Saturday, 29 April 2006

St Catherine of Siena and the Crusades

Today we celebrate the feast of St Catherine of Siena (1347-80), Patron of Europe and Patron of Italy - whose body lies in the beautiful basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome (the titular church of our Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor).

Despite dying a humble Dominican Tertiary at the age of 33, St Catherine managed to achieve much in the political sphere. She encouraged Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to Rome and she promoted his idea of mounting a crusade, designed to unite Christendom against the Turks. Crusading is very un-PC in the current climate, but it's interesting to see just how many saints were involved in promoting the idea (perhaps I'll do a post on it someday) - not out of blood lust or greed or fanaticism, but because Islam was a real threat to the very survival of Christendom. Crusades were basically a case of being offensive in order to be defensive. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, ‘when people talk as if the Crusades were nothing more than an aggressive raid against Islam, they seem to forget in the strangest way that Islam itself was only an aggressive raid against the old and ordered civilization in these parts. I do not say it in mere hostility to the religion of Mahomet; I am fully conscious of many values and virtues in it; but certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded.’

Back to our saint. St Catherine zealously promoted Gregory XI's crusade of 1374 and even tried to get the infamous English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, who plundered his way through Italy, on side. St Catherine wrote him a letter, which was taken to the Englishman by Blessed Raymond of Capua: 'My soul desires now to see you quite changed, and enrolled under the Cross of Christ crucified; you and all your comrades forming a Company of Christ, and marching against the infidels who possess the holy places where the Sweet and Eternal Truth lived and died for us. I beg of you, therefore, in His name, that since God and our Holy Father give the orders to march against the infidels, and since you are so fond of fighting and making war, you will fight no more against Christians, for that offends God, but go and fight against their enemies.' Hawkwood actually promised to support the crusade, although it never did get off the ground. The connections between St Catherine and Hawkwood are celebrated in a painting at the back of the chapel of the Venerable English College, Rome.

Buona festa everyone!


Friday, 28 April 2006

Quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit!

Just been reading a useful post from Fr John Zuhlsdorf of What Does The Prayer Really Say? concerning Paragraph 299 of the new General Introduction to the Roman Missal. It's good to remind ourselves of this, especially in the light of the release of the Italian edition of Fr Lang's Turning Towards the Lord (see post below).

The Latin reads: Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit. The official English translation is: The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. However, according to Fr Zuhlsdorf, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit should be translated as which is useful wherever it is possible rather than which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the quod refers to the altar rather than celebration facing the people.

In other words, the thing that is useful is having the altar separate from the wall; paragraph 299 is not proposing that Mass 'facing the people' is in itself 'desirable whenever possible' at the expense of the traditional eastwards orientation. A free-standing altar (or, for that matter, celebrating Mass versus populum) is not obligatory. Tens of thousands of pounds do not have to be spent ripping out altars attached to the wall. When I was in Bavaria in February (here I go again!) it was interesting to see the number of churches which still used their historic altars for Masses (although the proclamation of the Liturgy of the Word was versus populum). I said Mass in such a manner on our first day in Munich and my pilgrim band did not seem to mind!

A Secret Ordination at Dachau

Back in February, I visited the former concentration camp of Dachau, just outside Munich. It's not widely known in Catholic circles that, between 1941 and 1945, Dachau was the main camp for priest prisoners. Over 2,500 Catholic clergy were held there during the war – many of them Poles, but also priests who were considered 'anti-Nazi' from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Holland and other countries. Many of these died through ill treatment, including some who have been beatified.

One of the most remarkable Dachau stories relates to Blessed Karl Leisner. Born in the Lower Rhine in 1915, he became Diocesan Youth Leader in Münster, began training for the Priesthood and was ordained deacon just before the outbreak of war. However, tragedy soon struck. His priestly ordination was postponed when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and Karl went to the Black Forest to gather his strength in a sanatorium. Some unguarded comments about an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler led to his arrest and eventual internment at Dachau from December 1940. Indeed, there were some thirty seminarians in the camp, and the priests looked after them, concentrating especially on their spiritual and intellectual formation. Many of them went on to be ordained after liberation.

Given the state of his health, it is surprising that Karl survived five years of imprisonment. He exercised his diaconate by serving his fellow prisoners, especially from his sickbed in the camp infirmary.’ He even managed to bring his guitar with him to Dachau and, even though it was confiscated, he managed to get it back and arrange song-fests for his comrades.

It remained his dearest wish to be ordained a priest. In September 1944 a French bishop, Gabriel Piguet of Clermont-Ferrand, joined the ranks of prisoners, and the idea began to circulate that Karl could be secretly ordained priest at Dachau. At first, Karl resisted the idea: ‘Ordained at Dachau? Unthinkable! And besides, my parish has a right to my first Mass.’ Shortly afterwards his home parish church was destroyed in an air-raid and, as things looked increasingly desperate, plans were made for his secret Ordination.

The Ordination was due to a remarkable young woman, who was training to become a School Sister of Notre Dame. Her name was Josefa Mack, though she used the alias ‘Madi.’ Between May 1944 and April 1945 she made weekly visits to Dachau, ostensibly to buy flowers and vegetables from the camp’s market garden. The little shop was supervised by Fr Ferdinand Schönwälder and through Madi’s regular meetings with him, messages and secret supplies were passed over. At great personal risk, Madi got permission from Karl’s bishop, Clemens August von Galen (himself recently beatified) and also from Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich, who gave her the necessary liturgical books and Holy Oils. Meanwhile, various prisoners were busy preparing for the big day: a brass episcopal ring, a crozier carved out of oak, a silk mitre (made by the one English priest prisoner, Fr Durand), and purple vestments.

On 17th December 1944, Gaudete Sunday, Karl, strengthened by an injection of caffeine, was ordained priest. The emotion of the priest prisoners as they welcomed their new brother was indescribable. During the ceremony, a Jewish prisoner played the violin outside, to divert the guards' attention.Nine days later, on the Feast of St Stephen, Fr Leisner celebrated his first and only Mass. The new priest wrote: ‘after more than five years of prayer and waiting, days filled with very great happiness... That God could, through the intercession of Our Lady, answer our prayers in so gracious and unique a manner, I still cannot grasp.’Fr Karl lived to see the liberation of Dachau. He was taken to the convent hospital in Planegg outside Munich, where he died on 12th August 1945, aged 30. The last words in his diary read, ‘O God, bless my enemies!’ He was beatified by John Paul II on 23rd June 1996 at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, which had been built by Hitler for the 1938 Games. The Pope used the same crozier at the beatification ceremony that had been used at Karl’s ordination, with the inscribed words ‘Triumphant in Chains.’ Karl had indeed been triumphant in chains. He was called to be a priest; he never lost hope of Ordination. He eventually achieved his goal and lived out his Priesthood in a way that he never expected.


Thank you fellow bloggers!

Having set up a 'site metre' here on Sunday, the one hundreth visitor to Roman Miscellany has just been registered. Admittedly some of these 'hits' will be yours truly, anxiously checking that all is well with the site, and others may be accidental, but it's been great to welcome readers from America, Australia and mainland Europe! Even more amazingly, Roman Miscellany spent part of today as the 'Most Popular Outgoing Link' at St Blogs Parish! Thank you for all your support, which, of course, is a challenge to me to post items that you may find interesting.


Thursday, 27 April 2006

A Ghost Story from the Westminster Archives

This post would really be more appropriate for a winter's evening, but I couldn't resist!

One of my jobs is Archivist of the Archdiocese of Westminster - a wonderful privilege since it is one of the most important English Catholic archives (lots of stuff from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). It's amazing what you find - such as the following letter from 1898 describing the encounter of a Southwark priest, Fr Thomas Smith, in the presbytery of West Croydon with the ghosts of two priest friends: Fr Moore and Fr Murray:

St Ignatius College, St Julian’s Bay, Malta

23rd November 1898

Dear Fr Provincial,

I will tell you the story again just as I told you then, for it impressed me so much at the time when I first heard it that the particulars are still fresh in my mind. The story was told me by a certain priest named Fr Thomas Smith of the Westminster [sic] diocese whom I met some 15 months ago at West Croydon whilst I was giving a retreat to the Sisters of Mercy there. He told me that in May of the year ’94 an old friend of his died named Fr Moore, and that in September of the same year Fr Murray, another old friend of his died. On the 15th of November of the same year he (Fr Smith) went to bed at about half past twelve. He was sitting up in his bed reading with his candle burning at his side when the door opened without any knock and in walked Fr Moore and Fr Murray.

Here I began to laugh and suggested that he must have gone off to sleep and dreamed it. But he affirmed that he was ready to swear on the Bible that he was wide awake and also that the story as he narrated it was absolutely true.. he proceeded to give me a description of his room at the time; - that his bed was placed in the middle of one of the walls of the room with the foot out towards the middle of the room, that the door was on his right hand and his fireplace on his left; that when the door opened Fr Moore came in first and that the two walked one behind the other round the foot of his bed and took up their position side by side in front of the fireplace as if warming themselves. Here I asked Fr Smith if the fire was lit at the time. He said that it was not, that it had been lit during the day being cold November weather, but that he had let it out before going to bed. I asked him whether he did not feel very frightened at this strange apparition. He answered that he felt nervous now sometimes when he recalled the scene, but that at the time he felt perfectly at ease for his two dead friends in all their looks and actions seemed as natural and easy as when he knew them in life.

Then, he said, we entered into conversation. Fr Murray was quite silent and Fr Moore did all the talking for both. Fr Moore began in this way: “You’re a nice sort of fellow to call yourself a special pal of ours and yet you have only said one Mass for the repose of our souls. You were obliged to say that, being a member of the Deceased Clergy Association.” To which Fr Smith answered, ‘Well, I know that a great many Masses were being said for you as the Society is a large one and so I thought my one Mass would be sufficient.”

Fr Smith then questioned his visitors and said to them, “Are you happy?” Fr Moore answered – “Yes, we’re perfectly happy, but we’ll be much happier when you’ve said another Mass for us.” After this his visitors departed. They did not, he said, go out by the door but they simply suddenly ceased to be standing at his fireplace and he became aware that he was alone again in his room with his candle still burning at his side.

The next November 16th was the Feast of St Edmund and he (Fr Smith) was one of the guests invited to St Edmund’s College for the Feast. In the evening when returning home he found himself rather late for his train and had to run to catch it. He arrived at the Station just as the train was steaming out and jumped into the last carriage. He found himself opposite to Fr Whittlehurst…After a little conversation with his companion, Fr Smith, whose mind was still running on his apparition of the previous night, said to him – “Why you remember this day last year, the Feast of St Edmund, we had Moore and Murray with us.” “Good heavens!” said Fr Whittlehurst, “what makes you mention their names? They came to me last night and scolded me for saying only one Mass for the repose of their souls.”

A day or two after Fr Smith had narrated this story to me, I asked old Fr McKenna of West Croydon at whose presbytery we were both living at the time, whether he believed the story. He told me that he felt compelled to believe it, for he had taken the trouble to see Fr Whittlehurst concerning his own apparition and found that his story quite tallied with that of Fr Smith.

Yours in Xt,

A.L.Giubara, S.J.

Of course, the Church has no official teaching on ghosts, but they do form part of Catholic tradition - it's amazing how many lives of the saints include ghost stories (e.g. St Gregory the Great's Dialogues)! Catholic ghosts are not the stuff of Hollywood movies, but concern our belief in Purgatory and the importance of praying for the dead - and especially offering Mass for them. If ghosts are real then they are not meant to scare us but rather remind us of the Communion that exists between all those who are 'with Christ,' both living and dead - and this is the message we can draw out from the story of Fr Smith.

Wednesday, 26 April 2006

Turning Towards the Lord

Talking of book launches, it's good to hear from Fr Tim at Hermeneutic of Continuity about the release of the Italian version of Turning Towards the Lord by Fr Michael Lang. He is a German priest at the London Oratory with a doctorate in theology from St John's College, Oxford - incidentally, he is one of about ten of my University friends who went on to become a priest! This launch takes place tomorrow at the Augustinianum, Rome and will include a presentation by Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, the newly appointed Sri Lankan Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW). It's good to see such high level support for a book studying orientation in the Sacred Liturgy (i.e. facing East) - will there be further directives on this issue from Rome, I wonder?

The Paschal Sacrament

I was at Allen Hall seminary last night for the book launch of a new book by Fr Francis Selman, one of the lecturers there, called A Guide to the Eucharist - the Paschal Sacrament. This book, which is foreworded by Aidan Nichols, O.P., sets out the doctrine of the Real Presence, looking at the New Testament, the Fathers of the Church, Popes, and modern scholars. It includes a good critique of the theology of the reformers and modern theories such as 'Transignification,' and would thus be very useful to preachers, catechists and students. Fr Selman's Guide is published by Oxford-based Family Publications which is now becoming quite prolific as a publisher of good Catholic books. It's worth keeping an eye on its website!

Monday, 24 April 2006

Pius XII Rules OK!

Just discovered a relatively new blog called Society That Thinks Pius XII Rules - the name says it all, but it is worth checking out since it has some useful information regarding the on-going historiographical controversy about Pius XII and the Holocaust.


St George's Day

Happy (transferred) Feast of St George! According to the BBC, 'St George's Day - an occasion which not too long ago could arguably pass by almost unnoticed - is now being celebrated on a far wider scale.' However, 'a recent survey by English Heritage shows more people celebrate the anniversary of Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament than St George's Day.' This is indeed a sad state of affairs.

The Catholic Church did its bit a few years ago when the Feast was raised to a Solemnity in England (whereas St Thomas Becket, Patron of the English Clergy, is only an optional memorial). But it seems that most English parishes do not celebrate St George with any great solemnity, especially when compared to St Patrick. I must confess that my parish did not really break the trend (mea culpa), partly because we're still catching breath after Easter. In the past we have distributed blessed red roses - though this year there was at least a blessing at the end of Mass with a first class relic of St George!

A Glimpse of Heaven

St George's Day is a good opportunity to celebrate the heritage of the English Catholic Church. In July English Heritage will be publishing A Glimpse of Heaven, an illustrated study of a hundred of our most beautiful Catholic churches. Of course, since we lost so much at the Reformation, we tend not to appreciate the many fine churches that have been built since the Catholic Relief Act of 1791. This book aims to do this and, according to author Christopher Martin, these buildings 'can be seen now as not only churches of different quality and different architectural styles but buildings that reflect the drama of their times; the religious passion, the shifting populations, the politics. They tell us about their architects and patrons, the priests, the princes of the church and the people who worshipped in them. It is a remarkable story and it is largely unknown.' Such a publication is timely, given the painful decisions which many dioceses are forced to make concerning the closure of church buildings. One thinks immediately of St Peter's, Seel Street, Liverpool - built in 1788, closed in 1978 and now a ultra stylish bar restaurant (Alma de Cuba). Indeed, of 3,465 Catholic churches and chapels in England and Wales, only 625 are currently listed. This new book is worth a look and can now be pre-ordered.

Sunday, 23 April 2006

Untold Blessings

I spent part of this evening planning some group sessions for my parish in Eastertide. In Lent we had five meetings based on the diocesan 'Christ Among Us' programme, which reflected on the Sunday readings (though the material provided had to be adapted to meet local needs). Only a handful of people came along but they all wanted to continue studying the Faith in some way. I toyed with the idea of systematically going through the new Compendium of the Catechism (available in the U.K. through the Catholic Truth Society), but then I decided this was impractical since I expect to move parish in the summer.

Luckily I've come across a wonderful DVD resource, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Chicago! Occasionally in the past I've visited Fr Robert Barron's Word On Fire site when I've suffered from 'preachers block' - all priests know that desperate lack of inspiration as they sit in front of the computer screen on a Saturday afternoon. Fr Barron is one of the best modern homilists I've come across - a lively, engaging style (almost 'evangelical') combined with solid content, with many images drawn from the Fathers of the Church and classic Catholic authors (such as Chesterton and Merton).

Anyway, now he's produced a DVD called Untold Blessings - six 20 minute talks on the 'path to holiness.' According to Cardinal George, 'Fr Barron challenges us to embrace the Gospel and hear the call to discipleship. This DVD is another tool that will help people to be transformed in Christ and live the Catholic faith authentically.' It is indeed powerful stuff and I hope our little group will find it helpful and instructive. I recommend readers to purchase the DVD - it's only $5 (plus shipping), and it arrived in the U.K. within days once I had e-mailed The Message Shop. It might just be what your parish is looking for this Eastertide!

On Perfection

A nun of the Visitation once asked St Francis de Sales what she should do to reach perfection. The holy bishop replied, 'Sister, I think Our Lord wants you to close doors quietly.'

By George, let's celebrate!

England - and especially cities like London - is becoming increasingly multi-cultural. Most of my parishioners come from Irish, African, West Indian or Brazilian backgrounds. Is it not appropriate, then, that our patron saint comes from a country far away?

St George, a soldier who was martyred in Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century, has been venerated as our patron since the fourteenth century. Over the centuries, he quickly overtook the other medieval patron saints of England: Our Blessed Lady, St Peter, Prince of the Apostles and St Edward the Confessor. In the twenty-first century, if he is remembered at all, it is as a national symbol of beer-swigging, beef-eating ‘merry England’ rather than an early Christian martyr that he is celebrated.

Today is his feast, although it is transferred to tomorrow since it falls during the Easter Octave. Liturgically, it is one of the very special days that we keep as a Solemnity. Yet, unlike other countries, the feast of our patron saint is not a national holiday. This is partly because of the lack of self-confidence the English have in their identity, especially in these post-imperial days, but also because there is a certain embarrassment about St George. After all, he has very little to do with England – it is possible that he had never even heard of this land – and we know very little about him. At least the Irish, in venerating St Patrick, pray to a saint who knew the emerald isle intimately. They can visit his haunts and read his writings. This is not possible with St George.

Nevertheless, you can sign a petition to make St George's Day a national holiday. This is courtesy of Wells Bombardier beer - worth signing despite its non-religious motivation! Over 100,000 have done so already.

The most important thing about the saints is not the details of their lives - though these can edify and inspire us – but the power of their intercession in Heaven. The one thing we know for certain about St George is that he was a soldier who died for his Faith (the reason why he was so popular with the Crusaders) – this alone makes us confident that he will hear our prayers.

Through his strong faith and by winning the martyr’s crown, St George overcame evil and thus defeated the metaphorical dragon. We ask him today for his protection and his prayers – for each one of us who lives in this fair land (no matter where our origins may be); for the Church; for the Government; and for Her Majesty the Queen, who has just celebrated her 80th birthday.

St George, pray for us and pray for England.

Saturday, 22 April 2006

The Hermeneutic of Continuity

Fr Tim Finigan, parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen and a lecturer at Wonersh seminary, has recently started a fine blog, called The Hermeneutic of Continuity, which I warmly commend to anyone passing through Roman Miscellany.


Permanent Deacon

Another highlight of my German pilgrimage was a visit to the majestic Benedictine monastery of Ottobeuron. Here is a photo of one of the saints enshrined in the abbey church - I forget his name, but he was the deacon of Pope St Stephen I (r.254-57), and on the other side of the church is his companion, the Pope's subdeacon. As you can see, his remains are dressed in a rather fine dalmatic and he holds a burse. His crown indicates that he was a martyr. He is truly a 'deacon for ever' - reminding us that Ordination is not just an inauguration but a ceremony that changes who someone is.


British Pilgrims at Papal Birthplace

In previous posts I mentioned my visit to Marktl-am-Inn back in February. Well, here's a photo of the intrepid pilgrims (with yours truly in the centre) standing outside the papal birthplace. We had just celebrated Mass in the parish church - which has been drastically re-ordered (indeed, the whole church has been turned round 90 degrees, with the sanctuary in what used to be the side aisle). It was rather ironic that the first time I wore a chasuble with a stole fixed on the outside (there was no alternative) was on the spot where the author of such classics as The Spirit of the Liturgy was baptised!


Wednesday, 19 April 2006

The Miraculous Virgin of Monte Porzio

In 1796, as revolutionary clouds drifted from France in the direction of Italy, there was a spate of Marian miracles in the Papal States. Many of these were connected to images of the Madonna, which seemed to move their eyes or change their expression. According to the Rev. Robert Smelt, the English bishops agent in Rome, one of these portents occurred at the English College villa in Monte Porzio (just outside Rome). On the outside of the house was a Marian image (see photo above) and one devotee saw Our Lady open her eyes. Word of this wonderful happening spread round the sleepy Castelli town like wild fire, and before long “a great number of knives and offensive weapons” were hung up around the image as votive offerings. The Rector of the English College, Stefano Felici, “much pleased with all this, prepared a fine canopy and other ornaments”.

The Bishop of Frascati, in whose diocese Monte Porzio lies, soon took an interest in the case - his name was Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart, brother of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie.' He was known to his supporters as “King Henry IX”. He ordered the local curate to take the miraculous image into the nearby parish church of St Gregory. However, Rector Felici was not keen to lose the wonder-working picture, and produced the College’s bull of foundation to show that it was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Ordinary. However the bishop still ordered the curate to obey his mandate, and reminded Felici that he is “both Bishop and King”. In the end, Felici won after forbidding the curate to come near the villa and threatening that, should the picture be removed to the church, “he would carry the boys in a body to the church, and take it away by force”. As an epilogue, Smelt added that “King Henry IX, who is as despotic a monarch as his ancestor Henry VIII, and full of logical contradiction, was violently enraged at the Rector and now abuses him like a pickpocket”. The shrine can still be seen, next door to what is now the carabinieri station. In 1905 St Pius X granted an indulgence for the shrine on the Third Sunday in July and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It remains a spiritual focus in the town to this day.


St Oswald of Northumbria

Here's a portrait of St Oswald of Northumbria (r634-42), which I took in 2004 during a visit to the Royal English College of St Alban, Valladolid. In true Spanish style, he looks more like Philip II than a seventh century Northumbrian!

St Oswald was killed in battle against his great rival, King Penda of Mercia - and because Penda was a pagan, Oswald was soon honoured as a martyr. His cult spread all over Europe - even to the little Bavarian village of Marktl-am-Inn. A certain Josef Alois Ratzinger was baptised at the 'Oswaldskirche' there on Holy Saturday 1927.

Ora pro nobis!


Defend Life and Fight the Joffe Bill!

An important Eastertide task for English Catholics is to campaign against the Joffe Bill, which has its second reading in just a fortnight. This Bill is trying to legalise assisted dying and once again bears witness to the 'civilisation of death' that surrounds us.

Anyone reading this (if anyone does, indeed, read this blog!!!) is urged to sign the petition just launched by 'Care NOT Killing.'

The petition reads:

We the undersigned are deeply opposed to Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill which seeks to legalise assisted suicide in England and Wales. Persisting requests for assisted suicide are extremely rare. Experience shows that they disappear when patients' physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs are properly provided for and therefore our key priority must be to improve provision of good palliative care. To legalise assisted suicide would place large numbers of vulnerable people at risk in particular those who are depressed, elderly or disabled and those who feel themselves to be under emotional or financial pressure to request early death. Furthermore this bill undermines the well-established legal, medical and social principle that people should not be helped to kill themselves. We believe that this bill is unnecessary, dangerous and contrary to the common good.

'How time passes'

Today, as most Catholic blogs will be noting, is the first anniversary of the election of the Holy Father now gloriously reigning. As the Pope himself said at this morning's audience: 'How time passes. Already a year has gone by since the cardinals so unexpectedly chose my poor person to succeed the late and beloved great pope John Paul II.'

I wasn't blogging at the time of the conclave, but as a tribute to our German Shepherd here's a sermon I preached a few months ago at the Pope's birthplace, Martkl-am-Inn (near the Marian shrine of Altotting and the Austrian border). Interestingly, the church where the Pope was baptised is dedicated to an English saint - King St Oswald of Northumbria (martyr):

On Holy Saturday 1927, a baby (just four hours old) was baptised in this church and given the names Josef Alois Ratzinger. It was a day of deep snow and so teeth-chatteringly cold that even his two older siblings, Georg and Maria, were not allowed to attend the service, for fear of catching cold. Almost exactly 78 years later, that tiny baby – by now an eminent theologian and Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church – was elected Pope. I’m sure his parents never suspected that on the day of his baptism. As Ratzinger later wrote, ‘needless to say, I have no recollection of my baptism. My brother and sister told me that there was a lot of snow, that it was very cold, although it was April 16. But that is nothing extraordinary in Bavaria.’ It was, moreover, not an easy time for the Ratzinger family – ‘unemployment was rife; war reparation weighed heavily on the German economy; battles among the political parties set people against one another; endless illnesses visited the family.’

As we remember the simple baptism ceremony that took place here all those years ago and then think of the dramatic events of last April’s papal election, still so fresh in our minds, we begin to appreciate the mystery of vocation. God calls each one of us. God has a purpose for every human being - nobody is an accident. This divine call happens on two levels. First of all, there is what the Second Vatican Council referred to as the ‘universal call to holiness.’ It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Pope or a pauper, everybody is called to holiness, to be with God and share in His life. For Pope Benedict, that general call to holiness was first received in this church on the day of his baptism, and remains the same today.

However, as well as calling us to perfection in a general way, God gives each of us a different path to this holiness. Many people may never fully understand what their vocation involves, though they live it out nevertheless – it might involve working for a good cause, helping a neighbour in distress, following a particular profession, even being sick and infirm. Others will have a clearer idea of their call, since they will have celebrated one of the two sacraments of vocation: marriage or Holy Orders. A marriage or ordination service ‘seals’ the personal call with the blessing of the Church, and makes that way of life sacred and permanent.

Joseph Ratzinger heard the call of the Lord and was ordained a priest. He became renowned as a scholar, bishop, and cardinal. He hoped to be able retire to Bavaria for his twilight years, but found himself elected Pope – one of the most important and, indeed, lonely vocations.

What does being Pope involve? It has developed over the centuries. Ratzinger has referred to the essential office of Pope as ‘a protective barrier against arbitrary action.’ In other words, whenever there are calls to change something in the Church, the Pope is the one who asks ‘can we do that? Is that in line with Catholic teaching and tradition?’ The Pope is not an absolute monarch in the sense of doing whatever he likes. This is what many people thought at the time of the conclave last April. Journalists and writers speculated whether a ‘new’ Pope might, for example, change the Church’s teaching on divorce or ordain women as priests. A Pope cannot make up new policies in the same way as a Prime Minister. The truth of Christianity is unchanging, although our understanding of the faith may develop and its expression may change in different times and places. The Pope is the one who, as chief guardian of the faith, provides unity and continuity. When people refer to Pope Benedict as a ‘conservative,’ they misunderstand the whole nature of the Church – it is the Pope’s primary duty to conserve the truth revealed to man by God and to teach it (in all its glorious fullness) to the modern world. He is not there to be guided by the latest fashions and make dramatic changes to what God has handed down to us.

Pope Benedict provided a wonderful meditation on the role of the Papacy last year during his first Ascension Day Sermon: 'Peter expressed in the name of the apostles, the profession of faith: “Your are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is the task of all the Successors of Peter: to be the leader in the profession of faith in Christ, the Son of the living God. The chair of Rome is, first of all, chair of this creed. From the loftiness of this chair, the Bishop of Rome is obliged to repeat constantly: Dominus Iesus. “Jesus is Lord”… Whoever sits on the chair of Peter must remember the words that the Lord said to Simon Peter in the Last Supper: “And when you have returned again, strengthen your brethren.” The holder of the Petrine ministry must be conscious of being a frail and weak man, as his own strength is frail and weak, constantly needing purification and conversion. But he can also be conscious that from the Lord he receives strength to confirm his brethren in the faith and to keep them united in the confession of Christ, crucified and risen. In the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, we find the oldest account of the Resurrection available. Paul took it up faithfully from the witnesses. This account speaks first of all of the Lord's death for our sins, of his burial, of his resurrection, which took place on the third day, and later he says: "he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Corinthians 15:5). Thus is summarized once again the meaning of the mandate conferred on Peter until the end of times: to be witness of the risen Christ.'

Today we pray that the Lord will strengthen Pope Benedict in his Petrine Ministry as witness of the risen Christ. We pray also that we will be loyal sons and daughters of Christ’s Church and that we will persevere in our own vocations.

Ad multos annos, Santo Padre!


Tuesday, 18 April 2006

The Easter Octave - the Forgotten 'Holy' Week

After the intense drama of Holy Week, many people find the Easter Octave something of an anti-climax. This is especially the case today (Easter Tuesday), with most of the population half-heartedly returning to work and (even) to school. Yet the Easter Octave is, in truth, another 'holy' week, just as full of spiritual drama and intensity as last week. Every Mass is a 'Solemnity,' complete with Sequence and solemn dismissal (Ite missa est, alleluia, alleluia) - the whole week, indeed, is an extension of Easter Sunday (the Preface at Mass even refers to 'this' Easter day).

As Catholics we need to rediscover the celebratory side of Easter week and make it the joyful counterpart to the austerity of Holy Week. All sorts of colourful Easter customs used to make sure that this was a week of light-hearted hilarity. In medieval Bavaria, for instance, the priest told funny stories and sung comic songs at the end of Easter Mass so that the congregation would be convulsed in Risus Paschalibus (Easter Laughter). In Russia anybody could enter the church to ring the bells throughout the day. Easter week was a time of feasting and playing (even distinguished prelates were to be found indulging in a game of handball). In Rome business transactions and even marriage ceremonies were deferred during this week. And yet, in our increasingly secular society, we're just given one bank holiday and then expected to return to normality.

Let us try to remain festive for the rest of the week, even if it means an interior festiveness while we go about our daily chores in the workplace. Why? Because Christ is Risen. Because Christ has conquered death. And, crucially, because He has promised that we too will have a share in His Resurrection, just as we have a share in His Passion.

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!

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Tuesday, 11 April 2006

On the Agnus Dei

Here is some info on a much neglected Catholic sacramental, associated with this time of year:

The first year of their pontificate, and every seven years, the Popes, in the octave of Easter, bless a certain number of medals marked with the image of a lamb – a symbol of the sweetness and patience of Jesus Christ. Neither gold nor silver enter into the composition of these medals; they are made of what remains of the paschal candle of the preceding year. On Easter Tuesday the Pope mixes some holy water, balm, and chrism, in which he dips them. From this odoriferous immersion they take the name of Agnus Dei. On Easter Saturday a sub-deacon, preceded by the cross, presents himself at the gate of the chapel where mass is being celebrated, and holding a basin full of these medals, he intones, in a loud voice, the following words:
‘Holy Father, here are the lambs which announced the resurrection to you, the messengers who brought tidings of victory: they are now come to the fountain, they are shining with brightness.’
The choir answers, ‘Alleluia, praise to God, alleluia.’ He then advances to the throne, and the Pope taking these medals, distributes them to the dignitaries of the chapel. Urban V, in sending three of them to the Greek Emperor, John Paleologus, thus enumerates the graces attached to the gift: ‘They bring down,’ says he, ‘ the blessings of heaven on those who carry them, and who honour them by the sanctity of their lives – they preserve from fire and shipwreck, and are a pledge of peace and tranquillity.’

Baron Ferdinand von Geramb, Journey from La Trappe to Rome (1841)

In virtue of the prayers which are said over them to that end the Agnus Dei’s are considered to possess special virtue against the fury of the elements. It is considered lawful to throw them into a burning house or into a swollen river. The Empress St Helena, we are duly reminded, did not scruple to cast one of the holy nails, with which our Lord was crucified, into the Adriatic in order to appease the waves which threatened her with destruction. As a matter of fact, St Pius V had recourse to this expedient when the Tiber was in flood and seemed likely to submerge the city, and we are told that when an Agnus Dei had been thrown into the river the angry waters at once subsided. On the other hand it is considered superstitious to nail Agnus Dei’s to the top of church towers or lofty buildings as a protection against lightning, or to break them up into pieces to scatter them broadcast over the fields.

Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Holy Year of Jubilee (1900), pp.250-51

Hmmm - I wonder if Pope Benedict will continue this tradition as he reaches the end of his first year? Pope John Paul resurrected the custom towards the end of his Pontificate and blessed Agnus Dei's can be obtained from S Croce in Rome (for a donation, I think, of 2 euros).

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Saturday, 8 April 2006

Dickens and the Sistine Miserere

To put us in the mood for Holy Week, here is Charles Dicken's description of the Sistine Miserere from his 1846 work, Pictures from Italy:

At the Sistine chapel, on the Wednesday, we saw very little, for by the time we reached it (though we were early) the besieging crowd had filled it to the door, and overflowed into the adjoining hall, where they were struggling, and squeezing, and mutually expostulating, and making great rushes every time a lady was brought out faint, as if at least fifty people could be accommodated in her vacant standing-room. Hanging in the doorway of the chapel, was a heavy curtain, and this curtain, some twenty people nearest to it, in their anxiety to hear the chanting of the Miserere, were continually plucking at, in opposition to each other, that it might not fall down and stifle the sound of the voices. The consequence was, that it occasioned the most extraordinary confusion, and seemed to wind itself about the unwary, like a Serpent. Now, a lady was wrapped up in it, and couldn't be unwound. Now, the voice of a stifling gentleman was heard inside it, beseeching to be let out. Now, two muffled arms, no man could say of which sex, struggled in it as in a sack. Now, it was carried by a rush, bodily overhead into the chapel, like an awning. Now, it came out the other way, and blinded one of the Pope's Swiss Guard, who had arrived, that moment, to set things to rights.

Being seated at a little distance, among two or three of the Pope's gentlemen, who were very weary and counting the minutes - as perhaps his Holiness was too - we had better opportunities of observing this eccentric entertainment, than of hearing the Miserere. Sometimes, there was a swell of mournful voices that sounded very pathetic and sad, and died away, into a low strain again; but that was all we heard.


The Psychology of an Old Biretta

Here's an article from the Westminster Cathedral Chronicle of November 1926, which I found the other day. I think it deserves republishing in blog form 8o years later:

This is an old, tattered thing, this biretta of which I write, seared and sanctified by long usage; and my thousand and one ceremonial kisses have had their share in dimming the lustre of its primitive respectability. Alas! those hallowed contacts have endued my lips with a grace of which they are utterly unworthy.

When I look at the lining I find it is none of your common shoddy, but a silk of exquisite texture, which proclaims it as something of an aristocrat amongst birettas; befittingly so, for he who had worn it was the very paragon of aristocracy. The initials, worked in red silk on a slender slip of linen, are refined and unobtrusive, like the priest whose symbols they are; and the rents and creases wrought by wear in the tender fabric are as numerous and delicately intricate as the impulses which stirred within his heroic heart.

I know of nothing at once so poignant, so beautiful, so regal-looking, so supremely dignified, as the bepalled bier of a priest, crested with the symbols of his holy office – his stole, chalice and biretta; but the latter has a human and personal significance which makes it appeal to me more irresistibly than the other two. Doubtless other priests’ lips will drink the Precious Blood from that bejewelled cup; probably other priests’ shoulders will wear that frayed purple stole in the blessed act of shriving; but because that old biretta has such a human and personal import, it will escape being ‘pooled’ in the treasury of holy things; assuredly no other priest’s head will wear it, and in all probability it will meet the fate of ultimate dereliction.

Some such thoughts as these gripped my mind in the day when I stood by the bier of the priest whom I loved, and whose heart to me had been an open book; who to me had been friend, companion, counsellor, confessor and teacher; who had been childlike in his great faith and gentleness of spirit; super-sensitive, with a heart brimful of so human emotionalism; white-hot and adamant in his zeal for the cause of God.

It was with a tremulous hand that I lifted this biretta from the summit of its funeral dignity; and when I timidly put forth claim to its ownership, on purely sentimental grounds, my claim was graciously conceded.

When I open the little drawer where that blessed hat finds an unworthy resting-place, I am profoundly moved by what seems to me its utter abandonment; and yet, simultaneously, I am subconscious of the fact that it is not utterly forlorn, for whereas it once did its owner service by covering his head, it was still serving him, but in a subtle and idyllic way; namely, as a relic of, and a tangible treasured link between, our enduring friendship. And I do not think that the dear priest himself would have wished to assign it to a loftier purpose than that.

Joseph E. Phillips
(from The Westminster Cathedral Chronicle, November 1926, vol. XX, no. 11, 217-218)


Musings on Palm Sunday

Today, we celebrate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. He is greeted by jubilant ‘Hosannas’ and the waving of palms, which are kingly emblems of joy and victory. Yet we have the advantage of hindsight – we know that those Hosannas will change, within days, into shouts of ‘Crucify him!’ How often we do the same! We know that it is so easy to praise God with our lips one moment and then crucify Him again and again through our sinful actions. Today we ask forgiveness for those times and pray that we will be granted a share in Christ’s death and resurrection.

As we enter Jerusalem with Jesus waving palms, we begin Holy Week. It’s vital that we make this week distinctive from other weeks. It should be a holy week; even if we’re working or even going on holiday, we need to take the time to reflect on the drama of Christ’s passion and what it means for us. A good way to do this would be to read at home one of the Passion Gospels at our own pace. I often supplement this by listening to one of the many pieces of music written about these events – for example, Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion or Handel’s Messiah, much of which will be aired on radio this week.

Most importantly, we should attend the important and beautiful services this coming week, especially on Thursday evening, Friday afternoon and Saturday night. Remember that if you’re working on Good Friday, there is still an obligation to fast and abstain from meat.

Finally, let’s bring all these wonderful events into our daily lives. I always like the custom of keeping the palms from this Mass and putting them around the house – behind a picture or crucifix, in the kitchen or the bedroom. They remind us through the year of the salvation that has been won for us – for you and me – and in this we can truly rejoice! ‘Hosanna! Blessings on Him who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the Highest Heavens!’

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Palm Sunday is not perhaps the best time for a priest to begin a blog. There is little chance of regular posts as we enter into the drama of Holy Week (spiritual, rubrical and otherwise). However, a brief conversation with a parishioner after this evening's Mass about the value of blogs and the seemingly small number of English Catholics represented in St Blogs has inspired me to have a go. Who knows how long it will survive and how it will develop.



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