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