The Church Year does not begin on January 1 as the present civil calendar does. For the church, the new year begins with Advent Sunday and the four Sundays that lead up to Christmas. This is because the Christian Faith began when the Son of God took human nature of the Virgin Mary and was born as a baby in Bethlehem. And the Church has set aside the four weeks of Advent to represent the time of preparation for the Birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
It does this by using for the readings at Mass and daily Morning and Evening Prayer all that the Hebrew prophets said, predicting that one day God would act decisively to save the world from sin and evil, and to turn the human race towards goodness and love. And He did it, not by sending just a teacher, but his own Son, who taught the love of God the Father, not mainly in words but in what he did. He came as a helpless baby, lived as a poor and humble man, and died willingly on the Cross – all to show that God his Father’s love was made powerful, not with armies or force, but with the patient, gentle, magnetic love of Jesus his Son. The prophets had taught that such a person would come, and they even predicted what cruel men would do to such a loving person.
So even the lovely scene of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem has the shadow of the Cross hanging over it. But the Church teaches that we should rejoice, be glad, throw ourselves into the merriment of Christmas, because through the life and death of Jesus, just beginning on Christmas Day, light and joy have entered the world. This is why we give presents at Christmas, to thank God for the greatest gift of all – Jesus Christ.
The Advent Season is when we buy (or make) our presents and our cards, so that when December 25 arrives, we will have done all we can for our family and friends. It is the Season when we prepare our hearts and lives for a new thanksgiving to God for our Lord and Saviour, so that when we receive him at the Midnight Mass or on the morning of Christmas Day, he finds us full of faith, hope and love, ready to face the next Christian Year in thankfulness and joy.
Pope Francis is quietly beginning to reform the Curia and the Vatican, and God bless him for this much-needed clean-up. But I believe he may be looking to a much greater and earth-shattering reform – the abolition of the Vatican as a political entity.
I believe that, if he has time in the years ahead, he may declare the fiction that his square mile of Rome is a separate country is just that. He has emphasized already that he is first and foremost Bishop of Rome, and not the quasi-monarch of a secular state.
Francis supports the Second Vatican Council’s decree that Bishops’ Conferences in every part of the world should be strengthened and encouraged to govern their own churches, and to adapt the faith to the needs of their own parts of the word. The logical corollary of this is that the aping of secular states, with “embassies” from the King to the local King, are absurd and disrespectful to the legitimate authority of the local Bishops. In the past, they have often been seen as “spies” for the Curia. What better sign of the support of the Pope for the principle of collegiality, than the closing of all Nunciatures, and the declaration that communication between the Pope and the local Bishops needs no Curia-trained middle-men.
A wonderful side effect of this would be the enormous reduction in costs for the RC Church in not having to maintain such vastly expensive residences for Nuncios and their staff. It would be a prophetic gesture for Pope Francis to declare that the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be raised by the selling off of such properties would be earmarked for Catholic charities that work for the poor and needy.
I doubt if Pope Francis reads my blog, but I know of at least one cardinal who does, so who knows? I doubt too that he needs an Anglican to instruct him, but if you see the next encyclical called “Casa Ecclesiae, Roma”, you will read on with mounting excitement!
On Sunday, after a delightful Mozart Solemn Mass and a delicious Coffee Hour, I took a cab to 13th & Spruce, and joined half a dozen members of St Clement’s (who had been at the 8 o’clock Mass) who were manning our stall at Outfest, the gay street festival held in October in Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood”.
Our members wore tee-shirts which had the St Clement’s logo on the front and “Worship like it’s 1099″ on the back, plus our web-site address. I went straight from church in my Canon’s cassock, purple buttons and magenta cincture and all. In front of our stall on easels were two magnificent posters, one of which showed several pictures of members of the congregation at receptions or coffee hours, and stating “No matter who you are, you belong here”. The other has three pictures, with a slogan under each: “Saints, Sacraments, and Smoke”. The top picture showed our statue of St Clement; the second, a photo from a High Mass; and the third, someone being censed with a very smoking thurible. On the table in the stall, we laid out a selection of rosaries in a variety of colors.
From 1 to 5 p.m. our members chatted to some of the hundreds of people passing by, and asked them if they would like a rosary. Those who said Yes were directed over to me and chose a rosary in the color they liked. Then I asked their name and blessed the rosary for them. One of the others then gave them the pamphlet I wrote on how to say the Rosary, and a picture of Our Lady of Clemency, with the Novena prayer on the back. I was touched at how many of them were clearly moved by this, and many kissed the rosary or made the sign of the cross, indicating that they were probably Roman Catholics. Many of them asked about the Episcopal Church and said how pleased they were that our Church had a presence there. Others commented on the fundamentalist Protestants just a block away, who had a microphone, and were proclaiming that all gay people would be going to Hell. For that reason too, I was glad to be there. And we were not the only Episcopal church with a stall; I saw the one from Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, and believe there was one also from St Luke and the Epiphany.
I blessed over 300 rosaries, in each case saying the name of the recipient and, believe me, it took all of the four hours I was there. Sceptics will say that most of them will just be hung around people’s necks, or laid aside and never used. But if even a few dozen of them start people praying (or encourage them to return to praying) it will have been well worth the effort of our team. And, as I said, our very presence there at a festival where hundreds, if not thousands, of gay people were enjoying themselves (and there were a great many non-gay people there too: it was a particular pleasure blessing rosaries for some of the children) demonstrated that not all Christians condemned them for loving people of the same sex.
And if some of the people we met and talked with decide to come and worship at St Clement’s, that would be an even greater blessing. At least they know that our doors are wide open if they choose to come. Jesus had to eat and drink with Pharisees and publicans, sinners all, before they became his followers. Scholars tell me it is unlikely He gave them rosaries (!), but He did give them love, which is what our little plastic rosaries symbolized.
Since my curate returned to Chicago and Fr Al Holland moved to California, it has been difficult for me to take a day off each week. So when the chance came to have two young priests from Cambridge to stay in the Rectory and celebrate the daily Mass and Evensong, I jumped at it.
One was Fr John Hughes, Chaplain of Jesus College, Cambridge, whom I met when he was in the States with the Jesus College Choir. The Master of the College was with them; so when they sang a splendid lunch-time concert here in St Clement’s, I was able, in my welcoming remarks, to say that while some of the St Clement’s congregation were rather keen on the Vicar of Christ, we were able to trump that by welcoming the Master of Jesus. Fr John offered at that time to come and do a short spell as locum the next summer, and with him he brought Fr Andrew Davison, the Tutor in Doctrine of Westcott House, the well-known seminary in Cambridge, who was beginning a few months’ Sabbatical in America. (His new book “The Sacraments” is about to be published). Between them they covered the liturgical and pastoral needs of the parish, and managed not to kill any of the congregation. Locums are not always so lucky, as I shall reveal later.
Thus freed, I took the train to Washington, D.C. and then a cab to the Westchester, a fine 1930s complex of apartments on Cathedral Avenue near the National Cathedral, where an old friend (we met in Holland in 1967) lives. I spent a few days with him before flying to Chicago to stay with Fr John David Van Dooren, the Rector of the Church of the Atonement, Chicago, and formerly Rector of All Souls’ Church, Washington, D.C. It was while Fr John David was Rector there that we met and arranged to swap churches one summer for three weeks. At the time I was Archdeacon of Italy & Malta for the Church of England, and Chaplain of All Saints, Milan, so John David went to Italy and I came and spent three weeks at All Souls, a lovely Episcopal Church in Washington. While I kept all of John David’s parishioners alive, he was not so careful with mine, but had a funeral almost the moment he arrived in Milan! I had agreed to preach on the Sunday I was in Chicago, but had forgotten that there were sermons at all three Masses in the Atonement. So I preached the same sermon in three different “modes”: quiet Low Mass, boisterous Family Mass and solemn High Mass. Atonement had a massive Rummage Sale going on that weekend, and I bought a very smart white summer jacket for $10. The day before, the first day of the sale, they had taken $9000, which indicates the size of the enterprise. The St Clement’s Rummage Sale, which is on Saturday, October 19, will be a much smaller version of this – though we already have some fine icons, statues, books and furniture and there are still three weeks for more to come in.
After four days in Chicago, I flew to San Antonio, Texas, to stay with a retired priest friend whom I have known since he spent a year in Edinburgh in 1961 on an exchange with his seminary in Sewanee, Tennessee. I had a delightful few days there, just sitting in the garden reading or looking round the centre of San Antonio and walking along the famous Riverside Walk, stopping often for coffee or something stronger in some of the cafes and restaurants on the banks of the canal. On the Sunday, we went to Mass in St Paul’s, the Anglo-Catholic church at the gates of Fort Sam Houston.
The next weekend , I was back in D.C. and able to go to a beautifully sung Evensong in the national Cathedral one weekday as well as their Sung Mass on the Sunday. It is always a rare experience for the rector of a parish to get to worship in other churches, since he is usually confined to his own church. However, much as I enjoyed all three churches in Chicago, San Antonio and Washington, I missed St Clement’s. And even though I had a wonderfully peaceful holiday, seeing old friends, eating and drinking with them and catching up on our news, and otherwise just reading and writing, I was very happy to get back to the Rectory at St Clement’s. There is genuinely no place like home.
Tomorrow at 3 p.m. I will press the button that will cause our computer to start our bells ringing out the seven-bell peal. This is in response to the request from President Obama that church bells should be rung to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream” speech.
This peal of the bells is usually rung for joyful occasions such as the emergence of a newly married bride from the church into the garden. And tomorrow the bells will be ringing in joy that much of Martin’s dream has come to pass. Much of the hateful deliberate separation of black and white people has been ended. Much of the second-class treatment of African-Americans has been stopped. The law prohibits any discrimination based on race or color. And Martin would be overjoyed to see such progress.
But bells have been used to proclaim danger as well as joy. They were to have been the signal in Britain that Hitler’s Nazi troops had invaded. And tomorrow’s bells should have some of that element in them too, because Martin’s dream has not yet been fully realized. We are still surrounded by Fascists who believe that one race is superior to another, that one class is superior to another.
Martin’s dream will not be fully realized until every child and adult has access to the full medical services of this rich country; till every child has access to primary, secondary and tertiary education in accordance with his or her merits or race, with no question of any payment being required. Do we ask our young soldiers to pay for the “privilege” of going abroad and killing the enemies of freedom? Of course not: we pay them handsomely. So why should we ask our young scholars, whose learning will defend us against bigotry and will promote health, respect for the law, scientific discoveries that will benefit us all, why should we ask them to pay for their training? We should pay them as handsomely as our soldiers, to kill and destroy the enemies of ignorance and intolerance.
So the bells will ring with joy that much has been done and is being done, but in warning that much more is needed before this nation is truly “a City set on a hill”, a light to the nations, before every single American can say with Martin “Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
It is difficult to open a paper or journal these days without seeing rants from fundamentalist Christians against Harry Potter, or the Narnia Chronicles of C.S. Lewis, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The fundamentalists condemn the imaginative inventions of such authors – wizards and elves, magic spells and dragons, talking animals and walking trees, and condemn them as being anti-Christian, against the message of the Bible.
But what these Bibliolaters have failed to realize is that such works of the imagination all show the cosmic battles between good and evil. And in every one of them, good wins out. But not without much suffering, and the greatest of the suffering comes from the spirit of self-sacrifice and love which inspires the heroes. In other words, Tolkien and Lewis and Rowling and many other writers are presenting in fantastic and imaginative forms “the old, old story of Jesus and his love”.
What really upsets the fundamentalists is the implication in such tales that it is not just explicit Christians who will be saved, but all who love and sacrifice themselves for others. Yet this is what the Christian revelation teaches: Jesus died “so that all might be saved”. The mystery of God’s saving intention for a all even includes the sub-human creation which “groans and travails until the glorious revelation”.
Recently the German Catholic Church has been resisting the literalists in the Roman Curia who say that the translation of “pro multis” in the Eucharistic Prayer can only be translated by “For many” and not “for all”. This has been contested by Greek and Hebrew scholars, and even in English, we have such phrases as “Was it for the few or for the many?” which clearly means “for all”.
I believe that “Salvation is through Christ alone” and that Jesus meant it when he said: “No one comes to the Father but by me” but I am far from despairing of the salvation of anyone, just because they have not met the Christ in this world. I love the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea … There is room enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this…But we make His love too narrow by false limits of our own”. The Trinity is infinite, as is His love which we have seen in the form of the God-man, Jesus. As Bishop Haggart of Edinburgh once said in a sermon to ordinands who were wondering if they should be priests: “Leave it to the Holy Spirit: he’s a dab hand at getting his own way”!
We have twelve people who come to the daily Mass at St Clement’s every week. Of course they don’t all come on the same day, and I have to confess that, when I hand my biretta to the server and see that we are the only two people there, I feel delighted.
When I was a younger priest, I would not have dared admit that, lest I be accused of not wanting to see the altar thronged at every Mass with hundreds of the faithful! But now that I am older and more experienced, I can admit to this delight – that sometimes it is a joy to be able to celebrate the Mass with just one representative of the People of God.
Why? Well, the Mass can be said very quietly and in a meditative fashion. Small silences can be observed when one can recite the names of those, living and departed, for whom one wants to pray. The intention of the Mass can be expanded to make explicit what I know the server wants to pray about. Some of the “secret” prayers can be said out loud, if quietly, and shared with the server, which is not often possible in a bigger Mass. In all, it is of course the same re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross and the celebration of the Resurrection as it is when there are hundreds of people in attendance, but such a quiet Mass can be, in its own way, just as joyful an occasion, just as powerful a prayer.
The cry is always going up all over the Church: “We have so few young people in the congregation. We are going to die”
My (helpful as usual) reply has always been “What a load of male-cow droppings”.
I hasten to say that this is not at present true of St Clement’s, Philadelphia: we have a good percentage of young(ish) people in the congregation. But even if it were true, I would still say the same. To put it at its most extreme, if your congregation consists of only 60 or 70 year olds, why should you worry? They have a lot of experience and wisdom in them, and the delightful thing is – there are a lot more 60 and 70 year olds coming along! So it takes a really depressive outlook to think that your congregation will get any smaller. In fact, if you get out there and evangelise the 40 and 50 year olds, your congregation might grow considerably, even though it will still be made up mainly of 60 and 70 year olds.
But that is an extreme example, aimed to make you laugh. For most congregations the reality is that there are people of nearly every age group in them, and that is how it should usually be. It is a healthy and happy group that has children, teenagers, young adults and the older generations all mixed in. There is so much that they can learn from each other and teach each other. But if one age-group predominates, take Our Lady’s advice and let it be. Use the gifts of all, and tell them all to bring in some friends, and make sure that what you offer in the way of Word and Sacrament helps them to grow closer to Jesus Christ. He is the Centre of our Faith, and if they are growing closer to Him, they will inevitably be growing closer to one another.
Then you may well be surprised by how well the 90 year old gets on with the 18 year old.
Yesterday, I checked my e-mail and saw a message from an ex-Vestry member, that a building had collapsed at the intersection of Market St & 22nd St, just a few blocks from St Clement’s. I took the Holy Oils from the church and went to the site. It was closed off from all directions, but when the police at the perimeter saw that I was a priest they waved me through.
I stayed for three hours, talking to some of the scores of police and firefighters, some of them filthy and exhausted from pulling rubble and heavy beams from the collapsed area. A building that was being demolished had fallen on a little Thrift Shop, and no one knew how many staff or customers had been inside. The multitude of people milling around looked chaotic, but I soon saw the precision and order that the forces were using. They had been through all this before – and a fire chief told me they were always doing simulations of all sorts of disasters. My admiration for the emergency teams rose and rose.
Then one of the chief policemen quietly told me they had found a body, and would be bringing her out soon. Would I go into the paramedic’s ambulance, which would then be backed up to the corner, as near the rubble as they could get. I did, and shortly afterwards a dozen firemen held up tarpaulins as screens and the body was carried quickly from the shop and into the ambulance. I anointed her and said the prayers of commendation for the departed. Then I got out of the ambulance and it drove away quietly.
This was a most reverent and respectful way of shielding the woman from any over-zealous cameras, and I was so moved by the way all the tough men and women stood silently as I said “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul”.
Then it was all action again as they returned to moving rubble, in case there were any more people trapped. (In fact, many hours later they did find five more who were dead.) I sat down on the back bumper of a fire engine and the fire marshal gave me a bottle of ice-cold soda, and then hamburgers appeared out of nowhere for us all. This part was also highly organized, and the sweating firemen needed sustenance. Water was left streaming from a fire truck, and every now and then a fireman would take off his helmet and hold his head under the cooling stream.
And then my phone vibrated, and I read the message, that a member of my Vestry had given birth to an 8 pound baby boy. I had just come from a tragic moment, and this message lifted my heart. I inverted the sentence in the Prayer Book rite for the burial of the dead, which says: “In the midst of life we are in death” and said “In the midst of death we are in life” and prayed for the new baby and its parents as well as the poor woman who had just lost her life.
A priest is privileged to be present at some of the most crucial moments of people’s existence: birth (I have baptized babies with a long spoon inserted into incubators); funerals (including that of a three year old in a little white coffin his father insisted on carrying all the way from the church to the funeral on foot, with a piper playing, and hundreds of people filling the cemetery); a death bed where an old person tells me she is very glad to be “going at last, Father” (she was 102); joyful marriages, from little Highland churches to the banks of Lake Como; intimate and sacrosanct confessions; hilarious family parties. And the priest shares them all, and sometimes goes immediately from great joy to great sorrow or vice versa, as in yesterday’s happenings.
I will celebrate my 45th anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood on Tuesday of next week, St Barnabas’ Day. And as I offer the Mass at 7 a.m. that morning I will have so much to thank God for, things sad as well as joyful. But most of all I will be saying Thank you to him for letting me share in so many others’ lives and to be a sacramental channel of his healing grace.
I’ve just read Aidan Nichols’ biography of Adrian Fortescue which is fascinating. His love of Eastern Orthodoxy, his wide travels, his life as a parish priest, are all well covered. He did not suffer fools gladly, and had a biting wit. Here are some examples:
“My Rector was a raving Irishman of the most offensive type”
Of his housekeeper, whom he called “the last surviving Gadarene Swine”
Of the Katholikos Babai II (in office 487-502) “This man marks almost the lowest degradation of the Persian Church. He could not even read, and he had a wife”.
“an exceedingly pious person of the modern Gallo-Roman type, the sort who count special devotion to St Joseph and the adulation of the illustrious incumbent of the Roman bishopric as better than ethical righteousness”.
However, it is his attitude to the Sacred Congregation of Rites (whom he sometimes calls the Stinking Congregation of Rites) that I found most astonishing. He comments:
“To rubricians it is not the history nor the development of rites that matter a bit, it is the latest decision of the Congregation of Rites. These decisions are made by a crowd of dirty little Monsignori at Rome in utter ignorance of the meaning or reason of anything. To the historian their decisions are simply disgusting nonsense, that people of my kind want simply to ignore. It is a queer type of mind that actually is interested in knowing whether the deacon should stand at the right or the left of someone else at some moment.”
Or this: “I never cared a tinker’s curse for what the Congregation of Rites may have decided about the order in which the acolyte should put out the candles after Vespers”.
And Fortescue’s attitude towards the Pope was another eye-opener. Of Pius X he says: “Centralization grows and goes madder every century. Even at Trent they hardly foresaw this kind of thing. Does it really mean that one cannot be a member of the Church of Christ without being, as we are, absolutely at the mercy of an Italian lunatic? Saving a total collapse, things are as bad as they can be. Give us back the Xth century Johns and Stephen, or a Borgia! They were less disastrous that this deplorable person.”
And he writes to a friend about to visit Rome in 1920; “By the way, will you give a message from me to the Roman Ordinary? Tell him to look after his own diocese and not to write any more Encyclicals. Also, that there were twelve apostles and that all bishops are their successors. Also, to read the works of St Paul, also to open his front door and walk out, also that the faith handed to our fathers is more important than the Sacred Heart or certain alleged happenings at Lourdes.”
As Adrian Nichols concludes: “It is one of the bizarre flukes in authorial reception-history in twentieth century Catholicism that it was preceisely for shouldering the ‘hateful burden of verifying in Merati, Martinucci, La Vavasseur, Van der Stappen, what each person does in the course of these interminable ceremonies’ that Adrian Fortescue’s name lingered in the presbyteries of the English-speaking world.”
I cannot resist this last quotation about his avertion to the Italianate title of Monsignor.
(To a friend who had been made a Canon) “So you have not had to add a filthy Italian prefix to a decent English name … for a man who fears the God of Israel, it must be an awful thing to be classed among the sweepings of the Italian gutters who lurk among the backyards and latrines of the Vatican, their greasy palms out-stretched for tips, their oily lips bubbling with servile lies in bad French”.
I have always taken the intricate details of ultra-montane Catholicism and of Fortescue’s “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite” with a large pinch of salt, and am delighted to find that Fortescue did too.