General

A Bump in the Road

This summer, I took my annual vacation to Austria. I’ve been going to the same city, from the same airport, in the same month for the past 8 years. What can I say, I’m a creature of habit! I packed my case, I booked my taxi to the airport and assumed I’d be sat in my favourite restaurant by 7pm with a tall glass of cold beer and a steaming plate of delicious spätzle. Naturally everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong! First, the taxi was late. Then the check in desk computer went down. After that, the flight was cancelled after a four hour delay and I found myself on a plane to Germany instead with a promise of a “really quick train transfer across the border at the other end”. I finally arrived at my hotel in Austria at a quarter to midnight feeling more than a little tense. But despite the shaky start, I had a wonderful holiday in my favourite city and pretty soon I forgot about the stress and the frustrations of that first day. As the poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry” and in life, we often think we have things under control only to find that something happens and we’re left feeling a lost.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve faced exactly that situation and sadly, it’s been within my RCIA course. I had assumed that I’d complete the course at my local parish, be received into the church at Easter and could start to live my life as a happy and contented Roman Catholic in a congregation that I knew, liked and felt comfortable in. Unfortunately, my assumptions were wrong. Before I go any further, I want to stress that this post isn’t designed to shame anybody or to set one group above another. But in the despair of feeling totally lost, I looked around online at the experiences others were having in their own RCIA programmes and it seems that my experience isn’t exactly unique. There are big issues with RCIA and sadly, the result seems to be that many just walk away. Having said that, others couldn’t be happier in their parishes and many complete a course that they loved so much they take an active part in the following year. For some, RCIA is a wonderful experience. For others, it’s painfully difficult. The variation from parish to parish can be stark and really it comes down to what resources your parish has to hand. Priests do their best but sometimes there just isn’t the time, money or interest to invest in anything long term. Many have to rely on volunteers to lead their RCIA courses and so it becomes a bit of a lottery as to what sort of catechist you’ll actually end up with.

In my case, things started well and I don’t doubt the good intentions of the course director (who wasn’t our priest) but they quickly descended into something deeply concerning. It all began a month or so ago when a guest speaker was invited to talk to my group about the history of the church. Up until that point, the classes had been pretty ecumenical. There had been no mention of anything particularly Catholic and I think that was because in the inquiry stage of RCIA, people are still working out why they’ve enrolled and what they really believe. A slow introduction to anything new is usually a good idea and so it wasn’t particularly concerning that we hadn’t heard much in the way of Popes, Saints or the Catechism. But at this particular lecture, things changed pretty quickly. We heard about the early days of the church, the beginnings of the modern Catholic Church and the schisms that had occurred over time. And then the lecturer dropped a sentence that caused a few concerned looks from my fellow classmates: “And if the church isn’t careful, it’ll end up with another one on it’s hands”. What followed was a passionate diatribe on the evils of the pre-Second Vatican Council church. The Latin Mass was “cold, unfriendly and alienating”, altar rails were “quite frankly pathetic”, confessionals were “prison cells”. It was explained to us that “Before the council, the church only cared about sin. Now we don’t focus on it. It’s about community”.

Of course, we could debate that statement for decades and never reach an agreement so I want to quickly fast forward to give you an idea of other statements that were made by both the guest speaker (who became a frequent visitor) and by the course director who was basing much of the course material in resources written by the guest speaker. “The curia is alien to us, what is says isn’t really relatable anymore”. “We’re all equal so why can’t we just ordain women?”. “Same sex marriages in churches are inevitable so what’s the issue?”. One that particularly raised my blood pressure significantly was, “We really need a third Vatican council to get rid of these silly traditionalists. They just hold us back”. Based on questions I’d asked or statements I’d offered in group discussions, I’d pretty much been branded as “too conservative” and “too traditional”. So by this point, with the political agenda stepping up a gear, I naturally began to feel extremely unwelcome. Classes became a chore. I’d return home in a foul temper, unable to pray, unable to concentrate on anything but what I saw as an assault on truth. I couldn’t stick my head in the sand any longer. I had a difficult decision to make.

I could have bitten my tongue and carried on. I would have been received into the church at Easter and then I could have found a new parish that was far more orthodox in it’s approach. But reception into the church is a monumental step in a persons life. For me personally, it will be the happiest day of my life and something I’ve longed for for two years. The church in which I worship should feel like home. And I didn’t feel comfortable in being baptised and confirmed in a parish which had made it pretty clear that there was a very different agenda to follow and that I’d be expected to toe the line or keep quiet. It was a painful decision but this week, I sourced a new parish and met with the priest there. I explained the situation and I was shown so much kindness and understanding that it felt as if a huge weight was being lifted from my shoulders. Not only did the priest reassure me that I was right to have such concerns, he made arrangements for me to join the RCIA programme he leads and promised me that it wouldn’t affect my reception into the church at the Easter Vigil 2018.

So I want to stress to people who face difficulties as I did with their own RCIA journey that what you find at one parish, may not be the same as what’s being offered at another. Your first step should be to talk to your priest and explain your concerns but sometimes (as in my case), this isn’t always possible. Parishes have their own politics, allegiances and friendships. Being outside of the church, it can feel disrespectful or pushy to weigh in with your concerns. But if your priest isn’t receptive to your comments (and most absolutely will be, I promise you), then you have alternatives. It may not be as convenient in terms of it’s location but nobody said this would be an easy process. Speak to other priests in your diocese, try other courses until you find one that’s right for you. Obviously you can’t just switch up every time someone says something questionable and what I’m advising here is for those in the worst case scenario as I found myself to be in. But our church is blessed to have so many wonderful priests and they have dedicated themselves to helping people, to supporting them, to comforting them. That goes for you too, regardless of whether or not you’ve been baptised or confirmed yet. Priests want to help. Take the offer.

We all experience bumps in the road but our dedication to what we know is true and right cannot waiver. As the Gospel of St John tells us:

6 If we say that we are in union with God while we are living in darkness, we are lying because we are not living the truth.

7 But if we live our lives in the light, as He is in the light, we are in union with one another.

There are always going to be disagreements and differences of opinion but we know what we’re called to and we know what’s expected of us. We have to stand up for what is right and sometimes, that means stepping away from what’s popular. As Pope St John Paul II said, “The truth is not always the same as the majority decision”. Take courage in your faith. Remember that you’re not just fighting for yourself, you’re making a stand for Jesus who must be the focus of our entire lives. Speak with humility and charity, never be boastful or full of pride. But never be forced into accepting something you know to be wrong. Ultimately, it’ll simply lead you away from God and not closer to Him. Our church has seen some wonderful valiant truth seekers – and truth tellers. Follow in their example. If the journey you had in mind is interrupted, don’t be discouraged. It’s a test of your faith and it won’t be the last one you’ll ever experience. During this difficulty, I took great comfort in Our Lady. A mother always wants whats best for her children so ask her to help you and she will. “Mother, I’m struggling”. That’s all it takes. I pray that each and every one of you enjoys your RCIA programme, that it’s joyous and truthful and that it leads you home to Jesus.

General

Charity begins at Church

I often think that it would be so much easier to be holy if I lived on a desert island surrounded only by tropical blooms and the odd crab. There’d be no rude sales assistants to test my patience, no gossip to test my love and certainly no criticism to test my faith. I could pray my rosary, I could be at one with God in the silence of solitude and all would be rosy in the garden – well….on the island. Except that in actual fact, I’d find just as many challenges there as I would in my busy urban parish. Faith is something we hold to be an internal virtue and whilst that is often challenged by external circumstances, the strength of our faith comes from how steadfast we can be in times of trial. That is, we may still go to Mass when we have a broken leg but do we really want to be there? Are we just going through the motions so that we appear holy or are we really finding joy in the Lord in our hearts?

If you’re a regular church goer then I can say with 99.9% certainty that there’s somebody in your congregation you don’t like. You may not even know them that well but they just have a way of setting your teeth on edge. Maybe it’s the woman with the awful singing voice who tries to make up in volume what she lacks in tune. It could be the tall man who insists on sitting in front of you even if the rest of the pew in front is empty. Or maybe it’s more serious than that. Maybe it’s someone who consistently challenges you on your views or beliefs, a die hard traditionalist or a wishy washy liberal who sees their way as the only way. On the outside, you still smile at them and shake their hands but inside they just drive you crazy. To a casual observer, you might do everything to make it appear that you like the individual in question (and I know you’ve already got a picture of them in your mind) but if they could hear your thoughts, would they still get the same impression? If you do have someone at church you don’t much care for – thank God for them! You might not feel it now, but they’re actually a walking spiritual opportunity. They are an embodiment of your call to charity.

I know what you’re going to say. You chip in to the collection each week, you give to WorldVision or CAFOD regularly, you’re a charitable person. But that isn’t what we mean by the virtue of charity. According to the Catechism:

1822 Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.

1823 Jesus makes charity the new commandment. By loving his own “to the end,” he makes manifest the Father’s love which he receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive. Whence Jesus says: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” And again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Charity is also one of the three theological virtues which the Catechism defines as “the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it it’s special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being. There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. (Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, Part Three, S. 1, Ch. 1, Article 7, II. 1813). The words that stand out here are “pledge” and “action”. When I become a Christian, when I accept the call to holiness, when I welcome Christ into my heart I am making a pledge. I pledge that I’ll live faithfully to His teaching so that I can be closer to Him but a pledge alone isn’t enough. I have to do something about it. I have to try not to sin which takes me away from Jesus, I have to try to be compassionate, I have to try to be forgiving, I have to try to be loving – in other words, I have to walk the walk rather than just talking the talk. I have to meet intentions with actions.

Charity is love in action. When we give money to a good cause, we do so out of love for our neighbour. We want to improve their lives and make them happier. And that’s wonderful. But how much charity do we show the tall guy at church or the woman who can’t sing? If you’re sitting at Mass thinking “I wish she’d just shut up”, you’re not being charitable. If you’ve taken against someone because of a statement they made or a promise they broke, you’re not being charitable. And sometimes it takes remarkable effort and self-control to try to be kind to those who maybe aren’t kind to you but that’s what Jesus asks us to do. In the Lord’s prayer, we ask that we be forgiven our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. I don’t know if taking up a pew with a gym bag is particularly a trespass against me personally but I shouldn’t be irritated by that even if I disapprove. I shouldn’t spend the rest of the Mass quietly bubbling away with resentment. In my uncharitable thoughts, I’m moving away from Jesus – quite literally in this case. My resentment of someone else at Mass breaks my concentration and I don’t reflect on the joy of being in the real presence of Jesus.

The Apostles sometimes struggled with charity. St Paul had a bit of a temper and there are several places in scripture where the Apostles show they aren’t quite as welcoming as they could be. But they always see the error of their ways and they come to holiness by showing charity – because they knew that love is the basis of all Christian belief. So how do we practically show charity when we find ourselves challenged by someone we’re called to love? Sometimes it’s as simple as not gossiping about someone or trying to let go of the little things that someone does which irritate us. We focus on their strengths and their kindnesses and we try to show them the same. But sometimes it’s so much harder. When someone offends or upsets us, however unintentionally, it can be hard to put aside our hurt and to try to see them as friends or neighbours. But this is what Jesus is calling us to. We have to try as best we can to see them through His eyes. We have to love them as He does.

If you know someone is struggling to pay their bills but you don’t consider them a friend, take them some food. If someone says something that hurts you very deeply, don’t respond with anger but rather keep them in your prayers and ask the Lord to be with them. If someone is the victim of gossip, don’t pass it on and tell others that it’s unkind to spread rumour. These are the actions we’re called to make if we’ve pledged our lives to Christ. This is true charity. And in this way, we’re being truly holy because even though it may not always go appreciated, even if we never get a thankyou or a kind word, we know in our hearts that we’re living according to God’s word. The road to holiness is a bumpy one but just think of our final destination. If it’s a choice between spending all eternity in abject misery and grief in the fires of hell or putting up with the lady with the bad singing voice sitting next to you on your cloud? I know where I’d rather be!

General

Obedience: A Universal Calling

“If John told you to jump in front of a train, would you?!”

When I was a small child, my grandparents had a cold frame in the garden. It was a bit of an eyesore to be honest, thrown together by my grandfather from old planks of wood and irregular panes of glass he’d reclaimed from the dismantled greenhouse. One afternoon, I was playing in the garden when my cousin John told me with all the sincerity a ten year old can muster that he had learned a magic trick. He could make things disappear. Now I was only five but I smelled a rat.

“No it’s true!”, John insisted, “Look, I’ll show you. You take this broom and push it through the cold frame and I’ll say the magic words and the glass will disappear”

“Yeah but how will you get the glass back?”

“Magic”

Sounded reasonable. I dutifully picked up the stick, aimed it at a pane of glass and waited for the magic words. And we all know how this story ends don’t we? With shards of broken glass all over the ground and a very angry grandmother who asked me, “If John told you to jump in front of a train, would you?!” – I admitted that I probably wouldn’t but how many of us heard the very same line of reasoning from our own frustrated parents? In breaking the glass, I’d forgotten that I should have been obedient to my grandparents who had always told us to leave the cold frame alone. It was for our own safety and yet, we thought we knew better. John lied to gain my trust and in my curiosity, I broke the rules and got into trouble as a result. Are you doing the same thing in your relationship with God?

We all know that religious take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their obedience is to those who have been placed above them, who have a responsibility to keep them safe and healthy but their obedience is first and foremost to God and to His will. “Yeah but….I’m no religious” – maybe not. But you don’t all have to tie a knot in our belts and take a formal vow to be obedient. Your calling may not be to take holy orders but you are absolutely called to obedience just the same. Obedience to your parents, obedience to the Church, obedience to God. We accepted that call when we accepted the Lord and promised to do His will. It may be hard, it may make us curious about what life would be if we called the shots and sometimes we may find that obedience tested to the very limit – but we can never lose sight of the fact that we are commanded to love God and to obey Him in all things. As Cardinal Arinze once said, “It isn’t about breaking church law – it’s about breaking divine law”. In other words – God comes first.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how Peter and John healed a lame man in the name of Jesus. Many questioned their authority to do this but their authority came from God. Jesus said, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church” (not community, sorry New Jerusalem Bible readers) and Peter accepted that ministry (eventually!) because he respected God’s will. He was obedient to the calling he was given. So when Peter and John were arrested for their miraculous act, they were taken before the Sanhedrin (a council of Jewish elders) who demanded they stop. In their view, they’d crucified Jesus and that should have served as a warning. The Christian cult should have died out and yet here were the Apostles keeping it alive. They ordered Peter to stop his ministry, to stop preaching the words of Jesus and to stop healing people but Peter was unswerving in his devotion. The Bible specifically remarks on his bravery as he stood before these men and told them, “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men”. 

Peter took a decision he knew would anger the council because he knew his action was pleasing to God. His obedience to God came first in all things. And so it should be for us.

The Acts of the Apostles begins with the election of Matthias as an Apostle and I don’t think that’s any coincidence. It hasn’t been included to remind us that Matthias was a good and faithful servant of Jesus, it’s there to remind us that Judas wasn’t. He sold his soul, he denied God’s will….he was not obedient. And he paid a terrible price. So how can we be more like Peter, John and Matthias and less like Judas? How can we show our obedience to God?

I think all religious people struggle at election time. We’re faced with lots of people telling us why they’d be best for the job and most will make a thousand promises we know they could never really keep. But we’ve got to vote for one of them right? So we study their platform, we think what we need, what our country needs and we cast our vote. Let’s say that we own a business. It’s really on it’s uppers and if it goes under, we’re likely to lose everything. Our home, the car, the TV – if we miss just one more payment, it’s all gone. Two candidates come along and ask for our vote. One says he wants to give struggling businesses a tax free payment of $10,000. He’s pro-euthanasia, pro-same sex marriage, pro-choice and anti-religious freedoms. His rival says he can’t commit to giving a tax free payment of $10,000, he can barely promise $500, but he’s anti-euthanasia, anti-same sex marriage, pro-life and a faithful Catholic. Which candidate would get your vote?

In a situation like this one, we can’t just look at our own desires and needs. We are all given crosses to bear and sometimes they can overwhelm us. We know they should bring us closer to God but we still struggle and we become hopeless and even fall into despair. But let’s say that you vote for the first candidate and you get the $10,000. You pay off your debts and there’s enough left to take a luxury cruise. Out at sea, the ship hits a rock and you drown. Standing in front of the Lord, you explain that you’re a good Catholic. You never missed Mass, you never took His name in vain, you never stole, you never lied, you loved your neighbour – you’re one of the good guys. And the Lord takes you to one side and shows you what you’ve left behind. Babies murdered in the womb. The elderly killed for convenience. The sacrament of marriage desecrated. All that for a lousy $10,000. Now I know what you’re saying. “Ah but my one vote didn’t make all that much of a difference” – it made enough of a difference for you to get the $10,000 didn’t it? You sanctioned an unGodly act. However small your role, you enabled God’s will to be forgotten. You enabled God’s divine law to be ignored, trampled on, rejected at a cost to so many innocent people. You put yourself first. You were disobedient.

At some time in our lives, we’re all Peter before that council. We all have the world against us at times and we find ourselves alone and intimidated by the majority. Our morals are questioned, our beliefs are mocked, we may even be told that our faith isn’t important or welcome. But like Peter, we have to make a stand. We have to be just as brave as he was. Peter was given authority by God to build His church. And through that church, we’re given strength, we’re given hope and we’re given love. So when the chance comes to make that stand, we must make it even if it means a difficult loss. In defying the Sanhedrin, Peter was flogged. But in being obedient to the will of God, he lifted his soul to the Lord and continued to do great things. Today, the world is the Sanhedrin. “Christians believe in fairy stories”, “Christians are hypocrites”, “Christians are insignificant”. You’ve heard them all. But when the world accuses you, stand firm and stay obedient to God. Remind yourself that God has a plan for you, God has a will for you and when you remember that and live according to that will and plan – God will show his love for you. Always.

Don’t just do what the world wants you to do because it’s easier. Do what’s right because it’s pleasing to God. That’s what obedience is. It won’t always be easy but I promise you that it’s far better to lose everything you have than it is to lose your soul. And yes, you may lose friends. Take comfort in Jesus. He’s your closest and dearest friend and He’ll comfort you. Yes, you may feel hopeless. He’ll give you hope. Being obedient is a test of faith. It gives us the opportunity to lift our crosses to Jesus and say, “Lord, I bear this out of love for you”. Because just as obeying your parents shows respect and love for them, obeying God and His will shows respect and love for Him. Remember the words of St Peter before that council; “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men”. 

Saints in Profile

Saints in Profile: St Leopold Mandić

“The Mandić family? They used to be a big deal. Money, titles, land: you name it, they had it”

You can just imagine young Dragica Zarević asking her grandmother’s advice can’t you? Petar Mandić has stolen the young girl’s heart and he’s asked her to be his wife but she just can’t make up her mind. So she goes to see her Grandma, a wise old lady who’s lived in the town for decades. Grandma Zarević tells a wide eyed Dragica about the noble House of Mandić who came from Bosnia to Croatia in the 15th century with wealth untold, power unrivalled and influence unimagined. “And now….now he’s a fisherman…..”, Grandma concludes wistfully. There can be no doubt that by the time Dragica married Petar, the Mandić family had certainly been brought down a peg or two. There were no more castles, no more vineyards, no more titles – just fishermen. And pretty impoverished fishermen at that. This was clearly a love match and Dragica married Petar despite his fairly poor prospects, settling in a modest little house in Castelnuovo which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but which today is part of Montenegro.

Herceg-Novi-square
The village square in Herceg Novi (formerly Castelnuovo).

Today, tourists flock to Herceg Novi (once known as Castelnuovo) for it’s breathtaking sea views and it’s fascinating old town complete with imposing Venetian fortress and sunny plazas. But when the Mandić family lived there in the 1850s, there was little time for holiday making. Money was short and the local community relied heavily on fishing and farming to make a living, whilst their spiritual needs were tended by a small community of Capuchin friars who had served the town for 200 years (a leftover from when Herceg Novi formed a part of the Republic of Venice). In such modest circumstances, you would have thought that the Mandić family would have watched every penny and tried to avoid giving themselves too much added financial responsibility – but you’d be wrong. Because by 1866, Dragica was expecting her TWELFTH child….her twelfth child out of a total number of sixteen! This large family was a happy one, a hard working one but also a very devout one. Every child was seen as a blessing from God and things just seemed to always work out regardless of how few material possessions the Mandićs had.

But on the 12 May 1866, something changed when Dragica gave birth to her 12th child. Whilst all of her other children had (remarkably) survived infancy in good health, her new-born baby boy provided cause for concern. He was frail and malformed and as he grew older, these signs of disability didn’t seem to get better – they only got worse. He was shorter than everyone else, clumsy and had a terrible stutter that made it impossible for him to speak in public. He had friends but they were often Orthodox Christians and their families rarely mixed. There was ongoing religious tension between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and two monasteries vied for souls in the town where sometimes tensions bubbled over into all out street brawls. This deeply affected young Bogdan Mandić and he wanted to make a difference. We have no proof of it but I’m certain that when a ten year old Bogdan said he wanted to heal wounds in the town and bring everybody together, his friends must have laughed themselves silly. How could a little disabled boy from a poor family do anything for anyone? He needed their care and attention, they certainly didn’t need his.

St Leopold Mandić in his old age.
St Leopold Mandić in his old age.

At 16 years old, Bodgan said goodbye to his parents and travelled to Udine to enter a seminary where the Capuchins who served his hometown were educated and trained. Dragica must have been full of worry for her son who’s physical disability set him apart and made him seem an unlikely candidate for the religious life but two years later, Bogdan was admitted to the noviciate in Bassano del Grappa. He was given the name Leopold of Castelnuovo. He made his first profession of vows in 1885 and was then sent to Padua and later Venice to continue his studies. But Castelnuovo was never far from his mind, especially the rift between the East and the West which existed among the Catholics and Orthodox Christians there. He proclaimed his mission: “I consecrate myself for the salvation of the beloved dissidents”, he said, “I will become a missionary to them!”. He wanted to unite all souls for Christ, not an easy task for a young friar with so many crosses to bear. It’s hard to imagine that anyone took him seriously and maybe they put his enthusiasm for such a ministry down to youthful enthusiasm. How wrong they were.

Leopold was ordained to the priesthood at the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice at the age of 24. After a while, he was asked which particular ministry he felt called to. “I, Brother Leopold”, have understood the plan of divine grace“, he wrote, “I have been called to the salvation of my people, the Slavonic people” – and he asked that he be allowed to go back to Castelnuovo to begin his work. But his request was denied. He was given household duties instead, his superiors always concerned that his physical impairments would be too heavy a burden to overcome. He was sent to the Friary of Santa Croce in Padua where he would spend the rest of his life, never fulfilling his dream of returning home to try to heal the divisions in Castelnuovo. The Superiors of the friary must have felt deeply troubled by Leopold. I mean, what exactly could he do? He stuttered, he bumped into things, he was always falling over….he couldn’t even stand for long periods of time. At first, they decided to let him teach the young seminarians. He had a good grasp of doctrine and theology and despite his speech impediment, he seemed to be able to engage people with his message. Unfortunately, the Superiors saw it as the wrong message.

As devout as he was, Leopold believed that the law alone wasn’t enough. The application of mercy had to come first. Stealing was a mortal sin but surely the Lord wouldn’t require so heavy a penance for a man who had stolen bread to feed his starving family? Leopold saw individuals and their needs, he understood the poor, he felt that blanket penances given at confession were reductive and didn’t take account of the emotional needs of the penitent. Leopold’s teaching career came to an abrupt end and perhaps in an effort to keep him out of the way, he was appointed to be a confessor in the adjacent Church of the Holy Cross. It was 1914 and the division Leopold had so often warned about came to a dreadful and tragic conclusion when trouble in the Balkans kicked off a bitter and devastating war in Europe.

Cro-1
St Leopold’s body in Padua.

Whilst Leopold was never allowed to return home as he wished, he finally got the opportunity to work with the Slavonic people when in 1923 he was transferred to Dalmatia with the express instruction that he should go to hear confessions in the Slavic tongue. He was so filled with joy that he recited the Te Deum before a statue of the Blessed Virgin and immediately sought her patronage for his work. His placement lasted only one week but he refused to be beaten. Inspired by a new zeal for healing souls, he returned to the Holy Cross Church where he placed himself in the confessional receiving penitents for up to 15 hours a day. He was determined that as many souls should be healed as possible. He even thanked penitents for trusting him to hear their confessions, praying for them and trying to share the burden of their sin. When some accused him of being too lenient Leopold replied, “If the Lord wants to accuse me of showing too much leniency toward sinners, I’ll tell him that it was he who gave me this example, and I haven’t even died for the salvation of souls as he did”. For Leopold, there had to be an emphasis on mercy and word of his unique style spread throughout Italy making him a popular confessor and fostering his reputation as a great holy man.

But by 1942, Leopold’s health began to give way. Whilst preparing for Mass on the 30th July that year, he collapsed and was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was taken to his cell and laid in bed as the friars began to sing the Salve Regina. “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary…”, they sang….and at that precise moment, Leopold died. He was 76 years old. Immediately, Leopold was buried in the church at Padua but few had any idea of what would come next. As Leopold had predicted, the friary and the church was hit by bombs during an air raid but Leopold’s cell and his confessional were spared. They were the only remnants left amidst the rubble, as if they had been specially protected. Before his death, Leopold explained, “Here God exercised so much mercy for people, it must remain as a monument to God’s goodness”. And it still stands today, a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

Pope Francis venerates the relics of St Leopold and St Pio.
Pope Francis venerates the relics of St Leopold and St Pio.

Leopold was beatified in 1976 by Blessed Pope Paul VI. He was canonised by Pope St John Paul II on the 16th October 1983. He has been hailed as the ‘Apostle of Unity’ and is considered to be the patron saint of those seeking to make good confessions. But most importantly, he’s regarded as an example of great faith and mercy. So much so that in the 2015/2016 Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, St Leopold was designated a Saint-Confessor along with St Pio of Pietrelcina and the two saints were presented to the faithful at St Peter’s Basilica for veneration. 75 years after his death, St Leopold of Castelnuovo is still saving souls and healing wounds, just as he always set out to do. But his story is important for another reason. His example teaches us never to underestimate the will of God. St Leopold is an unlikely Saint but his works are truly inspiring and miraculous. Who would have thought that the clumsy little boy with the stutter from a poor fishing village could have achieved so much? St Leopold knew that was his calling, all he had to do was to trust the Lord. And that’s an example we should all follow each and every day of our lives. St Leopold of Castelnuovo, Pray for Us! 

A Prayer to St Leopold Mandić

O God,
perfect unity and supreme good,
you filled St Leopold, your priest,
with kindness and mercy for sinners
and an ardent desire for unity
among all Christians;
grant that we, through his intercession,
may be renewed in spirit and heart
so that we can spread your love to everyone
and confidently work
for the unity of all Christians
in the bond of peace.
We likewise pray
through his intercession
for these our petitions:
(mention your intentions)
We ask this through
our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit
one God for ever and ever.
Amen.
St Leopold, Pray for Us!
St Leopold, Pray for Us!

 

Pope St John Paul II
Saints in Profile

Introducing: Saints in Profile

“We are all called to be great Saints. Don’t miss the opportunity” 

Being a Christian is hard. There are so many trials and challenges and sometimes, we can feel it’s almost impossible. We hear about callings and Saints and it’s often hard to relate that to our own lives. Priests have callings. Nuns have callings. These are individuals who have been given a special grace from God and a mission to share that grace through a certain ministry but often we can feel detached from that example. Holiness is something reserved for others, not for us. It’s so unattainable and so difficult. If we don’t hear God’s voice, how do we know what He wants from us? That’s why Mother Angelica’s quote on Sainthood appears as the tagline of this blog because it answers that question perfectly. We all have a calling. Our calling is to holiness and all we have to do is take the opportunity. But can we really achieve Sainthood? Surely that’s something reserved for so few people?

evoeis_agioi_40088400
Can you see yourself taking your place among these Saints?

 

When you think of the Saints, you probably think of holy hermits or determined nuns, selfless martyrs or great Church figures of the past. They can sometimes seem remote to us, a benchmark of holiness that we could never attain ourselves, because the things they did were so awesome. But what Mother Angelica’s quote expresses so beautifully is that Sainthood isn’t reserved for perfect men and women from days gone by. Sainthood isn’t just an honorific. Sainthood is the church’s way of telling us that an individual took that opportunity. They each had temptations and failures, they fell into sin and struggled to carry their crosses just as we do but their Sainthood began with them saying yes to God. And we can all do that, as hard as it may seem at first. Saints were soldiers, teenagers, Popes, beggars, thieves, Cardinals, children and nurses. They were teachers, priests, painters, architects, stigmatists, politicians and lechers. The one thing they all had in common was their devotion to God. And yet, even if we feel called to it and accept that opportunity as they did, what exactly is the Communion of the Saints and how does one become a Saint?

There are three states in the Roman Catholic Church: The Church Militant, The Church Penitent and The Church Triumphant. The Church Militant consists of you and me. And everyone else on the planet for that matter. We carry the obligation to evangelise, to protect, to worship and to praise God. The Church Penitent consists of those in purgatory who are preparing for their reception into heaven. The Church Triumphant is comprised of those who are already in heaven. But how do we know they’re in heaven? Well, all three of these “states” make up the Communion of Saints which we reaffirm our belief in as part of the Apostle’s Creed but as far as actual confirmed Saints go, we rely on the Church to indicate that they have gone beyond the first two states (Militant and Penitent) and have entered the third – Triumphant. When a person dies, there may be a local devotion to them which petitions their local Bishop to raise a cause for them with the Vatican, specifically the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If the Congregation agrees that a cause (investigation) should be opened then something called a ‘Nihil Obstat’ (No Obstruction) is promulgated and the individual in question is formally known as a Servant of God.

Pope St John Paul II
Pope St John Paul II, Pray for Us!

Usually, a person must wait for five years after their death before a Nihil Obstat can be served but the Pope has the authority to waive this requirement (as Pope St John Paul II did for St Theresa of Calcutta). But once someone is proclaimed a Servant of God, it doesn’t automatically mean they will progress all the way to Sainthood. There are still three stages left in the process. The second relies on someone called a Postulator, appointed by the Vatican, to look into the writings and accounts of the individual and to assess their life and works. What the Postulator is most concerned with is that the individual lived a life “of heroic virtue”. Pope Benedict XIV defined heroic virtue as something which “enables its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations”. In other words, they performed good Christian acts with selflessness and love in the face of great difficulty or trial. Once a person has been found to have possessed heroic virtue, they’re known as ‘Venerable’ and have passed stage two.

The third and fourth stage require something a little more. And by little, we mean remarkable. Usually, two miracles must then be attributed and proven as being performed by the individual though again, this requirement can be waived by the Pope. After the first miracle, the individual is beatified – that is, they gain the status and style of Blessed. By this time, they are well and truly confirmed as being part of the Church Triumphant and with the declaration of a second miracle, the beatified individual goes forward to canonisation and amidst great celebration, the individual becomes a Saint. If it sounds like a fairly straight forward process, bear in mind that some individuals have been “stuck” at the Venerable or Blessed stage of canonisation for hundreds of years. Some may never progress to Sainthood. And yet we’re encouraged to pray to them for their intercession all the same because we know they are in Heaven and can do great things. “But hang on”, I hear my protestant friends muttering, “Jesus never told us to pray to Saints or worship the dead. Quite the opposite in fact…..” – You’re absolutely right. And this is a huge misconception when it comes to Catholicism and the Saints. The Saints never replace Jesus in our devotion. They bring us closer to Him and God told us to make use of them.

Father Mitch Pacwa explains this perfectly when he points us to the Book of Genesis where we read that in a dream, God commanded King Abimelech to ask Abraham to intercede for him. “For Abraham is a prophet and he will pray for you, so you shall live”. And later in the Book of Job, the Lord (angry with Job’s friends who are making statements about God that are not correct) says “Let my servant Job pray for you because I will accept his prayer, lest I make a terror on you”. This isn’t to say that God needs go-betweens or that He can’t do it alone. Of course He can. But He knows our weaknesses, He knows our fragile we can be and what better than to have a heavenly family to help us on our journey? In this new series of posts ‘Saints in Profile’, I hope you’ll come to know more about that heavenly family and draw closer to them because their examples of holiness can inspire us to say yes to God, to take the opportunity and to become more holy in our own lives. To become more like Jesus. The Saints are your friends. They want to help. We have our Father in Heaven, we have our Mother in Heaven. Why not embrace your friends in Heaven too?

The Mass

Seeking Silence

I want you to picture the scene in your minds. It’s Passover. Jesus has gathered his disciples to share in the Last Supper. Before His passion, He will give us the greatest sacrament we can ever have. His words will give hope and salvation to all souls until He comes again. The Apostles sit in silence and listen to his words intently but from the end of the table, there’s whispering going on.

“Hey Matthew, can you pass the salt?”

“I don’t have it Thaddeus”

“Oh okay, must be down by Peter, I’ll wait I guess”

“I have some egg left”

“Nah, I can’t eat eggs, they just give me indigestion. Ask Philip for some of that matzah would you?”

Now before you accuse me of being disrespectful, just hear me out. I know this absolutely did not happen at the Last Supper. The Apostles were as fallible as you or I but they knew that they were in the presence of Jesus and that what He was saying was so important, so vital and so remarkable that they sat in silence and listened intently. We know from the Gospels that the Apostles often had a lot to say for themselves – but we also know that they respected the Lord and when He spoke? They kept their peace and listened. And it’s time that some of us learned to do the same.

At yesterday evening’s Mass, I arrived a little early and took my place as usual. I like to have the chance to spend some time with Jesus before the Mass begins and whilst there’s always a little chatter and heavy footfall as people take their seats, I usually find it easy to zone the noise out and just focus on why I’m there – to see Jesus. Before I enter the church, I like to visualise a little suitcase full of all the daily irritations and annoyances and I leave it in the repository. I don’t want to take all those distractions into the church with me. Within a few minutes of taking my seat last night, two ladies arrived and took the pew in front. They began a hushed conversation but it wasn’t loud enough to be disruptive. The bell rang, we all stood up and the Mass began. But the conversation in front didn’t stop. They joined in the appropriate responses, they stood when we stood, they kneeled when we kneeled – but the conversation just didn’t stop. Finally we had a breakthrough. During the Homily? Perfect silence. Okay, it was accompanied by lots of frustrated glances and even the occasional rolling of the eyes but for the duration of the Homily, not a word was exchanged between the two women. And then….you guessed it. It started up again with a vengeance. All through the consecration of the host, in the line up to the altar, on the way back to the pew, throughout the hymn….it just didn’t stop.

Now I get it. Church has a social side to it and it absolutely should. We’re called to build a community in Christ, to help and support our brothers and sisters. We’re also called to tolerance. Sometimes little children are noisy and don’t quite understand what’s going on and that’s fine. It’s hard for parents and not all churches have the same resources to help little ones learn about the Mass in a way that helps them participate as best they can given their age. But children learn from example and what example is being set by those who seem to treat the church as a community centre or a pub rather than the house of the Lord? As a place for socialising rather than praising? For all the two ladies said to each other, there was only one thing they were saying to Jesus: “We know you’re here Lord but you’ll have to wait because this is more important”. Which is just tragic.

In his book The Power of Silence, Cardinal Robert Sarah has the following to say on the importance of quiet reflection:

How could it be possible to discover oneself in the midst of noise? A person’s clear sightedness and lucidity about himself can mature only in solitude and silence. A silent man is all the more apt to listen and to stand in the presence of God. The silent man finds God within himself. For any prayer and any interior life, we need silence, a hidden discreet life that prompts us not to think about ourselves. Silence, in important moments of life, becomes a vital necessity. But we do not seek silence for its own sake, as though it were our goal. We seek silence because we seek God. And we will find it if we are silent in the very depths of our heart.

Whilst His Eminence is focused on silent prayer in this excerpt, what he says is relatable to the way we behave during the Mass. From the moment the bell rings to the time we receive the blessing during the dismissal, we are in the presence of God and if we can’t give just one hour to Him free of all other distractions, just once a week, then why are we attending Mass in the first place? It isn’t just that we ourselves fall short of the respect due to Him and thereby lose out on the majesty and the gifts contained within the Mass but we also rob others of that same opportunity which is not in our power to deny. To ignore, to snub or to disregard Christ at any time during the Mass is to deny the real presence that is so integral to our faith and the same applies to those who disappear as soon as they’ve received communion or those who refuse to join in responses because they’re busy reading or chatting. When we go to Mass, we should go with a full heart and a clear mind. And yes it can be hard, yes it can be a struggle. But the reason we go to Mass is to be healed, to be directed and to be saved. We cannot do so if we’re concerned with temporal things and don’t take in the solemnity of what’s happening before us.

This week, Pope Francis gave a fatherly slap on the wrist to the faithful. “It makes me very sad when I celebrate Mass in the Square or in St. Peter’s Basilica and I see so many phones in the air”, His Holiness said, “Lift up your hearts, don’t lift up your cellphones to take a photo!”. His remarks were not just aimed at Catholic tourists either. “It’s not only the faithful, but also many priests and bishops”, the Pope chided, “Please! Mass is not a show!” – Amen to that! I can’t know or judge the content of anyone else’s heart. I don’t know their intentions or their trials and in no way am I suggesting that we must form rows of little automatons whilst at church. But the one thing I fear some Catholics forget is that Mass isn’t just about responses and hymns. It isn’t archaic ritual or a lecture in morality from a priest. It’s about being in the awesome presence of Jesus; body, blood, soul and divinity.  Let’s learn from the Apostles and when we’re in that presence, let’s respect it. Let’s wonder at it. But mostly importantly, let’s thank God for it.

N.B: The Power of Silence (Against the Dictatorship of Noise) by Cardinal Robert Sarah is published by Ignatius Press and can be purchased by clicking here.

The Mass

Put Your Hands Up…

It all began a few weeks ago at an RCIA meeting. The early church was the theme. Who were the early Christians? What were their lives like? How did they pray? Little did I know that within that discussion, an issue would arise which later led to a very passionate and heated debate in which the word ‘heretical’ was thrown around an awful lot. “When the priest holds up his hands, he’s adopting the orans posture”, our RCIA director said, “It’s a way of praying that the early Christians used and it’s making a bit of a comeback. You don’t have to do it but it’s now sort of encouraged”. For Church newbies, there’s a lot to remember and we all want to fit in. Genuflecting, the Sign of the Cross, the Sign of Peace…I mean, it’s easy to feel under pressure. And so, wanting to “get it right”, I dutifully held out my hands when we got to the Lord’s Prayer at the next Mass I attended. I noticed several other people had done the same and assumed that was that. It was simply a stance one took during the Lord’s Prayer.

Fast forward a week and I’m back at Mass. We come to the Lord’s Prayer.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been shot a look during a church service that made you feel as if a little demon had popped up on your shoulder but that expression of total shock, anger and horror was fired down the length of the pew so fast that it could have knocked me of my feet. The two ladies sitting next to me were not at all impressed with my upturned hands during the Lord’s Prayer (I promise you, they were clean) and actually shuffled down a little to put some distance between us. Embarrassed? Me? More like mortified. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong – if anything at all – and so as soon as I got home, I dashed to Father Google to try to work out exactly why they had been so offended. I punched in ‘orans posture’, assuming that was the cause of their distress, and suddenly it all became clear. Orans isn’t just a way of standing – it’s an issue which gets people very hot under the collar.

Noah
Noah at prayer, as depicted in the catacombs of Rome.

I’m going to skip over the history of the orans posture, other than to say that our RCIA director is quite right. It was a stance adopted by the early Christians and many people adopt it today during the Lord’s Prayer. But is it encouraged?

The Church itself hasn’t taken a formal stance on the matter outside of the way a priest is called to say Mass. In other words, there’s no rule that says the laity must not adopt the orans posture but there’s no guidance that we should adopt it either. It’s left up to the individual to decide and naturally, you’re going to get opinions on both approaches. For those who support the laity “taking a stance” during the Lord’s Prayer (or even holding hands with the people next to them), it’s an outward sign of community and a link to the early Church they want to foster and promote. For those who oppose it, it’s a disrespectful imitation of the priest and taking from the sanctuary into the church what should remain something of the sanctuary. So who’s right? For those who want to become Catholics, what should we do and which example should we follow?

When man poses a question, God gives an answer. And this weekend’s Gospel provides the perfect response to the orans issue (in my humble opinion). In the 23rd Gospel of St Matthew, we hear Jesus preach on the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees.

You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.
St Matthew, 23: 3 -7

In other words, these were people making gestures or saying prayers without a thought for God. They just did it because they felt it would make them look holier than everybody else – and they encouraged others to do the same. But in reality, they were guilty of false piety. They were so keen to be seen as teachers, as Godly men, that they actually led people away from the true meaning of God’s commandments. In the same way, if someone is telling us to adopt a stance because it makes us outwardly appear more holy or understanding of God’s word, they’re just as guilty of hypocrisy as the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus spoke of. I’m not accusing everyone who adopts the orans stance as seeking attention – I don’t have that right. Neither am I saying they shouldn’t. But later in the same chapter, Jesus says, “Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted”. If adopting the orans stance is something a person does during the Lord’s Prayer to humble himself before the Lord? That’s one thing. But to do so because it’s just what everyone else does these days? Well that’s quite another. If I make the Sign of the Cross but don’t give a thought to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit then why am I doing it? To show piety? To prove my faith is stronger than that of others even when it clearly isn’t?

Our Lady of the Sign
Orthodox iconography often depicts Our Lady in the orans stance.

In the course of the debate online, one contributor knowing my fondness for Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “His Holiness endorsed [orans]! He wrote a book about liturgy and he told us it was fine!” – so naturally I purchased ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’. What the Pope Emeritus says is actually far more complex. Yes he does talk of the orans and yes, he absolutely does confirm that early Christians prayed that way. That was never up for debate. We know they did. But this is what His Holiness actually says:

Standing prayer is an anticipation of the future, of the glory that is to come; it is meant to orient us towards it. Insofar as liturgical prayer is an anticipation of what has been promised, standing is its proper posture. However, insofar as liturgical prayer belongs to that “between time” in which we live, then kneeling remains indispensable to it as an expression of the “now” of our life”.
The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 2000

When we stand at Mass, we’re like our Christian ancestors who were waiting for the glory of salvation through Jesus Christ. When we kneel, we’re reminded that we aren’t there yet. We’re humbling ourselves before the Lord as well as looking forward to His return. And yes, His Holiness does say that the orans is a perfectly acceptable stance to take in prayer (St Dominic assured us of the same)…but knowing the Pope Emeritus to be a man of great detail and clarity in his writings, I can’t help but feel that he would never have simply implied that the laity should adopt the orans posture during the Lord’s Prayer – he would have said so outright. Indeed, at no point in the book does His Holiness connect the orans to the Lord’s Prayer. The general message of ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is that we have to consider the meaning of the Mass at all times during the liturgy because that’s what brings us closer to the glory of God. But we can’t just decide ourselves what God wants of us or how we should show our love for Him.

In doing so, we could attribute motives to God that actually belong to us and our own intentions.  In the Letter of James in the New Testament, we’re given a clear command; “Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up”. If our devotion and all the expressions of that devotion come from a place of humility and of true love for God, then we’re fulfilling that requirement. But if, like the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus spoke of, we’re just doing something out of false piety or misplaced guidance to prove our fervour, then we’re not only hypocrites but we’re also not humble before the Lord. Perhaps what we have to accept is that there is a compromise to be made here. The orans is a stance we take in the privacy of our prayer lives outside of the liturgy but we have to accept that it has no formal place in the public liturgy….that is, the Mass. When we’re at Mass, we come together as a community before the Lord but we remain individuals, each guided by our own conscience and answerable for our own decisions. At certain times within the liturgy we petition God together as brothers and sisters for the benefit of others and wee do so because the Church has constructed the liturgy to allow for both individual and collective acts of devotion – but nobody can seem to decide if orans is individual or collective. And therein lies the problem.

Personally speaking, I feel that if orans is this divisive in the setting of the Mass, then it has no place within the Mass. It already detracts from the Lord’s Prayer itself. I mean….we’re all focused on hands here guys. The Lord’s Prayer was given to us by Christ Himself. And what does he tell us? That we must respect God. Forgive our neighbours. Seek mercy. Accept God’s will. Put our trust in God to deliver us from evil. If anything distracts us from living out those truths then surely it can’t be beneficial? Personally speaking, the orans during the Lord’s Prayer isn’t something I’ll be continuing with for that very reason. I don’t feel it humbles, I feel it separates. I don’t see that it connects me to the priest or to my brothers and sisters – neither should it. I’m called to love my neighbour but at Mass, I’m being called to something greater. To lift up my heart to the Lord. And that’s what I want to focus on, not the lifting of hands.

N.B – The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is published by Ignatius Press and is available for purchase by clicking here.