A Lesson from Pontian and Hippolytus

Comparatively few people will be celebrating today’s feast of SS Pontian and Hippolytus with a great sense of their individual personalities. Hippolytus was an important Church writer of the third century although, as with many details of his life, there is disagreement about the exact scope and content of his work, despite many writings having his name attached to them. In The Apostolic Tradition he gave us the first account of the ordination ritual of the early Church which is significant in itself. He may, or may not have been, elected as an anti-pope. What we do know is that he had a furious dispute with the pope of the day about some of the latter’s decisions, accusing him of too much leniency towards sinners. Beginning to sound familiar and contemporary?

Pontian, the pope with whom he had the dispute, was imprisoned by imperial authority and sent to the quarries in Sardinia. Hippolytus was also sent there and somehow the experience led to a reconciliation. Their deaths are recorded as martyrdom, and their names are for ever united in the Church’s calendar. I ask their intercession for long-running and bitter disputes that seem impossible of resolution, for ‘nothing is impossible with God’— a lesson we need to learn again and again.

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Light and Darkness: Transfiguration 2021

‘A-Day’ First atomic bomb explosion at Bikini in the Marshall Islands
1 July 1946

A Local Event and Hiroshima

This morning, at 8 o’clock, Western Power will switch off the electricity supply to this area and we shall be plunged into a temporary physical darkness. It should only last a day, but we won’t be able to supplement natural light at the flick of a switch or do many of the things we usually take for granted. At 8.15 a.m. on this day in 1945 a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and in its glare the world was changed for ever. A moral darkness descended on the human race. It is not just the number of those killed or the way in which they died that appalls, but the fact that another boundary was crossed. Nothing in war was now beyond limits and that would have an impact on the way in which we behaved henceforth. As Robert Oppenheimer remarked earlier, after watching the detonation of the first nuclear weapon, a piece of Hindu scripture had run through his mind: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ In vain did he spend the rest of his life urging stricter control of nuclear energy and more thought about the possible consequences of its development.

Physical and Moral Darkness

Physical darkness, moral darkness, how do they connect with an event that Christians believe took place roughly two thousand years ago in what we have come to call the Transfiguration? Was that episode in the life of Christ another kind of boundary-changer, the spiritual triumph of light over darkness, begun on Tabor and completed on Calvary? Many have speculated that the Transfiguration took place at night, which would have made its strange and luminous beauty even more wonderful to those who saw it. It is not the loveliness of the Transfiguration that matters, however, but its significance.

The Transfiguration

Mark’s account is brief (Mk 9.2-10). As always, there is no lingering over the detail. He moves quickly to meaning and purpose. This is God’s beloved Son to whom we are to listen and as a consequence find life. The vision of the unity of the Old and New Covenants is meant to do away with doubt and disbelief but, of course, it has done no such thing. We continue to live with doubt, fear, death. Today, as much as ever before, the old certainties are crumbling. Climate change and the loss of habits and species in the natural world parallels the loss of agreed values in the social and political order. Even our religious institutions have shown themselves to be often corrupt and untrustworthy. Sin, we find, is not an abstraction but a brutal reality in the lives of us all. In a sense, we are still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, still living in the not-yet of the kingdom, of eternal life glimpsed but not yet fully grasped..

That is not the whole story, of course. Sin and death do not have the last word; the promise is fulfilled, only those of us alive today have yet to experience its fullness when, as we affirm, ‘all is made new’.

I am encouraged by the fact that liturgically the Transfiguration is very much a Benedictine feast, popularised by the Cluniacs. Benedictines are not much given to hype — or despair. We just go on, century after century, trusting in God and hoping, little by little, to be refashioned into the likeness of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. That surely is the connection, the answer to the conundrum. Just as on Tabor Jesus allowed his disciples to glimpse his glory as God, so, in our everyday lives, his grace transforms us, allowing us to achieve the impossible because, in the end, good will always triumph over evil, love over hatred, life over death. God wills that all should be saved. We think about that too little or somehow dismiss it as something that doesn’t really apply to us. Yet that is the hope the Transfiguration confers on us and the whole human race. We may not see the glory now nor realise how wonderful is the promise made to us, but it is there, shimmering and shining throughout time and eternity. We are, because of Him, ‘immortal diamond’. Let us give thanks, rejoice — and pray for peace.

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Encouraging the Clergy

The feast of St Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney, celebrated today, is the day we traditionally pray with special fervour and gratitude for parish clergy. Not being a priest, I don’t know how far the Curé d’Ars inspires, encourages or perhaps even daunts, those to whom he is presented as a role model. I have known parish priests who have followed a contemporary version of his austere lifestyle, living off the plainest food, denying themselves every luxury, leading a life of prayer and sacrifice in an effort to serve God and his Church. Others have been more relaxed in their approach to the good things of life and will doubtless recall that today is the day when Dom Pérignon allegedly invented champagne*. The one thing they have all had in common is an opinion about their bishop and the people they serve.

Criticism of the Clergy

It is easy to knock the clergy for what they are not. Every time I hear some sort of patronising comment or belittling remark, I shrivel up inside — not so much because I am hurt as because the perpetrator is hurting himself. Sadly, such remarks are often the result of the priest himself feeling a need to assert his value in the face of apparent indifference and disregard. Too many feel that their bishop has little connection with them and only a cursory interest in their concerns. Too many feel that their congregations are distant from them, critical of everything they say and do. As to the media, the lack of respect for Christian clergy, Catholic especially, is sometimes shocking in its intensity and hostility. We do not justify our own sins by reference to those of others. While no one would attempt to defend the terrible history of abuse and cover-up in the Church, it is wrong to assume that every priest is guilty or regard the guilt of some as justification for negativity towards all.

How to Encourage the Clergy and Why

So, on this bright and sunny morning, I wonder how to encourage the priests we know. We pray for them, of course. We listen. In happier days we were able to offer the hospitality of the monastery, a shared meal, discussion of matters of common (or even uncommon) interest. Sometimes what is most needed is probably reassurance, that what the clergy are and do matters. Occasionally, a challenge has to be thrown out, but always, I trust, with courtesy and love. The Curé d’Ars was plain-spoken, but no one ever left his presence feeling diminished. There is something there we could all learn from, clerical or lay. Together we build up the Body of Christ, or, as St Benedict says, serve alike under the banner of the same Lord, but to do so we must encourage one another. May I invite any clergy reading this to tell us, laity and religious, how we can encourage them in their particular task and mission?

*He didn’t, but he introduced some important improvements in method, quality controls, corks for bottling and so on.

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Is the Church Getting It Right — or Getting It Wrong?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my readership has grown older and greyer. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. I’m growing older and greyer myself and begin to appreciate better than before how much is owed to those who just ‘get on with things’ and are not in themselves particularly scintillating. Blogging is no longer as popular as it was for diffusing ideas and inviting debate but the format suits me and is more manageable than most alternatives. The unease I am voicing this morning therefore comes hedged with qualifications. I admit my own ignorance and the difficulty of judging a situation that is, by its very nature, known only partially and imperfectly. I recognize that only a very small part of the Church (the part that reads this blog) is likely to respond and that its demographic is not representative of the Church as a whole. So, I write as a Catholic, of a certain age and background, living in the West, more specifically England, with its unique experience of Catholicism, and heavily influenced by my interests in history and theology. But the question I ask is of wider significance because it concerns the very nature of the Church and her role in the world.

The question troubling me is, do the current public preoccupations of the Church really help to spread the gospel? Are they, in any meaningful sense, meeting the desire for God? Or does the Church have some other reason for being than leading all to salvation in Christ?

Current Preoccupations of the Church

Sitting where I do, one might think the Church had no other interest than safeguarding regulations (the horse long bolted from that particular stable, I would suggest) and ever more complicated directives concerning COVID prevention, Mass attendance and online liturgies. All too often, this has ended up with a lot of form-filling and the compilation of statistics that a statistician would say revealed nothing of much use or importance.

From Holy Week (yes, Holy Week) until now, here in the monastery we have been working through an endless stream of safeguarding material provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. We agree that safeguarding is important. We have attended courses, adjusted our buildings and grounds, had an independent audit of our arrangements and practices and, crucially no doubt, paid our fee to the safeguarding service. Given our small numbers as enclosed (or cloistered) nuns, the absence of a chaplain and our clear policy of not allowing children to visit unless accompanied by a responsible adult, one might think we pose little risk. But the time we give to these matters is taken from time we might otherwise give to prayer and spreading the gospel, and that not only worries me, it suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church and her missionary character. We are not here to be defensive, surely? What are we defending anyway?

Like many others, I had hoped that the experience of lockdown and the creative way in which many tried to meet its challenges might have led to a profound enrichment of the Church’s missionary endeavour. However, if the anecdotal evidence I have received is to be believed, many clergy are simply sighing with relief that things can go back to normal (i.e what was understood to be normal before the pandemic began) though there is some anxiety about those who have been ‘lost’ to the Church and decided they are not returning to their parish for worship — or to make the financial contributions on which the parish relies. But is anyone asking why people have gone from their parishes?

Public Utterances and Public Spats

Ask anyone in this country what they know of the Catholic Church and one is likely to get some shocked references to abuse and cover-ups and perhaps an observation or two about the Latin Mass and the pope’s hostility to it. Neither is exactly the whole truth, but if people bother about churchy things at all, that is what they are likely to come up with. The very lame response to abuse and official attempts to mitigate its awfulness have not been impressive. There is a sense, which many Catholics share, that the Church is not really facing up to the sin in our midst; and in any case, is there no other narrative to be told other than one of regret and apology?

We have sometimes been asked to apologize for abuse committed in Ireland by religious sisters with whom we have no connection other than membership of the same Church. In vain do I say, it was wrong, we pray for those who have suffered (and those who caused the suffering), that it happened before we were born, we are doing our best to ensure that nothing of the same can ever happen again. But it is not enough. For some, the narrative of abuse and cover-up has become the whole narrative of the Church. What is not always recognized is the fact that, by and large, we have let it become so. Yes, we have let others set the agenda, and I think we may have got it wrong.

One consequence of this, not always sufficiently appreciated, is the effect on the morale of many clergy and their reluctance, amounting in some cases to crippling fear, to go out to others. Parishioners may lament the loss of the pastoral visit; some of the clergy are questioning whether the pastoral visit is simply going to end in tears (for the priest). An awkwardness has been introduced that need not be there. A wise bishop, alert to the needs of priests and people, can do much to help; but I wonder how many are.

The constant spats about Pope Francis’ decisions, even his legitimacy as pope, enthrall some sections of the Catholic Church and provide useful copy to online journalists and media types. Often those who are most vociferous are most ignorant, presenting as fact what is merely opinion, and opinion based on an inadequate knowledge of the sources. This applies to both left and right, liberals and conservatives, all who see themselves as being right when everyone else is wrong. What comes across, therefore, is a Church bitterly divided, more intent on scoring points than seeking truth, not a place where sinners will be made righteous through the experience of love and compassion but where the self-appointed righteous exclude all who are not like them.

A Harsh Judgement

I’m sure many will think what I have written is harsh and arrogant, that I am guilty of the very faults and shortcomings I see in others. But isn’t that the point? We are all, to some extent, blind and deaf. I do not believe that the Lord will ever abandon his Church, but I do think we are in danger of forgetting that is is his Church, that we have a mission to perform, and that currently we are not making a very good fist of it. Perhaps if we were to spend a few moments today thinking about what first drew us to Christ, to what changed for ever when we said ‘yes’ to him, the way ahead would be clearer. I’m sure it would be much more attractive to others also.

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Words, Words, Words

It ironic that the writings of St Peter Chrysologus, whose name means ‘golden-worded’, should have almost entirely disappeared. We have 176 short homilies to justify his alternative title of ‘Doctor of Homilies’. Those I’ve read are refreshing: simple, direct and covering important topics like the Apostles’ Creed and fundamental doctrines of the Church. Some find him surprisingly ‘modern’. He advocates daily Communion, for example, and is good at explaining scripture. Yet it is his silence, what he does not say, that attracts me. He was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century so must have seen and heard much into which those of us who are not angelic long to look. Apparently, he got on well with Leo the Great and was influential at the imperial court. Fifteen hundred years later, the Churches of both East and West continue to commemorate his sanctity.

Old Saints: New Saints

I often think that these old saints, who inhabited a world and enjoyed a ‘world view’ very different in many respects from our own, are a better guide to holiness than some more recent models. Again, it is the silence that is so eloquent. The sayings of some of our more contemporary saints are interminable, endlessly turned into holy sound bytes which are neither profound nor helpful, merely irritating. I leave you to think of a few examples for yourselves, and if you can’t, be assured that you are obviously much holier than I am!

Silence and Restraint in Speech

So, silence: choosing the words to speak and when to say or write them. The monastic tradition puts great emphasis on this restraint, this disciplining of the self. Indeed it goes further, valuing physical silence for its own sake, for the way it opens us up to God and other people, for its role in making us wise and compassionate. It is not difficult to see how words are often abused or silence undervalued in today’s society. The trouble is, once we start distancing ourselves from this observable fact with references to concepts like ‘today’s society,’ we are apt to distance ourselves from our own responsibility. We suggest that we are helpless, constrained by circumstances; but are we really — or are we being a little lazy?

Personal Choice

In Britain today I see and read much that makes me cringe — and I am not referring solely or even mainly to what passes for politics or takes place in social media. I can do very little about its worst excesses; but I can do something about my own words, my own silence. The point is, do I want to? Surely someone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Redeemer, the Word made flesh, cannot be indifferent to the tiny words we use every day, to the creative silence that gives birth to the Mystery? Or can we? Perhaps a few minutes thinking about that question would yield an unexpected harvest of self-knowledge and renewed purpose.

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Family Rows

Today, 26 July, is the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the names traditionally given to the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hence grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ. Usually I manage to write something appreciative of grandparents and their role in our lives but today my heart is not in it. I am more conscious of the squabbles and rows consuming Church and society (and perhaps our own families and communities, too) to feel I can contribute anything positive. It is more than a mere energy lapse or fleeting feeling of ennui. It is a recognition of our helplessness in the face of much negativity, coupled with a desire not to give in to fashionable points of view simply because they are fashionable but ‘to test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.’

Prince Harry and the Royal Family

Take, for instance, something British readers and viewers will be only too well aware of: the very public row within the Royal Family in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are principals. (Did I say that neutrally enough? What follows is not neutral.) I am not a Royal-watcher; I don’t have any ‘side’ to uphold; but the way in which Prince Harry is behaving strikes me as childish and vindictive, likely to wound his grandmother the Queen, and certain to wound his father, Prince Charles.

I do not know what it is like to lose one’s mother at an impressionable age and under very sad circumstances, but I am beginning to think that the duke is actually exploiting the situation. It makes him different, special, confers on him the right to behave in a less than adult manner. And why? Because he has never learned the importance of forgiveness, of letting go, of truly being himself rather than a person for ever defined by a tragic event that occurred in his childhood. We are told he does not want to use his royal advantage, yet at he same time he makes full use of his royal privilege. Has none of the expensive therapists and counsellors to whom he has access suggested to him that the way to be truly free is, as I said, to let go of the injuries, real or imagined, done to himself? Will he end up a lonely old man, like his uncle, the Duke of Windsor, one entry in whose diary reads, ‘Spent all day watching Wallis buy a hat.’?

The Church and Traditionis Custodes

If the situation of the duke is tragic, what can I say of the Church following the issuing of Traditionis Custodes? Part of me wanted to leap into the fray, bristling with historical and liturgical insights born of long and sustained study and practical experience, or so I would argue; but I wisely held off, realising I needed to think and pray more; and now I realise that it would be arrogant and sheer folly to seek to add to the discussion. Arrogant, because there are others more learned and eloquent to analyse the text, the pope’s intentions and the complexity of the historical background of the Mass in the West. Folly, because I know my temper is on a short string — social media and email make it easy for people to engage in ways I find rude or patronising — and I do not want to say something I later regret or cannot put right.

Liturgy matters immensely to me, of course it does, but the way in which, by and large, discussion has been conducted has been deeply troubling. To speak of God and the things of God with hatred and contempt in one’s heart is not right. It is irreverence of the most terrible kind. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity within the Church, and the only way for any of us to approach it, metaphorically speaking, is on our knees. Bad or inadequate history, personal preference, fear of the unknown, they can blind us to the significance of words and actions and we can destroy what we most long to flourish. We forget, a little too readily, that every human being is entitled to respect and to his/her good name. Insults and accusations are not helpful.

This morning, therefore, I am praying for all families, natural and institutional, experiencing discord. Often it is a grandparent who sees most clearly and is best at binding up the wounds that are tearing everyone within apart. Let us ask the prayers of Saints Joachim and Anne to heal the divisions we experience and to give those of us who are older something of their grace and compassion, that we may meet every new challenge with wisdom and kindness.

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Unlikely Friendship? The Case of St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent by Pedro de Mena
By Nicolás Pérez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10226663

St Mary Magdalene and Some Women of Our Own Day who Attract a Negative Press

During one of our recent long, hot, sticky nights I found myself thinking about the hostility of the Taliban to the education of women and girls, and what that might mean for the people of Afghanistan and wherever the Taliban hold influence. From there it was a short step to considering the antipathy many in the West have shown towards Malala, Greta Thunberg or, in a completely different sphere, Emma Raducano. It would be wrong to say the aggressive and belittling remarks they have had to endure are the monopoly of a few middle-aged men (I can certainly point to some really nasty comments by women), but middle-aged men do seem to have been peculiarly irritated by them. For me, that helps to explain the Church’s long-standing awkwardness about Mary Magdalene and the ambivalence in some circles about her being officially proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and her liturgical commemoration being raised to the dignity of a feast. As to her friendship with Jesus, I quite see why, for some, that is beyond the pale. She is too clingy, too feminine — despite being as tough as they come.

How We Like Our Saints To Be

Is it as simple as saying most men (and many women) don’t like smart women, and clerical men feel happier if female saints are either on a pedestal of unassailable purity (e.g. Our Lady, St Thérèse of Lisieux) or can be dismissed as ‘no better than they should be’ and classed either as prostitutes (which St Mary Magdalene was not) or penitents, suggesting that there is something murky in the background? For every dozen men who have waxed lyrical about St Thérèse, for example, I doubt I have heard even one express warm, personal admiration for St Mary Magdalene. Is that why the thought of Jesus and Mary being such good friends as the gospels suggest has led some to speculate that there was a sexual relationship between them (for which there is no evidence) while others dismiss her as being somehow a fringe figure in Christian history (which is absurd). Then there are those who think that Mary Magdalene was more significant than Peter, and there is a huge conspiracy behind the hierarchy of the Church today — an attitude I find equally absurd on the same grounds as those who propose it: the evidence. The plain truth is that Jesus Christ saw in Mary something he did not see in Peter, James or John, something loving enough and steely enough to be entrusted with news of the resurrection — and he clearly enjoyed her company, as he enjoyed the company of his other disciples.

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my choice of Pedro de Mena’s sculpture to illustrate this post rather than the Fra Angelico or D. Werburg you might have been expecting. It shows Mary as penitent, the way she was viewed for so many centuries in the Church. I have always found it an arresting image and on every visit to Valladolid have always tried to make sure I see it. It proclaims a very important theological truth we are sometimes in danger of forgetting. None of us is without sin. We are all redeemed through God’s gracious action in Christ Jesus. We can concentrate on this aspect or that of a saint’s life, we can be inspired or sometimes the reverse, but we cannot escape the fact of sin. Mary of Magdalene is one of those saints who makes us confront this in ourselves and in others. We are seeing this sin, this sinfulness, in the way in which Traditionis Custodes is being discussed right now: sin has coiled itself round the holiest element of Catholic faith and practice, the celebration of the Eucharist.

We all know that the word eucharist means to give thanks. During two of my most recent hospitalisations, I came very close to dying. As I lay there, wondering if this was indeed to be the end of my earthly life, I found myself reflecting on the efforts people go to for the sake of their ‘legacy’. It didn’t take me long to decide that what I would like for my own legacy is fidelity to the Truth, kindness to others, and gratitude— above all, gratitude, because grace can only grow in a spirit of thanksgiving, and neither fidelity nor kindness is possible without grace. In the gospels St Mary Magdalene exemplifies all these qualities, with a richness of humanity I find immensely attractive. I think she makes a good patron for us still in via, don’t you?

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Arbiter of All Things? Me, Of Course!

I am refusing to be drawn on the subject of Traditionis Custodes for reasons I’ve given in the past about needing to read, pray and reflect before responding to documents that stir the emotions (e.g. see this post about how to read an encyclical, though the document published yesterday is not an encyclical). I’ve also switched off comments for the links I’ve posted in Facebook and on this particular blog post — not because I am opposed to people expressing their views, far from it, but because among the instant reactions there is always a lot of tit-for-tat I don’t want to get involved in. Note that phrase: I don’t want to get involved in. It is my choice, my decision. If it sounds arrogant, so be it. I am the arbiter of all things, in this blog anyway.

The Carmelites of Compiégne

The Carmelites of Compiègne whose martyrdom we celebrate today, and the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai imprisoned alongside them (see, for example, this post) probably did not want to get involved in the French Revolution, either. But they did, and they acquitted themselves more than honourably, though at the time I daresay comparatively few knew very much about them. I have often wondered what they themselves felt and thought. What were their ideas of beauty, for example? How did they like to see the liturgy performed? I am speculating here, but did the Benedictines and the Carmelites have rather different experiences of Mass and the choral office? Their origins, their backgrounds, their spiritualities as we would call them today, even their financial circumstances, were different; and as an erstwhile historian myself, I would expect that to be reflected in their approach to monastic/contemplative life.

The Debate about Traditionis Custodes

I think we will find that much of the debate that follows on the publication of yesterday’s Traditionis Custodes will reflect some, at least, of the following:

• a personal, probably highly subjective, view of what is beautiful. That is often a ‘killer’ factor. Once we assume that our own preferences are universal, it can be difficult to see another’s point of view.

• a partial, possibly not always well-informed, awareness of history and the complexity of liturgical development. That can be difficult to handle. It is not only a question of fact (sometimes extremely difficult, even impossible, to establish) but, more importantly, of interpretation.

• a ‘feeling’ about Vatican II and what it intended. Older readers will probably understand better than younger ones what I mean by this.

• a personal opinion of Pope Francis.

The Place of the Personal in this Debate

The first, the argument about beauty, is one I have engaged in many times. My years in the Stanbrook Abbey Press taught me that its austere and restrained ideals did not appeal to everyone. Where I sought simplicity and paring back, others preferred elaboration and detail. Never the twain shall meet, it seems. As for a personal opinion of Pope Francis, the less said the better because so much of it seems to be polarised.

I am sure you will understand why I urge prayer and reflection at this point. Fortunately, as Bro Dyfrig BFdeB will assure you, no one listens to me anyway, so the suggestions I make above are principally for myself to heed. -;) (It is International Emoji Day, so using one is in the spirit of the times, no?) Whatever our own opinion, let us pray for the unity of the Church, and especially for those who are baffled and hurt or using publication of Traditionis Custodes for an agenda of their own.

Links (opening in new tabs)

There is an official English language translation of Traditionis Custodes here: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20210716-motu-proprio-traditionis-custodes.html

and of the accompanying letter to the bishops here:
https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2021/documents/20210716-lettera-vescovi-liturgia.html

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Health, Happiness and the Holy Spirit

Today many of the most awkward restrictions of lockdown in England will come to an end, and people will be free to mix in a way that hasn’t been possible for months. There will be much relief, a certain amount of rejoicing and perhaps a little anxiety among those who know that a dose of COVID-19 could be a death-sentence for them or those they love. Here at the monastery we shall be maintaining some of the restraints we have been practising throughout the past year, including visitors ‘by appointment only’. That may sound unfriendly, but it is a reflection of the difficulty my health places the community and me in.

During the past three and a half months there have been a few little blips, with the result that I am now unable to walk more than a few steps without becoming very breathless. A ‘phone conversation is only manageable if I know in advance someone is calling and I can prepare by sitting down and not attempting to do anything else for a few minutes. I tire quickly and, unfortunately, even if I can sleep, it isn’t restorative. All this is par for the course for people with advanced cancer and/or major respiratory illnesses. One consequence, I’m sorry to say, is that I tend to avoid face-to-face meetings and have gone from being a bad correspondent to a very bad correspondent. I value your letters, email and messages, but even if I had no other claims on my time, it would be impossible for me to answer them all; and in a small community such as ours, there is no one else to do so.

Health, however, is not essential to happiness in the way the Holy Spirit is, so please read on.

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Novena we Pray

In May 2016 I tapped out a series of posts on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as the community prayed for them each day during the Novena; and I’ve often written about individual gifts at other times. You can find the original sequence of posts by using the search box on this blog. Today I offer you just a few, rather dry thoughts on the subject.

The nine days before the feast of Pentecost are very precious. They allow us to pray earnestly for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the renewal of his gifts within us. We are asking for a radical transformation of ourselves and of the world in which we live. Just think for a moment. What would we — or the world in general — be like if we were filled with wisdom, understanding, right judgement, fortitude, knowledge, piety (in the sense of reverence), and fear of the Lord (in the sense of wonder and awe)?

St Thomas Aquinas said that four of these gifts — wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and right judgement — direct the intellect, while the remaining three — fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord — direct the will towards God. He links them to the seven capital virtues. Of course, we can go further and, following the Vulgate, consider the twelve fruits, or rather, the twelve manifestations of the fruit [singular], of the Holy Spirit : charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity. (This list enlarges on the one Christians of all traditions will be familiar with from Galatians 5. 22–23, where St Paul lists nine visible attributes of Christians as the fruit [singular] of the Spirit). There is more than enough there to reflect on over the days before Pentecost, but I would like to add one further thought.

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is the Spirit of Truth. Truth is not always comfortable. In fact, it can be difficult to accept and make us feel naked and defenceless. If we look at the world around us, how much untruth there is, how much defensive posturing! When we pray for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, perhaps we should be praying above all for this gift of truth, both in our own hearts and minds and in the heart and mind of every person on earth. Have we the courage to do so? Do we dare to be happy?


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A Further Clericalisation of the Laity?

Yesterday Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter motu proprio, Antiquum Ministerium, formally instituting the lay ministry of catechist. As you will see if you read the document, he is at pains to stress that this is a lay ministry:

6. The lay apostolate is unquestionably “secular”. It requires that the laity “seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (cf. SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 31). In their daily life, interwoven with family and social relationships, the laity come to realize that they “are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (ibid., 33). We do well to remember, however, that in addition to this apostolate, “the laity can be called in different ways to more immediate cooperation in the apostolate of the hierarchy, like those men and women who helped the apostle Paul in the Gospel, working hard in the Lord” (ibid.).

The role played by catechists is one specific form of service among others within the Christian community. Catechists are called first to be expert in the pastoral service of transmitting the faith as it develops through its different stages from the initial proclamation of the kerygma to the instruction that presents our new life in Christ and prepares for the sacraments of Christian initiation, and then to the ongoing formation that can allow each person to give an accounting of the hope within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). At the same time, every catechist must be a witness to the faith, a teacher and mystagogue, a companion and pedagogue, who teaches for the Church. Only through prayer, study, and direct participation in the life of the community can they grow in this identity and the integrity and responsibility that it entails (cf. Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Directory for Catechesis, 113).

The only problem I have is not so much with the pope’s intentions as to how his instructions will be received by those to whom they are addressed. Are we going to see a further clericalisation of the laity? Years ago, I remember reading a great deal about the restoration of the permanent diaconate, how it would function quite differently from the transitional diaconate, but it didn’t universally work out like that. In some dioceses even the wearing of a clerical collar was prohibited; in others the new deacons appeared indistinguishable from priests, ‘all black and breviaries’ as one old nun said with a sigh.

We now have three lay ministries — lector, acolyte and catechist — and one wonders how they will develop in the post-pandemic Church. Evangelisation is as necessary as ever, and lay leadership of priestless communities is a ‘given’ in many parts of the world, but I have a suspicion that, initially at least, our understanding and development of these ministries will follow a familiar and ultimately clerical pattern. Perhaps that is the real challenge of Pope Francis’s decision: to pray and work for a fresh understanding of a role that has been with us from the beginning, of bringing others to faith, of sharing the riches of grace.

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