The Drama of the Synod – hope springs eternal

As if the Synod and its prelude have not been fraught enough, Mgr Charamsa’s strategically-timed exhibitionism in outing himself, complete with beau at his side, has thrown so many into a, not unjustifiable, tizzy. It is a deliberate attempt to pervert the course of the Synod, and for that reason it is not to be ignored (though he is, to be blunt about it). But it was all rather pathetic. The 10 demands of his manifesto reflect a political method now obsolete and ineffective. The demands had little connection with reality. If he’s lucky, history will give him a brief footnote.

Much of the tizz and fizz results from the Vatican statement, which implied quite directly that Mgr Charamsa has lost his curial and teaching positions because his grandstanding constitutes

such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure.

Commentators, again not unreasonably, point out that the Mgr is not being dismissed for his violation of his vows or his immoral lifestyle, but for his poor form and provocativeness. In other words, not because he was a sinner but because he was not a gentleman. So, it is argued, the Vatican is playing down the moral aspect, pandering to the liberals and possible even signalling the tone of the Synod now upon us.

Further and deeper reflection reveals things to be not quite so dire, or so we might hope. Perhaps the Vatican is seeking to defuse the monsignor’s little bomb by refusing to engage with his sexual agenda. Why make a “gay” martyr of him? Why allow him to pose as a victim of “homophobia”? Why feed his cause in the eyes of the secular media? Far more effective, surely, is it to remove him for his grossly crude attempts to manipulate the Synod. Everyone can at least acknowledge the fact that what he did was not cricket, pursuing a political stratagem that carried it with significant risk if he failed in its execution. He did fail, his bluff has been called and he lost. Now we can forget about him, and the secular media will have to do some impressive manipulation themselves if they want to portray him in any convincing way as a martyr of homophobia. To the dispassionate observer he looks an idiot, and the papers are full of those already. Let’s move on; there is nothing to see here.

Indeed such desperation might give us cause to hope that the Synod may prove far better than the pre-synodal guerilla warfare might suggest. While we must avoid the sentimental piety that moves some to say, as at the papal election, that the Holy Spirit will get His way whatever happens. History shows that many councils, and many papal elections, had little of fragrance of the Holy Spirit about them. God permitted missteps as part of His larger scheme, in the service of a deeper aim. If synods, councils and conclaves were automatically conformed to the positive will of God, then why do we have Masses to pray for the Holy Spirit to move with power in these events?

Thus, perhaps it was the Holy Spirit who ensured that the opening Mass of the Synod would hear today’s readings from Genesis and St Mark. Genesis recounts the creation of Eve as the companion of Adam, for which reason “a man leaves his mother and father and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body”. St Mark recounts our Lord’s uncompromising teaching about marriage, that God made male and female, and it is they who can form one body together; and that to leave a wife to marry another woman is adultery, and the same for the woman who leaves her husband to remarry, because what God has joined no man can rightly divide.

Perhaps in this, the Spirit has spoken the judgement that the Synod must inevitably reaffirm. After all, the Synod Fathers all know that St Paul uses our Lord’s teaching on marriage as the basis for understanding not only the sacramentality of marriage, but also the sacramentality of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ, wedded to Him so that they are one Body (cf Ephesians 5, for example). Marriage is the only context for sexual intercourse, and so it must be between a man and a woman. If not, if sexual intercourse it outside marriage or not between man and woman, then it is not in the strict sense Christian.

Let the state do what it will, but the Church can only accept marriage as defined by our Lord because it is contiguous with the relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church. If the Church were to forsake marriage as revealed by God, and thus to forsake God’s intended meaning for sexual intercourse, it would be forsaking its relationship to Christ, shattering the unity of Christ’s Body, and making herself an adulteress. With this in mind, read the following from 1 Corinthians 6, vv 13ff:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.  Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

The matters of marriage, sexual activity and the Church’s identity are so intimately connected that to change teaching on marriage or sexual activity would be to change the Church’s identity. But we cannot. Christ has bought us with is blood; we are not our own. If we rebel on matters of marriage or sexual intercourse, then we might unite our bodies with a prostitute but the we cannot drag the Church with us. She is eternally one with Christ. In fact, and this might shock some, the Church is not free to do or be anything else. Having died for us, Christ will never sign the writ of divorce; the Church certainly cannot.


So the coincidence of the Synod’s overture with the Mass of today alone seems a sure signal that the Spirit has spoken already, once and for all. The only revelation that will come from the Synod is which Fathers will prove themselves faithful, and which (if any) will show themselves time-servers and lovers of the world. Mgr Charamsa has already revealed his choice, and he will now fade into the obscurity that comes with that choice. Let’s look forward to seeing some heroes for that Faith which alone can save.


By the way, go to Adopt a Synod Father, and target your prayers for the Father it gives you to adopt. I was given Archbishop Diego Rafael Padron Sanchez of Cumaná, Venezuela. May the Lord be in his heart and on his lips that he may worthily proclaim the gospel.

On Synod’s Eve

It’s been busy. Little time has been left for blogging. Maybe just as well.

But a few of people have asked in recent days why I have not posted about the Synod, and what do I think about the Synod.

The short answer is that I wish it were not happening. But reality bites.

It’s cheating, but not totally. Last Sunday I preached at the conventual Mass here at Douai, and I had the Synod firmly in mind. Homilies rarely keep their full effect when reduced to the text without the voice. And of course, there is only so much you can say in under ten minutes. Nevertheless, for once I am going to add a homily here, last Sunday’s, as a sort of ferverino for us all on Synod’s Eve.

The Gospel, you might remember was from St Mark, chapter 9:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.

“For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

So with these words of our Lord in mind, you will see what I am on about. Some of you may find it helpful. If you do not,  move on in peace. But do pray for the Synod Fathers.

For better and for worse the Enlightenment of the 18th century happened, and changed almost everything about human life in this world. At its best, it gave free rein to human reason to extend the boundaries of our knowledge of the universe, the earth, and human existence. At its worst, human reason became a god, a golden calf to be worshipped for itself. Indeed after the French revolution Robespierre and his cabal established the Cult of Reason, declaring, “Reason is God”. It is no coincidence that what historians call the Reign of Terror exactly coincided with Robespierre’s Cult of Reason.

Even as human reason expanded our knowledge of the natural world, it reduced our vision and focus more and more to this natural world, shrinking our horizons to what merely could be observed and measured. As our reasoned knowledge grew our vision diminished proportionally. That this should affect the world as it has is no real surprise. But that this diminished vision should condition so much of what happens in our Church is more troubling, and more dangerous.

If you have not heard, next month round two of the Synod of Bishops on Marriage and Family Life will begin in Rome. The lead up to it has been tumultuous and troubling to many. The trouble comes from a loud faction which seeks to change the Church’s consistent teachings on marriage, divorce and sexuality. The arguments are highly emotive and command much attention. These people point out that, say, the divorced who have remarried are often more sinned against than sinning, and that the Church’s refusal to admit them to Holy Communion is to punish them, and to victimize them further.

Of course if our vision, our conceptual and spiritual horizon, is largely limited to this world and this life, then such assertions are compelling. Yet in today’s excerpt from the Gospel of St Mark we find our Lord quite clearly and forcefully directing our vision to beyond this world and this life, reminding us that our horizon extends beyond the kingdom of the world to the Kingdom of God. It is the promise of a life and a world beyond this one that gives meaning to all that we endure and suffer in this life and this world, and gives value to all our good actions and sacrifices here and now.

The Church’s power to teach is not unlimited; it can only, and must only, teach and bind us to the truth that has been revealed by God. The teaching authority of the Church is not a magic wand that can be waved at will to take all our discomfort away. There is no Cross-less Christianity. The psychological, emotional or physical discomfort of this life is as nothing, says our Lord, to the discomfort that might be endured eternally in the next life if we fail to heed the truth as it has actually been revealed. Not to teach the truth is to foster a lie; and, to encourage people in a fantasy which calms the spirit but endangers the soul is hardly charity. Thus our Lord puts it in stark, uncompromising and unmistakable terms: if your eye should cause you to sin, pluck it out for it is better to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to enter hell with both. So what we do here and now has consequences beyond this world and this life, and the Church has a duty to remind us of this and encourage us to keep to the way, the truth and the life.

Human lives are messy, a cloudy and obscure grey. The truth of Christ to which the Church has consistently witnessed possesses the crispness of black and white. The challenge of Christian living, and the Church’s pastoral practice, is to bring our lives more and more into harmony with Christ’s truth as it has been revealed. We do this not by introducing the murky grey of messy humanity into Christ’s truth, but by introducing more of the crisp clarity of Christ’s truth into the murk of human life. Christ always told the sinners he forgave, “Go and sin no more”. Christ’s example must be the Church’s pastoral practice. To refuse to call sin what it is fools only ourselves and merits the millstone.

So our patient endurance now, our sacrifices now, our efforts to live as Christ calls us to live here and now, all have a value that derives from God’s eternity, and have a meaning that derives from the God’s Kingdom. In another place Christ encourages us: Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all that you need will be given to you. He requires only that we honestly seek it, not that we succeed in attaining it, for that will be God’s gift to the sincere heart.

Indeed Christ has a small word of encouragement in today’s gospel that we might easily miss. “If anyone gives you a cup of water for my sake he will not lose his reward”. All our acts of selflessness, of self-sacrifice, of generosity, of endurance will be crowned with a reward in the Kingdom of God. No good act is wasted, no sacrifice for God’s sake is done in vain. But to see that we must look beyond the narrow confines of this little world and this short life, to that eternal Kingdom that Christ ceaselessly calls us to. Let us not cling to the tinsel and lose hold of the gold. The wonder is, if we strive to be the person Christ calls us to be, we will have a little gold even now, as a pledge of the treasure to come.


i-am-the-way blog

A Telling Letter in The Tablet

In the latest issue of The Tablet (22 August) there is a letter from the composer and former director of music for Portsmouth diocese. Here it is:


Melanie had suggested that children be taught more traditional Eucharistic hymns because of their (undeniably) fuller theological content and catechetical utility. Mr Inwood is clearly not impressed, perhaps because if all parishes switched to traditional hymns there would be little work for him to do.

But his last sentence suggests there is more to it than that. It is amazingly bald in its honesty:

That is why there is a whole new generation of hymns that reflect a postconciliar understanding of what we do at Mass.

Here is an expression of the hermeneutic of rupture that Pope Benedict XVI so eloquently warned of in 2005. Mr Inwood seems to think that there is a radical difference between “what we do at Mass” now in our “postconciliar” days, as opposed to pre-conciliar days.

Part of me wants to say that the main agent, or do-er, at Mass is God. But insofar as there is a purely human activity he is right in a sense. We do do things very differently now. Some might here point to the very much emptier churches that we also have now and wonder if we are in fact doing things as we actually should.

Mr Inwood is subtly implying that the changes in what we “do at Mass” in these postconciliar days are mandated by the Second Vatican Council. We might point him to the Council’s great document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and ask to show us where it teaches a new and different understanding  of “what we do at Mass”.

And pace Mr Inwood, it is the same Eucharist at Benediction as at Mass, and at both we adore Christ made present in his sacrificial Body. Let’s go to Pope Benedict again, from a speech he made on 14 March 2009 to the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship (emphasis added):

I therefore willingly accepted the proposal that the Plenary Assembly should address the theme of Eucharistic adoration, trusting that a renewed collegial reflection on this process might help to make clear, within the limits of the Dicastery’s competence, the liturgical and pastoral means with which the Church of our time can promote faith in the Real Presence of the Lord in the Holy Eucharist and guarantee [to] the celebration of Holy Mass the full dimension of adoration. I stressed this aspect in my Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, in which I gathered the fruits of the Eleventh Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod celebrated in October 2005. In it, highlighting the importance of the intrinsic relationship between the celebration of the Eucharist and adoration (cf. n. 66), I cited St Augustine’s teaching: “Nemo autem illam carnem manducat, nisi prius adoraverit; peccemus non adorando” [ie, “no one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it”] (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 98, 9: CCL 39, 1385). The Synod Fathers did not omit to express concern at a certain confusion which arose after the Second Vatican Council about the relationship between Mass and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 66).

Mr Inwood seems to express so pithily the very postconciliar confusion that Pope Benedict exposes and seeks to remedy. Notwithstanding those ministers who have necessary roles to fulfil in the sacred liturgy, we would all do well to do a little more adoring at Mass. That is a truly active participation.

Melanie McDonagh, against whom Mr Inwood was complaining, was acting very much in accord with Pope Benedict’s exhortation. Indeed one hymn she refers to more than once is Soul of My Saviour, which seems admirably to combine “static adoration” (whatever that is! we are clearly meant to boo and hiss] with “an active, participatory liturgy” (and here we are clearly meant to cheer) – and so remedy the artificial and illegitimate divorce of these two dynamics that Mr Inwood encourages. It is clearly a hymn about receiving the Blessed Eucharist in an attitude of reverent faith and dynamic adoration:

Soul of my Saviour sanctify my breast,
Body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with waters gushing from thy side.

Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O blessèd Jesus, hear and answer me;
deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.

Guard and defend me from the foe malign,
in death’s dread moments make me only thine;
call me and bid me come to thee on high
where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.

Vatican II advocated an understanding of Mass and the celebration of the liturgy that was deliberately consistent with the Church’s understanding for all those centuries leading up to this most recent Council. I fear that Mr Inwood is a spokesman for the “virtual Council”, the “Council of the Media” that Pope Benedict identified as working against the “real Council” at which he was actively present.

Which Council do you choose?


Recently, after Mass, someone articulated some spiritual difficulties, in particular, why doesn’t God do anything when we pray for those migrants in Calais?

It’s that old chestnut, or rather two chestnuts thrown into the blender to make one sludge of bewilderment: why does God not always answer our prayers; and why do bad things happen to the innocent? The answer to both, of course, is sin – human sin, to make it perfectly clear.

However, that is not by itself a satisfying answer to most. Books have been written addressing this real problem in Christians’ spiritual lives, and they often do it very well, and better than I could.

Yet we could still approach the problem from one angle at least.

A few days ago Fr Ray Blake paid me the compliment of advancing a few spiritual reflections on my report of the recent EBC Forum. In particular he noted that the monastic orders often serve as indicators of the health of a particular Church, black canaries down the ecclesial mineshaft. If the air is toxic, foetid or foul the canary will fall sick and even die. Rightly he said that it is not merely an issue of liturgy or doctrine (however important these indeed are). Fr Blake put the issue in spiritual terms: do these monasteries produce saints, or as he aptly put it, “vessels of clay shining with supernatural light”?

Monasteries with holy monks attract vocations. That these monks will celebrate the liturgy worthily and well is not only a cause but an effect of this holiness. It is a symbiotic relationship: a liturgy centred on God will feed holiness, which itself will bear fruit in a liturgy centred on God, not man. Read Church history and you will see more than enough examples of this plain truth.

Alas, if the local Church has lost its vigour, the monasteries will suffer too. If the Church no longer points to eternity as the homeland we need ultimately to worry about and work towards, but rather sees this world’s problems as the focus of its attention, then why would young men (and women) find attractive a life that makes no sense in this-worldly terms?

Of course, authentic Christianity has always placed immense significance on what we now term “social justice”. Yet we should be clear about the fundamental reason why: because what we do here in this fleeting world has direct and potentially irreversible consequences for our lives in the next, and eternal, world. Apart from the fact that basic human decency should bid us have concern for our neighbour wherever and whoever he or she might be, our Christian faith demands that we do. What we do, or fail to do, to our neighbour is done to Christ.

Do we really believe that? Has our earthly life as Christians lost its supernatural flavour? Is our Christianity confined to Sunday attendance at Church and no more? Do we feel smug that at least we go to church, and effectively leave our Christianity at that? Do we consider that our Christianity is a purely private matter and that its intrusion into public life is vulgar, or even intolerant? Do we worry far too much about what people might think of us rather than about what God might think of us?

If the answers to the questions above are mostly “yes” then our Church will not produce vocations, nor bear any fruit that will last except through a freakish and exceptional rogue shoot.

So if we truly want vocations to our monasteries and our seminaries, then we need to start acting like we do. Pray. And keep praying. Fast and do penance, remembering the example of Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh. Live a life that is Christian 24 hours a day, and not just in church on a Sunday.

Likewise if we want our prayers to be answered, then we need to start acting like we do. Do penance. Walk an extra mile. Give to the poor, the orphan and the stranger. Lobby our MPs to have the guts to take a stand in Parliament. Make a stand ourselves, however “vulgar” such displays might seem. And keep praying.

For really, why should God give heed to our prayers if we so feebly and half-heartedly live as Christians? Most talk of God’s love as unconditional is bilge and wastewater. God’s love and grace are indeed umerited, but unconditional?! Really? What then is the covenant in which we stand with God? What is our part in that covenant? What then of Christ’s commandment to love (a doing not a feeling) our neighbour? Why did he bother with the parable of the Good Samaritan? Is it enough that our liturgies too often become human-centred and not “in memory of Me”?

So it seems at least to this writer, and to Fr Blake, that for both the vocations crisis and the problem of evil flourishing in this world despite our prayers, the solution is holiness, personal holiness for every Christian. If our charity never goes beyond prayer, then why should God listen to us? Prayer is wonderful, but if there is never any evidence in our lives that we intend to live as we pray then our prayers are little better than rectal emissions of methane. We owe it to our persecuted brethren in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, not only to pray for them, but to be holy enough that our prayers might bear fruit.


Today is a day of fasting for life, held on the feast of St Maximilian Kolbe, who lived as he prayed, and laid down his life for another in Auschwitz according to the teaching and example of Christ. Some demons, taught Christ can only be expelled by prayer and fasting. So, for once, I am getting of my ample monastic backside and doing at least a little something beyond words in order to fight the evils of abortion and euthanasia. Bread and water only, with maybe a cup of tea to keep my spirits up.

Why don’t you have a go too? You’ve nothing to lose and both the world and eternity to gain. Besides – I need the company.

The Future of the English Benedictines

In the latest issue of the Tablet there is a brief article covering the recent Extraordinary General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC), which was held hard on the heels of the first ever EBC Forum, of over 30 EBC monks and nuns aged under 55 elected by all 13 communities. Representing Douai Abbey were myself and Fr Paul Gunter, who is Vice-President of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. The article (see below – click the picture to make it larger) has an alarming headline but is largely fair in its content.

Optimized-ebc gc tablet

By way of background, the Forum met at Buckfast Abbey from the evening of Monday 20 July and concluding the morning of Friday 24 July, just in time for two days of plenary sessions of the Forum with the EBC General Chapter. At these sessions each of the various papers composed over the previous days were, in turn, presented formally to the General Chapter, with questions and requests for clarification or expansion invited from members of the Chapter. After these plenary days, the members of the Forum left (except for the handful who were also delegates to General Chapter) and the Extraordinary General Chapter formally convened with the purpose of addressing the various papers presented by the Forum, not least their recommendations. In time we will hear what Chapter has decided, if anything.

It would be inappropriate to discuss the content of these papers in any detail, though they may well end up forming the basis of discussion within each individual community should Chapter so decree. It can be said that the papers covered the topics of work, community, liturgy, vocations, formation, governance, and refoundation. We had only a few days to discuss these topics and then draft and approve papers. We were amazingly efficient, and our discussions were refreshingly open and fruitful. Most impressive, at least to one among the more senior end of the “young” who made up the Forum, were the truly young among us. These young were from the English houses, as well as our American houses and Peruvians who are members of the Belmont Community. It was they who articulated the crucial issues most acutely, and their insights were seasoned with the reflections of the older and generally more experienced members of the Forum.

It is not an infringement of any secrecy (if any!) surrounding the Forum’s work to note some of the issues raised. What follows are some of the larger issues with a reflection or two from me at times.

We noted the passing of some of our traditional apostolates, and the perceived necessity of finding a common work to unite communities. This was seen an unrealistic for most communities. Far better to focus first on the unifying common work we already have, the Work of God that is our liturgy. Other work, it was felt, must harmonize with this, be appropriate to smaller and ageing communities, and be consonant with the monastic atmosphere and mission of our houses.

On liturgy the Forum was remarkably sensible and united. There were repeated calls for greater dignity to our worship despite our generally falling numbers, more care in its preparation and execution, the revision of its music where necessary, the role that can be played by non-singers and non-musicians through the graciousness and reverence of their gesture and deportment, and the need to de-stigmatize the Extraordinary Form.

On the matter of community, we noted how significant, though largely un-remarked, was fear in our communities: fear of future prospects, of change, of community failure to survive, fear of newer brethren and their different mindset. Better communication within communities was urgently sought. The potential, and the dangers, of social media were discussed, though we all agreed that the internet was something we could not ignore. Bubbling beneath the surface of our discussions was an implicit desire that the brethren be friends to each other, in the sense that Christ used the word.

Vocations made for a lively and rich discussion, and really an excellent one. The question was starkly posed: do our communities truly want vocations? Is it something they pay lip-service to without undertaking the necessary self-reflection, and even change, that growth in authentic vocations (ie, those who “truly seek God”) might require? Do we want more members rather than new members? (Just think about that one for a bit.) Do we want to grow and bear greater fruit or merely continue in existence? There was much discussion about the fact that young recruits now usually bring with them an implicit challenge to the status quo in many houses. We all agreed that their zeal and idealism must not be crushed but nurtured, matured and even encouraged. More often than not this is a challenge we need to face honestly, balancing the need to form a young monk for the community with our duty to nurture him and the call to renewal he might be bringing with him (consciously or not). And while we all noted that the young will be using the internet first to inform their process of vocational discernment, we recognized that nothing will replace direct contact and the community’s daily witness to a faithful and fruitful monastic life.

On the matter of formation, we discussed the responsibility of the entire community, not just the abbot and certain officials, for the formation of new members. If they do not “fit in”, are “not quite one of us dear”, it was felt that we need to recognize that the problem may not always lie with them but with the community. The need for a greater attention to human formation was noted, as was the necessity of tailoring formation to the greater diversity among recruits in such areas as education and catechesis. The crucial need for ongoing formation was discussed, as was the formation for those not called to the priesthood. One thing was very clear: houses would soon have to be sharing resources in forming new members, at least at certain stages in their formation.

The matters arising around governance were more shaped to the express issues General Chapter had flagged. What was agreed was the fact the abbots (and abbesses) are being pushed more and more into the role of CEO, to the detriment sometimes of their role as abba in the community. The probability that some fragile communities may soon not be able to find suitable candidates for senior positions, not least abbot, raised the question of what role the Congregation would play in supporting those houses, and how it would achieve this in practical terms. This complex and difficult question was dealt with more fully in the document on refoundation and renewal. This is very much a matter that needs to be left to the General Chapter to resolve. For now that conversation remains rightly private to them.

St Benedict was young once, too, and full of good zeal.

St Benedict was young once, too, and full of good zeal.

You may not think it, but the Forum was quite a diverse crew, with an age spread of over 30 years, and a significant variety in backgrounds and experience. The young spoke no less than the older among us, and they were worth listening to. Indeed we must listen to them. One thing was clear: many (though not all) of the changes adopted (often too hastily and too comprehensively) over the last 50 years in many communities have, at the very least, gone beyond their use-by date. The concerns of young monks in 1970 are not the concerns of those in 2015. They seek to recapture some of what often has been lost in our communities, elements that connect us to the Church of today, as it stands at the current end point of a vibrant stream of 2000 years and more of growth and fruitfulness. If we are to prosper and bear fruit ever more abundantly, if we are to increase, then individually our monks (and nuns) might need to decrease a little more.

Lord, not my will, but Thine be done.

Pray for us.

Lazarus-like he rises, to rant

No plaintive excuses, no unconvincing avowals of “I would have if I could have”. It has been busy here, in a disconcertingly unspectacular way. So blogging by your correspondent has been passive not active.

One topic in the past few weeks that has grabbed my attention is the matter of the bidding prayers at Mass. My eye settled first on a post at the New Liturgical Movement (NLM), and then more recently on a pastor’s heartfelt reflection by Fr Ray Blake in Brighton.

At NLM, Dr Kwasniewski rightly laments the general standard of bidding prayers/prayers of the faithful/general intercessions/universal prayer – call it what you will. He urges that they should be solidly founded theologically, well and aptly written, and that they should be sung (after all, if the bidding prayers have any real liturgical pedigree, it is to be found in the litany form).

Fr Blake is more forthright. He “hates” bidding prayers! Even when done with some care and attention he feels it to be like “putting lipstick on a pig”. He laments the lack of any detailed binding rubrics for them, the ease with which they can be abused, and the way they actually serve to make the laity into spectators or an audience at the liturgy, rather than participants.

At weekday Mass here at Douai the practice has developed of allowing prayers from the floor, which does allow lay participation but which also can easily develop into a free-for-all. Sometimes we endure the absurdity of, say, a prayer for a specific dead person being made after the celebrant has already prayed for all the dead. Sometimes prayers are made to acknowledge the presence of someone in the congregation that day, to whom the prayer is relevant in some way.

Almost two years ago there was a post here specifically about bidding prayers and how to do them well and in accordance with the guidelines and liturgical common sense. Then, as now, I took great care with bidding prayers: their content, their order and structure, their proper register and vocabulary, their relative brevity. Indeed I professed myself a “fan of bidding prayers, but only when well done”.

No longer. Like Fr Blake, I am learning to hate them even as I am taking even greater care with those that I make myself. But it is not their openness to abuse, to triteness or sentimental vacuousness, to theological dubiousness, to pandering to the audience (and I do not mean God) that is deciding me against them. It is the fact that they are so contrary to the letter and spirit of Vatican II. (Someone pinch me – did I just invoke the “spirit of Vatican II”?)

The Council, in its great document on the sacred liturgy, decreed that

there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing (SC,23)

The introduction of bidding prayers into the new liturgy did not grow organically from forms already existing, and whether their introduction has been “genuinely and certainly required” for “the good of the Church” is precisely the point on which so many are casting doubtful glances.

Yet, perhaps the most striking example of how the innovation of bidding prayers is contrary to the council fathers’ expressed intention is revealed when we remember these same fathers stated as one of the norms of liturgical renewal the principle that the sacred rites should be “free from useless repetitions” (#34). In practice after the Council this norm was used to justify the virtual denuding of the Mass of its traditional elements. Almost perversely, the liturgical reformers intruded an innovation that was one great useless repetition – you’ve got it, the bidding prayers.

Before some of you start foaming at the mouth, consider this. The General Instruction for the latest Missal lists the proper order of the intercessions in the prayer of the faithful:

a) for the needs of the Church;
b) for public authorities and the salvation of the whole world;
c) for those burdened by any kind of difficulty;
d) for the local community. (#70)

Now go read any of the Eucharistic Prayers. In fact, read all of them. What we find is prayer and intercession, made at the altar and united directly to the Sacrifice of the Cross, for the Church, the world, the suffering, the dead. It is all there. The bidding prayers/universal prayer/general intercessions/prayer of the faithful (whatever you prefer to call them) needlessly, and less efficaciously, repeat what the principal prayer of the Mass more than adequately covers. So why must we have them?

Fr Blake justly notes that the prayers mark a downward movement between the high points of the creed and the approach to the altar. They could be seen as a disruption, much as the kiss of peace as generally practised disrupts the movement from the sacrifice to communion. All too often they seem to promote a liturgical love-in. If the prayers seek to promote participation, then they fail miserably as the congregation at nearly any Sunday Mass will just be listening to them, not making them. If someone were to counter that the people should be making the prayers their own as they are read out, then we find ourselves back at the Eucharistic prayer, during which the people should be uniting themselves with the priest as he offers petition at the altar. And then and there it really counts!

Is this constant desire to intrude into the Mass episodes of participation, welcome and sharing an unconscious attempt to remedy the sad fact that the majority of Catholics limit their involvement in their parish to attendance at Sunday Mass (if even that). Thus, we have to cram as much ersatz, compensatory community spirit into the beleaguered liturgy to make up for the lack of it outside the Mass. Gone are the days of general membership in one or other of the many groups for both adults and children that gave parishes their vibrancy, and parishioners their sense of belonging in a worthwhile and meaningful way. The manufactured intimacy and enforced gestures of participation so often to be endured at so many Masses are no substitute for this wider participation in the Catholic community.

Tomorrow I will be in Covent Garden offering lunchtime Mass at the delightful Corpus Christi church. Will I put my money where my mouth is?

Peace, out.

Not dead yet

It is has not been a year of abundant blogging, and certainly not recently. Easter at Douai is a busy time if one is simultaneously sacristan, cantor and shepherd: lots of liturgical services to set up for, sometimes single-handedly; lots to sing at those same services, and to practise for naturally; and it is lambing season.

The last lamb popped out during vespers on Friday, the reluctant mother Hildegard finally conceding to Mother Nature. She gave birth to this year’s only single lamb, Ambrose (Samson, though now a single, had a sister at birth who sadly only lasted a day). Our much reduced flock of six ewes has had ten lambs, which is a more easily manageable number. Of those ten, eight are rams and only two ewes. Their father, Spitfire, has not interrupted the ewes’ tendency to produce rams. Is this a subtle accommodation to the cloister in the domain of which they live?

Since the lambs tend to be popular, please allow me to introduce them to you, in birth order.

First up is Samson, whose sister Delilah seemed not to feed well and quickly died. This is from a couple of weeks ago, when he was under his mother as she slurped some moist mineral lick, and had copped a drip for his poor timing.


Born the same day were Romulus (l) and Remus, who together with Samson make up the troublemaking element of the flock. Here, pictured on Easter Sunday, they look the picture of innocence.


At the beginning of Holy Week, in quick succession, four lambs were born, confusing both shepherds and mothers for a time, as to which lamb was which ewe’s. Nature worked it out in the end. So Thelma found herself with two ram lambs, James (l) and Thomas…


While one of the three veteran, unnamed, mothers found herself with a mixed pair, Jeremy (seated) and Rachel (seen here shortly after birth, with James and Thomas in the background, adding to the confusion).


On Easter Sunday another mixed pair was born, John and Magdalen, born to the nearly all-white Bianca.


And on Friday, finally, Hildegard bore Ambrose.


The crew have shown themselves tending either to sleeping or playing to the camera.

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Don’t forget to pray for persecuted Christians.