Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas 2011, Shaftesbury

I had a little crisis this week. I was putting up Christmas decorations in the presbytery, and I was assembling all the pieces of the crib set that I have. I put out the shepherds, the donkey, the cow, some sheep, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph. And that's when I realised my problem: I couldn't find the baby Jesus. I had everything else right about the crib scene, but no Jesus!
And it struck me that this is a perfect image of what all the frantic busyness of Christmas can be like if we don't have Jesus -without Jesus everything else is there, but it's lacking the key thing, and without Him it's empty, without Him it's just hard work

If we think for a moment about that first crib scene in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Without Jesus, there would be nothing to make it different from any other stable. It may well have been cold, damp, smelly, and dark.
But with Jesus present there the scene was utterly transformed. Christmas cards rightly show us images of light radiating from the child Jesus, radiating to CHANGE that crib scene.
If we think of St Joseph and the Blessed Virgin, having struggled all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, having been offered no room at the inn, and yet, theirs was not a labour without reward -they had Jesus, the Messiah, God Himself among them.
Our Christian faith tells us that the Lord God entered this world, was born as a weak child in this world, in order to transform this world, transform our lives in this world, transform our lives by being WITH us in this world.

But, back to life without Jesus, to the crib without Jesus:
Life, as we all know, has plenty of difficulties, plenty of work, plenty of busyness. But the question that surely arises in thinking of life with or without Jesus, must surely be, amid all the busyness of life is there a purpose? Is there a direction? Is there a goal?
Life without Jesus can easily be work without a reward, labour without rest, and be a life where we feel left alone with our problems.
This week I've had a number of moments where my life has felt like that empty crib scene. I've had lots of labour, lots of building of ‘the crib’, but I frequently had moments when I had forgotten what this busyness is truly aiming for, namely, to bring Jesus here.
And I've had to periodically stop myself, and refocus myself.

When we refocus ourselves on Jesus then we are refocusing on the One who is our companion in our difficulties, who is our light in darkness, and our strength in weakness.
So often when we feel alone it's because we forgotten that He is with us.
So often when we feel that we are busy with no purpose it is because we forgotten to offer our work and our labour and our strife to Him.
Even today, amidst joyful Christmas celebrations, is Jesus there?
Even today, when the turkey is finished, and the dishes are being washed, is Jesus there?
If I offer my joys to Jesus then my joys are increased because they are united with their ultimate source.
If I offer my work to Jesus then my burden is lightened because it carried with Him.
So let's remember to keep Jesus in the ‘crib’ of our lives.

Back to my crib scene decorations in the presbytery, I eventually found the baby Jesus. It turned out that He was there all along, I just hadn't seen Him. If we want to get the most out of Christmas, then let’s not forget Him.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

4th Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Lk 1:26-38; 2 Sam 7:1-5.8-12.14.16
We’re now in the final stretch before Christmas –just one week to go. Some of us have already sent all our Christmas cards, and some of us haven’t. Some of us have already bought our presents, and some of us haven’t.
But, as it won’t surprise you to hear me say, none of these things are what Christmas is truly about.
Today, the final Sunday of Advent, the Church always turns to thoughts to Our Lady, each year with a different aspect of the Christmas narrative that involves her in a key moment. And the Church turns our thoughts to Our Lady in order that she might prepare us for Christmas, and I want to focus on two things we see in her that are important for us to imitate: her obedience, and her listening.

In our first reading we heard about the Ark of the Covenant, and how King David planned to build a fitting dwelling place for the Ark. King David, however, was told that he was not worthy to build the dwelling place for the Lord. That can stand as a sign for us that we also need to be properly fit if we are to be, ourselves, a dwelling place for the Lord at Christmas, if He is to come to us. Jesus wants to come to everybody Christmas, but not everybody seeks to make Him welcome.
The person, above all, who is placed before us as the image of being ready for the coming of the Lord is Our Lady. One of the titles that is given to Our Lady is that she is the "Ark of the Covenant", she is the place where He comes to dwell.

If we look at how the Blessed Virgin responded to what the Archangel Gabriel told her, there are two things we see. We see her being attentive to what the angel said i.e. we see her listening. We also see her being obedient, "I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me”(Lk 1:38). If we imitate these two virtues ourselves we will likewise enable the Lord to come to us this Christmas.

If we consider this particularly in a family setting, it is very easy for family gatherings to be occasions where there is a continual conflict of wills. I want this, I want that, he wants something else, and she wants something else again.
Our Lady was fit to have the Lord come to her because she bowed her will to that of the Lord. We, similarly, need to bow our will to that of the Lord, and most of the time that is manifested by bowing my will, surrendering my preference, to that of what other people would prefer. This is a simple fact of living out love, living out the love that involves the Lord’s coming. And so if we would be ready for Christmas then we need to be getting into the habit of compromising, and not being too attached to our own preferences.

But we can only surrender our will, we can only surrender our preferences to others, we can only do this if we have first HEARD what other people's preferences are. And so we need to listen, just as the Blessed Virgin listened to the angel. For ourselves, that listening doesn't just mean not talking, it needs to also involve being attentive enough to others to see what they are thinking what they are wanting. And amid the rush of Christmas activity that can take an effort –but its essential if Christmas is to be happy, if it to be what Christmas is truly about.

So, if we want to get ready for Christmas, if we want our hearts and our lives to be fit dwellings for the Lord, then let us imitate the one to whom the Lord came most completely, let us imitate Our Lady, let us listen as she listened, and having heard, let us obey.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

3rd Sunday Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 1:6-8.19-28
I’d like to say a few words today about two things: rejoicing, and about how God is hidden from us even though He is among us.

Today, the third Sunday of advent, is the day that the Church calls "Gaudete Sunday”, and this word means "rejoice". And this is important for us for two reasons.
First, and most fundamentally, the Church calls us to rejoice halfway through Advent is a sign of the fact that even though Christian existence is characterised by this season of waiting for the Lord to come, of being in continuous expectation of Him coming, nonetheless, in other forms He is already here among us -and so we should "rejoice".
Second, at a simple human level, I always think it's important that we have this reminder to rejoice as we are preparing for Christmas. We live in the midst of a very materialistic world, and many of our preparations for Christmas can similarly be materialistic, and hard work, and stressful, and so it is important to be reminded that there is a reason to "rejoice" even while we are getting ready Christmas. And of course, in different ways, many of us will have particular reasons why Christmas may be a difficult time, or a lonely time, or a time that can crystallise together many weighty issues in our life at the moment. And that too means that it's important to recall the reason that the Church tells us that we have to "rejoice" -to rejoice even in the midst of difficulty.

Our Faith tells us that the end of time Christ will come again in glory, and for those judged to be with Him, all will be well, and there will be rejoicing without end, because we will be with Him who will give us every reason to rejoice, who will give us happiness beyond imagining.
But the Lord whose very presence will bring happiness, He is already with us here today. The problem, however, with rejoicing in His presence is that there is something about His presence that remains hidden.

Let us turn to the scriptural comparison we find in today's gospel. St John the Baptist told the crowds who were coming to him, told the crowds who were responding to his call to "prepare a way for the Lord", he told the crowds that the one they were preparing for was already there, that He “stands among you –unknown to you”(Jn 1:26).
And something of that same truth holds for us today: the Lord is among us, that He is somehow hidden from us, that we somehow do not see Him.

Of course, He is not completely unseen, He is not completely hidden. We have His promise that He is with us in His sacraments, we know too that He is with us in the reading of Sacred Scripture, and that He is with us in the love of friends and family.
And yet, in none of these ways is He with us in the fully visible form He took as a child at Bethlehem, and in none of these ways is He with us as He will be in glory at the end of time.

Why is He unseen to us? Well, we might consider the fact that in as much as He is pure spirit God is beyond being seen –our eyes are not up to the task of seeing spiritual realities. We might also consider the fact that His workings, His providential plan, at the level of our individual lives, part of the reason we cannot see this and cannot see His hand at work in this, is not that He is not present, but rather that His workings are too complex, at too many levels for us to clearly perceive.

Nonetheless, Scripture assures us that He is among us. And most of us have particular moments in our lives when we are more able to look back, look back to earlier events in our lives, and see that the Lord was there all along. Much as the old "Footprints" poem puts it I can look back in my life and see my problems, see times when I felt like I was most alone, see times when it seems that the Lord abandoned me, and yet, it was then that the Lord carried me. I thought I was alone, but I only survived at all by His help, by His carrying me.
And so to remember that the Lord is with me, to remember that the Lord promises that He is with me, to remember that it is a repeated pattern in the Sacred Scriptures that He is there even when He is unseen, to remember this gives us a reason to "rejoice" on this Gaudete Sunday.

So, to conclude. As we as are moving closer to Christmas, and as we find in whatever different ways difficulties and pressures upon us, let us remember that the Lord is with us, His presence is with us, and His strength is with us, and therefore let us "rejoice".

Sunday, 4 December 2011

2nd Sunday Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 1:1-18; Isa 40:1-5.9-11
Last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, I was asked a very good question by one of the children, I was asked why I was wearing purple –isn’t purple the colour of Lent, she said? Lent and Advent have a number of things in common, not just their colour. In a general sense we can say that they are both sombre seasons that prepare for the joy that follows, so that white is worn at both Christmas and Easter. But there is something else that unites both Lent and Advent and that is their focus on sin. Each of these two seasons is concerned with sin, but each in a somewhat different way. Lent has a slightly more backward looking approach to sin in that it calls us to do penance for the sins we have already committed. Advent's focus on sin is different: Advent is oriented to the coming of Christ, and Advent is concerned with sin because our sins obstruct His coming. A prayer at Mass this week, on the Thursday of the first week of Advent, expresses this very beautifully when it says that “our sins impede” His coming.

We need to turn away from our sins if we are to enable the coming of the Lord: our 1st reading spoke of how, at past time, the people had atoned for their sins and so the Lord would come to them (Isa 40:1-5.9-11); and our Gospel text has John the Baptist’s call to repentance to “prepare a way for the Lord”(Mk 1:1-8).

The joyful coming of the Lord will not happen unless we first ready ourselves by being purified of our sins. That’s why this is season is particularly important for going to confession, and is why we’ll be having our usual penitential service this Friday night with 4 visiting priests here to hear your confessions.

But in order to confess our sins we first need to see our sins, and this is always a problem. Comfort and complacency and self-deceit all prevent us seeing our sins accurately, and that’s why it takes an effort to examine our consciences, and that’s why we need help to do so, and is why I’ve given you again a copy of a sheet I handed out a year or so ago. I was asked recently about a question on that list, “Have I gone to sleep on time?” Someone wanted to know how that could be a sin, so let me try and explain –because it illustrates a great many other things.

Going to sleep -Of course, some things are beyond our control in terms of getting sleep, like illness or needing to care for a child. But nonetheless we do have a great deal of control, and therefore a great deal of responsibility, for planning and achieving our amount of sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is important in order for us to be able to function the next day.

But let me amplify this further in saying why it is important, and important to God, that you're able to function during the day. The point that we all need to have clear before ourselves is that our life is not our own -my life belongs to God and your life belongs to God. As the parable of the talents that we heard not that long ago reminded us, what we have is on loan to us from God, and we will have to render an account to Him of how we used what we have been loaned:
how we have used our abilities, how we have used our time, how we have used our opportunities, how we have used our initiative -whether we have failed to look to see the many ways that we could be helping others, the ways we could volunteer our time and service to others.
And none of these things happen by accident, they take planning and thought, which is why there are other questions on examination of conscience making that very point.
As Scripture puts it, “you have been bought and paid for”(1Cor 6:20), and so we each need to be living a life that is worthy of being offered to God as “a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1).
There is another aspect to this too: our lives and the details of our lives have a vastly increased dignity because they belong to God. Even what might seem like small mundane things have actually a great DIGNITY and value, a value because they have value in GOD’s sight. So, something like washing the dishes, which I never get excited about doing, I can resolve to do this well, resolve to do this with dignity, and OFFER it to God, as part of being a “living sacrifice” offered to Him.

Sometimes, maybe when we’re alone and being a bit scruffy, simply picking ourselves up, using the day the best we can, sometimes just doing a single thing with quality and effort, and then OFFERING this to the Almighty, this very fact can give dignity and meaning to our lives -as well as simply doing the more basic thing of using the talents that God has given us as a living sacrifice to Him.
But none of this, none of this using our time and abilities well, none of this can be done if we we’re not rested –thus the duty to get a good night’s sleep.

To come to back where I began. The purple of Advent signifies a preparation for the white of Christmas. And to prepare a way for the Lord we must purify ourselves of sin. We must see our sins, confess our sins, and being reconciled the Lord will leave us ready for His coming, a coming that “only our sins delay”.

The examination of conscience referred to in the sermon can be viewed at:

and as a Word document at:

Sunday, 27 November 2011

1st Sunday of Advent, Year B, Shaftesbury

If you've been following the news, and in particular if you are a follower of science, you will probably noticed a big controversy recently. Supposedly, scientists have sent a little particle called a neutrino travelling at faster than the speed of light, which is something that Einstein and his theory of relativity said wasn't possible.

I've heard it said that there are only three people in the world who understand the theory of relativity, I’m not one of the three, so please don't expect me to explain it to you today! However, I do want to offer you a reflection on the question of time, particularly as it relates to Advent. The theory of relativity, if I remember it correctly, states that every measurement of time is relative, depending on the position of the observer, and in particular depending on the velocity an observer is moving at relative to another observer. Philosophically, this raises the question of whether there is really such a thing as universal time at all, and philosophers have tied themselves in knots about this ever since Einstein.

What, however, does this have to do with you and me, and Advent?
Advent is a season of the Church's year, more than any other time of the year, when we think about TIME: we think about the past and the future and how they affect us in the present. We think about how, in the past, there was a preparation for the first coming of Jesus in His birth. We think about the future, about how Christ will come the second time in glory, as we heard Him referring to in our gospel passage today (Mk 13:33-37). And, we think about how this affects the present, in how we need to make Christ present here today.

Many philosophers have remarked about how Christianity, more than any other religion, has a linear notion of time, of there being the connection between the past and the future, of there being a direction, a linear direction, a goal to which all of creation is heading, namely, the time of the Second Coming of Christ, what we heard St Paul refer to as "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ"(I Cor 1:9).

If what Christ claims is true, namely, that the cosmos was created through Him, that it was created in order that He might enter it, that His first coming was prepared for in a particular way in the events of the Old Testament, and, that all of creation awaits with eager longing for His Second Coming in glory. If this is true, then the point with respect to which all time is relative is Christ.
So, what gives meaning to my life in the present, what gives meaning to my experience of time today, is my relationship to Christ. In particular, my relationship to how His first coming is being made effective in my life, effective in my life in my reception in His sacraments, effective in my life in my living Divine charity, effective in my life in such a way that my life is a preparation for my being ready for His Second Coming. How I live in relationship to the past and the future gives meaning to my today.

Let me explain this with a simple illustration. Many children are already counting the days until Christmas. Many of these children are yearning not so much Christ but for the presents under the tree. The whole of December can be a state of longing for those Christmas presents. But there are two ways that a child can be excited about Christmas presents. There is a type of OVER-excitement that are so focused on Christmas that they fail to enjoy today, and that obviously would be a loss. But there can be another type of excitement where the anticipation of Christmas brings a whole season of joy and expectation that gives greater meaning to the days preparing for Christmas. That manner, of expectation of the future changing how we live in the present, is exactly how we are supposed to make the Second Coming change how we adults live our present every day.

To come back to where I began: I don't know whether a neutrino really has travelled faster than the speed of light, I don't know whether Einstein's theory of relativity has been disproven. But even if all time is relative at the subatomic level, at the cosmic level there is such a thing as a universal measure of time, because there is one event that all time is measured in relation to, and that event is the coming of Christ. And it is the preparation of that event that this season of Advent aims to bring about.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Christ the King, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 25:31-46
I want to say a few words today about something important, something the importance of which I was reminded of just this week, namely, the fact that it is not you or I who decides what is right or wrong but God. And it is because of that that He is the one who will judge us.
At the end of time, as we heard in that gospel passage, the Son of Man will return in glory, escorted by the Angels, sit upon His throne, and He will judge the nations and judge us before Him.

Now, being judged is not a very modern egalitarian image of Christ to have. If we approach this from the contemporary perspective we might well expect somebody to say words to the effect of fifth, "What right does He have to judge us?" What right does He have to tell us what we should do? What right does He have to tell us what we should have done? As the popular phrase goes, "You're not the boss of me. No one is the boss of me. I'm the boss of me."
I was thinking about this in particular this week when I gave a talk to a group of people, a talk about knowing the difference between right and wrong, and it soon became clear that most of them thought that it was entirely up to them to decide what was right and what was wrong. The thought that God had already established but was right or wrong hadn't really occurred to them.

The Lord Jesus will judge us according to our behaviour, according to whether we have done right or whether we have done wrong. He will judge us according to what HE says is right or wrong, and His claim to have the right to do this is that it is HIS world that we live in. God has created this world, made it according to His Wisdom and plan, and the fulfilment of everything in this world, including you and me, the fulfilment of every action depends on being in accordance with His Wisdom. If I say that something is "right" when in fact it is contrary to His Wisdom, contrary to what He says, then I'm wrong.
And, He hasn't made it difficult for us to know what is right or wrong, He has given us the gift of reason to discern His Will, in addition, when He came down from heaven to earth He gave us His example to show us what is right and wrong, and He also gave us His teaching to show us those same truths.
So, to consider the example that this gospel passage focused on, namely, care for those in need, the hungry, the thirsty, etc. Reason alone can deduce that my needy neighbour is made in the same image as I am and has a claim to be treated as I wish to be treated myself. The example of Jesus shows us that He cared most especially for those who are most in need. And His teaching told us that we must do the same.

The Lord Jesus has made it clear to us what we must do, how we must live, what is right and what is wrong. But let me make this further point, He has told us how we must live not so much for His benefit as for ours. It is for our good, our purpose, our fulfilment, that we live according to His Wisdom, according to what He says is right or wrong.
And His judgement at the end of time will simply manifest and proclaim what we have made ourselves to be by our own actions, by our own doing or not doing what is truly right or wrong. If we have been selfish and not caring then His judgement will manifest that this is the kind of person we have become. Conversely, if we have been loving and caring, and have fulfilled ourselves in His image, by His grace, then His judgement will manifest that that is what we have become.
And for some of us this manifestation will come as a surprise: the human capacity for self deceit and pride, to lie to ourselves about what we truly are, perhaps even to give to poor but with bad motives, means that we cannot presume to know how we will be judged. It is His world, He made it, and He will judge it and us within it.

There are those who say there is no God, that there is no one who has established the world, that there is no purpose to life other than what we make of it, that there is no one who has established what is right and wrong, that there is no King who will come to judge. While today's feast of Christ the King, and the portrait of Christ is judge in today's gospel, is one with stern consequences, is also one to give thanks for, because His role as King and judge is what gives solidity, purpose and direction to our lives and the lives of all humanity, if we will but turn to Him.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 25:14-30
We just heard the parable of "the talents". Its message is very simple: that we must use the gifts that God has given us, and use them well.

Let me start with a comparison: I've been thinking a lot about the martyrs of ancient Rome recently. As most of you know a group of 20 of us recently went to Rome on our parish youth pilgrimage, and we saw many of the sites of ancient Rome, and chief among them for a Christian are the sites where the early Christians were martyred, put to death: the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, and so forth. Each of those martyrs sacrificed the greatest "talent" that they'd been given by God, namely, their very lives. They chose to be martyred rather than deny Christ. Many of those martyrs were martyred at a very young tender age, an age when what they were sacrificing would have seemed it all the more poignant –they had not lived long enough to use their lives for anything in particular.
And yet, the point I want draw your attention to is that the early church CELEBRATED their deaths, celebrated their martyrdoms, rejoiced that they had put their lives to this use. They had taken their lives, that “talent”, and laid it down in martyrdom.

Human existence is full of examples of people who manifested the truth that often the greatest use we can make of our life is to lay down in sacrifice for someone else. Today, being Remembrance Sunday, is a day when we recall in a particular way those who have lost their lives in warfare, and those who have lost their lives in many DIFFERENT ways in warfare. Most typically, we recall those who died bravely sacrificing themselves for others. Those who took the "talent" of life and used it to the full.
But we also recall those who had the “talent” of life taken from them in violence.
And both such types of death call on us who live to use our lives well, to use our talents well, to not waste them, to not fritter them away by doing nothing in particular.

Today’s gospel parable of the “talents” is given to us by the church for this Sunday on a cycle that is quite independent of the fact we keep Remembrance Sunday in England today. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this is a fitting connection.

We all have talents, and yet we all know it is easy to waste our talents. We can tell ourselves, like the man in the parable who had only one talent not 10, we can tell ourselves that our talents are not enough to be worth using. And yet, the very obvious point that the Lord is making to us is that it does not matter how GREAT our talents are, what matters is how FULLY we use them –not least because it is for this that will be rewarded in the next life.
Today's parable gives us a rather frightening motivation to use even our small talents -the fact that will be held accountable for how we use or fail to use them. But we would do well to remember also the lesson of the widow’s might, of the woman that Jesus praised for being more generous than others even though all she had to give were her last few coins.

As we recall today on Remembrance Sunday the great loss of life in warfare, let us ask ourselves how well we are using our talents, how much we are laying them down in service to others, whether we are living our lives as worthy of being offered to God as "a living sacrifice"(Rom 12:1).

Sunday, 6 November 2011

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

1 Thess 4:13-18
This time last week I was still in [or only just returned from] ‘the Eternal City’ of Rome, with our parish youth pilgrimage. While we were there we saw many things, and one of the important things we saw was the ancient catacombs, and I want to say a few words to you about them, for 2 reasons. First, we’re now in the month of November, the month the Church calls us on us to remember the dead, and second, as an example of what we heard St Paul refer to in our second reading, of how to mourn those we have lost, but mourn them with hope and faith, not mourn them with the lack of hope that characterises those without faith.

Back to the catacombs. For those of you who don’t know, the Roman catacombs are the ancient long tunnels in which people were buried. The tunnels are very long: we visited those of St Callistus which consists of 12 miles of tunnels, with half a million graves, each consisting of a niche in the wall, originally covered with marble slabs. Some of these graves were in rooms with elaborate frescos painting religious images conveying their Christian faith in the resurrection. More than this, however, the catacombs were also places where the Christians went to pray –to pray for those who had died, to offer Mass for them. A good number of the ancient martyrs, like St Callistus himself, were actually captured while at Mass in the catacombs, at prayer, and we had the privilege of similarly offering Mass down there.

The point I want to make is this: these elaborate efforts made surrounding death reflected what they believed, and reflected their hope for those who had died.
Most of the pagan Romans did not bury their dead –they cremated them, their ashes scattering as symbol of their dissolution into nothingness in death. For the pagans who did believe in life after death, they typically believed it to be a place of shades, shadows and darkness, a lesser place than this world –most certainly not a place of hope, most certainly not a place you want to go to
In contrast, though the Christian catacombs are dark tunnels they nonetheless proclaimed a confident faith in a place of light and victory beyond death.

It is worth thinking for a moment about our own attitudes to death. Is it something we view with fear of the unknown? Is it something we view with superstition, so that we would be afraid to walk through a cemetery at night? –such attitudes were said to characterise the pagan Romans, unlike the Christian Romans who did not fear to go down into the catacombs.
For ourselves, in as much as we have a definite faith in what death involves, it should not be something of superstition. Whereas, in as much as our faith is vague, then death will be a matter of superstition for us too.

A key part of keeping our faith definite is by making our PRACTICE definite, and in this I would return again to the witness of the Early Christians praying for the dead. To add a personal note, one of the things for which I am very grateful is that my mother and grandparents instilled in me a regular practice of praying for those who had died. I would mentally name and pray for them at Mass, deceased neighbours, deceased family. And this practice gave me a clear sense that I was still united with these people, that my prayers helped these people: helped them by imploring mercy in the Judgement, and helped them by both strengthening them in the midst of their purifications in Purgatory and by helping speed them through those purifications to Heaven. And that definite practice of praying for the dead helped form my faith in what death is about.
And, to come back to those words of St Paul, about grieving with hope, and not “like those other people who have no hope”. Of course we grieve when loved ones die, we grieve because we have been physically separated from them, at least for a time. But to grieve with hope is very different to grieving without hope –and it is hope that we are called to.

So, to return to what those catacombs teach us. They teach us respect for the bodies of those who have died, because we believe that they will rise again to the resurrection of the body. They teach us to pray for those who have died, to aid them on their way. And they teach us about that destination we hold in view –a place of light and refreshment, the light of faith even amidst the dark tunnels of the catacombs.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

on Mt 23:1-12
One of the cattiest insults that can be hurled at us is the accusation that we, that you or that I, are "two-faced". That what I say to one person is not the same as what I say to someone else. That I pretend to some people to be one thing, and I pretend to other people to be something else. And, of course, one way of being two-faced is being a hypocrite -not living out the beliefs that I pretend to. Hypocrisy is something that the Lord condemned very frequently, as we just heard an example.

The opposite of being two-faced is being one-faced. Having one face, my real face. And this one face being the same face that I show to everyone. It is the same face because it is the face that reveals the same real me.
To achieve that, my life needs to be a consistent unity. I must be the same person in everything that I do. I can't pretend to be one kind of person when I'm doing one thing, or with one group of people, and really be something else.
Which means that I must strive to possess the virtue of integrity.

To consider for a moment what that would look like in practice:
Although I must be the same person in everything that I do, this doesn’t mean that I cannot do different things. I can be the same consistent person and still act differently in different situations. In a hospital I must be able to rejoice with the mother of a new baby, and still be able, the next minute, to be sad with someone who has just lost a loved relative, and, yet I must also be the same person who enjoys a drink in the pub.

I can do different thing in different places, as the need calls for. But I am still called to be the same person in all the different things that I do.
I am called to be a WHOLE person.
The alternative is to have a split personality, one face on Sunday, another face the rest of the week. To be a person that is made up of several conflicting parts that only just about hang together. And in as much as that it true of us it produces internal conflict. Conflict arising from the different needs of the different personalities within me. It produces stress. Stress that arises from our insincerity, our lack of integrity.
So, being insincere is bad for us.

Conversely, by seeking sincerity, I am not only obeying our Lord's command to practice what I preach, I am also acting for my own good.
When I am consistently the same person, rather than several different people inside me, then I will be naturally rewarded with peace of soul. The kind of internal peace that was enjoyed by Jesus Christ, and by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Peace that results from the absence of sin. Peace that results from the absence of hypocrisy, from not being two-faced.

This internal peace is a gift that we can only receive from Jesus Christ. As He said to His disciples, "Peace I leave you, my own peace I give you, a peace which the world cannot give"(Jn 14:27). The peace of Jesus comes with the gift of His grace. Grace which makes us a whole united person. Which binds together the conflicting parts within us. Making us one person, with one face.

So, in as much as we feel that conflict within us, feel that being a different person with different people, let us bring our dividedness to the Lord, let us ask for His grace to help us practice what we preach, to be people of integrity, people with one face, not two.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:34-40
Last week’s sermon was very interesting for me, and you know, sometimes a sermon can be more interesting to the preacher than to the congregation! It was interesting to me because although I thought it was not interesting, nonetheless, judging from people’s attention and comments afterwards it was something that at least many of you the congregation found interesting.
I preached last week about “rendering unto God what is God’s”, and about justice in general, and about how there are various things that we OWE in justice to God, to the poor, to our family members.
Two interesting questions were put to me afterwards, one asked, If we are acting in justice, where does that leave love? And another asked, if we’re acting out of justice, does that give any joy?
Which isn’t a bad introduction to today’s Gospel with the command of love.

Now, it sometimes happens that we can bristle at the sound of a “command” to love? Surely, it might seem, we love someone simply because we love them, not because we are commanded to love them.
This, actually, takes me to a very important point: There are different kinds of love.

I can love with a very minimal love, a love that renders unto another what I owe him, but does not go beyond what I owe him. This is the love of justice. And it is possible to have a minimal but nonetheless real love.
St Thomas Aquinas makes the point that God has given us the ‘precept’, the COMMAND to love because there IS a level of love that we owe in justice (ST II-II q44 a1). My point in last week’s sermon was to indicate that there are many things that we OWE in justice, in this first degree of love.
It has often been said: The reason why the Ten Commandments are mainly specified in a negative format, “Do not...”, is because they point to the lower limit of love (c.f. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993) n.13). Love has a lower limit, when we fail to love, but there is no upper limit –we cannot love too much, though we can love in a disordered way.

But there is also another degree of love, a love that goes beyond what I am required to give, and gives even more. Gives more time, more effort, more care, more money, and so forth. This is a love beyond justice, a love which fulfils justice even as it transcends it.

There are some other things that we associate with love, however, and chief among them are joy and reciprocity.
When we are in love there is a natural overflow of JOY that we experience, be it in love of spouse, of friend, or of God. Joy is an effect of charity (ST II-II q28 a1).
But, probably most characteristically of all, we think of love, and of ‘being in love’, in terms of a love that is returned. This is not the only form of love –we can love an enemy. But it is what we most associate with love. This is what Aristotle called the ‘love of friendship’ when we not only will good to someone, not only have them will good back to us, but we each know that this goodwill is reciprocated. (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Bk VIII, chpt 2, 1155b30, c.f. Aquinas, ST II-II q23 a1)

This, precisely, is the form of love that the Lord Jesus invites us to. To have the love of friendship with God. (c.f. ST II-II q23 a1)
This includes certain basic things, like what justice demands in the various acts of religion, like coming to Mass each and every Sunday.
But, the love of friendship, to love God as a friend, seeking not merely to avoid falling below the minimum set in the Ten Commandments, means to love Him “with our whole heart, and soul, and strength”, such that we love all things that He loves, such that we love our neighbour, our spouse, everyone, even more than we would love them otherwise.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:15-21
We just heard the Lord Jesus tell us that we must, "render unto God what is God's"(Mt 22:21). I want to say a few words today about how prayer, and different kinds of prayer, are part of what we owe to God. When I last preached on this gospel text, when at last came up three years ago, I preached about our duty to “render unto Caesar”, and the interrelationship between God and Caesar, the state. And there are many important points that can be made about this text, but today I want to focus on the primary point, namely, rendering to God what is God's.

As I just said, prayer is one of the things that we must "render unto God". And I say this because it can be a useful reminder of something that we often forget, namely, that there are things we OWE to God. The virtue of ‘justice’ consists in the ready inclination of rendering unto others what is due to them (Aquinas, ST II-II q58 a1; Catechism 1807). I owe it to ‘Caesar’, and through him to the wider society around me as it is served by various state institutions, I owe it to my neighbour that I pay my taxes, that I declare my income honestly, that I don't try to fiddle all my books. And there are all kinds of things that, as a matter of JUSTICE we owe to others. Within a family a father or mother OWES a duty to care for their children. Further, we owe it as a duty that we should give ‘charity’ to those in need -the poor have a claim of duty on the wealth of the rich, and even on those who not ‘rich’, it is not merely a matter of generosity from those who have to those who have not (the word ‘charity’ can sometimes disguise this truth).

The additional point I wish to remind us of today is that there are, similarly, things that we owe to God as a matter of justice. What the saints classically grouped as the virtue of ‘religion’ includes all of those things that we owe directly to God as a matter of justice to Him.
Now, why am I wanting to make a point about this? Well, because I think most of the time when we get around to praying, we tend to think that we are doing something special, that are doing something unusually generous, and we often forget that actually this is just something that we OWE to God as a matter of justice.

For example, when my alarm went off at six o'clock, and when I stumbled out of bed and down the stairs to the church to pray, it may well have been that I wasn't thinking to profoundly about much at all! But my point is that I frequently neglect to think that my struggling down to the church to pray is not merely some kind of super generous act on my part, but is simply something that I owe to God.
Part of the reason, I think, why we tend not to think about prayer as a DEBT of justice is that it is easy to tell ourselves that there are so many DIFFERENT WAYS that we can pray during the day that for most people they could tell themselves that none of these PARTICULAR forms are an obligation of justice. And yet, the rendering of SOME form of REGULAR daily prayer IS a debt of justice we owe to God. And, the commitment to some form of a regular PLAN of prayer is likewise a debt of justice that we owe Him.

And, of course, there are certain forms of prayer that are so essential to our Christian living that they are, for all of us, not something for us to choose but a debt of justice we must pay. Most particularly, the obligation to attend Mass each and every Sunday. "On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass." "The precept of participating in the Mass is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day." (CCC 2180) The Mass is THE definitive prayer Christ gave us, saying “do THIS in memory of me”; Sunday Mass is THE prayer that has defined Christian practice down the centuries, it is THE practice that the martyrs risked death rather than fail to attend, to quote one example: "Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord's Supper, because it cannot be missed; that is our law” (Martyrs of Abitina, quoted by John Paul II, Encyclical Dies Domini, n. 46). See also:

So, in conclusion, the next time we pray, let us remember that this is not just some super generous act on our part before God, but this is something that we owe Him in justice. He has given us life and breath and everything we have, and prayer is just one of the things we owe Him if we are to, "render unto God what is God's"(Mt 22:21).

Sunday, 9 October 2011

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 22:1-14; Isa 25:6-10a
Sometimes I’m good, but sometimes I can’t be bothered, and I think this is a phenomenon that most people would recognise in themselves.
I make this observation because we heard in the gospel today the Lord Jesus give the parable in which an invitation was made to something great, and yet most of those were invited could not be bothered. Some of those were invited reacted violently, but others, and I would suggest to you that if this is a model of real life, then this was the majority, of the majority of the others it doesn't say that they REJECTED the invitation, it doesn't say that they despised the person who gave it, it just says, "but they were not interested: one went off to his farm, another to his business"(Mt 22:5) and so forth.
And so the Church gives us readings today to reissue this invitation to us, with two rather different reasons as to WHY we should respond to this invitation: from the New Testament, a threat of punishment of those who do not respond, and from the Old Testament, a reminder of the beauty and promise that awaits those who do respond to the invitation.

The parable that Jesus gave uses a common scriptural image of the wedding feast. The symbolism inherent in this is that the wedding is between God and His chosen people, which in the new covenant means the Church, means that body of people that you and I belong to.
The banquet, as we had spelt out in that text from the Prophet Isaiah, the banquet is not just about food. Yes, the satisfaction food gives is offered to us as a symbol, but a symbol of a much deeper satisfaction, including the satisfaction that will come when all of the suffering and limitations of this world are removed: “He will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples... He will destroy Death forever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek”(Isa 25:7-8). And the destruction of Death is the ultimate symbol of the destruction of all that is wrong with this life.

It is perhaps something of an understatement to say that it is hard to imagine anything greater that we could be invited to. And yet, so often we can be slow to respond.
As the Lord Jesus said in that parable, invitations were sent again and again, just as the prophets were sent again and again to the chosen people of Israel, and down the centuries the saints have risen up in the Church calling us to repentance again and again, and as the Pope today travels to country after country repeating the invitation again and again.

According to the parable, those were originally invited failed to respond, as Jesus put it "those were invited proved to be unworthy"(Mt 22:8). They were destroyed, and others were invited in their place.
In the early Church they would've had a profound awareness of how they had replaced the Jewish people, however, the final part of the parable is addressed to any feeling of complacency that might exist in the Church: we need to have a wedding garment if we are to enter the feast. In the Jewish tradition the wedding garment was supposedly a symbol of the good works that the faithful clothe themselves with. If we would enter that perfection, if we would feast in that banquet, then we need to clothe ourselves the wedding garment of the virtuous life.

As I started by saying, sometimes I’m good, and sometimes I can’t be bothered.
If we want to ‘be bothered’ then let us remember who is inviting us, and the greatness of what we are being invited to. Otherwise, the words spoken by our Lord might apply to us, “many are called, but few are chosen”(Mt 22:14).

Sunday, 2 October 2011

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Isa 5:1-7; Ps 79; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43
“The vineyard of the Lord is the House of Israel”(Isa 5:7; Ps 79:9) –I want to say a word today about how that phrase can apply to me, to you, and to the Church as a whole.

I am the Lord’s “vineyard”. I’ve if been thinking about this concept this week with respect to various difficulties I’ve had. “Pride goeth before the fall”(Prov 16:18), and maybe I’ve been overly content with many things in my life and many things in this parish, and maybe the Lord thought it is time to bring me down a peg. Maybe the Lord is pruning and disciplining me, as Scripture tells us He did to His vineyard Israel.

We heard in our first reading in the Prophet Isaiah about how the Lord loved and cared for His vineyard Israel, His chosen people the Jews, lavished great things upon them, and yet that vineyard produced nothing but “sour grapes”. So, what was the Lord going to do next? He was going to bring devastation upon His vineyard as punishment.
Now, we know elsewhere from Scripture, and it's a crucially important truth to remember, we know that God never DIRECTLY wills any evil. He created the world perfect, He did not create evil or suffering, and even now He never directly wills them.
Yet, it is also a truth of Scripture that the evil He permits to happen is somehow part of His plan. And with respect to His “vineyard”, it is part of His CARE for His vineyard. As the Lord Jesus Himself said, the vine dresser PRUNES His vine (Jn 15:2) –not out of spite, but to make it yield fruit. And as St Paul says, “the Lord disciplines every son He receives”(Heb 12:6) –BECAUSE He loves the son.

Pruning is never something that we readily accept, just as no child readily accepts discipline. And yet the vine that is not lovingly and caringly pruned will not properly grow, and the child that is not disciplined will likewise grow into something much less than he could have been.
It is always a risky venture to attempt to read the mind of God, to attempt to know WHY God has allowed THIS particular thing to happen to me, now, in these circumstances -while we live in this world there are many things we simply do not know.
I might think that God has allowed certain failures, certain difficulties, certain things I have got wrong, in order to humble me -but there may be other reasons, and so while it is always good, anyway, to learn humility, the Lord probably has other things He's working through this too, and I should be wary of restricting my own interpretation of events.

Nonetheless, to repeat, it is an important truth of the Faith to know that the Lord DOES have a plan, that He does know what He is about, and that therefore we should ENTRUST ourselves to Him.
When we entrust ourselves to Him it means that we face difficulties in a different way. It means that we face them in the confidence of what Scripture says: "all things work to the good for those who love the Lord”(Rom 8:28).
It means that I don't allow the disappointments of this life to leave me in a spirit of dejection.
It means that I keep my eyes on the prize, Heaven, life with Him.
And that I do this knowing that I'm somehow “chosen” by God as His special "vineyard", as someone He is cultivating and working on, leading me from imperfection to opportunities to move beyond those imperfections, beyond my sins –to not not yield “sour grapes” but “deliver produce to him”(Mt 21:43).

So, as St Paul reassured us in our second reading, "There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving,... Then the God of peace will be with you"(Phil 4:6-9).

Sunday, 25 September 2011

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Phil 2:1-11
I'd like today to share a thoughts with you about one of the reasons why I think the human “personality” of the Lord Jesus must have been so attractive, namely, why His humility is one of the most attractive things about Him.

Whenever we meet someone there are certain things about that person that will attract us and certain things that will not -and key among the attractive things is a person’s humility.

There are, of course, a number of things that characterise humility, but I don't today wish to dwell on its technical definition. But rather to think about that aspect of lowliness, of willing to be low, that is characteristic of humility.
If you think of the opposite of humility, namely pride -this is a deeply unattractive thing to see and someone. The proud man has a high opinion of himself, his thoughts revolve around himself, and he's not thinking about YOU, and your needs, and your interests.

In contrast, the humble person is willing to allow himself to be low down, lowdown on other people's priorities, low down even on his own list of priorities. The humble person has his thoughts revolved not around himself but around the needs of OTHER people.
And, when we meet such a person, when we meet a person who is so habitually thinking of others that he is therefore also thinking of YOU, this is a deeply attractive thing to see in someone.

Now, to return to Christ. St Paul, in our second reading from the letter to the Philippians, was commending to them certain attitudes and dispositions that they should cultivate, certain things that he said we find in the Lord Jesus. He said that we should be "self-effacing" that we should "always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first that everybody thinks of other people's interests instead”. And this is exactly what he pointed out we see in Christ Jesus:
"His state was divine,
yet He did not cling to His equality with God,
but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave,
and became as men are;
and being as all men are,
He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross"(Phil. 2).

There is no greater example of putting other people’s interests before your own than that of the Lord Jesus Himself.
The self-effacing nature of Jesus is perhaps even more clearly seen when we realise that, as God, He has no "interests" at all. He is perfectly self-sufficient and content within Himself, in His infinite and eternal perfection, He has no “needs”. There is no sense at all in which He "needed" us to love Him, “needed” us to come back to Him, “needed” us to be saved. He did it all for OUR benefit, not His.
And this, I think, manifests the depth of His self-effacing lowliness more than anything else.
So, when the crowds flocked to Jesus one of the most attractive aspects of His “personality” that must have shone out to them would have been the way He thought not of His own interests but of theirs.

And what should we conclude from this?
Surely, that this is a way of life worth emulating, that we can be truly attractive as He was.
And ironically, lowering ourselves, thinking of the needs of others before our own, is ultimately in our own "interests" anyway -because we will be raised up as Christ was raised up to the extent that we lower ourselves as He lowered Himself.
Therefore, as St Paul said, "let the same mind be in us as it was in Christ Jesus".

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Harvest Festival, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 18th Sept 2011, Shaftesbury

Mt 20:1-16; Isa 55:6-9
Today we are keeping our annual "harvest festival" when we give thanks to God for the gifts we received in the harvest, and, through that, for all the gifts we have received.
This year, in particular, I want to make reference to the warning we received in the words from our Lord, the warning against envy -envy of what others have received their harvest.

Most of us are quite aware that many of the things we receive in life we receive as a result of our labours. And yet, we can often also be aware that we do not receive the same amount as other people who seem to do the same amount of work. Sometimes we can feel just like those labourers mentioned in today's gospel: that we have worked long and hard, that we have worked under the heat of the sun, and yet we have little or less than others we see.

How should this make us feel? One way that it CAN make us feel is ENVIOUS. Envy, according to the definition of the great St Thomas Aquinas, who is quoted by the catechism on this point, "envy is sadness at the sight of another's goods" (CCC 2553; ST II-II q36): I see my neighbour has something that I do not have, and I feel SAD that he has it, because I somehow imagine that the fact that he has something means that I therefore do not have that same thing. All of us, if we are honest, have had this feeling at least sometimes.

I want to point out two things about envy. First, envy is a very destructive thing in that it gives birth to a whole plethora of other sins, thus envy is called a ‘capital’ sin. At its worst, envy of my neighbour leads to hatred of my neighbour. Second, I want to point out the envy does not bring us happiness: this SADNESS at the good of another only increases within us if we do not attempt to restrain it, and this sadness does us no good.

There are two alternative ways that I can respond to seeing that my neighbour has some good that I do not have. If I love my neighbour, I can rejoice for his sake that he has this good thing –even if I do not. Also, to come back to the point the Lord made in today's gospel, I can remind myself that everything I have I have only because of the generosity of the Lord. Even those things that I have as a consequence of my labours, even those things I only have because I have used the things that were first GIVEN to me, and more: my very work I only do thanks to the grace from the Lord that gives me the strength to do it.
ALL is gift; we have no ability to make claims on God. And this is something we need to remind ourselves of again and again and again.

This said, we are THINKING beings, and we do so easily let our thoughts churn away at imagining how WE think God should do things. At such times, we can do well to repeat to ourselves the words we heard in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, that that "my thoughts are not your thoughts... my thoughts [are] above your thoughts”(Isa 55:9). In this context, what I mean by this is that it is good to remember that the Lord DOES have His reasons –we shall see them fully in the next world, and even in this world it is good to remember that often someone who SEEMS to have more actually has less, or has less of other things, or has less of the things that matter MOST -like the spiritual goods last forever.

So, as we recall the harvest today, let us give thanks to God for the gift of the harvest that WE have, and, let us not look at what OTHERS have, and if we do look, let us not give way to envy, let us not be sad at our neighbour’s good, rather let us rejoice with our neighbour in the good that he has.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Friday Abstinence and Mortal Sin

On May 14th the Bishops of England and Wales announced that they are re-establishing the requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays, effective 16th September 2011. As indicated below, this means that it is now a sin, and sometimes even a mortal sin, to eat meat on Fridays. As our own Bishop Christopher Budd has explained in his Ad clerum of July 2011, this is now a matter of “precept”, i.e. a legally established moral obligation.

This blog post will focus on the question of sinfulness, a matter that has been less noted in recent discussions. More general postings on the topic of Friday abstinence are viewable on this blog here; a post on what exactly does and does not constitute ‘meat’ here; and on how a parish priest can dispense someone from the law here. There is similarly a useful post at Fr John Boyle’s blog here and at CUF here (though the CUF post concerns the American context where Friday abstinence is recommended but not obligatory). There are also some Lenten comments on the benefits of 'giving things up' here, here, here, here, and here.

Local Variation
The Church law concerning abstinence from meat on Fridays is a matter that can be determined locally by each national Bishops’ Conference for the Catholics of that region: Post-Vatican II, canons 1251 and 1253 gives each Bishops’ Conference the authority to substitute the universal law of Friday abstinence from meat with another local practice for the Catholics of that region. In 1985 the bishops of England and Wales (along with a number of other countries) determined that each person was to be allowed to decide for themselves which particular Friday penance they wished to perform, and this determination held until the present change:
At the May 2011 meeting of the Bishops' Conference the bishops made a series of resolutions including one that re-established that the canonical Friday penance is to be fulfilled by abstinence from meat: “the Bishops' Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake.” This resolution returns Catholics in our countries to the universal practice envisaged as normative in canon law. To consider the sinfulness of failing to observe Friday abstinence it is thus necessary to look at the universal law, a law which many of us are no longer familiar with because it has not been in force in England and Wales in recent years.

But what of mortal sin?
Before considering mortal sin with respect to Friday abstinence it’s important to briefly recall what holds for any mortal sin: For a sin to be sufficiently serious that it is ‘mortal’ there are three conditions that must hold: the matter itself must be grave (i.e. when considered in the abstract, apart from the person acting, the thing itself being done must be serious), the person acting needs to fully know what he or she is doing, and the person acting needs to give deliberate consent to what they are doing (CCC 1857). When sins are referred to in the abstract as ‘mortal’ it is always the matter of the sin that is being discussed.

Friday Abstinence and Grave Matter
In our modern society, and in the contemporary Church, the notion of penance has almost entirely faded from the popular consciousness. As a consequence, it is difficult for us to appreciate just how gravely important the pre-modern Christian Tradition considered penance to be. Yet, even a casual reading of saints and pre-modern scholars indicates a different set of priorities, and the pre-Conciliar teaching that breaking the law of Friday abstinence was 'grave matter' for mortal sin is something that can be found in any of the older Manuals of moral theology: The Manualists argued that the seriousness of the Christian obligation to do penance, combined with its specification by Church law, means that this is a matter of mortal sin. This said, they also argued that the matter of this sin is such that the quantity of meat eaten and the frequency with this is done would affect whether the sin concerned was a matter of venial sin or mortal sin. To consider another example, the sin of theft is also a mortal sin and one that similarly admits of what is called ‘parvity of matter’, i.e. if you are only stealing something small like a grape then the matter is not substantial enough for it to be the grave matter that constitutes a mortal sin. Concerning Friday abstinence, however, there was no consensus among the Manualists as to how much meat, or with what frequency, constituted 'grave matter' for mortal sin.

Post-Vatican II Reaffirmation
In the post-Conciliar period, the 1966 constitution Paenitemini (III.II.1) of Pope Paul VI re-affirmed that failure to make "substantial observance" of the law of Friday abstinence is grave matter, i.e. constitutes a mortal sin. Clarification was then sought in a dubium as to the meaning of “substantial”, resulting in a decree from the Sacred Congregation of the Council in 1967. The clarification interpreted “substantial” in such a manner that indicated that it was not just a matter of how much meat was eaten, or on how many days, but also a matter of such things as the differing significance of different days of penance, for example, eating meat on Good Friday would be more serious than eating meat on a regular Friday. The clarification stated that "one sins gravely against the law, who, without an excusable cause, omits a notable part, quantitative or qualitative, of the penitential observance which is prescribed as a whole” (24 February 1967; reprinted in Canon Law Digest, vol. 6, pp. 684-85). The Latin text of this dubium can read here and an analysis in Canon Law Abstracts here. It might be noted that the Council's response does not give a precise answer to the question of ‘how much’ constitutes grave matter but it would seem to exclude a single Friday constituting a mortal sin, and also, by referring to a spectrum of quantity and quality, helpfully re-affirms the appropriateness of considering the above-mentioned principle of ‘parvity of matter’ to be relevant to Friday abstinence.

Can the Church ‘create’ sins to impose on us?
Before concluding, some comment needs to be made about the ability of the Church to create a law that binds us under pain of sin. Many people can accept the notion that the Church makes laws to regulate Church life, just as any society or club makes laws that govern its members. But does the Church really have the authority to ‘make’ a sin by establishing a law that it imposes on us? In short, yes, and this is what we see if we look back at the history and origins of the Church. In general, we can observe a pattern that holds for any Church precept: Divine Revelation gives us a general law that is made particular and concrete by a specific Church law in a particular time and place. Concerning fasting and abstinence, Divine law establishes the general precept that we need to do penance, a general precept this has been specified by particular Church precepts in varied ways through the Church’s history. The earliest post-Biblical record of the Church’s life is found in the late 1st century-early 2nd century document The Didache (‘The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’) and it records how the Church imposed on the early Christians the obligation to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. What this manifests is the fact that the early Church understood itself to have received from Christ the authority to command like this. As the Lord Jesus said to St Peter and the Apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”(Mt 16:19; 18:18), and, “He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me”(Lk 10:16). This ‘binding’ is imposed on us to lead us to salvation because we need concrete laws to guide us.

And so it that today the Catechism gives clear expression to the traditional “five precepts of the Church”, of which the fourth of these is “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church (CCC 2043)”.

Confusing Guidance? “a particular Friday” –and likely mis-readings
Finally, I would like to turn to some guidance notes issued in 2011 by the office of the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference, Fr Marcus Stock. Though these guidance notes no longer appear on the Bishops' Conference website they were widely quoted at the time. Q11 of those notes, I fear, was almost certain to be misunderstood. In general, the guidance notes are excellent and beautifully conveys the importance of Friday penance and abstinence. Concerning the matter of sin, however, the matter that has been the focus of the comments on this page, the guidance is seems likely to confuse. It cites the above-mentioned 1967 statement of the Sacred Congregation of the Council which indicates that sometimes eating meat on Friday is a venial sin not a mortal sin. The guidance notes then appear, at first reading, to make the unwarranted leap to the conclusion that, “Failure to abstain from meat on a particular Friday then would not constitute a sin” (Q11). However, having met and spoken at length to Fr Stock on this point, and having been shown the sources Fr Stock edited to produce his text, I am confident that his meaning does not substantially differ from what has been outlined in my previous comments above. Fr Stock means two things: First, he intends to refer to the fact that there will be exceptions when someone is not obliged to abstain on a Friday. For example, the law of abstinence does not apply on Solemnities (like Christmas) so it is not a sin to eat meat on “a particular Friday” that is a Solemnity. In addition, to use the classical terminology, those who are “physically and morally” unable to fulfil a law like the law of abstinence are thus not required to keep it –for example, someone who is ill and unable to get any sustenance other than meat. Second, concerning the source of the “gravity” of the obligation: the guidance notes argue that the source of the ‘gravity’ is from the general Divine precept to do penance and the general ecclesial precept to do penance on Friday, rather than from the further specification in the precept that this penance should take the particular form of abstinence from meat. I’m not sure this is a useful distinction to make, or that it is entirely accurate (surely a new specifying precept brings an accompanying new obligation to keep it -even if it is not a ‘greater’ obligation), but nonetheless the meaning of the guidance notes does not contradict the more general point that there is an obligation and that one sins by failing to keep it.

Summary of the Law
To conclude, the following summarises the re-established law as in now stands in England and Wales: “The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat [i.e. mammals and birds], but eggs, milk products, and condiments [i.e. seasonings] made from animal fat may be eaten. Fish [including shell fish] and all cold blooded animals may be eaten, e.g., frogs, clams, turtles, [snails] etc” (Paenitemini, III.III.1 (1966)). Unlike the pre-1966 legislation, meat-derived products and meat broth may be eaten –though a meat soup with large chunks of meat would seem to move from the category of broth to that of meat. The law of Friday abstinence from meat binds all those who are age 14 and older (Canon 1252) -unlike the law of fasting there is no upper age limit when the law of abstinence ceases to apply. The law of abstinence does not apply when a Solemnity falls on a Friday (canon 1251). "In individual cases, for a just reason", a parish priest can dispense one of his parishioners from the Friday abstinence (canon 1245).

In summary, eating meat on Friday is a sin (excluding Solemnities or serious grounds for exception such as illness), but whether it is a mortal sin or a venial one will depend on many factors, including the quantity of meat, the number of Fridays in question, and the significance of the particular Fridays in question.

Concerning the present legal situation:
“The days of penitence to be observed under obligation throughout the Church are all Fridays and Ash Wednesday, that is to say the first days of "Grande Quaresima" (Great Lent), according to the diversity of the rites. Their substantial observance binds gravely.” (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini (1966), III.II.1).
A 1967 decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Council interpreted the above cited statement of Pope Paul VI saying that the 'grave' obligation applies to "the whole complexus of penitential days to be observed . . . that is, one sins gravely against the law, who, without an excusable cause, omits a notable part, quantitative or qualitative, of the penitential observance which is prescribed as a whole" (24 February 1967; reprinted in Canon Law Digest, vol. 6, pp. 684-85). This decree is published in full here, with a canonical analysis in Canon Law Abstracts here.
Concerning the analysis in the pre-conciliar manuals:
“This precept binds under pain of grave sin, but a violation of it would not be a mortal sin unless an appreciable quantity of unlawful food were taken. Theologians are not agreed on what quantity is necessary to constitute grave matter, but, in the opinion of some, two ounces would be necessary and sufficient.” (Thomas Slater, A Manual of Moral Theology, Vol. 1, 4th edition (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1918), p.572.
“This law binds per se under pain of mortal sin because its matter is objectively important; but it admits of parvitas materiae.” (Antony Koch, A Handbook of Moral Theology, Vol. IV, 3rd ed, edited by Arthur Preuss (London: B. Herder, 1928), p.377).
“The laws of fasting and abstinence in themselves obliged gravely. Slight violations of them are only venial sins.” (Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, 15th edition, trans. Urban Adleman (Cork, Ireland: Percier Press, 1956), p.264).
“The obligation to abstain binds under pain of grievous sin but it admits of slight matter –equal to the size of a walnut = about four grammes.” (Dominic Prummer, Handbook of Moral Theology (Cork: Mercier Press, 1956), p.227)
“The violation of the law is in itself a grave sin...” (Henry Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology Vol 2, Heythrop Series II, 4th edition (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), p.437)

Friday Abstinence from Meat re-established in England and Wales

Bishops Re-Establish Friday Abstinence from Meat

On May 14th the bishops of England and Wales announced that they are re-establishing the requirement to abstain from meat on Fridays.
As Bishop Christopher Budd (who was our bishop at that time) explained in his Ad clerum of July 2011, this is now a matter of “precept”, i.e. a legally established moral obligation.

Why are the bishops of England and Wales re-establishing abstaining from meat on Fridays?
The bishops have given 3 reasons:
(1) First, Catholic identity. By all doing the same penance, even if it is a small penance, we are doing something together and establishing a common identity. The bishops “recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve” and that this will give Catholics “a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity”.
(2) Secondly, witness. This practice will be a “common witness” to our secular world about what we Catholics believe and practice, namely, the value of self-denial and of union with Christ on the Cross.
(3) Thirdly, and most importantly, this will help increase our general awareness of the importance of doing penance, especially Friday penance. In this regard it’s important to note that abstaining from meat is the minimum we are being called to do. All of the other voluntary Friday penances that were previously recommended to us are still things for us to consider (in addition): abstaining from chocolate, or a dessert, or TV etc. Or, the type of penance involved in sacrificing our spare time to help others. Or, adding additional prayer to our Friday routine. In Lent we die and rise with Christ by our self-denial in ‘giving things up for Lent’. Friday penance carries some of this spirit and some of this benefit into the rest of the year.

Why the reversal?
After a quarter of a century of experiencing the effect of permitting us to eat meat on Fridays it seems that the bishops feel that the effect wasn’t what they intended: they didn’t intend the loss of Catholic identity and witness, and, more directly, they didn’t intend the change to be misinterpreted in the way that many of us did: many of us took the permission to eat meat on Fridays as a sign that we no longer needed to do any penance at all on Fridays, whereas, the intention was that we should all choose a variety of different penances but still do penance. Now, we have a basic penance of not eating meat that is required of us and we can choose additional penances as is suitable.

What will this mean for us in practice?
Not eating meat on Fridays will involve a significant shift in many of our habits. For one thing, we’ll have to plan to have non-meat food in the house for Fridays, i.e. a vegetarian option or fish. Also, if you’re being invited to dinner at a friend’s house on a Friday you’ll need to say that you’ll need a non-meat dish (this is something that vegetarians have to do all the time). Similarly, at public gatherings like buffets, there may well be occasions when we find that a non-meat dish isn’t provided and we’ll have to do the penance of just have more vegetables etc.

Does the Church really have the right to impose a law on us?
In our modern world we’re often used to thinking that no-one has the right to tell us what to do. However, by being Catholics we’re buying into a different way of thinking. Or course, any society has rules that organise its members, for their good and for the common good of the society. In the Church, the source of authority comes from Jesus Christ who appointed St Peter and the Apostles saying, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”(Mt 16:19; 18:18), and, “He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me”(Lk 10:16). Thus, the apostles (and their successors the bishops) made laws, and in the early Church, we can read a First Century record of how such laws included the requirement for the early Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (The Didache 8).

What exactly does the new law require?
As of Friday 16th September 2011 Catholics in England and Wales will be required to abstain from meat on Fridays. This means we will be re-joining the normative practice of the universal Church law (c.f. Paenitemini, III.III.1). The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat (of mammals and birds). However, eggs, milk products, fish, shell fish, and all other cold blooded animals may be eaten, e.g. snails. Similarly, small quantities of condiments (i.e. flavourings) made from animal fat may be eaten, as may meat broth, gelatine made from animal products, and meat extracts that have lost the taste of meat. (It would seem obvious that a thick meat soup with large chunks of meat would move from the category of broth to that of forbidden meat.)
The law of abstinence binds those who are 14 and older (Canon 1252)-unlike the law of fasting there is no upper age limit when the law of abstinence ceases to apply.
The seriousness of the Christian obligation to do penance is such that the Church teaches that disobeying this now re-established precept is a grave matter, i.e. a matter of mortal sin (Paenitemini, III.II.1).

What counts as ‘meat’?
Many of us have forgotten how meat is defined with respect to abstinence. A simple summary of how theologians and the Church authorities have specificed this is viewable at this post: "Friday Abstinence: What counts as 'meat'?"

Breaking the Law of Abstinence is a Mortal Sin
The seriousness of the Christian obligation to do penance is such that the Church teaches that disobeying this now re-established precept is a grave matter, i.e. failure to make "substantial observance" of this law is not only a sin but is a mortal sin (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, III.II.1).
A post describing this matter is more detail is viewable at this post: "Friday Abstinence and Mortal Sin"

Friday Abstinence: Dispensations
A blog post describing how your parish priest can dispense you, for a just cause, from the obligation is viewable at this post: "Friday Abstinence: Dispensations"

Which Fridays are Exempt?
The law of abstinence applies to all Fridays except when that Friday is also a 'solemnity' (i.e. a particular type of feast day) (Canon 1251). On such solemnities our Faith calls on us to celebrate in a manner that supersedes the usual call to Friday penance. In England and Wales the following are solemnities and if they fall on a Friday in any particular year then they supersede the Friday absence law:
Jan 1 (Mother of God),
Jan 6 (Epiphany),
March 19 (St Joseph),
March 25 (Annunciation),
April 23 (St George),
The Friday in the Octave of Easter (i.e. the Friday following Easter),
Sacred Heart (the Friday following Corpus Christi Sunday)
June 24 (St John the Baptist),
June 29 (St Peter & St Paul),
Aug 15 (Assumption),
Nov 1 (All Saints),
Dec 8 (Immaculate Conception),
Dec 25 (Christmas),
& the Friday in the octave of Christmas (i.e. the Friday following Christmas).
In addition, there are local solemnities that would hold in a specific diocese for the people in that diocese, for example, June 5th in the Diocese of Plymouth is the Solemnity of St Boniface, our patron.

A spokesperson for the Bishops' Conference of England & Wales made the clarification about Fridays in the Christmas Octave in December 2014, saying that it is “contrary to the mentality of what an octave is to consider one of its days as penitential.”


Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
Plenary Resolutions, Spring 2011

The Bishops of England and Wales have met to discuss their priorities for the next 3-5 years. At an announcement at the end of their bi-annual meeting in Leeds from the 9-12 May the bishops outlined their resolutions for the next few years including stating the desire to re-establish the practice of Friday penance by giving up meat on Fridays.
The resolutions are outlined below:

Catholic Witness - Friday Penance
By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.
Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord. The law of the Church requires Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, or some other form of food, or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops' Conference.
The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.
Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of the whole Church, the Bishops' Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.
Many may wish to go beyond this simple act of common witness and mark each Friday with a time of prayer and further self-sacrifice. In all these ways we unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his very life for our salvation.

From “Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Plenary Resolutions, Spring 2011” accessed 14/5/11

Friday Abstinence: What counts as 'meat'?

Friday abstinence from meat has been re-established for Catholics in England and Wales, effective 16th September 2011.
Current Church law specifies 'meat' as follows:
The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat (of mammals and birds). However, eggs, milk products, fish, shell fish, and all other cold blooded animals may be eaten, e.g. snails. Similarly, small quantities of condiments (i.e. flavourings) made from animal fat, other meat-derived products, and meat broth may be eaten (note, however, that a meat soup with large chunks of meat would seem to move from the category of broth to that of forbidden meat).

A more detailed analysis follows below:

Note: some argue that Paenitemini III.III.1's statement that "the use of meat" is forbidden thus maintains the pre-Conciliar prohibition of meat broth, gravy, meat juice, bone marrow, fat, blood, lard, soup cubes made from meat products etc (though gelatine made from animal products, and other meat extracts that have lost the taste of meat were always considered permitted). These just-mentioned products were forbidden in the old Code of Canon Law and are thus listed as forbidden in the older Manuals. However, as Jimmy Akin convincingly argues, and as indicated further below, given that the opinion that these items are still forbidden can only be seen as a law of dubious validity, such an opinion it does not bind: " A doubtful law does not bind" being a standard principle of classical Manualist morality, as still expressed in Canon Law 14.

“The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat, but eggs, milk products, and condiments made from animal fat may be eaten. Fish and all cold blooded animals may be eaten, e.g., frogs, clams, turtles, etc”. In Latin:"Abstinentiae lex vetat carne vesci, non autem ovis, lacticiniis et quibuslibet condimentis etiam ex adipe animalium." (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, III.III.1 (1966))[This text of Pope Paul VI is cited as currently in effect by Eds. John Beal, James Coriden, Thomas Green, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (New Yrk: Paulist Press, 2000), p.1447, John Huels, The Pastoral Companion. A Canon Law Handbook for Catholic Ministry, 3rd ed (Quincy, Ill: Franciscan Press, 1995), p.325, and Eds. E.Caparros, M.Theriault, J.Thorn, Code of Canon Law Annotated (Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur, 1993), p.772.]
“By Condiment is meant that which is taken –whether liquid or solid –in a small quantity with food to make it more palatable.” [Henry Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology Vol 2, Heythrop Series II, 4th edition (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), pp.435-6].

Concerning the argument that meat broth is permitted on days of abstinence:
In the old 1917 Code of Canon Law meat broth and other things derived from meat were prohibited by the phrase 'ius ex carne' or 'iureque ex carne'. The 1966 regulation Paenitemini, III.III.1 removed this phrase and thus seems to permit meat broth and other meat-derived products.
Describing what was forbidden by the 'ius ex carne' clause in the 1917 code, Cameron Lansing writes, "Canon 1250 of the former code (1917) stated that the law of abstinence prohibited meat (carne) and soup or broth made from meat, but not however of eggs, milks, and any sort of condiment derived from animal fat. (Abstinentiae lex vetat carne iureque ex carne vesci, non autem ovis, lacticiniis et quibuslibet condimentis etiam ex adipe animalium.) Ius ex carne is broth or soup made from boiling meat or bones (with marrow flesh). Bouillon crystals or cubes are made in this way. So both broth and reconstituted bouillon would be prohibited. Condimentum ex adipe (from fat) is a seasoning. Fat is distinct from from flesh tissue. The use of beef lard in cooking biscuits or various matas would have been permitted in my opinion. (The use of lard in preparing fish and vegetables at all meals and on all days was allowed by indult, 3 August, 1887.) Jello involved the boiling down of hooves and bones, so it would have been permitted. A gravy of chicken fat would also have been permitted. Clearly carne includes the flesh of mammals and poultry. It does not include amphibians, reptiles and insects."
Jimmy Akin's blog convincingly argues here and here that meat broths are allowed in the new code.
"The law of abstinence forbids the eating of meat, but not of seasonings made from animals fat or meat broth... The law of abstinence obliges all who have completed their fourteenth year until the end of their life (canon 1252)"( Karl H. Peschke, Christian Ethics, Vol 2, revised edition (Evesham: John F. Neale, 1997), p.178, Pechke cites an article to justify this opinion about broth).
T.Cunningham argues that "The prohibition of meat soups on Friday is revoked by the Constitution Paenitemini, interpreted in the light of cn 22 [concerning the manner in which new law surplants old, numbering of 1917 code]. The Constitution covers anew the whole field of legislation on fast and abstinence, and, while repeating verbatim the law of cn 1250, omits the phrase 'iureque ex carne'" (T. Cunningham: Meat Soups on Friday, as summarised in Canon Law Abstracts 19 n.1 (1968),p.71). Although Cunningham states that 'meat soup' is permitted he seems to actually be referring to meat broth. Meat broth is made from meat but no longer actually contains meat: Jimmy Akin thus talks of "soup from meat" as being permissible rather than saying that "meat soup" is permissible. Many if not most non-English countries have much thinner broth-like soups than we enjoy in this country and so the permitted soup probably does not envisage a thick meaty British stew-type soup, or a chili-con-carne soup, both of which would have large chunks of meat and would thus, in my opinion, not be permissible on a Friday.
None of the above commentaries argue for on the permissibility of meat soup with chunks of meat in it.

What was forbidden in the 1917 Code but not the 1966 Constitution:
As already noted, the 1966 Constitution Paenitemini gave a less restrictive abstinence law to the one that was found in the 1917 Code. As Jimmy Akins explains, the 1917 Code forbade the use of many meat derivatives as well as the use of meat itself. As a consequence the older Manuals of moral theology forbade many things, as follows:
“By flesh meat is meant... blood, lard, broth, suet, the marrow of bones, brains, kidneys [but not] condiments made from animals fats]”[Dominic Prummer, Handbook of Moral Theology (Cork: Mercier Press, 1956), p.226].
“The prohibition extends only to the flesh of mammals and birds, including the fat, blood, marrow, brains, heart, liver etc. Lawful foods are fish, frogs, turtles, snails, mussels, clams, oysters, crabs etc. ... Likewise lawful are margarine, and meat extracts that have lost the taste of meat or broth, e.g. gelatine; likewise gelatine products of animal origin, but not soup cubes that contain meat ingredients.” [Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, 15th edition, trans. Urban Adleman (Cork, Ireland: Percier Press, 1956), p.264]. Meat soup, meat juice, and gravy are forbidden by abstinence from meat [Ibid; T.Lincoln Bouscaren SJ and Adam Ellis SJ, Canon Law. A Text and Commentary (Milwaukee: Bruce Pub, 1946), p.636].
“By Condiment is meant that which is taken –whether liquid or solid –in a small quantity with food to make it more palatable... Jellies which are made from animal bones are not meat. Lard... dripping, and also suet” can be condiments, but a quantity of suet that is large enough that it can no longer can be properly seen as a condiment is thus excluded [Henry Davis, SJ, Moral and Pastoral Theology Vol 2, Heythrop Series II, 4th edition (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), pp.435-6].
Note: Modern ‘stock’ (whether labelled vegetable or meat) varies as to whether it is actually vegetarian or made from those parts of animals flesh that would have qualified it as ‘meat’ in the 1917 Code -regardless, stock is now permitted in the current Code.

Concerning fasting rather than abstinence, note: "[Tag-At] comes to the surprising conclusion that liquids which have nutritive effect (such as milk, broth, eggs) break the Good or Ash Wednesday fast, but alcoholic drinks do not"(D.Tag-At: Questions on Fasting and Abstinence, as summarised in Canon Law Abstracts 79 n.1 (1998),p.72).