The Prodigal Son

I am the eldest of three children in my family. Looking back at our childhood in Clapham I was the bossy one and the one that was expected to show a good example.  I was dutiful.  Just ask my brother and sister. I was always trying to please my Mum and Dad.  My brother and sister got into a lot of scrapes and I went off to a junior seminary to train to be a priest. 

Whenever I hear the Gospel parable of the prodigal son that is read this weekend, I identify with the elder son who all his life did the right thing.  I seem to understand his indignation with his father, who welcomed with open arms the brother who had squandered half the family inheritance.  You can imagine him saying “How could you kill the calf that we had been fattening. How could you restore this son of yours to the centre of the family. Look how he insulted you by demanding the half of the property that would normally only come to him after you had died.  He is only coming back because he was at rock bottom.  There was nowhere else he can go.  You will regret it because he will take advantage of you again. I don’t believe he is genuinely sorry.”

Those listening to this parable of Jesus were scribes, pharisees, publicans and sinners. The attitude of the elder son was the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees. They thought they were doing well and pleasing God and thus they were on his good side because they kept the law and were faithful. They looked down on the publicans and sinners because they were not faithful to the law. These were the younger son in the parable. What was challenging to both groups was the unconditional love and overwhelming mercy shown by the father. The younger son was certainly not expecting the reaction that he got from the father.  He had a careful rehearsed script that he didn’t get to say.  The elder son thought it was totally unfair and misjudged. He wanted no part of the celebration. 

How do I react to this revelation of who God is?  Do I really believe in a totally merciful God who is willing to forgive me anything or do I spend my days trying to please God who will only love me if I am good and toe the line? Those of us who are “elder sons” should be secure in the truth that all we do is seen by God; for God to love “younger sons” does not mean God loves “older sons” less. God’s love is ever bountiful and infinite – there is no limit on how much love is available to all of us. 

Catholic Guilt

I don’t react too well when people talk about “Catholic Guilt” This phrase is often used by  those  who are not long active in their faith or who feel antagonistic towards Catholicism.  I think that this phrase means the Catholics can feel excessively guilty which can sometimes lead to scrupulosity.

During this time of Lent and in the Gospel today Jesus is asking us to recognise our need to repentance and healing.  In other words we need to ask ourselves: “Am I guilty of living a life that is not in conformity with the call of Jesus to love God and love others? In the opening prayer this weekend we say: “ O God, author of every mercy and all goodness, who in fasting, prayer and almsgiving have shown us a remedy for sin, look graciously on this confession of our lowliness, that we, bowed down by our conscience, may always be lifted up by your mercy.”  It is good and healthy to be honest with ourselves and with God who sees our heart, and admit that we need healing and his mercy.  Our children celebrated Reconciliation for the first time last Saturday. In preparing them for this celebration of the sacrament we were not trying to make them feel guilty. We were helping them to realise that articulating their lack of love, their sin, they could experience healing and forgiveness.  Happily they were able in their own words to articulate why they were coming with a sense of sorrow.  “Bless me father for I have sinned…”. Someone was telling me recently that when they were being prepared for first confession many years ago, they had to have 10 sins ready to tell the priest.  I thank God that those days have gone.  For those who are preparing for Baptism this Easter will take part in the Scrutinies. These are rites for self searching and repentance.  According the ritual, they are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective or sinful in the elect (those preparing for baptism). “They are meant to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good.

They are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ.”  When the first Scrutiny is celebrated, the gospel from Year A (John 4:5-42) is read, the wonderful and powerful encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Here was a woman not only coming to the well for water but also thirsting for living water. Jesus didn’t tell her off but this loving encounter challenged her and in opening her heart she was transformed and she led others to meet Jesus.  This could be our prayer today: Lord Jesus, you are the fountain for which we thirst, you are the Master whom we seek. In your presence we dare not claim to be without sin, for you alone are the Holy One of God. We open our hearts to you in faith, we confess our faults and lay bare our hidden wounds. In your love free us from our infirmities, heal our sickness, quench our thirst and give us peace. 


A Listening Heart

As children we would often stay with our aunt and uncle in Malvern and love to climb the Malvern hills. The highest point is the Worcestershire Beacon which is 425 meters above sea level. From there you have wonderful views over Herefordshire and Worcestershire. But this was just a hill. Being up there I always had a great feeling of being away from it all and seeing things from a different perspective. In today’s gospel we read that Jesus, with his disciples, went up a mountain to pray. When we go to the Holy Land in November the guide will take us to Mount Tabor. The guide book says “This is a perfect breast-shaped mountain that inspires awe and wonder as it rises majestic and beautiful from the plain of Yizreel to a height of 600 meters.” Traditionally this is the place where Jesus was transfigured. In scripture, mountains are places were God is encountered. Elijah encountered God on Mount Horeb and Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai.  God revealed himself to them. Peter James and John saw Jesus transfigured.  They had an encounter with Jesus in his glory. “The aspect of his face changed and his clothing became brilliant like lightning ….They saw his glory”. When the cloud covered them with shadow a voice came from the cloud saying ”This is my Son, the Chosen one, listen to him.” This Lent there are no mountains or high places in Canterbury to climb to encounter God.   Let us try to come away and leave behind the noise and busyness of our everyday existence so that we have some time to pray.  Those words that Peter James and John heard “Listen to him”, can be for us an invitation to pray. Let us try to create pockets of silence during these weeks of Lent to listen to Jesus. Every devout Jew is required to listen in order to be penetrated by God’s will: “ Hear O Israel (Deut 6:4)” This is the first words of the Sherma, the prayer each Jew recited morning, afternoon and evening.  Listening is the most fundamental attitude required of Israel.  It is a command also given to each of us.  To listen is not just an invitation to lend an attentive ear but it also means we are asked to open our heart to God. We are invited to open our heart to Jesus.

Here are some words of St Augustine to encourage us. “Return to your heart! Come back! To where? To the Lord! It is quick! Return immediately to your heart! Exiled from your own self you wander outside. You fail to know yourself, you who want to know the source of your existence. Come back! Return to the heart!…See there what you can learn about God, for the image of God is there. In your interior person dwells Christ. In your interior person you are renewed after God’s image.” 

Give me a listening heart this Lent

Franciscan Missionary Sisters – thank you and goodbye

Two years ago the Franciscan International Study Center closed its doors and was sold. We still have a Franciscan presence in Canterbury. They are the Franciscan Missionary sisters of Littlehampton at Monte Bre, Blean and the Franciscan Missionaries of St Joseph in Somner Close.


Sadly, by the end of this month, the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of St Joseph will have left the parish after their presence here of twenty-seven years when Sister Margaret arrived to study at the Franciscan International Study Centre (FISC). From there she moved to St Bonaventure’s University in Upstate New York to study for her Masters in Franciscan Studies returning to teach at FISC where she remained until its closure. During that time, she served as Director of Franciscan Studies and Sabbaticals and the Spiritual Direction Course in which a number of our parishioners took part. Margaret also served as Vice Principal.


She was later joined by Sister Frances Slater who was one of the founding members of the Solitude Group and who was known to many of our parishioners. Other Sisters joined the community including Sisters Nuala, Killian and Christine and a Noviciate was established in King Street in the former friary of the Capuchin Friars.


In 2007 Sister Anne Bross from the USA came to have a Sabbatical at the Centre and stayed on to join the Community. Anne worked for a time at L’Arche and in the Library at FISC and as a Chaplain at Kent and Canterbury Hospital. Here in the Parish she was a Welcomer at the 9.30 Mass. Latterly, she has also been a volunteer at Age UK.


Many of their Sisters from various countries and cultures came to study at the Centre – from Kenya, Ecuador, Peru, Uganda, Holland and Ireland.


In this parish, over the years, we have been blessed with the presence of religious women and men. Pope Francis said, “Every consecrated person is a gift for the People of God on a journey. There is much need of their presence, that strengthens and renews the commitment to spread the gospel, to Christian education, to charity for the most needy, to contemplative prayer; the commitment to a human and spiritual formation of young people, of families; the commitment to justice and peace in the human family.” It is important we pray for all those in religious life and for anyone who is considering whether God is calling them to this was of life. “Those in religious life are leaven for the growth of a more just and fraternal society, a prophecy of sharing with the little and the poor. With such understanding and experience, the consecrated life appears to us just as it really is: a gift of God!”


I would like to thank Sister Margaret and Sister Anne for their devoted service in our parish. We are going to miss them and their presence amongst us. We wish them God’s blessing as they both move to the North to take up their new appointments.

Lent

Since the beginning of the year I have been writing short reflections on the Mass (the Eucharist) which is for us the source and summit of our Christian life. This Sunday is the last before we enter the season of Lent. Lent is a six week period in preparation of the greatest feast of the year, Easter. At all masses this weekend we will be reading the Archbishop’s letter. Pope Francis has also given us a Lenten message.(c.f. www.vatican.va ). In his letter, Archbishop Peter has given us the image of Holman Hunt’s famous picture, “Jesus the Light of the World”.  He wants us to think of Lent as the time when we open the door of our heart to Christ who waits patiently knocking at the door of our heart. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity of  allowing Christ’s light unto our hearts. Pope Francis centres his message around St Paul’s words; “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom 8:19)” Pope Francis says that this eager longing, when we all enter into the travail, is what conversion entails. “All creation is called, with us, to go forth from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).” Lent is a sacramental sign of this conversion. It invites us to embody the paschal mystery more deeply and concretely in our personal, family and social lives, above all by fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
Regarding Almsgiving, as a parish, I would like to suggest that we adopt the work of Father Federico, a Franciscan, who studied here in Canterbury and is now working with children and their families in South Sudan. Details of his work can be seen on the Lenten Noticeboard. We can do this through prayer and donations. Two Lenten talks have been arranged. The first, on Tuesday  26th March, is about Pope Francis’ letter on the call to holiness in today’s world, led by Chris Chapman. The second is the following Tuesday, 2nd April, entitled “Global Healing” which is a film based event that will inform, challenge and equip us to engage with Pope Francis vital call to “Care for our Common Home.” (Laudate Si). Whatever we decide to do in this season of Lent, under the banner of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving, the aim is to become people able to celebrate Easter, to renew our baptismal promises and to join with those who are to be baptised and received into the Church. We are people of Easter Joy, rejoicing in the redemption of all creation.

Let us not allow this season of grace to pass in vain! Let us ask God to help us set out on a path of true conversion. Let us leave behind our selfishness and self-absorption, and turn to Jesus’ Pasch.(life death and resurrection). Let us stand beside our brothers and sisters in need, sharing our spiritual and material goods with them. In this way, by concretely welcoming Christ’s victory over sin and death into our lives, we will also radiate its transforming power to all of creation.” (Pope Francis) 

The Eucharist

This week I want to consider the  Communion Rite of the Mass which begins with the Our Father. We then give each other the sign of peace. This reminds us that our Communion is not a private act between Jesus and myself but it is between Jesus in his union with the Father and the Spirit, and us in our union with each other. We are invited to share in the communion between God and the Church.

The priest breaks off a piece of the large host that he shows to the people and mixes it with the Precious Blood. Ideally at each Sunday Mass the people are able to receive the Host and drink from the chalice. In this way we are being faithful to the Lord’s command to his disciples to “Take and Eat” and Take and Drink”. “We complete the Eucharistic action by together eating and drinking the elements consecrated during the celebration. It is most desirable that the faithful share the chalice. Drinking at the Eucharist is a sharing in the sign of the new covenant (see Luke 22:20), a foretaste of the heavenly banquet (see Matthew 26:29), a sign of participation in the suffering Christ (see Mark 10:38- 39)” .

The Bishops of England and Wales say “The faithful are not ordinarily to be given Communion from the tabernacle.”  Yet in this parish we seem to do this as a matter of course.  How can we change this? We should receive communion from the bread and wine that is consecrated at that Mass. “The Communion procession expresses the humble patience of the poor moving forward to be fed, the alert expectancy of God’s people sharing the Paschal meal in readiness for their journey, the joyful confidence of God’s people on the march toward the promised land. In England and Wales it is through this action of walking solemnly in procession that the faithful make their sign of reverence in preparation for receiving Communion.” The normal sign of reverence is a bow before receiving Communion or a genuflection. There is no requirement to kneel. After the minister says, “The body of Christ,” we answer “Amen” and receive the consecrated host in the hand or on the tongue. This is repeated when receiving the blood of Christ from the cup. “Amen” means “so be it.” It testifies to our belief that the consecrated bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ. As we return to our place there will be time for some silence .

There are some who for one reason our another are unable to take Holy Communion. They are encouraged to make a spiritual communion. In their Document One Bread, One Body, in 1996 the Bishops of England and Wales wrote “Even though some may not receive sacramental communion, all are united in some way by the Holy Spirit. The traditional idea of spiritual communion is an important one to remember and reaffirm. The invitation often given at Mass to those who may not receive sacramental communion – for example, children before their First Communion and adults who are not Catholics – is to receive a ‘blessing’ at the moment of Communion which emphasises that a deep spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.”

The laity as Eucharistic Ministers

Last Saturday at our Cathedral, Bishop Pat Lynch commissioned 64 people as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. These commissions take place three times a year. Some people  don’t like the idea of receiving the Precious Body and Blood from a lay person. Others are uncomfortable about receiving Our Lord in the hand. In the early church lay people not only received communion on Sunday but took communion home with them to receive it every day.  Fr Joseph Champlin writes “it is very evident from historical research that lay persons ordinarily received the Lord directly into their hands for the first nine centuries. Writings, pictures and documentation speak of or illustrate this practice”. After the early centuries this changed. The reason for the change was most probably the changing attitude to the Eucharist. More emphasis was put on the divine aspect of the Eucharist. Stress was put on the real, holy, tremendous, awesome presence of Christ in the sacrament. The host was to be adored more than to be eaten. The feeling of unworthiness in the face of this wonderful gift led to less frequent reception of Communion and a greater distance between the altar and the pew. Also at this time laity were more and more excluded from the liturgy. Singing was done by a choir, the general intercessions disappeared, the faithful could not see what was happening at the altar, the Canon of the Mass was said quietly, everything took place in silence and in a language less understood by the people. “Those medieval concepts obviously were handed down very carefully to us from our forefathers in the faith. They had value, respected one aspect of the mystery which is the Eucharist, and should not be casually disregarded.” The emphasis on great participation in the liturgy began at the beginning of the twentieth century.


In 1947 Pius XII wrote: “By the waters of Baptism, as common right, Christians are made members of the mystical body of Christ the Priest and by the character which is imprinted on their souls their are appointed to give worship to God, thus they participate according to their condition, in the priesthood of Christ.” In the Document on the Liturgy, at the Second Vatican Council, the Council Fathers reminded us of the key role of the laity, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4–5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.”


It was in 1973 that Pope Paul VI issued the instruction “Immensae Caritatis” in which he wrote:“First of all, provision must be made, less reception of Communion becomes impossible or difficult because of insufficient ministers” Thus there are a number of occasions when the priest will need assistance of the laity in helping with Holy Communion. During Mass when there is Holy Communion under both kinds and when the size of the congregation is such that without their assistance the Communion Rite would be unduly long. Outside Mass help is needed to bring communion to the sick and housebound and a lay minister can expose and repose the Blessed Sacrament.


I would like to thank all those who are Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion in our parish. This is a tremendous service you are undertaking. Please note that our reflection Day for Eucharistic ministers is on Saturday 2nd March from 10am till 1pm in St Thomas Hall.

Ministry of Reader

Over twenty years ago I was involved in helping a friend of mine, Margaret Rizza, write a small book entitled “Proclaiming God’s Word”. After being published by our Diocesan Liturgy Commission, it was expanded and published commercially. This was a guide for readers and we realised that the service of the Ministry of Reader was vital in the celebration of Mass.

In the document on the Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council, the bishops wanted to promote a warm and living love for Scripture. God’s Word is the source of all life. When we refer to the use of Scripture in Mass we don’t say that the Word of God is “read” but we use the word “Proclaim”. The Word of God is proclaimed. Through the proclamation of the living Word of God in the midst of the assembly we are enabling those assembled to consciously and deliberately take on the role of listener. As Margaret writes, “ the community is called to listen. Without listeners there is no living Word. Through genuine listening – listening with the ear of the heart- we open ourselves to the life-giving Word. When we do not listen, we close ourselves to the power of the Spirit who heals us, enabling us to grow and transform our lives.”

As we hear in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Peter and the Sons of Zebedee left everything and followed Jesus to spread the Good News. Through our baptism this is what we are all called to do, to proclaim the Good News to all creation. The lay ministry of Reader enables us to do this in a special way. Pope Paul VI says: “Let the reader be aware of the office he has undertaken and make every effort and employ suitable means to acquire that increasingly warm and living love and knowledge of scripture.” We realise that the Ministry of Reader is not just about getting up on Sunday or during the week and reading out aloud the scripture passages but it becomes a God-given ministry, a response to God’s call which brings about our daily conversion – we come to realise that as readers we are God’s instruments- God is speaking his Word through us. We can say the true task of the reader is to enable the Word to become alive and active in those who listen. This is why it is essential for anyone involved in the Ministry of Reader to prepare for their task. First by prayer. A good practise is to look at the reading that we are going to proclaim during the week before Sunday and prayerfully read it, and reflect on it. We also need to remember “the human voice is one of the most remarkable and beautiful instruments that we have.” We need to know how to manage our voice in relation to the style of the text, the size of the church, the number of people and the microphone which we will be using.” (Margaret Rizza.)


I would like to thank all those involved in this important Ministry of Reader and ask all Readers  to put in your diary our Reader’s Day on 20th March 2019 in St Thomas Hall. 10am till 1pm.

Participating in the Mass

This week I wish to talk about a word that is often used in liturgical context, Ministry.  We often hear talk about Liturgical ministries. The Priest at Mass presides over the whole assembly. He orchestrates the whole liturgy and speaks the many prayers in your name.  As a priest at Mass, I don’t speak for myself, but in the name of all of you. The priest leads the prayers.

Let’s look at some of the other ministries that are parts of our Sunday Assembly There are those who are involved in music and I have written in a previous newsletter about the significance of music and what should our singing priorities should be. Music should help the whole assembly celebrate Mass actively. We don’t say that we “heard” Mass or “attended” Mass. No. All together we celebrate Mass. Music helps us do this. 

Another ministry is that of Reader. The Reader proclaims God’s word in the assembly and enables us the hear God’s word.  We have a ministry of Hospitality that communicates God’s care for us. They do this by making the environment comfortable. They greet us at the beginning of Mass to help us feel welcome and make sure we have the hymn books and Mass leaflets to help us to actively participate.

Alter servers, who may seem to be serving the priest who presides, are actually serving the assembly. They help things run smoothly by making sure the items needed are ready for the priest when he needs them. By assisting the priest at the altar they help all of us have a smoother more prayerful experience.  Finally there are those who are ministers of Holy Communion. They facilitate the sharing of the Body and Blood of Christ. Where there is not sufficient ordinary ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion in a timely and appropriate manner, extraordinary ministers can be called to assist.

We are all called to be part of the assembly As an assembly we are all gathered in response to God’s call to give thanks and praise through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis has said: “The Mass is not ‘heard’, it is participated in, and it is a participation in this theophany, in this mystery of the presence of the Lord among us”. He went on further to say: “All of you here, we are gathered here to enter into the mystery: this is the liturgy. It is God’s time, it is God’s space, it is the cloud of God that surrounds all of us”

The Bishops of England and Wales, in their document Celebrating the Mass, wrote “The faithful should not refuse to serve the people of God gladly whenever asked to perform some particular ministry or role in the celebration.  Women and men, the young and old, people of every race and way of life should avail of these opportunities so that the liturgy may be seen to be the work of the whole body of Christ. 


Preparation of Gifts

Continuing our reflections on the celebration of the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life, I thought that as we will be having members of the Parish Finance committee speaking at all Masses this weekend about our finances, it would be appropriate to reflect on the Preparation of Gifts and the collection.  This part of Mass used to be known as the Offertory and is now knows as the Preparation of Gifts. The rubric in the missal at this point of the Mass says: “It is desirable that the faithful express their participation by making an offering, bringing forward bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist and perhaps other gifts to relieve the needs of the Church and of of the poor.”  The Catechism says that from the very beginning Christians have brought, along with the bread and wine for the Eucharist, gifts to share with those in need” St Paul in his second letter to the people of Corinth writes: “But remember: anyone who sows sparsely will reap sparsely as well—and anyone who sows generously will reap generously as well.  Each one should give as much as he has decided on his own initiative, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”. Our giving expresses  not only our desire to help those in need but also our generosity to God.  St. Cyprian, martyred in Africa in 258, chided those who came to Mass and received the Eucharist but made no offering of their own: “You are wealthy and rich and do you think that you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not at all considering the offering? Who comes to the Lord’s Supper without a sacrifice and yet take part of the sacrifice which the poor man has offered? Consider in the Gospel the widow… ” The money we give at the offertory or which we give by direct debit is a symbol of the gift of the work of our hands. In the prayer the priest says as he raises the bread and wine slightly above the altar he uses the words “work of human hands”. So both the gifts of bread and wine and the collection are symbols of the offering of ourselves. The Procession with the Gifts is a powerful expression of the assembly’s participation in the Eucharist and in the social mission of the Church. It is an expression of the humble and contrite heart, the dispossession of self that is a necessary prerequisite for making the true offering which the Lord Jesus gave his people to make with him. The Procession with the Gifts expresses also our eager willingness to enter into the “holy exchange” with God: “accept the offerings you have given us, that we in turn may receive the gift of yourself.”  The Bishops of England and Wales in their document and the celebration of Mass says: “The collection of money takes place first. As an integral part of the Eucharistic liturgy since apostolic times, its purpose and value will be better appreciated if, after the Prayer of the faithful, the priest celebrant, ministers, and people all sit and wait while the collection is taken and then made ready with the other gifts for the procession”.  This is something we don’t do here at St Thomas’s. The money is brought up separately from the bread and wine before the Preface begins and sometimes it is sneaked up by the side aisle and placed on the sanctuary while the Eucharistic prayer is being said.  Perhaps we need more collectors and more bags for this to happen in our parish.