Thursday, January 22, 2015

Aggie And Vinnie

The last few days has seen the Church celebrate the feasts of three of the martyrs of the Great Persecution - those who were killed under Diocletian. Sebastian, Agnes and Vincent of Saragossa - a Milanese, a Roman and a Spaniard, revealing how widespread that persecution was. Of course they also reveal the variety of people who chose to die rather than renounce Christ, people from various walks of life. Sebastian was a soldier,a man of the world; Agnes was a young girl from a noble and wealthy Roman family, from a generation usually cossetted and taken up with frivolities, Agnes was precocious in her faith and her commitment to Christ. Vincent, a deacon, spending his life, and himself, in the service of the Church. All three lived in the world, would have been happy to live their lives in the midst of the world; but those lives would have been immersed in Christ and the Gospel, and the world, and its secular powers, was threatened by that.  I have been thinking about Agnes and Vincent in the context of where we are now. 

Agnes chose the way of virginity: she is a virgin martyr dying as much for her virginity as her faith - indeed for her the two were so intimately connected they could not be separated. In other times she may have been a consecrated religious, but not necessarily - there are those who are called to live the virginal life in the midst of the world. Agnes refused to marry, her suitors, offended at being turned down, denounced her as a Christian to the authorities, she was arrested and interrogated. If she agreed to give up her virginity, give in to the sexual mores of Roman society, she would have been spared. She refused and she was killed.

Agnes's witness in terms of her virginity is twofold. While she did not demean marriage, she discerned it was not her calling. As a Christian she understood her relationship as being one of total gift to Christ, of virginal consecration. This witness is beautiful but also challenging, it reveals to all of us that our being disciples of Christ will require a commitment which will effect the way we live our lives - to be a real Christian we have to allow the Gospel soak into our flesh as well as our souls, minds and hearts, and that will have consequences for how we live our lives. Our lives, even the intimate aspects of our lives, may well have to change. 

Agnes's witness to virginity also reminds us of something else: sex is not everything. We live in a society that has idolized sex, so much so that there are many people, Christians among them, who cannot understand how anyone can live without having sex, usually on a regular basis. Attacks on priestly celibacy usually emerge from this opinion, not from any concern for individual priests and their lives. There is also a certain Gnosticism attached to sex: having sex regularly, seems in the views of some, to confer a singular wisdom, an insight into reality which is denied to the virginal, the celibate and the chaste. Hence as priests we often hear people tell us we know nothing about real life because we are not married or we are virgins. Even in the context of marriage sex is not everything - the commitment is deeper than that. If a marriage is based on sex alone, or it is the most important aspect of the marriage, that marriage might not last, one of the spouses may well begin to feel that they are nothing more than a slave for the desires of the other.

Agnes, however, teaches us otherwise. She was a confident, free and wise young woman. She was courageous and strong even though she was so young when she was killed. She teaches us that we need to rethink our attitude to sex - it is not the be all and the end all. Of course it is important, it is a gift of God, but must be approached in its proper context (marriage), aware of its proper ends and the powerful passions which attach to it. The desire for sex can become one which can overpower us, and I think we see that clearly in society as morals, laws and the very fabric society is now being dismantled to cater for sexual desire. Lust, if raised to the level of a master and a judge, quickly becomes a tyrant; when given free reign it will never be a servant and will eventually destroy. God gave us reason and virtue to help us control our passions, he gave us the Commandments and the Gospel to assist our reason and help us form our virtues, and we should take account of this. We must also remember that the greatest act of love the world has ever seen was not a physical act of intimacy between lovers but rather the sacrifice of the God-man on the cross. 

St Vincent's example is one of fortitude in the midst of tremendous suffering. Like Agnes he would not conform to the desires of his persecutors who wanted to wipe out his virtuous adherence to the Gospel by renouncing his faith. If only Vincent had conformed he would have had it all, they lamented. They tried persuasion, as they usually do: how happy and fulfilled he would be if he followed their way of life. Yet, they were not happy, they were ensnared in vice and greed. The faithful deacon said no, and so they inflicted pain: he will give in if we keep torturing him - we will wear him down, he will have no choice but to renounce his faith and then our consciences will be eased. But Vincent did not give in: it was not stubbornness, it was the grace and strength of God - Vincent's persecutors forgot that they were not just attacking a man, they were attacking God and he has ways and means to resist that attack. We are told in the account of his martyrdom that Vincent was serene in the midst of his sufferings - the Lord he loved was supporting him. And so he died, falling, not into the pit of his enemies, but into the arms of his Saviour.

In the coming months we in Ireland are going to face something of what Vincent faced. The ungodly fury of those who hate our Christian faith will be unleashed as they try to force us to endorse what we know to be wrong. First they will try to persuade, tell us that to be really Christian and kind we have to go along with them. If we resist that, they will turn on us, attack us, and who knows what after that. Vincent's example should inspire us to remain steadfast and serene. We cannot endorse what is wrong nor should we facilitate others in doing what is wrong. 

May these holy martyrs watch over us in these times, assist us their prayers, and come down from heaven to stand by our sides in the midst of tribulation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"Same Sex Marriage" Referendum: The Wording

The government has published the wording of the amendment to the Constitution which will be the subject of May's referendum on "same sex marriage". The wording:
Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.
The government aims to insert it into Article 41.3.1 which speaks of guarding marriage as a means of protecting the family. The article is as follows:
The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.
The amendment will be placed at the end of the article to read as follows:
The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack. Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.
As is obvious this referendum will have consequences far beyond what we are being told by the government, the media and the various interest groups pushing it. One of these may well be freedom of religion. If this view of marriage is enshrined in the Constitution can citizens legitimately oppose it, and can Churches defy it, refusing to "marry" same sex couples who come looking for a Church "wedding"? I think the answer to that would be no.  I also think many of those supporting the referendum know that as well - they won't admit it now, but later, when the court cases begin they will try to ensure Churches will forced to comply. And I think some of our esteemed judges will be only to happy to agree with them.

I notice the government will also push through legislation in the Dail - before the referendum, permitting gay couples to adopt children, this is to neutralize the arguments of the proponents of natural marriage concerning children.

We're not in Kansas anymore!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Learning From St Sebastian: Words of Wisdom From St Ambrose

In our Office of Readings today, the feast of St Sebastian, we read from St Ambrose's commentary on Psalm 118 in which he praises the Milanese martyr and draws important lessons from his life, his faith and his heroic witness.  Here is the extract from the Office which, I think, will prove encouraging for us in these difficult times.
To enter the kingdom of God we must endure many tribulations. If there are many persecutions, there are many testings; where there are many crowns of victory, there are many trials of strength.  It is then to your advantage if there are many persecutors; among many persecutions you may more easily find a path to victory.
Take the example of the martyr Sebastian, whose birthday in glory we celebrate today.
He was a native of Milan.  At a time when persecution either had ceased or had not yet begun or was of a milder kind he realized that there was only one slight, if any, opportunity for suffering.  
He set out for Rome, where bitter persecutions were raging because of the fervor of the Christians. There he endured suffering; there he gained his crown. He went to the city as a stranger and there established a home of undying glory.  If there had been only one persecutor, he would not have gained a martyr’s crown.
The persecutors who are visible are not the only ones.  There are also invisible persecutors, much greater in number.  This is more serious.  
Like a king bent on persecution, sending orders to persecute to his many agents, and establishing different persecutors in each city or province, the devil directs his many servants in their work of persecution, whether in public or in the souls of individuals.  
Of this kind of persecution Scripture says: All who wish to live a holy life in Christ Jesus suffer persecution  “All” suffer persecution; there is no exception.  Who can claim exemption when  the Lord himself endured the testing of persecution?  
How many there are today who are secret martyrs for Christ, giving testimony to Jesus as Lord!  The Apostle knew this kind of martyrdom, this faithful witnessing to Christ; he said: This is our boast, the testimony of our conscience.
In times of great darkness, we are called to bring great light, the light of Christ which enlightens our souls. In days when men and women fall back into the barbarity which faith and civilization had pushed back, we are to re-civilize through our prophetic witness.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Rose From Therese

Pope Francis holds up a medallion of St Therese of Lisieux after answering questions from the media aboard his flight to Manila (CNS)

I am sure many of you have heard, and perhaps even pray, the novena to St Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face asking her to send a rose as a sign. I have done it many times myself and always got a rose. 

It seems the Holy Father was doing the same novena for the success of his trip to Sri Lanka and The Philippines, and he got his rose - in the form of an image of St Therese given to him by one of the journalists. 

The Holy Father is quoted as saying that he asked Therese for a rose, but got an image instead. I would respectfully disagree, Holy Father, the rose can take many forms, and in this case it seems to be that you got the Little Flower herself, surely a sign of her particular intercession.

May St Therese continue to pray for the Holy Father and for all of us.  For those who never heard of the novena, here is the prayer for you.
O Little Therese of the Child Jesus
Please pick for me a rose
from the heavenly garden
and send it to me
as a message of love.
O Little Flower of Jesus,
ask God to grant the favors
I now place with confidence
in you hands
( mention your special prayer request here )
St. Therese, help me to always believe
as you did, in God's great love for me,
so that I may imitate your "Little Way" each day.

Pope Defends Catholic Teaching, Media Shocked?

Pope Francis has certainly raised a hornet's nest, again. His interview on board the flight back from Manila dealing with, among other things, issues of sexual morality has stunned members of the media. The media and others who share the ideological bent of the left tend to ignore Christian teaching on many other areas, they tend to focus on sex all the time. 

Anyway, Francis revealed, once again, that he supports Blessed Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae which simply reiterates Church teaching on marriage, procreation and life issues, indeed Francis has said that Humanae Vitae is a prophetic document, as indeed it is. The Holy Father's veneration for the work and its author was thoroughly revealed when he beatified Pope Paul last year. The media are not pleased.

The Holy Father's words on so-called "gay marriage", which he has spoken about before, has led to the media here in Ireland going nuts, assuming that this is Francis's (unwelcome) contribution to the debate on the same sex marriage referendum that is due to take place here in May. For all the talk about free speech, here in Ireland we see, and will see with greater intensity, efforts by the usual suspects to prevent reasoned objections to the referendum getting out. As one journalist said recently: the right to free speech does not imply the right to a platform to express it.

Is this the beginning of the end of the liberal media's honeymoon with Francis? Or will they ignore his orthodox teaching and use the ambiguous stuff to push their own agenda. I may be getting cynical in my old age, but I think the latter is more likely. That said, it falls to us, the faithful, to continue to proclaim the Gospel as given. We are at war, people. We didn't start it, but I'm afraid we have to fight it. Our chief weapon is the witness of our lives, then our carefully considered words. And don't forget prayer and fasting, necessary practices when we are facing the evil one and his work.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thank You

Thanks to all of you who are praying for baby Paul. I have received messages from a number of people assuring me and his parents that they will pray for him. We are deeply grateful. Let us hope that the Lord will grant this prayer through Blessed Paul's intercession. As I said in my initial post, I will offer Mass for all those praying for little Paul, for their intentions and needs. God bless you.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Prayers Please. We're Looking For A Miracle

Dear readers, 

I am asking for your prayers because a miracle is needed. A friend of mine is expecting a baby but recent tests have revealed that the baby, a boy, has serious heart defects. 

We are turning to Blessed Paul VI to intercede with the Lord, and we are asking him for a miracle. Could I ask you all to remember this little baby in your prayers and to ask Blessed Paul VI specifically for a miracle so the child will be cured of the defects and born healthy. Could I also ask that you ask your friends to do the same? The mother has decided to call the baby Paul, so let us intercede for Baby Paul.

I will be offering a Mass for Paul and his mother and family, but I will also offer another Mass for the intentions of all those who join us in this campaign of prayer. Who knows, if we get a miracle, we may have what is necessary to see Blessed Paul's canonisation.  

Thank you for your kindness. If you need a prayer, I have included the novena prayer we used in preparation for his beatification.

Novena Prayer
Heavenly Father,
We thank you for the witness of your Servant, Blessed Paul VI, who served you and the Church as Universal Pastor in difficult times.  
As a pilgrim among pilgrims he sought to reveal the beauty and joy of the Gospel to the men and women of his time, choosing the way of gentleness and forbearance.
As Shepherd of the flock he sought to proclaim the truth in a time of great confusion in imitation of his patron the Apostle to the Gentiles.
As Servant he proclaimed the Gospel of Life and in doing so bore the cross of suffering and isolation in union with your Crucified Son becoming a Prophet in the midst of the growing culture of death.
As we beseech you to raise your Servant to be numbered among the Saints, may his example of faith, courage and patient endurance inspire us in our daily living of the Gospel and in our witness to Jesus Christ.
May we too be Prophets of life, respecting, protecting and cherishing the gift of life, most especially in its most vulnerable moments.
May we too be your missionaries at this time, seeking to transform the hearts of all men and women through the joy we find in Christ.
Hear our prayers, most Merciful Father, and grant us through the intercession of Blessed Paul the graces we now ask that you may grant a healing of baby Paul.
Through Christ our Lord.
Our Father.   Hail Mary.   Glory Be. 
Blessed Paul VI, pray for him

Monday, January 12, 2015

Recommended Reading!

A couple of days ago I finished reading John Guy's biography of St Thomas Becket, simply titled Thomas Becket. It got good reviews when it was first published, and the author has written some fine historical studies including one on St Thomas More's daughter Margaret and one on Mary, Queen of Scots. However, one tends to be careful it comes to secular historians writing about Saints: they may well be historically accurate (not always, by the way), but will they "get" the Saint.

I can say, hand on heart, John Guy "gets" Thomas Becket: the biography is the best I have read on St Thomas and I would strongly recommend your reading it. For one thing it is not a pious hagiography, it situates Thomas in his time and takes Thomas as a man of his time, not condescendingly, but in a real attempt to understand the man as he really was. Guy knows his history and he knows the historical figures who surrounded St Thomas, so if you do read the book you are going to be transported back to the 12th century and your experience will be vivid. The book is well researched, Guy does not rely exclusively on previous publications, but goes right back to the original sources and reads them with an objective eye. St  Thomas emerges out of the legends that surround him (both the negative and positive ones) as a man who was extraordinary, a man whose conversion was not dramatic but gradual, a conversion not from a debauched life but from a distracted life to heroism, to standing for the truth and the liberty of the Church, most of the time standing alone.

Apart from being a great read and an accurate account of one of our great Saints, the book is one which can help us come to understand where we are now because though the events it describes took place in the 12th century they have relevance for us today. The continuing relevance of St Thomas's stand was acknowledged by Henry VIII when he, like his predecessor Henry II, sought to bring the Church under his complete control: the Tudor had the shrine at Canterbury destroyed and the Saint's remains burned. Five hundred years later the rebel Christian Thomas is as potent as he was then.

St Thomas stood for the liberty of the Church. Many previous historians saw his struggle as one in which he sought to keep his wealth, his property, his titles, his life of ease. On a superficial level that is an interpretation one might argue could be applied. However one needs to understand the time and Thomas's motivations. There is no doubt Thomas loved the comfortable life - I won't say life of ease because he was a hard worker and usually found himself in difficult situations which he had deal with, which he usually could. During his exile he found himself living a materially deprived life and he adjusted to that, quite well actually. Thomas fought King Henry II to preserve the rights, laws and liberty of the Church so it could be the Church and not a department of state. It was not material things which Thomas was fighting for, but rather the principle that as a free association the Church had the right to her rights, laws, liberty and yes, possessions, in order to guarantee its freedom from interference by secular rulers. 

Henry wanted to control the Church, deprive the Pope of his role within the Church in England and Henry's possessions in France. Basically he wanted to do what Henry VIII did. Thomas resisted that - the Church had to be free and the members of the Church had to be free in the context of their relationship with the Church. Christ was the only King would could exercise authority in the Church, beneath him was the Pope, the successor of Peter, and beneath him the bishops. Pope and bishops had to defend the flock as well as teach the faith. Henry II would go so far as to think he alone had the authority to govern the Church - revealed in one argument when, as Thomas defended the rights of God, Henry was furious and accused Thomas of depriving him of his rights.  Henry wanted his rights to eclipse the rights of God. He would maintain that he was king by divine right but he developed the opinion that in his kingdom (and his influence over others) meant that he should have greater rights than God: God should, in a sense, bow to what Henry wanted. 

If ever there was antecedent of modern men and women we have it in Henry. Many today disregard God and his laws to satisfy their own desires and enthrone their own opinions. Even in the Church we have pastors who put away the direct teaching of Jesus Christ to replace it with their own ideas which they consider to be more pastoral than Christ's word. This is pride; Henry was full of it; St Thomas, humiliated, impoverished, strong-willed, dogged, stood up to it and refused to yield. Henry was incandescent with rage when Thomas refused to budge, as are many today when a follower of Christ refuses to yield. Thomas was killed for his stance - martyred; today the murder is in the sense of condemnations: of accusations of lacking compassion, of being hard, "unChristian". 

There is another lesson worth taking from the life of St Thomas (there are many): in his struggle Thomas stood alone most of the time. Not even the Pope stood by him in crucial moments. Pope Alexander III was mired in politics, trying to deal with the threats the schismatic Emperor Frederick Barbarossa posed in his campaign throughout Europe. While the pope encouraged Thomas to protect the liberty of the Church, he also urged him to reconcile with Henry as soon and as completely as possible. Thomas knew that could not be done: the only reconciliation Henry would accept was the absolute surrender of the Church to his will, and that could not happen. Pope Alexander would blow hot and cold, at times depriving Thomas of his rights and powers so not to alienate or aggravate Henry, and Thomas bore with this patiently. Part of Thomas's sanctification was that lonely stance when even a pope could not be trusted to hold the line because that pontiff had fears and issues of his own.  As many found to their chagrin (eventually!) Henry could not be trusted, he had no integrity, he was a tyrant and the only way to deal with a tyrant, as Thomas well understood, was to say "No" regardless of the consequences. While many cowered before Henry, churchmen among them, Thomas refused to do so.

In the end, some might say, all ended well. Henry came penitent to Thomas's tomb and apologised in the spirit of their original friendship. Well, things are not as simple as that. First of all Henry and Thomas were not friends, not in the way the legend presents. Thomas may have believed there was a friendship, but he was soon dispossessed of that notion: Henry was king, he had no equals and he used people to get what he wanted - there was no room for genuine friendship in his life. Thomas was a servant, and as long as he was useful Henry was happy to keep him sweet. However, there were things Henry did, mean and awful things, to remind Thomas who was in charge and to keep him in his place.

As regards penitence, Guy is convinced, as I am myself, that there was little or no regret in Henry for Thomas's murder: Henry was brutal and had little regard for justice, mercy or equity - the death of one who refused to yield to him was not to be lamented regardless of how it happened.  Henry's shock over Thomas's murder was, I believe, firmly grounded in the political damage it might cause for him, and he was right to be concerned: even many of Thomas's enemies were won over when they heard of his murder, and Henry was ultimately seen to be responsible for it. The theatrical visit to the tomb in Canterbury in 1174 was purely political, an act of damage limitation - Henry was not a penitent, it was not in his nature. At that stage he had had his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, locked up (she would be imprisoned from July 1173 until Henry's death in July 1189 because she had stood up to him), his sons were in revolt and he was facing a long war with King Louis of France. At this stage St Thomas was venerated throughout Europe not only as a martyr and Saint, but as a hero who defended the rights of the poor and dispossessed. Henry was shamed and now he needed good PR. 

However, I wonder if Henry really believed that St Thomas might turn and become an intercessor for his murderer, a tyrant who was intent on getting things back under his absolute control? I have no doubt Thomas was praying for him, but not for his earthly success, for his eternal salvation which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing. We should keep that in mind: we must live and act in a way which will help our salvation, and that gives us an insight into Thomas Becket. A man of the world, in his long-suffering he understood what was most important, and rather than jettison the Word of God to keep an earthly ruler happy, he stood for what was right regardless of the consequences: in the end he had to save his soul and guard the souls of those in his care. That is a good lesson for all of us.

St Thomas Becket, pray for us!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Paris Murders

Recent events in Paris have been traumatic and dreadful. We must remember all those who died in our prayers, as we pray for their families, for the Jewish people and for the people of France.  Many are marching in Paris today to remember those who died, the press will probably give it a lot of coverage.

That said, we must remember that Charlie Hebdo was a vile publication. It abused the right to free speech to ridicule and attack those who did not agree with them, particularly men and women of faith - the Muslim faith and the Christian faith. It is no example of the right to free speech since it sought to silence those it did not agree with through deeply offensive cartoons.

I believe in the right to free speech, for all, but it must exist within the suite of all other rights, and among those rights is the right to believe in God and to have that right respected, together with the right to our good name - the right to be a believer without being demonised for it.  However, as we listen to the usual suspects speak about free speech, and Voltaire's famous quip is being bandied about: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it", I realise that many of those who are quoting it do not really believe it. If they did they would not censor conservative, pro-life, Christian, pro-natural marriage supporters. And that censorship is certainly in place. 

Again we must pray for all who were killed, some of them will probably need those prayers badly, if they made it. Violence is never the answer to being offended: prayer, forgiveness and determination to do what we can to build a more just and respectful society are the answers to that.  We must also recognise that Europe is facing serious threats, and so far she has been in denial. She needs to take a good hard look at what has happened in the last number of years. This is not merely a question of immigration, it is a question of values and of faith. 

Young people are being radicalised - why? There is a spiritual crisis and they are looking for something to believe in, something to live for, and, yes, even something to die for (as strange and extreme as that sounds). Liberal, permissive, jaded secularism is not filling the gap - the drug-induced, orgasm-fueled dream of the Sixties is not doing it for the youth of today - they've had that ideology pushed in their faces all their lives and now they are rebelling. If the bloodshed is to be stopped, and even greater bloodshed prevented, a different response is needed, and for that Europe may have to go back to discover the true nature of her soul.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Politician In Heaven?

I remember when I was in college, a friend of mine was doing an essay on whether a Christian could be a politician. Weighing up what was required of a Christian and what practicalities are involved in modern politics, my friend found herself veering towards a No. Interesting, I thought. And yet, among the Saints, there are men and women who were politicians in one way or another. Indeed one of the greatest of them was St Thomas More, but he did eventually fall foul of the prevailing political climate. We have a few modern politicians among those being investigated for sainthood, we shall see how those Causes go.

Well today is the feast of another politician, St Peter Orseolo, a Doge of Venice. If ever there was a political position that could vex a Christian it was that of the Doge. Remember the Republic of Venice was mercantile through and through. While they venerated the remains of St Mark (which they robbed, as they did the remains of St Lucy), and they had many churches, money was the thing, and they committed many foul deeds to help keep their coffers overflowing, the Sack of Constantinople among them (although that event is much more complicated than usually presented with an Byzantine emperor refusing to pay his debts slap bang in the middle of it). 

It seems, however, St Peter did a good job navigating the intrigues of state and the ambitions of Venetians to achieve sanctity - a saint among sinners, as the saying goes.  That said he did not remain in office for life, as was usual, but abdicated after two years and went off to a monastery for the rest of his life. He did not even inform his wife that he was hightailing it off to the monks (maybe she had something to do with the decision too, who knows?).

Anyway, you read more about his life here. In the meantime, let us pray for our politicians.