Saturday, 14 September 2013

In Cruce Salus –In the Cross is Salvation

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  While St Paul tells us that “unless Christ is raised...we are the most unfortunate of people” (1 Cor.15v17-19), this does not negate that “we preach a crucified Christ” (1.Cor.1v23). We seem to have forgotten this and yet it is essential; it is core to our Faith, for while the Resurrection shows the glory and power of God, it is the Cross that demonstrates His Love and His Mercy, upon which we depend for our salvation.  

We have, since the 1960’s, tended to focus on the Mass in its aspect of banquet, and thus come to treat it as some sort of ‘party time’, generating feel-good liturgies that build emotional crescendos but by-pass the feeding of the soul with spiritual truths and grace. Since any party provided by the world is likely to be much more exciting than the Mass, can we be surprised that since the focus on the Mass as meal became the ‘in thing’ that the number of those attending Mass has precipitously diminished? I think not.

It is time then, to remember that it was not the Last Supper Our Lord commanded us to commemorate, nor even the Resurrection; it was the Crucifixion: “This is My Body given up (handed over; sacrificed) for you ...My Blood which is shed (spilled, poured out) for you and for many” (Matthew 26:28).

Although the banquet and the resurrection are intrinsically part of the Mass -the Supper pre-figuring the Cross and giving us the words of Institution and the Priesthood, the Risen Lord becoming Present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Most Blessed Sacrament- it was His Sacrificed Body and Spilled Blood He commanded us to commemorate. Perhaps in order to ensure we are never without the supreme witness to His love and mercy; a love and mercy upon which we depend and in which we place our trust.

In the Cross is Salvation has two important meanings for me. First of all, it reminds me that I am not saved my by prayers, penances and sacrifices: these only invite the cross into my life and allow me to participate in the suffering of the Lord in order that having died with Christ I might rise with Christ.

Second of all, it reminds me that the Mass must be my first priority in life since it makes present on the altar the Risen Lord Who has taken His own Blood with Him into heaven (Heb.9v24) to plead for us as “a Lamb standing as though slain” (Rev.5v6). This eternal offering of the Lamb is a pleading of the Cross; a pleading to which we unite ourselves on earth at Mass: “When you eat this bread and drink this cup you are proclaiming the death of the Lord”, 1.Cor.11v26).  Since it is true that in the Cross is my salvation; then it is also true that in the Mass is my salvation. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Lay-led Parishes: A ‘Final’ Solution ...?

After World War II there was, at least in the UK, an upsurge in priestly vocations, with the result that by the 1960’s we were dividing parishes and building Churches to accommodate the larger number of priests (one parish I know of was divided into four, with Churches no more than about five miles from their ‘mother-church’). Today we cannot fill those ‘new’ parishes with priests or people, yet we are constantly seeking ways of retaining them as ‘Eucharistic communities’ or ‘lay-led parishes’ (which includes those administered by Religious Sisters). While I for one could not go on without our admin help, our handy-men, our gardeners, our Housebound Visitation Team and our Catechists for Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation and Marriage (such cooperation cannot be anything but highly valued) lay-led parishes are another matter. They are another matter because they do not constitute authentic Catholic communities: “...if a Priest is lacking in the community, then the community lacks the exercise and sacramental function of Christ the Head and Shepherd, which belongs to the essence of its very life.” (Redemptionis Sacramentum 146).

The idea of ‘lay-led’ parishes is promoted as an empowerment of the laity. I cannot understand how those who speak of such parishes can do so; how they are unable to grasp that we cannot claim to be “empowering the laity” by focusing them away from the authentic mission they received from Christ Himself. Such an idea can only arise within those who experience the priesthood (either as priests or laity) as a position of power; a power they wish to share. If that is their idea of priesthood their picture is woefully distorted: the ordained priesthood is called by Christ to serve, and it does so by holding the responsibility to teach (munus docendi), sanctify (munus liturgicum) and govern (munus regendi) cf. CCC #1592; these are responsibilities for which we must give an account to the Lord. If priests of Presbyteral or Episcopal rank see them as ‘muscle power’ to dominate rather than sacred responsibilities of service to the Lord and His flock, I suggest there is something wrong with their picture of priesthood. Truly, we cannot and do not empower the laity by focusing them on ecclesial ministries; rather, we dis-empower their authentic vocation. And this is but one problem. There are other problems too:

·         Lay-led parishes undermine the authentic Apostolate of the laity:
Unless the lay faithful see their role in the world as vital and Christ-given, they will see only Church-centred tasks as having any real meaning or value. Interestingly, Vatican II spoke frequently about lay mission, but never once used the term ‘lay ministry’; rather, it was clear that the indispensible role of the laity was world-focused: “by reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will” (Lumen Gentium 31).  On Church-centred roles see Pope John-Paul II’s Christifidelis Laici 23: “...a person is not a minister by performing a task but through sacramental ordination...The [lay] task exercised in virtue of supply takes its legitimacy formally and immediately from official deputation given by the Pastors, as well as from its concrete exercise under the direction of ecclesiastical authority.” This notes that Church-based roles are delegated, and that the term ‘minister’ cannot authentically apply to laity, yet we still hear about ‘music ministry’, ‘catechetical ministry’ etc etc., in contradiction to these teachings.

·         Lay-led parishes can ‘empower’ the few at the expense of the many
Before the 1960’s the people were heavily engaged in the evangelisation work of the Legion of Mary; the Pastoral work of the SVP; the Liturgical work of the Choirs and Servers; the foundational work of cleaning the Church and doing our own repairs. There was a sense of ownership of their Faith and a service of Christ and souls that excluded no one. Today, our finance Committees are made up of those who run businesses or work in Finance; our Catechists and readers are teachers and other professionals. There is no place left for ‘the man in the street’.  Where we were once the Church of the common man we are now the Church of the consummate professional.

·         Lay-led parishes leave sheep to tend the sheep
Shepherds running around doing ‘magic moments’ are no longer shepherds in whom we find Christ the Head but mere functionaries; meanwhile, Mrs Smith buries Mr Brown whose wife she sits with in the Bingo on Tuesdays -and whom she now consoles as her ‘minister’.

·      Lay-led parishes can make priests appear little more than ‘magic men’
The cliché that “one does not need to be ordained to...” is a misdirection by which folk come to think that priests should do only that for which priests are essential, leading to a situation in which they do little more than run from place to place to provide the ‘magic moments’ of Mass, Confession and Anointing.

·         Lay-led parishes can discourage vocations to priesthood
Few young men will choose to be celibate when they can take charge of the parish and retain all the pleasurable intimacies of married life.

‘Lay-led’ parishes arise from the ideologies of the 1970’s when we first began focusing the laity on work in parish offices and sanctuaries instead of being the leaven in society. Perhaps -even probably?- as a result of this focus, men stopped applying to seminaries and women stopped applying to convents, taking up ‘lay ministry’ instead. Thus we began to close seminaries and convents by the score. In doing so we created the shortage of priests we now lament -and which we try to tackle by maximising a major cause of the problem in the first place. But there are other solutions.

One blogging priest calls one of these options ‘The Biological Solution’, and it is basically this: those still wedded to the ideologies of the 1970’s will soon be called to the next life, at which time younger men who have witnessed the devastation of the Faith among their families and friends will take over and pursue a more Catholic (and productive) line. This ‘Biological Solution’ could turn out to be a ‘Final Solution’ for the Church in the West unless Bishops and those with influence re-strategise. They could do worse than try another, triadic solution:

1.  provide solid, doctrine-based Catechesis in schools and parishes, abandoning the experiential, psycho-babble catechesis we have had for the last few decades

2.  promote and form the laity for their authentic apostolate as the leaven in society, with a renewed emphasis on the sacred and irreplaceable nature of both the ministerial priesthood and the lay apostolate

3.  re-orientate the liturgy toward the adoration, propitiation and supplication of God (cf. 2012 IG #2) rather than focusing on the affirmation of the community and the feel-good factor. This reorientation might be achieved by implementing the 1970 Missal in rightful conformity with Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction and liturgical tradition, along with a humble promotion of the Extraordinary Form so as to allow the ethos of the centuries to inform the celebration of the Novus Ordo –and better display in liturgical manner the Triumph of the Risen Christ. During the last fifty years we have suffered from a focus on feel-good liturgy, poor Catechetical materials and an underplaying of the lay and priestly vocations. At the same time, and perhaps as a consequence, we have only seen the Church weaken in proclamation of her Doctrine and diminish in numbers -souls are very probably then, being lost.

Along with the above I would –controversially perhaps- suggest a re-establishing of the parish boundaries in place before World War II. Not only might this encourage us to see the necessity of priests as Christ the Head and Shepherd in the parish and bring much-needed finance to cash-strapped Dioceses by the sale of under-used holdings, but it would ensure every Catholic Community was authentic; that it was a community of both Head and Members. No one wants to see parishes closed; we want to see them filled to overflowing, but some parishes can be closed because they are younger than their oldest parishioners; they are relatively new, added to which we cannot have authentic local communities without local shepherds.

The larger parishes that would result from re-establishing former boundaries would still require lay Catechists, Readers, Pastoral Care Teams, admin assistants etc., so the laity would not be passive. Rather, they and their priests would come to a renewed appreciation of the complimentarity of the ordained and lay states, with laity encouraged to make the Faith an influence on today’s society in politics, healthcare, education and the media etc so as to win the world to Christ –an influence more necessary than ever in this post-Christian age

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Gentlemen of the Road

I have been brought to reflect upon my experience of vagrants by a recent post from Fr Ray Blake. As a child I was taught to call the vagrant a ‘gentleman of the road’, and I have encountered such gentlemen (and ladies) in every stage of my life.

As a young boy I would see my father bring ‘gentlemen of the road’ home to share his Sunday lunch, which taught me to see these men as people just like us. While studying in London (25 years ago) I went regularly on Saturday nights to the Embankment with a group of fellow students to distribute food and blankets to the homeless, spending a few hours in their company chatting with them. In fourth year of seminary I spent one day a week working in a drop-in centre for the homeless, while today when men of the road call at the presbytery, I give them food and stay to converse with them as they eat so as to give respect as well as practical help. I cannot, however, give them money, because our parish is a former pit village and not well off.

My experience of gentlemen of the road has been very varied. One family on the Embankment told me they had been on the streets for 15 years; though they had been given a local authority flat some years before they could not handle the tresses of everyday life and so had returned voluntarily to life on the streets. I recall a man knocking at the presbytery door asking for money to buy a bus ticket so he could get to his dying mother at the other end of the country; the priest with whom I was then working took him to buy the ticket but on passing by the station an hour later found the guy trying to sell it! Then there was the gent who asked for money to buy petrol so he could drive to see his dying mother; when I offered to follow him to the local petrol station and pay for it by card he very angrily refused and stormed off.

Are all the disadvantaged the same? No. I had the experience of meeting a man at the Embankment who claimed to have spent time in the States and to have been an extra in Hollywood. We were taking this with a pinch of salt until he produced a photograph of himself with Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in the background. That incident taught me not to reject out of hand the tall tales we priests are sometimes told, such as the guy on Kings Cross Station who had been an architect but lost his wife and child in a road accident which he alone survived; a man whose guilt, depression and escape into alcohol caused him to lose his work and his home.

My experience then is that there are those who have deliberately chosen life on the streets because they cannot cope with normal, every-day life, and those who are there through tragic situations and as a result of addictions. We need to be prudent in how we respond to the needs of the homeless and the poor, and I think giving money to institutions with a ministry to the poor is the wisest move; giving money rather than a meal to the individual vagrant may be little more than a quieting of the conscience -and may turn out to be financial support of a self-harming addiction. Still, not to make some kind of material response is not an option for a Catholic or any person of goodwill since we are going to be judged on how well we have lived out the charity of God (Matthew 25), but we have to remember that above all, we who form the Church are not here to eradicate poverty or injustice; we are here to save souls: teaching and sanctifying are our principle mission.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Non-Judgemental Catholicism -A Further Reflection

When Humanae Vitae was promulgated it exposed the fact that many Catholics, from laity to Bishops, seemed more keen on being accepted by ‘intelligent society’ than they were on being faithful sons of the Church and her teaching. The same is occurring today when clergy and laity say the civil union of homosexuals (by nature an impossibility) is acceptable; that it is only calling such ‘unions’ ‘marriage’ that is unacceptable. Such word-play abandons Catholic morality. We desperately need to recover courageousness in speaking the Gospel Truth, because only the Truth can set us free. Bringing the Truth into discussions brings the power of God into the discussion, since God is Truth. Without speaking the Truth we speak in a powerless fashion, and show ourselves afraid to correct lest we offend or fail in political correctness. We thus fail both God and man.

In that today’s culture is secular, we cannot afford to be anything but politically incorrect and counter-cultural: “woe unto you if the world speaks well of you” Matt.18v17 –clergy and Catholic lay voices whom the world thinks ‘enlightened’ or ‘pastoral’ please take note. The secular, sensual world may think of the Church as a “Church of ‘No’” (‘no’ to homosexual acts; ‘no’ to contraception; ‘no’ to abortion, euthanasia and remarriage after divorce) but the world is wrong; we are a “Church of ‘Yes’”, and we need to present ourselves courageously in the public square as the Church of ‘Yes’:

‘Yes’ to every human right by defending that right without which we cannot access any other right: the right to life;
‘Yes’ to natural sex with all the intrinsic properties and powers of sex intact;
‘Yes’ to the permanence of marriage so as to mitigate against the pain of infidelity and breakup;
‘Yes’ to the permanence of family life for the stability of children;
‘Yes’ to the compassion that is caring for the disabled and the terminally ill;
‘Yes’ to holy, chaste friendships in which we bond with our own sex.

We need society (and some Catholics) to see that Catholics can enjoy the good things in life as much as the secularist can: we can drink, just not get drunk; we can have sex, but in marriage and open to life; we can work to provide a good lifestyle for our family, but not at the expense of our spiritual duties. “Seek first the kingdom of God”, says the Lord, “and all these other things will be given to you as well” Matt.6v33. All of us, laity, priests and bishops, need to stand up for the truth of the Faith and not word-play so as to make the Faith ‘palatable’ to a world that hates us as it first hated Christ (Jn.15v18).

Perhaps some Catholics are afraid to take up the Faith wholeheartedly simply because they will lose their Godless friends, but better that than accompany those friends along the road to hell -and take their children with them by example. Put your Faith duties first, friends, and heaven is yours; fail to first seek heaven, and it may never be found...