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.

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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.

Good Friday Respite

Good Friday evening is an oasis of peace for this monastic sacristan. It is grey outside, steadily and consistently drizzling, and drab. Even the lambs were subdued (oh yes, we have seven so far – you will meet them soon). Nature has on her mourning cloths

This respite from the recent hurly-burly and hubbub allows a moment to share a thought that came during the proclamation of the Passion according to St John this afternoon. For no apparent reason, what was striking today was the conclusion of the narrative, the denoument after the death of our Lord. The Twelve have disappeared totally from view, they have fled and melted away, though we can take it as implied that John was faithful enough at the end and went off with Mary, now his mother too.

In place of the apostles, the chosen Twelve, we find much lesser disciples, not part of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. The secret (“for fear of the Jews”) disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, emerges from his desired and self-preserving obscurity to attend to our Lord’s lifeless body and place it in his own, fresh tomb. Joining him is another obscure disciple of Jesus, “who had previously come to Jesus by night”, Nicodemus, who brings spices and herbs to make a fitting and decent burial. Together they emerge from the darkness of obscurity and pay a sad but solemn homage to our Lord. Not one of the Twelve is in view.

As we know from other passages, by Sunday morning there is still activity about Jesus’ tomb. Not the Twelve, who are locked away together, in self-imposed confinement arising from fear for their own safety; the women , some hitherto nameless, are coming to the Lord’s body in mournful homage.

So the apostolic element is in self-imposed withdrawal while the lesser lights, the members of the general body of disciples, quietly emerge to pay their respects to the Lord, to do him homage, to cherish his memory and, no doubt, his teaching and his hope-filled words.

The moral that came to me is probably obvious by now. Today, when priests are having to write letters to urge a synod of bishops, successors to the apostles, to uphold Catholic doctrine and all that flows from it; when what appear veiled threats emerge from bishops towards them, who urge them not to make trouble but to conform and keep quiet; when laity are signing petitions to support these priests… well you can see it, can’t you? Bishops perhaps a little too filled with the apostolic Good Friday praxis; mere priests and laity emerging from obscurity in quiet fidelity to the teaching and hope-filled words of our Lord – as the preacher says, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).

For many of us, far distant from those lands where Christians are literally dying with and for the Lord who was crucified for them as for us, we can share in the way of the Cross by a similar fidelity and devotion to the ecclesial and eucharistic Body of Christ, emerging briefly from our obscurity to pay a decent and devoted homage to him who is the Truth. This becomes an urgent duty when many of the apostles of today shrink from the challenge, and lock themselves in hiding out of fear of secular society.

Perhaps, as on Easter morning, our contemporary apostles need the call to witness that the first Apostles heard on Easter morning. While the shepherds feed the flock, the flock is called to gather about the shepherds to support them, encourage them, make clear to the shepherds their mission, and to be fed by them with Truth.

The Church today needs a few more like Nicodemus and Joseph, to emerge briefly from obscurity to assert their adherence to the Lord even as a hostile society looks on, and mocks or casts stones. Coptic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Melkite, Roman, and other Christians are literally dying for Christ. Can we perhaps take a few metaphorical blows for Christ, in solidarity with them?

Simon of Cyrene takes up Jesus' Cross. From the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart church, Beagle Bay (Australia), painted in 1949 by a German Schoenstatt, Sister Roswina.

Simon of Cyrene takes up Jesus’ Cross. From the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Heart church, Beagle Bay in far north-western Australia (and where my nephew is assistant priest), painted in 1949 by a German Schoenstatt, Sister Roswina.

All this laboured concern over the exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, from Holy Communion (and not from the Church, let’s be clear) is all a little too much like fiddling while Rome burns. We all have to share in carrying the Cross, even remarried divorcees. There is no other way if we are to be Christ’s disciples. To take it up or shirk it, the choice will always be ours and no other’s.

Wishing you all the blessings of the Triduum.

The 12th Station, from the Stations of the Cross in Douai Abbey church, carved by Fr Aloysius Bloor OSB and designed by Dame Werburg Welch OSB (Stanbrook)

The 12th Station, from the Stations of the Cross in Douai Abbey church, carved by Fr Aloysius Bloor OSB and designed by Dame Werburg Welch OSB (Stanbrook)

Recognizing the 21 Coptic Martyrs – an Ecumenical Opportunity

It is unnecessary to retell the horrific story of the disgusting martyrdom of the 21 Coptic men in Libya last week, gloatingly displayed to the world in an online video of the sort that ISIS  Daesh* is notorious for producing. Though I have not watched it, those who have say that many of the martyrs had the name of Jesus on their lips as they died. Despite the hair-splitting of the SSPX, whether or not their murder was in revenge for the killing of a senior jihadist is irrelevant: they were murdered because they were Christian, and in hatred of Christ.

*(a name hated by the ISIS jihadists themselves and so most appropriate to give them)

The second objection of the SSPX to granting the title of martyr to the 21 Coptic brethren is that the Copts are heretics. This objection has more weight to it, but how relevant is it to this situation?

Firstly, are Copts actually heretics? Without going into a detailed history of the early Church and its theology, suffice it to say that the Coptic (ie Egyptian) Christians were in communion with the universal Church until the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). After that Council they, with the other Oriental churches, were cast as monophysites (ie those who hold that Christ had only one nature, not two, and that this nature was either totally divine or a divine/human synthesis) and thus heretics. As so often happens, the argument was over vocabulary more than substance. The Copts formally reject monophysitism, and accept the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ in his one Person, though they centre the union of these two natures in one “nature”, rather than in one “person” as do Chalcedonian Christians like the Catholics and the Orthodox.

However, the issue is essentially a dead one. In 1988 the Catholic and Coptic Churches issued an Agreed Statement which affirmed the orthodox understanding of Christ’s identity:

We believe that our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.

At the same time, we anathematize the Doctrines of both Nestorius and Eutyches.

While we cannot ignore the mindset of separation that 1500 years will have naturally produced, this would seem to be weaker with regard to the Copts. Just as, in the wake of another agreed Christological statement with the Assyrian Church of the East, it is now possible for members of either Church to receive Communion in the other under certain conditions, it seems more than possible for the same arrangement to be made with our Coptic brethren.

Heresy is not an issue in reality; schism is, but even there can be found opportunity for progress.

Yet perhaps we can be bolder yet. Yesterday after Mass I was discussing the very issue of these 21 Coptic martyrs with Graham Hutton, Chairman of Aid to the Church in Need (a most worthy Catholic charity indeed). We discussed Pope Francis’ recent comments about an “ecumenism of blood” that unites us with our persecuted, non-Catholic brethren. This was an idea he had raised as far back as December 2013. He has not developed it theologically, which leaves the way for theologians (especially some young ones I know) to take this up and run with it.

Graham and I took this ecumenism of blood a little further in light of the ancient doctrine of Baptism by blood (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1258-1259). In short, dying for Christ effects Baptism for those who die for him while unbaptized. So, we speculated, could it be possible to speak of an absolution by blood, by which dying for Christ would effect the absolution of any grave sins, even the sins of schism or even (formal) heresy? Pope Francis implies this when he said a few days ago that,

The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard… It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.

This is not to minimize differences, nor to turn a blind eye to them as though they did not matter. However, in death divisions among Christians on earth cease to have much bearing. In dying for Christ one has become the perfect disciple, and enters communion with Christ’s Body in heaven.

The Coptic Church has just acclaimed the 21 victims as martyrs by inserting them into their liturgical calendar (15 February), the Coptic Synaxarium, an equivalent process to our own equivalent canonization. Pope Francis has informally identified them as martyrs. Now is the time for theologians to develop this possibility of an ecumenism by (or in) blood, and perhaps also an absolution by blood. This is real ecumenism that respects difference, and respects the essence of Christian discipleship. The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya are role models for all Christians, and surely we can honour them as such. Surely, we as well as Copts can and should call on their martyrs’ intercession before the throne of God in whose presence they now dwell, eternally.

Nothing unites like persecution; nothing builds the Church more than the blood of martyrs. Perhaps here the struggling western Church can find the renewal it so sorely needs.

Coptic martyrs of Libya – pray for us!

Taylor Marshall has kindly listed the names of the martyrs, which I copy here for reference:

The names of the 21 Coptic Martyrs are:

1. Milad Makeen Zaky
2. Abanub Ayad Atiya
3. Maged Solaiman Shehata
4. Yusuf Shukry Yunan
5. Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
6. Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
7. Somaily Astafanus Kamel
8. Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
9. Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
10. Girgis Milad Sinweet
11. Mina Fayez Aziz
12. Hany Abdelmesih Salib
13. Bishoy Adel Khalaf
14. Samuel Alham Wilson
15. A worker from Awr village
16. Ezat Bishri Naseef
17. Loqa Nagaty
18. Gaber Munir Adly
19. Esam Badir Samir
20. Malak Farag Abram
21. Sameh Salah Faruq

The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, an icon drawn by Tony Rezk.

The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya, an icon drawn by Tony Rezk.      (click to see a larger version)