Thursday, October 29, 2015

Trampling On The Image Of Christ

I discovered a new Saint recently, one of our ancient witnesses to the Faith: the martyr St Stephen the Younger. Stephen was born in Constantinople, modern Istanbul, possibly around the 11th August 715 . His father was a craftsman, Gregory, and his mother was Anna, he was the youngest in the family having two older sisters. Baptised on Holy Saturday 716 he was not destined to follow his father's craft, but rather discerned a call to consecrate his life to God and the service of the Church. Respecting his decision his parents allowed him enter a monastery in Bithynia when he turned sixteen. A number of years later his father died, and having come home for the funeral, he returned to the monastery bringing his widowed mother and sister with him so he could care for them. The following year the abbot of the monastery died and Stephen was elected the successor. After twelve years serving his community as abbot, he resigned his office and retired to a remote place to embrace the life of a hermit.

However, the peace of the eremetical life would not last long. In 754 a council at Hieria condemned the use of images in Christianity (Iconoclasm), a position which was contrary to orthodox Christian faith. This council had been called by the emperor Constantine V who had embraced the Iconoclast heresy and he sought to impose it upon the whole Church. The Pope and many of the bishops of East and West rejected the rulings of the council, and though those who participated in it considered it an Ecumenical Council, it was never regarded as anything other than a mock synod. Stephen, like many others, refused to accept the decisions of the council. However while he was left in relative peace for a few years, in 760 he came to the attention of the iconoclasts and they meant to convert him to their position; however Stephen refused: he was not for abandoning the orthodox* position on the veneration of images.

Given his being renowned for holiness, the iconoclasts realised that they had to seriously damage Stephen's reputation to make him crack. So they made allegations of sexual impropriety against him, a sure fire way of undermining his position. He was accused of committing incest with his mother and, then as now, some believed it, others didn't, and many wondered: could there be smoke without fire? He was also accused of transgressing the laws of the emperor by forcing the emperor's favourite, Gregory Synkletos, to be tonsured - admitting him into the clerical state against his will. Though his reputation was now destroyed, Stephen continued to hold firm.

Failing to break him by accusation, Constantine had him arrested and confined to an Iconoclast monastery in Chrysopolis, after interrogations and ill treatment he maintained the orthodox position and so was exiled to the island of Prokonnesos to see if the deprivations there would break him: they didn't. After two years he was brought back to Constantinople to be questioned by the emperor himself. And this was where Stephen shone. 

The emperor demanded that he renounce the orthodox position: Stephen refused. An icon of the Lord was then produced and thrown on the ground - the emperor demanded that Stephen tread on it telling the monk that treading on an image of Christ was not the same thing as treading on Christ. Stephen put his hand on his pocket and took out a coin which bore on one side the image of the emperor. Stephen asked the emperor what would happen if someone were to tread on this image? The emperor was indignant, who could consider such a thing, it would be an insult to the emperor! Well then, likewise, Stephen responded, should not respect be shown to icons of Christ?

The emperor could not argue with this logic and so resorted to violence, as corrupt men and women of power often do. Stephen was sent to be scourged and beaten. Still alive after this ordeal, he was dragged through the streets of the city until he was dead. He is the most prominent martyr under Iconoclasm. 

Constantine and his fellow Iconoclasts did not think there was anything wrong in dishonouring images of Christ, ultimately these images were nothing, insignificant. Yet as St Stephen demonstrated to trample on an image of Christ is to attack him because the image is representative of him. So too in many other ways. We all know that the oppression of peoples is akin to trampling on Christ, since we offend those he has redeemed, those created in the image and likeness of God, the ones who are close to his Heart. 

But then there is also the issue of Christ teachings: what Christ taught reflects him since it is his word; we could say then that the teachings of Christ are his image since they are the means through which we can be ttransfomed into closer images of him.  And what about those who dismiss or undermine these teachings, say that they are no longer relevant or need to be updated, or misinterpret them, are they not also trampling on the image of Christ? If Christ says one thing, but we say another, or live and act in a way that is contrary to what he says, are we not being iconoclastic? And if ministers of the Church embrace and promote measures that are contrary to Christ's teaching but deem their measures more merciful, are they not saying they are more merciful that Christ and so trample on Christ himself as on his image? 

Mosaic of St Stephen the Younger

* When I speak of orthodox here I do not mean the Orthodox Church, but rather the position of "right teaching", adherence to the authentic teachings of Christ and his Church.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

For Joseph

Wednesdays are traditionally dedicated to St Joseph, a day of special prayer to the Foster-Father of the Lord. At our prayer group on Monday evening last, one of our members Ellen, drew my attention to a song about St Joseph, recorded by Tricia Yearwood. It has been around for some time, so forgive me if you know it already, but for those you who don't it's a lovely song which honours the man who raised the Infant Christ as his own. Thanks, Ellen!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"The Lord Opened His Mouth In The Assembly"

In traditional piety today is St Anthony's day - Tuesday. Like many others I light my candle at the statue of the Saint in the church here and say my prayers, invoking his help and, if I have time, I'll try and dip into his Sermons for some gems to ruminate on throughout the day - and there are always gems. As you know, for me Anthony is the great teacher in the way of the Scriptures - the Evangelical Doctor as Pope Pius XII designated him. 

As a man of the Word of God he was called by the Lord, through his superiors, to preach the Gospels, which he did with great eloquence and learning, drawing on images to keep his congregations engaged and offering practical means of living the Gospel, and so many turned back to God. Given that God used Anthony's preaching to touch the hearts of so many it was seen as appropriate that the Saint's tongue and vocal chords should be discovered to be incorrupt. Today both organs are preserved in reliquaries, and with one, the tongue, an interesting devotion has developed thanks to the piety of St Bonaventure.

When the remains of Anthony were first examined in 1263 St Bonaventure, when he saw the incorrupt tongue declared: "O blessed tongue, you who have always praised the Lord and made others praise Him, now it is clearly evident how much merit you have before the Lord!" It has become a pious invocation offered in honour of Anthony's eloquent preaching of the Word of God. Such invocations remind us of the power of the Gospel and how it should become a living reality in our lives. Anthony's tongue is a symbol of its proclamation in flesh, our lives should be a sign of its effectiveness, we are to become the Gospel in flesh. Like Anthony we should use our tongues in the service of the Gospel - the tongue is the most dangerous weapon known to mankind, it needs careful managing hence the psalm prays "keep watch over my mouth". 

So, for the day that is in it, I offer you some prayers in honour of St Anthony's tongue. There are different novenas and triduums, but this is one I found usually offered over thirteen days. I will post the whole prayer so you can copy it and use it as is convenient. 

Prayers In Honor Of The Blessed Tongue Of St. Anthony

(They can be recited for an exercise of thirteen Tuesdays in his honor, or during thirteen days in succession, or the first nine can be used for a nine day Novena.)

First Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord and cause others to bless Him! To reward thee God has glorified thy tongue by granting to it upon this earth the favor of incorruptibility which has continued for seven centuries. I bless thy tongue, I venerate it with the same sentiments of faith, devotion and love that animated Saint Bonaventure when he kissed it, praised it, blessed it and venerated it. I thank the Lord Who has sanctified thy tongue, rendering it miraculous and glorious on earth, and I beg Him to grant a true devotion toward thee, that I may merit thy protection during this life, in all my spiritual and corporal needs, and merit also to rise again with all the Saints.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Second Day

O Blessed Tongue, which always did bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, now does it appear plainly how highly thou were esteemed by God. O marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord and cause others to bless, praise, thank and pray to Him, I bless and venerate thee, I thank God Who created thy tongue and sanctified it by His grace, and I implore Him, through thy merits, to purify and sanctify my tongue, that by it I may continually praise, bless and thank the Lord, and never offend Him.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Third Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, without ever offending Him, by words or guilty conversations, I bless and venerate thee, and thanking God Who preserved thee from all sins of the tongue implore Him through thy merits, to preserve my tongue from every sinful word and discourse.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Fourth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always receive Jesus in His Sacrament worthily, I bless and venerate thee, thanking God Who has sanctified thee by His graces and His Most Holy Sacrament, I implore Him to pardon me for having so often profaned by sin my tongue, sanctified and consecrated so many times by contact with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in my communions. O great Saint, obtain for me the grace to preserve my tongue pure and spotless from sin, that I may henceforth merit to receive Jesus Christ worthily in the Sacrament of His love.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Fifth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, praying and singing to Him with devotion and attention, I bless and venerate thee. I thank God for giving thee the spirit of prayer and gift of contemplation, and through thy merits, I implore Him to grant me the grace that all the prayers my tongue shall recite may spring from an attentive and recollected heart.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Sixth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, with Whom thou didst hold familiar conversation when He appeared to thee under the form of a graceful Child, I bless and venerate thee, and thanking God for the sweet apparitions and tender conversations with which He favored thee, I implore thee to obtain for me the grace to always converse devoutly and affectionately with Jesus in His Sacrament after Holy Communion.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Seventh Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, by teaching men the knowledge of their faith and duties by converting so many sinners, I bless and venerate thee. I thank God Who has given thee so much charity, wisdom and zeal, and I implore you to obtain from Him the same gifts for me, and for all, that we may labor, by our examples and words, to procure the glory of God, and the conversion of sinners.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Eighth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, when in preaching and speaking in one language, thou were, by a miracle, heard, at a distance, and understood by people of every nation and language, I bless and venerate thee, and, thanking God for making of thee such a zealous workman and so admirable in the conversion of sinners, I implore thee, to attract the blessings of divine goodness on my tongue, that it may never do harm, and may always promote the glory of God and my neighbor's welfare.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Ninth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, when they saw the fish themselves obey thee, and raise their heads from the water to listen to thy words, when they saw a common horse prostrate itself to adore Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament, I bless and venerate thee, I thank God for having worked such prodigies to confirm thy faith, thy sanctity and thy teachings; I implore thee to obtain for me the grace to hear with fruit, the word of God, and to be devout to the Holy Sacrament of the altar.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Tenth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, even to obliging the infernal spirits to obey thee, and to quit the bodies which they possessed, by saying to them, "Behold the cross of the Lord! Fly, ye powers of darkness, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, has conquered. Alleluia." I bless, praise and venerate thee, and, thanking God for giving thee such power over hell, beseech thee to cause me to be delivered and preserved from the snares and temptation of the devil, as well as all those who recite with faith, and carry with confidence the words pronounced by thy tongue.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Eleventh Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, by reconciling enemies, converting malefactors and robbers, humbling a tyrant at thy feet, and humiliating hardened heretics, I bless, praise and venerate thee, I thank God for giving such strength and persuasion to thy words, and I implore thee to obtain for me grace and zeal to exercise fraternal correction with prudence and meekness, so as to prevent evil and effect good.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Twelfth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, who has commanded with authority and faith, the unchained elements, disease and death itself, while God has worked through you as an instrument of so many astounding prodigies, prodigies which He still continues from day to day, I bless and venerate thee. I thank God for granting thee the privilege of distributing so many graces and working such wondrous miracles, and I implore thee to use it in my favor, and in favor of all those who have devotion to thee.

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Thirteenth Day

O Marvelous Saint, whose Blessed Tongue did always bless the Lord, and cause others to bless Him, thanks to all thy prerogatives, thanks to the veneration in which thou hast ever been held, thanks to thy powerful intercession, all can clearly see how great is thy merit before God, Who gives thee such glory in heaven, so much power and veneration on earth, I rejoice with thee, I venerate thee, and, thanking God for all thy virtues, merits and the glory which He gives thee, and will give thee in heaven and on earth, I promise to be truly devout to thee by imitating thy virtues as far as I am able, especially by keeping my tongue from sin, by employing it in praising and thanking God, and praying never more to offend Him. Obtain for me from our Lord, with the pardon of all the faults which my tongue has committed, or made others commit, the grace never more to make use of it to offend Him. For this intention, I will recite every day, or at least every Tuesday, the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be to the Father, thirteen times, to thank the Most Holy Trinity for the graces, glory and privileges which have been granted to thee, in order to be worthy of thy protection during this life, of thy assistance at the hour of my death, and of thy blessed company in heaven. Amen

Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be
St Anthony, pray for us.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Lost Childhood, Lost Children

A few days ago at home with my family for an evening we sat down to watch a movie together; we decided to watch Netflix's first foray into film-making, Beasts of No Nation. We were riveted to the screen. 

For those who have not seen it the movie deals with the issue of child soldiers in African conflicts through the experiences of one little boy. Filmed in Ghana, the movie is set in an unnamed country torn apart by corruption and civil war. The boy, Agu, witnesses the murder of most of his family by government troops as he flees into the jungle to save his life. There he is captured by a rebel group and is trained to fight in the conflict that is developing around him. The movie is harrowing and has a number of disturbing scenes, but it is powerful. The acting is extraordinary and the cinematography is marvellous. 

The movie is a work of art, but it is first and foremost a expose of one of the most serious abuses of children in the world - their direct incorporation into the violence and horror of war as combatants. One critic called the movie "an emotionally and spiritually punishing experience" and it is. Agu (wonderfully played by Abraham Attah) suffers what no child should suffer. We witness the destruction not just of a childhood, but of a child. When it is all over for him Agu can no longer see himself as a human being only as a beast - what he has seen, what he has done, has killed him inside. Agu's trauma is not fiction, it is representative of the experience of thousands of children today.

Too often we hear of conflicts in Africa, Asia, South America, but they seem generic: the media reports from the battle fields, we tut, we say how awful it is, but then move on, Those caught in the middle of it all cannot move on, the horror continues and they suffer, and the ones who suffer the most are the children, as usual. When adults seek to take control, to seize power, to create utopia, it is the children who suffer, be it in the jungles, the city streets, the abortion clinics, dysfunctional families.

A few years ago another movie was released called The Kids Are Alright. It related what could only be called the dysfunctional and selfish relationships between adults and in spite of it all the kids in the middle of it all were fine: well adjusted, mature and accepting. But you see the kids are not alright, even if they appear to cope, they are lost - they look to adults to provide stability and safety, but when the adults are self-obsessed, intent on "self-fulfillment" and pleasure or ideology, there is no stability; there is only the constant needs of those who should be making sacrifices for their children. Beasts of No Nation deals with political conflict, but, like many other situations in the world today it reveals how children become pawns in the concerns of adults, and children suffer, they are traumatized, they lose their childhood, perhaps even lose themselves. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Time For Peace

The Synod is over, thank God. At the end of it all the Fathers have endorsed, albeit in obscure language, the teaching of the Church and her pastoral practice as reiterated in St John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio.  Sadly there is enough ambiguity to give those who dissent from Christ's teaching space and ground to continue their campaign and already some religious media networks and the secular media are twisting the truth to fit their agenda. Be warned, this is not over.

These have been traumatic weeks, and it is sad to say it, but there is now a serious division in the Church, a division not seen since 1968 when Blessed Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae. Pope Francis has many problems to face, the most pressing now concerning the growing disunity in the Church since he took office. As Pontiff he has to live up to his title and seek to build bridges, a process that must be grounded in the truth and not ideology. This will be an uphill task, however if he is to face it and have any success he has to dispense with denunciations and insults. Sadly his last talk to the Synod with its barbed comments towards the orthodox was not a good start.

All of us need to pray - for the Church in this difficult time, and for the Pope. It is not the time for in-fighting, insults, personal attacks or hatred. We are meant to be disciples of Christ, Children of God: how we deal with disagreements should differ from the way the world deals with them. We do not go to war, we seek reconciliation in truth guided by charity. As the first among us, it falls to Francis to show us the way.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Battle Within

St Paul writing his Letters in prison

Our first reading at Mass today is very consoling - St Paul's personal testimony on his struggle with sin and temptation from his Letter to the Romans (Cf. Romans 7:18-25a). If such a great Saint had his struggles, and we can see from what he writes that they were serious struggles, then there is hope for all of us! That, coupled with the feast we celebrate today, that of St John of Capistrano, offers us an important lesson for our daily Christian lives: the need to battle with our own weaknesses as we proceed along the path of holiness.

As many tell us, and we may know for ourselves, life is no picnic, it is not meant to be. In fact, as St John Paul II discovered when he was working as a young man in the quarry outside Krakow, it is in struggling, labour, suffering, we taste the nature of life and we meet it, not on its own terms, but, through faith, in terms set by Christ in which the seeds of victory have already been sown. Hence the need to keep close to Christ. 

It is interesting that it is in those moments we are weakest we may well meet Christ. St Paul in his reflections on his weakness tells us that it was then that he realized how strong Christ was and he put his faith in that strength, so much so that he could say "when I am weak I am strong": in his battle with himself he realized he had to be weak so he could then truly rely on the strength of Christ. St John of Capistrano also discovered this. Life was going great for him: a brilliant lawyer, he was a judge at a very young age and then raised to the office of Governor of Perugia at the age of 29! But then it all fell apart: negotiating a peace deal between warring cities he was captured and thrown into prison: was this how it was going to end? At his lowest, St Francis appeared to him and the Poverello showed him the way forward: Christ. So began the life of the great missionary of Europe.

I wrote a few days ago on St Damien of Moloka'i. Many praised his heroism during his lifetime, we honour his holiness, but we should not forget his weaknesses, and they were all too apparent as he lived on an isolated peninsula surrounded by death and facing a avalanche of needs every day from an outcast people. The consolation of confession did not come often enough for him as the authorities kept a tight rein on who could and could not go to Kalaupapa. His experience was raw on many levels, and certainly so in terms of his struggles with his weaknesses. But he put his trust in God, like St Paul and St John of Capistrano he fought the fight and was victorious, not through his own efforts, but rather through his cooperation with Christ and the grace the Lord gave him.

So we are consoled today. Thank God for the sacrament of confession in which we can bare our souls, seek mercy, find it and receive the grace of God to help us in our weakness. Thank God for the example of the Saints. Never forget that none of us are alone, and certainly not alone when we are in the depths of our struggle, the Saints look on, not as judges, but as our loving brothers and sisters who know how hard it is at times to battle with the self, to forget self and strive to be a better person, a better Christian. They were victorious in their struggle because they stayed close to Jesus and, bit by bit, and they advise us to do the same. They pray for us, they accompany us, and the Lord Jesus encourages them to console us as he comes himself to help us in our weakness.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Year of Mercy Pilgrimage

To mark the Year of Mercy I will be leading a pilgrimage to Poland to celebrate the feast of Divine Mercy at the Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Krakow. The pilgrimage is open to everyone and I am taking this opportunity to invite you to join me on what we are hoping will be a fruitful spiritual experience for the Jubilee Year. 

We will visit the Shrine in Krakow where the remains of St Faustina are preserved, but also places associated with St John Paul II, the great Sanctuary of Our Lady at Czestochowa and Auschwitz Concentration Camp, among other places. The dates: 31st March to 8th April 2016 and the cost is €1069 per person sharing.

If you are interested contact Louise at JWT on 01 241 0800 (or outside Ireland: + 353 1 241 0800) or by email at Pilgrims from outside Ireland can join us, just talk to Louise. Please spread the word.

For The Day That's In It....

A few memories of that momentous day for the Church. When he walked out on the balcony did we ever suspect that the "man from a far country" would achieve so much? His legacy is extraordinary, may it enrich the Church and each one of us.

"Holiness Is Fitting For Your House"

Two Saints: St John Paul II and St Maria de la Purisima meet during the Pontiff's visit to Seville

There are so many things we could reflect on today, the feast of St John Paul II. Given recent events we could launch into his teaching on marriage and the family, his theology of the body, his reflections on the nature of sex and its theological significance. However, there is one thing missing from all the talking at the Synod and it is that theme which was central to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the reason for the Church, the motivation of the Church and the element which was to inspire the laity, clergy and religious to renew and was the basis of renewal: the universal call to holiness. 

The more I read St John Paul's writings on the nature of man the more I see him pointing in one direction - to sainthood - not as an unreachable ideal but as the ordinary state of a human being: anything less than that is not fully human. A theme the Synod should have looked at is the family as the seed-ground of holiness, the forum in which spouses and children learn authentic heroism. The Christian Marriage is all about heroism, hence Christ's seeing the need to make it a sacrament.

As a Pole John Paul loved his Saints, and I suppose that is another reason why God chose him to be Pope. His philosophy and theology were no mere academic ruminations, but the fruit of prayer, observation, listening and reflection. As he listened to the experiences of married couples he could see their joys and struggles in the context of faith and our human destiny, and he realised that it was all about holiness - the struggle for holiness, rejoicing in holiness, celebrating holiness, propagating holiness through word, example and, yes, sacrifice. It was the Pauline race for the laurels that never fade, it was carrying the disciple's cross to the summit, it was being transformed through vision of Mount Tabor accessed through prayer. 

St John Paul II encouraged us all to strive to be Saints, not to engage in a fantasy, but to finally open our eyes and see what Christ was getting at. "Can you not see?", he said to his disciples time and time again - not that they had to see that we are weak and need to wallow in that weakness and cry mercy as an excuse, but rather we see that we can be strong in faith: we need to get up off our beds, open our eyes, lose the baggage and open ourselves to the grace that transforms. Sadly, so many Christians do not see this. Comfortably wedged into the bare minimum or, worse, respectable Christianity, we have lost the ability to see. 

To celebrate St John Paul's feast well, we need only remember that where he has gone we are called also to follow. As the psalm says "Holiness is fitting for your House, O Lord" and indeed it is: the Church is the House of the Lord and it is to filled with holy people, and if we are not holy yet, then we must strive to be, and support each other on that path. I am beginning to think that the greatest enemies of the Church are actually those within who discourage holiness, who tell people that they just fine as they are because God loves them. They are wrecking Christ's plan of salvation for all of us. Yes, we all fall, but we must get up if we are to have any chance. To be fully human is to be a Saint.

Happy feast day to you all.

St John Paul and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"A Little Less Than A God"

During one of the recent conclaves, I think it was the last, as the white smoke was rising in plumes from the Sistine Chapel chimney, a journalist was mingling through the gathering crowd seeking opinions on who might be the next Pope. One lady answered him, "I don't know who has been elected, but I know I love him". To love the Pope is part of our spiritual genetics as Catholics, we hold him who occupies the Office of Peter in deep veneration and give added weight to what he says because he is the Successor and Vicar of Peter and the Vicar of Christ, God's representative on earth, the head of the Church on earth. Interestingly, when Catholics lapse or turn to hate the Church, they often reserve a special contempt for the Pope; that's consistent.

However, as we hold the Pope in particular veneration, we must be careful not to make an idol of him. The Pope is a servant of the Church, the servant of the servants of God, and so he too is subject to the doctrine, teachings and traditions of the Church. As Pope Benedict once said in response to a call for him to change certain doctrines: "But I am only the Pope, I can't change them". That was not a expression of humility on Benedict's part, nor an excuse to preserve the status quo, it was a statement of fact. The office of the Papacy is to preserve and protect what Christ has revealed as an act of service not only to God and to the truth, but also to the Faithful. The Pope is the symbol of unity in the Church, hence we speak of being in communion with the Pope, in communion with Peter, and so in communion with Christ who gave the keys to Peter to govern and to strengthen the faith of his brethren.

Sadly, in the history of the Church there have been movements to extend the Pope's office beyond that which is permitted by revelation and tradition, movements to make the Pope, in a sense, an oracle in the Church. These movements are called ultramontane, a term from the Middle Ages it means "beyond the mountain" referring originally to a non-Italian who had been elected Pope and who came to Rome from beyond the mountains, the alps. It has since come to refer to a belief in the Pope's utter supremacy and infallibility in matters not only ecclesiastic and spiritual but even political. One of the most fervent periods of ultramontanism occurred in the 19th century as the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope was being debated. There were some who sought an all-encompassing definition, but there were others, Blessed John Henry Newman among them, who shied away from this, they understood the proper role of the Pope and feared the development of an attitude that raised the Pope to the level of a god, an oracle. When Blessed Pius IX defined the dogma it was within the parameters of the tradition, but there are still some who misinterpret it in high papalist fashion.

Why all this? Well yesterday I read a piece on the issues being discussed in the Synod and it seemed to be the perfect example of ultramontanism. For charity's sake I will not say who the writer is, but the person was arguing for a change in the law regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried. This writer drew on Pope Francis's remarks that the Eucharist is not a prize for the strong but a medicine for the weak. Responding to a critique of this remark that the weak did not mean the unrepentant in mortal sin, this writer came to the conclusion that the unrepentant are the weak and they need the Eucharist to make them strong to repent. The writer is wrong: arguing that in the name of mercy, those who persist in mortal sin can have access to the Eucharist because they are in a persistent state of mortal sin. Not only does this undermine the teaching of the Church and the teaching of Christ himself, it does not make sense. 

There are plenty of arguments out there to answer the position this writer has taken, but the person proposing this has been for many years an orthodox Catholic, a great defender of Pope Benedict XVI during his papacy when many were attacking him, a defender of that Pope's teaching on this issue as laid out quite clearly in Sacramentum Caritatis (Cf. section 29). But why the sea-change so suddenly? The answer, it seems to me concerns devotion to the Pope. This person is a great defender of Pope Francis just as much as Pope Benedict and, rightly, has defended Francis in face of unjust attacks on him. There are those in the Church who do not like him, for various reasons, and so he can do no right. That attitude to the Pope is wrong and unjust. As Pope, the legitimate Pope, Francis deserves our loyalty, our love and our prayers. 

That said it does not mean we become ultramontanist and believe that everything a Pope says and does is right and must be adhered to. Every Pope makes mistakes and there are times when, as loyal children of the Pope, we must correct him. Scripture offers us an example of this in St Paul's challenging St Peter (Galatians 2:11-14). This challenge, however, must be subject to charity and that respect due to the office. If a Pope is wrong, it is not disloyalty to question him or even at times to oppose him. If a Pope proposes a change in teaching or practice which undermines orthodox teaching it is not disloyalty to challenge or oppose him. At times Popes have been wrong in terms of decisions, judgements, personal beliefs, there have even been situations where Popes veered very close to heresy, and it would be wrong prudentially to slavishly follow them at such times. The fact that Popes can be wrong does not undermine that special charism which is given to the Pope to preserve the doctrinal integrity of the Faith. Papal infallibility falls within very narrow parameters that are defined, they do not include off cuff remarks nor casual teachings. The charism does not prevent a Pope going off in the wrong direction and preparing teaching that is erroneous, it merely prevents him promulgating it in a formal magisterial document. For a good illustration of this see the example of Pope Sixtus V (which is very sobering). 

In recent times we have heard defenders of Pope Francis brand as disloyal and unCatholic those who are troubled with some things he says. Even figures within the Vatican are targeting orthodox Catholics, great defenders of the faith known for their good lives and expertise, who are defending Church law in the face of attempts by some to change it. Ironically many of those who are responsible for these accusations were not known for their loyalty to previous Popes. But there are those who were firm defenders of Francis successors, one indeed, a senior Church figure, who told the Pope recently that the Holy Spirit speaks through him and so we must assent and follow everything he says. The Holy Spirit does try to guide the Pope in a special way, but that does not mean every word uttered by a Pope comes from the Spirit. Such panegyrics are expressions of thoughtless ultramontanism, expressions that would make Blessed Pius IX blush, and, I hope, make Pope Francis extremely uncomfortable. But, sadly, at the beginning of the 21st Century, this is where we are again. 

Pope Francis once said, "I am a faithful son of the Church" and that is what he aims to be and should aim to be, as we all should be. He has no power to change Church teaching, and even if in a fit of madness or abandon he tried to turn Church teaching on its head and demand our adherence, the loyal expression of our love to the Office of Peter would be to resist it - for our sakes, for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the Vicar of Christ. Every Pope is a weak man called to the highest office on earth, a most lonely and fearful position, and called to be the symbol of unity of the Church and the defender of the Faith. It is an office that will one day cost him his life, and he is asked to lay that life down in imitation of Christ and in imitation of the one he succeeds - Peter crucified on the very hill on which the Pope now lives. He needs the prayer and support of the faithful, not their presumption that he is an oracle, a superhuman entity infused with divine wisdom. He is a man called to be the Holy Father, the Universal Pastor, not God. 

The Poor In Spirit

While away on holiday I read some books on St Damien of Moloka'i; books I had been meaning to read for some time, together with a biography of St Marianne Cope I had just bought. The more I read about Damien the more I admire him, what an extraordinary man and priest. He lived in the heart of the Church and in his ministry to the lepers of Moloka'i, cast out from the world, he brought them right into the heart of the Church with him. 

During his lifetime few really understood Damien, even his superior and the bishop in Honolulu failed to appreciate him. While the world admired him (safely from a distance) his superiors thought it had all gone to his head as he continued to plead for resources for his "poor lepers".  They thought he was heroic, but proud and committing these opinions to writing they held up his Cause for decades. The Church finally cleared Damien of pride when she discovered it was his superiors who failed to see the wonder of holiness that was unfolding in front of their eyes. Damien was the epitome of the poor in spirit, and one episode from his life gives us a glimpse of it: I would like to share it with you today.

The episode is recounted in the official biography of St Marianne Cope by Sr Mary Laurence Hanley OSF and O.A. Bushnell. It is taken from the account of Mother Marianne's life by one of her sisters, Sr Leopoldina who accompanied her to Moloka'i to run the Bishop Home for Girls. Sr Leopoldina's memoirs are a great first hand account of the sisters's first years on Moloka'i, though her spelling and punctuation are quite unorthodox this rawness actually adds to the vivacity of her story. She relates that one evening she went out into the backyard of the convent to hang out some clothes on the line when she had an encounter with Damien. She writes:
I was startled by a silent black figure kneeling in the bed of fresh dug ground with the face close to the wall...that is the back of the chapel. Poor Father Damien was on his sore swollen knees...adoring our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament of His Love, there was only a thin board wall between him and the alter [sic] and as there was no entrance to the chapel [except] through the house, and he would not do that...It seemed to me there was something so sad and pitiful about it I could not keep the tears back.
The image of poor Damien kneeling like a beggar outside the chapel adoring his Lord through the wall, unable, thanks to his leprosy, to enter the building, is heartbreaking. Leopoldina goes on to tell us that Damien saw the tears in her eyes and asked if she was alright, she couldn't answer, she said to herself he would not have understood. He did not see himself as pitiful, but rather as a poor disciple of Christ adoring his Lord. What love for Jesus, what respect for the Blessed Sacrament: what holiness!

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Face For The Faceless

This might shock some of you, but I have given up on Downton Abbey. Sorry, sorry to those of you who live on an artistic ventilator from one Sunday to another, but I am afraid I lost interest a couple of years ago, I just got bored. However I have not lost my admiration for the one who is keeping it all together: Dame Maggie Smith, one of Britain's greatest gifts to acting. What conceptual actors take an hour to squeeze out she can do in a moment with one look and you get the message straight away. She's a classically trained English actress, and like all of those who embrace that apprenticeship, she is a master, an actress to her fingertips.

Anyway, this is not a lament for DA, rather a little post to draw your attention to a forthcoming movie which may well be one of Maggie Smith's greatest roles at this stage in her career - the cinematic version of Alan Bennett's brilliant (true) story The Lady in the Van. Maggie plays the eponymous lady who is virtually homeless, living in an old van which she parks in various places throughout the year. A scourge to the denizens of those streets in which she makes her base, Alan Bennett, when he encountered her, invited her to park in his drive for a few weeks - she stayed for fifteen years! However they were fifteen great years for Bennett because they provided him not only with a literary classic, but also a unique relationship that marked his life for the better.

The story is a lovely read, typically Alan Bennett, and it humanises those society often passes over, the people who live on the streets or hidden away seeking warmth and safety in the ruins of our civilization. Miss Shepherd becomes the face for the faceless, and in the encounter with her, when people are bothered to stop, see her and listen to her, they see not just a lady-tramp, but an individual with a life, a story and often an unbearable tragedy. They also discover themselves. And this is the real joy of the story: poor, broken Miss Shepherd is the one who is perhaps the sanest, the most human in the street who teaches those who meet her how to be authentically human themselves.

This is a role made for Maggie Smith, and I look forward to seeing it. Here is the trailer. The movie opens around the middle of November. While you have to be careful about judging a movie from the trailer, this looks good and Maggie's performance seems great - wouldn't it be wonderful if it got her her third Academy Award?

The New Martyr Benedict

Just over a month ago a South African man was beatified, he is that country's first Beatus. Benedict Daswa was a convert to the faith, a teacher, a husband, a father and a catechist whose faithful life as a Catholic was crowned with martyrdom. On the 2nd February 1990, just days before the world celebrated the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison, Benedict was being beaten to death because he defied the occult at work in his local community.

Benedict was born Tshimangadzo Samuel Daswa on the 16th June 1946, a member of the Lemba tribe. Interestingly this tribe followed Judaism and so he was brought up observing Jewish rituals and laws.  He initially worked among the herdsman in his youth before going to primary school in 1957 and then secondary school. He had hopes and dreams for his life and career, but these were put on hold when his father died and he had to work to provide for his mother and younger siblings. Keen to ensure they had a good education Tshimangadzo put his brothers and sisters through school.

Around 1961 he came into contact with Catholics when he was in Johannesburg, and intrigued he began a period of instruction which came to fruition on the 21st April 1963 when he was baptised and received into the Church: he took the name Benedict in honour of the Saint of Nurcia, adopting as his personal motto the motto of the Benedictine Order: ora et labora

Benedict finally got his chance, and he entered teacher training college. He worked as a teacher in his local area and was an active member of the Church, serving as a catechist. In 1974 he married Shadi Eveline Monyai and they had eight children, all of whom were brought up in the Catholic faith. He was doting father and generous husband assisting Shadi personally in rearing the children and carrying out household tasks which was unheard of at the time. Benedict was highly respected in his locality. He was widely known to be honest and good. As a teacher he showed a deep concern for his students not only in the classroom but he was also there for them when they needed him. His local tribe benefited from his assistance and wise counsel, the chief often having recourse to Benedict for advice.

In November 1989 and January 1990 a series of bad storms effected the local area. Many of the tribes-people turned to the old ways, to witch-doctors to discern what was happening. They concluded that the cause was magic and so urged the people to collect money to pay someone to find the witch responsible. When they came to Benedict he dismissed the explanation provided by the witch-doctors, the storms were natural phenomena he explained, and he refused to make a contribution to the fund. Spurned by his refusal the witch-doctors sought revenge.

On the evening of the 2nd February 1990 Benedict was driving home after carrying out a mission of mercy for a sick child when he encountered fallen trees in the middle of the road. When he got out to clear the road he was set upon, ambushed by a group of young men who stoned him. Escaping he ran to a nearby house for refuge, the woman of the house took him in, but when the mob arrived and threatened to kill her, she told them where they could Benedict. Caught, Benedict was beaten with clubs around the head and boiling water was poured over his mouth and nostrils. His last words were: "God, into your hands receive my spirit".

Once the men had gone the terrified woman ran to fetch Benedict's brother, but Benedict was dead. The funeral took place on the 10th February, the celebrants wore red vestments, convinced already that here was a martyr who died for the truths of the faith. Benedict's death led to his mother's conversion to Catholicism, and to many other blessings and graces for his people whose veneration for his memory found Church approval with his beatification last month.

Blessed Benedict's death is significant for many reasons today. Apart from the extraordinary witness of laying down one's life for Christ, his dying in defence of the faith in the face of the occult resonates with us in these times when interest in the occult is growing again. Such practices preternaturalise God's creation, makes children of God subject to superstition, to questionable "energies" and leaves them prey to spiritualities" and practices that undermine rather than enhance faith. The occult, no matter how innocent, helpful or interesting it may seem, is a door which can allow demonic forces enter into our lives with disastrous results.

Benedict's life is also one of significance for Christian men today. As men seem to be drifting away from the faith, oftentimes not because they do not believe but rather because they can't be bothered, Benedict's example and passion for the Church is one our men need to hear about. Men find their true selves through the faith, it enhances, transforms and strengthens the virtues inherent in their manhood making them better men, husbands and fathers. 

Blessed Benedict has been raised up at the right time for all of us. Let us pray that God will soon grant a miracle through his intercession so he will be canonised before long. More information here.

A Few Thoughts On The Synod

To be honest with you I was not looking forward to this post because it would require a few thoughts on what has been happening since I took my break. But what can you say? The landscape of the Church has changed so radically in such a short time many of us are left breathless. Well, perhaps, not changed, but things have been brought to a head so decisively. Many are scratching their heads and wondering what to do, others are deeply worried and some on the edge of despair. To all of them I say: "Have Faith". 

The Lord did not found the Church to allow her fall beneath the whims of churchmen and women of any given time and fashion. Nor will she become a pawn of the world, an instrument to confirm all that is wrong with the world through a corrupt reading of the Gospel. The Lord will not allow it, his permissive Will will permit the Church to be brought to the edge, and we are getting near the edge, but she will not fall over or be pushed - "Thus far and no further!" God will intervene as he has in the past and will in the future for as long as the world lasts. The Church is Christ's sacrament of salvation in the world, his Bride, he is not going to give up on her, he will defend her. This is a moment of testing for us and we must rise to the test and be found worthy. Now we pray, fast, offer penance and seek renewal, because God is speaking to us in this crisis. And what is he saying?  Well, we have to discern that. 

We may enter a serious crisis, but we have been there before, and such moments actually assist the Church to strengthen her faith and understand the teaching of Christ in a deeper way. If it was not for the Arian Crisis and the Christological heresies we would not have had such a rich understanding of the Lord's nature. In this present crisis it is the very nature of man and woman that is disputed, the new heresy seeks to redefine man, woman, marriage, sex and family and is trying to pull the Church into its way of thinking and part of this heresy's modus operandi is to deny the reality of sin. But we already have the antidote to this corruption - the Gospel, of course, but also the teachings of St John Paul the Great. Though we recognize how important these teachings are, we have yet to plumb the depths - his philosophy and theology of man, woman, sex and marriage contain the Church's answer to the anthropological heresies that seem to be prevailing in the world and in the Synod hall. This crisis, among other things, will help us recover and understand in a deeper way who we are as human beings, created and redeemed. 

The Communion issue, the dissolution of the Church issue are part of this bigger picture, not mere unpleasant diversions, but an indication that something is wrong that needs to be set right. The Church is called to be prophetic - to face the world and proclaim the truth about humanity. I think when this Synod ends our orthodox bishops and cardinals will realise just how prophetic they need to be, that they can no longer take a back seat or fall into complacency: the rot is in the Church as it is in the world and it has to be dealt with. And I think this will ultimately benefit the New Evangelisation (which has fallen off the radar for many these last few years). As more and more human beings fall victim to the sexual revolution, as they seek not just the meaning of life and the meaning of existence, but the very significance of being human, it will be the Catholic Church which will have the answer. In the future we will not only proclaim Christ, but also the true nature of humanity in relationship with Christ.

For now, we need to hold firm, and pray for the Pope, Cardinals and bishops. It may well be a hairy ride and we will have to parse very carefully what everyone is saying, but at the end of the day we have the truth in the Scriptures, the Catechism, and, on the issue of marriage and the family, in the teachings of John Paul the Great: let these be your guides.

Back In The Saddle, Blogwise

Well, I think I had better get back blogging. As you noticed I took a break with so much going on - my aunt's death, my father's illness, some time for holidays and then just a need to get some space to take in all that has happened personally in the last year or so. As most of my brother priests know full well, pastoral ministry is demanding and time is the one commodity we need more of, but then our bodies and spirits flag if we don't take time out. Anyway, as I see this blog as part of my ministry I had better get back into it.