Category Archives: Apologetics

Advent & Books

Visitation

I hope you’re getting into the swing of Advent (which is, let’s face it, close to impossible when most people’s Christmas jumpers seem to appear around December 1st). But anyway, we ARE still waiting, and the spirituality of Advent is a wonderful teacher to us when we have things in our life that we are waiting for – perhaps to hear about a university or a job; or if we’re unclear about the way ahead; or if God seems to be ‘slow’ giving us light about a particular situation. Advent teaches us faithfulness and patience. Not to jump ahead of God and decide what we hope his answer will be. It teaches us to adhere to Him, fully.

This particular idea for Advent is a bit late now to do in your own parish, but I recommend remembering it for next year… Our parish priest had the wonderful idea of choosing an “Advent book” for the parish. Then, he went out (or more likely, went onto Amazon) and bought 400 copies of the book, and gave them out at Masses on the First Sunday of Advent, for a “donation only”. The book he chose was Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s Come Lord Jesus. If the only way people will read a Catholic book is to give them out for free, what a great thing to do!

51Kz4+b6MqL._SX342_This Advent, I’ve finally got round to reading Pope Benedict’s The Infancy Narratives – a year late, but never mind. In fact, it was my last parish priest who gave one to each catechist last Christmas. Unsurprisingly, this book is a complete joy to read – I think sometimes I could actually read Pope Benedict all day. Somehow, when he’s explaining the ins and outs of a particular exegetical conundrum, the light he sheds on the problem is unmistakable. Suddenly it seems very clear and almost radiant. I think you can tell when a person’s insight comes from both their scholarship and their sanctity, wrapped up into one package. And it is pretty rare, if you ask me.

The final book is a little different and not very Adventy. Last month my book club read Unapologetic – Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, by Francis Spufford. I have to say, before reading it, I was somewhat dubious to say the least. I mean, why emotional sense? It sounded a bit subjective. And yes, it errs on the side of subjectivity. Spufford claims he only “thinks” God exists, and that his ideas are based on his feelings. The feelings come first. No one can know for sure either way. (Which of course depends what he means by “for sure”.) But, all this aside, and some of the unorthodox Christian premises aside, I do think this book is worth reading. For one, what the author does extremely well, is to be 100%, utterly, painfully honest. (Perhaps too honest.) He is honest about the human condition in a way that we often fail to do as Christians who present the faith to others. We can sometimes be too quick to teach doctrines without looking at the real, experienced life of the people we are speaking to. It is easy to teach and explain doctrines, and not easy to get to grips with the gritty messiness of people’s lives, and to see how God might be at work in their life, or how he might truly transform it. The strength of Spufford’s book, I think, is to say that it is precisely the chaos and the pain that God has come into that causes Christianity to make emotional sense. In other words, other readings of reality – atheism being one of them – don’t come to grips with real life – in the way that Christianity does. Contrary to the atheist slogans on the side of the bus, for most people real life is not “enjoyable”.

This is a challenge for us as Christians, and especially for catechists, those of us who teach the faith. Let us not teach the faith in a way that is utterly divorced from lived experience. Let us be honest about the wretchedness of life for many people (including our own – we all have grey days) – and show that it is precisely this that Christ comes into and transforms.

To finish off, I thought you might like this – Spufford’s stereotyping of believers: “…believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties; who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behaviour; who are constantly trying to create a solemn hush that invites a fart, a hiccup, a bit of subversion. Believers are people who, on the rare occasions when you have to listen to them, like at a funeral or a wedding, seize the opportunity to pour the liquidised content of a primary-school nativity plan in your earhole… Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too, a really damp-palmed, wide-smiling, can’t-dance solution. In an anorak.”

This is a great book to read if you’re at the interface between Catholicism and the trenchant cynicism of our post-modern culture. (All of us, then!)


In Praise of RCIA

Courtesy of Johnragai

Courtesy of Johnragai

I’m noticing something really interesting in comments surrounding RCIA (on this blog and in other conversations). What I’m noticing is a big gap between the American and the British perspective. I’ll try to summarise this general trend (and be warned – ‘I’m-going-to-be-blunt’ alert – this is generalised):

In the UK, on the whole, I think we’ve had a bad experience of RCIA over the last few decades. Many faithful Catholics in this country rename it ‘Roman Catholics In Agony’ and associate it with watery doctrine, lectionary-based “catechesis”, faith-sharing therapy-style sessions, and lots of para-liturgical actions that don’t mean too much to the participants (or – probably – to God) and make you want to squirm.

OK. I hate all of this just as much as the next person. If it results in people giving up (I know some people who have attempted RCIA three times and more), we have a LOT to answer for. If we are obstacles to people coming to Christ and His Church, let’s please stop ‘being catechists’.

However – I firmly believe that RCIA – faithfully, sensitively, attractively done – has been handed to us by the Church as the best way of people converting to Christ – not just a notional conversion, but a full – whole life – conversion.

I come across many who’ve despaired of RCIA who advocate the ‘one-to-one with a priest’ approach. One-to-ones with a priest are excellent – and should be part of RCIA – but alone, I don’t think it’s enough. Like it or not, we are becoming part of the Church (aka a community which is pretty messy), not a private members’ club. Doctrinal formation on its own is not enough. Spiritual formation is also needed (retreats, evenings of recollection); liturgical formation is vital (the rites along the way of the RCIA are outstanding tools of conversion if done well); and pastoral formation (practical help in changing aspects of our lifestyle – often through the help of a parish-given sponsor) is also indispensable.

When I speak about these other aspects of conversion – spiritual, liturgical, pastoral – I am not referring to twigs, tea-lights, hand-holding or ‘Here I Am Lord’. I am talking about a real, radical conversion of life to Christ.

I am aware I come from a privileged perspective of having seen all this being done well. I have seen with my own eyes some profoundly deep conversions that happened only because the people involved stayed in RCIA for a long time (almost always over a year). Not one week of that time was wasted. There was constant, nourishing, deepening catechesis; regular meetings with sponsors and with the priest; opportunities to serve and become involved in parish life. Sometimes they waited longer (we asked them to, and they almost always agreed they needed longer). We also ensured their formation continued after the mystagogia – many plugged into new movements; one group formed a book club; I can’t think of one person who went through RCIA who no longer attends Mass every week.

On the American side of the pond (in my experience), all of the above seems pretty natural. There isn’t the same reaction against RCIA because many parishes have thriving catechumenates.

If you are at a loss to know where to begin – I strongly recommend purchasing the materials from the Association for Catechumenal Ministry – by far, the very best out there. Evangelium is good for a doctrinal approach, but ACM offers the whole package. Whenever I present this approach to seminarians they are amazed – they have rarely come across this before.

This, then, is a plea to the British readers who are still suspicious of RCIA (maybe because of a traumatic experience involving a middle-aged woman taking your hand and asking you to share your woundedness – haha). When it’s done faithfully, RCIA is the best way. One-to-one doctrinal sessions with a priest cannot achieve the same outcome, because the priest is not the whole Church. And doctrine is not the whole Faith.


The Enquiry Phase

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith

We had an interesting exchange here about the point of the enquiry period of the RCIA. I know of few parishes who even do this, and I feel it is one of the most important parts to get right in RCIA.

I’ve been at RCIA sessions before that are sound and rich in doctrine, and yet because of a lack of affective, spiritual conversion within the participants, little impact is made. It’s like a puddle of water sitting on the surface of the earth without sinking in.

So, I thought it would be good to revisit the principles of this phase – which I believe should be part of a good Confirmation programme, too.

The RCIA tells us that, before they are ready to celebrate the Rite of Acceptance, “the beginnings of the spiritual life and the fundamentals of Christian teaching have taken root in the candidates” (RCIA, 42). What is meant by “beginnings of the spiritual life”? The rest of the paragraph gives more information: there “must be evidence of the first faith” and there “must also be evidence of the first stirrings of repentance”.

In other words, there must be an initial adherence to Jesus Christ, the beginnings of a relationship with Him, the initial desire to give our life over to Him.

“First faith” is someone’s spiritual awakening, the realisation that “Jesus is Lord.” This simultaneously causes the “first stirrings of repentance”. Part of the process of adhering to Jesus, is seeing our life in His light, and repenting of our sin.

In my understanding, I think this corresponds somewhere between the third threshold (openness) and fourth threshold (seeking) in Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples (see one of my posts on this great book here). It is the bridge between passive curiosity and active seeking. We encounter Christ, begin to ‘fall for Him’, and want to take things further. As one RCIA leader put it, the enquiry phase is the “dating” phase.

Everything in the enquiry phase, therefore, is introducing someone to Jesus, inviting them to “taste and see” his goodness, to lead them to an encounter with him. And to remove any obstacles that may be in the way of this encounter.

As RCIA 37 puts it –

“From evangelisation, completed with the help of God, come the faith and initial conversion that cause a person to feel called away from sin and drawn into the mystery of God’s love. The whole period of the precatechumenate is set aside for this evangelisation, so that the genuine will to follow Christ and seek Baptism may mature”

My experience in the parish was that, once we established an enquiry phase and gave people time for this to happen, the fruits of the Catechumenate were far, far greater. It was like the earth was turned over and the water could sink in.

2013-04-20 17.06.18

In contrast, what do we typically see in parishes? (Here I’m thinking of parishes with a doctrinally solid RCIA.) I think sometimes we see adults receiving catechesis that is too advanced, too soon. They listen to a wonderfully rich exposition of the “four marks of the Church”. But, without a growing relationship with Christ, do they know what this means for their life? Or is it like water sitting on hard earth which will soon float away? All doctrine needs to nourish spiritual life. If the interior life is not yet there, teaching doctrine (unless in a deeply evangelistic way) will have little effect.

So, what do we need to do in the enquiry phase? In our precatechumenate, we started with some simple sessions: ‘What is faith? Why do we need it?’; ‘What is the purpose of my life?’; ‘How can we know God?’; ‘Why did God create?’ We focussed on getting to know people, building community (the first threshold is establishing trust), answering apologetics issues that arose (the child abuse scandal; the problem of evil), helping people to establish a prayer life (bringing them every week – even the first week – for a short time of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament). We can ask catechists or guest parishioners to share their testimony. We can read through one of the Gospels together. We need to try and stay utterly focussed on Christ.

Once again, I think Pope Francis’s words in Brazil speak powerfully to this phase of the RCIA:

We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church also has to learn how to wait.

Only the beauty of God can attract. God’s way is through enticement, allure. God lets himself be brought home. He awakens in us a desire to keep him and his life in our homes, in our hearts. He reawakens in us a desire to call our neighbours in order to make known his beauty.


Understanding with the Mind and Heart of the Church

First of all, readers, I apologise for the sporadic nature of my posting of late… You would not believe it, but I am still in the throes of moving, so life is currently filled with the joys of commuting/hotels/living out of a suitcase/being permanently surrounded by boxes… As soon as I am fully installed in the wonderful city of Portsmouth, a proper service will resume, I promise…

I don’t think there was a single Catholic who was not thrown by the Holy Father’s news this week. Once I’d finally stopped pretending the text message from my dad didn’t exist, sitting there on my desk, intrusively telling me something I did not want to believe, on that jam-packed Monday morning, I began to let the news sink in.

The range of reactions from many ordinary Catholics was very interesting and got me thinking. Here is one reaction I kept hearing in many forms: ‘I can’t believe he’s doing it. The previous Pope carried on, didn’t he?’ It’s a reaction which reveals our longing for constancy and certainty, tossed around as we are by the wind and waves of secularism and post-modern fragmentation of our world. 

Then, on the train on one of my many commutes, I read an article in a women’s magazine entitled, ‘Generation Cancellation’, on how (and this is true, in my experience) we, as modern women, are flaky when it comes to keeping engagements and cancel way too easily. It regaled readers with a checklist of (morally minimal) cancellation protocol: “Sometimes the day comes and we’re so hungover or wrung-out from work that a coffee-and-cake date with a friend feels less like a treat, and more like yet another chore on the endless to-do list.” The article promised “the definitive guide to cancelling – without losing all your friends in the process.”

Now, moral dubiousness of this article aside, it is terribly revealing of our modern mindset: we are part of a society that loves to bail out. I am sure we stick at things far less than previous generations would.

And so, to people saturated more in the mindset of the world than of the Church, perhaps it seems like this is what Pope Benedict has done. And let’s face it, the majority of ‘Catholics in the pews’ do have minds conformed to the world, not to the Word of God revealed in the Church.

Therefore, how we catechise on our Holy Father’s abdication is crucial.

Pope Benedict’s abdication could not be further from our flaky failure to turn up to something we said we’d be at, to do the thing we’d promised someone we’d do. No – Pope Benedict XVI has given us two great gifts:

  • He’s shown us, contrary to the encouragements of the world, not to go for the easy option, our own will; the measure of holiness – without exception – is to do the will of God (think of his beautiful words, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God…” – these touched my heart enormously)
  • And he’s shown us a powerful witness of the true, authentic meaning of “letting go” (not because it’s too hard, or I can’t be bothered anymore, but because it is God’s will). A man with the most important job in the world is letting it go. As I read in an email a friend sent me this week: “In our modern age, that is almost unthinkable. We are used to climbing the ladder and enjoying the view. We’re taught to work for the best office in the building and the best seat at the table. We strive to get, to own, to possess, to control. We’re used to holding on.”

For those who struggle to understand, or whose understanding has been marred by a secular worldview, this event in the life of the Church calls us to a deeper spirituality, to think with the mind and heart of the Church about what Pope Benedict’s action means, and how it models for us authentic holiness, at odds with the ‘easy options’ presented us by the world.

Today, I stumbled across these words from Pope Benedict himself in Deus Caritas Est, which couldn’t explain it better:

“There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then are we helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keep the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor. 5:14)” Deus Caritas Est, 35


Teaching Life in Christ

man and woman

The last few months in the UK have led to numerous discussions – both challenging and fruitful – between Catholics and their family members, colleagues and friends. The Same Sex Couples Bill is in many ways a tragedy for Britain – revealing our collective lapse of memory concerning who the human person is and even the most basic notion of a natural law. Last Tuesday evening, many of us watched with sinking hearts a debate in which only a few voiced authentic reason. Hearing the emotional appeals of many others leads us to wonder whether, as a nation, we have forgotten how to “think”, how to do philosophy, how to use our minds to discern truth.

How do we speak about this issue with others? How, when we are enjoying a drink in the pub with a group of friends, and one person raises this subject, do we approach it?

This is exactly the question we addressed a couple of weeks ago in the parish in our parents’ programme. In the lead up to the evening, we put out an online survey asking parents ‘what are the challenging questions about the Faith that your children ask you?’ Of course, any question such as this is a hidden way of discovering the questions that the parents themselves are asking.

We have been blessed during this parents’ programme to have an average gathering of around 50-60 parents who, I am pleased to say, are not ‘usual suspects’, most of whom have not been to other adult formation in the parish. I was therefore really glad when someone on the night brought up the question of gay marriage, and how to discuss it with children, because 98% of children in our catechesis programmes (who are old enough to have heard about this debate) think that the Church is being ‘unfair’. All of them are from practising Catholic families, all of them go to good Catholic schools, all have weekly catechesis.

So, when our speaker came to offer an answer (and thanks be to God, it was none other than the can’t-help-but-always-agree-with-him apologist, Father Stephen Wang), it was like there was an enormous drumroll in the room and complete silence as we listened to his response.

Now, I am not going to do justice to it, because it was a really excellent response, and is summed up on Fr Stephen’s blog here. I have used this approach since when the topic has come up with cynical friends. It goes something like this:

Mostly, this question is broached as a question of fairness. If marriage is a ‘good thing’, which we are all agreeing it is, why shouldn’t gay couples have it open to them? The Church is discriminatory, unfair, cruel for not agreeing with this. However, the whole question needs to be turned around. The real question we should be asking is: what is marriage? At the heart of marriage has always been an understanding of sexual difference and complementarity. Saying that gay couples can get married is like saying a circle can be a square.

marriage

As I listened to the debate last week, it became strikingly clear that because we no longer accept a given reality in human nature, we can manipulate language to the reality we contrive.

All these arguments have been aired frequently and far more articulately than I have done here. My concern is catechesis: how do we teach people, and help them to accept, the reality of natural law, of human nature and dignity? In RCIA, we find that people often require a full 180 degree turn in their mindsets. They come from the mindset that demands, unreflectingly, fairness and equality at all costs. Gradually, with careful reasoning, clear teaching, and friendship, we need to help them to think more deeply. This is all part of the ‘third dimension’ of formation and the trickiest one, life in Christ. Life in Christ begins with a relationship with him, so unless that is there, we shouldn’t even begin on gay marriage. Don’t go there, whatever you do! I have seen this done in RCIA and it is not pretty. Only when someone falls in love with Him, will they have enough trust and enough grace (and hopefully sound reasoning too) to discern authentic truth in this area.


Three books I’m looking forward to reading…

Cold, dark evenings are perfect for getting some reading done. Here are some books I’m looking forward to over the next few months.

Forming Intentional Disciples

Too many people have recommended this book to me, I’ve read reviews on countless blogs, e.g. here, and I’ve finally ordered it: Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry A Weddell. Very soon, I am doing some sessions at the seminary again on catechetics and, owing to the Year of Faith, I want to root it very explicitly in the new evangelisation. So I am looking forward to some practical insights.

Jonathan F Sullivan uses it for a presentation here, and cites Weddell’s list of “normals” for a disciple of Christ: having a living, growing relationship with God; an excited Christian activist; knowledgeable about the faith; knows and uses their charisms; knows their vocation and actively lives it; in fellowship with other disciples.

I wonder, if we’re really honest, how many “intentional disciples” there are in our parishes? I would hazard a guess… not too many. But don’t worry, people, that is changing! 😉

Fill-These-Hearts

Theology of the Body is something that affects every single one of us, whatever our path or stage in life, and I am looking forward to Christopher West’s new book, Fill These Hearts. I love this interview with West by Sarah Reinhard, especially his wonderful reflection on desire:

Fill These Hearts is a book about desire, about the deepest ache we feel inside for something.  What are we supposed to do with that cry of our hearts?  Where are we supposed to take it?

I put forth certain ideas in the book that I think some people–namely, those who have been taught that holiness demands we suffocate or repress our desires–will find troubling.  Desire can get us in trouble, it’s true.  But the solution is notdeath of desire, but depth of desire.

In that context, the most exciting aspect of writing this book came well after I was finished with it.  On November 7 of last year, Pope Benedict gave an address in the context of the Year of Faith about the importance of desire.  When I read it I got chills: it was such an affirmation to me of what I had written.

Pope Benedict is inviting the whole Church in that address to foster what he calls “a pedagogy of desire.”  In the Christian life, we are pilgrims seeking the redemption of desire.  The Christian life, he says, is not “about suffocating the longing that dwells in the heart of man, but about freeing it, so that it can reach its true height.”  That, in a nutshell, is what my new book is all about.

seven-big-myths-about-the-catholic-church

Finally – I’ve been recommending this to enquirers and other adults in our parish and I am looking forward to reading it myself: The Seven Big Myths about the Church, by Christopher Kaczor. I admit it – I am not the greatest apologist; in fact, I struggle with apologetics. However, it is vital that we tone those apologetics muscles if we are going to be effective evangelists and catechists. Archbishop Fulton Sheen memorably said,

There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.

…and this book is for all those millions.

What’s on your ‘new evangelisation’ reading list at the beginning of this year?


Are we in crisis?

I was interested to read one of the bishop’s homilies at the excellent Joshua Camp – the Catholic Church’s frontline evangelisation initiative during the Olympics. Here is some of what he said:

“it is easy to think that we live in a time of crisis. I don’t think it is true. I don’t think we are that privileged or special to live in a time of crisis, for the Church has been in crisis since the cock crowed the first time. But our society has lost its way.”

For the full homily, click here.

In other corners of the Church, you hear nothing but crisis-talk. At a recent conference, we listed all the challenges afflicting the Church as we face out into the world today.

This intrigues me. Either the time we currently live in is a crisis for humanity, or it is not.

In favour of “crisis”, we could cite the distorted anthropology exhibited in everything from the gay marriage debate to the catastrophic misunderstanding of the human body, epitomised by the skimpily-clad Jessie J at the Closing Ceremony. We could cite the attacks on the dignity of the human person, from abuse of the elderly in care homes to the (let’s be realistic) holocaust that is abortion. We could cite the social disintegration in our society, from the pressure on teenagers living in certain postcodes to join gangs, to the shocking acts of violence in the riots last summer. With all respect, I don’t think it is exactly a “privilege” to live in the midst of all this.

At the same time, let’s not be too hasty. Let’s not forget the many details we see of the beautiful and great in our society. This has been beamed into our lives over the last few weeks in the Olympics. We have seen an exquisitely beautiful vision of the human person achieving excellence by being pushed to the limits. We have seen the human body, created by God, giving him glory in achieving feats we don’t imagine are possible. We have seen a heart-warming spirit of charity and self-sacrifice in the volunteers and commuters patiently putting up with the chaos.

While I don’t think we should play down the extreme, horrifying attacks on goodness, truth, and beauty in our society, neither should we vilify secular society, keeping within the safe walls of our cosy little Church.

For example, we may speak of the horrors of medical care related to life issues, but coming from a family of nurses, I know that there is much that is taught and practised in hospitals, which upholds the dignity, truth and beauty of the human person. Whatever is good and true “belongs” to the Church in a sense. This is what St Irenaeus meant when he talked about seeing the “seeds of the Word” in the world.

I just want to encourage all Catholics that we need to be right at home in the world 🙂 Especially as lay people, there is a “secular character” to our vocation which means finding God in every aspect of our lives and of the world, not just at Mass or on a retreat.

Maybe we are in crisis. I agree that many disturbing aspects of our society suggest this. But, especially if this is true, Christians need to be right in the world, sanctifying it. Not accusing it, moaning about it, writing it off… But loving the world. Allowing the Holy Spirit to transform it from within, through us.