Monday, 8 December 2008

Che Vivesse in Italia Peregrina

I came across a beautiful exchange in the Purgatorio today. Throughout Inferno, Dante often asks after or seeks out Italians (naturally because of the common language), especially Florentines, since he was from Florence (and was exiled from it at the time of writing). The people he speaks to are only too happy to volunteer their local origins, and this results in several interesting and (in different ways) illuminating conversations. As he reaches the second section of Mount Purgatory, he again uses the same tack but this time gets a decidedly different reply:

We are, dear brother, now all citizens
Of one true place. But you must mean
"Who winged his pilgrim life through Italy".

One senses that Dante must feel slightly put out to have his question (hitherto perfectly natural) dismissed so effortlessly. But after much of the factionalism in Inferno (the intricacies of thirteenth century Italian politics are never far from the narrative there), it is decidedly refreshing to meet a soul who, though not having forgotten his earthly roots, calls Dante's (and our) attention to a far deeper and more abiding reality and a more primeval and ultimate homeland.

It is a good reminder for Advent as well (and a reminder for me personally to hearken back to the lessons God taught me in England a year ago)- we are all pilgrims, all exiles. Here we have no lasting abode. That homesickness we intrinsically feel, that Sehnsucht, that longing for ultimate joy will be fulfilled. He is coming. But we must be ready. And we must not mistake our earthly dwellings for home. We may love them deeply (for patriotism is a virtue, even if a pagan one) but they are waypoints, inns on the journey. Our destination is somewhere different. To quote T.S. Eliot, "the end of all our journeying will be to arrive back where we started, but to know the place for the first time." Eden shall be remade and returned to and, indeed, a better than Eden, for He Who walked there of old shall then walk among us in our own flesh. There is our final destination. There is the end of our pilgrimage. There is home.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Nixon for Nine Year-Olds

Mark Shea yesterday posted a link to this article, decrying the sexualisation of children. I, on the other hand, was far less disturbed by the subject matter of this 9-year-old's first book than I was when I read this sentence.

Alec - who just finished a children's book on the Watergate scandal - said he wants to be a full-time writer when he grows up.

He just finished a WHAT?!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Pope Benedict on Sola Fide

I have long been of the opinion that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is and always has been a 'red herring'. The real crux of the Reformation, and the real disagreement between Catholics and Protestants, lay (and lies) elsewhere entirely.

I first came upon such a theory a long time ago in a letter J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son during the War, and was sceptical to say the least. That scepticism took a blow when I read the Council of Trent's statements on justification as a Protestant Evangelical and found, to my great surprise, that there was almost nothing that I (and every other Evangelical I know) did not already agree with. With continued study and thinking, I have eventually come around to the same opinion as Tolkien.

And, it must be said that, once in a while, it is nice to be vindicated in an unfashionable opinion. And it is particularly nice when the person by whom one is vindicated happens to be one of the most scholarly and interesting theologians of our time, and the successor of Peter to boot!

Witness, then, Pope Benedict demonstrating....well, look, just read it, its brilliant!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Impressions of Inferno


I have just finished the first part of Dante's Divine Comedy and thought to jot down some thoughts.


In point of fact, it has taken me long enough to finish it. I have started it several times and never made it past the beginning of the Eighth Circle. In fact, the first time I started it was when I was about nine on Christmas Eve, to pass the time as I held vigil during the night in the (vain) hope of catching Santa Claus in the act- which just goes to show what a strange child I was (if memory serves, I didn't get past the fifth canto). However, coming up to this Advent, I decided to make a fresh go of it and try and get the thing finished. And, as I say, I have just finished Inferno. So far, so good then. With a bit of luck and continued persistence, I might get to Heaven before...well, before I get to Heaven (assuming, of course, my perseverance in grace). Certainly before Epiphany, anyway. So, anyway, some initial and not particularly scholarly or groundbreaking impressions.


The one thing we don't appreciate about the medievals (or one of the things) is the multi-layered nature of their thinking. Some of my more traditional friends deplore the superficiality of the Novus Ordo Mass where only one thing happens at once, much preferring the layered richness of the Tridentine (I must confess I often have trouble keeping up with the Tridentine for precisely that reason- there are too many layers and connections to properly grasp, let alone appreciate, everything that's going on). In the Inferno, we moderns are, I suspect, tempted to just read on the surface, as we tend to do with most things. We expect that if there are hidden meanings, they should be pointed out or hinted at. The notes I used caught a lot of meaning, but they were by no means exhaustive- a fact which the translator, to his credit, acknowledged several times throughout.


To take one example (which was not mentioned in the notes and I only noticed upon further reflection), a sizable number of the souls Dante meets are very concerned to have him mention them to others when he goes back to the world of the living. In fact, if memory serves, once or twice Dante actually uses the offer to do such as a conversation-starter for some of the less communicative souls. Many have a preoccupation with their own memory or legacy. Here we see the very essence of Hell, the self bound up in itself, obsessed with itself. Robbed of life, it seeks to perpetuate its existence in the only way that remains to it- by having other people remember it. Even in Hell, the self tries to get the universe to revolve around it. Indeed, one doesn't notice it at first (and the temptation to pity the souls and regard them as victims or hard-done-by is very great, especially for us moderns who find it so easy to impute victimhood), but the souls without exception talk about nothing but themselves, their lives, their present circumstances, etc. Morally speaking, this is completely accurate but, as I say, its not signposted. Dante expects you to notice it for yourself.


Another thing- in each part of Hell, Dante somehow participates in the sin being punished there. This I didn't notice until the Ninth Circle, actually. It serves as a kind of mea culpa of the author, robbing him of any sense of moral superiority and showing him his own sinfulness (and encouraging the reader to notice theirs). Kind of like Mel Gibson hammering in one of the nails in The Passion.


Two other things made an impression on me in particular. One is, I think, a very necessary corrective to popular imaginiation. That is, that Satan is not the Lord of Hell. It is not his dominion or realm over which he rules. Dante, quite rightly, has him trapped, imprisoned in a sheet of ice (the ice, I suppose, to symbolise a realm as far removed from the warmth of divine love as it is possible to get) and- and this is what surprised me most of all- weeping. Tears of pain perhaps, or tears of agony or regret, but not tears of repentance. A very different image of the Devil from what one is accustomed to.


Finally, one was initially impressed by the creativity behind the punishments, the contrepasso and all that, and was curious to see what would come next and who the next famous soul would be (although, of course, some of them haven't been famous for quite a few centuries now). However, I don't know if it was just me- how I was feeling on the day or a symptom of my wanting to hurry up and finish, or if it was a subtle function of the writing intended by the author, or what; but by the Ninth Circle I had the overwhelming sensation of "I don't want to be here." The experience was no longer pleasant. I didn't want to meet any more damned souls. They weren't actually pleasant people to talk to or spend time with. Their stories grated and bored- like an obnoxious dinner guest's. To see the stars at the end of canto 33, after so long in the physical and moral dark, knowing that now Hell was behind for good, was one of the most exquisite literary experiences I've had in recent memory.

On to Purgatorio, then.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

In Troubled Times...

I haven't posted any poetry in a while, and, since I'm still working now and then on the St George poem (which grows and grows line by line and may never be finished at this rate), I thought I'd post a short piece I composed a while ago during a quiet spell at work.

In troubled times how muddled men then in their minds become;
In hot pursuit of tainted fruit our nerves are rendered numb;
The onslaught of antipathy so ousts our frazzled thoughts
We cover up our emptiness with what we’ve sold and bought.

While millionaires in mansions are the saddest of the sad,
We want yet disbelieve the joy that Brother Francis had;
The peace that passes muster must have been a foolish dream,
And drearily we wash with little hope of getting clean.

The songs we sang so long ago do now seem bored and trite;
We’ve peace, but only since we’re too disinterested to fight,
And while we seek (by cash or cheque) to save the starving poor
Our lives are no less miserable from having more and more.

Chaput N'est Pas Fou


During the jam-packed week that was WYD, I had the good fortune to meet Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, and was, to put it mildly, impressed. He was to speak at P.J. Gallagher's pub in Parramatta, and so on the Wednesday evening I found myself there, sipping a lemon squash, surveying the scene and waiting for the talk to begin. No sign of the speaker yet. Then, lo and behold, I receive a tap on the shoulder, delivered by a short, round-faced Native American fellow in a Roman collar.


"Ya look dressed for winter," he said, indicating my coat.

"Well, it is winter," I replied.

He considered for a moment and said, "That's true."

Then he shook my hand, "How ya doin'? I'm Archbishop Charles."


That was my first meeting with the man, and I watched thereafter as he moved around the pub, striking up conversations with the patrons. Then he got up and gave this speech. And answered questions. I was particularly impressed when one girl asked a question about IVF which, it must be said, was ambiguous (the way she worded the question, it was difficult to tell what she was asking). I have seen many public speakers in similar situations give a brush-off reply to what they hope is the question being asked and then move on. Archbishop Charles, however, engaged the girl and tried to clarify what she wanted to know. This went on for a couple of minutes, with a kind of back-and-forth between them while other questioners waited. I've never seen a speaker do that before.
Altogether, he came across as solidly and proactively orthodox, solidly and proactively pastoral and brimming over in Christian charity. A rare combination, especially in a bishop.


Now, this is all by way of introduction. Given my various interests, I naturally take a casual, though not obsessive, interest in global politics and have consequently been following with some interest the progress of the American elections (or the lead-up to them, anyway- how they can justify spending billions of dollars and more than a year's concerted efforts on a political campaign- which may not even win- baffles me; I much prefer Australian political elections, which tend to be shorter, cheaper and more pointed). With the Democratic Convention taking place in Denver, I was curious to see what Archbishop Charles would be up to.


A fair bit, it turns out. In addition to sending out this pastoral letter about the abortion issue and, especially, two-faced politicians who support it but still try to get Christians to vote for them, he also got together with Martin Luther King's niece and the local Baptist minister to preach outside a Denver abortion clinic, and carry on a prayer vigil there, garnering in the process a crowd of 3000.
This, folks, is what a real bishop looks like.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Schonborn and the Ideologues

On Wednesday last, I attended a talk from Christoph Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna on the creation/evolution debate at Sydney University. It was fascinating, and indeed, I've never seen the Great Hall so full (nor, for that matter, have I ever seen so many Dominicans in one place!). The Cardinal was compelling and intriguing in his arguments and very difficult to put in a box as regards his views. I got the impression, however, that he understands the debate better than almost anyone else engaged in it (though I still have several questions I would very much like to hear him answer).
One of the chief points he made multiple times during the course of the address was, "Science must not allow itself to be married to ideology." Which, being a Dominican and Thomist, he made as a general principle, rather than meaning "Science should not be married to your ideology but mine", which is perhaps its more common meaning these days.
All of this leapt back into the forefront of my mind when I saw this :

Whatever the final scientific consensus on the matter, the steady politicisation and sacralisation of climate change does have its moments of unintended humour.
H/T Zippy Catholic at What's Wrong with the World.




Friday, 25 July 2008

Aftermath of WYD

Well, its over. The Holy Father has boarded the plane and gone home to Rome. All the pilgrims have departed. And Sydney sits back, a bit dazed, and wonders what to make of it all.

Was it all a dream? By no means. The Holy Spirit is subtle, however, both startling and unexpected, and the work of grace never proceeds the way one would expect.

Now we watch and wait for the fruits. Veni Sancte Spiritus!

Friday, 18 July 2008

Coleridge Encounter

This incident is notable enough to quote more or less in full.

We had Archbishop Mark Coleridge from Canberra for catechesis this morning (first Australian this week, actually; so far its been all American and Canadian bishops in our particular group). After his sermon, he opened up the floor for questions. It was then that this exchange occurred.

Man: The Church teaches some things I have trouble with. What do I do with these sorts of hard Church teachings?

Archbishop Mark: I struggle with hard Church teachings too. It shouldn't surprise us that we do. When Christ preached in John 6, the people said, "This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?" What Christ taught was not easy or comfortable. But He taught the truth. Our Lord taught unexpected things, but they were all true. The Church teaches what He taught. It speaks in His Name what He wants spoken. It teaches the truth from Him. But the truth is not always how we expect it. Like Christ Himself, the truth sometimes baffles us, sometimes takes forms or entails things we didn't suspect and may not like. But Christ desires our good, desires our salvation and the truth He teaches through the Church will always bring that. We have to make an act of faith in Him, to trust Him, and therefore the Church which is His Body, that He may know better than us. However much we struggle to accept the truth when it comes to us in unexpected ways, it is only the truth that will set us free."

Very well-put, I thought.

WYD Continues Apace


For the record, I too think they should change the name to World Youth Week. But anyway...

Not as much chance to blog as I had hoped this week. Needless to say, there's a lot going on around the place. I shall, hereafter, reflect on the entire thing in more depth. For the time being, however, I would like to note just one thing- which in fact was my very first impression at the Opening Mass- and it is this:

There is something unbelievably cool about 150 000 people all saying 'Amen' at once!

Monday, 14 July 2008

St Francis Evangelism

I expect to be blogging a bit about WYD as the week goes on. This is probably inevitable. For my own part, I feel like the man who is about to enter the darkened theatre for a showing of a film that has been recommended to him but, having seen no previews or synopses, is unsure what to expect.

A few preliminary thoughts then.

Whatever the result of WYD be (and I do have high hopes), I think JPII was onto something when he first came up with the idea. Our culture is such that it needs to be shown things. It has a high intolerance for hypocrisy, double-dealing and insincerity (one could analyse how this flows naturally from the philosophical "turn towards the subject", but I'm not going to do that). Being very individualistic, it also abhors imposition or manipulation of any kind (while, ironically, the media have become consummate masters of the latter- but this too is a rant for another time). Most of us, I suspect, are put off by solicitors (not lawyers- the other kind) and spruikers.
In addition, as a consumer culture, we also like assurances (warranties, try before you buy, etc.) before we make commitments.

Today, a colleague at work related this story to me. A close friend of hers was at a train station last week when a lady approached her. Without introduction, the lady put this question to her, "Do you want to be saved?" Not altogether surprisingly, my colleague's friend avoided making reply and escaped the encounter by leaving the station.

What was wrong with this approach? Presumably the lady in question was sincere and well-meaning in her intent. One would also assume that she actually desired the person's salvation. Yet this method of evangelism, clearly, has done nothing to attract her to the gospel; if anything, it has repelled her.

The reason is not difficult to discover. The lady, whatever her inward intentions, has not displayed charity or interest in the person she is evangelising. The love of Christ for the individual is nowhere to be seen. The desire of the solicitor to get somebody-anybody!- to sign on the dotted line, however, is plainly in evidence. In this case, the question, "Do you want to be saved?" is roughly equivalent to "Do you want to sign up for a Platinum credit card?" And since one finds it more difficult to simply reply "No" to the former and have done with it (saying "I don't want to be saved," is only going to extend the encounter, not end it), my colleague's friend has simply avoided the encounter entirely.

As Christians, all evangelistic endeavours are undergirded by certain facts, and we do well to keep them in mind. Firstly, God has created every individual freely. They are unique creations of His and have innate value simply because they exist. Furthermore, they bear His image. This is an extraordinary fact. And it is true of every human being. In addition, He has taken on flesh for our redemption. That means that every human being now has something in common with God that not even the angels have. God, in our own humanity, has borne the sins of each of us, out of His supreme love of us. Therefore, every person I meet is a person whom God loves more deeply, richly and abundantly than I can begin to grasp, and a person for whom He has died. They are therefore of infinite worth. And they too long for God, whether it is articulated in that way or not. Each person longs for love, longs for joy and happiness, longs, in other words, for union with God, for the Beautific Vision. In the end, nothing but Jesus Christ can satisfy that longing. And if I really believe all of that, I ought to act as if it were true.

This principle applies to evangelism between individuals. When it comes to evangelism on a grander scale, the same truths are writ larger.

Which brings me to WYD. There are myriad folk who think, deep down, that Christianity is a bunch of humbug, and that the chief message of Christians is "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" There are also myriad folk who are afraid that behind the facade lies nothing much, emptiness, a teleological abyss. So we protect ourselves from silence and solitude with countless distractions, whether they be the busyness of our jobs, a non-stop social life, a thrilling television series or the rugby. We have become, as one person put it, " a Paris Hilton people in a nuclear age". Those for whom distractions fail yield to depression and perhaps suicide.

Sitting quietly in the midst of the cacophany is the good news of the Gospel, the good news of a Creator who is not a tyrant but a father, of God Who removes misery and suffering from the world not by divine fiat but by suffering it Himself, Who lets His children kill Him to save them.

This good news is not a promotion but an announcement. It is, moreover, an announcement that is more than just words. It is a reality to be witnessed.

Standing on the rooftops proclaiming things which may or may not be true is not going to satisfy a culture such as our own. Whatever university lecturers may claim, ours is an age with little interest in ideas for their own sake. We like to see results. WYD proposes this simple concept- flood a city with young people who hope. Let the citizens work out why.

I expect many of the older generation (and not a few of the younger) to be baffled at such an event. But to us young people who have placed our hope in Jesus Christ and trust Him for both the future of the world and also of our own individual lives (for He directs both according to His own purposes), it is our responsibility as witnesses to the gospel to answer questions after they are asked rather than before. Every human heart longs for God. Not every person recognises that longing for what it is, but the chances are good they will recognise its satisfaction when they see it and want to know why.

To bear witness in this manner is by no means a new concept. I believe it was St Francis who said, "Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary."

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Scandal of the Incarnation

I read some time ago a statement made on the Sydney Anglicans website, in which Peter Jensen justified his largescale rejection of classical and traditional church music because it led to, among other things, "the folly of sacramentalism".

As much as I have in common with Peter Jensen (and I have his evangelical regime and culture, with its ministry through the Sydney Uni Evangelical Union, to thank for much of my Christian formation and for preparing me to be reconciled with the Catholic Church), I distrust in the most extreme terms the Christian credentials, and particularly Christology, of anybody who can refer to sacramentalism as "folly".

Someone who can talk like that does not really believe in the Incarnation. Though they may sign a creed or statement of belief including it, the doctrine has not penetrated any further than the intellect, if indeed even that far. It is no more than a statement to which one subscribes. The doctrine has not entered such a person's bones and begun to inform the way they look at the world. In a Christian, I, for one, find that disturbing.

Indeed, it is this fundamentally, more than any other thing, that I believe is the essence of the divide between the Catholic and the Protestant Evangelical. When I was on my way to being reconciled with the Church, I remember with some clarity the time when the connecting thread between all the Catholic doctrines I had formerly rejected became clear to me- and that thread was the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is this fact- that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, one prosopon in two hypostases- that informs all of Catholic doctrine and practice. It undergirds Catholic ecclesiology (which includes the papacy, apostolic succession, the communion of saints, confession and indulgences), the doctrine of the sacraments (and indeed the very idea of sacraments), justification, Mary and everything else. Not least, it informs the doctrine of Scripture.

Which brings me to a series of articles I found recently from a Professor at a Presbyterian seminary here. Prof. Enns has apparently come under fire in recent days for a book he wrote called "Inspiration and Incarnation" in which he argues that recognising the human element in Scripture does not subtract from its inspiration or inerrancy, nor from its divine origin or authority. For this he has been suspended from his position and is awaiting a hearing to decide his professional fate.

He defends himself on his blog in these words: "Where some have stumbled, I feel, is in thinking that an emphasis on Scripture’s humanity seems to represent an irrevocable “methodological” failure to give due weight to Scripture’s divinity, indeed to the supremacy of the divine element of Scripture. As some have asserted, the book is to be faulted for failing to recognize that Scripture, like Jesus himself, is “essentially” divine while only “contingently” human.

Frankly, I am a bit perplexed, even concerned (theologically), about this criticism. If we understand the word “essential” to mean “a property without which something ceases being what it is,” Christ ceases being who he is if either element is subordinated. It is essential that Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior, be both divine and human. So, too, Scripture is not simply “contingently human”(precisely what that means is not clear to me at any rate) but essentially so, i.e., there is no Scripture apart from the human—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—words that the Spirit inspired biblical writers to write. To put it another way, we are not required to consider how to place one over the other, but to accept that they co-exist (if I may speak this way for sake of discussion) by God’s wise and gracious decree....

Ironically, perhaps, when we focus on the humanity of Scripture, we are not somehow showing disrespect for Scripture’s divine origin, nor are we in danger of running our faith aground. The truth, I feel, is precisely the opposite. By focusing on Scripture’s humanity, which is unfortunately often misunderstood as the purview of critical scholarship alone, we begin to see more clearly who this God is who has walked and talked with his people, and still does. Scripture’s humiliation is not an affront or an obstacle to be overcome in order to highlight its authority. Like Christ, it is the very means by which we behold God’s glory."

All of which is a perfectly orthodox and Christian approach to Scripture.

As Dei Verbum was at pains to point out, the doctrine of Scripture flows naturally from our Christology. The outcry that has accompanied Prof. Enns' work is symptomatic, I fear, of a far deeper problem within Protestantism in general and Protestant Evangelicalism in particular- a deep-seated discomfort with the Incarnation. Evangelicals don't want God to come too close, become too human. They are, at heart, afraid He might get dirty, that human-ness might corrupt Him somehow. So God must remain spiritual, as must our worship of Him and everything else we believe.

The ultimate danger of this is that it leads to the faith of the Cathars. But a far more immediate danger is a faith that becomes divorced from reality. I see this possibility played out, for example, in the minds of people (and I have met several) who, when told that Peter was crucified, say, "Oh, but that's not in the Bible.", as much as to say that if it were true it would be recorded there somewhere, as though Peter inhabits some kind of biblical fantasy-land separated from actual history (strangely such folk never demand that Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon be mentioned in the Bible, though both events are probably historically verifiable to roughly the same degree). In this view, God didn't really enter into history. God inhabits "Bible history". "History", by contrast, is a different realm from which God is largely absent.

An understanding like this is not conducive to evangelism in the end, because it bars God from public, objective reality, confining Him to a more subjective arena available only to the believer, thereby making secular and sacred two categories which have nothing to do with each other. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, breaks into the secular world and throws things around. He goes to where mankind is. He saves us by becoming one of us, being born in our flesh, dying and rising in it so as to redeem us and keeping it for all eternity. He has created a visible institution to preach His Name, whose members comprise both living and dead, which administers physical rites through which He transmits His grace and divine life, and He will glorify us in our flesh at the end of days. That is what was once called Christian orthodoxy. In the final analysis, the "folly of sacramentalism" is ultimately the folly of the Gospel.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

The Ruin

A lovely recitation of an ancient poem with some more modern imagery accompanying, and a brief foray into my own area of specialised study- Anglo-Saxon. The pronunciation is a little different in places from the way I was taught to speak it but, after 1000 years, I think we can let slight variations slide.

H/T Mark Shea.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Anglican Exodus

This is looking very hopeful indeed.

From what I've heard, things were tragically bungled in 1994. What could have been one of the greatest Catholic renewals in England was hampered and hindered at every turn. Thanks be to God it looks like England will have a second shot at it.

And as the Anglican Communion tears itself apart and we all watch it transform into something it has never been before (though what exactly that is remains to be seen), the Church has a great Pope sitting in Peter's chair who knows his stuff, and a well-led CDF. I hope and pray (with an appropriate level of trepidation) that what could be a milestone in England's relationship with Christ and His Church is not botched, especially by the bishops.

A whole bunch of zealous, liturgically- and doctrinally-informed Anglicans, especially clergy, is exactly what the English Church could use right now. And if they are permitted to retain a form of the Book of Common Prayer, I will be delighted. At last, we may have a form of the Faith that is at once thoroughly English and thoroughly Catholic! Please, please, pleeease let it be so.

Carbon GAFCON

I have been following the latest paroxysms within Anglicanism with great interest, and may post about it at some point, but in the midst of it all I was highly amused by this comment.

Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, also responded to the GAFCON declaration, saying in a statement:
“Much of the Anglican world must be lamenting the latest emission from GAFCON."


It appears that Kate Jefferts-Schori has imbibed the ideology of climate change a little too much.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Church Militant and the Newspaper Wars

Another interesting thing. Yesterday, in the SMH, a great kerfuffle ensued as it was revealed that "anti-annoyance" laws had been introduced for World Youth Day. Never mind that such laws are in place at sporting stadiums across the state at every game that takes place in them. No, it must be the Catholic Church quashing freedom of expression and expecting the people of Sydney to become the mindless Pope-adoring zombies it naturally wants them to be.

This is pretty representative of the tone the SMH has taken towards the whole thing, which is generally along the lines of "I didn't vote for this! It's disrupting more important things like business and corporate-ness in the economic hub that is the CBD! Its costing money!!! Catholics, go home!" All of which is by no means unexpected.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Daily Telegraph, which went to great lengths today to demonstrate that, unlike the SMH (and the editor made the point explicitly in his editorial), the Daily Telegraph is the friend of World Youth Day. 'They [the complainers] are aided in their non-cause by the Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper so sensitive to the concerns of one culture that it routinely deletes references to 'men of Middle-Eastern appearance' from police reports and yet runs absurd front-page stories slamming Youth Day and promoting T-shirts bearing the lines '$5500- a small price to pay for annoying Catholics'....Our bottom line on World Youth Day is this- we hope that its a success and we think that it will be. Our question for our media friends elsewhere is: surely shouldn't you wait until something has actually happened before declaring it a disaster?"

Well, quite.

This might of course have something to do with the fact that, apparently, the Telegraph is the "WYD Sydney08 Official newspaper" (was there one of those in Cologne?) but I wouldn't be one to say. But, well and good, you might think. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that (or the naysayer of my naysayer, perhaps). But then, if the Telegraph is prepared to be so positive, what exactly does it think World Youth Day is all about?

The answer comes on p7 in an interview with one Carla Mascarenhas. "Its not about preaching the gospel," she says, "its about bringing people together."

Hmmm....

Somehow, I suspect the Pope would disagree with a statement like that. But, whatever the Pope thinks (and if I know Benedict XVI, he would probably retort by pointing to Christ and how His preaching of the gospel brought and brings people together in a way that all other things in history have been incapable of doing), this is far more illuminating of what the Telegraph staff think. One gets the image of WYD as a sort of feel-good Woodstock about joy and togetherness focussing on nothing much in particular- apart from navel-gazing and everyone saying to each other, "I'm really excited! Aren't you excited? I'm so excited!" The idea that the whole thing might be centred on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and that its culmination will be the making present of the Eternal Sacrifice of Calvary at Randwick Racecourse in the presence of hundreds of thousands of young people on the Sunday morning doesn't seem to have been noted. Indeed, the vague suspicion that the Pope might stand for something or Someone other than himself doesn't seem to have crossed the minds of anyone at the Telegraph offices! In point of fact, the image of WYD put across by the Telegraph seems suspiciously like the Olympics, except with no sport in the middle, just the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. I think some surprises will be in store.

The whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as the critical reaction to Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto. That film I went and saw soon after it came out, enjoyed it a lot, and then went leafing through dozens of reviews to see if anyone else had. I subsequently came away with the singular impression that most of the reviewers hadn't understood what the film was trying to say, and those that did didn't like it. While the SMH is unrelievedly hostile, I think it perceives at least dimly that its cherished values are threatened by what will be happening in Sydney in a fortnight, whereas the Telegraph seems to think the Church shares its values. In this the SMH at least is closer to the truth.

Ultimately, of course, regardless of media, newspapers and talk, the Catholic Church does its own thing, because it marches to a different drumbeat to the surrounding culture. It is, after all, the Mystical Body of the most unpredictable Man Who ever lived, Who didn't even stay dead when everybody expected Him to. Those who try to second-guess the Church, categorise it and pigeon-hole it into their own political, cultural or ideological boxes, or harness it to further their own agenda will ultimately be confounded. The Church is bigger than them and it is alive with a very different sort of life.

Penance, or the Fruits of Repentance

Well, this is interesting:

LUBBOCK, Texas — Dan Bentley, 38, used to have trouble admitting he was wrong, until a sermon series convinced him that asking forgiveness was the path to personal freedom. Now he is asking forgiveness so much that he’s on the verge of losing every friend he’s ever made. "I’m cleaning the slate with everybody, no matter how difficult that proves to be," he says. Bentley recently asked a woman at work to forgive him for spending years ogling her, especially when she wore particular outfits. He was promptly hit with a sexual harassment claim and a demotion. He asked forgiveness of two high school buddies and detailed what had bothered him about their personalities. They haven’t invited him fishing since. Even his mother is angry at him for confessing that for years he’d seen her as overbearing, selfish and manipulating and that he needed forgiveness for "always liking Dad a lot better." She promptly disinvited him to the family’s Fourth of July reunion. Bentley says that though he’s paid a high price for coming clean he "really feels free." "My pastor was right," he says. "Asking forgiveness completely changes your life."

I have often thought that if we took seriously the communal aspect of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the obligation to do things like this would form a larger number of our assigned penances. The purpose of penance, after all, is to undo the temporal punishment (or, in other words, the objective damage inflicted on our souls and those of others) caused by our sins, something that remains even after our relationship with God and with His Body has been restored in the sacrament. Certainly, prayers (which are the most common assigned penances) aid in this by purifying our motives and fixing our attention on the face of Christ. Nonetheless, it is beneficial, when our sins have had concrete consequences, to undo these with concrete penances. If a thing has been stolen, it should be returned. If a lie has been told, the person to whom it was told ought to learn the truth. And so forth.

This chap, who is clearly Protestant, seems to understand this much at least, even if he remains ignorant of this Sacrament of Divine Mercy. Though his actions may seem at first glance bizarre and rather counter-productive, I think he's onto something.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Harry Potter and Meditations on Hype





"I never could see anything wrong in sensationalism; and I am sure our society is suffering more from secrecy than from flamboyant revelations." G.K. Chesterton


I recently finished the final volume of the Harry Potter books, and the experience got me thinking. In point of fact, I enjoyed the book (and its predecessors) thoroughly- they are the kind of thing one would enjoy reading to one's own children one day. The conclusion was largely satisfying, and left me with roughly the same reaction as I had to the final Matrix film, viz. given the fact nothing could meet the hype, that was quite as good as could be expected and the author could really not have done better.

Of course, one has to make an effort not to expect too much with something as hyped as both of those things were (at least in their respective subcultures) which, as I say, got me thinking. For hype, that most evitable element of popular culture, is at bottom nothing less than a great and instinctive (and communal) yearning for the Beautific Vision. When a group of people get inordinately excited in expectation of some new thing, investing in it hopes that it could never possibly meet, what we have is a grass-roots form of the virtue of hope. When you hear the story of the Star Wars fan who said they were avoiding crossing roads because they didn't want to die before they saw The Phantom Menace, most of us are moved to pity the man and think he should get a life, as the expression goes. But is he more pitiable than the suicide who deliberately steps out into the road because there is nothing left to live for?

To the reply, "Its just a movie!", I say, isn't that significant? The fact that hype, quite frequently, relies on story, on some sort of narrative, especially an epic one, and the eternal question 'What happens next?' (or, in the case of The Phantom Menace, 'What happened before?') is not, I submit, unimportant. At the moment, I myself am waiting for the final episode of the present season of Doctor Who to air this Saturday, and there are great questions hanging over what will transpire in that particular long-running story. Consequently, I can't help getting a little excited. The sense that some extraordinary new revelation will be made, something that will tie together all that has come before, the great expectation of such a prospect is very human.

We long for an end (especially in the sense of a goal) that will make the journey worthwhile; some sort of ultimate destination, something that will make sense of everything, in whose light everything that has preceded will take on new meaning and purpose. Indeed, we long for what Tolkien called eucatastrophe, the great happy ending. These sorts of epic stories awaken in us that longing. Inevitably, when what we seek is eucatastrophe, bliss, the Beautific Vision in fact, we will be disappointed, because neither Harry Potter, the Matrix, Star Wars or Doctor Who can offer us those. God alone can. The whole of history must have that ultimate ending, that great revelation that makes sense of the whole thing, but it hasn't yet. We're still in Book 4 and Book 7 is a long way away. Nonetheless, the hype attached to each of these things is a signpost, drawing attention to that which will satisy the human heart. Even in a child that eats dirt, the fact that he is hungry is evidence of the existence of food.

Moreover, it is not by any means an abberation that hype is attached to particular things, particular stories, films, books. Mankind longs not for the concept of a revelation or a happy ending, but an actual revelation, an actual happy ending. Not an abstract but a particular, a specific. And if we put the book down after turning the last page, if we walk out of the theatre elated and then have to find the car, and thus have to deal with what Walker Percy calls 'the problem of re-entry', this only serves to remind us that the stories Man creates are a reflection, a sometimes quite enjoyable and marginally satisfying reflection, but ultimately only a reflection of a far greater and more ultimate reality, and it is that which the hype really points to.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Trinity Sunday


Brother Manes began his sermon last night, "If you expect to understand the Trinity after tonight's sermon, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. In fact, no matter which parish in Sydney you go to today, you will still come out not understanding the Trinity."


While this is true, as Frank Sheed points out, God does not tell us things for no reason. And the doctrine of the Trinity is emphatically not something God had to reveal to mankind. Indeed, it is, in a sense, His most intimate secret. It is Who He is in Himself. To realise this fact is to reject both the option of throwing up one's arms and saying, "Well, its a mystery!" and leaving it at that, and the alternative temptation of treating the doctrine as some sort of esoteric mathematics that a few experts may be able to puzzle out one day. The doctrine of the Trinity has been revealed to the Church, and the Church is not peopled exclusively by theologians. It is, after all, catholic.
The Trinity is Who God is in His deepest essence. To have a relationship with God is to have a relationship with the Trinity. To look forward to spending eternity with God is to look forward to spending eternity with the Trinity. It behooves us to give at least some thought to this awesome reality God has revealed to us about Himself.
Perhaps the reluctance of many Christians to devote mental energy to the doctrine of the Trinity as such is the suspicion that it is an almost gnostic area of theology, obscure and impenetrable, a 'mystery' in the modern sense of something unknown and probably unknowable. This is a fallacy however.
As Karl Barth is at pains to point out in his Church Dogmatics, "The economic Trinity is identical to the theological Trinity." When most Christians think of the Trinity, they think of a concept, something abstract. This of course is wrong, as God is the most concrete of all things, and the Trinity is Who He is. But the theological concepts used by theologians who seek to derive from this doctrine what God intended us to know by revealing it to us must never be left in the abstract. God is concrete and He has acted in history. In the economy of salvation, God is revealed as Trinity (this is what Barth means by the economic Trinity). Trinitarian doctrine is not arbitrary, not some idea that exists apart from our spiritual lives or from God's dealings with mankind. On the contrary, God's trinitarian nature is revealed in these very things. In seeking to know Him, we must come to know Him as Who He is, and Who He is is Trinity.
Making the effort to do so illuminates the rest of our faith, sometimes in surprising ways. For example, the statement made by John that "God is love" could seem like a simple-minded platitude. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, shows that, far from being something to be confined to one of those insufferable corporate calendars full of mealy-mouthed statements of seeming wisdom, John's statement contains perhaps the deepest truth of God's nature. For God is in Himself a community of Persons, each giving totally of Themselves to Each Other, from all eternity, each animated by that thorough self-gift, receiving and giving back. That is the Being Who holds all in existence from moment to moment. That is Who God is, and the story of the Incarnation is the story of that love at the foundation of the universe going forth to heal mankind and draw him into Itself (or rather, Himself, or Themselves).
Nor does rejection of the fullness of this doctrine amount to the rejection of an unimportant abstract theological concept. The JW's, who have rejected the doctrine wholesale and regard it as abhorrent and even demonic, must necessarily believe that God has not saved us, but rather someone else has (in their case, St Michael the Archangel). That gives the lie to St John, implying God remained distant from mankind and sent one of His creatures to drag us out of the mud of the Fall. Alternatively, there is the atheist's retort when confronted with the Redemption that God engages in divine child abuse by sending His Son to be killed for our sins. The doctrine of the Trinity enables the believer to answer and say, "No, God Himself suffered and died for my sake," because the Son and the Father both possess the Divine Nature in its totality- both are fully God.
This explains why the Catholic Church still stands firm in affirming the filioque clause in the Creed, as against the Orthodox. It is important and vital to believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Diluting the doctrine of the Trinity always has implications, though they are not always visible at first.
In allowing our minds (and even, God forbid, our intellects) to dwell on the mystery of the trinitarian nature of our God, we come to know Him better, not just in His relation and dealings with us, but- what is more extraordinary- as He is in Himself; and thereby we give ourselves more reasons for loving Him and more reasons to look forward to spending eternity in His Presence.
Note: actually, Brother Manes' sermon was very good. His opening remarks just provided a handy jump-off point.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Happy St George's Day!


May the prayers of George, who fought for the Faith with valour and won the martyr's crown, aid those who now fight the war for the soul of England. May God's mercy be upon her and may George's prayers for her be heard and answered.
Hagios Georgias, ora pro nobis.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Brave New Dirty Words

I was somewhat disturbed to read this in today's Telegraph.

I am aware of people with their finger on the pulse who are of the measured opinion that the day is coming when a new persecution against the Faith will break out in the West, of similar force to Rome in the 60s AD or in Paris during the Terror, and that it will begin in Britain. Indeed, the more I read, the more I suspect this may not be far from the truth.

I am also aware that measures of this sort have already been taken in England viz. legislation prohibiting anyone from condemning homosexuality or the lifestyle that goes along with it, even in non-government schools.

I was not aware, though, that things were quite so far advanced in Australia. Which is perhaps a bit foolish on my part, given the high profile of the gay lobby here, the continuing popularity of the Mardi Gras and Sydney's growing reputation internationally as one of the most happening cities, gay-wise, in the world.

The desire to prohibit even the normal words in the language for heterosexual relationships betrays the true agenda. As Mark Shea characterises it, "Tolerance is not enough! You! Must! Approve!" And one wonders, with ongoing legislation such as this, what is the end motive? What is the ultimate aim? Does the gay lobby have a specific end in mind, towards which all of this is heading, or are they just feeling their way? One gets the worrying impression that, whatever the motivations of individuals, the collective impulse and desire is not just to normalise homosexuality but to de-normalise heterosexuality.

In the meantime, while relationships which are by their nature infertile are steadily normalised, one wonders how much longer it will be before 'mother' and 'father' become dirty words and Aldous Huxley's vision is finally achieved.

UPDATE: It looks like Australia is not as far advanced as it initially seemed, thanks be to God. Apparently, the Education Director-General still has at least a modicum of common sense and has not yet submitted to gay goodthink in its entirety. May like spines endure.

Ruby Slippers


And if it all gets too much, I have but to click my heels together three times and say, "There's no place like Rome."

Friday, 8 February 2008

Archbishop Burke Fulfilling His Office

Found the link to this on Mark Shea's blog.

I love stories like this. To see a bishop who takes seriously his role as bishop, knowing it for what it is- a mandate and participation in the authority of Christ to shepherd the sheep, feed them and protect them from wolves (not as so many bishops see themselves: managers of a transnational company)- delights me no end. An account like this makes me think back to things I've read in Eusebius, or from the years after Nicea, or in biographies of Bernard of Clairvauz or the like. To know such things still take place gives me hope. Hope that Christ still abides with His Church in the persons of His ministers. Deo gratias.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Spe Salvi

God's principal pastor, the Pope,
Joseph Ratzinger by name,
Arrayed in his sumptuous cope,
Arises from prayer, heart aflame,
Then writes of man's hunger for hope
And the Christian's supply of the same.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

A New Jesuit General


The General Congregation of the Society of Jesus continues but there is now a new Superior General- Fr. Adolfo Nicolas.


He has spent most of his time in ministry in Asia, especially in Japan, where the Jesuits have a long and noble history. I had never heard of him before now, so naturally when I heard the news I hot-footed it to the nearest Internet access to do a bit of background on him. Not sure what to make of the man yet- he hasn't had time to do anything yet as Superior General, after all. However, I must confess, having read some interviews with him, I don't think the Society of Jesus is going to experience much renewal in the days to come.


Take, for example, statements made during an interview with the Australian Express last year.


Asked if people from a culture like Japan experience Ignatian Spirituality differently than those in the West, Father Nicol├ís says the experience was indeed different, but it had yet to be formulated.‘I think the real experience of the Japanese is different. And it should be different. But the formulation continues to be very much a Western formulation’, he says.


So far, so good. I could agree with that. But wait, what exactly does "Western" mean?


A Japanese Jesuit, Father Katoaki, has recently translated and added comments on the book of the Exercises from a Japanese-Buddhist perspective. Father Adolfo says there has also been some discussion on whether the Exercises could be presented to non-Christians, and how that might occur.‘The question is how to give the Ignatian experience to a Buddhist’, he says. ‘Not maybe formulated in Christian terms, which is what Ignatius asked, but to go to the core of the experience. What happens to a person that goes through a number of exercises that really turn a person inside-out. This is still for us a big challenge.’


So, evangelisation becomes, not the spreading of the good news about Jesus Christ, a message which the Spiritual Exercises are designed to interiorise and impact upon a person, but the "Ignatian experience". Not the Christ that the Exercises proclaim and try to make present, but the subjective experience of them. A subjective experience that we should try to reproduce in people who don't know Christ without even trying to introduce them to Him. Let us throw Christ out of the Spiritual Exercises and do a Buddhist version! Ignatius would weep.


Is it just me or does it sound like when Fr Nicolas says "Western" what he actually means is "Christian". If that is indeed the case, he gives the lie to the Church's consistent teaching that "there is no salvation in any other [but Christ] for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Salvation comes to European and Asian alike through Jesus Christ and no other. The saintly Jesuits of past centuries believed that truth and were prepared to sacrifice much for it. Would that today's Society had chosen to do likewise.


The next paragraph is telling.


While some work has been done comparing the Ignatian experience with that of Hindus, he says there hasn’t been a lot of work on finding similarities say in Japanese, Chinese or Korean cultures. He says East Asia has been more slow to do this than India, partly because the East Asians have a strong respect for tradition, and hence a respect for Christianity’s European traditions.


Isn't it curious that Fr Nicolas will respect the Buddhist ways of the East Asians, but not their respect for tradition when it comes to how they treat Christianity and the cultures it has permeated. Some East Asian customs are worth emulating, but not so for others.


Perhaps I have been hasty in judgement and things will turn out differently. Perhaps I have read too much into statements that could be misinterpreted. I pray God it might be so. In any case, the news of the election of this new Superior General causes me to pray even harder for the future of the Jesuits.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Sheep without a Shepherd

I had a unique and curious experience today. There had been a huge storm during the day in the area around Seven Hills where I am gainfully employed most days. This included thunder, lightning and a blackout.

On my way home, one of the sets of traffic lights at a busy intersection had ceased to function. The reaction of the motorists was most interesting. As they each approached the intersection, like a new dawn dawning upon them came the realisation that no longer would they be able to take mindless cues from multi-coloured lights. Instead they would have to somehow negotiate the traffic coming from all directions, and employ their wits and driving skills (and, indeed, people skills) in order to get where they needed to go. Most visibly hesitated before moving their cars past the line.

The most curious thing was that, in spite of the lights not working, and with a couple of exceptions, the traffic ended up operating very similarly to what it would have done on a normal day.

It generally transpired like this. Someone from one side of the intersection would venture out. Everyone else would wait for him. While he was coming the cars behind him would seize the opportunity and follow him across the intersection. Then a point would come where there was a gap in the traffic from that direction. Immediately someone from another side of the intersection would venture out, everyone else would wait and the same thing would happen again. This became most interesting for those turning right. And yet the same principle seemed to hold for them as well. Thus, the traffic, after initial hesitation, intuitively felt its way back into the ordinary pattern of things, without traffic lights or a policeman or any other voice from above, as it were, telling them to do so (or indeed how to do so). It was entirely spontaneous and intuitive.

Maybe you're thinking this was a rather trivial and pointless observation and I'm about to draw some significant spiritual lesson from it. I'm not. I found the incident fascinating for its own sake. A glimpse into the strange workings of human nature.

A Grammatically Correct English Sentence

Found this at What's Wrong with the World. And, what do you know, it checks out. Here it is.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

This is properly paraphrased as:

Bison from the city of Buffalo who are bullied by other bison from the city of Buffalo in turn bully yet other bison from the city of Buffalo.

Brilliant!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Scary Hillary

There are many reasons I am glad I am not American. I have, however, just been given a new one. Imagine the prospect that this lady might become Head of State in your country:

Scary.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Epiphany


Today is Epiphany. Slowly the pagan darkness begins to lift, and those who have sought God despite the darkness of their minds and for want of accurate knowledge may now find Him. The Lord is revealed to the nations. Who can say what these spiritual descendants of Zoroaster expected to find? Who can say what they concluded about what they did find? Yet, whether they knew it or not, they had found God. The one Zoroaster sought to know had come in the flesh.


A foreshadowing of things to come. For most of us have not eaten the meal in order. The vast majority of Christians have come in at dessert, late arrivals to the feast. As Gentiles and former pagans (for so each of our ancestor nations were, those who are not descended from Israel), the Magi lead us towards the light of the true God as our first forerunners, for though many had searched, they were the first of us to actually meet Him.
"Dear friends, now that we have received instruction in this revelation of God’s grace, let us celebrate with spiritual joy the day of our first harvesting." -Pope St Leo the Great
Reminiscentur et convertentur ad Dominum universi fines terrae et adorabunt in conspectu universae familae gentium.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Sin Weakens Us

Sin Weakens Us

An excellent article by Mark Shea (which admittedly only touches on issues that he has treated in greater depth elsewhere). My initial reaction was to recall that line of G.K. Chesterton's : "Every argument is fundamentally a theological argument."