Bishop Mark Davies speaks about the life of the Curé d’Ars, the Sacred Priesthood, and the pastoral apostolate in the parish.
This morning and this afternoon I was at the meeting of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy at St Patrick’s, Soho Square. These meetings are always excellent chances to spend time with fellow priests, and to engage in the three aims of the Confraternity: fidelity, formation, and fraternity. We were treated to an excellent talk by Bishop Philip Egan (tick one and two), and an excellent lunch in the crypt of St Patrick’s (tick three). I walked there and back from Chelsea in the beautiful June sunshine, taking in the Mall – still decked in the Union Flags from the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Coronation this weekend.
Bishop Egan’s talk focussed on two aspects of secularisation. First, what secularisation is – including what language we might use to describe it; second, how the Priest can respond to the advent of secularisation and engage a nominally secular culture with the truth of the Catholic faith in the person of Jesus Christ.
Three points from each section remain with me as I write this. What is secularisation? First, we can say that secularisation is a Christian heresy, because it relies on Christian ideals and patrimony. It does not have an independent philosophical base, and so it is essentially a reductionist or relativist view of the Christian religion. Secondly, we can say that secularisation is a negative force in society (and we need not view this from a religious perspective to make this judgement) because, as the Bishop said, ‘it ring-fences religion from public discourse’. Secularisation refuses to allow the foundational aspects of Western society and civilisation to contribute to contemporary discourse about the state, future, and development of Western society and civilisation. Thirdly, secularisation does not create a utopian multi-cultural, multi-faith society, but a culture (and, I would argue, not a civilisation) based on increasing levels of polarisation between those of faith and the secularist agenda.
As a response to secularisation, these three ideas were put forward by the Bishop. First, that in a society where Christian practice has declined, but where (arguably) some Christian belief remains – something seen in public displays of religious sentiment – the response of the New Evangelisation is essential. We are not dealing with convinced atheists (despite the claims often made), but with people taken in by secularism, which we can understand as a Christian heresy. Secondly, the response must not simply be a programme of evangelisation, but a representation of the person of Jesus Christ. We must re-present Christ as the source and purpose of all human activity, and enable others to enter into a personal relationship with him, through the Church and through the sacraments as the vessels of God’s grace to the world. Thirdly, we must allow those who already have faith to build that experience of the person of Jesus Christ into a real and living relationship that draws others to God. Bishop Egan commended finding better ways to engage those who are already committed to the faith, and enabling them to become active practitioners and evangelists in their own particular place of work or environment.
We ended with these four practical suggestions, which can be easily adopted by the Priest and lay faithful alike:
Let us pray that many will come to know Christ, and that we can be faithful to the work of evangelisation entrusted to each of us by virtue of our incorporation into Christ through baptism.
You can read a similar talk by Bishop Egan on this topic here.
Some reflections on the life of the Priest and the Sacred Liturgy, given to a group of men discerning a call to the Sacred Priesthood in the diocese of Arundel & Brighton. To find out more about vocations work in the diocese, please visit their website here.
One of the central aspects of the life of the Priest is, quite obviously, the Sacred Liturgy. Whether he has an interest in the particular intricacies of rubric and ritual, or a strained relationship with liturgical prayer, seeming to prefer private devotion or less-structured worship, the Priest is always a servant of the Church, and the Sacred Liturgy is the Prayer of the Church. The Priest must always have a deep and profound devotion to the Sacred Liturgy, and must always strive to serve the Church, which is the mystical Body of Christ, through the faithful celebration of her rites and ceremonies, as a outward sign of his love for Christ. In doing this, in being faithful to the texts and ritual, the Priest sets aside his own desires or ideas in favour of something given to him by the Church. This is why we refer to ‘Sacred Liturgy’, because it is not merely some man-made construct, but a gift to us for our sanctification, a gift given by the Church, and so by Christ himself (cf. SC § 22.3).
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the then-Cardinal Bergoglio made these remarks regarding the problem of the clericalisation of the lay faithful:
“There is a problem, and I’ve said it many times before: the temptation of clericalisation. We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We don’t realize it, but it is like our [clerical state] being contagious. And the laity – not all, but many – ask us on their knees to clericalise them because it’s more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of the way [of life] of the laity. We don’t have to fall into that trap. It is a complicity that is sinful. Neither to clericalise nor to ask to be clericalised. The lay person is a lay person and has to live like a lay person with the strength of baptism, which renders him capable of being leaven of God’s love in society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from the pulpit but from his or her daily life. And carrying the cross like we all do. The lay person’s cross, not the priest’s cross. Let the priest carry the priest’s cross. God gave him shoulder enough to bear it”.
Here is the recent homily of His Excellency, the Most Reverend Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, at the closing Mass of the Irish National Novena, Knock. It bears close reading.
“The Future of the Church in Ireland”
[Your Excellencies… Father Richard Gibbons, Parish Priest of Knock], my fellow priests, dear men and women religious, beloved brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. It is truly an honour and a joy for me to be here with you today on the final day of the National Novena at Our Lady’s Shrine in Knock.
When Blessed John Paul II came here on September 30, 1979, to celebrate Holy Mass, he began with the words: “Here I am at the goal of my journey to Ireland: the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock” and, in a certain sense, his words are true for all of us here today, as we celebrate the conclusion of the National Novena; we too have come to the goal of our journey. We come as pilgrims to pray at the feet of Mary, the humble girl of Nazareth, the glorious Mother of God, the “Woman clothed with the sun” who appeared here in 1879 to comfort and console the Catholic people of Ireland. The passage of time tends to make us forget what things were like in Ireland when Mary appeared. Ireland was not yet a free and independent nation; close to a million people had suffered and died during the Great Famine thirty years previously, and in the year 1879 when Mary appeared, hunger had returned to the West of Ireland. Huge numbers of Irish people had been forced to leave as emigrants, never to return, so much so that the population of Ireland plummeted by something like 25 per cent.
And so it was that, in those very bad times, Mary appeared, to comfort and to console and – although she never spoke a word – to lead her people, to direct her children to the Lamb on the altar, the Lamb who was slain but who now is alive, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Yes, the times in which Mary appeared here in Knock were very bad, and yet it bears noting that the century which followed the apparition would be marked by an extraordinary flourishing of the Catholic Church in Ireland, with huge numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life and a deep Christianisation of all aspects of society. Such a flourishing would have seemed impossible in 1879. But the night is often darkest before the dawn.
When we reflect on Our Lady’s apparition at Knock and the historical circumstances in which it occurred, we cannot help thinking about our times and our own future. Certainly, there are reasons for discouragement. It seems as if every few months, a new survey is released showing, or purporting to show, that the Catholic faith is disappearing in Ireland. We have had two decades of scandals, crimes and failures. ‘The Church is finished!’ seems to be the cry heard everywhere.
But, my brothers and sisters, let me tell you what I have seen and heard (cf. 1 John 1:3). Two months ago, I saw the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin exceed everyone’s expectations, with tens of thousands of people coming to learn more about the central mystery of our faith – the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. One month ago today, I was in Ballyvourney in County Cork, where I had the joy of ordaining a young man to the priesthood. The small country church was filled with people young and old; the liturgy was celebrated in a beautiful way, with music and hymns in the Irish language. The sanctuary was packed with more than eighty good and faithful priests, many very young, some quite old, all of them there to welcome and to support their newest brother in the priesthood. Three weeks ago, in County Mayo, I saw thousands of pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday. Many young people. Many men. Some climbing in bare feet. I saw hundreds of people that day going to confession to the priests on the top of the mountain. Ten days ago, I was at Clonmacnoise and I saw literally hundreds of young people kneeling in adoration in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Rosary, confessing their sins, rejoicing in the liberating love of God, and sharing the joy and excitement of being Catholic with their peers.
That, my brothers and sisters, is the future of the Church in Ireland.
So what is this future going to be like? Before all else, I would say that the future needs to be authentically Catholic if there is to be a future. We need to propose the Catholic faith in its fullness, in its beauty and in its radicality, with compassion and with conviction. We need to be unafraid to affirm the elements of the Catholic way which secular society rejects and ridicules.
I believe that the Gospel for today’s Mass points the way for the future of the Church in Ireland. Jesus speaks to his disciples about priorities. He tells us not to worry about things like what we are to wear and what we are to eat, or about how much money we can amass. He says put first things first: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Mt 6:33). And what is this Kingdom of God proposed by Jesus? It cannot be identified with a worldly kingdom. As Jesus says in front of Pontius Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is a Kingdom which only reaches its fulfilment and fruition in the life of the world to come, as described in our first reading from the Book of the Apocalypse. Only in the end, will the Kingdom be complete: “a new heaven and a new earth”, the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. That city – to paraphrase Pope John Paul II’s words about Knock – is the goal of our journey. If we seek that city, that goal, that Kingdom, then everything else will be taken care of. But that Kingdom of light and joy is not only a future reality, it is also anticipated, made real in advance, wherever Jesus Christ is truly present in our world, in the celebration and adoration of the Holy Eucharist, in the sacraments and in the love we have for one another.
As the Church in Ireland moves into the future, we need to recognise that everything the Church does is somehow related to that reality: the reality of salvation.
Pope Benedict XVI has instituted a number of initiatives designed to help the Church move into the future. He has established an office for the New Evangelisation, which means finding new ways of presenting and communicating the ancient faith, especially in those countries like Ireland which were first given the gift of Catholic faith many centuries ago. The Holy Father has called a Synod of Bishops, that is, a meeting of Bishops in Rome, which will take place in October of this year, in order to have Bishops from all over the world reflect on this most critical question. And thirdly, Pope Benedict has established a “Year of Faith”, which will also begin this October, on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict writes: “We want to celebrate this Year in a worthy and fruitful manner. Reflection on the faith will have to be intensified, so as to help all believers in Christ to acquire a more conscious and vigorous adherence to the Gospel, especially at a time of profound change such as humanity is currently experiencing. We will have the opportunity to profess our faith in the Risen Lord in our cathedrals and in the churches of the whole world; in our homes and among our families, so that everyone may feel a strong need to know better and to transmit to future generations the faith of all times” (Porta fidei, 8).
The Holy Father is insistent on this point. If we are indeed to “transmit to future generations the faith of all times,” we need to deepen our own understanding of that faith. In calling for the Year of Faith, the Holy Father has also indicated a means for deepening our understanding of the faith. The opening day of the Year of Faith (October 11, 2012) is not only the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, it is also the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is a magnificent summary and synthesis of the Catholic faith. The Holy Father recommends that we study the Catechism of the Catholic Church as part of the Year of Faith. He describes the Catechism as a means of encountering the person of Christ. Remarkably, he writes “on page after page, we find that what is presented here is no theory, but an encounter with a Person who lives within the Church” (Porta fidei, 11). That Person is Jesus Christ, God made man.
Here in Ireland, the recently published National Directory for Catechesis of the Bishops of Ireland, entitled Share the Good News, also recommends that Catholics “consider setting up a [study] group to look at the Catechism over a period of time”… “like a book club taking a night to discuss a particular section read beforehand” (page 74). This is a great idea, which would have a very positive effect on the future life of the Church in Ireland.
Brothers and sisters, the future of the Church in Ireland begins now. We have all been revitalised in our faith by the unforgettable experience of the International Eucharistic Congress, which, pray God, has marked a turning point in the life of the Church in Ireland. Certainly, the road ahead is not an easy one, but the road ahead for Catholics in Ireland did not look very easy in 1879 when Our Lady appeared here on that rainy evening in August. And yet her appearance was followed by one of the most fruitful periods in the fifteen centuries of Catholicism on this Island. Yes, brothers and sisters: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well” (Matt 6:33).
On Monday at 10.30 a.m. (BST) there will be a Press Conference held at the Sala Stampa of the Holy See at which a new document on the promotion of vocations to the priesthood will be presented. It will be live streamed via news.va. Those interested in encouraging vocations to the Sacred Priesthood might like to make a cup of coffee around then and tune in.
Bishop Mark Davies gave this homily at St Mary’s College, Oscott, today – the solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)
Today I want to reflect with you, men preparing for the priesthood, on how we are called to be such witnesses of Christ by the consecration of our lives in apostolic celibacy. Pope Benedict reminds us that this feast of the Ascension of the Lord is not a feast of Christ’s “absence” or “disappearance.” Rather, the Holy Father reflects, this mystery urges us: “to consolidate our faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in history: without him we can do nothing effective in our life or our apostolate.” The Church was not born and does not live, Pope Benedict explains, “to compensate for the absence of her Lord who has “disappeared” but on the contrary finds the reason for her existence and mission in the invisible presence of Jesus, a presence working through the power of his Spirit” (24th May 2009).
In a similar way celibacy, by which we seek to give our whole lives in the Priesthood, might also be seen as an “absence”, a “void” which leaves us without the possibility of marriage. Yet it is in reality a radical self-gift by which we give ourselves completely to Christ and make ourselves totally available to him for the service of His Church. It is a life to be lived, as the Gospel and the Catechism emphasises “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” (CCC 1579). It must be a life filled with Christ or it would, indeed, be an empty life. This is a life which constantly points, as does the celebration of this day, towards Heaven, to the resurrection and to the life of the world to come. In a culture today which often seeks to live as if God and eternity do not exist, this witness of celibacy is more needful than ever. As Pope Benedict said at the end of the “Year for Priests,” “celibacy is an anticipation, a foretaste of the future,, made possible by the grace of the Lord who draws us to himself and anticipates the world of the resurrection.” If this world alone were sufficient we would close the doors to the greatness of our existence. But the meaning of celibacy as an anticipation of the future, the Holy Father declared, “is to open these doors, to make the world greater, to show the reality of the future which should be lived by us as already present” (Vigil in St. Peter’s Square 10th June 2010). In this way, we can see our call to celibacy in the light of the Ascension of the Lord and its profound meaning.
In those remarkable conversations with priests which Pope Benedict has engaged in, he speaks of “the scandal” of celibacy, the scandal of a life, the scandal of a witness you seek to embrace. “For the agnostic world,” he says, “the world in which God does not enter” this is a very great scandal. The celibacy of the Catholic Priesthood lived in its integrity “is a great sign of faith, of the presence of God in the world” (10th June 2010). It has been a hallmark of the Catholic Priesthood which never ceases to draw the fascination of the world. Yet this way of life would be unthinkable and unimaginable without Christ. “It exists because Christ, who makes it possible, exists” (Cardinal Hummes, reflections on 40th Anniversary of “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus”). And Christ exists not, we recall today, as an historical memory for those who must wonder “what would Jesus have done?” No! He is the Lord who is truly present, loving and redeeming us now. To this the celibacy of the Catholic Priest gives a constant witness.
Sometimes people will say to you celibacy is an unnecessary imposition, and it is often easier to explain celibacy on grounds of practicality. Yet this celibate life, this gift of self, rests on grounds of faith. Where faith is lacking, where the perspective of the Ascension and of Eternity is lost, celibacy would indeed seem to be an incomprehensible imposition by ecclesiastical authority. But as Pope Paul wrote in the Encyclical Letter he promised the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council he would write powerfully affirming it as a priceless gift, priestly celibacy is a brilliant jewel, guarded by the Church for centuries. Pope Paul wrote: “by a daily dying to himself and by giving up the legitimate love of a family of his own for the love of Christ and of his Kingdom, the priest will find the glory of an exceedingly rich and fruitful life in Christ …” An element of real sacrifice is, of course, part of every Christian vocation, not least the vocation of marriage and the family. From my own experience, and the experience of countless generations of priests, the sacrifice involved in celibacy seems small compared with the joy of a gift which allows us to give the whole of our lives to Christ as a priest.
You often hear voices calling for an end to priestly celibacy as it has been lived in the Catholic Church. From my own reading of history, those voices have never been lacking. Yet this is precisely because the witness to which we are called is a radical one. I would ask you always to question their view not so much of celibacy but of the Priesthood itself. When we reflect on the Priesthood as it has been taught and lived by the Church and witnessed to in the lives of countless saints the giving of a life, of my life and yours, seems very little. St. John Vianney, our patron, was overwhelmed by the greatness of this gift and the task entrusted to a human creature, “How great is a priest,” he would say, “If he realised what he is, he would die not of fear but out of love …only in heaven will the priest fully realise what he is.” When we recognise the reality of the Priesthood we would wish to give all of ourselves, all of our lives in return knowing this would never be enough.
We know celibacy is not demanded of the Priesthood by its nature yet we also see through the centuries that this intimate connection of celibacy and the priesthood is not a contrived one. Celibacy was not an arbitrary imposition of an ecclesiastical law arising from historical conditions which have now passed. The councils which enacted laws of celibacy in the earliest centuries, of perfect continence for the clergy, had no doubt that they were acting on an apostolic tradition and they explicitly declared this. The Popes of our own time have reaffirmed the celibate Priesthood in powerful and moving terms. We think of Blessed John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II, and our present Holy Father Pope Benedict. This is, I believe, because the witness of the celibate Priesthood is not something less needed today: it is more needed than ever before! Our Lord tells us on this day of the Ascension: “when the Holy Spirit comes on you, then you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In all that apostolic celibacy gives witness to yesterday and today may we be such witnesses, joyful witnesses, to the end of our lives. Amen.
My first Sunday as a Priest without the aid of 20 servers, 2 deacons, 4 concelebrants, an assistant Priest MC, a polyphonic choir, a plainchant schola, a dulcian, 2 baroque guitars, and nearly 500 in the congregation. A little different? Yes. Downer? Certainly not.
This morning I celebrated the Solemn Mass and preached on the importance of supporting vocations work. We have such a great focus on vocations to the Sacred Priesthood in this parish that it’s difficult to know how to improve on things. My challenge was this: if we can think of something we’d rather our son/grandson/nephew did, other than be a Priest of Jesus Christ, then we need to think again about the importance of the Sacred Priesthood, and to engage more strongly with the image of Christ the Good Shepherd who willingly lays down his life for his sheep.
After Mass one mother told me I had to keep working on her sons – she clearly wants a Priest in the family: great! But it must be hard for a parent to hold an ideal which runs so contrary to what society expects. The world wants us to marry, to be successful, to earn money, to have our own house, to have independence. Christ wants more: he wants everything we have, everything we are, set apart. Set apart for what? The plebs sancta Dei, the Holy People of God, whom he calls his priests to serve without limits, searching out the lost and gathering all into the safety of sheepfold.
Sure, not everyone is called to the Ministerial Priesthood, but our baptism does call us all to give ourselves entirely the vocation Christ gives each one of us, and that supernatural fulfilment must genuinely be the desire of Christian families before we can regain a proper sense of what Scott Hahn calls ‘the glory of the priesthood’.
If you haven’t read the Holy Father’s message for the World Day of Vocations (which we celebrate today), you can read it here. You can also read his homily from the Ordination Mass he celebrated this morning in Rome and there’s a short video of the event here.
Yesterday morning I was visited by a French journalist from Pèlerin, a weekly Catholic magazine. I wasn’t expecting the visit, but Gwénola de Coutard (@gdecoutard), the journaliste, is in the UK to write a feature on women clergy in the Church of England and she wanted the view of someone who had become a Catholic as a result of such developments within Anglicanism.
Two alarms bells rang in my mind – first, do I really want to get into the ins and outs of becoming a Catholic again, just to have things skewed into a frenzy of words like ‘bigot’, ‘misogynist’, and ‘defector’ and, secondly, do I really want to speak to a Catholic magazine that wants to write a feature on women priests. But all of these concerns were laid aside when we started talking, and I realised very quickly that actually what was wanted was an apologetic defence of the Church’s teaching on the Priesthood, and an explanation that the ordination of women was not – is not – in itself a reason to become a Catholic, but rather represents a symptom of a wider question of authority outside the Catholic Church. So we talked.
When I was preparing to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church just last year, I knew that it would be exhilarating to be in communion with well over a billion people. I knew that visible communion with the Successor of St Peter, with the bishops, and with those great figures of sanctity whose writings had lined my walls for years, would be immense. And I have not been disappointed. But beyond that I have experienced a profound and genuine sense of peace – a peace which comes from letting-go of individual opinion and debate, and resting in the safe assurance of the Church’s teaching.
After the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Jeremy Paxman interviewed Cristina Odone and the-then-Fr Patrick Burke on Newsnight. In the interview Mgr Burke, who was a student of Cardinal Ratzinger and now works in the CDF, paraphrased a line that is often quoted from Ratzinger’s own writings – “The Truth of Jesus Christ is not measured by public opinion”.
For those of us used to tackling the biannual wave of General Synod votes, such a line rings very true. But, more than that, it reminds us that it is not our individual decisions to assent or dissent from Church teaching – in relation to the nature of the Eucharist, or the Priesthood, or Marriage, or any other area of faith, morals, and doctrine – that makes something true or false. Rather, that relates to our own relationship with the Church. And if we believe that Christ is truly present in the Church, that the Church is the Body of Christ on earth, then those decisions impact on our relationship with the Lord also.
We can’t hold the faith in isolation, not just because we need and desire communion with the Church, but because an individualistic faith where we decide on the rights and wrongs of doctrine, isn’t one which is Holy, Catholic or Apostolic. We don’t claim to be guardians of ‘natural religious instincts’ loosely basing our lives on a man-made moral code (see Fr Stephen Wang’s post on this here), but the mystical body of Christ, living and witnessing to his truth in a world where man-made moral codes come, change, and disappear to suit the age.
I’ll be interested to see what Gwénola writes. I know she’s hoping to speak to the Bishop of Ebbsfleet too, but if I’m honest it won’t keep me up at night worrying, because if there’s one thing I’ve grown to know and appreciate more than anything else, it’s that there’s no ‘I’ in Catholic.