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”. 

General

In the Beginning…

It’s 4am. You can’t sleep. You’ve tried remaking the bed and you’ve bolted down mugs of hot milk but to no avail. Spotify’s ‘Calm Sleepy Time’ playlist left you feeling more awake than you were before you climbed the stairs. It took strength beyond measure to do it, but you’ve finally rescued yourself from the rabbit hole of YouTube where the ladies laughing at pencils and people filling swimming pools with Orbeez live. And now you’re just surfing the internet before sleep. Maybe that’s not you. Maybe you’re on a lunchbreak in the middle of a truly terrible work day. Your boss is being particularly vicious and you’ve spent the whole morning daydreaming about strangling him with the plug from the coffee maker. Or you might be a Roman Catholic who wants to see the faith from someone else’s point of view. Or you’re a committed atheist who hunts down blogs like this one to leave a few nasty comments to irritate those high and mighty Christians. Or you’ve just been dumped and your heart is breaking. Maybe you clicked on this link by mistake. Whichever of these statements apply to you, know one thing – I’m glad you’re here.

With the welcome over and done with, let’s get down to converting you to the Roman Catholic faith!

I jest. This blog isn’t designed to make you see the error of your ways, it isn’t about saving souls or trying to make you see the light. You won’t be tracked down by eager nuns who’ll strap you into a chair and fling holy water in your face until you repent. The purpose of this project really is very simple – it’s about sharing a journey into faith. Blogging is a little like screaming into a bucket. You can’t actually be sure if anyone heard you. You might take something from the posts you find here or you might not. But whether faith is something you consider a closed chapter or whether you find yourself on a similar path, every human being is on a journey into faith whether they’re aware of it or not. We’re consistently learning, discovering, thinking and examining regardless of the different conclusions we come to. Whether it’s Christianity or Judaism, Islam or Hinduism, Buddhism or Humanism, there isn’t a magical box locked away in a secret cave with all the answers inside it. There are just human beings doing what human beings have done since the dawn of time – searching for truth.

For some, that truth is that there is no God. For others, the truth is that God made the world in seven days. Whatever your truth, I’ll bet you the fortune I don’t have that you didn’t have it handed to you on a plate one day and just accepted it as being truth. For me, that’s the difference between religion and faith. We may have been raised within a certain framework with a clear and consistent morality but it’s simply a brand or the name of a collective until we make a personal connection with it – and that’s how we come to know what our faith is. As I get older, I see many of my friends in the same position as I am today. Suddenly, we’ve all hit 30 years old and the bigger questions in life have started to dance about in our heads. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What brings us true comfort and support when we need it? I have a friend who is converting to Judaism, another who has recently entered a Buddhist monastery and others are reconnecting with faith they put on hold during their formative years. It wasn’t quite that simple for me.

As a child of 13 years of age, I was asked to write a paper for school about religion and what it means to people. I hadn’t really given much thought to God to be honest and as the product of an atheist household, my parents quite liked it that way. Religion interfered. It was too demanding. But by the same token, we were free as children to decide what we believed and what religion we’d like to adopt – if any. So there was an audible sigh of relief when, instead of asking my parents about the finer details of God, Heaven & Hell, I opted instead to visit the local convent and see what the nuns could tell me. I was “allocated” Sister Oliver, a heavyset 80 year old nun with large thick glasses that made her eyes look far too big for her head and a thick Irish accent. She viewed me with suspicion.

“You’re not Catholic?”, she interrogated.

I muttered something about having Jewish & Catholic heritage but not belonging to anything.

“Nonsense”, she said defiantly, “You belong to God. Everybody does”.

It was said with such astounding conviction that I was a bit taken aback and lost all my concentration. Once I’d asked her the questions I needed to answer for my school paper, I thanked Sister Oliver and left the convent never to return. But Sister Oliver had worked her magic. She had introduced me to the concept of faith as something personal. It was no longer something other people had and I didn’t. It wasn’t the private possession of the clergy, it wasn’t stored away in vast churches, mosques or synagogues. It was tangible. It was accessible. I belonged to God. Because everybody does…

I would love to be able to write that my faith journey began on that day, that Sister Oliver became a firm friend and that she saw me through my reception into the Roman Catholic Church. But I was 13. Quite aside from the fact that I wasn’t old enough, I was just about to fall over the cliff edge into spotty, angsty teenage depression. And who has time to bother with God at that age? I was determined not to fit in. I didn’t want to hear anything other than what I already knew – and as we all know, teenagers know EVERYTHING.

Fast forward a decade or two and here I am. 6 weeks into the RCIA course after a year or two of private study and preparing to become a Roman Catholic. As I learn and grow in that calling, as I take those steps on my journey into faith, it seems a good idea to document that journey. But having said that, I don’t want this blog to be just another RCIA diary. This blog is designed to explore Catholicism from the point of view of a newcomer with all the questions and conflicts that discovery will no doubt involve as well as the facts and teachings that I just think I’d like to share. There’ll be Bible study, prayer, Saints and sin, debate on the hard moral questions we all face but in all these things I can only offer my truth. Your truth may be different and in today’s world, I feel we’ve taken a step backwards in remembering that the purpose of debate or sharing ideas isn’t to force someone to bend to our view of things. It’s about learning and seeking together.

We may disagree. We may make mistakes. But ultimately, I think the majority of people all want the same thing for themselves and for their loved ones – peace and a little more understanding of what’s out there. If you find that from this blog? I’ll take that as having done something right.

So without further ado, let’s start today. Let’s begin a journey into faith.