Monday, 27 June 2016

Why I am a Faith Priest

This article is a personal testimony about what it means to be a ‘Faith Priest’, as we are sometimes called.  The text below was published in Faith Magazine in November 2016 (see here and here).

Every year I attend four national events organised by the Faith Movement (three events for youth and one for my own formation). This is a massive commitment in time, energy, and money. It takes me away from my parish for the inside of a week four times a year. Yet, the reason I am absent from the parish for these events is in order that these very events might be harnessed to serve what happens in my parish. Over the years I have learnt various parts of what can be called the ‘Faith’ apostolic strategy, a strategy that we feel serves the needs of the contemporary Church. Let me outline six key elements of that strategy.

Prioritising Youth Work
Anyone who attends a Faith conference cannot help but notice the high ratio of priests-to-youth. This is not just a feature of our conferences but a reflection of the fact that our priests have particularly devoted themselves to youth. We live at a moment in the history of the Western Church when the institutional Church is in decline in every imaginable statistic. Yet, we also live at a moment when numerous ‘New Movements’ and new apostolates have arisen, and the Faith Movement is one of these. In Faith, we believe we need to prioritise the formation of youth in order to preserve the Church’s future, and in order to remedy the injustice that has been done to them by years of catechetical and pastoral neglect.

In prioritising ‘youth’ we need to note, more specifically, that Faith focuses on teenagers and young adults. In contrast, many parishes today devote great energy to young children but offer practically nothing for them once they reach an age when they can begin to think for themselves. This, however, is exactly the stage when a more mature engagement becomes possible, and this is the ‘youth’ we target.

Another feature of our priests and our youth work is that a great many for our priests are themselves products of the Faith Movement: We attended the conferences ourselves when we were young, and we benefited from advice and formation from Faith priests in our own youth. This is a huge part of why priests like me feel a need to give the same to those who are young today.

Parish Youth Groups (‘Forums’)
Prioritising youth work isn't just about taking youth from our parishes to national conferences. An integral part of our strategy, practiced now over some decades, is the establishment of youth groups in our parishes. These groups serve a threefold function: we catechise in them, we teach youth how to pray, and we enable youth Catholics to meet and socialise with other young Catholics. For example, in our Shaftesbury forum a typical meeting has 45 minutes of catechesis, 15 minutes of prayer in church, and 30 minutes of snacks and socialising. Of course, these three pillars are not unique to Faith, they are found in many new ‘youth discipleship’ programs, but they have long been part of our vision.

It is important to note that our youth groups, typically called ‘forums’, are very different from the ‘youth clubs’ that characterised Catholic youth activity from the 1950s to the 1970s. Such clubs were primarily social gatherings, and presumed other formation elements were happening elsewhere: prayer in the home and catechesis in the schools. In practice, however, such spiritual and catechetical formation often didn't happen, and so our youth forums aim to offer it in a more systematic fashion.

National Youth Conferences
Local parish youth groups need something beyond the local parish. Young Catholics (and the families they often come from) frequently feel isolated, feel as if they are the only young Catholics in the world. Regularly attending a national Faith conference gives a young person an experience of the world outside his or her parish, gives encouragement, and offers speakers of a quality that a local parish might not be able to provide. It was our founder’s (Fr Edward Holloway) hope that these events would also enable young Catholics to meet and marry other suitable young Catholics, and this, and the formation of many friendships, has been one of the many happy outcomes that we've been able to observe in Faith.

The national youth conferences and the parish youth forums feed each other in a cyclical manner: the national events provide an experience that cannot be achieved in an isolated parish, and the parish groups provide year-round formation that a periodic national event cannot achieve alone.

Appealing to the Mind
The Faith Movement has a reputation, not undeserved, of having some towering intellects among its members. Outsiders are probably less aware that we have many ‘ordinary’ folk too(!), but it is nonetheless an essential part of our strategy to target the mind.

Young Catholics today grow up in a world where they are assaulted by numerous conflicting opinions, with the general presumption being that religion is for ignorant or stupid people and that the Church has nothing intellectually credible to offer society. In Faith we seek to face this head on. Apologetics, serious catechesis, and an explicit appeal to the mind are what we offer. We see ourselves as an antidote to the content-lite programs that passed for ‘catechesis’ in recent decades.

As a priest in a parish, however, this appeal to the mind involves a mental effort on my part too. To translate our intellectual vision into parish talk series, adult formation, and youth catechesis is hard work. It is much easier to pass such things by and stick to the simplicity of Holy Communion rounds for the sick. While the everyday pastoral work must continue, the Faith apostolic vision pushes us to do more, to appeal to the mind in both youth and other work.

A Christ-centred apologetic rooted in Science
At the heart of our appeal to the mind is the rooting of our apologetic in modern science. Admittedly, in the 21st Century people are more impressed by technology than by science, but the scientific mindset remains the dominant undercurrent that is typically considered more credible than the Church.

Our vision is rooted in the science of evolution, a vision that shows the interconnectedness of all things, the need of all things to find their proper environment, and the manner in which all things interrelate under the control and direction of a Mind. God alone, who created all things through His Word, who planned to enter and fulfil His creation through the Incarnation of His Word, is both the Mind that directs and the spiritual environment where Man finds his home. A rabbit needs the carrots and warren that constitute its natural physical environment; man needs grace as the sunshine of his soul, as his spiritual environment. While many of our conference attendees are arts students (and not scientists) they come because they recognise the appeal of a scientific apologetic in our contemporary world. As a priest I offer it because I believe it meets the needs of our time.

The need to give young people this apologetic, to give them a reason for believing in Christ, His infallible Church, His seven sacraments, and His Blessed Mother, is so important that we repeat at least some outline of the apologetic at every one of our conferences. Young people today need a reason to believe, otherwise they will never be able to know and commit to Christ. The imparting of this apologetic has the same goal as my whole ministry. What was the purpose of Creation? The coming of Christ. What is the purpose of my priestly mission? That Christ might come into the hearts and lives of our people.

My own need for Formation and Support
One of the dangers for a priest today is to react to the difficulties of our pastoral situation by retreating into a minimal, yet frantically busy, parish life. One of the reasons I am committed to the Faith Movement is that I recognise that I need the support of a group. My attendance at the different Faith events is admittedly a huge drain on my time, but the support and vision it offers me in return more than outweighs the cost. Crucially, my parish benefits by having a parish priest who is inspired and enlivened by all that Faith offers. In addition to the various youth events that have already been referred to, Faith offers ongoing formation for priests in its annual Symposium and regional study days.

As a priest, Faith offers me a strategy for how to function and prioritise pastorally. It offers me national events to support my parish youth work. It provides me with an apologetic to appeal to the minds of my parishioners. It unites me to a body of likeminded apostolic priests, men I can phone and turn to for advice in the daily grind of parish life. This is why I am what people call a ‘Faith priest’.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brexit and Freedom, 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Gal 5:1.13-18
Brexit. Thursday, as we all know, was a day of great significance for our country.
Half of us think it was a great result, half don’t.
It’s not my role, as your parish priest, to tell you my national preferences.
I think, however, that today is a good moment to think more deeply about freedom and independence:
For many, Thursday was ‘Independence Day’, and it turns out that even for those who didn’t want this ‘independence’, we’ve all now got it.

Britain is now to be free from Brussels.
Now, we can decide for ourselves how curved our bananas are going to be.
Now, we are free.
But what are we really going to use our freedom FOR, what will its purpose or goal be? Because, obviously, it needs to be about more than bananas.

In our second reading we heard St Paul speak about freedom when he wrote to the Galatians.
Freedom can seem simple:
we just want to be free from what is holding us back.
However, as St Paul notes, we can end one slavery only to become the slave of something else, thus he warned them “do not submit again to the yoke of slavery”(Gal 5:1)
In particular, he warned against self-indulgence.
If you live for yourself, for your pleasures, for your comfort, for your money -all these things just enslave you again. I become a slave of my selfish passions.

God. Many people don’t like the thought of God telling them what to do -they want to be free.
Pope John Paul II, who laboured long under first Nazi and then communist dictatorships, spoke a lot about freedom. He noted that true freedom has a goal, a purpose, an end.
True liberty is “freedom for” not just “freedom from”.

Here then is the fundamental question: What is freedom for?
Freedom is for LOVE.
Why did God made us? To love.
We were made to love. A rock cannot love, a plant cannot love. God made human beings as RATIONAL beings, as the only part of his material creation that is able to CHOOSE. A rock or a plant cannot love because love involves a rational choice, the choice to seek the good of the other person not just of myself.

Love is what Freedom is FOR.
Love is what FULFILLS freedom.
NOT using freedom to then be ‘yoked’ again in the slavery of selfishness.

You and I have daily, continuous, demands put upon us. Other people wanting our time, our effort, and more.
All these things can be seen as the enemy of our freedom.
Or, I can recognise that GIVING myself in love to others is the whole PURPOSE of freedom.

To conclude.
We as a nation are now free;.
We as a nation are going to have to decide how to use that freedom.
Regardless of what you think about that result, take this as a moment to think about freedom, and freedom in your own life.
Why do you want to be free?
To be enslaved to yourself? Or to find fulfilment in Christ, fulfilment in loving?

Sunday, 19 June 2016

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Zech 12:10-11.13:1; Lk 9:18-24
I want to point out the connection between the promise of the Messiah in our first reading, and its fulfilment in our gospel text.
And I don't want to start with the issue of suffering, but rather with the issue of the ‘spirit’, a promised outpouring, and the promise of a ‘fountain’ to wash away sin.

Zechariah, the text of our first reading, is one of a number of Old Testament prophets who spoke of. The promise of a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We, as Christians, can easily fail to appreciate the significance of this, so, one of the ways we can grasp its significance is by realising where prophets and the Spirit stood at the time of the Lord coming.
The point is this: there were no longer any prophets.
There had stopped being prophets many centuries before.
The Spirit was no longer being given to anyone to anoint them to be prophets.
The entire Jewish people was thus is a state of WAITING for the future time, the time that had been promised when there WOULD be prophets, the new time of the Spirit and prophets.
The people were waiting for One who would come.

John the Baptist came. If you recall, he leapt in his mother’s womb, filled with the Spirit (Lk 1:44 c.f. 1:15).
Many of the Jews, as we know, thought that he might be “the One”.
But he said, of himself, that he wasn't.
I'm not the awaited prophet, he said.
Rather, He said he was preparing the way for Him (Lk 3:15-17).

So, Jesus.
The title, “Christ”, means, “anointed” –one anointed for His role, His role as the One they were waiting for.
So, in our Gospel text, when Peter answers the question, “who do you say I am?” By replying, “you are the Christ”, Peter is calling Him the fulfilment of this Old Testament hope and promise.

The Lord was anointed, not with oil, like the kings of old.
The Lord was anointed with the Holy Spirit (c.f. Lk 3:16; 3:22).
This anointing with the Spirit makes Him the fulfilment, means that He ended that long period when there had been no prophets, been no outpouring of the Spirit.
And, as we know, He brought a new out pouring of that Spirit, to be spread more widely -not just on a few leaders, but on all His people, all who become His disciples.
He fulfilled the promise of Zechariah of the “fountain” (Zech 13:1) being “poured out”, of the Spirit (Zech 12:10).

Let me take that in a new direction: the Cross.
Anointing is always for a purpose, a mission.
The mission of Jesus Christ, however, was quite unexpected. As we heard Him say, it was for the Cross.
The same passage that calls Him the Christ, the “anointed”, is where He says His mission is to die.
The Saviour we are to look upon is one who was anointed to die, to die for us.

And, He is not only anointed to die for us,
in fact, we are the ones who have killed Him, by our sins.
As the text of Zechariah says, “they will look upon the one whom they a have pierced”(Zech 12:10)
–not the one someone else has pierced, but rather, I look on the one that my owns sins have crucified.
Yet, if I look at Him as my saviour, if I call upon Him as such,
if I seek to die with Him, and take up, as He calls me, my cross every day,
then I shall rise with Him too.
And the promised outpouring of the Spirit, on the One who ended the centuries of waiting, the centuries of there being no Spirit, He will strengthen me with that same Spirit too.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Hypothermia of the Soul, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lk 7:36-8:3
Last week, as many of you are aware, I was away, on what turned out to be the spiritual highlight of the year: I was chaplain to the True Survivor (see here and/or here)outdoor survival training course run by Will Hince. The course offered formation in Christian manhood, and with each survival skill that Will taught the young men he also gave them an analogy of the spiritual life, and it is one of those analogies I'd like to share with you.

Will explained how he and a friend had once nearly died of hypothermia, and he explained the symptoms and stages of hypothermia, and noted how they parallel the life of grace and its death in sin.

In the early stages of being cold we are aware of being cold, we shiver, we stamp our feet, we try to stop being cold.
This is like the early stages of sin in the spiritual life: we are aware we have sinned, we are upset we have sinned, we try to do something about it, we repent, we go to confession, and even though we are struggling, we do indeed struggle.

In a later stage of hypothermia the person experiences disorientation and lethargy, they do nothing, they can also experience delusions.
Will described how his friend had stood motionless while he himself had wondered off ‘seeing’ a shelter that wasn't actually there.
In the life of sin, when we persevere in sin rather than repent of it and struggle against it, we can also experience delusion and lethargy. We can fail to do anything about our sin. We can tell ourselves that our sins aren't really sins, and aren't really important.

There is a final stage in hypothermia. The person stops shivering, stops feeling cold, but they are cold, and they die.
In the life of grace, in the struggle against sin, there also comes a stage when we become so complacent with our sin that we no longer shiver against it, it no longer makes us uncomfortable, we have lied to ourselves so long that we no longer feel there is a problem.
We tell ourselves, “I'm OK, I'm a good person”.
But grace has died with us, and we are indifferent to the fact.

When I heard Will relate that analogy of sin, the life of grace, and hypothermia, I could recognise myself and my comfort with various sins at different times in my life. I found it both enlightening and frightening.

In the Gospel today we heard a contrast of two different sinners: Simon the Pharisee, and the woman who anointed the Lord’s feet.
The woman, as the Lord noted, thought of herself as a sinner, and she loved the Lord much because the Lord had forgiven her much.
Simon, in contrast, showed the Lord little love because he felt little need of forgiveness. He didn't think of himself as a sinner. He thought of Himself as righteous.
We might also note, with the presence and absence of love, there also seems to be a presence and absence of joy –as Pope Francis frequently notes, the sinner who has been forgiven rejoices.

To conclude. Let us each consider where we fit in these comparisons. Do we manifest the indifference and lack of gratitude for forgiveness that Simon showed, or the effusive love the woman showed in her awareness of her sin and her awareness that the Lord Jesus had forgiven her?
If we don't experience such an awareness, let us examine ourselves for signs of spiritual hypothermia. It may be that the reason I have stopped shivering over my sins in not that I am a saint, but rather, that I have let the life of grace die within me.
Wherever we are in that spectrum of spiritual hypothermia, let us pray to the Lord to warm our cold heart. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”(Lk 18:38) a sinner

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Solemnity of St Boniface, Diocesan Patron

Today our Diocese keeps the feastday of our Diocesan patron, St Boniface, which falls on this Sunday.
I want to tell you a little bit about St Boniface, not just because its his feast day, but because he shows us how God chooses to do great things through minor people. And the simple conclusion of this is that God also wishes to do great things through you and me.

All the world knows what a Christmas tree is, we see them everywhere. But few of us realise that these trees were invented by St Boniface.
We might also note that, if you list the most influential Catholic countries in history, you’d have to list Germany among the most significant: The Holy Roman Empire that politically defined Christianity for centuries was centred on Germany. We can also note that Germany has produced great Catholic scholars, magnificent churches, and some of the greatest and most influential theologians of the 20th century. BUT none of this would have happened if not for St Boniface, because he was the man who set off, and succeeded, in converting the pagan tribes of Germany to Christianity.

St Boniface did great things, and was hugely influential.
But he came from somewhere small and remote. He was born in the 8th Century in the little place of Crediton, in Devon, not far from Exeter. Even today Crediton is a small place, and it must have been even more obscure then. He joined the local abbey in Exeter, after formation went to another abbey in Nutshalling, and was so respected by his fellow monks that they wanted him to become abbot when the abbot died. Instead, Boniface went off to convert the Germanic tribes.

There was a Germanic tribe that he wanted to convert, a tribe who worshiped the pagan God Thor, and did so at an oak tree, called “Thor’s Oak” (or Jove’s oak, or Jupiter’s oak, or the Donar oak). These pagans thought this tree, and others like it, had sacred power. To prove them wrong St Boniface chopped down the tree. The locals were so amazed that he was not struck down by the pagan god Thor that they realised that Thor didn’t really exist, and they became Christians.
St Boniface used the wood from the oak to build a church.
And he then used the evergreen fir tree (unlike the oak) as symbol of Christ at Christmas, green all year, living all year, powerful all year, even in winter and suffering and cold.

St Boniface, over the years, set out to convert many different peoples, and was ultimately martyred. But not before he had converted so many Germanic tribes that he merited the title “Apostle of Germany”, where he is venerated even more than we in England venerate St Augustine for bring the faith to us from Rome.

Now I will draw a simple conclusion from all this:
St Boniface came from humble little Crediton, but God worked great things through him.
You and I can often feel that we are too small or insignificant to do great things. But God works as HE chooses,
and, to quote St Paul, His grace is made perfect in weakness;
and, to quote Our Lady in the Magnificat, He raises up the lowly and casts down the mighty.

So, the next time you’re tempted to thing you’re not significant enough for God to work through you, remember St Boniface:
Remember that all the world knows of Christmas trees, because of this man of obscure origins;
And remember that God can work through you too.