Friday, March 25, 2011

Crying over spilt milk?

I have to admit that when I went looking for a university degree in theology to do my first port of call was a non catholic institution. I'd discovered some time earlier that most Catholic institutes of theology were really not worth the trouble. They either dissented from teaching quite blatantly or the academic standards were appalling. Actually both problems applied in 99% of the places I looked at. In the end I settled for a place which actually had a strong connection with the Protestant Revolution, several of it's deceased dons being counted in Mr Foxes' book of hopeful heretics. At least I knew where I stood. There was no pretence about what was being taught. They didn't teach a lot of rubbish and then pretend it was Catholic. Actually they were much more open to the validity of patristic evidence than the Catholic seminary where I had done philosophy.

Given this I can't get very excited about the pros and  cons of Religious Education in the higher levels of secondary education. The syllabus, in Britain, is solid and not without academic merit. It is certainly not a 'soft' option for the differently abled student. It's continued existence and content, however, would be unlikely to reverse the anecdotal statistic that has 90% of students in Catholic schools lapsing before they've even managed to flee the nest of dear Alma Mater. I wonder if the resources being squandered on academic RE programmed in the Catholic schools might be better put into the hands of chaplains for spiritual programmes.

It's quite obvious that the passing-on of religious faith (as distnct from academic knowledge about the faith) is better achieved from parent to child rather than in the class room. It would probably be a worthy notion for the bishops' conference to use some saved education funds in the production of catechetical materials to be used at home. This will not happen of course. The union connections would be calling in favours on the behalf of the atheistic religious education teachers collective before you could whistle a stanza of the Internationale.

But is the possibility that there may not be Religious Education in some sort of Baccalaureate really a tragedy worthy of a lot of angst?

For readers outside of Britain: Religious Education is a compulsory curriculum element in British Schools up until late secondary schooling.  In the last fortnight two things have 'made the news' concerning religious education in schools in Britain. (1) The proposal not to have RE as an option in the final year of secondary education and (2) the announcement that the amount of trainee places for RE teachers is to be roughly halved. For readers in Britain: Those reading outside these isles are probably pretty amazed that we are allowed to have religious education within the state system at all!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

O Nata Lux.

How many sermons this week will try and tred that rather strained simile of Our Lord's Transfiguration and the power of a nuclear blast?Certainly with the current nuclear threat in Japan the temptation will be very inviting. Whilst this might be somewhat effective of the Feast of Transfiguration (which also happens to be 'Hiroshima' day) the horror of the immediate situation perhaps does not sit well with the glory of today's Gospel. Or does it?

The Gospel for the Second Sunday in Lent is there for a purpose. It didn't accidentally fall into it's place in the liturgical cursus for no reason whatsoever. For a good reason it has been tied into that progress towards the events of Holy Week in the mind of the Church from the earliest days- even perhaps before the Gospels themselves were completed.  Is it perhaps a deliberate foil of glory against the dark hues of Passiontide- something that would even further emphasise the abasement that would occur on Calvary?  Possibly it could have that rather dramatic purpose. Continuing that theatrical metaphor perhaps we need to look at the minor characters in the scene, sort of Biblical Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to get to the point.

What were Moses and Elijah doing in the scene? They just seem to be almost mute parts. Stage dressing with a life support system. And it's the fact that they are just  there which is rather beguiling. You see they serve to indicate the continuance of the events recorded in the Old Testament with those of the New Testament. One of the dangers of modern Christianity has been the tendency to devalue the Old Testament to the point of irrelevance. Not a new idea. Some of the earliest heretics started from that presumption. But here we have the appearance of two of the most significant figures of the Old Covenant present in an essential moment of the New Covenant. There is a continuity. That looked forward to in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New. The New Testament can only be properly understood by what had gone before.

The plan of God for mankind started before Creation, continued with the Patriarchs and Prophets, and was fulfilled in Our Lord Jesus Christ the Redeemer of all Ages.  In this one scene from his earthly life the strands are all brought together before the final consummation at Eastertide.

O light born of light,
Jesus, Redeemer of the ages,
deign in mercy to accept
the offering of praise and prayers.

Who once to be clad in flesh
deigned for the lost
grant that we may be made
members of thy blessed body.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A problem

The Catholic Whistle reflects on the problems arising from the natural disasters in Japan. If I get it right, and please correct me if I've missed the mark, the particular problem seen is the apparent silence of the Church on the question of the morality of technologies and industries that can so easily cause serious harm to general well being when they fail to be safe. Today's newspapers seem to make the imminent threat to the population of Japan a very real possibility. The bishops of Japan are meeting at the moment to consider an appropriate response to the situation.

At the outset I would suggest that the first response should not be one of contemplation but rather of direct action. The reflection can come later when the very real needs of those affected are addressed. And there the Church will be, no doubt, at the ground level doing what it can to alleviate the suffering of those through housing, food and medical care. Note that the first reponse from the Holy Father was to provide immediate financial assistance. (see here) The first response of the Japanese bishops has been practical. (see here) Then, and only then, can we move to appropriate reflection. That reflection will concentrate on preventative measures to ensure that such a thing does not happen again.

Unfortunately such reflection will get mixed up with political axe grinding. The whole nuclear question has generally been a cause of a particular political stance, at least they make the most noise. Unfortunately a lot which is not Catholic tends to travel with that noise. But back to the Catholic Whistle's original question. Is there a question of Catholic Moral and Social teaching to be answered here? Should there be a clear statement of the essential immorality of technologies that can so easily threaten the common good? I think so but it may take time to remove all the extraneous debate and get back to some sort of universal principle.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

And Angels came and ministered to him...

Now is the healing time decreed.
For sins of heart, of word, of deed,
When we in humble fear record
The wrong that we have done the Lord.

So here we are. It’s Lent again. As that ancient English hymn proclaims it is the healing time. A time in which we get to make some choices about our spiritual lives. Again the question is put to us. Will we follow the Lord on the path to Calvary? Will we place our feet in his footsteps as he walks the Way of the Cross? Will we not watch with him one sweet hour in Gethsemane? But first, will we follow him into the desert for forty days?

In a Gospel as short as the one set for today it is hard to miss the detail. Indeed it seems that St Matthew was being rather brutally terse. His account of those forty days, when the Lord Jesus wandered in the desert, is brief and to the point. The Judaean desert was not a pleasant place. Certainly here St Mark has a bit more detail with a rather elusive reference to the wild beasts seems to evoke just one of the physical trials that the Lord must have undergone in those days. True, it was not the pain of the final days of his earthly life, but surely it was a foretaste, a preparation of the horrors that were to come.

Yet in the arid deprivation of the desert there was, at the end, comfort. And here is one of those curious details that are retained. He was with the wild beasts and angels looked after him. We do not find Jesus staggering out of the wilderness and into the arms of some benevolent band of brigands, he does not head for the nearest town where he might find rest, food and drink. Rather, at the end of his trials, he remains there, for some time, in mystical communion with the Divine as his very own creations, the angels, appear to heal his scratches, to feed him, and quench his thirst.

This is the most mysterious appearance of the angels in Jesus’ earthly life. It is also the one which seems to make the most earthly sense. At his birth the heavens were filled with choirs of angels singing. Proclaiming that hymn that we have now put to rest until Maundy Thursday. After his resurrection the two angelic men at the tomb bare witness- He is not here, he is risen. Both these angelic episodes are to do with exaltation and glory. The angels stand static, well at least with a minimum of wing fluttering. They speak but do not do. At the end of the forty days however they do, without words, without song, but with actions.

As we wander through this Lent, through these days of spiritual desert, our minds turn more and more towards Our Lord who will hang on the cross for our redemption. As his precious, broken, flesh, reigned from the tree, we can only guess what passed through his mind. Forgiveness certainly, anguish perhaps. Confusion, unlikely. But what about temptation? That great trial at the beginning of ministry concluded with the soothing salve of angels wings upon his weather beaten face. There alone on the cross was the temptation to call angels again to minister to him. The idea had occurred to him in the garden the night of his betrayal but he rejected it saying;

"Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" [Matthew 28]
On that sacred cross he could have called ten thousand angels. But he didn’t. He chose the hard path. He chose to ride out the course of our salvation.

We have a choice to make this Lent. Do we follow the way of that old Adam, our ancestor, who took the easy way, who gave into temptation, and let sin into the world. Or perhaps do we take the more difficult way- the way of the desert, a way where the angels sent to keep us out of Eden become our guides, our guardians as we follow the final Adam, our Lord Jesus. Will we follow our Lord to his restored Paradise where it is garden, not desert. To that place where man and wild beast dwell together in harmony, without fear of what the future might hold. To a place where we become like angels.

Cleanse, us, O Lord, from every stain,
Help us the gifts of praise to gain,
Till with the Angels linked in love
Joyful we tread thy courts above.

(Ecce tempus idoneum)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bred in Captivity

If I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels 1 Corinthians 13

In the last few weeks I've become convinced that very few traddies, at least here in Britain, have been completely 'bred in captivity'. Rather, it would seem, that a considerable portion of our number have actually been brought in 'from the wild'. In other words a lot of people that I come across have started their pilgrimage to tradition either as converts or reverts. Don't get me wrong I don't think this is a negative thing but rather it does give the 'movement' as a whole a dynamism that is rare in main stream Catholicism. I find particularly encouraging the news of the Mass organised for Catholic school children in Birmingham (see here). I suspect the odds of their lapsing have just become reduced. I wish I'd had the gumption to organise such a Mass when I was involved in teaching. A couple of years after I'd left teaching a group of my old students presented me with a lovely missal hoping that I'd learn to use it. It turned out that there had been a secret nest of young traddies under my own nose for some years. I was saying a daily private Mass daily in the school chapel and they were, at the same time, bemoaning the lack of the traditional rite in the school chapel.

Anyhow back to today's Epistle. If I speak with tongues. St Paul addresses a situation in the Church at Corinth which can't be too far from what we experience now. As an understatement we could say that there was a variety of opinion amongst the faithful. I wonder if the young traddies at the time were trotting off to the Aramaic Mass Society, on the quiet, to the despair of their syncretistic parents. A particular problem seems to be a division between those who were demonstrating particular spiritual gifts many of which we would associate with the modern Charismatic movement. St Paul's advice, is of course, integrationist, that the various gifts given to all Christians have to be consumed into the whole body of the Church.

Twice during the past week I've been engaged in conversation with people who have come back to practicing their faith through the Charismatic movement. It's not the first time that this has happened indeed I seem to be discerning a trend that if Charismatics are likely to return to the Church from the various sects they have run off to join they are highly likely to gravitate towards the traditional rites. The reasons for this are complex but I suspect the spiritual pendulum that the 'swings and round abouts' in the lives  of many Charismatics ultimately needs to be tempered by the strong guidance of tradition and dogma. Without such a balance faith can be reduced to what we feel rather than what we know.

So some of us have been 'bred in captivity' others have been 'caught from the wild'. In the true tradition of a Universal Church we are tempered and brought together. It's that balance that those children in Birmingham have now been exposed to. With any luck that single celebration of Mass will sow the seeds of a balanced faith which will lead them to seek out the fullness of the faith rather than the transitory attractions of a cafeteria approach which craves the greatest spiritual 'sugar fix' available at any one time.

 Apologies for the dearth of postings over the last few weeks. I'm afraid I've been given some extra duties and it's taken a while to establish a new routine.