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)

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.

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