Monday, July 28, 2014

Fifth Sorrowful Mystery: The Crucifixion of Our Lord

That we Catholics so frequently see crucifixes in our homes and churches might, in a certain way, desensitize us to the horrors that it represents in a relatively sanitised form. The crucifix—which we proudly wear as a symbol of our faith and a sign of hope—is a remembrance of a gruesome and barbaric act of inhumanity, a depiction of the gravest historical injustice imaginable (simultaneously the cruel murder of a totally innocent man, perpetrated for personal expedience but enacted in the name of a fake justice, and the desecration of God’s only begotten).

Yet it is in this moment—the moment when Jesus looks most unlike God, most reducible to that which is rejected by humans—that the depths of divine love are revealed: in the veiling of his death, Christ’s true identity as God's own way of reaching out and loving humanity is revealed. God wills, in the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, to love us into new communion with Himself, thereby bestowing new meaning on human suffering itself. This man of sorrows was never without the joy of the beatific vision.

Through the eyes of faith, then, we see Christ’s own perfect self-offering as priest and victim, a true and proper sacrifice offered for our ransom and reconciliation, atoning for our sins and meriting all the graces that we receive and could ever receive. The eyes of faith allow us to see already, here at Calvary, the glorious conclusion of Christ’s work of redemption in the resurrection and ascension: this authentically human death in obedience to the Father merits the rewards of exaltation from God, firstly for Himself and (God-willing) for we who appropriate it in our own lives.

In times of sorrow, it can be difficult to sense God's presence: suffering seems meaningless and it is as if the ink of God's handwriting is invisible against the darkness of life's paper. Yet, as we endure the sorrows and mini-'crucifixions' that come in our own lives, may Mary's prayers helps us to unite our sorrows to Christ's death, so that we may experience a foretaste of the joy of our own resurrection, and come to see God's handwriting by the light shed from the empty tomb.
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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book review: Green Philosophy by Roger Scruton

There have always been different perspectives on how we interact with animals and the environment. Saint Francis loved birds landing on his arm, with animals beside him as he contemplated brother sun and sister moon. On the other hand, according to Blessed Cecilia, Saint Dominic when preaching to nuns from behind a grille in their convent, plucked the feathers from a sparrow that had flown into the church, shouting that it was the devil that had came to interrupt his sermon!

Someone with an alternative perspective on the environment is Professor Roger Scruton, a fellow of Blackfriars Hall. In his book Green Philosophy, Prof. Scruton calls for a greater focus on how non-political grassroots and voluntary organisations can address both local and global scale environmental issues. His main premise is that a top-down, government-directed approach is never going to fully address global problems like climate change. Scruton has grave concerns that such an approach is counter-productive and only serves to take power away from individuals, bankrupt small businesses and favour those with an interest in gaining a competitive advantage with new legislation being introduced. Scruton is particularly critical of the European Union and the seemingly endless number of regulations aimed at protection of the environment. His philosophy is that such top-down directives become a burdensome array of counter-productive legislation at both a local and national level.

Scruton gives examples where various systems of top-down government have caused massive damage to the environment. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ happens when everyone has access to unowned or commonly owned resources (such as fish in a lake, the air we breathe). Such resources are easily depleted by our use of them, particularly if there is a situation where it is in the interest of individuals to take as much as they can before others deprive them of the chance. Natural resources or ecosystems become someone else’s problem. When there is no accountability for stewardship of a common resource, the result is usually environmental degradation.

The evidence is certainly there to prove his point on the issue of climate change. Global COconcentrations in the atmosphere are at the highest levels ever recorded and show no signs of stabilising. Deforestation continues across the world. Despite all the attempts at gaining a global agreement on climate change, the problem of increasing carbon emissions and decreasing capacity of the planet’s ability to cope is only getting worse. Scruton sees some climate change activists as being less interested in society adapting to climate change, and more interested in perpetuating a system of government which provides them with a cushy job role. Scruton also criticises the approach of many unaccountable non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in their blatant bypassing of the democratic system through lobbying Government or even donating to political parties.

Poundbury: the type of development which Scruton advocates

Overall, Scruton proposes that we should switch from a fast-paced, fossil-fuel intensive living, to a local way of life focused on organic agriculture, farmers’ markets, locally-sourced food, more local holidays and so on. Scruton suggests we abandon the impossible task of getting all nations to implement treaties on carbon trading and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, he proposes that we should invest in developing clean technology, and agreeing on treaties that can actually be globally implemented. He also suggests we radically reform (or indeed get rid of) the system of agricultural subsidies which generally favour corporations and resource-intensive monoculture farming. In other words, taxes should be funding the technological advancements and local-scale innovation that is needed to deal with climate change in the 21st century, rather than more bureaucracy on carbon emissions. Prof Scruton outlines a philosophical term ‘oikophilia’ or love of home, as the primary motivation for care of the earth. Scruton believes oikophilia can be promoted with a shift away from government-shaped solutions and instead sees non-political ‘grassroots’ organisations like the National Trust, Womens Institute, RSPB, and so on as the ones which should be protecting the environment.

Prof Scruton’s proposals are not a silver bullet to environmental concerns, nor does he claim to have one. Of course, not everyone is able to commit to supporting a grassroots organisation, or has the income to buy locally-grown food from independent stores. However, Scruton does put forward a theory that oikophilia is degraded by modern pursuits such as home entertainment, television, and other activities which instead of building up virtue in our lives, leave us empty. In traditional moralising language, vice and sin are what degrades oikophilia, with greed driving a consumerism that is ultimately unsustainable.

In our Dominican tradition, I should recognise the truth contained in Green Philosophy and applaud Scruton for the very useful criticisms of the government-led approach. However, Scruton’s deregulated and small government framework for ‘green conservatism’ seems to neglect the positive achievements on certain environmental issues through a ‘top-down’ approach. For instance, EU regulations on vehicle emission standards is reducing toxic air pollution from vehicles in European towns and cities. This was done by forcing car manufacturers to increase engine efficiency and improve pollution control. The EU is also requiring energy companies to use less polluting fuels and use more renewable sources of power. The top-down directive approach has revolutionised how we view waste as a resource in this country, with the EU setting waste targets and offering best practice on new waste treatment technology. Government grants are supposed to be available for businesses and organisations to access, in order to deal with the anomalies that occur in this top-down approach. 

Waste not: EU directives have revolutionised how we manage waste as a resource

As for green conservatism, placing an emphasis on tradition in architecture, and starting up permaculture projects are good things. However, I cannot see how small government and a volunteer based approach would work in some cases. It is hard to see the Womens Institute coming together to remedy the problem of contaminated land from the old gasworks in the nearby industrial estate. Or the National Trust appearing with volunteers to clean up Sellafield, with their membership passes in the pockets of their radiation suits. Although Scruton points out failures in certain top-down legislation on habitats and protected species, the general trend is that things have improved greatly over the last 40 years in terms of protection of the environment. European legislation and international treaties have delivered positive results on protection of endangered species. Accession countries such as Poland who are new members of the EU, are being forced to clean up their industries, deal with major pollution problems and protect sites of ecological importance. The collaborative international approach with some degree of top-down government directive has been successful in meeting environmental objectives.

As for the skeptics who do not believe climate change is something to be concerned about, Scruton helpfully recommends reading Global Warming: The Complete Briefing by Sir John Houghton, which is a balanced and comprehensive overview. He also cites Sustainable Energy without the Hot air by David JC MacKay as a good source of further information on energy related issues. I do agree with Prof. Scruton that non-political and accountable local associations, and indeed local churches will, at the end of the day, achieve more than any attempt at having a global carbon trading ‘market’ or the futile attempts at trying to get another Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases. Going to Church to pray will likely have more of a positive overall impact than either of these.

Scruton makes an interesting point that we must recognise the difference between a religion directed towards salvation (which tends to ignore the environment), and a religion focused on the immediate presence of the sacred, as this is revealed in the here and now. The two may of course be combined, but are clearly different as motives. A care for sacred places is an obstacle to destruction of the environment, and Scruton’s argument is that care for sacred places is part of the domestication of religion. This means attaching the Christian faith to local saints, shrines, towns and civic ceremonies, even the law of a nation. This personalising of our connection to the environment is of course lost through rampant consumerism and the extremes of individualism. 

In the meantime, our sacristy in Blackfriars has an infestation of flies which will be duly sprayed with chemicals so we can get on with our preaching.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Fourth Sorrowful Mystery: The Carrying of the Cross

Titian, Christ Carrying the Cross (c.1565)
When we pray the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery we bring to mind our Lord's anguish and pain as he carried the weight of our sins on the cross, knowing the greater sacrifice that awaited him on the summit of Calvary.

Recalling our Lord's act leaves us feeling humbled, contrite but encouraged by his overwhelming love for us, His children. Our cross is light to bear, by comparison with Christ's inestimable sacrifice. 

A good intention, therefore, when praying this mystery is to pray for those who are without hope, and feel overburdened. That they may take up their cross and follow Him, for it is only in carrying our cross with love, in faith, and for the hope of the life to come that we find happiness.

– Br Samuel Burke OP


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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Could you sponsor the Friars to help train new priests?

Today, four Dominican Friars will take the first steps on a 190-mile trek across England. This is a final plea for sponsors – many men are currently joining our Order, and we urgently need to raise money to fill a gap we have in our funds for training them.

So far we have reached 76% of our sponsorship target - £15,196 out of £20,000. Could you help us get closer to our goal?


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Monday, July 21, 2014

Third Sorrowful Mystery: The Crowning with Thorns

Mantegna, 'Ecce homo' (1500)
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

These words of Jesus hanging on the Cross reveal a profound truth about the present scene of his crowning with thorns. What must have pained our Lord above all is the knowledge that his own people, these sons and daughters of God, were tormenting him to death without knowing his true identity or the depth of his love for them. The worst pains we suffer are inflicted by those we love.

All the Sorrowful Mysteries invite us to weep for Jesus, in his terrible sufferings, but also to weep with Jesus. As the unruly crowd calls for his blood and looks on at this scourged and bleeding man – Ecce homo! Behold the man! – our Lord is silently looking back at them and loving them. He is grieving not for his own pains, but for the sins of his beloved people who have turned against him.

So it is not just the sheer cruelty that makes me want to recoil from this scene. It is also the dramatic, even tragic, irony of it all. The Roman soldiers are mocking Christ and, specifically, his claim to kingship. They have wrapped him in a robe of royalty, put a pathetic stick of authority in his hand, and a twisted crown of thorns on his head. I wince at the thought of those thorns – superfluous, barbaric cruelty. And this cruelty exacerbates the fact that the mockery is totally unjustified: for Christ is just, Christ is innocent, and Christ is king. He is true man – 'a man of sufferings and acquainted with grief' – and also true God, the God who looks upon us with infinite love despite our sins.

It is good to pray this mystery for all those in authority, for those suffering persecution or torture, and for those who do not recognise Christ as king.


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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Assisted Dying: Love vs autonomy

The Good Samaritan
In a previous post I discussed some of the issues with the proposed “Assisted Dying” legislation from a procedural perspective in a Parliamentary democracy. In today’s post I want to give some consideration to the values which underpin our society and what the implementation of the proposed legislation would mean for them.

Now depending on who you speak to, the United Kingdom is a Christian society or used to be one. However, regardless of where they stand on this issue, few would argue that many of our most cherished institutions and many of our accepted moral norms have their root in Christianity, even if some believe that they are now divorced and independent from it.

Take, for example, the NHS; it’s not hard to see how an institution like this arises out of Jesus’s commandment to “Love thy neighbour”. Similarly, the welfare state is another example of society collectively living out the Parable of the Good Samaritan: we do not wish anybody to be left by the side of the street destitute, simply because they do not have a job or money. Whilst there are arguments of scale and scope, I have never actually met anyone in this country who would wish to get rid of welfare or the NHS. Such institutions send a message that everyone, irrespective of who they are now, or what they have done in their past, merits a certain level of respect and care; derived from their basic dignity as a human being.

At a more local level, there are tens of thousands of different groups, organisations, and individuals working up and down the country to improve the lives of others; and not because they are being forced to, but because they wish to help and care for others. This, too, is “Love they neighbour” in action.

Furthermore, implicit in all these good works at every level of society is an acknowledgment that loving can mean putting the interests of others before our own immediate interests. When you pay National Insurance and do not resist doing so, you are willingly receiving less of your salary than would otherwise be the case, so that others may benefit from the fruits of your labours. This is noble.

Thus it would not, I think, be an exaggeration to say that love of neighbour underpins many of the ways we seek to behave in this country. Furthermore, I suspect if many were asked what their ultimate moral value was they might reply with the Golden Rule, “Do as you would be done by”. We remain a loving society and one which respects acts of kindness to others. You only have to observe how feel-good YouTube videos showing kindness in unexpected places go viral.

What then is the ultimate value which underlies the campaign behind the “Assisted Dying” campaign? Is it to make us more loving? No, ultimately it is about autonomy. There are other values mixed in there, and that people may cite: care and compassion, love and the desire not to see another suffer (and I don’t doubt the sincerity and good of them); but whilst "assisted dying" remains a voluntary decision, then the ultimate value remains autonomy. The proponents of the legislation are not saying that somebody with a limited amount of time to live and certain level of suffering should request help to commit suicide, but rather they want a situation where that person could request the necessary help. Thus the choice of individual is the heart of the argument, and autonomy is key.

In fact in many areas of life at the moment there is increasing propensity to talk in terms of autonomy, generally at the expense of absolute values. Autonomy itself becomes the absolute value. There is a creeping trend to define us as beings that choose, not as beings that seek to choose well. Autonomy, not love, is at the heart of the sexual revolution; autonomy, not love, is at the heart of the pro-choice campaign; autonomy, not love, is at the heart of the liberalisation of pornography; and autonomy, not love, is at the heart of the current campaign.

Choice is not in and of itself a good thing
Choice is not a good in and of itself. Its good is dependent on there being a good choice for us to make. The choice between being able to become addicted to heroin or crack-cocaine is not a good. The choice between mutilating my left side or my right side is not a good. The introduction of a choice so that we can now assist somebody to kill themselves with the backing of the law is not a good. It is a choice we would be better without.

The obvious riposte to this is that I do not have to live with terminal illness, with pain and suffering, and with the fear of it getting ever-worse. This is true, and I have great sympathy for someone who wishes to take their own life and feels there is no other option, but I cannot condone them in this choice and always find suicide tragic. My reaction to cases of suicide is to think about what we could have done to make that person feel that taking their own life was not their best option. And the fact is that palliative care is far more effective than many realise and is improving all the time. And it is also as the law currently stands a responsibility on us to fund adequately and to make sure it is available to all who need it. However, should the “Assisted Dying” Bill pass into statute, it will absolve us of this responsibility. Where appropriate palliative care is deemed too onerous or too expensive, we will be able to respond to the patient, “Ah, well you do have a choice you know, you don’t have to suffer like this.” In short, the triumph of autonomy will excuse us from being more loving, from valuing someone, even when they don’t value themselves.

There is also an inherent problem with choice; for it is incumbent upon us to consider whether we should choose one option or another. “I choose death” is not a response which we should be building into our legal framework. Patients should be able to focus on living well. That does not mean prolonging life just for the sake of it, but rather that everything should be done to be make life as good as possible whilst we still have the gift of it. Similarly families and doctors should be single-minded in their provision of love and comfort, not working and caring with the alternative of helping the patient to kill themselves if it all becomes too much. It's hard to fully commit to the sometimes onerous task of loving fully, when the spectre of an easier way out is in the background. Such a choice not only undermines love and trust between patient and carer, but also puts doctors in the invidious position of having to help kill people, not what they will have joined the medical profession to do. What would it to the emotional well-being of a doctor to make them an agent of death?

There is still the riposte from those in favour of the legislation that the choice is only for those who want it and that is exactly what the issue of autonomy is all about. However, this is just naive. As John Donne astutely observed in his poignant meditations, “No man is an Island”. Every human action affects the rest of humanity in some way. Patterns of behaviour create expectations of behaviour. “Alice chose not to be a burden, are you sure you want to carry on, what with so much pain and everything?” . . .  “Obviously, we don’t want you to die, BUT have you thought about. . . ?” One person’s struggle for autonomy forces a choice on many who just want to live the term of their natural life. Uncomfortable as it feels to say it, even in extreme suffering we have a responsibility to think about how our actions impinge upon others. There are disabled and terminally ill people already scared by the pressure that they feel will inevitably be place upon them to take their lives, and saying "don't worry, it's your choice" is not going to reassure them.

For an eloquent account of the very real fear of the pressure to choose to die and the way that the doctor-patient relationship is affected I would recommend Penny Pepper’s moving article . She has the following to say:

I tried to commit suicide when I was 19. How tragic, you might say, so young and so unhappy. Yet if I tell you I’ve had a chronic illness since early childhood that is known for excruciating pain, for causing immobility and secondary – sometimes life-threatening – conditions, does that change your view of my suicide attempt?

I was unhappy and badly needed mental health support to treat depression. Sad to say that the standard response was to link my illness and disability automatically to my depression – and my “understandable” suicide attempt. There is a link, but not the one perceived by mainstream thought, medical or otherwise. I was stuck in an isolated dead-end existence within the family home, and as I wrote in the Guardian recently my mother was my only carer.

It felt like there was no chance of escape from a pointless existence; frustration dragged my depression into a downward spiral and I attempted suicide. I was in despair with barriers, with limits on personal freedom, and lack of independence – issues that can be alleviated by proper social care and the adaptation of physical boundaries.

Pain was, and is, a constant. But for the rest of my life I want to experience, to feel and to create as much as I can. I believe I am as valuable, with all my flaws and contradictions, as any other average human being. Yet the bill to legalise assisted dying – to be debated in the Lords on Friday – puts us on a dangerous road of devaluing disabled people. It frightens many; it frightens me.

The final point I want to make is that for all the talk about autonomy there is another more pernicious under-current behind the proposed legislation. It is simply that some lives are worth less than others. Penny Pepper alludes to this above with reference to depression and disability. People with severe disabilities and terminal illness are to be considered less worthy of the full spectrum of medical treatment than those it is considered have “something to live for.” If this were not the case, then why would the “Assisted Dying” Bill restrict its remit to the provision of assistance with suicide to those who are terminally ill. Why should anybody who wishes to kill themselves not have their autonomy respected? Surely this can only be because the life of the terminally ill is less respected.

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster
Euthanasia Propoganda Poster

Evidence of this dangerous type of thinking is evidenced by many of those who argue for the Bill. It is sad to see that it has crept into the thinking of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, formerly a staunch defender of the current legal position. Notice that in saying how his mind was changed, he cites the case of Tony Nicklinson – a man who was not terminally ill and would not have been assisted by the proposed legislation. Tony Nicklinson was severely disabled, but this neatly illustrates the way that even thinking about this sort of legislation gets us into the mindset of apportioning different value to different lives according to their different physical states. Surely the tragedies of the last century are not fading from our memories so fast that we think this is anything other than an abhorrent way to think? Do we really want to live in a society where on encountering the man on Beachy Head we attempt to talk him out of jumping, but on finding out that he has terminal cancer, we agree to give him a helpful shove?

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2nd sorrowful mystery: the scourging at the pillar

The most shocking and realistic account that I know of the scourging at the pillar is the scene in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The brutal treatment of Christ by the Romans as they scourge him is probably the most accurate and moving depiction of events that a film could capture. The implements of torture, even the brutish behaviour of the guards and their superior, is made so realistic that it is impossible not to be horrified at how this could be done to anyone. This ritualised mutilation of another human being was probably a regular occurrence in the Roman empire. The blood of Christ was on the faces of the men scourging him, and so much blood spilled on the courtyard it was cleaned by the women with cloths afterwards. As written in Luke 6:22, Blessed are you when men hate you, and exclude you and revile you on account of the son of man. Rejoice on that day and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven. 


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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Assisted Dying" Bill - Is it really democractic?

Lord Falconer, the man behind the current Bill

As I write, Lord Falconer’s “Assisted Dying” Bill is currently scheduled to be debated in the House of Lords this coming Friday, 18th July 2014. In this first of a series of posts I wish to examine some of the many problematic aspects of the proposed legislation. This first post will focus on the democratic and legislative issues with the Bill.

One of the organisations backing the Bill explains the rationale behind it as follows: “Dignity in Dying advocates a change in the law on assisted dying. We believe that, subject to strict upfront safeguards, the law should  allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults to request life-ending medication from a doctor. The dying patient would then have the choice to self-administer that medication at a time that was right for them.”

There are three points that I shall make in this post. The first is that this is a Private Member’s Bill. It is was not a Government manifesto pledge, it is not a policy that has been developed by the Government during its term in office, rather it is a Bill introduced by an individual and reflects that individual’s own particular concerns. That is not to say that it does not have the backing of others, but it is not the policy of a political party and its democratically-elected members. Nor in fact is it even the Bill of a democratically-elected individual. Lord Falconer is a peer in the House of Lords and has no democratic mandate.

Houses of Parliament - is the process for this Bill and its implementation the way democracy should work?

The second point to note is that the basic substance of the Bill has already been rejected by Parliament on several occasions before. Lord Falconer appears to have picked up the mantle of Lord Joffe – another unelected member of the House of Lords – who on four previous occasions put forward a Bill for “Assisted Suicide” (NB see how Lord Falconer is now using the word “dying” rather than “suicide”, more on this very serious wordplay in a subsequent post). Now, if a man were repeatedly to ask a girl out, despite her adamant rebuttals of his intentions, we might start to speak in terms of harassment. Similarly, one might ask how many times is it appropriate to ignore the repeated will of Parliament and seek to persuade it otherwise through the repeated introduction of private member’s bills, where nothing has substantially changed since the last time either House was asked to examine the Bill? In fact, with advances in palliative care, the case for assisted dying to relieve undue pain and suffering actually seems to have diminished since Lord Joffe first tried to introduce his Bill. It would also be naive to think that the progress of such private members bills, and the profile that they attract, has nothing to do with lobbying and the resources that requires.

The third point is that whilst Dignity in Dying and Lord Falconer seek to provide reassurance with calming talk of “strict safeguards”, the fact is that beyond a few very high-level points of principle, no safeguards are in fact introduced with the Bill. The safeguards that would actually operate in hospitals in practice do not form part of the Bill, but would be introduced at a later date by a Code of Practice. Thus a Bill introduced by an individual would have the key points of its implementation determined by an individual: Codes of Practice are drawn up by the Secretary of State for the relevant department. They are not debated by Parliament or made subject in any other meaningful way to parliamentary scrutiny.

Subsequent posts will go on to look at the unfair pressures that would be put on the medical profession by the proposed legislation: the inevitable pressure to choose death for patients who want to live; the abuse of language by the proponents of the Bill; and finally that the Bill absolves us of our responsibility to be more loving, not less.

In the meantime though you may wish to consider reading the Bishops’ Conference document on ‘Sense and Nonsense on “Assisted Dying”’  and any one of a series of excellent articles on the Oxford Students for Life blog

Finally, but most importantly, please do not delay in making your voice heard on this matter. All the resources for all the different ways you can help are available at


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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony of Our Lord in the Garden

Matthew (26: 36-46); Luke (22: 39-46)

Everyone, it is said, has their Gethsemane moment. The First Sorrowful Mystery then is a place of profound encounter.

In the Garden we see the Son of Man praying in solitude, his disciples a little way off. As Jesus contemplates his passion, which is to begin that very evening, his heart recoils from what is to be a cruel and ignominious death, he asks of the Father “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).

The natural, and in some sense praiseworthy, approach to this mystery is to try and associate ourselves as much as possible with Christ’s agony by placing ourselves in his shoes. We associate some mental anguish over some trial we have had, or are having, with Christ’s agony. However, Our Lord never considered acting against the Father’s will, he never thought that he might just run away or that he might call upon a legion of angels to deliver him (cf. Matt. 26:53). Our Lord was like the brave soldier who feared the battle but never contemplated desertion.

'Could you not watch with me for one hour?'

But for us, though we might often utter ‘Father, remove this cup from me…’ we always keep open the option of desertion. Most of us are more like the disciples in this mystery; we attempt to accompany the Lord’s agony but in fact we fall asleep. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

So, as we begin the sorrowful mysteries we might ask, not so much for the strength to endure great spiritual ordeals, but rather, more modestly, we ask for the grace to be able to at least stay awake in the spiritual struggle that we might learn to complete our prayer and say ‘not my will but thine be done.’


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Friday, July 11, 2014

The Sorrowful Mysteries

Detail of the Agony in the Garden, Sacred Heart Chapel, Downside Abbey
Death, particularly a gruesome death, and the trials that lead up to it are not things that one would normally wish to contemplate; and yet, each Tuesday and Friday, millions of Catholics around the world will be thumbing their rosary beads doing exactly this. To what end?

Well, first, and more generally, the Rosary draws us into familiarity; familiarity with Christ and familiarity with Mary. It is that familiarity that builds within us the bonds of communion – we know Christ and we know the love of the Father He reveals to us, and there is great value in this.

But, second, and more particularly, contemplation of the Sorrowful Mysteries helps us better to follow Christ in one of His more challenging teachings:
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?’” (Matthew 16:24-26).

Meditating upon the Sorrowful Mysteries prepares us for the struggles that we all must surely have in living as authentic Christians. Our cross, may not be the Cross of Calvary, but we cannot expect to be able to accept and bear whatever struggles we are presented with if we exclude all thought of suffering from our prayer lives. Nor can we make sense of our suffering unless we contemplate the redemptive suffering of Christ, the context for all human suffering . . . suffering that ends not with death, but with the Resurrection.

Each of us can draw upon our personal experience of suffering and use it to unite ourselves to Christ. Most of us will have had our Gethsemane moment, that experience of a sense of having been betrayed and the consequent hurt; the agony of something unpalatable that must be done despite our own desires and fears. Similarly we can also relate our physical sufferings to those of Christ along the way to Calvary.

13 The Crowning with Thorns
Crowning with Thorns: Downside Abbey
But it is not just the sufferings of Christ that we enter into when we contemplate these mysteries. We can unite ourselves to Mary as we draw upon that anguish of being impotent in the face of a loved one’s suffering - that profoundly human hurt that we experience in the face of the suffering of another that we can do nothing about; the beautiful desire of a mother to bear the sufferings of her child in his or her place. And finally, as we contemplate the crucifixion, along with the feeling of horror at the brutality of man to his fellow man; we might also be moved to gratitude, for Christ has taken the burden of our sin upon Himself and redeemed us.


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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Ordination of Fr Nicholas Crowe, O.P.

After seven years of education and life in the Dominican Order, our Brother Nicholas Crowe was ordained Priest last Saturday July 5th 2014.

Fr Nicholas had his hands anointed with holy oils and was ordained Priest. Family and friends came to Blackfriars for the Ordination by our Brother Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP.

Hundreds queued for their first blessing from Fr Nicholas, who will be moving onto new pastures at the start of his Priestly ministry.

As mentioned in the bidding prayers during his first Mass, we pray for Fr Nicholas Crowe who was ordained to the Priestly ministry. May the Lord give him a deep faith, a bright and firm hope, and a burning love which will ever increase in the course of his Priestly life. 

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

How do we know if the room is too cold? There is a gradual feeling from an early point that the room is getting colder, but eventually there is a point where we just ‘know’ that we need to put on a jumper, close the window or put a heater on. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the temple is one of the first events in the Bible where we see those surrounding Jesus, start to get more insight into something profound about this boy from Nazareth. For the son of an artisan, not formally educated, Jesus somehow has the knowledge to have dialogue and debate with the Doctors in the temple. 

A tipping point for Mary and Joseph might have been the several days where Jesus was separated from them, and instead was residing in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). Once they discovered he was actually in discussion with those learned scholars rather that any act of disobedience, was this the point where the parents of Jesus slowly began to realise who Jesus was? Rather like starting to know that a room is starting to get cold, perhaps they started to realise what sort of role they would have in His life and ministry. This is the only scriptural account of the early life of Jesus mentioned in a gospel. I often find this Joyful mystery a useful meditation and prayer for educators and those involved in religious education.


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Friday, July 04, 2014

Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

The Presentation, by Fra Angelico OP
Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth, 'to present him to the Lord', as the Law of Moses required (Luke 2:22). St Luke stresses that the parents fulfil all their religious obligations meticulously; and the offering of two birds shows their humble poverty. But the significance of the Presentation goes much further. As the prophet Malachi had announced (Mal. 3:1):

Behold ... the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple.

Now it is two new prophetic figures, Simeon and Anna, who recognise that the Lord has indeed come to his Temple. They have been waiting patiently for the promised Saviour, the Messiah, and now they cradle him in their arms. Simeon gives thanks to God: 'my eyes have seen your salvation'. Indeed, he is holding Salvation in his very arms, for the baby is Yeshua or Jesus, which means Salvation.

This Saviour will be the fulfilment of the Jewish religion, with its Law and Temple, to demonstrate the glory of Israel. But he has also come as a light for the Gentile nations, and offers salvation to the whole world.

This salvation in Christ is tragically not recognised by all. Simeon predicts that Jesus would bring division; and the opposition to his divine mission would be a 'sword' to pierce Mary's soul. This loving mother would see her son suffer and die, as his infinite love carried him to the Cross.

The great joy of the Presentation, then, is already tinged with the anticipation of future sorrows. Salvation comes at a cost, as Jesus gives his life for us. But this, too, is a cause for joy. As we meditate on his Presentation, we rejoice that Salvation has come to us and has given his life for us.


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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity

"And while they were there the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:6-7)

As she placed her child in the manger and looked upon Him with a perfect mother's love, she could not yet have known how His perfect love for all mankind would transform the world.

As she wondered what the future might hold for this child of hers, perhaps her mind turned to those words of the angel, all those months before, and she contemplated what it might mean to be the Son of the Most High?

As she gazed upon Him with great joy and wonder, perhaps there was also a tinge of trepidation about their future, a future that would pierce her heart with sorrow and His hands and feet with nails. 

Love came into the world and Love would suffer for us; so that our sufferings would no longer be in vain, but might, like Mary's, unite us more closely with Him.

As she reflected on those who came to pay tribute to her son – the Shepherds and the Magi, the lowly and the rich, the Jew and the Gentile – could she have imagined that one day peoples of every nation would gather together in the name of her son?

As she cradled Him in her arms, little could she have known that this small weight would lift the heavy burden of sin from the world. And yet as she contemplated the Scriptures perhaps she wondered if He was the one spoken of in Genesis, the seed of the woman that shall crush the serpent's head?

Surely, though, as she pondered all these things in her heart, one thing she knew for sure: nothing would ever be the same again.

– Br Toby Lees OP


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Monday, June 30, 2014

Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth

After hearing the Angel's news, Our Lady carries Our Lord in her womb "with haste" into the "hill country" to visit Elizabeth, her cousin (Luke 1:39-56). Her selfless act of making such a journey is both a corporal and a spiritual mercy.

As a result, John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth's womb, and Elizabeth spoke words of praise to her cousin that now form part of the Hail Mary, which forms the Rosary, and The Magnificat which we pray at Vespers. In this remarkable encounter, the Lord Jesus was present physically in nascent human form.

I was recently asked to take communion to a gentleman who couldn't get to Mass on account of his illness. The gentleman and his wife were incredibly grateful but it was I who had the greater debt to them for sharing with me their peace – a God-given grace in great adversity. I was very moved by the experience. When we undertake such tasks, in a modest way, we follow Mary's example.

When praying this decade, a good intention is to remember those who are unable to attend Mass, that heavenly banquet on earth.

Lord, help us to make known your presence. Help us to carry you, and be carried by you.

– Br Samuel Burke OP


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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Solemnity of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul

On the 29th of June we celebrate the Solemnities of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, two apostles both very familiar to us and yet, to some degree, somewhat shrouded in the mist of history. So who were they, and why do they merit so great a celebration in the liturgical life of the Church?

Simon Peter the fisherman was found by Our Lord going about his daily work and it was from the nets that Jesus called Peter to make him ‘a fisher of men.’ When the twelve apostles were chosen from among Jesus’s disciples Simon Peter was chosen first; he was to be their head. Fulton Sheen observes that at the pivotal moment when Jesus asked his apostles ‘who do men say that I am’ he tried out all possible forms of Church governance. Was the Church to be a democracy? Who did the multitudes think Jesus was? To which there was a multitude of answers:  Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah. Perhaps then the Church would be modelled after an aristocracy: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But to this question the apostles had no words. Then, speaking up for himself, Peter confessed his faith ‘you are the Christ, the son of the living God.’ The Church of Christ was to be monarchic and its governance left in the custodianship of the fisherman Simon: ‘I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church… I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven’ (Matthew 16: 13-20).

And yet immediately following this great elevation of Peter came a humiliation. When Jesus gave the apostles a sight of the Divine Plan for man’s redemption, predicting his own death in Jerusalem, Peter cried out, ‘be it far from you Lord!’ Peter, first to confess Jesus’s divinity, wanted a Christ without the Cross. To which Our Lord responded ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men’ (Matthew 16: 21-23). Again and again Peter was elevated only to fall, he walked upon water only to sink. He declared to Jesus ‘even if I have to die, I will never disown you’ but then went on to deny Christ three times. However, each time St. Peter went wrong, Jesus restored him to the right path; he never abandoned the apostle he named Rock.

St. Paul too had his life, as well as his name, changed by Jesus. Originally a zealous persecutor of Christians called Saul he was overcome by a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus and from then on he became Paul, the most zealous of Christ’s advocates. As with Peter, Paul was taken by Christ and put upon a royal road, the road of Christian discipleship.

However, this road was not a smooth exit out of earth into eternity. Rather, it was the road that Christ himself travelled. Peter and Paul shared intimately Christ’s own mission, calling men back to God. They followed Christ’s path by preaching and working miracles, giving glory to God wherever they went, but their ultimate participation in Christ’s mission was to be the summation of their earthly lives, their martyrdom in Rome.

Peter’s threefold denial of Christ was forgiven by a threefold affirmation of his love. But that first denial, when he said of Christ’s cross ‘be it far from you Lord’ was not to be fully atoned for until the end of his life. Jesus said to Peter ‘when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you and lead you where you do not want to go’ (John 21:18).

Peter’s desire for a Christ without a Cross was a rejection of God’s saving plan of mankind, it was a turning away from that infinite act of love upon the Cross whereby the Father glorified the Son and the Son purchased the Spirit for us. Thus, that Peter’s transgression might be utterly washed away, he was called up by Christ to the throne of martyrdom. 

Both Peter and Paul manifest for us the truth that Christian discipleship passes through Calvary, that the greatest experience of love is to be caught up in the sacrificial act of Christ upon his Cross. An experience we have every time we go to Mass, to the one same sacrifice of Calvary re-presented before our very eyes. A mystery to be sure, but as St. Paul said, ‘we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’
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Friday, June 27, 2014

Thank you for your generosity!

We're delighted to report that over £800 has already been donated online to support our Dominican preaching apostolates on the internet. THANK YOU to everyone who has donated so generously!

We now need less than £1200 to raise to reach our £5000 target for our dynamic new website. Please consider supporting us by clicking on the picture below.

Today is also the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, and you can read about it in a post earlier this year by Br Samuel Burke in our Popular Piety series. Happy feast to all!

Altarpiece of the Dominican church of the Holy Rosary, near the Vatican, showing our Risen Lord with two Dominican saints, Pope Pius V and Bishop Antoninus.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

"His name is John" - Circumcision of St John the Baptist

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 138:1-3,13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80

Every morning of our Dominican lives, we along with all other religious and those who observe the Divine Office, sing of Saint John the Baptist when we pray the following lines from the Benedictus:

As for you, little child
you shall be called a prophet of God,

the Most High.
You shall go ahead of the Lord
to prepare his ways before Him,
To make know to His people their salvation
through forgiveness of all their sins,
the loving-kindness of the heart of our God
who visits us like the dawn on high...

(Luke 1:76-78).

It is both striking and fitting that each day as we sing of the mission of John the Baptist that he should remain nameless. It is striking because he was the last and the greatest of the prophets, and the forerunner of the Saviour. It is striking because his father, Zechariah, was a Temple priest and the message of John’s birth is given to him in the liturgy – a more auspicious lineage and annunciation than that of Christ and futhermore his name was decreed by God to Zechariah before his birth. Zechariah, though struck mute on John’s annunciation for his lack of faith, was rewarded for his fidelity to God’s will at John’s circumcision, insisting that he be named John  – and yet each morning we name him not.

Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich
Why, then, is it fitting that we do not name John when we sing of his mission each morning of our lives? It is fitting because it is characteristic of the way John lived his life. John’s greatness consisted in his always pointing to the one who was greater than him. John went into the wilderness and the crowds flocked from far and wide to be baptised by him, and yet still he pointed to the one who was to follow him, the one whose sandals he felt unworthy to bear. John’s whole disposition and mission is summed up in his words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

John like all the great saints points beyond himself to Jesus Christ. As such he is a model for Christian living. At this time of year Dominican students would do well to remember his example; for another daily feature of Dominican life for the students in formation at this time in every term is exams! John reminds us of the reason we study diligently throughout the term: not for our personal glory in gaining a summa cum laude, or some other honour, but for the sake of being effective preachers of the Gospel. We study not for our own personal satisfaction, but so that we might pass on the fruits of our study to others; neatly summed up in the Dominican motto: Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Corpus Christi

You learn something new every day. Researching for today’s post, I discovered that St Thomas Aquinas composed the Mass propers, such as the sequence Lauda Sion, office hymns like the Pange Lingua and other prayers of devotion for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Though traditionally celebrated as a memorial of Christ's Real Presence under the accidents of bread, the feast is now celebrated as Corpus et Sanguis Christi, uniting the once separate feast for the Precious Blood with that for Christ's body on the altar. The Body and Blood of Christ are inseparable, for Christ is present in body, blood, soul and divinity, equally under both forms of the Sacred Species. Today is a Solemnity, celebrated usually on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday but now often, as in England, transferred to the following Sunday. 

A major focus of Corpus Christi is Catholics going out into the streets carrying the source and focal point of our life, in procession, under a canopy. There is something quite mystical about the body and blood of Christ being present, as we cannot see this using our senses. Natural science would say we are mad, and what we think is empirically not possible. But when we process with the Body and Blood of Christ, we stand united. Akin to solidarity in the UNISON trade union advert that was played along to the track ‘one is the lonliest number’, the narrator tells us “You’ve got 1.3 million members behind you when you need them”. With the processions happening across the world on Corpus Christi, we have got the head of the body of the Church behind us, when we need him. We dare to process with Him through the streets and shopping areas of our cities, towns and villages, as we display our faith in what looks like a piece of bread - but what we know is the enduring presence of our God, who is with us unto the end of the world. It baffles the non-believer, but there we have it, our own advocate to God the Father of heaven and earth marches with us. Instead of trade union membership, we have the Faith. Instead of ballots for strike action, we have the Holy Mass, the sacraments of the Church and the intercession of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Many Christians find themselves in horrific situations, and are often unable to express their faith, their solidarity with the Lord. Let us give thanks that God has given us the liberty to praise him in our streets. We pray for those who are persecuted for the Faith, particularly the Dominicans and other Christians who remain in Iraq, who are unable to process through the streets for fear of violence or intimidation. For what is inside that monstrance in today's processions is a pledge and sign of our unity, a hope of the future when we shall all be one. 
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Friday, June 20, 2014

The first Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation

The first Joyful mystery draws our attention to the very first moments of Jesus’s life when Mary gave her consent to the marriage of humanity and divinity in her womb and conceived by the Holy Spirit. 

Traditionally the Church has seen in Mary’s obedience and Jesus’s Incarnation the beginnings of the undoing of the disharmony between God and humanity caused by the sin of Adam and Eve. Irenaeus, for example, suggested that as the first man was carved from the dust of the Earth and had an earthly breathe breathed into him, Jesus – who was both God and Man – would re-mould human nature through his own sacred humanity in order to prepare humanity to receive the Divine breathe of the Holy Spirit: God became man, in order that man might become like God.

Later thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas would see Mary’s consent, ‘let it be done to me according to thy word’, as an acceptance of this recreation in Christ on behalf of the whole of humanity. We see in the first Joyful mystery, then, two examples of an important principle in Catholic theology realized in Jesus’s salvific Incarnation and Mary’s obedience and consent: human nature plays its part in the work of salvation, but at the same time the total power of effecting that salvation comes from God.


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Joyful Mysteries

The birth of a child has the capacity to bring out the best in humanity. On a human level, little is more impressive than the heroic love of a mother for her child, the self-sacrificing service of a father in support of his family and the way in which the wider family and human society rally round in support of the new parents. There’s something deep inside each of us that can’t resist delighting in children, that can’t hold back from celebrating their uniqueness: as soon as they’re born, we want to see a photo. Over the next few years we’ll enjoy endlessly sharing news of their first steps, their first words, their first smile, their first day at school, and so on until they themselves have children (or join a religious order, etc.). Yet despite this joyful excitement that accompanies children and the possibilities that accompany them, there’s also little that is more disruptive. With the birth of a child, life is radically changed, as the family unit has a new focus and centre of energy. As the sleepless nights drag on, and the piles of nappies grow, the celibate life probably looks more and more blessed, but nothing can extinguish the joy that the new child has brought into the world.

By meditating on the Joyful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary, we reflect—through the eyes of his mother—on this ‘disruptive joy’ that the infant Christ brought into the world. In the life of Christ, of course, the ordinary joys and disruptions of human life are matched by the possibility of supernatural joy and eternal life that Christ brings with him and the cosmic disruption that Christ’s overthrow of the regime of sin effects. These mysteries of our faith are, however, despite their extraordinary and miraculous character, nonetheless patterned by something ordinarily and authentically human (but nonetheless sanctified): conception, familial love, birth, a family celebration, the fear of loss, situations that we too face in different ways and at different times. Meditating on each of these mysteries in the light of our own daily experience of faith, then, the Joyful mysteries invite us to repeat Mary’s ‘yes’ to the incarnation in the concrete settings of our individual lives.


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Monday, June 16, 2014

The Rosary: Introduction

Do you ever struggle to find the right words to pray to God? We very often "do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26) and then we need to turn to God and say, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Lk 11:1).  In response, Jesus offers us his own words, the Lord's Prayer, to address our Father in heaven with confidence. The Church, too, has given Christians many powerful prayers to give voice to our deepest longings, to praise and thank God, and to ask him to meet our daily needs. We can make these 'formal' prayers our own by using them frequently as we lift our hearts to God. Through the habit of prayer, we become caught up in the divine dialogue of love.
The Rosary is part of the Dominican habit
The Rosary is like that: it is composed of formal prayers but in it we draw closer to Mary, the blessed Mother of God, and through her we are invited into the infinite love of Jesus. The ancient motto, Ad Jesum per Mariam – To Jesus through Mary – encapsulates this movement. We honour Mary and try to imitate her because she was the pre-eminent Christian disciple. Thus we hope to become more Christ-like.
Mary points us to Jesus
So Godzdogz is embarking on a new series on the Rosary, in which we will explore all the 'Mysteries of the Rosary' – those events in the lives of Mary and Jesus which reveal God's great plan of salvation for us. When we pray the Rosary, we use the words of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, but in our hearts we ponder a particular 'mystery', such as the birth of Jesus, his carrying of the Cross, or his Resurrection. All the mysteries are Christocentric, even where Mary seems to be the subject (such as her Coronation as Queen of Heaven), because Mary is always pointing us towards her Son. With Mary, we contemplate and adore Jesus.

Priory Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic, Haverstock Hill, London, with 14 Rosary chapels (the last Glorious Mystery is depicted in the stained glass of the East window)
The Rosary is a prayer for all seasons: the mysteries take us through the whole range of human experiences in the light of Christ, from joy to sorrow, death to risen life. Indeed, the Rosary is many things at once: it uses simple prayers but invites profound meditation; it involves mental words and tactile beads (in fact, 'bead' comes from bede, the old English word for 'prayer'); it is very old yet always fresh; Biblical in both explicit and implicit ways; to be said alone or together in the family or religious community; a prayer for the church, the home, or the road.
Filipina nuns pray the Rosary during the EDSA demonstrations that peacefully toppled the Marcos dictatorship
The Rosary is also a specially Dominican prayer. It is 'our sacred heritage' and 'a characteristic mark of the Order', and we wear the Rosary on our habit. The modern Rosary was shaped and popularised by Dominicans, such as Blessed Alain de la Roche, Jakob Sprenger and later Pope St Pius V, but earlier forms were important to St Dominic himself and the first brethren. Indeed, you can often see depictions of Our Lady granting the Rosary to St Dominic.
Our Lady giving the Rosary to St Dominic
This series will feature a reflection on each of the 20 mysteries as well as an introduction to each set of mysteries: Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous.

For some information about how to pray the Rosary, see 

But note that the Dominican style is simpler in its core constituents. It begins:

O God, come to our aid.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Glory be ... Amen. Alleluia

The first mystery is then announced (no Apostles' Creed), followed by the Our Father, 10 Hail Mary's and the Glory Be. The pattern is repeated to complete the set of 5 mysteries. There is an option to say all 15 or 20 mysteries, but this is not necessary! Then the Rosary finishes with the Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen).
Traditionally, roses are distributed after Mass on 7 October, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Pentecost 2014 photos

Last week we celebrated Pentecost, which is of course the titular feast of the Priory of the Holy Spirit (Blackfriars), Oxford. In recent years we have begun to celebrate the Pentecost Vigil on the Saturday evening, which offers us a rich scriptural feast and some glorious music, too. 

In his homily at the Vigil, the Deacon, Br Nicholas Crowe OP, drew out these connections between several Old Testament and New Testament narratives – including the way in which Pentecost resolves the linguistic chaos of Babel, not by abolishing the diversity of languages, but by uniting us in the Holy Spirit such that we are restored to a mutual understanding and love.

On Pentecost Sunday, the evening liturgy of Mass & Vespers was followed by the annual Doorkeepers' Dinner. This is our opportunity to show our appreciation to the volunteers who give up a lot of time to keep the door during the day, taking deliveries and answering all kinds of queries! This dinner is just a small way in which we can say 'thank you' for their generous support and friendship.

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