Saturday, 28 March 2015

Together for the common good

It is excellent news that here in the UK there has been a genuine and broadly-based interest in Catholic Social Teaching over the last few years.  Although that is not so surprising considering the shallowness and narrowness of the political 'debate' in Britain in recent decades.  That is not to say that the debate was much better in the good old days when citizens had a 'reasonable' level of trust in politics and politicians.    The truth is that liberal democracies such as the UK are now facing a cul-de-sac, a dead-end  in every sense.  A recent book edited by Nicolas Sagovsky and Peter McGrail shows us a way to get out the mess that modern capitalism, statism and individualism has brought about  by exploring the concept of  the 'common good' as it has been developed in the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Go Here

 The publication of Together for the Common Good: Towards a National Conversation (SCM Press) this month shows how people on the left and right of the political spectrum as well as across religious traditions are discovering what the social teachings of the Catholic Church can bring to the ‘conversation’ about the future of the country.  We should all pray that the book will be successful in facilitating a ‘national conversation’ as to the task of realising the common good.  It is really a remarkable publication which we can only hope and pray will help to shape the political agenda in this country - especially as we enter into a general election campaign.  Given the importance of a British Catholic, Cardinal Manning, in the story of CST in the late 19th century it is appropriate to keep him  in mind as we talk about the importance of CST for Britain in the early 21st century.

In praying for this 'conversation' between Christians and other faiths ( and those with none) to yield fruit we might as Catholics remember the important connections between Catholic Social Thought (CST) and the Sacred Heart.

So, although it is encouraging to see CST being discussed in this new book,  it is important to make sure that the development of the social teaching of the Catholic Church is understood within its proper spiritual and religious context.   As is well known, for example, Pope Leo XIII’s  great encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) has an important and defining place in the history of CST.  And, of course, we may also draw attention to the considerable role played by Cardinal Manning in developing Catholic social teaching in the late 19th century.  It is by no means a coincidence, however , that both Cardinal Manning and Leo XIII were greatly devoted to the Sacred Heart.  In the case of Leo XIII,  it was his encyclical on the Sacred Heart (Annum Sacrum) in 1899 which marked  the consecration of the whole world to the Sacred Heart.  Pope Leo (1878-1903)-saw the strengthening of the devotion as absolutely necessary in the fight against the evils of  secularism and an economic system which was predicated Annum Sacrum as the greatest act of his entire Pontificate!

Why? The reason was simple: real change can only come when Christ reigns in the hearts of human beings.  Politics has its limits: we should not place too much hope in political processes.  As Leo put it in the encyclical: it is in the Sacred Heart that 'all our hopes should be placed, and from it the salvation of men is to be confidently besought.' - and not in states and markets or  ideologies.   It is from love of God that we can draw strength to confront evil and promote and defend the common good. Pope Leo passionately believed that the social teaching of the Church and its spiritual and religious teachings were absolutely integral to one another: hence the centrality of the heart of Jesus.  For Leo, devotion to the divine love and mercy of God as expressed in the heart of Jesus was therefore a form of both personal and public  resistance to the materialism and secularisation of the age.

Change involves human beings, it is not just about 'the state' or 'the economic system': the "sovereign power of Christ over men’ he said, ‘ is exercised by truth, justice, and above all, by charity.’   Of course, as Leo appreciated,  the state and the economic order are important and needs to be changed in line with CST:  but change also involves individuals changing their lives.  CST is all about changing the heart.  Social change has to begin in the hearts of each one of us. Servant of God, Dorothy Day, a great figure in the story of CST, (Read Here)  summed it up in this way:

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun.' - Dorothy Day, from Loaves and Fishes

 The Sacred Heart serves to remind us that Jesus wants a relationship with us as individuals.  Jesus wants to change our heart: he asks us to learn from his meek and humble heart!  The personal is political.  Yes, we must seek change in the social, political order and structures.  Yes, we must challenge and oppose forms of economic organization which are destructive of human dignity. But, that is not enough. It is never enough.   The Catholic Church, as Pope Francis reminded us, is not an NGO,  it is our mother ( here)  who is concerned above all with our internal life - our  heart .  So if we wish to advance the common good, we must first  open our hearts to God, for as Pope Leo taught:  ‘in that Sacred Heart all our hopes should be placed'.  All our hope and all our trust. Without Christ in our hearts, he warned, we will destroy ourselves by an 'excess of liberty.' Liberal democracy is paying the price for the ' excess of liberty'  and excessive materialism.  As Christian citizens we should be very wary about putting all our hopes in the hands of government or in markets.  All too often that has resulted in a misplaced and dangerous faith in the state or the market, or a misplaced faith in philosophies and theories. And all too often that has resulted in the moral and spiritual aspects of public policy being ignored or marginalised. Ultimately we must place all our hope in the power of God's love working in the human heart.

Thus reading Rerum Novarum  without reading Annum Sacrum  is really missing the entire point of CST.  As human beings we have to understand the limits of what politics,  state or the market can achieve.  Without change at the individual level in the depths of our interior life, change at the other levels are in reality and inevitably rather shallow. In a world which is profoundly individualistic and materialistic, real and deep change has to be at the individual and spiritual level.  A better world needs a change in our hearts: because our interior life and the life of world are connected.    It is for this reason also that Cardinal Manning (1808- 1892)  although someone was very much engaged in the politics of his time, was deeply devoted to the Sacred Heart.  So, I would encourage anyone who is interested in CST to read  Dignity and Rights of Labour, Burns and Oates, 1934,  ( a collection of Manning's writings on CST) to grasp the scale of his criticism of the economic and social order, but also to read his great book on the Sacred Heart: The Glories of the Sacred Heart, published in 1876.   Read about his open solidarity with the rights of workers in London, and his practical involvement but also about the pilgrimage he lead to the shrine of  the Sacred Heart at Paray-le -monial (in 1873) as a way of witnessing opposition to the materialism and secularism of the times and as a witness to the power of prayer in the face of the very injustices that he opposed in social and economic terms!  His support for the striking dock-workers  ( Read here Cardinal Nichols on Manning -  here for a report on the significance of the strike. ) , and his (much criticised) pilgrimage to the the shrine of the Sacred Heart in France were simply two sides of the same coin.  Consider, for example, his observations  made in one of his sermons to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of St Vincent de Paul in 1861:

Look at the condition of the classes of England; the  separation of the rich from the poor ; at the unequal  distribution of wealth ; at the unwieldy miseries and  irremediable distresses of our millions. Private charity -  is exhausted ; public relief breaks down ; and pauperism  and hunger gain head against all we do. We were told  the other day, that every week one person at least dies  of actual starvation in London. Whether that be so or  not, I cannot tell ; it is a statement put forward by those  who ought to know. With all our wealth and skill and  pride of government, the political powers of the world  are incapable of redressing evils such as these, which are  the degradations of barbarism, not the maladies of  Christian society. There is only one power that can  redress these social evils, that is, the supernatural power of charity. ..[it] is the  universal action of the same supernatural charity which springs from the Sacred Heart of Jesus...(Manning, Ecclesiastical Sermons, Vol. I., p. 89, read here -  my emphasis)

His point in this sermon  was that we utterly delude ourselves if we think that we can solve the problems of inequality and injustice, poverty and hunger by the use of our wealth, or our intelligence, or government.  He, of course, called for action from government and the exercise of intelligence  and skill to address the problems of inequality, but he also had no doubt that the only power that could change the world was the power of love.  Political power, however exercised, was 'incapable' of actually overcoming the evil which was in the world - such as the evil of wealth which is concentrated in the hands of a few.  No. For Manning, evil could only be overcome by the supernatural power of love. He saw that power being exercised in the work of people like St. Vincent de Paul. And in  the face of evil, Christians had to harness this power of love through prayer and in social action and in political activism to shape public opinion.  Christianity could not and must not stand passively on the side-lines, it had to be in the vanguard of confronting and challenging evil in all its social and economic and institutional manifestations.   Catholics in particular had to challenge the idea of progress as something that could take place in a society which had abandoned Christianity.  Although a minority then, as now, British Catholics, he believed, had to be active in opposing the ways in which religion is marginalised in a secular and increasingly statist society.  Real progress was fundamentally about moral and spiritual progress.  Manning took on the claims of modernity head on.  He disputed that human progress was just about the forward march of reason and science and ever better institutional arrangements and structures.  Benedict XVI makes Manning's   point in a more contemporary way in Spe Salvi:

good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside. Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. . . It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love.  (Benedict XVI: Spe Valvi, 25-6) 

Manning believed that Christians, like St. Vincent,  should challenge the moral and spiritual corruption of their societies; they should  ensure that the rich understood the responsibilities of wealth; they should  attend to the divisions  in society; and they should  'teach the poor to know'.  The common good was not just the responsibility of government, the common good was the responsibility of everyone.  Why? Because it concerned spiritual and moral corruption and improvement.  And that meant harnessing supernatural power: the love of God.

Manning believed that for humanity to reach its full potential it had have a care for the moral and spiritual  dimension of political, economic and social life.  Like Pope Leo, Manning’s approach to ‘social teaching’ was not to see it as detached from individual spiritual life and prayer:  quite the opposite, for Manning the devotion to the Sacred Heart was a personal but ‘political’ or social act and the social teaching of the Church was prayer and love in action.  In the heart of Jesus the public and private realms are united.  It is not surprising,therefore, that Saint John Paul  - the 'Pope of the Sacred Heart '-  ( as this blog has often noted) - also made several major contributions to CST: not least Laborem Exercens (1981); Sollicitudo Rei Socialis ( 1987) ; and Centesimus Annus  (1991).

What the Catholic Church has consistently taught in relation to social teaching from the very beginning (in Cardinal Manning's work and writings and later in Rerum Novarum ) is that, in the words of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Vertiate:

Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law ... It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbour; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones). For the Church, instructed by the Gospel, charity is everything because, as Saint John teaches .. and as I recalled in my first Encyclical Letter.. (Deus Caritas Est): everything has its origin in God's love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God's greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.

Above all else, Christianity is about a personal relationship with the love of God made flesh in Jesus. As  Benedict  points out  in the encyclical :

Being A Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

This is a central theme of Pope Francis’s  major statement on CST, Evangelii Gaudium - in which he cites the above passage from Caritas in Veritate ( see 1: 7)   CST in all its theological and philosophical richness is grounded in and founded upon the belief in a personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  This is clearly stated in the first opening paragraphs of Evangelii Gaudium:

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. .....The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.  I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them...

Our Christian joy, he says ' drinks from the wellspring of his brimming heart' (1.5).  And yet so much of our world is perverted by a 'covetous heart' (1.2).  However, our life in God has 'its source in the heart of the risen Christ'. (1.2)

SO: caritas, love,  is at the heart of the doctrines of CST.  Love is at the heart of subsidiarity, solidarity, the common good, and the dignity of the human person - and all the other key principles.  Because of this, the encounter with Jesus is at the very core of CST. AND, what is the most important symbol of Caritas and the call to a personal encounter with Christ in the Catholic Church?  Answer, the Sacred Heart. Simple. In contemplating Jesus with a heart wounded and on fire with love we enter into the great truth of Christianity: God the Almighty humbled himself to show us that He is Love!

The Sacred Heart in the Catholic tradition is the great symbol of the relationship Jesus desires to have with us as individuals: a heart to heart, and profoundly intimate encounter.  So although we must welcome the way in which CST is being employed by non-Catholics to develop a critique of modern society and foster a conversation between different faiths and between those who have none, we must never lose sight of  what the purpose of that teaching actually is: to show us how to follow Jesus Christ who loves us.   It is really all about love. Which is why, the Sacred Heart, as the most important symbol of God’s love, is so central to the task of translating CST into action.  To quote Pope Francis, who has as we have noted  in this blog,  has stressed time and time again the importance of a spirituality of the heart:

[The] Sacred Heart of Jesus, [is] the highest human expression of divine love..[it is] the ultimate symbol of God's mercy – but it is not an imaginary symbol, it is a real symbol, which represents the center, the source from which salvation for all humanity gushed forth. HERE

The role of the Church is not to be involved in politics per se , but to illuminate the public sphere by showing how the Gospel of Jesus Christ  - and the power of God's love - is relevant to the problems we face in the public sphere and how it can contribute to the struggle to secure the common good in the face of human sinfulness.  CST does not favour any particular form of social/political/ economic order.  It is perfectly possible to be a supporter of CST on any point on the ideological spectrum  provided that position is drawn from the key principles of the teaching. The purpose of CST  is to make you into  better conservative or a better democratic socialist or whatever. And these principles of CST have their source in the pierced heart of  Jesus - the 'highest human expression of divine love.'  For it is  there we find the core and very centre of CST: we must love God and love our neighbour as Jesus loves us. We must love with all our heart. Once again, just to state as Benedict put it, ‘Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law’.

Politics is about power.  CST has a very profound thing to say about this relationship between power and politics: do not fool yourself in thinking that politics is just about power of a material or secular kind.   There is also power of  a spiritual or supernatural kind which must be channeled into social and political action.  Cardinal Manning, perhaps the most important British Catholic associated with CST, put it best when he said that: 'There is only one power that can  redress these social evils, that is, the supernatural power of charity.'  The very same charity which ' springs from the Sacred Heart of Jesus'.

Given this, I do not think that  it is so surprising that CST is contributing to the formation of  new kind of consensus which can form a basis for a conversation between different faith traditions and people of no faith.  Manning actively gave his support to a cause ( a strike) which united people of different faiths and of none.   I think Manning, who so annoyed conservative Catholics  ( and he really annoyed them!) for the way he collaborated with other Christian denominations and the way he was respected and loved by the working classes and the Labour movement  and supported the cause of Russian Jews,  would have wholeheartedly endorsed the efforts of Together for the Common Good. We can only hope and pray that the teachings which he did so much to develop and promote can, in our present time,  serve the cause of unity and understanding between all people of good will who seek to advance the cause of the Common Good.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, we place all our trust in you as we seek to disseminate and put into practice the social teachings of the Church.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Making a space for the one who dreams about us

Sometime ago I blogged quoting Servant of God Catherine Doherty's comments about Christianity  as a love affair between God and humanity. (HERE)  It is a powerful passage from her great book, The Gospel Without Compromise:

For too many people, the Christian faith is a series of dogmas and tenets to be believed, commandments and precepts to be observed and obeyed in a negative fashion. Of course Christians should believe in the dogmas of their faith; of course they must observe the commandments. But Christians must also realize, with a joy that can scarcely be expressed, that the Christian faith, in its essence, is a love affair between God and man. Not just a simple love affair: It is a passionate love affair. God so loved man that he created him in his image. God so loved man that he became man himself, died on a cross, was raised from the dead by the Father, ascended into heaven—and all this in order to bring man back to himself, to that heaven which he had lost through his own fault.
Catherine Doherty, The Gospel Without Compromise, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame. 1976, p77 

The Sacred Heart is in its most simple terms an image representing God's love affair with us : each and everyone of us!  Today the Pope urged us all this Lent to 'make a space' for God in our lives.  As Vatican Radio reported during morning mass today at Casa Santa Marta  Francis reminds us that God loves us : he dreams about us and dreams about re-creating us. He reminds us that, as Christians, we believe that God is in love with us.  That is the amazing thing!

Taking his cue from the first letter of the prophet Isaiah in which the Lord says He is “about to create new heavens and a new earth”, Pope Francis said that God’s second creation is even more “wonderful” than the first because when he makes the world over he does so in Jesus Christ. He renews everything and manifests his immense joy:
“We find that the Lord has so much enthusiasm: he speaks of joy and says ‘I will exult in my people’. The Lord thinks of what He will do and of how He will rejoice with His people. It’s almost as if he has a dream. He has a dream. His dream is about us. ‘Oh, how beautiful it will be when we are all together, when this and that person will walk with me… I will exult in that moment!’ To bring you an example that can help us better understand, it’s like when a girl or a boy think of their beloved: ‘when we will be together, when we marry…’. It’s God’s ‘dream’”.
“God – the Pope continued – thinks of each of us and loves each of us. He ‘dreams’ about us. He dreams of how He will rejoice with us. That’s why the Lord wants to ‘re-create’ us, He wants to renew our hearts so that joy can triumph:
“Have you thought about it? The Lord dreams of me! He thinks of me! I am in the Lord’s mind and in His heart! The Lord can change my life! And he has many projects: ‘we will build houses and plant vineyards, we will share our meals’… these are the dreams of someone who is in love…. Thus we can see that the Lord is in love with his people. And when he says to his people: ‘I haven’t chosen you because you are the strongest, the biggest, the most powerful. I have chosen you because you are the smallest of them all. You could add: the most miserable. This is whom I have chosen’. This is love”.
God “is in love with us” – Francis repeated, as he commented on the Gospel reading that speaks of the miraculous healing of the son of a Royal official:
“I don’t think a theologian exists who can explain this: it is impossible to explain. We can only think about it, we can feel, we can cry with joy. The Lord can change us. ‘And what must I do?’ Believe. I must believe that the Lord can change me, that He has the power to do so: just like the man in the Gospel whose son was sick. ‘Sir, come down before my child dies’. ‘You may go (Jesus said to him). Your son will live!’ That man believed in the words of Jesus and had set off. He believed. He believed that Jesus had the power to change his child, the health of his child. And he won. To have faith is to make space for God’s love, to make space for his power, for God’s power. Not for the power of a powerful person, but for the power of one who loves me, who is in love with me and who wants to rejoice with me. This is faith. This is believing: making space for the Lord so that he can come and change me”.

Read here.

Reflecting on the icon, I think it is significant that the image of Jesus opening his heart to us is also one which references Isaiah 65:17-21.  In the icon we see God making a new  heaven and a new earth. The old universe is being rolled up and an Angel is measuring the walls of the New Jerusalem. The Pope's words remind us that God desires to re-create us. God dreams of making us new.  The Sacred Heart is imploring us to make a space in our hearts for the love of God - a love that will utterly transform us. ' O Sacred Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like yours.'.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Resisting ideological colonisation: the home as a blessed space.

Having recently moved house we have just had our new house blessed by our parish priest.  And now it actually feels like our home.  So thank you, Fr. Mark!  It is, of course, a very traditional Catholic / Orthodox thing to do, and it is, I think, a very important ritual.  But blessing a home is something which we have in common with other faith communities.  Having had Jewish and Hindu friends and neighbours over the years, I know that house blessing is also widely practiced in their homes.  Indeed, the idea of 'blessing' or in someway 'sanctifying' a home appears to be a universal practice.

Home, is often said to be where the heart is.  We can feel 'home sick'  after a long absence from  the place you call home.  When you leave a house that has been a home it is quite an emotional event.  All the memories, for good or bad come to the surface, and it feels as if you are leaving a part of you behind as you drive away and hand the keys over.  It is silly, you say- after all it is just a collection of bricks: but a home is more than that. The home is a sacred space.  A loving home is indeed a great blessing. A home is where you feel that you belong. No pretence, no trying to be someone you are not.  For that reason, however humble, there is, as the song has it, ' no place like home'.

The kind of image showing the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary is very familiar to Catholics all over the world.  We had one on the wall as a child, and my parents always had this kind of picture.  Ok, it is not high art, but it was a perfect expression of a deep desire: that the home would be a safe place full of God's love. It was a heart felt prayer for protection in a challenging and oftentimes frightening world. I still have my mother's old picture and I treasure it.

And yet, today the home is now more under threat than ever before.  It is in the front line of that process Pope Francis talked about recently: ideological colonisation.  With the TV and the plethora of other forms of internet communication the home is now invaded by ideas and values which make it more of a commercial space than a sacred space.  A home is in many ways a space which is a set apart from the other spaces such as the public or economic spaces. Sadly, however, the home is being increasingly colonised  by the economic sphere.  Ironically, the word 'economic' comes from the Greek concept of household management -  home/oikos + law/nomos - οἰκονομία!

There was a time when you could always tell if you were in a Catholic home - not least by the presence of an image of the Sacred Heart.  However, nowadays I am not sure that Catholic homes are so distinctive. Blessing a house is, I think, one of the most important ways we can resist the colonisation of our homes.  In the ancient world the Greeks had the concept of a space which was 'cut out' of the public space and designated as a sacred space - the temenos ( τέμενος) .  The home should be a sacred space that should not be colonised by the market place.   For Christians the home should be a space  within which we as Christians try, with God's grace, to become a 'holy family'.   When we bless a home and place sacred images on the walls we are not just being  passive  in the face of this colonisation , we are being active in our resistance to those powers in our  world that wants to see the home as little more than  a place where people called consumers and customers and voters live.  When we put up an image of the Sacred Heart (or 'enthrone' the Sacred Heart ) we are asking the Lord to bless our home: we are asking for the Lord to de-throne the very real powers of this world that seek to manipulate and control us.  The danger is that our homes become places where we worship Mammon and not God.  The danger is that our homes become places where we store up all our idols. * *

Unless our homes are places where we worship God, then they will inevitably become places where we bow down and make sacrifices to Mammon. If our homes are just places where we hoard our treasured stuff then we must recall Jesus's warning: for where we keep what we regard to be our precious bits and pieces is where we will find our hearts. (Matthew 6:19–21,24)

'Where your treasure is, there will be  your heart also.' 
Does this mean that we should not take delight or pleasure in a beautiful object or an image or wonder at a piece of technology? Of course not. But material things are seductive - they can  lead to some of the deadliest of sins - so we need to be constantly reminded that that material things are not what life is all about: possessions are not our treasure.  Just pay a visit to a local recycling centre and see all that stuff that people used to treasure just being thrown into a skip! All that stuff they lusted after, and saved for and got into debt for or stole for: there it is just a pile of junk.

 When we sanctify a house with a  ritual blessing, and when we use images of Jesus and Mary and other saints we are  reminding ourselves that it is God we worship and adore, and not all our stuff that will one day end up as junk and rubbish.  An image of the Sacred Heart, or a crucifix or an image of  the BV Mary  is sign of  our active resistance to the powers of the world that want to make us into just a little dependent colony of consumers : these powers want us to feel at home in the world that they are making.  But our homes are so much more than the powers of this world want them to be: a home is a holy and sacred space first and foremost. Hence the importance of one of the promises made by Jesus to St Margaret Mary:' I will bless every place where an image of My Heart shall be exposed and honoured.' If you read about the history of the Sacred Heart you quickly realise that it was ABOVE ALL a sign of resistance: an image which was used to challenge secularisation. In a materialistic and Christ hating world, the simple act of blessing a home, and honouring an image of God's mercy and love ( which is what the Sacred Heart is all about) is perhaps one of the most active forms of resistance we can take to counter-act the forces that want to colonise us all.

In the battle against the darkness and wickedness in the world today our homes are really in the front line. And so we should pray with all our heart : God bless our home. So, if you haven't had your home blessed give the priest a call and he will be only too delighted to help you enthrone Christ and de-throne the powers of this world!


** Pope Francis reminds us what sin really is: 'Sin is not a simple mistake. Sin is idolatry: it is to worship the idol, the idol of pride, vanity, money, ‘my self’, my own ‘well-being’.  (Read here. )  To be 'house proud' or to 'love' your house is not in itself a bad thing, but it becomes sinful if our lives are devoted to just to acquiring objects of desire out of pride, envy, and avarice.  A house can make us into just mere 'Consumers'.   A Christian home should help us to be 'Christians'.  A Christian house is a place where God is worshiped, and not idols of the marketplace.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Cleansing our hearts.

It has long struck me that the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Lent - about Christ driving the sellers of cattle, sheep and pigeons and the money changers out of the temple (John 2:13-25) is important to our devotion to the heart of Jesus.  The Litany of the Sacred Heart  - the prayer that St John Paul recommended  we pray often - reminds us that the Heart of Jesus is the 'holy temple of God' ( 'Cor Iesu, templum Dei sanctum' ) and 'the tabernacle of the most High' (Cor Iesu, tabernaculum Altissimi ).  Jesus is the temple of God: in a Trinitarian sense it is within this temple in which the Son is united with the Father and Holy Spirit. But, as St. John Paul pointed out in his Angelus address on the Sacred Heart ( 9th June 1985):

'At the same time it is the true dwelling place of God with men' (Rev 21:3) because the heart of Jesus in its interior temple embraces all men. All dwell there, embraced by eternal love..... I have often heard young people sing: 'Do you know that you are a temple". Yes.  We are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in us...' ( John Paul, II, Litany of the Heart of Jesus, number 5) 

Pope Francis took the opportunity at his Angelus message today to remind us of the need for us to look at our heart as a temple. Have a good look: and face up to the fact that we are full dirty old pigeons, sheep and cattle and tables for money changing.  Not the kind of place we would wish as a meeting place with the All Mighty.  Lent is all about allowing Jesus to cleanse our hearts as he cleansed the temple in Jerusalem.

Today’s Gospel presents the episode of the of the expulsion of the merchants from the temple (Jn 2:13-25). Jesus “made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen” (Jn 2:15), the money, everything. Such a gesture gave rise to strong impressions in the people and in the disciples. It clearly appeared as a prophetic gesture, so much so that some of those present asked Jesus: “[But] what sign can you show us for doing this?” (v. 18), who are you to do these things? Show us a sign that you have authority to do them. They are seeking a divine sign, a prodigy that would certify Jesus as being sent by God. And He responded: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). They replied: “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” (v. 20). They had not understood that the Lord was referring to the living temple of His body, that would be destroyed in the death on the Cross, but would be raised on the third day. For this, in “three days.” “When He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they came to believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken” (v. 22).
In effect, this gesture of Jesus and His prophetic message are fully understood in the light of His Pasch. We have here, according to the evangelist John, the first proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ: His body, destroyed on the Cross by the violence of sin, will become in the Resurrection the universal meeting place between God and men. And the Risen Christ is Himself the universal meeting place – for everyone! – between God and men. For this reason, His humanity is the true temple where God is revealed, speaks, is encountered; and the true worshippers, the true worshippers of God are not only the guardians of the material temple, the keepers of power and of religious knowledge, [but] they are those who worship God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23).
In this time of Lent we are preparing for the celebration of Easter, when we will renew the promises of our Baptism. Let us travel in the world as Jesus did, and let us make our whole existence a sign of our love for our brothers, especially the weakest and poorest, let us build for God a temple of our lives. And so we make it “encounterable” for those who we find along our journey. If we are witnesses of this living Christ, so many people will encounter Jesus in us, in our witness. But, we ask – and each one of us can ask ourselves – does the Lord feel at home in my life? Do we allow Him to “cleanse” our hearts and to drive out the idols, those attitudes of cupidity, jealousy, worldliness, envy, hatred, those habits of gossiping and tearing down others. Do I allow Him to cleanse all the behaviours that are against God, against our neighbour, and against ourselves, as we heard today in the first Reading? Each one can answer for himself, in the silence of his heart: “Do I allow Jesus to make my heart a little cleaner?” “Oh Father, I fear the rod!” But Jesus never strikes. Jesus cleanses with tenderness, with mercy, with love. Mercy is the His way of cleansing. Let us, each of us, let us allow the Lord to enter with His mercy – not with the whip, no, with His mercy – to cleanse our hearts. The whip of Jesus with us is His mercy. Let us open to Him the gates so that He would make us a little cleaner.
Every Eucharist that we celebrate with faith makes us grow as a living temple of the Lord, thanks to the communion with His crucified and risen Body. Jesus recognizes that which is in each of us, and knows well our most ardent desires: that of being inhabited by Him, only by Him. Let us allow Him to enter into our lives, into our families, into our hearts. May Mary most holy, the privileged dwelling place of the Son of God, accompany us and sustain us on the Lenten journey, so that we might be able to rediscover the beauty of the encounter with Christ, the only One Who frees us and saves us.

Read here.

Later on, ( in a mass evening celebrated at the parish of Santa Maria Madre del Redentore) Pope Francis repeated his call to open our hearts to the mercy of Jesus.

The Pope said we would do well “to enter into our hearts and to look upon Jesus.”  The Lord, he said, knows that we are sinners – but if we acknowledge that we are sinners, we have no need to be afraid.
Pope Francis also considered Jesus’ action in cleansing the Temple. When we look into our own hearts, he said, we find so many sins: sins of selfishness, pride, envy jealousy. We must open our hearts to Jesus, and ask Him to cleanse our hearts. Jesus, though, does not cleanse our hearts with a whip, as He cleansed the Temple; rather, He purifies our hearts with the “whip” of mercy.
“Open your hearts to the mercy of Jesus!” the Pope said. “And if we open our hearts to the mercy of Jesus, so that He might cleanse our hearts, our souls, Jesus will trust us.”
Read here.

Perhaps it is the Pope's way of saying 'get it !?' So open up your hearts to Jesus - as Jesus opened his heart to us!

Friday, 6 March 2015

First Friday, March 2015: remembering the pierced heart.

Jos Speybrouck : Feest van het Allerheiligst Hart van Jezus, 1934
This week Pope Francis has stressed, once again, the importance of Lent as a time when we look into and purify our hearts and turn to God.  Unless we experience a change of heart we are, he says just hypocrites living a lie.  We say one thing and do another.   In such cases, he says’, in unequivocal terms, our heart does not belong to God, but to the father of all lies, Satan! (Read here.)  Lent is a time for returning to God with all your heart: and the heart is, as he said on Ash Wednesday, ‘the seat of our sentiments, the center in which our decisions and our attitudes mature.’ ( Read here.) In returning to God with all of our heart we may forget to remember that in Jesus, God gives his heart to us : completely and utterly.  This was brought home to me this week when I chanced across an image of the Sacred Heart I had not seen before. Sometimes, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz,  the things we are looking for are to be found right in our own backyards.  This Lent I stumbled across a fascinating bit of Sacred Heart art in a curio shop just a few minutes walk away from my own backyard.  I think that the shop owner did not know quite what to make of it: but I thought it was a very fine example of an art deco/ art nouveau  approach to the image of the Sacred Heart. On closer examination when I got it home, I discovered that the chromolithograph was signed by the Belgian Flemish artist Jos, or Joseph, Speybrouck (1891-1956).   Read more about him here.
Jos Speybrouck 1891-1956

The chromolithograph (above) was one in a series of produced in conjunction with the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of St. Andrew , Bruge (see here) between 1923 - 1940. The series provided a complete calendar of the liturgical year: so this image would have been used in a school to inform students of the feast and its meaning and significance.    I find an astonishing image for its time.  The picture is dated 1934 and is a very graphic portrayal of the moment when a soldier pierces his side with a spear. Unlike the vast majority of Sacred Heart art, it is wholly and completely free of sentimentlism or kitsch. The text underneath informs the viewer that on the feast of the Sacred Heart (Feest van het Allerheiligst  Hart van Jezus) and prompts us to remember the words of St. John's gospel and focus our attention on the blood and water.

Jos Speybrouck  was a highly accomplished  and prolific artist who,
it appears, seems to have worked almost exclusively in the field of liturgical or sacred Catholic art and illustration.  The Sacred Heart chromolithograph (above) was obviously  used in a school or church as instructional material. It is a 'poster' hung on a simple wooden frame and shows signs of being rolled away and stored with other such posters in the series. He also did a very popular series of cards as well as other educational materials ( cards and 'comics') which show that he also produced more conventional images. One card on the Eucharist, for example seeks to show the relationship between the the Eucharist and the Sacred Heart. In other works he shows the relationship between the pierced heart and the birth of the Church  and the other sacraments. He also painted the more traditional image of the Sacred Heart.

Having lived with the image for the past week I have found thought provoking and deeply moving. As the spear pierces the heart of Jesus the artist shows a divine response: as if a great global or cosmic explosion has occurred. In piercing the heart of Christ the whole of created order has now been changed. It brings home in a very vivid way the significance which St. John attached to what he had seen happen. The image helps us to re-connect with the devotion as it developed from the days of the Church Fathers.

All too often the idea of the heart of Jesus has been understood in a rather twee way : Jesus is all neat and tidy and inviting. Such images are a very long way from the cross.  Speybrouck's image, on the other hand, is visually challenging because we are actually drawn into the centre of the picture and confronted  by  the real meaning of the event depicted. We are the fourth person.

In the Speybrook chromolithograph we see Mary on the left and  two soldiers looking on, one with Jesus's robe over his shoulder. We, the viewer,  are standing behind the soldier whose spear is piercing the heart of Jesus.  We are not just looking on at a distance as one usually finds in pictures of the crucifixion: in this image we are in the middle of the action.  We are so close that we are not meant to feel just an onlooker, we seem to be almost participating in the event.  And perhaps that the point of the picture: the force that drives the spear is human sinfulness - our sinfulness.  Hence it is not a pretty picture - it is not a picture of the Sacred Heart we would want on the living room wall, or over our bed.  It reminds us, however,  that sin is not pretty picture.

Our sins are real and they cut and tear, hurt and wound: sin draws blood. Sin destroys life. Sin is ugly.  It does not make for comfortable viewing. In Speybrouck's image we look on the one we have pierced.  We look for mercy from God, who is love. We look and see that the heavens have opened to us in a burst of light.  After all the wounding and cutting and stabbing we have done in our life - to others and ourselves - God can forgive us if we seek His mercy. Our hearts must be wounded if we are to enter more fully into the heart of Jesus.  This idea was brought home to me during a recent Stations of the Cross where  we used the excellent publication by Fr. Dominic Allain. At the 12th station Fr. Allain prompts us to reflect on the moment when the heart of Christ was pierced.

'Then at last the head stoops and falls..Now the immense horror of the lance.  His heart which once beat with her blood in the depths of her being is pierced and there flows  out blood and water, the stuff of dying and being born.  The lance, and the sword which  has pierced Mary's soul tell us that  the human heart  must in some way be breached, opened up, to allow something even greater to quicken  and sustain our existence.  The Passion means being emptied out , so that something else may fill that emptiness: the eternal love of the Father.'  Allain, Stations of the Cross. Family Publications,  Oxford  2009. 

The picture  has also served to remind me this week of the emphasis on the pierced heart of Christ that we find in Benedict XVI's teachings.  In his Angelus address in 2007, for example,  he said this:

This year, the Lenten message is inspired in the verse of John's Gospel, which in turn goes back to a messianic prophecy of Zechariah: "They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (John 19:37).

The beloved disciple, present with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women on Calvary, was an eyewitness of the thrust of the spear which pierced Christ's side, so that blood and water came out (cf. John 19:31-34). This gesture of an unknown Roman soldier, destined to be lost in oblivion, was imprinted on the eyes and heart of the apostle, who recounted it in his Gospel. In the course of the centuries, how many conversions have taken place precisely thanks to the eloquent message of love that he receives who contemplates Jesus crucified! Therefore, we enter the Lenten season with our gaze fixed on Jesus' side. In the encyclical letter "Deus Caritas Est" (cf. No. 12), I wished to underline that only by gazing on Jesus, dead on the cross for us, can we know and contemplate this fundamental truth: "God is love" (1 John 4:8,16). "In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move" ("Deus Caritas Est," No. 12).

Contemplating the Crucified with the eyes of faith, we can understand profoundly what sin is, its tragic gravity, and at the same time the incommensurable power of the Lord's forgiveness and mercy. During these days of Lent, let us not distance our hearts from this mystery of profound humanity and lofty spirituality. On contemplating Christ, let us feel at the same time that we are contemplated by him. He whom we ourselves have pierced with our faults does not cease to shed over the world an inexhaustible torrent of merciful love. May humanity understand that only from this source is it possible to draw the spiritual energy indispensable to build that peace and happiness for which every human being is ceaselessly searching. (25th February, 2007) 

Again, in Benedict's Spirit of the Liturgy he asks us to direction our attention to the moment which is so dramatically captured by Speybrouck.

After the tearing of the Temple curtain and the opening of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the 'image', through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, p61

In the pierced heart of the Crucified, God's own heart is opened up; here we see who God is and what he is like. Heaven is no longer locked up. God has stepped out of his hiddenness. That is why St John sums up both the meaning of the Cross and the nature of the new worship of God in the mysterious promise made through the prophet Zechariah (cf. 12:10). 'They shall look on him whom they have pierced' (Jn 19.37). Joseph Cardinal Ratizinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, p48

Perhaps, I think,   that is what Speybrouck is trying to convey: the pierced heart of Jesus is the source of the great spiritual energy that we see exploding from the cross!   As the spear pierced the heart of Christ, Heaven  is open - it is no longer locked up  - the Divine love is seen bursting out in a flash of light and a stream of blood and water. In the pierced heart of Jesus the great mystery of God's mercy is revealed.