Archive for June, 2012

The Heart of Jesus and the Focolare:

In this week’s blog, it is my pleasure to present an article written by a good friend of mine, Angela Graham.  She is a writer, a married ‘mum’ of three and is involved in TV presentations in Wales; she is also a member of the ‘Focolare’, movement.  Largely leaving aside the traditionally historic Catholic view of devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and some ideas that were largely ‘wrapped up’ in a rather sentimental past, her article takes on a more critical look at the ways the Church – the whole mystical Body of the Church – now focuses attention on the Image of the Sacred Heart, and the love of Jesus, it portrays, for all mankind. Friday, 15 June 2012, is the Feast of the Sacred Heart. 

Fr. Jonathan   

“I am a laywoman, involved with the Focolare Movement. I have been a reader of the magazine “Charisms in Unity” produced by the Religious of the Focolare Movement for some years and find it full of wonderful things. It has been inspiring to read about the lives and enterprises of religious. In the January/March edition, Vol. XX, I read the article, “The 40th. Anniversary of the Movement of Women Religious” by Antonia Moioli, S.B.G. and received an especially welcome gift. She writes about the encounter on April 14th, 1971 between women religious and Pope Paul VI, in St. Peter’s Square, a meeting which is regarded as “… the official and public inauguration of the Movement of Women Religious, Adherents of the ‘Focolare’ Movement”, to use Chiara Lubich’s (Founder of the Focolare Movement) words of the time. The Pope told them, “We know that you have come together precisely in order to be close to the “Focolare”, that is, to the Heart of the Lord which irradiates charity. You intend, in fact, to go to the Lord’s school, to the Lord’s “Focolare”, to warm and enflame your hearts with the charity of the Lord.”

 I was very struck by this statement that the ‘Focolare’ is “… the Heart of the Lord which irradiates charity”. As an Irish person, I grew up under the gaze of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Almost every Irish Catholic home displayed an image of Jesus, pointing to his ‘blazing’ heart. It was a common gift to ‘newly-weds’. Most churches had two side altars, one to the Virgin Mary and the other to the Sacred Heart. Windows depicting the Sacred Heart were common, often showing St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the seventeenth-century French nun who promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart. The practice of keeping the Nine First Fridays, linked to the Sacred Heart, was widespread; this involved reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of nine consecutive months, in fulfilment of the condition for a ‘good death’.  Most Catholics had some knowledge of the Promises of the Sacred Heart, made to St Margaret Mary. Novenas to the Sacred Heart were popular, as were insertions in newspapers, offering to the Sacred Heart, “Thanks for favours received”. In short, the image of that ‘burning heart’ was all around us.

Jesus Appears to St. Margaret Mary

Yet no one ever really explained what the image was about. There was an assumption that we understood. It was used to tell us how much Jesus loved us, but this was almost overwhelmed by the emphasis placed on how we did not love him sufficiently in return. As a result, I read his gaze as one of reproach, on the whole. Many social factors of those times, in Ireland, led to the devotion often coming across as something resorted to by powerless, desperate people, with nowhere else to turn, rather than as something as first, and foremost, life-affirming. 

And how did one translate all that love of his into something useful for everyday life? We were encouraged to take our troubles to him, put flowers before his image, and say, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I put all my trust in thee,” but I did not understand how to link this devotion properly to my life. As a young adult, I found a leaflet in a church, which in a small way made a link between behaviour and the devotion, and I remember feeling indignant that nobody had explained this before. It was something to do with God loving us, and we loving others. Perhaps, I was particularly dim! 

Many years later, I researched the origins of the devotion, its development and spread, and this opened up to me a better understanding of that aspect which I had found hard to grasp: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” (1 John, 4: 10). I had received the impression that the devotion was about our efforts to love God, but I now began to understand that, devotion to the Sacred Heart, is a school in taking hold of the fact that God loves us. That is what the imagery is trying to convey – God’s personal love for each individual, whether or not, that person responds.  I sensed that there is, in this, something that is good for me, and so I make the Novena to the Sacred Heart, and, occasionally, say the Litany, because these are statements of the primacy of God’s love for me. 

 “No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John, 4:12). ‘Focolare’, I had always heard, is a word that means ‘hearth’, the place where the fire burns. Until reading the “Charisms in Unity” article, I had not come across a link made between this hearth and the Heart of the Lord, but now, of course, the link is clear. For me, the long-established devotion, and the new charism are seen as one in essence. If the “Lord’s Focolare” is “the Heart of the Lord which irradiates charity”, then the members of the Movement – who are at one with each other – live in that Heart. 

Are there implications? I can sense two, at least. In my parish church, built in 1911, the central window high up in the nave is of the Sacred Heart, and there is a side-altar of the same dedication. Devotional practices were somewhat eclipsed in many parishes, post-Vatican II, in a well-intentioned shift of emphasis away from, potentially, lifeless outward forms of religiosity, and, at present, there may be a fear that such devotional forms are associated with a fortress-mentality, or a bias, against a Catholic faith fully engaged with the times in all their complexity. However, we now have a wonderful new window on the devotion. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the hearth, or, to use a phrase from the Litany, “… the glowing furnace” (fornax ardens) of charity, in which the Spirituality of Communion, forges many hearts into one. I’m not wise enough to do more, at the moment, than wish to draw attention to the link between the Heart of the Lord and the ‘Focolare’. I am pleased to be able to see my own efforts to build unity, in my Volunteers nucleus, (a temporary Focolare), as steps towards living in the Heart of Jesus. Secondly, I dimly perceive the possibility of presenting devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in a fresh and contemporary way. 

So thank you to “Charisms in Unity” for this wonderful gift.”

Angela Graham

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From ABBA to ABBA (Father):

For most of my adult life, my music preferences have always leaned toward the classical; however, good music of whatever genre will always find a welcome in my ears, and pop music is, certainly, no exception.  Throughout the years of the 70’s and early 80’s, the pop music scene was to see a Swedish male / female, group of four, take the world by storm; their music to most was attractive in terms of the beautiful melodies they sang, the wonderful and quite meaningful lyrics that were woven into the music, and the foot-tapping rhythms that set everyone’s feet a-dancing – the young and the not-so-young.  I refer to ‘ABBA’, of course.  The name came from the first letters of the their Christian Names, Agnetha Fältskog, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Anna-Frid Lyngstad; they came together to form a group in Stockholm in 1972, won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, and arguably, were considered by many to be the best group ever to have won the contest.


It is estimated that they have sold over 370 million records, world-wide, and their music still sells millions of records every year, making them amongst the top, best-sellers, in the history of pop.  Though of non-English ethnic background, their greatest successes were in the English speaking countries – England, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Philippines; however, some of their records were made in Spanish and this ensured their popularity in the Latin American markets. 

Whilst together as a band, Björn and Agnetha were a married couple, and later, Benny and Anna-Frid became married, also.  Unfortunately, I think largely because of fame, and the pressures this brings to people in the public eye, both couples were to split up and become divorced, though the group of four still performed together; however, the effects of the estrangements became evident in the music they sang, becoming rather more introspective – more soul-searching – though no less attractive to millions, for all that.  And so it continued, until the eventual break-up of the group in 1983, after which, the individual members pursued solo music careers, in various roles. 

One of their most thoughtful songs, I think, was called ‘I have a dream’, the words of which are as follows:

“I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream
I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream
I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream
I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I‘ll cross the stream – I have a dream
I’ll cross the stream – I have a dream.”

Reading the words, and giving them serious consideration, leads me to think that the members of the group were searching for ‘something’ else – that ‘something’ on a higher plane.  The song is of this world, but yearning for the ‘good’ – a ‘good’ that transcended all that the pop-world had given them; “I have a dream….I believe in angels….something good in everything I see….”  If one listens, carefully, to this rather beautiful melody and the way in which the words are sung, is not long before the whole composition begins to take one to a world, other than the earthy one we all know so well for its ‘other-than-spiritual’ values – values that, mostly, pervade the popular music scene, internationally.  In a way, I think it does take us to the world of angels – and beyond.

Creation – God Gives Life to Adam – Sistine Chapel – Michaelangelo 

From this point, it is easy to make the transition – a short leap of faith – from Abba, the pop-group to Abba (Father).  

The word ‘Abba’ was originally an Aramaic form, its definitive meaning being ‘The Father’, or ‘O Father’.  It was borrowed by the Greeks, in which language it was written as ‘Αββα’and in which it was invariably followed directly by the word meaning ‘Father’.  In Hebrew, it came to be used, historically, as a title of honour to the Jewish rabbis; by this time the vice president of the Sanhedrin was already known as the ‘Father’ of the Sanhedrin.  Later on, the title became applied to the bishops of the Coptic and Syrian churches, and in particular, it was the title used by the Bishop of Alexandria.  The name, Barabbas, comes from the same source ‘bar’ meaning ‘son’ of ‘abba’ meaning father. Our English words ‘abbot’ and ‘abbey’ are derived from the Aramaic ‘abba’. 

More importantly, the phrase ‘Abba, Father’, used three times, that we know of, in the New Testament, was identified, emphatically, as the way in which Jesus referred to His Father in heaven: 

“And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36) 

“For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4:6)

Michaelangelo’s depiction of the Blessed Trinity 

From these examples, it would appear that Jesus’ disciples followed his example in calling God the Father, Abba, Father, though I think we would be wrong to assume that Jesus only used the term of affection for His Father, on just one or two occasions.  It is more than probable that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the language which was the fore-runner to the Greek translations of the New Testament.  The Aramaic word ‘Abba’ was a warm and intimate way for a son to address his father. It was very much the way in which a trusting child would call on his loving father, and it is not too much of an extrapolation to assume that Jesus used this term of endearment, to teach his followers something of the relationship he enjoyed with His (and Our) Father in heaven.  In this way, Jesus introduces us to God as ‘OUR FATHER’, also, and in a way that was never used in the old ways of the Jewish Old Testament. 

I wonder if this is what the pop group ‘ABBA’ were searching for?

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Will the Church Survive?

God never has, never could and never will, leave his people without his presence and his support. Both in Biblical times, and in the history of the Church, since Jesus lived and died and rose again, God has found ways to manifest his presence, and support his people. In the Old Testament, this might mean ‘punishing His beloved people’, as the Word of God proclaims: 

My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

or lose heart when you are punished by Him;

for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,

and chastises every child whom he accepts.  (Heb 12 5-6)

 1)       Map showing the Exodus  2)       Jews taken to Babylon 

The exile to Babylon, in the time of King Zedekiah, (597 BC), is a particular example, because the leaders of Judah, the priests and people, were very unfaithful to God; they copied the shameful practices of those who did not know God, defiled their temple, and when God sent them prophet after prophet, they ridiculed God’s messengers and laughed at them. God’s anger became so fierce that there was no other remedy except exile, and the scholars think about 50,000 Jews were taken there, (2 Chronicles 36: 14-21). It makes one think about what might happen in our own times.

God does not only help and support by punishing. He also gives us practical help, and this is illustrated by events in Church History. Let us take, as an example, St. Benedict (480-547 AD), and his monastic movement in the 5th and 6th centuries in Europe.

1)       St. Benedict’s statue in the entrance to St. Mary’s Priory Leyland …… 2)       An Ancient Monastery 

At that time, Europe suffered a major breakdown in its civilisation, because the rampaging tribes from the East had invaded this rich and fertile Empire of Rome. From the early 4th Century, Christianity had been the official religion of the Empire, (Emperor Constantine 313 AD), but in the following 200 years, a kind of melt-down of normal life happened. 

St. Augustine of Hippo, (died 330 AD), wrote a book called “The City of God”, in which he laments the fall of the Empire, with the invasions already happening, and he sees it as a great disaster, because so many saw the structures of the State and of the Church so closely linked, that the destruction of the State, might also mean the destruction of the Church. However, St. Augustine was a great man of God, and he saw beyond to God’s providence and love for his people, despite the tragedy that was happening. 

The monasteries, for the next few hundred years, were centres of peace and learning, in a ‘desert’ without civilisation: it is true that some were attacked and destroyed by invaders, but the ideal, and the life, lived through it all, and contributed to the restoration of stability, peace and a new civilisation once again. 

Benedict followed God and the Word of God; his rule is totally immersed in the Scriptures, and Benedict would say: “… that we must labour to return to God, by listening to God and his Word under obedience to God, whom we have lost by the sloth of disobedience, (Prologue of the Rule, start). “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me”, (John 6: 38), and Jesus can say: “I and the Father are one”, (John 10; 30). To be one with God, and in Him, with our neighbours, is one fruit of living the charism of Benedict, and to find the meaning and purpose of our mysterious lives. 

St. Benedict was the first Saint to be named a Patron of Europe, and through him, God worked to build up what had been destroyed.  He gives an example of what happens throughout history; similarly, we may expect such divine providence in today’s world, in which the values of Christian living are under threat, in the different circumstances of today.

 The graph below shows the decline in all UK Church attendance, that even in 1980, started from a low percentage of say 12%.

The question at the start of this reflection is, “Will the Church survive?” Faith tells us that it will, but it may not happen in some places. The very first place, where followers of the ‘Way of Jesus’ were called ‘Christians’, was at Antioch, and this great Church has been totally destroyed, in the course of time. So has much of the Church of North Africa, and such destruction could happen in our own country. Three further pieces of evidence have come my way, in the past weeks, sufficient to make me realise the depths of the challenge the Church faces. 

The most significant is from Archbishop Joseph Tobin (C.S.S.R.), who is the current secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life of the Vatican. In a recent address to the Union of the European Conferences of May Superiors, he refers to the forthcoming Synod of Bishops, to be held in Rome, on the New Evangelization. In it he points out that those preparing for this Synod, in their document, ‘Lineamenta’ explain about the ‘educational emergency’ the Church is facing. He goes on to state:

Mgr. J W. Tobin 

The “educational emergency” means that the Church is no longer able to transmit to young people all that she owes them. This failure, even impotency, is more tormenting, if one believes that an essential element of the mission of Jesus and, as a necessary consequence, the mission of the Church is to “proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free” (cf. Lk 4, 18). Is it possible that the true freedom of young people is actually distorted because of the inability of the Church to transmit to them what they need to live? 

I would certainly identify with this ‘impotency’ of the Church to transmit to young people, and would add that it is just as difficult for many parents and grand-parents trying to communicaate with them. 

Then, there is evidence from the new Confirmation Programme we have just completed. Bishop Tom Williams saw the joy, and even enthusiasm, on the faces of the candidates; he commented on the presence of strong families around them, and asked me if there had been a significant increase in numbers at Mass as a result. I had to answer there was no significant change in Mass numbers! Worshipping regularly, in Church, is not on the ‘radar’ of an increasing number of Catholics – at least in Leyland. However, this does not mean that people do not believe in God. 

Finally, a member of the South Ribble Borough Council was sharing with a group of us about funding, and other issues. He was able to state, clearly, that funders who would support development projects, in Church buildings, would only do so, if they saw a need that was sustainable over the next 20 years. If, in a Church, it was seen that there would be only a small group of 50 or so worshippers, regularly coming to Church in 20 years’ time, and nobody else, in any other capacity from the community, they would not be prepared to give money, to develop the building. Witnessing the decline in Church numbers, funders in Lancashire, at least, are not prepared to support Church building developments, for the congregation alone. The ordinary business man is pretty clear what is going to happen. 

Observing those who are active in the parishes, it is a fact that many of these faithful are those who have been touched by something extra, to feed their spiritual lives, than just the structure of diocese and parish. We all need that something extra. The hierarchical aspect of Church life, with its ritual, its commissions, its organization, its ideas, is not enough, in the present age, to feed the people spiritually. This observation is supported by important teaching in the Church, namely from Pope John Paul II, 1983, to the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM). 

“The spiritual needs of many Catholic lay people are not being met through the traditional institutions of the Church. These spiritual needs, coupled with the challenges facing Christians in a secularized world, have led to the formation of the communities (i.e. new movements in the Church). Their spiritual hunger and their fulfilment through the gifts of the Holy Spirit have brought unexpected blessings to the Church and to society. The groups have been in the vanguard of the “new evangelization”. They are experienced as “new in ardour, methods and expression” 

Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope in 1998, reflected that “the charismatic and institutional aspects are quasi coessential to the constitution of the Church.” The charismatic side of the Church includes all the Religious Orders, and now, increasingly recognised, are many new ecclesial movements in the Church. It is the latter, that are the more important for the future of the Church today, as it is not true of the Religious Orders, that they have new life-styles, new in ardour, methods and expression. In a way, they may often have become ‘fossilized’ with their own institution, ritual and style; certainly, there are few vocations. 

The new, Spirit-led Movements are really gifts of God, for our time, and, as this reflection began, God never deserts his people. He seems to have organized, especially, the laity – without excluding clergy – to be open and ready to be a part of these different ‘Movements’. At Pentecost 1998, Pope John Paul II issued an invitation for members of new movements to come to a gathering in St. Peter’s Square in Rome; in fact five hundred thousand Catholics came and participated in the event. This was followed by Pope Benedict, in 2006, with many of the members of different ecclesiastical movements. 

One aspect of these New Movements – like the Religious Orders – is that they all take the Word of God seriously. Just like the Religious Orders, they form people into community; this is what God’s Word does!  

When we return to the original question: “Will the Church survive?” we can say through faith “Yes, of course”, but not in any particular place. For the sake of the future, for our children and grandchildren, let us pray that the Church, and its values, will survive, even in our own country. The key will be that, those who are already a living part, of the Body of the Church, will persevere and remain faithful. All those people will require help to do so, from God, and from his chosen instruments – people who bring God’s presence into life – people who are firmly believers, and who, joyfully and humbly, put their beliefs into practice – people who do not flinch from that path. 

In conclusion, Pope Benedict, at the vigil of the Feast of Pentecost, June 3rd 2006, said:

 His Holiness the Pope – St. Peter’s Square – the Vigil of Pentecost 2006 

You have come to St Peter’s Square this evening in really large numbers to take part in the Pentecost Vigil. I warmly thank you. You belong to different peoples and cultures and represent here all the members of the Ecclesial Movements and New Communities, spiritually gathered round the Successor of Peter to proclaim the joy of believing in Jesus Christ and to renew the commitment to be faithful disciples in our time. …. 

A similar meeting that took place in this same Square on 30 May 1998 with beloved Pope John Paul II springs to mind. A great evangelizer of our time, he accompanied and guided you throughout his Pontificate.  

He described your Associations and Communities on many occasions as “providential”, especially because the Sanctifying Spirit makes use of them to reawaken faith in so many Christian hearts and to reveal to them the vocation they have received with Baptism. He also helps them to be witnesses of hope filled with that fire of love which is bestowed upon us precisely by the Holy Spirit.

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