Saturday, September 24, 2016

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham

The Holy House in the Church at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

It was in 1978 that Bishop John Hazlewood introduced me to the expression “Our Lady of Walsingham”, his favourite way of referring to the Mother of Jesus. He told me that many years before, as a young man, he had witnessed his first miracle in answer to prayer at Walsingham.

When he became Bishop of Ballarat (Australia) in 1975, he immediately placed the whole Diocese under the spiritual patronage and heavenly protection of Our Lady of Walsingham. Many times throughout his eighteen year episcopate he gathered clusters of clergy and laypeople at her feet in his private chapel of St Mary and the Angels. 

Early in 1979, the year of my ordination as a deacon, Bishop Philip Strong prayed for me at the Walsingham shrine in Wangaratta Cathedral, where he lived in retirement. Later in that same year, the first book I came to possess about Walsingham was given to me at the headquarters of the Anglican Province of Melanesia when I was passing through Honiara following mission work in the New Hebrides (now Vanautu). It did seem to me at the time that God was trying to tell me something! 

To cap things off, the Dean of Newcastle, Father Robert Beal (who had been Dean of Wangaratta and would return as Bishop a few years later) preached at my ordination to the priesthood in 1980. During the retreat he said that while he couldn’t really explain it, his experience over the years showed him that if a parish has a shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and it becomes a real centre of devotion and prayer, “things work out”, and “if she’s not there, they don’t!” An overstatement? Maybe. But that was vintage Robert Beal! 

In any case, down through the years I have proved the truth of those words. I have also been privileged to visit Walsingham a number of times, and by God’s grace – and the generosity and good sense of the people – I have been able to set up a shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in each of my parishes. In each place these shrines became focal points of love, devotion and healing blessing, places where earth and heaven intersect, where through his Mother’s prayers, the Lord Jesus has come into the lives of many who have sought him, especially in times of desperation and distress.

It all began in 1061, in the little English village of Walsingham, near the North Norfolk coast, which boasts the proud title “England’s Nazareth.” Lady Richeldis of the Manor had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin Mary asked her to build a replica of the holy house at Nazareth. This was to be a simple wooden structure to which the people of England could come and reflect on the Incarnation, for the strengthening of their faith. Our Lady went on to say that Walsingham would become a place of special blessing where people from all over would seek God and find him.

Each of Our Lady’s shrines draws attention to some aspect of the Gospel. Walsingham honours the hidden years of our Lord’s family life at Nazareth. Walsingham stresses the truth that through the mystery of the Incarnation God lived an ordinary human life, giving us the confidence that we can seek him, find him and know him in the ordinariness of OUR lives, and not just in those “spiritual mountaintop experiences” which the Holy Spirit gives us from time to time. Walsingham helps us to be Gospel people who expect God’s love, grace, life, power and healing to surge through us right there in what we sometimes think is the meaningless hum-drum of our unspectacular existence. 

My first visit to Walsingham was in 1989. It was my first time in England, and I had become part of an ordinary parish weekend pilgrimage. It was a blend of devotion and hilarity, penitence and joy, colourful processions, endless singing, and little children doing their own thing. The crowd was multiracial.

The thing that surprised me most of all was that on this particular pilgrimage about one third of our party were not churchgoers, but had come with their friends for a weekend away, and to see if Walsingham was for real. Some had even deliberately set out on a spiritual quest hoping that their deep and ancient longing for God might be satisfied. There was a good deal of full-on witnessing for Christ on the bus and around the Shrine. It was the kind of “personal evangelism” (as other traditions would call it) that is sadly lacking in many Anglo-Catholic circles! 

So many “ordinary” people (that is, not just the clergy or the parish leaders) were sharing their love for God, and giving testimonies of his goodness – not only in church, but over meals (and pints at the “Lion” - the pub just across the road from the Shrine). Some of the non-churchgoers in our party were drawn by their friends and Our Lady’s prayers to open their hearts to the Lord for the very first time.

In the centuries that followed Lady Richeldis’ vision, Walsingham – as we know – did indeed become a famous pilgrimage centre. Even today the village shows signs of this in the ruins of the huge Augustinian priory and the Franciscan friary.

The blessings received by those who journeyed to this place seeking Our Lady’s prayers in medieval times gave rise to the title “Our Lady of Walsingham” for the Mother of Jesus. History tells us that nobles and beggars, saints and sinners went to Walsingham. Almost every king of England visited the shrine at least once during his reign. So famous was Walsingham in medieval times that it was even said that the Milky Way pointed to it! The Holy Spirit was poured out on the the pilgrims who gathered at Our Lady’s Walsingham Shrine, resulting in many miracles and healings.

Unfortunately for Walsingham, however, in the words of the Pilgrim Hymn:

. . . at last came a king who had greed in his eyes
And he lusted for treasure with fraud and with lies. 

The order went forth; and with horror ’twas learned
That the shrine was destroyed and the image was burned. 

And here where God’s Mother had once been enthroned
The souls that stayed faithful ‘neath tyranny groaned. 

And this realm which had once been Our Lady’s own Dower
Had its church now enslaved by the secular power. 

And so dark night fell on this glorious place
Where of all former glories there hardly was trace. 

From the time of this desecration under King Henry VIII until the early years of the 20th century, Walsingham remained a backwater.

In 1921 a new Parish Priest came to Walsingham, Alfred Hope Patten. With the help of his people, he set about to restore the Shrine of Our Lady. A statue was carved, a replica of the one that had been burned in the time of Henry VIII. In 1922 this was placed in the Parish Church, and organised devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title “Our Lady of Walsingham” was restored. In the early years just a trickle of people came to join the villagers in their prayers and praises; but soon the trickle became a river and then a flood. This was accompanied by a wonderful renewal of the healing ministry.

In the 1930s new shrine buildings were erected, housing sixteen altars in various chapels, as well as a replica of the Holy House based on the pattern and dimensions of the one set up by Richeldis in 1061.

While the ground was being prepared for the foundations, the ancient well was discovered. It had been packed with several feet of clay and a good deal of rubbish. When this was removed, clear water gushed up, and a supply has continued to be given ever since. During a pilgrimage people drink of the water and are sprinkled with it by a priest. Many fill bottles with it and take it away for their own use or to give to sick friends. The waters of this well have long been acknowledged as a powerful sacramental channel of grace and healing for the sick and the handicapped.

The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham, like many icons and paintings portrays Mary enthroned and crowned, drawing attention to the Child Jesus on her knee. 

Her right hand holds a lily sceptre, emblem of her purity. Her feet rest upon a “toadstone”, symbolising the uncleanness of evil. 

The throne is adorned with two pillars, encircled by bands, three on one side and four on the other, representing the Seven Sacraments, and the top of the back-piece is rounded like a rainbow. 

The Child Jesus, with a cruciform halo, clasps in his left hand the Book of the Gospels, signifying that the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us. His right hand is stretched out in protection and blessing.

Walsingham is the largest and most popular Anglican Shrine of Our Lady. Many who have experienced great blessing at Walsingham have placed replicas of the statue in Anglican cathedrals and churches right around the world in every kind of place and culture, and wherever this has happened, the flow of love, healing and blessing associated with Walsingham continues and expands. There is also a Roman Catholic Shrine at Walsingham, and pilgrims from all Christian traditions mingle together as they allow Mary – the Mother of ALL her Son’s people – to gather us as brothers and sisters in that place. In fact, the prayers of Our Lady of Walsingham are often sought for the success of the ecumenical journey – that we might become one so that the world will believe.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady of Walsingham, pray for us.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham 
at All Saints', Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, Australia.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The nature of priestly ministry (John Macquarrie)

Dr John Macquarrie (1919-2007) was a Scottish theologian and philosopher. Originally ordained to the Presbyterian ministry, he became an Anglican in 1962. In 1965 he was ordained to the priesthood. He is best known as a key existential theologian. Among his many works are Principles of Christian Theology (1966), Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1991) and Mary for All Christians (1991) Macquarrie was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford from 1970 until his retirement in 1986. He was a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford. The following is an extract from To be a Priest, pp. 147-153, edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975. Macquarrie's words are still relevant today, especially that so many people now seem to regard the priesthood primarily in terms of roles and functions.

We live in the age of functional man. That is to say, a man or woman is considered in terms of what he or she does. A man, for example, is a train driver or a bank clerk. Of course, no one is a driver or a clerk all the time. But then we speak of roles, and this too is a functional term. When the bank clerk comes home at night, he lays aside his working role and takes up the roles of husband and father. What we seem afraid to do is ever to come to the person himself, the person who in some sense remains identical through the many roles and functions, the person who not only does things but is someone. Perhaps indeed we have come to doubt whether there is a personal reality, for in the depersonalized world of today we act much of the time as if people were nothing but the sums or aggregates of changing functions and roles. Gabriel Marcel has said that one of the diseases of our time is the loss of the ontological sense. Man has become so absorbed in what he does that he no longer has any sense of who he is.

There is, of course, some truth in the idea of functional man. It is through our deeds and decisions that we become persons, and what we do makes us who we are. But the human reality is not exhausted by the functions which any individual performs.

Surely the Christian minister in particular is more than his functions. We can list his various roles and functions-he is servant, proclaimer, priest; he preaches, baptizes, presides at the Eucharist; he does many things besides. But it makes sense to ask: Who is it that appears in these roles and performs these functions? Daniel Day Williams made the point when he wrote: "Vocation is more than a role; it is a life dedicated and a responsibility assumed. No one should be playing a role at the point where ultimate things are at stake."(1)

If ministry were merely a role or a collection of functions, then there might seem to be no need for a distinctive ordained ministry in the Church, and this idea has an appeal in our egalitarian age. The Church would consist, so to speak, of modular Christians, any one of whom might be fitted into the appropriate functional slot. Certainly, everyone recognizes that some functions need training and preparation and that not everyone could get up and preach. But is presidency at the Eucharist, for instance, merely performing the function of reciting certain words and doing certain acts, so that any Christian who is literate and has had a little practice could do this as well as anyone else? Or is there more to it? Is there a deeper connection between ministry and presiding at the Eucharist than can be expressed by terms like "role" and "function"? Or again, can this particular function be separated and considered in isolation from that whole constellation of functions which constitute the work of an ordained minister?

I think there is much more to ministry and priesthood than the fulfilling of roles and functions. R.C.Moberly expressed the matter thuss:

"There are not only priestly functions or priestly prerogatives; there is also a priestly spirit and a priestly heart-more vital to the true reality of priesthood than any mere performance of priestly functions. Now this priestly spirit is not the exclusive possession of the ordained ministry; it is the spirit of the priestly Church. But those who are ordained 'priests' are bound to be eminently leaders and representatives of this priestliness of spirit, and they have assigned to them an external sphere and professional duties which constitute a special opportunity, and a charisma of grace which constitutes a special call and a special capacity for its exercise. Such opportunity and call are inseparable from the oversight of the Christian community to Godward, and they are as wide as is the life of the Christian body. Leadership in eucharistic worship, truly understood, is its highest typical expression . . . but eucharistic leadership, truly understood, involves many corollaries of spirit and life." (2)

It is not meant that the ordained minister is somehow better or more inward or more spiritual than his lay brothers and sisters. But within the order and economy of the Church he is distinct, for he has received a special call, accepted a special responsibility, and been given in ordination a special grace to strengthen him. When we remember that ministry is a grace or gift bestowed by Christ, we shall not be in danger of thinking that the ordained ministry is a superior caste in the Church. The ordained ministry owes everything to Christ-it is indeed Christ's ministry embodied in a certain way. This is recognized by the Church's teaching that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the personal worthiness of the priest. Christ himself is the true minister or every sacrament, and the unworthiness of the human agent cannot void Christ's bestowal of grace. Of course, this was never intended to suggest that the minister's worthiness or unworthiness is a matter of indifference! Effectual priesthood demands not just the doing of the priestly act but being a priest in union with the great high priest, Jesus Christ. The traditional word used by theologians to designate the peculiar being or status of the ordained priest, that which underlies and unites his various roles and functions and finds expression in them, is the word "character." This is not a popular word at the present time. To those whose minds are pragmatic, empirical, analytic, the idea of character may seem just a mystification. They feel safer in dealing with functional man.

Now I do not deny that the traditional doctrine of a priestly character was often described in categories which nowadays we judge to have been too metaphysical and impersonal for describing the kind of phenomenon which is here in question. To some extent, this may excuse the impatience with the idea of character found in some modern writers on ministry. Anthony Harvey, for instance, brusquely dismisses the idea of character as something that "can find no place" in his account of ministry.(3)

But it cannot be so quickly dismissed, nor is a merely functional approach adequate in the least. The contemporary theologian has got to find more up-to-date and personal categories in which to express the abiding truth in the idea of priestly character.

In its literal sense, the Greek word charakter signified the distinctive mark made by a seal or die or similar instrument. The word is used only once in the New Testament, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where Jesus Christ is said to be "the express image of God's person" or, alternatively translated, "the very stamp of his nature" (Hebrews 1:3). In modern usage, the word "character" has developed a great many meanings, but for our purpose we shall take our clues mainly from ethical usage, for there is a close parallel between the ethical idea of character and the theological idea.

The parallel emerges right away, because just as we have seen that there are two views of the ministry standing in some tension, the functional view concerned primarily with what the minister does and the ontological view concerned with who he is, so there have long been two types of ethical theory, the one understanding morality chiefly in terms of rules, commandments, acts, overt behavior, the other understanding the moral life more in terms of virtue and the formation of moral persons or even communities. It is no accident that the morality of command and act has, in the specific area of Christian ethics, flourished chiefly among Protestants, while Catholic moral theologians have been preoccupied with the ethics of virtue. Likewise, many Protestant theologians tend to view ministry in a functional way, while such ideas as priestly character and formation have dominated Catholic thinking.

But although the two approaches have often been in tension, my own view is that in both ethics and theology they are finally complementary The merely functional approach is superficial and fails to do justice the personal reality, but it is not canceled out by the ontological understanding of the matter; rather, it is given depth and cohesion.

How then does a modern ethicist think of character? Clearly, character is not a thing or a special faculty. It is more like a pattern, traceable in a person's behavior and showing elements of directionality and consistency. Stanley Hauerwas, author of one of the best recent studies of the subject, writes: "The clearest example of character is one in which a life is dominated by one all-consuming purpose or direction."(4) This would be an extreme case, and there can be strong characters where there are many purposes and interests, provided these are brought into unity by an "ultimate concern" (to borrow Tillich's useful expression) giving, as it were, a recognizable set to the agent's policies.

But although character is a pattern discernible in action and built up in action, it is not just an adjective or product of action. On the contrary, character produces some actions rather than others, for it is constituted by the value judgments and priorities of the agent, and is hardly to be distinguished from the agent himself.

It is clear that character cannot be acquired in a moment. It needs formation, and that may take a long time. Once character has been formed, it introduces a pattern of stability and reliability into life, but this does not mean an end to growth. Character deepens and develops in the face of new problems.

Where does character come from? Obviously it has several sources. There is the given genetic inheritance of every individual, his innate propensities, capacities, weaknesses. This is the raw material of character. Within limits, it determines what it is possible for one to become. But this raw material is plastic and has many possibilities inherent in it. Next, there is everything that happens to a person from outside. There are the accidents of his own history, and these may have good or bad influence. There is the impact of his culture, and none of us can help absorbing many of the beliefs and value judgments of contemporary society. There is the important factor of education, the systematic training of mind and spirit. These three influences that come from outside we may call the passive elements in character formation. But there is also an active factor. To some extent, each one of us chooses to be the kind of person that he or she is. We strive to realize an ideal self of our own choosing. Finally, to the factors already mentioned, the Christian would add divine grace. He believes that the attainment of character is not just an accident of birth or environment or the fruit of unaided human struggle, but that prayer, the sacraments, and life in the Christian community are of supreme importance.

The foregoing discussion relates to character in general from the standpoint of ethical theory. What light does it throw on the theological concept of priestly character? We shall answer this question by considering the steps by which one enters the ordained ministry. These can be understood as steps in the formation of special types of character.

First there is vocation, the calling of God. Priesthood is a gift, it is not something we choose for ourselves. When a priest is asked: "What made you decide to enter the ministry?" he may very likely reply that he hardly knows. He may only be able to say that at some time he felt a calling. The call to the ministry is a special case or an extension of the mystery of election, which all Christians have known to some extent. It is that inner constraint, that claim of God, that fascination with Christ which lays hold upon one and draws one on, perhaps at first unwillingly. The call to the ministry is an extension of election, the summons to a new relationship. Already the experience of this calling has its ontological consequence and has begun to shape the character of the one who is called; for no one who has known such a call can ever be quite the same again.

Next, God's call elicits the human response. Character is formed not only by what comes from outside but by our own active pursuit of an ideal, and this is true of priestly character. It requires the dedication and self-giving of the one who is called. We have seen that character is formed when one is devoted to an "ultimate concern." The coming of God's kingdom in the world, and the service of that kingdom, become the focal interest of the Christian minister and give the distinctive set to his character. There is also the negative side. To choose one thing means to renounce other things. The ordination vows speak not only of what is to be chosen and done, but also of "laying aside the study of the world and the flesh." Sacrifice is a necessary element in the priestly character. In consenting to become this kind of person and to let his character be formed around the focus of serving God's kingdom, the priest must make renunciations.

I think there are different permissible interpretations of what this focusing and its accompanying renunciations will mean in priesthood. The Church will always need some whose intense dedication will lead them to celibacy and the severing of all ties that might seem to them to be obstacles to their vocation. Others believe that the priestly character can be formed in lives that are more diversified and cover a broader segment of human interests, including marriage and the family. Still others -and perhaps an increasing number-will combine priesthood with a secular occupation. I believe that all these styles are possible, provided always that there is that fundamental orientation toward the calling of God, the orientation that is a major factor in the formation of the priestly character.

Priesthood is a lifelong vocation and a lifelong commitment, and indeed it takes a lifetime for the full flowering of priestly character. The formation of this character becomes an irreversible process, and this is what is meant by the traditional language about the "indelibility" of the character. But we live nowadays in a time when many are unwilling to make lifelong commitments, whether in vocation or marriage or other ways. Should there then be temporary ordinations? This question must be answered in the negative. A temporary priesthood would be conceivable only on a purely functional view; it is impossible on the deeper conception which I am trying to expound. But what is possible is a temporary commitment to particular forms or styles of ministry. I said the Church will always need some ministers who will dedicate themselves with an exclusive intensity that eschews all worldly ties. Surely there are in the Church today young priests who might be willing to promise that for five years they would not marry, they would live on a minimal wage, they would serve wherever the Church needed them. Such a corps of utterly dedicated young priests could become the shock troops of the Church and might accomplish much in evangelism and renewal.

Vocation and response do not happen just between an individual and God, but in the context of the Church, which tests the calling of the individual, judges his fitness, and provides the training he needs. It is this period of formation that is of vital importance in the making of a priest, and though priestly character is ontological, it is in no sense magical. This is no place to raise the vast questions relating to the training of ministers, but whatever else is done, it is essential that there should be formed a character marked by devotion to God and his kingdom, openness and responsiveness to others, and inward strength of spirit.

I have still to mention something else. Vocation, response, formation in the Church culminate in ordination, with its gift of sacramental grace. God commits himself to his ministers, and this is more important than their commitment to what is, from the human point of view, an impossible vocation. Priests sin like other human beings, but God keeps recalling them, electing them again to be his representatives in the assembly of his people. And this process goes on in the years after ordination. Character does not fall ready-made from heaven at ordination or any other time, but it deepens through this life and beyond.

I have stressed priestly character as a distinctive gift for those who are called to a distinctive ministry, but finally I want to come back to the point that all this happens in the context of the Church. The distinctive ministries are closely related with the general ministry of the whole Church. Thus we have seen that calling to the priesthood has affinity with the mystery of election that touches every Christian, and we could also say that priestly character is a special development of the character which originates in baptism. The general ministry of the Church and the distinctive ordained ministry are closely related because they are both modes of sharing in the ministry of Christ himself, but they are different modes of sharing. There is distinction without separation within the indivisible body of the Church, which will be all the stronger and better equipped for its mission if we are careful neither to break up what is common to all ministry nor to blur what is distinctive. For this ministry is Christ's gift to his Church for the sanctifying of his people and, indeed, of the whole creation, that he may present it blameless to the Father.


1. D. D. Williams, The Minister and the Care of Souls (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 103.

2. R. C. Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood (London: John Murray, 1910), p. 261.

3. A.E. Harvey, Priest or President? (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1975, pp 49-50.

4. S. Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 1975), p. 119.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Management science and prayer

I am no modern day gnostic, nor do I think I am over-pietistic in my attitude towards daily life in Christ or ministry in the Church. Indeed, former colleagues and curates will tell you that I am an enthusiast for up to date technology, and even - on occasion - for utilising the more helpful ideas of "management science" in reflecting on structures and ministry methods.

BUT the toughest battles I have fought in the Church have not been the ones for which I am best known. They were the ones I fought behind the scenes – usually on behalf of others – with the kind of leaders who seem to have pretty well reduced “ministry” to “management”, and who, while claiming to use "management science" to enhance creative ministry, actually use it (and this is the truth!) to crush the spirits of those who perceive things in a truly orthodox Christian way. 

I know that to some this might sound unfair, because careful management of resources and people is important. But the paradox of modern church structures is that theoretically the aim is to increase “participation” in decision-making and establishing new directions, while in practice "management science" is used ruthlessly to bolster authority, eliminate alternative voices, and manipulate so-called “discernment” processes in a completely self-serving way. 

For the sake of the Gospel and authentic ministry, it is urgent that the Church question this unhelpful development. 

With this in mind, I share with you today a brilliant passage from the book “Watchers in the Morning, written 22 years ago by the Rt Rev’d Graeme Rutherford, who is now a retired Assistant Bishop of Newcastle (Australia), and Benedictine oblate. How refreshing it is to read such a pithy and balanced view of one of our key problems! 


In our post-modern world such a disciplined approach to prayer has been abandoned by many people.

Although there has been a resurgence of interest in meditation it is seen more as a means of relaxation than as a way of giving honour and praise to God. It is often a self-centred rather than a God-centred exercise. For others, prayer and meditation are seen as providing a sense of oneness or union in a world where estrangement is rife: estrangement from God, from others, from self. That is why managers and psychologists are so admired: they are controllers. Managers control the external world, and psychologists control the internal world. Both can be used to imply that the chaos of modernity might yet be controlled.

Church growth experts are increasingly inclined to tell us that the most fruitful sources from which to draw for Christian ministry are popularised versions of psychology and business management. Clergy are being told that 'vision' consists in clearly articulated 'ministry goals'. Their professional status is no longer a matter of character or theological skill in relating the Bible to the contemporary world but of interpersonal skills, administrative talents, and ability to organise the community.

Ever so subtly, clergy and key lay people can start to think that success more critically depends on plans, programmes and vision statements. What has been termed 'bottom up' causation of human designs takes the place of the 'top down' causation of God and the supernatural. Church growth becomes simply a form of streamlined humanistic engineering.

The issue is not either God or the tools of modernity such as management and marketing. It is, rather, which in practice is the decisive authority. Only when first things are truly first, over even the best and most attractive of second things will the Church be free to experience the growth that matters.

If clergy are appraised according to the active, visible functions they perform there will be a mounting pressure to neglect the anonymous, quiet, hidden and confidential dimensions that are such a very important part of ministry. But the confidential aspects of ministry do not easily lend themselves to the typical performance appraisal. The danger is that clergy will be tempted to become managers and professionals rather than pastors, thinkers, theologians or people of prayer. Os Guinness quotes the tell-tale comment of a Japanese businessman to a visiting Australian: “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager."

The sheer existence of contemplative religious communities stands as a challenge to the Church to ensure that the deep, quiet, hidden side of the ministry is not relegated to the periphery. 

Properly understood, management skills and psychological insights represent purposeful direction and depth of caring in pastoral work.

Both should be regarded as God-given fields of knowledge. Both enable us to help people who live in a society permeated with change and complexity unknown in the days of Jesus and Paul. Both can and should be used in the Church with thanksgiving. They are indispensable allies in the understanding of life. But they are no substitute for prayer. Prayer, whether liturgical or spontaneous, must be central to the life of the Church and the individual believer.

Monday, September 12, 2016

“A wise reply to atheism’s strongest argument” - Cardinal George Pell

Firefighters clear rubble in front of the bell tower in Amatrice (AP) 

Last week The Catholic Herald published Cardinal George Pell’s review of Fr Brendan Purcell’s latest book, Where is God in Suffering?  Cardinal Pell’s review is itself such a helpful and sensitive reflection on the main difficulty we have in witnessing to the Gospel in our time that I share it with you.  A link to The Catholic Herald is given at the end of the essay. 

I was well into reading my friend Fr Brendan Purcell’s beautiful book on suffering when the earthquake struck in central Italy. Although more than 60 miles away, most people in Rome were woken at 3:40 in the morning on August 24 as the buildings shook. I turned on the light to make sure I wasn’t imagining things and the lamp in the centre of my room was swaying from side to side. I was tempted to go and stand in the doorway but the movement ceased after a couple of minutes.

At the epicentre of Amatrice they were not so lucky, as the entire ancient village of houses, built before the anti-earthquake regulations were drawn up, was thrown down and collapsed into rubble. Later I realised that this was the place where spaghetti Amatriciana was first created – and two euros from every plate sold in Italy is now going to the earthquake appeal. Other villages were also destroyed completely and about 300 people died.

Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict in 480 AD and his sister St Scholastica (and, much earlier, the Emperor Vespasian, who helped destroy Jerusalem in 70 AD) escaped more lightly. Although it, too, was above one of the epicentres, Norcia benefited both from the building regulations introduced by Pope Pius IX in 1869 in one of his last decisions before the end of the Papal States, and from following the subsequent construction requirements. The earthquake caused no deaths there.

The saints’ birthplace is marked by a Benedictine monastery on the town square and, while the chapel was extensively damaged, the buildings remained standing. The young community of about 15 monks, mainly from the United States and led by Fr Cassian Folsom, was evacuated to Rome as a precaution.
Why does God allow such events to occur, as well as many other types of disaster? This question is asked differently by those studying the problem of evil philosophically or theologically, by those on the edge of a disaster and by those who find themselves, with or without their loved ones, at the centre of the suffering.

Why does God allow so many bad things? Perhaps the good God is not all-powerful or perhaps the all-powerful Creator, the Supreme Intelligence, does not love us and is either disinterested or even capricious? The ancient Greeks and Romans saw their gods in this light. Is God vengeful?

Evil and suffering constitute the most formidable argument against monotheism, for those who believe in the existence of one good and transcendent Creator God.

I believe that the intellectual arguments now available to be drawn from biology (the discovery of DNA) and from physics and chemistry and the fantastic improbabilities necessary for evolution from the Big Bang to humans, mean that the rational or metaphysical path to the Supreme Intelligence is easier for us than in the past. Thinkers are coming to God from or through science.

To ask whether this Supreme Intelligence is good and loving is a further question. Christians also believe that the Creator requires us to live according to moral rules and that this unique Creator will judge each of us after death. These are two further impediments to belief for many moderns.

Fr Purcell deals with all these questions, and many more, with wisdom and compassion. This work could not have been written by a young person because the author’s formidable learning is leavened by the insights of a long life lived according to Christian teachings. While it is not an easy read, Where is God in Suffering? is always enlightening, never turgid and occasionally deeply personal and encouraging, as the author reveals how he sought out and found Christ, the One who loves us most, in the difficulties he himself encountered.

Not all suffering is caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and bush fires. We also have the mystery of death, of human suffering, especially that of children and of the innocent, and the terrible evils humans inflict on one another. Recently we have become more aware of the suffering of animals.

Stephen Fry and the Australian Peter Singer are two of the atheists Purcell strives to answer. For Fry, bone cancer in children convinced him that God does not exist and, for Singer, God is either evil or a bungler.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian believer, especially in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, has provided us with the figures of the Inquisitor, who condemns Christ for his belief in freedom, and Ivan, who rejects a God who allows children to be tortured and killed. Through these characters Dostoevsky was grappling with the consequences of the 19th century attempt to “murder” God, which meant everything was permitted. Hitler, Stalin and Mao exemplified this in their 20th century atrocities.

The case for unbelief has rarely been set out as powerfully as it is in this Russian masterpiece, and Purcell is at his best as he explains how the atheist position not only rejects the promise of an afterlife, where all will be well and love will prevail, but also believes that nothing exists outside the space-time universe. Indeed, atheism is based on a rejection of the world as it is, an exaltation of feeling above reason and a hatred of the human freedom which God gave us and does not control. Purcell quotes GK Chesterton, who pointed out the importance of humility and the obligation to be grateful for all that is good.

Purcell does not try to whitewash the situation, because suffering and evil are the great mystery. But goodness, truth and beauty also require an explanation.

Believers and the overwhelming majority of people know that they outweigh the sadness, even in this life.

We get a brilliant exposition of the Old Testament figure Job, as he wrestles and argues with God about his own innocent suffering; hear the stories of Etty Hillesum, who refused to escape and perished in the Holocaust; of the blessed Chiara Badano, who died of bone cancer aged 18; and of Eddie McCaffrey, who lived until he was 30 with muscular dystrophy and told us: “You don’t solve problems, you love them.”

As a follower of the Focolare spirituality of Chiara Lubich, Purcell believes, as all Christians do, that Christ suffers with us and for us, but that the crucial moment – what Lubich called the “divine atomic explosion” – was when Christ dying on the Cross felt, at least momentarily, that God his Father had abandoned him. Jesus forsaken, who plumbed the depths of human suffering, is our Redeemer – he saved us in his helplessness. The Crucifixion means what it says.

The final chapter is also unusual, because it avoids the customary silence and half-truths to outline the Christian imperatives as we strive to move beyond the evil and destruction of Islamic terrorism. This is a gem of a book and the different chapters answer different needs.

For much of my priestly life, religious formation or education said little about God, about his nature and why we believe in Him. The resurgence of atheism should jolt us out of our silence and indifference as many youngsters, and the not-so-young, will be tempted to follow Fry and Singer into unbelief.

All those interested in how and why we believe, all priests and all those in religious formation will find Where is God in Suffering? thought-provoking, reassuring and well worth the effort it requires.

This article first appeared in the September 9 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go HERE.

Fr Brendan Purcell’s book is available HERE

Fr Purcell is Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University, Sydney. Having studied philosophy at University College Dublin, theology at the Pontifical Lateran University Rome, and psychology at the University of Leuven, he lectured in logic, psychology and philosophical anthropology at University College Dublin, retiring as Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy in 2008. He was ordained a priest of Dublin diocese in 1967 and is at present assistant priest at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. He wrote The Drama of Humanity: Towards a Philosophy of Humanity in History (1996), and with Detlev Clemens edited and translated Hitler and the Germans, volume 31 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (1999). 

He is also the author of From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Veritas, 2011). The Human Voyage of Self-Discovery: Essays in Honour of Brendan Purcell was published by Veritas in 2014. It is edited by Bishop Brendan Leahy and Professor David Walsh.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Birthday of Our Lady

Most of what we know about Our Lady's birthday is from the Protoevangelium of James which has been dated by historians to the early second century. The earliest reference to the feast day itself comes from the sixth century. Most scholars believe that the feast originated in Jerusalem because of the existence of a church dedicated to St Anne dating from in the fifth century and considered to be the location of Mary's birth. Historians generally accept that September 8 was chosen for this feast day on account of the beginning of the civil year in Constantinople on September 1, emphasising that the birthday of Mary is the "beginning" of the work of salvation.

This feast day was introduced in Rome from the Eastern Church in the seventh century. It became a holy day of obligation throughout the west by the year 1007.

I share with you today two very different readings. The first, by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), is from his well known sermon for this feast. The second, a poem by Thomas Merton (1915-1968) explores the symbolic significance of our Lord's genealogy. 



THERE is no festival of S. Mary which has not also to do with our LORD. How should it be otherwise? She who was so closely and so wonderfully connected with Him as Man, so that He was bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh, she cannot be divided in our thoughts from Him now. He is still Man, as truly as He ever was; He still has the flesh which He took of her; the same in which He suffered, the same in which He died, the same in which He rose again from the dead.

This text has, then, to do both with our LORD and with His Blessed Mother; and we may also apply it to ourselves, and say that it has to do with us.

“The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His Temple.” First of all, this prophecy was fulfilled when the Archangel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth with the most wonderful message that was ever heard on earth. “Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour with GOD. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son, and shalt call His Name JESUS.” The womb of S. Mary was the temple into which our LORD at that moment entered. There it was that He, Who was the Desire of all nations, -He, Who even then might have said, “The earth is weak, and all the inhabiters thereof: I bear up the pillars of it,”- He, Whom the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain,-there He lay hid for all those long months, until the fulness of the time came, and GOD was born into the world. David, in the Psalms, represents our LORD as anxious to find out this temple for Himself: “I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids, neither shall the temples of my head take any rest: until I find out a place for the temple of the LORD, an habitation for the mighty GOD of Jacob.” This place, this habitation, He did find out, when the HOLY GHOST came upon S. Mary, and the power of the Highest overshadowed her, and the Word of the FATHER took flesh in her womb.

“The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” And this promise was fulfilled the second time when our LORD was presented in the temple, at the Purification of His Blessed Mother,--in memory of which we keep Candlemas-day. It was His temple, though the Jews little knew it: He, then an infant six weeks old, was the one true Priest, though the High Priest little thought it; He was LORD of the countless armies of angels, and of all the tribes of men, though He had so few that were truly waiting for Him. “The LORD, Whom ye seek.” How many were those that sought Him then? If I count rightly, four only. See if I am wrong. S. Luke tells us that Anna the prophetess “coming in that instant, gave thanks likewise to the LORD, and spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” All, then, that looked for redemption in Jerusalem were at that moment in the temple--there were none others besides; and for all that appears, they were only S. Anna herself, S. Mary, and S. Joseph, and Simeon. Pour courtiers to wait on such a King!

“The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” This Scripture is fulfilled before us every day; for every day the HOLY GHOST comes down into His temples, the bodies of those who are baptized: He comes suddenly, He comes without preparation,--a few words, a little water,--and His temple is consecrated to Him for ever. As S. Paul tells us, “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the HOLY GHOST?” and again, “Know ye not, that ye are the temple of GOD, and that the Spirit of GOD dwelleth in you?”

But those temples must, little by little, day by day, fall to pieces and perish. “This earthly house of our tabernacle must be dissolved,” says S. Paul. And when it shall have been,--when earth shall have returned to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,--then also this text shall be fulfilled; “The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” He shall come to it, to raise it up again from the earth, and--if it has been His true temple--to make it His glorious dwelling for ever. And this shall be suddenly, too, as S. Paul also tells us: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

That will be the last time that our LORD will come to His temple; for afterwards He shall abide in it for ever. The LORD GOD Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of that Holy City, New Jerusalem, which S. John saw, and which we also some day hope to see: according to that saying, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My GOD, and he shall go no more out.”

Now, what we are to notice in all these comings of our LORD to His temple, is their suddenness. “The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple.” In one moment He was conceived in the womb of S. Mary; in one moment He turns the heart of an infant, from being the abode and the den of Satan, into His own holy temple; in one moment He will raise up these bodies of ours, turning them from mortal to immortal, from corruptible to incorruptible. GOD does not stand in need of time to do His wonderful works. One day is with the LORD as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.

But we may take this verse in yet one more sense. “The LORD shall suddenly come to His temple,” when He comes to each of you at death. Long or short as your last illness may be, still the LORD’S coming will be sudden. There is one point, one moment of time, at which you will leave the world and go to Him. Then all our happiness depends on whether the first part of the verse be true: “the LORD, Whom ye seek.” If so, all is well. Then His Coming, though it must be dreadful, will also be glorious; then we may make answer with S. John, “He Which testifieth these things, saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen: even so come, LORD JESUS.”

But suppose the LORD, Whom ye do not seek, should suddenly come to His temple?

And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.


Now the lean children of the God of armies 
(Their feet command the quaking earth)
Rise in the desert, and divide old Jordan 
To crown this city with a ring of drums. 
(But see this signal, like a crimson scar
Bleeding on Rahab's window-sill, 
Spelling her safety with the red of our Redemption.)

The trumpets scare the valley with their sudden anger,
And thunderheads lean down to understand the nodding ark, 
While Joshua's friend, the frowning sun, 
Rises to burn the drunken houses with his look. 
(But far more red upon the wall 
Is Rahab's rescue than his scarlet threat.)

The clarions bind the bastions with their silver treble, 
Shiver the city with their golden shout: 
(Wells dry up, and stars fly back, 
The eyes of Jericho go out,)
The drums around the reeling ark 
Shatter the ramparts with a ring of thunder.

The kings that sat
On gilded chairs, 
The princes and the great 
Are dead. 
Only a harlot and her fearful kindred 
Fly like sparrows from that sudden grin of fire.

It is the flowers that will one day rise from Rahab's earth,
That have redeemed them from the hell of Jericho.
A rod will grow 
From Jesse's tree, 
Among her sons, the lords of Bethlehem, 
And flower into Paradise.

Look at the gentle irises admiring one another by the water, 
Under the leafy shadows of the Virgin's mercy, 
And all the primroses and laughing flags 
Bowing before Our Lady Mary in the Eden of her intercession, 
And praising her, because they see the generations 
Fly like a hundred thousand swallows into heaven, 
Out of the jaws of Jericho, 
Because it was the Son of God 
Whose crimson signal wounded Rahab's wall, 
Uttered our rescue in a figure of His Blood.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Mother Teresa showed young Buddhist who Jesus is

An article by Junno Arocho Esteves from the website of the Catholic News Service,  2nd Sept, 2016

VATICAN CITY (CNS) - A personal encounter with Mother Teresa and her work serving the poor and the dying led a young Japanese man on a journey of faith and conversion.

“I was born into a Buddhist family; I didn’t know about Jesus, Christianity, Catholicism or anything,” Missionaries of Charity Father Francisco Akihiro told Catholic News Service Sept. 2. “But I saw in a very visible way how Jesus works through the example of Mother Teresa.” 

The Japanese priest was one of countless Missionaries of Charity in Rome for the canonization of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata Sept. 4.

Accompanied by Missionaries of Charity Father Jayanthi Tatapudi of India, Father Akihiro visited an exhibition on the life of Mother Teresa held at Rome’s LUMSA University, one of many events offered to pilgrims before the canonization Mass at St. Peter’s Square.

The portraits and candid shots of the little nun embracing young children and comforting the dying was all too familiar for Father Akihiro. He first met Mother Teresa while working at Nirmal Hriday, the hospice established by her in the heart of Kolkata.

As a young Buddhist volunteer, Father Akihiro told CNS he was struck by her simplicity and closeness to those who helped her in serving the sick and the dying.

“She was small and the feeling (I had) when I met her was like meeting a grandmother,” he said. “Usually, when you want to meet somebody famous, they are in the front and hard to reach. But I was always impressed about how she would approach us, she would come to us.”

The patients who came to the house, he continued, were not only hungry and thirsty, but also lonely. However, in their weakness and in their poverty, “we saw something that radiates: the poverty of Christ. We understood this and (realized that) we are also receiving from them,” he said.

Those people who “carried a burden or suffering” were special targets of Mother Teresa’s affection, Father Akihiro noted.

She “would run to the poor, the handicapped people; that left an impression on me. And the many volunteers who saw this would cry,” Father Akihiro said.

He converted to Catholicism and went on to become a priest, leaving his home in Japan; he now lives and works in northern India to serve the poor as Mother Teresa did.

The canonization of the woman who inspired his vocation, he said, is an “opportunity for the world to come to know more about the poor and overcoming indifference.”

“Mother often said that people -- more than listening -- want to see examples,” he said. Through events like the canonization and the exhibition on her life, “people can now more easily understand how we can love, especially the poor people; how we can serve them through the example of Mother Teresa,” Father Akihiro said.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The New Guinea Martyrs - the ecumenical picture

The Martyrs - Mural at the Cathedral of SS Peter & Paul, Dogura, PNG

Anglicans in Papua New Guinea, Australia, and other parts of the world, keep today as the Feast of the New Guinea Martyrs. Go HERE for information about the martyrsGo directly to Bishop Strong's sermon. (Under the sermon at this link is the text of the famous radio broadcast he made to his mission staff on 31st January, 1942.) Go directly to the sermon preached by Canon Maynard, Vicar of St Peter's Eastern Hill in Melbourne in 1942.

Back in 1993, the Melanesian Journal of Theology published an article written by Fr Theo Aerts, a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium who devoted most of his life to the people of Papua New Guinea. His article, extremely generous in its ecumenical tone, is a scholarly survey of the numbers of martyrs in PNG, from across the Christian traditions. It is compelling reading. 

He concludes:"We would, with some hesitation, propose that there were at least 333 people, whose names have been recorded. However, allowing for the comments made, above, there is solid evidence to put the total still higher. Naturally, they were not only Melanesians, although, among them, there were at least 84 persons who would nowadays qualify as PNG citizens. And then, we do not count, yet, the 32 “nationals”, who were still in training, and the 40 other war casualties, mentioned above . . ."

A pdf of the entire article can be downloaded HERE