Archive for February, 2010

Catholic Schools

One very good friend is a priest, who was ordained priest later on in life, after a good career in teaching – he had been the head-teacher of a Catholic primary school. We agree on almost everything, and I enjoy his common sense, good humour, ability to tell jokes ‘till the cows come home’, and his love of life and of the post Vatican II Church. On one thing we disagree: the value of our English Catholic Education System. He does not rate Catholic schools very highly, while in my case, I do. Even to this day it is not clear to me whether, or not, he is in the right on this subject.

My view is that the English Catholic School System gives youngsters and their families the chance to be involved with the life of the Catholic Church throughout their education. My friend’s point, basically, is that, if the resources given to Catholic schools were to be used within the parishes, there could be excellent extra-curricular sharing of faith that would be of greater benefit to young people, than their use in the schools’ scenario.  

Be that as it may, on Wednesday 24th February, a week after Ash Wednesday, we distributed ashes to everyone who wanted them in our High School – a total of more than 800 people, counting staff and pupils. Ash Wednesday, itself, fell within the half-term holiday and consequently, most of the pupils and staff had not received ashes on the actual day. It was quite striking to see pupils and adults – Catholics and those of other Christian Churches alike – receiving the ashes, and in such an obviously good spirit. It manifested a clear sign that all in the school – teacher, dinner lady, site supervisor, pupil or chaplain – were on the same journey to God; the annual distribution and reception of ashes teaches us that each one of us is a sinful human being, and all need God’s saving grace. In one sense, all of us are brothers and sisters, even though the role of the adults is to be “in loco parentis” – acting as parents – in a special relationship with the pupils.

Distributing the ashes was a speedy and efficient operation; it was also prayerful and meaningful… “Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel”…. were the words we used – and, certainly, the ‘smudge’ on my forehead lasted ‘till tea-time. This ‘operation’, I suspect, could only happen in a Catholic school. It provides the ideal opportunity, right at the start of Lent, to explain what is a central Christian principal – that whatever mistake, or wrong path, we have taken in life, it is always possible to start again, in our relationship with the Lord, and also to do our best to mend our ‘broken’ relationships with others – the latter, sometimes, being more difficult than the former.

That same evening, we celebrated the 150th Anniversary of a local Catholic school in our Pastoral Area (Deanery). The School of SS. Peter and Paul, in the village of Mawdesley, was inaugurated, 30th January 1860. Situated in a rural area, the school has never had more than 129 pupils; at present they total around 70. Those who originally contributed to its building and maintenance, in the mid 19th century, had family descendants among the ‘packed’ congregation – Wednesday night – in SS. Peter and Paul Church, where we celebrated Mass, joyfully, for the occasion.  But, in describing this happy event, an important question is raised in my mind.  Why was it that people gave money to build, and open, and maintain a Catholic school all those (150) years ago?  It seems they must have wanted their children to benefit from a Catholic education, and, taking the argument a step further, were prepared to give their money to make all this possible.  We must remember, in those days, there was no state provision!

There has been a basic instinct within the Catholic community ever since the beginning of the Church, to devote a massive amount of time, money and energy to the education of the young. In fact, the vocation to teach has been considered the highest vocation of all, within the Church, because, fundamentally, it is assisting, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the formation of the person of Christ in the student. Teachers, and all those involved in the school environment, provide the context in which human talents are developed, and so Christ is formed in each person, according to each individual personality and character. Teaching …  education … are processes by which the mind is ‘broadened’ and ‘stretched’, new things are learned and the person then develops in art, music, sport and so on.

But, there is more to it than that!  I speak of the term ‘ethos’ – something that is hard to explain in terms of its true meaning.  It may be that we are unable, or too ‘shy’, to state where the ‘ethos’ or ‘special atmosphere’,  found in many Catholic schools, comes from.  Or, it may be that those involved in education do not realise it, themselves, because they do not live their Christianity as it should be lived.  Essentially, it concerns the presence of the Risen Christ in the school. The Risen Christ, in the Acts of the Apostles, was not accepted by all, just as Jesus, himself, was not accepted when he was alive on earth. There will, I am sure, be those who will reject the Lord within our Christian Catholic schools, but if you really want to be more precise about the ‘ethos’ within the Catholic School, it is good to be ‘up front’ and say: “It is Christ, raised from the dead, who is among us, who is our inspiration, our guide and our leader”.

To be absolutely clear, this presence of Christ does depend on the fulfilment of conditions – for Jesus to be really there – it does not happen without the Gospel conditions: “Where two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus, there he will be among them” (Mt. 18: 20).  What on earth does that mean?  In a ‘nutshell’, it means that there are those, in the school, who are really and truly living the New Commandment of Jesus (John 13: 34). Love that is lived, and lived with each other, is the challenge, and it is a big one, for we are human and often we fail. It means living the art of loving.  Chiara Lubich (died March 14th 2008) – the founder of the Focolare Movement (and its Charism is Unity) – put it like this:

  • Christian love means seeing Christ in every person we meet.
  • Christian love means loving everyone without exception.
  • Christian love means being the first to love. We cannot expect to be loved before we start loving.
  • Christian love means loving others as ourselves.
  • Christian love means making oneself one with others. This means loving in a practical way.
  • Christian love means loving our enemies, doing good to them and praying for them.
  • Jesus want the love he brought on earth to become reciprocal. He wants us to love one another.
  • Love led Jesus to die on the cross for us. Genuine love for others requires self-denial and sacrifice; almost always love demands suffering.

With some temerity, I would also add that genuine love never seeks for an immediate response, but is just given – something that could go on for years and years before it is recognised –  indeed, it may never obtain response or even recognition.   It is given without thought of return. All this provides us with a programme for a good and ‘well-lived’ life-time.

To return to school: the ‘ethos’ of a truly Christian Catholic school, or ‘Christ Present in the School’, affects the subjects that are taught, the way they are taught, the way the school is managed, the priorities that are given day by day, even those who are invited in to be guest-speakers for the students. The ‘ethos’ affects those who visit the school, the school dinners, the refereeing on the football pitch. Then, there is the relationship that the teacher has with the individual student: a unique forum where the young person is led to discover the truth behind the bare facts of the subject, until he, or she, learns to know ‘Truth’ itself.  Make no mistake, this is an awesome responsibility, requiring the teacher to ‘be’ in the Truth, and to ‘live’ the Truth – a major challenge –  but, not just for teachers: the challenge is there for all those who work in the school; those involved in school dinners; those involved in cleaning and maintenance, and so on.  All these people share the one vision. Overall, the School Governors must have these values at heart, for the pupils, their families and the multitude of school staff.

And, the aim? This must be to lead the students – together with all who are involved in this community enterprise – to a fulfilment beyond our imagining. Thus teaching, or being howsoever involved in the whole enterprise of education, means being a partner with God, in his plan for a better world, where, in the end, God will be all in all.

I must ask my priest friend, with whom I agree about most things, what would he think of all this?

Lent is here. Traditionally, it is a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, for the purpose of renewal in life; we are meant for joy and happiness amid this ‘vale of tears’ and if we have not achieved it, or if our joy has ‘slipped’ a little, then this is the time for renewal.

The season is timely, because there could be many things that depress us: we may have personal worries and difficulties; we may feel utterly alone; our day by day financial circumstances may not be very secure; we may find the ‘sad state of our country, spiritually and politically’ depressing; and then there is the war in Afghanistan, the never ending fear of the rise of religious fanatics in the Muslim world, affecting our own country, and, for us Catholics, the sad and depressing news of all the child-abuse by our Church people in Ireland, with wounding accusations being thrown at the Pope, the Bishops and our Church.

Thirty years ago, in 1980, the National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool proclaimed, optimistically for us Catholics in England and Wales, the famous phrase of St. Augustine: “We are the Easter People and Alleluia is our Song”. It is perfectly true that that is how all Christians ought to be, and here I want to describe a short story of success in this field, as an encouragement to anyone who may find the ‘ideal’ beyond them, just at present.   The story is both personal and quite simple; it is connected with ‘death to self’ – always a good thing – if you think of the law of nature and of the Gospel: every person, every individual and, in general, every living species finds their greater good in giving of self, and not in selfish, self-centred grasping, at the expense of others.

My story concerns the act of driving – something most of us do.  People often say that, when a person gets behind a steering wheel, the change in personality is often so startling that little ‘horns’ can be seen to grow out of his, or her, head.  The car – this is the place to be ‘Lord’ of all you survey – and, in your own vehicle, woe betide the other who interferes, or gets in the way. On this occasion I was not on my own, but with others, on a fairly long journey. At one point, we came to traffic lights where the main road had the lights weighted in its favour.  There was another, smaller road, that had the next priority, and thirdly, there was a tiny dead-end road down which we were to go – two-way, but so narrow it would have been exceedingly awkward to meet another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. For this minor road, the waiting time for the traffic-light change, at a busy time of day, was about 4 minutes – and even then, there was time for only three cars to move out. When driving, I like to play a game against the car, trying to conserve fuel in many different ways, and at these lights, I turned off the engine to do just this. A companion, next to me, said after a bit: “Ignite the engine so we get a good quick start”. That made me feel rebellious, immediately, and my first reaction was to tell him not to interfere. But, what about the law of the Gospel, and doing what God wants, rather than what I want? In practice, this often means doing what another wishes, and not what I would wish. St. Benedict calls it, “Obedience to others and not just to the superior”, so I did what my companion suggested. We had to wait another longish time, and then we were away! My companion had no idea of the internal turmoil his ‘instruction’ had caused me, and I continued chatting as if nothing had happened, as if nothing had mattered. Later on, we were able to continue a lively and enjoyable conversation – all the fruits of a little self-giving – and something that brought a great joy and peace to me. The happy ending – had I followed my ‘ego’ and allowed my ‘horns’ to take over – could have been so horribly different!

However, it is not a bad thing to feel good about yourself. If a person goes out of their way, not just to do what he or she wants, but to do what the ‘Man Above’ would want, then a good feeling emerges. The credit goes to Him, who is the one who loves each of us, immensely, and that is the truth – for whoever reads these lines. The good I do, is not because of my good efforts, but because He lives in me. All too often, and for many, it is a continuous struggle to get the ‘balance’ right –  I  know to my cost, it is for me.

So, to be an ‘Easter People’ is what Lent is for, and, if we have ‘slipped’ a bit, we can catch up and find what we human beings are for – for love, joy and happiness. The high point of Lent is, of course, the last week which is Holy Week, a momentous time when the priesthood of Jesus is fully achieved.  During those crucial days, Jesus was the Perfect Priest who reconciles all to God, and each other. He achieved it in his own perfect way – a perfection of self-giving; the perfect ‘grain of wheat’ died and produced the perfection of Redemption. It is a fact that the priesthood of Jesus is achieved by Jesus the ‘lay-man’, without the benefit of any liturgical ceremony – except that of the ignominy of Calvary – and without the aid of any Church building. Jesus became so humble as to become ‘nothing’ out of love for us. For us Christians there is only one Priest in which all priesthood finds its meaning, and that is Jesus himself. He is the model of how all priesthood should be; both the Royal Priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood.

We too can learn, in the small and big things of life, to do the same, and one thing is guaranteed – depression will diminish; joy and peace, that nothing can take away, will grow. Jesus helps us along the road to growth – to fulfilled men and women – to where we are the “Easter People and Alleluia is Our Song”.

The Joy of Being a Full Human Being

How good it is to feel free, to feel at peace, to feel a chuckle inside you at something humorous that has happened, to share a joke, to be able to see the good side of life rather than the negative, not to have to worry about what others might say or think, to enjoy the company of good friends, to feel secure, to know that life is worth-while, to feel you are in the ‘right’ place and doing the ‘right’ job, to feel content despite the sufferings and difficult problems that come your way, to empathise with, and feel the pain and suffering of others, and to realise that death is not an end, in itself, but a new beginning. All these qualitative feelings speak to me and demonstrate, substantially, what it is to be alive – to be in quiet, tranquil joy, to achieve what always eluded me as a younger person – “to be myself”. Sometimes people would say to me in my teen-age years, and in my twenties: “Don’t look so worried Jonathan, it can’t be that bad,” yet, within my own mind, I didn’t really feel worried, and so I wondered what it was that I was projecting and why? Occasionally, I’d get the remark, “Just be yourself!”, and then I always wondered what that meant – and how to achieve it? As life has progressed, and things have become more settled, largely because life and its ‘patterns’ are more solidly in place, such remarks don’t come my way, any more; life is now too full and, if I don’t ‘mess up’, it really is fascinating and varied.

My limited experience, I think, has led me to understand that all those positive human qualities come to me when I am peace with God and my neighbour – not when I am at logger-heads with either of them. In fact, it is when God is close that I, too, am close to God. But, to whom is God close? Is he close to those who pray each day? Perhaps, if the prayer is authentic and sincere! Could God be close to those who live a virtuous life? Perhaps, if they are not conceited and proud about it! Then again, is God close to those who, without fail, come to Mass every Sunday? Perhaps, if the rest of the week, they live in the way that God wants them to! Could God be close to the successful, wealthy and healthy? Perhaps, if they realise success is not for self-glorification, – if they use their wealth for good – and if they are grateful to God for the gift of health, without taking it for granted! To highlight just one of two of these ‘may-be’s’, whereas once I was not aware, I am now old enough to realise that often the prayer I make is not authentic, that there is a lot of conceit and pride in me, that often I do not live quite as God would desire.  At this point, there springs to mind a thought provoking phrase from the psalms that runs: “from my hidden faults acquit me”.

Talking recently to two people, who do frequently go to Mass, I began the phrase “God is close to……” and they both filled in the words: “the broken-hearted”.  And so it is that this phrase: “God is close to the broken hearted”, has played on my mind throughout this last week. I have repeated it often. I have found it on my lips when thinking of my own sins and failures, when visiting a family that has lost a child, when seeing a person in tears because of difficult relationships, when finding a person unsure of life and its future, when reflecting on the sad state of affairs in which we seem to find ourselves, in Britain, today, when contemplating the terrible and tragic spectacle of 200,000 dead, tens of thousands injured and millions displaced in Haiti.  Then there is the war in Afghanistan that is killing our people and God knows how many other ‘heart-breaks’ ….. all true stories involving human suffering, of an intense personal nature.  God is close to the broken hearted ….. and, if my thesis in the first paragraph is correct, then to be fully a ‘human being’ means also to be “broken-hearted”

Can that statement mean that God is not close to those who are not broken-hearted? I imagine that someone who is ‘self-sufficient’, who thinks they are fully ‘in control’ of their life, who lacks nothing, sees no need at all for a God – or others – to help them overcome pride and self-sufficiency, and feels no dependency on God, or any person, would perhaps be somebody with whom God is not close. Such a person would have no vulnerability for God, or anyone else to get close, for there would be too many barriers erected, ring-fencing such a person from any contact with the divine or the human; and so such a person would grow into a “Scrooge” , or a ‘loner’ that nobody could love or appreciate.

I remember, once, a most loving parishioner, within our Parish, moved to tears at the Heysel Stadium Disaster that occurred in Belgium at the final of the European Cup, May 28th 1985, when 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death, and 600 more were injured, just before their match with Liverpool FC. I have no idea who was to blame, or why it happened, but this parishioner was so moved by the tragedy that her compassion moved me to tears, also. She couldn’t do much about it, but she could pray; and that she did. That lady was truly broken-hearted and it was then that I realised a truth that was self-evident – events in the world around us, affect us deeply and personally. There are many forms of being ‘broken hearted’. You can be broken hearted at the sin, and suffering, in yourself, at the sin, and suffering, in our world, at the pain of many people who may be far away or very close to you. Here, there is no need for God ‘not to be close’ to any person, because any person can be broken-hearted. Here, it is open for all of us to be “fully human”, for the broken hearted are close to God, and when we are close to God, then there is a chance for the ‘human’ within us, to develop and grow.

All this brings to mind my reading of a short passage from St. John Bosco, (1815-1888), founder of the Salesians, (a world-wide Religious Order), who worked mainly with young and needy boys in Italy. It ‘talks’ of the joy of being human, being a Christian and also rounds off the paradox that exists within our human condition – being human means both, being broken hearted and being in joy. It made me realise that “to see the face of Jesus”, a phrase loved by Pope John Paul II, does not mean always seeing a smiling happy face: it can include a sad and thoughtful face, also.

“There are two main ways for the devil to try to trick and wean the young away from a good-living life. The first is to have them think that serving God means a sad and dull life, a long way from any fun or enjoyment. Dear young people, that is not true! I want to help you understand a Christian way of life that is, at the same time, joyful and contented, pointing out what are true pleasures and enjoyment so that you could repeat with the Prophet David: “let us serve the Lord in joy; serve the Lord in gladness”.

The second of the devil’s tricks is to think to live a long life and have the comfort of a conversion in old age at the point of death! Who guarantees that we will reach old age? It would be necessary to make a pact with death to wait for us until that time, but life and death are in the hands of the Lord. If God does grant you long lives listen to what I tell you: ‘the road that a young man takes in his youth he will continue in until his old age and death. If we begin a good life now when we are young, we will be good in the later years, our death will be good and the cause of eternal happiness.’”

Now, I ask, has not the ‘wheel turned full circle’ – are we not back where this short note began: the joy of being a full human being?

Truly Wise

I have a friend, with whom I can share many interesting topics of conversation. We don’t meet often because both of us live busy lives, but, from time to time, we do get the chance for a good ‘natter’. On the occasion of our last ‘chat’, he told me about a young relative of his, with whom he is able to converse easily, and he asked her if she could explain to him why so few young people worship God, in Church, on Sundays,?

She was quick to answer: “It is because of the Church’s teaching about sex!”

Often have I pondered myself and with others, the question as to why younger people, are not more evident in Church, on Sundays, but never have I heard such a blunt and “single-minded” response. As a priest for thirty-eight years, it is obvious to me that the teachings of the Church about sex, do not sit easily with young people, and, I suspect, also with older people in some circumstances, but it came as quite a surprise that this young girl was so clear and forthcoming; I asked my friend to explain.

Very kindly, he did so: “This young relative has had her ‘adventures’ in life. She has children; she is not married, though is now in a stable relationship. In fact, she herself, has been absent from Sunday Mass for quite some time, but, presently, is returning to it – and that is a great joy.  It also explains the reason I was able to ask her opinion. She told me that, in her school days, the only teaching she received, was that anything to do with sex, not in accordance with the teachings of the Church, was sinful. No one had ever explained the reasons for that teaching from the point of view of God’s love.”

Again, I was curious and I asked him to explain further.  My friend continued to explain this young relative’s position:

“Nobody had ever told me that, if you have intimate relationships with another person of the opposite sex, it can affect you very deeply; it affects your spirit, your psychological make-up, your heart and soul.  Often, it goes very deep and is not something that you can just shrug off, as something of no consequence. In my case, it was painful, disturbing and totally upsetting. I did not have peace of soul. In other words, relationships with others bring responsibilities and consequences, and these consequences are, in reality, God’s Love ‘speaking to you’. God is teaching you through the spiritual and psychological feelings that you have. He is showing you that there are inevitable consequences to actions like this – however attractive it may appear to be closely involved, in an intimate way, with others. It is not easy to resist intimacy with another, especially as others in your peer-group behave in similar fashion and either directly or indirectly, encourage you to get involved. On top of all this, the media ‘pushes it’. There is this general attitude to life among people. Priests in the parish, and teachers in the Catholic schools will not be able to overcome these difficulties – these problems – these pressures.

But, all this is only the start.  If, as in my case, a baby comes along, then the responsibility is very obvious – and not just to do with your inner feelings, or your spirit. This, too, is an expression of God’s Love. Young people need to understand these things, from the point of view of God’s Love, because here lies the truth of the matter. One gets involved in sexual relationships with others, and there are always consequences and responsibilities – consequences and responsibilities, that are nothing other than lessons from God, who loves us so much.  It is so desperately important that the young should see things in this way.

Today, (…. and methinks …. all too often …. yesterday, also), young people simply do not accept the Church’s teaching about sex, in the way it is put across – that it is wrong, and a sin – and you should not get involved in it.”

“There is another thing, too. Many young women go on the pill, these days, as I did. What does going on the pill signify? It may be an invitation a girl is making, to the effect she is available to ‘get involved, in an intimate way, with others’, and that she is willing to take responsibility for whatever happens. It makes you ‘open’ for intimate sex, without any responsibility devolving on the young man, and that is what happened to me. In one way, a girl is simply available to be ‘used’. This is something that also needs to be explained – together with, especially, the consequences of such actions.”

All this amounts to an intriguing way of thinking, and one that was new to me – but not because I am unacquainted with the subject of God’s Love. In fact, God’s Love is the theme for the whole year 2010, among all those involved in the Focolare Movement. It is THE fundamental starting point for anyone beginning their spiritual journey to God. When, for the first time, it really ‘came home’ to me that God had an immense and personal Love for me, my life changed – especially as the change was supported by others, who also believed, and knew the truth of that very same thing. My initial insight was therefore sustained –  but it also needs sustaining everywhere, in the ‘hurly burly’ of life.

We two older ‘granddads’ went on to share, and converse about other things. How it is that people – including the young – are not able to listen to others – in many instances, I think, because of the ‘barriers’ within. Often, when trying to talk with others – not necessarily about this topic, (it is extremely unusual for me to have a conversation, with another, about sex), but almost anything to do with the teachings of the Church on personal morality – there is a blank face, and an inability, or unwillingness, to hear (listen to) what is being said. That could well be, because of the way such topics are handled by Catholic teachers and priests. However, I have heard of some amazing people – still young – but past school age– who do go into schools, to meet with pupils and who succeed in communicating effectively – communicating and discussing these subjects, in a way that is acceptable to the young people.

Within my own personal experience, I have seen something very similar, ‘acted out theatrically’, in our High School, when professional actors came in and performed in a play dealing with the issues surrounding abortion. The whole year group were so entranced by the performance that you could have heard a ‘pin drop’, and, at the end, they were invited to ask questions of the actors, just as though they were the ‘real’ people, having undergone the drama of an abortion. This was quite an amazing experience: and so, I conclude, communication with the young can be achieved, successfully, even in today’s world.

This topic – and how we two friends entered into it – has made me think. Sex and the Church is a huge subject, and this ‘blog’ deals with one small aspect, albeit through the means of an anecdote. Whether it is true, that this single issue explains why young people are conspicuous by their absence from Sunday Mass, may be another matter.  The teachings of the Church, linked to the sixth commandment, are not exactly easy to practice for anybody, whatever his, or her, state of life. The good Lord said that the ‘gate to life is a narrow one’; he was not referring to this issue alone, though it is, certainly, a part of it. Furthermore, the issue of intimacy outside marriage, has been there from time immemorial, and perhaps, there is a ‘divide’ separating the way the celibate clergy and religious, see and talk about these things, from the way the lay-person sees them. Comparatively, I wonder if there is something stronger in today’s rebellion against traditional Church thinking, on these subjects, than in the ‘days of yore’?

To conclude, I think it was very much a worth-while conversation I had with my friend, and when I said to him it may provide a useful topic for one of my ‘blogs’, he was content for me to use it, provided everything remained anonymous. I hope all this helps us, one and all, to think and reflect deeply. And, may the Holy Spirit guide us to be truly wise, in this area of our lives, as in all others.