08 December 2013

Advent Homily for the Oxford Ordinariate Group

First Sunday of Advent : Vigil Mass for the Ordinariate Parish Mass

Church of the Holy Rood, Oxford

30 November 2013

Looking at the readings that set the course for a new year in the Latin Church, I am forced to recall how as a newly ordained curate I had to cover an interregnum for two years and when the second Advent dawned, I realised I had run out of the things to say that I had stored from my time in training. I therefore decided on a course of sermons at our Parish Mass, teeming with families and children, on the Four Last Things. Thus Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell were the cheering preparation for Christmas 1986.

I trust I did no lasting harm, since in those days people attended Church in good number for the Lord, and less hinged on the techniques of the priest and the disposition of those who heard him. But my mistake had been to confuse the beginning of Advent with a preoccupation with the Coming of God for the Last Judgment at the End of Times.

True: in the reading from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 2. 1-5) we are inspired with the vision of the Temple Mount in the City of God, towering over the hills that currently dominate it, all lit up to reveal the right and safest paths to it from wherever you are starting, meeting you halfway with God’s own commands to give judgment on the injustices in which you are complicit, and then to reconfigure you as people shining with his reflected peace.

And in the Gospel that is nowadays chosen for this Sunday(Matt. 24. 37-44), we are asked to contemplate not bathing in the light of the New Jerusalem but a second great Flood that could take half of us away in an impenitent instant, or a Christ who is the thief in the night to steal the unwary soul.

So we have become accustomed to a frisson of rapture mixed with dread at the forthcoming end of time. We love nothing better than to sing a hymn that alternates our response to the sight of the true Messiah’s return with “Alleluya” in one verse, and “Deeply wailing” in the next (from “Lo, He comes with clouds descending”). But this Sunday will pass and we will quickly get on with our anticipations of Christ’s Nativity, the first coming of the Messiah.

Yet, here again, we would be missing the point of Advent. It is not so much a few weeks of preparation for Christmas, as the six or so weeks that form the season to prepare us for the great Baptismal Feast of Epiphany on January the Sixth. The Feast of the Nativity has come in along the way; but, just as Easter has its Forty Days and Pentecost its Fifty, so Epiphany is the object of this season upon which we are setting out today. For the Second Coming that is envisaged is not only the vindication that will come at the end of time, but the second Nativity of our Lord that comes into effect when the believer becomes a new creation in Christ at his baptism. Will we not be singing in a less than a month’s time, “Cast out our sin, and enter in: be born in us today”?

For the new Christians who once were baptised at the great celebrations of initiation that took place at Epiphany - and that still mark the liturgy of the Eastern Churches for the feast of Theophany, as they call it, the manifestation of God at his baptism, marked with the blessings of water and the copious lustral showerings of the people – for these new Christians, the culmination of a whole season’s preparation would be entry into the life of Christ incarnate and Christ victorious over death by His Resurrection in the flesh. For it is the constant Resurrection that is the Second Coming of Christ; and we are caught up in its constant happening by Baptism, the New Order on which there is no going back and the life of which is eternity now. Thus for new Christians, it is Baptism that is the end of the world they once lived in, and the beginning of the new. It is the end of the old living, the old sins, the old faults and the old memories; now it is the time for new living in the life of the Resurrection, with new virtues and new memories of new holiness: no longer the enervating disappointment of failed effort and spoiled attempts. Baptism is the illumination from the City of God’s Peace of which Isaiah speaks - not a lightning judgment that condemns, but one that reveals the truth and wins concurrence, and then wins hearts. So the great Epiphany event of baptism six weeks away, anticipated from the beginning of Advent, comes not to catch the unwatching soul in order to condemn it, but to take it through a journey of realisation, of revelation about itself, of repentance and conversion, and finally joyful desire to be living in Christ and as Christ.

St Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, set for this day from time immemorial (Rom. 13. 11-14), tells us that the time of God, the Day of the Lord, is not then in the future, but now. We are to wake up and leave the cover of darkness and stand up to do something very different, in the different Light that is now rising. The only armour we will need for protection in our new work is the life of Christ that we lead as His Body.

The Gospel in the Old Mass for today, from St Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 21. 25-33), warms to the same theme. It begins with signs in the firmament and distress among the nations, but points out that the coming of Christ is not a matter of grim destruction and fear, but of Glory settling what sin has disturbed, of high hopes, and of a summer of redemption that is coming very near, and coming in us. The comings and goings of generations are not the point; we will pass through earth and we will pass through heaven. But what abides is the Word of the Lord, Christ in us, and we in Christ.  The fundamental reality we face in our faith is the reality of me and the reality of God, an inescapable truth, one that inescapably binds me to Him and He to me. Blessed John Henry knew this; and will we, too, not soon be singing, “O come to us, abide in us, Our Lord Emmanuel”?

Even the Gospel appointed for today in the Book of Common Prayer, the Palm Sunday story, drawn from the Sarum Rite’s lectionary for the Sunday before Advent (Matthew 21), reminds us that the King has come to us for the moment of NOW. We call on Him to enter His own City - namely our otherwise impregnable soul - by naming Him its Saviour. Thus the thief in the night subverts the den of thieves. The first thing He does is to throw out all that is wrong in us, to cleanse us, to convert us back to being Temples for the Holy Spirit, and then to pray within us, taking his rightful place on the only throne that matters to Him – the human hearts made for the love of God alone.

The reason we do well to concentrate on the true purpose of this season that will take us up through the events surrounding Christ’s Nativity, to the moment of his Epiphany before the Kings and the Peoples, and pre-eminently at his Baptism in the Jordan, is that it restores our perspective. Our reference point is not a feast that will come and go, now that it has been largely reclaimed as Yule; nor is it the recapitulation of all things when the constructs of time and space cease to bear relation to us and our Maker. What we have to be concerned about is the eternal present of God’s moment when it comes. Jesus lamented the Jerusalem of his days for failing to realise the present action of God. So it faced its physical, moral and spiritual collapse. It could be the same for us, if we do not live in the new life that is our constant state of baptism, our risen life in Christ, our unendable endowment with the very nature of God that is the reason God in Christ came to endow Himself with ours.

This week Mr Speaker Bercow opined that the reason a series of Members of Parliament have been convicted following an expenses-fiddling scandal in which many more were shown to have no idea of the difference between right and wrong is because they were “bored” and “under-occupied”. Is this the best defence that humans can make before the bar of public opinion? Will it win acquittal and exoneration? If this ruse works, can we run the same defence past the Almighty? Clearly, if there are those who still care, they may well think so: “And he, seeking to justify himself said, ‘I was bored and under-occupied’.”

Not many people believe in sin, except it is other people’s. Not many people believe in forgiveness, unless it is their own. Not many people believe in mercy, unless it is something withheld from the offender. It is a strange phase in our society which once, for good or ill, had a corporate sense of its identity as Christian. This meant the values not just of what used to be called “respectability” – an ambition to behave in a way that others could honour, especially in adversity – but also honesty and virtue in personal conduct, as well as fairness and humanity in dealings with others.  Integral to all getting along - for it takes all sorts to make a world - were the qualities of patience, of charitable outlook, of non-aggressiveness in thought, deed and word, of mercy towards those who failed and compassion to those without aid. Most of all, even amid the more oppressive constraints in society, there has nonetheless often been an instinct for forgiveness offered, in the hope of forgiveness to be received, sometimes characterised by the prudent phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I”.

These outlooks are by no means general now. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor once observed that throughout his life it was as though we were all acting out the drama of our British way of life, while slowly behind us the backdrop of Christian values, of mercy, forgiveness and redemption, had been rolled up. To hear of people speak so vehemently of disaffected teenagers, of the fearful dangers posed by the imminent arrival of Bulgarian and Romanian jobseekers (mark you, our fellow Christians as Orthodox), of how every adversity now has to be someone’s glaring omission, and every public servant a blameworthy object of life-destroying retribution, is all so merciless. It is perhaps the greatest victory of the secularists that, having dethroned Christ from his English Christendom in schools, local authority services and our very culture, people have been left with nothing to fall back on, no story to remember that explains our deepest questions of why life and death and suffering and hope are as they are, no words to articulate in a moment when people feel they are “not religious but spiritual”, no prayers to say, no example to emulate and internalise so they know from deep in their heart of hearts what it is second nature to do, what is right and what is wrong - even if they feel “bored” and “under-occupied”. This latest of passing ages is serving people ill, for now there is no King to cry “Hosanna” to, no God to hope in, no Lord whose yoke I take and path I follow. I am my own judge; my own the law made up as I go along; my will the counsel in my court. I am left to be my own sovereign; there is no City set on hill that lights the paths for us all to start out on; there is no Law that binds me as much as it binds others, and no perspective on God the closer he comes. He draws up, he passes near; I cannot tell the distance, nor can I see how my NOW has to fit into eternity. Instead, I am left, not with his righteousness, but my own self-righteousness. It is a poor substitute; and the indignation, the frustration, the selfishness, the egos competing for prevalence, the urge to do what is advantageous in the moment regardless of what is good, the material covetousness that indulges our feelings but safely insulates our souls, the self-acquittal that is couched in the denunciation of others, is a dark and bitter place, where there is no satisfaction for all the effort and self-delusion we put into it.

Better then, as we look forward and look around, to take our bearings from the Epiphany, from our baptism, when Christ came again, risen from the dead and making us a new creation. Better for us to come out of doing whatever it is that we do in the dark, and to see where to stand in the light of the City of God’s peace rising, where to tell that the warming approach of God is on its way, and call out as it comes, “O Lord, shew Thy mercy upon us: and grant us Thy salvation”.

There, as new creatures, not the old deathful and dying spirits who destroy and are destroyed, let us be seen by God’s grace as the City of Light and Peace, about whom the Lord can say, “Come and walk by this light”.            `

13 August 2013

The Universal Prayer of St Peter Canisius

A short essay on this vernacular sixteenth century re-emergent form of the Prayer of the Faithful within the classic Latin Roman rite, popular for 450 years in the German-speaking Catholic Church, with a translation and three suggested workings for use in either the Ordinary or Extraordinary Forms of Mass.

Download the article here, to read the background and liturgical versions. Here is the translated prayer itself, with the groupings of intentions as St Peter Canisius intended, allowing for a response from the faithful after each, and with the introductory invocation and the concluding prayer to be said by the celebrant priest:

The Universal Prayer of Saint Peter Canisius

Almighty, eternal God, Lord, heavenly Father, look with Your eyes of undeserved compassion on our sorrow, misery and need.

Have mercy on all the Christian faithful, for whom Your only-begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, was content to give Himself into the hand of sinners and shed His precious Blood on the wood of the Holy Cross.

For the sake of the Lord Jesus, most gracious Father, avert our well-deserved punishments, present danger and future threats, harm and outrage, arms and warfare, dearth and misfortune, sickness and sorrowful, miserable times.

Enlighten and strengthen in all goodness our spiritual leaders and earthly rulers, that they may do everything to further Your honour as God, our salvation, the common peace, and the welfare of all Your people.

Grant us, O God of peace, a true unity in faith, free of all division and separation. Convert our hearts to true repentance and amendment of life. Kindle in us the fire of Your love; give us hunger and zeal for justice in all things, so that we, as obedient children through life unto death, may be pleasing to You and find favour in Your sight.

We also pray, O God, as You willed that we should pray, for our friends and enemies, for the healthy and the sick, for all Christians in sadness and distress, for the living and the dead. 

To You, O Lord, be entrusted whatever we do, whatever our path, our work and our dealings, our living and dying. Let us delight in Your grace here in this world, and attain the next with all Your chosen ones, to praise, honour and extol You in unending joy and blessedness.

Grant us this, O Lord, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

11 May 2013

Liverpool Care Pathway: A Homily

Three or four times a year, a group of fellow Catholics and friends meet to discuss a matter of current social, public or ecclesiastical interest. At the preceding celebration of Mass, I try to find in the Scripture readings of the day something that will reflect on the subject of the discussion.

On Thursday, the matter concerned was the controversial Liverpool Care Pathway. Intended to provide the framework for the best nursing and medical care for the dying, in the hands of some practitioners it is used as the basis for proactive judgments that determine the course resulting in the ending of life. It seems that withdrawal of sustenance or life-saving intervention can be decided, without the consultation of family or respect for a patient's faith or wishes, on a pragmatic (or economic) assessment that takes into account such considerations as the average likelihood of recovery, age, social demography and so on. As it has manifested itself in England – following a series of terrible instances of not only negligent but harmful nursing practice – it looks like the pressure of a “culture of death” from a medical establishment that steers people, either through persuasion or as a result of the ethic applied to the way the care programme is being applied, to a non-illegalised version of euthanasia.

Without getting into the technicalities, my homily sought to stress that human mortality can never be seen as “end of life” but as the setting of its resurrection. The dying person is thus not an animal being managed out of existence, but an integral member of the creation which has been and is being restored in Christ, all humanity in it, and him.

6th May 2013
Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter
The Frame of Risen Humanity and its Care
Acts 18.1-8
John 16.16-20
Through the readings, today we have witnessed that moment that so incensed St Paul that he turned his attention from revealing the true significance of Christ’s passion and resurrection just to the members of the Jewish diaspora, and oriented it to the rest of the world too. And we almost missed it, but we also saw the moment when St Paul baptised and thus admitted to the Church not just personal converts, but a whole family household. In other words, the resurrection to new life is not just for those who believe in it, or for those who form a religious group or, as we might relativise ourselves nowadays, a “world faith”, but for the whole world. Indeed it has happened TO the whole world, and it has re-created the nature of ALL humanity.
Similarly, we have stood before Jesus on the verge of his taking leave of us in this world, only to be told that his going away is nothing other than his constant returning. In other words, just as his death was not the end but the means to a new creation, so his new life, which cannot be contained within this world, is by no means restricted to the next.
If there is a weakness in the way we proclaim the Gospel of the Resurrection in the Christian West it is that we seem to be locked into the philosophy that heaven is an after-life, that life after death is a realm for the body’s leftover spirit, that rest eternal is inertia, that resurrection is a scientific conundrum to be explained away spiritually, or even denied materially. It is as though we more truly believe that this life here and now is what matters, that here is where we find the concrete reality.
In truth, however, as C S Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, here is the world of shadows, false impressions and soft authenticity – heaven is the hard and vivid reality, at first too hard and vivid to be bearable. Thus famously he also said that the suffering now is part of the glory then – the two are not only connected, they are the same thing as they impinge, the first in the fallen world, the second in the life that is to come and is already upon us. St Paul, with his massive impression of the way in which everything is integral to Christ who fills the universe, put it another way – “your life is hid with Christ in God”; and again, “it is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me”. Thus it is the great intuition of the Christian East that the resurrection is not some far off and distant result, still less a merely spiritual phenomenon appropriated now only through faith and grace, but it is the true, harsh, vivid, pointed reality of existence as it stands now, since Christ burst the tomb and ascended the heavens, and to which those who are baptised in the Spirit are – we trust – acutely attuned.
The resurrection is not then; it is now. Heaven is not hereafter; it is the present Kingdom that we pray may “come on earth - as it is … “.
All humanity is of one piece before it – not in one group, or nation, or religion; still less in one individual’s mind for faith. Just as we all belong to each other in this world, so this world belongs to heaven and in heaven. By the same token, there is no difference of separation now to the humanity that fell from grace, and the humanity in which Christ redeemed it from loss and endued it with the everlasting life, which is the quality of the Kingdom of Heaven. As St Paul also said, “it was sown a material body; it is raised a spiritual body”. Christ is risen – we are risen: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ all are made alive”. The living of the resurrection in the body is not something from which this life and the barrier of death insulate us – this resurrection is the truth of who we are with the nature of human beings. And it is now. More vivid, harder, more blindingly apparent for all we believe we cannot see it. This is not a mere opinion of how Christians regard themselves. It is how Christians understand the created, fallen, forgiven and resurrected order in which we find ourselves, because this is where we see that Christ, who went “beyond” in his act of constantly being present again and again in it. This is what his going to the Father means: for ever being seen “on earth, as it is in heaven”.
This evening we turn our attention to the ethical questions surrounding end of life care, and the response of the Catholic Church, in its members, to those whose bodies decline, fade and falter, as well as to those who attend to their needs. For us, the first response must arise from our faith. And that is to profess the faith of St Paul that, despite appearances to the contrary in the physical changes that affect and challenge our living through this world, the body is not a manifestation of a person’s death and dying:  always it belongs to a person whose humanity is raised from mortality and restored to the Kingdom. The body is integral to their living within the resurrection, the “beyond” that has not departed, but still fills the universe. It is the frame of suffering now that is inseparable from the glory then. It is not the advent of decline, but of ascension.
The care of the end of any human being’s course through this world should hardly be marked by an attitude that looks upon it as loss, decline, ending and closure. Truly these are realities in the flesh that Christ our God went through too. But our eye is set at the same time on “the things that are above” them - a restoration after sin and suffering, and the working of a new creation as it is coming to pass in them. Thus, as the Prayer over the Gifts we are about to offer says,  even now we are being “conformed to the mysteries of … mighty love”.

25 March 2013

Homily for a Mass to Pray for Pope Francis

If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all
21 March 2013 – Thursday of the Fifth Week in Lent


Our new Holy Father has tagged himself with some luminous markers in his first week in office. His baptismal patron is St George, the soldier-saint chosen as the patron of the Crusades against Islam’s occupancy of the Holy Places; yet for his pontifical name he chose St Francis, who went to speak of the love of Christ to Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt, so as to bring the Crusades to a peaceful end.

Quite apparently chosen by the Conclave to lead the Church in both institutional and spiritual renewal (and to those who were expecting a Vatican placeman this is reminiscent of the emergence of John XXIII from the midst of the Pian Church), the Jesuit might have been expected to look to the patronage of Ignatius of Loyola for reform or Aloysius Gonzaga for purity of life and purpose – and we have known neither a Pope Ignatius nor a Pope Louis before. Instead he lighted upon Francis, “the richest of poor men”, inspired by a fellow Cardinal, we are told, not to forget the poor who are the Church in his native Latin America.

Immediately, however, clever commentators thought he must have more in mind the great Jesuit missionary of Japan, St Francis Xavier, on whose evangelical sanctity and evangelistic labours the Catholic Church in the Far East was built, just at the time a Church apprehensive of true renewal was losing its northern flocks to the Reformation in the West. There could also have been the less than worthy Pope Alexander VI’s grandson, St Francis Borgia, who gave up his dukedom to enter the Society of Jesus, starting out as a cook and waiter at table, until he became a second founder of the Jesuits, consolidating its novitiates and setting up what was to become the Gregorian University. Another remarkable Francis was not a Jesuit, but an Oratorian, the beloved Francis de Sales, the beauty of whose preaching of the love of God, simplicity of life and purity of discipleship won many who had been excited into the ferment of Calvin’s Reform back to the unity of the Church. Although the city of Geneva of which he was bishop was lost to him, his proclamation and living of the gospel was truly the new evangelisation of its day. But all of these saints are named after St Francis of Assisi and modelled themselves on him. Likewise it is to the humble, innocent Poverello whom the Lord commanded to rebuild his Church - the person in whom perhaps more than anyone else Jesus Christ has come again - that our new Holy Father has turned for a pattern in living, inspiration in endeavour and protection in prayer. We have already heard from him that the greatest power in the Church is service; that the Church is a Church of the poor; and that its duty is to protect those whom worldly society rejects and resents, along with the creation God has given to sustain us all alike.

Another one of those luminous markers was the acceptance of a ring once belonging to Pope Paul VI as his own Fisherman’s Ring. After many years, in which the painstaking faithfulness and leadership during an ear of the greatest social changes of such a beautiful and holy soul as Pope Paul have been questioned and even despised, it is a blessing to the Church that Pope Francis has signified the hermeneutic of continuity between his new pontificate and that of the wise, bold popes of the great Second Vatican Council. So the great tradition goes on and the Church brings riches from its treasury both old and new.

Yet another marker is his insistence that he is from the first successor to Peter not with grand titles such as Supreme Pontiff or Universal Pastor but as bishop of the local Church of Rome. Thus he has honoured the remarkable Petrine ministry and teaching office of his predecessor not by reference to him as “the Pope Emeritus”, but as “our retired bishop”. In this he echoes Pope Benedict’s call as successor of the apostle Peter, that Britain heard in Westminster Abbey, to give a convincing account of the hope that lies within us, not by a facile accommodation to the spirit of the age but an ever deeper unity in the apostolic faith in Jesus Christ truly risen from the dead. It is worth noting here that it was the witness to Jesus’ resurrection and the purity of teaching conserved by the Church at Rome, in direct continuity from the apostles Peter and Paul, that caused it to be seen by all, in the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, as “the church that presides in love”. Its prime role in speaking for the whole Church and resolving the authenticity of its teaching was thus respected for a millennium in both East and West. In our own day, Pope Francis is well aware that the Eastern Churches’ diaspora is now everywhere in the West; just as the Latin West is diffused throughout the world of the Christian East too. His apparent expectation that the local Church of Rome will be trusting the Churches locally to respond to the needs of humanity for the gospel by the lights of where and who they are, whether that is Rome or Istanbul, Buenos Aires or Lusaka,  Kiev or Beijing, seems to take into account the realities of how the People of God belong in the communion of the Body of Christ, the need for the Churches to act and live in collegial concert, and the urgency of mutual union among Christians for the sake of realising the blessings in the Sermon on the Mount, “on earth as it is in heaven”. Thanks to the openness of his immediate predecessor to the Orthodox Church, which enabled some notable progress in the joint Orthodox-Catholic theological dialogue, the ground has been prepared for a Patriarch of Constantinople to witness for the first time the inauguration of the local bishop of the Church which presides in love. And the real power-wielder in Orthodoxy, the confident and globally expanding but also “local” Russian Orthodox Church, was significantly represented in Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, a likely successor to Patriarch Kirill someday, who studied for his doctorate here in the West in England. The Moscow Patriarchate has long advocated an alliance from Latin West and Russian East in concert across Europe, for recalling it to the faith that once civilised it by bringing it to Christ. In rooting the Roman bishop’s wider ministry, authority and witness in the faith, needs and experience of the City and culture where he is set – serving as its own apostle of the gospel, rather than primarily ruler of the global church - Pope Francis strikes a chord with Orthodox Churches that have a strong sense of their local purpose, and challenges those which are tempted to rival the Roman curia for binding communion to central control, rather than a presidency in love. Perhaps Pope Francis will prove to be as radical for Christian Unity as his predecessor was in ending the existential papacy, so that the primacy of episcopal office might succeed him.

Perhaps the Pope’s most luminous marker is to share the concerns of the poor. Of course it is true to say that the poor are not necessarily poor because of the rich and the rich are not necessarily rich because of their abuse of the poor. The causes are as complex as the solutions are unpalatable to those with the power to deliver them. But poverty is not just economic and social. It is spiritual too. The Holy Father seems to be referring to another great saint of his Church of Rome, the 3rd century deacon, St Lawrence. When commanded by the prefect of Rome to hand over the wealth of the Church, Lawrence distributed it to the poor and told him that the poor, the disabled, the blind and the suffering were the true treasures of the Church. Sealing his own death sentence, he said that in them “the Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor”.

All these markers point to a new course to the Church’s life for sure. In every image that Pope Francis has conjured up, and every holy person whose name he seems to have invoked, he puts us in mind of the Lord’s words in today’s Gospel: “If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all.” Instead, the Jesuit like the Master seeks “the greater glory of God”; and, according to his own motto, is deeply aware that the Master has chosen him not because he has some gifts or characteristics that the Lord could now find useful, but miserando atque eligendo purely out of having mercy upon him.