Missiondom Tour 2019

Sherry Weddell made a speaking tour of England & Wales 10-20 June 2019. This is a brief digest of the teaching, which presupposes you are familiar with Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples. The book sets out a framework for understanding how believers pass through the thresholds of (1) Trust, (2) passive Curiosity, (3) Openness to change, (4) active Seeking and (5) Intentional Discipleship.

The State of the Church Today

We no longer live in a culture of “Christendom”. Even the young people born in “Catholic” families are mostly growing up with such a weak exposure to Catholicism they are effectively unchurched rather than lapsed. And in fact it’s historically rare for Catholics to have been formed by the culture (“Christendom”) rather than to have to be evangelised anew. “Generation Z” – the young people born between 1998 and 2016 – typically don’t believe in God, never pray, and don’t attend any kind of worship service. The 2015 “Talking Jesus” survey in England showed that 53% of adults don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and only 21% do believe he was God in human form. On the other hand, the number of adults who call themselves atheists have dropped from 38% in 2016 to 33% in 2018 (Yougov survey 2018).

In a typical parish, we can expect 90-95% of the worshipping parishioners have not moved beyond Trust or passive Curiosity. Even highly engaged (“core”) parishioners who get involved with parish projects are often engaging out of a sense of commitment to the local community or the church institution rather than commitment to Christ. All disciples are highly engaged, but engagement does not prove discipleship. Worse, it’s very likely that someone who has been engaged for a long time but never moved beyond curiosity has become ‘stuck’ in their spiritual journey; and those who are still at early thresholds may become annoyed and vocal when their parish is challenged to grow deeper. What’s the typical mentality of a Massgoer? “We’re all going to heaven because we’re good people, but none of us are going to be ‘saints’ because it would be far too proud to aspire to that.” This shows a total misunderstanding of salvation!

So we recognise there are three distinct journeys which people can make which don’t synchronise with each other automatically: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvement in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks of). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised.

We have a retention problem. We know that we haemorrhage young people after baptism and first communion. Even many of those who join the church through RCIA cease practicing in the year following their baptism or reception. Why do the sacraments not bear fruit? Catechism 1131 reminds us that the sacraments bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. This teaching is expanded in Chapter 6 of Trent’s Decree on Justification and reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (Commentary on John 6:976 & Summa Theologica III q69 a8).

A Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and have lived experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.

The Work of Proclamation

We pour great efforts into catechising children and adults. But before we can do that fruitfully, we have to foster openness and then proclaim the Gospel.

A key task of clergy (an aspect of the ministry of ‘governance’ alongside the Word and the Sacraments), is to raise up “intentional disciples” in our parishes – souls who are confident in their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Most of the clerical work will be engaging with the “near field” of churchgoers, while giving the laity the tools they need to engage with the “far field” of those who have left church or never engaged with church in the first place.

For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”

How do we share the basic Gospel message? Gen Z young adults are so disconnected from our Christian heritage that even Alpha may make too many assumptions about their cultural background! But they do believe they are in charge of their own lives, at least until they meet with some disaster! (In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers.)

One cycle of Alpha or Discovering Christ is probably not enough to move a participant from Trust to Intentional Discipleship. But sustained work with a person can achieve this in around two years. When people reach the stage of Openness, supporting them with prayer is crucial; and we must recognise they are vulnerable to falling back, or hiding within a community which doesn’t seem to affirm their growth. Growing as far as Openness can be scary in a community which is mostly still at Trust!

When someone is ready, an exercise like one-on-one renewal of baptismal promises or the physical symbolic action of dropping a net can be helpful.

Disciples bear fruit – and this grows out of a living relationship with God. When members of the church become intentional disciples, they become active as worshippers and volunteers, and generous givers. Some will become lay leaders pioneering new ministries. Programmes such as the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted allow the gifts (charisms) of disciples to be discerned and affirmed. From July 2019, the teaching element of this programme will be accessible via online videos.

You can only guide others to grow as far as the threshold you have reached yourself. People who are still at Trust do have a role in evangelisation teams – they might be the most sensitive to hospitality issues, for instance, and have a role in the welcoming team. But they are not disciplers.

“Charismatic Renewal” fits within the wider picture of what Sherry teaches about. She speaks of how to encourage people to develop a conscious relationship with God. For some souls, this may crystallise in a “baptism in the Spirit” experience but others who have clearly moved into relationship with God would not choose to use that language or identify a particular experience. Similarly, the charisms identified though Called & Gifted do include extraordinary gifts such as healing or praying in tongues, but also include lifestyle charisms (e.g. celibacy, voluntary poverty) and charisms where God has simply perfected natural gifts (e.g. music, writing, administration).

There are five specific practical steps we can take to become more effective at making disciples.

  1. In pastoral conversations, be attentive to the person’s relationship with God.

Whenever you engage in an appropriate conversation, try to tease out what the person’s understanding is of “God” – even if they’ve been to a Catholic school, that’s no guarantee. For many, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for a member of a group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is. Two key questions to ask are:

  • “Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)
  • “If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”

Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. Parishioners who wish to learn how to have these kinds of conversations can benefit from Ananias Training. Good listening does not seek to force the speaker into a conclusion but listens without judgment. Recent research from Barna (Reviving Evangelism, 2019) shows that the more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith.

Never accept a “label” without enquiring what it means. Even people who initially call themselves atheist or agnostic might admit to praying or being open to the possibility of some version of God! Try answering questions with questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.

  1. Encourage people to foster their relationship with God.

Ultimately, by talking about the possibility of a relationship with God, you are fostering the understanding that God is a loving person and it is possible to have a relationship with God.

You can also encourage people to be open to a relationship with God by:

  • Praying the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
  • Trying lectio divina.
  • Trying Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (but offer a simple orientation to someone who isn’t familiar with it).
  • Seeking the presence of God in serving those in need.
  • Practicing the “Presence of God” (Brother Lawrence)
  • Talking to God in your own words.

The Siena Institute has a lectio resource for Advent 2019 available.

  1. Create a culture in your parish where it is normal to talk about Jesus.

Research shows that most people have to hear the story of who Jesus is and what He did for us many times before they realise how important this is. This can be communicated through preaching, through personal testimonies shared at the end of Mass, and through testimonies and lectio divina (with participants sharing their reflections with each other) becoming a normal part of all group activities (committees, catechetical groups, etc.) in your parish. The purpose is not only to receive the reflections shared during lectio but to embed the culture of it being normal to speak about prayer, faith and Jesus Christ.

Keep telling the story of the saving death of Jesus, alongside personal testimony of how Jesus touches lives today and draws people into relationship with himself. These don’t have to be extraordinary “Damascus Road” testimonies – rather, they should illustrate what it’s like to have an ordinary prayer life. Also remind people that He lives in the Tabernacle of every Catholic Church! And keep sharing the Great Story and personal testimonies wherever there’s an opportunity – videos on the parish website, in one-to-one conversations, at children’s and adult groups – in short, at every possible opportunity.

You can also consider running one of several courses in your parish which provide a basic introduction to the person of Jesus. In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers. Remember that one size will not fit all parishioners, and a diverse range of methods of presenting the Gospel will be best.

  1. Ensure there is intercessory prayer for the flourishing of your parish.

Intercession is not the same thing as adoration – although it can be done in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. You will probably have a handful of parishioners who have a particular gift for intercession – when they start to pray, a topic will come clearly to mind, or they will have a clear idea on how to pray at length about a topic you propose. How will you identify these people? If you schedule a special time of prayer to pray for the needs of the parish, they will be the main people who turn up. Develop them as a group of intercessors – and importantly, when you see answers to their prayers, feed this back to encourage them. You can also use those whose life-circumstances mean that prayer is their only way to contribute (your sick and housebound) – but don’t neglect the healthy parishioners who have a special gift for praying in this way!

  1. Identify and use the charisms of every member of your parish.

Parishioners will be happy and fulfilled when they are using the gifts God has given them to further the work of the Church – though they may need reassurance that Christian humility doesn’t require us to shun tasks we get praised for! Sherry’s organisation offers a Called & Gifted programme which helps people to identify their God-given gifts (charisms), and this can be accessed in three ways:

  • An individual goes through the process on-line;
  • A parish streams the teaching videos;
  • A parish runs live talks.

When the programme is to be run at parish level, the parish will first need to train some suitable people who will conduct the one-to-one interviews with participants. These interviews include threshold conversations which help identify how far parishioners have grown along the path to discipleship.

Final Thoughts

We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories as “American cheerfulness” or the fruit of “North American resources”? One US parish which worked hard on promoting discipleship now has 40% of its Massgoers in ministry, estimates 25% are now Intentional Disciples, and its level of financial giving has gone through the roof. There is no reason to believe this cannot happen in the UK!

You can join the international Forming Intentional Disciples Forum on Facebook which can be searched for all sorts of useful conversation threads on evangelising in different circumstances.

There is also a UK Forum, but this is much less active.

For the avoidance of doubt, the article above is not Sherry’s words but my digest of them. Fr Gareth Leyshon (CatholicPreacher)

I Am Bread

“I was praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration, and I came forward to kiss the body of Christ. As I did so, I became bread. Then I was broken and shared for others.”

Recently, a member of my community shared this ‘picture’, a mental image which came during prayer – and it got me thinking. What would it be like, to actually become bread? I would like to offer you a meditation.

You, by virtue of your baptism, are a member of the Body of Christ. Every consecrated Host is also the Body of Christ. We usually think of the Blessed Sacrament as Christ himself, rather than the multitude of saints who make up his body; but given that Jesus said ‘This is My Body’ at the Last Supper, we cannot confine our understanding to the Real Presence making present the Head alone.

What, then, if you became a single consecrated host? And for the purpose of our meditation, let’s suppose that you become a large host which has been consecrated for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. This host is truly you – let’s say that the spirit which inhabits your body has left your body and now inhabits this circular wafer of wheaten bread. Let’s also imagine that your spirit has the same properties which we suppose it will have in heaven, awaiting the resurrection when all spirits are given renewed bodies – you will be conscious, you will be able to communicate mentally with God (at least by ‘sending’ prayers), and you will in some degree be aware of your surroundings.

You are bread. You find yourself lying on a cold golden dish. You are perfectly round, perfectly flat – a pure geometrical form. And as bread, you can do nothing. You cannot move. You cannot speak. Perhaps you are freshly baked – you become aware that a tiny portion of your substance is wafting away into the air, producing a beautiful fragrance; but this will quickly fade. As days go by, you will dry out and become a little stale; perhaps you will experience this as a growing tautness in your body. If you should be left unconsumed for many months, perhaps you will crumble to dust; but that is not your concern now. As surely as a patient in a vegetative state, you are trapped in a passive body. You are aware of your surroundings. You can mentally cry out to God. But this is all you can do.

When Jesus was nailed to the Cross, his power to move became limited. He was fixed in one position, able only to speak, and – with great pain – to breathe. Then he breathed his last, and a moment later his spirit left his body. You are unleavened bread, a body with no ‘breath’ within it. You find yourself suspended like Jesus at the moment of that last breath. You can no longer speak. But your spirit has not yet left the body you now inhabit. You have become a Victim. Now you will be locked away in a tabernacle, alone for many hours. Cold. Dark. But perhaps not totally alone. In your spirit, you are aware that thousands of souls around the world are making a ‘spiritual communion’. They cannot receive Holy Communion in their mouths right now, so in their spirits they are crying out their desire to be joined with you. This, perhaps, brings you some comfort. All you can do is use your mental power of prayer to pray for the world in general and these souls in particular.

Then, after many hours, it is time for Adoration. A deacon opens the tabernacle and places you in a monstrance. The choice of time and place is not yours, but you are on public display. In your helplessness, you can do nothing but be aware of the people present. Many are gazing upon you with looks of love in their eyes. When they look at your wheaten form, they see Jesus. You have become His image. You know you are not worthy of such loving adoration; the pain purifies you as it would if you were in purgatory and a friend was praying for your soul. You also become aware of less attentive worshippers in the chapel – some struggling to stay focussed on their prayers, others happy to be in your presence but giving their attention to a rosary or prayer book; a few bored children ignoring you entirely. All you can do is remember each worshipper and invoke God’s favour upon them. At length, the deacon picks up the monstrance and makes the sign of the Cross over the people with you. You can do no more than intensely beg God to bless each and every one of them, and the families and needs they hold in their hearts.

The deacon returns you to the cold, dark, tabernacle. For the next few weeks, this pattern will repeat: long hours of imprisonment, dimly aware of those calling out for spiritual communion; short periods of exposure to the public gaze. All the while you are suspended in impotence, like Jesus refusing to use his divine power to escape the Cross. But at length it is time for you to be replaced by a fresh host, and when the deacon returns you to the tabernacle, he places you among the hosts for the people’s communion. Your heart leaps, for now you will be able to fulfil your purpose – for Eucharistic bread is meant to be consumed as food for body and soul.

It is Mass. A priest, having fractured a newly-consecrated host to show the Lamb of God to the congregation, realises he has need of more for the people’s communion. He takes you into his hands and breaks you, in half, into quarters. Tiny fragments from the broken edges fly into space and are lost. Some become dust so small that they can no longer be identified as bread, and they disconnect from your sense of self. But you now exist as four quarters upon the altar and some smaller crumbs scattered to obscure corners. Each of these fragments is you.

A pious soul comes forward for Holy Communion, and the priest places you upon her tongue. You are baptised in her saliva, which immediately begins to soften your substance. You lose your shape and become conformed to the roof of her mouth, an intimate bond between communion and communicant.

Another friend of God receives you into her hand. You sense that she does not do this lightly, but takes a moment to gaze upon you with love and reverence before tenderly picking you up and placing you on her tongue, where you begin to dissolve.

A third communicant is less delicate, and on receiving you upon his tongue begins to chew. You remember that Your Lord said, literally, ‘take this all of you and munch this’ – and also how St Ignatius of Antioch dreamed of being ‘ground between the teeth’ of the wild beasts who would face him in the Roman arena. Part of your victimhood is to suffer the indignity of being masticated. You are crushed, and ground, and split into a dozen fragments. You suffer no physical pain, but your identity, your presence, is stretched across a growing number of fragments, each of decreasing beauty. It is Your Lord’s will that you should be bread, broken for others.

You, in your final quarter, are placed in the hand of a man who seems confused. Perhaps he has not been to Mass for many years. He hesitates, gazes at you with incomprehension, and eventually lifts you to his mouth. With a press of his tongue you are folded in half, and swallowed intact.

You find yourself simultaneously in the stomachs of four communicants. Here it is your destiny to lose your identity as you dissolve in the potent acid necessary for human digestion and gastric reflux. Your physical substance will be broken down into base sugars, absorbed in the small intestine, and carried through the bloodstream until the sugar finds a living cell crying out for energy. But at that point your substance will have ceased to be bread, so you will no longer be present. You will have given up your body to give life to others. When Christ’s soul left his body on Calvary, he died for all mankind. For you, each little death of withdrawing from physical form is to give a spark of life to but one individual soul.

You become aware that you are still bread. Two small crumbs fell away as you were broken. You are picked up between the finger and thumb of the priest, and reverently placed in what remains of the Precious Blood. You sense yourself dissolving into an ocean of mercy, and for the first time experience spirit-to-spirit communication with Jesus Christ. You recognise in each other what it means to be an innocent victim, to be powerless and lifted up in the sight of others.

The priest has only seen one of the crumbs. The other has fallen from the altar on to the floor, where you will remain unnoticed until you crumble to dust. You panic, but sense the consoling presence of Jesus. No-one has acted with wilful irreverence. It was his choice to become vulnerable, to take the risk of becoming lost fragments of the Divine Presence. You are also a victim of this choice.

After many weeks, you feel your spirit detach from the last crumbling crumb of what can no longer be identified as ‘bread’. But your identity is not lost. Jesus is holding you in being, united with his spirit and yet without losing the distinctiveness which makes you, ‘you’. Because of your union with Jesus, you are present in every consecrated Host throughout the world. You are present in every ordained priest, in every baptised Christian, in every gathering of ‘two or three’ invoking the Divine Name, in every proclamation of the Word of God. One day, Jesus will raise you to a new and glorious body; but for now, you have been broken for others and scattered throughout the world. You have been bread.

Credit: Elisa Pires via JMJ Rio 2013-Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

This meditation uses ‘substance‘ in its everyday meaning of ‘bodily stuff’ rather than in the philosophical sense behind the word transubstantiation.

A Balkan Easter

This year I am celebrating the dying and rising of Christ not as a parish priest serving my own people in Wales, but as a pilgrim and shepherd assisting at the shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ah, Bosnia – a country which has suffered much in recent years. Like Israel itself, its geographic position between East and West has made it a convenient buffer between great powers and their vassal states. As Israel stood between Egypt and Babylon, so the dukedom of Hercegovina was able to broker trade between Christendom to the west and the Ottoman Empire to the east; and it was convenient for all the Great Powers after World War II that Yugoslavia should be a non-aligned communist state so that the Warsaw Pact would not site its weapons off the shores of Italy.

For the great Easter Vigil, the parish’s leaders chose four readings from the Old Testament – Creation, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Crossing of the Red Sea (which of course may never be omitted on Easter night) and Ezekiel’s lament over fallen Israel (Ezk 36:16-28).

In Ezekiel’s day, Israel had been conquered by foreign powers and the Jewish people scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. The prophet was inspired to understand that God’s people had lost their divinely-granted security because they had not kept God’s law but turned to violence and worshipped idols. But this in turn meant that God’s Chosen People were now exiles and refugees, which didn’t look good for the God who had chosen them! The solution? God would restore his people to the Promised Land and cleanse their hearts so they could become a people of integrity worthy of His Holy Name. The Biblical Books of Ezra and Nehemiah chart this return from exile – but by the time Jesus Christ was born, Israel enjoyed only limited religious autonomy as a province of the Roman Empire.

Fast-forward to the Balkan conflicts of the late 20th Century. Ethnic Croats who claimed to be Roman Catholic, ethnic Serbs who claimed to be Orthodox Christians, and Bosnian Muslims, descendants of locals who had accepted Islam under Ottoman rule, were held together in an uneasy tension by the iron grip of Marshal Tito. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the death of Tito spelled chaos for the uneasy state of Yugoslavia. The Serbian republic, aspiring to maintain a ‘Greater Serbia’, failed to prevent Croatia from breaking away as an independent state. Bosnia was itself a microcosm of the greater conflict with all three factions present in significant numbers within its borders. The West, in the shape of NATO, eventually intervened – but too late to prevent massive loss of life. No honour was done to the name of Christ by the way Catholic and Orthodox agitated and fought for supremacy.

“My great name has been profaned among the nations,” says the Lord, “but for the sake of my great name I will cleanse you and give you a new heart.” In Medjugorje, something remarkable has happened. A centre for peace has been planted in the heart of war. In due course, Mother Church will pronounce on whether we should truly believe that the Queen of Peace has personally revealed herself to local children. But it is already apparent that the message of peace has taken root in this difficult Balkan soil.

I wonder what the villagers of Medjugorje, and the pilgrims from within the former Yugoslavia, heard in these words of Ezekiel? They have known, as I have not, the pain of their own family members fighting and sometimes dying in a bloody conflict. They have lived with the claims that the Queen of Heaven was calling for ‘peace, peace, peace’ before, during and after the war which ravaged their land. They have seen this isolated Herzegovinan cluster of hamlets become a world-renowned shrine where sins are forgiven, lives are changed, and charitable works bless the nation and the world. What works? One need only mention Mary’s Meals (food for schoolchildren in the developing world), Cenacolo (communities of support for recovering addicts) and the local Mother’s Village (for orphans, refugees and others in distress).

Good works are not without their price. Every charity requires financial giving by many, and an investment of love and labour by a few. At the end of the Jubilee Year 1933, the parishioners of Medjugorje agreed to erect a cross on the hill now known as Krizevac – Cross Mountain. One might imagine Our Lord and the Blessed Mother looking down from heaven and choosing a suitable place to bring a message of peace. There would need to be room for the church to expand its facilities to greet the many pilgrims who would come. There would need to be places for spiritual exercises – a lesser hill to honour the mother of God and a great mountain leading to the Holy Cross. The local people, too, would find a small measure of prosperity from the business of welcoming pilgrims – who should receive this blessing? The soils of Hercegovina, where Franciscan missionary priests sustained the faith despite the oppression of the Ottoman Empire over 800 years, perhaps? The same Hercegovina where 20th century Catholics resisted the status that came with embracing Communism by stubbornly persisting in their Catholic faith and practice?

The choice to be faithful to God is a choice that often brings hardship. The Bible contains wonderful stories of salvation (think of Daniel in the lion’s den, followed by Daniel’s story of the three young men thrown into the firey furnace who escape unscathed) but also of sacrifice. Elijah and Jeremiah received no thanks for standing against the rulers of their times. The Books of the Maccabees include stories of heroic sacrifices including the mother and seven sons who refuse to eat pigs’ flesh under pain of death. In our own age we might think of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS or the 7 Tibherine monks of Algeria who knew they risked death by planting their monastery there.

And Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac – his only son!

Imagine this from Isaac’s point of view! He discovered himself standing in a long line of people who are sorely tested as part of God’s plan. Zechariah struck dumb, Saul blinded, John the Baptist imprisoned and later beheaded, Mary’s heart pierced by a sword, and with St Joseph fleeing to Egypt as a refugee. It is not so easy to love a God who requires one to be treated thus! And yet all of these came through their trials and are recognised as saints.

We find also another level of meaning in these words from Genesis. Abraham stands as a symbol of God the Father. Isaac is a symbol of the human race, bound by sin. Why would God ask for the ‘only son’ (the entire human race) to be destroyed? Earlier in Genesis, we see the same divine sentiment expressed in the parable of the Flood… humanity is not worthy to live. What can redeem it? A ram, caught in a bush. A sheep, fixed to a tree. A grown-up lamb on a cross of wood. Jesus Christ, God-made-man, innocent and of infinite worth.

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should inherit eternal life. The Holy Spirit hovered upon the waters of creation. Noah and Moses passed through water to a place of redemption. Ezekiel prophesied cleansing water to renew the heart. Those who would inherit eternal life are invited to take the waters of baptism and renew their commitment on Easter Night.

God did not spare his own son, but allowed him to enter our human existence and suffer – to suffer tiredness, grief, rejection, betrayal, and even death upon the Cross. The water of baptism is not immunity from the sufferings of this world; indeed, it may call the believer to share with Christ a ‘baptism of fire’ which demonstrates love without limit, incarnate once again in space and in time.

We live as pilgrims between hope and fear; the hope of heaven, and the weight of the Cross we must carry on our way. It has been my personal experience that God often allows me to experience exceptional burdens in Lent and great relief in the season of Easter, but perhaps not everyone’s life is so well attuned to the rhythm of the Christian calendar. If you are still living a personal Lent, may the Risen Christ bring you soon to the joys of Easter. Christ is Risen! Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

In Praise of Virgin Martyrs

“The Catholic Church thinks it’s better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor.”

That’s how I saw the Church’s stance on Christian women martyred ‘in defense of their chastity’ summed up by a critic in newsprint a few years ago, and it came back to mind with the beatification of Anna Kolesárová earlier this month.

In 1944, a Soviet soldier tried to rape and then murdered the devout 16-year-old Slovak. Anna was a daily Massgoer who had taken over domestic chores following the death of her mother. When the soldier came looking for food and took hold of her to satisfy another appetite, she broke away from him and cried her farewell to her father before she was fatally shot. The memory of Anna’s death survived throughout the period of communist rule in Slovakia, resulting in growing public interest in the post-communist nation, culminating in this month’s beatification.

But this kind of holy role model is controversial. A Catholic critic in Commonweal asked, ‘Are we still doing this?’ Even a more sympathetic commentator on Alateia conceded the weakness of trying to tell school children that Maria Goretti was a saint because ‘she refused to let herself be raped’. A hostile Slovakian, Ria Gehrerová, questioned the implication that being murdered is preferable to being raped.

Gehrerová noted that on Anna’s grave, it is written “better death than sin”, which has also been used by the church when promoting Kolesárová’s story. But “would Kolesárová have sinned if the soldier had raped her? A spokesperson of the Slovak church said no.”

Let’s first acknowledge the blindingly obvious. Anna was sexually assaulted and killed by a violent man through no fault of her own. If the soldier had succeeded, she would not have committed any sin – any wilful, personal, choice – against purity. The only choice she was faced with, in the heat of the moment, was whether to consent, acquiesce, or resist – and her choice to resist was a reflection of who she was as a person.

‘Consent’ given under duress is never true consent, whether to an act of sexual abuse or to some other act of manipulation such as a hostage situation. Nevertheless, there are moral questions around co-operation, and the Church holds (based on the writings of St Paul) that we cannot do evil that good may come of it. No sin (wilful co-operation with evil) committed under duress can be mortal; there is likely hardly any culpability at all. But there is still a moral choice to be made between co-operating and acquiescing – that is, saying ‘no’ but not actively resisting – or indeed putting up a heroic show of resistance. And I write these words conscious that it is easy to pontificate about an abhorrent situation in which I have never found myself.

We could be distracted, at this point, by a long exploration of the goodness of virginity per se. The Book of Revelation (14:4) gives us a glimpse of a special category of saint, who died as virgins for the sake of the Lord – ‘men who have not defiled themselves with women’. There is a difficult history, from St Augustine of Hippo until righted by St John Paul II, of Christian scholars suggesting that even within marriage, the sexual act is intrinsically impure. The Vatican recently ruffled feathers by suggesting (88) that women who were not virgins could be admitted to the Order of Consecrated Virgins. This reveals the tension between the sign given by a woman pledging perfect chastity from now on against the spiritual value of always having been a virgin (the subject of heated mediaeval debates about whether Our Lady could have theoretically had children after bearing Christ). Derek Carlsen believes the Torah gives no compensation to a raped virgin because, in God’s eyes, she has not lost her virginal status. Suffice it to say that the Bible drops hints that there is some spiritual and eternal significance in always having been a virgin but there is not enough evidence to pronounce on the heavenly status of a woman who loses her virginity against her will.

Does it matter, from a spiritual point of view, if a person chooses to resist sexual assault and pays with their life, rather than acquiescing as a survival strategy? The Catholic viewpoint, of course, holds that there is an afterlife and heroic deeds do receive their reward there. So the calculus for a Catholic faced with mortal peril looks very different from the plight of an atheist who believes they face a choice between eternal annihilation or living out one earthly lifespan bearing the trauma of being a survivor.

It would not have been a sin (on her part) for Anna to have been raped. It clearly was a heroic act to resist and break away as she did. It would have been a sin to wilfully co-operate with the rapist. That seems to leave acquiescing as the ‘morally neutral’ response – which could also be interpreted as another kind of heroism, that of planning to ‘get through’ the horrible circumstances so she could continue supporting her father and brother. We might also ask whether her decision to resist, in the heat of the moment, was motivated by a Christian sense of purity – or was it the kind of reaction any young women, of any or no creed, might make given that kind of provocation?

By raising up Anna as a role model, are we proclaiming that choosing to be a living survivor is less heroic?

The history of the early church is marked by a different kind of virgin martyr – the women who decided to entrust their virginity to Christ and then faced pressure from powerful relatives to enter marriage. In today’s climate we might focus on the abuse of human dignity represented by any kind of forced marriage rather than the Christian motive of these particular women. Nevertheless, it seems right to say that those women were martyrs both for human dignity and for Christ.

There are martyrs who choose to lay down their lives for others – the purple martyrdom of a Maximilian Kolbe or Gianna Molla.

There are martyrs who are killed simply for being Christian – think of the 21 Copts murdered by ISIS, the 7 Tibherine monks or those attending Mass in Pakistan or Indonesia caught up in the blast of suicide bombers. In some cases, martyrs are put to the further test of being given an ‘out’ if they renounce their Catholic faith, but simply being in the right place at the wrong time is enough to qualify you as a ‘red martyr’.

Then there are those who are killed for standing up for their values – values endorsed by the Catholic faith but also held by many non-Christians of the utmost integrity. For example, Blessed Marcel Callo (Nazi-occupied France) and Blessed Francesco Aleu (Spanish Civil War) were martyred not for attending Christian worship but living out their Catholic values in strained times.

When Cardinal Newman was declared ‘Blessed‘ a few years ago, Radio 4 broadcast a play about Newman’s life. The playwright imagined that Newman’s guardian angel met him at the moment of his death and declared to him – ‘You are to become a saint!’

‘Oh no!’ said Newman. ‘Not a saint! I shall be sliced up like salami and made into bite-sized lessons for schoolchildren!’

There’s always a danger with a beatification, that we take the one, most dramatic fact about the person being raised up and turn it into an over-simplified lesson. Simcha Fisher has likened these moral slices to the ‘bathwater around the baby‘ who is actually a living person with love for Christ at their heart. Ultimately, the Virgin Martyrs remind us not only that Christians are called to chastity but that we are called to resist evil and confront it heroically, without compromise.

Should we teach children that Maria Goretti is a saint because she didn’t want to be raped? No. Is Maria Goretti a saint because she thoroughly resisted being raped? Yes – but that’s an incomplete answer. First, the moral goodness is not that she kept her virginity intact, but that she never even acquiesced to evil. Second, when she showed the heroism of not acquiescing but resisting – she did this in the context of a life which was already devoted to Christ and which culminated in trying to persuade her attacker not to sin, for the good of his soul. Similarly, Blessed Anna is beatified not only for the moment of her death but the manner of her life. The short, ‘teachings to children’ version might be ‘resist evil and never compromise, even if it costs your life’. The longer answer requires a commitment to living out the Catholic faith in its fullness, which finds its fruition in this moment of crisis.

“The Catholic Church thinks it ‘s better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor?”

“Being murdered is preferable to being raped?”

When I am caught up in the violent choices made by others, I have only one choice – how to respond. The Catholic Church thinks it’s better to enter into heaven as a hero of the resistance than to remain on earth as a wounded soldier. Most societies honour their heroes precisely because they have gone ‘beyond their duty’. May not all of us, who are wounded in some way by the sins of others, honour the few who went above and beyond?

A Time for Mourning; A Time for Speaking

A Letter to the People of my Parish (to be published in the next bulletin, 2 September 2018)

In the last few weeks, the news has been full of the failings of the Catholic Church – from English monasteries to American dioceses. Most of the public responses to this have been expressions of shame and regret; Pope Francis has acknowledged that the church has been “slow to respond” and has called the whole church to a time of “prayer and fasting”. To pray and fast in this way is a way of those who are guiltless expressing regret and sorrow for the guilty members of our own body, and solidarity with the victims – we are not personally responsible, but Pope Francis has echoed the words of St Paul: when one part of the church suffers, all suffer with it.

Spiritual actions are important – but practical responses are necessary. Let me state clearly that if any member of this parish – or any reader of this message – is aware that any member of the Catholic church, ordained or lay, has been guilty of any criminal act (sexual or otherwise), the right course of action is to report that person to the police, without delay. There is no need to be concerned about any “scandal” that might be caused by doing so – the guilt for the scandal lies wholly on the person who committed the crime. If we refrain from alerting the authorities, we add the scandals of “cover up” and “not preventing future crime” to the original offence. (Click for CrimeStoppersUK.)

The Catholic Church also has a very clear teaching on sexual morality. The only appropriate place for intimate sexual acts is between a man and a woman who are in a marriage blessed or recognised* by the Catholic Church. All other acts of sexual intimacy, even between consenting adults, are immoral. Our Lord spoke clearly about the need to restrain our lust, and St Paul’s letters – the earliest writings we have from the Christian Church – also speak clearly about avoiding sexual immorality. So let me also state clearly that if any member of this parish – or any reader of this message – is aware that any person holding a position of authority in the Catholic church, ordained or lay, is sustaining an immoral relationship which is not, however, criminal: this should be brought to the attention of the Catholic leader in a position of authority over them. Any person who is in such a situation should cease their immoral relationship and make use of the sacrament of reconciliation; or if not prepared to do so, should resign their position of authority in the Catholic Church.

Sexual immorality is not the only kind of immorality; it is not the only reason we might raise a concern about a person holding office. But such immorality takes place in the context of a deliberate choice to pursue a particular relationship; it is more public and more intentional than other kinds of fault. We might also, of course, express concern about violent behaviour in a person responsible for pastoral care, or when a person responsible for teaching the Catholic faith expresses views clearly at odds with Catholic teaching.

It is true that the Catholic Church teaches that every human being has the “right to a good name”, and that “detraction” is a sinThe sin of detraction does not apply when you report a concern to the authority which is duty-bound to conduct an impartial investigation to find out whether the concern is justified; nor does it apply when you need to warn a third party who may be at risk. It does apply if you needlessly repeat the allegation to third parties who are not in a position to investigate, and have no legitimate need to be informed.

I make these statements not because I expect that they apply to any current situation in this parish, but to underline the seriousness of how we have failed as a church. The greater responsibility is on our senior church leaders to handle these matters appropriately; but we are all free to approach the police or social services, or notify our concerns to a higher tier of authority in the church when they seem to have been ignored by a lower one.

Let me be clear that I am not asking for tale-telling about someone who has had a single moment of moral weakness which they might then regret and repent. The heart of the message of Christ is that when we fail to live up to the high standards to which he calls us, forgiveness and mercy are offered to us freely. But to obtain forgiveness we need a “firm purpose of amendment”, a resolve not to fall back into the pattern of immoral behaviour. And we have learned the hard way that those who commit the more serious offenses cannot be trusted to mend their ways after a simple warning; reconciliation to God does not automatically mean rehabilitation to a trusted role in the community.

Sometimes situations arise which are not black and white, but tinged some shade of grey. If they concern a child or a vulnerable adult who may be at risk, the right thing to do is always to take advice. You can ring our parish safeguarding co-ordinator, Gareth Hayes (details are on the front cover of every parish bulletin) or the Diocesan Safeguarding Office (029 2036 5961). If you are really not sure whether to report a situation, you can telephone anonymously (dial 141 before your call to block your caller ID), you don’t have to give your name, and you can describe a “situation” without giving the names of the persons involved. You can then get advice on whether what you know is at the level where you have a legal or moral responsibility to pass on the information to police or social services, and on the most appropriate way to do so.

It is not enough for us, as an institution, to hang our heads in shame; we must pledge ourselves, one and all, to act with the utmost integrity. Every person who holds office in the Catholic Church is a forgiven sinner; no-one who remains in office should be an obstinate sinner. This is the balance of justice and mercy to which Our Lord calls us, and we are all responsible for upholding this standard. As we start this new academic year, let us make a new beginning and build a better church.

Pastor Gareth

If you have been personally affected by criminal or immoral behaviour and need support, there are organisations and individuals ready and willing to help: you may wish to contact Grief to Grace, find a counsellor recommended by the Association of Christian Counsellors – or even contact a local priest or deacon. The vast majority of clergy will deal with you sensitively and compassionately, unlike those few whose reprehensible behaviour has been highlighted in the media of late.

* The Catholic Church recognises as true marriages any civil or religious wedding between an unmarried non-Catholic man and an unmarried non-Catholic woman. More complex rules for recognition apply when a Catholic marries without the Church’s blessing or when a divorced person enters a second marriage. I do not wish to spell this out in detail here; I simply wish to acknowledge that there are marriages which the Catholic Church recognises as valid even though they are not blessed by a Catholic ceremony. However, a non-Catholic married to a non-Catholic is unlikely to be serving in a position of teaching or governance in a Catholic context.

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)