Sunday, 30 March 2014

Hamilton and Newman: Everything Happens for a Reason

Lewis Hamilton celebrating winning
the 2008 World Championship after
the Brazilian Grand Prix
There was a furore recently following comments Lewis Hamilton made on Michael Schumacher's serious skiing accident. Hamilton commented that 'everything happens for a reason', and was duly subjected to an outpouring of vitriol from those who felt he had been 'insensitive'.

But of course Hamilton's statement is entirely in accord with a simple trust in Divine Providence. Hamilton comes from a Catholic background, and went to John Henry Newman school in Stevenage.

Could Blessed John Henry be looking out for Hamilton? It's certainly true that around the same time I became a Catholic, and took the confirmation name John Henry Newman, my son Alex (baptised a few months after I was) was getting into Formula One, and becoming a keen follower of Lewis Hamilton. Now he regularly prays for Hamilton's temporal and spiritual welfare, offering up Holy Communions and Rosaries for this intention.

This morning, on the way to Mass, one of Alex's intentions was for his favourite driver. As we drove, we discussed how Hamilton is in many ways a similar driver to Ayrton Senna, and we talked about how great it would be if Hamilton started to talk openly about God in his interviews, in the way that Senna used to.

Then this afternoon, Hamilton won the Malaysian Grand Prix. It looks like he has a good chance of winning the championship this season.

And everything happens for a reason . . .

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us!

(Image from Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Licence)

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Our Lady of Akita

I recently discovered the history of the Church-approved apparition of Our Lady to Sr. Agnes in Akita, Japan. In this apparition, which took place in 1973, Our Lady reiterated the message of Fatima: prayer and penance, especially the daily Rosary. She wept at the deepening sins of the world, and pleaded with the faithful to make sacrifices to prevent further chastisement. Particularly striking was her warning about the Church herself:

"The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against other bishops. The priests who venerate me will be scorned and opposed by their confreres, churches and altars will be sacked. The Church will be full of those who accept compromises and the devil will press many priests and consecrated souls to leave the service of the Lord. The demon would be especially implacable against souls consecrated to God. The thought of the loss of so many souls is the cause of my sadness. If sins increase in number and gravity, there will be no longer any pardon for them."

During and after the apparitions, there were numerous physical manifestations which helped witnesses to believe in the reality of the apparitions: the statue in the chapel of the Institute of the Handmaids of the Holy Eucharist bled and wept on a number of occasions, and the expression on its face was altered. Scientific studies of the liquids from the statue confirmed that they were human blood and tears. Many non-Catholics were present and bore witness to the reality of the manifestations. On one occasion the statue was filmed as it wept.

Most sobering of all were Our Lady's words about the judgement to come:

"As I told you, if people do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity. It will be a punishment greater than the Flood, such as one will never have seen before. Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, the good as well as the bad, sparing neither priests nor faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead. The only arms which will remain for you will be the Rosary and the Sign left by my Son. Each day recite the prayers of the Rosary. With the Rosary pray for the Pope, the bishops and the priests."

As Fr Hugh Thwaites used to say, we're in a war, and our weapon is the Holy Rosary. With it, victory is assured. Without it, defeat looks increasingly inevitable in a world so hostile to the Christian faith.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Ayrton Senna's Last Hours

My son is a Formula One fanatic, so I found myself watching a documentary about three times world champion Ayrton Senna today. I was struck by the way he frequently mentioned God in interviews. But most striking of all was what his sister said about the morning of the day he died during the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994.

Everyone's mood was more sober that day, because of the death of Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying. Senna asked God to speak to him, and opened the Bible. He read there that God would give him something more precious than anything: he would give him God Himself. A few hours later he was dead.

On Senna's grave is written "Nada pode me separar do amor de Deus", ("Nothing can separate me from the love of God"), from St Paul's letter to the Romans.

Requiescat in pace.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Licence.]

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Bad Preaching

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)
I'm reading Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers for the first time, and it's an invigorating and enjoyable romp through the intricacies of nineteenth century Anglican politics. It's fascinating to see things from an Anglican perspective, that I had only seen through the lens of Blessed John Henry Newman's Apologia before.

There is a wonderful passage on preaching, in which Trollope fulminates about the arrogance and mediocrity of so many clergymen who take it upon themselves to interpret Holy Scripture according to their own lights. We've seen plenty of this in recent years in the Catholic Church too, so it might serve as a timely reminder.

Trollope suggests that these ignorant young preachers would do so much better just to read a text from one of the great Anglican Divines, instead of inflicting their own misguided thoughts upon their helpless congregation. It's an appeal for tradition, in opposition to the curse of 'originality' and endless fatuous innovation. Catholic preachers, of course, have an infinitely richer range of great sources to choose from as the basis for their homilies.

Here's the passage:

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege , the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physics find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to perforce by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of Parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship, but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape which is the common consequence of common sermons.

With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood texts, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades if we neglect to comply with the injunctions he has given us! Yes, my too self-confident juvenile friend, I do believe in those mysteries which are so common in your mouth; I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation. The Bible is good, the prayer-book is good, nay, you yourself would be acceptable, if you would read to me some portion of those time-honoured discourses which our great divines have elaborated in the full maturity of their powers. But you must excuse me, my insufficient young lecturer, if I yawn over your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawlings and denouncings, your humming and hawing, your oh-ing and ah-ing, your black gloves and your white handkerchief. To me, it all means nothing; and hours are too precious to be so wasted— if one could only avoid it.

And here I must make a protest against the pretence, so often put forward by the working clergy, that they are overburdened by the multitude of sermons to be preached. We are all too fond of our own voices, and a preacher is encouraged in the vanity of making his heard by the privilege of a compelled audience. His sermon is the pleasant morsel of his life, his delicious moment of self-exaltation. "I have preached nine sermons this week," said a young friend to me the other day, with hand languidly raised to his brow, the picture of an overburdened martyr. "Nine this week, seven last week, four the week before. I have preached twenty-three sermons this month. It is really too much."

"Too much, indeed," said I, shuddering; "too much for the strength of any one."

"Yes," he answered meekly , "indeed it is; I am beginning to feel it painfully."

"Would," said I, "you could feel it— would that you could be made to feel it." But he never guessed that my heart was wrung for the poor listeners.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Transubstantiation and 'War Photographer'

Carol Ann Duffy's 'War Photographer' has been popular with British exam boards for quite a few years, but I wonder how many teachers or students realise how central an understanding of Holy Mass is to a proper appreciation of the poem? I recently attempted a succinct explanation of this for my pupils. First, the poem:

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don't explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger's features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man's wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday's supplement. The reader's eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.

And my attempt at explaining the sacramental imagery for a group of fifteen year olds almost entirely ignorant of the Catholic faith:

The metaphor of a Catholic Mass is central to the poem (Duffy comes from a Catholic background). At the Mass, the bread and wine are consecrated by the priest, and become the body and blood of Jesus Christ (this is known as the ‘real presence’), who offers himself as a sacrifice. Here, the photographer is the priest, and the suffering people in the photographs are Christ. The developing of the photographs is the consecration – it is at this point that the real presence of the suffering victims begins to emerge, primarily in the memory of the photographer. Those who look at the photographs but have no connection to this real presence are like people who attend Mass without faith, and so do not perceive the real presence of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. They remain unmoved, and the experience of seeing the photographs / attending the Mass fails to affect their daily life.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Being Tiny in the Arms of Mary

One thing that strikes me about many people who are more or less outside the Church is that they are compelled to be terribly grown up. They have to think everything out for themselves. They have to create their own destiny. They have to find their own god. They have to be their own pope, or their own king, or their own priest.

All wonderful, no doubt, for the independent, sophisticated and free-thinking folk of today. But it doesn't work for me. I find that as I grow older, I realise more and more just how little I know, and how my youthful omniscience was really just ignorance and arrogance. In my teens, I was more grown up than the grown ups. For most of my twenties, I wandered in the wilderness. But now that I really am grown up, with the real responsibility of four children and professional work, I just know I'm not up to the task. Now I really need to be a child, because I can't depend on myself. I don't have the answers.

And how can anyone be a child without a mother? And where is the mother of all humanity? Right here, in the Catholic Church, jealously guarding her little children, as any good Jewish mother will.

'Let nothing frighten or grieve you, let not your heart be disturbed, do not fear any sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? . . . Are you not happily within the folds of my mantle, held safely in my arms?'


Purgatory and the Lay Priesthood

'An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory'
by Lodovico Carracci (1555-1619)
It's that time of year again, when we are drawn particularly to a beautiful, and much maligned, truth of the Catholic faith: purgatory. There was a time when I believed that the doctrine of purgatory contradicted belief in the sufficiency of God's grace, of Christ's sacrifice. But in fact it is a great instrument of his grace, a grace that is not limited to this world, but stretches beyond it, giving us hope for all of our loved ones who have died. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

The doctrine of purgatory is also essential if we are to understand and make use of our sufferings in this world. God allows us to suffer so that we can become saints, and so that we can offer our sufferings, joined with those of Christ, for our own sins and those of our loved ones, living or dead. At the heart of all of this is Christ crucified. Catholicism is the faith of Christ crucified, as St Paul proclaims, and faithful Catholics obey Our Lord's command to deny themselves and take up their crosses. That means accepting the sufferings which God allows, even embracing them, as Our Lord embraced the instrument of his torture, and our 'Other Christs' in the Catholic Priesthood kiss the altar at the beginning of Holy Mass.

When I understood this, it was clear to me that purgatory is not alien or incomprehensible. One way of describing it is as a continuation of this life: we suffer, we are purified, and we move towards heaven. What is the altar of the lay faithful? It is our daily sufferings, which we offer in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In this way we can all participate in the priesthood of Christ.

In his talk on the Stations of the Cross (which you can find here), Fr Hugh Thwaites puts it simply and clearly: if you were keen on tennis, you would watch Wimbledon and try to learn how the professionals did it. We are amateurs when it comes to carrying our crosses, so let's look to Our Lord to learn how he did it, and really start to make use of our sufferings, however big or small they may be.

Charles Wesley puts it well:

O Thou who camest from above,
the pure celestial fire to impart
kindle a flame of sacred love
upon the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return,
in humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up thy gift in me.

Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make my sacrifice complete.