Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Freedom of Speech and Catholic Dissent

I have been reflecting on our increasing loss of freedom of speech in society and contrasting this with the phenomena of widespread dissent within the Church. It seems to me they are closely linked.
It seems to me our freedom of speech as catholic Christians is being slowly but surely eroded. Dressed up as though we are being asked for nothing more than ‘politically correct’ speech, the truth is that the world detests our Catholic views and does not want them in the public square. People have the right to label our views narrow or stupid, but they are virtually labelling them ‘hate speech’ which can, theoretically, lead to us being prosecuted for abusive behaviour (remember the Anglican Bishop of Chester being questioned by Police in 2003 for saying some homosexuals can be reoriented and that he encouraged them to look at that option?
For the sake of Free Speech I allow for the secular-minded to label us ‘stupid’, but they cannot be allowed to make that so-called ‘stupidity’ criminal: stupidity is not a criminal offence. Yet we Christians do seem to be on the receiving end of active persecution which uses the law to hammer us into submission (remember the prosecution of the Peter and Hazelmary Bull who would not rent a room to a homosexual pair? Today’s ‘tolerant society’ thus shows itself to be intolerant of Christians. From where does such intolerance of Christians arise? I do not think it arose within the secular State alone; I think it also took root in the Church after Vatican II when the Council failed to ‘canonise’ its teaching with the tried and tested, “Therefore, if anyone says...let him be anathema”. I believe any unorthodox canons would have alerted the orthodox majority to ambiguities and prevented them signing the documents. As it is, the Council simply left us with pages and pages of texts that clarify little and allow for the distortion of everything.
That the Council did not canonise anything is most unfortunate since the 1960’s were a time of moral collapse (the so-called sexual revolution only destabilised family life and society). Weak –though sincere- Catholics, from Bishops through to laity, thus made the mistake of reading Vatican II’s call to discern the signs of the times as a call to disciple the times. Though sincere of soul, such Catholics morphed into dissenters. They re-labelled themselves ‘pastoral’ catholics, but the reality is that their ‘pastoral sensitivity’ was and is simply a rejection of Catholic teaching and Canon Law while advocating the acceptance of such moral aberrations as artificial contraception, abortion, homosexual activity, etc.
Is it possible to say that such ‘pastoral catholics’ have lost the Faith? Yes, it is possible, because they stand in clear contradiction to the teaching of the Church through the ages. Perhaps from a fear of appearing narrow or a desire not to offend, they have sided with “the world, the flesh and the devil” rather than with the Church, the Truth and the Lord, thereby weakening the Church and allowing her to be dismissed as a house divided. And indeed, they have divided post-Vatican II Catholics one from another, and divided today’s Catholics from those of the past. Unwittingly, they are doing the work of Satan who divides in order to conquer -something he has done ever since the fall when he divided man from God, man from man, and man within himself.
Erroneous ‘pastoral sensitivity’ is regrettable among the laity, but reprehensible when it is found among those in Holy Orders who are called to be shepherds engaged in uniting the flock, not hirelings who allow the wolves to divide and devour the flock. We must pray daily for our Priests of both Episcopal and Presbyteral ranks, that being sincere in seeking God’s glory and the good of souls, they will raise their voices against the killing of unborn babies; against artificial contraception which refuses to co-operate with God, and against homosexual sex which, like contraception, robs the procreative act of its natural, procreative end.
I suggest a renewal in that kind of pastorally sensitivity which avoids dissent: ‘doing the truth in charity’ (Eph.4v15): listening to the pain of those who feel they have to live contrary to the Church’s teaching; informing them as to why what they are doing is wrong; assuring them that God loves them; affirming that He is offering them the grace to live by Truth; praying with them for that grace and the strength to move on, and encouraging them to continue attending Mass and live out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Simply accepting moral aberrations so as to avoid emotional pain is not pastoral care; it simply robs those cared for of their Faith while endangering the pastor’s own soul. It is anything but pastoral. It is certainly not wise.

As I have said before, we need an urgent return to sound catechesis in schools so as to form the youth; a return to solid doctrinal formation in seminaries to form shepherds, and a return to reverent liturgy celebrated ad orientem to refocus us on God. Sadly, ‘pastoral’ catholics recoil at such suggestions. Why? What is so objectionable in clear teaching and reverent liturgy? I suspect revulsion to sound teaching arises from a desire to have difficult pastoral situations eradicated by having The Way (which is narrow –Matt.7v13-15) made wide and painless, with revulsion toward reverent liturgy arising from the desire to celebrate the inner self (our ‘giftedness’) and delight the ‘assembly’ so that they come back next week. Dissenting catholics and weak shepherds may seem ‘pastoral’ to the morally aberrant and ‘enlightened’ to the world, but to the Lord they are souls in danger: “Woe unto you when the world speaks well of you, for this is how their ancestors treated the false Prophets.” (Luke 6v26). 

Friday, 21 June 2013

What the Traditional Mass Did With Me

Having converted to the Faith some 33 years ago all I ever knew was the Novus Ordo. I had been well instructed, so I knew the Mass to be the Sacrifice of Calvary re-present-ed, and I knew the Holy Eucharist to be the Lord Himself, but I had never even heard of another form of Mass until a lady in our congregation asked me to go with her to a local hotel where the ‘old Low Mass’ was being celebrated in conjunction with the SSPX. It was certainly different and was more demanding: we were not led by the hand via constant dialogue. Not until I entered seminary did I discover the liturgy (and therefore the Mass) was used as a kind of flag-waving exercise (surely an odious attitude). I discovered it only having been allocated my ‘group’ (seminarians from each year being placed in ‘groups’ led by a faculty member). Each of these groups took it in turns to arrange and serve the liturgy for one week, some taking the opportunity to use Missa De Angelis; others to sing ditties. In this the liturgy became a kind of political focus rather than a purely spiritual event.
From first year onwards until my after ordination I was given the opportunity to work with the Day Pilgrim service in Lourdes. While there I saw the kind of ‘Youth Mass’ that was planned like a performance and which turned me off doing anything outside the rubrics. Of course I had to celebrate school Masses where they played pop songs or skits performed for the Gospel. I was never at ease with such things but thought that as a curate (assistant priest) I had no real say in what would be done. When I was appointed a Parish Priest (Pastor) for the first time some 12 years ago I ensured that we engaged the youngsters by having them introduce the Mass, proclaim the readings, lead the General Intercessions and provide the music. We kept mimes and pop music until Mass had ended or for paraliturgies.
Then, about ten years ago now, a priest friend asked me to celebrate his Traditional Mass while he was away on holiday. I worked hard over two weeks to study the rubrics (I still made mistakes the first few times) and discovered the Mass a-new. I was aware that this was the Rite known to St Dominic, St Francis, St Ignatius, St Alphonsus, St Gregory and to my favourite Popes, St Pius X and Pius XII. I suddenly felt a deep need to be personally holy in order to celebrate such a venerable Rite.
Now it is not that the Holy Sacrifice is less holy or requires less reverence in the Novus Ordo, but that I did not experience that requirement since it was celebrated it with folk-style music, laughter, applause etc. Beneath these the sense of the sacred seemed all but lost. We were trying to engage the people it is true, but we were doing so by mere activity rather than active contemplation (I thus became very uncomfortable with concelebrated Masses because I never knew with what I would be presented). A major awakening occurred for me when I came to celebrate the Traditional Rite: we were singing the Mass, not singing at Mass, and it was not the kind of music I would hear on the radio. The chant had an altogether different, even ethereal quality, and was sung in a language that united all people in every land at every time in one common voice of praise. From its very opening, the Traditional Rite did not seem open to a loss of the sense of the sacred: I was, even before approaching the altar, asking God ‘who gives joy to my youth’ to send forth His light and His truth; I was encouraging myself:  ‘why groan within’; ‘hope in Him, my Saviour and my God’; I was asking Him ‘have mercy’, to ‘grant absolution and remission of our sin’. It occurred to me that in the Novus Ordo I approach the altar as if by right rather than by grace. It also occurred to me that I could ‘rest’ in the Traditional Rite -I no longer had to be careful of facial expressions or tone of voice, for I was facing the Lord and ‘whispering the sacred words into his ear’. I was learning here that I could not only reverence the Eucharist Itself, but the liturgy; the clothing with dressed and presented.

The most profound effect of learning the Traditional Rite was not that it brought me to offer every Mass well, which it did, but that knowing this was the Rite loved by the saints of the centuries, defended by the martyrs and hallowed by time, it seem to require me to seek a new depth of holiness which, though I daily fail, I yet strive to achieve by making gains in patience, humility, generosity, industry and courage.

Monday, 17 June 2013

On ‘Liturgical Dance’: Sursum corda

At Youth and school Masses (should we not say ‘Masses celebrated in schools’ or ‘Mass with the youth’?) we are expected to happily welcome ‘liturgical dance’ or songs performed with interpretive gestures. Yet there is no such thing as ‘liturgical dance’ or interpretative presentations; they are out of place in Eucharist-centred worship:
"Notitiae" 11 (1975) 202-205 characterised as a ‘qualified and authoritative sketch.’  

Neither can acceptance be had of the proposal to introduce into the liturgy the so-called artistic ballet, because there would be presentation here also of a spectacle at which one would assist, while in the liturgy one of the norms from which one cannot prescind is that of participation.
The traditional reserve of the seriousness of religious worship, and of [Roman Catholic] worship in particular, must never be forgotten.
If local churches have accepted the dance, sometimes even in the church building, that was on the occasion of feasts in order to manifest sentiments of joy and devotion. But that always took place outside of liturgical services.
Conciliar decisions have often condemned the religious dance because it conduces little to worship and because it could degenerate into disorders.
Dance, skits etc., may well have a place in paraliturgies since they can be useful in engaging the youth (and those who seek an animated experience of worship), but the Eucharist is altogether different since in the Eucharist, God the Son worships God the Father; a worship to which we unite ourselves by consciously, actively, lifting up our hearts (Sursum corda). A few brief points will illustrate why dance, interpretive gestures, comedic homilies etc., are inappropriate in the celebration of Mass.
First, the sanctuary is the holy of holies; symbolic of the place where the Most High Dwells. In terms of spirituality then, it is inappropriate to upstage God in His own sanctuary. In terms of liturgy, the sanctuary is the Presbyterium where the priests of the Lord offer His Divine Sacrifice. Since priests have been called by God and set aside by Him for a specific role within the community, to have laity (children or adults) gather around the altar where the presbyter fulfils his role does not so much blur the distinction of our God-given roles as demolish it.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal 2012: Arrangement Of A Church For The Liturgical Assembly

294. The People of God, gathered for Mass, has a coherent and hierarchical structure, which finds its expression in the variety of ministries and the variety of actions according to the different parts of the celebration. The general ordering of the sacred building must be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly and allows the appropriate ordering of all the participants, as well as facilitating each in the proper carrying out of his function.
The faithful and the choir should have a place that facilitates their active participation.
The priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other ministers have places in the sanctuary. Seats for concelebrants should also be prepared there. If, however, their number is great, seats should be arranged in another part of the church, but near the altar.

Second, and importantly, dance and comedy alter the way the Holy Mass is perceived. When the talents of comedy and dance are used in the liturgy we inherently imply that Holy Mass is but another context in which our gifts and skills can be displayed and affirmed. Further, since comedy and dance are enjoyable, we begin to see Mass as something to be enjoyed, just as one would enjoy a school performance or a parish cabaret.
Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of Congregation for Divine Worship, Apostolate for Family Consecration Conference, 2003:
The difficulty is this: we come to Mass primarily to adore God  - what we call the vertical dimension. We do not come to Mass to entertain one another. That's not the purpose of Mass. The parish hall is for that.

Third, dance and comedy change both the focus and the dynamic of the assembly. Dance and comedy, even if the intention is to glorify of God, by their nature solicit our attention on the joke or dance, the homilist or dancers, thereby constituting a distraction from our focus on God. This is not the case when we simply follow the liturgical books in which all we do is God-focused: we are God-focused when confessing our sinfulness, listening to the readings, preaching the Gospel, interceding in the General Intercessions, presenting the gifts, offering the Sacrifice and receiving Holy Communion. This is not so when we change the focus to a dance or jokes. Further, when the focus of those gathered thus shifts, we change the very dynamic of the event from worship of God to the community’s talents, intrinsically turning those present from a worshipping congregation into an audience, effectively creating an ‘intermission’ in the act of worship.
Cardinal Arinze, Prefect of Congregation for Divine Worship, Apostolate for Family Consecration Conference, 2003:
But when you introduce wholesale, say, a ballerina, then I want to ask you what is it all about. What exactly are you arranging? When the people finish dancing in the Mass and then when the dance group finishes and people clap -don't you see what it means? It means we have enjoyed it... So there is something wrong. Whenever the people clap -there is something wrong- immediately.
Fourth, by limiting dance and comedy to paraliturgies we can enhance the status of the Mass; we can help the people to see the Eucharist as sacrosanct. Surely this is something we all want, never mind have a duty to assert? The more that people understand the immense dignity of the Eucharist, the more they will perceive God’s generosity in providing It -and experience their own value to Him in receiving It.
Finally, by implying that the liturgy can be enhanced by use of our human talents in comedy and dance etc., we reduce people’s awareness of the Mass as the sacrosanct pinnacle of Christian worship offered by Christ to the Father. Indeed, our external activity at Mass has become more important to many clergy, teachers, parents and dancing participants (of all ages) than the Actio Christi, the hidden action of Christ in the Eucharist, since they are unhappy when they are told it is to be omitted.
To be sure, no one wants to exclude dance, comedy, skits etc from the religious experience of the youth (or those seeking an animated experience of worship), but we do want to see them used in their proper context and not in the Divine Liturgy that is the Mass. At the Divine Liturgy we are (or ought to be) focused on God from beginning to end, not asked to take time out so as to laugh with comedic homilists or admire and applaud delighting dancers.

P.S. Have you ever noticed that many of those who like (or want to introduce) such things as dance to the liturgy are offended when the (optional) exchange of the sign of peace is omitted and actually refrain from actions which are required in the Missal, such as bowing at the Incarnatus est of the Creed and striking the breast during the Confiteor? 

Lessons from the Saga of Pope Francis and CLAR

I have refrained from making any comments about Pope Francis for fear they would be taken as a disregard for him and for his ministry as Pope. This is what appears to have happened following a recent post by Fr Hugh of Dominus mihi adjutor. But there is much sense in Father Hugh’s post, and I for one did not see any vitriol or disrespect toward our Holy Father in it.
Let us be clear: reigning Popes have never, from the time Paul confronted Peter, been above criticism. As such, I feel able to express disappointment with any Pope without questioning his integrity, holiness or over-all competency. In regard to Pope Francis, I simply think that by allowing himself to be portrayed as the ‘humble pope’ by ditching papal regalia/etiquette and dumbing down the liturgy, it can seem that he is saying “look how humble I am”. This can only be corrected by making use of the papal regalia/etiquette that define not him, but his office; it would show he has subordinated himself to his office. Second, since every priest and bishop in the world could say we are generally competent in our office but at times said or done something we later felt was ill-advised, why should we not allow for this same reality in a pope? After all, indefectibility is not part of the Papal office.
To add my two-bob’s worth to the Francis saga then, let me simply say that Fr Bergoglio does seem unaware that his words and actions are scrutinised to the zenith degree now that he is Pope and that for this reason he must be very careful in what he says and does. But we have to give him time; I am sure he will learn this in much the same way as we all do –by our mistakes. Over-all, my impression is simply Pope Francis does not want the adornments of his office to be seen as self-aggrandisement; that he wants to be seen simply as a co-follower of the Lord; as a kind of ‘parish priest of the world’ rather than Supreme Pontiff. But he must not ignore that he is, in fact, the Supreme Pontiff, and that this brings serious obligations and responsibilities for safeguarding the Faith and the faithful. To be free and easy with words can, rather than endear any of us to the folk, irritate a fair portion of our flock, become a cause of division and, in fact, be imprudent simply by their nature of being off-the-cuff, un-thought out, remarks. For all of us –Pope, Bishop, Priest or Layman- imprudent remarks can make us something of a liability.
Can I suggest however, that we all have something to learn from the Pope’s remarks to CLAR? The Pope must learn that imprudence is inherently possible with off-the-cuff remarks and be more careful in the future; we, on the other hand, have to stop reading the words of a Pope as absolute, precise elucidations of his thought on every occasion that he opens his mouth; we need to give him the same leeway for imprudence we expect for ourselves, since we all have the possibility of making mistakes in everyday conversations. We cannot expect the Pope to live under the pressure of watching every word he says from the moment he gets out of bed in the morning.

It would be useful if this learning was to take place now for both Pope and for us, since his remarks to CLAR (at least as they were reported) seem to cast a slur against many devout Catholics around the world who simply hold to ages-old, tried and tested liturgy and devotions. Indeed it is because of this that they are likely to be among his most faithful subjects; they simply do not go in for dissent as do the ‘Progressives’ and are not unthinking ‘Conservatives’ who blindly follow all that comes from Rome. Rather, they are intelligent, devoted sheep who weigh up and seek to clarify and harmonise what we are given by Rome today with what Rome has given in the past. Unfortunately the Pope’s remarks have presented him as having no concern for such intelligent, devoted sheep. I am sure that this is not the case; I am sure that his genuine solicitude for every person on the planet cannot be seriously doubted.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Making Mass Holy Again

The Catechism tells us (CCC.1090) taking up the words of Vatican II, that at Mass we participate in the worship offered in heaven: "In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 8; Lumen Gentium 50). This must be so if the Risen Lord is Truly and Substantially Present in the Eucharistic species, for where God is, there is heaven. Many seem to overlook the fact we are not imitating the angels and saints at Mass: the Sanctus reminds us that we are “with the angels and saints” (Prefaces of the Mass). It is no wonder that to our Orthodox brethren the Mass is known as The Divine Liturgy.
If we truly believe in the Real Presence we cannot deny that when we are at Mass we are in heaven; that we are participating in the very worship of heaven. Our celebration of the liturgy (the ‘clothing’ of the Mass we might say) must therefore reflect the heavenly reality; it must provide an experience of the transcendent so that we can attain to an awareness of the numinous. Sadly, what has happened over the last few decades is that the liturgy has been bannalised and made to reflect the culture of man: hymns are sung to commonly known folk tunes; folk and rock instruments have become the background to words and gestures; altars are made from materials reflecting the local industry; informality wherein the celebrant insets himself into the congregation to preach and distribute Holy Communion is common. It has become so commonplace to make the Mass reflective of human culture rather than the worship offered by heaven that priests are asked to play pop songs at weddings and funerals. I have been asked for ‘The Wedding’ and ‘Everything I do, I do for you’ at weddings, and for ‘My Way’, ‘Wind Beneath my Wings’ and ‘Someday, We’ll Be Together’ at funerals. When asked I ask, gently, if they will be singing hymns at the reception. It immediately clicks with people that Church is for hymns, and the Club the place for pop music. None of the foregoing –informality of celebrants, pop tunes etc- are reflective of heaven, yet all too often it is informality and the ‘pop’ culture that we experience at Mass, many of us having lost sight of the fact that Holy Mass is heaven on earth. We need to restore the sense of the sacred, but this is decidedly hard when too many of our Bishops and liturgists have been formed in the informal, populist ways of the last forty years and are unable to think outside the box in which they were so rigidly formed. I dare here to suggest some very simple steps we can take to restore the sense of the sacred; to re-sacralise the liturgy and make Mass Holy again.
The first step is architectural. The barns of the last few decades, stripped of traditional Catholic imagery and with a sanctuary raised only by one step, should go. We need a building that raises one’s eyes to heaven by its height; a building where religious imagery of the angels and saints reminds us that we have left the world behind and entered heaven; a building where the sanctuary is raised by at least three steps to indicate the Holiness of the Triune God. We also need altars of marble or stone to reflect Christ our Rock. Today, even altars reflect man’s local culture: I have seen an altar the altar like scaffolding in a steelworks area, while in a seaside town a sea rock was flattened off on top to make the mensa. If this is not making the liturgy reflective of earth rather than heaven, I don’t know what is. Altar rails need not be restored if people are totally adverse to them, but they are at least helpful –in fact most valuable- in symbolically separating the world from the holy of holies and thus helping those in attendance to grasp the sacred nature of the sanctuary and what takes place there.
The second step is the celebration of Mass ad orientem. It is impossible not to ‘play to the audience’ when Mass is offered facing the people, because we naturally focus the mind on what the eyes see in order to make cognitive sense of what is seen.
The third step is use of music that is ‘other’ than pop tunes and songs, which reflect the popular culture of man, not heaven. Chant, as the music given to the world by the Church and as required by Vatican II, must be restored. It is ingenious to claim to be ‘a Vatican II man’ when the Council’s liturgical decrees are deliberately flouted or left unimplemented simply because one cannot think beyond the box in which one was formed. We ought not to sing at every moment, for that would be to omit the sacred silence necessary for good liturgy; that silence which reflects the Presence of God among us. As scripture says, “The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Habakkuk 2v20).
The fourth step is the deportment of the priest and his ministers. When altars are used as desks for Fathers spectacles, hymn book, bulletin, glass of water etc., we symbolically tell the people that the mensa is just another working surface and not the Altar of Sacrifice (an aside: notice how many people speak of the sanctuary as the altar? “Johnny is on the altar today”). Assisting Ministers (servers and deacons) should have the dignity of the Palace Guard, by which we do not mean ‘rigid’, but erect. Priests too must learn to conduct themselves with the same dignity and grace in both gesture and pace of movement, by which we do not want to see them effeminately prancing around but moving with the dignity of the soldier approaching his King to be knighted. Priests should also learn to utter the texts of the Mass prayerfully, not as though they were lecture notes. Ministerial attire also needs attention. Beautiful vestments for the priests are works of art which instruct, while servers should return to wearing the cassock and cotta rather than an alb –which is the undergarment of clergy vestments; albs are not attire in themselves.
Finally, reception of Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue is the only way to symbolically inform those receiving that this is not common bread which we may take in our hands without thinking; nor is it a ticket we take to gain entry to the cinema. It is God Incarnate, the Lamb of God Sacrificed and Risen (Rev.5v6).  Reception in the mouth is not infantile but reminiscent of lovers where one places food in the mouth of the other in an intimate manner. Further, kneeling for Holy Communion was the only time many people got to touch the holy of holies. When we receive standing, none who are not ordained to it get to touch the sanctuary except the chosen few. Reception on the tongue while kneeling is a witness to the Real Presence, and gives us another meaning to the text of sacred scripture that “every knee shall bend and every tongue confess...” (Philip.2v10).

We occasionally still hear some speak of ‘Holy Mass’, but I don’t think we often see it celebrated that way. It is time we did.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Why I Became a priest

At an event I recently attended I was asked by a lady I have not seen for 30 years why I became a priest. I mumbled off a quick response because I was about to leave and anyway, it’s not so interesting a story. But she is not alone in asking "where I come from", and I have been asked to blog my story even in simple style. So here goes...

My father, Joss, was at first a coal miner, then a builder; my mother, Jean, was a home-maker and a part-time barmaid. I was born the fourth of six living children (we had a brother who died before birth). My three sisters were all in the caring professions; my elder brother was a builder, my younger brother a cobbler. 

We were not a religious family; attending Church played no part in our family life, and yet my paternal grandmother attended chapel on Sunday evenings and my maternal grandfather was a devout Catholic. When I asked why we didn’t go to Church I was told “we don’t have to; we’re not Catholics”. I instinctively knew though, that if God is God, we should be going.

Still, to correct my bad behaviour mum would say, “Now Gary, God is watching”. This can present God as the great policeman in the sky and make a person judgemental and cruel towards the person rather than the sin (Peter Sutcliffe is said to have been influenced by his mothers faith and that it was this which caused his murderous escapades -but one has to point out that the same idea about good and bad girls permeated society at the time and did not turn all men out like Peter Sutcliffe, so there must have been something wrong in his wiring from the start). I would say that mum reminding me that God was watching did give me a sense of His all-pervading presence and of my accountability to Him for how I treated others. I was in any case very spiritual and received my own bible at the age of five; a large Children’s Edition which took you all the way from Genesis to Revelation -and which was not too badly ‘dumbed down’.

By the age of eight I had viewed my grandfather’s slides from Lourdes and watched ‘The Song of Bernadette’ on TV. Gaining a great love for Our Lady I longed to go to Lourdes -and longed to be a Catholic because I saw that only if God was remembered would people make sure they did the good and avoided the wrong. So I began asking myself what I could do to make folk more conscious of God. It was a dull afternoon when I considered nailing two pieces of wood together to make a huge cross for the garden, but I knew dad would be unimpressed, so I looked for something other way of achieving my aim. It was then that Father Smith passed the garden and I knew the answer: “I’ll be a priest, because when people see a priest they have to think about God!” I went straight indoors and announced to my Protestant family, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a priest”. But I was advised, “Just be a Vicar and that way you can still get married”. My response was, “No; I want to be a proper priest”. Years later after recounting this story while preaching in a Carmelite convent one of the nuns wrote to me saying, “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you....”.

Anyway, apart from learning to say the Rosary at the age of 12 at the hand of my mum, nothing came of my priestly idea until I was 20 when mum heard the local Catholic Church was going on pilgrimage to Lourdes. Since her father had told her “If you ever get the chance to go to Lourdes Jean, take it”, she had added our names to the list of pilgrims. I considered that if I was going to Lourdes I had to go as a Catholic, so I began my instructions. I was received into the Church on May 29th, and in Lourdes on June 6th.

Spiritually, my instruction period was not an easy one. Each week while on my way there I would be sure I was doing the wrong thing and resolve to end my instruction that night. Yet every week on the way home I was so enthralled I determined I would be back next week and at Mass weekdays and Sundays. My Reception night brought the same feelings, but more intense: “What are you playing at Gary?” Still, I went ahead...

As I was unemployed at the time I threw myself into parish life: gardening, visiting with the SVP, doing one-to-one contact with the Legion of Mary, functioning as a Reader, and among the very first batch of Extra-ordinary lay ministers commissioned in the Diocese. Mind you, I could be a better Catholic today: I am too lazy at times, and I have to work control of my temper. Yes, the spirit is willing (or is it?), but the flesh is weak (or simply not brought to heel).

I then began training for a professional life, and though I had a wonderful fiancé at the time, the irksome idea about priesthood was still nagging, so I decided to do the right thing and apply for seminary. Having done so, I was ordained in 1993.

I have to say my faith leaves me somewhat isolated from my family when moral issues are under discussion; at such times I feel only half-heard (if that) because I am “religious”, since the prejudiced view of today is that religion is oppressive. In my experience, it is those who claim to be open-minded who are narrow and oppressive because they dismiss any religious view out of hand, which is oppressive of the religious person. It seems very hard for non-Catholics to grasp that we Catholics judge actions and situations, not people; and that we actually judge the acts and situations only as to whether they are a help or hindrance to their salvation. Certainly we warn against things that we see as harmful to their soul, but without judging the person –much like a physician warns against smoking without judging the smoker.

Yet our moral positions are in accord with reason and forced upon no one, and in a free society we have the right to live by our values and bring them into the public forum so that society can make its decisions from a wider information base than is possible when God and faith are excluded by design. But we are not welcomed at the table of discussion, because we promote a culture of life.

Secular society excludes us because society promotes a culture of death:

the death of social cohesion by promoting the “what is right for me” attitude
the death of children by abortion
the death of those who are disabled or in chronic pain by euthanasia
the death of natural sex by use of contraception and by homosexual acts
the death of stable family life by extra-marital sex and cohabitation.

In today’s world, death is the answer to every difficulty, while pleasure is all focused on allowing us to have sex with whoever we want, however we want it, and whenever we want. It is called by society ‘sexual freedom’; in reality it is sexual licensee, and has created a society of chaos where those who suffer are inevitably the children who, if they are not killed by abortion, come into unstable relationships in an unstable world.

Catholicism on the other hand is a culture of life:

life via sex with all its life-giving powers intact;
life via defence of unborn children, since without life we cannot access any other right;
life in a stable society by the protection of natural marriage
life by the kind of compassion that cares for the life of disabled and the terminally ill.

Recognising that we cannot access any human right unless we are alive, we know that the fundamental right is the right to life, so the protection of all human life is required from womb to tomb. After all, the embryo has its own DNA from conception so it is not part of the mother -even the placenta protects the unborn child from harmful impurities in the mother’s blood -it therefore recognises her as a potentially unjust aggressor upon the life of the child.

In line with biology, the only natural family unit is that of father and mother together with their offspring. Two fathers or two mothers is impossible in nature; it is unnatural, and we cannot have a right to that which is unnatural. Yet we do not denounce homosexual persons, only homosexual acts. The judgement of persons is rigorously denounced.

We protect marriage as the life-long, natural union of one man and one woman expressed in the act of copulation, recognising that children have a right to grow and be nurtured in a stable, committed love between the man and woman who brought them into the world. Today’s society is one of instability and chaos, wherein people parent the child of another while leaving their own to be parented by someone else, resulting in difficulties and tensions for all involved. Yes some marriages can be destructive and abusive, and we do not require that people stay in abusive marriages, we just don’t support second or third marriages: that makes marriages as useless to the child as is the convenience of cohabitation.  

Our teaching on sex as being only in marriage is supported by biology: since what is natural to us cannot harm us and STI’s have increased as the sexual revolution has progressed, we have empirical evidence that serial sex partnerships are unnatural to man; we are simply not built like animals who mate by passion. Our unique ability is the ability to reason, and we use reason to control our passions, not to justify them.

Contraception and homosexual acts both exclude the propagation of life so they are intrinsically anti-life.

We see children as a gift, not ‘products’ to be acquired artificially (by IVF) to fulfil a person’s emotional need to have a child. No one has a right to a child because we cannot have a right to a person, so IVF, surrogacy and sperm/egg donation are all rejected and natural conception promoted (medication to stimulate follicle production is accepted, since these medications simply stimulate follicle production).

We promote compassionate care of the sick and disabled, by which we exercise and demonstrate our humanity. Euthanasia is killing, not caring, and our duty is to end suffering, not to end the person who suffers. The logic of ending suffering by ending those who suffer means we could kill the poor to end the suffering of poverty.

I know our moral teachings do not sit well with today’s society which thinks that because sex is natural it is OK to be like other animals and go from one sexual partner to another. But that is not so; we are not like the animals and do not have their biological defences which allow them to engage in serial sexual encounters. How do we know this? Because as promiscuity has grown so too have STD’s; from around four types in the 1950’s to over 50 kinds today. We Catholics see things at a much deeper level than the passions and the instincts, which we seek to control rather than be controlled by them.

All in all, we reject contraception because it refuses to cooperate with life; we reject abortion and euthanasia because they intentionally end human life; we reject contraception and homosexual acts because they use the life-giving act in ways that exclude life. 

Certainly my faith in God is an inner experience which I cannot give to another since inner experiences are by nature unique to each person, yet I see such evidence in creation for the reality of God that I wonder how a non-believer can remain unbelieving. After all, it is the very laws of nature that make scientific investigation possible: the mathematics which underpin the universe allow physics to exist as a science; the stable workings of the cell and DNA allow biology to exist as a science, and the stability of the periodic table allows for chemistry to exist as a science. All the balance and design in physics, chemistry and biology point to a mind and a power greater than ourselves; greater even, than our combined efforts. I take great pleasure in pointing out to folk that it was a Catholic priest-scientist who discovered the Big Bang (George Lemaitre); a Catholic priest-scientist who founded the science of genetics (Gregor Mendel); a Catholic priest-scientist who is regarded as the founder of aeronautics (Francesco Lana de Terzi); a Catholic scientist who is regarded as the founder of modern chemistry (Antoine Lavoisier) and a catholic priest-scientist who is regarded as a father of cytology in discovering the albuminoid membrane (J.Baptiste Carnoy). Further, over 30 craters of the moon of named after the Jesuit astronomers who charted them. Surely Catholics can be very proud of their contribution to, and promotion of, modern science.

Not only that, but there is such beauty in creation that God cannot be anything but magnificent. Certainly illness, disability and tragedies darken our lives and are heavy crosses to bear, but most of the ugliness in life is man-made: violence, theft, adultery, abandonment, duplicity are all the absence of a goodness that is otherwise present in creation: the goodness of respect for a person’s life and property; the good of faithfulness to (and care for) one’s partner; honesty of life. All of these provide for a stable, supportive society -and are the core of the Ten Commandments.

Now I know Popes, priests and consecrated persons have perpetrated grave scandals -it because of such scandals that it is hard to live the priestly life today since we have all been tarnished by their betrayals and become the subject of personal abuse in the streets. But there were grave scandals when I worked in the Health Service too: Nurse Allit killing children on her ward, and Dr Shipman killing patients in the community. Yet just as Dr Shipman and Nurse Allit do not make the NHS bad, so scandalous clergy do not make the Church bad; it remains a good, true, and holy Mother of souls.

What gives me the strength to go on when I have my faults; when our goodness to others is seen as 'wet' and abused; when society is so set against Catholic morality (and thus against Catholics)? What keeps me going is the Sacraments, especially Holy Mass and Confession. Having been given a share in God’s life in Baptism, Holy Mass then places me at the foot of Christ’s Cross where He makes present His act of supreme love: “This is My Body, which is given up for you”, He then feeds me with His own Body and Blood in Holy Communion as a pledge of eternal life, happiness and peace: “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood lives in Me, and I live in Him...Whoever eats Me will draw life from Me”. Meanwhile, Confession applies to my soul the very grace of salvation which Christ won for me on the Cross. Finally, when I am ill and about to leave this world, I hope to receive the Sacrament of Anointing which prepares one’s soul for entry into the presence of God.

So yes, I prize God who has given us a wonderful creation and a beautiful Faith. Yes, I am humbled by the privileges He has given to me in that as a priest I daily stand at the altar to offer His Holy Sacrifice in the Mass; I reconcile my fellow sinners to Him in Confession; I bless the union of man and woman in the bond of Matrimonial love; I support those in life’s crisis events and Anoint with Holy Oil my fellow Catholics who are about to leave this world. Truly, ‘He who walks on the wings of the wind’ has made me a servant-child, someone who goes before Him ‘to prepare His way before Him’; ‘to make known to His people their salvation’ –ultimately, to make known the love of Him from above ‘who visits us like the dawn from on high’. 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Privileges of Priesthood

Every now and again one gets a vivid awareness of the great privileges one has as a priest. There is the supreme privilege of offering the Holy Sacrifice, by which every grace is brought into the world; there is the privilege of remitting original sin and filling the soul with sanctifying grace as he or she is grafted into the Mystical Body of Christ by Baptism; there is the privilege of Anointing those about to leave this world wherein we help the soul present itself to the Lord without spot or wrinkle (even if there is still some reparation to be done) and the privilege of reconciling sinners in Confession, by which reunion with God and heaven is effected and peace restored to the soul.
Though celebration of the Sacraments is always perceived as a wondrous privilege of our spiritual fatherhood, the daily life of serving the people may not look so wondrous. Yet it is a great privilege: when we priests touch the lives of those in the distress of terminal illness, bereavement or relationship breakdown, we wipe the face of Christ on the cross; when we touch people at times of great joy such as a birth or marriage, we are rejoicing with Him in His Resurrection as a new life begins. We have a duty but no right to be involved in people’s most personal life experiences, yet we are invited in, and while a physician too may feel the great privilege of healing bodies and minds for a period of time, we priests provide ministrations which bring life eternal; a life of perfect happiness and peace with God. We should never underestimate the time we spend with the housebound, the sick, the bereaved, the distressed or the children in the school, when the reality is that at such times we are ministering to Christ.
I venture to say that we should never underestimate our teaching or governing roles either. By teaching we bring the light of Christ into minds and hearts which are tarnished by the shadows of this world’s false lights; by governing with charity we keep the people of God one in mind and heart. Our Lord prayed that all might be one, and this must be a oneness of truth and charity, since Christ is Truth and Charity. It is our privileged task to facilitate this oneness by opening doors in hearts and minds to His grace.

While I do not and would not suggest that a very debilitated, worn out man should stumble onto the sanctuary to offer Mass or struggle through the front door of the next housebound soul (we have a duty to self-care), a privilege I have come to value recently is ministering during times of ill health. When we are stressed by life’s events or are physically ill, when we go to make a visit when we are not 100% ourselves, the words of the consecration can be uttered with a sincerity that cannot be present when life is going well and our body is fighting fit, for then, in a truly amazing way, we “imitate the mystery we handle” and live out the sacred words: “This is my body, given up for you”. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

Our Diocese in our local Catholic Newspaper

I have been looking at the latest edition of the Catholic newspaper within our Diocese, ‘The Northern Cross’, and found some of its articles, which I have discussed with several people more knowledgeable than myself, to be quite disturbing.   

This month’s edition has, for example, a gentleman contributor saying that since the laity are “gifted by God with free will and the ability to doubt” we do not need the Hierarchical Church Christ left us: “we are not sheep” (apparently we need no Good Shepherd or anyone sent by Him as He was sent). Apparently, people who doubt and defend artificial contraception, homosexuality and women’s ordination are courageous and using their God-given gifts but “are met with a sledgehammer”. But isn’t this what Adam and Eve believed at the Fall? That we can doubt God and get by on our own reason?

We then have an Episcopal Vicar telling us the Diocese wants to prepare laity for leadership, which can lead to just what the gentleman contibutor proposes: a sheepfold without shepherds -or only of shepherds, if "we are not sheep"Now who was it at the Fall that told man he could go it alone? I expect the Diocese means we are to collaborate with yet under our priest leaders, but it isn’t always heard (or presented) that way. Too often it portrays equality of responsibility (wrongly perceived as power, which is how the misnomer of ‘empowerment’ enters into the equation). If we aren’t careful we will be unequivocally clericalising the laity and laicising the clergy.

Next we have a Retreat Centre in the Diocese telling us they offer the pagan practices of Tai Chi and Yoga –apparently, Christ-centred prayer can be replaced with man-centred practices (Tai Chi aims at helping the flow of ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’ called “qi” that supposedly regulates a person’s body, mind and spirit; Yoga is designed to achieve “Kaivalya” (final freedom) by releasing the soul from the chains which bind them to reincarnation).

Finally, there is a photograph of (illicit) ‘liturgical dance’, showing that man has taken over the sanctuary, replacing God-centred worship with entertaining displays of human talents.

All in all, in reading the paper I found I was getting a disturbing picture of our Diocese; one where people are snared by the hermeneutic of discontinuity that appeared after Vatican II -as snared as were Adam and Eve in their sin following their fall from God-centeredness and grace. And like Adam and Eve, today’s ‘enlightened’ people are taking souls with them into the darkness of self-direction dressed up as free will and conscience; into paganism dressed-up as prayer, and into the admiration of man dressed-up as Divine worship.

Now I DO support lay involvement in the Church and collaborative ministry: I am an Extraordinary Minister; I am a Reader, I am a member of the PACT (formerly called the Parish Council) and active in the liturgy. But I want a parish family led by a man called by Christ Himself to be our spiritual Father; I do not want a parish led by Sister Smith or Mr Green, nor do I want to attend funeral services led by Mr Black or Mrs Brown. I want to come to Mass, there to adore, praise, propitiate and petition God; I do not want to come to Church, there to be entertained by, uplifted by or to applaud dancers and comedic homilists who by their dance and comedy transform us from a praying congregation into an audience. We need to be truly honest of heart here and ask ourselves some serious questions, since we shall one day stand before God. We need to ask: are we not promoting and even facilitating a ‘priestless Church’? Are we not building a Church which espouses pagan practices? Are we not building a Church which seeks to ‘entertain’ and ‘affirm’ man in its worship? Are we not building a Church which asserts the world’s atheistic ‘morality’ as courageous and enlightened? The articles cited would indicate that the answer is ‘yes’ –and all to the detriment of souls, I fear.