Sunday, 13 April 2014

Passion Sunday, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 26:14-27:66
In reflecting on the significance of what we have just heard I would like to draw our attention to four physical events that surrounded Our Lord's death. Four events that Matthew records to highlight the cosmic significance of the Passion.

First, "there was darkness over all the whole earth"(Mt 27:45) from the sixth to the ninth hour. Such a physical darkness was a sign of the great evil humanity was wreaking by crucifying its Creator on the Cross. This darkness was not just in Palestine but, as Matthew says, "over the whole earth" and pagan writers elsewhere recorded it: The (gentile) Greek historian Phlegon, and the (gentile) Greek Apollophanes, Dionysius the Areopagite likewise declares that he saw it in Egypt at that time, and Lucian the Martyr also notes how it had been recorded in the (secular) Annals of ancient Rome.
[references in: St Robert Bellarmine, 'The Seven Words Spoken on the Cross', Book II, Chapters 1 & 5.]

Second, the earthquake. The very earth itself seemed to recoil in horror at what was done to its Creator: "the earth shook, and the rocks were split". Humanity had little appreciation of what it was doing, but the creation itself somehow sensed it.

Third, "the graves were opened; and the bodies of many saints rose, and after His resurrection they went out into the city and appeared to many"(Mt 27:52-53).
We can consider this event from two angles:
Literally, we might note the historical reliability of this reported event: the gospels might be accused of fabricating events that fit an overly-tidy picture of what they want to portray. But this event is so peculiar, so odd, that none of the saints and scholars of the Church can quite agree about it, it is so peculiar that Matthew must be recording it because it really happened. For example, in terms of theologically describing it: the event is problematic in that it seems, at first glance, to have the "saints" rising before Christ rises, even though Scripture elsewhere makes a big deal out of Christ being the first, the "first born from the dead"(Col 1:18: 1 Cor 15:18).
Then, more importantly, it's symbolic significance: this raising of some of the "saints", it was a sign of the general resurrection of the body that Christ's death was to open up as a possibility for all humanity, that because of His death we might have a possibility of life after death. And this partial resurrection of a few of the "saints" was a sign of this.

The forth and final event to draw your attention to: "the veil of the Temple was torn in two"(Mt 27:51 c.f. Mk 15:38). Again, we can note this symbolically and literally. Literally, let us cast our minds forward and note that when St Peter first proclaimed the Good news at Pentecost "a great many of the [Jewish Temple] priests became" Christians (Acts 6:7). Why should those who were among the leaders of those who crucified Him so instantly become his followers? One explanation is that these same Jewish Temple priests saw and experienced their own horror at their Temple veil tearing in two at the moment of Christ's death.

Let me close, however, by drawing all this together by noting the symbolic significance of the Temple veil being option in two. The opening of this veil opened our way to heaven. As the letter to the Hebrews (9:12; 10:20) says, Christ Himself, by His sacrificial death, has entered the inner holy of holies, taking not the blood of bulls or calves, but His own sacrificial blood. His sacrificial offering has thus made "purification" for our sins, an "eternal redemption". He is the Lamb who takes away our sins.
He has opened for us the way to paradise, a way that our sins had closed.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Confession, 5th Sunday of Lent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Ezek 37:12-14, Jn 11:1-45
I imagine that many of you will have seen the news clips of the Pope going to confession last week. Of course, Pope Francis is not the first pope to go to confession! But he was actually FILMED doing the whole thing (no sound recording, of course!), dropping into a confessional box on his way to hear confessions himself, and a film of the pope going to confession may well be another 'first'. And it seemed to really interest the media. What did the Pope say? What sort of sins did he have to confess?
Well, he's told us before that he goes to confession every two weeks. And, in case you hadn't noticed, month-for-month he's actually talked more about the importance of going to confession that any documented pope.
So, why does he go? Why should you go? And, how can you go better?

Our Scripture readings for this Sunday give us some powerful symbolic signs about sin.
We have the first reading, from Ezekiel, of the dead being raised from their graves, an Old Testament symbol of the people of Israel being raised from their sins.
Our Gospel text spoke of another rising from the dead, of Lazarus. That, again, is deeply symbolic, with the command that the Lord said of Lazarus, "Unbind him, let him go free", that is said of us too, of our sins. And note: just as the command of the Lord was put into effect by others, who mediated that unbinding, we likewise have our sins unbound through the mediation of Christ's Church, by the priest in the sacrament of confession.

Pope Francis tells us that he goes to confession because he knows he needs to experience God's mercy. As he says in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, "How good it feels to come back to Him whenever we are lost!"(n.3), to know the joy of the "encounter"(n.1) with the Lord in this way.
For some of you, I know, confession can feel like a burden, like just a duty. But it shouldn't do!
At last year's Synod on the New Evangelisation much comment and reflection was made about the experience of many of the new youth movements in the Church, of how many young Catholics have REDISCOVERED the practice to Confession that their parents' generation had 'cast off'. And that re-discovery has been of a uniquely important way of 'encountering' the Lord. And such 'encounters' are the whole "goal" of Evangelisation (Instrumentum Laboris, 2012 Synod of Bishops, n.18). Which is why the Synod bishops spoke of Confession as "The PRIMARY sacrament of the New Evangelisation" (Cardinal Dolan c.f. Synod Proposition 33).

This has been my own experience. It has been the experience of many of those around you here. But, what if it has not been your OWN experience? How can you make it so?

First, we need to see our sin.
Second, we have to bring that sin to Christ, for Him to forgive it, to cleanse, to make us new.
Now, often that two moments happen together. It can be a new encounter with Christ that shows us ourselves, including our sin, in a new way. That can't be forced on you, or on anyone. But, if we are aware that it is out there, that it is a possibility, then we have to look to Christ to bring it about.
So now, as our Lenten liturgy is getting ready for its final Passiontide season, the image of Christ Crucified, Christ who loves us, Christ who shows us what a good and pure and clean and loving life looks like -seeking to encounter Him, seeking to encounter Christ on the Cross can bring all this together:
The meeting Him;
The seeing our sin -in comparison with His goodness on the Cross;
And the desire to come back to Him in forgiveness.
The new examination of conscience in this Sunday’s newsletter, on the virtues Christ shows us on the Cross, is given to you to help with this. Please look at it, please come to confession this Wednesday night with the five priests here to hear your confessions, and know anew that encounter Pope Francis speaks of: "How good it feels to come back to Him whenever we are lost!"(n.3)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

An Examination of Conscience for Lent, reflecting on Christ’s Suffering and Passion on the Cross

“The Cross exemplifies every virtue” (St Thomas Aquinas)
How do our lives compare with what Christ has shown us?

1. Examine your conscience -recall the sins that you have committed since your last good confession.
2. Be sincerely sorry for your sins.
3. Confess your sins to the priest.
4. Make certain that you confess all your mortal sins and the number of them.
5. After confession, do the penance the priest gives to you.


O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend You, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

Sins of omission:
“In what I have done, and in what I have failed to do”-sins of omission may be more serious than sins of commission
e.g.Have I omitted to say my prayers?
or, Have I omitted to look for and respond to the needs of family?
Thought: “In thought, word, and deed”
e.g. Even if I did not gossip in word, did I judge someone in my thoughts?
Each area of my life should be considered:
e.g. My family, my friends, my work, my prayer, those I work and live with etc.

Christ loved us on the Cross: “Greater love than this has no one than to lay down his life for his friends”(Jn 15:13)
How have I failed to love?

Christ put our needs before His own, that we might be saved
“Each of you must think of others’ needs before your own”(Phil 2:4)

Have I been attentive to the needs of my neighbour, and the needs of my family?
Have I been lazy in helping others?
Have I been generous in giving to others?
Have I used people for my own ends and advantage?
Has my conversation been focussed on my own pleasure, or on others?
Has my humour been insensitive to others?
My Family:
Have I been more focussed on myself than on the needs of others?
Have I spent time with my family? How have I manifested my concern for them? Have I been forgiving and tolerant of them? Have I scandalized them by a bad or lazy example?
Punctuality and Discipline:
Have I wasted other people’s time by being late?
Have I sinned against God and the congregation by being late for Mass?

Christ forgave His murderers, even as He hung on the Cross, saying, “Father, forgive them”(Lk 23:34)
Have I been slow to forgive others?
Have I harboured resentment, grudges, and hatred in my thoughts?
Have I nurtured imaginary angry conversations?
Have I lost my temper?
Have I borne hated for another?
Have I judged others in my thoughts?
Have I damaged the reputation of another person by my words, attitude, or looks?
Have I repeated accusations that might not be true? Have I exaggerated?
Have I failed to defend the reputation of others?
Have I failed to keep secrets?
Lies: Have I lied or exaggerated?

Christ did the will of the Father, saying, “Not my will by Yours be done”(Lk 22:42)
Have I sought God and His will above all else, or have I put other priorities ahead of him? (e.g. friendships, ambition, comfort and ease)
Have I got so caught up in the things of this world that I’ve forgotten God?
Have I risked losing my faith/piety by bad company, bad reading, cowardice, or pride?

Christ was patient on the Cross, bearing it for our sakes
How have I carried my cross?
Have I been willing to suffer in my service of others?
Have I grumbled and complained? C.f. “Do everything without grumbling or arguing”(Phil 2:14)
Have I been impatient with people, family, events, sufferings, sicknesses?

Christ trusted in the Father, even as He died on the Cross, saying, “Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit”(Lk 23:46)
Have I trusted God, especially in times of difficulty?

Christ “despised earthly riches”, becoming “poor for our sake” (2 Cor 8 :9)
Have I ranked money and riches too highly?
Have I been overly concerned about my own comfort and well-being?
Have I been resentful of my lack of money?
Have I cheated, stolen, or failed to pay my bills on time?
Have I wasted money?
Have I envied or been jealous of the abilities, talents, ideas, good-looks, intelligence, clothes, possessions, money, friends, family, of others?

Christ “despised earthly pleasures” that He might give Himself in love for us
Have I been overly attached to pleasures of food or sex?

Have I eaten more than I need?
To how serious an extent?
Have I spent excessive money on food?
Have I drunk alcohol excessively?
Have driven after drinking?
Have I eaten greedily and with little consideration for those at table with me?
Have I given money to help the hungry?
Have I regularly practiced fasting and self-denial, especially on Fridays?
Have I abstained from meat on Fridays?
Have I always fasted an hour before receiving Holy Communion at Mass?
“Whoever looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28)
Have I viewed other people as mere sexual objects rather than as persons to be loved?
Pornography: On internet? or TV?
Have I entertained impure thoughts?
Impure Acts: Alone, or with another?

Christ prayed, even as He hung on the Cross
Have I neglected to say my daily prayers?
Have I entertained distractions in prayer?
Have I attended Mass each and every Sunday?
Have I done unnecessary servile work on a Sunday, or bought or sold things on a Sunday?
Have I made a prayerful preparation before Mass and a good thanksgiving after Mass?
Have I received Holy Communion while in a state of serious sin?
Have I neglected to seek Confession before Holy Communion?
Have I taken the Lord’s name in vain? Or used other foul language?

Christ allowed Himself to be mocked by the soldiers, spat upon, and publically striped of his clothes
Have I been overly concerned about what others think of me? Have I allowed this to motivate my actions?
Have I lied or exaggerated to make myself look good?
Have I wasted undue time and money on clothes and appearance?

“Christ was humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross”(Phil 2:8)
Have I been content with my lowly position, or have I resented the role that Christ asks of me?
Have I refused to admit my own weaknesses?
Have I dwelt on the failings of others?
Have I judged others, in my thoughts or words?
Have I ranked myself better than others?
Have I refused to learn from others?
Do I despise others of different race, class or culture?
Have I been stubborn? Refused to admit I was wrong? Refused to accept that another person had a better idea?
Have I been arrogant?
Have I held others in contempt?
Pusillanimity –false humility:
Have I neglected to use the talents that God has given me?

Christ endured all things upon the Cross,
Have I persevered in the work God asks of me?

Have I made good use of my time, or have I wasted time needlessly? E.g. TV or internet?
Have I planned good use of relaxation and recreation, knowing that I need to rest well?
Have I gone to sleep on time?

Sunday, 30 March 2014

4th Sunday of Lent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Jn 9:1-41
Today's readings are about seeing, true seeing, spiritually seeing the truth of things.
And about blindness, inner blindness, spiritually failing to see the truth of things.

The blind man who was cured, started physically blind.
He wanted to see physically.
But, he also wanted to see spiritually, he was open to the truth.
And so he spoke to Jesus, and listened to Jesus in a way that was seeking the truth: seeking the truth about whether Jesus was the One who fulfilled that ancient title reserved for the Messiah, the title, "The Son of Man". And he came to see this spiritual truth, not just to see physically.

In contrast, the Pharisees both started and ended spiritually blind.
They started with a spiritual blindness that wrongly blamed the man's sins for his illness, saying to him, "you, a sinner through and though from your birth".
And they also ended spiritually blind, failing to recognize Christ for the Messiah that He is.

Let me make a diversion for a moment and mention mothers, today being Mothering Sunday.
It occurred to me when reading the first reading that mothers often see in a way that is different to how others see things, in particular, they see their own children differently.
Our first reading said, "God does not see as man sees, man looks at appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart".
How often have children found others reject them, others look at "appearances", but then found their mother look at them and see something more, see something loveable? (Of course, we can't pretend that all mothers are perfect, that all mothers do this, but we can acknowledge that by and large this is the experience of mankind -mothers, and a mother's love, sees something more than just the "appearances".)

Let me consider that from another angle, namely, generosity, thinking of the fact that we are called to generosity especially in this season of Lent, this season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Generosity changes how we look at people, how we see them.
Do we see Christ in the needy?
Recall the parable the Lord told in Matthew 25, about those who saw Him in the needy, the hungry, thirsty. “In as much as you did it to the least of my brethren you did it to me”(Mt 25:45).
This is a form of spiritual sight, to see Christ in the needy, something that a generous person is able to do.

BUT, it also works the other way, BEING generous changes our capacity to see, habituates us to look outward not inward, and enables us to see Christ in ALL kinds of needs and people.
So, in our Lenten almsgiving, and we’ve had two retiring collections in Lent, this outward orientation changes our capacity to see the truth. An open heart is open to the truth about reality, especially the ultimate truth about Christ.

So, to conclude. We are considering all this in Lent, when we are applying the three ‘remedies for sin’ of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These actions not only atone for past sins, not only free our heart from present and future sin, they also enable us to SEE with that spiritual sight that is Faith: to see Christ.
They enable us to see, the way a good mother is able to ‘see’ her child beyond mere ‘appearances’, to see her child with love and see what he is called and able to be, not just what he is already.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Gen 12:1-4; Mt 17:1-9
One of the seminarians asked me recently how Lent was going, and instead of saying, "Fine, thank you", I actually told him! I said it's been a tough Lent. To which he replied that that was a shame, because we are only just past the first week, with five more weeks to go!
And I AM struggling: That giving up sugar in my tea, that giving up the slice of cake that would have kept it company, that manifestly palatable red wine with the luncheon of the clergy gathering on Tuesday -and I won't even mention the chocolate mouse that someone considerately thought to provide at the end of it.
So the seminarian offered to console me with a nightcap of whiskey -but I'd taken that off the agenda too!

So, I was glad to recall the readings the Church gives us for this Sunday, to HELP keep us going.
The readings speak to us of a FUTURE glory to spur us onwards.

In our Gospel text we heard how Peter, James, and John were given a sight of The Lord Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop. They saw Him in glory. They saw Him, in a glimpse at least, saw Him as He would look in heaven.
That is the vision that is supposed to sustain all Christians. Sustain as we carry our crosses through life. Sustain as we bear our penance a through Lent.
And our opening prayer referring to how EVEN NOW we see this glory with the “spiritual sight” of faith,
The spiritual sight that comes by HEARING, that comes by accepting the testimony of those witnesses who saw it, just as the voice from heaven had similarly said to them: "listen to Him"(Mt 17:5)

There is a problem, however, with this ‘seeing’, and it’s a problem that comes back to my attachment to my earthly pleasures, all those things I’ve given up for Lent:
My attachment to these EARTHLY things stops me seeing clearly the HEAVENLY things,
The earthly attachment CLOUDS my vision.
Part of the reason I need to give up some earthly pleasures in Lent is to help me grow in detachment, is to remind myself that the REAL destination I am heading for is BEYOND this world, and if my heart is only set on pleasures here below then I'll fail to properly orient myself to get to that goal.
“Detachment” from this world, so the saints all tell us, is essential for attachment to the future world, to God.

In our first reading we heard how Abraham was called to leave the country he lived in, the only country he knew, and head off for a new land that God promised him, a land he knew nothing about.
I have to leave my chocolate, and snacks, and alcohol, and sugar, if I am to get to something better.
In fact, I have to leave them if I am to even SEE that land spiritually, let alone if I am to get there.
I, at least, have to leave them aside for Lent, and so help by heart get free for those better things.

To sum up, there is a cyclical thing going on here:
I am given a vision of future glory to help keep me going through my Lenten penance;
And yet,
I need to keep up my Lenten penance in order to see more clearly that vision that leads me on.

So, if you’re struggling too:
Remember the vision of future glory, that makes it worth fasting, makes it worth ‘giving things up for Lent’;
And remember that giving those things up will help free you inwardly to see better the glory that lies ahead.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

1st Sunday of Lent, Shaftesbury

Mt 4:1-11
It's been a long wet winter, and I'm sure that a great many of you, like myself, thought that this week finally began to feel like spring, with some warmth in the sun, and some blue skies -even in the midst of yet more rain!
I want to point out to you today that thoughts of spring are most suitable for us to be thinking of on this First Sunday of Lent, because the word 'Lent' is the old Anglo-Saxon word for 'spring' -both being about different hypes of new growth. Spring: the new plants budding forth; Lent: the new spiritual growth in our souls.

People sometimes think of Lent as dreary, but if we think of it the way that the Church PROPERLY calls us to, then it is the opposite. The Church calls on us in this season to make use of the "three remedies for sin" -a positive outlook talking of "remedies". Those three being: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So let me look at each of those in turn.

First, prayer. If I wish to grow spiritually, if I wish to bud forth in a way that I have not yet fully done, then I cannot hope to do so alone, I must to do with The Lord. I must do so with prayer. In particular, in this season, I am called to go with The Lord into the desert: He went into the desert for forty days, and so do we in Lent. Forty days of prayer and fasting.

Second, almsgiving: giving to those who are poor and needy. Traditionally the money saved in fasting from food was given to the poor. But we might also note that this giving-to-others is the whole goal of the Christian life: to grow in union with The Lord means to become more loving as He is loving, to give as He gives.

But, there is something within me that STOPS me giving, and this is where fasting comes in as a remedy. As I was reading in the Catechism recently (CCC 2339; 2342-3; 2346), Bl. John Paul II, echoing the Second Vatican Council, taught that: to love someone is to GIVE myself to that person. But I cannot give myself unless I first possess myself, unless I am first master of myself, so "self-mastery" is needed for true love (“self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self”(CCC 2346).
In the disorder in my passions, in what we call "concupiscence", I have all sorts of desires that are inclined to sin, inclined to selfishness. And these passions need to be not only controlled but re-formed, redirected. When I fast, when I deny myself some pleasure, this is exactly what I am doing: I am acquiring self-mastery, and so enabling myself to have that inner freedom in which I am able to give myself to others in love.

Classically, "fasting" meant something major in the tradition. These days, people talk about' "giving something up for Lent", which is a small form of fasting. But even though it is small it is ordered to the same pattern. It frees us from self-slavery to our disordered passions and enables us to love. This is why we "give up" things like alcohol, chocolate, TV, snacks, and so forth.

So to return to spring. 'Spring' and 'Lent' are the same word in old Anglo-Saxon. Both are about growth. We spiritually go into the desert, not alone, not just my willpower, but in prayer with The Lord. That with striving and prayer that we might exit this holy season blossoming even more in the new growth of charity.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Giving Something up for Lent

The practice of ‘giving something up for Lent’ is an important way of fasting. Fasting is good for us for four reasons:

First, at a human level, like dieting, fasting disciplines our desires. The things of this world are good, but we frequently want them in a way that is bad for us, or we want the wrong things at the wrong time. We need to discipline our desires, and this is what fasting does. This doesn’t mean we fast continually: Christians have feast days as well as fast days, but fasting enables discipline.

Second, at a supernatural level, more than mere dieting, fasting is a prayer. It thus needs to be offered to God; ‘offer your very bodies as a living sacrifice acceptable to God’ (Rom 12:1). In particular, fasting is something we can offer for our sins: in atonement and reparation for past sins, by uniting them to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. In general, fasting is something we can offer as a prayer for matters of great importance, as Christ told his disciples that some things can only be achieved by ‘prayer and fasting’ (Mk 9:29). Also, during Lent, uniting prayer and fasting imitates our Lord who both prayed and fasted in his 40 days in the Desert. Fasting without praying can sometimes just make us grumpy and disagreeable!

Third, fasting (and any form of penance) is also a means of detachment: when we deny ourselves some form of pleasure we help to detach ourselves from it; this helps to orient ourselves more on God and less on earthly things.

Fourth, fasting can change the way we act towards others. If we’re purifying and detaching ourselves, then we should be more free to love. One way we do this is by the traditional Lenten practice of giving to the poor.

Finally, this can be summed up by noting the Church’s threefold Lenten remedy for sin: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving to the poor). These three should all go together, not in opposition, i.e. it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I’m not giving up things, I’m doing something positive!’ Each of us would do well to add a small part of each of these three to our Lenten season: add a small prayer to your usual daily or weekly routine, give something up for Lent, and give some money to a good charity.