Archive for August, 2012

A Passion for Unity:


The famous portrait of the meeting of Saints Francis and Dominic, allegedly in Rome 1215, at the Dominican Church Our Lady, above the Minerva, Rome 

Just before he died, Jesus prayed: “That They All May Be One”, often put into Latin as “Ut Unum Omnes Sint”; listening to a person speaking when they are about to die, what they say often really sums up their life – their last will and testament – so it was with Jesus; he was leaving us his last bequest.   Unity fascinates me and gives purpose to my life as it imparts a vision of how life should be in all its aspects; that vision is wide-ranging and includes church, state, families, factories, schools, different countries, different Christian denominations, different religions, young, old, differing racial groups, philosophies, theologies, art, history, education, family life – and so the list goes on. 

In this connection, I would like to share an event that illustrates, for me, what this unity can be like, in practice, and in origin. 

One beautiful aspect of this is unity between the different Religious Orders in the Church, described for us in a portrait of the famous meeting between Saints Francis of Assisi and Dominic of Spain. Both of them were contemporary founders of different religious orders, with different, divinely given, distinct Charisms by God, for the good of the Church and humanity. There is only one Holy Spirit, so these can, and should, work together. Those of us with some knowledge of the history of the Church know how far apart religious orders have sometimes been over the centuries. It makes me wonder, at least, whether or not Christianity has truly been lived in its 2,000 years of life, and whether there is still much, if not all, to be discovered? 

Yet there are glimpses, everywhere, of the great reality, and this for me is one portrait of the joy and humility when brothers and sisters live in unity: 

How good and how pleasant it is when brothers (and sisters) live in unity!

… for there the Lord gives his blessing, life for ever. (Psalm 133) 

My Dominican friend, Fr. Valentino Ferrari OP, has died this last week, in Rome, at the age of 90. He, too, lived and died for this ideal of unity, together with many others, including men in Religious Life. He and his great Franciscan friend, Fr. Andrea Balbo OFM, (always given the name of Fr. Novo,) both celebrated 60 years of priesthood together, and below is a picture of them giving each other the sign of peace, at their celebration some two years ago.

 Fr. Novo (Andrea Balbo) OFM and Fr. Valentino Ferrari OP in 2009 both passionate for what is often called the “Ut Omnes” on their Diamond Jubilee of Priesthood. 

Fr. Novo said in his homily on that occasion: “In 1949 I was ordained in Bethlehem, and Fr. Valentino in Rome; but in God’s plan, in the plan of Our Lady, our souls became like those of brothers. I am a Franciscan, he a Dominican and we have repeated in our lives the embrace of St. Francis and St. Dominic, and I pray that it will go on forever in Paradise. Here in this chapel is also the tomb of Igino Giordani and of Chiara Lubich and both remind us of the same reality. Giordani was in the Dominican third order, as Chiara was a member of the Franciscan third order; otherwise she would have been known by her maiden name Sylvia. Once again, the Lord who has willed to return here to this earth today, born by “The Mystical Mary” of those united in his name (Matthew 18: 20) has willed that this “Mystical presence of Mary” should be born by the unity on two saints who live again in their sons, Francis and Dominic. 

Fr. Novo died on 28 July 2012, and Fr. Valentino on 27 August 2012; both were very well known to me, a Benedictine, and so, in that same embrace, we can also put St. Benedict.

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The Queenship of Mary:

Yesterday, 22 August, was the Feast of the Queenship of Our Blessed Lady; I love this feast day for a specific reason.  In the 1950’s a brave Jesuit priest, called Fr. Maria, escaped at the risk of his life from Communist Czechoslovakia; he had actually been secretly ordained a bishop, unknown to almost everyone, except a few in the Church. Czechoslovakia was the most oppressive of all the communist regimes – so it is said – and, after his escape, he came to the West to find an antidote to the evil communist regime that he described as “The Mystical Body of Satan”.

People being shot escaping – Museum of Communism in the modern Czech Republic.

 In his search for this ‘antidote’, he realised he needed to find “The Mystical Body of Christ” as something real, and not just something to fit a vague theory. Eventually, he was led by events to the first ever Mariapolis, at Tonadico in the Dolomites; it was there that he realised that what he saw, with his own eyes, (cf 1 John 1), was a true expression of the unity that brings Jesus to birth among us.  He had found the answer to his search. Mystically, Mary the mother of God, was bringing Jesus to birth again – in a new way – and  in our world. A book could have been written of his adventures.

First Mariapolis at Tonadico in the Dolomites 1949

On this day, but in another year of the 1950’s, a group of laity, religious and diocesan priests made a pact in which they wanted to be – if God so willed it – the ‘Mystical body of Christ’ that would overcome the evil that Fr. Maria had described as “The Mystical Body of Satan”. 

Nowadays, communism is dead for a large part of humanity, though not for China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam; however, Satan is very much alive and is doing his level best to make the society in which we live intolerant to the presence of God and all the values associated with God: truth, beauty, purity, trust, forgiveness, mercy, joy – all leading to love – the raison d’être of all human beings.  In our world, without communism, we still need to live as a community in which God is born again; “The Word can be made Flesh in our time” –  “The Mystical Body” – whether we call it of Christ, himself, or of Mary, who brings Christ to birth. 

Jesus, Forsaken on the Cross, and Mary, Desolate, come into this picture.  For anyone to live in God, and with others, then, personally, and, everyday, he is invited to take up his cross (Luke 9: 23). Jesus Forsaken, we find in ourselves, in others, and in many circumstances.  When he was forsaken by God, and by man, he showed his Love the most. So when we meet him like this, he is our true friend, the one we can love the most. For me it is still taking time to absorb and understand what all this means; I think it will be a life-long journey of discovery. It reads as a negative experience that happens from time to time, and is simply a part of life, though a very distressing part. At the same time, it can be the ‘springboard’ to new life!

On the Cross – A Painting of Jesus Forsaken by God and Man

When I am feeling lost, betrayed, a failure (through my own fault or the fault of others – it matters not); when I am ‘cornered’ in despair, or just weary and utterly’ fed up’, it is my friend showing himself to me.  I meet him then, forsaken, and it is never – humanly speaking – easy, but it is Jesus in his forsakenness, who is my / our only good.  When I let that sink in, and then go out to be a loving person, in all the circumstances of life in which I find myself, then Jesus is able to show himself to me if I am open to him. It is his gift of grace.  I meet THE ONE, who is THE LOVE of my life. This personal choice is made all the more true and ‘enlightening’ when I have a community of faith with which to share, to share with others.  I do not share the details of the suffering, but share the fruits of overcoming those sufferings, by his grace, when and if, those fruits occur. I know they will occur even though it may not be immediate, and these are the virtues of hope and of faith, leading to love. God is Love! (1 John 4: 8). What more do I need if God is one with me?

 The ‘Pieta’ by Michelangelo

However, sometimes, I am left alone; sometimes, I feel alone;  sometimes, I feel lonely.  When that happens, it is necessary to take on the virtues as lived by Mary, Desolate. She was alone, and lost, many times in her life, but she always hoped, and always lived the virtues of patience, purity, meekness, long-suffering and so forth.  Basically like Jesus, she did not sin, but had all the temptations to do so, and she needed, consciously, to turn away from sin, even though she was immaculate. 

Living our spiritual lives in the ‘Mystical Body’ day by day, is living in that heaven-sent space between our two great friends, Jesus, Forsaken and Crucified, and Mary, Desolate, whose greatest loneliness was at the foot of the cross. That is where she was utterly desolate – expressed for me in art by the finest image of her – in Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’.  This may sound like a pious exercise; in fact, it is a very strong human experience – one that leads to a person growing into the human being he, or she, is meant to be. 

If I can manage this challenge, and find others who live the same challenge, then God will truly allow me to live as a member of the Mystical Body, that ‘engine’ which ‘generates’ the presence of the Lord, in whose mystical body we live. In heaven, and on earth, that Mystical Body has Mary as its Queen, the great feast celebrating her Queenship falling on 22 August, each year.

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Olympic Faith:

Yesterday, the Church celebrated the great feast of Our Blessed Lady’s Assumption into Heaven, a very important event for all of us, but especially for Leyland St. Mary’s, as this is our very own patronal feastday. Promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950 as an Article of Faith, this ‘new’ dogma of the Assumption was simply confirming what Western Christianities and Eastern Orthodoxies had believed for many hundreds of years.  Below is a beautiful example of what belief and faith in God and Our Blessed Lady is all about.

Father Jonathan

 Olympic Faith:

During the past two weeks, I have been fascinated by the Olympic Games.  For most of my life, I have always very much enjoyed watching the games, from the many venues overseas, but it has been a privilege to have been able to watch the games played out on home turf.  I hope that you, similarly, have been able to enjoy the daily specatacle of athletes giving everything they have in the many competitions.  And, although it may be seen as patriotic favouritism, the British Team have done remarkably well in many aspects of the Games, winning medals in more events than ever before. 

On Friday 10 August, I was watching the Olympics on TV.  Much of what I was seeing did not really interest me, and I had other more important things on my mind; quite a lot was simply repetative of earlier events of the day, and there were many events that did not appeal to my taste in sport.  But then, the announcers revealed what everyone was thinking would be an important event – the 5,000 metres race for women – and, very much in line with today’s experience of the strongest runners in long distance races, the favourites were thought to be certain to come from a select group of nations of Africa – Ethiopia, or Kenya, perhaps chief among them. 

The race began and there was a large field of competitors – all facing a lung-wrenching, muscle-binding, 12.5 laps of the 400 metres track. In the early part of the race, two runners from TeamGB took the lead as ‘pace-makers’, but then, with around a lap to go, the Africans took the lead, and, in a most exciting finish, an Ethiopian lady named Mesaret Defar won the event, throwing her arms wide in exultation as she crossed the winning line.  She was followed closely by a fellow Ethiopian and ladies from Kenya.

Ethopian, Defar, wins the Ladies’ 5000 metres

She then proceeded to do something I have never witnessed before.  Breathing hard on her knees after her exertions, she took out a piece of cloth on which there was an icon of the Madonna and Child.  This she showed to the cheering crowd of 80,000 people, kissed it, and then draped the icon over her face for everyone to see. The pictures below speak better than any words.

Mesaret Defar Takes Out the Icon of the Madonna and Child and Kisses It

As she did this, I could not doubt the devotion that was shining on her face. It had been a thrilling finish to the race, and one could not help but applaud the exertions of those who had carried the race through to the winning post; the crowd were going ‘wild’, but for me, the magnificent moment in all this excitement was to see this lady, in all humility, kiss the image of the Madonna and Child.

A day or so earlier, I had watched the Jamaican, Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, win the 200 metres sprint, thereby retaining his ‘crown’ as Olpympic Champion in this event; only a week ago, he had similarly retained his Gold medal position in the 100 metres.  On winning the 200 metres, Usain made the Sign of the Cross on his chest and then, raising his eyes to heaven, gave out a very public sign that he was sending this prayer to God above.  On another occasion, a British lady judo contestant, having performed well in front of the home crowd, won a silver medal.  At the end of her bout, her face filled with tears and she looked heavenwards and spoke.  Against the loud and supportive applause of the crowd, it was not possible to hear the words, but they were easy to lip-read.  She said, “I love you mum.”  It transpires that her mother had died some years ago with cancer.  What wonderful faith in God’s mercy and the hereafter!

 I have on many occasions in sport seen participants speak to heaven above and make the Sign of the Cross on their chests. Such actions by many of the athletes have been even more apparent in these Olympics,.  However, the actions of the Ethiopian lady, Mesaret Defar, made a very big impression on my mind – one that I hope I shall never forget. What an act of faith!  And, how wonderful it was to see a world-class athlete acknowledge that, in her victory, she owed everything to her heavenly Mother and to Jesus.


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The Gold Medal of Life:

Since the end of July, I have been on a retreat with fellow men in Religious Life; we represent countries from all over the world. Somebody joked that Jonathan has come, once again, to win a  Gold Medal – a medal more valuable than those given out at the Olympics – one that wins us a place in heaven. This is the Gold Medal we should all be aiming to win.

‘People in and around the Olympic Games are commenting on something called the British ‘Feel Good Factor‘ – a rather strange and new phenomenon, spreading itself world-wide, and the first I heard of this was by way of an email, from a website that calls itself, ‘Hope, not Hate’. I like this website, because it is in favour of celebrating Britain’s diverse society, and there was a reference to the young Somali man, Mo Farah, the British Muslim who recently won the Olympic 10,000 metres race.

Mo Farah On His Way to Winning  the Olympics 10,000 metres

Only yesterday, an Italian friend said to me, jokingly, that he had read in the newspaper that something strange was happening in London: people were actually talking to each other on the tube, this week, during the Olympics! The same thing happened when Pope John Paul II came to Britain, in 1982, and again on Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain two years ago, in 2010. By contrast, I can well remember 1961 when working in London; there was a 20 minute delay in the South Electric train from Charing Cross to Blackheath, where I lived. On the train, we were crammed like ‘sardines in a tin’, elbow to elbow, almost cheek to cheek, and it was hot. Hardly anyone spoke for that 20 minutes! Many times, I have been on the underground in London, and the only ones speaking were the young Spanish, Italians or French, who were passengers at the same time.

My conclusion is, there must be something happening in Britain, London in particular, at this time.  I hope it continues, as it seems to me most inhuman not to communicate with ‘fellow man’, people ‘cheek-by-jowl’ in the same activity, for whatever reason. Could it be our British reserve? Could it be the weather? Or could it be our sense of individuality? I really don’t know the answer!

Meanwhile as this retreat goes on, I have learned something more about the Gold Medal of Life.

We, in Britain, can only admire our own Team GB, and those athletes who have done so well; at the same time, we know, and they know, that they have had to focus on getting to the top in their sport, avoiding anything that distracted them.  For years, it has been the ‘one thing’ in their lives.

The same is true for the Gold Medal of life. For us to be fully human, fully alive, fully love, fully united with God and each other, we must turn away from anything that is part of not loving, and focus positively on all that is loving. It can even mean turning away from the good things (like recalling the happy moments of life), if that conflicts with what we should be focussing on, at the time – like really listening to the person who is talking to me. Obviously, it also means turning away from sin and evil, and what is not God’s will.

Personally, I do not necessarily find this denial of self very easy, but I do my best to achieve it. Not to waste time before going to bed is always hard, and I have to make a big effort then, to focus on what I am meant to do. But then, the other thing is to accept the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, coupled with “the sea of the troubles of life”, as Shakespeare puts it. Each day, and often in each moment of the day, there are things we have to do which are difficult. Those are a part of life for everyone: for me, another example is getting up in the morning, or emptying the dishwasher… there are so many things, and this is being repeated every day, and every hour of the day.  Tackling these little things – minor though they are – is all part of our training for the ‘Gold Medals’ of our lives. For the rest of our training we must add those essentials such as living in faith, hope and love, and I have no doubt that then we shall be fit – fit to enter the race of our lives – and Jesus will meet us, help us to mount that heavenly podium and give us our medals, for we will be in Him.

Looking on will be Our Father in heaven, Mary our Mother, all the angels and saints, together with those relatives and friends who have gone before us and earned theirs.

Jesus and Mary, both human like ourselves, had to suffer Shakespeare’s ‘slings and arrows’, and they were perfect.  Sin never touched them, yet they had to suffer like all human frailty.  Mary, knowing what must be, and what must come, suffered passively the “Sword that was to pierce her heart”, and out of love, gave up her son as a sacrifice for the world.  Jesus, God made Man, pro-actively became man, lived and died for all of us – each and every individual person, and what greater love can there be, but to ‘lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.  Both Mother and Son, with minds focussed on what had to be won, endured their years of training and ran the race to the end.  Both gave everything for their ‘Golds’.

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Here I am, on retreat with some friends in Religious Life, all of whom have re-found the meaning of their Religious Lives through the experience of living the Spirit of Communion of the Church. Finding that meaning has come to us via the Focolare Movement.  In essence, it is an experience of heaven on earth.

  Bro Real Savegeau (Marist brother, Canada), Brother Claude Passebon (Brother of St Gabriel France), Self (Benedictine England), Miha, a young Vincentian Lay helper (Slovenia), Germano Van de Meer (Divine Word Missionary, Brazil) 

On 7 June 2012, at the Eucharistic Congress, in Dublin, Cardinal Ouellet gave a talk at a theological symposium, in which he stated: “The ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental idea of the Council’s documents.” This has been confirmed by documents of the Church ever since; it means, in practice, that we in the Church, ought to aim to be truly a family of people, each person with different functions. Each person is invited to make his, or hers, the New Commandment of Jesus: “To love each other as I have loved you” (John 13, 34-35). This ‘central plank’ of the new vision of things, has been the inspiration for the Church, and the humanity of the second Vatican Council, ever since.

The first male Religious who followed this path, and helped to set up a group of men in Religious Life who discovered this ‘treasure’, was a Franciscan called Fr. Andrea Balbo. Inevitably, he had an immense influence on my life, because I, too, found in this Spirit of Communion, the meaning of my Ampleforth Benedictine life. He became known as Fr. Novo (meaning new), because of that saying in the Gospel:  “You must be born anew”. (John 3: 7), when he was first introduced to this ‘spirit’ in 1953, by Chiara Lubich.

Fr. Novo with the founder of the Focolare, Chiara Lubich. 

Fr. Novo was born in Vicenza, Italy, in 1923, and at the age of 13, went off to the minor seminary of the Friars Minor. He was in love with his studies, philosophy and the natural sciences, and all the new technology that had been developed during the 2nd World War. He studied theology in the Holy Land, and, after further studies in the Anatomy Institute, Naples, he continued for four more years studying chemistry, physics and astronomy, at the Sorbonne, Paris. He was the first Franciscan Friar since the French Revolution, to study in that famous university. 

In the summer of 1953, he was invited to attend a meeting in the Dolomites. He agreed to go, because he thought he could study the geology of the mountains, and, to this end, he brought all his scientific instruments with him. Ultimately, he had no time for any studies, because that meeting was, in fact, one of the first Mariapolis, a summer appointment of the Focolare Movement. In regard to this, he explained: “Inside of me began the demolition of everything I had constructed, to give way gradually to a new vision of things. There a new kind of catalyst entered my life: God, Jesus in the midst of us. He began to create in me a new interior ordering, also a new mind set.”  

I think that this new mind set, and this new vision of things, has created a new internal ordering in the lives of all those Religious that have learnt about this new spirit – a spirit which is fully in unison with the spirit of communion of Vatican 2. It is something that contains the Holy Spirit of God, as it brings so much hope, and life, to us in Religious Life and to the Church. It is this spirit that Fr. Andrea Balbo has led us to appreciate, alongside many other ‘foundation stones’ among Religious men. He was firm in his faith, in the power of this Spirit of Unity as a gift for the Church, and for the whole of humanity, even when he was an old and sick man in the last years. 

Sadly, Fr. Novo died early in the morning of last Saturday, 28 July. It is probable that there will be many Religious, men and women, Priests and laity, at his funeral on Thursday 2nd August, possibly even Bishops and a Cardinal or two. The second of August is a prominent day for Franciscans; it is a feast of mercy, linked to the famous shrine in Assisi, the Porziuncula, where St. Francis died, and is one that brings mercy into peoples’ lives, by visiting a Franciscan church and praying there. Mercy is also an aspect of the modern vision of the Church since the Vatican Council. 

His funeral will pass, largely unnoticed in the hurly burly of life, but then, Jesus’ death passed by unnoticed. However, he has made a huge difference  to many peoples’ lives, including my own. I thank God for his life, and thank God for Fr. Novo’s continued support and protection, from his everlasting reward in heaven; more especially, because he was one of those instrumental in letting me have an experience of the kingdom of God on earth, and later, one day, I hope we can all enjoy the kingdom of God, in all its perfection, in heaven.

  Fr. Novo during his last illness with a friend Fr. Fabio Ciardi OMI

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