Monday 29 February 2016

Naaman's Lesson

Today's first reading (or lesson, as it is sometimes called), about Naaman the Aramean is a powerful story, about the lesson that Naaman had to learn in order to be cleansed of his leprosy; and it contains an equally powerful lesson for us, in order to be cleansed of our sins.
'If the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, 'wash and be clean' should you do as he said.'
And so it is with us. If someone we trusted advised us to do something truly challenging, in order to be free from all worry, guilt and sin, would we not do it? Even more, since He tells us to repent and confess our sins, should we do as He said.

A Few More Questions

You know how it is: you intend to do something (Thing A), other things take over (Things B through to J, say) and Thing A gets left and done in a rush, when you are tired and not able to give it your full attention.

So it was with yesterday's post. So here are a few more of the questions that have been rattling around in what passes for a brain at the top end of my body.

Given the context, the Year of Mercy, one question that strikes me is: will there be ample opportunities for Confession before and after Mass, and exhortation to those attending to seek mercy for any serious sins on their conscience in the way in which Our Lord offers it?

Will there be booklets available with a proper Examination of Conscience in them, to help those who come seeking mercy truly to embrace it?

And then there is the question asked of Brentwood Cathedral by @dolphinmaria on Twitter: When will you be celebrating Mass welcoming the victims of adultery as part of the #YearOfMercy?

Another is: when is the Mass for paedophile priests? For are they not in need of mercy? And if not a Mass for them, why not? Is it only groups of whom the Guardian would approve who merit Welcoming Masses? Or is it that in this case (as opposed to the others) the powers that be in Brentwood believe that some harm has really been done? Or is it simply that it would be a PR disaster?

Which leads me onto another question: how do we distinguish this series of Welcoming Masses from virtue signalling? Or is there (terrible thought) no distinction to be made in this case?

And perhaps the most troubling question of all: is this using the Mass for something other than its true purpose? For that would be the gravest sin of all.

Sunday 28 February 2016

Some questions

At Brentwood Cathedral they are celebrating a series of Masses for the Year of Mercy, each with a particular emphasis on welcoming particular groups who feel excluded. It is an odd grouping...

I was particularly struck by the mass Welcoming LGBT men and women and their families, and feel it begs several questions. However, it is always hard to question such initiatives. For the first thing those who wish to defend them will tend to say is: 'What about Our Lord? (though they are more likely to use His name than that title), He ate with publicans and sinners!'  That is seen as the unanswerable answer. But the cases are not necessarily alike. 

For, in the first instance, Our Lord was not afraid to call sin by its name, and to call sinners to repentance: indeed that is one of the ways in which He described His mission. So one question is, will those organising this Mass do either of those things?

Moreover, the idea that Our Lord was 'inclusive' is somewhat simplistic. For the Transfiguration he not only excluded the crowds, but even nine of the apostles. What is more relevant here, is that for His first Mass, at the Last Supper, only the initiates, the apostles, were invited.  For centuries, the Church reflected that exclusivity by making a distinction between the first half of the Mass, to which those wishing to join the Church were admitted, and the second half, to which only the baptised were admitted. 

So of course we should be prepared to offer friendship and fellowship to everyone; but that is not the same as saying that unrepentant public sinners are welcome at Mass; and particularly not to invite them (implicitly or explicitly) to receive the Blessed Sacrament.

On the Chartres pilgrimage, before communion at every Mass, there is an announcement to remind people that in order to receive communion, one must be a baptised Catholic, one must have observed the Eucharistic fast, and one must be free from Mortal Sin. So another question is whether any such clarity will be offered on this occasion.

Call me cynical, but I suspect not. Yesterday's Gospel was the parable of the Prodigal Son. People are often keen to point out that the father rushes out to greet the son, before he has even got home, showing how God comes to meet us. True enough. But that is only after the son has repented of his sins and set out on the way back to his father. The modern version of this parable would have the father joining the son in the pigsty and assuring him that eating husks was a perfectly valid lifestyle, and quite as good for him as coming home would be.

In the Year of Mercy, it would seem like a good idea to consider what the Church has traditionally taught about mercy. For example:

322. Which are the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy?

The seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are:
1. To convert the sinner.
2. To instruct the ignorant.
3. To counsel the doubtful.
4. To comfort the sorrowful.
5. To bear wrongs patiently. 
6. To forgive injustice,  
7. To pray for the living and the dead. 

So another question that arises, is this: are numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this list likely to be the focus of this welcoming Mass? Or will it be, in fact, an affirmation of the LGBT identity and lifestyle?

That matters. For the affirmation of what is an objective disorder is a grave injustice, particularly to those afflicted with the disorder, not least given the reality of the personal and social construction of the LGBT identity about which I blogged, in passing, recently.

I am always struck by the phrase Gay Pride. Back when I was a boy, pride was generally discouraged in the Church, and indeed in wider society. But no more, it seems.  Which reminds me of this line in the Magnificat: He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart. I think it very significant that this line refers to imagination (eg the constructed gay identity) and heart (this is not an intellectual confusion, but a mis-direction of the will).

Ministry to those afflicted with this disorder is essential. But it is essential that it be done well: that is with an orientation to the truth, as taught by the Church. For it is the Truth that will set all of us free. Anything less is, at least, a grave failure of charity, and something posing as mercy that is really something quite different.

Saturday 27 February 2016

Priorities in Basildon?

From the Newsletter of Our Lady and All Saints, Basildon (page 4):
Mass for the LGBT Community and their families in the Year of Mercy 
On Sunday 13th March, Fr Dominic will be preaching at the 6.30pm evening Mass in Brentwood Cathedral, with a particular welcome extended to those whose sexuality is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), and their families; everyone is very welcome to come, and to bring friends and family members. This Year of Mercy is a time to particularly welcome those who have felt excluded or rejected by the Catholic Church, and it is a sad truth that this has been the case for many within the LGBT community.

This raises a number of questions, which I will address in due course. For now, I merely add that I note on page 7 of the same newsletter:
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament   
Please note, this is no longer taking place.
Further comment seems superfluous. 

Why are all orthodox Catholics nutters?

Intellectual debate is a staple of our household, as I am sure you will appreciate. So it is perhaps no surprise that my wife and I often discuss the deepest and most intractable problems. Yesterday, we touched (yet again) on the questions: Why are all orthodox Catholics nutters?

Those who read my ravings on a regular basis will know that I am wary of splashing absolutes about too freely, so I will quickly qualify that to 'almost all.' The exceptions, of course, gentle reader, include you and me.

But it remains the fact that many of our best, and most orthodox, friends are (how shall I put this?) well off the centre of any standard distribution of normality. The same seems to be true of many of those orthodox Catholics whom I don't know personally, but who contribute to the public debate.

Why should that be? I suppose one reason is that in order to be an orthodox Catholic in our society (and even, alas, in most of our Catholic parishes) demands that one be well-differentiated (as a psychologist friend of mine once remarked of me). That may have other aspects that strike the average observer as somewhat reminiscent of a candidate for an asylum.

But in reality, I suspect what really goes on is that we judge, at least in part (and probably wholly out of our conscious awareness) by the standards of the world, and that nuttiness in largely in the eye of the beholder.

Monday 22 February 2016

An Unreliable Pope

Today's Gospel reminds us of the institution of the Papacy: the promises of Christ to Peter, that he was to be the rock on which the church is founded, and would have the keys and the power to bind and loose.

Yet when we consider Peter, we see a very fallible man. This is the one whose faith wavered when walking on the water, whom Christ addressed as Satan and rebuked for his worldly thinking, who promised to go with him to death, only to deny him three times. What an unreliable pope...

What was Our Lord thinking? For he surely saw all this as clearly as he saw that Judas would betray him.

We cannot know, of course. However, just as I think one of the reasons for the choice of Judas was to help us to recognise that we may well have the occasional bishop who betrays his office, so I think that Peter reminds us that we cannot expect every pope to be perfect in every way.

But just as Peter came good, so may the most errant pope; and just as Judas, without knowing or intending it, played a part in God's providential plan, so may the most unworthy bishop.

And of course the other promise that goes with the Petrine promises is that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Taming God

Our Parish Priest preached a good sermon today on the Transfiguration. He picked up on the words 'the disciples were afraid,' and discussed why we were not as 'afraid' of God as perhaps we should be.

His thesis was that we have 'domesticated' (his word) God; that we have made Him a safe and comfortable God. He was a little uncomfortable with the notion of being afraid of God, but certainly thinks we are not sufficiently in awe of Him.

I think he is right; and thought it a little sad that immediately after Mass, people started chatting in Church, as they always do, oblivious of the few who remain there to pray. It is just another space, like the coffee shop or the bus station where people get together. There was no sense of the fear of the Lord, or the need to respect His house as a house of prayer.

 I was also struck by an irony. The parish he runs is very domesticated in that way (as are most parishes in this country). That is largely the result of factors that pre-date his incumbency, and are not easy for him to address (though I suspect he doesn't see them in the way I do).

The liturgy is the most obvious example. The change from a hieratic language to a domestic language is part of that process of domestication. So, too, is the change of his role, from the emphasis on being a sacrificing priest, to being the presider at the communal gathering. Likewise the opening up of the sanctuary, converting it from a sacred space to a stage. And, I would argue, so is the simplistic notion of participation that has been imposed on us since the 1960s.

He is a good man, but does not seem able to see the link between the things he laments (domestication, the lack of people turning up for confession or benediction, or daily Mass) and the way in which Mass is celebrated (we had the most illiterate of our readers today, who managed to mangle both readings - but all must be included!)

I am still debating the merits of trying to have that conversation with him...

And then on the larger scale, I look at the compromises and prevarications of more senior clerics, and think that theologically, too, they are taming God.  But that is perhaps the subject of another post.

Sunday 14 February 2016

Brain Science

I have been watching David Eagleton's series on The Brain on the BBC iPlayer with great interest. I was particularly struck by the plasticity of the brain: how we actually shape and develop our brain by the way in which we use it.

The study of brains of professed religious, who had often lived long and disciplined lives, revealed that many of their brains showed that they had developed Alzheimer's Disease: yet in life they had shown none of the symptoms of Alzheimer's.  

The effect of learning any particular discipline, whether music, free climbing or cup-stacking was extraordinary, in terms of how the brain develops as a result of repeated training, in order for the learned activity to be entirely natural, and to some extent effortless.

That underpins the classical conceptions of the virtues, of course: the habit of behaving in a particular way, which is developed by repeated as-if behaviour. That is, if I wish to develop the virtue of charity, I should repeatedly think and behave as a charitable person would do; as-if I were a charitable person. If I do that in a sustained and systematic way, I develop my brain so that such behaviour is natural to it.

That is not to down-play the role of grace, of course. It is only by being receptive to grace that I will be able to think and behave as if I were charitable in a sustained and systematic way. But it does underline the importance of a spiritual discipline if we are to grow holy brains. St Benedict knew a thing or two...

It also sheds some light on the whole debate about gender identity and sexual preferences. Whilst there may well be both genetic and environmental factors that incline an individual one way or another, there is no doubt that consistently thinking and behaving in whatever way one does is the way in which one constructs such an identity. And as with the other examples, that will then feel entirely natural.

Which is why I believe, if one accepts the evidence that aberrant sexual identities lead to poor outcomes in terms of health and happiness (and the evidence is certainly there to support that), it is not wise for society to pretend that all gender identities and expressions are equally good; for it may lead more young people than would otherwise do so to adopt, and to make real for themselves, such identities. 

Whereas a strong heteronormative education, and a strong education for chastity, are likely to help more young people to develop a healthy self-understanding and a healthy identity, leading to better outcomes for them and society. The challenge is to do that in a way that does not lead to unjust discrimination against the very small minority for whom the genetic and environmental factors are so strong that they develop aberrant identities despite this support.

Sunday 7 February 2016


Today, Quinguagesima, is the last Sunday in the count-down to Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday.

Here is the Introit of the Mass (EF)  sung by the Benedictine Nuns of Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation, Le Barroux:

Esto mihi in Deum pro­tectórem, et in locum re­fúgii, ut salvum me fácias: quóniam firmaméntum meum et refúgium meum es tu: et propter nomen tuum dux mihi eris, et enútries me

In te, Dómine, sperávi, non confúndar in ætérnum:  in justítia tua libera me et éripe me.

Glória Patri...

Be Thou unto me a God, a protector, and a place of re­fuge, to save me: for Thou art my strength and my refuge: and for Thy name’s sake Thou wilt lead me, and nourish me. 

In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped, let me never be confounded: deli­ver me in Thy justice, and save me.

Glory be to the Father...      .

Curiously, while Quinquagesima is indeed 50 days before Easter as its name would suggest, Sexagesima and Septuagesima are not 60 and 70 days before Easter.

This period of pre-Lenten preparation has been replaced in the new Calendar by a few Sundays of Ordinary Time; these are then resumed after Pentecost, as a further set of Ordinary Time Sundays.  In former times (and still, if one celebrates according to the traditional calendar) these were the Sundays after Pentecost.

In my view, that change is an impoverishment.  The seasons of the Church year used to be a constant reminder of one or other of the great mysteries of our Faith.  It seems particularly ironic that in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, when we were all supposed to be so much more aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church today, we should have removed the reference to the descent of the Holy Spirit in our counting of the Sundays after Pentecost, and replaced them with 'Ordinary.'

If I had my way, we'd call them Ghostly Sundays, in honour of the Holy Ghost, and because it would be such a great name!

Tuesday 2 February 2016

The Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary

One of the joys of tradition is that one does not have to keep inventing new stuff all the time. So without further apology or justification, here is my regular post on today's feast.

Today is the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It is also known as Candlemas:

It marks the occasion on which we meditate in particular the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary: that extraordinary visit of the Holy Family to the temple, to be met by the prophet Anna and Simeon, the priest, and to make the required sacrificial offering for a first-born son.

There is so much to meditate on: the humility of Our Lady (of all people) being ritually purified;  the devout Jewishness of the Holy Family; the idea of Our Lady offering God back to God, and being entrusted with God by God; the extraordinary prophecies of Anna and Simeon; the pre-figuring of the replacement of the temple of the Old Covenant with the Temple of the New, in the person of Christ: the locus of the one true redemptive sacrifice.

Today also marks the end of the Christmas season: our cribs will be taken down in the evening, and we will sing the Alma Redemptoris Mater, for the last time. Thereafter, we start singing the Ave Regina Caelorum.  That is sung daily until compline of the Wednesday of Holy Week.

Ave, Regina Caelorum,
Ave, Domina Angelorum:
Salve, radix, salve, porta
Ex qua mundo lux est orta:
Gaude, Virgo gloriosa,
Super omnes speciosa,
Vale, o valde decora,
Et pro nobis Christum exora.

Hail, O Queen of Heaven enthroned.
Hail, by angels mistress owned.
Root of Jesse, Gate of Morn
Whence the world's true light was born:
Glorious Virgin, Joy to thee,
Loveliest whom in heaven they see;
Fairest thou, where all are fair,
Plead with Christ our souls to spare.