New Saints, Old Gospels

Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980
Oscar Romero a few minutes after being shot, 24 March, 1980

At some time in their life, I imagine every religious has heard today’s gospel (Mark 10.17–30) addressed to themselves. To give up everything for Christ, including the intellectual and cultural riches that often form an even greater barrier to discipleship than the material ones, sounds wonderful. After all, it led Antony into the desert. Where might it lead us? But stop there for a moment. Much of the gospel is not about renunciation as such, it is about the difficulty of entering the Kingdom, of living virtuously, of being totally dependent on God who so often seems to hide himself or who behaves in ways we find inexplicable. The God of the poor and oppressed whom we invoke daily in the Magnificat is sometimes a difficult God to trust. The poor we have always with us, indeed, and their sufferings do not diminish.

Bl. Oscar Romero, who is to be canonised today, was not always the champion of the poor and oppressed he became. That he did become such a champion, that he pleaded with President Jimmy Carter not to arm the brutal Salvadoran security forces and that, ultimately, he was shot dead as he celebrated Mass, is a powerful witness to the miracles grace can achieve. Here in England we have our own history of martyred archbishops, but their deaths often seem far away and long ago. We do not connect them with the words of today’s gospel in the way that we can connect the archbishop of El Salvador. Because the truth I find arresting about Oscar Romero is this: he gave up everything for Christ, including life itself, not in an act of brave defiance but quietly, prayerfully, his gaze fixed on the Lord. The burning words of the homily he gave the day before were not on his lips as he died but the ancient words of the Church’s liturgy. The personal was subsumed into something much larger, much greater. If we forget that, I think we fail to do justice to the man. He was not ‘just’ a thorn in the side of the Salvadoran establishment, not ‘just’ what we would call an activist. He was someone who had given his whole life to Christ. Jesus had looked at him and loved him; and he returned the gaze.

Today we rejoice in the new saints the Church is adding to the calendar. Let us learn from them and ask their prayers. As we do so, perhaps we could spend a few minutes re-reading today’s gospel and asking ourselves what it demands of us, here and now. It is no good admiring saints like Oscar Romero from afar and thinking that is all we need to do. We may not be able to emulate their heroic gift of self, but surely we can try to rid our hearts of hatred, bitterness, and the selfishness that destroys others as well as ourselves.

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Universal and Local: Being Catholic in England

Sometimes being a Catholic in England can feel a little weird. We may belong to the largest Church in the world, but here we are a minority. Occasionally we may be reminded of that fact in no uncertain terms. We are not part of the Establishment, and although we have a few ‘old families’ among our number, many assume that if we have a British surname we are of Irish extraction. If our surname is Italian or Polish, that merely confirms the suspicion of our being alien! Our churches, by and large, reflect their origins as Mass centres, built to house the largest number of people as cheaply as possible. When people do come across architectural gems or learned clergy or religious, it seems to surprise them. Catholicism is still often thought of in terms of repository art, overbearing and ill-educated clergy and, sadly nowadays, the abuse of children. Catholic laity seem not to be thought of at all, unless it be in connection with protests outside abortion clinics or attempts to raise awareness of creeping euthanasia policies and such-like. Personally, I think the fact that Catholic laity are so identified with pro-life advocacy is one of the glories of the Church; so, too, is the fact that one rarely goes into a Catholic church and does not see someone praying quietly in a corner. We may not articulate our faith with the clarity and precision of the professional theologian, but we do our best to live it. Part and parcel of that faith is our low-key devotion to the saints.

Today the Universal Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels (see earlier posts, eg https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/10/02/are-guardian-angels-redundant/) but here in Herefordshire we celebrate the feast of St Thomas de Cantilupe, also known as St Thomas of Hereford, our local saint and, happily, one whom Christians of all denominations can look to as he lived and died before the Reformation. That highlights for me an important aspect of Catholicism. Being part of the Universal Church does not do away with the local and particular. Thomas was what might be called today a Buckinghamshire boy who made good: educated at Oxford, Paris, and Orleans, he taught canon law at Oxford, becoming Chancellor of the University in 1261. His subsequent career is best described as ‘varied’. There were times when he found it opportune to spend a little time abroad. He sided with Simon de Montfort and the baronial party which was slightly awkward as he was Chancellor of England at the time. When he became bishop of Hereford (a duty he seems to have fulfilled with zeal and devotion), he clashed with the archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, and was excommunicated. Thomas went to Rome to resolve the matter and died near Orvieto in 1282. His body was brought back to Hereford for burial and in 1320 he was canonised. Today, one can go and kneel at his shrine in the cathedral and pray before a small relic of the saint given by the archbishop of Westminster. Thomas will be remembered in the Office and in the Mass, but it will be without fanfare or exuberance because he is one of us. He is not merely the Buckinghamshire boy made good; he is the ordinary English Catholic made good — what we all hope to become. May his prayers and the prayers of our Holy Guardian Angels assist us.

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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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