Monday, December 14, 2020

S. John of the Cross: Poet of God's love


Today the Church gives thanks to the Lord for Juan de Yepes, known to us as S. John of the Cross, who was born in Spain in 1542. From the beginning of his life he understood the mystery of love and sacrifice. His father, from a wealthy Spanish family, was disowned and disinherited when he married the daughter of a poor weaver. Then, just after John was born his father died. John’s mother, utterly destitute, managed to keep her homeless family together as they wandered in search of work. When he was fourteen, John got a job in a hospital, looking after patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness.

So, it was in the context of poverty and suffering that he sought to know God. 

In 1563 John took the habit of the Carmelite friars in Medina. The following year he was professed and went to the University in Salamanca to study arts and theology. In 1567 he was ordained to the priesthood, and in the same year Teresa of Avila asked him to help her Reform movement. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer. 

But many Carmelites and their sympathisers felt threatened by the Reform, and on 2nd December 1577 some members of John’s own order kidnapped him. At the Toledo priory he was locked in a cell six feet wide and ten feet long for nine months, with no light except that which filtered through a slit high up in the wall. During those months of darkness, John could have become bitter, vengeful, or filled with despair at the rejection of his ministry. But instead, he remained open to God, knowing that there was not a prison anywhere that could separate him from God’s love. During this time he had many experiences and encounters with the Lord in prayer. He described them in his poetry. He later forgave those who had imprisoned him, saying, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” 

After nine months, in 1578, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only the spiritual poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets. With no idea where he was, he followed a dog to civilization. He hid from pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. He went to southern Spain to join the reformed Carmelites, and devoted his life to helping people discover the transformative power of God’s love. 

The best known of his books are: The Ascent of Mount CarmelThe Dark Night of the Soul and A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ. He is regarded as a great spiritual guide in the Catholic tradition, understanding the reality of God's love in the human experience of light as well as darkness. He is also regarded as a significant Spanish poet. 

St John of the Cross died at the age of 49 on 14th December 1591 at Ubeda as he was preparing for assignment to Mexico. He was canonised in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII, and is a Doctor of the Church.

Here are a few of his sayings:

“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” (From The Dark Night of the Soul)

“In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

“It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 110)

“In tribulation immediately draw near to God with confidence, and you will receive strength, enlightenment, and instruction.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest centre! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life. 

O lamps of fire!
in whose splendours
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.

How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love. 

My Beloved is like the mountains.
Like the lonely valleys full of woods
The strange islands
The rivers with their sound
The whisper of the lovely air!

The night, appeased and hushed
About the rising of the dawn
The music stilled
The sounding solitude
The supper that rebuilds my life.
And brings me love.

Our bed of flowers
Surrounded by the lions’ dens
Makes us a purple tent,
Is built of peace.
Our bed is crowned with a thousand shields of gold!

Fast-flying birds
Lions, harts and leaping does*
Mountains, banks and vales
Streams, breezes, heats of day
And terrors watching in the night:

By the sweet lyres and by the siren’s song
I conjure you: let angers end!
And do not touch the wall

But let the bride be safe: let her sleep on!

Go HERE to read the entire poem.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

All Saints' Benhilton Christmas Services

 Hello, everybody. This is your invitation to join us in celebrating the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World.

(Click on the flyer to enlarge it.)

Sunday, November 29, 2020

A Slightly Awkward Start to Advent


Welcome home . . . and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I write that, of course, because today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new Church year. 


Have you noticed how many people are saying that they can’t wait to put the disastrous year 2020 behind them? Well, there is a sense in which you and I get to do just that, ahead of everyone else. What I mean is that although it is still 2020 according to the secular world, today we begin the 2021 Church year!

The fact that we have our own starting date for the new year emphasises a special truth. It’s a bit like the way my passport says that I am a citizen of Australia, but the reality is quite different. Writing to the small Church community in the Roman colony of Philippi, (and to all of us who have been baptised) S. Paul says:

‘our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

On top of that, the writer to the Hebrews says,

‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

These are powerful words. They remind us that our life in this world is not all there is, and our real citizenship in whatever country whose passport we carry is totally secondary to our true identity! 


The early Christians in the hostile Roman Empire understood that, as we see in the second or third century Letter to Diognetus, in which a Christian, Mathetes, writes to a man of considerable rank:

‘Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life . . . With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. 

‘And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country . . . They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.’ 

Or, as S. John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, put it in 19th century France, 

‘Our home is heaven. On earth we are like travellers staying in a hotel. When one is away, one is always thinking of going home.’

During this season of Advent we experience again the reality of being a ‘pilgrim people’ travelling home TOGETHER. In other words, we are not a bunch of rugged individuals who just happen to be on the same path and can’t avoid bumping into each other from time to time. We are a real community of faith and love on pilgrimage together, supporting one another. During Advent we are on pilgrimage to Bethlehem. But we are also on pilgrimage to our true home, and part of that journey is to reflect on the sobering themes of judgment and mortality, while acknowledging - as we dare to do every day at Mass - that because God became Man, both heaven AND EARTH are absolutely crammed full of his glory.


For me, personally, this morning felt really awkward. For nearly all my life I have experienced the start of the Church year on the First Sunday of Advent being overwhelmed by Charles Wesley’s amazing hymn, ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending . . .’, focusing straight away - as do the Scripture readings, not so much on the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem, but on his coming in glory at the end of the age.

This morning, however, the last Sunday of this present ‘lockdown’, I celebrated alone at the High Altar. In a strange quietness I blessed the Advent wreath and lit its first candle before getting on with the Mass. I must confess that in my mind I was thinking how it was happening like this in so many parishes around the world, in contrast to the usual burst of triumph, and the children swarming around the Advent wreath for its particular ceremonies.

Of course, I regained my composure when at the end of Mass I was able to enthrone the Blessed Sacrament on the Nave Altar as the focus for the personal and private prayer of those who would come and go throughout the morning.


But the lockdown will finish at the end of Wednesday this week. Praise the Lord! That doesn’t mean a FULL restoration of worship. But it does mean that Holy Mass can be celebrated in the way we did from the beginning of July until the end of October . . . socially distanced, sanitised hands, face coverings, special precautions in the giving of Holy Communion, no congregational singing, and no morning tea at the end. That all looks a bit draconian, doesn’t it. But it worked before, to the glory of God and for the blessing of his people, and it will work again! The choir will sing anthems during the preparation of the altar (half way through Mass) as well as while Holy Communion is being given. Also, next Sunday’s Mass will include the lighting of the second candle on the Advent wreath.

It does seem as if the Government is wanting some of the things we associate with Christmas to be able to happen, so next week (i.e. the PCC having met this coming Wednesday night) I will announce the actual mechanics of obtaining (free) tickets for our Christmas Eve services. Remember, tickets will be FREE, but in order to ensure the safety of all, ADMISSION WIll BE BY TICKET ONLY. I’m sure everybody understands why this is important, and that it is much to be preferred than to cancel Christmas services. However, I would like to hear from any who do not feel comfortable coming out to Christmas Mass this year, but who still wish to receive their Christmas Communion. I will make arrangements to bring Holy Communion to you at home.

So, ‘Mass with a Congregation’ will resume on Thursday 3rd December, at 10 a.m. Then, as usual, Friday (7.30 a.m.) and Saturday (10 a.m.), leading into a wonderful celebration next Sunday, for the Second Sunday of Advent (8.00 a.m. and 9.30 a.m.)


The custom of lighting candles on the Advent wreath reminds us of God promising right from the time of our original rebellion, that one day he would conquer evil - you remember, through the seed of the woman crushing the serpent's head (Genesis 3:15) - and restore the relationship of love for which he created the human family in the first place.

The popular service of Nine Lessons and Carols, with its selection of readings moving progressively through the Old Testament - the Jewish Scriptures - reminds us of God’s long and patient preparation in the sludge of real human history for the coming of Jesus. In fact, it has been said that the theme of the Old Testament is ‘waiting for God’.

So, during the season of Advent, at the daily Mass, the Church has us read bits of the Old Testament to do with God’s promise to intervene human history so as to bring about – as we heard last Sunday - a kingdom of justice, love and peace. Our prayers are uttered in the language of the Old Testament, expressing that deep longing for the age to come that was reaching a climax in Jewish culture by the 1st century AD..

Even though the first coming of Jesus has already taken place, the Church encourages us to put ourselves spiritually into that period of expectant waiting for him to come. We identify ourselves with the long flow of history through which Jesus entered our world, recognising the light of God shining through the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and Our Lady Mary, who are the high points of his revelation. During Advent we wait expectantly for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, along with those who two thousand years ago longed for his coming. It is good for us to be touched with the joy of that expectant waiting.

But, as we have noted, the Church mostly wants us to await - just as expectantly - that final day when Jesus will return in glory. And as it was important for people to be prepared for his first coming at Bethlehem, so we are encouraged in the New Testament to be no less prepared for his ‘second coming’.

But we have a problem!

So many times over the last 2000 years people have announced, ‘The end is nigh,’ and they have turned out to be wrong! (Remember how Jesus himself said that would happen. He warned of the futility of trying to calculate or predict the End - Matthew 24:36!) The sad reality is that partly as a reaction to extreme sects who have claimed to know exaclty when the End will come, modern Christians tend no longer to be ‘expectant’ about the second coming of Jesus. So, our faith has shrunk and become passive - a shrugging of the shoulders, the idea that he just might come one day  - but we don't live as if we really think there's a possibility of that happening in our lifetime!

If we really love the Lord, and his love and power are real to us, we will have an expectancy in our hearts, an anticipation born of faith. This is not just a ‘cheery optimism.’ It has to do with a deep day to day growth into his love. 

Most Sundays at Mass, in the words of the Nicene Creed, we profess our belief that 


‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

We used to finish by saying that 

‘we look for the resurrection of the dead.’ 

But because the original language has in it the idea of ‘looking ahead with expectancy’, the latest (2010) translation has sought to convey that more adequately in English. I don’t know about you, but I now have a real sense of excitement in my heart as the Creed comes to its close with the words:

I LOOK FORWARD TO the resurrection of the dead  and the life of the world to come.’


Part of our Advent spiritual renewal this year ought to be recapturing that sense of expectancy if we feel we have lost it. So, let’s make sure that our walk with God is in good shape. 

Let’s examine our hearts to see where we’ve become slack. Let’s open them up to the love of the Lord again, and possibly use the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Let’s also ask ourselves if we are growing in our ability to relate to others - especially in the Church family, and if our shared lives are beginning to reflect the love and reconciliation at the heart of the Gospel.

May we all be renewed in the love and joy of the Gospel on our Advent pilgrimage together.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Forty years a priest . . . Ballarat 11th November 1980

Although it had to be celebrated privately at the High Altar here at All Saints' Benhilton (in a locked church!) because of the Covid Lockdown restrictions, for me, today's Mass of S. Martin of Tours was a special celebration of God’s faithfulness over the 40 years I have been a priest in his Church. Ordained on 11th November 1980 at St Paul’s Ballarat (Australia) by Bishop John Hazlewood, I give thanks to God for these words of Father Robert Beal, Dean of Newcastle (later Bishop of Wangaratta, 1985) who was our retreat conductor and preacher at the ordination Mass. I have returned to them so many times over the years:

'It is your task, my brothers, 
to beckon the world’s gaze to the crucifix,
and to point to those wounds 
on the Body of the King of glory. 
We gaze at the God-man, 
and are confronted with the Truth 
that will make men free.'

The photos in this post are from the ordination. The second one is the actual 'moment.' I’m not visible in that one. As was often the case in my fairly poor footballing days (Rugby League) at high school, I'm in the middle of the scrum! With his back to the camera in the foreground is Mark Sumner who was also ordained to the priesthood that night.  

Today I thank God for his saving grace, his forgiveness, his love, his healing power, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. I thank him for the thousands of times I have been privileged to 'lead the rejoicing throng to the altar of God' where, united with the Eternal Offering of our Great High Priest, we have been swept into the worship of heaven. I thank him for those who lovingly influenced my vocation from right across the Christian traditions and helped me to respond. I thank him for the love and prayers of Holy Mary, Our Lady of Walsingham and all the Saints. I thank him for family members, parishioners and friends - old and new - whose love, prayers and generosity of support over these forty years have made it possible for me to embrace both the joys and the sorrows of the priestly ministry. I thank him for those who have forgiven my sins, my mistakes and failures. 

Please continue to pray for me, and for all priests, as we try - so often falteringly - to live according to these precious words of S. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:4-10:

We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed - always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.

Finally, I share with you this wonderful hymn of Charles Wesley - one of the first hymns I learned to accompany as a fledgling teenage organist! - which so long ago I made my own. It has never failed to touch my heart, to move me, strengthen me, and nourish me. It has often helped me keep everything else in perspective:

Jesus! the Name high over all,
In hell or earth or sky;
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.

Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,
The Name to sinners giv’n;
It scatters all their guilty fear,
It turns their hell to Heav’n.

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.

O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of his grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.

Thee I shall constantly proclaim,
Though earth and hell oppose;
Bold to confess thy glorious Name
Before a world of foes.

His only righteousness I show,
His saving grace proclaim;
’Tis all my business here below
To cry “Behold the Lamb!”

Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp his Name,
Preach him to all and cry in death,
“Behold, behold the Lamb!” 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Here we go again . . .

A new Lockdown - the Prime Minister hopes it is just for four weeks. Public worship has been banned, but not churches being used for private, personal prayer. So, as in the previous Lockdown, each Sunday morning, Jesus in his Holy Sacrament will be enthroned on the nave altar from 8.30 a.m. to 12.00 noon for private and personal prayer. We encourage the church family as well as our neighbours to slip in for as short or long a time of prayer as you wish. All Saints' Benhilton, Sutton, Surrey, SM1 3DA

Thursday, October 15, 2020

S. Teresa of Avila, pray for us

Today is the feast of S. Teresa of Avila, whose best known writing is the above brief poem known as her “Bookmark”, because it was found in her prayer book when she died:

Teresa Sanchez Cepeda Davila y Ahumada was born in Avila, Spain in 1515. After her mother's death she was sent to be educated by Augustinian nuns, but became ill and returned to live with her father and other relatives. One of her uncles introduced her to the Letters of Saint Jerome, and these inspired her to consider that she had a vocation to the religious life. At the age of 20 Teresa entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila.

During the sixteenth century many religious communities had lost their original devotion, discipline and openness to God. In many places convent life had become lax. Teresa's convent at Avila was no exception. She tells how she lost her first love for the Lord and embraced the status quo of comfortable convent living. In fact, she struggled with her vocation until after her father's death, and then a number of illnesses. In 1555 she underwent a spiritual renewal in which she saw the risen Jesus, and experienced a mystical transverberation, which she described as the piercing of her heart by an angel. She called this spiritual union with God, her "mystical marriage." She gave herself completely to prayer. 

Teresa began to have more spiritual experiences and visions which she, as well as the clergy she consulted, often thought were delusions. But two confessors believed that her experiences were genuine graces from the Lord, and encouraged her to embrace them as such, and to deepen her life of personal prayer and radical discipleship. More than that, they told her to write down her experiences so as to help others understand contemplative prayer. So she wrote the Life of herself (up to 1562), The Way of Perfection and Foundations for her sisters, and The Interior Castle, as a guide for praying people in general. Her writings are intensely personal spiritual autobiographies, and take their place alongside The Confessions of S. Augustine (which had also been a major influence on her). It was mainly on account of her writings that she was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. (Teresa had been declared a saint by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.

After many tribulations and much heart-searching, Teresa felt that God was asking her to leave the Convent of the Incarnation and establish St Joseph's, a new monastery that would conscientiously observe the original Rule of Carmel. This she did on 24th August 1562. There was a great deal of opposition to the new Carmel and it was some time before she was able to live there in peace. Many condemned her as having been deceived by her mystical experiences in prayer. Eventually the hostility died down and Teresa was asked to found more of these houses of prayer in other cities of Spain. Over a period of twenty years she founded 15 houses for the nuns and, in association with John Yepes (later known as S. John of the Cross), at least two for the friars. In 1580, the Holy See recognised the Discalced Carmelites as distinct from the other Carmelites. By then Teresa was sixty-five years old, and in very poor health. Even so, she continued her work. The last Carmelite house she founded was at Burgos in July, 1582. On her way from there to Alba de Tormes she became ill. On October 4, 1582, three days after reaching Alba de Tormes, she died, and was buried there.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I believe that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, whether great or small. So if you have this love, try not to let the prayers you make to so great a Lord be words of mere politeness, but brace yourselves to suffer what God's Majesty desires. For if you give God your will in any other way, you are just showing the Lord a precious stone, making as if to give it and begging God to take it, and then, when God's hand reaches out to do so, taking it back and holding on to it tightly. Such mockery is no fit treatment for One who endured so much for us . . .
(From: The Way of Perfection)

Let humility be always at work, like the bee at the honey-comb, or all will be lost. But, remember, the bee leaves its hive to fly in search of flowers and the soul should sometimes cease thinking of itself to rise in meditation on the grandeur and majesty of its God.
(From The Interior Castle)  

Do not build towers without a foundation, for our Lord does not care so much for the importance of our works as for the love with which they are done. When we do all we can, His Majesty will enable us to do more every day. 
(From The Interior Castle) 

Love does not consist in great sweetness of devotion, but in a more fervent determination to strive to please God in all things, in avoiding, as far as possible, all that would offend Him, and in praying for the increase of the glory and honour of his Son and for the growth of the Catholic Church.
(From The Interior Castle) 

Our souls may lose their peace and even disturb other people's if we are always criticising trivial actions which often are not real defects at all, but we construe them wrongly through ignorance of their motives.
(From The Interior Castle) 

How many maggots remain in hiding until they have destroyed our virtues. These pests are such evils as self-love, self-esteem, rash judgement of others in small matters, and a want of charity in not loving our neighbour quite as much as ourselves. Although, perforce, we satisfy our obligations to avoid sin, yet we fall far short of what must be done in order to obtain perfect union with the will of God.
(From The Interior Castle)  

The only remedy for having given up a habit of recollection is to recommence it, otherwise the soul will continue to lose it more and more every day, and God grant it may realise its danger.
(From The Interior Castle)

O Lord, regulate all things by your wisdom, so that I may always serve you in the manner that you will. Do not punish me by granting my desire if it offends your love, for I desire your love to live always in me. Help me to deny myself in order that I may serve you. Let me live for you - who in yourself are the true life. Amen.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Professor Tracey Rowland on the Influence of John Henry Newman on Benedict XVI

On this the day when the Church honours S. John Henry Newman, it is appropriate to share a ten year old article which summarises Newman's influence on a theological movement that inspired significant 20th century teachers, including the future Pope Benedict XVI. 

Leading Australian theologian, Dr. Tracey Rowland, holds the S. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is an Honorary Fellow of Campion College (Sydney) and a member of the International Theological Commission. From 2001 to 2017 she was the Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne) and the author of numerous books, including: Culture and the Thomist Tradition After Vatican IICatholic TheologyRatzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford University Press, 2008); Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2010). This article is from the Australian Broadcasting Commission ‘Religion and Ethics Blog’, Thursday 16th September 2010.

The Munich-based Jesuit, Erich Przywara (1889-1972), editor of the theology journal Stimmen der Zeit, had developed an interest in Newman as early as the 1920s and had encouraged Edith Stein (now St Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross) to translate Newman’s pre-conversion letters and his Idea of a University into German.

The cultural critic Theodor Haecker, who had converted to Catholicism in 1921, had also translated works of Newman into German and is one of those specifically cited by Ratzinger as a popular author for seminarians of his time.

Haecker is also credited with introducing Sophie Scholl, martyr of the White Rose movement, and others in her circle to the works of Newman. During the Advent of 1943, Haecker quoted from his translation of Newman’s Advent sermon on the Antichrist (Tract 83) to members of the anti-Nazi student group.

Haecker believed Newman was especially valuable for demonstrating the legitimate role of reason in the act of faith and for explaining conscience in relation to other acts of the mind, thus making conscience an organ and mediator of knowledge.

He praised Newman for his clear perception of the intellectual difficulties which exist for the faith in the modern world, and in particular for his understanding that these difficulties could not be overcome with “a naked syllogism.”

The latter comment was a criticism of the tendency in pre-Conciliar theology to present the faith with reference to Latin maxims and syllogistic “proofs.” In all Haecker published some seven books on Newman, mainly translations into German.

When Ratzinger joined the seminary in Freising in 1946, his Prefect of Studies, Alfred Laepple, was working on a dissertation on conscience in the work of Newman. Ratzinger has since reflected that for seminarians of his generation, “Newman’s teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism, which was drawing us all in its sway. Our image of the human being as well as our image of the Church was permeated by this point of departure.”

Ratzinger was to take from Newman his understanding of papal authority as a power that comes from revelation to complete natural conscience and Newman’s rejection of the popularist interpretations of papal authority as something akin to absolute monarchy.

Ratzinger has written that the pope is not an absolute monarch, but more of a constitutional monarch - that is, someone whose powers are circumscribed by conventions or constitutions, or in the case of the Pope, by revelation itself.

But it was not only Laepple that was immersed in the works of Newman, so too was Gottlieb Soehngen (1892-1971), Ratzinger’s teacher in fundamental theology and the director of both of Ratzinger’s theses.

It was under Soehngen that Ratzinger studied Newman’s Grammar of Assent. Soehngen had also worked on the topics of the convertibility of truth and being, on sacramentality, and on the border issues between theology and philosophy, all of which reappear as perennial themes in Ratzinger’s publications.

In an address delivered to mark the centenary of Newman’s death, Ratzinger remarked that even deeper for him than the contribution of Soehngen for his appreciation of Newman was the contribution which Heinrich Fries published in connection with the Jubilee of Chalcedon.

Here he found access to Newman’s teaching on the development of doctrine, which he regards, along with Newman’s doctrine on conscience, as Newman’s decisive contribution to the renewal of theology.

Newman’s work “placed the key in our hand to build historical thought into theology, or much more, [Newman] taught us to think historically in theology and so to recognize the identity of faith in all developments.”

This was a reference to what Ratzinger would later identify as the most significant issue for Catholic theology in the twentieth century - that of coming to an understanding of what he termed “the mediation of history in the realm of ontology.”

In short hand terms, one might call this the Heideggerian “being in time” problem. Whereas the theological establishment prior to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s prided itself on being “ahistorical” or “above history,” the effect of Heidegger’s philosophy was to push to the front of theological speculation the issue of the significance of time and history for the development of tradition.

The different responses to the documents of the Second Vatican Council often revolve around different understandings of the role that history plays in theological speculation.

Here it is highly significant that Ratzinger’s understanding of the development of doctrine comes from the convergence of the works of Newman and those of scholars of the nineteenth century Tuebingen school, who were working on parallel themes to those of Newman.

Newman was introduced to a French audience by Henri Bremond whose work in turn influenced that of Maurice Blondel, author of the seminal History and Dogma (1903). Blondel then influenced the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, who, along with his student Hans Urs von Balthasar, ultimately became friends and mentors of Ratzinger.

In his introduction to the English translation of Blondel’s The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma, Alexander Dru (a close friend of Theodor Haecker) noted that the very first edition of Annales de Philosophie Chretienne (a journal owned by Blondel and to which he was a frequent contributor) “pointed to the need to break away from the narrow Latin, Roman and Mediterranean conception of Catholicism by pointing to the relevance of the German Catholic writers of the Romantic period.”

Dru also noted that Blondel and Bremond - among others - were “carrying on (unbeknown, at first, to themselves) the tradition of Tuebingen (and in some respects therefore of Newman).”

While Newman’s teaching on the development of doctrine opened a pathway for history in theological thought, the doctrine of conscience gave weight to the emerging body of mid-twentieth century scholarship presented as Christian personalism.

Both John Paul II and Ratzinger were heavily influenced by personalist currents in their early academic years.

Whereas the young Karl Wojtyla was in contact with the French sources of the movement, and with the work of the Munich-born philosopher Max Scheler, the young Ratzinger came to personalism primarily through the Saarland philosopher Peter Wust (1884-1940) and the Austrian born Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber (1878-1965).

In the nineteenth century, Newman was working on theological topics that ran parallel to those of the Catholic theologians at the University of Tuebingen and which could be described as a Catholic engagement with themes of interest to the Romantic movement.

Although Germany, France, England and Scotland all had their own particular Romantic movements, a common theme running through all of them was an interest in history, tradition, memory and the motions of the human heart.

These topics were absent from the neo-scholastic theology of the same period. They were to enter into the theological tradition in the twentieth century by way of a number of authors, including the scholarship of Przywara, Soehngen and Haecker in Germany, Blondel and de Lubac in France, and von Balthasar in Switzerland.

Newman is linked to all three of these tributaries. One might say that at the Second Vatican Council it wasn’t merely the Rhine that flowed into the Tiber, but the Cherwell and Isis were there too.

It is therefore particularly fitting that it should be Benedict XVI - the student of Soehngen and colleague of de Lubac and von Balthasar - who finally beatifies Newman. 

As Alfred Laepple once remarked, when he and Ratzinger were seminarians, Newman was their hero. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Little Flower and the Grace of God

“Nothing in my hand I bring. 
Simply to thy cross I cling.” 

From the hymn “Rock of Ages” 
by Augustus M. Toplady, 1776.

On 24th August, 1997, during the Mass he celebrated at the Twelfth World Youth Day in Paris in the presence of hundreds of bishops and before a huge crowd of young people from all over the world, Pope John Paul II announced that he was to proclaim St Thérèse a “Doctor of the Universal Church.” This he did on Sunday 19th October 1997 when he pointed out that Thérèse is the youngest of the 33 officially recognised Doctors of the Church, the one closest to our time, and the third woman among them. In his apostolic letter Divini Amoris Scientia, the Pope said: 

“As it was for the Church’s Saints in every age, so also for her, in her spiritual experience Christ is the centre and fullness of Revelation. Thérèse knew Jesus, loved him and made him loved with the passion of a bride. She penetrated the mysteries of his infancy, the words of his Gospel, the passion of the suffering Servant engraved on his holy Face, in the splendour of his glorious life, in his Eucharistic presence. She sang of all the expressions of Christ’s divine charity, as they are presented in the Gospel.” 

The Pope also said that 

". . . we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experienced faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ . . . That assimilation was certainly favoured by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit." 

No wonder that Thérèse is the most quoted woman saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church! Today is when we commemorate her in the Church's Calendar.

Her Life
Marie Frances Thérèse Martin was born at Alençon, France on 2nd January 1873. When she was four years old her mother died, and she moved with the family to Lisieux. 

As a child, Thérèse had a deep awareness of God’s presence in her life. She grew up loving the Lord Jesus and understanding the Sacraments to be deeply personal encounters with him. By the time she became a teenager she knew that God was calling her to embrace the Religious life in its contemplative form. 

In 1887 Thérèse went to on pilgrimage to Italy with a group from Lisieux. On 20th November Pope Leo XIII met with them and Thérèse was able to ask him for special permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux at the age of fifteen, which she did on 9 April 1888, receiving the habit on the following year. She made her religious profession on 8 September 1890, the Birthday of Our Lady. 

Thérèse embraced the spiritual principles of St Teresa of Avila while faithfully fulfilling the various community responsibilities entrusted to her, especially the menial ones. During this time her faith was severely tested by the sickness of her father who died on 29th July 1894. 

She continued to be nourished by the Scriptures, which were central to her spiritual life. Her response to God’s Word in openness of heart and mind nurtured her growth in holiness and made a deep impact on those around her. 

The autobiographical manuscripts she wrote are a detailed account of her walk with God. Based on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, she called it the “little way” of “spiritual childhood” and taught it to the novices entrusted to her care. 

She also accepted the ministry of spiritually supporting two missionary priests with prayer and sacrifice. Indeed, seized by the love of Christ, whom she described as her “only Spouse”, she became increasingly aware of her own apostolic and missionary vocation. 

In her Autobiography Thérèse says that on Trinity Sunday 1895 (9th June), she gave herself completely to the love of God. Several months later, on the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday (3rd April 1896), she suffered a haemoptysis, the first sign of the illness which would lead to her death. From this point, her writings speak of the trial of faith, which would last until she died. In the midst of her pain she wrote that her vocation was simply “to be love in the heart of the Church.” 

Thérèse was transferred to the infirmary on 8 July 1896. During this time her sayings were collected. Meanwhile her sufferings intensified. She accepted them with patience, right up to the moment of her death in the afternoon of 30th September 1897. “I am not dying, I am entering life”, she wrote. 

Her final words, “My God, I love you!” were uttered at the age of 24, after years of illness and spiritual struggle, sealing a life lived in total surrender to the Lord’s love. Then she began what she had already foreseen as her new responsibility - her ministry of intercession, prayer, and love in the Communion of Saints, “in order to shower a rain of roses upon the world.”

Thérèse was canonized by Pope Pius XI on 17 May 1925. 

Since her death, Christians of many cultures and traditions - especially young people - have been inspired by her holiness, love and steadfast faith to give themselves completely to the Lord.

Letters to Maurice
To get a truly rounded picture of Thérèse – and in order to move away from the rather saccharine stereotype of her that has been built up, it is a good idea to read Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love, by Patrick Ahern. This is the collected correspondence between Thérèse and Maurice Bellière, a stumbling young man she had never met, who was preparing to become a missionary priest. They exchanged twenty-one letters at a time when Thérèse’s suffering and pain was at its height, and when her spiritual struggle was most intense. It is significant that she was able to write such letters of support and encouragement to someone else. (The letters are accompanied by Ahern’s commentary.) 

Maurice had experienced a moral failure, and couldn’t quiet his conscience. Thérèse told him that God does not want our relationship with him be based on an obsessive fear of punishment. Neither, she said, does God want us to try and bargain for salvation by promising to do good works. With all who have begun to grasp the meaning of the grace-filled Gospel down through the Christian centuries, Thérèse knew that no amount of “good works” could purchase God’s love, and that in our better moments we would always wonder if we had done enough. In fact she even said to Maurice that the best of our good works are blemished, anyway, and they make us displeasing to God if we rely on them. 

Thérèse knew that Jesus came into this world to save us, to set us free. She reminded Maurice of St Augustine and St Mary Magdalene, both of whose sins “which were many” were forgiven. 

She wrote to him, “I love them. I love their repentance, and especially their loving boldness.” 

Thérèse knew that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Indeed, she said, “How can I fear a God who is nothing but Mercy and Love?” “Confidence, nothing but confidence” in God’s love was what she stressed. This may sound like spiritual presumption to some. But it echoes the teaching of Hebrews 10:19-22: 

“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” 

Justification, Faith and Works
Thérèse practised what she taught. Just four months before she died, she wrote:"I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, 'I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,' I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works . . . Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake." 

And in her Act of Oblation, she prays to Jesus: “After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.”

At the level of Christian experience, Thérèse articulates the theological convergence on the doctrine of Justification that would appear in the the Agreed Statements of the Roman Catholic/ Lutheran dialogue, the Roman Catholic/ Anglican dialogue, and the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. It is significant that she occupies such a central place among the Doctors of the Church and in the Catechism.