Saturday 31 May 2008

Marriage preparation: a need for reform?

Being single, the nearest I have got to being involved in marriage preparation was when I was asked to give a talk to the parents of the First Communion children in the parish, some five years ago now. Near the beginning of my talk I spoke about the idea of the husband-wife relationship in a marriage as being a sign of the relationship between Christ, who is its head, and the Church. So, the husband represents Christ and the wife represents the Church, which can also be seen figured as the Virgin Mary. This signification is essential to an understanding of marriage as a sacrament and not just as a community in human society, albeit that the community in human society aspect has a divine origin "from the beginning". It is, of course, why the Church teaches that a sacramental marriage is indissoluble.

What struck me at the time was that the parents listening to me might well have not heard that said to them before; and they almost certainly would not have had any help as to how that aspect of the sacramental character of marriage can be lived out in daily life. As I write this post, I am reminded,too, of the bidding prayers that I wrote for my sister's wedding - they were the only place in the ceremony where explicit reference was made to marriage as imaging the relationship between Christ and his Church - and the appreciation of them that was expressed afterwards.

I am prompted to comment on this by a post at just doing my best, describing the blogger's experience of a marriage preparation course. It is a very calm and dignified post, but the following extract gives some idea of the blogger's evaluation of her own marriage preparation course (but do follow the link and read her entire post):

I was hugely disappointed that the organisers were so desperate not to offend people who don't follow the Church's teaching that they ignored that teaching altogether and actually went out of their way in some cases to indicate that they didn't follow it either. I truly believe that a course which purports to be Catholic should actually be Catholic. Where you have a mixed marriage, I think that the non-Catholic spouse should know what it means to be married to a Catholic. If they don't hear it on a Catholic marriage preparation course, where else are they going to hear it?

I have wondered for some time now whether the preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage should not perhaps mirror more closely that required for the other "Sacrament at the service of Communion", Ordination. That requires up to six years of preparation, sometimes longer ... well, perhaps I am not suggesting that for marriage! But other aspects - a human formation, a spiritual formation, a pastoral formation and a suitable philosophical/theological formation could be put in place. A bishop should perhaps define for his diocese a minimum standard of formation that should be received before a couple may marry, rather like the minimum requirement for studies before ordination that is contained in Canon Law. It would be interesting, too, if both partners to the marriage were required to write to the parish priest requesting the Sacrament, in a form of words that makes clear their understanding of what marriage is. Perhaps some form of pre-marriage retreat should also be expected. If this seems "over the top" to some, I would respond that it reflects that what is being sought is not just "marriage" but the reception of a Sacrament, and it is this latter that requires a sacramental type of preparation.

Some aspects of the human formation do appear to have been present in the preparation day described in just doing my best's post (communication). Spiritual and theological formation appears to have been pretty much absent. A pastoral formation could be very interesting, responding as it does to Familiaris Consortio's discussion of the role of families towards each other and towards society as a whole [comment made from memory, so I might not have got this quite right].

Whilst it would be wrong to make the demands of marriage preparation unecessarily burdensome, I think it is clear that the one day course described is not sufficient. I have no doubt that it should be possible to provide a preparation that is authentically Catholic, that is pastorally appropriate for non-Catholic partners to marriage, and responds in an authentically Catholic way to those couples who come to marriage preparation after already starting to live together.

POSTSCRIPT: I have just visited the Marriage Care web pages that describe their aims in marriage preparation. Without being uncharitable, and recognising that it is at the service of the common good for a (Catholic) organisation to offer marriage preparation to those who are not Catholics, the inadequacy of their statement of aims as a preparation for Catholic sacramental marriage is quite transparent. Their preparation programme would need to be supplemented by additional provision in order for it to be satisfactory for sacramental preparation.

Lourdes: a catechetical opportunity that seems often to be wasted

One of the difficult things I encounter when in Lourdes at the same time as English dioceses is the glimpse that it gives me of the poverty of the Liturgical formation of many of the young people who accompany the diocesan pilgrimages. It is great that these young people will go out in such numbers to help and accompany the sick pilgrims; but - and I overheard this comment in a conversation that passed me in the shrine one day during my stay - the "social service" and the "party/fun" seem to completely displace the fact that the pilgrimage is a religious phenomenon. One could argue that the participation of the young people in the religious ceremonies should be at least in part a measure of the value of their pilgrimage, and that it is a bit naive to simply praise the numbers of young people who go to Lourdes.

My "penitential moment" on this visit to Lourdes occurred during the International Mass on Wednesday, when I stood towards the back of the Basilica with about a dozen young people from the youth service of an English diocese just behind me. I do not really think they participated in any ordinary sense of that word, though I certainly did not watch them all the way through Mass. Certainly, at points during the celebration of Mass they were sat on the floor in two or three "circles", and at least one young lady was receiving or sending a text. I got the impression they were more attentive at the Eucharistic Prayer, but I can't be sure of that.

I know I should not really blame the young people - most of them have probably never been taught how to participate properly at Mass. My frustration then transfers to the clergy - and asks why they do not train their young people in their parishes, or, during their visit to Lourdes, undertake catechesis on the Liturgy to enable them to take part properly in the ceremonies.

And the Eucharistic Procession and Adoration that take place at 5pm every day in Lourdes is a tremendous catechetical resource that could be mined to great effect during a pilgrimage. Here are some indicators, structured along the lines of what there is to see, what there is to hear, and what there is to do.

What there is to see:

The book of the Gospels is carried in the procession, accompanied by four halberds (tall poles, with a symbolic cross at the top). The Gospels are, in the Christian tradition, the successor to the scrolls of the Torah in the Jewish religion, the scrolls being a sign of the presence of God among his people as they journeyed through the Sinai and today in the synagogue. The signs on the top of the halberds are the symbols for the four evangelists. The Gospels are here being presented to us as a form of the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, among his people; just as their being read during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass is a sign of the presence of the Jesus.

The Sacred Host is accompanied into the Basilica of St Pius X by eight servers holding up dishes of burning incense. This again refers to the Jewish liturgy, to the burning of incense as a sign of prayer. But it can also be seen as a sign of the pillar of smoke (ie the presence of God) that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through Sinai, positioning itself at their rear as they stopped at night and taking up station again at their front as they marched on the next day. This symbolism particularly struck me as the servers stood at either side of the altar during the time of silent adoration and the incense rose around the altar just like a pillar of smoke. The incense again points us towards the presence of the Lord among his people, particularly as the Sacred Host is seen at the centre of the rising incense around the altar.

Immediately preceding the Blessed Sacrament in the procession are a series of banners with themes from the Passion of Christ: the nails that attached Jesus body to the Cross, the crown of thorns, a palm tree to represent the Cross as the tree of life. These banners remind us of the Eucharist as the memorial of the Passion of the Lord.

The people who walk in procession with the Blessed Sacrament or await its entry into the Basilica represent the Church, the people who are the Lord's. They are a sign of the presence of the Church in the world, the presence of Jesus Christ in the world. They bear witness to that presence in a very dramatic way, as they demonstrate visibly their belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

And all of this points towards Jesus really and truly present in the Sacred Host.

What there is to hear:

The songs and prayers also point us towards the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The words "Lauda Sion, Salvatorem. Lauda ducem et pastorem" (Sion, praise your saviour; praise your leader and your shepherd") are addressed not just towards the Lord in heaven but towards the Lord as he enters the Basilica in the form of the Eucharistic host. Another day, the psalm which talks about lifting up the gates so that the King of Glory might enter was sung. Boyce and Stanley's "Behold the Lamb", again addressed not just to the Lord in heaven but to the Lord present on the altar in the Eucharist, was sung too.

The Gospel reading and the invocations and prayers always have a Eucharistic theme. One day, for example, the Gospel was that of the Ascension into heaven, with its promise that the Lord will be with us (ie in the Eucharist) until the end of time.

What there is to do:

How you stand, which direction you face, how you hold your hands, where you look. These all communicate something of your sense of being in the presence of the Most Holy, the Lord of Lords, the Word made Flesh and now present among us in the form of the Eucharistic Bread. Find the words of the "Tantum Ergo" that is sung each day, and an English translation if you need it, and at least follow the words as they are being sung. Kneel down for the time of silent adoration (see below) and for the "Tantum Ergo" and blessing at the end. Young people who can spend a few days pushing wheel chairs are fit enough to kneel on the floor!

But perhaps above all try to ADORE. Pope Benedict XVI gave a wonderful, two part explanation of what adoration is at the World Youth Day in Cologne. Adoration is first of all "proskynesis" (from the Greek word for adoration), a going down before God who is Most Holy and a recognising that He is much greater than we are. It is secondly "ad-oratio" (the Latin root of our word adoration), literally, "to the mouth", that is a "kiss". So, as we go down, we unite ourselves to the Lord, we make an act of communion, of loving embrace.

Friday 30 May 2008

Facade of the Rosary Basilica

The Rosary Basilica at Lourdes has been subject to a lot of restoration work in recent years. This has involved cleaning the mosaics showing the mysteries of the Rosary on the inside of the Basilica, and to very good effect. The crown on the outside of the Basilica has also been cleaned (it spent a year on the ground in front of what is now the Chapel of Reconciliation while this work was undertaken). However, Pope John Paul II introduced five new mysteries to the Rosary, the Mysteries of Light. So where could we put these mysteries in the Rosary Basilica?

The answer has been to put them on the outside, on the facade at the front of the Basilica. The mosaics were unveiled at the celebration that started the Anniversary year on 8th December 2007. The mosiacs show up very well in daylight as well as under lighting for the Rosary procession in the evenings.

First of all, an overall view, which shows how the cleaning of the crown goes along with the new mosaics:

The first Mystery of Light, the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan:

The second Mystery of Light is the Wedding Feast of Cana. I particularly like the way in which Jesus and Mary, on the right, are portrayed as if they are another "couple", suggesting the relationship between Mary-Church and Jesus as being a nuptial relationship.

The third Mystery of Light is the Preaching of the Kingdom and the Call to Repentance, portrayed in two mosaics. The first shows Jesus appearing to the Apostles on the evening of Easter Day, and giving them the power to forgive sins. The second shows the lowering of the paralytic through the roof of the house; after curing the paralytic, Jesus forgives his sins.

The fourth Mystery of Light is the Transfiguration:

The fifth Mystery of Light is the Institution of the Eucharist, again shown in two mosaics.

Chemin du Jubile at Lourdes

As part of the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, and as the devotion to be undertaken to gain the indulgence attached to the pilgrimage for the anniversary, there is a "jubilee way". I was lucky enough to follow this way all in one go, one afternoon, with relatively little difficulty. Others, particularly those trying to undertake it as a group, encountered waits and crowds at each of the four "stations" on the way.

The first station on the way is the parish Church of Lourdes, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This is where St Bernadette was baptised, and it is the baptismal font that is the focus of this visit. My photo, above, shows the Blessed Sacrament altar. When I visited, every chapel in the church was decorated with flowers like this.

The second station is the "cachot", the disused prison where Bernadette and her family lived in poverty. I have no photo because, at the time of my visit, other people were making their visit and I thought it better not to disturb them. This is just five minutes walk from the parish church.

The third station comprised together St Michael's gate to the shrine, the Jubilee icon and the grotto itself. There are a number of identical copies of the icon under the arches as you approach the grotto (photo above), and the intention of this station is that the pilgrim venerate the icon on their way to visit the grotto. The photo of the grotto below shows the inclement nature of the weather on the day I did the Jubilee Way (see the umbrellas!).

The fourth station was the oratory of the Hospice. This is now the local hospital; in St Bernadette's time it was a convent, and was where she went to school soon after the apparitions. It is where Bernadette received Holy Communion for the first time. This was the only one of the stations where I encountered a queue or delay, because I arrived at about the same time as three large groups of pilgrims. Again, I didn't feel able to take a photo inside the oratory because of the other visitors, so the photo below is of the outside of the present hospital chapel which is adjacent to the oratory as it was in Bernadette's time.

At each station, there was sticker to be collected and added to your pilgrim card. My completed card is shown below. The stickers start at the top left, showing Bernadette's baptism, then follow round in an anticlockwise direction towards her first Holy Communion by way of her stay in the cachot and the apparitions at the grotto. In a nice touch, the words of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette on the reverse of the card are not in French but, as they were related by Bernadette herself, in the local Lourdes dialect: "Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou".

The Choir of the (Orthodox) diocese of Kostroma, and other music in Lourdes

At the International Mass on Wednesday, and also at the Eucharistic Procession and Rosary Procession, the choir of the diocese of Kostroma sang. At the International Mass, the Russian Orthodox bishop who represents the Moscow Archdiocese in Paris was present, as the choir sang. The main celebrant was the Bishop of Rennes - after he had kissed the book of the Gospels, it was taken to be kissed by the Russian Orthodox Bishop. The profession of faith took the form of the Baptismal interrogation rather than the Nicene Creed (with the "filoque", not shared by the Orthodox churches). Together, these showed an important Ecumenical sensitivity and courtesy. I noticed it, but I suspect that most of those present will have missed the significance of it.

If the organ in your parish Church is on its last legs, how about replacing it with .... an mp3 player operated from the sanctuary by remote control? .... or perhaps a set of Alpine horns? Again, a visiting "orchestra" of Alpine horns played at some of the cermonies during the week. They do have beautifully rich and orchestral sound to them.

Boyce and Stanley were out with Birmingham Diocese, so they sang Behold the Lamb, the song they composed for the Eucharistic Congress in Birmingham a year or two ago, at one of the Eucharistic Processions.

Impressions of Lourdes

In recent years my visits to Lourdes have taken place either in July/August, or in December for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This is the first time that I have been there during the half-term holiday. So here are the contrasts:

In May, Lourdes is beautifully green (perhaps this year more so than ever because of recent rain), whereas in August it is dry and arid because of the heat. During the week, I was dipping into Alina Reyes book La jeune fille et la Vierge, and the first pages I read, referring to those times when the Virgin appeared without speaking, suggest that we could think of the universe as "a holy Scripture (Ecriture sainte), or at least like a writing (ecriture), a whole space that speaks, the invisible of the space which shows its word by signalling (la signalant) it by a sound, then imaging (la figurant) it under the form of an ideal femininity, all freshness, small and beautiful."

In May, Lourdes is like a "little England" because so many English dioceses or parishes visit during the half-term week; in July/August or in December, it is more like a "little Italy" because of the numbers of visitors who travel from that country. It was a rather odd experience for me to meet so many people I knew - from Maryvale (Birmingham Archdiocese were out for the week); clergy from my past (I have carefully thought how to express this - looking rather well fed, whether or not wearing the soutane); and even the member of the Knights of St Columba from a nearby parish who had organised the overnight watching for the "Forty Hours" recently.

The ceremonies at Lourdes were as busy during this week as I have previously seen them for the Feast of the Assumption in August. While at times the town did not appear too busy (perhaps I was walking around during "siesta time"), the participation at the International Mass and the Rosary Procession on Wednesday must have been approaching the capacity of the shrine to cope.

Sunday 25 May 2008

49th International Eucharistic Congress: pilgrimage of the Ark of the New Covenant

Just before going on one trip (to Lourdes), I have been looking ahead to my next one - Quebec for the International Eucharistic Congress in June.

In the final stage of Canada's preparation for the Congress, a group of pilgrims are walking from the national shrine of the Canadian Martyrs to Quebec accompanying the "Ark of the New Covenant". The pilgrimage began on Easter Sunday, and is due to finish today, for the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

"Salt and Light" television network are covering this pilgrimage, and have posted a series of weekly reports. Go to this link and click on the "Episode" links to find each week's report. I have just watched part of the first week's report and found it rich in witness to our faith in the Eucharist. There are videos covering the first three weeks of the pilgrimage. I am hoping they will eventually post their coverage of the later weeks.

There are also some photos from the start of the pilgrimage here.

There is more coverage, in French, at, the Quebec archidocesan station.

UPDATE 30th May: The link at "Salt and Light" television now shows their programmes for the first five weeks of the pilgrimage of the Ark.

Lourdes and developments with Eucharistic Adoration

Along with a few other people, I will be in Lourdes next week. Posting here will therefore be suspended from tonight until Friday. I expect I will post some photos from Lourdes when I get back.

I always find organising the Extended Days of Eucharistic Adoration (modern branding of "Forty Hours") in my parish a bit embarrassing. The response of so many different people in the parish is quite amazing - I have never asked for help with any aspect of it (eg flowers) and received "no" as the answer. All the different groups of people who get involved do so with great enthusiasm. As an expression of their faith in Jesus presence in the Eucharist it takes some beating, and the sense of the action of grace is at some moments quite tangible (see, for example, the response to the Stations of the Cross).

After this year's event in my own parish, there are the beginnings of conversations (not initiated by me, but not without my encouragement) that may lead to the "Forty Hours" being held in some of the other parishes in the deanery. These conversations are at a very early stage, so you might like to say a prayer for a suitable outcome. It is a development that would come at a critical time for the deanery and the diocese, caused by the shortage and illness/age of our priests.

Saturday 24 May 2008

Honouring the Blessed Mother

Fr Tim has posted about the celebration of the Blessed Virgin held in his parish school for the month of May. A must see!

For the catechists out there: notice the wide age range of participation - younger children can bring up flowers etc, older ones can read, everyone can sing. And the visuals also communicate volumes, even to "grown ups".

A non-Liturgical celebration also gives the opportunity to use considerable catechetical imagination without offending the nature of the liturgy.

I recognised in Fr Tim's post many aspects of pastoral strategy that I try to use in running Eucharistic Adoration in my own parish.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor in the Telegraph

ZENIT has carried a report of an article by Cardinal Murphy O'Connor, published in yesterday's Telegraph (a national newspaper normally associated with more conservative political trends). The full text can also be found on the website of the Westminster Archdiocese. I think it makes a very good contribution to the current discussion.

The following paragraph could be seen as a precise clarification of the concerns raised as a result of Archbishop Nichols' remarks on Radio 4, which were the subject of some severe comment elsewhere in the blogosphere:

"Second, the vote to maintain the current status quo on abortion is not the end of the question. The idea of 'viability', prominent in the debate, is a concept dependent on the availability of resources and technology; not one that is able to found a moral distinction between a life that is worth our respect and protection and one that is not."

There is also a section which gives a careful account of the relationship of faith and reason, and how this relationship can play out in public debate. I commented on Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's concluding lecture in the "Cardinal's Lectures" series that this was a theme that had not been fully developed.

"But science remains a human activity. It takes place in moral space not a moral vacuum. What we are dealing with are profound ethical judgments which are informed, but not determined, by the insights of science. Our views will be shaped not only by scientific facts but also by our basic understanding of what a human life is, and also our philosophy of life (which may or may not be informed by a religious belief). Science cannot replace ethics.

"I believe there is no conflict between faith and reason, and the positions articulated by people of faith about the ethical basis of law should, like those of anyone else, be tested at the bar of reasoned debate. They should not be excluded or marginalised simply because they come from a religious perspective, and nor should they be given special privilege in democratic debate.

"The Church puts forward its teaching, but does not seek to impose its views nor indeed to tell any individual how to vote. What matters is the appeal to reason and intellectual argument, and the coherence of the vision of human life that we present. Reason and faith go hand in hand, and, for me, faith brings an insight into the truth which helps reason."

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor calls in his article for the establishing of a statutory National Bioethics Committee. I am not sure that this would meet the need that he sees it meeting - it would all depend on who was appointed to the Committee ... Others who have a greater knowledge of the personalities who are likely to be involved in such a body might be able to make a more informed comment about it than I can.

Friday 23 May 2008

More about Poppy

I have already posted about the film "Happy-go-Lucky". The current issue of my trade union's magazine Report carries a "Final Word" article by Mike Leigh, the producer of this film. This is what he says about the film:

"I've tried to reflect on education, from the points of view of both teaching and learning, in my new film "Happy-go-Lucky". Poppy, a Year 5 primary teacher, is relaxed and focused, with a positive outlook and a great sense of humour. Single, she loves life, and she loves the kids she teaches. She is a good teacher. She also experiences life on the other side, as a pupil, being taught to drive and also to Flamenco dance."

The film doesn't really show enough of Poppy's teaching to let us know how good she is in the classroom. Being confident is not always the same thing as being good! Relaxed and focused - or just completely scatty? She does care about the children she teaches, as demonstrated by her child protection referral for one her pupils. Any reflection on her experience as a pupil is completely buried under the characters of her two teachers, the Flamenco instructor and the driving instructor, and her own determination to behave with a "great sense of humour".

I indicated in my earlier post that I thought the film constituted a reflection on the nature of happiness in society today. I still think that is so, despite Mike Leigh's different suggestion in this article.

Mike Leigh's comment on his own experience of the education service is quite acidic. He is very critical of the education he received at RADA - "In short, no real education, other than how to stand up straight, speak proper and be heard in the gods" - but speaks highly of a foundation course at Camberwell Art School - "At this moment, I realised that actors could be artists, a belief that has informed my life". Talking about his own children, he summarises their experiences as "The boys flourished or floundered, depending on the quality of their teachers".

Mike Leigh ends his article as follows. Physics teachers, as a breed, seem to be much keener on their own subject area and less enthusiastic for having to teach bits of biology and chemistry. Hence my sympathy for this ending:

"Obviously, all education can only be as good as the teacher. But to be any good, the teacher must be allowed to work to his or her strengths, to teach from his or her passions. He or she must always be free from distractions and irrelevant responsibilities."

Thursday 22 May 2008

Vaclav Havel: "Leaving"

I caught a short piece on Radio 4's Today programme about the premiere of Vaclav Havel's new play, "Leaving". Vaclav Havel was the first President of a free Czechoslovakia, following the "velvet revolution" that overthrew Communism in the country. And before that, he was a leading figure in the dissident/resistance movement against the Communists. One of his most famous pieces of writing is an essay entitled "The power of the powerless"; part of this essay discusses why a greengrocer might put a sign "Workers of the World unite" in his shop when he has no belief in its message at all, essentially to avoid trouble from the authorities if he removed it. It is a wonderful image of how people go along with the flow of contemporary thinking, even though an even cursory examination will reveal that they have no personal belief in it at all. The "gay agenda" could be equally subjected to its critique - how many people really do believe that LGBT behaviour is morally identical/equivalent to heterosexual behaviour?

His new play seems to at least reflect the genre of underground theatre, though it may not fall into it exactly. In this style of theatre, a relatively innocuous or politically acceptable narrative hides a coded message that challenges the authorities. During the Communist times, this had to be done very cleverly so that only those tuned into the coded message would detect it and read it in to the play. There is a good account of this type of theatre in the introduction to Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay, where she describes attending the theatre in Moscow during Communist times. [The book then develops a theme of coded, Catholic messages in the plays of Shakespeare.]

So I wonder what the coded message of "Leaving" is? According to the Radio 4 item, the anti-hero to the hero of the retiring politician is someone who initiates the destruction of the former politician's residence (and cherry orchard) and replaces it with a shopping mall and brothel. The name given to this anti-hero is very close to that of Vaclav Klaus, who succeeded Vaclav Havel as President of the Czech republic. Czech society was described in the Radio 4 item as being split down the middle, between those "Havelites" who supported his vision of the world as "a place where we must strive for a more moral society" [this reflects Havel's writing about and experience of the dissident movements during the Communist era] and those "Klausites" who "believe more in the economic side of the transition that followed 1989".

So, is the coded message of "Leaving" that a politics worthy of the name should strive for a more moral society rather than limiting itself only to the economic sphere? And what do we make of this in Britain after this week's votes in the House of Commons?

UPDATE: I have just found Vaclav Havel's website and an item on the BBC website.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Thinking Faith: Religion and the Political Realm

Thinking Faith, the online journal of the British Jesuits, has an interesting article on Religion and the Political Realm. It reflects on the relationship between religion and politics, in a week that has seen Catholic bishops and other religious leaders speaking out about the Human Embryology bill. The article gives a short account of a comment on the relationship between religion and the state made by President Sarkozy of France during a visit to Rome in December 2007.

The article starts, citing Professor Ninian Smart, by summarising five possible ways in which religion and the state might interact. The first such way was the one that set me thinking:

"Religion interacts in various ways with the nation-state, which is now a relatively homogeneous concept across the global community."

It seems now to be commonly accepted that the US/UK forces went into Iraq without any thorough planning for what to do after toppling Saddam Hussein and taking control of the country, albeit with the intention that that control should not be permanent. I recall being struck by media coverage of some incidents in the early days of the occupation where the intervention of an Imam proved pivotal. This influence of the Imam seems to have almost disappeared from the more recent media coverage. It has been replaced, so far as I can see, by the leadership of armed militias - though, of course, this might be an impression communicated by the media coverage rather than a reality on the ground. It has prompted me to reflect as follows and to wonder whether the idea of the nation-state is in fact uniformly accepted across the global community:

did the Western powers assume that their own experience of a "nation-state", ie a single rule of law extending throughout their territory and enforced by a (politically neutral) police/military, was the appropriate model for Iraq? Would a more localised form of government (a kind of subsidiarity, to use a term from Catholic social teaching) been more in tune with the situation of the people themselves?

did the Western powers totally underestimate the way in which the religious authority of the Imam also constituted a political authority? And, because they did not support the political aspects of that authority, did they pave the way for it to be overtaken by the authority of the militias?

As part of a discussion of the separation of religion and the state, Fr Turner cites the model according to which the state must be neutral between religions, saying that, according to this model:

"...anyone acting in the name of the state must manifest that neutrality. Similarly, the institutions of the state (state schools, hospitals etc) must be bare of religious symbols, hence the prohibition of religious dress - crucifixes, veils etc."

Now, I can see that someone like a police officer acting to enforce the law of the land might be (emphasis on the might) seen as "acting in the name of the state"; but I find it difficult to see a medical professional working in a state hospital, or a teacher working in a state school, as being someone who is "acting in the name of the state". This is linked to the question of whether state funded hospitals and schools should, by virtue of their being state funded, be seen as institutions of the state rather than as institutions of the civil society to which the author refers later in his article. I would rather see them as belonging primarily to civil society at the service of the common good of the whole of that society, and therefore needing to respect the plurality that exists in civil society. The employee is engaging firstly with civil society and making their contribution to it - which for one employee might include an element of religious manifestation but for another might not. The legitimate role of the state is with regard to the common good, to enable these institutions to operate for the good of civil society; it is not to over-rule the legitimate freedom of the employee in their relation to civil society. It strikes me that some thought could usefully be given to how a Catholic should relate to these institutions.

To conclude, here is the article's account of the speech by President Sarkozy:

"In December 2007, President Nicholas Sarkozy, in a striking and carefully crafted speech during his state visit to the Holy See, called for a newly ‘open’ laïcité. It is worth briefly summarising his argument.

"He noted the multiform Christian contribution to French culture, from Bernard of Clairvaux to René Girard. Christianity has penetrated French society, culture, landscape, architecture, so that ‘the roots of France are essentially Christian’. Laïcité is to be seen as a freedom – to believe or not and to change one’s religion, freedom for parents to educate children according to their convictions, freedom from discrimination by ‘the administration’ on religious grounds. In deference to the French model he spoke of freedom, in a newly diverse culture, ‘not to be wounded in one’s conscience by ostentatious religious practices and symbols’. Yet, he insisted, for laïcité to cut off France from its ethical, spiritual and religious heritage would enfeeble the sense of national identity and loosen social bonds. Therefore President Sarkozy called for both a recognition of the special heritage of Christianity and a ‘mature laïcité’.

"As a politician, he will not and cannot make decisions on the basis of religious faith. (We do not expect France now to ban divorce and remarriage.) Yet it is crucial that the political conscience be enlightened by ‘convictions not bound by immediate contingencies’ – learning from the ‘richness of our different traditions’."

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Edith Stein and the Trinitarian character of prayer

Rita at tigerish waters has posted the text of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity's prayer "O my God, Trinity who I adore .." to mark Sunday's feast of the Holy Trinity.

St Edith Stein has an essay entitled "The Prayer of the Church" which opens with a passage reflecting on the Trinitarian form of Liturgical prayer. She does go on to say that all prayer is prayer of the Church, even what we might term "private" or "devotional" prayer. The Trinitarian character thus extends to all prayer.

“Through him, with him, and in him in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever”. With these solemn words, the priest ends the Eucharistic prayer at the centre of which is the mysterious event of the consecration. These words at the same time encapsulate the prayer of the church: honour and glory to the triune God through, with and in Christ. Although the words are directed to the Father, all glorification of the Father is at the same time glorification of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the prayer extols the majesty that the Father imparts to the Son and that both impart to the Holy Spirit from eternity to eternity.

All praise of God is through, with and in Christ. Through him, because only through Christ does humanity have access to the Father and because his existence as God-man and his work of salvation are the fullest glorification of the Father; with him, because all authentic prayer is the fruit of union with Christ and at the same time buttresses this union, and because in honouring the Son one honours the Father and vice versa; in him, because the praying Church is Christ himself, with every individual praying member as a part of his Mystical Body, and because the Father is in the Son and the Son the reflection of the Father, who makes his majesty visible. The dual meanings of through, with and in clearly expresses the God-man’s mediation.

Monday 19 May 2008

Radio 4 "World at One": interview on saviour siblings

I have just listened to a (long) interview on BBC Radio 4's World at One lunch time current affairs programme. The interview is part of a programme that can, at the time of posting, be heard again at the Radio 4 website. In this interview, an anonymous doctor spoke about how a saviour sibling child would be able to provide a sufficiently close tissue match to save his already existing child from an unusual illness. Without this saviour sibling treatment, the older child would be "condemned to death by a thousand knives", to quote a phrase used more than once by the doctor.

After this interview, a much shorter time was allowed for Archbishop Vincent Nichols to respond. I think he would be forgiven for feeling that he had been set up, though I do not want to suggest that the World at One did that deliberately. Archbishop Nichols really did find himself in a position that only the most outstanding of media skills would have coped with successfully. John Smeaton has posted critically on Archbishop Nichols response.

However, as I listened to the anonymous doctor, I was struck by how many of his remarks reflected a "self-focussed" rather than an "other-focussed" attitude.

When asked by the interviewer, the doctor's reaction to the suggestion that a saviour sibling was "the only way that you can guarantee your son will live" was to say: "We have no other choice". [The doctor had, in fact, just discussed the other options and their risks.] The doctor made some comments about why they would want another child, as well as the saviour sibling aspect. Among the remarks, he talked about the second child "who we can love, who can give us hope, and will keep us going and will provide us with a child that will outlive us, every parent's wish". Later in the interview: "....we are hoping to have another child that is unaffected by the condition, because it is a genetic condition, and if we were to have a pregnancy again naturally then there is a high chance that we could be put in a similar situation and put a second child through all the pain and the repeated procedures .... We would love to have another child to give us hope, (who) we could love, and be with us as we get older ourselves."

The doctor also referred to situations where a family might already have siblings who could act as tissue donors for a sick brother or sister, suggesting that very few such brothers or sisters would decline to donate tissue. He completely ignored the question of consent on the part of the donating brother or sister ... And, related to this, the doctor indicated that the family would say as little as possible to the created saviour sibling about what had happened, with the intention of achieving as much "normalcy" in the situation as possible.

So, what I want to say is that the anonymous doctor presented a position that, objectively and philosophically speaking (and not intending any moral judgement on the doctor's subjective intentions which must be assumed to be the best), was "self-focussed" and not "other focussed", that did not show love in its objective/philosophical meaning (defined as wanting what is "right for the other", even where that requires sacrifice of what I want for myself), and that this seems to apply to both the present child and the future saviour sibling. And I emphasise again that, in saying this, I do not intend any moral judgement of the doctor or of his motives, or of the geniuness of his intention to love his children.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Extended Days of Eucharistic Adoration: Day 3

The third day of our "Forty Hours" adoration was the Saturday, and had the theme "The Vigil of Mary". This is the name of the icon, shown, from the Ark of the New Covenant designed as part of the preparation for the International Eucharistic Congress. The origins of the icon are Romanian, and it reflects the devotions of the Eastern Churhces.

The Mass that we celebrated yesterday morning was the Mass of "The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Resurrection of the Lord", from the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Preface captures very well the sense of the Virgin Mary awaiting the Resurrection of the Lord.

At the resurrection of your Anointed One
you filled the heart of the Blessed Virgin
with joy beyond all telling
and wonderfully exalted her faith.

For it was in faith
that she conceived your Son,
it was in faith
that she awaited his resurrection.

In the strength of faith
she waited for that day of light and life
when the night of death would be ended,
the whole world would exult,
and the infant Church tremble with joy
at seeing again its immortal Lord.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Extended Days of Eucharistic Adoration: Day 2 continued

I know I am posting this on "Day 3" rather than "Day 2", but in the course of "Day 3" I have recieved rather a lot of appreciation for something that we did on "Day 2".

As part of the Vigil (=a holy hour that lasts more than an hour) on Friday evening, we prayed the Stations of the Cross. While the overarching theme of the three days has been The Eucharist: Gift of God for the Life of the World, each day has had a sub-theme. Like the main theme, these have been drawn from the International Eucharistic Congress, taking place in Quebec, Canada in 1 months time. The sub-theme for Friday was the Passion and Death of Jesus - hence the praying of the Stations of the Cross.

The meditation for each station was constructed as follows:

a short Scripture text, drawn from the Book of Isaiah

a story of a contemporary situation that reflects the meaning of the station

a prayer relating to the contemporary situation, followed by an invocation

a verse of "Were you there when they crucified my Lord", with the words adapted to suit the particular Station.

This structure was intended to allow each station to reflect the overarching theme of Jesus as the Gift of God who gives life to the world today. The contemporary situations included alcohol addiction, an unplanned teenage pregnancy, a young person being offered drugs at night club, domestic violence, a mother whose son had stopped going to Mass, a pupil with a stammer being bullied at school, the killing of Jimmy Mizen (my meditation implictly linked Jimmy's mother's statements about not feeling any anger towards the family of her son's killer to the Virgin Mary receiving Jesus in her arms at the foot of the Cross).

The image below shows the meditation for one of the stations. As you will see, it shows how each meditation was the result of the electronic version of "cut and paste" rather than any original writing on my part.

"Were you there when they stripped Him of His clothes" was the verse sung at the end of this meditation.

One lady who was present has thanked me, saying how many of the meditations were relevant to situations in her own life and family. A catechist from a neighbouring parish has taken a copy of the meditations to use with her confirmation candidates. Another parishioner telephoned me earlier this evening to thank me for "the feast I had laid before them".

The meditation for the 15th Station, the Resurrection of Jesus, will give you some idea of the power of some of the meditations. This meditation was followed by silence, rather than by any singing.

It was quite extraordinary what such a small child could feel and notice, and how we could tell what she felt. It became clearer and clearer what her little soul was going through, and what she had to communicate to us. As her body grew weaker, it became more and more strongly an expression of her soul. That became powerfully clear to us in the hour of her death.

The last few days our child was given to live among us were hard for the human heart to bear, yet extremely great and powerful, filled with promise because of the nearness of Christ.

It was remarkable that each time we interceded for Emmy Maria and gathered ourselves inwardly, the powers of death withdrew, and she revived. Whereas before she lay there apathetic and unresponsive, with half-open eyes, shallow breath, and very weak pulse, she would suddenly open her eyes, look at us, cry, and drink, moving her hands and turning her head when she was gently touched. Sometimes such a transformation came within seconds.

There was a special atmosphere of love in her room. It went out from her and filled the whole house, and united us in special love to each other.

Just before the end our little one opened her eyes wide, wider than they had ever been in her life. Then, with a clear, shining, otherworldly gaze, she looked at both of us for a long time. There was no sorrow and no suffering left in those eyes, but a message from the other world, a message of joy. She could not tell us anything in words, of course, but her eyes bore witness to the heavenly splendour and unspeakable joy there is with Christ.

With this gaze, our dearly beloved child took leave of us. We shall never forget those radiant eyes.

Sacraments, young people and lapsation

This post has been prompted by two things seen on other blogs in the last day or two. The first is from a series of posts at Ecce Mater Tua, on Bishop O'Donoghue's "Fit for Mission" review in Lancaster Diocese (the schools element of that review has been highly praised):

Are we cheapening the sacraments? “How would you react to a diocesan policy where the age for First Communion is 8+ and Confirmation 16+?” “Many request baptism, communion, confirmation, and marriage in the Church as a rite of passage ceremony rather than an expression of faith. There is an unspoken complicity between them and us. At most, we see it as an opportunity to once more try and catechise those who don’t practice the faith. However, if we don’t value our sacraments, why should we be surprised if they don’t?”

The following is from a post assessing the pontificate of Pope St Pius X, which appeared at the Hermeneutic of Continuity:

Similarly, the introduction of the idea of "partecipazione attiva" (the original expression was in Italian) has left us with problems that the Church still continues to wrestle with.

In reflecting on the first of these observations, I have asked myself the question: Why do young people approach first Communion and Confirmation without it being an "expression of faith"? or, what is the more easily seen manifestation, why do they receive these Sacraments and then lapse from their practice of the faith?

Is it because of the age at which they receive these Sacraments? Well, no I don't think so.

And, because I don't think the age at which they receive these Sacraments is what causes young people to lapse after receiving them, I do not think that raising the age at which the Sacraments are received is any answer to the problem being raised. [Side note: yes, if the age of Confirmation is raised, fewer of those who are confirmed might lapse - but a complete evaluation should also include those who are not confirmed at all along with the lapsees as part of the "drop out" rate.]

Reflecting on the second of these observations: One of the saddest things I see each Sunday is young people and their parents who are present at Mass, but in a very real sense "not participating". There are several signs of this non-participation: inattention to the actions taking place in the sanctuary, not joining in with responses, children who have toys or drawings with them, a casual posture that shows no appreciation of the sacred. What will happen when the teenager in a family of this type finds that there is something else to do on a Sunday? It is not going to take much to get him or her to stop going to Mass, perhaps once or twice, and then more often ... and into lapsation. So, a major pastoral priority seems to me to be that of training families and young children (who will become the teenagers) to participate properly at Sunday Mass. Singing in the choir or altar serving may provide an opportunity for this formation - but not the essence. The formation needs to teach people what participation is when they are an ordinary member of the congregation, with no specific role to fulfil. Young people who, when they come to Mass on Sunday, particpate properly are more likely to "stick with it". The elements of this formation will be both doctrinal (you cannot take part properly in something that you do not understand) and practical (there are strategies that parents and catechists can use to promote participation). They will also be Liturgical (a worthy Liturgy will hold attention and fascinate) and devotional (devotional practices such as Eucharistic Adoration can provide a locus in which the art of participation is "practised" in an order towards participation in the Liturgy). Perhaps in a slightly different way than Fr Tim, I feel there is still a crisis as far as proper, Liturgical participation is concerned - the hopes that the best of the Liturgical movement intended by the term "participation" are not being realised, despite the introduction of the vernacular.

I have two difficulties with the implied criticism by the "Fit for Mission" document of parents who bring their children for baptism or first Communion. Firstly, however imperfect it may be, the fact that they bring their children to these Sacraments is in some way an expression of faith. But, more fundamentally, these Sacraments, along with the Sacrament of Confirmation, have the nature of Sacraments of initiation. Children who are brought to these Sacraments, who, either themselves or through their parents, have a basically good disposition towards them and who have been appropriately prepared, have a right to be able to receive them. The obligation of the parish is, not to make it unecessarily difficult for young people to receive these Sacraments, but rather to provide programmes and a generally evangelising environment in which the grace of the Sacraments will be more fruitful rather than less fruitful.

I think that parishes need to show their valuing of the Sacraments through improved Liturgical and catechetical practice, not through arbitrarily raising the age at which Sacraments are received, something that penalises practising families as much as it does non-practising families. We all have mixed motives about what we do with regard to our religious practice, some more mixed and perhaps some less mixed - so neither do I think it wise to insist on children or young people "applying" themselves to receive the Sacrament as if parental encouragement were a bad thing (teachers, of course, very much value parental encouragement with regard to school work!), or being "interviewed" as if passing the interview were in some sense a condition of admission to the course of preparation for the Sacrament.

And, at the bottom line, we can never know how the grace of the Sacraments might show itself at some point in the life of the young people involved.

Friday 16 May 2008

Extended Days of Eucharistic Adoration: Day 2

As promised, a couple of photographs from our Eucharistic Adoration. About 25 people attended our "Adoration for Children and Families" this evening - including a young person who must, by a very large margin, be our youngest ever adorer at two weeks old. Another 20 came to the main catechesis/stations of the Cross. In addition, of course, are those who spent some time in silent prayer during the day.

Pope Benedict XVI and Pseudo-Dionysius

My attention was caught a day or two ago by ZENIT's report of a General Audience address on the sixth century writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius. I have had an (unfulfilled) interest in Pseudo-Dionysius since I read a few months ago about his writing on angels, and realised that Edith Stein had made considerable use of it in the section of her book Finite and Eternal Being devoted to created pure spirits.

The first point to arise from the ZENIT report is an understanding of the nature of dialogue in general, and that between Christianity and contemporary culture in particular:

The Holy Father noted how Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, "'I would not like to cause polemics; I simply speak of the truth; I seek the truth.' And the light of truth by itself makes error fade and makes what is good shine. With this principle he purified Greek thought and related it to the Gospel.

"This principle, which he affirms in his seventh letter, is also the expression of a true spirit of dialogue: It is not about seeking the things that separate, one must seek the truth in Truth itself; this, then, shines and causes errors to fall," the Pontiff affirmed.

The second point to emerge is one that is reflected in Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's recent lecture. It is the question of how the greatness of God is related to our ability to talk about Him, and how we can find a proper language in which to talk about this relationship.

Benedict XVI contended that the theology of the sixth-century author is "the first great mystical theology." His teachings use "negative theology," that is the idea that "the most elevated concepts of God never reach his true greatness" and that "it is easier to say what God is not than to express what he really is."

This formulation seems to me a very helpful one. There is no implication that the "most elevated concepts of God" are not true, or are inaccurate - in so far as they may be part of what God has revealed, they are true and certain. However, as the effort of the human mind, even supported by faith, to reach God, they still have a way to go in order to "reach his true greatness".

Pseudo-Dionysius tells us that "in the end, love sees more than reason. Where the light of love is, the shadows of reason fade away. Love sees, love is an eye and experience gives us much more than reflection," the Holy Father added.

Again, there is no implication that reason cannot "see", or is false or inadequate for our knowing something of God. Instead, there is a statement of the "more" that is seen by love. In comparison to the "light of love" reason is "shadows"; but in the comparison, and not in the sense that reason is "shadows" in which nothing can be "seen".

And the final point that emerges is the possibility that Pseudo-Dionysius provides a model that could be followed for dialogue with the eastern religions:

[Pope Benedict] said [Pseudo-Dionysius] has a new relevance as a "great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia, marked by the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is, that only negative expressions can be used to speak of him; that God can only be spoken of with 'no,' and that it is only possible to reach him by entering into this experience of 'no.' And here is seen a similarity between the thought of the Areopagite and that of the Asian religions. He can be today a mediator like he was between the Greek spirit and the Gospel."

Thursday 15 May 2008

Extended Days of Eucharistic Adoration: day 1

This evening has seen the start of our parish's "Forty Hours", with some 50 people taking part in the opening Mass. We had three altar servers and the choir, and so managed to do things with some degree of solemnity. I will try to post some photos tomorrow.

There was a rather unhealthy looking gap in the list of people signed up to pray before the Blessed Sacrament - 7-8am tomorrow morning. At the end of Mass, someone duly signed up to cover the gap. It's not that I mind doing an early hour... but it's the fact that I will be doing the afternoon and evening as well tomorrow!

Wednesday 14 May 2008

Does the "Jamie Oliver effect" apply to teachers as well as pupils?

It is some time now since celebrity chef Jamie Oliver started a campaign to improve the nutritional value of the meals served in schools. This led to the Government setting nutritional standards for school meals .... and, quite predictably, to fewer pupils taking school meals because the outcome was meals that they didn't want to eat. Some schools have also adopted short lunch breaks to help reduce the incidence of pupil misbehaviour, my own school, for example, having moved to a 40 minute lunch break. The two combine to discourage pupils from eating at lunch time. Instead, they wait until the end of the school day (which is of course earlier because of the shorter lunch break) and, on their way home, call in at the chip shop.

Now, today, three of my colleagues (who had better remain anonymous) dashed out at lunchtime to drive up to the nearby shops and return with assorted chicken and chips etc for their lunch. I felt very virtuous eating my bacon sandwiches (white bread) .... well, relatively speaking, anyway.

But my mischievous thought is: how long until "unhealthy eating" by teachers at school becomes a disciplinary offence?

Extending force/cross sectional area

Engineers or physicists might recognise the title of this blog as "stress"!

My last few days have included: leaving my car in the car park at the Teacher's Centre for my local authority after the Centre closed on Friday evening (which meant I could not get at it again until Monday morning on my way in to school); teaching my Year 12 and Year 13 classes as they approach their examinations (Monday morning); having to drive home before setting off for Birmingham because I had not been able to take everything in on the bus - see above(Monday afternoon); Monday evening at 4.30 pm a pre-meeting for ....; meeting with an OFSTED RE inspector at Maryvale as part of the inspection of the initial teacher training programme at Maryvale (Tuesday 9 am - this was actually a very interesting experience); jump in the car to head back down the M6/A14/M11 to arrive at school in time for the end of the school day, this in order to help set up the apparatus for an A-level physics practical examination (Monday afternoon - not my job, particularly as I am part-time, but I was helping to rescue a stressful situation in the department); arrive home to 6 telephone messages, three of them relating to different pieces of casework on behalf of members of my union branch (Tuesday night - managed to solve one of them pretty much straight away); teach my Year 12 and Year 13 (Wednesday morning); invigilating A-level practical examination (Wednesday afternoon - grrr). Yet to come: Thursday-Saturday: Extended Days of Eucharistic Adoration ....

By e-mail I also learnt that one of our parishioners had been taken into hospital, and is currently in a High Dependency Unit. Some 9 years ago, two of the "mums" of families in the parish had a conversation with me after Mass on Sunday which led to me beginning my work with Eucharistic Adoration for children, and so on to my leading on Eucharistic Adoration when the new parish priest arrived. One of these ladies died of cancer about two years ago; the lady taken into hospital this week is the other lady of the two. If you could spare a moment's prayer for her ...

Sunday 11 May 2008

SSPX, scholasticism and phenomenology

The Sensible Bond has posted about the position of the Society of St Pius X, the society attached to the Tridentine liturgy and previously led by Archbishop Lefebvre. As someone who has not followed events involving the Society closely, this seems to be a well informed and well considered post.

The dialogue in the "comments" is also of interest. One aspect of that dialogue refers to the place of Thomist or scholastic philosophy, and asks about the insights that can be gained from phenomenology and personalism. Since St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) is my favourite saint, I do think phenomenology has a lot to offer... but there is perhaps the need to "return to the sources" of that movement in philosophy, to the realist phenomenology of people like Edith Stein. It is interesting that Edith and her friends at the time saw in this realist phenomenology a "new Thomism"; that many of them were Christian believers prompted Edith's first recognition of religion as being a subject worthy of philosophical study. A significant subject of study was the human person, and the religious nature of the person featured in that.

I feel that a realist phenomenology, as a methodology, can provide the means for the dialogue with secularists and atheists that Cardinal Murphy O'Connor was seeking in his recent lecture. It involves a "stepping back" from any previously held positions (a temporary, methodological neutrality, not a rejection); and it expects human reason to be applied to the full range of human experience (not just the physical sciences!) to determine essentially what those experiences are made up of. Seen as a search for the truth of things - and this is how the early phenomenologists saw it - this then leads to adherence to the truth that has been achieved. Or, to use a religious term, "conversion". In the early twentieth century, the context for this was an anxiety to overcome the gulf between our knowing and the truth of things that was perceived in Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy; in the first years of the twenty first century, the challenge is that covered by the generic term "post-modernism" which gives a similar experience of an unbridgeable gap between our knowing and things themselves.

Saturday 10 May 2008

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor: Faith in Britain today (2)

As previously indicated, here is the further post on Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's lecture. An interesting insight that Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's lecture suggests is that the key dialogue that is needed in our society is less a dialogue between the different religions but rather more a dialogue between religious belief and atheism.

In some ways it is a bit nit-picking to select short quotations from the lecture for comment - my apologies to the Cardinal for that; but the need to present a coherent and consistent understanding of what reason is, what faith is and, then, how the two relate to each other, appears to me vital to achieving a proper dialogue with atheism.

"Our faith is not founded on the conclusions of reason, but it is grounded in the Logos, the expressive Word that comes from God, and it is compatible with reasoned thought"

One might want to add to this that "the conclusions of reason" might provide some grounding for our faith, since reason is going to be very much to the fore in a dialogue with atheism, but Cardinal Murphy O'Connor is correct in asserting a decisive grounding in the revelation of God in the Word.

"We should remember that the proper response to God is that of faith, not absolute certainty".

The opposing of faith and certainty in this sentence is, I think, unfortunate; and the following discussion of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine reflects the unfortunate nature of the sentence. First of all, we need to be clear that faith can give a confident and certain knowledge of the truth contained in revelation - but some will read this sentence as a denial of that. That there is something more to be learnt about God, both intellectually and in terms of our lived communion with him, may be the intention of the "not absolute certainty" and be what Aquinas calls "imperfect knowledge", but that is not the same as questioning the confidence that we can have in the knowledge achieved through faith.

In his interview on Radio 4's Today programme, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor said:

"..reason of itself cannot prove the existence of God .."


" .. reason is not enough .."

The defined teaching of the Church is that we can come to a confident knowledge of God through the use of reason in studying the world around us. What faith, that is, the knowledge achieved through God's self-revelation, provides is another, complementary way in which this knowledge of God's existence can be known. In their different circumstances, people may in practice rely on one way of knowing more than they do on the other for their knowledge of God's existence, or they may not get there at all. But I think, in dialogue with atheism, religious believers are going to want to insist on the ability of reason to come to knowledge of God's existence.

"If Christians really believed in the mystery of God, we would realise that proper talk about God is always difficult, always tentative ... A God who can be spoken about comfortably and clearly by human beings cannot be the true God."

But the reference to God as mystery does not mean that what we say about God should not be said, or that we cannot have confidence in what we say about Him. It recognises that the revealed mystery of God is something to be lived as well as spoken about and known. The difficulty and tentativeness can refer to the what-is-still-to-be-learnt in our intellectual lives, but we need to be careful that it does not make a statement that we cannot really know about God at all.

The last part of this post is slightly adapted from the comment I sent earlier today to the "Debate" forum for this lecture on the Westminster diocesan website.

Reason can come to know things about the physical world around us (the physical sciences), about the human person and his presence in the world (the social sciences) etc. It can address questions about things that are not material - human motivations and consciousness. And from this, it can also address questions about the meaning of life, the universe and everything - and, whilst there is always more to be learnt or discovered, there is a possibility for confidence in this knowledge. And one can equally apply this reason to the phenomena of religion - it being profoundly irrational to deny the existence of religion as a phenomenon. An honesty in this study will not, in my view, permit the characterisation of religious belief as simply personal imaginings, its OK if you need it, invention of the early Church, etc. It is also necessary to understand what the term faith means - and again this has not been fully developed in the Cardinal's lecture. Faith is a knowledge that can be confident of what it knows in the same way that reason can be confident of what it knows, though the source of that knowledge is different. Yes, we can grow into greater knowledge, both reasoned and faith-based knowledge, but that is not the same as denying the confidence that we can have in both.

And, here I would want to endorse Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's call for greater dialogue between believers and non-believers. Let's undertake that through the hard work of applying our reason in all its many different approaches (the physical and social sciences) to the questions of atheism and religious belief. Religious believers are of the view that what we believe and teach can stand up to this challenge of reason; can the atheist position stand up to the same challenge?

As they say these days ... "bring it on".

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor: Faith in Britain today

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's lecture came to my attention when I listened to coverage on Radio 4's Today programme on Friday morning. Professor Richard Dawkins, militant atheist that he is, was interviewed, observing that he didn't think Cardinal O'Connor "had said anything". Cardinal O'Connor was interviewed later in the programme.

One has to give Cardinal O'Connor credit for successfully putting the question of religious belief on the agenda (as I write this post, I have just heard a news item on the radio about today's Mass for 650 married couples at Westminster Cathedral). Whilst not all of the "Cardinal's Lectures" have been of equal value as examples of faith and culture in dialogue, I would perhaps recognise William Hague's and the Cardinal's own lecture as perhaps being the best. The surrounding media coverage, of course, represents part of the dialogue too.

There are some nice things in Cardinal O'Connor's lecture. The full text can be found at the website of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster. Whilst I suspect that contemporary atheism has other roots in addition to the historic background in 17th century Deism and a growing autonomy of science from religious belief described by Cardinal O'Connor, his observation that

"it became no longer necessary to think of God at all because the world can simply be treated as a self-sustaining system"

is very significant. I believe there is a much more substantial discussion to be had around this point, and that it could legitimately become a focal point for the kind of dialogue between Christian belief and atheism that the Cardinal called for. In the lecture, however, it remains undeveloped.

"This is one of the reasons why, for this lecture series, I wanted this Cathedral to be a place for people to listen to matters pertaining to religion in the secular society in which we live here in Britain."

I can understand what Cardinal O'Connor is trying to say here - that the Church should be seen as a place in which encounter with the things of wider society is welcomed and encouraged. However, it may be the case that the Church building as such, dedicated to the worship of God particularly but not exclusively in the Liturgy, should be preserved exactly for that. The rule of St Benedict for monasteries is explicit about the oratory being used only for the Liturgy and private prayer by the brothers. Would this not provide a witness to God's life among his people to which Cardinal O'Connor referred elsewhere in his lecture? I do not intend this to be a major criticism, by the way, more an observation.

Near the beginning of the lecture, there was a rather nice quotation from a Muslim scholar. It is very relevant to an aspect of my own professional work at the moment as my local authority begins the process of revising its Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education (the statutory syllabus that applies to non-denominational schools in the authority). My contriution to discussions so far has been to argue that pupils should have the opportunity to experience religions as precisely religious and not simply as at the service of current secular agendas. The Muslim scholar is reported to have expressed admiration for Pope Benedict XVI:

"Pope Benedict knows that religion is about truth and not social cohesion."

I am going to save some further observations - about the relationship between faith and reason, religion and atheism- that arise from the lecture for another post.

Friday 9 May 2008


On the Way to Life: Contemporary Culture and Theological Development as a Framework for Catholic Education, Catechesis and Formation. This is the title of a study by the Heythrop Insititute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life. The May-June 2008 issue of FAITH Magazine contains articles which represent a serious critique of this study, which was commissioned by the Catholic Bishop's Conference of England and Wales in 2005.

My own memories of trying to read it soon after it was published. It was too long - I still haven't succeeded in reading it all. As far as the parts of it that I did succeed in reading were concerned, I never really succeeded in grasping anything that they were trying to say. I wasn't able to make a coherent connection between different parts of the document. The title of the document is perhaps indicative of this - can you read it, and pick out from the title, an exact meaning or statement of intent for the study as a whole?

I recall being rather amused by a quotation of Hans Urs von Balthasar on p.36 of OTWTL. This was taken from a book of his called, in English translation, The Moment of Christian Witness. The point to this book is that Christianity demands at a certain point a decisive moment of witness, even to the point of death should that be called for; this moment of testimony is explicitly Christian and does not permit of any "anonymity" in its Christian expression. Reading the quotation in the context of OTWTL, you do not get the impression that, in the immediately preceding paragraph, von Balthasar has referred to the legend of Cordula, who willingly gave herself up to death a day after her fellow virgins in witness to Christ. The defencelessness to which von Balthasar is referring is anything but a philosophical or ideological principle, as its citation suggests. The use of other citations by OTWTL is the subject of comment in one of the articles in FAITH Magazine.

I also recall thinking that, in so far as I could make out any coherent thought running through OTWTL, it was this. It was an attempt to present a now critiqued experentially based approach to catechetics (I recall encountering ideas of "incarnational theology", rather akin to OTWTL's idea of "sacramental imagination" [which doesn't really have anything to do with the Sacraments themselves, though it sounds as if it does], many years ago) in the language of Christological specificness of a generation brought up on von Balthasar, John Paul II, etc. In the end, it rings a bit hollow, and I found myself not quite believing what it was saying.

I certainly do not think the quality of the work represented by OTWTL warrants its being taken as some sort of magisterial document that must be used as a basis for developing religious education or catechetics in the future. The detailed criticisms offered in the current issue of FAITH Magazine do, I feel, substantiate this view.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Film Review: Happy-go-Lucky

A little while ago I posted on this film, making up most of my post with a quotation from a review on the Jesuit's Thinking Faith site. Following up the dialogue in the comments on that post, we went to see the film this evening. As we were the only two in the cinema to see it, this became almost a private screening (but it did mean we could pass comments to each other as we were watching).

The film turned out to have rather more substance to it than the reviews (including the Thinking Faith review) suggested. The "workshop" manner of its production is apparent in some of the scenes, which leave you wondering a bit what their "point" was or how they "fitted in" with the film as a whole. One example of this is the scene in the bookshop early in the film, where Poppy tries to engage a rather less than communicative shop assistant in conversation. For most people seeing the film, the dialogue probably comes across as quite funny. For me, it didn't communicate as particularly funny; rather it just came over as rather odd. In the context of the film, this could be seen as "Poppy's character"; in the context of the production of the film, one can see it more as the outcome of a "workshop" way of making a film. What the dialogue does do, though, and this is true of other points in the film as well, is to point the audience towards a question about the situation that has been encountered. What is the shop assistant really about? Does he, should he, can he communicate or relate in any way to Poppy as she has come into his shop? And, if the answer is "no, he can't communicate or relate", is that how things should be? Perhaps one can also ask: despite her apparent efforts at communicating with the uncomprehending shop assistant, has Poppy really been able to relate to him?

Another feature of the film is some very nice turns of phrase. So, as Poppy leaves the bookshop and finds that her bicycle has been stolen, she observes that she didn't even have the chance to say goodbye. Similar sharp turns of phrase occur throughout the film, and it is easy to miss them or undervalue them.

Perhaps these two scenes at the beginning of the film open up what is the subject of the film, in my view at least. And that is ... a reflection on happiness in 1990's London. In each of its episodes - and it is a succession of episodes, rather than a continuous plot - it places this question about happiness in a different situation. Four girls on a night out clubbing, and a Saturday morning still drunk back at home. A pupil involved in bullying at school, and the single parent/new boyfriend at home. Poppy taking up with the social worker who visits this pupil in school. Two teacher flat-mates who prefer to rent - they just don't want the hassle of a mortgage - and the contrast between them and younger sister who is married, expecting a baby and has a nice house with a garden at the seaside (and who then tries to tell Poppy that she should take life more seriously).

There are some points of explicit social comment. One example is a pub conversation about pupils who had just stayed in at home during a sunny weekend. The possible explanations come back thick and fast - single parents just too tired making ends meet to be able to take children out, no parks nearby, etc. The concluding dialogue includes an observation "that you can't make everyone happy" with the response "but there's no harm in trying". It also includes a comment by Zoe "I think I should try to give up smoking"

The encounter with the tramp - rather creepy as it is, and a bit "unsituated" in the flow of the film - can be seen, I think, in two ways. It can be seen as raising the question about poverty in present day society; or, and I think this is the better understanding, it asks the question about what constitutes happiness in that situation. Is the tramp really the most unhappy person in the encounter, or is it Poppy?

The driving instructor just appeared to me as a caricature, yes, of racial prejudice and of a certain self-centred neurosis. Poppy's attempts to psychoanalyse the instructors situation (was he bullied at school?) struck me as being equally caricature. Perhaps the character of the instructor and his scenes show evidence of the workshop manner of the film production.

The character of the Flamenco instructor is also interesting. Her explanation of Flamenco as a dance form originating in the wish of a people to have their own self-expression and a statement of their "space" in society - this was well expressed both in the dialogue and the assertive stamping of feet of the dance.

A couple of interesting things about the shooting of the film. The willingness to show street names gives the episodes of the film an embedding in a local situation, a "belonging". The school buildings shown, the skylines of London and a recognisable approach to the road systems around the Docklands area have a similar effect. In a number of the scenes, people's faces are filmed in a closer than usual close up. The full face can be seen as they talk, but the top of the head/hair is above the top of the screen and the shoulders are below the bottom of the screen. This has been particularly used in some shots of Poppy. It gives a sense of entering in to the thoughts of the person speaking, of the presenting of the words of their dialogue as a question being posed to the audience.

So, at the end of the film, is there an answer to what constitutes happiness in today's world? No. Instead, the audience have encountered a series of episodes raising the question of happiness. It would be very easy to see Poppy as a kind of heroine figure trying to spread happiness where ever she goes. But I think I agree with the Thinking Faith review in suggesting that, at the bottom line, she does not have anything of depth to offer, not even in her relationship with the social worker. The film does seem to just "stop" rather than come to an expected end - and you are left without any sense that happiness is better understood after watching the film than it was before seeing it.

But, sorry to strike a realist note, Poppy and Zoe simply would not survive in a primary classroom today. They were never shown doing a fraction of a fraction of the planning that primary teachers have to do and record nowadays!

Tuesday 6 May 2008

The Splendour of Charity - Cardinal Cordes to the Bishops of England and Wales

I have just read (one month late!) the address that Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum gave to the meeting of the Bishops of England and Wales in Leeds in April. The full text can be found on the website of the Bishops Conference. The Pontifical Council Cor Unum is the Vatican office "entrusted by the Holy Father with giving concrete signs of love and charity". Cardinal Cordes showed himself to be very familiar with the situation in England and Wales, referring to legislative pressures on Catholic institutions in the areas of adoption and education, and making an indirect reference to Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's action with regard to the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth and to the challenge

At one point in his address, Cardinal Cordes gives the following account of how the encyclical Deus Caritas Est came into being:

"Since Cor Unum is directly concerned with the praxis of the Church’s love for our fellow human beings, Pope John Paul II had asked that I prepare for him a preliminary draft of a papal writing on charity. My intention was to begin with an inductive presentation: reflections on the general willingness of people to provide help today, followed by a description of Christian initiatives that exist, moving in the end to the rooting of love of neighbour in God. The former Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of my writings. When he was elected Pope, he decided to publish an Encyclical on charity, but he totally reversed my intended order. His starting point is Revelation’s central message: “God is love.” He initiates the Encyclical with a drumbeat, proclaiming the absolute precedence of Him “Who has first loved us” (1Jn 4:10), both in the order of time and in the scale of values."

With hindsight, this God-centredness of the encyclical appears very obvious; but Cardinal Cordes account of the background to the encyclical brings it into a new relief. Cardinal Cordes also draws attention to an idea that was completely new to me. This is the idea that Deus Caritas Est is an encyclical that needs to be implemented, that there is a course of action to be followed in response to the encyclical. Whilst this is something in which all members of the Church have a part to play, Cardinal Cordes believes a primary responsibility rests with the Bishops of the church:

"There is no doubt that Deus caritas est directs itself to various groups in the Church. Nevertheless, the main burden of responsibility for its implementation in dioceses and parishes is placed squarely on the shoulders of the Bishops. It is not only the pastoral realism of the Pope, but also theological reasons that make the ordained Pastors the principle target group for the Encyclical."

The theological reasons referred to are the threefold mission of the Church, particularly entrusted to a Bishop at the time of his episcopal consecration: of teaching the word (martyria, or witness), of celebrating the mystery of redemption (leitourgia) and of active charity (diakonia). The Bishop has an obligation of oversight in all three of these areas.

"Some Catholic aid agencies actively avoid acknowledging this fact and sometimes Bishops themselves fail to exercise their legitimate and necessary oversight, leading to approaches that are predominantly political or economic to the neglect of revealing through love of neighbour the love of the God of Jesus Christ."

In a section headed Christ: the Model of Charity, Cardinal Cordes says:

"The attentive reader of Sacred Scripture clearly sees that the charitable gestures of Jesus and the compassion of the first Christians were always intended to point to the loving-kindness of the heavenly Father."

And the implication of this is drawn in the next section, headed Protecting the Heritage:

"For this reason, it falls still today to Christians, and, in a special way the Church’s Pastors, to be attentive. In other words: Catholic charitable organisations should be careful not to forget the meaning of their activity, influenced perhaps by the present climate or excessive reliance on public funds. The question is one of fostering the Christian roots of the Church’s activity and so preserving the “splendour” of our identity as Catholic charitable institutions."

To express this in a language more familiar to those of us involved in Catholic education, this is to see charitable activity as a first step of evangelisation, that is, the stage of presence in charity to our neighbours. It certainly should not be explicitly prosletysing, but it nevertheless has a Christian identity.

Cardinal Cordes also highlights a Change of Paradigm that he sees in Deus Caritas Est:

"Until now, the Church’steaching on the struggle against misery – like the social encyclicals – dealt with public defects, goals and programs; they addressed factual problems and they insisted on concrete changes outside of oneself. Besides all this, Deus caritas est turns now decisively to committed persons: the Pope wishes to shape the life of the actors through a “formation of the heart” (n. 31a). So, for the first time, he formulates basic guidelines for a “spirituality” of those working in help-agencies.

"Clearly the first preoccupation of Caritas cannot intend to change society and
unjust structures. It is the human heart that makes the structures. Therefore, the essential requirement for action – as the Pope says – is to “be persons moved by Christ’s love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening them with a love ofneighbour” (n. 33)."

So, what are the issues for the implementation of Deus Caritas Est here in England and Wales? I suggest the following two, one at the level of an organisation the other at the level of individuals:

1. CAFOD's annual review for 2006-7 records £7.6m of income as coming from "Government and other grants"; £13.4m came through the Disasters Emergency Committee; £26.0m directly from CAFOD supporters; £3.7m from the Caritas Network; £1.4m from trading and interest earned. The questions for implementation here are about if there are any conditions attached to the income from Government and other grants. But there does seem to be a strong voluntary support base to reflect a Christian identity and so withstand any loss of Government income should that become necessary.

2. The Catholic Herald of 6th May reports that the Nottingham diocesan adoption agency will cut its ties with the diocese because it cannot follow Catholic teaching and comply with gay rights legislation: "From October it will merge with Family Care, the adoption agency of the Anglican Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, to form a new agency, but one which will not be formally linked to the Churches and will be able to place children in the care of gay couples." This does leave unanswered the question of how the staff of the agency will live up to the God-ward orientation of Christian charity, as presumably any Catholic staff will face the possibility of being expected to act against Catholic teaching.