Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

My Photo
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Lindisfarne and her Saints

At one time, the kingdom of Northumbria in the north of the British Isles was the cradle of Christianity in those islands. King Oswald (who was later sainted) gave the islands of Lindisfarne and Inner Farne to St Aidan and from the little island of Lindisfarne, which even today is cut off from the mainland during high tide, a monastery and diocese extended its civilizing and Christian influence throughout the land. As such, it is also commonly known as Holy Island. The Monastery (left) was sadly a victim of Viking attacks and later of Henry VIII who destroyed it during his Dissolution of the Monasteries. Lindisfarne is renown for producing the sublime Lindisfarne Gospels, and the sanctity of its Celtic bishop-saints, namely, Aidan and Cuthbert (below, in a stained glass window from Bamburgh church, site of St Aidan's death).

Even today, Lindisfarne remains a popular centre for retreats and Celtic spiritualilty. Having been there several times and also been to the church built on the reputed site of St Aidan's death (on Bamburgh), I can testify to the silence and peace of the wind-tossed island, with the swirling grey sea all around. From here, one can clearly see the power of God and His beauty.

In 2001, I gave a talk on St Aidan and his influence, which I quote in part from below:

"In 635, Aidan travelled to Northumbria with a band of monks. They were warmly welcomed by king Oswald who gave them the Island of Lindisfarne near his royal villa at Bamburgh. Here they built a monastery and a church with rough stone walls and a thatched roof, and here at Lindisfarne, Aidan established his See as bishop of the Northumbrian people. In effect, he ministered to the area covered by York, since that See was still vacant. Although he was a bishop, Aidan established a monastery on Lindisfarne under the Rule of St Columba. This monastery was called the English Iona, for from it the paganism of Northumbria was gradually dispelled and ‘barbarian customs’ undermined. Lindisfarne was a centre of learning and civilization having alumni like St Wilfrid of York and possibly Benedict Biscop (who founded Jarrow & Wearmouth). The famed Lindisfarne Gospels were produced here and a facsimile copy is housed in this College.

Aidan was a monk and a missionary, living among the people and travelling throughout the north preaching, instructing and baptising. He divided the time of the year between missionary work, long periods with his monks at Lindisfarne and solitary periods in prayer on the island of Farne. He was tireless in caring for the welfare of the poor and of slaves, using the alms given to him by the king and his nobles to feed the needy and liberate the captive. Among these freed slaves were perhaps 12 English boys whom Aidan took to his monastery to brought up there and trained as priests. Two of these we know by name as Eata who later became bishop of Lindisfarne and Chad who became bishop of the East Saxons. Again we see in Aidan the practical side of pastoral care which goes hand in hand with the spiritual message of Christianity. Aidan founded churches in the course of his travels as well as monasteries and convents for women as well. St Hilda who was abbess of Whitby received her veil from him.

Aidan was realistic about the conversion of England and knew it would take time, and the foundations mentioned above were set up to carry on his work. But above all, his success in converting the Northumbrians must be due to his personal example of humility and patience. Oswald too contributed to this because he travelled with Aidan on his journeys so that he could translate for the Irish monk. When Oswald was killed in battle some years later against the pagan south, he was revered as a martyr. One famous story serves to highlight Aidan’s Christian example. St Bede recounts how the king had given bishop Aidan a fine horse for his journeys. One day, Aidan came across a beggar seeking alms. The saint immediately dismounted and gave his horse with all it’s royal trappings to the beggar. When the king berated Aidan and said that he could have given a less worthy horse to the beggar, Aidan said: “O King, what are you saying? Surely this son of a mare is nor dearer to you than that son of God?” The king subsequently recanted and vowed never again to “form any opinion… as to how much… to give to the sons of God.” And Aidan praised Oswald for his humility. Clearly, bishop and king had a close relationship and they worked together to spread the Gospel.

Oswald died shortly after and was succeeded by Oswin who also worked with the bishop. Finally, on the night of 31 August in 651, a boy was watching over his sheep on the hills above the river Leader in Scotland. In the darkness, he saw a vision of a great host of angels carrying the soul of a most holy man to heaven. He subsequently discovered that this great man was a bishop, Aidan who had died that night near Bamburgh where he had a mission centre. That boy’s name was Cuthbert who would later become one of the most famous of the Northumbrian saints and future bishop of Lindisfarne.

Aidan was buried in the cemetery on Lindisfarne but was later translated into the sanctuary of the church dedicated to St Peter built on that island. Today we visited Paulinus’ See at York but tomorrow we shall see the real heart of Christianity in the north. From Lindisfarne and under the direction of its first bishop, St Aidan, the Church grew. Cuthbert built on the foundations he laid, Wilfrid (whom he taught) organized the Church in Northumbria and Bede of Jarrow revived learning.

As an interesting note, I would like to point out that Bede’s only gripe with Aidan was that he celebrated Easter according to the Celtic custom (supposedly handed down by St John) whereas he adopted the Roman custom (from St Peter). It’s interesting how liturgical preferences and disagreements have always been the stuff of the Church but great saints serving God and His people can be found on all sides, so long as “good sense and moderation” is allowed to prevail."
On this day, the Church in England celebrates the memory of St Aidan, founder of the monastery of Lindisfarne and its first bishop, and all the saints of Lindisfarne. It is an occasion to give thanks to God for these saints from Ireland who brought the faith to the English from Iona, that other great Christian monastery and missionary centre. It is an opportunity to remember how God used a place like Lindisfarne as the centre for the evangelization of England and we pray that He re-enact this work in our lifetime and raise up saints like Aidan again.

O loving God, who called your servant Aidan from the peace of a Cloister to re-establish the Christian mission in northern England, and gave him the gifts of gentleness, simplicity, and strength: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Incidentally, Today is also the 48th anniversary of the Independence of Malaysia from British rule. May God continue to bless my motherland and her peoples, prosper her and invest her with peace, harmony and unity.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

'Organized Religion'

It is not unusual to come across someone who says they believe in God, or even in Christ, but they don't like "organized religion" and so they choose no religious affiliation nor to be part of the Church. The very idea is rather strange to me... if I were to deconstruct that kind of statement, I could surmise that such a person wants "dis-organized religion", which translates as the utter chaos and disorder of relativism. Perhaps this is also linked to a vague but individualistic idea that 'spirituality' is a personal search for the divine, for that which is Other than oneself. But this search is ultimately sad and in vain, for how can a person by oneself attain to the Godhead, which is wholly Other? Hence, the vain and frankly, ridiculous, recourses to crystals, sacred dance, dream catchers and the like. All these attempt to catch hold of that which cannot be constrained nor attained by mere human effort. Others still reject 'organized religion' as second-hand truths, preferring instead to find God by one's own first-hand, mystical or spiritual efforts. But this too is unnecessary and ultimately flawed. As Pope Benedict XVI noted in 'Truth and Tolerance, "In the final stage of such an experience, the 'mystic' will no longer be able to say to his God 'I am Thine'; the expression he uses us 'I am Thee'" (p33). Given the rampant individualism of our age, it is easy to see why such notions are attractive, but they are also self-delusory.

On the contrary, the wonder, the good news, of Christian faith is that we believe in a God who has loved us so much as to Himself be born as one of us and in Christ Jesus, reveal the depth of His love and purposes for us. God Himself comes in search of us, He finds us, reaches out to save us and He shares our human condition. We need not seek Him by fallible and fictional methods. Rather, by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, "God is no longer the Wholly Other, the incomprehensible One, but he is now also the One who is near us, who has become identified with us who touches us and is touched by us, the one whom we can receive and who will receive us" (Ratzinger, God and Man, 222). What other religion knows of such love? Indeed, no religion could conceive of such kenosis, were it not revealed in time and history, in the birth of Christ, two millenia ago in Bethlehem. The fact is that Christianity is based on "a historical event, something that really happened as a concrete event. In the history of religions, this direct connection with real history is among the distinctive features of the Christian faith" (ibid., 216).

As such, this faith had to be seen, experienced and witnessed, and then passed on in some way, across the span of history. The means by which this faith, this contact with the risen Lord Jesus and His apostles is maintained is through the body of the Church. The Church exists to witness to this and any who wish to encounter Christ would be foolish to reject her. Indeed, we need the Church to teach us what she knows, as the witness to this Faith in Jesus Christ for two thousand years. For, as the Holy Father said, "I believe that by belonging to the Church, and living with her faith, one is given a share in the inspiration allotted to this family. The Church can open your horizons for you and deepen your insight into things you could not understand on your own... she is my home, my extended family, and this I am bound to her in love, just as one is bound to one's family" (ibid., 342).

Nonetheless, some people distinguish between 'religion' and 'faith' and they see religion as human socio-cultural constructs that hinder the message of God, or 'spirituality' or indeed, faith. I think we can be honest and say that sometimes, sinful behaviour in the Church can serve to be an obstacle rather than a help in her role as "universal sacrament of salvation". Fr Edward Schillebeeckx, OP clearly thinks this, but he also confesses that "despite everything, the Church is the community of God... and a 'pure Church', well, that is from the human and Christian point of view, a heresy" (God is New Each Moment, 61). As the Pope has said above, the Church is a family to which love binds us and despite all her failings, we do not abandon her, just as one cannot and does not divorce one's family. Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI writes (in refutation of Barth), "To me, the concept of Christianity without religion is contradictory and illusory. Faith has to express itself as a religion and through religion, though of course it cannot be reduced to religion... For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, 'religion' is a subdivision of the virtue of righteousness and is, as such, necessary, but it is of course quite different from the 'infused virtue' of faith" (Truth and Tolerance, 50).

The self-righteous illusion of rejecting 'organized religion' for a purer form of 'spirituality' or 'faith' is heresy, as Schillebeeckx says, and also deeply deceptive. I believe that at its core is individualistic relativism which rejects any notion of a revealed religion which one has to conform one's life to. It also rejects a communal or family-based tradition and unity of belief which is handed down through the ages and thus impacts on one's life from without oneself. The individualist wants to be self-determining, independent of exterior influence or teaching. The relativist believes that all ways to a 'spirituality' are valid, so long as one finds it for oneself. The saddest thing about such ideas is that they have already fallen prey to influences without oneself - the popular media and culture and the tragic mindset of this age that beset them constantly; they are brainwashed. Were they to truly look within themselves, they might perceive the voice of conscience and the Holy Spirit, liberating their minds from the shackles of conformity, leading them on to seek Truth which is found ultimately in Christ, through His holy Church. Thus, the words of St Paul, from Sunday's Second Reading should resonate in our hearts: "Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect" (Rom 12:2).

Finally, as the Holy Father said only last week to the one million young people gathered at Marienfeld:
"Religion constructed on a 'do-it-yourself' basis cannot ultimately help us. It may be comfortable, but at times of crisis we are left to ourselves. Help people to discover the true star which points out the way to us: Jesus Christ! Let us seek to know him better and better, so as to be able to guide others to him with conviction. This is why love for Sacred Scripture is so important, and in consequence, it is important to know the faith of the Church which opens up for us the meaning of Scripture. It is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church as her faith grows, causing her to enter ever more deeply into the truth (cf. Jn 16:13)."
That is the role of 'organized religion' - to lead us to the fullness of the Truth, to Jesus Christ. Without it, without the Church, one is left to one's own vain devices, foundering on the shoals of individualism, tossed on the tempests of relativism and wrecked on the rocks of contemporary faddism.

The photo above on the right is taken from the Benedictine Sisters at Sandsprings - a most... eclectic site indeed. Thanks to Angry Twins for pointing them out to me.

Monday, August 29, 2005

A Family-filled Weekend

The weekend was a wonderful family occasion. The festivities for my grandparents' joint celebration of their 60th wedding anniversary and 80th birthdays began on Friday, when the entire Lew extended family - my four aunts and their respective families and my father and our family - gathered at the family home in Kuala Lumpur for a photograph session with professional photographers (left). The epic photo shoot took almost 6 hours! It was a rather chaotic time, with children running around, teenagers talking excitedly, adults shouting instructions and my grandmother getting agitated by the heat of the lamps and the lateness of the hour. As my grandfather observed, the 'problem' with our family gatherings is that everyone wants to be the boss; "too many Chiefs and not enough Indians"! As such, everyone is giving instructions (often conflicting) and no one is listening!! But I survived and a very tense start to the evening became more relaxed as we started to joke and laugh and the younger cousins clearly revelled in one anothers' company.

Saturday was the main day and we were busy in the hotel from morning until past midnight after the actual dinner party. There were rehearsals to organize, last minute arrangements and the ladies had to have their hair done! Finally, the hour for the dinner came and the guests in their finery gathered. The ballroom (right) looked marvellous and as the evening wore on, the mood in the ballroom became more convivial, relaxed and we had a good time despite technical hitches (which are almost inevitable, in my experience). It was really wonderful to have so many people present to celebrate with our family and to see so many 'long-lost' family members from all over the world. Many of my grand-aunts and grand-uncles and their children , I had not seen in over a decade so it was a revelation of sorts for us all! My grandparents were clearly happy but were tired by the end of the long day. Altogether, I felt this was a most successful evening, not least because of the camaraderie and family bonds that were re-established, despite all the stress and tension involved... but that is normal in my family (and I suspect most families)! 'The Star' newspaper, one of three English dailies in the country, reported the event here.

Sunday was a slow start for most, but I was glad to get up earlier (when all was still quiet and calm) and go to Mass at the Cathedral, which was just 5 minutes from the hotel. To my surprise an Italian missionary from Mindanao, the Philippines came to say Mass and preach at St John's Cathedral. This was a marked improvement over the normal standard of preaching there! We had a relaxing afternoon and ended the day with another family dinner (crabs galore!) and then home to open the gifts which my grandparents received! This was yet another noisy and gregarious affair. My younger cousins gleefully ripped their way through the wrapping papers and there was much excitement as we uncovered the presents one by one. My grandparents watched the proceedings indulgently.

Altogether, I feel the weekend was very blessed. It reminded me of the qualities of family life which in many ways, prepares me to live in community too. The different characters, the tensions, misunderstandings and difficulties but also the genuine affection, patience, support and love for one another. I have been blessed with such a large and loving family and to have had my grandparents with me. This occasion gave me pause to reflect on how much they've changed and aged and how important a part of my life they are - I cannot imagine the past 2 years without them.

I thank the Lord for the gift of family and my grandparents and implore His continued blessings and graces upon them in the years ahead.

The photo above was taken with a friend after the dinner party. I am dressed in a barong Tagalog from Lumban, Laguna. Fr Allan OP and I had travelled out to that embroidery capital of the Philippines to select it and have it tailored especially for the event.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Sitivit in Te anima mea

The above taken from the Responsorial Psalm of today's Sunday Liturgy is a sort of motto in my life: "My soul is thirsting for You...". This thirsting for God brings to mind the immortal words of St Augustine of Hippo, whose feast falls today: "Our souls are restless Lord until they rest in You". It is this constant desire and longing for God, "like a dry, weary land without water", that keeps me moving forward on my pilgrim journey of Life, constantly seeking after Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This same restlessness leads me to reform my life, to purify my heart and intentions and with His grace, grow in holiness.

A similar sentiment is expressed in my favourite poem, one that speaks so eloquently to me and it reminds me of the opening lines of today's First Reading from Jeremiah. It is 'Holy Sonnet XIV' by John Donne:

"Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

I think a meditation on this will be fruitful reflection on today's Liturgy which speaks of the utter need of God's grace to transform us so that we begin to think in God's ways and live in His Spirit. I have written similarly about the need to deny ourselves, take up our Cross, and follow Christ at this previous post, which may be of interest to you.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Diversions for a (busy) weekend

This has been posted ahead of the date above.

This weekend promises to be busy, so there may not be time to update the blog over the weekend. I will try and prepare the Sunday reflection still and post it later on Sunday evening. What will I be doing? Read this.

However, I came across this wonderful idea by the ever-inventive Curt Jester. It's well worth checking out, especially for all computer strategy game fans out there! I know it's my dream game... along with a 'Sims' type game that allows us to build a cathedral and that ever-elusive Lego cathedral set!!

And Fr Ethan has a wonderful joke on his site, which (as with all the best jokes) is full of verisimilitude! The comments to that post also has a classic SJ vs OP joke! One of my favourites...

Friday, August 26, 2005

Vanitas Vanitatum!

St Augustine of Hippo, that great saint, bishop and Doctor of the Church will not be formally remembered this year because his feast falls on Sunday but he is particularly important to the Order of Preachers because it is his Rule that St Dominic adopted for his Order. The Rule of St Augustine is (unlike so many of his other writings!) rather succinct and it is full of compassion and 'common-sense'. As I was reading over it last night, this sentence caught my eye:

"Avoid singularity in dress, and strive to please others by your conduct and not by your clothes."

Over the last few days, my family, who is organising a huge party for my grandparents' 80th birthday and 60th wedding anniversary, has been agonizing over the seemingly simple question of "what to wear"! Hours have been spent in debate, argument and discussion on this issue and it has vexed me somewhat. I simply cannot understand why people get into such a state over finding the right outfit for a dinner party... One would have thought that so long as one dressed decently, with Christian modesty, in clean clothes, that would be acceptable. Unfortunately in the cultural melting-pot that is South East Asia, one agonizes over whether to wear a suit, or a Malaysian batik shirt, or Chinese wear, or (my preference) the elegant and simply beautiful barong Tagalog from the Philippines (shown above, with Daniel Jeffries). Women are in an even worse quandry as the choice expands to include the sari, the kebaya etc! Moreover, these questions take on an almost political nuance. Some have suggested that it would be odd for a non-Filipino (like myself) to wear the national shirt of the Filipinos to a Malaysian party. I might well retort that I am not European either nor Malay and see no reason why I should be stuffed up in a suit and tie nor a garish batik shirt!

Incidentally, it is mainly the many happy memories of people, places and experiences I have left behind in the Philippines which motivates me to wear the barong Tagalog. For me, that simple, hand-made shirt symbolises all that I love about the Filipino people and my year among them and it is this experience and love I want to bring to my family party. It just means so much more to me than any other suit or shirt I could get from a shop. I suppose in this way, I am a very sacramental person; some things I wear or do has a deeper meaning and symbolism than would be immediately apparent.

In the issue of clothing, I believe that St Augustine's Rule is full of wisdom. We should wear that which is decent and comfortable, reasonably presentable (for the occasion) but not ostentatious or aimed at drawing undue attention to oneself. For what matters, at this family event, is not so much what one wears but that we are present together to celebrate as a family and that we maintain the family in a bond of love. Nor should one's affection or loyalty to one's country or political stance be drawn into question by what one wears.

The bottom line is that many of the questions surrounding what one wears and the issue of vanity is motivated by an undue attention to society's superficial opinion of oneself. When one is concerned about what others think, one becomes very self-conscious about what one wears and what one looks like. It becomes what Alain de Botton calls "Status Anxiety" and he has written comprehensively about this in one of my favourite books of the year. Such superficiality does not appeal to me. It is much better that we measure a person by their conduct and what they do and say than how they look! It occurs to me that the Scriptures warn us time and again against judging a person by appearences or what they wear. Indeed, De Botton highlights Christianity and Philosophy among the 'solutions' to status anxiety...

Quite frankly, I welcome the day when I shall be given a habit to wear, which will innure me somewhat from these questions! However, I suspect that even then, in these days, one must ask oneself whether or not one should don the habit for every occasion, at all times!

St Augutine's Rule has yet more to say on the issue of clothing and is worth quoting from again:

"Try not to concern yourselves about being provided with clothes exactly suited to the changes of the season, still less about whether you receive the same which you had before or those which another had. Let everyone, however, be supplied with that which is necessary, And if any disputes or murmurs should arise among you upon this matter and one should complain that something not so good as he had before has now been given him and should think himself slighted in being made to wear the clothes formerly worn by another brother, reflect that much must be wanting in that inner garment of sanctity which should clothe the heart, when you contend about the mere raiment of the body."

It seems that, if one were to worry and fret excessively about what to wear, whether it be to a dinner party or the religious habit, then surely this indicates a need to become more detached, to grow in holiness and improve the conduct of one's life. These are sobering and wise words of guidance for me for this weekend and indeed, the years ahead!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Roamin' Roman visits Bologna et al.

The Roamin' Roman blog has lovely photos of a pan-European tour which is currently on-going, following WYD 2005. Of note to Dominicans is the trip to Bologna, to the Shrine and Basilica of our holy father, St Dominic and also a pilgrimage to the home of Bl Pier Giorgio Frassati, OP.

Worth checking out for those who don't mind arm-chair tours.

Christ-centred Parishes

The recent World Youth Day in Cologne (right) gave our Holy Father a chance to speak repeatedly to the youth of the Church on the centrality of Christ, especially in the Eucharist. But his words are not just for the young, or those who were in Germany; they are for the universal Church. Indeed, there is much to mull upon and draw inspiration from in the words of this gentle and teaching Pope.

At the ceremony welcoming the young people to Cologne, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the resounding words of his homily at his Installation Mass and said, "Be completely convinced of this: Christ takes from you nothing that is beautiful and great, but brings everything to perfection for the glory of God, the happiness of men and women, and the salvation of the world." These beautiful words, born of the Holy Father's richly lived experience and steadfast faith, places Christ at the central of human lives and of the cosmos. It is precisely this Christocentricity, so much at the core of the Second Vatican Council, that has still to be re-established and discovered in the parishes and dioceses of the Church. Before the Church can even bring Christ into the heart of the world, she has to find Him at the heart of her parishes and the Baptised.

All too often, I find parishes are struggling with dwindling numbers and indifferent parishioners, faced with ageing congregations and shrinking collections. Some have responded to this by trying to build 'community' and this is achieved by a host of social events, from bingo to lunches, toddlers clubs, youth clubs and concerts in church. This may be well, if our parishes were just social centres, but not enough if they are to be Christ-centres. As Dietrich von Hildebrand had the foresight to say in 1967:

"[Such activities] may have some temporary success in attracting people to church, in increasing parish activity. But they will not bring people closer to Christ; nor will they quench their deep thirst for God and for the peace that the world cannot give, that Christ alone can give. And the Kairos calls us to attract people to Christ, not merely to the parish."

(Trojan Horse in the City of God, 136)

That is clearly the crux of the matter - that people are attracted to Christ and not just to the parish. Interestingly, a lot of the above could be said of the state of parish liturgies as well - full of superficial activity but not spiritually nourishing in such a way as to ultimately draw people to Christ. This is not to disregard all the hard work and good intentions that parishes pour into their parish activities and even their 'liturgies' but it is a call for careful discernment and reform so that parish activities always strive to have Christ and the upbuilding of His Church as the focus, and not just to have a full parish-based social calendar.

As Pope Benedict commented in his Homily at the Mass at Marienfeld for WYD 2005, "Form communities based on faith! In recent decades movements and communities have come to birth in which the power of the Gospel is keenly felt. Seek communion in faith, like fellow travellers who continue together to follow the path of the great pilgrimage that the Magi from the East first pointed out to us. The spontaneity of new communities is important, but it is also important to preserve communion with the Pope and with the Bishops. It is they who guarantee that we are not seeking private paths, but are living as God’s great family, founded by the Lord through the twelve Apostles." Therefore, a Church-centred, faith-filled approach to building community is that which guarantees the centrality of Christ in our communities and indeed, in our lives.

This can often be tested by its fruit. Are parish communities vibrant in faith and thus witnessing communities that grow in love and holiness? Such communities naturally grow not only spiritually but numerically! For, it is natural that Christ-centred parishes will lead others to Him, who is their focus. Again, as the Holy Father told the youth, "Anyone who has discovered Christ must lead others to him. A great joy cannot be kept to oneself. It has to be passed on. In vast areas of the world today there is a strange forgetfulness of God." This forgetfulness is evident because parishes have forgotten to put Him at the centre of all their activities and events.

There is yet another fruit by which we may gauge a parish's spiritual health. Parish communities which are Christ-centred are also mindful of the 'littles ones' of God. As Yin Ee Kiong noted in the July 2005 issue of 'Catholic Asia News': "It's very well to run kindergartens, day care centres for old folks, officiate at weddings or funerals etc. These are important and necessary functions. But what about the wider Christian responsibilities regarding issues of injustice, human rights, religious freedom. The former activities are benign while the latter are fraught with risks. Church leaders are very good at risk free witnessing but shun away from anything that hints of risks... A Church that practices 'risk free' Christianity is only half a church." I would suggest though that this witnessing must first and foremost be a witnessing to Christ and be united with the first fruit mentioned above.

And how may our parishes become witnessing, faith-filled, people-attracting communities? Only if each person in a parish comes to know Christ and love and serve Him. They must first encounter Him in the Eucharist and the sacraments and in the teaching of the Church, coming from their parish priest. As Pope Benedict told the youth last week, "The encounter with Jesus Christ will allow you to experience in your hearts the joy of his living and life-giving presence, and enable you to bear witness to it before others." And then, we will behold the transformation of hearts and communities, of parishes and the Church, and the world.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Beauty vs Aestheticism in the Liturgy

Once again, Disputations has asked some thought-provoking questions on the nature of Beauty. Of the three - Beauty, Truth and Goodness - which point to God, this is probably the most difficult to ascertain and define and hence the one least discussed or trusted. Co-incidentally, I have been pondering the issue too...

Previously, I have written about the religious and theological value of beauty, especially in relation to the Sacred Liturgy. Since then, I have been invited to contribute to 'The New Liturgical Movement' blog, I have read about and commented upon a Mass that was celebrated in Singapore using the 1962 Missal - the first ones approved by the bishop since 1970 - and I have been reading and thinking more about the role of beauty in the Liturgy. It is the frequent appeal to beauty in the Old Rite (and the alleged lack of it in many celebrations of the Novus Ordo) which has led me seek more answers on the issue of Beauty.

In the course of all this, I have been pondering the fact that oftentimes, Liturgy and the role of Beauty and the arts at its service, has been reduced to a matter of taste and superficial aesthetics. Thus people even boycott certain Masses in favour of more 'beautiful' or 'artful' Masses. More particularly, I have been wondering how we get around the fact that oftentimes, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Hans Urs von Balthasar is renown for his theological aesthetics and metaphysical perspective on true Beauty and I have tried to highlight some of this in a previous post. However, I feel there must be more to be said on how we may distinguish between mere aestheticism and beauty.

For it seems we are all drawn to Beauty, in some way, but not all moved by it to contemplate and worship God. People listen to glorious sacred music or visit sumptuous cathedrals, but while delighting in the beauty of the art therein, they appear to see these as hallmarks of mankind's creativity and thus glorify man more than God. Why is this so? And is something truly more beautiful because it is inclined toward the divine? Something about Gregorian chant must endue it with such 'divinizing' values for the Church to consistently uphold plainsong above all sacred music and arts.

In my reading, I have come across an incisive and fiery book by Dietrich von Hildebrand called 'Trojan Horse in the City of God'. Much of it is a scathing critique of the post-Conciliar Church and the attitude which pervaded the Church in the aftermath of Vatican II. Most of what he says, in my opinion, is still very relevant and an accurate analysis of our current situation. I would highly recommend this book, because it is certainly thought provoking and raises some crucial questions. But what is of use to the questions above may be found in chapter 26 of the book, 'The Role of Beauty within Religion'. Having re-read it recently, I offer extracts here to help guide us in discerning what is Beauty and thus of value and what is mere aestheticism and self-indulgent, and a hinderance to true Liturgy and Religion.

"Beauty plays an important role in religious worship. The very act of worshipping a divinity implies a desire to surround the cult dedicated to this divinity with beauty. To stigmatize as aestheticism the concern for beauty in the religious cult (as some Catholics have been doing lately with increasing stridency) betrays a distorted conception of religious worship as well as the nature of beauty. This becomes clear when one considers the nature of aestheticism instead of merely employing the term as a destructive slogan.

Aestheticism is a perversion of the approach to beauty. The aesthete enjoys beautiful things as one enjoys good wine. He does not approach them with reverence and with an understanding of the intrinsic value calling for an adequate response, but as sources of subjective satisfaction merely. Even if he has a refined taste and is a remarkable connoisseur, the aesthete's approach cannot possibly do justice to the nature of beauty. Above all, he is indifferent to all other values that may inhere in the object. Whatever the theme of a situation may be, he looks at it solely from the point of his aesthetic enjoyment or pleasure. His fault does not lie in overrating the value of beauty, but in ignoring the other fundamental values - above all, the moral values.

To approach the situation from a point of view that does not not correspond to its objective theme is always a great perversion. For example, it is perverse for a man to approach a human drama that calls for compassion, sympathy and helpful action as if it were merely an object for psychological study. To make scientific analysis the only point of view in every approach is radicallly unobjective and even repulsive; it disregards and nullifies the objective theme. Apart from ignoring all other points of view than the 'aesthetic' and all other themes than that of beauty, the aesthete also distorts the real nature of beauty in its depth and grandeur. As we have shown in other books, all idolization of a good necessarily precludes understanding its true value. The greatest, the most authentic appreciation of a good is possible only if we see it in its objective place in the God-given hierarchy of being.

If someone were to refuse to go to Mass because the church was ugly or the music mediocre, he would be guilty of aestheticism, for he would have substituted the aesthetic point of view for the religious one. But it is the antithesis of aestheticism to appreciate the great function of beauty in religion, to understand both the legitimate view it should play in the cult and the desire of religious men to invest the greatest beauty in all things pertaining to the worship of God. This correct appreciation of beauty is rather an organic outgrowth of reverence, of love of Christ, of the very act of adoration...

The way in which this mystery [of the Holy Mass] is presented, its visible appearance, plays a definite role and cannot be considered subject to arbitrary change despite the fact that the thing expressed is incomparably more important than its expression. Although the real theme of the mass is the making present of the mystery of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the mystery of the Eucharist, a great weight should nevertheless be put on the sacred atmosphere generated by the words, the activities, the accompanying music, and the church in which it takes place. None of these things can be considered to have a merely aesthetic interest... Moreover, the sacred beauty connected with the Liturgy never claims to be thematic, as in a work of art; rather, as expression, it has a serving function. Far from obscuring or replacing the religious theme of the Liturgy, it helps it to shine forth... To stress that the Liturgy should be beautiful in no way amounts to the colouring of religion with an aesthetic approach. The longing for beauty in the Liturgy simply arises from the sense of the specific value that lies in the adequacy of expression.

The beauty and sacred atmosphere of the Liturgy are not only something precious and valuable as such (as adequate expressions of the religious acts of worship), but are also of great importance for the development of the souls of the faithful. Time and again those in the liturgical movement have stressed that mawkish prayers and hymns distort the religious ethos of the faithful; appealing to centers in men that are far removed from the religious one, the draw him into an atmosphere which obscures and blurs the face of Christ... The Gregorian chant is being replaced at best by mediocre music, at worse by jazz or 'rock and roll', Such grotesque substitutions veil the spirit of Christ immeasurably more than did former sentimental types of devotion. Those were certainly inadequate. However, jazz is not only inadequate, but antithetical to the sacred atmosphere of the Liturgy. It is more than a distortion: it also draws men into a specifically worldly atmosphere. It appeals to something in men that makes them deaf to the message of Christ...

The Catholic Liturgy excels in its appeal to a man's entire personality. The faithful are not drawn into the world of Christ only by their faith or by strict symbols. The are also drawn into a higher world by the beauty of the church, its sacred atmosphere, the splendor of the altar, the rhythm of the liturgical texts, by the sublimity of the Gregorian chant or by other truly sacred music... Even the odor of incense has a meaningful function to perform in this direction. The use of all channels capable of introducing us into the sanctuary is deeply realistic and deeply Catholic. It is truly existential and plays a great role in helping us lift up our hearts."

There is surely much more that can be said on the issue, but for now, I wish to add this voice to the discussion as we continue to seek true Beauty and approach God with a true re-discovery of Beauty within the Liturgy.

The photos above are courtesy of the Juventutem website and others.


I dutifully reported at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur this morning at 8.45 am for a 9am interview. Actually, to be precise I was asked to present myself by then. Little did I realize that I would be just one of ten people who were asked to come for interviews at 9am this morning. And, because we were interviewed on a first-come, first-served basis, I became seventh in the queue! If I'd known, I would have turned up far earlier! As such, I waited for two and half hours, watching BBC World (which annoyingly repeated itself over and over again) in the waiting area, for an interview that lasted just five minutes.

At least the news reports gave me good fodder for prayer and I was able to complete five Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary in that time too...

And... I'm not complaining because my application was approved on the spot!

I now have to wait to pick up my passport this afternoon, but I am hopeful this will entail a considerably shorter and more pleasant wait!

Thank you for your prayers. I thank God for this positive outcome... oh and I thank St Rose for this opportunity for penance!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

St Rose and the Cross

Depicted here is an ivory statue of St Rose of Lima (1586 - 1617), clad in a heavily-embroidered habit of the Third Order of St Dominic and surrounded by roses. The statue forms part of the astounding La Naval Procession which takes place every October in Quezon City, the Philippines and is undertaken by the Dominicans in that country.

Today, the Church and the Order of Preachers rejoices in St Rose, the first saint of the American continent, the flower of the Andes, patroness of South America and the Philippines. Lima must have been a very blessed city, for among her friends and contemporaries were the other Dominicans, St Martin de Porres, who is renowned for extraordinary humility and charity and also Blessed Juan de Marcias. To this day, their sanctity still pervades Lima and brings fame to Peru. St Rose was, a model of penitence, prayer and simplicity and upheld that great Dominican saint, Catherine of Siena as her example. St Rose was also renown as a mystic; in ecstasy, she heard the Lord saying, "Rose of my heart, be thou my spouse."

St Rose had a keen appreciation of the value of suffering in life, because she understood that without the agony of the Cross, there was no Resurrection and glory. As such she undertook a life of great penance and severe mortification. It is likely that she drew her inspiration from St Dominic himself who is known for his love of penance. Lest anyone think that penance and mortification leads to a glum and gloomy disposition, one should recall that St Dominic is known for his joy, as is St Rose. The following story from the life of St Dominic is illustrative of the understanding of Christian penance and mortification, which is to express sorrow for one's sins and to habituate a detachment from sin.

"On one occasion, when on their way to debate with heretics, St. Dominic and his companions, including the bishop of the place, walked barefooted at the saint's suggestion. Losing their way, they asked directions from a native, an Albigensian, who maliciously led them through a thicket where their legs and feet were severly torn by thorns. Then Dominic encouraged his companions: 'Let us hope in the Lord, for the victory shall be ours; already our sins are washed away in blood.' Often he took off his shoes when traveling to endure the penance of the stony roads. He was constantly alert to benefit spiritually by unexpected mortifications. When he stubbed his toes against the stones, was poorly served at meals, was scoffed at and mistreated by the Albigenses, his only answer was, 'It is a penance.'"

We could all benefit from such an attitude - I know I can! - and rather than complain at minor inconveniences, rejoice in a chance to grow in grace and holiness. I can think of so many occasions when I could bear with trials and irritations more patiently, indeed more graciously. Alas, all too often and too quickly, I open my mouth and utter words of complaint and ingratitude! I moan about the weather, the food, and bristle with indignation when my ego is wounded. While I would not go so far as St Rose as to welcome and embrace sufferings (yet), I could begin by bearing with suffering, hurt and inconvenience with more patience and humility, for the love of Christ. So, learning from St Dominic and St Rose of Lima, let us embark in a greater appreciation of penance in our lives and together with St Rose, affirm: "Without the Cross, there is no road to heaven".

I ask the intercession of St Rose of Lima in this path of the Cross, for the Dominicans in Peru, whom I was privileged to meet last year at the IDYM Gathering, and for the intention I stated yesterday...

Monday, August 22, 2005

Prayer Request

Among the things I have to arrange before I return to the UK to begin my Novitiate in September is to obtain a Visa for permission to Enter and Remain in the United Kingdom in that capacity. I submitted my application to the British High Commission on Thursday (last week) and today I have been asked to go for a personal Interview with regards to my application.

The Interview with the High Commission is on Wednesday 24 August.

Please pray for me, that it will go smoothly and well and that the British authorities will grant me the Visa I need to enter the UK and begin my Novitiate.

Time to whip out that Dominican Litany again I think!

Mary, Queen and Mother, I entrust myself once more, to your protection and powerful intercession. O Lady of Guadalupe, hold me within your mantle and pray for me. Amen.

Ave Regina Caelorum!

Today, on the Octave of the Assumption, the Church turns her eyes once more to the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother and proclaims her, in the words of St Alphonsus Ligouri, "Queen of the world and all creatures". Indeed, the Church has long hailed our Lady as Queen; in her Liturgy, the Marian antiphons address her as such, sacred art portrays her crowned with stars or gold or enthroned and she is venerated as Queen in the Litany of Loreto, the Holy Rosary and innumerable other titles. Why? Primarily because Jesus is the Universal King and Mary, His Mother, raised high by God, participates in this royal dignity by the grace of Jesus. Moreover, as Pope St Pius X (whose feast occurred yesterday) said: "Mary sits as the right hand of Jesus like a Queen. She is the most safe refuge and the most fruitful helper of all who are in danger, so there is no reason to fear." We have a firm recourse to her, who is our mediator with Christ, the sole Mediator between God and man (cf Schillebeeckx OP, Mary, Mother of the Redemption, p123ff) and thus we hail her as our Queen.

The proclamation of Mary as Queen is generally understood as a spiritual metaphor and symbol of her role in our lives and the paragon of holiness that she is to us Christians. As such Pope Blessed John XXIII has the following reflections to offer which I wish to share with you today on the Feast of the Queenship of Mary:

"How wonderful, how beautiful and how precious is this golden crown we have placed on your head, and the one we have given to Jesus also, your blessed Son! With this you are adorned like Aaron in the splendour of his most sacred priestly vestments. Your crown is a token of supreme holiness, the honourable symbol of superhuman beauty, an ornament of honour (Ecclesiasticus 45:14), an expression of power, of power to intercede for us with Jesus your Son, for those graces which we implore with prayers and hymns."

With these resounding words in mind, we can pray once more the ancient antiphon:

"Ave Regina caelorum! Ave Domina angelorum! Salve Radix, salve porta ex qua mundo lux est orta. Gaude Virgo gloriosa, super omnes speciosa. Vale, O valde decora! Et pro nobis Christum exora."
'Welcome, O Queen of Heaven. Welcome, O Lady of Angels. Hail! thou root, hail! thou gate from whom unto the world, a light has arisen: Rejoice, O glorious Virgin, lovely beyond all others. Farewell, most beautiful maiden! And pray for us to Christ.'

The photo above is of the Virgin of Manaoag, a revered statue of Our Lady in the Philippines, holding the Child Jesus. She is depicted crowned with golden stars and robed as a Spanish queen, and holding a royal sceptre. Such images of our Lady crowned and in royal robes are very popular in the Philippines.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sentire cum Ecclesia sub Petre

This post has been posted ahead of the date above.

This Sunday's Liturgy presents the classic account in St Matthew's Gospel of the Commissioning of St Peter as leader of the Church established by Christ. Anyone who has been to St Peter's Basilica in Rome will see the central phrase: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" emblazoned in Latin around the interior drum of Michelangelo's great dome. In that same church, a bronze statue of St Peter, seated on a throne and much venerated holds the great keys alluded to by Christ, a symbol of authority. The Readings that surround the Gospel also focus on this central pericope. Isaiah 22:19-23 recounts the establishment of Eliakim as viceroy and uses imagery and language that mirrors the account in Matthew 16:13-20. But St Paul's letter to the Romans reminds us that God has no equal or any truly worthy viceroy; all glory belongs to Him.

These leitmotifs of today's Liturgy is familiar to all Catholics and I don't think I need dwell upon them. Instead, I offer the painting above by Perugino from the Sistine Chapel and the following from one of my favourite books, 'The Splendor of the Church' by Henri Cardinal de Lubac, SJ. In this chapter (7), De Lubac writes beautifully of the qualities of a man of the Church, the vir Ecclesiae; it is a paean to the Christian who strives to think with the Church in union with Peter. To each of us, Christ also asks: "Who do you say that I am?" and we are invited to respond with St Peter, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Thus, Cardinal De Lubac says:

"It is primarily of [the Roman Church] that the Catholic thinks when he calls the Church his Mother. In common with tradition, he considers her as 'root and Mother of the Catholic Church', as 'the Mother and mistress of all the Churches', as 'Mother and mistress of all the faithful of Christ'. He considers her head [the Pope] as 'the head of the episcopate' and the 'father of the Christian people', 'the master of the whole household of Christ', as St Ignatius Loyola puts it... He knows that Peter was given the charge of not only the lambs but the sheep as well; that Christ himself prayed that the faith of Peter might not fail; and that he gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and the command to confirm his brethren. He realizes that Peter personifies the whole Church and that just as each bishop is the bridegroom of his own particular Church, so Peter, the Bishop of Rome, may be said to be the bridegroom of the Universal Church, the whole of which has in him its visible foundation. As against a frequently lodged objection (based on a misunderstanding), he will, of course, be equally clear that this visible foundation in no way prejudices that unique Foundation which is Christ, any more than the visible chief shepherd puts into eclipse the Good Shepherd, since here there is no question of duplication, the very name 'Peter' having been chosen by Christ to express this identity of submission, which is in itself the fruit of faith. Believing as he does that the Church has received the promise of perpetuity and victory over death, and holding that it was she who was in Christ's mind in that scene on the road to Caesarea, he will naturally grasp the consequence that as long as the Church goes on building herself up and subsisting in her visible state - that is to say, as long as the world lasts - she cannot be without a visible foundation for her building. Peter was not given his office simply in order to relinquish it almost at once; he was given it to hand on after him. In his successors - the bishops of the See of Rome, which was founded by him and consecrated by his blood - he lives, presides and judges perpetually... He will always see in Peter both the unshakeable rock upon which his own firmness is based and the 'center of Catholic truth and unity', the one and only visible center of all the children of God. In the authority of Peter he sees the support of his faith and the guarantee of his communion. And thus his fidelity to the Christian faith finds concrete expression in his love for Peter, to whom he is bound, despite all exterior vicissitudes, by every fiber of his soul."


It is for this reason that almost a million young people are now gathered in Cologne on the banks of the Rhine around Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of Peter, to celebrate their common faith that Christ is the Son of the Living God and in Him alone is the fullness of life and salvation.

As the Holy Father himself told the young people on Thursday: "To all of you I appeal: Open wide your hearts to God! Let yourselves be surprised by Christ! Let him have "the right of free speech" during these days! Open the doors of your freedom to his merciful love! Share your joys and pains with Christ, and let him enlighten your minds with his light and touch your hearts with his grace. In these days blessed with sharing and joy, may you have a liberating experience of the Church as the place where God's merciful love reaches out to all people. In the Church and through the Church you will meet Christ, who is waiting for you."

That too is his invitation to us as we celebrate this Sunday's Liturgy and we encounter the Son of the Living God present in the Eucharist.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Interactive Maps to Explore...

This is posted ahead of the date above.

I came across the 'Color Portrait of the English Language' a week ago but have only now managed to blog it. It's a cool "interactive map of more than 33,000 words. Each word has been assigned a color based on the average color of images found by a search engine. The words are then grouped by meaning. The resulting patterns form an atlas of our lexicon."

It's a bit difficult to describe, so it has to be seen to be experienced! One can spend hours exploring this map which is found at the 'Color Code' site. Fascinating stuff!

Another cool map I came across is the animated London Tube map... Zone One only though. It's mesmerizing!

Have fun, this Saturday, just exploring these sites... It makes a break from all the theology and church-related stuff normally found at this blog! Enjoy the break!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Veni Sancte Spiritus!

"The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)

The photos here of Pope Benedict XVI's arrival at Cologne-Bonn airport (courtesy of AP) are clear indications of the presence of the Holy Spirit, blowing around him! It seems that His Holiness' mozetta often flies in his face (many photos have been taken of this in the past months) but now, even his zuchetto is taking off!

One of the most impressive scenes for me at the funeral of Pope John Paul II was the wind whipping up the red chasubles of the cardinals gathered in St Peter's Piazza as they venerated the altar. That gusty wind was a reminder (said the commentating bishop) of the presence of the Spirit in the Church.

As the Successor of St Peter arrives at Cologne to meet the young people of the Church, we are once again reminded of the presence of the Spirit in the person of the Pope and also of just how playful God can be and the good sense of humour Pope Benedict displays in such situations of 'wardrobe misfunctions'... I rather like this image that the Holy Spirit, present as the wind, manifests such a light, joyful and even 'fun' relationship with the Holy Father!

Veni Sancte Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit and lighten upon our Holy Father and the bishops who are gathered around him as they preach, teach and pray, that your Church gathered in Cologne and scattered throughout the nations may be filled with Truth and grace and witness to your Love before all people, a sacrament of Christ's salvation.

Above: Welcome Super Pope!!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Confounded by the Evangelical Mindset

Continuing on from my initial post this week on the evangelical mindset, recent events have precipitated and confirmed in my mind just how isolated the evangelicals (at least here in South East Asia, where they are growing in influence and numbers, and under which I include Pentecostalists) are from the rest of the Church.

The evangelicals' alienation from history and philosophy (as we have seen) leads them to a very particular theological stance and relationship to the world and society. In effect, it comes across as world-despising, isolationist (and even elitist and given to Gnostic tendencies) and ignorant and unrealistic with regards to the world and society. Devoid of any sense of Christian history, they see each evangelical community (gathered around a 'pastor' or preacher) as a direct line to God, mushrooming in a particular locale, independent of all other Christian communities and churches. There is little thought to Christian unity and the concerns of 'organized Christianity', as each group blatantly poaches members from the others. As such each unit is autocephalous and indeed, self-determining, accountable only to God (in each person's individual conscience) and to the Scriptures (as each group deems fit to interpret). The result is the sort of chaos bred by individualism, which explains why evangelical groups flourish in this age - they appeal to the individualistic consumer at the core of most 21st century people.

This is not intended to be as harsh as it sounds, for the mystery and grace of God certainly uses them as means to salvation. Moreover, it is better that people (especially the un-baptised) come to know Christ than not at all - even if I deplore the evangelicals' poaching of already baptised Christians! However, there are serious flaws in the modus operandi and mindset, which seeks to separate themselves from the contemporary world but which is ironically very much prey to the modern mentality and attitudes.

Let me illustrate this... the recent murder of Bro Roger of Taize has shocked most Christians and even secular leaders have hailed his witness to Christian unity. But the evangelicals I know are totally ignorant of this fact or even of Taize. The same is true of WYD 2005. Far too few evangelicals have even heard of this gathering of 1 million young Christians in Cologne. The death of even Pope John Paul II was largely a non-event among evangelicals here in Kuala Lumpur and when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected, an evangelical in America was reported to have said: "They've elected a Protestant as Pope!" The fact that the Holy Father shares many of the evangelicals' moral concerns led him to this inverted conclusion! All these examples indicate a group of Christians who are, at least in spirit, cut off from the 'mainstream' Church and who cannot be seriously engaged in theological questions and contemporary issues with regard to the Christian faith. As such they become inward-looking, almost like a sect - with their own music, jargon and views - and they become less credible in any dialogue and mission that the mainstream Church engages in with the world. However, I must note and applaud the recent developments for more social-minded projects by large evangelical communites and groups...

Strangely, in place of a developed ecclesiology (and Liturgy), there is an obsessive interest in Jerusalem and Jewish rites and festivals, perhaps linked to a deformed eschatology. I have known countless evangelicals who strive to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, especially for the Feast of Tabernacles or Purim or other Jewish (and thus, Biblical) liturgical festivities. Evangelical groups are also often named after Jewish (Scriptural) places and people, such as 'Bethel', 'Horeb' or even (the mistaken) 'Jehovah' or some other Jewish title for God!

A friend recently told me of a plan in America by evangelicals there to create a city or community made of religious and committed evangelical Christians, as a kind of retreat from the world. I believe this is called "Christian Reconstructionism"... The notion seemed abhorrant to me because in my understanding of the Catholic approach to salvation and redemption, the whole world is "charged with the grandeur of God" (to use a phrase of Gerald Manley Hopkins, SJ) and so to be transformed by grace. The very notion of retreating to an enclave of Christianity is contrary to our ecclesiology which speaks of a pilgrim Church, scattered throughout the world yet united by the Eucharist and the Sacraments, living as leaven to society, salt and light to the world. In my mind, we are not called to live in comfort zones of like-minded Christians but to live in the world as witnesses to the joy of salvation in Christ.

Even St Augustine's image of the 'City of God' spoke metaphorically rather than of a physical and geographically defined Christian utopia. Indeed, that 'City of God' is first built in the human heart. It's a little too 'Disney' (and thus artificial and idealistic) for me to create a separate city of evangelical Christians... The closest I can come to this in the Catholic tradition is the monastery which was a self-contained community of committed Christians, but this was not seen in opposition to the world and civilization but rather an essential place of refuge from the cares of the world for those who wanted to live a life of contemplation and prayer. This ancient and venerable tradition of Christian asceticism also has a different attitude and ecclesiology from the evangelical utopia; one which is profoundly Christian and Catholic.

Perhaps the above is a little too broad-sweeping... we have all known and know good, balanced, broad-minded evangelical Christians. I do not wish to malign them or their brethren and I think there are things that Catholics and other 'mainstream Christians' can learn from them; but I do feel that there is much in evangelicalism, as I have encountered it, which is unhealthy, unattractive, small-minded and needs challenging to bring them out of their false securities and into the light of the fullness of the Revelation of the Truth and thus, be grafted more firmly onto the True Vine. To this end, more dialogue has to continue in order to broaden the evanglical mindset and bring them into the catholicity of the Church.

Photos above are from the City Harvest Church website in Singapore.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

More details on the Murder of Frere Roger

I first found out about Bro Roger of Taize's death from Zenit but Whispers in the Loggia has been keeping abreast of the issues, so do check that blog out for more details and the latest developments.

The Passing of Bro Roger and the Vision of Taize

Bro Roger Schutz-Marsauche (1915-2005), the man who founded the Taize community in 1940 in France was killed during Vespers by a deranged man yesterday evening. As a Swiss Protestant, Bro Roger was invited by Pope Paul VI to be an observer at the Second Vatican Council. He also co-authored a book with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, placing him among the spiritual icons of our age. Taize's spirituality which utilises icons and chant, often in Latin, in an atmosphere of flickering candles is ecumenical and draws thousands of young people weekly. There is a sense of mystical peace in a Taize prayer meeting and it is shocking to reflect that Bro Roger was knifed to death in such an environment. The last noteworthy person I know to have been violently killed during Vespers was the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket!

Bro Roger's last notable appearence on the international stage was at the Funeral Mass of Pope John Paul the Great. Taize's spirituality and indeed, Bro Roger's own spiritual journey has long had Catholic leanings and it was noted by many that Cardinal Ratzinger gave Communion to Bro Roger at that highly-publicized Mass. This was taken by many to mean that, at least internally, Bro Roger had reconciled himself to the Catholic Church. This may well be true and indeed, he may have made positive steps to establish full communion with Rome, but given the ecumenical character of his community, it may have been inopportune to publicise this. Of course, that is pure conjecture on my part...

Many Christian communities and Catholic parishes hold Taize-inspired prayer sessions and my former seminary in England regularly used Taize chant at Benediction, Vespers and during the Mass. The ecumenical dimension of Taize is undeniable and ironically, its use of Latin has become a unifying feature. In Italy during WYD 2000, we could all sing the Taize 'Magnificat' but no one could sing the 'Veni Creator' together! This is evidence to me that Latin (in short phrases) is not a problem, nor is the melody (if it is simple). It is familiarity that matters in congregational singing and this is where parishes and youth groups can help by introducing Gregorian chant again and familiarising their congregations with it! It is also well known that Taize chant and spirituality, using icons, draws many young people. This wisdom flies in the face of the ideas of modenist liturgists that our churches should be stripped bare of iconography and that Liturgy should be bereft of reverence, silence and prayerfulness! Taize spirituality, if used properly in our churches, can re-vitalise parish worship by re-introducing elements lost in the liturgical reforms of the 1970s.

These are just a few initial (and perhaps superficial) thoughts. There is an excellent article by Bro Patrick Burke OP on 'The Spirituality of Taize' and I recommend it to you, because it examines the Taize phenomenon in a far deeper way than I can.

There is much we can learn from Taize and Bro Roger's vision and spirituality, and I mourn the passing of this man of God. May his work and vision live on in the Taize community and may God bless it with many years, to bear fruit for His glory and the holiness of His Church.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Scripture and Tradition

I've just started reading 'Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture' by Jaroslav Pelikan. The writer is not a theologian but a pre-eminent historian at Yale University. His opus magnus is definitely his masterly 5-volume 'The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine'. Both are excellent surveys of historical Christianity.

In the past few days, I have been engaged in ecumenical dialogue with evangelical Christians of various traditions. In the course of my discussions with them, I have been struck by a certain lack of historicity with regard to the Faith coupled with a general aversion to philosophy that pervades evangelical Christianity. In my mind, this weakens the credibility and strength of their position.

Strangely, they seem to assume that the Scriptures simply exist, as if they were literally dictated by God, and then the doctrines of the faith were simply extrapolated from the Scriptures by direct divine inspiration or intervention. This concept has often struck me as having more resonances with the Muslim viewpoint of their Scriptures and dogmas.

In contrast, Professor Pelikan offers the catholic understanding of the position of the Scriptures with relation to Tradition and its place in history, taken from p10 of his book, which is as follows:

"Everyone must acknowledge, therefore, that Christian tradition had precedence, chronologically and even logically, over Christian Scripture; for there was a tradition of the church before there was ever a New Testament, or any individual book of the New Testament. By the time the materials of the oral tradition found their way into written form, they had passed through the life and experience of the church, which laid claim to the presence of the Holy Spirit of God, the selfsame Spirit that the disciples had seen descending upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the earliest believers on the fiftieth day after Easter, in the miracle of Pentecost. It was to the action of that Spirit that Christians attributed the composition of the books of the 'new testament', as they began to call it, and before that of the 'old testament', as they referred to the Hebrew Bible. Because the narrative of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life and ministry had come down to the evangelists and compilers in this context, anyone who seeks to interpret one or another saying or story from the narrative must always ask not only about its place in the life and teachings of Jesus, but also about its function within the remembering community."

This understanding, which is the faith and teaching of the Church, strikes me as such common sense as to need no elaboration... and yet, I know that when it is encountered by some Protestants, it is a revelation or a shock to their world view and Christian belief. Why is there this lacuna in the understanding of otherwise intelligent and thinking people?

This is an issue which has perplexed me for some years now. Similarly, last night I accompanied my grandfather to an evangelical dinner, at which the UK-based speaker was a renowned scientist who professed Christianity. He explained why faith in God was perfectly reasonable and scientific and utilised Aquinas' First Proof which is an argument from design and intelligence in creation. The talk was well illustrated with simple scientific ideas and examples and I thought it was excellent but my grandfather (who is an educated and intelligent man) thought it was too difficult to understand. Moreover, he felt the approach was strange and it was entirely novel for him to hear the "Gospel preached in this way".

The way he spoke of, utilised philosophy and reason. It seemed most natural and indeed, the most convincing way to preach the Gospel to me... but to my evangelically minded grandfather, this was most unusual and perhaps even anathema! Without reason or history which underlies so much of Catholic theology, the path for dialogue with evangelicals is that bit more challenging.

Monday, August 15, 2005

WYD 2005 News and Links

I am among those who would love to be at WYD 2005, especially as so many of my friends (now deacons and priests) will be there. It's also held in a city I love and know well, a city prominent in the Dominican history. And of course, the one man I so admire and respect, Pope Benedict XVI will be there! But family obligations require me to stay here in Malaysia and so I must...

Thankfully, there is no shortage of news from those who are in Cologne.

For WYD 2005 views, refer to Amy Welborn's comprehensive list of contributers and bloggers.

For news, refer to's page with contributions from an international team of freelance journalists. Very innformative indeed.

For live coverage, there's EWTN for those who have it!

And of course, don't forget the Official WYD 2005 site and do check out the Dominican WYD site.

I do feel very sorry for the Filipinos (and other nationalities) who wanted to travel to Germany for WYD 2005 but had their visa applications rejected. This is a great shame and an injustice. The bishops of the Philippines, aware of the discrimination against their countrymen, had already culled a Manila contingent from 8000 to 3000 and finally to 600. But even these 600 applicants were denied and so no major contingent from Asia's largest and only Catholic nation will be at WYD 2005 in Cologne.

This is outrageous! On a more positive note, at least 100 Chinese Catholics from the 'underground church' are expected to make it to WYD.

Do also read John Allen Jr's article this week on the significance of WD 2005. Insightful as ever.

Assumpta est Maria in Coelum! Alleluia!

"Quae est ista quae progreditur quasi aurora consurgens, pulchra ut luna, electa ut sol, terribilis ut acies ordinata?"
'Who is this arising like the dawn, fair as the moon, resplendent as the sun, formidible as an army set in battle array?' (Song of Songs 6:10)

Today, Holy Mother Church rejoices in her redemption which is ours in Christ. By her bodily Assumption into heaven, Mary leads the way which is destined for all who die in Christ. There, in the company of the angels and saints, she is crowned with glory, the privileged first among the saints to share in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. Today's celebration and the countless images of Mary being borne aloft by angels and crowned in their company is, as Pope Blessed John XXIII said, "a source of consolation and faith, in days of grief or pain, for those privileged souls - such as we can all become, if only we respond to grace - whom God is silently preparing for the most beautiful victory of all, the attainment of holiness." (Journal of a Soul, 441).

In the Christian life, we have no better model and paragon than Our Blessed Mother, "the Assumpta, [who] stands before us as the firstfruit of the Redemption, and incorporate[s] the perfect features of everything that had to be realized in us and in the whole Church" (Schillebeeckx OP, Mary Mother of the Redemption, 101). By being bodily assumed into heaven, Mary reminds us of the dignity of the body which shall be glorified and share in Christ's resurrection. It was with this in mind that Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady, for after the horrors of the Second World War, which had scant regard for human life and the human body, he wished to reaffirm the "exalted destiny of both our soul and body" (cf Munificentissimus Deus). It is fitting indeed that today also marks the 60th anniversary of the cessation of WWII in the Asia Pacific. Given the circumstances which impelled Pope Pius XII to proclaim the papal bull defining this dogma, they are still very much extant today, for we have seen in the past 55 years a continued decline in regard for the sanctity of human life, moral degradation of the person and a consumerist and utilitarian attitude to the human body and person.

But this dogma is no modern invention of a pope. Indeed, no pope can proclaim a dogma ex nihilo. It has to be part of the living tradition of the Church which he seeks to express in an official form at an expedient time. 1950 was that time, when the Holy Spirit prompted Pius XII to proclaim the dogma of the Assumption but in fact, it was first recorded as a Christian belief in 550 by Theoteknos, bishop of Livias. Only a century later in 650, the feast was celebrated in Rome and decades after that, St John Damascene wrote a beautiful theological reflection on it. Already in the 5th century, the Eastern church celebrated this feast as the 'Dormition of Mary' and throughout the West, churches have depicted Mary being carried up into heaven by angels in her art. Of note is the ceiling boss carved into the medieval choir screen of York Minster. It is noteworthy too that the Tradition has relics and tombs for all the major saints but none for Our Lady. Like her Son, Mary's body has no resting place on earth but is taken up into heaven.

The relationship between the Assumption and the Resurrection of Christ is inseparable. Indeed, as the antiphon quoted above hints at, Mary is fair as the moon because she reflects the glory of the Son, the Sun of Justice and she is resplendant as the sun because throughout her life, no stain of sin obscured the light of divine grace within her. As such, Schillebeeckx says:

"We can, by analogy with Christ's resurrection, conclude from the fact of Mary's resurrection that her life-sacrifice was also fully accepted by God. Her assumption into heaven was not merely a privilege bestowed on her without relation to the rest of her life. It formed the summit of her sublime redemption. Salvation, after all, embraces the whole human being, not only his soul but also his body... Dogma informs us that Mary was not obliged to wait, as we are, until the end of time for physical redemption. This is a clear indication of the unique quality of her sublime state of redemption. It also illuminates the fact of her redemption by exception - that at no moment of her existence did sin cast a shadow over the brightness of her life with God"
(Mary, Mother of the Redemption, 100).

Furthermore, the Assumption is a mark of the power of the Resurrection to transform the world. While we await the full consummation of the Resurrection, Mary already partakes in that as "the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection" (cf Preface for the Assumption). Thus, Jean Danielou SJ was moved to say: "The mystery of the Assumption teaches us that in Mary the transfiguration of the cosmos , the principle of which lies in the Resurrection of Christ, has already begun to produce its effects. The Assumption is the dawn of the new creation whose first rays filter through into the darkness of this world. The divine energy is already at work" (Le Dogme de l'Assomption, pp301-2). This echoes again the Antiphon above which declares Mary as one who arises like the dawn.

For all the Baptised, the Assumption of Mary celebrates that hope which is ours; a hope we profess in the Creed every Sunday: 'Exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum'; or more explicitly in the Apostle's Creed: 'Credo in carnis resurrectionem', "I believe in the resurrection of the body..." And so, Henri Cardinal de Lubac SJ says: "Just as our Lady was the model of Christian hope on the day of the Annunciation, so on the day of her Assumption she became the guarantee of that hope" (The Splendor of the Church, 346). This hope is essentially one of victory over death, hence St Paul's resounding proclamation in today's Second Reading (1 Cor 15:20-17), that Christ has destroyed death. The Church's celebration of Mary's Assumption is a celebration of her faith in this promise and that the final victory over death and evil will be ours just as it is Mary's, when we have been perfected in holiness. Indeed, she goes before us, having overcome the sting of death by Christ's Resurrection, leading the way. As such, the Antiphon above paints an image of Mary (in the figure of Mother Church) as being dressed in battle array, an army victorious over the forces of death.

Finally, "with an unshakeable faith in all that has been revealed in [Mary], the Church is certain of final victory over the forces of evil." Indeed, Mary herself (again in the figure of Mother Church) engages in battle against evil. Thus, the ancient antiphon "Rejoice, Virgin Mary, you alone have vanquished all the heresies in the entire world" holds true, because "all the network of dogmas on the Virgin, seen and integrated in the mystery of salvation and founded in Scripture assures and strengthens the stability of the faith in its struggle against doctrinal deviations" (cf Ignace de la Potterie SJ, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, 293). Thus a right and proper faith in Mary and her role in the salvific economy leads to a full and authentic faith in her Son and Saviour, Jesus Christ and His Redeeming work. That is her role, to glorify God, as she herself proclaims in today's Gospel (Lk 1:39-56) and she does so prefectly today by her Assumption. When we honour her memory today and proclaim God's infinite grace working in Mary's life, we too exult in God our Saviour who has worked such marvels for us!

Let us also join ourselves with the million young people gathered around Pope Benedict XVI to celebrate World Youth Day in Cologne. May we all be invigorated to proclaim that Good News and faith, with Mary, to all nations, cultures and peoples.

"O harbinger of day! O hope of the pilgrim! lead us still as thou hast led; in the dark night, across the bleak wilderness, guide us on to our Lord Jesus, guide us home" - John Henry Cardinal Newman.

"Maria, mater gratiæ, Dulcis parens clementiæ, Tu nos ab hoste protege et mortis hora suscipe."
'O Mary, mother of grace, sweet parent of clemency, protect us from our foes and receive us at the hour of our death.'


The photos above of Our Lady being crowned are taken from the hand-illlminated Ushaw College Term Books (19th century) and a liturgical Book of Gospels and Epistles (1864, Ratisbon & NY). The stained glass symbol of the Assumpta is from the Antipolo Shrine in the Philippines.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Salvation for All by Faith

NB: This has been posted ahead of the date above.

The passage from Isaiah in today's Liturgy: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Is 56:7), is seen engraved in the sanctuary of the Oratories in Birmingham and London (left). It is a fitting reminder of the New Covenant in Christ Jesus which is commemorated in the Holy Eucharist. For in the Eucharist, the "new and eternal covenant" is established with all peoples. As Pope John Paul II said: "the actions and words of Jesus at the Last Supper laid the foundations of the new messianic community, the People of the New Covenant" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 21) and this New Covenant is made between God and all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike.

These are the people who come to the mountain of the Lord to offer the acceptable sacrifice of the Lamb, Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice. As the writer of Hebrews put it:

"But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, The Judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel"
(Heb 12:22-24).

This vision actualised in Hebrews as an image of the earthly liturgy which finds its fulfillment and perfection in the heavenly liturgy is foreshadowed in Isaiah's prophecy which we hear in the First Reading.

Such a universalist vision of Liturgy and indeed of the worship of the true and living God is echoed with joy in the Responsorial Psalm and it is right that all nations resound with joy, for they have found salvation in Christ. This gift of salvation which is ours in Christ is unique in the history of religions. Never before and never since has mankind encountered such graciousness from God. Christianity is unique because it offers salvation to all; this is its message of good news and the Church's preaching and missionary effort is not primarily about proselytization but an unselfish sharing of good news with others. As the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

"It was not the drive to power that lauched Christian universalism but the certitude of having received the saving knowledge and the redeeming love to which all people have a claim and for which, in the innermost depths of their being, they are waiting."
- (Truth and Tolerance, 55)

As such, Dominus Iesus, 15 proclaims with joy:

"From the beginning, the community of believers has recognized in Jesus a salvific value such that he alone, as Son of God made man, crucified and risen, by the mission received from the Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit, bestows revelation (cf. Mt 11:27) and divine life (cf. Jn 1:12; 5:25-26; 17:2) to all humanity and to every person.

In this sense, one can and must say that Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race and its history, which are unique and singular, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal, and absolute. Jesus is, in fact, the Word of God made man for the salvation of all. In expressing this consciousness of faith, the Second Vatican Council teaches: "The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was made flesh, so that as perfect man he could save all men and sum up all things in himself. The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the centre of mankind, the joy of all hearts, and the fulfilment of all aspirations. It is he whom the Father raised from the dead, exalted and placed at his right hand, constituting him judge of the living and the dead". "It is precisely this uniqueness of Christ which gives him an absolute and universal significance whereby, while belonging to history, he remains history's centre and goal: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end' (Rev 22:13)".

This historicity of the Gospel is vital, and sets it apart from other religions, which are more abstract. As Ratzinger says again: "[Christianity] is the activity of God himself making history... Its meaning is, not that divine reality becomes visible to man, but that it makes the person who receives the revelation into an actor in divine history" (Truth & Tolerance, 42). No other religion knows such love, such union of divine and human, such revelation of God's love which takes flesh in a person, Jesus Christ.

The Gospel today presents us with an action of that Word which is unique, a turning point perhaps in His life on earth. The Lord is moved by the Canaanite woman's faith to pity and he heals her daughter. St Matthew, who was writing to a Gentile audience, includes this episode perhaps to encourage his audience; to point out that salvation is theirs on account of their faith. And herein lies another essential element of Christianity which sets it apart from other religions. One is saved not by anything one can do or even earn. It is just faith in the saving power of Christ, the "Son of David".

I have to admit that on a superficial level, today's Gospel is difficult to understand because Christ seems rather callous. He firstly ignores the woman's pleas, then makes a claim of exclusivity to the Jewish people and only finally, after a strange discourse which likens the Gentiles to dogs, does He accede to her request. It is said that this reticence was in order to test the Canaanite woman's faith and perseverance.

Moreover, Jesus expresses a Semitic viewpoint that is reflected in St Paul who also says that the Jews' rejection of Christ is "the reconciliation of the world" (cf Rom 11:15). This implies that in God's plan of salvation, the Jews (His 'children') come first and then only, on account of being rejected by them, opens the way of salvation to the foreigners, the Gentiles. Hence, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that, "according to Christian faith, on the Cross Jesus opens up and fulfills the wholeness of the Law and gives it thus to the pagans, who can now accept it as their own in this its wholeness, thereby becoming children of Abraham." (Many Religions - One Covenant, 41). It is noteworthy that what we see in Christianity is not a rejection of the Torah (the Law) but a fulfillment of it and we Christians become also children of Abraham (cf Eucharistic Prayer I, which refers to Abraham as our "father in faith".) Thus, the difference between the Old and New Covenants is that "the Old Covenant is particular and concerns the 'fleshly' descendents of Abraham. The New Covenant is universal and is addressed to all people." (ibid., 66)

We have cause to rejoice that the wonderful gift of salvation in Christ is thereby open to all believers in Him. Today's Liturgy celebrates that and moreover, reminds us that it is Faith in Christ and perseverance that He requires of us. Indeed, the Lord may test us to see if our faith is true. Jesus also tests the Canaanite woman and she reveals the depth of her need of Him and humbles herself before Him, whom she calls "Lord", which in Matthew is always a reference to the Godhead.

We who have been granted the grace of the New Covenant are called to share her great faith, her humility in prayer, her realization of humanity's utter need of God and her perseverance. Something of this faith and perseverance is shared with and indeed can be learnt from the Jewish people, our 'elder brothers in Faith', who await their Messiah. As Ratzinger says: "The Church, too, waits for the Messiah she already knows, the Messiah who has yet to manifest his glory. Obedience and promise are inextricably linked in the Christian faith... the obedience of faith accepts the Word that comes from eternity and is uttered in history, transforming it into love, in the present, and so opening the door of hope." (ibid., 105-6)

The picture above is 'White Crucifixion' by Marc Chagall (1887 - 1995).