Tuesday, 23 September 2008

St Thecla

It's the Year of St Paul - and yet I wonder how many people remembered that today is the feast of St Thecla. Perhaps a few of the locals in Milan, Tarragona and other towns where she is patron (the above picture, by Tiepolo, depicts the saint freeing Este from the plague). But since disappearing from the liturgical calendars in 1969 and not even being mentioned in the most recent edition of the Roman Martyrology, she has largely been forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of 'myths and legends.'

St Thecla, of course, was St Paul's most famous female disciple. According to some early sources she was even deemed ‘equal to the apostles.’ The main account for her life is found in the apocryphal Acts of SS Paul and Thecla. This text states that St Thecla was a noble lady from Iconium who, on the eve of her wedding, sat at her window mesmerized by the preaching of St Paul, who happened to be passing through the city.

From that moment Christ won over her heart and she was soon brought before the Governor, who condemned her to death by burning. She was saved by a miraculous hailstorm, which put the fire out, and she ran to St Paul and asked for baptism. The Apostle wanted to test her and delayed her baptism, taking her with him to Antioch, where once again she was captured and, this time, thrown to the wild beasts. Luckily the saint was protected by a she-lion and (rather unusually) baptized herself by diving into a pool of water in the amphitheatre. I suppose the point was that her willingness to face death was itself baptism by blood, although she survived both of her martyrdoms. Because of her sufferings, however, she is called ‘Apostle and protomartyr among women’.

St Thecla then made her escape to the Apostle dressed as a man. For many years, she lived as an ascetic in a cave (rather like St Mary Magdalen) and a monastery was later built on the site. St Ambrose later presented the saint as a model for virgins and women religious. Another tradition says that she travelled with St Paul to Spain, where (as mentioned above) she is patron of Tarragona.

Not surprisingly, St Thecla has on occasion been hijacked by feminists; even Tertullian, writing in the second century, complained that some Christians were using the saint’s story to legitimize women preaching and baptizing. The saint, though, is a reminder that women had an active involvement in the early Church and were closely linked to the Pauline mission. I for one see no reason to doubt that St Paul had a zealous female disciple called Thecla, who may very well have come from Iconium and faced persecution.


Monday, 22 September 2008

Benedict XVI on Pius XII

On 18th September the Holy Father addressed the participants of a Symposium on Pius XII. Here are some extracts from his speech, which succinctly corrects some of the anti-Pius prejudices which we hear and read in the media:

Fifty years have passed since his pious death here at Castel Gandolfo early on the ninth of October 1958, after a debilitating disease. This anniversary provides an important opportunity to deepen our knowledge of him, to meditate on his rich teaching and to analyze thoroughly his activities. So much has been written and said of him during these last five decades and not all of the genuine facets of his diverse pastoral activity have been examined in a just light.

When one draws close to this noble Pope, free from ideological prejudices, in addition to being struck by his lofty spiritual and human character one is also captivated by the example of his life and the extraordinary richness of his teaching. One can also come to appreciate the human wisdom and pastoral intensity which guided him in his long years of ministry, especially in providing organized assistance to the Jewish people...Wherever possible he spared no effort in intervening in their favour either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church. [He made] many interventions, secretly and silently, precisely because, given the concrete situation of that difficult historical moment, only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews.

This courageous and paternal dedication was recognized and appreciated during and after the terrible world conflict by Jewish communities and individuals who showed their gratitude for what the Pope had done for them. One need only recall Pius XII's meeting on the 29th of November 1945 with eighty delegates of German concentration camps who during a special Audience granted to them at the Vatican, wished to thank him personally for his generosity to them during the terrible period of Nazi-fascist persecution.

For the full text, click here.

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Saturday, 20 September 2008


There must be something in the air. I haven't officiated at a wedding for two and a half years now and was fast forgetting the niceties of matrimonial rubrics. I've done plenty of paperwork, for sure, but couples were tending to return home to get married - places like Mauritius, Venezuela, Mexico and Poland.

In the last few days, however, the wedding drought has ended for I have four wedding ceremonies in my diary. Hurrah! These include one in Westminster Cathedral in December and a rather splendid-sounding military wedding next year, involving a member of Her Majesty's Household Cavalry. For the first time ever (I suspect) the Balls Pond Road will see scarlet tunics and bearskins and the outside of the church will resemble Buckingham Palace!

Glad to see that matrimony is back in fashion - at least for the time being.


Friday, 19 September 2008

APGL Conference

I've been asked to advertise the following conference, organised by the excellent Association of Priests for the Gospel of Life and open to clergy:

Wednesday 29 October 2008
St Wilfrid’s Hall
The London Oratory
Brompton Road, SW7 2RP
The Conference is open to all priests.
Deacons and seminarians are also welcome.

Registration at 11.15am
Keynote Speaker: Fr John Saward
(author of Redeemer in the womb,
The way of the Lamb
etc) will speak on:

‘Pius XII and Preaching the Gospel of Life’

A buffet lunch will be provided.
Pro-life literature will be available.

The afternoon session will include Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (with Confessions), Rosary and Benediction.
Tea will be served after Benediction and the Conference will conclude by 4pm

To help us with catering, please leave a message on 020 8300 2697 or send an email to conference@apgl.org.uk if you are coming to the conference.
There is no charge but donations will be welcome.

The Oratory is next to the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Nearest tube station South Kensington.) Enter the courtyard in front of the Oratory House.
St Wilfrid’s Hall is upstairs in the building on the left.


Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The English Catholic Way

The last few weeks I've been pre-occupied with preparing several presentations. On Saturday I returned to the church of my baptism, Ealing Abbey, to give some talks on 'Mary in the Mystery of Christ and His Church' for the excellent Maryvale Certificate in Catechesis. This is a part-time distance-learning course, spread over two years and involving a number of written assignments and study days. The 'students' came from all over London and represented a variety of ages and backgrounds. I fully recommend it to priest and catechist readers - for further information, visit the website.

I've just returned from our Pastoral Centre at London Colney, giving a day of recollection for the diocesan ethnic chaplains. As I've said before, the Centre was originally an Anglican convent and boasts a stunning chapel by Ninian Comper. I was especially pleased to celebrate Mass this morning under the splendid baldacchino (see above), instead of using the modern altar placed at the church's West End.
The theme I was asked to speak on was the 'English Catholic Way.' I gave the chaplains an overview of our ecclesiastical history and then tried to draw out the chief characteristics of traditional English spirituality. I came up with the following list:
  • A great love for Our Lady (England as Mary's Dowry)
  • A close relationship with Rome (as seen in the long tradition of pilgrimages to the Eternal City and the English origins of 'Peter's Pence')
  • Love of solitude (England was once famous for its hermits)
  • Gentleness and moderation (many English spiritual writers display practical realism and a deep understanding of human nature. They don't like to confine themselves to a rigid system)
  • This does not necessarily mean weakness and compromise, though, for the Faith survived long years of persecution and produced a crop of martyrs
  • A profound devotion to the Mass - 'it is the Mass that matters'
  • Formality, especially in the Sacred Liturgy and Prayer
  • A tradition of migration and exile

I would quite like to expand this theme and would be interested to hear of your thoughts regarding the characteristics (at least historically) of English Catholicism.

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Friday, 12 September 2008

The Catholicism Project

I've mentioned Fr Robert Barron of Chicago in the past since I've used his DVDs in the parish and often keep an eye on his website. Here is a trailer about his most recent project, a beautifully produced ten-part series giving a positive and confident exposition of our Faith. Take a look at this:


Thursday, 11 September 2008

WYD '08

World Youth Day is old news, I know, but tonight the five young people (and one adult) from our parish who travelled to Sydney (forming 3.5% of the total number of Westminster pilgrims) gave a splendid presentation about their experience.

They all testified to returning from WYD as changed people - as could be seen in the confidence with which they spoke about the Faith. They said that it had made them proud to be Catholic, brought them closer to God and more devoted to the Church and the Holy Father. Some had been to confession for the first time in years, others found a new desire to pray and one has begun attending Mass on weekdays, whenever possible. Another pilgrim is now co-ordinating our Confirmation programme.

Being a young person in London, and especially in a place like Hackney (with its poverty and high crime rate), is not easy, but the spirit of WYD seems to have given them hope and a sort of utopian vision of what society can be like - they compared the coldness of London to the warmth of Sydney during the festival, where strangers greeted each other and many friendships made, united in the One Faith.

Even the non-Catholic representatives of a local charity that had donated a substantial amount of money to pay for the flights thought the whole thing a worthwhile 'investment.' It certainly is, but the challenge now is to ensure that this enthusiasm is channelled in the right direction and built upon, especially since some of the young people are now starting University.


Friday, 5 September 2008

White Mountain

Prague is closely connected to the Thirty Years War (1618-48). The conflict started in Prague Castle on 23 May 1618 when tensions between Catholics and Protestants peaked after two Catholic Governors were thrown out of a window by Protestant nobles during a meeting of the Bohemian Estates. Luckily the unfortunate pair landed safely on a pile of manure and survived - thanks, it was piously believed, to the intervention of angels. This may have been the window in the Chancery out of which they were thrown:

The following year the Protestant nobles deposed Ferdinand II as King of Bohemia and elected the Protestant Elector Palatine, Frederick, who was married to James I's daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, and is known as the 'Winter King' due to his short reign. At first, things went well for the Protestant Bohemians, but they were decisively defeated at the Battle of White Mountain (Bílá hora), on the outskirts of Prague, on 8 November 1620.

A decisive factor in the battle was a Spanish Carmelite, the Venerable Dominic á Jesu Maria (who can just be made out in the fresco above), who blessed the Catholic troops with an image of the Adoration of the Shepherds which had been defaced by Protestants and he had rescued from the town of Strakonice. The picture was later taken to Rome and placed in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (more famous for Bernini's St Teresa in Ectasy). Unfortunately the miraculous image was destroyed, together with the High Altar, in a fire in 1833, though a copy can be seen there today.

Near the battlefield of White Mountain, a pilgrimage church, also dedicated to Our Lady of Victories, was later built and another copy of the picture can be seen above the High Altar.

If you're in Prague, it's well worth making the short excursion to Bílá hora, which is a tram terminus and so quite easy to get to. As well as visiting the pilgrimage church (which we accessed by ringing the bell) and trudging around the field behind, you can visit a star-shaped hunting lodge (Hvězda) in which there is a small exhibition. Here is the Roman Miscellenist at the memorial to the fallen on the White Mountain:

After the battle the Catholic forces entered Prague, the 'Winter King' fled and Ferdinand II was restored. The way was prepared for the triumph of Catholicism in Bohemia - with the help of the Jesuits and other Orders, the towns were evangelized and many of the fine churches that now ornament the Prague skyline were built. According to one school of history, White Mountain was a national calamity, leading to a loss of independence (Bohemia was now firmly wedded to the Holy Roman Empire) and the decline of Czech culture and language. However, I was pleased to see the English leaflet available to visitors argue: 'in terms of cultural orientation and linguisitic knowledge, however, the majority of the Protestant leaders of the Estates were actually German. Conversely, in the following centuries, the Catholic Church deserves the main credit for averting the demise of the Czech language and folk culture and also for promoting the unprecedented development of baroque art in the Bohemian lands.'


Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Golden City

Last week I spent a few nights in Prague, which I fully recommend to anybody since it is affordable (when compared to Western Europe) and very beautiful (an intact Baroque city). It is the 'city of a hundred spires':

a city of stunning churches:

a city which gave the Abbess of its oldest convent (St George's in the castle compound) the privilege of wearing a coronet:

a city in which you occasionally find grafitti in Latin:

a city of great beers - and which openly sells Absinthe, a highly alcoholic drink made from wormwood and banned in many countries:

Over the next few days I will try to do some further Prague posts.


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