Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Vicariate of Dacia

As the Dominican Vicariate of Dacia had their annual meeting recently, I would like to present this group of friars to the readers of Godzdogz. Being a Norwegian brother, I come from a region which the French call 'Le Grand Nord', and apart from believing that it is a cold place and far from everywhere, they often do not know much about this part of Europe at all. One exception would be the French Dominicans, who embarked on a courageous initiative in the Nordic countries during the last century, in an effort to re-establish the order. I would now like to take you through the main historical lines of the presence of Dominican brothers in the region, before briefly describing our situation today and our future hopes.

First of all, we need to mention that the Dominican order was present in all the Nordic countries in medieval times. This is why we talk of the 're-establishment' of the order. This is more than an historical fact; it also has to do with identity and our old Catholic roots in a country marked by five hundred years of Protestantism. Being Catholic and Dominican in this region is - in a certain way - to be back on our old ground, and an important stimulus to our mission in these countries today.

As the Lutheran countries in the North slowly opened the borders to the Catholic Church in the 19th century, small dioceses were established in all the Nordic countries. In the beginning of the 20th century, the French Dominican brothers established the first house in modern times in Oslo, Norway. They bought a villa in 1920, and already in 1927 they had managed to build a beautiful church in Roman neoclassical style. In the sixties and seventies, the old house was replaced by a proper priory in functionalist style.

The priory St Dominikus in Oslo:

After the Second World War, houses were established in the other Nordic countries; Lund in Sweden in 1947, Helsinki in Finland in 1949 and Denmark in the beginning of the fifties. The only Nordic country which was not blessed with a Dominican presence was Iceland, but at the time (1950) the Catholic Church there only counted 450 members...

Since this re-establishment in the 20th century, the different priories have had various luck of surviving. Today, the Vicariate of Dacia counts 14 brothers, and we are represented in Oslo, Lund and Helsinki. We also have two brothers under formation, in Oxford and Toulouse. In Denmark, one secular priest has become a member of the recently started French Dominican Priestly Fraternity, and with his devotion to the order and through his winning charisma, there is hope that the order may one day re-settle there also.

The vicariate met this year in Vilnius, Lithuania, where we also got to strengthen the friendship with our Lithuanian brothers. We stayed in a newly built seminary just outside of Vilnius, where we enjoyed Lithuanian food and hospitality. The theme for this year’s meeting was the presence of the Dominican order around the Baltic Sea in the past, today and in the future.

One might think that being so few in numbers would feel a little depressing. We then have to remember that the Catholic Church in most of the Nordic region is marked by an optimistic spirit and is steadily growing. It is also worth mentioning that the Second Vatican Council has had a positive impact by strengthening the ecumenical dialogue between the different church societies. When it comes to apostolic activities, we find that many doors are being opened, both within and outside the Catholic Church. Being ‘monk’ in a secularised society does draw much attention to people. The alternative lifestyle that a Dominican priory represents with its rhythm of prayer, preaching and study, within the fellowship of a brotherhood, is a witness and a sign that we ourselves are sometimes ignorant of. After all, it is our daily life. But for souls searching for faith with sacramental content and a coherent doctrine, the Church and the Dominicans represent new, challenging perspectives that often give a boost to people’s faith: either they deepen their faith within their own confessional setting or begin a process of conversion towards the Catholic Church. To experience how the Gospel is transforming people’s lives is encouraging and gives hope for the future.

But there are also challenges, and one of the main ones is the need of vocations. A secularised Lutheran society does not engender many vocations to religious life. Throughout the decades, the French province has always sustained the vicariate of Dacia with brothers, and today one third of the brothers in the vicariate are French. Still, we do hope for more brothers in order to strengthen the priories in our region. Jesus says: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few’ (Luke 10:2). It is as true today as ever. So I will end this presentation with a request for prayer for vocations for the vicariate of Dacia and for the faith of the people in the Nordic Countries. And hopefully one day, we will need to extend our priories, in which case I propose that we start with the priory of Oslo, since the plans have already been drawn up, as you can see here below...

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Monday, January 30, 2012

What would St Thomas make of Pleasantville?

I recently saw the film Pleasantville for the first time. It's about two 1990's teenagers, David and Jennifer, who are magically transported into a 1950's sitcom called Pleasantville where they are forced to play the characters Bud and Mary Sue. In Pleasantville, everyone is pleasant to each other, it never rains, and the school basketball team never lose a game. But there's a catch. Pleasantville is very dull. It's literally in black and white. There's no art, no books, no sex, no creativity. That is, until David (Bud) and Jennifer (Mary Sue) are transported into this world.

Now the film has some very positive aspects. The film is beautifully made; as colour, joy and passion comes into this world, it really draws our attention to the beauty of creation, and to how we so often fail to recognise this beauty. Surely St Thomas would appreciate this aspect of the film. But what I think St Thomas would strongly object to is the attempt to retell the Adam and Eve story. Before David (Bud) and Jennifer (Mary Sue) were transported into Pleasantville, it was an ordered world of innocence, dull but nice. There are enough hints to suggest that this is how we are to think of the Garden of Eden.

At one point, a beautiful girl offers Bud (David) a nice red apple, and it is at this moment he realises that all this beauty and colour that is beginning to come into this world cannot coexist without evil. What is happening is a kind of felix culpa, a happy fault. Now for St Thomas, this retelling of the Genesis story just wouldn't hang together. St Thomas believed that before the Fall, the garden would have been very beautiful, Adam and Eve would have had passions, they would have had sex, and in fact, their joy and appreciation of creation would have been much more intense than it is now:
sensible delight would have been the greater in proportion to the greater purity of nature and the greater sensibility of the body (ST 1a,q98 a.2)
When this foreign element of sin came into their world, it dulled their senses, they became repressed and the world became a less delightful place. The Fall of Man wasn't a happy fault because it brought colour into our world, but because it merited such and so great a Redeemer.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

28th January - Saint Thomas Aquinas

I'm afraid I have to own up to the fact that before I joined the Dominican Order, I knew very little about St Thomas Aquinas. Like many laymen, I thought that the study of theology was for theologians and that St Thomas was just one among many. Those were in the days when I tried to live a kind of double life – a life of faith and a life of reason – and since these two lives had very little to do with each other, I ended up being neither particularly faithful or particularly reasonable. By not making any effort to think about my faith, I wasn't following the greatest commandment of them all 'to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' If we are to follow this commandment and love God with our minds, we should make some sort of effort to penetrate more deeply the mysteries of salvation. In undertaking this task, you can do no better than turning to St Thomas. He is specifically recommended as a teacher in the Code of Canon Law, so St Thomas is not just another theologian.

Coming to St Thomas for the first time can be a bit daunting, and although he says the Summa Theologiae is meant for beginners, it can be confusing the first time you dip into it, especially if you're unfamiliar with the scholastic method of questions, objections, counter proposals and responses. But there are many highly readable accounts of St Thomas' theology by authors such as Timothy McDermott, Herbert McCabe, Josef Pieper and G K Chesterton. If you spend a little time with any of these books, any prejudice that St Thomas is cold and cerebral can be quickly dismissed. Happiness is a recurring theme in St Thomas and this is beautifully expressed in Timothy McDermott's concise translation of the Summa:

Happiness is seeing God. Happiness is another name for God. God is happy by nature; he does not attain happiness or receive it from another. But men become happy by receiving a share in God's happiness, something God creates in them. And this created happiness is a life of human activity in which their human powers are ultimately fulfilled: for the goal of anything is fulfillment in activity.
Thinking about our faith and entering more deeply into the divine mysteries should be a joyful experience. When I was younger I was frightened of thinking about my faith because I thought I might lose what little I had, but discovering St Thomas has totally relieved me of this anxiety. On this feast day when we honour this great saint and theologian, let us ask for his prayers, that through a growing appreciation of his writings, we may come to share in the same happiness that he now shares in, which is none other than God Himself.


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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Scripture Study Day in Leeds

Earlier this month Fr. Richard Ounsworth OP and I were invited by the Leeds Cathedral Young Adults Group to lead them in a study day on scripture. I enjoyed the day immensely, it was a pleasure to get to know this lively group of young Catholics and good to see such enthusiasm for the faith. Over the course of quite a full programme, which included an exploration of some of the various 'types' of Christ found in the Old Testament and an introduction to the theology of St.Paul, one of the particpants expressed his surprise and delight to discover that 'the Bible is Catholic.'

I thought this was an interesting and revealing comment. Perhaps in the past there has been a tendency to separate scripture and tradition. Perhaps there has even been a slight suspicion of the scriptures, an anxiety that they are a bit 'Protestant' and opposed to Catholic sacraments and liturgy. One of the objectives of the Second Vatican Council was to allay such fears and draw Catholics attention back to the scriptural foundations of the Church's teaching and life. This, it was hoped, would facilitate a spiritual and evangelical renewal of the Body of Christ.

Fr Richard speaking in Leeds

For the Council, neglect of our scriptures means the neglect of our own Tradition (in the fullest sense) and the neglect of our mission. This scriptural outlook of Vatican II was interestingly anticipated by Bede Jarrett OP, the founder of Blackfriars Oxford and Provincial of the English Province between 1916-1932. In 1908 Fr. Bede wrote to congratulate a Brother who was to be assigned to the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem for higher studies declaring: 'Scripture is the study above all others that appeals to the religious side of the English character.'

This, it seems to me, is as true now as it was then, and perhaps the English fascination with the Bible is not as distinctive or unusual as Bede Jarrett implies. If we are to preach effectively to societies that have lost touch with their Christian roots then we must preach with words that 'seem to come from God' (1 Peter 4: 11). Studying and meditating upon the word of God would seem to be an excellent preperation for such preaching. The increased interest of young Catholics in scripture must therefore be a tremendous sign of hope for the future.


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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - The Future

Godzdogz has marked this week of prayer for Christian unity by reflecting on both the unity of the Church in the first millennium, and on what the sacrifice of the reformation martyrs means for the ecumenical project today. As a conclusion to this mini-series, Fr Benjamin Earl OP has very kindly allowed us to post his sermon from last Friday’s Mass for Christian Unity at Blackfriars. Here Fr Benjamin looks to the future, and considers what we can do to heal the rifts in the Body of Christ.

Readings: 1 Samuel 24: 3-21; Psalm 57; Mark 3: 13-19

One curious and constant feature of David’s relationship with Saul is the reverence that the young man shows for the older king. Remember that the Lord has already declared Saul to be displeasing to him, and Samuel has anointed David as king in his place. Remember too that Saul has unjustly taken against David and tried to kill him. Despite all this, David will not allow any hand to be put forth against Saul, the Lord’s anointed, his “Christ”. To dishonour the one anointed by God, is to dishonour God himself.

I wonder whether perhaps David’s devotion and honour towards Saul, one “anointed one” to another, could perhaps be taken as a model in this week of prayer for Christian Unity. It is certainly true that Christians down the centuries have been perpetrators of violence against their fellow Christians, whether for political, economic or theological reasons. Even in centuries when violence and killing have been less prevalent, disrespect, distrust and hatred have abounded.

But Christians, in their baptism, have been made like Christ. We too have been anointed at our baptism – literally and sacramentally anointed in the case of Catholics and Orthodox; at least conformed with the anointed Christ in the case of all the baptised. If we dishonour our fellow Christian – no matter what he or his forebears may have done to us or our forebears, or vice versa – if we dishonour the Christian we dishonour Christ whose name the Christian bears.
So respect for our fellow Christian, and forgiveness for sins past must be the starting point for us as we embark on any ecumenical journey.

Respect and forgiveness is vital; but as Catholics we cannot stop there. A Catholic understanding of what it is to be a Christian requires that the Christian be part of the communion that is Christ’s mystical body, a body that we Christians have failed to care for as we should. The ecumenical project will only be completed when that damage is repaired and all Christians are united in full communion.

Realistically, the goal of full communion is something we at least are likely to have to wait until the next world to see; but that does not mean that there is nothing else for us to do here and now.

Starting with a recognition of the Christian dignity of all the baptised, we can and should accept where we are, and do what we can to advance unity. We should, first of all, pray that Christians may be one, as the Father and the Son are one (cf. Jn 19:21). We pray that increasingly we may all be one in this world, and enjoy together the fullness of truth in the next. But also we co-operate wherever we can act better together: in works of charity in particular. We can also simply talk to one another in fraternal, honest and open discussions that lead to an increase in understanding. Sometimes Christians will be able to work together in the footsteps of the apostles in bringing the Christian message to a society losing touch with its Christian roots.

It is true that for most of us at a local level we won’t be able to resolve the serious theological difficulties and differences in discipline – those cannot be ignored, but will need to be tackled globally. They are bigger than us, and the Lord’s temple, scandalously dilapidated through human sinfulness, cannot be restored in a day through our labour alone. But if that temple is to be restored, even the smallest of the living stones of the building will need to come together, standing side by side, cemented in the love of Christ. That work of love at least is a work that can begin now, as we remember this week. May the Lord who has begun the good work in us bring it to perfection.


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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - Martyrs of Disunity or Unity?

In the 16th and 17th centuries it is a sad fact that, amidst a complex religious and political situation, at various points Protestants and Catholics executed each other in connection with the specific form of a person’s faith in Jesus. The Church has seen fit, after due examination, to officially recognise a number of these Catholic martyrs, canonising or beatifying them. When the Church does this, she proposes them to us as models of Christian life to be learned from and imitated. God may call us to imitate them in our deaths as actual martyrs but in the first place we are firstly to imitate them in the manner of our lives. How are we to do this? Some may think that it ought to be by a firm rejection of and opposition to current Protestants; or, if not this, by as much distance and as little contact as possible. Even if ignorance tends to breed contempt, and distance may tend to harden our hearts which may in turn lead to indifference, disrespect or worse, some may nonetheless consider it a strategy worth risking, as a ‘softer’ approach might dishonour our martyrs and the wishes of the Church that canonised or beatified them.

But the declared wishes of the Church challenge this and point in another direction. The Church, most authoritatively in the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II, and in more recent documents and in the ministry of Popes since then, has recognised that Protestants are real Christians, live in the grace of Christ and are our spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to recognise them as such, and to work towards unity with them, a unity Christ prayed would be among all his disciples. We are to pray and reflect together and also practically co-operate where possible. By committing ourselves to such ecumenism in authentic ways we become more Catholic and not less Catholic, more loyal to the work of Christ and the Church and not betrayers of it. How then are we to imitate our martyrs? We do not need to ignore them but can learn from them to positively engage ecumenically. We may do so now by our lives as the manner of our deaths are in God’s hands.

The martyrs in general offered their deaths as the final act of a life lived in love of God and neighbour, as an instrument of God to bring salvation to those around them. Thus they lived and died seeing others as made in and for Christ, they lived and died encouraging fellow believers to a generous and risk-taking, costly love. Do we?

Many of them died, expressing their own sinfulness, and seeking God’s mercy: we need to be the same and to seek mercy for any hostility or disrespect to other Christians on our part. We need to be mindful of the contribution, sometimes sinful, by Catholics to the problems in church and violence in society of that period of history. We live with the legacy and need God’s mercy. Do we seek it and to remove the plank from our own eyes?

The martyrs witnessed to the truth of the Christian faith. Our witness to the fullness of our faith matters too, and the strong convictions of martyrs should be noted, shared and learned from. At the same time, we need to appreciate that many Protestants died for what they sincerely believed to be Christian truth and good practice. When examining the execution of Christians by Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries, we should also seek to understand the way the political and cultural issues of the times polarised Christian views and convictions and shaped actions. Error does need to be pointed out on occasions but we also need to listen and to appreciate that Truth has many aspects and there are often different ways of articulating and living it, and also that truth can be packaged with error. The Truth is Jesus, the saving love of God for us; the martyrs, spoke that Truth in love, in keeping with its nature. Do we?

They invited and challenged persecutors to come to faith, but did not impose their faith and did not use violence or political machinations to defend themselves. They witnessed to the power of forgiveness. Some specifically prayed at the scaffold for the unity of the Church to be restored, though, among other factors, the politics of their situation made that very difficult to envisage indeed. If we are to imitate them we need to forgive and to seek reconciliation at various levels. We have far more opportunity for practical co-operation than the martyrs did due to the politics of their time. Will we make ourselves vulnerable and take risks to bring reconciliation?

The martyrs looked to heaven for God to reward them and to vindicate them in his own way. We too are called to look to heaven and to trust God’s providence. But in looking to heaven, we need to realise we will share it with all whom God has called, justified, sanctified and glorified and that will most likely include Protestant brothers and sisters, including ones from this bloody period of Christian history. We will be fully reconciled in Heaven. This should encourage us and give us hope, and inspire us to seek to build a church that not only looks to this, but seeks to build it upon earth and so witness to just how much reconciliation and unity God wants to bring about among people.

The situation facing the martyrs was complex and presented them with difficult and often conflicting emotions. Their legacy and our situation of disunity and the call to unity creates a complex situation with difficult and conflicting emotions. Let us be inspired by their compassion and also candour, their courage and also good cheer, their constancy and also courtesy, and by Christ-like integrity, humility, sensitivity, generosity and wisdom which bind these together and direct them, so that we may renew all of the Church, and deepen its visible unity, that Jesus Christ may be seen the more clearly in our world.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Can you hate religion, but still love Jesus?

A video claiming "Jesus came to abolish religion" went viral on the internet last week and now stands at over 15.5 million views. It clearly speaks to the Zeitgeist, even if attracting a barrage of criticism at the same time.

In the midst of all this attention, the 22-year-old creator of "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus", Jefferson Bethke, is expressing his desire to remain calm and humble. For him, it's all about the grace of Jesus – he claims no credit for himself.

That is very admirable, but the video has rightly received a lot of critical comments. Many good responses have come from Christians who disagree with Bethke's basic premise in a charitable and constructive way. See below for a quick round-up of the most imaginative, thoughtful and charitable Catholic responses – and a comment on just why this video is so popular. But first, here is the original video, if you haven't seen it yet:

Now, the responses. Let's start with 'Fr Pontifex', a hip-hopping priest of the Phat Mass ministry, who very closely imitates the original video while coming to a radically different conclusion:

For an apparent contrast, try 'DB Disciple', a Salesian priest (the DB stands for 'Don Bosco'). Notice that the modern church architecture, the red jacket and the beard are just superficial differences: the video techniques, the style of 'spoken word' and the actual content of his message are all similar to Fr Pontifex.

Here's a shorter one, with a Catholic MC rapping over chant. He speaks of the saints as witnesses to the truth of the Catholic religion. "See it's sin that is the problem, only sin and not religion; for the Church that you indicted is the Bride of He Who's risen."

As Bethke shows, the internet is a great place for the young to be heard. It's encouraging, then, to see this Catholic teenager responding with the same enthusiasm and sincerity:

If you watch any of these videos, you'll see there are some major holes in Bethke's argument, though it does also contain a lot that is true. I'm sure you have many reasons of your own. 

Now, here's the interesting question. Why has this video become so popular, when its argument is flawed? Fr Robert Barron thinks it is partly about the American preoccupation with freedom from institutions, and traces the religious impulse back to Luther in particular. But the video has resonated with a global audience, not just Americans. Still, Fr Barron is right to associate it with the contemporary mantra of "spiritual but not religious", which for Bethke's kind of evangelicalism becomes "Christian but not religious".

Is it actually possible to be "Christian but not religious"? Jefferson Bethke has clarified that, for him and his Mars Hill megachurch in Seattle, 'the word "religion" is pretty much synonymous with hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and self-justification'. But that is clearly not what "religion" means in ordinary English. The Bible itself uses "religion" in a positive sense: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." (Jas. 1:27) If we can agree that there is a good kind of religion, then using it to mean all those pejorative things is little more than a provocative trick to gain attention. It sounds like a rhetorical trope, a slogan or buzzword, to push a particular religious point of view. But we should resist this misuse of language, as Orwell warned: "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts".

The power and poetry of these videos – both the original and its spin-offs – are compelling when you see them for the first time. This medium really speaks to people. But does it distract from what the words actually say? A slick presentation can mask mistaken thinking. We need to unpack our hidden assumptions, our prejudices, our suppressed premises, and discuss them openly. Otherwise, we risk lapsing into fanaticism or superstition, which St Thomas Aquinas intriguingly defines as "a vice contrary to religion by excess". We need more than rhetoric; we need sound theology; we need the Church. Nothing else can provide a solid foundation for true religion. 

So let's take the discussion forward on a theological basis. In the interview cited above, Bethke summarises his theological point: "Religion picks the bad fruit off the tree when Jesus just plants a new tree. That's essentially the crux, the root, and the core of my poem." The argument is that human beings have no good inside them, until we accept Jesus as Lord. Catholic theology, however, is baffled by this Calvinistic idea of 'total depravity'. If people are trees that can bear good or bad fruit (Mt. 7:16-20), removing the tree surely means destroying the person. Jesus doesn't plant a new tree. He is the gardener who helps the tree to grow and "bear fruit – fruit that will last" (Jn. 15:16). Jesus loves us as we are, despite our sin (Rm. 5:8). He takes all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do, and lovingly transforms us by his grace. 

Just as he spoke of religion itself, "the Law and the Prophets" (Mt. 5:17), so we are reassured by the Church that Jesus Christ came not to abolish us, but to fulfil us.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - Christian Unity in the First Millennium

When we talk about divisions among Christians, it’s all too easy to suggest that everything was just great until 1054, when there was the schism with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and then there was a further split in the West at the Reformation, and all our problems stem from those two events. Leaving aside the question of whether 1054 is really the date when East and West definitively split, this schema overlooks the struggles to maintain the unity of the Church, some more successful than others, that went on throughout the first millennium.

From the time of the New Testament itself, the Church has been struggling with the imperative of unity: in St John’s Gospel, Jesus prays ‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (Jn 17: 21), and the importance of this unity which derives from our baptism into a common faith in Christ is emphasised several times in the letters of St Paul (e.g. Rom 12: 4-5; I Cor 12: 13) in response to quarrels and self-promotion within the Churches to which he was writing. In the quotation from St John’s Gospel, our attention is also drawn to the practical significance of unity – that we might better witness to the truth of the Gospel – and this continued to motivate the Church in the centuries that followed.

Persecution became another source of division, though with a doctrinal element, as some Christians, holding a more rigorist line, refused to be in communion with those bishops who reconciled people who had abandoned the faith under persecution: this lay at the root of the Donatist schism which St Augustine did so much to try and reconcile by all the means he had available, over 100 years after the original persecution which had caused the schism in around 250 AD.

The great Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries also led to extensive divisions in the Church, which it was the purpose of the various Ecumenical Councils to resolve by adopting a doctrinal formula which would be acceptable to all. The decisions of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) did eventually win universal acceptance, though it took a long time for the Arianism it condemned to be completely eradicated: the decisions of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), however, though they united most Christians of the time around common formulae still held by Catholics, Orthodox and most Protestants today, also had dissenters whose Churches continue to exist today (the Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox Churches respectively).

These Councils also remind us of the place of considerations other than the strictly religious in questions of Christian unity: the Council of Nicaea was called by the Byzantine Emperor, as were subsequent Councils, and some of those Churches that ended up rejecting Chalcedon, for example, did so, at least in part, because they were from outside the Empire and not subject to the Emperor’s authority to impose the decision of the Council.

From the history of the Church’s struggle for unity during the first few hundred years of her existence, we come to see that this difficulty derives ultimately from the conflict of the Church being ‘in the world but not of the world’: she is at the same time the One Body of Christ yet also made up of sinners, failing to live up to the unity to which they are called, acting for personal and political ends rather than the love of God. This truth is a challenge, of course, for all aspects of Christian behaviour in every age, but in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it asks us to look in particular at our motivations and prejudices in our approach to the pursuit of that unity for which Our Lord prayed.


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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dominican Seminar 2012

From 6th to 8th January, Dominican Friars, Sisters, Laity, and members of the Dominican Secular Institute gathered for our annual Dominican Seminar. As one sister said, the seminar is “a unique combination of academic conference and family party,” gathering much of the Dominican Family across the English and Irish Provinces.

This year’s theme was Vatican II, 50 Years and Beyond: Dominican Perspectives. The weekend began with selected readings from our own Yves Congar’s personal journal. He attended every session of the Council (1962-65) and remarked on theological deliberations and votes of the Council Fathers. One surprising observation for him was the discussion on other religious and Christian communities, which garnered the greatest debate in the Council.

Given the global and visible impact of Vatican II, we invited Bishop Richard Clarke from the Church of Ireland to reflect on the Council’s legacy from an ecumenical perspective. He expressed his appreciation for the Council’s exhortations on Baptism. It is out of that fundamental Sacrament that we can work together with all Christian communities to bring the Gospel to the world. The Word of God also is our common heritage. As an Order preaching the Gospel for the salvation of souls, it was insightful to hear our Christian brother link Baptism and Scripture as he did.

With Baptism in mind, we discussed the terms “People of God” and “Body of Christ” as two complementary models of the Church expressed in the Council’s Lumen Gentium and Pius XII’s encyclical, Mystici Corporis (1943). While each term is used for a specific understanding of every Christian’s role in the Church, they both point to the fullness of the Church as expressed through her members’ Sacramental lives.

These theoretical considerations were enriched with lively accounts of pastoral work in the arctic climes of northern Norway and Cambridge University. Vatican II was often referred to as a ‘pastoral’ Council, and as such it demands constant renewal in the Church, in which the young generation of Catholics will be very important. For this, we need ongoing translation of old truths into language accessible to the 21st century. Naturally, then, a talk on the expression of faith through the Arts was well received.

The fruits of such discussion became quite tangible. In the midst of this weekend dialogue, we celebrated the Eucharist and prayed the Divine Office together. Given our composition of one Dominican bishop, several priests, a deacon, the laity and professed religious, our small group represented the fullness of the Church in our worship. The many gifted people – in singing, playing the organ, and of course preaching – paid tribute to the Council a unique way.

We would not be Dominicans if we did not share meals together, which we did with laughter and storytelling. We also gathered in the evenings for a pint and more informal discussions. In some cases, we carried on the topic from the seminar. However, we also caught up with old friends, met new ones, and opened our conversations to any topic. Dominicans are never at a loss for good conversation topics.

The Dominican Seminar is a good expression of the Dominican charism. Members of the Family gather to discuss our studies, pray together, and relax as a community. Each of us can return from the weekend with new ideas for preaching and further research.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christ Crucified our Bridge: the spiritual teaching of St Catherine of Siena.

On Tuesday 10th January, I, Br Andrew, went to our priory & parish in London to give a talk on St Catherine of Siena. See attached photos including a close up of the statue of St Catherine in our London church. Amongst other themes I explained some of Catherine’s teaching in the Dialogue. Here is a summary of some of what I said.

Catherine puts forward Christ Crucified as a bridge. It is seen ‘horizontally’ as getting us across a river, saving us from being swept away in its powerful current and it is also seen ‘vertically’ as connecting earth and heaven. As we journey through life with Christ we also journey towards Heaven. In both cases Christ Crucified rescues us from the river which is understood as sin and even life in hell.

Although there is a visual focus on Christ crucified, the Christ we are called to encounter is also referred to as Risen, and Ascended and giving us the Spirit. In short, we encounter the whole mystery of Christ, from the moment of the Incarnation onwards, if represented most strikingly through his form on the cross.

Catherine draws attention to us meeting him at three specific points as we mount the cross and ‘ascend’ his body. These are his feet, his side and thus his pierced heart, and his head and especially his mouth. The order is significant and points not to the order of events in the crucifixion of Jesus – if so we would end at the heart – but to steps in our Christian journey.

Thus encountering Christ at his feet is what we do when we turn from sin, or, in her imagery, pull ourselves out of the river of sin. We are particularly aware of the damage sin has done to us and want to escape this. We have sorrow for sin on this basis and turn from vice. We also commit ourselves to Christ and to God’s way, in a way nailing ourselves there, as Jesus is nailed. We see that Jesus suffered to save us. She sees us as servants of God, characterised significantly by fear.

We can then move up to the heart or breast. Here we encounter the love of God and experience it. She sees us entering the heart of Jesus and abiding there, in its ‘cell’. She also sees us as being nourished by the love of God and God’ s mercy as though Christ is breast-feeding us with this love as a mother looks after her child. Here we come to know both the extent of God’s love and mercy for us and a true knowledge of ourselves, including our dignity but also sin, in the light of this. This is real self-knowledge. We conceive the desire for virtue and she characterises us as friends of God, more intimate with God than before.

We then move up to the face of Jesus and particularly to his mouth. We receive his kiss and peace but also hear his words. These form and instruct us in wisdom but also commission us to go out on mission with his mind and attitude to bring his love and salvation to others. As Jesus said “ I thirst” we too are to thirst for souls. Virtue is now produced concretely in us as we are sent out. It is here that she sees as children of God, most intimate with God and most like God as well. We have both increased trust, generosity and also boldness, to go with added responsibility.

Overall, suffering has changed. We have moved from seeing (some) suffering as resulting from our own sin, to being moved by the suffering of Jesus for us, to being willing to suffer to bring others to encounter Jesus and enter into salvation.

This progression can be seen as stages over time through life. But she stresses it can happen quickly, especially once we have reached the feet of Jesus, and at other times Catherine suggests that people move back and forth, between these dynamics of a complete encounter with Jesus. Each can be deepened. I will end by suggesting that once we have begun to encounter the whole mystery of Christ, Catherine’s proposed encounter with Christ Crucified, our bridge to God, can form part or our regular, even daily, spiritual life.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Quodlibet 36: What does the celibacy of Christ tell us about the hierarchy of Christian vocations?

I pondered this question for a few days over the Christmas break, and in the end decided that I really ought to go and get some expert advice lest my answer be profoundly banal. Our Vice-Regent, Fr. Richard Conrad OP, was unlucky enough to be settling down to a post-Christmas glass of port in the common room when I arrived in search of someone to interrogate. He very kindly offered me his thoughts on celibacy, most of which I have plagiarised below. Any mistakes are entirely my fault.

Fr. Richard pointed out that to talk about celibacy in the abstract is difficult and usually misleading. This is because priests and religious do not choose celibacy for its own sake, as an isolated good in itself. Neither should the vow of celibacy be understood as simply a necessary evil that has to be endured for the sake of a larger goal or vision. On the contrary, celibacy is an integral dimension of a particular pattern of Christian life that is freely and joyfully chosen. The decision to commit to a lifetime of celibacy is therefore a positive choice for something, rather than just a negative renunciation.

The difficulty arises when we try to articulate what exactly it is that we are choosing. If celibacy is freely chosen as part of a recurring pattern of Christian vocation that has been institutionalized in some way, for example in the way of life of a religious order, then we are speaking of a common renunciation that can 'mean' different things according to the context in which the vow or commitment is made. In other words, different patterns of Christian life: Dominican, Benedictine, Jesuit, Secular Priesthood, and so on, will have different patterns of celibacy. This suggests that the 'meaning' of the vow of celibacy in its deepest sense will always evade us, for there will be as many kinds of celibacy as there are celibate vocations. Whilst, therefore, there are many straightforward and simple answers to the question: 'why are monks/nuns/ priests etc celibate?' Some of which will be practical and pragmatic, others spiritual and theological; none can do full justice to the lived experience of the vow.

We can, however, sketch out some common themes and principles which serve to organise these diverse experiences. All Christian vocations find their fulfillment and perfection in Christ, in a sense they re-present an aspect of Christ's ministry to the world, and have His mother Mary as their model. Dominicans, for example, have tended to identify with the celibate Christ who wandered and preached, perhaps a hermit might identify with the celibate Christ that sought out solitude to pray, others still with the celibate Christ that was available and generous to those in need. As for married people, St. Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Ephesians (5: 25) that the sacrament of marriage points to the marriage between Christ and his Church. Yet despite this unity of Christian vocation in Christ, celibate vocations have traditionally been seen as somehow objectively 'higher'.

This elevation of celibacy flows from the high iconic value of religious life and the priesthood. Put simply, the monk, nun, friar, sister, priest is, or ought to be, a more obvious or visible sign of Christ's presence in the world and of the Kingdom of God. The celibate religious or priest ought to be more obviously living the same kind of life that Christ did. It may also be true that some kinds of Christian vocation can only be done, or are best done, by a celibate. This might be for very practical reasons, such as availability or time committments, but it may also be the case that certain kinds of contemplation might only be undertaken by someone who has no one else but Christ. The fact that Jesus' ministry on earth took a particular form, the fact that he was celibate, must tell us something about what the Incarnate Word looks like when projected onto a sinful world, and suggests that celibate vocations in the church are not the optional extra that they are sometimes made out to be.

Having said this, we ought to be cautious about asserting the idea of a hierarchy of vocations too forcefully. Aquinas argues that glory in heaven is completely dependent on our charity on earth and nothing else. St. Paul also warns against being too glib about which vocation is the highest (1 Corinthians 12: 22-26). Mary is Queen of Heaven because her vocation to be Mother of God required more charity of her, not because she is a virgin. Indeed, Mary had so much charity that as Virgin, Mother and Wife she is able to be the model of all Christian vocations. Similarly, the privileged positions of the Apostles and John the Baptist in the hierarchy of saints stems from their great love of God and neighbour, not from the privilege of being an apostle or the forerunner per se.

It is crucial, then, that individuals find the context in which they can love most effectively and generously, that they find the pattern of Christian life that is best for them, rather than best in some abstract sense. For some the demands of married life and raising children will provide the best environment for them to grow in love, and thus grow in holiness and conformity to Christ. For others, the context in which they can love most perfectly will be a religious order, or the secular priesthood. Those that are particuarly fortunate and blessed by God are given the gift of a Dominican vocation! In all these instances we share in the love of Christ, and become an instrument through which Christ can reach out to others.

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Institution of Readers

During the English Dominicans' provincial assembly in Oxford last month, the Provincial instituted two of the Dominican students and members of the Godzdogz team, Brothers Oliver Keenan and Matthew Jarvis, in the ministry of reader (also known as lector).
In this ministry, Brothers Oliver and Matthew are called especially to proclaim the Word of God in church, and also to teach the faith in other contexts.
They are strengthened for this task by the Provincial's blessing, given in the name of the Church.
As a sign of their office, they are presented with the Scriptures which they are to proclaim.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012


In our last blog post on blessings, we reflected on how blessings may play a bigger role in our daily lives, and how it may strengthen our faith and change our perspective. A blessing draws God into our lives, and puts our activities in front of Him who is the giver of all gifts. As two recently ordained deacons, we wanted to achieve a deeper understanding of the celebration of blessings, and at the same time use the opportunity to bless something that is of interest to us.

blessing objects
Brother Haavar got a new bike for his ordination, and this seemed to be an excellent possibility of bringing sport and training activities and holiness together in a concrete way. Brother Robert is responsible for making the computer servers of the house run smoothly and swiftly. Hence, the plan was set, and while others were preparing the church for the coming Christmas celebration, the deacons gathered in the sacristy to study how to perform blessings for bikes and servers.

blessing preparations
There are two servers at Blackfriars, Lassie and Fido. Lassie is a firewall, so in effect she is a guard dog. She gives Fido the peace of mind so that he can get on with providing various services such as hosting the english.op.org email server and the Torch and Province websites. The servers are placed in the most secure room in the priory, the wine cellar. After some reorganisation, we managed to create enough space to perform the celebration. In the Book of Blessings, we found a suitable chapter named ‘Order of the Blessing of Technical Installations or Equipment’. The introductory rite beautifully expresses how we are co-creators with God as we unfold our creative forces to the good of the society, and the reading concludes:
‘Let us, then, bless God as we use these products of technology for our advantage and never forget to offer praise to him, who is the true light and the fount of that water which springs up to eternal life’ (§ 906)
The reading was taken from Genesis 1, describing the creation by the word of God, and ended with the affirmation of the goodness with which God created the universe. Then followed the blessing itself. The prayer concluded:
Grant that all those who will use this equipment to improve their lives may recognise that you are wonderful in your works and may learn to carry out your will more readily. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

blessings the servers
(Sprinkling with holy water was omitted)
blessing the cellarer
We finally gave back the room to the cellarer, and went on to the next task.

For the blessing of the bicycle, we slightly adapted the blessing of a motor vehicle. After the introduction and readings, one of the intercessions wonderfully related the object being blessed with the user of it:
Lord Jesus, you became a companion to your disciples on the road to Emmaus; bless us on our journeys and warm our hearts by your word.
blessing the bike
The final blessing reminded the user to be careful and attentive on the road (which may not always have been the case) as it acclaimed:
Grant, we pray, that those who use this vehicle may travel safely, with care for the safety of others. Whether they travel for business or pleasure, let them always find Christ to be the companion of their journey...
After these liturgical celebrations, the celebrant could lower his shoulders and relax, and our photographer, brother Gustave, could finally take the bike for a test drive!
after the blessings
Blessing servers and bikes may appear as a funny little playful project, somehow eccentric and maybe even unnecessary. Yet, these objects have been marked with a seal that remains and that we remember. Blessings are called sacramentals, and this has to do with sacramentality. When we bless, it is as if through the material blessing, we hand over some of our selves, asking for God’s mercy and protection. Let us therefore meditate on the deeper value and interest of the celebration of blessings, as we proceed in this blessed time of Christmas.

May God bless you all!
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Sunday, January 01, 2012

January 1st: Solemnity of Mary, Holy Mother of God

Readings: Numbers 6: 22-27, Psalm 67, Galatians 4: 4-7, Luke 2: 16-21
According to the Old Testament, the blessing of God leads to flourishing: it gives life. In Moses' final exhortation to the people of Israel in the book of Deuteronomy we read: 'I am offering you life or death, blessing or a curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants might live in the love of the The Lord your God, obeying his voice, holding fast to him; for in this your life consists' (Deuteronomy 30: 19-20). To choose life, then, is to live in friendship with God. To be fully alive is to live in the presence of God, hence the priestly blessing that Aaron is instructed to use in our first reading includes a prayer that God's face might shine upon his people and bring them peace (Numbers 6: 25-6).

To hide from God's face, to hide from his friendship and presence as Adam and Eve did after the fall (Genesis 3:8), is to flee from our own fulfilment. Yet as we read through the Old Testament we find that the fall of Adam is a recurring pattern. Israel's love for God cools, her fidelity to the law slackens: the consequence is disaster, death, and finally repentance and some form of restoration. In her alienation, Israel rediscovers her longing for God and so in today's psalm we cry: 'May God be gracious and bless us, and may his face shed its light upon us' (Psalm 67: 1). This is echoed by the desperate appeal of psalm 80: 'God of hosts bring us back, let your face shine on us and we shall be saved' (Psalm 80: 7).

This alienation between God and Man (though perhaps not always the sense that God is remote) is overcome at the Incarnation, which we celebrated just a few days ago at Christmas. Where at one time, as Hebrews puts it: 'God spoke to man through prophets and in varied ways, in our time, the final days, He has spoken to us in the person of His Son' (Hebrews 1: 1-2). There is a sense in our second reading from St. Paul that this coming of the Son of God 'at the fullness of time' (Galatians 4:4) is the birth, the new life, that the whole of Israel's history has been preparing for. Indeed, in Romans Paul tells us that 'the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labour pains' (Romans 8:22). All of history has been a kind of pregnancy, a time of development and growth until nature, human flesh, is able to receive the Word of God so that he might dwell among us (John 1:14).

This Word made flesh, Jesus, is the new life that brings life to the world. Mary was chosen to keep this Word, to bare this Word in her womb, hence she is called theotokos, God-bearer or more loosely: Mother of God. John the Baptist leapt in his Mother's womb upon hearing Mary's greeting, recognising this presence of God, prompting his mother Elizabeth to declare Mary to be 'blessed among women' (Luke 1: 42). Mary herself exclaims in her famous Magnificat that 'henceforth all ages will call me blessed' (Luke 1: 48). Mary is blessed because the fruit of her womb, Jesus, is the source of all blessing and all life.

We celebrate the feast of the Mother of God at the end of the Octave of Christmas, then, not to distract our attention from Christ and the Incarnation, but to draw out its implications for us. Mary is blessed because she has been honoured with an unprecedented intimacy with God. Yet as Paul emphasises in the second reading, this intimacy is also open to us. Because Christ became one of us, became like us, we can become like him: adopted sons and daughters of God (Galatians 4: 4). We would do well, like Mary in today's Gospel, to ponder this in our hearts (Luke 2:19). The Incarnation that we celebrated this Christmas is an awesome gift, a gift that is more precious than perhaps we realise.

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