Imagine Heaven

Yesterday, I was at a gathering of Christian ministers in South Wales addressed by Julian Richards, leader of New Wine Cymru. He recommended a book, Imagine Heaven – suffice it to say, the fact I have read it from cover to cover in the last 24 hours is a recommendation that it is a good book

Many, many people in the last 100 years and before, have reported “Near Death Experiences” (NDEs) – following a life-threatening injury or serious illness, they have reported experiences of leaving their body, and commonly (but not always), seeing their own body from the outside, travelling down a tunnel, meeting a being of light, and being taken on a review of the positive and negative actions in their whole life. There is a growing body of scientific literature analysing these reports, looking for common threads, and trying to understand what is going on. Is it an artefact of what happens to consciousness in a dying brain? Is it a spiritual gift to encourage or convert a person’s behaviour? Or is it a foretaste of what will happen to all of us when we take our final journey?

There are several ways a Christian could seek to analyse these reports objectively. One would be to look at all the possible explanations and weigh their merits and demerits. Another would be to make the working assumption that they are genuine spiritual experiences and try to list how each experience matched up to a number of spiritual worldviews. The third would be to assume that the Christian worldview revealed in Scripture is correct, and see how the actual experiences reported, stripped of the personal interpretation put on them by the recipients, measure up to what a Christian would expect. It is this third path which has been taken by the author, John Burke, who trained as an engineer and is now a Christian pastor

Burke finds that NDE reports from non-Christian cultures are generally compatible with Christian understanding: a study of Indians commonly found reports of meeting a Being with a Book, which Hindus naturally interpreted as a ledger of karma, but can also be understood as the books of personal deeds and the Book of Life spoken of in the last book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse, or Revelation, of St John. Burke repeatedly notes that atheists, surgeons and pilots – well-paid professionals with nothing to gain and reputations to lose – have reported meeting Christ or a Christ-like being of light, even if they were not Christians prior to their experience.

Imagine Heaven is not written from a Catholic perspective, but I find nothing in it contrary to Catholic teaching. A small proportion of the NDEs are visions which seem to be of hell rather than heaven, sometimes eased when the person cried out to God for help – but by definition, an NDE is not a passage into irreversible judgement, since the person’s earthly life is not yet over. Several case studies have the soul near death being met by pairs of angels (and the author notes the Gospel passage establishing the existence of guardian angels is plural, though ambiguous about whether there is one angel per soul – it only says that ‘children have angels’.) One case study has the soul being met and showed around heaven by ‘a woman’, though Burke does not speculate on who the woman’s identity might be. Nor is Purgatory discussed directly – but there is one fleeting reference to a soul who, having met Jesus, asked what happens if a person is not ready to enter into perfect love? The answer was that they “freeze”, further explained as: “They just lock up and . . . think about themselves. . . . They want to move forward but they’re not ready to.” 

This book has challenged me to think again about my ideas of what happens to us at death. I realised that until now, I had a very hands-on idea of God reaching down, plucking the soul from the body, and putting it where it was meant to go. But if modern medicine is able to rescue more and more patients from the brink of death, this fits poorly with a God who knows in advance who is going to recover. Except for those cases where a soul needs to be challenged to conversion or encouraged in its good works, why would God ‘take’ a soul only to put it back? Rather, perhaps this is evidence for the nature of the human soul, which is unconstrained and able to experience the afterlife as a dying body shuts down but not totally released until the body is beyond repair? (The idea of a ‘silver cord’ is found in scripture, at Ecclesiastes 12:6 – perhaps this is more than poetry?) The ‘judgment’ may indeed be more about the soul’s own response to the pure light which is God, than an active gathering or dismissing by order of a divine judge.

Souls in heaven are generally reported as being shaped like human bodies yet translucent and permeable to the matter of heaven. The appearance is often around 30 years old, but there are reports of children and of ‘eternally young grandparents’ – suggesting that the way appearance is communicated, is malleable. Heaven is pictured as a beautiful landscape, with no seas but a river of life literally flowing ‘through’ those who plunge into it, and as a great city filled with light. Delicious fruits can be tasted from trees which immediately regrow any fruit picked, and a flower borrowed from the ground to sample its scent immediately re-roots itself on being put down. Colours, fragrances and other sensory experiences are reported as being much richer than our earthly experience. Joyful meetings with family members and friends are generally mediated by thought rather than speech, though there are also reports of souls joining with songs of praise. The one image which seems absent is of souls sharing a meal together – perhaps this experience must await the general resurrection of the body?

When I first became a Christian in my teens, I remember reading the Book of Revelation and excitedly pondering what sort of apartment I would have when I reached the heavenly city, and who my neighbours would be. In more recent years, when my closest friendships have been long-distance relationships squeezed into the cracks of priestly ministry, I have sometimes pondered what it will be like when I can enjoy these relationships when they reach their fullness in heaven, without the constraints of limited time or interpersonal misunderstanding. There, I look forward to ‘knowing and being fully known’ (I Corinthians 13:12), not only in my relationship with Christ, but with all the members of His Body I have already started to love on earth.

Burke speculates that St Paul himself may have had an NDE, perhaps at the time he was ‘beaten and left for dead’ – resulting in his ‘knowing a man caught up into heaven’. I had never thought of St Paul as having had an NDE rather than a simple vision, but it is fascinating to imagine how this might have informed his writings, alongside the Book of Revelation which is explicitly framed as a vision of heaven. Imagine Heaven is not Scripture, and adds to Scripture only people’s claimed experiences – and yet those experiences fit so well with what we already know from Scripture that I, for one, will now be daydreaming in richer images when I meditate on the last mystery of the rosary – the Coronation of Our Lady and the Glory of all the Saints!

Dear Deacon Ditewig, I remain confused!

Dear Deacon Ditewig,

As one Catholic blogger to another, both ordained Catholic ministers with PhDs, I have to say that despite your recent post, I remain confused. I don’t disagree with Pope Francis – I can’t, because I don’t fully grasp what he is is asking me to do. Perhaps that’s because of a different kind of polarisation, which has nothing to do with traditional/liberal viewpoints in the church and everything to do with the way we think about right and wrong.

I fully recognise that I live in a polarised church. Many Catholics, particularly those formed in the 60s and following decades, are humanitarians. They fully embrace the command to “love your neighbour” and are rather uncomfortable with those church teachings (e.g. about divorce, contraception, abortion) which make life more difficult for people in already-difficult situations (many don’t seem comfortable with the idea of a God who reveals Himself and speaks with authority). Meanwhile, a generation of young Catholics, particularly upcoming seminarians, have taken refuge in the outer trappings of identity, taking comfort in cassocks, Latin, and various traditions dating back 500 or 1000 years, though not to the time of Christ himself.

The thing is, I find myself in neither of these groups. I am an evangelical Catholic, seeking the voice of Christ in Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Magisterium, and willing to set aside my own preferences for the sake of obedient unity. Before Pope Francis, I did not wash women’s feet at the Maundy Thursday Mass. A year following his election, guided by his example (and sensing that he wished to lead by example rather than issuing documents), I washed women’s feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper for the first time. But I felt more comfortable about doing so after the Vatican had made it official.

I want to live out my Catholic priesthood faithful to Jesus Christ and to the directives of the Magisterium. But I find it difficult to make sense of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis says explicitly he does not intend to set out case examples to guide us, because we as parish priests need to “accompany” and “discern” individual cases of persons who have entered a second union after a failed marriage. But what is it that I am to discern?

Do I recognise that there is moral good present in a relationship which is faithful and expressive of agape love, but which lacks the Church’s blessing? (AL 292) Yes, of course.

Do I recognise that some Catholics don’t have a fully developed understanding of their call to faithfulness in a marriage blessed by the Church? (AL 295) Yes, that too.

At the root of all of this is the teaching of Our Lord himself, who forbade divorce (with the exception of ‘porneia‘, which the scholars still argue about), tempered by St Paul’s privilege for a Christian abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.

The problem with marriage is that, for a person to be validly married, they must stand up in public and declare themselves to be freely entering into an unbreakable, lifelong, commitment. Now, if in my conversation with the person, I find that they didn’t understand this, I have grounds to believe the original marriage was invalid. But if they did understand this, what is left to discern?

In AL 300, Pope Francis sets out that there are many different cases of second unions, and priests may need to accompany such partners in an examination of conscience; in some cases, we may find that there was “no grave fault” on the part of the divorced person. The Pope says there can be no double standards and there is no “gradualness in the law”. I take this to mean that in working with such a person, I can help ease the guilt they may feel about the failure of the first relationship, but I must also help them understand that they have made a promise to God to live in lifelong fidelity to that partner, since the same law applies to every sacramental marriage.

Pope Francis then points out (AL 305) that a person in objective sin may partially or even totally lack subjective culpability and still be living in God’s grace. In footnote 351 he reminds us that the Confessional must be a place of mercy and the Eucharist is medicine for the sick. Clearly by placing these footnotes where they are, the Pope is asking me to consider whether I should offer absolution or holy communion to a person in a second union. But how can I absolve a person for breaking a promise of life-long faithfulness if that person is not yet willing or able to resume keeping the promise?

Reading on (AL 308), Pope Francis indicates his preference for a “less rigorous” approach which intrinsically allows space for confusion. Well, I am certainly confused. I am not helped by noticing that while the Polish Bishops have affirmed the status quo, the Maltese Bishops have indicated that in certain circumstances, persons in second unions might receive absolution and communion, and be admitted as godparents. If the Magisterium says it is not possible to give clear rules or even case studies of when I should say yes or no, how am I to make my discernment?

My PhD is not in Theology (though I have a first class Bachelor’s in Theology) – it is in Astrophysics. While you sail the seas, I navigate the heavens. I have a mathematical mind, trained in logic and principles. And perhaps that is the problem. These days, we understand that people have different thinking styles. Not everyone’s brain tackles moral problems the same way. Some brains see things more in terms of principles; others see consequences. It might be the case (I’d love to have the research time to test this) that professors of moral philosophy are more likely than average human beings to be biased to think in terms of principles. Perhaps Pope Francis, and Jesuits in general, have an aptitude for discerning imperfect courses of action which lead a step closer to God’s will without reaching its fullness.

Pope Francis does not want to throw the floodgates open for everyone. But he does want me, as a parish priest, to discern whether a particular individual might approach the sacraments without ruling out that possibility. “Discerning” means I can’t decide a priori to allow everyone or no-one to do so. But without (non-binding) case studies and examples, I don’t know what I am looking for.

There have been many times in my life when I have chosen to act on principle even though I foresaw the consequences may have been problematic. I did so before I became a Catholic; and once I was a Catholic, I took comfort in the idea that the Church teaches that there are intrinsic evils, so morality depends on principles rather than consequences. I know that saints have been martyred for holding to their principles. But I also know that a strong reason that I live by my principles is that I am “wired” to do so, and not all human beings are wired like me.

Deacon Ditewig, you have suggested that those who say Pope Francis’ words are “confusing” are really hiding the fact that they disagree with him. But please hear me when I say that if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to deny communion to those in second unions, I will do so; if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to admit them, I will do so (while still maintaining that such relationships are prima facie adulterous; I recognise that the Eucharist can be medicine for sinners). As a parish priest I have been charged with “discerning and accompanying” individuals towards a possible decision to admit them to communion, a process which is as alien to my science-shaped mind as it seems intuitive to Pope Francis (who graduated as a chemical technician, and is therefore skilled in providing solutions).

Therefore I remain, respectfully,

Confused of Cardiff.

(Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon, PhD, MInstP, MA (Oxon), BTh, Director of Ongoing Formation of the Archdiocese of Cardiff – views are my own)

Advice for non-UK citizens wishing to be priests in the UK

I often receive messages on Facebook from young men who live outside the UK but would like advice on becoming priests in the UK. To avoid repeating myself, I am publishing some advice here.

First of all, thank you for being open to the call of God who may be asking you to offer yourself for the priesthood. Any call to the priesthood involves obedience, either to a religious superior, or to a local Bishop. In order to become a priest you must respect the procedures which the church leaders lay down.

In the UK, there are 22 dioceses across England and Wales, and 7 in Scotland. There are five Irish dioceses partly or wholly within Northern Ireland. Becoming a diocesan priest means pledging to a bishop that you will spend your whole life working in his territory (diocese). And in order to be accepted, you must already be familiar with the local culture. To be an effective priest you must know something about the lives of the people you will minister to. This might be because you grew up in that area; it might be that you have lived there for some time; it might be that you came there as a university student and stayed on.

Can someone from outside the UK become a priest for a British diocese? Yes, but it happens gradually. You can read the story of Chinedo Udo who came from Nigeria to study in London. Generally, you need to spend a period of at least 1-2 years living in the UK, at your own expense, meeting with the local vocations director. You will also need to have the right immigration status to allow you to continue to study and then to work in the UK. One English diocese notes on its website “in common with the other dioceses of England and Wales, we have a policy of not accepting applications from abroad. All our applicants must be legitimately resident in the United Kingdom”.

Another way of being a priest is to join a religious order. Some of these work internationally – but the normal way is to join is to approach the branch in your home country. Once again, there is a slow process of years rather than months where you might visit the order for a short time and then a longer time before actually becoming a member. Once you are fully trained and ordained, they will decide if you have the right gifts and talents to be sent to another country. Some orders have a particular focus on external missionary work – for instance, Nigerian residents can join the Missionaries of St Paul in the expectation of travelling elsewhere.

No diocese or religious order in the UK is going to fund or interview a person not currently living in the UK. If you truly believe that God is asking you to work in the UK rather than your own country, you must also trust that God will provide the means for you to get a secular job and a work permit in the UK, so you can learn the local culture and begin the long interview process. If there is a part of your heart that believes the UK has a high living standard and being a priest in the UK would enable to you to raise your income or send money home to your family, then be warned – Jesus said that we must be ready to leave everything, including property and family, to follow him. If income is what is truly on your heart, then your heart is not ready to be the heart of a priest.

The Call of Our Lady of Prayer

In 1947, in the course of a week from Monday 8th to Sunday 14th December, Our Lady appeared to four children in the small town of L’Île-Bouchard, not far from the city of Tours in France.

In 2001, Archbishop Vingt-Trois of Tours issued an official decree recognising that pilgrims had encountered the grace of God at L’Île-Bouchard and encouraging further devotion there. This is not an explicit finding that the claimed apparition is true; but establishing that there are fruits of prayer without distorted devotions is a key step on the way to full Church recognition. For me, that was a good enough reason to visit the shrine last week.

What happened at L’Île-Bouchard? December 1947 was a time of crisis in France. It was only two years after the Nazi surrender, French Communists had become powerful, and the nation was in the grip of a general strike. On 8 December – the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – several important events occurred. A state funeral took place for the noted Catholic General Leclerc; the mystic Venerable Marthe Robin commented to a worried priest that “the Virgin Mary is going to save France by the prayers of little children”; and the sisters who ran the school in L’Île-Bouchard had completed a secret novena with a prayer of consecration to the Virgin Mary.

Monday 8 December

6 Ile Bouchard (13)Jacqueline Aubry (12), her sister Jeanette (7) and their cousin Nicole Robin (10) were in the habit of visiting the local church, St Gilles, during the school lunch break. Although their parents were not practising Catholics, Jacqueline had learned the habit of prayer from an elderly neighbour, Mademoiselle Grandin. On this day, during their lunchtime prayers, the girls unexpectedly saw a silent image of the Virgin Mary with an angel kneeling beside her. Written below the image, in French, was the prayer which also appears on the Miraculous Medal: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” The children went out to alert others – when their friend Laura Croizon (8) came in, she too saw the vision, but Laura’s elder sister (13) did not.

When they went back to school that afternoon, their claims of a vision received a cool reception from the teaching sisters. Jacqueline misinterpreted one teacher’s sarcastic comment as permission to return to the church, and so she rounded up the other three girls to return to St Gilles. The beautiful lady was already there in the same place, and this time she spoke: “Tell the little children to pray for France, for her need is great.” When asked her identity, she replied, “but of course, I am your Heavenly Mama.” The children asked the identity of the angel; for the only time in the whole series of apparitions, the angel spoke, saying “I am the angel Gabriel.”

The Virgin then bent down towards them, held out her right hand, and said “Give me your hands to kiss.” The girls were unused to such manners, and when Jacqueline offered her open palm, the Virgin turned it over before planting a kiss on her fingers. Nicole reached up, on tip-toes, to receive her kiss; Jacqueline then had to bodily lift up Laura and Jeanette, who were too short to reach the height of the apparition.

Finally, the lady asked the children to come back the same day at 5 pm and the following day at 1 pm – but since circumstances stopped the other children from being able to come, only Jacqueline was present at 5 pm, when Benediction was scheduled. Alone among the many worshippers in the church, she saw the Virgin in the same place – but the lady disappeared for the duration of Benediction itself.

Tuesday 9 December

The four children were all able to return to the church for 1 pm the following day. They received a vision which was similar, but different in detail. The Virgin’s hair no longer cascaded down her chest but was pulled back and hidden under the veil; the angel now knelt on the right, and the inscription on the rocks was different. This time, it was the title Our Lady had identified herself with at Lourdes – “I am the Immaculate Conception.” There was also a word written in gold letters across the Virgin’s chest, but partially obscured by her hands: “MA—–CAT”.

This time the Virgin, who had a rosary over her right arm, stretched out the hand holding the golden crucifix of her rosary, inviting the children to kiss the image of Jesus. As when invited to receive the Virgin’s kiss, Jacqueline and Nicole stretched up to do so and then Jacqueline lifted up the younger two. They then imitated the Virgin in making a very slow sign of the cross, lasting all of two minutes. The Virgin instructed them: “Pray for France, which in these days is in great danger.” Then she asked them to tell the parish priest to come at 2 o’clock, bringing “the children and a crowd to pray”.

The parish priest did not agree to this request, and so the children were in class at 2 pm, but were able to return to the church for 5 pm. This time the Virgin asked the girls to sing the Hail Mary, and then through them asked the crowd present to approach and recite ten Hail Marys. Finally, she asked the children to come each day at 1 o’clock and blessed the crowd with another slow sign of the cross. It was on this day that the French communists called off their general strike.

Wednesday 10 December

Today, when the Virgin appeared, she first asked the girls to sing the Hail Mary, after which they spontaneously prayed ten more Haily Marys and a Glory Be. Then the Virgin beckoned them forwards, sweetly and softly saying “Kiss my hand.” This the children did, Jacqueline lifting up the two little ones as before.

Jacqueline’s mother was present, and although she could not see the Virgin, through the children’s action she was aware that the Virgin was present. Madame Aubry implored her daughter: “Ask the Blessed Virgin to perform a miracle so that everyone will believe!” Jacqueline did ask but the lady replied: “I have not come here to perform miracles but to tell you to pray for France; but tomorrow you will see clearly and you won’t wear glasses anymore.” (Jacqueline not only wore thick glasses but had a chronic eye condition such that her eyes wept pus regularly.)

Thursday 11 December

On Thursday morning, Jacqueline awoke to find that her eyes had indeed been cured and she had no need of her daily lotion of hot water to remove the nightly crust. Not only that, she was no longer cross-eyed!

Again, today’s apparition began with the girls being asked sing the Hail Mary. The lady then asked them whether they prayed for sinners; since they were often led to pray this way by their parish priest, they affirmed that they did. Jacqueline asked whether the lady would cure many sick people; the Virgin did not give a direct answer but said “There will be happiness in families” and asked for another sung Hail Mary.

Friday 12 December

Today’s apparition took on a novel appearance: the Virgin was crowned by shining rays, each a foot long. Two narrow ones in the centre were intense blue; five broader ones fanned out on each side consecutively red, yellow, green, pink and brownish-red. The outer rays curved inwards, forming a shell shape. Today the virgin also held her hands lower so the word written in gold across her chest was clearly visible: MAGNIFICAT.

(The December 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe would not have been part of the calendar in France at that time, but it is noteworthy that the colourfulness of the image revealed today echoes the beauty of the tilma of St Juan Diego.)

On this day, the Virgin Mary asked three times that the girls should sing the Hail Mary; then again she asked that they should kiss her hand. Once again, the girls affirmed that they did indeed pray for sinners. The Virgin responded: “Good! Above all, pray a lot for sinners,” and led the girls in a decade of the rosary.

In response to two requests for healings, first for a girl present the lady said: “If I don’t heal her here I will heal her elsewhere” (which indeed happened soon afterwards), then “I have not come here to perform miracles, but that you should pray for France.”

Saturday 13 December

By Saturday, crowds had started flocking to the church, and about 500 people were present. In the course of the apparition, Our Lady asked for four decades of the rosary. As onlookers who had fallen away from the habit of prayer began to respond, it seemed to the seers that Our Lady grew more joyful. Finally, she declared that the following day would be her last visit.

Sunday 14 December

On this final day, a crowd of about two thousand people had come and were crammed into every corner of the church. The children offered to the Virgin the flowers and messages they have been given by the people of the parish. In answer to one question about how we should console Our Lord for the suffering caused to him by sinners, the Virgin simply said: “Pray and make sacrifices.” After some decades of the rosary, she led the girls to make the Miraculous Medal invocation: “Pray for us who have recourse to you.” The Virgin then asked for the crowd to sing the Magnificat, and when that was done she asked for a third and then a fourth decade of the rosary, again prompting the same invocations. Finally, asking the girls once again whether they prayed for sinners, she invited the children (and all present) to extend their arms in the form of the Cross as they prayed the fifth decade of the rosary.

Before the Virgin Mary took her leave for the last time, she once again blessed the crowd with a very slow sign of the Cross, which the girls followed. As this took place, a ray of sunlight entered the church and illuminated the corner where the girls’ eyes were fixed. Many in the wintry church felt strangely warmed at that moment, and later it was confirmed that it was not physically possible for the winter sunlight to have followed that path in the natural course of things.

Affirming these Apparitions

Apart from Jacqueline’s persistent cure and the physically impossible ray of sunlight, two other features give credence to this account. In the natural order of things, it would not have been possible for the frail Jacqueline to lift the two young children as she did; and indeed she tried and failed when tested outside the context of an apparition. Also, on the later days, the priest and sisters in the parish took care to separate the children as soon as the apparitions were over, and yet their accounts tallied in detail, notably on the Friday when Our Lady wore her unprecedented resplendent crown.

There is nothing new in these messages, and this is part of their beauty. Mary echoes the call to pray for “us sinners” which she issued to St Catherine Labouré, and re-affirms her identity as the “Immaculate Conception” as she did to St Bernadette in Lourdes. If you visit the church of St Gilles today, you will find it hung with banners each containing one of Our Lady’s simple phrases – here on the right, “Do you pray for sinners?”

At that time of need in France, she asked simple children to pray for France. Each of us can pray for our own nation and its needs. She asked for prayers to be both spoken and sung – in the latter case, the Hail Mary and the Magnificat. (As I am travelling through France this month, I have noticed it is common practice for the last Hail Mary of each decade to be sung when the rosary is prayed in common.)

As an evangelist, Mary begins her encounter by building a bridge of trust – she honours the simple children by kissing their hands. Next, she leads them to Jesus, offering the crucifix for them to venerate. By this time, the girls are discovering that it is costly to be a seer among sceptical adults, but they persevere. They gain the confidence to ask questions, and Our Lady catechises them – in the face of the mystery of human suffering, they are promised only that “there will be happiness in families”. Ultimately the Mother of God is able to call the children – and those who will follow them – to the response she is looking for: acts of love for the Immaculate Conception by invoking her prayers for sinners.

L’Île-Bouchard Today

Pilgrims are welcome to visit L’Île-Bouchard today, and indeed throughout 2017 the parish is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the apparitions. The parish is served by priests of the Emmanuel Community, and Mass is celebrated daily at 11.15 (there may be additional Masses at some times of year). Across the road from the church is a small information bureau where a video plays an hour-long interview with Jacqueline Aubry; this is currently only in French, although they hope to have an English version in 2018.

Jacqueline died of Alzheimer’s disease last year; her younger sister Jeanette died in 2001. Neither married. Both Laura and Nicole did marry; Laura died of diabetic complications on Christmas Eve 1999. At the time of writing, Nicole is still alive and living in Maine et Loire.

6 Ile Bouchard (5)


No Preferential Option for the Poor? Shame on You!

In the last week or so, two global news stories have forced us to think about the values we hold.

A Google employee wrote a memo suggesting that women might have different innate skills to men, and so it might be wrong to aspire to have equal numbers of women and men coding. He was fired.

Right wing extremists rioted in the USA, and one person in the crowd of counter-demonstrators was killed, but President Trump only called for “restraint on all sides” without clearly condemning extreme right wing views. Many politicians condemned this omission.

I get most of my news from the BBC. Now, is the BBC being neutral about these stories and merely commenting that many politicians are talking about these matters – or is there an editorial stance which assumes that the “balanced” position is to assume absolute equality for women and condemnation of neo-Nazi views? Of course, if you click the two links above, you will find the BBC offering views both for and against in each case – but the very decision to give these stories a high place in the headlines is itself a judgment that these are important questions, and therefore there is strong reason for viewers and listeners to think that the Google engineer and President Trump made the wrong call.

As a Catholic, I don’t believe in equality. With our bishops, I do believe in a “preferential option for the poor” which seeks to give an explicit advantage to those who are oppressed. I also believe that when it comes to women in the workplace, society should ensure that those who wish to work full time are able to do so, and those who wish to be homemakers are supported economically. This was the stance of St John Paul II (see paragraph 4 of his Letter to Women) and has been reaffirmed by Pope Francis (see also paragraph 173 of Amoris Letitia).

So, gentle reader, do you believe that 50% of the technical employees at Google should be women?

If you do, that position has consequences.

If you believe in full employment, it follows that you believe no mother should stay at home to look after her children, and social policies should seek to continue recruiting women until no stay-at-home mothers are left.

Or perhaps you believe that men should play an equal part in the life of the home. In that case, will you promote policies which encourage fathers to spend more time at home, have flexible working, and be affirmed as homemakers?

I believe that women are, on average, different to men – and there is legitimate debate among psychologists about what that difference looks like. I don’t find it surprising that many women feel called to be homemakers. I applaud efforts to get more women coding and to coach them to have every advantage when entering fair contests for technical jobs. I think Google’s target should be much higher than the 20% of women currently in technical roles, but nowhere near 50%. If an I.T. company has 30-40% of women in technical roles, I would judge it to be doing rather well. If it also has more than 15% of its male employees exercising flexitime and parental leave for family reasons, I will be delighted. But when we state aspirations for women in the workplace, we should also state aspirations for how many women we expect to spend part of their working lives as part-time or full-time homemakers. Nor should these policies push any individual woman in one direction or the other – in an ideal liberal economy, it should be equally viable to make either choice.

As for President Trump, in the far-right extremists I do not see an oppressed minority who require a “preferential option” but a once-privileged group angry about losing ground. Might it be possible that one day, white men will become an oppressed minority in the USA? Nothing is unthinkable, and should that day come, I will stand up for them. But it is an act of hostility to single out an enemy by name, and I will not do that to any enemy until I have personally tried and failed to build a bridge of trust.

Even the Catholic Bishops of the USA have stopped short of naming particular groups. The official statement by Cardinal DiNardo says “On behalf of the bishops of the United States, I join leaders from around the nation in condemning the violence and hatred that have now led to one death and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, Virginia… The bishops stand with all who are oppressed by evil ideology.”

Ultimately, we are called to “love others as ourselves” and to go even further “laying down our lives in the service of others”. I abhor what far-right groups stand for because they always represent groups of people who seek to put themselves first, and that stands in blatant contradiction to the Gospel. For that reason, I say to these far-right groups – but also to any group which seeks their own advantage without securing at least the equal rights of others – shame on you.

The Gift of Life

This week, Pope Francis has declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new kind of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’ (oblatio vitae). There is no surprise in learning that this is a true pattern of holiness! Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. What is surprising is that until now, the prayers the church uses to honour saints have not recognised this.

Open an official Catholic prayer book – the Missal used for Mass, or the Liturgy of the Hours which priests and religious order members use for their daily prayers – and you will find many ‘Commons’ for honouring different categories of saint.

Among the martyrs there are special prayers for those killed for defending their virginity. Among the ‘confessors’ (or ‘holy men and women’) there are subcategories for those who worked for education or in service of the poor. There are ‘virgins’, ‘pastors’ (ordained to at least the rank of priest) and ‘apostles’ (a closed category, though last year St Mary Magdalen’s feast day was upgraded to recognise her as ‘apostle to the apostles’.)

Statue of Maximilian KolbeYet no existing category quite fits in the case of a holy person who makes a deliberate choice to lay down their life for another. This problem came to the fore in the case of St Maximilian Mary Kolbe, founder of Franciscan friaries and a prolific evangelist through his expert use of the printing press. At the end of a life already remarkable for its holiness, Kolbe was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and stepped forward to offer his life in place of a Jewish man, a father of children, who was chosen to be executed. Kolbe proved difficult to starve, and eventually died by lethal injection; the man he offered his life for lived to be liberated at the end of the war.

When Blessed Kolbe was proposed for canonisation, Pope John Paul II faced intense lobbying from Germany and Poland to declare him a martyr. But was he a martyr? Had he been killed specifically because of anyone’s hatred of Christian faith? There was no evidence that the camp guards had targeted his beliefs – they had simply accepted his offer to lay down his life for someone else. John Paul II commissioned two officials to consider the matter, whose opinion was that Kolbe was not a martyr – but ultimately the Pope overruled them and canonised St Maximilian while wearing red vestments.

Gianna Molla holding two babiesA similar question can be asked in the case of the ‘martyr of life’ St Gianna Beretta Molla. An Italian physician, she was diagnosed with a serious condition while pregnant. She faced a choice between one kind of surgery almost certain to save her, but with a high chance of triggering a miscarriage; or another kind which was safe for the baby but less sure to resolve her condition. She chose the latter, gave birth safely, but died of complications soon after. She, too, would seem to fit this category of laying down one’s life for another.

It will be interesting to see what steps follow the announcement of this new category. Are such saints to be celebrated using red vestments, or using white? Will there be new Commons to add to the Missal and Divine Office? Will existing saints like Maximilian Kollbe and Gianna Molla be assigned to the new category?

Overall, this does seem like a necessary addition to the way the church classifies her saints and honours them in prayer. Perhaps once this is tidied up, some other missing categories can be filled out – men honoured specifically for their virginal purity, and women who, though not ordained pastors, are recognised as Doctors of the Church. Meanwhile, Holy Saints offering the Gift of Life – pray for us!

50 Years of Renewal in the Holy Spirit

On the eve of Pentecost, a small group of pilgrims from across Wales kept vigil with Pope Francis. We weren’t on our own – we were with 40,000 other Catholics from around the world, who had heeded the Pope’s invitation to come to Rome especially for Pentecost. But why?

Charisms in the Life of the Church

At the first Pentecost, Our Lady, St Peter and the other Apostles experienced a powerful outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. They were filled with a new courage, enabling them to go into the public square and speak about Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that Peter and Paul laid hands on new disciples who responded by prophesying and praying in unlearned tongues. The new enthusiasm that these gifts brought caused some new Christians to be quite unruly in prayer meetings – St Paul dealt with this at length in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

For the first three hundred years of the Catholic Church, these gifts, together with various healing gifts, seem to have been quite common, but over the centuries they became rarer and were eventually seen as the hallmarks of truly exceptional saints, the likes of Catherine of Siena or Pio of Pietrelcina. At the close of the 19th century, however, an Italian nun, Blessed Elena Guerra, felt called to ask Pope Leo XIII to seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo not only used the Veni Creator at the opening of the new century, but wrote a number of encyclical letters on the Holy Spirit, and promoted the use of a novena of prayers on the nine days before Pentecost.

In the first decade of the 20th century, remarkable things occurred. On New Year’s Day 1901 – the very day on which Pope Leo had invoked the Holy Spirit over the worldwide church – a woman named Agnes Ozman asked her congregation to lay hands on her so she could become a missionary. There, in a tiny Protestant church in Topeka, Kansas, she was covered in the glory of the Holy Spirit, and found herself unable to speak or write English, only Chinese (which she had never learned), for three days! A world-famous revival took place in Wales in 1904, where several preachers found their words had unusual power to call people to church and turn away from sin – crime rates plummeted across our nation. Two years later, under the preaching of a minister trained in Topeka, the Azusa Street Mission in California experienced an outpouring similar to what we see described in the New Testament, and from that seed grew the networks of what we now call Pentecostal churches.

Another Pope, St John XXIII, called the world to pray anew for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. The Council closed in December 1965. Just over a year later, some Catholic students made a retreat in Pittsburgh, USA – and 50 years later, two of those students came to Rome to recall what happened next.

The Golden Jubilee Celebrations

David Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield stand at a pulpitDavid Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield were among a group of students making a retreat based on the Acts of the Apostles in February 1967. They were the most enthusiastic members when the leader proposed an act of renewing their confirmation; others were less keen. That evening, when they separately stepped into the chapel, they experienced the power of God’s presence so strongly that they were compelled to fall prostrate; soon, half the students on the retreat came to the chapel, and experienced the same powerful presence. Many prayed in tongues for the first time.

A third speaker on Friday night, Vinson Synon, represented worldwide Pentecostal churches, and spoke of his own journey of conversion from doubting that Catholics were really Christian through to being forced to accept that they had received the very same gifts known in Pentecostal churches for the past 60 years.

David, Patti and their fellow-students were not founders of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal; they were not personally responsible for spreading it to all the places where it quickly flourished. But they stood on a platform in Rome 50 years later as the first fruits of this vast current of grace poured out on Catholics around the world – and 40,000 Catholics from 128 nations rejoiced with them as representatives of what God had done.

The following afternoon, the participants gathered again at Circus Maximus – a location chosen personally by Pope Francis because so many early Christians had given their lives there as witnesses to Christ. This time, leaders from around the world spoke of how the Holy Spirit continued to change lives today – including a testimony from England’s Damian Stayne about the many healings experienced through the ministry of the Cor et Lumen Christi Community. Papal Preacher fra Raniero Cantalamessa reminded all present that Pentecost was a reversal of Babel – there, humanity rejoiced in its own creative power, but as Christians we acknowledge with gratitude the gifts that come from God. Pope Francis himself spoke of the importance of a “reconciled diversity” – the Spirit brings many gifts and we are to recognise, and rejoice, that other individuals and communities are also gifted by God for the work of the church.

The seeds of this great gathering were planted when, just a year after his election as Pope, Francis spoke to a gathering of Italian charismatics in the national stadium and said “I expect all of you, charismatics from around the world, to celebrate your great jubilee with the pope at Pentecost 2017 in St Peter’s Square!” And indeed, not only did the Pope come to the gathering at Circus Maximus, but 40,000 charismatic pilgrims went to St Peter’s for the Wednesday Audience and Mass on Pentecost Sunday.

What else should a Pentecost Jubilee event contain? We cannot require the Holy Spirit to work to our schedules, so inevitably there was a heavy focus on recognising what God has already done. The Friday evening vigil was largely recalling the history of how the Catholic Renewal began – with the pioneers now entering their 70s, this is perhaps the last major occasion where they will be able to testify in person. Saturday was an acknowledgement of our unity-in-diversity, including strong participation from non-Catholic leaders. The organisers commissioned a song contest and an art exhibition – and also offered a workshop on how to propose early pioneers of Renewal as candidates for beatification and sainthood! Many of the other workshops were filmed and can be viewed online.

The TransCambrian Pilgrims

Our small pilgrimage from Wales attended the larger events, but there was not room for all of us to attend the smaller venues, such as the first Mass at St Mary Major or the Ecumenical Congress on Friday morning. Apart from the scheduled events, we took the opportunity to visit venues that connected us with the experience of the early generations of Christian believers, to whom the power of the first Pentecost was still a living reality. On Friday morning we visited the Catacombs of St Priscilla – perhaps not the most famous catacombs in Rome, but the ones most accessible to the one member of our group who relied on a wheelchair.

We chose not to depart Rome hurriedly after Mass with Pope Francis on Pentecost Sunday; rather, on Monday morning we recalled how the first Christians met in house-churches by visiting the remains of such a church under the Basilica of Saints John and Paul (the martyrs named next to Cosmas and Damian in the First Eucharistic Prayer). Finally, we had our own experience of celebrating Mass in a small space, at the Chapel of St John in Oil – this marks the place where tradition has it that the Romans attempted to martyr St John the Apostle in boiling oil, but God miraculously preserved him. We took lunch at the Rosminian House at Porta Latina, mindful that Rosminian missionaries renewed the Catholic Church in South Wales at the end of the 19th Century, and continue to serve several Cardiff parishes today.

There are many ironies about this pilgrimage. Pope Francis invited us to join him at St Peter’s – but then sent us to Circus Maximus for the main events. We recalled St Peter’s sermon which was understood by all on the Day of Pentecost – but relied on FM radios for simultaneous translation at the two main events. We celebrated the Holy Spirit’s charisms of healing – but ensured that the pilgrimage would be accessible for anyone using a wheelchair. We were called to celebrate our “unity in diversity” – but worldwide Catholic Charismatics are still working on merging their two representative bodies, ICCRS and the Catholic Fraternity, into one. Pentecost is the third great feast of the Christian year, but unlike Easter and Christmas has no “tide” of its own. Yet the season for living out Pentecost exists! It is called “Ordinary Time” – but one where Christians are called to use extraordinary charisms for the building up of the Church. And these gifts are not meant to be brought together in Rome, but spread to the ends of the earth. Veni Sancti Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit, come! Dewch, Ysbryd Glân, dewch!