What’s in a name?

4th Sunday of Easter; Good Shepherd Sunday; Vocations Sunday.
Last Sunday is called by all of the above, all are true and all shine a light onto a different aspect of this feast.

It is only the 4th Sunday of Easter!

As we feast longer than we fast we still have the 5th and 6th Sundays of Easter to party! There is also a 7th Sunday but since the Feast of the Ascension was moved from the Thursday to this Sunday some years ago we lose this final Sunday. Which I think is a great pity. It makes me feel short changed as suddenly we only have 6 weeks of Easter rather than 7. Also I like gathering with my worshipping community outside of Sundays and Holy Days of obligation offer us this opportunity. And lastly I grew up with the Feast being inextricably linked with the day on which it was celebrated…Ascension Thursday and for me it will be for ever so.

Whether we are in the Liturgical Year A (Matthew) B (Mark) or C (Luke) we hear the Gospel of John proclaiming Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In fact we hear Jesus Himself proclaim that He is the Good Shepherd, for He says ‘I AM…’ just one of the seven I AM statements that John has Jesus speak. As a woman who loves metaphor these seven I AM statements speak straight to my heart but for the purposes of this particular post they stand in evidence that one name does not fit all.

I-am1

Throughout the world this Sunday is also Vocations Sunday. Whilst the term Vocation has taken on a myriad of loosely connected meanings today, for the Church it had a very particular meaning. Vocations are about one’s state of life. Thus Marriage, Priesthood (including the Permanent Diaconate) or Religious Life are all Vocations to which God can call us. The main difference in these Vocations and a vocation (for example to teaching) is that through their Sacramental nature the Church sees these states of life as permanent, irrevocable and in self- giving to others. Although all states of life are deemed to have equal importance, in reality priesthood is upheld as THE Vocation. As a mother of boys I still feel a failure as neither of them has been called to the priesthood. Yes I know that I would rather die than give either of them to an institution which I see as abusive of our secular priests, but somehow, somewhere, despite everything I have swallowed the insidious belief that a good catholic mother is one who raises her sons for the priesthood. (When I quieten this voice, I am profoundly grateful that they still believe in the Lord and live lives of faith.)

This Sunday also invites us to raise money through a second collection for the training of those in Priestly formation. According to the latest figures it costs in the region of £26-27,000 per year, per man in formation. When I worked for a charity that trained lay people for parish ministry, the diocese refused to support us to the tune of £10,000 per year to help with admin costs and bursaries. The students, who gained a Foundation Degree, paid their own fees, but as a charity we still needed to pay rent and normal overheads. So yes this is a personal gripe but it also leads to wider questions of how we form our priests.

To have a financial collection for only one third of what the Church sees as a Vocation, which in itself is not open to all the baptised, seems unjust which is perhaps why in my parish the collection for these men was announced as raising funds for future Leaders of the Church. Except of course by denying the real reason for the collection my pp exposed how he and many others see their Vocation. Rather than see themselves as shepherds or pastors they see themselves and only themselves as leaders. They can not distinguish governance and authority with priesthood. Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium calls for priests to be more like shepherds, shepherds who not only know but live in such close proximity that they smell like their sheep. That is often a far cry from the image presented as a leader.

Yet it should come as no surprise that some priests see themselves as Leaders. The way in which they are trained is elitist and expensive. Sent to seminaries, often away from the world, protected from real life, they are taught in very small classes, in very large, cold and financially crippling buildings.

I believe that we need priests. I believe that good education and formation is essential. I believe that we need to model priesthood not as cult but as servant. And I believe that governance and priesthood are not forever and inevitably linked. Thus I believe that the way we train our priests needs to change. Rather than separating these men from the world, they could get their theology degree at a university which at the moment costs considerably less than what it costs in a seminary. They could live together in small communities under the supervision of a parish priest which would again bring the cost down but more importantly enable them to model base communities and be spaces of prayer for those who could join them. They would see at first hand the needs of those to whom they are called to serve; they would see how hard parents work to bring their children up in the faith, the damage caused by some of the rules of our church, how often a Catholic education is the tail that wags the catechetical dog. They might begin to understand and they would indeed smell like sheep.

What vibrancy they could bring to our parishes and what vibrancy and places of formation our parishes could be to them.

However disparate these names for last Sunday appear, they are, without doubt to me, linked. We live as an Easter People, we know the end of the story and we are called to live as a saved and redeemed people. This is possible because of Jesus the Good Shepherd who knows us intimately and whose voice we learn to recognise through Scripture, prayer and one another. We can dare to live our Vocations as we know that the Risen Lord only calls us to good things. And of course we have the Good Shepherd on which to model our Vocation which must be one of service not leadership.

icon Good Shepherd cappa magna 1

 

 

The gift of abundant love

Last week the young people with whom I have been working in preparation for Confirmation participated in a Reconciliation Service.

The entered the church anxious and unsure of what to do and what to expect. For those of us who work with young people this comes as no surprise; the sacrament of Reconciliation is not high on their priorities. Many, unless they attend Catholic Schools, might have only vague memories of their first reconciliation just before making their first Holy Communion.

‘Do I go into the box?’ – if you want to.

‘What do I say? I haven’t learnt that prayer.’ – it’s ok it’s on your sheet.

‘What if I forget what to say?’ – ask the priest to help you.

‘I can’t tell him, it’s too awful’ – Oh my dear child, and I gave her a hug.

And so after the Gospel and a guided examination of conscience based upon it* all the Candidates accepted the invitation for personal confession. Sitting in such a prayerful silence, they thought about their life with the Lord, entered into His love and sought His forgiveness.

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It was a graced moment.

Now I have to come clean. I like the Sacrament of Reconciliation: I like the promise, I like the theology, I like the symbol, I like imagery, I like the Rite and the Ritual. However that is not to say I find it easy. ‘Fessing up to stuff is never easy, but I do believe that it is easier to confess, to seek forgiveness than not. Of course a good Confessor is important and I have chosen mine carefully. I have been with my Spiritual Director and Confessor for almost 10 years – there is not much he doesn’t know.  He sees the patterns I miss, he holds the bigger picture when I become mired down, he reminds me of the hope when I despair.

It is through prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation that I have come to know the God of second chances. No matter what we have done, or failed to do, the Lord calls, invites, nudges us time and time again to repent, to turn back to the Him. As in the story of the Prodigal Son He waits for us, even humiliating Himself by hitching up his robes and running to meet us, clasping us in His unconditional forgiving embrace.

prodigal_father_christian_sculpture_lg.jpg by Tom White

prodigal father christian sculpture by Tom White

We are all as Ignatius calls us ‘loved sinners’ and therefore it is possible to approach the sacrament as one that is of help to our faith journey rather than something that shames and humiliates.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the many signs of God’s love for us, and God loves us with such an abundant love that we need not fear when we feel the Lord gently drawing us back to be the person we are called to be.

*Here is the examination of conscience based on Matthew 5:13-16.

If you use it and find it helpful please drop me a message.

 

YOU ARE the salt of the earth.

Salt seasons:

When have you failed to make a positive contribution to your

worshipping community?

To your family?  To your school?

To your relationships?

Salt preserves:

When have you failed to keep something fresh?

When have you allowed a relationship to go stale through inattention?

How do you keep your relationship with the Lord from going stale?

Salt cleanses/ purifies:

When is it difficult to speak out in moral situations?

When have you talked about someone? Spreading gossip, dirtying someone’s

character?

When have you spread untruths about someone to feel better about yourself?

Salt adds buoyancy:

How often do you allow yourself to come before the Lord and just be?

How does your behaviour keep others afloat?

Salt increases thirst:

Does your behaviour invite others to ask about Jesus?

Salt is valuable:

Do you believe you are made in the image and likeness of God?

How does this affect your actions?

Where do you not value in yourself?

Or others?

What do you really value? When has your focus been on things of little value?

When have you allowed an invitation to make a difference slip through your hands?

Salt spoils: 

When have you not been gentle with yourself or others?

When have you been too loud? Too self righteous? Unwilling to listen to others?

When have you behaved in a way that is unhealthy for you? Your relationship with others? With the Lord?

YOU ARE the Light of the World

Light illuminates: Where do you take the Light of Christ for granted?

When are you aware of needing Light to help you?

It cannot be hidden:

What actions would you like to hide from the light?

Light reveals:

How often do you ignore what Christ reveals to you?

Light comforts: 

Where have you not comforted those in need?

Light radiates: 

Where do you not allow the truth to shine through?

What stops you from being truly beautiful?

Light guides:                                          

When do you cause others to stumble?

What stops you from being a guide?

Light creates shadow:                           

Which actions work out of your shadow side?

Feel free to use this examination of conscience with groups but please remember to reference me, thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Viaticum

This week’s post has been difficult to pin down. Glimpses if ideas floating just beyond my reach and I wonder, again, why I have set myself this task.

A message popped up on facebook a couple of days ago from a friend, a woman of faith whose presence blesses my journey. One of a group of women with whom I pray more often online than face to face as distance and life means we only get together every few months.
We know that we are held in prayer by one another and yet it is easy to take this for granted.

Many years ago the headteacher of my children’s Primary School, gave us a talk as part of our children’s Holy Communion preparation.
Although I have forgotten much of the talk and can only vaguely recall the topic (something about being a Catholic Parent), well over a decade later I still carry with me one of his remarks: the power of offering to pray for someone.

In the face of someone’s suffering we can often feel helpless, wondering what we might do to help, wanting to take away their pain, fill the space of their loss, needing to fix their demise. Often of course we can do none of these things.
But there are things we can do. We can accompany them, walking with them over this painful terrain. We can listen to them process their pain through the telling and retelling of their story. And we can pray for them.

Offering to pray for someone is often said with the feeling that it is not quite good enough, or practical enough, (or maybe even embarrassment),  to be of any real help, ‘I wish I there was something I could do but all I can offer is a prayer’ or some such phrase that speaks loudly of our feelings of inadequacy.

And yet holding another in prayer is so very powerful.  When we offer to pray for someone we show that we take their concerns seriously, so seriously that we recognise that we can not rely on ourselves. When we are in the midst of illness, heartache, grief, worry, stress or anxiety, prayer is often our last resort. When all else fails…

I do not think that is what we mean to do but rather in the midst of the messiness of life we turn to ourselves rather than God. I know from my own messiness that I try to fix it first and only when I fail do I offer it to God. Not that I am espousing an interventionist God, far from it. But I do think that offering up what ever troubles us to God before we do anything can help us to see things differently. I know that  when I (eventually) remember to come into His Presence I change. As CS Lewis says ‘Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us’

Recalling how loved I am, how the Lord’s grace is ever present and abundant enables me to place myself in His trust, letting go of the outcome even if it is painful and difficult.

To offer to hold in name someone’s life and worries before the One who loves them is to trust that the Lord will and does concern Himself with them and their lives. Offering to pray for others when they are least able to pray for themselves is a great gift.

It is also a great witness, a gentle reminder that we are not alone, that the Incarnate Christ is our constant companion even if familiarity can sometimes breed contempt. Offering to pray for those we know is an explicit expression of our faith, of our trust in the Lord and a reminder that we are held and loved beyond measure.

‘Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the child of her womb?

Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. 

Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands’ Isaiah 49:15

And to know that you are being prayed for when the messiness is not as messy as it has been? Well that makes the heart soar and fills one with joy.

Oh and the message…’Thinking and praying for you’. Thank you my dear friend, thank you.

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The invitiation

This week the Church offers us an invitation to love. We are invited to enter into the love of the Trinity ever more deeply, and to experience the love God has for us.

6 OT Trinity Rublev

Lent is not about punishment, the Lord knows life is hard enough! Lent is a space in the year for us to focus consciously on our relationship with the One who calls us beloved. Lent is a place where we can go to look at our lives in the light of this abundant, unconditional Love. For some of us, or perhaps most of us, to accept that invitation will not be without some pain. To reflect on any relationship and discover that it is lacking is painful.

Lent is a time of transformation. When we see where things could be better; in us, in the way we love, in the way we live, another invitation is given. We are invited to reconfigure our lives, to repent, to turn back to the Living Lord who waits for us like the Father in the story of the Prodigal son. Every moment, God watches and waits for us, waits for us to realise that things are not right, to want to return. When we do He rushes to meet us and enfolds us in a welcome embrace. We only have to make the first step, He does the rest.

Lent is about forgiveness. It strengthens the transformation. that begins when we want to repent.

If Lent is the invitation, then it is to Easter that we are invited and there are three ways to prepare for the Feast: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.

These pillars of Lent are also not about punishment but are aides that enable us to see where changes need to made to our lives. I have lost count of the many times I mean to send a donation various charities and never seem to get around to it. Lent affords me the opportunity to focus on the why of that inability and to put a practice in place that might change it. Some research has shown that for a new habit to become embedded takes 6 weeks.

Spending time in prayer, possibly discovering a new way to pray, a new way to listen and talk with the Lord is an exciting prospect. As Keirkergaard says, we pray not to change God but to change ourselves. And ultimately that is what Lent does, it changes us.

Fasting is more that just going without, it can be a way of seeking solidarity, even for a short while, with our sisters and brothers for whom fasting is a way of life not a choice. It can be a way of refocusing on what is more important – our family, our faith, our community. It is also a way of exercising self control. Self control, rather than being something that binds us, can be a way of cutting the ties to the things that enslave us and living in freedom when its motivation is love.

Lent invites us to spend time renewing and deepening our relationship with the Triune God. Say YES to the invitation, spend time in prayer, fast and give to those in need so that we can participate in the life of Christ, transforming us so that we may ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”.

Happy Lent!

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Formed by Friendship

My friend in faith and spiritual sister is not well.

She first told us last Good Friday that the cancer had returned. We journeyed Passiontide in all it’s fullness last year. The Triduum was suddenly horribly real.

This week she called again.

She was worse.

For the past year we had refused to believe that she was not going to get better. We had besieged heaven with our prayers, our novenas, our Masses.

She Was Going To Be Well. It was going to be ok.

And we waited. We waited for the news that the chemo had worked.

While we waited we grabbed greedily at any opportunity to meet. We had afternoon tea in town, we went to the theatre, we had dinner, we phoned weekly. Then the news came, the chemo had worked, she was not out of the woods but things were on the up.

Over Christmas and in to the New year, things tailed off slightly and so did my conscious prayer for her because I began to forget. And I was justified in forgetting because when we spent time together, even last Saturday: She. Was. Well.

Really Well.

Three days later her reality shook me out of my comfort zone. I have to face up to the fact that my lovely, wonderful, talented, beautiful, faith-filled sister will not be alive for as long as I would like her to be. For as long as she would like to be.

And so this week I have been reflecting on the difference she has made to my life, the richness she has brought to it. 

There is no doubt she, through our friendship has formed me. I am not the person I was when we first met, all those years ago on holiday (www.catholicpeoplesweeks.org.uk).

Through our friendship she has constantly affirmed me,
as a mother,
as a friend,
as a liturgist
and as one who is beloved of God.
She loves me, in spite of my shortcomings.
She both prays with me and encourages me to spend time alone with God.
She enables me to see where to find God alive and at work in my life.
She laughs with me, oh how we laugh!
And this week, not for the first time, she cried with me.

Yes, she is still alive but I want to tell her how much she means to me before it is too late.

I want her to know how very blessed I am because of our friendship.
I want her to know that I love her, and that I will miss her.
I want her to know that if we never make another memory it doesn’t matter.
I can never forget her – I carry her with me in all that I am today.

May I ask for you to pray for her and her family…and those who also love her.

Fish messages for Jane

Perhaps this post should have been called the inadequacy of words, or maybe that’s for some other time.