Good news about fasting

Good news about fasting

Lent has begun, and if you’re reading this on Ash Wednesday, you’re fasting, and you’re probably hungry right now.

Roman Catholics are obliged to fast — one normal meal and two small snacks — on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But Maronite Catholics observe a much stricter Lent:

In regards to the Lenten penitential practices of the Maronites residing in Australia, and in accordance with the guidelines released by His Beatitude and Eminence Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, we recommend the following practices to the faithful of the Maronite Eparchy of Australia:

Fasting from midnight to midday on all weekdays: no food or drink is to be consumed, with the exception of water;

I haven’t looked it up, but it’s a fair bet that the other Catholic rites are also more disciplined than us Latins.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping Roman Catholics from observing voluntary fasts in Lent. I know plenty of people who have decided to fast on every Friday in Lent, and some who will fast on Wednesdays too. (Wednesday being the day that Judas conspired against our Lord.)

The idea of fasting is noble and even inspiring, but the experience of fasting is hard. So let me give you some encouragement.

Here’s Fr Mike Schmitz, who in eight minutes gives four spiritual reasons for fasting:

I especially like his point about us becoming co-redeemers with Christ. But when your stomach is really growling, and you’re struggling to reach spiritual heights, how about a good dose of material self-interest? Here’s a longer video — 1 hour — but a very interesting one, on the health benefits of fasting:


So research shows fasting improves our resistance to stress, reduces blood pressure, reduces blood sugar, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces the incidence of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and improves cognitive ability. Maybe this detracts a bit from what Fr Mike says about sacrifice. But on the other hand, it says something about God’s design, I think, that good spiritual practices do so much good for the body too.

Incidentally, this latter video launched a craze in Britain for intermittent fasting, especially in the form of the 5:2 diet. I take fad diets with a grain of salt. But don’t take nutritional advice from a priest; this is just a post of encouragement from a presently quite hungry blogger!

The clergy abuse scandal is not a distraction; it’s part of the mission

The clergy abuse scandal is not a distraction; it’s part of the mission

There is a wonderful insight from St Vincent de Paul, in the Office of Readings on his feast day. It’s an insight that probably every saint has received and shared — not to mention countless disciples who aren’t canonised. But St Vincent has most famously formulated it:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God.

Godly “distractions” aren’t limited to serving the poor. For example, when you’re trying to meditate, focusing your thoughts on God, but other thoughts invade — that conversation you had yesterday, or that friend you haven’t called for a while — that may not be a “distraction.” That may be an indication, from God, to pray for that person, for his or her intentions; or to get in touch.

In the same way, although it is understandable to consider the clergy abuse scandal as a devastating distraction from the Church’s mission, maybe even a diabolical means of destroying the Church’s moral authority, I suspect the opposite. The never-ending Royal Commission, the hostile media coverage, the horrendous stories and shameful statistics — maybe none of this is a distraction. Maybe this is where God wants the Church to focus its attention. Maybe this is central to the mission of the Church in Australia.

It’s becoming more and more evident, I think, that the sexual abuse of children is not ‘a Catholic problem,’ and nor is it an historical problem. Studies suggest a substantial proportion of Australian children are abused, and that the rate of abuse is growing. This is a universal problem, and a current one. The world is in trouble. And the Church exists for the world, not for itself.

The Catholic Church has sustained a humiliating exposé which has done a lot of harm. But it’s not in vain. In fact, I think the benefits of this shameful exposé outweigh the costs. Catholic schools and parishes are now the safest places for children in Australia, and Catholic schools and parishes are the most dangerous places for paedophiles. The staff in my parish schools, and all the people on my parish councils, and I, have signed and abide by codes of conduct which eliminate opportunities for adults to prey on children. We all know what to do if we believe someone violates the code — how to respond, who to speak to, which legal authorities to call. That’s significant. Paedophiles cultivate and groom adults, not just children. They depend on the naiveté and inaction of good people. A culture which eliminates that possibility saves children.

That’s the future, but the present is maybe even more important. A lot of pastoral care is owed to a lot of people who have suffered from clerical child abuse. And a lot can be learned from them too. Their suffering is not in vain either; their experiences and their insights can enrich the Church and assist its mission. These victims and survivors are not apart from the Church. They are the Church. Christ identifies with them, and so should we all. I hope Church leaders are listening to them. We have so much more to learn.

True story.

To paraphrase St Vincent:

Do not become upset or feel guilty because the evangelising mission of the Church is interrupted by the fallout and response to the clergy abuse scandal. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. Remember that this very service is performed for God.

None of this is a distraction. This is where we need to focus our energy. Our prayer. Our apostolic zeal. God knows what he is about.

Santa and Christmas

Santa and Christmas

So PJ Media reports this happened in Texas earlier in the month:

A pastor made a scene on Friday by preaching about the falsehood of Santa Claus at a mall. He walked around the Santa exhibit, where kids and parents stood in line to see Santa, shouting that Santa isn’t real and that Christmas is about Jesus Christ.

You can watch the pastor make a fool of himself at the link, which includes a Youtube clip the pastor himself filmed.

I’m reminded of the wisdom of the Catholic Church’s repeated insistence that parents are the primary educators of their children, and everyone else, including ecclesiastics, must defer to them:

  • The Catechism calls the rights of parents “primordial and inalienable.”
  • In Familiaris Consortio, St John Paul II called parents’ ministry “original and irreplaceable.”
  • St Thomas Aquinas compares parents’ duty and right to teach their children to the duties and rights of the priest:

“Some only propagate and guard spiritual life by a spiritual ministry: this is the role of the sacrament of Orders; others do this for both corporal and spiritual life, and this is brought about by the sacrament of marriage, by which a man and a woman join in order to beget offspring and bring them up to worship God.”

Hence I’m in pretty good company calling the Texan pastor’s actions out of order. He has no business subverting the rights of parents.

Apart from that, it’s far from clear that he’s right to decry the Santa Claus myth. The author of the PJ Media item linked above relates the Christian origins of gift-giving from St Nicholas. And even the modern Coca-Cola adulteration of St Nick does a lot of good.

Case in point: Eric Schmitt-Matzen’s apostolate, borne from a chance conversation at his local church, and an uncanny likeness to the real deal.

Put me down as a believer.

When a father dies

When a father dies

I had barely begun in the seminary when Pope John Paul II died. It was a very sad time. It felt like I my own grandfather had died.

In the midst of my grief, I was very impressed by a statement from Bishop Javier Echevarría, the prelate of Opus Dei. He exhorted the faithful not only to pray for the late pope and his successor, but also to love and revere the new pope as we had the old:

This is also the moment to pray for the next Pope, for whom we Catholics are ready from this moment to give all of our filial affection.

I made this my prayer intention during the 2005 conclave (and again in 2013).

A few years later, in 2008, I met Don Javier when he visited Melbourne. It is the custom, when greeting European bishops, to kiss their episcopal ring, but as I bent down to do this, Don Javier sort of scooped me up into his arms and hugged me. I greeted him as “Your Excellency,” but he corrected me in heavily-accented English. “No! You must call me Father, for we are father and son!”

A few years later again, in 2010, the day after I was ordained a deacon, I wrote a letter to Don Javier. (I addressed him as Father, not Excellency!) I requested admission into Opus Dei, to which he gave his assent.

And now, in 2016, this father of mine has died, and the experience is not dissimilar to the death of St John Paul II. Of course I have already started praying for his successor — and also for myself, that I might foster filial affection for the next Father.

Meanwhile, I’m praying for Don Javier with gratitude and admiration.

The Christmas Novena

The Christmas Novena

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In the words of the Australian Ordo, “the Christmas novena begins today. At this point, the Advent focus shifts to the Christmas story and the Virgin Mary. These days serve to prepare more directly for the Lord’s birth.”

There are many excellent way to prayerfully observe ‘the pointy end of Advent.’

O antiphons

You might pray with each day’s ‘O antiphon,’ for example. Fr Z has excellent reflections on these ancient prayers of the Christmas novena. Why not pray with the Church? Chant each day’s ‘O antiphon’ — in isolation, or with the Magnificat, or in its proper context in the daily office of Vespers.

Devotional prayers

Perhaps you’d prefer a devotional novena. EWTN has a nice one. The O antiphons are liturgical prayer, which makes them official and public — a corporate act of the whole Church, on earth and in Heaven. In contrast, EWTN’s novena is private, which in the eyes of many means inferior or deficient. Don’t buy into that. Remember the counsel of the saints: “pray as you can, not as you ought.”

A good confession and daily communion

Of all the excellent ways to keep the Christmas novena, I think this one is the most excellent. It’s no coincidence that Jesus was born in Beth-lehem — “house of bread” — and laid in a manger: a structure used to hold food!

God so desires our trust and intimacy, that when he assumed flesh, he first came to us a newborn baby. How can anyone be wary of, or fearful of, a baby? In the same way, he approaches us under the form of bread and wine, risking the indignity of profanation so that he might have communion with us.

There is no better way to prepare for the Lord’s nativity, I think, than to make a good confession and receive him in the Eucharist each day. There should be no aspect of our life wherein we echo Bethlehem’s inn keepers: “Sorry Lord, there’s no room for you there.” Make the room — invite him into every aspect of your life, including the broken and sinful aspects. Name it to the priest, and permit the Lord to recreate you:

If it’s not possible to make a sacramental communion each day, make a spiritual communion instead. Make the effort to visit a church, and pray before the tabernacle. Offer up any inconvenience this causes in lieu of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass you’re unable to attend.

And make your communion, sacramental or spiritual, in the spirit of Advent. Prepare for the Lord’s arrival. Make room for him.

I wish my Lord to receive you, with the purity, humility, and devotion with which your most holy mother received you; with the spirit and fervour of the saints.

Keep Christ in Christmas

Keep Christ in Christmas

If your Christmas Day celebrations are dominated by food and presents, you might like to introduce this Nativity story-telling to your family rituals. It is a fun and attractive way to be mindful of the birth of Jesus.

I devised this ‘Australian recipe’ last year, hewing as closely as possible to the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s nativity. It has proven to be very popular in my parishes, not to mention in my own family.

The Story of the First Christmas, told with Chocolate!

Ingredients

All listed chocolates are available in Australian supermarkets. Overseas readers might need to adapt this. (Here’s the UK original.)

  • Boost
  • Bounty
  • Chomp
  • Cadbury’s Dairy Milk
  • Crunchie
  • Dream
  • Flake
  • Furry Friends
  • Kinder Surprise
  • Mars Bar
  • Milky Way
  • Picnic
  • Rocky Road
  • Smarties
  • Time Out
  • Turkish Delight
  • Twirl
  • Twix

Method

1. Download and print The Story of the First Christmas told with Chocolate.

2. Narrate the script and hold up each chocolate as it is mentioned in the story.

That’s it! A guaranteed crowd pleaser, which also keeps Christ in Christmas. There are many adaptions to the method which make it more interactive. Here’s a few examples:

  • Gifts for the King. As the story is narrated and each chocolate is named, it’s placed before the manger. This is a nice reminder that just as the Magi presented gifts for the newborn King, so can we. (Not so much chocolate as acts of kindness, works of mercy, small mortifications.)
  • Fill the gap. The chocolates are piled in the centre, and as the story is told, the narrator pauses at the naming of each chocolate. Whoever correctly identifies the chocolate wins that item.
  • Links in a chain. The story is divided into small portions of text, each extract printed on an individual card, and placed in a numbered bag or box with an assigned chocolate. As each person reads their text, which ends just before a chocolate is named, the next person opens their bag to find the unnamed chocolate, and the next part of the story. People can try guessing which chocolate comes next.
  • Treasure hunt. The chocolates are hidden in the garden. As the story is narrated, children have to correctly fill in the gap, and then be the first to find the chocolate. (This is maybe not so good in a heat wave!)
  • Pass the parcel. As the story is narrated, people constantly pass a wrapped parcel around the room. When the narrator pauses at the name of a chocolate, whomever is holding the parcel unwraps a layer and finds the chocolate which fits that part of the story.

This year, my nephews have opted for the pass-the-parcel method. We’ll see how it works out. Merry Christmas!

The appalling strangeness of divine mercy

The appalling strangeness of divine mercy

Zacchaeus must have had a burning desire for Jesus. By climbing a tree he makes a fool of himself. That childlike behaviour is a good example for us.

We can ask ourselves, do I want to see Christ that much? Do I do everything I can to see him? Or do I avoid encounters with him? Or, if I already see Christ, do I prefer to keep a distance?

I’m reminded of Graham Greene, a famous twentieth-century novelist, and a famous on-again off-again Catholic. In his twenties, he married a Catholic and converted. In the subsequent years he wrote some outstanding Catholic-themed novels.

But Greene was not a faithful husband, and as his marriage collapsed, his faith lapsed. He stopped going to confession and stopped receiving communion, though for many years he continued to frequent Sunday Mass.

In 1949, Greene and his mistress visited a Franciscan monastery, where they attended Mass offered by by Padre Pio. Greene later wrote that this encounter with the famous mystic “profoundly moved” him, and during the Mass, Greene lost “all sense of time.”

But when Greene had an opportunity to personally speak with Padre Pio, he beat a hasty exit. “I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint,” he wrote. “I felt that there was a good chance that he was one. He had a great peace about him.”

Greene was obviously awed in the presence of holiness. He recognised that “great peace” is the mark of a saint. But he feared it too, because he knew it would transform his life.

It’s quite a contrast to Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus climbs a tree, and from that safe distance he can observe Jesus. But when God approaches he doesn’t back away like Graham Greene. He hurries down the tree and welcomes Jesus into his home. Sure enough, his life is transformed, but we can be sure that Christ’s peace becomes Zaccheaus’ peace too.

Perhaps Greene discovered this for himself 40 years later. By then, he had returned to the sacraments, and the man who famously described himself as a “Catholic atheist,” died a holy death.

Graham Greene and Zacchaeus are both outstanding witnesses to the mercy of God. The Lord does not forget his own.

Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus singles out the chief of the tax collectors. An outcast. A traitor. But also son of Abraham. A child of God.

We must never doubt God’s goodness and mercy — for ourselves, and for those whom we love. God’s mercy will always eclipse our human limitations.

As Graham Greene famously wrote in one of his Catholic novels (Brighton Rock):

“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

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