The view from Wolvercote

Fr Schofield on St Charles & Cardinal Manning

P1000081Sermon for the Feast of St Charles Borromeo

for the St Barnabas Society

 Today we celebrate the feast of one of the great saints of the Catholic Reformation: Charles Borromeo. His name immediately suggests a connection with one of the great Italian families, for centuries so closely involved in the Duchy of Milan. His artistic image quickly conveys a sense of authority and wealth, as he looks down at us with his confident aristocratic features, dressed in the scarlet robes of a cardinal.

In many ways, he enjoyed a life of privilege and power – born in a castle on the shores of Lake Maggiore in 1538, a nephew of Pope Pius IV, an abbot in commendam at the age of twelve, cardinal and archbishop of Milan at the age of twenty-two, a leading Father at the Council of Trent, a patron of artists and musicians (including the composer Palestrina).

Yet, his iconography tells a second, less predictable, narrative, for St Charles is also shown in art, still dressed as a cardinal but barefoot and carrying a wooden cross, with a rope round his neck. There might also be a reference to his famous motto – humilitas (humility). These motifs recall his penitential life and his works of mercy during the plague. Indeed, such were his apostolic labours that his health was affected and he died at the young age of forty-six.

St Charles was, on the one hand, a product of his times and his upbringing. He accepted the many titles and honours given to him; he lived in state as was expected of a sixteenth century cardinal. But he was also radically different from many other prelates of the time: he was focussed on his duty and desired only to reform and renew his whole diocese. Hence he was happy, despite his high birth, to spend time with the lowliest of priests, to visit the poorest of mountain villages, to rebuild and consecrate the smallest of chapels, taking as much care in the ceremonies as he would in his own cathedral. His manner of travelling to the peripheries was astonishing. According to one of his Victorian biographers:

Staff in hand he advanced like one of the poor mountaineers, the scorching summer sun pouring its unclouded rays upon his head; at times carrying some of his own luggage, both to relieve his servants and to perform an office of humility. Sometimes he had to pass along narrow ledges on the face of some precipice, where it was necessary, for security’s sake, to wear shoes shod with iron points; at other times, where all further progress seemed well-nigh impossible, from the frightful nature of the path, or, it may be, the absence of any, the archbishop would crawl upon hands and knees.

It is interesting to note that St Charles had a great love for our country, too. He kept a portrait of his fellow cardinal, St John Fisher, in his study, and several British exiles worked closely for him: Griffith Roberts, formerly of the diocese of Bangor, was his confessor, while both Owen Lewis and Thomas Goldwell (bishop of St Asaph under Mary I and last of the old Catholic hierarchy) were his vicars general. St Charles gave generously to the English College, Douay, and received groups of missionary priests as they passed Milan en route to England, including (in 1580) St Edmund Campion and St Ralph Sherwin. No wonder his image is proudly shown at the English College, Rome, while one of the great treasures of Douay was the saint’s biretta.

There is, of course, a further link with our country. Another well-known archbishop regarded him as his model and patron. Inspired by the community of priests founded by St Charles in Milan – the Oblates of St Ambrose – he established a similar congregation in Victorian London – the Oblates of St Charles. This great shepherd was, of course, Henry Edward Manning, who became Archbishop of Westminster exactly a hundred and fifty years ago – a mere fourteen years after he had become a Catholic.

As Diocesan Archivist, Manning has been much in my thoughts, especially since we recently acquired a major collection of his papers from an academic in France. Perhaps more than any of our archbishops, Manning has been largely misunderstood: the victim of harsh criticism and poor biographies. Even his image is largely negative: like St Charles, he can easily be caricatured – skeletal features, ascetic lifestyle and an apparent lack of humour.

Like St Charles, Manning was blessed with the circumstances in which he was born and the gifts granted him by God. As an undergraduate at Oxford he was considered one of the most handsome students and an eloquent debater at the Union. There was a sense that he could turn his hand to anything – such are the twists and turns of human life that it could easily have been his friend and contemporary Gladstone who entered the Church and Manning who became Prime Minister. As an Anglican Archdeacon many thought that he was guaranteed to sit on the Bench of Bishops. And on the domestic front, he was happily married to Caroline Sargent, sister-in-law of Bishop Wilberforce.

And yet, like St Charles, providence and the making of radical choices led Manning down a very different path. After four years of marriage, he was left a widower. As his beloved lay on her deathbed, he wrote to Newman: ‘No man knows what it is to watch the desire of his eyes fading away’; he later wrote ‘all the good I may have done, all the good I may have been, I owe to her.’ He threw himself into his pastoral duties, but became increasingly disillusioned by the Church of England. He became a Catholic on Passion Sunday 1851, during the aftermath of the Gorham Judgment. ‘So ended one life, and I thought life was over,’ he later reflected. ‘I fully believed I should never do more than become a priest; about which I never doubted, or even wavered. But I looked forward to live and die in a priest’s life, out of sight.’ It was, of course, as many of you know better than I, a painful decision to make. Indeed, he once said that if there been no Hereafter he could have happily spent his whole life at the village vicarage. But he felt bound to seek the truth and follow his conscience, despite the inevitable parting of friends.

As a Catholic Manning was hardly ever out of sight – as a zealous pastor in (what were then) the depressing slums of Bayswater and Notting Hill, an author, a spiritual guide and a friend to converts. As Archbishop, he showed the same zeal as St Charles and become known as the ‘Poor Man’s Cardinal’, especially after his decisive intervention in the London Dock Strike of 1889. When he died in 1892, tens of thousands, both rich and poor, paid their respects. Manning was surely Westminster’s Borromeo.

As we celebrate this Mass, we reflect on the lives of these two great prelates, we pray for the good work of the St Barnabas Society and we strive ourselves to keep on following the will of God, even if it means making radical choices and crawling across the narrow ledges on the face of life’s precipices, guided alone by the Light of the Lord.

 

 

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Abandon yourself to Him

deacon tom and fr michael daley

On 17 June, Tom Montgomery, a beneficiary of the Society, who has also been a student at the Beda College in Rome for the last four years, was ordained to the diaconate at the Basilica of St-Paul-Outside-the-Walls. Afterwards he said:

‘I was so conscious during the ordination of being carried in the prayers of friends and family. It was a real opportunity for me to give thanks to God for all of the graces He has given to me on what has been a long journey to this moment of ordination. A few days ago Cardinal Vincent sent me an email saying “Abandon yourself totally to God and He won’t let you down” and I was praying with those words during the ordination as well. I give thanks to God for these last four years in Rome at the Beda College and now I am really looking forward to returning to the diocese and spending the next year as a deacon with Fr Duncan Adamson in Ruislip. It has been a great journey so far and I look forward to seeing where God leads me in the years ahead.’

These are beautiful words: “Abandon yourself totally to God and He won’t let you down”. I was reminded of the first of Pope Benedict’s Mass of the Chrism in 2006.

Dear Brothers in the Episcopate ?and in the Priesthood, ?Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Holy Thursday is the day on which the Lord gave the Twelve the priestly task of celebrating, in the bread and the wine, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood until he comes again. The paschal lamb and all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant are replaced by the gift of his Body and his Blood, the gift of himself.

Thus, the new worship was based on the fact that, in the first place, God makes a gift to us, and, filled with this gift, we become his:  creation returns to the Creator.

So it is that the priesthood also became something new:  it was no longer a question of lineage but of discovering oneself in the mystery of Jesus Christ. He is always the One who gives, who draws us to himself.

He alone can say:  “This is my Body… this is my Blood”. The mystery of the priesthood of the Church lies in the fact that we, miserable human beings, by virtue of the Sacrament, can speak with his “I”in persona Christi. He wishes to exercise his priesthood through us. On Holy Thursday, we remember in a special way this moving mystery, which moves us anew in every celebration of the Sacrament.

So that daily life will not dull what is great and mysterious, we need this specific commemoration, we need to return to that hour in which he placed his hands upon us and made us share in this mystery.

Let us reflect once again on the signs in which the Sacrament has been given to us. At the centre is the very ancient rite of the imposition of hands, with which he took possession of me, saying to me:  “You belong to me”.

However, in saying this he also said:  “You are under the protection of my hands. You are under the protection of my heart. You are kept safely in the palm of my hands, and this is precisely how you find yourself in the immensity of my love. Stay in my hands, and give me yours”.

Then let us remember that our hands were anointed with oil, which is the sign of the Holy Spirit and his power. Why one’s hands? The human hand is the instrument of human action, it is the symbol of the human capacity to face the world, precisely to “take it in hand”.

The Lord has laid his hands upon us and he now wants our hands so that they may become his own in the world. He no longer wants them to be instruments for taking things, people or the world for ourselves, to reduce them to being our possession, but instead, by putting ourselves at the service of his love, they can pass on his divine touch.

He wants our hands to be instruments of service, hence, an expression of the mission of the whole person who vouches for him and brings him to men and women. If human hands symbolically represent human faculties and, in general, skill as power to dispose of the world, then anointed hands must be a sign of the human capacity for giving, for creativity in shaping the world with love. It is for this reason, of course, that we are in need of the Holy Spirit.

In the Old Testament, anointing is the sign of being taken into service:  the king, the prophet, the priest, each does and gives more than what derives from himself alone. In a certain way, he is emptied of himself, so as to serve by making himself available to One who is greater than he.

If, in today’s Gospel, Jesus presents himself as God’s Anointed One, the Christ, then this itself means that he is acting for the Father’s mission and in unity with the Holy Spirit. He is thereby giving the world a new kingship, a new priesthood, a new way of being a prophet who does not seek himself but lives for the One with a view to whom the world was created.

Today, let us once again put our hands at his disposal and pray to him to take us by the hand, again and again, and lead us.

In the sacramental gesture of the imposition of hands by the Bishop, it was the Lord himself who laid his hands upon us. This sacramental sign sums up an entire existential process.

Once, like the first disciples, we encountered the Lord and heard his words:  “Follow me!” Perhaps, to start with, we followed him somewhat hesitantly, looking back and wondering if this really was the road for us. And at some point on the journey, we may have had the same experience as Peter after the miraculous catch; in other words, we may have been frightened by its size, by the size of the task and by the inadequacy of our own poor selves, so that we wanted to turn back. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5: 8).

Then,  however,  with  great  kindness, he took us by the hand, he drew us  to  himself  and  said  to  us:   ”Do not fear! I am with you. I  will not abandon you, do not leave me!”.

And more than just once, the same thing that happened to Peter may have happened to us:  while he was walking on the water towards the Lord, he suddenly realized that the water was not holding him up and that he was beginning to sink. And like Peter we cried, “Lord, save me!” (Mt 14: 30). Seeing the elements raging on all sides, how could we get through the roaring, foaming waters of the past century, of the past millennium?

But then we looked towards him… and he grasped us by the hand and gave us a new “specific weight”:  the lightness that derives from faith and draws us upwards. Then he stretched out to us the hand that sustains and carries us. He supports us. Let us fix our gaze ever anew on him and reach out to him. Let us allow his hand to take ours, and then we will not sink but will serve the life that is stronger than death and the love that is stronger than hatred.

Faith in Jesus, Son of the living God, is the means through which, time and again, we can take hold of Jesus’ hand and in which he takes our hands and guides us.

One of my favourite prayers is the request that the liturgy puts on our lips before Communion:  “…never let me be separated from you”. Let us ask that we never fall away from communion with his Body, with Christ himself, that we do not fall away from the Eucharistic mystery. Let us ask that he will never let go of our hands….

The Lord laid his hand upon us. He expressed the meaning of this gesture in these words:  “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15: 15).

I no longer call you servants but friends:  in these words one could actually perceive the institution of the priesthood. The Lord makes us his friends; he entrusts everything to us; he entrusts himself to us, so that we can speak with he himself – in persona Christi capitis.

What trust! He has truly delivered himself into our hands. The essential signs of priestly ordination are basically all a manifestation of those words:  the laying on of hands; the consignment of the book – of his words that he entrusts to us; the consignment of the chalice, with which he transmits to us his most profound and personal mystery.

The power to absolve is part of all this. It also makes us share in his awareness of the misery of sin and of all the darkness in the world, and places in our hands the key to reopen the door to the Father’s house.

I no longer call you servants but friends. This is the profound meaning of being a priest:  becoming the friend of Jesus Christ. For this friendship we must daily recommit ourselves.

Friendship means sharing in thought and will. We must put into practice this communion of thought with Jesus, as St Paul tells us in his Letter to the Philippians (cf. 2: 2-5). And this communion of thought is not a purely intellectual thing, but a sharing of sentiments and will, hence, also of actions. This means that we should know Jesus in an increasingly personal way, listening to him, living together with him, staying with him.

Listening to him – in lectio divina, that is, reading Sacred Scripture in a non-academic but spiritual way; thus, we learn to encounter Jesus present, who speaks to us. We must reason and reflect, before him and with him, on his words and actions. The reading of Sacred Scripture is prayer, it must be prayer – it must emerge from prayer and lead to prayer.

The Evangelists tell us that the Lord frequently withdrew – for entire nights – “to the mountains”, to pray alone. We too need these “mountains”:  they are inner peaks that we must scale, the mountain of prayer.

Only in this way does the friendship develop. Only in this way can we carry out our priestly service, only in this way can we take Christ and his Gospel to men and women.

Activism by itself can even be heroic, but in the end external action is fruitless and loses its effectiveness unless it is born from deep inner communion with Christ. The time we spend on this is truly a time of pastoral activity, authentic pastoral activity. The priest must above all be a man of prayer.

The world in its frenetic activism often loses its direction. Its action and capacities become destructive if they lack the power of prayer, from which flow the waters of life that irrigate the arid land.

I no longer call you servants, but friends. The core of the priesthood is being friends of Jesus Christ. Only in this way can we truly speak in persona Christi, even if our inner remoteness from Christ cannot jeopardize the validity of the Sacrament. Being a friend of Jesus, being a priest, means being a man of prayer. In this way we recognize him and emerge from the ignorance of simple servants. We thus learn to live, suffer and act with him and for him.

Being friends with Jesus is par excellence always friendship with his followers. We can be friends of Jesus only in communion with the whole of Christ, with the Head and with the Body; in the vigorous vine of the Church to which the Lord gives life.

Sacred Scripture is a living and actual Word, thanks to the Lord, only in her. Without the living subject of the Church that embraces the ages, more often than not the Bible would have splintered into heterogeneous writings and would thus have become a book of the past. It is eloquent in the present only where the “Presence” is – where Christ remains for ever contemporary with us:  in the Body of his Church.

Being a priest means becoming an ever closer friend of Jesus Christ with the whole of our existence. The world needs God – not just any god but the God of Jesus Christ, the God who made himself flesh and blood, who loved us to the point of dying for us, who rose and created within himself room for man. This God must live in us and we in him. This is our priestly call:  only in this way can our action as priests bear fruit.

I would like to end this Homily with a word on Andrea Santoro, the priest from the Diocese of Rome who was assassinated in Trebizond while he was praying.

Cardinal Cé recounted to us during the Spiritual Exercises what Fr Santoro said. It reads:  “I am here to dwell among these people and enable Jesus to do so by lending him my flesh…. One becomes capable of salvation only by offering one’s own flesh. The evil in the world must be borne and the pain shared, assimilating it into one’s own flesh as did Jesus”.

Jesus assumed our flesh; let us give him our own. In this way he can come into the world and transform it. Amen!

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Veni Creator Spiritus

Veni Creator Spiritus 

The Solemnity of Pentecost concludes the fifty days of the Easter season and marks the beginning of the Church, born from the side of the Crucified on Calvary, animated as she is after the Ascension of her Lord by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

God the Holy Spirit is the very gift of God to the Church, it is the Spirit of God which we celebrate here and every time we cry out to God, ‘Abba, Father!’

Each time we pray we do so in the power of the Spirit who is among and around and before and behind and within us.

‘Come Holy Spirit’ we say confident that the Sprit is here, teaching us, guiding us, empowering us.

The same Spirit poured out on Our Lady and the apostles at Pentecost is given to us, sacramentally at confirmation, and when in simple love of God we call again upon God to send forth the Spirit to renew us and the whole world.

The propers of the Mass of Pentecost powerfully emphasise three great themes for the coming of the Spirit: sanctity, abundance and (rather strangely perhaps) security.

Sanctity. The Collect speaks of this Great feast and asks Almighty God to sanctify the Church in every people and nation. We want to be holy for to be holy is to be close to God. By the spirit we are equipped for holiness and in the Spirit of God we find our happiness. Everything else (we know it!) is found wanting. The Spirit is our only fulfilment and is the gift of God for all.

Abundance. The Prayer over the offerings asks the Lord ‘to reveal the abundance of the mysteries we celebrate’.By the Spirit we know God and we know the treasure that the Holy Spirit opens up to our spirits. The abundance, the fullness of God, fills our whole being. This gift of God is our deepest satisfaction.

Security. The Prayer after communion prays ‘Safeguard… the grace you have given.’ In the circumstances of life riddled with so much uncertainty and insecurity, God is our rock and our sure defence, our comfort and our consolation. We open our hearts to the promise of the Spirit, renewing the life of the Church and our lives, sanctifying us, filling us, sustaining us. Come Holy Spirit!

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Peace be with you

Unknown

The ordinary rite of the baptism of a child begins with a question fraught with difficulty. It is this: What name do you give your child? The priest asks the question and the parents   respond. Now with nephews called Zephaniah, Ptolomeus and Epiphanio, I am not the person to give advice about keeping names simple! The eldest is Isaac which is easy to spell. I love these names and my nephews, their bearers, but, on the whole, my advice to struggling parents would be keep it simple.

Of course the name, the Christian name, has crucial importance above and beyond a convenient handle for a new human being. The Christian name, at the beginning of these rites of baptism, symbolises (on the part of parents or individuals) that radical commitment to follow Christ as the saints and holy ones of old have followed him.

The name is just that – the Christian name – for we are immersed into Christ’s life and death in the waters of the font so that we might rise with him to new and eternal life.

In these waters of rebirth we are taken back to the moment of creation when the Spirit moved on the face of the waters and we recall the beginnings of our own existence in the wombs of our mothers. We face too, the lie which negates this basic human truth and always resolve to thank God for life.

In these waters of rebirth we are taken back the beginning of our own life of grace when we were baptised into Christ and became His. We face too the lie which says there is no Godand always resolve to uphold our holy faith.

In these waters of rebirth we look forward to the gift of eternal life and each time we bless ourselves with this lustral water we look forward to the pure life of heaven. We face too the lie which says that this life is all about ‘me, me, me’ and nothing else matters and we resolve to live for others and when life is ended, to live happy for ever with God.

In the beautiful gospels of the Easter octave and season many will be called by their name, denying Peter and fervent Mary amongst the most conspicuous. The Lord will call to us too, to finish with sin and live again with him, alive for God in the only name which ultimately matters: the name of Jesus Christ, the name of Christian.

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Keep the commandments and live

Moses

After a stunning Sunday homily from Fr Dominic Jacob on the cleansing of The Temple, I decided to return to the beginning of Sunday’s scriptures and even by Tuesday I haven’t quite found my way out of the commandments.

Three relate to God: the first three in fact. One relates to others: the honouring of father and mother. And the rest relate to ourselves. For whilst we might kill and steal others, and do all those other things with or against others, it is ultimately ourselves that we are harming.

To put it another way three of the commandments are to do with failure to love God, one is directly to do with failure to love others – those parents again! And the rest, our failure to love ourselves sufficiently, so that we kill or steal or commit adultery or sap another’s reputation in false witness, or covet.

We all know how easy it is to do these things. We have been tempted to the sort of anger which explodes in hate and which could actually kill. We have desired something so much that we have not thought of the morality. We have desired someone so much that we barely recognise ourselves. We are so keen to justify our position that we simply and effortlessly lie.

We delude ourselves that happiness can be found in a thing and there is no justice unless we have that thing. And this attiude is always a failure to love ourselves, as God made us, in His image and likeness. It is the greatest human tragedy.

Into this human tragedy steps Jesus. God’s Son. He loves us, teaching us to love God and giving us the yardstick of love of neighbour as ourselves. He implies that if we fail to love ourselves then it will be impossible to love neighbour, for we will hate the self that we see in neighbour. He shows us the most foolish sign of love so that when human strength and even life itself is spent, his new life will be the very strength by which we will live. And he invites us to make space for that life. To clear out the rubbish, the hatred of self, the petty attempts to justify ourselves. He looks into us and He always gives us the strength, the grace to keep the commandments if only we would work with Him.

But to what end? Am I not free to do what I would want to do? No, this is no freedom, this is slavery! And ours is the freedom to keep the commandments and live.

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‘Preach less for Lent…’

‘Preach less for Lent’ somebody said…… Sound advice you might think.

If ever we are more disposed to take spiritual advice, it is on a day like Ash Wednesday. We might reflect on the advice we have received down the years. Fr Cronin’s, ‘Make the most of this Lent, it may well be your last…’, is particularly stark for me!

We have perhaps been encouraged to take things on rather than give stuff up, to write a letter to an old enemy and be particularly generous to a favourite charity.

Of course all this advice, whilst possibly good and true, is just that – advice – and it may even be utter nonsense if one crucial thing is not in place or at least a serious work in process. And that is to be at rights with God and man. Loving God and loving our neighbour and using the spiritual armoury of prayer, fasting and almsgiving to this end.

As ashes are imposed, imposed because nobody really wants to have a big black mark on their forehead, let us hand over our lives to the Lord. As we receive Holy Communion, received because nobody could (if they understood a fraction of the mystery) resist such a gift, let us take to ourselves the very life of the Lord.

Of course all this isn’t an exchange of ideas, nor is it encouraging advice; it is worked out in the secret of our hearts. Only we will know the success of it, and Him, of course. And our Father, who sees all that is done in secret, will reward us.

 

 

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Isn’t this the right day to celebrate the Solemn rites of Epiphany?

Is this the right day for the Solemn rites of Epiphany?

 

When I was a little boy, Church of England but very high church, I used to practice genuflecting. It all seemed a bit naughty – not the sort of thing the mainstream did, and yet I’d read a bit and observed a lot. As I’ve said before, I was a peculiar, very churchy little boy. And having perfected my pious gesture, I would go to St Joseph’s and genuflect with the best of them. They’d think I was one of them, a real Catholic.

At the heart of the mystery of Christ’s manifestation to the whole world, the Epiphany, is the symbolic gesture of kneeling. We read in St Matthew’s gospel, ‘Falling to their knees the Magi did him homage’. We instinctively know this act as a sign of worship and adoration and this instinct is no less the experience of the mysterious visitors from the east.

Of course, that worship also has something of the spontaneous reaction within and easier to do if others are doing it with us. But worship goes deeper than reaction. So let us talk of instinct, at least instinct refined and purified by grace. By this grace my instincts can cease to be base and puerile and warped and twisted! In the light of grace they can become beautiful, profound, worshiping and true.

On every page of the gospel the Lord wants to raise us up, clasp us to Him. But this can only happen if we have first learnt to submit our instinct to Him and love Him and, in loving Him, worship Him. And in our worship of Him, which is itself His gift, we will know a new found dignity about ourselves and each other before and under almighty God.

Surely this is the dignity we feel when we return from Holy Communion, having knelt before Him. This is that dignity we know when we leave the church having visited the Blessed Sacrament and prayed for just a few snatched minutes to take our warmed heart into the air of a cold, loveless world. And then it will become our instinct, our graced nature, to offer the same gifts. Gold as we own the Source of Grace as King; frankincense as we worship Him the only True God; Myrrh as we see Him as one like ourselves, even to the point of sharing our inevitable death.

To love almighty God, to worship Him, to offer all that we are, to Him – these instincts of the human, graced heart hallmark the life of the Catholic Church. To strive in work of worship, the best celebration of the liturgy we can offer and with the best of dispositions, this journey is what the Magi did of old, it is what the Church is called to do especially at the annual celebration of the Feast of the Manifestation of Grace and Truth, and it is our journey as filled with delight, we enter the house, fall to our knees and worship.

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All I want for Christmas….

ImmacConII

Well, what do you want? People like me say, ‘An end to those awful Christmas songs, more ‘O come all ye faithful’, less ‘Do they know it’s Christmas…’

And that in itself is a funny thing. People like me run the risk of being a bit humbuggy when we plead loudly for a better world, less sin and all that. But perhaps the deeper crisis in our world is that we play down play down genuine goodness and when we do engage with good and virtue and charity, it is as if the latest celebrity has invented the idea!

‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’. Well yes, they do and they know about Advent and The Solemnity of Immaculate Conception too!

Against this cynical backdrop it is easier to buy a trivial and profane Christmas card than a beautiful image of the Mother of our Redeemer, Mary Immaculate.  I could give examples, but most of them are unrepeatable!

The feast and mystery of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary invites us to engage with the dogma. There is ‘popular’ confusion. This is not the virgin birth of Jesus. This is concerned with the beginnings of the life of Our Blessed Lady  - obviously her Conception. At Mary’s conception, that Immaculate moment, there is a complete absence of sin and stain; and this singular privilege of grace, in consideration of the merits of Jesus the saviour of mankind.

In propounding this teaching the Catholic Church invites us to understand that Grace is more original than sin. Goodness comes before the Fall. As our first parents come to live in deathly disobedience -they fall because they fail to listen to God and death comes about – so Jesus, the new Adam, the divine Son of God, is brought into this world through the lively obedience of Mary, the new Eve and life is restored.

Is all this simply the stuff of which nice Christmas cards are made? Certainly Catholic theology cannot understand the Immaculate Conception as simply an honour done to Mary, a nice devotional belief about her. Whilst the Immaculate Conception inspires great devotion – Bernadette at Lourdes, Catherine Laboure in Paris -the devotion is only credible because it is a part of an orthodox theology of the Incarnation and the Redemption. But it goes both ways; orthodoxy on such matters is not orthodoxy without the Immaculate Conception.

In the mystery of the Incarnation the response of Mary is crucial but so is her preparedness. She is that pure vessel in which God dwells, so she is preserved from sin because God will dwell in her womb.

So God in Christ is immersed in human existence taking His humanity from humanity but never compromised by it, never sullied by humanity’s fallen state.

He is the man like us in all things, but sin. And Mary then is the sinless vessel from which he is born, and she is only sinless because of Christ and the redemption he will bring. Just as the crucified risen ascended and glorified Christ ‘for us men and for our salvation’ was incarnate, enlfeshed so to speak to return flesh to God, so that redemption is Mary’s from her first moment of life.

This principle is established in the letter to the Ephesians: ‘God chose us in Christ…to be holy and without sin in his presence. From all eternity he destined us in love’. Mary is predestined, she who is not just highly favoured, she is ‘full of grace’ and is prepared in grace for The One who is the source of grace. Furthermore, in being thus she is more genuinely human, showing us the full potential of what the Creator intended when He created and pronounced what He had made ‘Good’.

The mysteries of Mary are never removed from humanity and those who search for the right sort of Christmas card are on the right track!

With Mary we celebrate the Good God’s choice of us. With Mary we celebrate her Son’s redeeming love. With Mary we celebrate His victory over sin and death. And in Mary we see too that grace is more original than sin.

O Mary conceived without sin,  Pray for us who have recourse to thee

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The Family at Littlemore

newmanMy computer search enticed me, not only to articles but also images of Blessed John Henry and his sister Jemima. I was intrigued. We have a photograph of Newman as a very old man here at Wolvercote, but to see him with his sister, in a picture!

In actual fact (like so much of what the computer promises) it was a huge disappointment – only pictures of Zac Goldsmith and his sister Jemima. It is a very pretty name though. I have a beautiful god daughter called Jemima, I’m fond of her – fond of the name and increasingly fond of Jemima Newman.

Whilst the fondness between Blessed John Henry and his younger sister was clear, there was undoubtedly acrimony in the air too. The reason will be no surprise: Blessed John Henry’s conversion and the events which had punctuated the journey had changed the relationship. The final straw was Blessed John Henry’s letter to Jemima displayed on the wall of the study bedroom at Littlemore. The letter stated that Fr Dominic would arrive that very night and that Newman would ask to be received into ‘the One Fold of the Redeemer’.

I have often thought of how simple it has been for whole families to make this move. The Lusted family were received altogether, at Pembury on the feast of Christ the King; my own family have made their gradual progress into the Church; many other families share this experience. Newman had no such success. His brothers had distanced themselves from Christianity. His surviving sisters Jemima and especially Harriet, were deeply suspicious and resolutely distant from Newman the Catholic.

Part of the story must surely have been the very serious way faith was approached. Nothing was left to chance, nothing was open ended or ambiguous. The processes of thought and discussion meant that a position was held with utter conviction and the consequences could be devastating for a relationship.

This is perhaps not just a Victorian complaint. Sometimes a relativist approach to things can become more entrenched than a heated divergence of religious opinion. It means that there are those who simply will not engage in the discussion: ‘I’m sorry, we don’t do God….’. This modern extreme can make the parting of friends and weeping Pusey look mild by comparison.

When I visited Littlemore recently I was struck by the simple sense of family in the community of the college of Littlemore. Blessed John Henry had discovered and formed a different sense of family. Newman’s family had never left his consciousness and care, but the family of faith had replaced it.

Despite this, I was moved most of all by that little note to Jemima and when I pray to Blessed John Henry these days I shall especially ask his prayers for Jemima and all my god daughters and god sons. And I shall say a little prayer for Jemima Newman, may she rest in peace. Who knows, she too may, by now be rejoicing with all the saints and blessed.

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Do you love me?

Jesuschalice&host

Do you love me?

This little question is a tricky one. There are a whole variety of ways in which it might be asked and a whole variety of answers that might be given. It is not a simple yes or no….

Sometimes the question is asked more from a sense of insecurity than anything else. Sometimes the answer given is not quite the truth. Well, there is a rich complexity to the question when we hear it on the lips of Jesus in St John’s gospel.

Our Lord asks it, but it is clearly not a simple exchange. He asks it three times and with each asking of the question the atmosphere changes. Eventually Peter is upset, ‘grieved’ that the Lord should ask a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ What is going on here?

Remember it was Peter who had denied the Lord. Protesting that he would never do this, backed in a corner, too close to the fire, asked by a serving girl who had detected a strange accent, without any thought, he had said, ‘I do not know him, I do not know him, I do not know him’.

Sometimes it may be harder to say, ‘I do not love you’. But regardless of whether that response is honest or not, the implications are huge. Peter is dishonest: he does know the Lord and he does love him. How does he react: he wept bitterly….

And so after the resurrection as Jesus chooses Peter to follow him and be shepherd of the sheep and Prince of the apostles, he asks him, ‘Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?’ It is almost as if this man’s denial, his lie, is wiped away as he confesses Jesus to be the one whom he loves.

Each of us is asked that question by the Lord. When we come to Holy Communion, before we hear the words, ‘The body of Christ’, in our interior selves we hear the Lord saying, ‘Do you love me…’. Can we answer,  ‘Lord you know everything, you know I love you’. Sometimes this response needs to be an act of will. Remember, if love is only a feeling then we are on a course to disaster. So we must make this decision to love my wife, my husband, my son, my daughter, my brother, my sister, my mother, my father, my neighbour, my Church, my Lord.

The St Barnabas Society helps those who are hearing this question with regard to the life of the Catholic Church. If I love the Lord and the Lord is calling me to become a member of the Catholic Church how can I refuse him?

At great personal cost many of our beneficiaries leave their good and Godly work as ministers of other churches.

Jack and Sarah and their family in East Sussex will soon make this move. After prayer and discussion (especially among their four children) all six of them will become Catholics. Jack has been vicar of his parish for these last 7 years. Now he knows that the Lord is calling him to the full communion of the Catholic Church and Sarah and the family support him in that and hear the call themselves. The way you help the Society, by your prayers and your generosity will support Jack and his family and many others.

Please God Jack will be a priest one day. About 1 in 10 priests in the Catholic Church in England & Wales are former Anglican clergy. Many of those have been supported by the St Barnabas Society.

Let us thank God for the gift of our holy faith. For the Communion of the Catholic Church with our Holy Father Pope Francis. Let us thank God that he calls us in his Son to love him. And let us thank him that we can joyfully respond: ‘Yes, Lord, you know all things, you know I love you’.

Fr Richard Biggerstaff

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