Tuesday, 30 June 2015

On the reading and re-reading of scripture

I have been prompted to post these thoughts following something that was said during a session with some students as part of our School Mission, which is being led by the team from Soli House. It was said that even though scripture is the same each time we hear it, we, as the listeners or readers, are different from when we last heard or read that passage. I originally wrote this down a while ago, and so the 'today' being referred to is actually the 15th February 2015, the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

We must not take any section of scripture for granted. I thought of those psalms and readings which occur regularly in the office, but the same is true for those stories and parables which we hear regularly in the mass, and even those referenced in popular culture.

The second reading from today's Office of Readings ties in with this thought magnificently, St Ephrem, in a commentary on the Diatesseron, share with us an analogy of Sacred Scripture as a living spring. God's word has so many different facets that one man cannot hope to grasp them all; each will comprehend what he is able to from a passage, and this comprehension will change with one's circumstances. One could look at a child's interpretation of scripture to see this in action. When I ask my daughter on the way home from mass "why do you think Jesus cured the leper in today's Gospel?" And she answers "to be nice to him". That isn't any sort of failing on her part to understand what Jesus had done; and although we often take such discussions further, I do not perceive it to be my failure if she doesn't understand massive depths by the end of the discussion. Nor indeed do I consider it a failure if I myself do not know every depth to the passage. But what I would perceive to be a failure on my part would be if I didn't try to perceive or understand any new depths to a passage. Ideally this would mean that every mass' readings would be considered and contemplated in detail. In practice this is near impossible for most people, and frequently the only time we have is during the actual reading itself. Assuming that we genuinely cannot find time during the day we hear a passage, we have two options; approach the reading with an open mind from the beginning, and latch on to an important idea which speaks to us and which we can then consider in the time we have, or we can listen reverently to the homily, and try to see in that the keys to unlocking some of the depths of the passages we have heard. Both have fantastic merits and I would not try to suggest one above the other. 

This again is echoed by St Ephrem in his extract. He uses his analogy to say that one should not look to quench the spring of God's word with his thirst, but to quench his thirst with the spring. If the spring is quenched when someone drinks from it, it is gone, and nothing further can be gained from it. However if someone drinks and quenches his thirst but does not drain the spring, he can return to it again and again as his thirst requires.

Combining these two thoughts leads us to the idea that God's Word is both multi-faceted and eternal in its ability to impart wisdom to those who read it. Therefore we should not be down when we see or hear a passage we believe we know extremely well. Rather we should be looking for a new interpretation, or a new idea within that text. And when we find it, we will know the wisdom of St Ephrem's words.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Some Bad News

O God, come to our aid.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
The opening of Lauds this morning has never seemed so appropriate. I am, with my family, in great need of God's help today.
Yesterday my father received the news that his recently discovered cancer cannot be cured, and that people in his position only survive for an average of three more months. This has obviously been difficult, if not fully unexpected news for us to take; my mother and sisters were teary as I recounted what the doctors had said to him, and I spent much of yesterday holding back tears myself.
I do not blame or 'hate' cancer, as many current Facebook memes would encourage us to do. I will have trouble coming to terms with the news, but am able to find some consolation, as I hope will my family, in the fact that death, as surely as life, is God's will. My recent prayers for my father have not been for a cure, and will not now be for a miracle; they have been, to quote our Lord's prayer, simply that God's 'will be done'. This will continue to be my prayer and while of course a miracle would be nice, I believe there is also a need to pray for my father's relationship with God during this difficult time - that he may face what comes with dignity, grace and above all faith in what he has proclaimed during and through his life. He was his usual, enviably stoic self yesterday; he took the news well, and I hope that he will be able to remain strong in the coming months.
Please keep my father, Martin Casey, in your prayers.
Today is the Memoria of the Guardian Angels, and I will close this post with the beautiful hymn from today's Morning and Evening Prayer; the final verses of which have taken on a special significance today:
They come, God's messengers of love,
They come from realms of peace above,
From homes of never fading light,
From blissful mansions ever bright.
They come to watch around us here,
To soothe our sorrow, calm our fear:
Ye heavenly guides, speed not away,
God willeth you with us to stay.
But chiefly at its journey's end
'Tis yours the spirit to befriend,
And whisper to the willing heart,
'O Christian soul, in peace depart.'
To us the zeal of angels give,
With Love to serve thee while we live;
To us an Angel-guard supply,
When on the bed of death we lie.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Fatherhood - Part One

I am writing this post at 11 O'clock at night, in a field near the New Forest; I have a campfire burning low in front of me, and my 4 year old daughter asleep next to me. My wife and infant son are already tucked up in our tent - the only one in the field, given that it is a Monday night. The world is silent, save for the crackling of burning wood.

We have come to the south of England to celebrate my niece's birthday, and the past few days have been filled with the hustle and bustle of a family gathering. We return home tomorrow, and I am taking this opportunity to reflect on my life as a father.

I have often said in passing that whilst I knew my parents loved me as a child, I had no idea of what that love was like until I had children of my own. When I think of the things that I did as a child, I realise now how heart-breaking they must have been for my parents; and I dread the inevitable times when my children put me through the same.

Over the past 6 months or so my daughter has matured so much; she has always been a model child, but recently she has become very much a little girl. She will, to quote my mother, 'always be my baby', but outwardly her infantility seems to be a thing of the past. For example, she lay outside with me until after 1am last night talking about the sky, and was very excited to see her first shooting stars; she would not have had the patience for this even a few months ago.

So why am I writing about fatherhood on a faith blog? To answer that question simply I would turn to the fact that everything we do should be for the greater glory of God, but I feel more explanation is needed to do my view of fatherhood justice:

On our wedding day my wife and I promised to 'accept children lovingly from God' and raise them in the faith. This vow is, like all the others we made to one another that day, indissoluble and means that our interactions with our children are more than simply 'bringing them up' - each cuddle, each game, each firm word takes place not just to churn out another capable member of society, but to give thanks and glory to God and to form the faithful of tomorrow. Indeed I hope and pray that my children will be a credit both to us and to God, and that they will be counted my greatest achievement when my life on earth is done.

Why though, is it necessary to thank God for children - after all they have the power to cause emotional turmoil that ranges from delight, to anger, to sorrow, and back to delight again (sometimes within minutes). For the answer here I will quote my daughter, who, whilst saying her prayer before bed one evening said 'thankyou God for making the trees for the birds to live in, and thankyou for making the birds to live in the trees'. Cryptic, but the (perhaps accidental) essence of her prayer is that trees were created for birds and birds were created for trees in a beautiful complementarity. In the same way, I believe that husband and wife (both in gender and in sacrament) were created for children and children bring an additional dimension to the love between their parents. I challenge anyone to hold their new born child and consider the complete, yet miniature, person in their arms to claim, at the instant at which the child opens its eyes and looks at you, that there is no God. It cannot done.

The final thought of this post turns to why we love our children. It is certainly not out of a duty to God; there are ample parents in the world who do not believe in God and yet love their children dearly. However, for those who do believe, the innocence and helplessness of children is more than nature taking its course; it is another beautiful complimentarity - children need to be protected and educated by their parents, and it is through protecting and educating that the loving bond between parent and child is strengthened.

I do not doubt for a moment that fatherhood is a subject that I will return to in this blog, as it is a topic which is obviously key to my life; but I will leave my thoughts here for the time being.

Best wishes


Thursday, 27 June 2013

Reverence for the Blessed Sacrament

This blog post was inspired (if that is the right word) by a conversation I had with a priest after a school mass last week. There were 600 or so students, all aged 11-14 at the mass with their teachers. I was supervising the altar servers so was in the sacristy after mass when the priest commented to me that he thought there was a distinct lack of reverence in pupils as they recieve communion. This post will explain my thoughts on 'appropriate reverence' for the Blessed Sacrament.

From a personal point of view, anything we do with regard to the Blessed Sacrament is not reverent enough. Given the belief that there is the real substance of our Lord in that host, kneeling does not go anywhere near far enough, we should prostrate ourselves in such a presence. Given the need for unity in the liturgy, kneeling is the most appropriate, whilst still widely usable, posture to adopt, but there are times in mass or during adoration when I feel that kneeling doesn't come close to the reverence I believe is due.

There are three areas I would like to address in turn; firstly being in a church or chapel with a tabernacle, secondly the exposed Blessed Sacrament at mass or adoration, and finally in the context of recieving holy communion:

A church is a very special place of course, particularly during holy mass, but it is the tabernacle that makes even an empty church an extraordinary place; there is a Real Presence of our Lord in that place, all of the time (with the pedantic exception of the latter part of Holy Week). Most people have an idea of 'how' to behave in a church, but it seems that many do not know 'why' they should behave that way. A genuflection as you enter a pew - many people do this as a matter of course in any church, tabernacle or not; this seems to suggest a misunderstanding of 'why' they are genuflecting - are they genuflecting to the altar? or the crucifix? I suspect if one asked the question many people would say it was as much out of habit as out of reverence. Similar statements could be made for being silent in a church out of reverence - reverence for what? To finish this idea with a quick example; it is often said as pupils enter the school hall for mass that 'this is our church' for the afternoon, with the term 'church' being the thing that demands reverence. Discounting the fact that a hall is most definately not a church, there is a clear indication in that statement that we are reverent in a church because we are in a church, rather than because there is, thinly veiled, the Real Presence our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Adoration is a truly beautiful part of our faith; we are given the opportunity to be close to our Lord, to pray, meditate and contemplate in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. As mentioned, kneeling is the common posture to adopt during adoration but I will often, after a time kneeling, sit in order to be more comfortable, as I find this helps me think more deeply. The peace that comes with being in the presence of Christ in this way is incredible, and could easily be a whole post in its own right. With regards to the reverence due when the Body of Christ is exposed for adoration, the rule I learnt as a child was that one genuflected on one knee to the concealed Blessed Sacrament and on both knees when it is displayed in a monstrance. This rule is seemingly old-fashioned now; I can find no current reference to both-knee genuflection but there is nothing contradicting it either, so I still follow it and see many others doing the same. Some might say why should there be a difference in our behaviour towards the reposed Sacrament compared with the exposed. A fair question, to which I cannot give an answer beyond asking the return question - why behave differently after the consecration at mass? There is the concealed sacrament present in the church before the consecration but there is a perceptible change in a church during the Eucharistic Prayer, Communion Rite and distribution of communion (or at least there should be).

So this leads to my thoughts on actually receiving communion at mass. This itself has three parts: Firstly in queuing to receive communion my mind is focused on what I am about to do - not receive, but do; in the sense that I am about to enter into the most intimate connection with my Lord and God. It is all too common to see people talking to those in the queue next to them as they approach the sanctuary. At times I have found myself getting irritated at this and it distracts massively from trying to obtain a peaceful and open state of mind - I do my best, but if it is distracting one person it is probably distracting many. Secondly, actually receiving communion is a very simple thing to do and is over very quickly. It would be (and is) very easy to overlook the importance of the actual act of receiving in the extended prayer before and after. The significance of this cannot be overestimated, in that tiny space of time we take the real and complete substance of Christ into our bodies and by the same act express our desire for him to stay with us in spirit. There is a huge debate to be had over whether one should recieve on the tongue or in the hand and I don't want to digress too much into that here, but given my thoughts in the second paragraph it will probably come as no surprise that I prefer on the tongue. The final part of receiving communion for me is the returning to my pew and kneeling quietly considering what I have just done (again, done, not simply received). I know many people have particular prayers that they say after communion, and I always include the 'O Sacrament Most Holy...' prayer, but the contemplative prayer I experience immediately after communion is most rewarding - I have a real sense that God is with me, within me and all around me.

I should add as a final note that it is very rare that I use a personal, rather than collective pronoun in relation to God ('my Lord', as opposed to 'our Lord'), but receiving communion is to me a very personal moment; all are called to receive, and to the same end of connecting ourselves to God more closely, but we each experience the sacrament in a personal way.

Regardless of the context in which we interact with the Blessed Sacrament, the idea recurs that it would be virtually impossible to show too much reverence to the Real Presence of our Lord.

Best wishes


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A Catholic Identity

This post continues on from a previous thought - how does one recognise a Catholic? And gradually turns to thoughts on how we can encourage young Catholics to witness to their faith.

There are a great many stereotypes associated with Catholicism - most people in England imagine Catholics to be mainly old women who kneel and say the rosary at a hundred miles an hour in front of a statue or other image, before getting out a few dozen prayer cards to as many different Saints and praying each in turn. 

Whilst these stereotypes are not entirely undeserved, they are often badly misunderstood, and younger Catholics have, by and large, and for a fair number of years, concealed their faith from those around them; for fear of mockery or even derision. This is something I see every day in the Catholic school at which I work - there are those who are clearly nervous about coming into the chapel to say the rosary, or joining the school choir, or reading at mass; and this mentality is being carried through into young Catholic adults. So the stereotype of Catholics being old exists not because there aren't young Catholics, but because they are not as open about their faith.

So what might young Catholics (teenagers onward) do to show their faith? There are easy answers to this question; wear crucifixes or rosary bracelets, talk openly about their 'faith' behaviours (how many Catholic teenagers would omit mass when asked by a peer "what're you doing this weekend?") and discuss their faith openly when appropriate.

The more complex answer is that we must encourage the young to be active and effective witnesses in everything they do. Far from rubbing people's noses in the faith, this is perhaps an even more subtle change than those mentioned above. The outward signs are important, but they must support a fundamental change in our approach to life - to quote Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, "kindness has converted more people than zeal, science or eloquence"*

Of course these things are easy to suggest, but most teenagers are social animals, and will not want to be the one who initiates this change in their circle of friends - faith is, almost by definition, a personal experience and for many teenagers is hidden even from close friends. So how do we encourage the young laity to take up the outward signs of the faith? The great work of institutions such as Soli House and Alton Castle helps immensely, but the encouragement must stretch beyond a weekend's retreat into their scholastic and familial relationships too. 

Social media is much condemned in education as a whole new way of bullying; and pupils are subjected to assembly after assembly about how poorly people behave on the Internet. Why should we not be encouraging the use of social media as a way to share their feelings? Indeed a perennial feature in those assemblies is how easy it is to be brave from behind a computer screen, to say something you might not if you were in front of the person; why not harness that to a positive - we should be encouraging young people to refer to their faith in their status updates, tweets and blogs.

I will finish with what may be the most controversial comment of this post: In my experience those young people who remain with and develop their understanding of their faith into and through their twenties are those individuals whose experiences or preferences (often both) of Catholicism are notably conservative. This is not to say they do not also embrace more modern church practices, but they have a distinctly old-fashioned approach to many areas which, whilst never officially changed, have developed into new practices by themselves. For example the practice of holding hands with the person next to you during the Our Father at mass - I know the use of the orans position for the laity is common in parts of the world, but the holding hands as far as I can tell is an entirely new innovation. I have seen some families doing this in mass, and I was encouraged to do it whilst at a Soli House-like retreat during secondary school, but I have never seen it done by a group of young people who have come to mass of their own volition. Even the tangible outward signs mentioned above are considered old fashioned, but it seems that it is those who do wear crucifixes and say the rosary who are most likely to remain with the church into their adult years.

Best wishes.


* quote taken from a tweet by Ashley Kiczek - @1sistersR4ever

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Some Thoughts On Sin

I have been thinking a lot over the past few months about sin. This post is an attempt to give (some of) my views on what sin is and how an increased awareness of my sins has changed my outlook to life.

The Catechism, in points 1849 and 1850, describes sin as being an offence, both against eternal law (CCC 1849) and against God (CCC 1850). These would seem to be linked, given that God established eternal law in the scriptures. I have struggled to find appreciable differences between eternal law and natural law, but that could be a whole other post... 

To describe sin as being an offence against reason, truth and right conscience seems to indicate that everyone has an instinctive sense of right and wrong which is linked to our notion of sin. The key difference in a belief in wrong-doing being sinful is that wrong actions carry a consequence - a loss of grace in our relationship with God. If one does not believe in God, what consequence is there to wrong-doing besides that which society imposes in the form of our judicial system? To some the threat of imprisonment is cause enough to keep them from wrongdoing, but for those who believe in God, the idea of being separated from Him is far more of a deterrent than the possibility of a policeman knocking on our door,

So this leads to the idea of different types of sin - mortal and venial. Until very recently I was barely aware that these two 'classes' of sin existed - indeed I asked a class I was covering recently if they could tell me what was meant by mortal sin and out of the 10 who had made their first communion and been confirmed, not one could tell me anything substantial. This ignorance (including on my part until recently) points to either poor catechesis at first communion and/or confirmation or a lack of reinforcement since; given that I can remember my preparation for both sacraments I suspect the former. 

Venial sins are those which are not grave, or serious, offences, and which, while they damage our relationship with God, can be wiped away by remorse and an act of contrition such as that at the start of mass. Mortal sins are serious, committed knowingly and committed willingly; they destroy our relationship of grace with God, and can only be removed by sacramental absolution during confession.

When I have committed venial sins I feel dispirited, particularly during an examination of my conscience, but there is a sense of relief after making a heartfelt and spiritual act of contrition. Over the past couple of years I have tried to do this everyday, usually at the start of Compline (Night Prayer), and would strongly recommend it.

Mortal sins however are very different. The shame and anguish of being in a state of mortal sin is depressing even to consider; I have a real sense that I am missing a part of my life, knowing that I have offended God in such a serious manner. However, in the same way as the anguish of mortal sin is a thousand times worse than that of venial sin, so to is the satisfaction, elation even, that I feel after making a considered and frank confession.

I am very conscious that I have barely scratched the surface of my thoughts on sin, but I will finish this post with a short story of an experience of a confession which I think illustrates the idea of sin damaging or destroying our relationship with God:

I had gone to Lourdes with a school trip; I hadn't been to confession for a number of years (during my time at university and in my first years of teaching), but I felt inspired to go during my time there. I found out the timings of English confession and was half an hour too late, but made a note of the times and luckily I was able to receive the sacrament the following day. It was a beautiful day in Lourdes - it was all sun cream and sunglasses, but I remember coming out into the warm sunshine and appreciating it in a whole new way. I genuinely felt like God was with me in a way that I had not felt for years - my relationship with him had truly been restored.

As always, comments are welcome.

Best wishes


Friday, 31 May 2013

2nd Friday, May 2013

Friday 10th May was the monthly meeting of the 2nd Friday group at St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham. I've only been to a couple of 2nd Friday gatherings but have found both thought-provoking and, frankly, inspiring.

Firstly, a brief explanation of 2nd Friday: Organised as a group for young people in the archdiocese, the group meets on the second Friday of each month (hence the name) for confessions, mass and a themed talk afterwards. The evenings are advertised mainly through social media - a search on Facebook for 2nd Friday or on Twitter for @bhamcatholics will bring up the relevant pages.

This month's talk was given by Bishop Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, on the topic of Dignitatis Humanae - The 2nd Vatican Council document on religious freedom.

Bishop Davies' talk was, as I have already mentioned, inspiring, and I came away with a great deal of things whirring around my mind. One particular aspect came out during the short group discussion following the talk that I have been considering in more depth; it is perhaps best to phrase this as a question:

What are the challenges facing the Church in its role of
protecting and spreading the faith in the world?
This is a poorly paraphrased version of one of the questions Bishop Davies asked us to think about in our groups following his talk. I do not claim to have all (or indeed any) of the answers to this question, but it is one that the Church must be constantly asking within itself. The more we discussed this the more the idea came out that this question is becoming more and more pertinent in today's world - the challenges seem more serious than many that have come before and, most worryingly, far more widespread. In particular we noted challenges such as decreasing numbers of practicing Catholics, more casual sexual morals, increasing abortion rates and the push to legalise same-sex 'marriage'.
The challenges we noted seemed to fall into two categories: Firstly there was the problem of people loosing their identity as Christians and falling away from God and secondly there were those problems which seemed to stem from a societal loss of identity as a Christian country. The two seem to be similar in regards to an 'identity' but vastly different in scale.
We discussed various ways of approaching the challenges we had noted, and covered a range of possibilities from Prayer (always useful) to some frankly right-wing political approaches to controlling Society's religious expression (obviously not in any seriousness) and while we were able to agree on what would not be constructive, we were unable to reach anything close to a consensus on possible solutions.
As I thought more about the two problems on the drive home it occurred that there is no quick solution to either problem, but rather that they might be seen together and dealt with slowly. 
The Church does not have the direct political weight it once had. This is largely down to the advent of democracy in the western world and, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, means that statements by the Archbishop of Westminster and the Bishop's Conference can simply be ignored by politicians if they so choose. I believe the Bishops should certainly continue making these statements publically but perhaps they should also use their influence over the Catholic population to exert a political pressure - how would politicians react if the Archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury made a joint statement asking Catholics and Anglicans to not vote for a party which advocates same-sex marriage (in essence to make a 'protest vote', as all three major parties support the legislation)? Of course many would ignore the Archbishops' request - but if only 10% did as they were asked, what would the effect be on the general election results? Could the politicians ignore this effect? 
But I digress; the Bishops could use their influence in a far more fundamental way, by encouraging people to be active witnesses to their faith in their day-to-day lives. I am ashamed to say that there are times when I have had the opportunity to share the moral teaching of the Church, and my own strongly-held views, but have remained silent out of fear of derision. This has become incredibly widespread - Catholics are worried about displaying their faith outwardly as this can, today and in this country, lead to accusations of being against the secular norm, which can in serious cases lead to disciplinary action in one's job or even court actions. If every Christian practised and witnessed to their faith every day, in every action, then there would be a fundamental shift in society away from the secular, ultra-inclusive, direction and back towards a country built on sound morals and natural law. Such a change is not going to happen overnight, and will not come about through the action of one person; whether he is a layman, a priest or even a bishop; it must come from a concerted effort to encourage every Christian in the country to take up the vocation of their baptism in a very real way. 
I read an article recently (unfortunately I cannot find it again to give the author credit) which contained a proposal that falling attendance to church was down to Catholics lacking an identity. The author posed the question 'how does one recognise a(nother) Catholic?' This is a wonderful question and can be extended to include the word 'Christian' in place of 'Catholic'. There are dozens of things which have been done in the past which have fallen out of use; for example: saying the phrase 'God rest him/her' after using a dead person's name; making the sign of the cross as a hearse passes by, or before a meal; stopping to say the Angelus at noon; the list goes on. The re-emphasis (or perhaps re-introduction) of the Friday fast by the Bishops' Conference is a good example of how this can be done, but, whilst not aiming to laud the practice over others, perhaps the laity should be encouraged to explain why they fast on Fridays to those who ask. By encouraging simple devotions and practices the article suggests that Catholicism (again 'Christianity' could be substituted to a similar end) would become more recognisable and 'main-stream', rather than being a hushed thing people do just for an hour on Sundays. This in turn would lead to people asking more in depth questions about the faith and returning to or discovering the Church (and more importantly, Christ) for the first time.
What started as a simple post about 2nd Friday has stretched into something far more. I will proof-read what I have written, but will try not to make too many changes; my apologies if I have rambled at times, but as I said, I do not intend to give answers, just observations from my current point of view.
Best wishes