Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Modernism in London

Had a relaxing day off - including lunch with a friend in Kensington. I passed the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A) and was amused to see its large banners advertising the current 'Modernism' exhibition. Actually, I'd forgotten that Modernism was not only a heresy (condemned by St Pius X in Pascendi, 1907) but also a cultural movement, which (like its theological counterpart) rejected tradition and strived to build a new world. Needless to say I didn't waste £9 on buying a ticket.

Of course, the museum is next door to the Brompton Oratory, which is the last place you'd expect to find Modernism in London!

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

The Monks of Farnborough

We took our Confirmation candidates to Farnborough Abbey (Subiaco Benedictines) today. This is one of my favourite places - it's so easy to get to from London and I've been going there for retreats and 'quiet days' since my last year at University. It's a great monastery for priest visitors (there's no problem saying private Masses, for instance) and it has an excellent printing press. Moreover, it is the resting place of the Emperor Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenie and the Prince Imperial.

The day consisted of Mass, Sext, various inputs on the monastic life and (most revealing) a walk around the grounds of the monastery. Our young people may be 'cool' on the streets of suburban London but they seemed awkward in a woodland setting - even the lads were reluctant to get their trainers dirty and genuinely seemed apprehensive of cobwebs, nettles or overhanging branches! Nor could they cope with the silence and, as soon as the lunch break began, they resorted to their MP3 players or portable radios. Perhaps a training in silence should be part of the Confirmation course. Still, many of them bought crucifixes and St Benedict Medals in the shop, which they will hopefully wear around the streets of London as the latest fad!

It's always hard to know how much they took in, though I wish I'd had such an experience when I was preparing for Confirmation 16 years ago! Here's a picture of the confirmandi, some of the catechists, Br Thomas (guest master) and me:

Papal State Visit?

The Holy Father recently turned down an invitation from the English and Welsh Bishops to visit this country next year. And most of us understood his decision - given his age, Benedict XVI is not going to be a global pope in the same way as JPII, and, besides, there is no particular reason for a papal visit (as would be provided, for example, by the canonisation of John Henry Newman). However, reports are circulating that this weekend Tony Blair will invite Pope Benedict to make a State Visit to England (which means the Church isn't pushed to the limit for financing it). But don't hold your breath.


Monday, 29 May 2006

Bank Holiday Blessing

While on a Chestertonian/Bank Holiday theme, here is a meaningful beer blessing, courtesy of Fr Ephraem (Dominicanus):

From the Rituale Romanum (no 58)

Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi: et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti, ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corporis, et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen

Bless, O Lord, this creature beer, that Thou hast been pleased to bring forth from the sweetness of the grain: that it might be a salutary remedy for the human race: and grant by the invocation of Thy holy name, that, whosoever drinks of it may obtain health of body and a sure safeguard for the soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Chesterton on Confession

It was never easy, he said, and it was proper it shouldn't be easy but he knew it was harder for him than for many. For one reason even his being a little over lifesize - naturally there was no confessional box big enough to house him. Wedged in there, very hot and perspiring, all thought ceased, all that was left was a sense of something that had got to be got through with. Devotion departed, even if he'd had it before.

Not only that but he couldn't remember what he had prepared to say. He thanked God for the formula, 'Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,' with which Confession opens. He often thanked God for ritual but never so much as then. But for the formula he would often have left. If he did leave he would probably take the confessional with him.

He found it hard to tell the sins, but then he 'swept into the Act of Contrition - Oh my God, I am sorry because I love Thee - sorry not only for the sins but for the negligence of the Confession.' Found he was saying it much louder than he realized and saw people turning to look at him as he came out. It was proper that that prayer went so well with the Domine non sum dignus [Lord, I am not worthy] before Holy Communion. He felt his inadequacy both for Confession and Communion, felt those two prayers tied together the two sacraments in one act of realizing his own unworthiness.

(from Maisie Ward, Return to Chesterton, 1952, 244-45)

Auschwitz Meditation


Here is an extract from the Holy Father's address at Auschwitz yesterday afternoon:

How many questions arise in this place! Constantly the question comes up: Where was God in those days? Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil? The words of Psalm 44 come to mind, Israel’s lament for its woes: “You have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness ... because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Ps 44:19, 22-26). This cry of anguish, which Israel raised to God in its suffering, at moments of deep distress, is also the cry for help raised by all those who in every age - yesterday, today and tomorrow - suffer for the love of God, for the love of truth and goodness. How many they are, even in our own day!We cannot peer into God’s mysterious plan - we see only piecemeal, and we would be wrong to set ourselves up as judges of God and history. Then we would not be defending man, but only contributing to his downfall. No - when all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: Rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your creature! And our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence - so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness, pusillanimity, indifference or opportunism. Let us cry out to God, with all our hearts, at the present hour, when new misfortunes befall us, when all the forces of darkness seem to issue anew from human hearts: whether it is the abuse of God’s name as a means of justifying senseless violence against innocent persons, or the cynicism which refuses to acknowledge God and ridicules faith in him. Let us cry out to God, that he may draw men and women to conversion and help them to see that violence does not bring peace, but only generates more violence - a morass of devastation in which everyone is ultimately the loser. The God in whom we believe is a God of reason - a reason, to be sure, which is not a kind of cold mathematics of the universe, but is one with love and with goodness. We make our prayer to God and we appeal to humanity, that this reason, the logic of love and the recognition of the power of reconciliation and peace, may prevail over the threats arising from irrationalism or from a spurious and godless reason.

The place where we are standing is a place of memory, it is the place of the Shoah. The past is never simply the past. It always has something to say to us; it tells us the paths to take and the paths not to take. Like John Paul II, I have walked alongside the inscriptions in various languages erected in memory of those who died here: inscriptions in Belarusian, Czech, German, French, Greek, Hebrew, Croatian, Italian, Yiddish, Hungarian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Romani, Romanian, Slovak, Serbian, Ukrainian, Judaeo-Spanish and English. All these inscriptions speak of human grief, they give us a glimpse of the cynicism of that regime which treated men and women as material objects, and failed to see them as persons embodying the image of God. Some inscriptions are pointed reminders. There is one in Hebrew. The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone - to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.

Then there is the inscription in Polish. First and foremost they wanted to eliminate the cultural elite, thus erasing the Polish people as an autonomous historical subject and reducing it, to the extent that it continued to exist, to slavery. Another inscription offering a pointed reminder is the one written in the language of the Sinti and Roma people. Here too, the plan was to wipe out a whole people which lives by migrating among other peoples. They were seen as part of the refuse of world history, in an ideology which valued only the empirically useful; everything else, according to this view, was to be written off as lebensunwertes Leben - life unworthy of being lived. There is also the inscription in Russian, which commemorates the tremendous loss of life endured by the Russian soldiers who combated the Nazi reign of terror; but this inscription also reminds us that their mission had a tragic twofold effect: they set the peoples free from one dictatorship, but the same peoples were thereby subjected to a new one, that of Stalin and the Communist system.The other inscriptions, written in Europe’s many languages, also speak to us of the sufferings of men and women from the whole continent. They would stir our hearts profoundly if we remembered the victims not merely in general, but rather saw the faces of the individual persons who ended up here in this abyss of terror. I felt a deep urge to pause in a particular way before the inscription in German. It evokes the face of Edith Stein, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: a woman, Jewish and German, who disappeared along with her sister into the black night of the Nazi-German concentration camp; as a Christian and a Jew, she accepted death with her people and for them. The Germans who had been brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau and met their death here were considered as Abschaum der Nation - the refuse of the nation. Today we gratefully hail them as witnesses to the truth and goodness which even among our people were not eclipsed. We are grateful to them, because they did not submit to the power of evil, and now they stand before us like lights shining in a dark night. With profound respect and gratitude, then, let us bow our heads before all those who, like the three young men in Babylon facing death in the fiery furnace, could respond: “Only our God can deliver us. But even if he does not, be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (cf. Dan 3:17ff).

Yes, behind these inscriptions is hidden the fate of countless human beings. They jar our memory, they touch our hearts. They have no desire to instil hatred in us: instead, they show us the terrifying effect of hatred. Their desire is to help our reason to see evil as evil and to reject it; their desire is to enkindle in us the courage to do good and to resist evil. They want to make us feel the sentiments expressed in the words that Sophocles placed on the lips of Antigone, as she contemplated the horror all around her: my nature is not to join in hate but to join in love.


Sunday, 28 May 2006

Prayers at Auschwitz

(AP Photo)
Pope Benedict has followed in his predeccessor's footsteps by making an official visit to the former concentration camp of Auschwitz. And, for once, the BBC included a relatively lengthy report on the evening news, noting the symbolic significance of a German pope walking under the entrance sign, Arbeit Macht Frei ('Work Sets You Free'), stressing that today's visit was the Pope's own idea and referring to Papa Razzi's 'tenderness' in meeting camp survivors. The Guardian website (hardly pro-Catholic) reported that 'he moved slowly down the line, stopping to talk with each, taking one woman's face in his hands and kissing one of the men on both cheeks.' Mother Nature even obliged by providing a rainbow as an impressive backdrop (see picture above).The pilgrimage has been something of a media coup and has helped change the public image of this onetime 'rottweiler' - the crowd of (at least) 900,000 Poles chanting 'Bene-detto, Bene-detto' at the Papal Mass in Krakow says it all. We await with interest the papal summer programme in Rome - will Bertone move to the Secretariat of State and will the much-rumoured liturgical pronouncements (including a Universal Indult for the Classical Roman Rite) come to pass?


Golden Rose

Shouts in the Piazza has an informative post on the Golden Rose, a papal 'honour' which Pope Benedict has just bestowed on the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. This custom was introduced by the eleventh century (supplanting the older custom of presenting the golden key of the confessio of St Peter's) and was, at first, bestowed on Catholic monarchs. English recipients include Henry VI (1444), Henry VIII (three times!), Mary I (1555) and Henrietta-Maria (consort of Charles I, 1625).


One thousand

Sometime early this morning (British time) this blog received its one thousandth reader! Experienced bloggers won't be particularly amazed, but it's a milestone for an amateur like myself. Grazie mille!


Baroque Bollywood

A Catholic blog isn't just about theology. It's also about culture. Forgive me for turning my attention towards a superb DVD that came through the post today - Handel's opera masterpiece: Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724). This is a live recording of David McVicar's acclaimed production performed at Glyndebourne last year and currently being revived.

Opera frequently has a bad press. OK, this set consists of three disks, and anyone would admit that a baroque opera lasting over 3 hours could be very tedious indeed. But not this one. Thanks to the superb cast, the energetic musical direction of William Christie and McVicar's enlightened idea that opera should be entertaining and accessible, this production is packed with action, humour and subtle nuances. There is hardly a dull moment - several arias are even accompanied by Bollywood dance routines (which actually works) and it has all the drama and emotion of a West End show. Special mention must go to Cleopatra, played by Danielle de Niese. One reviewer, Edward Seckerson, said that 'for her sheer relish of performing, her movie-star looks and her winning personality, she was a complete knock-out. Indeed, she was so on top of her jubilant pay-off aria Da tempeste il legno infranto that the vocal and physical virtuosity were virtually inseparable.'

If you love baroque music or want to have a taste of just how exciting opera can be, buy it. And even if you don't, buy it anyway!

'...and the world hated them.'

Here is a summary of my sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Easter (B): 'Keep those you have given me true to your name...I passed you word on to them, and the world hated them.'

Earlier this week I went on an archives conference at Ushaw College, near Durham. This college was originally founded as the English College in Douai, northern France, and produced many of our sixteenth and seventeenth century martyrs. These men returned to Protestant England and passed on the word of God through their priestly ministry – especially by celebrating secret Masses and preaching behind closed doors. But the world hated them for it. They were seized, interrogated, often tortured and condemned to the horrific death of hanging, drawing and quartering. Their average age was about 31 and the world had everything to offer them but they were true to God’s name and made the ultimate sacrifice.

Here's another example. Later today Pope Benedict will visit the former concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He will arrive not only as Supreme Pontiff, but also as spokesman for the German nation. It will be an occasion rich in symbolism: a former member of the Hitler Youth passing through the gates of a former Nazi death camp as a global spiritual leader. He will pray for reconciliation and forgiveness. While he will remember in particular the countless Jews who were exterminated in the Holocaust, he will also remember the many priests and religious who suffered at this death camp, such as the Polish Franciscan, St Maximilian Kolbe, or the Jewish convert, philosopher and Carmelite nun, St Edith Stein. They passed on the word of God, even amid the horrors of Nazi occupation and a concentration camp. They were true to God’s name but the world hated them – and so they made the ultimate sacrifice.

As twenty-first Christians, we are called to pass on the word of God and be true to His name. And, so often, the world hates us because of it. Just think of the news over the last week. The Da Vinci Code got bad reviews but still made a small fortune at the Box Office – and, in doing so, spread erroneous views about the life of Jesus and the nature of the Church. Sir Elton John blamed the death of his friends from HIV on the teachings of the Catholic Church on sexual morality, and Madonna appeared on stage fixed to cross and wearing a crown of thorns. It goes to show that, just as there are many people thirsting for the truth, there are those who react strongly against it – because it challenges the materialistic self-obsession of modern life or because they misunderstand the message of the Gospel. This doesn’t mean we should water down the Faith or be afraid of the truth but teach it to the full: the more difficult bits as well as the easy bits. We all know what these 'difficult bits' are – for example, the Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life, divorce, the contraceptive mentality and the authority of the Church. Today we pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit so that we are protected from all evil and become courageous soldiers of Christ.

Saturday, 27 May 2006

The Cuthbert Code

Durham Cathedral must be one of the most beautiful churches in England. Despite the destruction of the sixteenth century, it still feels quite Catholic since visitors can pray at the site of the 'shrines' of two great Saxon saints - St Bede and St Cuthbert.

The story of St Cuthbert, the great seventh century bishop of Lindisfarne, doesd not need repeating here, but few are aware of the dramatic history surrounding his relics. Initially buried at Lindisfarne, the Viking raids of the late ninth century necessitated the move of the relics to the mainland. In 1104 they eventually found a splendid resting place in the new Durham Cathedral. On inspecting the body, the authorities found it to be incorrupt and flexible. This seems to have been still the case in the 1530s when the shrine was opened and despoiled by Henry VIII's commissioners.

There are two versions of the story concerning the fate of St Cuthbert's body at the Reformation. One relates how the saint's body was reburied in 1542 on the site of the shrine. This tomb was excavated in 1827 and various treasures were found, some of which undoubtedly date back to the seventh century. These include a pectoral cross and episcopal ring (probably medieval in origin, since Saxon bishops didn't wear rings, and subsequently given to Ushaw).

Version Two is that the saint was buried by the monks in a secret location and that a substitute skeleton was placed in the tomb later discovered in 1827. Similar stories are sometimes told about Becket's shrine. According to this tradition, the secret is still closely guarded by the English Benedictine Congregation - and that no more than three monks know of the true location at any one time. This is referred to in Sir Walter Scott's Marmion:

There deep in Durhan's Gothic shade
His relics are in secret laid,
But none may know the place
Save of his holiest servants three
Who share that wondrous grace.

Others say that two people have this privilege ex officio -the Abbot of Ampleforth and the Archbishop of Westminster. There is a story concerning the late Cardinal Basil Hume (a former Abbot of Ampleforth and Archbishop of Westminster) who once visited Durham Cathedral with a group of English bishops during a meeting that was being held at Ushaw. At one point the Cardinal slipped away and disappeared to a quiet corner - was he making a pilgrimage to the secret site of St Cuthbert's shrine?


The Sport of the Martyrs?

Outside the Conference Centre at Ushaw College (near Durham) is a strange wall with arches, as seen in the picture above. At first glance it might appear to be an extension of Hadrian's Wall or some medieval ruin, but it was actually built for the Ushaw version of handball. This is thought to have been brought to Ushaw from its mother foundation, the English College, Douai. Similar games were played at Downside, Ampleforth and elsewhere - an unexpected survival from recusant times. I wonder if some of the English martyrs, many of whom trained at Douai, happily spent their leisure time playing this fast-moving game?


Friday, 26 May 2006

'This is the Saint of Cheerfulness and Kindness'

Buona festa!

Today we honour St Philip Neri, one of the most attractive saints in the Calendar and one who is very close to my heart. I was an altar-boy at the London Oratory (and later a Brother of the Little Oratory); at University I got to know the Oxford Oratory and, while a seminarian in Rome, made frequent trips to the Roman Oratory. St Philip used to greet the English seminarians with the words Salvete Flores Martyrum (Hail! Flowers of the Martyrs) - this was, after all, the age of the English martyrs - and the English College (in my time, at least) provided the music at the Chiesa Nuova for his feast. I remember I was choir-master at the Roman Oratory this time five years ago!

Last year I was invited to preach at the London Oratory on this great feast, followed by a wonderful festal lunch. As a tribute to this great priestly saint, I take the liberty of posting my words:

Sermon for St Philip's Day

Ten years ago an exhibition was held in Rome to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of St Philip’s death. A large collection of pictures was gathered relating to the life and cult of the ‘Apostle of Rome.’ Some were familiar, others more obscure: there was Guido Reni’s famous painting of St Philip with the Madonna and child; ‘St Philip celebrating Mass,’ ‘St Philip interceding for the city of Turin,’ ‘St Philip in glory,’ even the miracle of St Philip in which Cardinal Orsini (the future Pope Benedict XIII) was saved from an earthquake in 1688.

St Philip was shown in many different guises, yet it is intriguing to note that in the vast majority of them, he wears a chasuble. This might not at first seem worthy of comment. Of course, many of the saints were priests, but St Philip is unusual in having actually appropriated the priestly vestments as one of his iconographic symbols. Not even the great Cure d’Ars, the patron of priests, can claim this as his motif.

This tells us something very important about the spirit of St Philip and about the centrality of the Priesthood in his life. He lived at a time of great reforming saints, and though, in so many ways, he is one of them, he also stands apart. In founding the Congregation of the Oratory, St Philip was not chiefly concerned with any ‘specialised’ work or grand strategy, but rather focussed on the priestly apostolate per se, based around administering the sacraments and preaching the Gospel.

He was not primarily concerned with education or missionary evangelisation, as his friend St Ignatius was. He produced no learned tomes, like St Robert Bellarmine. He followed no system of Church reform, like St Charles Borromeo. He did not devote himself to the sick in the same way as St Camillus. He did not immure himself within a cloister, like his fellow Florentine, St Catherine dei Ricci. No, St Philip taught his followers through the school of his example, his words were inscribed not in books but on the hearts of his penitents, he reformed Church and society through his ministry in the confessional, he brought the medicine of the sacraments to sick souls, and though he lived a life of deep contemplation, his was not an enclosed life and Rome was his cloister. St Philip’s life was a priestly life of charity and, of course, at the heart of that was the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That’s why the priestly chasuble is a fitting symbol of this great saint of the Eucharist. It was, indeed, no coincidence that our saint died on 26th May 1595, which (like this year) happened to be the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

It is well known that this ‘choicest of priests’ had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and this was most visible when he celebrated Mass. His disciple and biographer, Antonio Gallonio, tells us that during Mass ‘he would suddenly be so filled with the Holy Spirit that he could hardly pour the wine and water into the chalice in the usual way; his hands would be raised up so that he looked as if he were dancing or jumping up.’ Throughout his life, we are told, St Philip continued ‘to receive those assaults of divine love, pierced by those darts of grace, so that his whole body burned with the divine flame, the fire of heavenly love.’ He elevated the Host and Chalice quickly for fear that he might never be able to lower his arms. Such were these ‘assaults of divine love’ that to distract himself he would sometimes walk the length of the altar, talk to people around him, and make comments to the server about the quality of the light. As he vested in the sacristy, he would listen to humorous poems or play with little dogs. If it had been any other priest, these actions would have seemed irreverent; but they were the fruit of a deep union with God - manifestations of his sanctity that are uniquely his own and can never be imitated.

The Oratory has never been inward-looking – it originated for the sanctification of souls living in the world. Cardinal Newman said that ‘it was his mission to save men, not from, but in, the world. To break the haughtiness of rank, and the fastidiousness of fashion, he gave his penitents public mortifications; to draw the young from the theatres, he opened his Oratory of Sacred Music; to rescue the careless from the Carnival and its excesses, he set out in pilgrimage to the Seven Basilicas.’

Many of the most celebrated aspects of St Philip’s ministry flowed from and were directed towards the Eucharist. He promoted the Forty Hours devotion, as a means of reparation for the sins of the Carnival. His concern with Sacred Music and his friendship with Palestrina, Victoria and Anerio resulted from the appreciation that music lifted up the mind and heart to God and provided a sense of the gloria Dei. Fine music and liturgical excellence became (and remain) hallmarks of the Oratory of St Philip.

St Philip also re-built the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella – the resulting edifice is still called the Chiesa Nuova, the ‘New Church.’ Fr Faber called Rome the ‘city of the Blessed Sacrament’ – and this is true if only on account of the great number of churches and chapels, each of them a shrine to the Holy Eucharist. The Rome of St Philip was a city of scaffolding, as many churches (often with ancient pedigrees) were rebuilt and renovated. It was an age when faith in the Blessed Sacrament was expressed so vividly in stone and fresco, in the swirling cherubs and flamboyant side altars. In rebuilding the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, the Oratorians had to face the opposition of the local inhabitants – poor Fr Lucci, who superintended the work, was even attacked by arrows fired from crossbows, though he was never hit – but the new church was a veritable sermon in stone, in praise of the Blessed Sacrament and of the Blessed Virgin.

Just as he insisted on the daily celebration of Mass – which was not the common priestly practice of his times – so St Philip preached the necessity of frequent Communion. And here he gives his children living in the twenty-first century a timely reminder. St Philip encouraged the frequent use of the sacraments, but he warned his disciples against becoming communicants of routine and habit. The Bread of Angels must never be received unthinkingly or just to save face. Our saint once said, ‘let us all go to the Eucharistic table with a great desire for that Sacred Food: Sitientes! Sitientes!’ - thirsting, thirsting. He thought it best to acquire a true thirst, gained through prayer, before approaching the Fountain of Eternal Life.

St Philip’s favoured means of preparing for frequent Communion was frequent Confession. Like the Cure d’Ars and Padre Pio, St Philip became a ‘prisoner of the confessional.’ At San Girolamo, he would spend the morning hearing confessions before celebrating the last Mass of the day. Another early biographer, Fr Bacci, wrote: ‘while he was hearing confessions, the fire which burned within his breast was so ardent, that many of his penitents felt their hearts inflamed with the love of God during confession, and especially when he gave them absolution.’

The Church has long held to the maxim: Sanctum sanctis, holy things are for those who are holy. Of course, we are all sinners trying to become saints, and the Eucharist is the supernatural food that strengthens our will and helps us resist temptation. But frequent Holy Communion only bears fruit if we prepare for it properly. In order to receive Communion, we need to, firstly, have a ‘right intention.’ This is what St Philip meant when he repeated the words: Sitientes! Sitientes! thirsting, thirsting. We should approach the Holy Sacrament not out of meaningless habit but as a result of true devotion. Secondly, we need to be in a state of sanctifying grace, free from mortal sin. St Philip knew both the potential and the dangers facing human nature – as a remedy to sin he proposed frequent Confession, so that his penitents could be duly prepared to frequently receive the Bread of Life.

Fr Faber used to say that ‘Jesus lives many lives in the Blessed Sacrament…For in each tabernacle where He is reserved, He meets with different treatment, performs different miracles of grace, receives different petitions of want and sorrow, abides a different length of time, and is the object of different degrees of love. There is in a sense what may be called an outward biography to every consecrated Host.’ Through Holy Communion, the Lord gives Himself to us and takes possession of our souls – in that sense, there is an ‘outward biography,’ an adventure of grace behind every Communion that we worthily receive.

What better method is there of truly participating in the Eucharistic mystery than through the practice of frequent communion, as taught us by St Philip? The present Holy Father, Benedict XVI, is quite clear about what true participation in the Mass means. ‘If the liturgy degenerates into general activity,’ he writes, ‘then we have radically misunderstood the “theo-drama” of the liturgy and lapsed almost into parody…Instead one must be led toward the essential actio that makes the liturgy what it is, toward the transforming power of God, who wants, through what happens in the liturgy, to transform us and the world.’ Indeed, ‘anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him.’

As we keep the ‘Year of the Eucharist’ and celebrate today’s Feast during the Octave of Corpus Christi, let us look toward the Lord and go out to meet him, together with Our Holy Father St Philip! Let us adore the Eucharistic Lord more fervently and let our minds and hearts rise up to the Lord through the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy. Let us approach the altar with true devotion – Sitientes! Sitientes! (thirsting, thirsting) –and worthily prepare ourselves through the frequent use of the confessional. Let us make the Eucharist the source and summit of our lives.

Allow me to close with the words used by Mgr Ronald Knox in this very pulpit exactly 54 years ago: ‘Reverend Fathers, you do not keep St Philip to yourselves; you share him with the world. Pray for us others, that we too may learn something of his spirit.’

St Philip Neri, ‘choicest of priests’ – pray for us who have recourse to thee.


Thursday, 25 May 2006

Priest Blogger Dies

Sad to read of the tragic death yesterday of Fr Todd Reitmeyer in a jet ski accident. He was the author of the blog A Son Becomes a Father - 'A live journal of a recently ordained priest.' I must confess that I was not a regular reader, but he was ordained a few weeks after me and studied at the North American College, Rome, while I was in the Eternal City. May he rest in peace.


Take Back Europe '06

Interesting post from the pen of Vaticanologist John Allen describing the Holy Father's current pilgrimage to Poland as the beginning of his 'Take Back Europe' summer tour. This will also include Spain, which, with its Socialist government, could be seen as standing for the 'dictatorship of relativism.'

On the other hand, says Allen, 'Poland represents Benedict's hope for a European future rooted in Christian values...Benedict's vision, like that of John Paul, is that the Christian nations of the East will bring that heritage into the construction of the new Europe. While there is undeniably a sentimental dimension to Benedict's Polish visit as a final tribute to Pope John Paul II, the stakes for political and cultural debate throughout Europe are also high.'

We wish him every success as his begins his pilgrimage.

The Crusades - Seeking the Truth

At the end of last year I gave a talk on the Crusades to the London Faith Forum. Since then I've given the talk to a large group of young adults at the Brompton Oratory and I've got two dates booked for next month.

I'm not really a Crusades expert, although it was my 'special subject' when I was reading History at Oxford ten years ago - the talk is just some reflections of a Catholic priest interested in history. The new CTS booklet by Jonathan Riley-Smith on the subject is written by a real expert!

Anyway, I've just found my talk on the website of the Faith Magazine - in which it appears as The Crusades: Seeking the Truth. Please have a look if you happen to be interested.

'Why do you stand looking in the sky?'

Today we find the disciples gazing upwards, striving to catch one last glimpse of their Master before He disappears beneath the cloud. The Ascension gives us great hope. Jesus descended from Heaven at the Annunciation – the Word made flesh – and took upon Himself every part of the human condition, except sin. He even experienced rejection, suffering and death. Now that He ascends to Heaven He takes our frail human nature with Him. Where He goes we hope to follow – and it is made possible through His life, death, resurrection and ascension. That’s why we can say: ‘God goes up with shouts of joy; the Lord goes up with trumpet blast…sing praise!’

Today is not just about gazing upwards. Indeed, the opening words of the Entrance Antiphon are: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking in the sky?’ Gazing upon God is the privilege of the saints in Heaven. In order to become saints we have much to do here on earth: ‘Go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News to all creation.’ This life is all about sowing; later we will have the chance to reap.

Cardinal Newman once said: ‘The whole Church, all elect souls, each in its turn, is called to this necessary work. Once it was the turn of others, and now it is our turn. Once it was the Apostles’ turn…[Then] the excellent of the earth, the white-robed army of Martyrs, and the cheerful company of Confessors, each in his turn, each in his day…’

‘Each in his turn, each in his day.’ We hear in the Gospel of how signs and miracles would be associated with believers. This does not just concern the apostles or the saints, but us as well. The Church is essentially the same now as it was then, and who knows what might be possible with the help of God. Now it rests with us to be the hands and feet and tongue of Our Lord in this world, to spread the Gospel and do His will, using the gifts and charisms that have been given to us.

‘Why do you standing looking in the sky?,’ when on the contrary we should be looking all around us for opportunities to serve the Lord. We know that the Lord will be with us – indeed, He comes to us at Mass in the form of bread and wine. We commune with Him and are then sent out to do His work. The Ascension, then, is not a feast of God’s absence but a feast of God’s presence. Alleluia!

Ushaw Sermon

This is not an archives blog so I won't bore you with the details of the conference, but here's part of the sermon I preached yesterday afternoon to the Catholic Archives Society. It's an appropriate post, perhaps, as we celebrate the Feast of St Bede, the great Northumbrian historian (even though he is pushed to one side by the Ascension!):

On a very personal level, an Ordination anniversary is a timely opportunity to give thanks for the past and make resolutions for the future. And the same could be said for each of us as we come to the close of this conference. Whatever our broader Vocation might be (with a capital 'V') - whether it be within a family, a diocese or a religious community - we have all been given a smaller vocation (with a little 'v') to guard and promote the Church's heritage.

This is not just a case of managing dusty piles of manuscripts and coping with limited budgets. Though we will be going home with many bright ideas, let us never forget the more profound significance behind our work. As archivists, we witness to the incarnational nature of the Church; we proclaim a God who enters history and leaves His footprints all around us.

In 1963, Pope Paul VI told a group of ecclesiastical archivists: 'it is Christ who operates in time and who writes, He Himself, His story through our papers which are echoes and traces of the passage of the Church, of the passage of the Lord Jesus in the world. Thus, having veneration for these archives...means having veneration for Christ, means giving to ourselves and those who will come after us the history of the passage of this phase of transitus Domini in the world.'

Just as archives forms an important part of the memory of the Church, so at Mass we remember, make present and renew the life-giving Sacrifice of Calvary. As we do so, let us pause for a moment and renew our service to Christ and His Church through our archival work.

Wednesday, 24 May 2006

I Am 3!

I was ordained three years ago today - the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians (and Empire Day). At first I slightly resented being on a conference for my anniversary, which is a bit like a second birthday and should therefore be a day of celebration and thanksgiving (last year I was in France). However, it turned out to be a real blessing.

Yesterday, for example, I visited Durham Cathedral and prayed at the 'shrine' (if you can call it that) of St Bede the Venerable - the only native English Doctor of the Church and the 'Father of Church History.'

His Feast, of course, is on 25 May and, since this was the day after my Ordination, I chose him as my priestly patron. This, incidentally, is a good thing to do when one approaches Ordination. Ronald Knox, for example, chose St Hilary of Poitiers and took the name in much the same way as taking a name at Confirmation.

As I was leaving the Cathedral, by the way, I bumped into a priest I had known in Rome and who is now studying in Durham - he said that he (and another Catholic in Durham) reads this blog!

Today I was the chief celebrant at Mass in the spectacular chapel of St Cuthbert at Ushaw, which you can see in the picture below:

Like Allen Hall (our seminary in London), Ushaw claims descent from the English College, Douai, which provided an overseas education for Catholics during 'Penal Times' and was a seedbed of many martyr priests. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, it established itself at Ushaw in 1808 and became a cradle of the 'Second Spring.' The great Catholic historian, John Lingard, was on the staff here, and students included the future Cardinals Wiseman and (later) Merry del Val. It's a place where you can't but be aware of centuries of faith and tradition!

In many ways, I was very impressed by Ushaw - the beautiful chapels, the rolling grounds, the interesting episcopal portraits, the peaceful cemetery (one of the first Catholic ones in this country since the Reformation) where the bishops of Hexham and Newcastle are traditionally interred and the recurring motif of rabbits (which formed part of Cardinal Allen's coat of arms - there's even a painting of 'Our Lady of the Rabbits'). However, today Ushaw survives more from being a conference centre than a seminary. There are currently 16 students and we hardly saw them during our stay. This is worrying, especially given the vast size of Ushaw and its status as a regional (not a diocesan) seminary. We pray that the Lord will send more labourers into the harvest in the North and that nothing will stand in their way to serving Christ and His Church.

Sunday, 21 May 2006


Tomorrow I go to Ushaw College (near Durham) for a conference organised by the Catholic Archives Society. It should be interesting not only to meet fellow archivists (!) but also to see Ushaw, the massive and very historic regional seminary for our eight northern dioceses. Sadly, the conference means little chance of blogging until Ascension Day and please, if you remember, say a prayer for me on Wednesday because its my third anniversary of Ordination!

Our New Church Sign

Here is our new church sign - proclaiming the presence of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden in the midst of North London. On either side of our Blessed Mother are the two canonised saints who have made pilgrimages to Willesden - St Thomas More (in the 1530s) and St Josemaria Escriva (in the 1950s). This is (I think) the only outdoor image in this country of the Founder of Opus Dei - so that should put Willesden firmly on the DVC trail. I might build a few pyramids around the church grounds to get people thinking...

The Martyrs of Paris III: St Théophane Vénard

St Théophane Vénard (1829-61) was one of the best known martyrs of the nineteenth century - even the 'Little Flower' found in him a kindred spirit and wrote 'my soul is like his. He is the one who has best lived my way of spiritual childhood.'

Born near Poitiers, he began studies for the Priesthood in 1848 and entered the Seminary for Foreign Missions in Paris in 1851, being ordained the following year. Shortly afterwards he set sail to Hong Kong with four companions and, from 1854, concentrated his missionary activity in western Tonkin (Vietnam). Despite a new wave of persecution, the mission was well organised. Vénard suffered from much ill health but he mastered the local language and was able to spend six years preaching the Gospel.

He was betrayed and arrested at the end of November 1860 and carried to Hanoi for interrogation in a wooden cage. After refusing to deny Christ and trample on the cross, he was condemned to death. He spent his last remaining weeks in a cage (two metres long), where he was able to recite the Divine Office and write letters to his family. To his father (who had in fact just died) he wrote: 'A slight sabre-cut will separate my head from my body, like the spring flower which the Master of the garden gathers for His pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time: some a little sooner, some a little later . . . Father and son may we meet in Paradise. I, poor little moth, go first. Adieu.'

He was beheaded on 2 February 1861 and canonised in 1988. St Thérèse of Lisieux wrote a poem in his honour, which includes the lines:

Thy brief bright sojourn here was like a psalm
Of heavenly melody, all hearts upraising;
Thy poet nature sang sweet songs like balm,
Through all thy life thy dearest Saviour praising.
Writing thy farewell thy last earthly night,
That farewell was a song of Spring and love,
“I, little butterfly, the first take flight,
Of all our loved ones, to our home above.”

Thou, happy martyr! in the hour of death
Didst taste the deep delight of suffering:
Thou didst declare, e’en with thy dying breath,
That it is sweet to suffer for the King.
When the stern headsman made thee offer fair
Thy torture to abridge, how swift thy word:
“Oh, blest am I my Master’s cup to share!
Long let my suffering last with Christ my Lord!”



I've just been e-mailed an interesting article by Russell Shorto from the New York Times about the growing number of American conservatives who are realising the negative implications of contraception. As Judie Brown of the American Life League puts it, 'the mind-set that invites a couple to use contraception is an antichild mind-set. So when a baby is conceived accidentally, the couple already have this negative attitude toward the child. Therefore seeking an abortion is a natural outcome. We oppose all forms of contraception.' I particularly like the article's opening reference to Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) who raged a war in the eighteenth century against 'the diabolical practice of attempting to prevent childbearing by physical preparations.' There's nothing new under the sun!

Saturday, 20 May 2006

The Death of Culture

Since I have two Masses and five Baptisms tomorrow, I decided to have a quiet evening. I wasted part of it by watching the annual Eurovision Song Contest, held this year in Athens. This consisted of the usual Eurotrash, made bearable by the cynical BBC commentary of Sir Terry Wogan. When it came to voting, politics rather than music was the key factor (for example, the Balkan and Baltic countries tended to look after one another). And I'm always amazed that Turkey and Israel are allowed to take part in a European competition.

It proved an instructive evening since it reminded me that popular European Culture is well and truly dead. Much to our shame, the United Kingdom gave its highest marks to two of the most ridiculous pieces - 10 points to Lithuania (a crass football chant with unfunny antics entitled 'We are the Winners') and 12 points to the eventual winners, Finland - a song performed by the 'rock horror' group Lordi, who were dressed as monsters. They were a controversial choice even in Finland, where Christian groups condemned their name as sacrilegious and accused the group of having Satanist links. The band, however, claims it's all tongue-in-cheek - but what does their triumph say about the state of Europe? Their charming ditty this evening was entitled 'Hard Rock, Hallelujah' (at least they recognised it was Eastertide).

It would be fun if the Vatican had an entry in Eurovision - after all, Andorra and Monaco get the chance to qualify and vote...

I think I need to listen to some Rameau before I retire for the night.

More on Fr Maciel

Canonist Ed Peters has a balanced analysis of the CDF's statement regarding Fr Maciel on his informative blog, In the Light of the Law. Check it out.

First Communion Crowd Control

This afternoon I helped with the 'crowd control' for our first batch of parish Holy Communions (I'll be the celebrant next week). It's a time of high emotions, especially with the wet weather and the professional photographer forgetting to turn up. It's also an occasion for the lapsed to return to church - one wonders how many of them we'll see again - and because of this behaviour can be a problem.

The most depressing moment came during the homily as I stood at the back of the church near a side-door that was locked. Suddenly I observed a trickle of liquid flow through the crack. From the accompanying sound, it was obvious that some person was relieving themselves against the church building. I rushed round but was too late to catch the culprit red-handed. There were no children but various adults standing around. Did the person realise that they had committed the sin of sacrilege against a consecrated building?

With this in mind, the good Fr Finigan of Hermeneutic of Continuity has provided some very practical 'rubrics' for use at these occasions, which I will certainly use whenever I can (perhaps adding information about finding the lavatories!). I'm sure he won't mind if I repeat them here:

The children have been working very hard to prepare for this great day. Please help them to receive this Most Holy Sacrament in a spirit of prayer and recollection by preserving the dignity and solemnity of this sacred occasion. In particular, you are kindly asked to observe the following:

Please switch off your mobile phone Do “double check” just before Mass just in case you have forgotten.Please do not talk during the MassThe Church is a “sacred space”. We believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the tabernacle (that is fundamental to today’s celebration.) Therefore it is not appropriate to talk during the Mass except, if necessary, in a whisper. People sometimes forget this during the collection and during the distribution of Holy Communion.

Please do take extra care to be silent during the whole time that Communion is given out. Please do not take photos or videos during Mass. Because of the large number of people who would like to take photographs, it would spoil the occasion if everyone took photos or videos during the Mass. After Mass, a professional photographer will be on hand and you are welcome to take your own photos inside the Church or outside in the grounds.

Please be reverent at Holy Communion. To receive Holy Communion, you should be a practising Catholic and in a state of grace (living in accord with the Church’s teaching and free from serious sin.)If you are receiving Communion today, please do so with reverence. In particular, you must consume the sacred host before you stand or leave the altar rail.

If you do not come to Mass every Sunday, and have not been to confession in preparation for receiving Communion today, you should not come up to Communion but make a “spiritual communion” instead.

If you are a non-Catholic Christian and communicate in your own Church, you are welcome to come for a blessing. Please indicate this by crossing your arms across your chest.


Pope Benedict's 'Tsunami'?

According to one of the most well-known vaticanisti bloggers, the first waves of the Pope's curial tsunami have hit Rome with the appointment of Cardinal Dias of Bombay to head the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. He replaces Cardinal Sepe, who now goes to the See of Naples. Will this be the start of major curial realignments?


Friday, 19 May 2006

The Case of Fr Maciel

It's unfortunate timing that, just as the world's attention is associating Opus Dei with Silas (Dan Brown's hitman in DVC), another 'new movement' much favoured by John Paul II and normally labelled as 'conservative' is in the news for the wrong reason. This time the subject of the story is real.

Fr Marcial Maciel Degollado, the 86 year-old founder of the Legionaries of Christ, has been suspended from public ministry and invited to lead 'a life reserved to prayer and penance.' This follows allegations of the sexual abuse of seminarians. According to the Legion, Fr Maciel has restated his declaration of innocence and sees the suspension as 'a new cross that God, the father of mercy, has allowed him to suffer and that will obtain many graces for the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement.'

The movement numbers 650 priests, 2,500 students of theology, 1,000 consecrated laypeople, 30,000 active members in twenty nations, schools and even two Roman Universities (the Regina Apostolorum and the European University of Rome). The Vatican was careful to say today that 'independently of the person of the founder, the well-deserving apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of the association Regnum Christi is recognized with gratitude.'

The Bubble Continues to Burst

Are there any good - or even mediocre - reviews of the DVC?

It feels slightly wicked to take such delight in all the bad publicity for this much hyped movie. Take Tim Robey's review in today's Daily Telegraph, with the telling title - 'What's the Latin for balderdash?'

Robey described the film as 'two and a half hours of rambling murk with an abjectly terrible script being read out over the top of it. The movie is talk, talk, talk, and such dull talk, constantly justifying its existence,...albeit one kitted out with an expensive slide-projector and some whizzy 3-D graphics.' Indeed, this 'talk, talk, talk' is a besetting problem in society - and even Holy Mother Church has been affected!

The stars, Hanks and Tautou, Robey suggests, 'ought to be wearing T'shirts saying "Stupid" and "Je suis avec stupide."' Even Paul Bettany, who plays Opus Dei member Silas, is merely 'a bit of cowled, sepulchral menace between recreational whiplashings.'

But the poor quality of the film doesn't make DVC any less harmful. I had lunch yesterday with an Opus Dei friend, Fr Joe Evans, who told me that, according to a recent survey, 17% of people questioned believed that Opus Dei is full of sinister hitmen like Silas! Three out of five British people are reported to believe that there is 'some truth' in the theory that Jesus had a family. As Robey points out, it is exactly the 'mulish nonsense' of the movie that will make it 'an Oscar-winning liability.'

It's still a great opportunity for catechesis. One of the best Catholic articles on the whole phenomenon is in the latest issue of the Faith Magazine and is penned by my former professor in Rome, Fr Joseph Carola , S.J. (whose name - and picture - often appears in The Roamin' Roman). Another version of his piece on the DVC can be found if you click here.

The Martyrs of Paris II: Archbishop Darboy

The second nineteenth century Archbishop of Paris to be a victim of revolution was Georges Darboy (1813-71). Ordained in 1836, he became Bishop of Nancy (1859) and Archbishop of Paris (1863). He fiercely defended the rights of French bishops ('Gallicanism') and tried to suppress the jurisdiction of religious orders such as the Jesuits in his diocese, which caused a controversy with Rome. Blessed Pius IX even rebuked him and it is little surprise that he never received the red hat of a cardinal. Present at the First Vatican Council, he did not think the time was right for defining the dogma of Papal Infallibility, though he submitted to the Pope's decision. On his return to France from the Council, war had broken out against Prussia. France was ultimately defeated and Paris besieged. This would be the Archbishop's finest hour and he was zealous in tending for the wounded. Amid the desperation of defeat, a revolutionary Commune was declared in Paris and briefly triumphed. Darboy was taken hostage by the communards and imprisoned first at Mazas and then La Roquette. On 24 May 1871 he was shot by firing squad, along with various other priests, including the Abbé Duguerry, curé of La Madeleine. As the shoots were fired, his hand was raised in blessing. The days of the Commune, however, were numbered and Darboy's body was carefully embalmed and solemnnly buried at Notre Dame. It is fitting that, in 1859, Darboy had written a life of another famous episcopal martyr - St Thomas of Canterbury.

The Martyrs of Paris I: Archbishop Affre

Denis-Auguste Affre (1793-1848) is little known in English-speaking lands, but he was the first of two Archbishops of Paris to have lost their lives at the hands of nineteenth century revolutionaries.

Affre was only Archbishop briefly, between 1840 and 1848. Trained in the Sulpician tradition, he had great plans to implement educational and social reform, and in 1845 established the Ecole des Carmes, which later evolved into the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1875.

1848 was a year of revolution in many European countries. In France King Louis-Philippe abdicated and fled to England, and the 'Second Republic' was declared. Archbishop Affre initially hoped that this would lead to improvement in the conditions of workers and also guarantee religious freedom - he even blessed the flag of the National Guard, sang a Te Deum and formally presented the support of the clergy to Jacques-Charles Dupont de l'Eure, president of the provisional government.

In June the workers, dissatisfied with the results of the revolutrion, turned against the Government and there was a bloody conflict between the army and the insurgents. The Archbishop believed that his presence on the barricades would bring about a truce. Despite the warnings of senior officials such as General Cavaignac, he went into the streets on 27 June, dressed in his episcopal robes, and mounted the barricade in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. 'My life is of little value,' he said, 'I will gladly risk it.' He held a green branch as a sign of peace, which can be seen in his monument (above). He only managed to say a few words when some shots were heard and, thinking that they had been betrayed, the insurgents panicked and opened fire on the National Guard. The Archbishop fell in the cross-fire and was taken to his palace, where he died from his wounds.

He was remembered with great affection and his funeral on 7 July was a huge event. Evidence of his 'cult' can be seen in various 'relics' kept in the Treasury of Notre Dame - including his pocket watch, Breviary and Pontificale (see picture below). However, according to the new guidelines presented by Benedict XVI, it can hardly be said that he was a 'martyr', even though he died violently.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

The Pope at Westminster

It goes without saying that the late John Paul II was one of the most admired and charismatic of modern Pontiffs. It also goes without saying that Westminster Cathedral is one of the great Catholic churches of the world, with its distinctive Byzantine architecture and award-winning choir (boys and men), which sings at Mass daily. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a priest of Westminster!

Imagine my excitement this morning when I got a DVD transfer of some ancient videos in the diocesan archive showing the Pope celebrating Mass at the Cathedral in May 1982. I've spent the last 20 minutes sitting at my desk in the archives watching the footage.

I was only six at the time so my memories are vague, though I remember seeing the Pope as he made his way to Wembley Stadium shortly afterwards. It is great to re-visit this historic moment as a priest - seeing the Pope say Mass in London (with concelebrating bishops dressed in rather fine red fiddlebacks) and hearing the cathedral choir sing Mozart's Coronation Mass. There were some terrific vignettes, such as the Pope pausing to venerate the relics of St John Southworth, one of the English martyrs, or his blessing of the crowds from a balcony (see picture above). Also, rather poignantly, is a shot of my late uncle, Mgr Richard Stewart, who worked in the Vatican and was involved in organising the Papal Visit. He died suddenly in 1985, though he remained a key figure in the discernment of my priestly vocation. This is the first time I have seen footage of him.

There can't have been many Papal Masses as spectacular as this one during the last forty years. Let's hope Benedict XVI, with his great love for music and liturgy, will make some appropriate reforms so that St Peter's is once again a centre of liturgical excellence.


Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Has the DVC Bubble Finally Burst?

Paris is very much the subject of the day, what with the release of the DVC and tonight's epic match between Arsenal and Barcelona at the Stade de France (the BBC even spoke of the need for Arsenal to 'crack the Barcelona code').

The good news is that - at least momentarily - it seems that the DVC bubble has burst. After all the hype, the initial response to the film at Cannes has been decidedly unenthusiastic. According to reports, critics grumbled that the film was too long (at 148 minutes) and too jumbled. One supreme moment came when Tom Hanks (playing Professor Robert Langdon) looked at Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveau) and said 'You're the heir! You are the last descendant of Jesus Christ!' As Stephanie Bunbury of Australia's The Age puts it, 'at that point, 900 weary critics laughed as one. After a couple of hours of leap-frogging plot adorned with swelling music and fancy camera angles, there had to be some relief.'

Critics can see through the mumbo-jumbo of the plot, but this is not necessarily the case for millions of cinema-goers. That's why it's imperative for the Church (individually and collectively) to continue its defensive offensive against the central premises of the film. Just by looking at the trailers (which include a scene of Our Lord kissing Mary Magdalen), it is obvious that the film is highly objectionable and potentially harmful, especially for those who are poorly catechised. But I don't need to tell you this and I won't write any more since it only adds to the hype.

By the way, when it comes to the Cannes Film Festival, I'm more excited by Sofia Coppola's Marie-Antoinette (starring Kirsten Dunst as the French Queen). Walking around Paris these last few days, it had just as much publicity as the DVC. We'll have to see what the reviewers say!

The Religious Life of Paris

Paris is a city of contrasts. The skyline is dominated, on the one hand, by the Eiffel Tower (constructed in 1889 during the celebrations marking the first Centenary of the French Revolution) and, on the other, by the white Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Montmatre (built as a votive and expiatory offering following the horrors of 1870-71, when Paris was terrorised by the besieging Prussians and the revolutionary Communards, who even murdered the city's Archbishop). The rivalry between the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica is a fitting image for modern French history - an on-going story of revolution and restoration, of atheism and belief, of prejudice and piety.

Many of the problems of the modern world have their historical origins in the city. I was therefore expecting to find Paris pretty secular and anti-clerical - a priest friend of mine once even had a glass of water thrown in his face at a restaurant! And, of course, the imminent release of the DVC only intensifies the image of Paris as an anti- or post-Catholic city. However, I'm glad to say that I found the opposite to be the case.

The central Parisian churches are magnificent and, on Sunday, absolutely packed. Even Notre Dame still feels like a Church, despite the queue of tourists at the main entrance. A charming area south of the Seine contains some important shrines which still attract hoardes of pilgrims - a leaflet calls it the Route des Saints. Most famous is the shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue du Bac (where St Louise de Marillac and St Catherine Laboure are buried) and, nearby on the Rue de Sevres, the shrine of St Vincent de Paul. Perhaps, for me, the greatest discovery was the Missions Etrangeres de Paris, also on the Rue du Bac. This seminary was founded in 1663 to train missionaries and a small museum contains the relics and mementoes of the College's martyrs, mostly from the early nineteenth century. Once I download my photos, I'll post more information about them.

The Church of Paris has many signs of life. On the north bank of the Seine I stumbled across the beautiful church of Saint-Gervais. A service was going on, packed with young people and, in the sanctuary, robed male and female religious were sitting on the floor, singing a simple polyphonic chant that resembled that of Taize. It's not quite my style but it was impressive. The church is run by the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, founded by Fr Pierre-Marie Delfieux in 1975 and recognised by Cardinal Marty in 1979. It aims to combine the contemplative life with that of a busy modern city (the holy city of Jerusalem is a sort of model for all modern cities), creating 'an oasis in this urban desert of solitude and anxiety, yearning and indifference.' The brothers and sisters (see picture above) rent their housing ('in order to avoid the risks of becoming too settled and of accumulating property') and work part-time ('earning their living in a way which expresses both solidarity and challenge to the workplace'). Although they are not cloistered, they have regular times of prayers - including evening Vespers, which is packed with workers on their way back home. The institute also has a presence in such 'high profile' sites as Mont-Saint-Michel and the Trinità dei Monti, Rome.

There are many French dioceses which, in terms of vocations, are more or less dead. Three years ago John Paul II referred to the 'grave crisis of vocations: a sort of wandering in the desert that constitutes a real trial of faith for pastors and faithful alike.' Yet, there are more new Catholic shoots in France than any other European country, confirming her status as 'the eldest daughter of the Church.' One thinks, for example, of Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe's Community of St John or the traditional Benedictine communities at Le Barroux and Fontgombault. The Western Church can indeed learn valuable lessons from this country scarred by war and revolution!

'What is Virtue?'

Some people think that clerical dress is an 'obstacle,' distancing a priest from other people. In my experience wearing the collar has quite the opposite effect, forming a 'bridge' and often initiating conversations. A collar shows the approachability and presence of the Church, often in the most 'secular' situations - whether it be a shop, a restaurant or a train carriage.

I'm just back from a few days in Paris. On Sunday morning, having celebrated Mass, I went for a stroll with my holiday companion, Fr Richard Whinder (of the Archdiocese of Southwark). Having beaten our way through the DVC fan club at St-Sulpice, all huddled in a dark corner taking photos of the gnomon and ignoring the rather fine eighteenth century organ music that was being played, we popped into a bookshop near St-Germain. After a few minutes of happy browsing, I became aware of a glamourous French lady speaking to me - first in French and then, after my protestations, in English. She was an actress, studying the part of Madame de Tourval for a new production of Les Liasons Dangereuses, based on Choderlos de Laclos' novel.

Now, this is not a book that is often mentioned in Catholic blogs - it caused a stir back in 1782 when it was first published and has been considered controversial ever since. Madame de Tourvel, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1988 movie, is virtuous and God-fearing and, precisely because of these qualities, becomes the target of the notorious Vicomte de Valmont - hence his famous line, 'to seduce a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervour and the happiness of her marriage, what could possibly be more prestigious?.'

Anyway, back to my encounter with the French actress in the bookshop. Since she was playing the virtuous Tourvel, she asked me: 'what is virtue?' It's the sort of thing that could only happen in Paris - I can't imagine being asked a similar question in Waterstones at Piccadilly Circus! We had a brief chat and I recommended that she read that great spiritual classic, St Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life. This would soon give her an idea of what being 'virtuous' means. She wrote the title down and we parted. I hope St Francis de Sales will not only inform her portrayal of Madame de Tourvel but will also help on her journey through the drama of life.

Fr Richard and I then walked in the direction of the Rue du Bac in search of the shrine to the Miraculous Medal and a suitable place for lunch. More posts on Paris to come...

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Blessed are they...

I'm just back from the 'Under Fives' (junior clergy) conference, and I'm off to Paris at 6am tomorrow morning. But here's one quick thought, provided at this morning's talk on Priesthood by Bishop Jim O'Brien. When he was a young curate, his parish priest used to say to him in mock Latin:

Beati qui non expectant, quia non disappointabuntur
Blessed indeed are those who expect nothing, for they will not be disappionted! It is a good thought at a time like this, as I await to hear of my new parish appointment, which I'll start in September.

Tuesday, 9 May 2006

The Voice of C.S.Lewis

It's always intriguing to hear the voices of our favourite authors. I've always wanted to hear a broadcast of Mgr Ronald Knox or, for that matter, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, whose wartime radio programmes were almost as influential as Churchill's - and I'm still waiting.

However, you can now hear the voice of C.S.Lewis on a BBC website. It's the only surviving broadcast from the 1944 series that was later published as Mere Christianity. There are some other goodies too!


I may not be able to post much over the coming days. Tomorrow we have an over-night meeting for the 'Under Fives' (priests ordained within the last five years); then, after giving a lecture at Allen Hall seminary on Thursday afternoon, I'm off to Paris for a few days. My priorities are visiting Parisian churches (e.g. Rue-du-Bac, Montmatre and St Denis) and restaurants, so I probably won't be self-disciplined enough to visit an internet cafe and write posts!

The Jacobite Code

Thanks to the DVC, everyone seems obsessed with deciphering codes and discovering long-hidden secrets. Dan Brown's code is pure fiction - but here is one that is real!

I recently found a piece of paper in the diocesan archives that dates from the 1690s and contains the meanings of about 200 code words as used by the 'Jacobites.' In case your English history is a bit rusty, the Jacobites were those who supported our last Catholic King, James II, and his heirs. He lost his Throne during the Revolution of 1688 and he was replaced by William and Mary (who were Protestant). Many of the Jacobites were Catholic and lived in exile at the Stuart Court at St Germain and, later, in Rome.

Here are some examples of this secret Jacobite Code, used in their correspondence and, indeed, their plotting for the return of a Catholic monarch:

'Mr Grace' or 'Mr Good' = King James
'Mrs Patience' = Queen Mary of Modena
'Mr Cupid' = James, Prince of Wales
'Mr Bullion' = Louis XIV of France
'Prisoner' = Jacobite
'Highwayman' = Williamite [supporter of William & Mary]
'Beggar' = Papist [Catholic]
'Drugster' = Church of England man
'The Doctor' = Pope
'Physician' = Cardinal
'Mr Popes' = a Priest
'Operator' = an Italian prince
'Watermen' = the Irish
'The Garden' = Scotland

London's Marian Shrine - Our Lady of Willesden

Here's a little more about my parish, which happens to be the principal Marian shrine of London. Willesden might seem an unlikely place to find a shrine to Our Lady. In fact, when we think of shrines and pilgrimages, we tend to think of long, often expensive journeys and exotic locations like Fatima or Guadalupe. Yet for centuries Our Lady has been honoured at sanctuaries much closer to home. Situated in one of London’s most multicultural areas, right on the edge of Central London, the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden is a veritable ‘sign of contradiction’ and a powerful witness to the Catholic Faith.

The origins of the shrine at Willesden are obscured by the mists of time. It was originally located in the church of St Mary’s, Willesden ­ which may go back as far as the tenth century and is now served by the Anglican Communion. A Visitation report of 1249 mentions the presence of two statues of Our Lady. The locals particularly honoured one of these statues ­ there may even have been a vision or a cure in the distant past, though the evidence is sparse. It seems that the church also boasted a ‘holy well’, which was thought to possess ‘miraculous’ qualities (especially for blindness and other eye disorders). Indeed, the very name ‘Willesden’ probably means ‘spring at the foot of the hill’ and this spring was recently rediscovered and renovated. The Vicarage of St Mary’s must be one of the few in the country to dispense bottles of holy water to those who ask for them ­ the nearest thing Middlesex has to Lourdes!

There is little evidence of pilgrimages to Willesden until the end of the fifteenth century. Devotion to Our Lady of Willesden may have been promoted by St Paul’s Cathedral (which owned the parish) in order to raise money for essential repairs,­ thus combining economic necessity with the promptings of Divine Grace. Willesden’s rise to fame was rapid. Already by May 1502 it was attracting the attention of the Queen (Elizabeth of York), who sent an offering of 30 pence during her seventh and final pregnancy. Londoners flocked to the shrine in the years leading up to the Reformation, including St Thomas More himself.This familiarity is expressed in some of his polemical writings where he defends the practice of pilgrimages (citing Willesden as an example) against the attacks of reformers like Thomas Bilney. St Thomas’ last visit to the shrine was in 1534 (probably in early April), just before his arrest. We can imagine the saint praying for strength and perseverance at the foot of the statue.

However, despite her popularity, Our Lady of Willesden’s days were numbered. Henry VIII’s break with Rome saw the emergence of a new orthodoxy, which frowned on the Kingdom’s shrines and images. In 1538 Our Lady was removed from Willesden and taken to Thomas Cromwell’s house in Chelsea. That autumn she was burnt on a great bonfire of ‘notable images’. According to a contemporary document, Our Lady appeared to a priest devotee of the shrine, a certain Dr Crewkehorne, around the same time as this bonfire. She said that she wished to be honoured at Willesden as she had in times past. Although Our Lady was not forgotten in Willesden - there is evidence of Catholics existing in the parish into the mid seventeenth century - the shrine was not restored until the close of the nineteenth century.

It was in 1885 that Mass was once again celebrated in Willesden by a young priest called Bernard Ward, who later became a respected Church historian and the first bishop of Brentwood. The following year a Catholic Mission was established in Harlesden to meet the demands of the growing population. With the help of the newly founded Convent of Jesus and Mary, devotion was fostered to Our Lady of Willesden and a new statue blessed by Cardinal Vaughan in 1892. This image was carved in wood from an oak tree that had stood in the graveyard of St Mary’s, the original site of the shrine. From humble beginnings with twelve parishioners the parish began to flourish, two temporary churches were built and a beautiful Romanesque church was finally opened in 1931 as both parish church and a ‘National Shrine’ for English Catholics. Our Lady of Willesden’s greatest hour came during the Marian Year of 1954. Willesden was made the centre of Westminster’s celebrations for the Marian Year and throughout 1954 some 60,000 pilgrims visited the shrine. On 3 October 1954 a Marian Pageant was held at Wembley Stadium in front of a crowd of 94,000. The climax of the celebrations came when Cardinal Bernard Griffin crowned the statue of Our Lady and she was carried back in procession to Willesden.

The Founder of Opus Dei, St Josemaria Escriva, often visited Willesden during his trips to London. On 15th August 1958 he made a private pilgrimage to the shrine, where he re-consecrated Opus Dei to the Name of Mary (as he did every year). He returned on 17th August 1962, this time with his future successor as Prelate, the Servant of God Alvaro del Portillo. They recited the Holy Rosary and bought some images of the statue to distribute to members of Opus Dei in Hampstead. Willesden can thus claim two saints among its pilgrims - a rare feat for an English shrine.

Prayer: O Immaculate Queen, Our Lady of Willesden, we consecrate ourselves and all we have and are to you forever in your holy Shrine. Make this Shrine glorious as of old. Bring pilgrims to worship at it. Convey their prayers to God in your own hands. Pray for us all. Pray for the conversion of all people to the religion of your Divine Son. And obtain pardon and mercy for our beloved Dead who have gone before us with the sign of faith and sleep the sleep of peace. Amen.
(Cardinal Francis Bourne granted an Indulgence of 200 days for this prayer in 1928)


Sunday, 7 May 2006

Our May Procession

Today we had our annual May Procession in honour of Our Lady - now in its 104th year. It's one of the highlights of the parish year. We process from the church through the local streets praying the Rosary and blessing the Catholic homes we pass (parishioners are encouraged to set up shrines in their windows). Then, about 40 minutes later, we reach the local convent school where we stop for a sermon. Then it's back to the church for exposition, blessing of the sick (a la Lourdes) and Benediction.

Liturgically speaking, our procession is always chaotic and, in a sense, far from the ideal. The processional order is disjointed; the Rosary and hymns get mixed up; things get forgotten and go wrong. But that's not the point. Public processions are a rarity in this country and yet they are surprisingly easy to arrange (and the police seem only too willing to grant permission). It's wonderful to walk through the streets of suburban London on a Sunday afternoon bearing witness to our Faith and asserting Our Blessed Lady's maternal presence.

Some people sneer at popular religion but this is a great pity. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (#50) states that popular piety is 'an ecclesial reality prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit,' which has produced 'many fruits of grace and sanctity. ' Those who downplay these devotions often reflect 'a quest for an illusory "pure Liturgy," which, while not considering the subjective criteria used to determine purity, belongs more to the realm of ideal aspiration than to historical reality.' In an age in which many liturgies have become so banal because of their intended meaningfulness (i.e. too many words), popular piety is an accessible way of nurturing people's faith. In my parish, a discussion group only attracts a handful of people, while a Holy Hour or Procession is much more popular. Processions, according to the Directory, are 'a manifestation of the faith of the people...and are capable of re-awakening the religious sense of the people' (#246).

By the way, here's a picture of our venerable preacher - Fr Augustine Hoey, Ob. OSB, a distinguished convert from Anglicanism currently living in busy retirement. His sermon, drawing from the Gospel for the Wedding Feast of Cana, could be summarised as 'What does Mary teach us? To listen to Jesus and do what He tells you.'


Saturday, 6 May 2006

Vocations Sunday

This Sunday ('Good Shepherd Sunday') we pray for vocations. Actually, in a way that doesn't really make sense – the Lord calls us to follow Him, whether we like it or not. He calls some of us in a very specific way. As far as God is concerned, there is no shortage of vocations. Many people are called to marriage – and we need to pray for all those who are married or engaged because so much in our society stands against life-long fidelity and making sacrifices in order to raise a Christian family. Others will be called to Priesthood and the Religious Life. What we pray for today is that people recognise and accept their God-given vocation - and have the courage and patience to follow it through.

The call to Priesthood can come about in many ways. For St Ignatius Loyola it was the reading of saint’s lives as he recovered from a serious battle wound. For St Francis de Sales it was the occasion when, three times in one day, he fell from his horse and found that his sword and scabbard had landed on the ground in the form of a cross – a sure sign that he was being called to give up his noble pedigree for the nobler pedigree of Christ’s Priesthood. For St John Bosco it was one of his famous dreams – he was beckoned to a group of children and told to take charge of them and be their guide. For many people, myself included, it comes about in a less spectacular way. God normally speaks to us through the details of our everyday lives – the gifts and interests he gives us, for example, or the people we meet. Growing up in a strongly Catholic family, having two relatives who were priests and (especially at University) being surrounded by people who were also thinking about a Priestly vocation were important factors in discerning my own vocation.

Today we pray for a climate that will allow more people to hear the call of God. The shortage of priests has not been caused by the absence of vocations - many are called but many are reluctant to go forward. Following a vocation demands a lot of courage simply because it goes against the grain. And, it must be said, the Church itself sometimes doesn't do the best job in encouraging and sustaining vocations.

Not so long ago, most Catholic boys would think about becoming a priest and most Catholic girls would think about becoming a nun. They might think about it for 5 seconds and realise that it wasn't for them, but at least it was a serious option. There was a climate of vocations. Families were overjoyed rather than embarrassed if one of their number had a religious vocation. Some families even had multiple priests and nuns – we think of Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, who had five brothers who were priests (two of them bishops) and five sisters who were nuns! This was largely result of his mother’s prayers, who made a daily Holy Hour that her children would serve God either in the sanctuary or the cloister. Do we have such families today?

Our great model in discerning and following a vocation is, of course, Our Blessed Lady, who we honour this month. She was given a unique vocation – to be the Virgin Mother of God. She freely accepted the Angel Gabriel’s message and fully submitted to the will of God. As St Augustine put it, ‘the angel announces; the Virgin listens, believes and conceives.’ To be a Virgin Mother was something without precedent, yet she assented with a humble and daring heart. Her fiat, her acceptance of this vocation led to the Incarnation. Through the power of the Holy Spirit a child was conceived – a child who would be our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Mary lived out her Motherhood faithfully from that day – leading ultimately to the pain of Calvary and the joy of Easter.

Today we pray for vocations. We pray that young people will be receptive to the call of God – that, like Mary, they will daringly say ‘yes’ to God so that, like Mary, their lives will bear much fruit. We pray that their families will be open to their desire and that no obstacles will be put in their way. Today we commit ourselves to building up a climate of vocations. Priests and Religious don't grow on trees. They don't drop magically out of the sky. They come from our families and from our parishes. Look at those around you; look at yourselves. What does God want of you? Is the Lord calling you to serve Him in a special way as a priest or a religious? Quo vadis? Where are you going?

Thursday, 4 May 2006

Thoughts on the English Martyrs

For priests and religious in Elizabeth I's reign and after, vocation meant either exile (abroad) or outlawry (at home). Many priests (over 300) sacrificed their lives, and all had to be ready to do so - reflecting on martyrdom was part of their seminary formation, as can be seen in the graphic frescoes at the English College, Rome, showing the witness of English martyrs down the centuries.

The martryrs died in an age often celebrated as one of English 'heroes' (e.g. Drake and Raleigh). Their heroism was a natural daring, commonly inspired by the desire for fame or wealth. It often went with cruelty. But compare this with the supernatural heroism of the martyrs. When St Cuthbert Mayne was arrested, he said 'I am the Man' - he reflected Christ's courage in uttering the truth fearlessly in front of his judges and facing suffering and death. All the martyrs (men and women) displayed the virtue of fortitude.

In every age, the Church calls for some special sacrifice. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was exile, fines, imprisonment and death. Today it is putting up with ridicule, marginalisation and indifference. A case in point is our need to defend the Church from the claims of The Da Vinci Code. This requires heroism - standing up for the Faith and not just going along with the crowd. Only God can demand heroic sacrifice. Only God can give us the grace we need - which is why we should ask for the intercession of our martyrs.


The Last Abbot of Glastonbury

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey

Today is the Feast of the English Martyrs.

Yesterday I honoured Blessed Richard Whiting, one of the earliest of these martyrs, when I briefly visited Glastonbury (en route for the M5 motorway). Given all the hype, Glastonbury is not a particularly attractive place - only a few surviving medieval buildings and too many New Age shops (with strange names such as 'The Psyhic Piglet'). It's a pity that the town has been 'taken over' by pagans and Holy Grail enthusiasts because it is a strongly Christian place. Glastonbury has many saints - not only St Joseph of Arimathea (who is supposed to have brought the Child Jesus and, later on, the Holy Grail to the town, and planted the 'Holy Thorn') but St Patrick, St David, St Collen, St Indract, St Brigit, St Neot and St Dunstan. There is also a shrine to 'Our Lady of Glastonbury' in the Catholic church.

It is the last of this long line of saints that interests us today - Blessed Richard Whiting, Glastonbury's last Abbot. Educated at Cambridge and ordained in 1501, he was nominated as Abbot by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525. At the Dissolution he refused to comply with the increasing demands of the King's men and was promptly condemned to death, without proper trial, for 'his cankerous and traitorous mind against the King's Majesty and his succession.' He was dragged up Glastonbury Tor on a hurdle and hanged, drawn and quartered on 15 November 1539. His head was displayed on the gatehouse of Glastonbury Abbey; his quarters in Wells (see yesterday's post). His Treasurer, Blessed John Thorne, and his Sacristan, Blessed Roger James, were also executed in a similar fashion.

May these brave witnesses intercede for us today and serve as models of fearless faith.


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