfect example of Christian leadership. Let us hear his words, and through those words, let us hear again, the Word of God.

In this time of trial there is no other help; nor is there need for any other. As we are reminded in Romans:

38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might,

39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray for one another, and may the peace and love of Christ be with each one of us now and always.

The Mission

The Church’s mission is summarised succinctly at Matthew 28:18, known as the “Great Commission”.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)

Much has been said about the decline of the Church in the West, including the interpretation that it is beginning or harbinger of the Great Apostasy mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2 (which draws upon Matthew 24 – see Alan Kurshner’s table of parallels). The following factors are usually mentioned in these discussions:

  • The Second Vatican Council
  • WWI and WWII
  • The influence of Marxism, Socialism, Post-modernism, Scientism, Empiricism, Existentialism, and Nihilism
  • The fall of the British Empire
  • The corruption of American politics
  • The spread of psychologising tendencies within the Church
  • Hypocrisy and scandals within the Church
  • The influence of textual criticism and post-Enlightenment philosophy within first Protestantism and then Catholicism
  • Globalism, including mass immigration
  • The refusal of parts of the Church to engage with the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements
  • Changes and lapses within the education systems of Europe, the UK, and the USA

There is probably some truth to each of these points. Assessments of the situation fall on a spectrum, the two poles being a denial that any of this is the Church’s fault and a hand-wringing capitulation that believes it is all the Church’s fault.

Neither of these extreme positions is particularly helpful. If we believe it is all our own fault, we will be tempted to think we can fix the situation entirely by just changing and putting all our efforts into those changes. This is unwise for several reasons.

  1. It runs the risk of burn-out: people exhausting themselves thinking that the answer is entirely within their own control. This will lead to demoralisation and despair.
  2. It overlooks free will. Calvinism is false. If we think we can manipulate people into the Kingdom, we cease treating them as people, we deny their inherent dignity, granted to them by God. Ultimately, it is each person’s choice whether he accepts the Gospel or not.
  3. It opens the way to temptation, the temptation to abandon the truths of our faith in order to make it more palatable to outsiders. This is not only immoral, but also foolish. The failure of this policy in the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and other Protestant denominations should furnish enough evidence to discourage such attempts.
  4. It overlooks the role of God in the process of evangelism. The Great Commission is sandwiched between the declaration that all authority is vested in Christ and that Christ is with us. Evangelism and the survival of the Church do not stop with us: God is intimately involved in those aims.

Equally, the extreme of thinking that this is entirely and external problem is unwise.

  1. It overlooks our duty to know the truth as best we can and to present the truth in the best way we can to outsiders who will listen to it. When we misrepresent the Gospel, albeit unintentionally, we do a disservice to outsiders; we run the risk of people rejecting the Gospel and doing so in a way that potentially could have been avoided.
  2. We run the risk of our love growing cold. If all we have for unbelievers is contempt, anger that they are rebelling against God, then we are hypocrites. We were unbelievers once, and which of us is completely without sin now? If we are to persevere in evangelism, we must make an effort to understand why the Gospel has been largely rejected by our countrymen. If we love them, we will do everything we can to help them make an informed decision.
  3. We run the risk of stagnation. Sometimes we need challenges, whether internal or external, to make us revisit our beliefs and practices. The Reformation was one such challenge. It successfully liberated common people from abuses carried out against them by certain sections of the clergy.

“Indifference” seems to be an apt description of the challenge the Church faces in the West. Persecution does play a part, but the conditions in the West are not identical to those that obtain in the East. There’s nothing we can do about that and we should not invite persecution. Persecution will naturally follow those who truly imitate Christ, but that is not the same thing as inviting it.

We can ask sincere questions (and treat the answers at face value) of people both inside and outside the Church. There is no guarantee that they will listen in turn to what we have to say, but questions are a starting point. We can pray: asking God for wisdom, for compassion, and for the strength to persevere. We can examine our own consciences and ask questions of ourselves. We must also be attentive: outsiders will generally not give us opportunities to share the Gospel (at least not at length).

 

OUR JEWISH HERITAGE

One of my favorite articles by Marty Barrack. An oldie but a goodie. _ Scoop

Smoke of Satan & the Open Windows of Vatican II

By Marty Barrack who was a convert to Catholicism from the Jewish Faith

thecatholicfaithIntroduction

Originally published in The Catholic Faith magazine Jan-Feb 1996

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 839, tells us: “When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God. The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews ’belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ’ for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” The interior quotation is from Rom 9:4-5.

That concise paragraph tells us that the Catholic Church is the fulfillment…

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Law and Grace: The Joseph Story

During our service this morning, we had traditional Advent readings and a selection of carols. As I was listening to Matthew’s account of the angelic dreams Joseph experienced, a thought occurred to me.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.  And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Matthew 1:18-21

The overarching narrative of the Bible is about the relationship between God and humans. God being perfect, and wanting good things for His creation, wants us to be free moral agents. However, being free, we are capable of making evil choices, and these choices have impacts, like ripples, across creation.

This structure leads to a tension between law and grace. Both are facets of goodness, and are interestingly manifested in the story of Joseph, the adoptive and legal father of Jesus of Nazareth.

Joseph was a good man in both senses of the word: he knew and reverenced the law, but he was also capable of great compassion. Remember, before the angel visited, he had no reason to believe that special circumstances applied to Mary. As far as he could tell from the available facts and the usual course of events, Mary had been unfaithful.

Unfaithfulness is morally wrong. If we do not recognise moral failings, then we deny justice and take a step further away from the ideal to which we aspire: a world in which people consistently make good choices.

However, we are also loving. If we punish moral failings, but do not show compassion, we create a world in which rights and duties matter, but the underlying reason for them is forgotten. In short, we create a world without joy.

Joseph was thus faced with a dilemma, and he opted for a compromise. To administer some element of justice, but to temper it with compassion. This was as far as he could go. He could not solve the problem of sin – Christ was born for that purpose.

The story is important as a reminder of our real-world lives. At times the events of the Bible seem very removed from our daily lives. Most of us are not kings like David or wandering prophets like Elijah or warriors like Samson. Most of us have not seen obvious miracles like the Parting of the Red Sea.

But we do all have interpersonal relationships. Marital breakdown in some form affects most of us: whether as spouses, children, relatives, friends, or workers. The Joseph story, in its own way, is a good nutshell for the Gospel message. Something to think about in the remaining days of Advent.