Category Archives: Theology of the Body

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?


Weddings, Relationships, Love, Teenagers

The past month has been Wedding Month for me: I feel like I know the Rite of Marriage by heart. My sister and a close friend have both got married, and both were incredibly emotional experiences for me. In both marriages, the couples had not lived together before getting married, and they were truly authentic and beautifully Catholic celebrations of the sacrament. It is such a joy to witness.

So, when my small group in the Confirmation programme started talking about how they couldn’t see why you wouldn’t have sex with your boyfriend if you were in love, I told them the story of my sister’s engagement and beautiful wedding. It is fantastic, and I thank God, that these girls, so early on, will discuss these issues so openly. What a gift! On the other hand, I can see they are pretty hardened already in their mentality and unwilling (so far) to open their minds to see it in a different way.

Last year, we decided that the area of relationships and chastity needed to be brought up earlier in the programme, since this is such a big area to evangelise in the lives of teenagers. So, we brought in a session on the dignity of the human person right at the start – session 2! And, I definitely think it was the right decision. But we have a looong way to go… Please say a prayer for these girls!

Here’s a video I came across recently which is a great contribution to the task of evangelisation in this area:


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.


Another 5 Quick Takes

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One of the highlights last week was our session on relationships and chastity with our Confirmation group. We were really blessed to have two wonderful youth evangelists with us who are very gifted at inspiring young people in these issues. For most of the session, we split into separate girls’ and boys’ groups and were able to have some honest and open conversations and teaching. It was deeply encouraging to see the thoughtful and engaged maturity of our young people, especially encouraging as they will be confirmed next Sunday. One change I would make? We need to address these topics earlier. One session is not really enough. I think next year we may introduce the topic more generally earlier in the year (around the earlier session on human dignity) in order to lay groundwork for a more specific focus later on.

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On the topic of Confirmation preparation, how impressed was I to read this heart-warming account of another Confirmation programme, in Kansas City. I especially love the time at the end where the candidates shared why they are excited about receiving this sacrament. It got me thinking: Oooh, I wonder what our candidates would say? I tentatively raised the question with a group of girls before the session started last Tuesday: “So, girls, who’s excited?” “Oooh, I am!” came one reply as I nodded expectantly. “I have the nicest dress!” “Well, that’s lovely,” I murmured, moving on swiftly. OK, so Kansas City has the holier Confirmation candidates, and I am excited about being there this summer 🙂 But, I did like the idea of asking the young people to share their excitement for the sacrament in a more structured session.

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Speaking of the summer, a good friend of mine is involved in promoting this theology summer school in Knockadoon, Ireland, this summer. It runs in the last week of August and looks GREAT: and I would be there in a flash if it weren’t for a minor youth festival at Walsingham on at the same time 😉 Designed for students of theology, this is a week of in-depth study of St Thomas’ Summa, particularly Questions 1-13 (existence of God, how we can speak about God, etc). Check it out!

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After feeling like I know him like an old friend from watching the DVD series again and again, it was super-exciting to see Fr Robert Barron in real life on Friday evening at St Patrick’s, Soho. He is an extremely engaging speaker, I could have listened to him all night. Sadly all our plans to ambush him for a lunch meeting failed (he had far more important people to see like Nicky Gumbel) but still, I felt very inspired afterwards. His passion for evangelising the culture is infectious, and I wonder what more we can do in this country to evangelise our culture. Unless we seize hold of the moment, our society is slipping further and further away from Christian values, and therefore from human values, every single day. And unless we do something more, who will?

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And finally, speaking of evangelisation, we had the lovely students from St Patrick’s Evangelisation School with us all day on Friday in the parish. We spent the morning looking at the topic of vocation (I focussed on the lay vocation, in particular Christifidelis Laici, while Fr James focussed on the priestly vocation, and how as lay people we can encourage priestly vocations), and after lunch we enjoyed the countryside (Wandsworth Common is pretty rural when you live in Soho) and suitably finished up having a drink in a pub called The Hope! An excellent group of young people who are coming close to the end of their year of formation… To find out more about them, see here.


God’s Plan for Holiness through Marriage

Wow – today I am in amazement of Catholic families, and parents who authentically live marriage and family life as a path to holiness.

I talked with a wonderful young Catholic mother a few days ago. She is a sponsor for one of the women who is in the RCIA process. I think that today, one of the hardest things about becoming Catholic, must be changing your mentality and lifestyle in the area of family planning. This is particularly hard given that there are plenty of Catholics out there who do not live this faithfully, which is a damaging counter-sign to those who are being initiated into the full life of the Church.

Thank God for the wonderful, faithful Catholic couples in our parish. We have one lady who gives a session each year to the catechumenate on how natural family planning is a way of holiness within marriage. Sometimes it is a Cross to bear, it undoubtedly involves much sacrifice, that, as an unmarried person I cannot fully comprehend. But it is powerful when a woman speaks about the truth of this Church teaching – not simply because it says it in the Catechism – but from her and her husband’s experience of living it, year after year. From the standpoint of experience, and perhaps also of struggle and suffering as well as joy, there is more chance that the candidates will hear this as something authentic and true.

It’s one thing to know this teaching as true, and another thing to put it into practice in your life, especially if your spouse is not hot on it. This is why the encouragement, honesty and witness of the sponsor is paramount. Hence the gratitude I felt when I chatted to one of our sponsors who is giving just this: prayer, encouragement, support, advice. I hope that a year of prayer, grace received in the liturgy, teaching, witness from others, and love from within the community will be enough for the people in initiation to put out into the deep and learn to trust God in this area of their life – that his plans for them are not plans of disaster, but for hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).


The Gifts of the Spirit: Piety

Titian's Sacred and Profane Love

Last weekend, almost the whole of “young Catholic London”, it seemed, was at the Theology of the Body Symposium at St Mary’s Twickenham. I hear from lots of people that it was a wonderful weekend. I made it to the first talk, but was ill and so disappointed not to be able to stay for the rest of the weekend. However, it was great to be at Dr Michael Waldstein’s talk, the man who translated John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

What he said which most struck me was about piety (one of the gifts of the Spirit). Most often I think of piety as reverence, the gift of our loving attitude towards God. But what TOB made me realise, is that it is also a gift of our attitude towards the other. If piety is a sensibility for what is holy, then surely we can have this sensibility in relationships with others too. I think this is what Theology of the Body teaches us – not to control or possess others, but to respect and reverence the person in their own mystery. The opposite is concupiscence: it arises from not seeing the person in their depth, it narrows the horizon of my mind. How easy is it to write someone off if we don’t understand them completely or get the way they are? But the gift of the Holy Spirit helps us widen our heart to accept the other as other. This is the foundation of love. How can we love someone if we want to make them in the image of ourselves?

Dr Waldstein used Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love” to show the purity of self-giving love (portrayed in the woman on the right). In Christ, we can love freely and innocently and purely, without manipulation, fear or suspicion. What a gift! Probably most of us need to learn how to love in a way that is free and pure, but isn’t it wonderful that we CAN… with grace, and in Christ.