Friday, 9 October 2015

The great story.

This is my favourite inscription. This gardening book was a gift from Tolkien to his wife in 1964. By that time The Lord of the Rings was being widely read, and The Silmarillion was yet to be put together under one cover.
I have just come back from my first visit to some of the sites of the First World War. We visited sites around Ypres and Albert. We know that Tolkien was involved in the Battle of the Somme and was certainly stationed near Albert. The week that we spent visiting these sites was one of the best trips that I have ever made; I can't believe that I have left it till now to visit these sites, and I am very grateful to the party who I travelled with for their participation in that week. A hundred years on and the sacrifice that was made on those battlefields will never be forgotten or erased - the evidence of the battles is all over that part of France and Belgium, and the memorials and graveyards are very beautiful and worthy.  
The perspective of those who took part in the First World War is now well known and celebrated, in poems, letters and biographies, and above all, in the graveyards of Flanders. Tolkien's perspective is quite different. What flowed out of his experience of the Battle of the Somme took the most extraordinary literary form. What he wrote was not simply another story or account, but a story about the triumph of goodness. The Lord of the Rings is indeed fantasy, but is embedded with Christian metaphor.
The First World War, by which the secularism of that age imploded in the most horrific way, was taken by Tolkien as the place in which to write about grace and virtue. In today's subjective age when everyone has his or her own story, many of which have to be published, Tolkien's story of The Lord of the Rings appears as anything but subjective.
In a culture which has lost its bearings, Tolkien's story has a very important place; from the darkness of war, and today's darkness of human subjectivity, seemingly remote from God, Tolkien wrote a story which goes beyond mere human subjectivity, and places everything on the platform of grace.
Many today are busy trying the recast English literature in a pagan framework, but this will in no way change God's plan.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Secularism as war.

Secularism, the movement which seeks to build the world on a new basis, one which avoids the human condition of original sin, and seeks a world where God is no longer a part. This movement, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, blossomed in that decadent era just before WWI, and took off in the most hideous way with the outbreak of war, only to blossom again in the decadence of the inter-war era, and then again in WWII. In just that time, Tolkien was preparing his 'parable' of nature and grace, the great story of The Lord of the Rings, a story which speaks about a society seeking to be built upon God.
This book (photo above), a gift from Tolkien to his wife in 1956, beautifully inscribed, is another historical record of the genuine, Catholic, plan for humanity which the secularism of the twentieth century has never had the power to overcome.
After both WWI and WWII, the societies of Europe and the West sought a merely political and social way of managing the aftermath of war and of rebuilding. Secularism since WWII has confined itself (until now) with seeking to 'iron out' all sense of nature and grace, of man and God together, and to provide a sense of life in which man is alone and entirely autonomous.
Not so for Tolkien, who returning to the roots of humanity, which are nature and grace, wrote his mythology as something which was completely counter-cultural, and into which he poured his high, linguisitic, learning. 
The Lord of the Rings is a book about nature and grace, about good and evil and their power. The Ring is the focus of evil in the story, an evil which seeks to dominate and suppress all that is good, true and beautiful in people. But crucially, Tolkien wrote about the most powerful power of all, which is mercy. In The Lord of the Rings this overriding power for good is expressed in Bilbo's and then, Frodo's pity, compassion, for Gollum and the evil which eats away at him. It is this power that ultimately overcomes the vastly evil power of the Ring.
In some way, Tolkien's writing of this book was unthinkable. After all, secularism was trying to rebuild itself in a milder way after WWII, and the last thing that it wanted people to be reminded of was their relationship with God, and His wonderful Lordship of all creation. Of course, for my part, I am delighted that The Lord of the Rings came into being and has caught the imagination of the people of this age, expressing to us, in literary form, the interplay of nature and grace, and for giving us, in a sense, a tool for navigation in this dark age that we inhabit.

Monday, 21 September 2015

In a time of war.

As a fan of Tolkien, his writings and his person, some of his personally signed books, which were a gift to me many years ago, are among my few most treasured things. They are links to me of the flowering of Catholic thought and life which took place during the early and middle part of the twentieth century.
Tolkien's tale, The Lord of the Rings, stands at forefront of this flowering for me; a tale which speaks of light, hope and grace in the midst of a century which was plunged into war and destruction.
It seems to me that the emergence of Tolkien's mythology, which took place as he participated in the unspeakable horror of the First World War, and that what flowed out of that experience was precisely a tale which, in some way, parallels the horror of war, enlightened as it was by false human 'lights' (in other words, secularism), and yet seeks the true light, that of God, which no human efforts can ultimately eradicate.
The Lord of the Rings, whose dark power controls the innumerable armies of orcs and seeks to overthrow all that is good, and true, and beautiful, is an analogy for that dark force which plunged so many nations into mutual obliteration in 1914. Yet all along, the true project of goodness, which is the Mercy of God (the most powerful force in the Universe) revealed in Jesus, who seeks the true flourishing of peoples, is ever present.
Everytime that I have read The Lord of the Rings, I have been entranced by how Tolkien weaves grace into his tale. Yet, knowing that the story had its beginning during one of the darkest hours of the twentieth century, and came into being during and after the Second War, is itself a sign and icon of great hope for our times. 
Secularism is again immensely strong, yet Catholic thought and life, which picks up and mirrors that true human project (which is Christ), stands as a beacon for all humanity: God is indeed in charge, and Jesus Christ in the Lord of History.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A soul for Europe.

This year in our SJMV fraternity we have been making a discursive reading of the second edition of the Directory on the life and ministry of priests. This is a very valuable document which reveals the depth of the Diocesan Priesthood, and goes some way in expressing what a magnificent vocation it is.
However, I include a short piece below which is given in the text as a sort of preface to paragraph 46 of the document. In this few words is contained the inner vision of the priesthood - it is one of the finest statements which this Directory makes. Here is expressed the very core of our lives, and I am grateful to Cardinal Piacenza for ensuring that this paragraph was included in the text. These words should be writ large, for so much depends upon their lived reality:  
The spirituality of the priest consists essentially in the profound relationship of friendship with Christ, because he is called “to go to Him” (cf. Mk 3:13). In this sense, in the life of the priest, Jesus will always have pre-eminence over everything. Each priest acts within a particular historical context with its manifold challenges and requirements. Precisely for this reason is the guarantee of the fecundity of his ministry rooted in a deep interior life. If the priest does not count on the primacy of grace he will not be able to respond to the challenges of histimes, and any pastoral programme is destined to failure, no matter how elaborate it may be.
The cord which tied St Edmund Campion to the hurdle, and the Corporal used by saints who were priests, for the celebration of the Mass in cells in the Tower of London (both relics are kept at Stonyhurst), are witnesses to a past, Golden Era of the priesthood. Today however, priests - in many parts of the world - are free, but it is in Christ that we find our greatest freedom and, although these words are used with reference to the priesthood they also speak, by analogy, of a much wider population. Europe today is called to an intimacy with Christ in which the various peoples of Europe can be established upon their true identity and vocation. These words speak about the true soul of Europe, by which it might know how to live and act, and how to build its life, for the good of many.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

England's memory on-line again.

Taking part in the Youth 2000 Prayer Festival at Walsingham is wonderful. This past weekend, from Thursday through to Monday, there were about 1100 young people engaging with Christ, His person and His mission, in the fields opposite the Slipper Chapel.
I have just got back to the parish but I am full of the experience of these last few days. England's Nazareth, as it is known, is entering into the mind and soul of successive generations of young people through the annual Youth 2000 Prayer Festival at the Shrine.
Our Lady's Shrine at Walsingham is a place of extraordinary memory. Not only does it encompass the last millennia of this country's Christian personality with its Christian origins, but because the heart of the Shrine is the Holy House of Nazareth, it takes us back into the intimate experience which the Blessed Mother had, and has, of Jesus her son. That there is such a place in this country is sometimes hard to take in!
The Youth 2000 Festival breathes this memory, and the young people respond with great joy to this new life which opens up for them, especially in the main tent of the Festival. It is now for this generation to take part in the next stage of the renewal and development of the Shrine under the practiced and priestly directorship of Mgr John Armitage.
Dear Young people, you have so much to offer to England's Nazareth; may it be a part of your whole lives!

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Witnesses in our midst.

Recently I visited Winchester for the first time and was so pleased finally to see the place where Philip II of Spain married Mary Tudor. I had imagined a walled town built on a shoulder of higher ground, whereas Winchester is built in a valley.
Of course, as you might imagine, I wanted to visit the site of the Winchester martyrdoms. Winchester has five martyrs, all of them Blesseds and, after visiting the lovely Catholic Church of St Peter's on Jewry Street, with its fine windows commemorating the martyrs I headed first to the site of the old gaol.
The old gaol no longer stands; a Weatherspoons, 'The Old Gaol House' now occupies the place. However, I found my way round to the back of the pub - photo above - where the old Tudor gaol used to stand, and here I was able to spend some time in prayer to those who had been held here before their execution.
Blessed John Slade, a school master, was hung drawn and quartered on the Market Square by the old Guildhall on 30th October 1583. This photo shows the site today:
Here he made the sign of the cross on the posts of the scaffold and, although there is no memorial to him at this place today, his memory is not forgotten.
Blessed Roger Dickenson, priest, and Blessed Ralph Milner, layman, were executed together at the Bar Ditch on 7th July 1591.
The Bar Ditch was just north of the old city Walls and gatehouse, where Jewry Street passes over North Walls to Hyde Street. The ditch was part of the old earthwork defences just outside the walls. The site is now built upon and, although there is a plaque detailing the site of the old city gate which stood here, there is no memorial to these two great men. Nonetheless, I stayed here for a while and asked for their intercession for  the new evangelisation of England and Wales.
I have not been able to discover the place of execution of the other two martyrs of Winchester. Blessed Lawrence Humphrey, layman, was executed on an unknown date in 1591, at the age of twenty. The hangman boxed his ears for making the sign of the cross as he mounted the ladder. Blessed James Bird, layman, was hung, drawn and quartered at the age of nineteen for having become a Catholic.
It is hard to pay tribute to such noble men; their constancy makes me want to stop and kneel.
If you know the place where the last two martyrs were executed I would be glad to hear from you.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The language of the Priesthood.

The Feast of St John Vianney is a great celebration for all priests. This saint expressed the Priesthood so wonderfully that he is as attractive today as he was during his incumbency at Ars.
I have just returned home after the Summer Session of the St John Vianney Society, a week of fraternity by its members, who seek, by priestly fraternity to speak the same language of the Priesthood.
The figure of St John Vianney is an icon of the Priesthood for all priests. He placed his life at the service of the Priesthood in what it was called to be in that age, and the Church gives him to us so that we priests might be what the Priesthood needs to be in the New Evangelisation.
The Diocesan Priesthood can be easily thought of in terms of administration, offering services to people, and in the fulfilment of a role. Yet, the heart of the Diocesan Priesthood, which can easily be overlooked, is the Priesthood of Jesus Christ. The essence of the Diocesan Priesthood is to allow ourselves to be modelled, formed by Him, in the way that we seek to offer ourselves to the Father through Christ Jesus; as Christ Jesus.
The interior engagement, by priests, with the heart of Christ Jesus, has never simply been an individual, personal matter, because it is much greater than an individual priest. Priestly fraternity expresses and nurtures the individual priest's interior engagement with the priestly heart of Christ Jesus as a priestly movement within the Church.
Priestly fraternity, as it is lived by the St John Vianney Society, places itself at the service of priests so that priests can better serve the Church. The language that the Society speaks is the language of the Priesthood.
This is so important today when priests tend to be isolated. In such a context the priest can easily feel that he is merely an individual fulfilling a role. Priestly fraternity, which is an essential dimension of the Priesthood, has, in a sense, been rescued by the St John Vianney Society, and placed where it belongs - at the heart of the Church.
I am very grateful to all my brothers in the Priesthood with whom I spent the past seven days, in Ars. I offered the Mass today for all of you. I remember all of you everyday in any case. I ask the Lord to build us and form us for the mission of the Priesthood in the New Evangelisation.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A priest for all seasons.

I was sorry to learn of the death of Fr Greg Jordan SJ, of Brisbane, Australia, yesterday. I knew Fr Greg when I was in Australia. He visited me in Sydney a few times and really took me 'under his wing' and introduced me to people and places. He also welcomed me to Brisbane during a visit there and introduced me to his home and to the city. The Jacarandas were in full blossom under his windows on that day. I was extremely grateful to him for the warmth of his friendship and his solicitude towards me as a newcomer. I know that many Australian Catholics thought a great deal of him, and I know that he will be sorely missed by them.
I am grateful that I knew him, if only for a few years, and I will remember him for his youthful energy and enthusiasm. A few times I saw him run so as to catch up with someone he wished to speak to - he ran like a young man of twenty years. May he be given now an extraordinary welcome in Heaven, and may the graces he distributed in his priestly life, bear fruit in thirty, sixty and a hundredfold.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Twenty seven years ago today …

I was ordained to the Priesthood. I crossed a threshold that I could never have created or even thought of for myself, being given a share in the Mystery of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, by which everything is changed and made fitting for God's Plan.
I took this photo last month during the Retreat for Priests in Ars. Many of us had come out  one evening to the Basilica, where Adoration was taking place. The open door, revealing not just the interior of the old Church of Ars, but also the presence of the Lord himself, speaks loudly to me of the gift which I share. 
Human freedom always flows out of following one's vocation, whatever it may be, but the kind of freedom which the Priesthood enables is of another kind. The way in which the Priesthood has changed and shaped me goes far beyond what I could ever have expected of myself and of God's purposes for me. I desire now, much more than I did twenty seven years ago, to be nearer to the heart of the Mystery - a nearness which the priesthood makes possible in the most extraordinary way.
I was ordained on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I took great delight in this date being given to me by my bishop twenty seven years ago. My mother had, all those many years ago, given me a middle name - Simon, after St Simon Stock, who on this day in 1251 was given the Brown Scapular. We should not forget that it was also on this day in 1948 that the Bishops of England and Wales consecrated the country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the newly developing Shrine of Walsingham. This Shrine too, has always been at the heart of my life.
Please pray for me, as I make my next steps on the English Mission.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Going out with someone.

We used to call it dating or even courtship, but going out with someone and discovering that another person is special to me, and then beginning to discern the possibility of a communion of life and love with that person is one of the most exciting experiences in life. 
In a secular age is there a Catholic vision for dating? Yes, there is, and I'm offering an opportunity to those who are 18 and over to look with me at this vision.
Going out with someone: an evening seminar, Wednesday 15th July 2015 at 7.30pm in St Ignatius Parish centre, WF5 0DQ.
For more details, please contact me on 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The house of a recusant.

Two weeks ago we kept the feast of the rebel Cardinal, John Fisher and the retired Chancellor, Thomas More, the first of England's Reformation martyrs to be canonised. Earlier this year I was in Rochester and, after visiting the Cathedral, where once John Fisher was Bishop, I glanced over to the old Bishop's House on the north side of the Cathedral. The house, now no longer the Bishop's Palace, and almost certainly altered since Tudor times, is nonetheless the house in which John Fisher lived when he was Rochester's Bishop.
The house is still small and would have been a humble Bishop's house, by medieval and renaissance standards. But within its walls there remains those spaces which nurtured the blossoming of an apostolic courage which would establish the Church in this country on new and certain footings, even if they departed from contemporary expectations. Here, and in the old house in Chelsea (Thomas More's home), were forged the beginnings of recusancy - the desire to conform always to the person of Christ, together with the desire never to conform to the prevailing culture. These two men stood out in a singular way from all their contemporaries, but many would follow them - those for whom the term 'recusant' would be applied. In our country we have no greater models and leaders than our recusant forbears, because they show us how to be recusants today. They appeal to our deepest sensibilities, the relationship that we have with Christ the Lord, and to forge in our own homes and places of work those same desires. How the Lord will use these desires of ours is His to name.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Fathers and sons.

On this day when we keep the feast of the first canonised Martyrs of the English Reformation, SS John Fisher and Thomas More, I am mindful of those other Fathers who were led out from the Tower in May 1535, passing the Bell Tower in which Fisher and More were held, awaiting their fate. The three Carthusian Priors, Houghton, Webster and Lawrence, together with Frs Reynolds and Haile, were the very first to be executed for the Faith in that era.
During a recent visit to London I discovered that I was near to the site of the former Charterhouse and enquiring at the Gatehouse chanced upon a guided tour. I accompanied the guide for the first part of the tour only, in order to visit the present chapel, pictured above. This chapel, the guide informed the tour party, had been the Chapter House of the original monastery, and therefore the place where the three Priors, together with the community of the London Charterhouse, deliberated how they should respond to the situation of the King's claim of supremacy of the Church in England. The original Chapter House has been modified over the centuries but still holds, in the far corner, the remains of a sacrarium next to where a medieval altar, in the Chapter House, had once been.
The guide then showed us the site of the original monastery Church. The Church is long gone, but its site is marked out in stone on the grass at the very front of the present Charter House buildings. It was here, and on its High Altar, that Prior John Houghton celebrated the Mass of the Holy Spirit, during which the entire Community discerned the way in which they were called to respond to the King.
On the wall at the side of this site, a wall which was most probably the original north wall of the Church, there is a plaque commemorating the three Priors, the other priest members, and brothers of the Community, all of whom suffered torture and death, following their decision to witness to Christ, rather than to the King.
The place where the lawn and plaque is found, is bounded by a perimeter railing and is not a public place. Nonetheless, it is good to see that such a plaque is there with the names of all the Community.
These, our Fathers, and sons of the Most High, are worthy of great veneration, and we are humbled that this memorial to their great struggle and their great faith, is here in the middle of our busy capitol city.  

Sunday, 21 June 2015

An old friend.

I was recently in the old city of London, looking up historical sites which hold so much importance for us. I walked along the Poultry and took the above photo at the building which occupies the site of the Poutlry Compter of old. 
The Poultry Compter was once what its name suggests, but it became a prison in Tudor times and one of the many 'holding places' of Catholics. It was a very primitive place. Here in the Spring of 1594 Fr John Gerard SJ was held. This great confessor of the faith speaks about his experience here in his autobiography.
Today, the location is very different now from how it was in Tudor times; the tower block on the corner of Poultry and Old Jewry could be found in just about any modern city. The Great Fire would have scoured out, to its fetid foundations, the old Poultry Compter.
Close by is the magnificent Guildhall where, three years later in 1597, Fr John Gerard was brought for interogation.
In this enormous medieval aula Fr Gerard, before a Royal Commission, was subjected to an intense session from Richard Topcliffe, the priest hunter. It is hard to picture it now, but then a whole State was intent upon extinguishing the Catholic Church, which had been the very heart of its life and formation up till that time.
London, in spite of its secularism, is rich with Catholicism, precisely because of such great confessors. Blessed Henry Garnet SJ was tried in the Guildhall in 1606 and condemned to death here. The Guildhall somehow survived the Great Fire, and preserves its memory of the old days. 
The secular age tries its best to maintain its project, but what these confessors of old witnessed to is the fullness of human life - the saving Mystery of Jesus Christ.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Doing a little weeding.

I had to launch a boat in order to tackle the couch grass that had invaded the pond!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

A shrine under renewal.

The renewal of the Shrine at Walsingham is to include the provision of facilities for retreats and conferences. This will enable a tremendous development of the Shrine. Many times I have wished to take groups to Walsingham for a retreat or period of formation, but the lack of a place to meet together has always weighed against this. It will soon be possible for conferences and retreats to be envisaged.
This is particularly important when one recognises that the basic nature of England's Nazareth is that it is a shrine to the family. Christian formation at the level of the family lies at the heart of the renewal of the Church in this country.
Walsingham has an extraordinary place in this context. The many thousands of people who visit the shrine each year, whether as Diocesan, Parish or association groups, all have their family ties, and many of them come as family groups. The shrine has an organic potential to help to nurture the Christian family, having at its centre the house of the Holy Family of Nazareth. The whole sense and environment of the family is one which can easily be engendered and honoured at Walsingham, enabling particular formation to be given within the context of a visit to the shrine.
This can be done at all levels: young people considering marriage and the family, newly married spouses, young families, families with teenagers, extended families, and grandparents. In each case, there can be a particular ministry, directed to honouring the evangelisation already taking place within families, and equipping them even more in their mission.
It is particularly the case that many older people come to Walsingham, often from families that no longer practice the Christian life, yet a visit to Walsingham can be the place where a whole life-time of prayer and evangelisation on behalf of their families can be acknowledged, witnessed to and honoured.
Families themselves could be drawn into the mission of the Shrine, becoming agents of family formation in Walsingham. Other Institutes and bodies in the country could also, perhaps, feed into the mission of the Shrine, for example, the new School of the Annunciation, whose mission is already so closely identified with that of Walsingham.
Again, the renewal of the Shrine at Walsingham is something which calls for our attention and our support.