30 December 2006

The Holy Family

Because our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, who was espoused to St. Joseph, it means that He was part of a family. This provides a singular blessing for each one of our families, because now we have the Holy Family as a model and an inspiration. Of course, the celebration of the Holy Family is much more than just a kind of "patronal feast" for families. It really provides a picture of the Church itself, which is the true Family founded by Christ. The Holy Catholic Church is that family in which St. Joseph is the paternal Guardian, the Blessed Virgin is the maternal Heart, and Jesus is mystically present as the Divine Son. It is the Church which is our true and abiding Family, and our own earthly families can be strengthened by imitating and being consecrated to Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

29 December 2006

Our Lady, standing beneath the Cross

Saturdays throughout the year are especially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and unless the liturgical calendar directs otherwise, traditionally we celebrate a Votive Mass of Our Lady. For us in this parish, we most love her title of Our Lady of the Atonement. Since the time our Lord Jesus walked this earth as the God-Man, there have been, over the centuries, numerous titles which have arisen to give honor to his most holy Mother. From the early centuries of the Church, she was known as Theotokos, or God-bearer, and as time passed, the Blessed Virgin Mary was honored with many other titles. Some of these titles are more widely known than others, but all convey a distinct attribute of Mary as a person who has found favor with God. Some titles describe her state of life, such as Our Lady of Grace. Others denote a location where she may have spoken spiritually to an individual, such as Our Lady of Walsingham. In some of her titles, she is associated with the redeeming work of her Son, and there are many such examples of this. But perhaps no other title in the world better describes the fullness of Mary's relationship with her Son as does the title of Our Lady of the Atonement.

The title embraces two mysteries of our faith: first, the atonement -- the wonderful at-one-ment which was achieved by our Lord Jesus Christ as He shed His Most Precious Blood upon the Cross at Calvary, through which came the reconciliation of man with God, and of man with man, making us "at one" in His Sacred Heart; and second, the role which Our Lady has in the atonement wrought by God -- her coöperation with the Divine Will at the annunciation, and her participation in her Son's sufferings and death as she stood at the foot of the Cross. These words which Simeon spoke to her came to pass: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." The crowning act of Redeeming Love -- the Atonement upon the Cross of Jesus Christ -- is for all of us the means whereby mankind finds salvation. Here Jesus gave us the greatest gift: His precious life. Here he gave us His Blessed Mother. Here Mary stood, and here we stand next to her, at the foot of the Cross. We are children of The Atonement and the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, is Our Lady who bears witness to Christ's Atonement.

The Child becomes the Man

Lest the fact of the Incarnation and the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ become something saccharine, relegated to cards expressing the greetings of the season with stars and angels hovering over nothing, our Holy Mother the Church marks each day of of the year, including Christmastide, with the offering of the Mass, making the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ a present reality. The Child was born for that purpose. The wood of the cradle makes way for the wood of the cross. The infant in the arms of Mary is the Saviour reposed in her arms. The beginning of the Passion of our Lord was at the moment of His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Shepherds came to adore the Lamb of God, and the Magi brought gifts in preparation for the death and resurrection of the King of the universe. Here is mysterium tremendum: salvation is born in the stable, salvation is born on the cross, salvation is born on our altars.

To thee, O gracious Father, we lift our loving hearts;
to us the Bread of Heaven eternal life imparts.
We thank thee for thy favor that marks us as thine own;
Lord, keep us ever faithful, who come before thy throne.
What love thou hast bestowed on us,
a love which makes us free!
It cleanses us from ev'ry sin,
and keeps us close to thee.

To thee, O Christ our Savior, we come for saving grace;
we see how tender love is, by looking on thy face.
Keep us from all things hurtful by the power of thy Cross;
and help us to remember our gain comes from thy loss.
What heav'nly Food is ours, Lord,
this Food which makes us free!
It fills our hearts and makes us whole,
and keeps us close to thee.

To thee, O Holy Spirit, we whisper our desire;
our lives are empty vessels: Lord, fill them with thy fire.
Make us thy faithful people who seek to do thy will;
give us thy gifts of power, our empty hearts to fill.
What peace that passes ev'ry thought,
that peace which makes us free!
It banishes each doubt and fear,
and keeps us close to thee.

From thee, O Triune Godhead, salvation is come down;
Atonement now is given, mankind receives his crown.
In Sacrament tremendous we touch eternity;
we love thee, God our Savior: thou art our destiny.
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
our faith shall never cease!
In thee we have eternal life,
and never-ending peace.

Text: Fr. Christopher G. Phillips, 1990
Music: “Thaxted” by Gustav Holst, 1874-1934

28 December 2006

Blithe of countenance, frank of speech

"To look upon he was slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose, and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and loveable in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner."

Thus reads the description of St. Thomas of Canterbury, recounted in the Icelandic Saga. A man who had astonishing worldly power, he valued only the power of Christ. A man who had the friendship of royalty, he desired only the friendship of the Divine King. He wore honour as a hair-shirt, and bore truth as a cloak around him. The Church was the mother he loved, and he died defending her maternal dignity.

When the sword was about to fall, he bent his head in prayer, commending himself and the holy dignity of the Church to God's keeping, and to the intercession of Blessed Mary and the martyr St. Denis. After the second and third blow, he spoke softly, "For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death."

This was a bishop after Christ's own heart. As the labourer in the field sweats under the noonday sun, so did the blood pour down the body of this holy labourer for God's own people, until it pooled on the cold stone floor of God's own house. And in the silence of death his blood cried out. It cried out for the king's repentance; it cried out for the Church to stand firm upon her foundation; it cried out for the faithful to come -- and come they did, the pilgrims coming in such multitudes as had rarely been seen. They came to pray with Thomas, the bishop after Christ's own heart, the man blithe of countenance and frank of speech. And Thomas still prays. He prays for the return of his countrymen to the faith for which he died. He prays for clergy to use the courage imparted to them when they were anointed. He prays for all of us, that we may live -- and die -- "for the Name of Jesus."

Sancte Thoma, ora pro nobis.

St. Joseph: A Man of Justice, A Man of Kindness

Throughout Christmastide, St. Joseph has a quiet but important part in the story. His feast will be coming in the month of March, and another at the beginning of the month of May, but remembering him now – meditating on him for a few moments at this time when so many other things have been taking our attention – helps us to enter more deeply into the spiritual richness of this season.

It is interesting that in all of Jerusalem there is no basilica, there is no cathedral, there is no church built to honor Saint Joseph. In that Holy City, so abundantly overflowing with monuments and memories of our Catholic faith, and where the Church received its first breath of life from our Blessed Saviour, there is no majestic shrine as a place of devotion to the Universal Patron of that Church. The only remembrance of the foster-father of Jesus in all of Jerusalem is a small altar built into the side of the stairway which descends to the site of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is most unimposing, hidden in a dark chapel with room for no more than a few people, and it would be missed by most pilgrims if it were not pointed out to them. "How strange," one might think. "How strange that in the city which saw so much of the saving work of the Incarnate Word, there is nothing more than this to remember the Protector of that Word." It is strange, and yet it seems somehow suitable. It is as though this would be what Saint Joseph would want. The Guardian of our Lord had lived obediently and he had died quietly. Never once during his lifetime did he overshadow the Divine Child who was called his son, or the pure maiden who had been his wife, and there certainly would be no desire to do so after his death.

Very little is known concerning Joseph, and yet enough is known to reveal what his character was. All that we know of him for certain, we know from the Gospels, and it is there that we see him to be a man who was determined to do what is right in the sight of God, and to do it in a kindly way. He was betrothed to Mary, and according to Jewish practice, betrothal was as sacred as marriage. Because of that, any infidelity before the actual marriage was treated in the same way as infidelity after marriage: death by stoning was the punishment for such sin. By all human appearance, Joseph's beloved betrothed was in just such circumstances, and he had to act in the way that seemed best. He was a just man, but he was a kind man, too, and surely what Mary told him made a great demand on his faith. But that is the point: Joseph was, above all, a man of faith and completely obedient to the divine will of Almighty God. When it was revealed to him that Mary was to bear the Incarnate Son of God he took her to be his wife. There was no hesitation, no consideration of what others might think or how they might judge. It mattered little to him that it was assumed he was the human father of this Child – not that he would have encouraged others to believe such a thing, for he knew the truth – but it was better than having people think that Mary had shamefully conceived with someone else, and so Joseph took the responsibility, knowing one day the truth would be known, and that Truth "would make men free." It is in this very situation, brought about by God Himself, that Saint Joseph's justness and kindness are both revealed.

His justness is shown in that he was a devout servant of God, and he ordered his life according to the standard of that law which had been revealed to the Jewish nation. He sought to please God in all things, even when it meant that he would be misunderstood or even harshly judged by the world. And because justness does not exclude kindness, his response to the revelation that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit was one of deep gladness and joy, and so he took his place in God's plan without fear or hesitation. This place was not one of glory; rather, it was one of quiet reserve. Whether on the way to Bethlehem, or in the stable, or at the Child's circumcision on the eighth day, or in the Temple when He was presented, or in everyday life in Nazareth, Joseph simply was there. Loved and respected both by the Incarnate Son of God and by the Mother of God, he was a man of deep piety and gracious character.

Within Saint Paul's Cathedral in London is the tomb of its architect, and on that tomb are the words, "If ye seek his monument, look around you." How much more impressive are those words when they are used of Saint Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church. There could be no greater remembrance of Joseph's holy life, than that glorious Church founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, the foster-son of the quiet, just, kind man of God.

Blesséd Joseph, Guardian mild,
Who didst love the Holy Child,
Show thy love to us who pray,
Shield us from all harm this day:
Foster-father of the Word,
Keep us close to Christ our Lord.
Great Saint Joseph, Patron bold
Of the Church from days of old,
Give us courage strong and new,
To proclaim God’s Gospel true:
Foster-father of the Word,
Keep us close to Christ our Lord.
He Whom thou didst guide in youth,
We receive in very truth;
In this Sacrament of love,
We are one with thee above:
Foster-father of the Word,
Keep us one with Christ our Lord!
Text: Fr. Christopher G. Phillips 1992
Tune: “Bread of Heaven” by William D. Maclagan, 1875

27 December 2006

"That they all may be one..."

Some years ago I was invited to write an article entitled “Anglican-Catholic Relations: The Quest for Unity,” which was to discuss the state of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. The article first appeared in “Lay Witness,” which was the publication of Catholics United for the Faith, and it is now on the website of Catholic Culture (http://www.catholicculture.org/).

We all yearn for unity. It is, after all, the desire of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it was what He prayed for on the night before His death. Our concern here, of course, is the gulf between Catholics and Anglicans, which seems to be getting wider day by day. With the disintegration of the Anglican Communion taking place before our eyes, any idea of corporate reunion is “a vain thing, fondly imagined.”

There may well be groups of Anglicans who have retained some semblance of Catholic order and belief, for whom reunion with the Holy See is a desire and a possibility; however, even for many in that position, there is an obtuse belief that such a reunion would be on the basis of a kind of “merger” between corporations. Certainly, the unity of Christ’s Church does not do away with legitimate diversity in liturgical practice and cultural expressions. However, unity does call for an acceptance of all of God’s revealed truth. Unity is not served by “picking and choosing” what one will believe. I have spoken with some Anglicans who belong to groups making approaches to the Holy See, who have told me that they have been assured by their leaders that they will not have to accept such things as papal infallibility, or the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, or that artificial contraception is immoral. One sincere cleric spoke movingly to me about his sincere belief in transubstantiation, but that he just couldn’t buy into the idea of Mary’s assumption into heaven. However, he looked forward to reunion with the Pope, because (as he put it), “I won’t have to be re-ordained. I can trace my orders through Old Catholic lines.” This “tag, you’re it!” idea of apostolic succession is not a helpful approach to true Catholic unity.

I am posting the following article which I wrote in 1998, as a basis for thought and discussion.

Anglican-Catholic Relations: The Quest for Unity

By Fr. Christopher Phillips

Issue: What is the state of relations between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church? What does the Catholic Church teach about the validity of the sacraments within Anglicanism?

Response: The Catholic Church takes seriously the desire of Our Lord Jesus Christ "that they all may be one" (Jn. 17:21), and so there are ongoing discussions and efforts to overcome those things that separate Anglicans from Catholics. Because the Catholic Church has a responsibility to present the truth as revealed in Scripture and Tradition, it is necessary at times to be clear about those areas in which other Christians have deviated from Christ's teaching. Although there are striking similarities between Anglicans and Catholics, there remain serious areas of doctrinal disagreement which mean that the sad divisions, for now, continue.

Discussion: In the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio ("UR"), the Fathers of Vatican II expressed concern over the divisions which hinder the work of the one Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ. They identified "two principal types of division which affect the seamless robe of Christ" (UR, no. 13), as set forth below:

The first divisions occurred in the East, either because of the dispute over the dogmatic formulae of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and later by the dissolving of ecclesiastical communion between the Eastern Patriarchates and the Roman See.

Still other divisions arose in the West more than four centuries later. These stemmed from the events which are commonly referred to as the Reformation. As a result, many communions, national or confessional, were separated from the Roman See. Among those in which Catholic traditions and institutions in part continue to exist, the Anglican communion occupies a special place (emphasis added).

It is because of this "special place" that the division between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion is especially tragic. Adding to the confusion is the "exterior" of Anglicanism, which appears to be so similar to that of Catholicism. In fact, many Catholics ask Anglicans who have entered the Catholic Church, "Why would you become a Catholic? The churches are almost the same, aren't they?"

Indeed, among Anglicans and Catholics there is a like understanding of the hierarchical nature of the Church as expressed in the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons; there is a similar understanding of the importance of sacramental life; there is an acceptance of the great creedal formulas as being foundational statements of faith. The list of similarities could go on, giving support to the statement in UR that the Anglican Communion continues to exhibit many "Catholic traditions and institutions." Unfortunately, this list cannot include a similar understanding of authority, particularly papal authority. The lack of agreement in this one area is the source of other doctrinal differences, and forms the basis for the ongoing division which hinders reunion.

A Brief History

In order to understand Anglican-Catholic relations today, it is necessary to understand something of the historical situation. The establishment of an English Church separate from the Roman Catholic Church took place in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy. In the Act of Supremacy, King Henry VIII declared that "the king's majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England." It was not Henry's desire to establish a separate church. Rather, he simply wanted to eliminate that papal authority which was preventing him from putting away one wife so that he could take another. By rejecting what he viewed as the pope's temporal jurisdiction, the king was able to declare himself the temporal head of a national church, and so "give himself permission" to carry out his planned divorce and remarriage. The matters of administering the sacraments and preaching were rightly seen as the work of the clergy, but the sovereign appropriated to himself all ecclesiastical jurisdiction, even to the choosing and licensing of the bishops. It is evident, however, that King Henry VIII did not want a complete rupture with the Catholic faith, but rather wished to attempt to maintain a "nonpapal Catholicism" in his realm.

Unfortunately, King Henry VIII did not understand the danger of removing part of the Church from the authority of the successor of St. Peter. Resultantly, he opened the door for a number of strong individuals who sympathized with the Protestantism sweeping through parts of Europe. As long as Henry lived, much of Catholic belief survived. For example, in the Articles of Faith, which were issued in 1536, the Eucharistic presence was called "corporal and substantial" (although the term "transubstantiation" was not used). Furthermore, it affirmed that justification was attained by "contrition and faith joined with charity," images of the saints were to be retained along with seeking their intercession, and prayers for the departed were encouraged.

With the succession in 1537 of Henry's son, Edward VI, Anglicanism took a distinct turn toward a radical Protestantism. King Henry's "non-papal Catholicism" was cut off from its roots and became a modified form of Calvinism. There was a specific denial of the sacrificial nature of the Mass, many Catholic practices were suppressed, and the bishops and other clergy were required to subscribe to the 42 Articles of Religion, which were entirely Protestant in their content.

At the death of King Edward VI in 1553, Mary Tudor became queen. With her accession to the throne, England was returned briefly to Catholicism. However, there remained a strong undercurrent of Protestantism. When Queen Mary died in 1558 she was succeeded by Elizabeth I, the queen who would give expression to an Anglicanism founded upon the years of upheaval which had gone before—an Anglicanism which would attempt to be a "via media" between the Catholic faith and continental Protestantism—an "Elizabethan settlement," seeking to embrace elements of both, yet being neither.

Queen Elizabeth herself had no strong personal religious convictions. However, she disliked Catholicism because it denied the legitimacy of her birth (since she was the offspring of Henry's invalid marriage to Anne Boleyn), and she disliked Protestantism because it abolished the episcopacy, which she felt was necessary for the safety of the monarchy. So it was that Elizabeth set the course for Anglicanism down the "middle way," and the practice of religion in England was, at best, chaotic at the beginning of her reign. Old rituals were retained alongside new rites. Many of the clergy were still Catholics held over from the days of King Henry VIII. The doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist was not specifically denied, but worship was conducted using a decidedly Protestant Book of Common Prayer. The 42 Articles of Religion were revised as the 39 Articles of Religion, and although they were written in such way that a somewhat Catholic interpretation could be imposed upon them, they specifically denied much of what the Catholic faith would hold as being essential.

The Loss of Valid Sacraments

In the transitional period from King Henry VIII into the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the clergy (for the most part) were validly ordained bishops and priests, having been ordained before the Act of Supremacy was declared. The settlement during the Elizabethan reign was based upon the Prayer Book of 1552, which was vastly more "Protestant" than that of 1549. Included within the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer was the ordination rite, which was used for the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons.

Drastic changes were made in the Anglican rite, reflecting the Protestant rejection of the traditional sacrificial priesthood instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, when the Anglican formularies for ordination are combined with the expressed view and intention of the Protestant reformers who compiled the rite, it was evident that Holy Orders no longer were able to be transmitted as historically understood by the Church. When Pope Julius III attempted to reconcile the Anglican Church to the Holy See during the reign of Queen Mary, the Pope sent Cardinal Pole as his legate to England, with the specific instruction to distinguish between two different situations:

[T]he first, those who had really received sacred orders, either before the secession of Henry VIII, or, if after it and by ministers infected by error and schism, still according to the accustomed Catholic Rite; the second, those who were initiated according to the Edwardine Ordinal, who . . . had received an ordination that was null. (Letters of Julius III Issued to the Apostolic Delegate, letter dated March 8, 1554.)

It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that in order for any sacrament to be valid, it must be administered with a proper form (i.e., using a valid rite) and with a proper intention (i.e., that no defective intention be stated or manifested externally). Because those who formulated the Anglican rite for ordination specifically expunged any reference to the traditional Catholic priesthood, and were quite public in their intention not to continue what they considered to be a "superstitious" understanding of Holy Orders, ordinations carried out using the Anglican formularies were null and void. Because the sacrament of Holy Orders is so intimately associated with the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and of Reconciliation, these sacraments also were not able to be validly celebrated by those who were ordained according to the Book of Common Prayer.

The whole matter of the invalidity of Anglican orders was given exhaustive study by a commission appointed by Pope Leo XIII. His papal bull Apostolicae Curae, issued on September 15, 1896, stated that because of a defect in both form and intention, apostolic succession was not preserved in Anglican orders. This was most recently confirmed in 1998 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in his commentary on the Apostolic Letter Ad Tuendam Fidem ("To Protect the Faith") issued by His Holiness Pope John Paul II.

The Situation Today

During the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, there was a renewed hope that agreement could be found between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church, agreement that would allow union. It was hoped that the Catholic Church would not simply absorb Anglicans, but would allow them to maintain a distinctive liturgical and hierarchical life in full communion with the Holy See.

To this end, in an attempt to see if agreement could be reached, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) was established to study those issues which were causing separation. In many areas a deeper understanding certainly has been found, but the necessary agreement in essential areas has not been achieved. The Anglican decision to "ordain" women, as well as the widening gulf in moral teaching on such issues as artificial birth control and abortion has presented serious, if not insurmountable, problems for any future reunion—even if the invalidity of Anglican orders could be remedied.

Throughout the years, there have been many sincere Anglicans who have sought to justify the position that Anglicanism is simply one expression of the Church founded by Christ. They claim Anglican sacraments to be every bit as valid as those of the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, and their desire to believe this is understandable.

It is important to understand that Catholic teaching about the invalidity of Anglican orders is not intended to question the sincerity of Anglicans. Indeed, the Catholic Church acknowledges that God can minister His grace in all sorts of ways and through many channels, and there is no doubt that non-Catholic Christians experience the grace of God in their lives.

However, as Catholics, we have access to the very sacraments instituted by Christ and ministered through His one holy priesthood. For this reason, it is never permissible for us to receive Holy Communion or absolution from an Anglican clergyman. Because of the invalidity of the Anglican priesthood, these sacraments are not valid.

As tragic as the separation is, it should serve as a reminder that we must work to build upon those things that we hold in common, and to pray for there to be "one fold, under one Shepherd," in communion with the Vicar of that Shepherd, the Pope.

By living the Catholic faith in charity, we manifest the eternal truths given us by God (cf. Eph. 4:15-16). Our lives then bear witness to the truth and draw all men to Christ. As Vatican II teaches: "[Mother Church] exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church" (Lumen Gentium, no. 15). Only in this manner of living can we hope for true unity within the Body of Christ.

26 December 2006

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Our spiritual journey continues during this Octave of Christmas, as we travel from the Feast of young St. Stephen to the Feast of the aged St. John. And what a journey he made, being taken from tending his fishing nets by the Galilean sea to a cave of exile on the island of Patmos. In both places he was called by the Lord Jesus; first, to listen to the Divine Word so he could follow, and second, to record the Divine Word so those of us who have come later can also follow.

On our recent parish pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey, we visited the cave in which St. John received the apocalyptic vision. As many holy places as I have visited, rarely have I been as affected as I was while standing in that place. There it was that the Risen Lord spoke to John with a power so overwhelming that a fissure was left overhead, dividing the rock into three pieces as a reminder that the Trinity had revealed the truth on that spot. Every place one looked, there was a reminder of John: the hollow in the rock where he rested his head when he grew so tired he could no longer stand upright; the sloping shelf on which the Revelation was recorded. It was all I could do to keep my shoes on my feet, so clearly was this "holy ground." It seemed as though the breath of history was held in that place, and that the apostle would at any moment appear once again to take up his pen to continue recording the living and awe-full word of the Lord. But of course, that could not be. It was there, in that cave, that the final word was spoken. What St. John heard there was the last word of truth. There is no more to be revealed; all we can pray for now is for our increased understanding of what Christ has spoken once for all. Here are the last words the Lord spoke to the last living apostle, written down with trembling hand:

"I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let him who hears say, "Come." And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with the saints. Amen.

25 December 2006

St. Stephen, Deacon and Protomartyr

I find it spiritually invigorating to move so rapidly from celebrating the birth of Our Lord, into the next day's commemoration of the first one to die for his faith in that same Lord. St. Stephen -- the great deacon, the compelling preacher, the martyr whose blood was a seed of faith in St. Paul -- his was a life which showed very early that the Catholic faith was not designed for cowards!

St. Stephen has been something of a patron saint for me for many years, but in an unconventional way. In 1975, I was ordained as an Anglican deacon in Bristol, England, and was assigned to St. Stephen's Church, Southmead, which was one of the post-war council housing estates outside the city. The martyr Stephen had never been particularly important to me up to that point, but a spiritual bond began, which caused me to want to know more about him. The idea of his intercessory role in my life was not part of my thinking at that time in my spiritual life, but as I look back, I can see that was exactly what was happening.

In 1976, my ordination as an Anglican priest took place in St. Stephen's Church, Providence. Oddly, the thing I remember most about that day was kneeling before Bishop Belden, wishing that he was a Catholic bishop so that I could be a Catholic priest. Why should such an idea have come into my mind at that very moment? Because of St. Stephen's prayers, no doubt. Of course, at that time it was a ridiculous thought, and I pushed it aside as being one of those silly things that pops into one's head at odd times. Now I can see that it was God's plan for me being unfolded gradually. Only a few years later, Pope John Paul II approved the Pastoral Provision, which allowed that very thing to happen.

When I celebrate Mass each year on St. Stephen's Day, it is a special day for me. It always has a sense of quiet holiness, after the crowded Masses of the day before. It is a day when I especially give thanks to God for the priestly vocation He has given me, and the day serves as a reminder to me that the diaconate remains part of priestly ministry. Even the year when my father died on St. Stephen's Day, it was bittersweet -- it seemed to me to be right for such a good man to have died on the feast of such a good saint.

Pray, good St. Stephen... pray for us all.

"Urbi et Orbi"

The official English-language translation of Pope Benedict XVI's "Urbi et Orbi" Christmas Day address, delivered from the balcony in St. Peter's Basilica.

Our Saviour is born to the world!" During the night, in our Churches, we again heard this message that, notwithstanding the passage of the centuries, remains ever new. It is the heavenly message that tells us to fear not, for "a great joy" has come "to all the people" (Lk 1:10). It is a message of hope, for it tells us that, on that night over two thousand years ago, there "was born in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11). The Angel of Christmas announced it then to the shepherds out on the hills of Bethlehem; today the Angel repeats it to us, to all who dwell in our world: "The Saviour is born; he is born for you! Come, come, let us adore him!".
But does a "Saviour" still have any value and meaning for the men and women of the third millennium? Is a "Saviour" still needed by a humanity which has reached the moon and Mars and is prepared to conquer the universe; for a humanity which knows no limits in its pursuit of natures secrets and which has succeeded even in deciphering the marvelous codes of the human genome? Is a Saviour needed by a humanity which has invented interactive communication, which navigates in the virtual ocean of the Internet and, thanks to the most advanced modern communications technologies, has now made the Earth, our great common home, a global village? This humanity of the 21st century appears as a sure and self-sufficient master of its own destiny, the avid proponent of uncontested triumphs.
So it would seem, yet this is not the case. People continue to die of hunger and thirst, disease and poverty, in this age of plenty and of unbridled consumerism. Some people remain enslaved, exploited and stripped of their dignity; others are victims of racial and religious hatred, hampered by intolerance and discrimination, and by political interference and physical or moral coercion with regard to the free profession of their faith. Others see their own bodies and those of their dear ones, particularly their children, maimed by weaponry, by terrorism and by all sorts of violence, at a time when everyone invokes and acclaims progress, solidarity and peace for all. And what of those who, bereft of hope, are forced to leave their homes and countries in order to find humane living conditions elsewhere? How can we help those who are misled by facile prophets of happiness, those who struggle with relationships and are incapable of accepting responsibility for their present and future, those who are trapped in the tunnel of loneliness and who often end up enslaved to alcohol or drugs? What are we to think of those who choose death in the belief that they are celebrating life?How can we not hear, from the very depths of this humanity, at once joyful and anguished, a heart-rending cry for help? It is Christmas: today "the true light that enlightens every man" (Jn 1:9) came into the world. "The word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14), proclaims the Evangelist John. Today, this very day, Christ comes once more "unto his own", and to those who receive him he gives "the power to become children of God"; in a word, he offers them the opportunity to see God's glory and to share the joy of that Love which became incarnate for us in Bethlehem. Today "our Saviour is born to the world", for he knows that even today we need him.
Despite humanity's many advances, man has always been the same: a freedom poised between good and evil, between life and death. It is there, in the very depths of his being, in what the Bible calls his "heart", that man always needs to be "saved". And, in this post-modern age, perhaps he needs a Saviour all the more, since the society in which he lives has become more complex and the threats to his personal and moral integrity have become more insidious. Who can defend him, if not the One who loves him to the point of sacrificing on the Cross his only-begotten Son as the Saviour of the world?"
Salvator noster": Christ is also the Saviour of men and women today. Who will make this message of hope resound, in a credible way, in every corner of the earth? Who will work to ensure the recognition, protection and promotion of the integral good of the human person as the condition for peace, respecting each man and every woman and their proper dignity? Who will help us to realize that with good will, reasonableness and moderation it is possible to avoid aggravating conflicts and instead to find fair solutions? With deep apprehension I think, on this festive day, of the Middle East, marked by so many grave crises and conflicts, and I express my hope that the way will be opened to a just and lasting peace, with respect for the inalienable rights of the peoples living there. I place in the hands of the divine Child of Bethlehem the indications of a resumption of dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians, which we have witnessed in recent days, and the hope of further encouraging developments. I am confident that, after so many victims, destruction and uncertainty, a democratic Lebanon, open to others and in dialogue with different cultures and religions, will survive and progress. I appeal to all those who hold in their hands the fate of Iraq, that there will be an end to the brutal violence that has brought so much bloodshed to the country, and that every one of its inhabitants will be safe to lead a normal life. I pray to God that in Sri Lanka the parties in conflict will heed the desire of the people for a future of brotherhood and solidarity; that in Darfur and throughout Africa there will be an end to fratricidal conflicts, that the open wounds in that continent will quickly heal and that the steps being made towards reconciliation, democracy and development will be consolidated. May the Divine Child, the Prince of Peace, grant an end to the outbreaks of tension that make uncertain the future of other parts of the world, in Europe and in Latin America.
"Salvator noster": this is our hope; this is the message that the Church proclaims once again this Christmas Day. With the Incarnation, as the Second Vatican Council stated, the Son of God has in some way united himself with each man and women (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22). The birth of the Head is also the birth of the body, as Pope Saint Leo the Great noted. In Bethlehem the Christian people was born, Christ's mystical body, in which each member is closely joined to the others in total solidarity. Our Saviour is born for all. We must proclaim this not only in words, but by our entire life, giving the world a witness of united, open communities where fraternity and forgiveness reign, along with acceptance and mutual service, truth, justice and love.
A community saved by Christ. This is the true nature of the Church, which draws her nourishment from his Word and his Eucharistic Body. Only by rediscovering the gift she has received can the Church bear witness to Christ the Saviour before all people. She does this with passionate enthusiasm, with full respect for all cultural and religious traditions; she does so joyfully, knowing that the One she proclaims takes away nothing that is authentically human, but instead brings it to fulfillment. In truth, Christ comes to destroy only evil, only sin; everything else, all the rest, he elevates and perfects. Christ does not save us from our humanity, but through it; he does not save us from the world, but came into the world, so that through him the world might be saved (cf. Jn 3:17).
Dear brothers and sisters, wherever you may be, may this message of joy and hope reach your ears: God became man in Jesus Christ, he was born of the Virgin Mary and today he is reborn in the Church. He brings to all the love of the Father in heaven. He is the Saviour of the world! Do not be afraid, open your hearts to him and receive him, so that his Kingdom of love and peace may become the common legacy of each man and woman. Happy Christmas!

24 December 2006

"And the Word was made flesh..."

O precious Lord, once born for us
in stable small and poor;
be born again within our hearts,
and there let us adore.
As once our Saviour thou didst come,
both Man and God divine,
so now thou givest Flesh and Blood
'neath forms of bread and wine.
Sweet Fruit of Virgin Mary's womb,
once hid from earthly sight,
may we thy children fruitful be,
and show the world thy Light.
Now stay with us, Lord Jesus Christ,
in solemn Mystery,
that when our work on earth be done
thy glory we may see.
Tune: "St. Botolph" by Gordon Slater (1896-1979)
Text: Fr. Christopher G. Phillips, 1992

The Solemn Proclamation of Christmas

The twenty-fifth day of December.
In the year five-thousand one-hundred and ninety-nine from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;
In the year two-thousand nine-hundred and fifty-seven from the flood;
In the year two-thousand and fifty-one from the birth of Abraham;
In the year one-thousand five-hundred and ten from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses;
In the year one-thousand and thirty-two from the anointing of David as king;
In the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
In the one-hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
In the year seven-hundred and fifty-two from the foundation of the city of Rome;
In the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus;
In the sixth age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace —
Eternal God and the Son of the eternal Father, willing to consecrate the world by His gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and the nine months of His conception being now accomplished, was born in Bethlehem of Judah of the Virgin Mary, made man.

The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the flesh.

23 December 2006

I know it's still Advent, but...

The trees won't be lit for the Masses tomorrow morning, and we'll try to pretend that the poinsettias aren't there, all so that we can keep Advent's last Sunday. But like a child who can't resist peeking to see the presents beforehand, I couldn't resist posting a picture of the high altar decorated for Christmas. We'll be celebrating the Vigil Mass at 5:00 p.m., and the "Midnight Mass" at 11:30 p.m. Then on Christmas Day our Masses will be at 7:30 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. I've been hearing the choirs practicing; the creche is in place, waiting for the image of the Christ Child; the last purple candle is ready for its brief flare.

"Lo! He comes with clouds descending..." Judge and Infant, make our hearts ready.

At Last! Christmas break!!

Our parish school, The Atonement Academy, provides academic and spiritual formation for nearly five hundred students. We believe firmly that the "incarnational principle" is important in education, which is why the physical building reflects the reality of what takes place within its walls.

Here are some of our students making their way down the Grand Staircase in the main foyer of the school. The statue of the Holy Guardian Angel serves as their first greeting when they arrive, and sends them out in safety when they leave.

The smiles are there no doubt because Christmas break finally has arrived!

22 December 2006

The House of God and Gate of Heaven...

This is a view of the sanctuary from mid-way down the nave. Deep colors and lots of oak woodwork combine to make a remarkable setting for both public and private worship. Overlooking it all, atop the five-arched rood screen, is our Crucified Lord, truly "reigning from the Tree."

The Sacred Heart Chapel

The 7:00 a.m. weekday Masses are offered in the Chapel of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus at Our Lady of the Atonement Church, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place here beginning at 7:30 a.m. every Friday, continuing until 7:15 a.m. every Sunday. This chapel also contains the black granite columbarium, with six hundred niches for our departed loved ones.

The altar and tabernacle are beneath a gothic baldacchino, and over the altar is a dignified "English-style" statue of the Sacred Heart. I call it "English-style" because it is not the usual effeminate, pastel "flying Jesus" depiction of the Sacred Heart; rather, He has a firm and dignified stance, with a kindly and masculine expression. The icon of the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Child was obtained during our recent parish pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey. We celebrated Holy Mass at the House of the Blessed Virgin in Ephesus, and found this exquisite icon nearby. The image has a beautiful silver and gold oklad, and since this picture was taken we have added a hanging lamp which burns beside the icon.  The sanctuary lamp is from the mid-nineteenth century, in the style of French gothic, and at the west end of the Chapel is a small German positif pipe organ.

All in all, the chapel is a wonderful place not only for the celebration of Mass, but also for private prayer. It seats about eighty people.

When all things were in quiet silence... (part 2)

"When all things were in quiet silence and night was in the midst of all her swift course, thine Almighty Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne..."

Frequently, throughout the mysterious unfolding of the dramatic events of the redemption of mankind, God has used the gentleness of the night as the setting of His great and mighty acts. It is as though God, in his kindness and love for us, does not wish to startle us with the intensity of His glory, and so He covers His activity with the night. When the children of Israel were released from bondage in Egypt, the angel of death passed over them during the night; while they were on their journey to the Promised Land, the Lord sent life-giving manna during the night; Jesus instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and imparted the priesthood after the sun had set and the shadows of evening had come upon Him and His apostles; the Crucifixion itself, even though it took place in the midst of the day, brought a cover of darkness at its moment of climax; the resurrection of the Lord, breaking the bonds of Satan, took place while it was yet dark. And the momentous event of this holy season, when Almighty God was born as Man of the Virgin Mary, took place, not in the glare of sunshine, but in the midst of the silence of night.

How different these events would have been if we could have planned them. They call for parades, for loud announcements, for a blazing sun and for great activity! In a world which has been shrunk by the media, where the desire is to be noticed, with an uncomfortable feeling about self-effacement, God comes among us in a way which seems strange—a way which is difficult for many to accept. We have grown accustomed to thinking that humility must have ulterior motives, and that silence is simply an absence of sound. But how like God it is, to enter the world when so few were looking, to send His Word down from heaven when so few had ears to hear. He works this way today, too, for He touches us when we least expect it, giving hope and comfort and love when those things seem not to be within reach.

Perhaps it is not so strange, after all, that God should come in darkness, for it tells us most eloquently that God is Light—the Light that drives darkness from our path. In the midst of the darkness of this world, our Holy Mother the Church takes us by the hand and leads us towards the Light which was born in Bethlehem, towards the Light which could not be forever extinguished on Calvary, towards the Light which burst forth from the tomb on the third day. It is darkness which makes us see the glow of a candle, just as it is our own realization of the darkness of our sinfulness that makes us reach out towards the Light which is Christ.

Could it be that the confusion which we see around us, whether it is confusion in the world or confusion within our own household of faith, is to serve the same purpose? Perhaps, in the midst of it all, God is urging us on by His own example, to quietly, but faithfully, bring the Light of His word to illuminate the darkness. Rather than turning on the glare of indignation and self-righteousness, which only makes the shadows more harsh, perhaps God would have us hold up the simple light of his truth, as it is manifested in our blessed Lord Jesus.

When God was born in Bethlehem, He made a poor stable to be His glorious tabernacle. As He carried out His earthly ministry, the world was hallowed anew as His dwelling-place, and as He lives within each of us, so we are His temples. Just as a candle burns before the tabernacle in every Catholic Church, indicating that Jesus the Light is truly there, so our faith, which we express by words and deeds, serves as a spiritual candle burning before the eyes of the world, proclaiming to all that Jesus our Lord is here! He is the God who came at night to drive the darkness away forever. May we, by faithfully reflecting the Light of Christ, banish darkness from our own lives, and from the night which surrounds us.

When all things were in quiet silence...

Words. Words. Words. For all the words coming at us, there is only one Word we must hear, and that's the hope for this place. That we might hear the Word through others. And the best thing about it is this: if you don't hear the Word, but only words, you can click on the "sign out" button, and blessed silence will ensue...