Tag Archives: Catholic Church

Pope Francis, we love you already!

pope

People, I’M BACK!

Two exciting things happened recently… Not only did we get a new Pope in the person of Pope Francis (whom I LOVE already), I also got wifi up and running in my new, Portsmouth flat, which I’ve survived without for around three weeks now. So I can blog and tell you how much I love our new Holy Father.

The number of images and words we’ve seen about him over the last 24 hours truly boggles the mind. So, I’m giving you my favourite quote and my favourite picture.

First, the quotation:

We need to come out of ourselves and head for the periphery. We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But is the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one. (Cardinal Bergoglio 2012 – Pope Francis)

Yes yes yes! I cannot tell you how much I love this. Who will draw people in unless we do?

And the picture: he chose to travel with the other cardinals on the coach – and not even in the front seat!

578570_10151525840335661_723938190_n

 

I am so excited about what the Lord wishes to teach his Church in the person of this holy, humble, evangelistic man.

And, did I mention? My bishop’s on Twitter! The first UK bishop I believe… Follow him: @bishopegan – you won’t regret it 😉


Lent, the Year of Faith, and an unusual time for the Church

Lent feels somewhat different this year, somehow more intense and real. When the Holy Father made his announcement, one thing that struck so many of us was how much more intensely we need to pray for him, for the bishops, and for the whole Church. For me, it was a bit of a wake-up call to the greater sacrifices and prayer we need to contribute to the communion of the Church. I wonder whether this has made Lent, for many of us, a more significant one this year… we have entered it at a seemingly vulnerable time for the Church, yet knowing that Christ is always victorious (as Pope Benedict said to the priests of Rome recently).

Significant, too, is that this situation arises during the Year of Faith, a year of grace during which we return to the vision of the Council, the real Council which has, as the Holy Father also said recently, had “difficulty establishing itself and taking shape”. This Year, the Church is called to recommit to implementing the vision of this real Council. And this involves each one of us renewing our own faith.

Recently I came across this wonderful quotation from a talk given by Dr Caroline Farey, who clearly calls us back to the essence of renewing our own faith:

How is the heart ever going to know what is good if we don’t use our mind to inform the heart? Don’t let anyone say to you, ‘don’t worry about all that study, all you need is to get your heart united to Christ’. Yes, we need our hearts plunged in Christ… be led by Christ but let your mind be led by Christ through the Church so that your heart can follow what is actually good, and not just what is an awful lot of opinions of what must be good… The Catechism is there to help us.”

Renewing our mind through more rigorous study will lead to strengthening our commitment and love this Lent. And this is surely what the Lord and the Church need from us at this time: greater commitment and love.


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.


Courageous Leadership

I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now. Leadership is a topic that is close to my heart, as I’ve written about here and here. The last few months, my Tube-reading has been this wonderful book: Courageous Leadership by Bill Hybels. Even if I wasn’t a slow reader (which I am) I would read this slowly as it is outstanding. In my view, it should be required reading for every leader in the Church: seminarians, lay leaders, teachers, priests and bishops! It is that good.

As a young lay person working in the Catholic Church, my impression is that awareness of ‘leadership mentoring’ or ‘identifying emerging young leaders’ is not on the radar of most leaders in the Church. Bill Hybels talks about the many different ways we may come to leadership – someone may take us under their wing and disciple us; we might shadow someone in their role and be coached to develop our skills; or, we might be thrown in at the deep end. In my case, my parish priest took an enormous gamble in putting me in a position that I was not really qualified for. I remember at the time someone telling him that I should not be put in this role. It freaked me out, I knew they were right. But he replied that he would be the judge of that. Looking back, I am tremendously grateful at this huge risk that he took with me. It is not the right introduction to leadership for everyone, but for me, God knew I needed to be put in a ‘sink or swim’ situation and be forced to work things out pretty quickly.

What never fails to frustrate me is that young leaders within the Catholic Church in this country need to go outside the Church’s walls for leadership formation. Hybels’ book is an example. I don’t know of a Catholic equivalent. Last year, a big group of us went to the HTB Leadership Conference at the Royal Albert Hall. I can honestly say they were two of the most inspiring and well-spent days of my year. The faith and passion were immense. HTB is providing the Catholic Church a beautiful service in building up and impassioning her young leaders. But why is she not building up and impassioning her own?

I am going to hazard an answer to this question. I know it is a complex question with varied responses, but I think it is worth pointing out the elephant in the room. My eyes were opened to it through the honest, direct faith of Hybels’ book: we have a crisis of leadership in our Church. Hybels repeats the same simple truths again and again: vision and passion are inextricably bound in the life of a leader. If a leader does not have vision that is crystal-clear and passion that is white-hot, and if he is not able to communicate these to others, he is not fully alive, he is not fully living out his vocation (Hybels says it much better – read the book!)

Vision. Passion. I asked a priest recently what his vision was for the adult formation in his parish. He fumbled around for an answer but couldn’t really tell me. Something is wrong with that. So many of us have gone off the boil. And when everyone goes off the boil, it becomes normal. We start checking that our parish is pretty much in line with what the next-door parish is doing… and that’s as far as our vision extends. How terribly sad! We need to turn up the heat, wake up, listen to younger Catholics with vision and passion, itching and ready to take the baton, who right now can only dream of being led by the quality of leadership Hybels talks about in his book.

There is a lot in Courageous Leadership, and some particular themes I’d like to explore in future posts: vision and leadership; creating your dream team; discovering your own leadership style. I really encourage you to get a copy.


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.


Need for Young Adult Catechists

Welcome to British summer!

I have to tell you, it was something of a shock to step back into this cool, rainy country, people… After a month of blistering heat it took me a while to adjust and to bid farewell to summery outfits for another year *sniff*

Since being back (and after overcoming some serious jet lag), I’ve been at the Evangelium conference in Reading, giving a couple of workshops on how to be a brilliant catechist. There were some fantastic young people there, some great keynote lectures, beautiful liturgy… all in all, a wonderfully enjoyable weekend. I loved being able to share some key catechetical principles with other young adults who are catechists in their parishes, but who have never before come across some of these methodological ideas (four dimensions of the Christian life, the goals of catechesis, the five foundational truths).

Young adults, because they are in the midst of establishing careers, making life decisions, and maintaining busy social lives, rarely have the time (or money) to dedicate to serious catechist formation. I am beginning to think that alternatives should be developed for formation of young adults as catechists. Let’s face it: these are people who we really need as catechists. They are extremely effective Confirmation catechists – teenagers will listen to them as they do not yet see them as equivalent to their parents. In the RCIA process, it is compelling to see young adults witnessing to an authentic Christian life (not living together before marriage, etc) – on the whole, I believe that age and background of catechists should more or less mirror the ages and backgrounds of enquirers and catechumens. Although, the need for older, more experienced, wiser catechists in every programme is evident, too.

So, the cogs in my mind are beginning to whir on how we can form more young adults as catechists – especially to ‘grow’ the next generation of catechetical leaders in this country. It is always important to form already existing catechists, but we need to look to the future too. I believe, because the task of catechesis in our Church over the next decades is so urgent, we need the best to become catechists – intelligent, well-formed, inspiring people who live life to the full.


Some things I learnt about leadership…

Around a month ago, I attended the excellent HTB leadership conference at the Royal Albert Hall. I know, I know. It is not a Catholic conference. A few people helpfully reminded me that only decades ago I would have had to go to Confession for attending a non-Catholic church. But, I have to say, a great believer though I am that all we need is found within the Catholic Church, I did gain a lot from this conference. For those who don’t know it, Holy Trinity Brompton is the church led by Nicky Gumbel, the founder of the Alpha course. I really am impressed by them. I’m impressed at their evangelisation, how they draw people into the life of the church, how they disciple and form people. All without any sacramental grace 🙂 I really think we can learn lots from them.

So, for a full two days, the stunning location of the Royal Albert Hall was crammed with over 4,000 passionate Christians (they must be pretty passionate to take two days off work) and the quality of the teaching was, on the whole, excellent. (First of all, a little aside: I think this conference is great for Catholics who are well-formed. I would not recommend it to Catholics who have a hazy understanding of doctrine or of what we mean by the Church, because you have to remember, when all these speakers are speaking about the “Church” – fantastic as they are – they do not mean what we mean by the Church.)

OK, so doctrinal differences aside: What did I learn about leadership?

1. You do not need a position to lead: This is what I want to shout out to every young Catholic who feels a desire in their heart to make a difference, to lead, to serve, to do the things they think should be happening already, but are not. Lead anyway! Perhaps the older people who are doing the things you should be doing by now are reluctant to let go of their positions: that’s their problem, lead anyway! Because through our Baptism we have an intrinsic calling within our lay vocation to holiness, and to evangelise, we don’t have to wait for anyone else’s permission. Do it anyway. Start the prayer group, form the study group, organise a retreat or a conference… Don’t wait for the position. Maybe one day someone will realise, ‘Wow, this person’s leading a whole crowd of people, we should give him a position!’ Maybe they won’t. Let’s just do the things it seems clear God would like to be happening. This was a ‘penny-drop’ moment for me, thank you Judah Smith!

2. Resist discouragement: This is what I needed to hear big-time… Somehow, in the Church, especially when you work for it, several things happen a day which can discourage you if you let them. We hear lots of negativity, a bit of cynicism, complaining… The Lord isn’t making us a “new creation” for this! The devil wants us to be discouraged – let’s not be! There is always something to be thankful for, God’s mercy is new every moment.

3. Do not look for glory: We have to be constantly on the look out for ‘rectitude of intention’… what a murky area. For anyone in a role of leadership, this is something we need to ask ourselves every single day, ‘Are these projects, plans, ideas my will or the Lord’s? Am I truly surrendered to God’s action? Am I committed to working on in obscurity with little or no recognition?’ From experience, it is far, far better for us to be working in obscurity with no one noticing what we are doing. How hard is it to accept that though?! Every part of us rebels against that idea. Rick Warren, author of Purpose-Driven Life, put it nicely: The fruit growing in the shade grows ripest.

4. Have a day of rest: Preferably Sunday 🙂 This is another way of ensuring God is driving our plans, not us. We give him his day, we relax and recuperate, spend time with the people closest to us.

5. Live with integrity: Another great Rick Warren point. We Catholics call this “unity of life” (see Christifidelis Laici). Integrity of life means that how we are with one person is how we are with everyone. I am who I am. I am the same with my Catholic friends, my non-Catholic friends. I am not divided into compartments.

Formation of Catholic leaders is vital for the next generation. How are we doing this? Are we doing it at all? One speaker used the image of the ‘exchange zone’ in a relay race: the baton has to be handed to the next runner within a certain stretch of space, not too early, not too late. Are we preparing the next generation? Are we handing over too early or too late?


Freedom and catechesis

How many people think they are truly free and that the Catholic Church would limit their freedom?

One of the most frequent criticisms you hear about Catholicism is its “institutionalism” – how many times do we hear people say they’ll take Jesus but not the Church? Personal relationship with God – yes; religion – definitely no.

To some extent, I can understand a certain trepidation. We don’t want to feel confined, we want to be able to choose, we don’t want to feel we have to do things we don’t particularly want to. I remember these feelings very much as a Catholic teenager. I didn’t want to do any ‘weird’ Catholic stuff, like go to Confession, or venerate the Cross on Good Friday, or pray the Rosary…just because that’s what Catholics did. I didn’t have an inner desire to do any of those things.

Now I see that what it comes down to is freedom: people don’t like these external practices because they find in them no interior correllation. Partly, we need to grow in understanding of these practices so we can understand their source in God’s love for us and nothing else. But also, we need spiritual growth to feel free in these practices. When we grow in interior life, we discover we have a space of freedom within us that can never be taken away. It means that we can fulfill the external practices of our Faith without loss to our individuality, our personality, our freedom. We learn that, “I can be fully myself and fully Catholic” and even, eventually, “I can be fully myself because I’m fully Catholic.”

There is a very real need for growth in this, for everyone in the process of preparing for the sacraments of initiation. As we draw closer to Easter, it becomes more and more real, which can either be a source of increasing joy or of increasing tension.

The catechesis of the Catechumenate needs to recognise this. When we begin somewhere new – a new job, neighbourhood, parish, a new family if we get married – there are a whole host of new people, places, procedures, etiquette, norms or rules we need to get used to. This is part of the purpose of the Catechumenate – catechumens get introduced, not only to parish life, but to the life of the whole Church. The new people they grow accustomed to are not only their sponsor, their parish priest, their parish community – but the entire communion of the Church through their primary relationship with Jesus Christ: their Blessed Mother, their elder brothers and sisters the Saints, the Holy Father, bishops, religious, priests…how everyone fits into the ‘Family’. Like becoming a member of any family, over time we gradually feel more at home as we understand the place and the roles that different people occupy, as we get to know people more deeply. I remember once meeting a woman who had recently been received into the Church who referred to “our Blessed Mother” in such a way I realised that she really knew her. This should be our ideal – that ‘neophytes’ leaving the Catechumenate speak with easy familiarity of their new family.

The same applies to other aspects of initiation – growing comfortable with going regularly to Confession, lighting candles for prayers, how and when to genuflect, blessing oneself with holy water, requesting Masses for certain intentions, making visits to the Blessed Sacrament, not eating meat on Fridays, praying novenas, becoming familiar with the liturgical year.

All of this is part of growing in freedom, as a son or daughter of God the Father, in the Church.

At this time of year, many Catechumenates begin to teach the Church’s moral teaching. For us, it comes after the grace of a retreat has prepared the way… Of course, this is perhaps the biggest and most challenging area of growing in freedom – accepting the moral teaching of the Church, particularly those elements that apply directly to your life. Every year, we find that this is the area needing the most prayer, the most careful planning, the most thoughtful yet no-nonsense catechesis. You can probably guess the two areas which present us with the most challenges each year: contraception and cohabitation.

To be honest, I wonder to what extent many Catechumenates even tackle these problems. People seem surprised when I tell them that, in our parish, catechumens do not receive the sacraments of initiation until they are ready to change their lives in these areas. These are admittedly very difficult obstacles to overcome, since they are often extremely emotionally-charged. In the next post, I want to share some practical examples of how overcoming these problems is indeed possible, and the best beginning for the new life of the catechumen.