General

Who Am I to Judge: How do we respond to sin in others?

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”

I must have heard that a thousand times growing up. I hasten to add that I wasn’t in any way a bully or a particularly mean child, indeed, I was more often than not the one on the receiving end! But if somebody irritated me or did something to upset me and I let fly with a diatribe of personal remarks against somebody at school? “If you can’t say anything nice…”. This is a prime example of how Christian morality has been adopted into secular society because it’s essentially a lesson in good manners and in generally being a nice person. Another example would be “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Even (most) atheists can get on board with that one because it’s a clear warning against being a hypocrite. These proverbs have their roots in Christian teaching but they have been reduced and diluted to make them palatable to a multi-faith, multicultural society. When we speak about certain moral issues (abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality) from a Catholic perspective, we sometimes find that atheists or non-Christians will hit back with “You’re not a Christian if you judge someone” in order to silence us. And that’s very true. So as Christ loved all us all, we are called to imitate Him and love each and everyone of our fellow human beings. But there is a fine line between avoiding judgement and failing your neighbour. So is it ever acceptable to judge another person we know to be in mortal sin?

The “Who am I to judge?” approach has much good in it. We absolutely have no right to judge anybody. That right belongs to God and God alone. The problem is that we have separated what the scriptures say about judgement from what is says about sin, so much so that we find even some clergy and religious will go so far as to deny the existence of sin in order to promote compassion and charity to others. When this happens, the “Who am I to judge?” approach risks exchanging one sin for another. Let’s take a recent example. In the last month or so, a Jesuit priest has been the focus of much anger and division on Catholic social media. Father James Martin has slammed those who disagree with his more liberal position on homosexuality as “bigots” and “homophobes” who should be “silenced by their Bishops”. On the other hand, his critics are calling for Father James to be publicly corrected by his own Bishop or even laicised. Father James says that he considers that he is in no position to judge another human being for their lifestyle choices. His opponents say that his compassion for homosexuals condones sin. Prepare yourself for a shock – in many ways, both are absolutely correct. And in many ways, both are completely missing the point.

I love St Paul. He was this dedicated, devoted, enthusiastic warrior for the Lord; a man who truly understood that it wasn’t just enough to hear the Good News but that it was his duty to share that news with others so that everyone could live by it and be saved. From his conversion on the road to Damascus to his journeys through the cities of the ancient world, St Paul not only spoke with a remarkable clarity but he did something all good priests should do. He responded to the world around him. He saw the trials and struggles people faced in their daily lives and he tried to comfort them, to support them and to show compassion to people wherever he found them most in need. Fortunately for us, St Paul wrote letters to Christian communities from various places on his travels and it was while he was in Corinth that he penned a letter to the Romans. On a totally nerdy humour note, it always makes me chuckle when I think of St Paul sitting in Gaius’ villa passionately describing the wickedness he sees everywhere around him in Corinth……in a letter to the Romans of all people! His Epistle was written at a time when Rome had seen it all; Julia the Younger exiled for adultery with half the senators and public officials in Rome, Tiberius holding lavish orgies at his private villa on Capri and Caligula…..well…..let’s not go there. Suffice to say, Ancient Rome was a hotbed of sin when St Paul arrived there and I can’t help but picture him turning to Tertius saying: “And I thought Corinth was bad!”

With this setting in mind, let’s look at what St Paul says in his Letter to the Romans. In Chapter 1, he writes:

29 And so they are steeped in all sorts of depravity, rottenness, greed and malice and addicted to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite.

30 Libellers, slanderers, enemies of God; rude, arrogant and boastful, enterprising in sin, rebellious to parents,

31 Without brains, honour, love or pity.

32 They know what God’s verdict is; that those who behave like this deserve to die – and yet they do it; and what is worse, encourage others to do the same.

St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, Verses 29 – 32

If you read this passage with the Ten Commandments in mind, you see exactly what St Paul is referring to. We know what God wants of us. We know because He told us. And yet, even by God inscribing His commandments into stone tablets on Mt Sinai and even by giving them to Moses to take among the people? Those commandments were still being ignored, abused and broken. St Paul is telling us that anyone who breaks the commandments of God is a sinner but more than that, if someone is encouraging someone else to break the commandments of God, he’s not only “steeped in sin” himself but he’s encouraging others to be sinful too. When St Paul talks about people “deserving to die”, he doesn’t mean by some kind of public execution or brutal authoritarian punishment. He’s talking about eternal life which can only be won by repentance, faith and a desire to live a holy life that is lived truthfully to the word of God. Now let’s remind ourselves of the Father James Martin situation. This passage would seem to suggest that his critics are right and he is wrong. By denying the sinful nature of homosexuality, he’s not only denying the will of God but he’s leading others to sin by misleading them as to what is and what isn’t a sin. So is that the end of the debate? Is it over yet? Well, not quite.

Immediately after this passage, St Paul has this to say:

1 So no matter who you are, if you pass judgement you have no excuse. In judging others you condemn yourself, since you behave no differently from those you judge.

2 We know that God condemns that sort of behaviour impartially:

3 and when you judge those who behave like this while you are doing exactly the same, do you think you will escape God’s judgement?

St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 2, Verses 1-3

So……Father James his right and his critics are wrong. Because we’re all sinners and therefore, nobody can judge anybody else and we should show love and compassion if we want to live good Christian lives. Right? Well, again, not quite. Here’s the thing. When we judge another person, we fall into sin. But we also fall into sin when we ignore the will of God. On contemplating this today, I was immediately reminded of what Jesus said when He gave us the the Great Commandment;

37 Jesus said, You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.

38 This is the greatest and the first commandment.

39 The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself.

40 On these two commands hang the whole law and the Prophets also.

St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 22, Verses 37 – 40

Whatever action we take in life, whatever decision we make, we should be asking ourselves two questions;

  1. Does it show love for God?
  2. Does it show love for my neighbour? 

This examination of conscience begins in the heart. Does it feel right? Does it feel like something that might dishonour God or upset someone close to me? Then it moves to the soul. Will this harm my soul? Will this action lead me into mortal sin which would keep me from receiving the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus? Will it cause others to fall into sin also? And finally, we examine with our minds; Do I know it’s wrong and am I denying God if I ignore that knowledge of sin? And am I being dishonest in denying that knowledge to others which may cause them to fall into sin too?

In all these examinations, we’re first looking to God and then we’re looking to our neighbour and in trying to love both, we make holiness the master as St Paul told us to do in his Letter to the Romans. In doing what we know to be right, we honour God but we also show love and compassion to our neighbour because we afford them the same opportunity to do the same. People tend to think of vocations as being strictly for religious or priests but daily life is filled with a hundred little vocations. Any time we face sin, we are reminded of the vocation we accepted at baptism. To live for Christ. To avoid sin and seek salvation. If our vocation is to remind someone of church teaching so that they can avoid sin, that isn’t judgement. That’s love. But here’s the key to understanding this commandment in relation to our example at the start of this post.

When Father James made the comments he did, what was his intention? If he made the comments out of love and compassion for his neighbours who have same sex attraction because he wanted them to feel accepted and embraced, that is perfectly understandable and indeed, it’s admirable that he wishes to show compassion to sinners just as Jesus taught us. But in denying the sin, in ignoring the commandments given to us by God, in making the word of God secondary to human emotion, he doesn’t show love for God. He only shows love for his neighbour. Christ required us to do both. Similarly, when Father James’ critics attacked him as they did, what was their intention? Was it to uphold God’s law or was it to inflate their own egos? If it was to defend the teaching of Holy Mother Church, they were showing love for God because church law is Divine law. But without showing love and understanding to Father James at the same time, they were failing to love their neighbour. Christ required us to do both.

The Great Commandment requires us to do something else. Look at how Jesus imparted this lesson. God comes first. Our neighbours come second. But where do we fit in? I believe that what Jesus is telling us through this teaching is that not only must we have love for God and love for our neighbour but that in order to show that love sincerely and truthfully, we must never ever put our own will before those God or of other people. We must become completely selfless and serve both God and our neighbour in the way of Christ. Easy to say right? But what if a friend has told us she is considering having an abortion, are we to remain silent for fear of being judgemental or making her feel worse than she already does? Where is the love in that?

As with the situation involving Father James, we approach it through examining our conscience first. We pray; speaking and listening. We read; learning and acknowledging why God commands us as he does. We act; kindly, with compassion, out of love. If our arguments against something come from a place of desire for praise for our own egos, then we are putting ourselves before God and before our neighbour. When we speak out, and sometimes we are indeed commanded by God to speak out, we must do so from a selfless place of compassion, understanding and honesty. We do not hide the truth of God’s word but neither do we abuse our fellow man. We show love to both and in that way, we are shown love too. A correction when offered with true Christian charity is not a judgement. And denying sin is not compassion or Christ like either. By having the courage to stand for Christ, by having the willpower to lay down our egos and serve Him as he taught us, by doing all things for God and for our neighbour out of love? We will truly be saved and will know eternal life.

And yes, it’ll be hard sometimes. We will often be mocked, ridiculed and hated. Sometimes when we do what we know to be right, we might lose friends or we might have to distance ourselves from the people and things we love in order to show love. But however difficult it may be and however much you fear resentment or even abandonment, remember these words written by St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

6 We prove we are God’s servants by our purity, knowledge, patience and kindness; by a spirit of holiness, by a love free from affectation.

7 By the word of truth and by the power of God, by being armed with the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.

8 Prepared for honour or disgrace, for blame or praise; taken for imposters while we are genuine;

9 Obscure yet famous; said to be dying and here we are alive; rumoured to be executed before we are sentenced.

10 Thought most miserable and yet we are always rejoicing; taken for paupers though we make others rich, for people having nothing, though we have everything.

St Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 5, Verses 6 – 10

 

The Mass

Hold Your Applause…..Please!

Imagine that the postman arrives and amid the brown envelopes demanding cash you don’t have and the pizza leaflets you find an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Immediately you go into panicked overdrive. How should you address the Queen? Do you bow, do you curtsey? And what should you wear? You ask yourselves these questions because you don’t want to disrespect her. You’re grateful for the invitation yes but you realise that it’s a huge honour to be asked and you don’t want to get it wrong. So you practice your bowing, you buy yourself a nice new suit and when you meet Her Majesty, you carry yourself with impeccable good manners and feel that you showed her the respect she’s entitled to. This being the case, why then do so many people get it wrong at Mass? This weekend I was disappointed to hear applause during hymns and loud conversation throughout the homily. People danced. People shouted to each other across the pews before the Mass began. One person even started chatting to a lady in the pew behind during the consecration. What’s going on guys? Why is respect being left in the porch of the church?

Now look. I know I’m a hopeless traditionalist and I also know that it isn’t my place to judge my neighbour. But when the actions of our neighbours keep us from Jesus, when the actions of our neighbours disrespect Jesus? Well then this hopeless traditionalist has to say something. Our churches are not theatres. Our churches are not playgrounds. Our churches are houses of God and yet this is being forgotten and replaced by behaviour which wouldn’t seem out of place at a cocktail party or a sports arena. I’ve spoken with others about this and the response I usually get is that applause, dancing and hand holding is encouraged because it “brings the people closer together”. It fosters “community”. It changes the atmosphere of the church to a more “welcoming” and “friendly” place. Bunkum. It certainly changes the atmosphere of the church but it isn’t welcoming and friendly – it’s disrespectful and disruptive. I’m happy to be labelled the church misery if it means that I have an opportunity to remind people of what Mass is really all about and why our churches should be places of still, silent, structured worship. So now that my rant is out of my system, let’s move on to see what we can do about this worrying new trend.

The first time I ever went into a Roman Catholic Church, I was taken along by a nun (RIP Sister Oliver) who was trying to educate me in the ways of the faith. As soon as we entered the church, she genuflected and encouraged me to do the same. When I asked why we did that, she simply pointed to the altar. There, in a beautiful gold monstrance was the Eucharist. She didn’t explain exactly what she meant but knowing a little something about the real presence, I understood the implications. The monstrance wasn’t there as a symbol, the Eucharist wasn’t being displayed as some kind of reminder. At the foundation of our faith IS the real presence of Jesus in the host. Why else do we call it a host? When we see the bread and wine consecrated before us, they are transformed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord and that isn’t something that simply dissipates at the end of the Mass. You may have noticed that when communion has been distributed to the faithful, the priest places the remaining hosts in tabernacle – usually a gold box with doors that looks like a little house. In many ways, that’s exactly what it is. It’s where Jesus lives. The problems we face now have much to do with the fact that the tabernacles have been pushed off the main altar into side chapels and that constant presence on the altar has been removed. People no longer see Jesus when they first enter a church and so our focus has been shifted – to ourselves.

A few weeks ago at Mass, a young boy of about 6 was sat next to me and was trying to make sense of what was happening. His mother was remarkable, guiding him through the Mass and showing him when to kneel and when to stand, what to say and when to say it; but she also explained why. “Because we’re here to see Jesus”, she said. The little boy turned to me at during the consecration and whispered, “Why are we being quiet?”. And having heard his mother speak to him before the Mass began, I whispered back, “Because we’re here to see Jesus”. He nodded and said, “That’s right”. And then he fell silent, looking up at the sanctuary as the priest raised the host and the bell rang with complete concentration. He was 6 years old and he got it. Nobody could fail to be moved by his acceptance and I have never seen someone so young behave so well in church. He remained totally silent for the rest of the Mass and when he left, his mother showed him how to genuflect again which he did (albeit a little awkwardly) and then said “Goodbye Jesus!”, waving enthusiastically as he made his exit. Why am I telling you this story? Because it demonstrates so beautifully how the right teaching can have such a big impact on people, especially when they’re young. When we have so much bad catechises flying around our parishes, where it’s become fashionable to describe the Eucharist as “representative”, where Adoration is offered only on special days of the year; this is the sort of faith and truth we need to be holding onto and sharing with people. And not just young people, everybody.

If RCIA gets one thing right, it’s that it always reinforces the real presence. That is, that Catholics believe that the Eucharist is indeed the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. So for converts going in, it can be deeply shocking to see the way some people behave in church or during Mass. And I think, if more people understood what the Mass really was and if they had access to good, solid, faithful catechises? They’d be shocked too. Since the Second Vatican Council, many people have run away with the concept that churches are now places that should foster community first and faith second. If the ushers are friendly, if people can sit on comfortable chairs and if there are social groups and parties then people are more likely to want to come to church. And I absolutely agree with the sentiment behind that. Nobody wants to see sour looking priests who are unfriendly and a large part of our faith is building communities with our neighbours so that we can better support and love them in their trials. Friendship is a holy thing, it’s special and it must be encouraged. But when you enter a church and cannot pray because children are dashing around and adults are discussing the results of the big game last night? When you have to wander round a church to find the tabernacle? When homilies are replaced with games or performances? Then something has gone seriously wrong.

In his book Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI had this to say:

“It is totally absurd to try to make the liturgy “attractive” by introducing dancing pantomimes (wherever possible performed by professional dance troupes”, which frequently (and rightly from the point of view of the professionals) end with applause. Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attractiveness fades quickly – it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation. I myself have experienced the replacing of the penitential rite by a dance performance, which, needless to say, received a round of applause. Could there be anything further removed from true penitence? Liturgy can only attract people when it looks, not at itself, but at God, when it allows Him to enter and act.”

The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI, Ignatius Press

Think about that for a moment. When someone performs a solo at church and we applaud, why are we doing so? To celebrate Christ or to congratulate them for a good performance? We are celebrating human achievement – not God. The Liturgy of the Word in particular is a time where our focus should be on the gospel and what message we are being called to take away to make our lives more holy. When it’s replaced with dancing, singing or some kind of dramatic performance, even if it is based in the Gospel, are we not saying that the words of the Gospel cannot compete with our own efforts as human beings? Applause weakens our focus. Dance weakens our focus. Drama weakens our focus. The liturgy is not a 16th century script written by an old Roman playwright that we trot out once a week to please the priest. It has been carefully developed by great theologians and liturgists who, through scripture and divine revelation, have found the best way for us to follow Christ’s example but also to understand Him, respect Him and worship Him. The priest doesn’t hold aloft the host to show that he has any particular authority or personal advantage. He holds aloft the host so that we might see our Lord before our very eyes, that our focus is placed solely on Christ at that awesome moment of consecration. How can anything possibly rival that?

Mass isn’t a social event. Mass allows us to commune with God, to be in His presence but most importantly, it allows us receive God. And when we do, we should be humbled by that gift, we should be so filled with the Spirit that our thoughts rest only with Him. How is it possible therefore that people return from the sanctuary having just received communion and then simply continue a conversation about how much laundry they have to do when they get home or what they’re planning for lunch? When our eyes look no further than human interaction at Mass, we ignore the entire reason we celebrate Mass in the first place. And in our churches in general, Jesus is now tucked away in a little side chapel, out of sight, out of mind and we are free to carry on as if He doesn’t make an appearance until Mass and then only briefly, quickly hurried away to be forgotten until the following week.

We’re losing our faith in the real presence and it isn’t just that we’re damaging ourselves but we’re also keeping others from that real presence too. Most churches now offer some kind of refreshment in the parish hall or even the presbytery after Mass. Most parishes offer a diary of social events where people can get together and have fun. And I absolutely encourage and support that. But when those distractions are brought before the altar? We have to make changes. When you stand before the Lord, as we all will one day, are you going to turn away from his face and start a conversation with the guy behind you? Or will you be absolutely awed and humbled by His presence? If you’re not feeling that when you go to Mass and see the Eucharist? Something is wrong. But we can fix it.

We’re told that there is now an increased role for the laity to play in how their parishes are run. In which case, get together and demand of your parish council or priest that the tabernacle is returned to the altar. Petition for increased adoration. Before you set out for church, ask yourself if your attire is showing respect to the Lord. Forget the gym shoes and running shorts, remember who it is you’re going to see. When you go into the church, humble yourself before the Lord. Remember He is there. Arrive in plenty of time so that you’re able to spend fifteen minutes or so speaking to Him before the start of Mass. Allow yourself to have the time to meditate on what the meaning of Mass really is and prepare yourself to receive Jesus. When you receive the Blessed Sacrament, do so with humility. When someone tries to engage you in conversation, politely ask them to be quiet until after the Mass is ended. If someone is talking loudly and you can’t pray? Tell them. If it’s a wider problem, talk to your priest and see if some kind of reminder can be included in the newsletter or homily. But most importantly, set a good example for young people, especially small children. If you don’t care, why should they? Remember what Jesus said to his apostles: “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. I tell you solemnly, anyone who does not welcome the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (St Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 18, Verses 15-17).

Ultimately when we deflect attention from Jesus to our own comforts and needs, we can’t be close to Him. It may be more convenient, it may be more entertaining but if you’re missing the beauty and majesty of the Mass, it’s a clear sign that you’re not fully aware of what the core of our faith is. And I don’t blame you for that per se. We have an issue in the church with bad catechesis – or none at all. Many cradle Catholics go through life attending Mass and not really being sure why. But when we don’t behave well at Mass and when we deny Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, we’re stopping little children from seeing Jesus. We’re stopping our friends and neighbours, we’re stopping adults, we’re stopping the elderly, the sick, the needy. Do we really want to have to answer for the sin of denying God to others because our conversations just couldn’t wait for an hour? Are we really going to be able to explain to the Lord that clapping our way through a dance performance was really more important than listening to His words in the Gospel? And are we really prepared to stand before the Lord and tell Him that we didn’t see Him in the Eucharist because we just couldn’t be bothered to look? Make friends at church. Build a loving Christian community as we’re called to do. But in many cases, the Mass is being transformed into a secular variety show where Jesus is simply a guest star. And that’s something none of us should ever applaud.

General

So what are you giving up for Lent?

Has someone asked you yet? And what did you reply? Chocolate? Wine? Swearing? With Ash Wednesday less than two weeks away, the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics will have this question on their minds as we move forward into a penitential season in the liturgical year. Let’s get real from the start: Lent is not Dry January. We don’t give things up because we’re in competition with our friends, we don’t give things up to shrink our waistlines and we don’t give things up because someone else is doing the same thing. It might sound shocking to some but….did you know you don’t really have to give anything up for Lent at all? Well, almost. Most non-Catholics have heard of Catholics not eating fish on Fridays. This rule, once in force throughout the year, has now been relaxed to just the Fridays that occur within the season of Lent. We are called to abstain from meat as a penance. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we’re called to fast entirely as a penance. But what is exactly is a penance and why are we called to specifically make penance in Lent?

Imposition of Ashes
The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent.

Our Catholic ancestors were far more adept at this than we were. The medieval cook had three main jobs: to feed the household, to cure the household and to spiritually heal the household. It wasn’t just a case of roasting a few swans and slapping them down before the King. Doctors would offer advice on what should be eaten to balance a persons “humours” if they were unwell and courtiers would give their own opinions about what diplomatic or political message a particular feast should convey. But the most important advice of all came directly from the Roman Catholic Church and in practical terms, this meant that a “feast and fast” policy was imposed for all. For a third of the year, Catholics were told that they should abstain from meat and dairy products (which included eggs) and even when meat was allowed, it should be enjoyed sparingly. Fish was exempt but loopholes were often found by very creative cooks who served their masters whales, puffins….and even otters. Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were forbidden from eating meat on Fridays and were to fast before receiving the Eucharist on Sundays. This is not just silly tradition or strange local custom, rather it shows that we have always been aware of the importance in denying ourselves physical comforts in order to show our devotion to God. This isn’t unique to Catholicism of course but today, with the old regulations on fasting and abstinence radically changed in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s become commonplace for priests to have to remind us of our obligations when at one time it would not only have been second nature but also understood and respected.

There are many kinds of penance and we’ve touched on this subject briefly when discussing the rosary and confession (properly, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation). The Catechism describes penance as something which “raises us up from sin”.

“A penance can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbour, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices and above all the patience acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once and for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, ‘provided we suffer with him’.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1460

This relates to penances which can be given as part of absolution during the Sacrament of Reconciliation but it also applies to the penances we might consider as we approach Lent. Lent is a penitential season and demands that we go above and beyond to incorporate penance into our daily lives as a form of mortification. Mortification is simply a spiritual discipline that places our earthly desires second and our love for Jesus first in order to (as the Catechism says) “configure us to Christ”. Therefore, as we move into Lent we shouldn’t be thinking about what we’re going to lose but rather what we’re about to gain. Lent opens up an opportunity for us to come to know the Lord better and to offer up penances so that we may become more like Him. Now you see why I’m so down on chocolate as a penance! But more of that later. Firstly, let’s look at where the season of Lent can be found in scripture.

Temptation of Christ
The Temptation of Christ by Ary Scheffer, 1854.

Lent commemorates the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the desert after His baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, during which time the devil appeared to Him and tried to tempt Him three times. St Matthew relates the story:

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

2 He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which He was very hungry.

3 And the tempter came and said to Him “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves”

4 But He replied “Scripture says ‘Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'”

5 The devil then took Him to the holy city and made Him stand on the parapet of the Temple.

6 If you are the son of God, he said, throw yourself down for scripture says “He will put you in his angels charge and they will support you on their hands in case you hurt your foot against a stone’

7 Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says: You must not put the Lord your God to the test’.

8 Next, taking Him to a very high mountain, the devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour.

9 ‘I will give you all these’ he said, ‘if you fall at my feet and worship me.’

10 Then Jesus replied, ‘Be off, Satan! For scripture says: You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’

11 Then the devil left Him, and angels appeared and looked after Him.

The Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 4, Verses 1 – 11

It was after this time in the wilderness that Jesus gathered his disciples and began to preach to the people which would eventually lead to his betrayal, arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. A common misconception is that Jesus Himself was acting as a penitent during his time in the desert but this is not the case as Jesus was born without sin, could not sin and had no need of penance as we do. But Christ was never ambiguous and every action He took was an example to us of how we might come closer to God. Note that He knew He would be tempted in the desert by the devil and yet He still went. It wasn’t to prove His faith or His goodness, it was to experience another part of the human condition so that He could better prepare us. We are tempted every single day and even though we know what God wants of us, we still go into sin. By following Christ’s example of fasting and abstinence, two things occur. Firstly, we are tempted by the things we no longer have access to but secondly, we have an opportunity to prove our love of God and to prove our faith in Him by rejecting that temptation just as Jesus did in the desert. We willingly create our own wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, we deliberately open ourselves up to temptation but we do it to humble ourselves before the Lord with contrite hearts. We approach it penitentially.

At the start of this blog post, I mentioned the notion of not giving anything up for Lent. With all I’ve since said about fish on Fridays, medieval penances and opening the door to temptation, you may wonder how it’s possible not to give anything up and still reap the spiritual benefits of the Lenten season. Let’s be honest here. Who benefits if our Lenten penance is chocolate? Okay, maybe we might save the money we would spend on chocolate and donate it to a worthy cause when Lent is over. But how many people actually take their Lenten penance that far? Are you seriously thinking about Jesus or are you really thinking about your waistline? The same can be said of swearing (which we shouldn’t be doing anyway) or drinking wine. Though as a quick aside, whenever I hear someone saying they’ll give up wine for Lent, I’m reminded of that passage in St Luke’s gospel which says:

34 Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life, and that day will be sprung on you suddenly, like a trap.

35 For it will come down on every living man on the face of the earth.

36 Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.

Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 21, Verses 34 – 36

So maybe wine isn’t such a bad thing to abstain from for a while? Seriously though, when choosing a Lenten penance it’s always worth asking yourself the following if you’re going to offer a penance of voluntary self-denial: how does this thing keep me from God and will laying it down bring me closer to Him? And if it is such a terrible thing to keep you from God, why is Lent the catalyst for you giving it up when you could give it up at any other time of the year? This isn’t to diminish anyone’s sacrifices but at the same time, penance is such a serious thing and can have such wonderful rewards for us spiritually that we have to look further than just “giving things up”. Just as penance in the confessional brings us closer to God and the community of the Church, so should our Lenten penance. So what are good penances to choose for Lent? Well I have a few ideas and yes folks, you’ll still be able to eat chocolate.

  • The Rosary. Make your Lenten penance a commitment to pray the rosary every day, meditating on the life of Christ and seeking comfort in Our Lady.
  • Volunteer at the Church. Churches always need a spare pair of hands. Make a plan with your priest to do something constructive that will benefit the whole congregation during Lent whether that’s gardening, cleaning or just helping to make others feel welcome at Mass.
  • Donate your time as well as your money. All charities welcome contributions but we’re not about to buy our way through Lent. Offer to visit the elderly at a local nursing home where possible, volunteer to help a few nights a week helping the homeless or raise funds during Lent for a worthy cause.
  • Go the extra mile in prayer. Sometimes a quick Sign of the Cross and a Hail Mary before bed is all you really have time for but during Lent, set aside half an hour each day to spend time with God in prayer whether that be prayers you already know or prayers you may be unfamiliar with such as the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
  • Evangelise! What could be a better penance than telling people about the love of Jesus? Social media gives a brilliant opportunity to spread the good news as we’re called to do by Christ Himself. So for Lent, stop posting gifs and cat pictures and instead, share meaningful scripture or prayers.

In his 2013 Lenten message, Pope Benedict XVI called on us to “[rekindle our] faith in Jesus Christ, so as to enter with him into the dynamic of love for the Father and for every brother and sister that we encounter in our lives”. That’s the true meaning of Lent. The Church requires us to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to abstain from meat on Fridays during the season of Lent. The temptation is to see these things as unexplained tradition or inflexible regulations but they’re a form of penance the church is calling you to observe so that you can indeed enter into that “dynamic of love”. These penances remind us of the need to make our own and it may be that when we’re asked “What are you giving up for Lent?”, we don’t want to answer and that we want to make our own private penance that stays between us and God.

But however you approach it, penance isn’t and cannot be optional. With prescribed days for fasting and abstinence, that’s what Holy Mother Church is reminding us. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will lift you up” (James 4:10). As we approach Lent, don’t see it as a time of restriction, don’t turn it into something negative or inconvenient. Be realistic about the goals you set but most importantly, remember that this isn’t about winning points or proving how much willpower you have. It’s about submitting to the Lord’s will. It’s about showing your love for Him. And it’s about preparing ourselves for the days to come when we’ll celebrate His glorious resurrection which saved us all from darkness and sin. Whatever your penance this Lent, know that we’re all with you and better than that? So is Jesus.

General

What are Sacramentals?

This week marked an important anniversary in English history. On the 30th January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded at Whitehall following a humiliating (and some would argue unlawful) public trial. Most historians talk of this event as “ushering in 11 years of a republic” but in fact, what actually came after the regicide was 11 years of brutal dictatorship in which a sustained attack on Roman Catholicism played a huge factor. Those sympathetic to Cromwell, known as the Parliamentarians, were mostly Puritans and much of the background to the English Civil War had been based in their opposition to something called Laudianism. Named after the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, King Charles I and his most senior cleric in the Anglican communion had begun a process of reforming worship and refurbishing churches at great expense to the Crown. Altar rails (then found only in Catholic churches) were installed, altars were gilded and set with crucifixes and candles, stained glass replaced plain glass, statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the Saints began to appear and vestments worn by the clergy became more intricate. Cromwell and his minions regarded this as the not-so-subtle introduction of Catholicism and they laid the blame squarely with Charles I – or rather with his French born Queen, Henrietta Maria, herself a Roman Catholic. Charles lost his head and England lost religious freedom.

King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria
King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria.

 

When Cromwell became Lord Protector, he immediately dissolved parliament and became the absolute ruler he had hypocritically condemned Charles I for being. He became obsessed with eradicating ‘Laudianism’. It wasn’t enough that the poor Archbishop lost his head in 1645, anyone sympathetic to his reforms or any church which showed any sign of embracing them following the death of the King faced horrific consequences. People were put to death, churches were burned and laws were passed to undo everything Laud had done with the blessing of Charles I. Of course, like any good dictator Cromwell was a little insane. His puritanism knew no bounds, even going so far as to ban any public celebrations to mark Christmas – which included the singing of carols or the eating of mince pies. Cromwell would therefore be rolling in his grave to see churches throughout England today of many denominations, almost all of whom embrace the use of something we call sacramentals. In a recent post, I talked about the rosary and it’s importance as a spiritual guide to prayer but more generally, the rosary would be classed as a sacramental. Candles, crucifixes, even prayer books, which today we consider important to our every day faith, were the things of Cromwell’s nightmares and thankfully, England returned to her senses, restored the monarchy and the restrictions on the use of sacramentals were lifted. But what exactly are sacramentals? Why are they important?

Let’s start with the basics. The Catechism defines a sacramental as follows:-

Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments and various occasions in life are rendered holy.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1667

The Catholic Church recognises seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Penance and Reconciliation (Confession), the Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction). Sacraments are best described as outward signs of inward grace. That is, they confer the grace of the Holy Spirit on our soul through an action we take. We receive the grace of the Holy Spirit when we are married, when we confess our sins and are granted absolution, etc. But Sacramentals don’t have this power. Rather:

Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to co-operate with it. For well disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace, which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. From this source, all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed towards the sanctification of men and the praise of God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1670

So much like the rosary, sacramentals do not bring us spiritual rewards simply because we happen to own a set of beads or because we know how to say the prayers in the right order. The blessings that come from sacramentals come to us because of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, not because we bought a very expensive portrait of a saint or a thousand dollar crucifix. As the Catechism states, sacramentals should guide us towards Christ, His church and the sacraments, they shouldn’t replace the sacraments. As we’ve mentioned the rosary already, let’s stay with that as an example. The rosary itself (physically) is not a sacramental per se. A physical object to which we pay little attention cannot possibly bring us closer to Jesus. But when a rosary is used correctly, when we are sincere in the prayers we have been given and when we meditate on the life of Christ in the mysteries it contains? Then that rosary becomes a sacramental. A popular penance may be one or two decades of the rosary and with that penance comes absolution putting you back in communion with Christ and His church which will allow you to receive the Eucharist. The sacramental has played an important role in leading you to a sacrament. Got it?

Cristo Redentor
The Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A fairly large example of a sacramental!

Sacramentals come in various forms but they become commonplace because of something called popular piety. That is, popular devotions among the faithful. The Catechism recognises but not does limit sacramentals to: “relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, the rosary, medals, etc” (CCC 1674). The Church encourages this popular piety because; “[they] express an evangelical instinct and a human wisdom that enrich Christian life” (CCC 1679). In other words, if we have a picture of a particular Saint in our home, every time we see it we will be reminded of that Saint and their holiness. That encourages us to be more holy. We aren’t evangelised by the material object (in this case, a picture in it’s frame), we’re encouraged by the example the Saint depicted set for us. And again, we may then be led to the sacraments in order to receive grace which helps us on our journey to holiness just as they were. A popular criticism of Catholics is that we pray to statues or that we engage in idol worship. I can absolutely promise you, Roman Catholics do not pray to statues. Statues or other religious artwork are not the graven images condemned in the Ten Commandments, rather they are reminders and aids to help us focus our minds on Jesus, the Blessed Mother or a particular Saint who we then humbly approach in prayer for help and guidance. They are sacramentals.

Now we know what sacramentals are and why we make use of them, let’s look at few examples of sacramentals which you may well see in churches or in the homes of Catholic friends or family. This is just a brief overview and future posts will explain a little more about each one in more detail.

Relics

St Valentine's Relics
The relics of St Valentine, Bishop and Martyr, on display the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome.

Relics are controversial as over the centuries many unscrupulous types preyed on the piety of the poor and sold them “fakes”. If every shard of the true cross sold in the Middle Ages was genuine, you’d probably be able to fill a football pitch with the pieces. Every Catholic Church in the world has genuine relics in the building – specifically, within a small box that’s buried or set into the altar before it’s consecrated. This reminds us of the first Christians who used tombs as chapels and performed the consecration of the Eucharist above the bones (or relics) of holy people. The relics for new churches are gifted by Rome and a record is kept of which relics are stored in which parish. If you’re unsure what relics are included in the altar at your church, you can always ask the priest who will be able to find out for you – if he doesn’t know already! But relics are often still sold to the faithful outside of the Vatican’s reach and this can lead to problems.

On the whole however, most modern relics are simply pieces of cloth from the habit of a saint and many people like to buy reliquaries to display these in their homes as a mark of respect or love for the Saint the relic came from. Again, we never worship Saints but we do venerate them. Semantics maybe but it does make a difference and it’s why even now, we share a fondness and respect for relics that we share with our medieval ancestors who had a touch of relic-fever! There is a famous tale of a man in Germany being punished in horrific fashion after being caught selling finger bones as relics. Had his wares been genuine, St Dominic would have made history for being the Saint with 34 fingers on each hand. Buyers beware!

Rosaries

Pope Francis and Queen Mathilde
Pope Francis gifts a rosary to Queen Mathilde of the Belgians.

Click here to learn more about the rosary and I’ll also be providing a post on the Divine Mercy Chaplet in the near future but for the purpose of this entry on sacramentals, it’s worth noting that a rosary is only a sacramental when it’s used! You’re encouraged (though I understand it isn’t obligatory) to have your rosary blessed by a priest but naturally there’s a huge desire for rosaries blessed by the Holy Father and it’s no surprise therefore that the Pope gives special rosaries in white boxes to those who visit him at the Vatican. A rosary can be a very special thing invested with great sentiment. Some people have rosaries which have been in their families for decades, others have rosaries that cost very little but which they bought at a particular point in their lives that has a special significance for them. When buying a rosary, don’t get caught up in what it’s made from or how much it costs. Remember that it’s the prayers that mean most, not the material object itself. Rosaries are perhaps the most popular sacramental and you may even find that your parish gives them out on special days of the year as gifts but keep in mind – they’re encouraging you to pray the rosary, not to put it on the wall as a decorative item and forget about it!

The Scapular 

Mt Carmel Scapular
An example of a brown scapular of Our Lady of Mt Carmel.

A scapular is a garment most commonly worn by religious (monks and nuns) and serves as a reminder to the wearer that are called and committed to live a Christian life. The monastic scapular is usually brown, black or white and covers the shoulders to below the knees. But the devotional scapular is really what we’re referring to when we’re talking about sacramentals. Again, this is a devotional that has fallen out of favour in recent years but is making a very welcome come back. The devotional scapular consists of two pieces of brown cloth which are strung together and worn around the neck with one piece of cloth at the front and the other at the back.

On top of the cloth, you’ll find images of Our Lady of Mt Carmel because it was She who gave us the scapular and promised that whoever wore it would be led to salvation. Now I know what you’re thinking. That you can commit all kinds of sin but as long as you die wearing the scapular, you’ll be covered. Afraid not. The scapular is designed to remind you at all times that you are a child of God, that you are called to holiness and that you must put Christ first in all things. When wearing a scapular, it’s hard to forget that it’s there and don’t we all need a little reminder sometimes of our duty to live a Christian life? Scapulars come in different sizes, shapes and colours and some may even substitute the devotion to Our Lady of Mt Carmel for Divine Mercy or Sacred Heart scapulars but their purpose is the same. They remind you to bear witness to Christ through your words, thoughts and deeds. And as sacramentals go, I think they’re something that should be equally as popular as rosaries. Let’s pray that scapulars keep making a come back in our parishes.

Icons, Pictures and Statues

Alexei's Bedroom
An example of an icon corner in Russia’s Alexander Palace, in the bedroom of the Tsarevich Alexei.

Most of us will have pictures of Jesus, Mary or the Saints in our homes. The Eastern Orthodox will often have an “icon corner” in their home and will display icons alongside candles and flowers to show their devotion and piety. They are not only a reminder for the people who live there that they are called to follow the examples laid down by these holy people but also serve as a reminder to others entering the house that it’s a Christian home. The same may be said of statues or other artworks on a religious theme that we choose to decorate our homes with. Some of the most popular holy pictures are the Sacred Heart of Jesus portrait, a picture of the Virgin Mary or a framed photograph of the Pope. These are not so much furnishings as they are windows into holiness. They remind us that we are not alone on our journey in the Christian life and that those who inspired it and who were inspired by it can walk with us as we try to follow the same path. These types of sacramentals are visual reminders of our call to holiness but we must always bear in mind that they never take the place of Christ in our hearts – they lead us closer to Him.

Holy Medals, Holy Cards, Holy Water, Palms & Ashes

Palm Sunday
Christ’s entry into Jerusalem as depicted by Armadio degli Argenti. Note the palms under the colt’s hooves.

Holy Cards are small, pocket sized depictions of certain devotions or Saints which often come with “medals” enclosed. These medals are not worn as a military medal or civil honour might be, rather they are attached to a rosary or worn on a chain around the neck. St Christopher Medals are perhaps the best recognised among holy medals but almost every Saint canonised will have holy cards and holy medals associated with them. Holy Cards may also encourage us to ask for the intercession of those on the path to Sainthood and are often used to share the story of beatified individuals who may not be well known to us.

The last three items in this section are perhaps some of the best examples of sacramentals however because they so clearly demonstrate how sacramentals should be used. Holy Water is water which has been consecrated by a priest, predominantly for baptism, but which you’ll find available to you in fonts as you enter every Catholic Church. The faithful bless themselves with this water by dipping their fingers into it and making the Sign of the Sross as they enter before genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament. We do this to remind ourselves of our baptism but also, Holy water may also used during the Anointing of the Sick, appears during Catholic weddings and sometimes at the Mass where we celebrate the Eucharist. So you see the very evident link between sacramentals and the sacraments.

Palms & Ashes are not regular sacramentals in that you’ll only find them used at very specific times in the liturgical calendar. Crosses fashioned from palm leaves are usually blessed and given to the congregation on Palm Sunday when we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the back of colt. The people in Jerusalem celebrated His arrival into the city by waving palm branches and laying them on the ground before the Lord. This was an ancient custom designed to show the highest honour to a guest or visitor. Palms or Palm Crosses are taken away by the faithful and displayed at home until Ash Wednesday when they’re returned to the church and burned. It is the ashes from the palms used to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of Catholics at the Ash Wednesday Mass which we’ll all be attending in 12 days time and which we absolutely will not be skipping to attend Valentine’s Day dinners. Promise?

Whether it’s the rosary, a scapular or an icon, I hope this post has given you a little more insight into what sacramentals really are and why they’re so useful to us as Christians. There are many other forms of sacramental which maybe we’ll cover in another post at a later date but the most important thing to take away from this blog entry is this: Whether you’re a potential future member of the Church or whether you’re someone thinking about coming back into full communion with the Church; this isn’t about spending money. A person can fill their homes with holy pictures, statues, rosaries blessed by a whole succession of Popes, vestments worn by St Francis or St Benedict and consider themselves to be good Catholics. But unless you use those items to help fill your heart with the love of Jesus, you’re getting sacramentals wrong. The most fervent prayer said on simple wooden beads will be far more pleasing to the Lord than a rosary made from precious stones that’s never touched. It isn’t superstition, it isn’t pointless tradition. Sacramentals lead us to the sacraments. And the sacraments lead us to Jesus.

General

Angelica’s Generation: A Different Kind of Millennial

“What are we going to do about the other generation? How can we ever communicate without communication?”

These lyrics from Rodger & Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song were written in 1958 and yet they couldn’t be more apt for today. Back then, older people who had lived through the terrible privations of the Great Depression and two world wars suddenly faced an onslaught of rock and roll, miniskirts and teddy boys. The 1950s teenager was the first generation to have disposable income at a younger age and this arguably gave them an independence that led to the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As the older generation lamented the loss of traditional values, the younger generation became absolutely more determined to enforce their own progressive values and the generation gap widened into a huge social divide. The two generations simply stopped talking. Fast forward fifty years to 2018 and one could be forgiven for thinking that we are in exactly the same position. The teenagers of the 1950s are now the seniors of the 2010s and whilst they were full of reforming zeal in their early 20s, they cannot begin to understand the modern mindset of the so-called “snowflake generation”. There’s no communication.

Mother Angelica
Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, Foundress of EWTN.

We seem to be headed towards a real life Animal Farm whereby all of us are equal but some are more equal than others. “Millennials” proclaim a mantra of diversity and tolerance but this doesn’t extend to religious freedom or difference of political opinion. Why bother with a book when you can learn all you need to know from the Kardashians on Twitter? I’m being a little unfair and generalising here but it’s an undeniable fact that the younger generation today seem to be moving us into a left wing, progressive dystopian society where the unconventional is now upheld as undeniably conventional, where tradition is to be attacked and destroyed and where morality is easily distorted so long as it makes people feel better. In church terms, this may in actually fact be giving older liberal Catholics a reason to rejoice. Those who feel the Second Vatican Council “didn’t go far enough” or those who wish to see continued relaxation of the Catechism might feel that in their efforts to “modernise” the Church, they have a natural ally in the younger generation. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The younger generation will one day take control of the church and provide it’s priests, religious, bishops and even Popes for a very long time. They will set the narrative and fill the pews, making or breaking the faith for years to come. But older liberals beware; this isn’t just any young generation. This is Angelica’s Generation. 

Archbishop Fulton J Sheen’s Life Worth Living has soared in popularity recently. Copies of the TV talk show and the accompanying book are flying off the shelves. They’re in demand not from older traditionalists but from millennial Catholics. The Extraordinary Form of the Mass is returning to our parishes with a renewed zeal and who are the parishioners asking for kneelers to return so that they can receive communion in the time honoured fashion? The young. Some parishes are reporting that they’re even being “forced” to offer Eucharistic Adoration at 5 or 6am to allow young Catholics to attend before they go to their colleges or jobs. Younger Catholics are more likely to be staunch pro-lifers, they are more likely to study the Catechism and they’re more likely to embrace the Divine Office as a part of their daily lives. For some in the church, this was never how it was supposed to be. “Relaxing the Rules” was supposed to keep an indifferent youth loyal to the church by accommodating their progressive attitudes but this has backfired spectacularly. I know of at least one “moderniser” who was recently shocked to see two young women at Mass wearing chapel veils – of their own free will! What many in the church have overlooked is that secular millennials and Catholic millennials are poles apart. And they’re not communicating. How has this happened? I have a theory as to why.

Millennials are loosely defined as those born in the 1980s and 1990s who reached adulthood in the 21st century. This means that (in the West), they grew up in societies that enjoyed far more freedom than any of their forebears had known, whether that be economic, social or political. Greater access to higher education, greater access to free information and greater access to material goods produced a generation with unrivalled opportunities which would have astonished their great-grandparents. But in church terms, millennials were also the first generation to experience the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in full effect. The gradual adoption of the recommendations established at the council was, by 1980, almost fully complete and the papacy of Pope St John Paul II was in it’s infancy. Most millennial Catholics had never had any first hand experience of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the vast majority were no longer being encouraged by their parishes to approach devotionals such as the rosary or to accept the Catechism in it’s entirety.

The church as a whole was conflicted with open dissent against a conservative Pope springing up across America and parts of Europe. For those who wanted a more liberal church, the millennial generation was the answer to their prayers who would continue this activism and bring it to it’s natural conclusion regardless of whoever was sat in the Chair of St Peter. For traditionalists who wanted to see certain reforms reversed, the younger generation posed a threat. How wrong they both were! The truth is, the millennial generation in the church is shaping up to be one of the most conservative and traditional yet! This has come as such a surprise that it’s even been the focus of Papal concern. Pope Francis said in 2016 that the popularity of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass among the young confused him. He couldn’t understand why those who had not grown up with it felt such an attachment to it; “Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid”, he said.

The Tridentine Mass
The most popular form of the Mass among young Catholics? You guessed it…

The fact is that throughout the 1980s, something was happening in the world of Catholicism that has impacted more on millennial Catholics than any other. When EWTN was founded in 1981 by Mother Angelica in Birmingham, Alabama, many liberal voices in the church were deeply concerned by the traditional approach the network was taking. Mother was a thorn in their side, they said; “That means you’re doing Christianity right!”, replied Mother. What began as a handful of religious lectures amid old fashioned 50s programming suddenly began to grow and develop to include the Daily Mass, the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and all tied together with solid traditional Catholic teaching that put the Catechism first and liberal opinion……well……it simply didn’t feature. The 3 or 4 year olds who were delighted to be able to call in and ask Mother Angelica a question are now in their late 20s and early 30s and now they have EWTN on their phones as well as in their homes. This is the Angelica Generation who were able to form their opinions based on their own research when it came to matters of faith but who also had access to Catholic teaching which was (in many cases) being suppressed by liberal groups within the church. Millennial Catholics are the first generation to be able to “follow” Cardinals on social media, to be able to download encyclicals but also to make their voices heard via Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Arguably this is Mother Angelica’s biggest legacy to the Roman Catholic Church. She may not have set out to form a whole new generation of young Catholic warriors armed with certainty and zeal to uphold the magisterium but something tells me she’s beaming in heaven right now knowing that’s exactly what she did. By encouraging the growth of accessible Catholic media based in traditional teaching, Mother Angelica set an example which encouraged many other outlets to do the same and these have been the most important influences on young Catholics growing up.

Now of course, I’m not suggesting that young traditionalists today were all devoted ETWN viewers or that this achievement is Mother’s alone. But certainly at a time when EWTN was the only Catholic media organisation that was regular appearing in people’s living rooms, that had a vast and undeniable impact. American Conservative Catholicism has spread beyond the United States and on the whole, young Catholics are more likely to be pro-life activists, they’re more likely to demand more traditional catechesis and yes….they love the Extraordinary Form of the Mass! I can’t claim to have conducted a wide survey of millennial Catholics but for the most part, the responses as to why they are so traditional will usually include several familiar watchwords:

  • EWTN & Mother Angelica
  • Traditional thinkers on YouTube & Twitter
  • Cardinal Robert Sarah & Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke
  • Pope St John Paul II & Pope Benedict XVI
  • Greater access to traditionalist Catholic media sources outside of their home parish via the internet
  • Greater independence from a more liberal catechesis offered by their grandparents/parents generation 

But one word above all will always appear in their answers: truth. They feel concerned that the church is being attacked from within, that it’s going to lose what makes it uniquely and quintessentially Catholic. They want the opposite of what their secular peers are offering and they want a church which stands on tradition, establishment and conservative morality which stands opposed to a society based on anarchy, social experiment and a moral free for all. Short sightedly, the Vatican II generation have spent decades telling us that they want a more modern and liberal church because it’ll attract young people – but it isn’t! It’s actually pushing them away and young Catholics are far more likely to form action or pressure groups to force change in their parish in the opposite way to that which the older generation has been travelling. Indeed, the altar rail which was so loathed by many liberals in our church is now making a comeback and one parish in America has even reported that it caved to pressure not from old ladies in black mantillas but from a group of young people who petitioned their priest and raised funds to have it restored!

The argument against this theory of course is that there is still a lack of vocations. It is true that globally we face issues with a shortage of priests. The liberal response is to allow priests to marry or to ordain women. But look at the Church of England where church attendance has plummeted through the floor because parishioners simply didn’t want female ministers. The issue is not with young people who don’t want to be priests or religious. The issue is that they don’t feel they are welcomed in parishes which for too long regarded traditional conservative Catholics as an old-fashioned enemy to be silenced. My personal prediction is that within the next decade as millennials outnumber other generations in their parishes, we’ll see a demand and a return to a more traditional form of worship and with that will come renewed calls for “reform of the reforms”. Only this time, the church hierarchy will begin to shift as those millennials grow older and take over positions within the church. The Church isn’t going backwards, neither is it running out of time. It’s going forwards to a brilliant and bright future led by the young – it just isn’t the path most people assumed they would take. In that new environment where young people feel more secure and feel they have more ownership of their church, they will begin to consider vocation far more seriously. You wouldn’t become a surgeon if you were told you could only practise homeopathy. You wouldn’t become an architect if you were told you could never design a building. And you certainly wouldn’t become a priest if you were told that your spirituality, your calling, your commitment to the Catechism, was “backwards” or “old fashioned”.

Cardinal Sarah
Cardinal Sarah: A hero to many millennial Catholics.

The older generation of Catholics who viewed Vatican II as a bright new dawn have failed in their mission to liberalise the church. Now they have to accept that and work with the younger generation in a new way. Instead of trying to use them as modernising trojan horses, it’s time to listen to them and allow them to take the lead. And this is in fact what Pope St John Paul II encouraged when he initiated World Youth Day in 1985. Listen to the young, don’t assume their values or take decisions on their behalf. Our church will come under frequent attack in the years to come from secular millennials. It is the responsibility of all good, loyal Catholics therefore to stop telling Catholic millennials what’s good for them and start to listen to what it is they actually want.

Ironically, this is the very phrase so many modernists in the church used when they began to dismantle everything that was traditional. “Let’s stop with the Latin, the young don’t want that and the English translations are better for them”. “Let’s move the Blessed Sacrament to a side chapel, the young don’t care about adoration and it won’t be so imposing for them”. “Let’s forget about our stance on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, adultery, the young don’t want that and it will be more welcoming for them”. I’ve got news for you folks. All you did was bury everything that drew them to the church and connected them to their faith. And now they’ve become passionate archeologists, determined to restore what they’ve unearthed to it’s former glorious state. That’s to be encouraged, that’s to be welcomed, that’s to be celebrated.

I’ll leave the last word on this to Cardinal Sarah. Speaking about young people in the church and their reliance and preference for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, His Eminence had this to say:

To those who have doubts about this I would say: visit these communities and come to know them, most especially their young people. Open your hearts and minds to the faith of these young brothers and sisters of ours, and to the good that they do. They are neither nostalgic nor embittered nor encumbered by the ecclesiastical battles of recent decades; they are full of the joy of living the life of Christ amidst the challenges of the modern world.

Amen to that!

 

How to:

How to: The Rosary

When we think of saffron robes, we think of Buddhism. When we think of yarmulkes, we think of Judaism. And when we think of Catholicism, the rosary will almost certainly be up there with the Virgin Mary, the Pope and Mother Theresa. The rosary is so identifiably Catholic and yet we can find similar styles of prayer in the worship of Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims. In modern Greece, it’s not uncommon to see men using ‘worry beads’ or ‘kompoloi’ which have no religious connotations whatsoever and just a few years ago it seemed that every Viner and YouTuber had adopted rosary beads as a fashion accessory. Whether you think of the rosary as the string of beads that hangs down from Whoopi Goldberg’s belt in Sister Act or whether you think of it as the penance you hope you won’t be given after confession, I promise you that by the end of this post you’ll be reaching for those beads! It’s time for us to fall in love with the rosary and we’re going to start by seeking out it’s origins.

At the Museo Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini, frescoes were uncovered in the 1970s which depict every day life from around 1,600BC. One the frescoes depicts a woman using a string of beads to count her prayers and certainly structured repetitive prayer was a feature of both the Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman religions, as well as Judaism, around this time. With so few people being literate, it was the custom to teach a few prayers that could be recited often and to keep track of those prayers many civilisations encouraged the use of a rope with knots tied into it or a string of beads which could be counted off to ensure the correct number of prayers were said. Before my pentecostal brothers and sisters begin hollering about pagan worship and Matthew 6:7, I know! But before I come onto that, it seems prudent to explain what the rosary is not. The rosary is not a fashion accessory. The rosary is not anything to do with freemasonry. The rosary is not a secret devotion. As we have seen, this form of prayer came well before Christ’s birth and there’s nothing conspiratorial or secretive about today’s devotion either. The rosary is open to us all as a series of prayers through which we can grow closer to Jesus. Okay, okay….I’ll deal with Matthew 6:7 right now so we can move on.

One of the most popular criticisms of the Rosary from non-Catholic Christians comes from the Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus in Galilee. After delivering the Beatitudes, Jesus addressed other subjects including the law, almsgiving and charity. He told them:

5 And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward.

6 But when you pray, go to your private room and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

7 In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard.

8 Do not be like them; your father knows what you need before you ask Him.

Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 6, Verses 5-8

Now I haven’t been entirely fair here because more modern translations (I’m a Jerusalem 1966 sort of guy) do include the phrase repetitive prayer. You may even have seen the phrases “vain repetitions” or “heathen repetitions”. We need to look at the context of Christ’s teaching. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the rosary has ancient origins and what we know of pagan worship have been familiar to Jesus as something which He saw all the time in Roman-occupied Galilee. A common practice among Ancient Romans was to list the names of gods and goddesses which accompanied very public rituals in order to appease the various Roman deities which were worshipped by gentiles at that time. But Jesus also talks about the “hypocrites”, meaning those elders of the synagogues who were very public in their worship to prove just how holy they were. Remember “broader phylacteries” from from Matthew 23:5? “Vain” doesn’t appear in the 1966 Jerusalem bible translation but it’s actually a fairly accurate word to describe what Christ was warning us about. When we pray, we should pray with sincerity and with faith in our Father’s love and mercy. We shouldn’t say prayers to please others or to be seen to be holier than they are. We should say prayers because we want to praise God, first and foremost. I know for some this won’t be enough but if we pray the Our Father each day, are we not guilty of repetitive prayer? And yet that’s the very prayer Jesus gave us in Matthew 6:10-13 which we know we’re called to pray often. Therefore, it isn’t so much how we pray as how heartfelt our prayers are.

But the rosary is a prayer to Mary right? Not Jesus…..

The origins of the rosary we know and love today are traditionally said to have come from a visitation made by the Virgin Mary to St Dominic in 1214 but in fact, forms of prayer existed before the 13th century which we would recognise today as an early from of the rosary. It was commonplace for people to string beads together with a crucifix at the bottom and to use those beads to recite the Our Father or an early version of the Hail Mary. Prayed in Latin at the time, it was the Our Father that originally gave it’s name to these beads: The Paternoster. It was an extremely popular prayer that came to include the Our Father prayer and the Ave Maria as standard, finding it’s way into religious life across Christian Europe which at that time was undivided by Lutheranism. Marian devotions were equally widespread at this time. We know for example that King St Louis IX of France said 50 Ave Marias a day, kneeling for each as he prayed them aloud. It quickly became commonplace to use the Paternosters (the beads) to pray a number of Ave Marias; 150 to be exact. If you had visited any Christian home anywhere in the Holy Roman Empire in the 12th century, you’d probably have found people praying their Paternosters and Ave Marias using prayer beads with great fervour!

St Dominic
St Dominic receives the rosary from Our Lady holding the infant Jesus.

In 1214, St Dominic “invented” the rosary. I use that word because “invented” was how the rosary was first officially referred to by the Papacy – but we’re jumping ahead slightly. St Dominic had been gravely ill in a coma when the Virgin Mary appeared to him with three angels; “Dear Dominic, do you know which weapon the Blessed Trinity wants to use to reform the world?”, Our Lady asked. What answer would you have given?! Most examinations are hard but to be quizzed by the Queen of Heaven on salvation? Poor St Dominic! Our Lady said; “I want you to know that, in this kind of warfare, the battering ram has always been the Angelic Psalter which is the foundation stone of the New Testament. Therefore if you want to reach these hardened souls and win them over to God, preach my Psalter”. But what was the Angelic Psalter? St. Louis De Montfort explained this in his book ‘The Secret of the Rosary’. Angelic refers to the salutation given to Mary in the Gospel of St Luke (“Hail Mary, Full of Grace…”) whilst the Psalter referred to the Psalms. What Our Lady was asking of St Dominic was to come up with some kind of prayer that would form a powerful spiritual weapon against the threat to Christendom that existed at that time. What he designed was the Rosary.

The Rosary is not so much a collection of prayers that are repeated, rather it is a powerful meditation on the life of Christ. St Dominic designed ‘decades’ comprising of ten Ave Marias but the Hail Mary isn’t the only focus we have when we pray the rosary. Instead, each decade was assigned “a mystery” and there were three “themed” sets: the Joyful, the Sorrowful and the Glorious mysteries. In the Joyful Mysteries, we focus on the birth and early life of Jesus; the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. In the Sorrowful mysteries, we focus on the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion. And for the Glorious mysteries, we focus on the Resurrection, the Ascension of the Lord, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Assumption of Our Lady and the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven. There are also Luminous mysteries but before we get to those, I wonder if you see the link between the original Paternoster and the new “rosarium” instituted by St Dominic? A full rosary prayed with all three sets of mysteries will give you 150 Hail Marys which links us directly to the early form of devotional prayer used by many Christians in medieval Europe and using beads as a devotional tool links us with the Desert Fathers who prayed in that way in the 3rd and 4th centuries. We’ve come full circle!

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The rosary carried to her execution by Mary, Queen of Scots.

So why ‘rosarium’? Why not paternoster? Marian symbology had long seen roses used to signify the Virgin Mary and not only appears in medieval Christian art but also appears regularly in the biographies of Saints such as St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Rita of Cascia. ‘Rosarium’ means ‘garden of roses’, that is, many Hail Marys. Over time, ‘rosarium’ became rosary. The Rosary first gained Papal attention in 1569 when Pope Pius V acknowledged and praised the devotion in a papal bull. By 1573, Pope Gregory XIII had established a feast day for the Rosary within the liturgical calendar (October 7th) and from this point on, the rosary became not only approved but encouraged by Rome. In the centuries that followed, the rosary was adapted slightly by successive pontiffs but it’s origin was also hotly debated. Even today, some doubt the traditional origin story that it was revealed to St Dominic but that’s a debate for another time. The next important step for the rosary came in 1917 in a little village in Portugal called Fátima.

It was here that the Virgin Mary made a series of visitations to three children; Sister Lucia and Sts Francisco and Jacinta de Jesus Marto. Our Lady constantly referred to the rosary in her visitations and asked the children to pray it every day. She promised peace and an end to the Great War and referred to herself as “the Lady of the Rosary”. In 1925, Sister Lucia received another visit from Mary. This time, Our Lady said;

You at least try to console Me and announce in My name that I promise to assist at the moment of death, with all the graces necessary for salvation, all those who, on the First Saturday of five consecutive months shall confess, receive Holy Communion, recite five decades of the Rosary, and keep Me company for fifteen minutes while meditating on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, with the intention of making Reparation to Me.

We’ll explore Fátima in more detail in a future blog post but for now, we can learn something extremely important that can make our lives as Roman Catholics more fulfilled by focusing on those words alone. The Rosary in this case formed a pact not just between the three children of Fátima and Our Lady but between ALL Catholics and Our Lady. But it’s important to note that even though the rosary is the primus inter pares of Marian devotion, it is not ‘Mary worship’ or placing the Virgin Mary before her Son. Catholics do not worship Mary. We do not pray to Mary. We ask for her intercession on our behalf and we unite our prayers with her own. She is our heavenly mother and we wish to honour her but also, to seek refuge and comfort in that maternal love which she offers freely and which Jesus Himself encouraged us to do. On the Cross, Jesus reminded those at this crucifixion; “Behold your mother”. What has this got to do with the rosary I hear you ask? Well, for many years the rosary was disavowed by some Catholics who listened to Protestant complaints about the devotion suggesting that it was indeed “Mary Worship” and that it deflected attention from Christ. This is false.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prays the rosary.

When Jesus willingly accepted his passion and died on the cross for our sins, He made a monumental sacrifice for us. Remember that those present at His crucifixion had no idea that He would rise from the dead and appear to them at this point in time and so by saying “Behold your mother”, Jesus was giving them a comforter and supporter until His resurrection. But at the crucifixion, though they may have sought solace in Mary, their attention would naturally have been on Jesus as he was dying on the cross. This is especially true of the Rosary. Whilst it honours Our Lady and whilst we take comfort in Her, we never take our focus from Christ and neither are we instructed to. We simply seek that same comfort and support in Our Lady until Christ comes again. By meditating on the mysteries, mysteries which are entirely based on the narrative of His life, how could we possibly be distracted from the Saviour? This was reaffirmed by Pope St John Paul II when he instituted a new set of mysteries: the Luminous mysteries. These are: the Baptism of the Lord, the Wedding of Cana, the Proclamation of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration and the Institution of the Eucharist. If all 20 mysteries are prayed? We travel with Jesus from his birth to his death to his resurrection and in that way, we are brought closer to Jesus through Mary just as we were when Our Lady first accepted the news Gabriel brought her that she would bear a son and that son would be the saviour of all mankind. It’s an overwhelming thought when one looks at a simple string of beads but that is what the rosary truly represents.

So the next time your penance is a decade or two, remember that it isn’t simply a repetitive vain prayer to be rattled through to tick a box. The rosary is a gift from your mother in heaven. She wants to bring all souls to her Son, she wants to guide you on your journey, she wants you to receive the graces that come from prayer. Because what else is prayer but spending time with the Lord? And couldn’t we all afford to do that a little more? And whilst the rosary is most assuredly a Catholic devotion, it’s open to all who accept Jesus in their hearts. Don’t miss out on the wonderful blessings that can come from praying the rosary because you have misgivings or because you’ve been told negative things about it. As I hope this post has proved, the rosary is something that can heal your soul and comfort your heart. Spend a little time with Jesus today.

For more information on how to pray the rosary, you can download this PDF file made available by Our Sunday Visitor.

To purchase a rosary, I can recommend the EWTN Religious Catalogue which you can find by clicking here.

I also recommend ‘We Pray the Rosary’ (With prayers in Latin and English) which you can find here.

Catholic History, General

The Authority of Encyclicals & Amoris Laetitia (Again!)

If you follow Catholic news sources and bloggers on social media, you will no doubt be aware of the power two latin words have assumed in causing division and misunderstanding, resentment and even disillusionment. Those two little words are, of course, Amoris Laetitia. This is the title of a 2016 encyclical issued by Pope Francis on the theme of marriage and family life. Putting aside the disagreements on the document for a moment, it seems prudent to first ask ourselves: what exactly is an encyclical and what is the extent of their authority?

Since the church began, there have been bitter disagreements over doctrine. A very early example would the Arian Controversy of the 3rd/4th Century. Arius was a Libyan priest who held the belief that whilst Jesus was undoubtedly the Son of God, he is in fact distinct from the Father and therefore his subordinate. The vast majority of the church at that time believed in the doctrine of the trinity but Arius was not without his supporters and eventually, a council had to be formed. In Nicaea in AD 325, the Emperor Constantine convened a gathering of clergy and asked them to hold a series of debates which would then form a binding resolution for all Christians to follow without any doubt as to their legitimacy. Spoiler Alert: Arius lost. When we say the Nicene Creed at Mass, we are declaring the beliefs which were the resolution of that council – so as you can see, such declarations tend to last for quite some time.

Niceaen Council
The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

With each century comes a new challenge. Schism and Martin Luther, the Industrial Revolution, Socialism, Twitter. These things were (and are in some cases) the Arian Controversies of their day and the church has to have some kind of outlet to address them in a considered way which not only makes it clear to the faithful what we’re called to do about them as Catholics but also to give us some kind of spiritual guidance to make that call achievable in practical terms. We believe that the Pope in Rome is the Vicar of Christ, the Successor to St Peter, and with that position comes the awesome responsibility of setting a position for the Catholic Church to take when new issues arise. Before 1740, Popes would issue something called a “bull”, a sealed document which was circulated to the clergy to inform them of a decision the Pope had reached. These range from a Papal Bull issued by Pope Nicholas II in 1059 making Cardinal-Bishops the sole electors of the papacy to a Papal Bull issued in 1950 by Pope Pius XII which defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. But bulls are intended to be brief resolutions and they offer very little opportunity for a Pope to actually impart his knowledge, his beliefs and his personal revelation or inspiration to the faithful. So in 1740, the very first encyclical appeared. Issued by Pope Benedict XIV it outlined the duties of Bishops and is still very much considered to be in effect.

Does that mean therefore that an encyclical carries so much authority with it that we are absolutely bound to it’s teaching? Does it become a non-negotiable issue or is it simply the opinion of the Pontiff which we are free to agree with or disagree with so long as we remain obedient to the office he represents? Perhaps we need an encyclical clearing up the authority of encyclicals?! Fortunately, we have one in the shape of Humanis Generis, issued by the Venerable Pius XII. He had this to say on the matter:

It is not to be thought that what is set down in Encyclical letters does not demand assent in itself, because in this the popes do not exercise the supreme power of their magisterium. For these matters are taught by the ordinary magisterium, regarding which the following is pertinent: “He who heareth you, heareth Me.” (Luke 10:16); and usually what is set forth and inculcated in Encyclical Letters, already pertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their acts, after due consideration, express an opinion on a hitherto controversial matter, it is clear to all that this matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a question of free discussion among theologians.
Humanis Generis, Pope Pius XII, August 12th 1950

To clarify then, Pope Pius XII suggested that an encyclical formed a binding resolution in answer to a theological question but it did not mean that the faithful were automatically expected to assent to that resolution. Most encyclicals would, the Pope believed, relate to existing doctrine and would only serve to clarify a familiar position but when new opinions were introduced, an encyclical could provide an insight into what the Pope of the day believed to be true. And if the Pope believes something to be true, aren’t we then called to accept it as truth too? Well, yes and no. Whilst we are to respect the contents of encyclicals and whilst they provide unique clarity into the personal teachings of a Pope – that’s all they really are. Personal teachings. They don’t form part of the ordinary magisterium of the church BUT papal authority demands that if a Pope issues an encyclical on a particular issue, the contents of that encyclical should be taken as pretty firm guidance on what the Pontiff would like us to do. So….what if we all just ignored an encyclical? If they’re not binding, what’s the point?

The fact is that Popes are busy people. They rely on encyclicals to impart spiritual advice, guidance and teaching to the faithful and we’re expected to be humble enough to accept that those encyclicals contain truth and should therefore form the basis of our own approach to a particular subject. Let’s take one of my personal favourites as an example. Rerum Novarum was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. His Holiness saw a world torn apart by civil unrest and the rise of extreme and dangerous ideologies. Because he loved us as our Holy Father, Leo XIII issued an encyclical in which he condemned both socialism and laissez faire capitalism as evils. Both, he said, were inspired by envy and greed respectively and therefore would lead Catholics away from God. And personally? I agree with every word. But there are Catholics who would identify themselves as socialists, who vote for socialist parties and who would simply discount Rerum Novarum as an antique document authored by a deceased Pope they never knew. What encyclicals lack therefore is infallibility.

Pius IX
Pope Pius IX who issued Ineffabilis Deus in 1854.

The authority of the Pope to speak ‘ex cathedra’ is a very ancient aspect of Catholicism which had always proved controversial. At the First Vatican Council in 1869, the dogma was finally set in stone when it was decreed that by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine defined by the Pope should be considered ‘ex cathedra’ or ‘from the teacher’s chair’. In other words, with full authority and infallibility. It cannot be opposed, it cannot be rejected, it becomes part of the ordinary magisterium as if it had always been there. *Most* encyclicals do not carry papal infallibility but there are some very famous examples. Perhaps the best known would be Ineffabilis Deus (Ineffable God) issued by Pope Pius IX which pronounced that the Virgin Mary had been immaculately conceived and was born without sin so as to allow her only son, Jesus, to also be born without the stain of original sin. This was not a personal opinion of Blessed Pius IX. It was divinely inspired revelation. It was fact. It became canon. No Catholic may deny it’s legitimacy, no Catholic may question it’s truth. Tu es Petrus.

No encyclical has been designated as being an infallible teaching since 1870 but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a possibility. In the Amoris Laetitia controversy, you may have taken note of the fears some people have that Pope Francis may well choose to speak ex cathedra on the issues he raised in that encyclical simply because it’s reception has been (on the whole) negative. I am not here to discuss the repercussions of such a move, nor am I going to give any personal opinion (yet) on Amoris Laetitia. But the reaction to the 2016 encyclical is important because it raises a very old debate: are we called to accept encyclicals as binding even though they are not infallible? This is something many Bishops are asking the Holy Father. They say they need a clarity that is missing from the original document and that they don’t understand how the encyclical should be enforced…if it should be enforced at all. On the other hand, the Pope reminded us today of Blessed Paul VI’s warning that tradition is not a legitimate defence for disobedience. I feel slightly uncomfortable with that statement given the unique circumstances of this particular encyclical – as do many others. But there is a danger here that our concerns, however understandable or legitimate, may lead us to error.

We cannot be so full of pride that we raise ourselves above someone whom God has placed in authority over us because we feel we know better. Neither can we resent or foster feelings of anger towards somebody because of their opinion. There is no compassion in that approach, whether the person giving the opinion is the Pope, Queen Elizabeth II or the paper boy. When encyclicals spark debate instead of resolving it as Pope Pius XII suggested, it’s only natural that feelings will get hurt and people will be fearful because of things they may not be able to understand. And we must face the possibility that some encyclicals may, on reflection, have flaws within them. But I cannot decide what those flaws are for myself. I must submit to those who are in positions of authority because that is what I am called to do, however hard it may be. Obedience isn’t about submission, it’s about trust. When I was created, God had a plan for me. He knew what I would be called to and he knew whether I would accept that call or not. And that’s the same for us all. So if we truly accept that the Pope is the successor of St Peter, if we sincerely respect his office and believe Him to have been granted that office by the power of the Holy Spirit then we must accept that to be a part of God’s plan. We may not understand or comprehend that plan, how could we? But our faith in God sustains us, our trust in the Lord must sustain us.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI signs his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

So in practical terms, what do encyclicals actually mean for a faithful and obedient Catholic? Firstly, they demand our respect. These are the writings of exceptional men of great knowledge, wisdom and authority. Whilst they may not form part of the ordinary magisterium, they can go some way to help form our conscience and the way we relate to the challenges of modern life just as they have helped our ancestors deal with the challenges they faced in their time. Encyclicals matter. But secondly, they should be seen as a personal call to spiritual growth through education and prayer. Supporters and detractors of Amoris Laetitia have given passionate pleas and both come from a place of sincerity but I have seen all kinds of strange justifications given as to why this document is to be regarded as infallible and equally, I have seen some fairly odd evidence submitted as to why this document is heretical. On both sides, there is a lack of understanding (not unexpectedly given the lack of clarity in the document itself) but also, a lack of focus. Our eyes must forever be on Christ. That doesn’t mean we stay silent but it does mean we offer our opinion with humility and with love as He would expect.

When all else fails, we know that God will never leave us. Whatever trials we may face, whatever tribulations may come, we know that He will walk with the faithful – always. Let’s repay that awesome promise by seeking refuge in His wisdom, His mercy and His love. We could spend our entire lives torn apart from our brothers and sisters or we could seek to serve the Lord by respecting our differences and accepting what we have in common – we are all children of the Father, looking to Him for guidance first and foremost. Popes come and go. Some leave behind a remarkable legacy and are canonised amid great celebration. Others fade away into history and are simply a name on a chronology. Their contributions however, whether that be encyclicals or whether that be simple acts of charity and kindness, live on. They form a shining example of how we can come to Christ through the majesty of His church. Whatever our personal views, fears, anxieties and sureties, we can be certain of one undeniable and unchangeable fact which Christ Himself imparted to us:

31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels then he will take his seat on the throne of glory.

32 All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats.

33 He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.

34 Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.

St Matthew, Chapter 25, Verses 31-34