Friday, October 31, 2014

Our Father: ‘Forgive us our trespasses’

God creating man, by Michelangelo 

There was once a garden into which man was loved into existence, sharing the image and likeness of his Creator. Born of dust and having the creative breath of God breathed into him, he stood as a unique creature in the artwork of creation. A gulf existed between God and man, the sort of gulf that naturally exists between a creator and his creation; but the two were united by a harmonious bond of love. 
Adam and Eve exiled from Paradise

But man thought it good to overcome this gulf by making himself God, seizing that which was not his by right, thereby disrupting that harmonious relationship which God had willed for His beloved creature. Ever since that maxima culpa by the first parents of humanity, the words ‘forgive us our trespasses’ have ever been on the lips of mankind, shown to us in varied ways through the Scriptures.

So what of these words, ‘forgive us our trespasses’? In the first place, we are reminded that, because of the fault of our first parents, our human will is inclined towards sin—something we call ‘concupiscence’— and we tend to commit sin. Of course, this is not how God created our human nature, but such as it has been since the Fall.

Secondly, in light of our sinfulness, we ought to turn to God for forgiveness, for ultimately all sin is an act of disobedience towards Him, but the remedy for this disobedience is also to be found from Him. This act of turning to the Lord is exactly what our first parents lost sight of in the Garden: they forgot the Lord. Turning to the Lord beseeching His forgiveness and mercy is a recognition in truth of the state of our human condition. We acknowledge our real need for Him. St John Chrysostom says that by our Lord showing us how to pray in this way, we are reminded of our sins, thereby 'persuading us to be modest'. Pride wears many masks and is never far away; modesty will help guard us from it.

In giving us the Our Father, Jesus shows us how to approach the One who loved us into existence, namely, in truthfulness and hope. St John in his epistle says: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’

It is more difficult for us to experience the harmony which once existed in that Garden before the Fall; but Christ showed us the way back to Paradise. Just as the downfall of humanity began with a forgetting of its need for God and a loss of sight with regard to its proper relationship with Him, so our Blessed Lord reminds us in the Our Father that the beginnings of our redemption will be found, first, in the recognition that we are sinners, and, secondly, that we need the forgiveness which He readily offers to us out of sheer love for you and for me. So great is His love that He gave to the Church the Sacraments to help us grow into that likeness that was originally lost. What great hope there is for us!

The Holy Father hearing a confession during World Youth Day in Brazil

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Dominican Priories: Leicester. 'A history of Tom, Dick and Harry!'

Holy Cross Priory, Leicester. 

When looking upon our modern Priory of Holy Cross, Leicester, it is so easy to forget the rich and varied history that explains its existence today. I am going to attempt to 'dig up' then a little of the history of the Dominicans in Leicester, which along the way 'uncovers' everything you need to know about Tom, Dick and Harry!

The first Dominicans arrived in Leicester around 1247. They soon set up shop, so to speak, in St Clement's Parish Church, which had been given to them by the Augustinian Canons who controlled all of the parishes within the medieval town walls. St Clements was a poor parish that sat neatly between the two arms of the River Soar. It was under the benefaction of two patrons, that of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester and (get ready for it)... Harry, who liked to be referred to as King Henry III of England.

Manuscript showing the coronation of King Henry III ('Harry')

And so the Priory grew up around St Clement's Parish, which the first friars used as their conventual church. One of the earliest written accounts of this medieval foundation refers to the priory as 'The Blak Frears in the Ashes', not a reference to outcomes of inquisitorial justice, but rather because of the pleasant ash trees that could be found in its grounds.

At its medieval height the community numbered thirty-three strong and hosted a total of three provincial chapters, which shows further the wider importance of Leicester at this time. But alas, the growth of the medieval Priory came to a halt on the 10th November 1538, when the Priory was surrendered to the king's agents as part of the inevitable waves of dissolution. Those among our friars who did not apostatise fled to neighbouring Flanders.

The Dominicans finally returned to Leicester after the Reformation, the new friars coming from Bornhem, which was founded in 1657, in what was then the Spanish Netherlands. The founder went by the name of Phillip Thomas Howard, or Tom for short.

Phillip Thomas Cardinal Howard OP

Phillip Thomas Howard was born in 1629 into the family of the Dukes of Norfolk. In 1645 the young Phillip took the habit of our Order, much to the displeasure of the Earl himself. His purpose would be to restore the English Province, and it was for this reason that he managed to persuade the Master of the Order and the General Chapter to allow him to seek a patron, the Count of Bornhem, to make the first foundation of English Dominicans since the Reformation. He was made Cardinal in 1675 and died in Rome as Cardinal Protector of England and Scotland in 1694.

Bornhem was eventually abandoned as an English Catholic Boys school, a noviciate, and as a study house for the Order in 1794, due to the arrival of the French Revolutionary Army. The Brethren and the Dominican Nuns of Brussels fled to England to the current site of the modern Priory back in Leicester. It was Benedict Caestryck OP who founded the permanent mission of Holy Cross, Leicester, buying land there in 1817, and he began to build the church, which opened in 1819, and a presbytery in 1824. The Parish and the modern Priory took the name of Holy Cross, the dedication of the Priory and Church at Bornhem.

The interior of Holy Cross Priory Church. 

Holy Cross was finally established as a priory in 1882. During this period the friars opened Mass-centres right across the city. Subsequently, all of the Roman Catholic parishes in Leicester find their origin in being Dominican foundations. In 1929 the construction of the Priory Church you see today began under fr Vincent McNabb OP. The conventual church was finally completed and consecrated on 14 May 1958.

Today Holy Cross Priory is the largest parish in the city centre, and also serves a 14th-century chapel in Woodhouse, which has a lively congregation. The current Friars' mission includes two university chaplaincies, that of Leicester and De Montfort; the Catholic University Chaplaincy is thriving in an annex to the priory itself. The friars are also chaplains to the Leicester Royal Infirmary and a local prison; and a healthy relationship is maintained with Holy Cross Primary school, which used to reside on the Priory site.

But where in the name of Richard is Richard III? (aka Dick)

King Richard III
Alas, the finding of the remains of the last Plantagenet Monarch, King Richard III in the city of Leicester could not go unmentioned, in regard to the history that is still being written for our Priory in Leicester.

Richard's remains were found underneath a car park, which used to be the site of the old Greyfriars Church, in the city centre in September 2012. Plans for King Richard's remains to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral are under way.

For Holy Cross Priory this means:

  • on Monday 23rd March, Vincent Cardinal Nichols will celebrate Mass for the repose of the soul (a ‘Requiem Mass’) of Richard III in Holy Cross Church. The Choir from St Barnabas’ Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Nottingham, will sing at this Mass, which will be open to the public 
  • and On Tuesday 24th March the Dominican friars will sing Vespers, the Catholic Church’s evening service, in Leicester Cathedral; this is in addition to the daily celebration of Mass and the divine office in Holy Cross Church. 
  • and finally On Wednesday 25th March, Father David Rocks OP, the current parish priest and prior at Holy Cross Church, will preach at the lunchtime Eucharist in Leicester Cathedral. 

The excavation site where the remains were found.

So there we have it, a potted history of our Leicester Priory, including the likes of Tom, Dick and Harry!

A new window in the north transept of Holy Cross Priory, Leicester which shows the post-Reformation history of the Dominican Order in the city. In the top panel, Christ is surrounded by Dominicans past and present. On the left, a procession of Dominican led by St Dominic and on the right a young friar brings people to Christ. In the bottom panel, Fr Francis Xavier Chappell, OP disguised as a coster selling vegetables, during Penal times when it was illegal for Catholic priests to minister in this country. In his basket he hid his chalice and he initially said Mass in a factory. He served the Catholics of Leicester from 1785-1815. Next along, we see a Flemish Dominican, Benedict Caestryck, who moved to a small house in Wellington Street, where he said Mass. Under his inspiration, building began on the first Holy Cross Church in 1817. This was opened in 1819. Holy Cross was established as a priory in 1882. By 1929 the first Holy Cross church proved to be too small for the congregation. So, in the final bottom panel we see the famous preacher and author, Fr Vincent McNabb, OP who started to raise money for a larger church. Its foundation stone was laid in 1929. - Photograph and description by fr Lawrence Lew OP.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Our Father: Give us this day our daily bread

The eyes of all creatures look to you
and you give them their food in due time (Ps. 145(144):15)

This verse from the Psalms is taken up in the monastic Grace before meals. We ask God to bless our food, trusting that he is the source of all good things who will satisfy our daily needs. We are bodily creatures, not angels. So, in the Lord's Prayer, having asked that our wills and minds be turned to the Lord, we ask him to attend to our bodily needs too: "Give us this day our daily bread".

In Jesus's context, as in much of the world today, bread is the staple food. In the Old Testament, bread is often interchangeable with “life” itself. In Psalm 103(104), we sing God's praises for his providential care of all creatures, giving them food, drink and shelter. Human beings are part of this ecosystem and so God provides “bread to strengthen man’s heart” (v. 15). This Biblical notion of "bread" covers all our daily needs, as St Augustine notes: “we ask for a sufficiency of all things necessary under the one name of bread” (Ep. 130:11).

'Prayer before meals', Manansala

And yet – “man does not live by bread alone”! Jesus thus rebukes the devil in the desert, because a focus on material needs can distract us from the priorities of our spiritual life (Mt 4:4, Lk 4:4, quoting Dt 8:3). After giving us the Lord's Prayer, Jesus goes on to say (Mt 6:25): "do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" Food is there to serve our higher goal of becoming God's children; we should not seek to curry favour with God just to receive material rewards. As St Maximus the Confessor said, we should eat to live, not live to eat! Life means so much more than natural nourishment. “For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

But what about all the starving people in the world? Should they be satisfied with purely spiritual goals? Of course not: ordinary bread is not to be neglected! The obligation to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness", does not mean God wants us to ignore material needs; instead he tells us to seek his kingdom in order that "these things [bread, etc.] shall be yours as well" (Mt 6:32-3). The more we focus our goals on God's righteousness and justice, the better we understand the urgency of the task to create a fairer world. Nearly 1,000 million people go hungry every night, and yet there is more than enough food in the world, but it is unfairly distributed. Inequality builds up when we selfishly build structures to guarantee our future security, not noticing how this damages other people around us – as when people “panic-buy” during a shortage, meaning that those who really need the goods are left without (cf. the parable of the Rich Fool, Lk 12:16-21). God has not abandoned the starving; he is very close to them. But he needs us to act in truth and righteousness so that justice may flourish on earth.

Finally, there is an important double-meaning in the word "daily" in "our daily bread". The Greek term, epiousios, is totally unique in the Bible and Classical Greek literature, so Origen was probably right that the Evangelists coined it (leaving the original Aramaic term a mystery). It can mean "sufficient for the day" (either today or tomorrow), hence "daily" or "needful". But St Jerome was equally justified in translating it supersubstantialis – "more than substantial" – which would later occur even in the English Douai-Rheims translation as "supersubstantial". The Christian tradition, especially in the West, has long seen a connection between the daily need for ordinary bread and the ultimate need to receive the "living bread" that Jesus promised us would be his very own body. That is why the Council of Trent called the Eucharist by this Biblical term, "supersubstantial" (Session 13, Ch. 8). Only Jesus himself is the "living bread which came down from heaven", which a person may eat and live forever (Jn 6:51). The natural substance of our being is transformed by the grace-filled "supersubstance" of the "living bread" – the Body of Christ – which we receive in the Eucharist. That is why all people may call on God for their food, but only Christians may pray for their "daily bread" in precisely the way that Jesus taught us.

Velasco, 'Hapag ng Pag-asa' (Table of Hope)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Our Father: Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven

                                   “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

So familiar is recitation of the Lord's Prayer to many of us that often, I suspect - if some readers are anything like me - we have not really tuned in, not really got around to focusing on what exactly it is we are petitioning the Lord for with these words, before we are already over half-way through the prayer and thinking about who we might be forgiving for their trespasses against us!

The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel

These are difficult words. Obviously they are not difficult to say, but they can be very difficult to mean. Throughout the history of the Church it has ever been thus. Think of Peter's confession to Jesus in Mark 8: "You are the Christ", whereupon Jesus foretells of how he must suffer, be rejected and killed, before He will rise again. And what is Peter's reaction to this? Peter has the audacity to rebuke Jesus, before being swiftly rebuked himself by Jesus with those cutting and chastening words, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men."

Peter desired that the Lord's will be conformed to his – to his ideas of what the Messiah should be and this desire has remained prevalent to this day. To will what God wishes is hard. It is much easier to pray that God would will what we wish. And yet, whilst we go on doing this, we will not become truly Christ-like; in fact, we will grow apart from him. We must aspire to follow the example of Christ at Gethsemane who said: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this chalice from me; yet not what I will, but what you will.” This is Jesus perfectly living out the perfect prayer He taught us.

Dominikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) - Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
The Agony in the Garden, El Greco

The first stage in living out this petition has to manifest itself in an earnest to desire to learn what it is that the Father wills. Again, to do this, we are best to follow the Lord’s example; to pray and to be familiar with the scriptures. The Father’s will is not necessarily ours! Thomas Aquinas reminds us, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, that the third gift which the Holy Spirit works in us is called the gift of knowledge. He goes on to say that “among all that goes to make up knowledge and wisdom in man, the principal wisdom is that man should not depend solely upon his own opinion.” We can know the truth, but we do not always find it by contemplating our own desires.

This takes humility; as St Thomas goes on to say: ‘Out of humility one does not trust one's own knowledge: "Where humility is there is also wisdom." (Proverbs 11:2) The proud trust only themselves. Now, the Holy Spirit, through the gift of wisdom, teaches us that we do not our own will but the will of God. It is through this gift that we pray of God that His "will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And in this is seen the gift of knowledge.’

Now the second part of fulfilling this petition is perhaps the most difficult. To will God’s will over our own when the two are in conflict is challenging. But paradoxically this is the only way that we will ever be truly free. Whilst we are slaves to our own wills, we will never obtain the freedom that Christ promises, we will never be our true selves; we will never allow grace to perfect our nature.

But conforming our will to His is easier said than done. It is not an easy thing to confront greatness. We can struggle enough when we find it in another person, let alone when we contemplate our finitude in relation to God. If we are not careful this can discourage, even paralyse, for the greatness of the other makes me feel my own littleness, perhaps even deluding ourselves that we don't really matter. Goethe said that there is only one defence against great superiority, and that is love. And perhaps this is true, for it is only love of Christ that can help us partake in the divine life. But Fr Romano Guardini wonders whether this covers the entirety of the matter; for it may not always be possible to love. He suggests that it may be more correct to say that the best defence against great superiority consists in truth and reverence, which say: “He is great, I am not. But it is good that greatness should be, even if it is not in me but in another.” Then there is an open space, and envy disappears.

As I write this, I think of how much pressure there is on the Church to change its teaching and its practice. I cannot help but think that what we are witnessing is largely as a result of the desire that God be more like us. We find something hard or requiring heroic qualities and we wish that God did not will it that way. We delude ourselves that because God’s mercy overflows, that He can no longer judge. We forget that mercy cannot exist without justice. We begin to think that the greatest travesty is that somebody might be put off the practise of the faith because of its difficulty. And thus we seek to argue why God’s will must be for us to remain in whatever state we are in, and that the Church’s teaching should alter to condone us in our sin, not call us out of it, at the same time abandoning the notion of conforming ourselves to Christ.

St Martin de Porres OP feeds the poor, Holy Cross Dominican Priory, Leicester

Archbishop Charles Chaput wisely reminded us recently about what happens when we ignore Jesus’s teaching: “If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell. If we blind ourselves to their suffering, we will go to hell. If we do nothing to ease their burdens; then we will go to hell. Ignoring the needs of the poor among us is the surest way to dig a chasm of heartlessness between ourselves and God, and ourselves and our neighbours.” And he goes on to say that whilst all are welcome in the Church “we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian—you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.” Only if we truly heed these words can we pray with integrity: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dominican Priories: Glasgow

The Dominican house in Glasgow is a fairly recent mission for the Order, in the grand scheme of things. The official seal of the city often used on official materials is “Let Glasgow flourish” but what is often missed out is the full text of the seal, “Lord, let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the word and the praising of Thy name”. Glasgow was founded as a city by St Mungo, who is also the city’s patron saint. Since its days as a small merchant town known for salmon fishing on the Clyde, Glasgow has always been an important ecclesiastical centre. The Dominicans had a Priory in Glasgow from 1246, when William de Bondington, Bishop of Glasgow, and the Cathedral Chapter, at the behest of King Alexander III (1241-1286) welcomed the friars to the city, asking that the Friars Preachers be received in his diocese. Our Dominican priory was situated some few hundred yards south of the Glasgow Cathedral, at the bottom of the modern High Street. The priory complex included a school for the teaching of the liberal arts, and a house studium. 

The pub named ‘Blackfriars’ is located near to where the medieval Dominican priory in Glasgow was situated. 

The Dominicans were forced to leave Glasgow during the Scottish reformation, and the Priory was secularised by the state in 1566-67. It was not until 1965 that the Order made a return to Glasgow and committed to having a Dominican presence in this important Archdiocese. 

One of the institutions which the Dominican Order was associated from the very beginning, is the University of Glasgow, when in 1451 when Bishop William Turnbull founded the University. The foundation of the University was an event, but its growth and development was a long, gradual process, involving the coming together of several factors. It was in the buildings of the Dominican ‘Black Friars’ priory in Glasgow, that the first university meetings and business, and the first lecture, took place. The priory continued to provide teaching facilities until the University gradually acquired its own permanent premises. The Dominican church was also used for university worship.

A major factor in kick-starting Glasgow as the ‘second city of the British empire’ was its location on the river Clyde. Glasgow had a competitive advantage compared with London or the major centres of trade in Europe: the travel time for ships going to and from North America was around three days less going from the ports on the Clyde. That meant it was cheaper and easier for industries to set up in Glasgow. Central Scotland also had cheap natural resources such as coal and iron ore to fuel the industrial growth of Glasgow, which became a powerhouse of one of the world’s first industrialised economies. The merchants of the city made their money in trading tobacco, cotton and textiles. Just as today, land was a solid investment with a great potential for making a good return on investment. The merchants invested their money in buying up marshy land, draining the marshes surrounding the medieval city of Glasgow, so they could build on the land. It was typically unskilled Catholic Irish immigrants who were employed for the heavy manual labour of turning swamps into solid ground to expand the city, and to improve the farm land to feed the ever-expanding population. These merchants of Glasgow were some of the first capitalists who acquired this ‘new money’ from trade, and spared no expense in building their luxury mansions, wearing the best clothing made in the textile factories, smoking tobacco from their plantations in Virginia. As Glasgow expanded as an industrial hub, larger factories producing more technologically advanced goods were opened, for an expanding industrial era. Money was to be made in buying raw materials from abroad and turning them into high-value products to sell across the world market. It was the growth of the British Empire which enabled Glasgow to have this access to raw materials and a market of buyers at home and abroad. The engineering expertise that Scots are known for aided the expansion of heavy industry. It was the need for cheap labour in shipyards, factories and dockyards which led to an influx of Catholics moving to Glasgow - much of the immigration came from Catholic Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, England and later Italy, Poland and beyond.

The Doulton Fountain, Glasgow Green. The fountain depicts four water-carriers, representing parts of the British empire - India, Australia, Canada, South Africa

History matters to the Dominican mission. Around 30% of the population in Glasgow identify as Catholic. This puts Glasgow and the surrounding conurbations proportionally higher in Catholic population than most of the United Kingdom. The Dominican friars currently run the parish of St Columba’s in Woodside, in the city’s West end. One of the friars is Catholic chaplain to the University of Strathclyde, with the chaplaincy centre also a hub for the city centre higher education establishments. One of the other friars is involved with prison chaplaincy, and the other friars also help with parish duties and have their own academic work.

The Parish of St Columba's

The Dominicans started running the Parish of St Columba’s in the mid 2000s. The church and presbytery are examples of the early work of the architect Jack Coia. It is one of the only buildings still under construction during World War II, with the sanctuary holding a marble reredos and carved crucifix by the sculptor Benno Schotz. 

For the Dominicans, the city of Glasgow is an important place to be. With such a large population of the city identifying as Catholic, but a comparatively small number of the population actually attending Mass, there is a considerable evangelical mission to bring Catholics back to Church. There is a huge task ahead, in meeting what is asked of the ‘new evangelisation’ that Pope Francis speaks of. This involves educating people in a core Catholic theology that is fit for purpose in a postmodern context, a liturgy that will nourish and sustain our faith, and hopefully being able to answer the questions that people want answers to. The Dominican mission also includes practical support for initiatives such as pro-life or social justice projects, as well as lay evangelisation. The demographic of Catholics in Scotland now is hugely different when compared with the origins of the Catholic Church in Scotland after the hierarchy was restored. This new demographic of Catholics who have opportunities that were previously never possible is an interesting challenge. How do we engage with where people are at now? People who wish to maintain and strengthen their Catholic faith whilst working in all sorts of spheres of society.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Our Father: Thy Kingdom come

In this part of the Our Father we echo that well known invocation Marana tha - Come, Lord Jesus. This is because when we pray for the coming of the Kingdom, we also pray for the coming of its Sovereign, Jesus. 

Fra' Angelico, Christ's Glorified in the Court of Heaven

In another sense, according to St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, the “kingdom” is eternal life. We look forward to obtaining and sharing in eternal happiness in heaven. As Our Lord later says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Come, O blessed of my father inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” [Mt 25:24]. In saying the words, “thy kingdom come”, therefore, we are making a statement of faith of the world to come.

Further, St. Thomas Aquinas notes, we can think of these words as asking for the Lord to reign over us: “for when we serve justice, then God reigns, but when we serve sin, the devil does: let no sin reign in your body, (Rom 6:12); they have not rejected you but me, from reigning over them (1 Sam 8:7).” So, on this understanding, we are asking the Lord to make us his agents, to reign in our heart in order that we act with charity and in accordance with the God’s law;  in order that we may do justice rather than evil.

Of course, these three ways of reading the words are closely connected. If we synthesise what we have said already, we could say that we invoke God’s blessings for the present, serve justice through the practice of charity and avoidance of evil, and that we do all of this in the hope of gaining a place in heaven.

As far as summaries of the Christian life go, that’s not bad in three words! Then again, one shouldn’t be surprised - they are Jesus’s words after all! 

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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Godzdogz Team 2014-15

The Godzdogz Team, 2014-15

We are pleased that the Dominican community at Blackfriars has grown to 27 this year. The Godzdogz Team (i.e. the student brothers) is larger thanks to new vocations in the English Province. Earlier this month, Brothers Joseph Bailham OP and Christopher Pierce OP began their studies in the Blackfriars Studium, having made Simple Profession in Cambridge.

We also welcomed Br Richard Steenvoorde OP, who recently made Simple Profession in Zwolle for the Province of the Netherlands, having completed his novitiate in Cambridge. Br Jean-Baptiste Régis OP joined us from the Province of France, having made his Solemn Profession in Lille last month, and will study in Oxford for the next two years. From Poland, Br Mateusz Grzelczak OP has come for a year to continue his studies.

We also have more priests in the community. Fr Irenaeus Vincent OP has moved from London to continue his Doctoral studies. There are three priests from the Province of St Joseph (USA), two of whom are on sabbatical: Fr Albert Paretsky OP, Biblical scholar, and Fr Thomas Joseph White OP, director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. Fr Gregory Schnakenberg OP has begun a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Oxford.

Deo gratias.

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Dominican Priories: Oxford (Blackfriars Hall)

The plaque on the outside of Blackfriars highlighting its existence as a Priory, a Studium, and a Hall of the University

In a previous post, Br Oliver explained how Blackfriars in Oxford exists as a Priory, as well as a home to the Studium. Blackfriars is also home to Blackfriars Hall, which is a Permanent Private Hall (PPH) of the University of Oxford. Like the more familiar colleges of Oxford, such as Christ Church and New College, Blackfriars Hall can admit students for degrees from the University. PPHs are generally much smaller than colleges both in physical size and number of personnel, and tend to have a more religious character.

Blackfriars Hall was established in 1994 on 1st January. We Dominicans were involved in the life of the University long before this date (though admittedly with a substantial hiatus in between; but that was not our fault!). After our first priory in Oxford was established in 1221, Dominicans very quickly took up high-ranking positions within the University's theology faculty. 

The Aula at Blackfriars, which is where most lectures take place

The Hall offers an intimate and friendly academic setting for mature undergraduate and postgraduate students, who have the unique opportunity to be taught, particularly in the case of theology and philosophy students, by the brethren, and to study alongside the student friars, as well as the other religious and non-religious students in formation as part of the Studium. 

Before being accepted by the Dominicans, I was a postgraduate student in the Hall reading for my Master's in theology. It was a period in which I was privileged to have had the opportunity to get to know the brethren better and to see a little closer the life they lived, which without question contributed to my wanting to be a Dominican friar. The Hall serves as a special bridge between the religious world of the friars and the secular environment of a modern university, thus existing as a very unique and important form of outreach for us as friars in the English context.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Our Father: Hallowed be thy name

A Dominican friend from Panama suggested to me that the English translation of the Our Father is the worst of all of the modern languages. I have always disagreed with him, until pondering the use of ‘hallowed be thy name’ in the Lord’s prayer. How often do we ever hear the word ‘hallowed’ used in any other context than the Our Father? Hallowed is a strange word sounding a bit like like ‘halloween’ but not really having much other use than here in the Our Father. I would translate the Latin text ‘sanctificetur nomen tuum’ into English as ‘sacred is your name’ or perhaps ‘your name is most holy and sacred’. When we pray to God, perhaps no language can express the magnitude of sacredness and holiness of God.

In a letter to Proba by St Augustine, he ponders the purpose of praying. If the Lord knows what we need before we ask for it, then what is the point of approaching God who is all-knowing (omniscient) and omnipotent? If God knows what we want, what we need and can provide then do we really need to ask in the first place? This uber-sacredness of God, His hallowed name, is highlighted by St Augustine, who teaches that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (as he cannot fail to know this), but instead wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told, Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers. The deeper our faith, stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the greater our capacity will be to receive that gift.

Just as sacredness or ‘hallowed-ness’ is difficult to imagine or perceive, it requires effort to remember just who and what God is. God is the highest of all that is sacred and holy, and the way for us to obtain a life of happiness in eternity. St Augustine reminds us that we are limited, but we can grow in our capacity to receive the gift of a life of happiness, through prayer. Yes, our understanding of the sacred is limited, but what we can do is try our best to have the sacred be exactly that. Sacred liturgy, music and artwork in our churches help direct us to the Almighty. The hallowed nature of Catholic churches needs to be maintained and promoted as being something that is not disposable, everyday or open to unthinking reform. This is partly why I despise some of the tacky and banal Church architecture of the mid to late 20th century. Such buildings do not represent hallowed ground or the sacred, they just look like some concrete community centre. Catholicism means turning our lives to God rather than selling out to worldly pursuits. We are taught to build up virtues that will serve us for life, rather than believing money will give us permanent happiness. To paraphrase Frank Underwood in the US series House of Cards, “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years.” Hallowed is the old stone building that stands for centuries.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Our Father: Who Art in Heaven

How close is Our Father to us? It is a common experience in prayer, and in the spiritual life generally, to feel a great distance between God and us. This 'hole' in our spiritual life can be perplexing and painful, and sometimes it can lead us towards a despair, a fear that our God is not a God who loves us.

We cannot avoid this despair by denying that there is, in a sense, a distance between God and us. Indeed recognition of this reality is present in the prayer Our Lord taught us. Jesus reminds us that our Father is in Heaven whereas we are here on earth, a place where God's will is often rejected by those upon it.

How then can we make sense of this distance between God and us? Firstly we can continue to pray the Our Father! As we move through the prayer we remember that it is fitting that we should find the distance between God and us perplexing: we are not made for this world - we look forward to the kingdom. However, we can also look to the one who taught us the prayer.
As St. John wrote in his gospel 'God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not die but have everlasting life.' It is God who bridges the gap between Heaven and earth, he is the one who came down from heaven to raise us up.

Thus, when we feel our painful separation from God we can meditate confidently over these words:

Our Father who art in Heaven, who came down to us to bring us back to you.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Dominican Priories: London

The Priory of Our Holy Father St. Dominic in Haverstock Hill, London, is the base of a vibrant and diverse preaching apostolate of the dozen or so Friars assigned there.
Attached to the priory is the Parish Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Dominic, serving the local communities of Gospel Oak, Haverstock Hill, Chalk Farm and Belsize Park. The parish includes some of the most economically deprived areas in the country. The Church building is one of the largest in London. It runs 200 ft long, 80 ft wide and 100 ft high, and, as such, stands as a significant landmark for the surrounding area. 

Interior of St. Dominic's Church, looking down the nave
In 1862, the Dominicans purchased three acres of land in obedience to Cardinal Wiseman’s request that religious orders establish missionary foundations in London to serve the growing number of Irish migrants. The foundation stone of the church was laid the following August according to Gothic designs by Gilbert Blout. He died during construction in 1876 and the mantle was passed to a new architect, Charles Buckler. Buckler, a convert to the Catholic faith, had the advantage of having no fewer than three brothers who joined the Order and oversaw the remaining construction whilst making some significant alterations to the original plan. His revisions drew inspiration from Dominican churches in the Low Countries. After twenty years in the making, the vast church was consecrated in 1883 by which time his brother, Fr. Albert Buckler OP, was Prior. One of a number of impressive features of the Church is the side chapels around the perimeter, dedicated to the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary and paid for by local benefactors. Charles Buckler, the architect, paid for the Chapel of the Annunciation out of his own pocket - a token that demonstrates the fondness he clearly had for his great work.

Chapel of the Annunciation, St. Dominic's Church

Today, the parish is thriving. In addition to the provision of the sacraments, our ministry includes  pastoral work, and providing other opportunities for prayer and study. The parish also serves two primary schools, St. Dominic's and The Rosary School  The current Prior of the community, Fr. Timothy Calvert OP, also serves as Parish Priest - a task in which he is assisted by two of our former contributors, Fr. Gregory Pearson OP, and the newly ordained, Fr. Nicholas Crowe OP, amongst others. You may also recall that St. Dominic's hosted our Studentate Parish Mission, Pray 4, last year, which was a resounding success.

St. Dominic's Priory
Aside from Parish ministry, other brothers carry out their preaching mission in hospital chaplaincy at University College Hospital, and the nearby Royal Free Hospital; university chaplaincy at Imperial College (a position which our brother, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP, once held); school teaching and chaplaincy; and in studying towards postgraduate degrees. 

Our London priory has been the home of several notable Dominicans who have lived in our the Priory include Fr. Bede Jarrett OP, Fr. Vincent McNabb OP, Fr. [John Dominic] Alan Cheales OP, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP, and St. Dominic's is also the home of the present Prior Provincial, Fr. John Farrell OP.

On a more personal note, St. Dominic’s is one of the places where I came to know the Order. My housemates and I would rise early and get the number 46 bus from Grays Inn Road up to Southampton Road for the 7.30am Mass. I was always amazed at the edifying homilies given before sunrise. Apparently Friars at St. Dominic's eat Weetabix for breakfast! It was often on the bus back saying the Rosary that I prayed about my direction in my life. I will be forever indebted to the Church and community of St. Dominic’s for assisting me in the discernment of my vocation.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

"Our Father"

It is an act of audacity to call God ‘Our Father’. Although God as creator is in a sense ‘Father’ of the whole world that proceeds forth from his creative word, we can claim no natural right to address Him in the intimate and familial way in which the fatherhood of the Pater Noster speaks. It rolls off the tongue as perhaps the first prayer we memorise as children, but we only dare to make it our own because we have first been authorised and commanded to do so by Jesus Christ, who is the personal revelation of the Father in our world. To address God with such filial boldness is an act of fidelity to Christ, who instructed the disciples to pray in this way in response to their recognition of dependence and insufficiency. The Lord whom they seek is already the one who causes their seeking, and it is in response to their petition (itself already a prayer)—“Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1)—that Jesus teaches them the Our Father as an invitation into his own prayer life, a route into that communion which alone fulfils their deepest desires, the Son’s own relationship to God the Father.

The ‘Fatherhood’ which the Our Father speaks of is, therefore, not a generic image of Fatherhood, but the specific Trinitarian relationship of the Father and the Son, into which we are granted participation by the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Aquinas speaks of the words ‘Our Father’ as a nutshell summary of the entire Christian faith, words which cannot be uttered authentically without faith in the Triune God and the incarnation of the Son. Yet if they are a summary of the authentic doctrine of the faith, they are also a summary of the essential attitude and emotional disposition of Christian prayer (which Aquinas sees as the “interpreter of desire”): by addressing God as Father, we place ourselves in joyful obedience, humbly recognising the wonder of our own being and resting in the simple assurance of being loved into existence and loved into new life in Christ.

To pray Our Father, then, is part of our baptismal vocation. It is something given to us in that moment when we receive faith and are re-born anew by engrafting into Christ. It is not only because the Son alone can address the Father as ‘my Father’ that it is given to us to pray in the plural to Our Father, but also because our re-birth into the Son’s relationship to the Father is also the moment of our entry into the Church as the community of faith. For Christians, to be most fully a person is almost the opposite of being an ‘individual’. Baptism radically de-individualises us by drawing us into the communion of the Church, and the Christian always prays as a member of the Church, even when they do so in private. To pray Our Father is a reminder that we cannot ‘go it alone’, that wherever we go our connection to Christ and his Church abides, for we have been made an irreplaceable part of something bigger than ourselves upon which we depend for our own innermost identity. It is, therefore, most fitting that we pray Our Father at each celebration of Holy Mass, as the people of God are gathered—with the angels and saints—around the Eucharistic Lord, in anticipation of the Kingdom to come.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Our Father: a new commentary on the Lord's Prayer

It is not always easy to find the right words to pray. This was the problem facing Jesus's own disciples, when they said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples' (Lk 11:1). St Paul also recognised the difficulty, saying that 'we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words' (Rom 8:26).

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray
in the Sermon on the Mount
It is a great blessing and a grace, then, that God has provided good words to use. Like a parent teaching a child to speak, to enlarge its vocabulary and say new things, God gives us new ways of sharing with him the deepest longings of our heart. The Scriptures are a useful place to find prayers and hymns which we can make our own, not least the Psalms, which form the backbone of the Church's public prayer in the Divine Office.

But the best prayer of all, because it comes straight from Jesus Christ in response to his disciples' request, is undoubtedly the Lord's Prayer, better known as the Our Father (cf. Mt 6:9-13; Lk 11:1-4. This is a prayer for all times and seasons, for all situations, and for all people. Above all, it draws us into the prayer of Christ himself, because we address (as he did) our prayers to our loving Father in heaven.

In this new series on Godzdogz, we hope to explore the rich spiritual and theological meanings of the Lord's Prayer. This is a prayer dear to countless generations of Christians before us, and it should be frequently on our lips. In commenting on the meaning of each phrase, our aim is to achieve a deeper understanding which will in turn deepen our prayer, through the Son, in the Spirit, to the Father.

Our Father, 
who art in heaven, 
hallowed be thy Name; 
thy kingdom come, thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread, 
and forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those who trespass against us; 
and lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from evil. 

For the kingdom,
the power and the glory are yours
now and for ever.


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Friday, October 17, 2014

Dominican Priories: Edinburgh

St Albert's Priory as viewed from George Square
The Edinburgh Priory was first founded about 1230-1, in the reign of King Alexander II. The Priory was subsequently destroyed in 1559, during the reformation. The Priory was re-founded in 1931, when the English Province of the Order of Preachers acquired No 24 George Square in Edinburgh, thanks to the generosity of founding benefactors, Canon John Gray, Marc-André Sebastien Raffalovich, and Mrs Charlotte M Tytus (a trio of donors who each led fascinating lives, the former two Catholic converts and the latter also the purchaser of the site of the current Oxford Priory for the Order).

So, after an absence of almost 400 years, the Dominican friars were back, and at the invitation of Archbishop Andrew Thomas Joseph McDonald OSB, they established a Catholic Chaplaincy for the students and staff of Edinburgh University. From the beginning, the Georgian town house at 24 George Square was thought to be ideal for a new chaplaincy centre because it boasted what was reputedly "the largest drawing room in Edinburgh", and this first-floor room, with an apse-like bay window, served as the chapel of the priory and chaplaincy until 2012.

Despite such a large drawing room, from an early stage it was, understandably, the hope that a purpose-built chapel might be built at some point. However, these plans were a long time in the realisation. For many years the best was made of a less-than-ideal situation. Indeed, prior to the Second Vatican Council, the furnishings of the chapel would not have looked out of place in a minor basilica. However, in the last decade the current set-up was starting to become untenable. The chapel had just become too small for the number of Mass-goers, and furthermore there was no disabled access.

The Chapel in the drawing room

It was thus with great joy that after a significant fundraising campaign, on 15 August 2012, precisely 781 years after the first Dominican priory opened in Edinburgh, the new chapel of St Albert the Great was dedicated by the Archbishop. Whilst it was a long wait it has been worth it, and the Priory’s garden is now home to one of the finest modern chapels in the country; a fact recognised by numerous architectural awards, but more importantly the number of people who wander in from the meadows to sit in the chapel and pray during the day, as well as the appreciation of the regular congregations.

The new Chapel in the garden with Nativity Scene
From 1981 to 1999 Edinburgh was also home to the Novitiate of the English Province and most of the current office holders in the Province completed their novitiates there, before it moved to Cambridge. A full list of all the friars who have formed the community in Edinburgh is available here:

The Priory hosts four busy Masses on a Sunday in its role as the Parish of the University as well as two daily Masses during term term-time (one outside) and public celebration of Lauds and Vespers each day.

Preaching at the Student Mass

Running the university chaplaincies is the major apostolate of the house and it is currently thriving. As well as acting as a home from home for students, the Chaplaincy, most crucially, is a centre dedicated to forming people in the Faith for the world, today and tomorrow. The Student Mass on a Sunday evening is preceded by half an hour of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and the new Chapel (built as large as planning permission would allow) is standing room only with around 140 students in attendance. The liturgy is beautifully celebrated and this is a greatly assisted by the excellent student-run choir. After this Mass there is well-attended social event in the Student’s Common Room located on the ground floor of the Priory. The Common Room has a well-stocked library for the students as well as a kitchen, and is much appreciated place for socialising throughout the week. 

Students prepare the midweek meal

One of the most impressive features of the Chaplaincy is the level of involvement beyond the Sunday obligation. On average there are around twenty students at Morning Prayer each day who then have their breakfast in the Common Room before heading off to lectures, the library, or back to bed. Lunchtime Mass is also well attended and a meat-free jacket potato lunch is held each Friday. As well as Mass and the Divine Office, there is also a student-cooked meal each Wednesday night and Bible study, or other catechesis, is a feature of many other nights of the week as well various other socials.

Some students and friars on Arthur's Seat

The students and the friars also have good links with the local convent of St Catherine. This convent run by the Mercy Sisters plays a key part in the provision of food for the homeless in Edinburgh, along with other services:

Other student activities include Cups of Compassion, another initiative with the homeless, as well as a recently founded Scout Group which is part of the Scouts of Europe – a Catholic movement. There is also a vibrant pro-life society open to members of all religions and none, but in which the Catholic students play an integral part:

Not only do the friars minister to the spiritual needs of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University, but they have also have also provided a Rector to the University of Edinburgh and Fellows of the Faculty of Divinity. In addition the friars are also on-call chaplains for the local hospital.

Choir practice

The Priory also plays host to the recently founded Albertus Institute, which aims to contribute to the contemporary discussion between religion, the sciences and other intellectual disciplines. The Institute encourages public debate in this area by sharing the Christian, and in particular the Catholic, view in an open and welcoming way and by listening to other points of view in the same spirit. The Institute provides a platform for this debate through public lectures, seminars and conferences. As the work of the Institute develops, its website will provide access to various resources such as lecture materials, podcasts, discussion points and more. The next conference which it is hosting is on Faith and Cosmology:

Like most of the other houses of the Province, the Priory also hosts the local Lay Dominican chapter:

Last, but not least the Priory is home to two cats, one of whom can lay claim to being Edinburgh’s most famous cat. Unlike the friars, and despite permanently wearing his black and white habit, he is not particularly evangelical and keeps his Dominican name and identity secret. However, appropriately enough for a Dominican cat, he is often to be found in the University Library philosophising, where he goes by the name of Library Cat. Perhaps to the chagrin of those who provide a home and food to him, his facebook page has more followers than any other member of the Priory:

All that philosophy can be thirsty work

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dominican Priories: Oxford

“At the University of Oxford where I am presently staying, Our Lord has given [us] the promise of a great catch…” These words of the year 1230, written by Jordan of Saxony—St. Dominic’s first successor as Master of the Order—could just have well been written by his 84th Successor, fr Timothy Radcliffe, a member of today’s Dominican community in Oxford. By the time of Jordan’s visit, the brethren had been settled in Oxford for nine years and were already looking to build a larger house to replace the one they’d established on 15th August 1221. ‘Friar Fever’ had swept the city, with many new recruits signing up. John of St Giles was so overcome by fervour that in the middle of a sermon he was preaching on poverty, he was clothed in the habit. His biographer notes that he eschewed much more lucrative work to lecture in the Blackfriars Studium (plus ça change).

It was St. Dominic himself who sent the brothers to England, and who gave explicit instructions that they should settle in Oxford first. On 6th August, the day of Dominic’s death, the brothers had presented themselves to the Primate at Canterbury; by August 10th they were passing through the seat of royal power at London. It was with some haste, however, that they made their way to their final destination of Oxford, already the country’s intellectual capital. It was here that the then highly innovative Dominican way of life was established at the heart of the nascent University, preaching the Gospel of Our Lord to the opinion formers of their time. In time, three of the friars would become Chancellors of the University, including John Bromyard OP, who holds the unique distinction of having been both Chancellor of Oxford and a more modern University situated the other side of Milton Keynes (excuse the anachronism). The brethren’s work was, of course, not limited to a narrow intellectual and liturgical apostolate: by 1250, Dominicans had established a reputation as defenders of the marginalised (particularly the Jews); by 1246 Oxford was designated by the Order as an international study house, a studium generale that attracted brethren from across Europe. We were welcoming international students to Oxford long before anyone else.

Writing in 1662, Anthony Wood tells us that “there was not so much as one stone to give testimony to the world that so famous a place as the college of the Dominicans of Oxon was there once standing”. There remains nothing of our first priory, and no monument or plaque records where it stood; the remnants of the second are not worth writing home about, although the names of some roads hint towards its presence. But the pains and divisions of this sad interruption to our Dominican life in Oxford need not be dwelt upon here, save to pray that we learn the lessons of the past. The inscription above the gate to the third and current Blackfriars reads, “[h]aving returned after a long exile, the Friars Preachers, established this second new convent on 15th August 1921, the same date that the former was founded in the year of Our Lord 1221”. This return was made possible by the vision of then provincial Fr Bede Jarrett OP and the generosity of an American widow, Mrs Charlotte Jefferson Tytus. The innocuous gate on St Giles conceals a unique three-fold institution—Dominican Priory, Oxford University Hall, Studium Generale—and a community of prayer and study, dedicated to preaching at the heart of the University and in service of the townsfolk. As well as study, brothers are engaged in apostolates across the University and town; the twenty-seven current members of the Blackfriars of today are conscious of the past, grateful for the way of life that has been bequeathed to us by our elder brothers, and yet convinced that the faithful proclamation of the Gospel is as essential in the University of the future as it is throughout the world of today. “Not so much as one stone”?!

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