Sunday 30 December 2012

Preaching in the Year of Faith (or "is anyone listening?")

In the last few weeks, I have had two quite contrasting experiences of the homily at Mass. On one occasion I just wondered whether the priest preaching the homily actually believed anyone present was listening; body language in the congregation gave absolutely no confidence that anyone was, and I had long ago exhausted the possibilities of the "Meditations of the Day" in Magnificat, so I certainly wasn't (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). On another occasion, with a much larger congregation, the attentiveness to the homily was almost tangible; it felt as if you could almost touch it. Clearly, factors of place and circumstance will go some way to explaining why these two experiences were so radically different, but, equally clearly, in one the homily "wasn't working" and in the other it was.

In the context of the Year of Faith, the homily at Mass takes on a particular significance. For most Catholics, it is the "ordinary" way in which they receive an ongoing teaching about the content of the Catholic faith and about how that content is to be lived out in daily life. The Year of Faith asks us, if it isn't working, to look at the homily and ask why it isn't working.

It is some time now since I stopped feeling obliged to listen to homilies that lack substantial content or preparation, or are just a pedestrian re-statement of the Scripture readings; I will read a meditation from Magnificat instead or, if in an unfamiliar Church, reflect on the religious art portrayed in windows or images of the Church. Just looked at from a human point of view, if someone is going to stand up and speak to a congregation of which I am a part, I expect them to have something to say and I expect them to say it in a reasonably organised way. If they haven't got anything to say, be they a priest or not, they should not presume on my attentiveness. The privileging of the priest in this regard is an innate clericalism that I don't share.

The homily is a privileged occasion for the bishop or priest in that it is a most solemn exercise of their office as a teacher of the faith to those entrusted to their pastoral care. The liturgy does, after all, reserve the homily to the ordained ministry, and perhaps particularly to the designated pastor in a particular place. In that sense, the homily is not open to the critique that might be offered to an article in an academic journal, for example, or in a public debate. It is not a question of liking or disliking what one hears. But that does not absolve the priest from the obligation to bring to bear his purely human skills in preparing the homily, and failing to do so only undermines his exercise of his office.

According to n.65 of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, in the revised English translation:
The homily is part of the Liturgy and is highly recommended for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.
I have added italics to indicate that n.65 suggests some five different sources on which the content of a homily might be based (though arguably some of them inter-relate strongly enough to say that they do not really constitute different sources). One of the major practical barriers to substance in homilies is the assumption that "the homily must be about the Readings" and the resulting rather pedestrian re-statement of the reading (though Pope Benedict XVI exemplifies time and again how a homily based on the Scripture Readings can both have substance and be more than just a re-stating of the reading, often doing this by making a connection between the reading and other parts in Scripture).
So, in the Year of Faith, I think it would be quite in order for a parish priest to:
preach week-by-week on the different articles of the Nicene Creed, or on the text of the Sanctus, etc
preach on the life and mission of the saint when celebrating the feast day of a saint
relate the Readings to how they are used in the Catechism (using the Scripture index of the Catechism to enable this)
teach on key Catholic doctrines (eg the office of the Successor St Peter, heaven) when the Liturgical occasion presents itself
make use of a source such as Magnificat for short meditations if preaching on a week day
be willing to look at Pope Benedict's homilies, or his volumes Jesus of Nazareth, for ideas
A final thought:

I wonder, do the clergy really recognise when their congregation are listening and when they are not?

Thursday 27 December 2012

Christmas miscellanea

A couple of items of interest courtesy of La Croix.

Les jeunes de Taizé en pèlerinage à Rome, la Ville éternelle. I was particularly struck by the number of young people from countries of Eastern Europe who are expected to take part in this annual "pilgrimage of trust for peace in the world" which takes place in a different European city each New Year. Pope Benedict is due to participate in the celbration of Vespers in St Peter's Basilica on 28th December, to welcome the young people to Rome at the start of the pilgrimage.

Quand les évêques descendent dans la rue. This blog post contains an interesting discussion of the part to be played by Bishops as far as political engagement is concerned. The particular context of the promotion of same-sex marriage makes it very topical in the light of recent interventions from Catholic bishops in our own country.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Archbishop NIchols Christmas Homily - and a laugh at our expense

Archbishop Nichols caught the headlines over the Christmas period because of his remarks about gay marriage in a BBC interview. Reporting somewhat mixed this interview with the text of his homily at Midnight Mass for Christmas, giving the impression that the latter was significantly given over to the question of same-sex marriage. It wasn't, and the full text of the homily is here. It is worth reading the full text to capture the balance of the homily.

Some parts of the homily have a clear two-fold nature as far as what one might call "target audience" is concerned. They are addressed first of all to the faithful present at the Mass, and to the wider faithful of the Catholic community, calling them to "purification". But they also have a secondary address to society as a whole, challenging it to a similar purification, a recognition that not everything and anything is right and proper.
Yet, as St Paul reminds us, if this promise is to be realised in its fullness, then we need to be purified. There are, he tells us, things that we have to give up as they do not lead directly to God. There are aspects of our lives that cannot be lifted up to heaven without that purification.

Sometimes our charity is formed more out of self-interest that genuine compassion for the other. Perhaps we have more than half an eye on the onlookers who will be impressed by our public generosity so that we are seeking the glory that will be ours rather than the relief of need. Sometimes patterns of work and business are simply exploitative of employees, suppliers or customers. A corrosive disrespect can fashion the culture of a business and put in it need of refashioning.

Sometimes sexual expression can be without the public bond of the faithfulness of marriage and its ordering to new life. Even governments mistakenly promote such patterns of sexual intimacy as objectively to be approved and even encouraged among the young.

This Christmas is then a time to make fresh resolves that what we bring to the crib may be more readily, through the Lord's mercy, raised to heaven and become fittingly part of God's good work.
[The homily that I heard on Christmas night could be entitled A laugh at our expense.]

Monday 24 December 2012

Is the child a commodity to be chosen?

BBC News are reporting today on proposed changes to arrangements for adopting children in the UK, proposals which would allow prospective adopters to view the register of children awaiting adoption. The underlying intention is to speed up the adoption process so that children can be placed more quickly; there is not an underlying intention to allow adopters "choice" in the children they wish to adopt. But against the background of the impact of equalities legislation with regard to adoption of children by same sex couples - which was premised on the idea that approval for adoption was a service provided to the prospective adopters - one is entitled to wonder what the on-the-ground experience will turn out to be if these proposals go ahead.

Adoption is not the only context in which it is poignant to ask the question, on the eve of Christmas, as to whether or not the child is a commodity to be chosen or a gift to be received. Medical practices such as IVF treatments and direct abortion of children found in the womb to have a risk of being born with a disability convey the same question.

Is the Child a commodity to be chosen or a Gift to be received? Pope Benedict does not ask the question in these terms when, in the first chapter of his book on the Infancy Narratives he poses the question posed by Pilate in St John's Gospel: "Where are you from?" The answer to the question is both known - he is the son of the carpenter from Nazareth - and yet unknown - he speaks with an authority that comes from elsewhere. When the Church teaches that the office of parents with regard to the generation of new life is a participation in the creative work of God, the same can be said of any child. We do know where they come from - a mother and father can be identified. But at the same time their origin is hidden in that creative act of God.

For those baptised as Christians, this two-fold origin comes to its fulfilment. Pope Benedict ends his first chapter, referring to the prologue of the Gospel of St John:
... those who believe in Jesus enter through faith into Jesus' unique new origin, and they receive this origin as their own. In and of themselves, all those believers are initially "born of blood and of the will of man." But their faith gives them a new birth: they enter into the origin of Jesus Christ, which now becomes their own origin. From Christ, through faith in him, they are now born of God.

So John has recapitulated the deepest meaning of the genealogies [of the Synoptic Gospels], and moreover he has taught us to understand them as an interpretation of our own origin, our true "genealogy".
I do not think a simply pietistic/emotional idea of the child as a gift received from God is a sufficient ground for a pastoral or prophetic mission to family life by the Church. If such an understanding of human origin is to be shared by others outside the Christian family (or even within it), remaining at that level is insufficient. The Christ-Child bears testimony to a supernatural destiny for every child, and some sense of that can be accessed outside of explicit religious belief. It is such a sense that can enable society to experience the child as a gift rather than a commodity to be chosen.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Concerning Pope Paul VI

I would add my voice to that of those who look forward to the possible beatification (and canonisation) of Pope Paul VI. Aunty Joanna: News... and Stella Maris: Pope Paul VI..Venerable? Yes.

It is possible to characterise him as a Pope who has been much misunderstood, but I think it is also important to recognise that he is a Successor of Peter whose stature matches up to that of his immediate successors. But it simply isn't known, perhaps largely to the media coverage that he attracted, though I was not around at the time to know how true that is.

My own thought has been that, at some key points in his pontificate, Pope Paul appears to have acted  with a vivid sense of his charism as the Successor of Peter. What I would dearly like to see is some investigation as to whether or not at these moments he acted in response to an immediately given charismatic intervention of the Holy Spirit. Of the nature of things, we might never know; but one can perhaps nevertheless see clearly a faithfulness to his calling as Successor of Peter.

One such moment might be his attribution of the title "Mother of the Church" to the Blessed Virgin Mary during his address at the closure of the second session of the Vatican Council (n.21 - no English translation on the Vatican website), when the Council itself had not seen fit to address her with that title. Hans Urs von Balthasar subsequently identified this as vitally important, and it certainly characterises the sense of Marian/ecclesial existence that is my natural environment post-Vatican II (as opposed to Marian devotion as some kind of "additionality").

Another has to be Humanae Vitae, and Pope Paul himself seems to offer a hint at this in his introductory remarks in the Encyclical:
6. However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.

Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions.
And the last possibility is the Profession of Faith since known as the Credo of the People of God, delivered as the homily at the Mass to conclude the Year of Faith and delivered just weeks before Humanae Vitae was published. It is one of the most striking examples of "confirming the brethren int he faith" that one can read.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Is Brentwood the diocese Rome has forgotten?

It is now well over a year since the process of appointing a successor to Bishop Thomas began; and it is now pretty much a year since the suggested names from the Diocesan College of Consultors were forwarded to the Nuncio. Bishop Thomas has celebrated his Farewell Mass, with its subsequent pastoral letter.

A conversation earlier this week reminded me of what I feel to be the priority of a new Episcopal appointment. I think the new Bishop needs, before all else, to be able to unite the priests of the Diocese, and this in a very ordinary way.

This week's conversation described a situation where a new parish priest had arrived, as it happens a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Shall we say that "changes" have followed, and there are some difficulties as a result. The "changes" are leading to a Liturgy that is probably a more faithful celebration than previously, though I cannot really judge on the details as these did not form a part of a very general conversation. I was reminded of a situation now a good number of years ago where the arrival of a new parish priest led - with stunning speed - to "changes" in an opposite direction, towards a less faithful form of celebration of the Liturgy.

Even if one remains neutral as to which of these "changes" should be encouraged and which discouraged, the fact that the arrival of a new parish priest can lead to these kinds of situations indicates a radical division among the priests of the Diocese, a division that has significant consequence for the life of faith of the laity. [To be fair to Brentwood Diocese, this situation in all likelihood exists in other Dioceses too.]

A fundamental sign of the unity of the priests of a Diocese is that they should celebrate the Liturgy of the Church in the same way. A result of that unity is that the lay faithful also have a common experience of the Liturgy, be it across different parishes or when a new priest arrives in a parish. Working to promote this seems to me the priority for a new Bishop. It is a task in which the juridical aspect is only an aspect; there is an underlying work for the promotion of communion which cannot be reduced to just its juridical aspect (a danger of a traditionalist inclination) but will include that aspect alongside others.

Pope Benedict expressed it like this, in his letter accompanying the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (my two distinct emphases added):
The celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage. The most sure guarantee that the Missal of Paul VI can unite parish communities and be loved by them consists in its being celebrated with great reverence in harmony with the liturgical directives. This will bring out the spiritual richness and the theological depth of this Missal.
Brentwood Diocese does enjoy celebrations, small in number, of Mass according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and according to the Syro-Malabar Rite. The principles of reverent celebration and harmony with Liturgical directives apply to all of these celebrations and represent a principle of unity across all Liturgical forms. But for the vast, vast majority of the faithful of the Diocese it is the Roman Rite celebrated according to its Ordinary Form that will unite them with their priests and this is why reverent celebration in accordance with the rubrics of the Ordinary Form is so important.

Monday 10 December 2012

"Marriage for all": (a) dishonest and (b) Nick Herbert's give away line

(a) One can see a timeline stretching from the attack on Section 28 of the Local Government Act which led to its repeal down to the present day debate on gay marriage or, as a more appealing strap-line puts it, "marriage for all". At each stage in the timeline there was the assurance, not in those terms but equivalent to them, that "this is as far as we want to go". The whole point to civil partnerships, for example, was that they weren't marriage and, unless I am mistaken, that was the basis on which that particular legislation was passed. But now it isn't enough. The whole thing has a thorough going dishonesty about it, an incremental push, and then push again, to get more and more  societal acceptance of LGBT lifestyles as absolutely equivalent to chaste heterosexual lifestyles, equivalent in every sense including the moral.

But, even if one remains completely neutral as far as the moral judgement one might express with regard to those lifestyles, that they are morally different seems to me as plain as the nose on my face. They are not the same, they never will be the same (whatever legislation might wish to claim) and whenever I have met "the ordinary person on the street" they have not had any sense that they are the same (though they might have a well developed sense of non-discrimination in terms of what they think is appropriate behaviour towards those who live one lifestyle rather than another).

The gay movement uses the language of "equality", but what they seek is not just fair and equitable treatment. They also seek a framework of legislation and culture that enforces onto everyone that absolutely equivalent evaluation of different lifestyles referred to above. The changes sought do not just change things for the LGBT community; they change things for everyone else as well, and this is more apparent in the push for "marriage for all" than it was in the push for civil partnerships.

It was Sir Ian McKellen, speaking at a Stonewall event, who gave the game away as far as the government of Tony Blair's activity in these matters was concerned. He described a visit to Mr Blair before the 1997 General Election at which Tony ticked off each of the demands of Stonewall for progress in "gay rights", saying yes, we will do all of that. Is there a corresponding moment for David Cameron? Because if there is, perhaps we have a right to know about it.

(b) When at the weekend Nick Herbert wrote in his Sunday Telegraph article:
But civil partnerships are not marriages. They convey almost the same legal rights, but they do not express the same universally understood commitment.
and some of the Conservative high and mighty joined him in writing in their letter to the same paper:
"We recognise that civil partnerships were an important step forward in giving legal recognition to same sex couples.

"But civil partnerships are not marriages, which express a particular and universally understood commitment."
I think he made a very significant choice of words. I have added the italics above to draw attention to it.

First, a thought on the use of the word commitment. Speaking of marriage as a "life long commitment of two people who love each other" is deficient because, in the all too common use of this kind of phrase, the terms commitment and love remain undefined. What is committed to is not defined; and love should not be reduced to the fact that two people feel attracted to each other (they may well be attracted to each other as part of the dynamic of their relationship) as that does not constitute love in its full sense. It will be apparent that, if marriage between a man and a woman is understood in this ill-defined way, then there is no reason why marriage understood in this ill-defined way should not be equally accessible to same sex couples.

And second, a thought on Mr Herbert's choice to refer to a particular and universally understood commitment. That particular and universally understood commitment is that a marriage takes place between a man and a woman and thereby establishes a community ordered towards giving life to children and to bringing them up. The commitment (subjective, belonging to a particular couple) is to an institution (objective, and which defines the content of the subjective commitment). "Marriage for all" seeks to redefine in law and in culture the objective content of the commitment of a couple in marriage. The crucial point of Mr Herbert's choosing to refer to a particular and universally understood commitment,however, seems to me to be that, once the content of this commitment has been redefined for the purposes of civil law, the redefined content will become the  particular and universally understood even for opposite sex couples (and for religious bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church).

Mr Herbert's choice of words represents a case that in essence depends on an indifference towards the particular and universally understood commitment to marriage (first thought) but with a deliberate intention of redefining that particular and universally understood commitment (second thought). A rather exquisite kind of contrariness!

After legislation, what will be the position of those whose understanding of the particular and universally understood commitment remains the genuinely particular and universally understood one rather than the redefined one? Will they in conscience be able to take part in "marriage for all" as, in law, there will be nothing else available to them? Will they be forced in conscience to cohabit, in legal terms, whilst in fact having undertaken a clandestine marriage according to the genuinely particular and universally understood manner? Will Roman Catholic parishes cease to act as places for the registration of marriages for the purposes of civil law since, by doing so, their witness to the genuinely particular and universally understood commitment in their liturgy will be contradicted by their acting as places of solemnisation of "marriages for all"?

If Mr Herbert's choice of words indicates, as I believe that it does, an intention that legislation should establish "marriage for all" as the universally understood manner of marriage according to civil law, then there are serious implications for those who do not subscribe to the idea of "marriage for all", implications that can only reinforce the distrust being expressed with regard to assurances that religious organisations, for example, will not be forced to undertake gay marriages if they do not wish to do so.

Saturday 8 December 2012

A treat for the Immaculate Conception

The parish where I from time to time attend Mass on a weekday is celebrating Mass in the Ordinary Form, in Latin, on the evenings of the Friday's of Advent. This appears to have come about from a suggestion made to the parish priest by some of his parish community.

Yesterday evening, Father celebrated the Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, explaining that it being subsequent to the celebration of the first Vespers of the feast we were therefore already in the celebration of the day itself. A real treat!

Booklets were provided with the Latin texts, though they still retained the former English translation. (Newly ordered booklets from the CTS had not arrived in time.) At the homily, Father spoke ably about the Immaculate Conception, but also explained the use of Latin as the official language of the Church and that, by using it in our prayer today, we entered into a language of prayer that had been used by many of the saints before us. An echo here, perhaps, of a remark that Pope Benedict made with regard to the Extraordinary Form - but applicable to the Ordinary Form in so far as many of the texts (eg of Collects and Prefaces) do have roots in the history of the Church's liturgy.

Mass was celebrated in a sensitive manner, and without any "edge" or sense of "making a point"; Father celebrated Mass in a manner that was positive about the language being used, encouraged participation by the faithful in the congregation, but did not "make an issue" of it. And that was important, even for someone like myself, who has a more natural affinity for the use of Latin than might have a typical parishioner.

Particularly because Mass was "said" rather than "sung", it was very easy to see how the new English translation better reflected the Latin than did the previous translation. This was very noticeable for, among other texts, the Entrance Antiphon and the Collect, where it was possible to follow the English in Magnificat in an absolute parallel with the Latin as it was being pronounced. The new English translation can therefore mediate, because of its proximity to the Latin, our participation in the language of prayer used by the saints of the past, to which Father referred in his homily. Its evaluation depends not just on a judgement with regard to the principles of translation that were used, but on a judgement arising from the nature of the Liturgy itself.

It will be interesting to see how the Friday evening Mass attendance plays out during the rest of Advent. There were certainly a number of people present yesterday evening who I had not seen before, and who had come for the Latin. Some may have attended the morning Mass rather than the evening Mass. But a good number of the familiar faces were there, too.

Father had - literally - spent several hours reading the Latin to try and make sure that he could pronounce it in a way that matched its sense. And he did very well. I, for one, was very appreciative of his efforts.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Day of Prayer for Peace in the Middle East

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have asked that today, the Memorial of St John Damascene, be kept as a special day of prayer for peace in the Middle East.

The news in the last 24 hours - with regard to Syria (a proposed deployment of missile batteries to Turkey and concerns that the Syrian regime might use chemical weapons) and with regard to Israel/the Palestinian Territories (the challenge to long term negotiations represented by the building of Israeli settlements) - suggests that the need for this act of solidarity with the people of the Middle East is more urgent than ever.

The Bishops Conference website has a page devoted to the theme: Day of Prayer for the Middle East.
St John Damascene or St John of Damascus (Priest and Doctor of the Church
St John was born about 675 in Damascus (Syria) and died near Jerusalem about 749. He is understood to have followed his father as a Christian official in a Moslem government. Later he became a monk and later Priest at Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem, where he was renowned as a theologian and biblical commentator. He is remembered for his vigorous defence of the veneration of images against the iconoclasts, for his theological writings synthesising the thought of the Greek Fathers, and for his poetry and hymnody.
O God of peace, who are peace itself
and whom a spirit of discord cannot grasp,
nor a violent mind receive,
grant that those who are one in heart
may persevere in what is good
and that those in conflict
may forget evil and so be healed.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
St John Damascene, pray for us.
Prayer text from Roman Missal © 2010 ICEL

Saturday 1 December 2012

I've got a little list ....

... or, rather, earlier this week, The Universities and Science Minister David Willetts had a little list.

It was a list of academic institutions that are to be awarded university status in the near future, following a change in regulations that allows smaller institutions to be recognised as fully fledged universities. They can then use the title "university" in its fullest sense. The BBC report is here 'New' universities set to be created in England;  and the announcement on the site of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills here: Ten institutions on track to become universities.

Two Catholic university colleges are included in the list: Newman University College, Birmingham and Leeds Trinity University College. They will now be recognised by the Privy Council as universities in English law/civil society. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they were also now to seek recognition from the Holy See as Catholic universities, enabling them to use the name "Catholic" as well as the term "University" in their titles.

St Mary's University College was not on the list.