Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Happy Christmas

And is it true? and is it true?
The most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

(from 'Christmas' by Sir John Betjemin)

I wish everyone a very happy and blessed Christmas!

I'll wish you a merry Octave too, for I'm not sure when I'll next be posting. Most of Christmas Day will be spent in church and presbytery dining room (where nine of us will be sitting down to turkey et al, including five priests). Then on St Stephen's Day I'm going home for my second Christmas meal. I'm staying there a few days and may post something, though my father's ancient dial-up connection is painfully slow.
Update: We have a rather bare, modern (1964) church, so we did our best in decorating it for the great feast. At least there is a central tabernacle and plenty of space on the sanctuary, both behind and front of the altar.


Monday, 24 December 2007

Christmas Cat

Meet Bobby, the organist's Burmese cat who is 'living' in my study over the next 24 hours. She is very friendly and is proving quite a distraction as I finish my Christmas sermons. The presbytery dogs are extremely excited at her presence and Oscar has already been in to play that favourite Christmas parlour game - 'Find Kittie.'


Thoughts on Christmas Eve

The Presbytery Christmas Tree

Christmas Eve is a bit like Holy Saturday. It might seem rather empty but it is, in reality, a day of expectant waiting for the sacred event that we commemorate and make present again at Midnight Mass. Tonight the angels will sing the birth of God’s Son. This morning, in the Gospel of the final Mass of Advent, the last word is given to the father of St John the Baptist – Zechariah. In his Benedictus, which we repeat every day at Lauds, God is praised for the way He visits His people. Zechariah looks back to the past – to Abraham, David and the ‘prophets from ancient times.’ He looks to the present, to his child, John, ‘who shall be called the Prophet of the Most High’ and ‘will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him.’ He looks to the future – to the mystery of Christmas night, when God will bring the rising Sun to visit us, ‘to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death.’

The powerful image in Zechariah’s prayer points us to Christmas. The birth of Christ has long been celebrated near the point in the year when the sun grows stronger and the long winter nights begin slowly to shorten. This is why light is such an important feature of the Christmas Season –the lights of our Christmas trees and the decorations in the street. It is because Jesus, the Light of the World, the Sun of Justice, came to us in the middle of the night to shed away darkness and sin, and give us new life. That is the whole point of Christmas.

Let us spend Christmas Eve calmly, preparing ourselves spiritually as well as materially for the great Feast. Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay!


Sunday, 23 December 2007

Britain - a Catholic Country?

The headline in the Sunday Telegraph would have pleased the likes of Cardinal Wiseman and Pugin: Britain has become a 'Catholic country.' Apparently. This is more to do with the decline of the Anglican Communion and the number of Catholic immigrants than any deeper conversion of the national psyche.
A survey of 37,000 churches, to be published in the new year, shows the number of people going to Sunday Mass in England last year averaged 861,000, compared with 852,000 Anglicans ­worshipping.It is part of the changing face of churchgoing across Britain in the 21st century which has also seen a boom in the growth of Pentecostal churches, which have surpassed the Methodist Church as the country's third largest Christian denomination. Worshipping habits have changed dramatically with a significant rise in attendance at mid-week services and at special occasions - the Church of England expects three million people to go to a parish church over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In an attempt to combat the declining interest in traditional religion, the Anglican Church has launched radical new forms of evangelism that include nightclub chaplains, a floating church on a barge and internet congregations.
Bishop Hollis told the Sunday Telegraph: 'we don't want to be seen to be scoring points over the Anglican Church as we are in no way jealous of its position as the national church, but of course these figures are encouraging. It shows that the Church is no longer seen as on the fringes of society, but in fact is now at the heart of British life.'

Of course, post-Blairite Britain shows few other signs of being 'Catholic', especially with the high abortion rate, recent laws permitting same sex partnerships and euthanasia by neglect, and the secular, politically correct Big Brother nature of government. Reports such as these show the positive aspects of Tony Blair's 'conversion.' This is a great opportunity for the Church, as people will undoubtedly be curious about the 'Catholic thing.' It would be a pity if all they saw in the Catholic response was condemnation and negativity.


Saturday, 22 December 2007

Blair Becomes a Catholic

So Tony Blair was received into the Church last night at Archbishop's House, Ambrosden Avenue. He had, according to reports, been receiving instruction in recent months from an RAF Chaplain (Fr John Walsh) and the Cardinal's Private Secretary (Mgr Mark O'Toole).

Whatever our opinion on Blair's decade as PM or our reservations on the timing of his conversion (why now and not when he was in the office?), this is good news - because it's always good news when someone follows the call of God and come to the fullness of faith. In the words of the Church's current Advent 'campaign' in this country, Blair has 'come home for Christmas.'

It would be un-Christian to assume, at this stage and without any real evidence, that his conversion was insincere. After all, in the short service presided over by the Cardinal last night, Blair would have solemnly declared, after reciting the creed: 'I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.'

We trust that Blair will be able to clarify where he now stands on moral issues such as abortion, on which he had such a poor voting record in his pre-Catholic days. SPUC has referred to him as 'one of the world's most significant architects of the culture of death - promoting abortion, experiments on human embryos, including on cloned human embryos, and euthanasia by neglect.' Following last night's Reception into the Church, we should presume his sincerity and repentance for past sins and hope for a new beginning.

Blair's conversion is, indeed, historic and constitutes the most high-profile recent conversion in this country outside of the Royal Family. He will now be in a unique position to live out the lay apostolate and bear witness to his Catholic faith through his words and actions.

As a friend of mine put it in an e-mail: 'it's got to be good news. Mr Blair, make it so.' In the meantime, we can join the Cardinal in saying that our 'prayers are with him, his wife and family at this joyful moment in their journey of faith together.'


Friday, 21 December 2007


Tonight I accompanied several parishioners (including Cally's Kitchen) to the London Oratory for the annual Christmas Carol Service and Solemn Benediction. I used to go along regularly as a seminarian, when I had normally just returned from Rome. It was delightful to step back from the busy parish schedule and immerse oneself in the traditional music and readings of the Season.

My favourite moment must have been four members of the Junior Choir (representing the angels) singing Quem pastores from the choir loft, answered from the body of the church by the Shepherds (the main choir) singing Nunc angelorum gloria. This was following an old German custom (Quempas) of alternating the verses of the two carols.

Benediction was as splendid as ever, the monstrance placed on the throne high above the altar, as the choir sang (amongst other things) Peter Cornelius' The Three Kings. The church was packed and, by the end, my heart was sufficiently full of Christmas cheer not to be bothered by some of the noisy toddlers running around the side aisles!

Some years ago the Oratory Choirs produced an excellent CD of Christmas music, though I'm not sure how available it now is.


Wednesday, 19 December 2007

A Double-Decker Curiosity

The Council of Trent emphasised the importance of preaching and confessions and occasionally in Italian churches you see these extraordinary double-decker confessional-pulpits. This one is from the Duomo of San Gregorio in Monte Porzio, near Frascati.

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Sunday, 16 December 2007

Parish Cinema

Just back from our Young Adults group. Normally we have prayer and discussion (I'm thinking about taking up the Holy Father's suggestion and focussing on Spe Salvi in the new year). Tonight, though, 12 of us (including a Hindu!) watched a DVD - The Nun's Story. This is one of my favourite films, mixing plenty of exterior action with Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn)'s interior struggle against her pride. Although she does not persevere in the end, both she and the nuns come across very well. One of the leitmotifs of the film is particularly striking: 'You can cheat your sisters but you cannot cheat yourself or God.'

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In a Roman Sacristy...

...it's amazing what you find. The picture shows the tiny sacristy of San Gregorio dei Muratori and Fr Joseph Kramer, who I got to know in my Roman days. During my visit, he brought down a dusty box, which normally lives on top of a cabinet, and proclaimed it to be a Jacobite relic:

It is a confraternity habit that once belonged to Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia (1751-1819), who after the death of his cousin, the Cardinal Duke of York, in 1807 was recognised by Jacobites as 'Charles IV'. By this time he had abdicated his Sardinian throne after the death in 1802 of his wife, the Venerable Marie-Clotilde of France (a sister of Louis XVI and now on the road to canonisation). Charles Emmanuel retired to Rome and actually died as a Jesuit novice at Sant'Andrea al Quirinale.

The church of San Gregorio de Muratori was built by the Roman Confraternity of Builders (muratori) and, from 1931, used by St Leonard of Port Maurice's Archconfraternity of the Friends of Jesus and Mary on Calvary, which originally conducted the Via Crucis in the Colosseum. It was to this group that Charles Emmanuel belonged and his habit is preserved in this little sacristy to this day.


Saturday, 15 December 2007

Papal Image Change?

The BBC is currently running an irritating story about Zeffirelli's recent suggestion that Pope Benedict needs a makeover of his 'cold' image and 'showy' clothes. When people talk about the Holy Father's 'showy lifestyle' I really don't know what they mean - just because he has restored some of the traditional parts of his wardrobe (most of which were worn by the 'great reformers' Bl John XXIII and Paul VI) and occasionally wears trendy sunglasses (which were probably a gift) apparently makes him extravagant and out-of-touch. Surely a plain white cassock, worn day-in, day-out, is the height of simplicity, especially when compared with other world leaders?

An image change would be confusing, unnecessary and potentially disastrous. Paul VI apparently considered replacing the white cassock with a 1970s-style all-white suit. He had one made and realised how ridiculous it would look. Deo gratias!

Anyway, shouldn't we be pleased that a twenty-first century Pope is willing to engage in a spot of recycling when it comes to personal attire (such as Bl Pius IX's mitre, which was worn at the recent consistory)?

Readers are encouraged to post a comment on the BBC website.

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A Champion of the Faith - RIP

I was very saddened to hear of the death, today, of a great English champion of the faith - Denis Riches, the Founder of Family Publications and the husband of family and pro-life campaigner,Valerie Riches. He had been battling cancer since August 2005. On 6 October this year he and Valerie were invested as a Knight and Dame of the Order of St Gregory (see picture), in recognition of their great work, and they also recently published their autobiography, Built on Love.
As someone who has been involved with several of his publishing projects, I met Denis on numerous occasions and always benefitted from his wisdom and enthusiasm. He was a true Christian gentleman. Say a prayer for the repose of his soul and the solace of his family, who can be sure that his legacy will continue for many years in Family Publications.

Requiescat in pace.

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Now, not every reader will like some details of this picture - namely the guitar and keyboard to the right of the photo and the use of a parish hall for Exposition (the church was in use). But what is happening here was pretty amazing - 30 or so inner city teenagers kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. Five Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, based in nearby Canning Town, came to my parish today to lead a day of recollection for our confirmandi. They have a great way of preaching the fullness of the Faith in a way that young people find dynamic and appealing. The authenticity of their lives add weight to their message, as do the habits and long beards! The programme was simple but effective - a couple of talks, group discussion and a Holy Hour, during which almost all of the candidates made their Confession. This was concluded by Benediction in Latin. It was the first meeting of our Confirmation programme and we will be continuing in January.

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Friday, 14 December 2007


I've been in Rome the last few days, with my friend Fr Whinder, hence the lack of posts, though I've not been too regular of late, so perhaps you didn't notice! I normally go to Rome in the winter and I thought this year I would go just before Christmas, to do some shopping and also to celebrate my birthday (12 December). This I spent in the little Castelli town of Monte Porzio, just outside Frascati - a rather unprepossing place but with great romance for 'Old Romans' since the English College had its villa here between 1614 and 1917. One can imagine some of the martyrs or Cardinal Wiseman (who dearly loved the place) walking its cobbled streets, popping into the Duomo and having the sort of sublime antipasta that we were treated to on Wednesday. Several old ladies greeted us as we made our 'pilgrimage' - they recognised us from previous visits. I suppose two English priests can't be too common a sight in a little place like Porzio. One started talking about the Cardinal Duke of York, which always is rather touching, and the other enthused about the Marian shrine beside the old College villa, which she cares for (in thanksgiving for a miracle that Our Lady worked for her sister).

Of course, on returning to city, I was sad to discover that Cardinal Stickler had died. I remember seeing him around Rome when I was a seminarian: at the annual Station Mass celebrated in his titulus of San Giorgio in Velabro and also at a Pontifical High Mass he once celebrated at San Pietro in Montorio. Requiescat in pace!

I couldn't believe how quiet Rome seemed - but then most places seem provincial compared to the bustle of London. There weren't even that many tourists. Speaking to several priest friends, I sensed great excitement about the subtle but important changes in Vatican ceremonial and the new Encyclical. One said that listening to Pope Benedict was like sitting at the feet of a Doctor of the Church.

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Sunday, 9 December 2007

An Early Christmas Present

One of my parishioners - and a leading light in our Young Adults Group - is the great-nephew of Mgr Ronald Knox. We sometimes speak about his famous relation and I recently lent him Fr Milton Walsh's Ronald Knox As Apologist: Wit, Laughter and the Popish Creed.

Anyway this evening he gave me a handmade Christmas card and inside, as an early Christmas present, was a letter from his great-uncle which he had recently found in an old book. It is dated 30 April 1924 from Courtfield, Herefordshire (where Cardinal Vaughan grew up). The contents aren't particularly amazing but they show the author's great gifts as a man of letters.

Mgr Knox refers to a tour in the country he recently completed with 'the bard' and says: 'I will only emphasize the undesirability of going at any time or for any purpose to the Lamb inn at Wallingford, which is a whited sepulchre and a wolf-cub in Lamb's clothing.' One wonders what was so objectionable about this establishment and trusts that it has improved in more recent years (though the fact it was once visited by William of Orange doesn't bode well).

Knox seems to have done something of a pub crawl, in the Chesterbelloc tradition, for he also refers to a don he met at the Bear Inn at Wantage who is 'now at Oxford, extending the Universities, and boring the countryside.'

A few weeks ago I passed through Mells, the little Somerset village where Mgr Knox is buried. It is a quintessentially English village - a medieval church, with a little row of almshouses leading to the front gate:

Next to the church is a sixteenth century manor house, the home of the Asquiths, where Mgr Knox spent his latter years. The manor was purportedly procured by Jack Horner upon discovering the deed in a pie given to him to carry to London by Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury. Here is the gate, designed by Lutyens:

The churchyard unusually contains the graves of some distinguished Catholics. Here is Mgr Knox's:

The tombstone also has an inscription on the back - ''You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God':

Nearby are the tombs of the war poet and convert, Siegfried Sassoon, who asked to be buried near Knox, and Christopher Hollis, Catholic politician and writer (and father of the present bishop of Portsmouth!).

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Saturday, 8 December 2007

Immaculate Conception

In order to reach Jesus, who is the true light and the sun that dissipates all the darkness of history, we need to have people near us who reflect the light of Christ and illuminate the way. And who is brighter than Mary? Who can be a more hopeful star than her, the aura that announced the day of salvation? That is why the liturgy today celebrates, just before Christmas, the magnificence of the Immaculate Conception of Mary: the mystery of God’s grace who embraced the existence of the creature destined to become the Mother of Jesus, preserving her from original sin. From her we see the grandeur and beauty of God’s project for each of us: to become saints and immaculate in love, in the image of our Creator.

Pope Benedict XVI, 8 December 2007

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Thursday, 6 December 2007

Live Like A Monk!

One of the great things about the monastic life is that it is so good for body and soul. A monastery is a school of holiness and a foretaste of heaven; it is also promises long life in this 'vale of tears' due to its balanced way of life - work and prayer, regular meals, etc.

According to The Times, a study of the monks of Mount Athos over 11 years has revealed astonishingly low levels of cancer. This is largely due to the diet - 'what seems to be the key is a diet that alternates between olive oil and non-olive oil days, and plenty of plant proteins,” said urologist Haris Aidonopoulos. “It’s not only what we call the Mediterranean diet, but also eating the old-fashioned way. Small simple meals at regular intervals are very important.” Father Moses of the Koutloumousi monastery said: “We never eat meat. We produce most of the vegetables and fruit we consume. And we never forget that all year round, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, we don’t use olive oil on our food.” It is good to note that wine forms part of this wholesome diet, though only on alternate days.

The Times report concludes: 'The lack of air pollution on Mount Athos as well as the monks’ hard work in the fields also played their part, the researchers said. There was no mention, however, of whether the absence of women had any effect on the monks’ renowned spiritual calm.'

So, fasting and good old-fashioned cooking - the wisdom of the Church and of the ages - is proven to be essential in preventing cancer and strengthening the soul.

Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday
Breakfast: Bread, tea
Lunch: Pasta or rice,vegetables, olive oil
Dinner: Lentils, fruit and salad, olive oil. Red wine
Monday, Wednesday and Friday - no olive oil
Feasts - Fish and seafood
It'as an appropriately Advent message - live like a monk!
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