Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Swiss Minarets/European Crucifixes

The story continues predictably enough. Some protest that the prohibition on minaret construction prevents Muslims from worshipping - well, not really. Just as Christians can worship if neccesary without towers and church bells, so can Muslims without minarets.
Governments and opposition are all falling over themselves to distance themselves from the democratic decision of the Swiss people - our political masters do not trust us with democracy.
Most puzzlingly of all we find that Switzerland is regarded in some quarters as having lost its credibility as a secular state because of this decision. Puzzlingly, because the recent court judgement prohibiting crucifixes in public places was hailed as a sign that Europe was organised on secular principles.
It is interesting to note what the European Convention has to say on the subject. Article Nine proclaims the absolute right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It is essential that one should be free to manifest one's religion - though this 'right' interestingly enough, may be limited by law. Any such limitation must be shown as 'neccesary in a democratic socity.'
This no doubt provides employment for lawyers and helps them put food on the table for their children - but does it really mean anything at all? It is not clear that the removal of crucifixes is 'neccesary in a democratic society.' Meanwhile the Swiss go their democratic way and the world reviles them for it.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Christian Skylines

No - not a new air travel company.
Today's news reports the Swiss referendum to prohibit (they say 'ban') the building of minarets in Switzerland. Predictably we hear the chorus of outrage. It's Islamophobic! It's a breach of people's human rights! etc. etc. etc. Amnesty International laments the infringements of the human rights of Muslims to practicetheir religion. Of course the prohibition of the building of minarets in no way restricts their right to practice their religion, but matters of fact are of little interest to organisations with an axe to grind. Interestingly enough, when you go to Amnesty's website and look for the search by topic, there is no category of religion listed at all, so perhaps they can't think it that important.

No doubt some of those who voted in favour of the prohibition are racist. No doubt some of them simply do not like Muslims. But had I been Swiss, I would have voted for the prohibition. There is no human right that lets us build whatever we want wherever we want it. The skylines of the cities of Europe have traditionally been dominated by our churches. Surely we have the right to ask ourselves, do we want this to change? Openness to other cultures and other faiths, and a welcoming attitude towards them, does not mean that we have to simply say yes to everything they may want to do.

And let's face it, many Muslims do not themselves believe in this kind of freedom. A while back there was a proposal for building a Mosque in Sweden, and the Swedish authorities said that it could be done provided a church could be built in Saudi-Arabia. The Mosque was not built. None of this is a denial of human rights. Nowhere in the west would deny the rights of the Muslims or anyone else to build places for worship and to practise their faith there. But like the rest of us, they must keep within local planning restrictions - and that, really, is what this storm in a teacup is all about.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

An Irish Tragedy

I read in the Irish Independent of a priest in Derry, Fr Sean McKenna, who apparently told his congregation at the end of the Sunday Mass that he would no longer be their parish priest because he was going to go off with a married woman, separated from her husband. The people variously wept and applauded and gave him a standing ovation.

Do people really think at all about what they are doing? In effect, what the priest was saying was: I'm no longer going to respond to God through my vocation because I think I will enjoy life with this woman more. So instead of looking after you, I'm off to live in sin. Is that something to applaud? Far from showing any remorse at the situation he was leaving behind him, the priest simply spoke of how he was embarking on a 'loving, beautiful and life-giving relationship.'

How can a congregation applaud their priest when he announces his intention of living in sin? Some of the parishioners are reported as saying what a good priest he has always been, and how he has helped so many people. He may well be a good man in many ways, but a good priest? The reaction of his people perhaps shows how he had failed to teach them anything about sin, about real love, about sacrifice, about repentance.
The unfortunate Fr McKenna is the latest to fall victim to the modern idea that what matters in life is 'self-fulfilment' understood in terms of 'what feels good.' Augustine and many other sinners have discovered the emptiness of that!

But even more disturbing is the reaction of other Irish priests. The Passionist priest, Fr Brian D'Arcy, is reported as saying that this is a case of the Church losing good men through an 'outdated' celibacy rule. With respect to Fr D'Arcy, this argument is garbage. Are they men who would make good priests, if they insist upon priesthood on their own terms? Is this the example Christ gave us? His example was one of sacrifice, whereas so many today seem unwilling to make the sacrifice. Fr D'Arcy - not wishing to visibly rubbish the value of celibacy - says that it 'may have been suitable for a particular time but that time has now gone.'
What utter rubbish! Cases such as this show us the need for clerical celibacy and self discipline.
In a world where sexual activity is bizarrely seen as a human right (for most people), it is a celibate clergy who can convey the love of God to those who have to remain single because their marriages have failed, to those whose sexual orientation means that they are called to a life of sexual abstinence. Clerical celibacy is a proclamation before a sex-obsessed world that it is indeed possible to live a life which is both happy and fulfilled without sexual activity.

The same article quotes a Mayo priest as saying that in 30 years there will be almost no priests in Ireland. Indeed there won't if that is how the priests themselves are talking. We need to pray urgently for the priests of Ireland, that God may affirm them in their vocation, and that their hearts may be open to his love calling them to service, not to self-indulgence. It is in this way that the Church in Ireland will know a rebirth.
It has suffered so much in recent decades from the sexual scandals of priests who do not exercise a proper discipline but seek self-fulfilment in worldly and physical terms. Let us pray that its priests may show a return to the values of the Church.

Fr D'Arcy says that St Peter was married and that therefore priests should be married. We might use his own 'logic' against him and say that while there may have been a time where it was good to have married clergy, that time has now gone. Or we might simply point out that St Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, pointed out that celibacy was a better way, and that has been the path theChurch has sought, despite the failings of so many, to follow.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Trouble with Europe

I have long been very keen on the idea of Europe - closer co-operation between our countries reducing the tensions that lead to warfare and conflict, and a modern version of the Pax Romana; the ability to travel and do business freely etc etc etc - all good things.
The trouble is, that's not the reality of Europe. In this morning's paper I read that the European Court of Human Rights has said that crucifixes should not be displayed in publicly financed schools.
No doubt Italians, being generally sensible people, will take no notice of this but more worrying is what it shows us about Europe. Because it is bureaucracy with no constituency and no power, it will allow any loony to come along with totally off the wall opinions, and will then make decisions about what the rest of us should be doing.
Particularly bearing in mind that the status quo is the situation where crucifixes have always been there in schools exactly whose rights are being infringed? The appeal was mad eto the court by a woman claiming that her two children were disturbed by the presence of the crucifix. Any sensible court would have responded by saying 'Don't be silly.' However, it seems that these days we live in an age of tyranny by minorities and the court ordered the Italian government to pay the woman £4500. Hopefully the government will ignore this outrageous command.
It is bad enough coping with our own government in its campaign against Christianity without having another, even more insane level of unaccountable bureaucracy. But this is the reality of Europe at present, and we must reject it.
And it's not only Christians who should be worried by this kind of thing. We need to defend each others freedoms. If only certain groups have freedom to make their voices heard, then there is really no freedom at all. If victory is won against the Crucifix today, who will be the target of the same insanity tomorrow?

Monday, 20 July 2009

Back in Place

I hear that Bishop John d'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend has issued an edict for his diocese about the placing of the tabernacles in churches. 'The presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is at the center [sic] of our faith and of the devotional life of the Catholic people.'

The divine Presence is not only in our churches during Mass. Perhaps the fact that so many of our churches are kept locked outside times of services prevents people from seeing things in this way. Bishop d'Arcy believes that the predominant role of the Sacrament in our lives should be reflected in our churches. Not unreasonable, you may think. He realizes what most Catholics have always known - that people have always desired the tabernacle to be central and visible in our churches. Whatever certain liturgists may say, where confusion arises is where the tabernacle is not in such a position.

Bishop d'Arcy's new norms state that the tabernacle be 'permanently located in the sanctuary of the church, along the central axis behind the main altar - at an elevated open location...or in anothe rplace in the sanctuary that is equally conspicuous.' Note that the Bishop is not being totally and uncompromisingly dogmatic here (he is not a liberal) - he is recognising that in some (especially some modern) churches the directly behind the altar location may not be the best.

Now how about bringing some of this common sense approach across the Atlantic......

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The rain in Spain

When I was there it fell mainly in the brief strip of land between the mountains and the sea.

But in the Asturias, although less splendid than the greatCathedral at Burgos, there are a number of ancient churches (also collectively a world heritage site) built for the celebration of the Visigothic (Mozarabic) liturgy. Here are illustrations of one of them - the church of Santa Cristina de Lena south of Oviedo (if my notes from that holiday are accurate!)

The Mozarabic rite called for an iconostasis to be
placed before the main altar, in the central apse. The gifts of bread and wine would be prepared in one of the side apses, and then Offered at the other before being brought to the main altar for the consecration. The iconostasis, richly carved and only partially remaining, would have obscured the actual celebration of the mysteries from the view of the laity. At the west end of the church is a gallery for local notables - a feature common in the Westwerken of imperial German churches and also found at a number of places in England.

The exteriors of the churches are generally unadorned, as can be seen in this photograph. When I was there, although the sign said the church was open, in fact it was locked, and it was only after I and a couple of other visitors had been hanging around for a while that a lady appeared bearing the keys to allow us in to the building.

Also of note in the area are the churches just outside Oviedo itself - one of which was originally a summer residence for King Ramirez of Asturias.
Not directly concerned with this, but worthy of note as the oldest church in Spain is the little church of St John the Baptist just outside the city of Palencia. St John the Baptist uses Roman materials in its construction and although no longer in use as a church it is a testimony to the antiquity of Spain's Christian heritage.

Monday, 1 June 2009

All together now...

I see on CWN that progress is apparently being made on fixing a common date for Easer to be celebrated by the various Christian denominations. One cannot help remembering how at one time celebrating Easter at different times in different churches was held to be a scandal.

We might get it right at Easter, but how about other times?

I recently had a 'phone call from someone in Scotland who was going to be working in Luton during the week and he wanted to know when Masses were on Thursday for the Ascension. Unlike Scotland, England and Wales no longer celebrate the Ascension on the fortieth day after Easter, so this poor fellow missed out on both counts. He didn't get it on Thursday because he was here and didn't get it on Sunday because he was back home!

There might be logic in it somewhere, but it escapes me.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The Holy Spirit comes to Luton?

Some might say that this image of a dove on the church windows on the eve of Pentecost was a miracle. Others (perhaps more correctly_ would say that a pigeon flew into the church window and left a mark on it - birds being worse than people at discerning sheet glass before their eyes!

In any event I would see it as a word addressed to us. If the Holy Spirit is battering Himself at the windows, desperate to get in, then what are we doing about it? We don't need to worry about what God is doing - He knows His business. We have to worry about whether we are keeping the Holy Spirit out, or whether we are receptive to Him. Are we set in our ways and apathetic in our faith - or are we ready to accept the challenge that He will bring us.

Make no mistake, He will bring us a challenge. But He will also lead us most surely on the road that leads us to God. He will brush aside our apathy, our small-mindedness, our half-heartedness, and will reveal to us in all its glory the word of Jesus Christ - the Word that has been safeguarded by the Church which Christ founded; the Word that will lead us to everlasting glory.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy love.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Signs of the times

It is always a shame when people lose sight of the symbolic value of things that were - and sometimes still are - important; but in an increasingly materialist world it seems an inevitable progress. I read in the Tablet - and I'd better be careful in quoting in case I breach their copyright! - of Bishop Mone's 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination. Congratulations to the Bishop and thanks be to God for his many years of service to his people.

According to the article, however, Bishop Tartaglia in the course of the service of thanksgiving invited Bishop Mone to take his place on the cathedra at Paisley where he had sat as Bishop for so long. The congregation applauded this gesture. Let me say that on the human level it was a fine gesture. Bishop Tartaglia wished to indicate that his precursor as Bishop was still a Bishop, and retained a place in the hearts and lives of the people of the Diocese. That is fine and good, and well done Bishop Tartaglia for not wanting to hold centre stage for himself. And yet...

The Bishop's cathedra is not simply a chair or a place to sit. It is a visible symbol of the Bishop's authority. I do not think that Bishop Tartaglia was saying that he wished to be subject to Bishop Mone's authority! To sit in the cathedra is not simply a sign of being a good chap - it is a sign of the authority of the apostles carried by the Bishop in the local church. While praising Bishop Tartaglia's gesture, it also seems sad to me that the symbolic value of the cathedra seems to have been forgotten by him and his people.

This is not just nit-picking. In the Church we are dealing so much with those realities that cannot be discerned by human senses, and so the value of symbols needs to be very much in the forefront of our minds. I knew one priest (now dead, God rest him) who used to argue that when people no longer saw the relevance of a symbol we might as well get rid of it. I would urge that we rediscover the symbols and signs of our faith; that we teach them and love them; that we hold them closely to us and pass them on to the future. For we are not materialists, but realists.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Wonders of the world

The most splendid sight on a recent trip into Spain was the central lantern-tower of Burgos Cathedral. The Cathedral complex has been declared a World Heritage Site - not not surprisingly, for I do not think anything like it exists elsewhere. One might wonder whether the architect was familiar with Ely Cathedral: but here, in 1540, following the collapse of the original tower built by Juan de Colonia, the concept was even more audacious. The transition from the four sided tower to the octagonal lantern is masterfully handled, and the tower itself contains two levels of windows and is vaulted: but the vaulting ribs are not infilled with stone but with glass, permitting a huge influx of light into the Cathedral. The Flamboyant Gothic devoration on the pillars serves as a final flourish setting off the whole construction. The architect obviously liked the idea because at least two other chapels within the cathedral are partly vaulted with glass - though this is the tour de force.

Beneath the tower are the graves of Maurice the Englishman (the Bishop who really got the work on the Cathedral started) and the great Spanish hero known as El Cid, and his wife.

To the right is the vault of the Chapel of the Constable at the Eastern end of the Cathedral, containing the tombs of the Constable Don Pedro Fernandez de Velasco and his wife Dona Mencia de Mendoza, sculpted in Carrara marble. They were the founders of this chapel, designed by Simon de Colonia in the early fifteenth century, a decade or so after Don Pedro's death.

Finally here, a general view of the great Cathedral showing the exterior of the great lantern, and to the right the Chapel of the Constable - we can expect more posts from Spain over the days ahead!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

All things come in time

I was recently reminded that my blog was still stuck in the snow.

Well, some things take time. It has taken me seven and a half years of being at St Martin's to get round to visiting the remains of Dunstable Priory just up the road. Dunstable was once one of the great towns of England. It boasted a royal palace - part of which remains as a pub! Here Edward I's beloved Queen Eleanor rested on her journey to burial at Westminster - though the NatWest Bank now occupies the site of the former Eleanor Cross.

The remains of the Priory sadly consist of the nave only of the ancient church, together with about two thirds of the facade - including the sadly vandalized triumphal arch of the Great West door which would once have been a splendour of stone carving. Interestingly enough, because of the importance of the town and the wish of King Henry VIII to have smaller dioceses, following the suppression of the monasteries the Priory Church survived intact despite the demolition of the monastic buildings. The plan was for Dunstable Priory to become a Cathedral (as happened at St Albans and at Gloucester) for the county of Bedford, and plans even went as far as selecting the first Bishop of Dunstable. However, following Henry's break with Rome the scheme came to nothing and over the following years most of the church was destroyed as it became a convenient quarry for local people wanting building stone.

One wonders how the history of Dunstable might have changed had it in fact become a Cathedral City.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Nw is the winter....

Before it all becomes a distant memory, I thought I'd publish this picture of St Martin's in the snow. It's amazing how much is disrupted these days when we have a moderately heavy snowfall such as this. I suppose it's because we've got unused to it - and probably also because some loonie will come up with all sorts of 'Health and Safety' regulations concerning what can and (more usually) can't be done.

Still, I hope we all made the most of it, because who knows how long it will be before we see it again!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

...we play endlessly

...could be a reference to the weather at the moment. Working in the office yesterday evening I looked up to see a few youths throwing snowballs at each other in the garden. It was in my mind to point out to them that this wasn't a public area - but then I thought, why? They're doing no harm - just enjoying thmselves in a way that is proper for boys to do!

The heading refers to the Icelandic band Sigur Ros whose album Meth suth i eyrum vith spilum endalaust I have been listening to for the last few days. (With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly) In fact I've been listening to almost nothing else for the last five days. Just occasionally an album comes along which is a once in a lifetime experience. The fact that the band don't see any need to translate from Icelandic to English for an international market is perhaps a sign of their confidence.

The album itself is a thing of rare beauty and depth. It's difficult to think of much to compare it with. As the songs are sung one finds fun, wonder, passion, glory and comfort at different times. Sadly (not speaking Icelandic) I don't know the words of any of the songs and am therefore forming impressions based on the music itself. Perhaps with a track titled 'Gobbledigook' it doesn't matter too much. This is a light hearted stomp. But a song such as 'Festival' with its hints (conscious or otherwise) of Sibelius' Andante Festivo, it might be helpful to know the words. Ara batur is a track of hypnotic beauty gradually building up to grandeur. Illgresi forms a good contrast - quieter and meditative mainly for voice and guitar.

None of the songs on this album are neccesarily what you expect, but everything is better!

In short, go out and buy it! My other 2000 or so CDs have not been touched these few days.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Away from it all (2)

Let's try again, here with a picture of the outside of Barfreston church. In fact, it is clear that the lesser arches on the inside would not have had apses for their altars.

To the left of the wheel window is a figure (now headless) of a man on horseback, reminiscent of similar figures found in many French churches, and many in the empire also - most famously at Bamberg Cathedral in Franconia.

This 'atmospheric' shot of the church of St Nicholas at Ash shows the weather during these few days. The sun was shining through a bright fog as it neared the close of the afternoon and I ended the day (and this post) in Sandwich, which claims to be the country'smost complete medieval town. Its days of prosperity are undeniably past as present day Sandwich does not actually occupy the full space within the old port's ancient walls. Still, well worth a visit and in the village of Worth, where I was staying I was really made to feel at home and welcome. That says a lot.

Away from it all

Away from it all in Kent, by the seaside, I must have missed all the ceremonies of the swearing in of president Obama and so much else that is happening in the world. However, a few days after getting back it began to seem that I had never been away. It doesn't take long to catch up on what's happening in the world.
On a very enjoyable break driving round the back roads and side roads and cart tracks of Kent I did, as always, come across some wonders to be seen.

First among them was the church at the tiny village of Barfreston - one of the most sumptuous Norman churches in the whole country. The interior is dominated by the great threefold triumphal arch. The two side arches may have contained apses, with their own altars. Both interior and exterior are dominated by a wealth of carving. The Normans may have tended to build fairly simple buildings from an architectural point of view compared to the Gothic ages, they decorated them with a wealth of almost baroque imagination. The wild carving on the tympanum over the main door is a masterpiece of Norman work influenced by either Celtic or perhaps more probably Scandinavian art. The central figure of Christ is seated as is customary, within a mandorla - but the chaotic swirlings of foliage around Him are not typical at all! Above Christ is the figure of a Bishop - presumably St Nicholas, to whom the church is dedicated.
For some reason, the blog won't let me post any more pictures here! I shall maybe put a couple more on later - if it's in a better frame of mind. The remarkable East end is dominated by the richly carved wheel window. Likr the tympanum, this was work where presumably the stone carvers were allowed to let their minds run riot - and they did have extrememly fertile imaginations - not only carving scenes such as the signs of the Zodiac and the labours of the months, but also such wonderful scenes as a bear playing a
harp while a human being dances to its tune!

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year.
In the face of so much that is happening in the world we might be forgiven for asking: what is happy about it?
Our faith does not deny the evil that happens in the world. It does not demand that we ignore it. It assures us that God is in charge. And it is because of this that we have hope.
I cannot change much of what is done in the world. I cannot bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit down together to talk. I cannot prevent one terrorist outrage. I cannot turn the hearts of children towards their parents, and of parents towards their children. I cannot prevent a mother and her boyfriend from killing a child. I cannot prevent a mother from arranging the kidnapping of her child for financial benefit.
But this does not mean that I am helpless.
In the face of all that is evil I express my own hope and confidence in the promises of God. And this is what brings me hope.

The fact of the Incarnation is a sign that there is hope in the world despite the incredible ammount of evil thst is to be found in it. There is hope precisely because God has come into the world. He does not simply permit this suffering, but He shares in it.

What, then, can I do. I can seek to make Christ more present in ky own life. I can seek to become more loving, more patient, more prayerful. This is what is needed. This is all that is needed.

If I become more prayerful then I will also become more generous, more tolerant, more patient. I will become a better and more faithful witness to the Gospel of Christ. And in this Year of Grace 2009 what more could I ask?