The Korean Church: a Lay Initiative

The feast of the Korean Martyrs is one of those liturgical celebrations that tends to make little impact on me. I don’t know many Koreans, and my knowledge of Korean history, especially Korean Church history, is sketchy; but there is one fact I do recall and about which I think we would all do well to reflect. The history of Christianity in Korea is largely the history of a lay initiative. We don’t know when the first Koreans became Christians, but it was probably in the seventeenth century. There were no priests that we know of. In the eighteenth century there are records of persecution, with an estimated ten thousand men, women and children executed for refusing to perform the usual sacrifices on the death of family members or otherwise failing to observe the usual customs.The first priest of whom we have definite note was, I believe, a Frenchman, who entered the country in 1836 and was beheaded three years later. The first Korean priest was Andrew Kim Taegǒn, who trained secretly in Macao, went back to Korea in 1845 and was martyred in 1846. As Pope St John Paul II remarked when he canonised the Korean Martyrs in 1984,

The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.

We are familiar with the story of the fidelity of lay Christians in many parts of the world — the Nagasaki Christians, for example — but I wonder how often we take to heart the lesson they provide. It is not merely their obvious love of the Lord, their courage and fidelity, that we applaud. There is something chastening (in a good sense) about the way in which they constitute the Church. At present, when many Catholics are expressing anger and disappointment at the way in which bishops and clergy have often failed to get to grips with the evil of abuse, the history of the Korean Church is a stark reminder of the role of the laity and the responsibility we all have for the Church’s growth in number and holiness. We do not abandon the Church because she is not all we should like her to be. We stay and work to ensure that she becomes what the Lord desires she should be — and that applies to all of us, whether we be bishops, priests, laity or religious. We all have a part to play, and though our roles differ, none can be regarded as ‘secondary’ or ‘unimportant’. The feast of the Korean Martyrs is a reminder to laypeople of the greatness of the lay vocation, a gentle warning to bishops and clergy that the power of ruling is not the only one to be valued in the Church, and an encouragement to us all that grace will be given in time of need. Thank God for that.

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An Inspiration for Older People and Others

Today is the feast of St Theodore of Tarsus who is credited with having set up the parish system we are familiar with in England and whose reputation both as a scholar and administrator persists to this day. What is less widely known is that he is a good example of European Man: born in Greece, he became a monk in Italy and did his greatest work in England. What is even less widely known is that he was 65 when he was ordained, just before becoming archbishop of Canterbury. Think of that — at a time when average life expectancy was probably somewhere in the forties, even for the most affluent, Theodore was not yet ready for the task that lay before him. He needed more experience, more testing; and what a test it must have been, to set off in his sixties for a country he didn’t know and to be given the task of bringing order and discipline to its Church!

The so-called Penitential of Theodore is not by him, although it contains a number of the judgements that he issued. Of particular interest to many historians today is section 22, ‘On the rites performable by women and their ministry in the Church’. This strikes a very contemporary note but, sadly, I haven’t the actual text to hand and am reluctant to quote from memory (if I remember correctly, the judgement says that women may prepare the altar and gifts and do whatever male deacons do but I forget the exact wording or what occasioned the judgement: context is always important, and it is likely, though not certain, that what we have in the Penitential are the responses of Theodore to questions put to him by young clerics studying in the Canterbury School). However, the fact that Theodore’s decisions were thought worth recording and referring to in later generations is significant. He was what we might call a creative administrator, not just one who stuck rigidly to someone else’s rule-book.

I think St Theodore is a great encouragement to those who are growing older, to those who are monks or clergy, and to those who have come to Britain from other countries to live and work. He is at once both highly traditional — the monk-bishop who becomes a saint — and a man who breaks the mould by virtue of his age and background. Something to ponder there, I suggest.

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Sitting on a Fence or Jumping on a Band-waggon?

The events of the last few days have shaken many ordinary Catholics — not in our faith, but in our perception of the Church’s leadership and its ability to deal with the apparently never-ending revelations of abuse, corruption and cover-ups. Archbishop Viganò’s letter is merely the latest but potentially most damning accusation of all. That fact makes me want to repeat something I have said many times already: unless or until we know the full facts, we should be wary of adding further fuel to the fire by rash accusations or counter-accusations of our own. Sitting on a fence may not seem very brave — it is certainly uncomfortable — but it is better than jumping on a band-waggon. Just think for a moment. To make a false accusation against another is calumny and defamation of character. It is a serious matter. At the moment both Pope Francis and Archbishop Viganò are having very grave allegations made against them. Most of us are not in a position to judge. We may have our suspicions, but suspicions are not evidence and usually reflect our own previous opinions about various matters. Unfortunately, this has led to some very ugly in-fighting made public online and soon, no doubt, in the press. I daresay that is exactly what the devil wants. Destroying the unity of the Church, setting us against one another, creating an atmosphere of chaos and toxic distrust, is not the work of the Holy Spirit! Those using the opportunity this discord brings to advance an agenda of their own should ask themselves whether they are helping or hindering those who have suffered or could be exposed, now or in the future, to abuse — which is, after all, where we began and is the terrible sin the Church must address.

I was thinking about this in the context of St Monica’s feast today. She is conventionally portrayed as ‘merely’ the mother of a much greater figure, St Augustine of Hippo, and as such often given rather short shrift. She had an impossible husband and a drink problem, and the years of her widowhood were far from easy. It all sounds rather dreary, so no wonder we look at the son and tend to forget the mother. But there is something about St Monica that I think we do well to remember: she was a woman of extraordinary persistence in prayer. Would Augustine have become a saint without her? Who can say, but surely those ceaseless prayers, that persevering faith, count for something. St Monica encourages us ordinary Catholics to go on praying, believing, hoping and, above all, trying to maintain the bond of charity which unites the Church. The unholy glee with which some Catholics have greeted the latest revelations is, indeed, unholy and destructive. May we never be party to it. May we not fail those whose wounds the whole Church now knows about and must try to heal.

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The Poor and Needy

Historically, the feast of St Laurence (or Lawrence) which we celebrate today poses a number of questions. He is thought to have come from Toledo and was one of the seven deacons of Rome, martyred on 10 August 258, just a few days after Pope St Sixtus II and his companions. Within a very short time, celebration of his martyrdom had become much more popular than that of Pope Sixtus, and by the fourth century he was clearly among the Church’s favourite saints. We remember him today chiefly for the antiphons of Vespers of his feast, with their touch of black humour as the saint, lying on the grid-iron, tells his torturers to turn him over, as he is done on this side now, his being named alongside Sixtus in the Roman canon, and for the story that, when asked to produce the treasures of the Church, he brought forward the poor. Perhaps that is why he is so popular: he is the archetypal deacon, concerned with serving the poor, one who sees them not as objects of pity but as individuals who bestow riches on others.

Sometimes in Britain today the language we use about the poor and needy is the language of ‘otherness’. We give help, but the way in which we do so is tinged with awkwardness. The State is failing in its duty, we say, as we note that children are going to school without breakfast or those in employment are having to make use of Food Banks to ensure that their families are fed adequately. We become angry, but the rhetoric of indignation often betrays us. No one likes being done good to; no one likes being thought of as different. Do we actually recognize that while the poor need help, we who try to give it are ourselves the needy?

When Jesus tells his disciples, ‘The poor you have always with you,’ (Matt. 26.11)  I don’t think he was necessarily making a comment about the ineradicable nature of poverty and inequality, although it is frequently interpreted as such. I think it more likely he was emphasizing two modes of presence among us: uniquely in his flesh, and now among those who are open to receive him, who put up no barriers, the poor. We who are rich enough in this world’s gifts can only echo the Beatitudes and try to be poor in spirit. I suspect the really poor may have their own views on that, but it is a starting-point.

Today, when there are so many forms of poverty in the world, let us try to be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and share what we have with others. If it makes us uncomfortable to reflect that they have a right to what we share, well and good. We shall have begin to think as St Laurence thought and seen where true treasure lies, where we may find Christ our Lord.

Community Retreat 2018
The community’s annual retreat begins tonight and ends on the morning of Saturday, 18 August. Please keep us in your prayers as we keep you in ours.

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That One Joy Man Again

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: that of Our Lord Jesus Christ on 25 December, Our Blessed Lady on 8 September and St John the Baptist on 24 June. In general, she is much more interested in the ‘birthday into heaven’ or day of a saint’s death. One can see why the ordinary, human birthday of Christ or his mother would be important, but that of John the Baptist? Not only do we celebrate his birthday, we celebrate it with much more ceremony than the day of his martyrdom. His birthday ranks as a solemnity, the highest form of liturgical celebration, his martyrdom as a mere obligatory memoria. That in itself tells us something important. It is John’s role as forerunner that we remember above all. Jean Daniélouu called him ‘the one joy man’, a phrase that captures perfectly both John’s extraordinary joyfulness and the meaning of his existence. He had only one purpose in life: to make Christ known. Once that was achieved, there was nothing more to do, and so he died, proclaiming to the last his faith in the goodness of God with an undiminished zeal for holiness and truth.

It is significant that John’s birthday is celebrated as the light begins to wane. We are scarcely aware of it as midsummer glitters and shines all around, but it is a fact. The Fathers loved to see the birth of the one who must decrease as mirroring the coming of the true Light in the darkest time of the year. It is a lovely image, particularly beloved of monastics, but perhaps for us today there is another resonance. Christianity now appears old to many. It has lost its first fervour and in the West its influence is waning. The world is weary of it. But to those of us who believe, it can never be old and we can never weary of proclaiming the gospel. Today’s feast is a call to examine our consciences: how do we proclaim Christ? Do we do so with joy and zeal, ready to confront the Herods of our own time, or are we timid, joyless, reluctant to be counted? Our answer, like John’s, will be enfleshed in our lives.

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Taking a Principled Stand

The feast of SS John Fisher and Thomas More always invites some reflection on the meaning of conscience and the cost of following it. Too often that ends in a more or less superficial recognition that they paid with their lives for opposing the king’s will and that was a Good Thing because they were on the side of truth and right. I happen to believe that they were on the side of truth and right, but even a little knowledge of Tudor history will soon show how complex was ‘the king’s matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) and the changes in relations between Church and State signified by Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church of England. We look at the result and forget the process that led to it. Had I lived in those days, for example, I am quite sure I would have agonised as much as Fisher and More about the right thing to do and only gradually come to see the course I should follow. There the similarity ends, for I would never have had the courage to endure what they endured: the loneliness, the disgrace, imprisonment and execution.

Note I put loneliness and disgrace ahead of the sufferings Fisher and More experienced in the Tower and in the manner of their death. I think we often forget that taking a principled stand about something rarely looks principled at the time. It is frequently mocked by others, attributed to selfishness or stupidity, even reviled as being unpatriotic or disloyal. One’s closest family or friends fail to understand and urge another, safer course. Worst of all, one is not absolutely sure oneself. More’s letters from the Tower show his growing awareness that no compromise would be possible, but he clearly felt the force of the objections voiced by his family. For Fisher, it was an even lonelier process, although he was much more direct than More, declaring early on that he was prepared to die, like John the Baptist, in defence of the marriage bond between Henry and Katherine. Not all the bishops agreed with him by any means, and his closest living relative, his sister Elizabeth, a nun, was unable to visit him. To the very end he was not allowed the ministrations of a priest, and when his body was was buried (his head was thrown in the Thames), not a single funeral prayer was said. One can only speculate what went through his mind and wonder at his ability to hold firm.

Today there are many who experience in their own way the cost of being true to their conscience. They are not necessarily universally admired. There may even be some we ourselves condemn because we do not know all the facts or make our judgements on hearsay and what we find on Social Media. That is a sobering thought. Sobering, too, is the realisation that we may be called upon to make a stand one day. It may be in the first flush of youth, when everything seems so promising; in mature middle age, when the promise is largely fulfilled, all looks glorious and the cost unbearable; or when we are old and frail and it would be much easier just to give way and seek some means of escape. We cannot tell, we can only trust that grace will be given when we need. St Thomas More assured his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. We know he was. Who knows what we are capable of but the Lord?

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Midsummer Madness v. Midsummer Sanity

Midsummer’s Day in the monastery is what we call a dies non. The only obligations on us are to pray, read, eat, sleep, and do whatever is necessary to make the first four possible. It is the nearest we come to a holiday and is meant to ensure a little leisure to enjoy the sunshine. In practice, I have to admit that we often spend the time catching up on tasks we have not yet managed to finish or trying to meet sudden, unexpected demands. The principle is sound, however: we slow down and substitute a little sanity for the mad rush that seems to affect even monasteries these days. The strong, bright light of midsummer allows us to reflect on what really matters and see things more distinctly, or so we hope. How disheartening, then, to wake up to the news that, while President Trump has signed an order that no more children will be separated from the parents, there is no provision to reunite those already separated, and in Hungary it is now a criminal offence for lawyers and activists to try to help asylum seekers (the so-called ‘Stop Soros Law’). We also read that some of the Médecins Sans Frontières aid workers (not doctors or nurses, please note, but logistics staff) are alleged to have regularly used prostitutes, like their Oxfam colleagues. It makes Refugee Week seem rather grim. Where is the sanity in all this? Do we lack compassion and integrity utterly?

Unfortunately, it is not a problem ‘out there’. It strikes nearer home, too. It is easy to weep sentimental tears over children ripped from their parents while condoning the ripping of children from their mothers’ wombs in abortion; it is also easy to lament the criminalisation of help for migrants in other countries while ignoring the effects of strict border controls in our own. We know that, deep down, even if we are reluctant to admit it. Most of us chart a very uneasy moral course, trying to do what is right but not always succeeding.We want to live lives of compassion and integrity but somehow compromise or fudge marks them more than we would like.

I was thinking about this in the context of today’s liturgical commemoration of St Aloysius Gonzaga, the Jesuit novice who died at the age of 23 after nursing the sick and the dying in plague-stricken Rome. He is usually presented as a bit of a wimp: the perfect novice, lily in hand, gazing up to heaven. In fact, he must have been a man of steel. He stood up to his father, a Mantuan nobleman, to resign his inheritance as eldest son and enter the Jesuits at the age of 16. He was remarkable for his fervour and generosity of spirit. Just think for a moment what it meant to nurse the plague-ridden! That took a courage and ability to master squeamishness I myself lack. He is an example of youthful leadership, of the way in which the young sometimes see things more clearly than their elders and hold to their course with a fixity of purpose that shames those of us who merely wobble along the path of virtue.Perhaps we need to use today’s midsummer light to re-evaluate some of our entrenched or even unconsidered positions. It may not be refugees and migrants that we personally need to focus on, but there will be other areas of our lives or of society’s mores that we need to consider more carefully. A dies non can spring suprises, and a little midsummer madness can reveal a layer of sanity we never dreamed existed. May we all find it today.

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Courage in Old Age: the Example of Bl. Margaret Pole

Blessed Margaret Pole’s ancestry did not suggest that she would die a heroic death. The niece of Edward IV and Richard III and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (who was executed for treason by his brother) and Isabel Neville, she had a complicated inheritance, to say the least. A peeress in her own right as Countess of Salisbury, she was married off by Henry VII to Sir Richard Pole, one of his loyal supporters and a connection of Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. They had five children together, but Margaret was widowed early and left in what Victorian hagiographers liked to call straitened circumstances, i.e. little land, less income, and a precarious situation vis-a–vis the king. A partial solution to this problem was found in dedicating the third son, Reginald, to the Church, where he subsequently became a cardinal, archbishop of Canterbury and a papal legate, while Margaret herself found refuge among the nuns of Syon until she was returned to royal favour in 1509.

The royal favour was fickle, however, and Margaret’s situation was not helped by her sons, Geoffrey, Reginald and Henry, who all, in various ways, incurred the royal ire. Geoffrey was pardoned; Henry was executed; Reginald was loud in his condemnation of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon; and their mother found hesrself imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up charges. Some say she was treated well; others, that the cold and damp caused her much pain. She knew she could die at any moment, but her spirit was unbroken. She carved the following verse on the wall of her cell:

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!

When, on the morning of 27 May, 1541, she was told she was to die within the hour, she retorted that she had been found guilty of no crime. In fact, her refusal to yield on the point of papal authority, and her son Reginald’s constant plotting, made her death a certainty. Chapuys, the ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, described her death as cruel and messy: at first, ‘when the sentence of death was made known to her, she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced.’ Then, because the usual executioner had been sent North to deal with rebels, the execution was performed by ‘a wretched and blundering youth who hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.’ Her last words were, ‘Blessed are they who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake.’

Is this just the story of a stubborn old woman who refused to compromise when compromise would have assured her a comfortable old age? I think it is more than that. Those who met her were impressed by her indomitable spirit and the clarity with which she saw the consequences of opposition to the king’s will. How could she not, given her family history? But she was prepared to suffer for what she believed to be right. There could be no going back on that. She is a reminder that courage in the elderly is no less great than courage in the young; that we may meet our biggest challenges when we are at our weakest and least able to cope with them; and that a lifetime of prayer and fidelity is the surest way of ensuring that we do so with grace and constancy. May Bl. Margaret Pole pray for all who are growing old and experiencing trials the young may know nothing of; and may all of us, whatever our age, give thanks for the inspiration the elderly are to us.

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A Real ‘Father’s Day’: the Feast of St Joseph

St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500
St Joseph, painted terracotta, ca. 1475-1500

Just as the Fourth Sunday of Lent — Laetare or Mothering Sunday — has been assimilated to the more secular celebration of Mother’s Day, so I think we can make a case for considering today’s feast of St Joseph as Father’s Day.

Fatherhood often seems under siege nowadays, with a father’s role reduced to mere biological function which can be exercised impersonally. Those in favour of abortion never consider the rights of a father regarding his child, while the absence of fathers from the lives of their children has become so commonplace that few seem to think it unusual or troubling. St Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, is a powerful reminder of what fatherhood really means and the importance of a father’s role. It was he who taught Jesus how to be a man; who defied convention in order to protect Mary; who trusted God and was in turn found infinitely trustworthy. There is something strangely attractive about this quiet, self-effacing man about whom we know so little and yet, paradoxically, so much. What the gospels do not explicitly tell us we learn from Jesus himself, for he cannot have been other than his father had helped him become: hard-working, humorous, tender-hearted. That final act of Jesus’ life, his death on the cross, is shot through with the love and trust he had learned from Joseph. We can safely say Joseph not only taught his son how to live but also how to die.

Today we celebrate St Joseph as a model of purity and loving-kindness, protector of the Church, patron of the dying, of immigrants, workers, pilgrims and travellers but, above all, as a father. Let us ask his prayers for all fathers, living and dead; for those who find fatherhood difficult or have walked away from it; those who have been rejected or excised from the lives of their children; those whose fatherliness is expressed through love and care for others unrelated to them by ties of blood. Let us pray also for those whose experience of fatherhood has been negative. For the fact is, fatherhood, rather than being unimportant or inconsequential as many would like it to be, is of immense significance in the life of every one of us, no matter how young or old we may be.

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A World Away in Thought and Time?

Every year on today’s feast I wonder what the average church-goer makes of St Scholastica. For most, the sixth century is a world away in thought and time. Although we dutifully name the saint of the day in our prayers, she remains vague, a strange conflation of our own ideas about nuns and fragments of half-remembered tales of holy women of old. I see that in a number of my previous posts about St Scholastica I have tackled this head on (see links at the end of this post) but I doubt very much whether I have changed anyone’s thinking or made Scholastica come alive, as it were, as the extraordinary person she must have been. Once the Church acknowledges someone’s sanctity, it seems their humanity and vivid personality are lost for ever.

Of course I exaggerate. Scholastica taught her brother, Benedict, that love and prayer can achieve what law and rigorous self-discipline alone cannot. She therefore challenges all of us who are tempted to take refuge in exact obedience or scrupulous fulfilment of the regulations. She is always urging us towards the more perfect way. I have mentioned before that the community will not use the collect for the day composed by monks of our order because it makes Scholastica out to be thoroughly soppy whereas we see her as a woman of steel. Steel is not comfortable, not malleable, nor was Scholastica. We need saints like her. The fact that she lived in the sixth century and we in the twenty-first is irrelevant. She is very much a saint for our times.

Some previous posts about St Scholastica
http://www.ibenedictines.org/2017/02/10/soppy-or-steely-the-case-of-st-scholastica

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/02/10/old-saints-new-questions-st-scholastica-and-the-place-of-women-in-the-church

http://www.ibenedictines.org/2012/02/10/st-scholastica-and-single-heartedness/

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