Friday, 29 February 2008

Forgotten Shepherds

The blog Roman Miscellany has a very interesting post on the Vicars Apostolic of England and Wales, who led the church in England and her colonies after the 16th and 17th century persecutions up to the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Fr. Guy Nicholls on conscience

This is the text of a lent talk given by Fr. Guy Nicholls recently on the subject of conscience. At the bottom is a Youtube clip of the talk. Acknowledgements to Mrs. Jackie Parkes.

Conscience in the New Testament

1. The Word and the Idea of Conscience

The word “Conscience” (conscientia) is a direct translation into Latin of the Greek word: “syneidesis”, meaning, roughly, “knowledge within”, or “co-knowledge”. The fundamental meaning implies a personal knowledge on two levels: a knowledge of something outside the mind that has a bearing on our own inner consciousness. Hence the knowing “co-”, or “syn-”. These Latin and Greek prepositions are indicative of something “together”, conjoined. Conscientia implies the presence and knowledge of oneself by God. The person who has “conscientia” knows that he has responsibility towards God based on his own moral freedom. This responsibility towards God is explicitly to be located in the idea of judgement. We are answerable to God for all our freely willed actions, and we will give an account of them all to Him.

Although “conscientia” is only to be found in the New Testament, this idea already existed to an extent in the Old Testament. It corresponds to what is called the “heart” or another Hebrew word usually rendered: the “loins”. In Old Testament language, bodily organs were associated with specific emotional responses and attitudes. Examples are too numerous to mention here, but the term “heart” is not far removed from our own usage, where “heart” stands for the innermost self, for the motives and character, as for instance in the book of Exodus, which we read in the Office at this time, in which it is often said that, in response to Moses, petitions that his people might be given leave to offer sacrifice to God, Pharaoh's heart was hardened. But the heart also stands for that which God sees, especially as we stand before Him as our Judge. Take these well known lines from the psalms, which can illustrate this range of meaning of “heart”; first, ps. 50:17: “a humbled, contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn”, which signifies the centre of one's moral self and seat of one's will; and ps. 138:29 “search me, O God, and know my heart”, signifying the self which is known and judged by God. But don't forget the words that begin both ps. 13 and ps. 52: “The fool has said in his heart, there is no God!” So a heart, or conscience, can be perverse. A point to which we will return.

The word Conscience, with which we are concerned, appears only in the New Testament, and moreover, almost entirely within the Letters of St. Paul, though there are three places where St. Peter uses the term in his first Epistle. It occurs twice in the Acts of the Apostles, though interestingly enough both times are in speeches attributed to St. Paul. It is important to say at this point that nowhere does Paul give us a definition of “conscience”. Yet it is possible to piece together the aspects of its meaning from the way in which he uses it, and that is what we are going to do. But first of all, where did St. Paul get it from? “syneidesis” is a term from Stoic philosophy, the most popular Greco-Roman philosophical system of the Apostolic era, meaning primarily “awareness of one's own thoughts”, a for of the idea of self-consciousness – the awareness within us that we know.: “I know that I know”. Yet even at this stage the word is also used to imply knowledge of the moral goodness or otherwise of one's deeds. So St. Paul was well-placed to adopt it, being a Roman citizen, a well-educated Jew of the diaspora (i.e. the Jews who lived outside the Holy Land), raised in the Greek-speaking city of Tarsus in Asia Minor. St. Paul takes the basic Old Testament meaning of heart and develops it further, giving it greater depth and sophistication. Conscience in St. Paul is always related to God as the hearing of His word, the acceptance of His will, conciousness of one's own position, and one's own responsibility before God, and therefore, ultimately, of the divine judgement.

2. What is the Role of Conscience?

The Christian knows himself to be confronted with the demands and judgement of God, which makes him conscious both of the commandments and at the same time of the grace of God. As he says in (2Cor 1:12): “for our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom, but by the grace of God.” so conscience bears witness, or testimony, to one's sincerity. Conscience knows what is the inner meaning and value of anything that we do, whatever it may appear to others. Moreover, as Paul says here, conscience is aware of the working of God's grace in what we do. Hence his saying that he has “behaved ... toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom, but by the grace of God”.

Conscience is not merely passive, a simple awareness of God's knowledge of the motives of the heart. Conscience is also active, in that it plays the part of a guide for a life lived in God's sight. For instance, take this example from (Acts 24:16), where Paul defends himself against the Jews before Felix the Governor: “I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets, having a hope in God which these themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always take pains to have a clear conscience towards God and towards men.” This clearly indicates that following the guiding light of conscience is not always straightforward, since it requires “taking pains” to achieve it.

Paul suggests that conscience is not simply the voice of God in our soul, but our own voice which directs our attention towards God's will. So we must act both to please God and to honour our conscience, as when he says, in enjoining obedience to the governing authorities: (Rom 13:5) “Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” There is a similar passage in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb13:18): “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give an account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honourably in all things”

St Paul understands that it is quite possible for two persons' consciences to work in different ways with regard to certain matters. One man's conscience may be troubled by something that does not trouble another's. Paul gives an illustration. To understand it we need to remember that in those pagan times, food offered in sacrifice to pagan gods and idols was often subsequently offered for sale in the markets, without necessarily being identified as such. Paul says that you can eat such meat with a good conscience if you don't actually know where it has come from. But of course, if you do know that it is from pagan sacrifices, then it is best to shun it for conscience's sake. So he writes to the Corinthians, telling them to shun both the worship of idols and the eating of food taken from their sacrifices, for, in the Eucharist, do not the faithful also eat of what is sacrificed to God and so share in it? In worshipping idols the pagans worship demons. The meat offered to them in sacrifice will do yo no harm if you do not know where it has come from. All things are lawful but not all things are helpful, he says, and continues:.(1Cor 10: 25ff) “let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbour. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if some one says to you, ‘this has been offered in sacrifice’, then out of consideration for the man who informed you and for conscience’s sake – I mean his conscience, not yours – do not eat it. For why should my liberty be determined by another man’s scruples?…So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Paul also gives advice to Timothy as one who has the guidance of souls laid to his charge, telling him to act always by the guidance of conscience in accordance with the “prophetic utterances” which Paul says pointed to him: (1Tim 1:5) “inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.” encourage people to avoid false teaching or speculations: “whereas the aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” And he warns Timothy of the fatal danger of rejecting conscience when he says that (1Tim 1:19): “By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.” These Paul has “delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”, meaning a form of punitive excommunication intended to bring them to their senses and the proper use of conscience.

Revelation of truth is made through power of conscience. For Paul as an Apostle appeals directly to each man's conscience to recognise the truth in what he teaches, not because it is Paul who says it, but because it comes from Christ through him (2Cor 4:2): “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhand ways; we refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” Similarly, in training up Timothy in the governance of souls ruled by conscience he says that 1Tim3:9): “Deacons…must hold the mystery of faith with a good conscience” which preserves the mysteries of the faith in their purity.

3. How does Conscience function?

Conscience is a faculty innate in every person, even in the pagans. For they, too can come to know God's will. Otherwise there could be point in preaching the truth to them. How then does conscience manifest itself even before the revealed truth is preached? Paul explains in the Letter to the Romans that there is a “natural law “ written on men's hearts (Rom 2:15): “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, (note the reappearance of that key word heart!)while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my Gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” so conscience in the pagans is given to prepare the way for the coming of the truth. Note the important statement that the pagans will be judged by Christ, not only those who have had explicit faith in Him.

But once the conscience has been enlightened by the truth of Faith, then it functions in a new and clearer say through the Holy Spirit. Paul is able to say something extraordinary about his unbelieving Jewish brethren only because he recognises that the Holy spirit has inspired it in his conscience: (Rom 9:1): “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.”

St. Peter, in one of his rare mentions of the word conscience, tells us that Baptism is the requirement of a good conscience towards God, which is effective not through the power of water, but through the power of Christ's resurrection: (1Pet3:21): “Baptism, which corresponds to this (viz. Noe’s salvation through water and the ark), now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

4. the Imperative of Conscience

Conscience binds, as we saw in St Paul's advice to the Corinthians concerning food offered to idols. being linked to human knowledge, it is subject to deception. All things are lawful, he says, but not all are helpful. Because idols are not real, they can do no harm, but a person's conscience may be troubled by the thought of eating food offered to them. Even though Paul says this can do no harm, still it is right to follow conscience, and also for one whose conscience is not troubled by such matters, not to upset another who is: (1Cor 8:7ff) concerning food offered to idols: “However, not all possess this knowledge, (viz. that idols are not real) but some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat it, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”

He deals even more extensively with this point in (Rom14): “as for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgement on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?…Why do you pass judgement on your brother? Or why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgement seat of God…so each of us shall give an account of himself to God. Then let us no more pass judgement on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat be the ruin of one for whom Christ died…For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men…The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God; happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves. But he who has doubts is condemned, if he acts, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Conscience is therefore like faith in this respect. It binds under the pain of sin. One must follow one's conscience as guided by the light of faith, even if, as Paul allows, it may in certain details be misguided.


4. Good and Bad Conscience

But a misguided conscience is not the same as a bad conscience. We have already heard Paul say to Timothy that “by rejecting conscience certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.” Then what influences can be brought to bear to shape the power of conscience for good or ill? Paul says most about this in the Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus, where he speaks about the deceptions practised on consciences by the evil one. But he clearly states that such deception can only take place if it is willed by the person whose conscience is warped from the truth: (1 Tim 4:2) “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” And to Titus he makes the important observation that conscience effectively colours all things: (Tit 1:15) “to the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.”

The Letter to the Hebrews also addresses this point: (Heb 10: 2) “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of those realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshippers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin.” Conscience cannot be purified and perfected through temple sacrifices but only through Christ’s blood, in the power of the eternal Spirit. (Heb9: 9,14): on the temple sacrifices. “According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper.” Contd ad 9:14: “For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” But conscience is in fact purified by the grace of the sacraments, as the Letter makes clear: Contd ad 2:22: “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

5. Liberty and Limitations of Conscience

So, late in life, Paul can gratefully tell Timothy that : (2Tim 1:3): “I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience”. What is the especial meaning of a clear conscience? It gives peace and confidence. So, for instance, Paul speaks before the Tribune when he is accused by Ananias and the council:(Acts 23:1) “And Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day.’Yet despite that, Paul makes no claim that his, or any other individual person's conscience is actually infallible. As a human power conscience can give no certainty about God’s judgement: (1Cor4:4): “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.”

So, to summarise, conscience is a guide when it is purified by God's grace: coming through the sacrifice of Christ and the light of the Holy Spirit. Yet it is not thereby infallible. Still, it is to be followed under pain of sin. But even is one's conscience does not accuse one, that does not necessarily mean that God has acquitted one of all fault. We must therefore rely at all times on the grace of God received in humility, being guided not only by the inner voice of conscience, but by God's word and God's apostolic truth administered by the Apostles themselves.

Fr Guy Nicholls Cong. Orat & Parish Priest of the Birmingham Oratory.


Rogue's gallery no.1: abortion providers

The most obvious faction in the culture of death lobbies are of course those who do the evil deeds. Or as they like to call themselves, 'family planning' providers. Indeed their nomenclature is the most significant thing to be noticed about them. That is they like to dress themselves in euphemisms, and describe their horrific acts as 'surgical procedures' or 'terminations'. But another thing about those who run and maintain this production line murder, is that they make out that they are heroic crusaders for 'women's rights', 'reproductive health' or 'sexual liberation'.

The simple fact is no matter how much sophistry and smooth talk they may use, even their greatest supporters tacitly acknowledge that abortion is highly unpleasant and dirty work, irrespective of any 'ethical' considerations. It is quite sickening to perform, and one has to be desensitised to do it. To be a doctor or a nurse may be a highly respectable profession, but to be an abortion doctor or nurse is another matter. I doubt very much that anyone who works in an abortion mill would like to talk about at a party what they do for a living!

For that reason they make out their profession of murder is a heroic and brave one, in order to gloss over this fact. But another thing is a high proportion of doctors and nurses who work at the mills tend to be of Asian and African origin. This may sound like the depth of political incorrectness, but the simple fact is that they have less to lose socially from this work. Abortionists are often unpopular pariahs among their colleagues in the medical profession, and there is now an increasing unwillingness among young doctors to do the job.

So what makes the people want to do this, when it is highly unpleasant and carries a social stigma? The reason is very simple: it is extremely well paid. An doctor can easily make £1000 in one day doing this. The Calthorpe Clinic in Birmingham which carries out thousands of 'terminations' a year has a turnover of many millions of pounds.

Calthorpe Clinic, Birmingham

However, highly profitable business it may be, the abortion providers are not large enough by themselves to obtain any real power by financial clout. They however have one very powerful ally who is many, many times bigger, has a turnover of billions and who has an associate role in the trade of murder. This is the pharmaceutical industry, exhibit no.2 in the rogue's gallery of the culture of death.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The abortion rogue's gallery: introduction

Seeing that we about to face yet another liberalisation of abortion laws, and the infamous Human Fertilization and Embryology bill on the way, I shall do a series of posts on the lobbies behind abortion, euthanasia, infanticide and human cloning. One thing which is quite astonishing about our culture of death is the tremendous power of them, in the face of the fact that they do not have huge popular support. They appear as a juggernaut that nothing can stop, but I feel not nearly enough has been said why they have so much power, and also about them and their motivations.


So in the coming weeks I will attempt to draw a rogue's gallery of each of the pro-choice factions and vested interests, and give a quick sketch of their motivations and what they wish to achieve. Only then may we be able to understand more clearly what is going on. They are, I believe, 'family planning' providers, the pharmaceuticals and biotechnology industry, prostitution, pornography, the media, the academic establishment, the civil service and government elites, and finally intellectual and political malcontents. Put them all together, and you have a real evil witches brew, which as we know all too well is highly organised and motivated.

Then I shall try to show how they linked together, and the by-products of this movement such as primary school sex education. I will only be sketching what I know to the best of my ability, but do keep posted!

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

London Oratory Bloggers

For some years now both myself and Lacrimarum Vallae have been brothers of the Little Oratory in Birmingham. This worthy institute is an association of laymen who meet for spiritual exercises every Tuesday, for recreation and for outings a few times a year. Most of us practice other lay vocations of our own particular states in life, and more recently blogging has become another one for some of us. It was partly being a brother of the Oratory I was started in this blogging enterprise, much against my original intentions!


But we are not the only Oratory bloggers: indeed among the Little Oratory of the London Oratory are a number as well. They are City up on a Hill, Emitte Lucem Tuam, Fr. Nicholas Schofield and Surge Illuminare. They are all worth giving a visit, coming in many shapes and sizes!

Monday, 25 February 2008

Communion in the hands

When I was at school in the early 1980's I used to go to mass in the morning and benediction in the evening in the church of St. Mary, Harvington. This is course is part of the famous shrine of the English Martyrs at Harvington Hall in Worcestershire. There the Jesuit lay-brother St. Nicholas Owen built the ingenious priest hiding places, while the Franciscan St. John Wall ministered for some years to the flock there.


At that time we all trooped in from school to the rather grim Novus Ordo mass on Sunday morning, where we use to sing the dreadful Coventry Gloria, and the host was handled by all and sundry as if it was nothing really special. In the evening however at benediction Father Tucker used to treat the blessed sacrament with greatest care, kneel with reverence and wore the humeral veil to hold the monstrance. As a result for several years in my ignorance I used to think that the host used was completely different from what we received at mass! This boyhood error was only later corrected by the good monks of Downside Abbey.

I mention this anecdote to show how much the principle of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi matters! Children gain their main understanding of Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist not from catechism classes but from what they see at mass! It shows that the practice of communion in the hands has done more than anything else to weaken faith in the real presence.

Communion in the hands may have existed in the early church at one point, but it soon stopped because it was realised that it led to too many abuses and irreverence. It was then reintroduced by the Protestant reformers to emphatically deny the real presence. And it was later brought in as a completely unauthorised innovation by the bishops of the Netherlands in the 1960's. Of all the liturgical reforms brought in the wake of Vatican II, this was one that Paul VI himself opposed: he tried to ban the practice in Italy, but with only limited success for a few years.

Why was it introduced? For the same reason as Luther and Calvin did: to implement liberal theology into the hearts and minds of the faithful, particularly that of Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Kung. It can be expressed in some sentiments I have heard: we do not approach the Eucharist as if we are coming to a feudal lord. We do not be fed like babies: we eat like adults! In other words, we do not believe that what we are receiving is God himself, the word made flesh, under an appearance of bread and wine. Instead, in sharing bread and wine 'Jesus the man' comes among us, and makes us feel good.

In effect, communion in the hands has had the effect of reviving among the faithful not only the heresy of Luther, who denied the real presence, but also the heresy of Arius: Jesus Christ is stripped of his Godhead. Bread and wine do not become God, who makes us 'feel guilty' about our sins by the re - enactment of his sacrifice of the cross, nor do we kneel down in profound adoration as unworthy sinners. In treating the host casually we have a new faith and a new theology whose primary and real aim is to reconcile christianity with the culture of death.

Recently Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary to the Congregation of Divine Worship, has called for a review of the practice. In truth, there is only one thing that should be done, and that is for communion in the hands to be stopped completely. Unfortunately, any attempt to do so will almost certainly lead to a wholesale revolt among bishop's conferences if not outright schism in certain places. Below is a photograph of the 1962 mass at St. Mary's, Harvington today, now a regular centre for the extra - ordinary form of mass.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Boiled beef and carrots

And now for something completely different! One of the necessary skills that I have to exercise daily is cooking, and I tend to focus very much on traditional English food. A few days ago I made some macaroni cheese, and last night I cooked some boiled beef and carrots. In August last year on the bank holiday I made my first appearance on blogosphere when I cooked this dish for Jackie Parkes, and she made a blog post on it (I received some embarrassing feedback from the USA!). I shall now give you the full recipe right here.


2 - 3 lb rolled brisket of beef (or other tough cut)
6 - 8 large carrots, peeled and cut in half
4 - 6 peeled whole onions
4 sticks celery, chopped into large chunks
2 leeks, chopped into large chunks
half a pint of boiling water
3 beef stock cubes
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Put the brisket in a large saucepan with a snug lid, and arrange the carrots on the bottom around it. Then put the celery, leeks and onions on top, with the cloves and parsley. Dissolve the 3 stock cubes in the hot water, and add this. Bring all this to the boil for half an hour with the lid on, so all the contents are thoroughly steamed through. Then leave this to very gently simmer for another two and a half to three hours, with the lid firmly on, turning the meat over halfway through. Serve with boiled potatoes.


You will find that there is not to be enough water to cover the mixture, but what will happen is that the juices will run out and the vegetables shrink for everything to be covered, and the steam will cook the rest. The proportions of the other ingredients do not matter too much, and if you wish to scale up, that is no problem. However it is most important that you do not add too much water, otherwise it will turn out bland and watery!

Some people may ask me for metric quantities. Sorry, folks: I am a native of the British Isles and do not use French measurements. This dish is traditionally served with parsley sauce (I haven't time to tell you the recipe), and it is very good for cooking notoriously tough cuts of beef. However you must give it the full time allocated. Patience is a virtue!

Friday, 22 February 2008

The work of a choir librarian

In my work in the Oratory choir as well as singing bass and tenor I also hold the post of choir librarian. This job entails preparing the music and chant propers for mass and vespers rehearsals. The other task is also maintaining and building up the stock of nearly 1000 sets of music, each containing usually 30 copies.


Motets A - Z



Masses A- Z: (The Dvorak Mass in D you see was performed here in the Oratory in the presence of the composer.)

This library was started by Cardinal Newman, who was the first prefect of music. The main bulk of it is the work of two illustrious directors of music, William Sewell and Henry Collins. Both of them were instrumental in the revival of 16th century polyphony in England in the early 20th century, and both of them produced many fine hand written editions, some of which are still used by us today. This is 'Sicut Cervus', a latin adaptation by William Sewell of 'As the hart pants' by Felix Mendelssohn.


Some of the sets have seen over a century of use and are becoming a little worse for wear. Many of them were edited and published from the Caecilian School of church music in Regensburg at the end of the 19th century: editions by F.X. Harberl, I. Mitterer and P. Griesbacher. So on an ongoing basis I am scanning and reduplicating the sets onto A3 sheets, and putting the old copies into archive storage. This morning I had to duplicate Palestrina's 'Justitiae Domini' from an old Harberl score from 1896 for use tomorrow at high mass:


This is one I prepared earlier!

Musical Oratory

Yesterday in the Birmingham Oratory we had a musical oratory for the birthday of John Henry Cardinal Newman. This is a tradition that was started by St. Philip Neri in Rome, and consists of a service of music recitals interspaced with preaching, hymns and choral music. St. Philip and his companions used to meet regularly to hold these events, and it was partly from them that the institute of the Oratory came into existence.


This year as it fell in Lent it was somewhat subdued, and hence the theme for was Lent in the writings of Cardinal Newman. For us in the choir we sang three motets: Miserere Mei by Byrd, Salvator Mundi by John Goss, and Adjuva Nos by Conseil. Ferverinos were given by Father Philip, Father Guy and Father Gregory, and the service ended with prayers for the sick entrusted to the Cardinal's intercession. Organ recitals were given by Dr. Francis Jackson, Organist Emeritus of York Minster.


Before this I also had to sing for the Missa Cantata for our St. Valentine, and as I expected I was on my own again! Nevertheless, I managed the propers well along with Mass IV, which turned out to be a great success. The Gregorian mass Cunctipotens Genitor Deus is one of my favorites!

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Birmingham Oratory's St. Valentine

Last week I write a very strident post pointing out that the former commemoration of St. Valentine has been abolished, and that he never was the patron of lovers! It has been replaced by the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. However as a consolation there is another St. Valentine who is a martyr, whose relics are kept in the Birmingham Oratory Church under the altar of St. Athanasius.


John Henry Newman was given the relics from the catacombs of this St. Valentine (there were indeed a fair number!) by Blessed Pius IX as a gift for the founding of the English Oratory. Seeing there was no feast for it, Pius decided that it should be kept on Newman's birthday. This has turned out to be divine providence, for now the cause is up for Newman's beatification, and for us it is a second celebration of him. We have a Missa Cantata for St. Valentine (looks like I'm on my own again for the chant), and afterwards we have a musical oratory. I shall tell you more about the musical oratory tomorrow!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

An appeal and request for links

Yesterday I noticed that I have been linked up by another blog called Catholic Commentary. This looks quite an interesting one and is the work of a physics teacher and catechist in East London. I am delighted that he has done this and hence I have put him on my links as well. Do pay him a visit!

Picture courtesy of Lacrimarum Valle

I have now been blogging for two months now, and it seems for better or worse that I shall be here on the web to stay. Therefore I would like to make a request and appeal to all other bloggers who visit this site: please do put me on your links if you haven't done so already! I'm sure that what I have written on this blog isn't too terrible and shocking to be left off. If you link me up, I shall as a matter of courtesy try to reciprocate.

Also I would like to thank all of you who have not only linked me up but have also advertised this blog, and also all those who have accepted my comments on their own blogs. All this is much appreciated. But most of all, I would like to thank my follow Oratory bloggers Jackie Parkes and Matthew Doyle, without whose advice, support and talking me into this I would never have started this blogging endeavour.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Rednal saga continues..

Please pray that Birmingham City Council will back down over their opposition to the fence protecting Cardinal Newman's grave, which has been a target for vandels. It seems that they have been bitterly opposed in every way to the Oratory fathers, and will not compromise over the issue. Here is a BBC News article giving more details, as well as a BBC Midlands Today clip in which Fr. Guy is interviewed.

Photo by Matthew Doyle

Monday, 18 February 2008

The Transfiguration

Of all the feasts of Our Lord, the Transfiguration is one that our holy mother the church commemorates twice: the main feast on August 6th (an excellent day to begin a novena for the Assumption) and yesterday, on the second Sunday in Lent. The church commemorates this to remind us of that we are preparing ourselves for Our Lord's resurrection and glorification at Easter.


The Transfiguration of Our Lord has a particular relevance today. We live in a time where many wish they could have a more direct and personal encounter with our Lord. Meanwhile, traditional forms of worship are seen as 'cold, impersonal and putting a barrier to real relationship with Christ.' Many desire an experience of mysticism and the miraculous: the great popularity of healing services testify to this.

We are seeing movements in the church which advocate the direct reception of the Holy Spirit, and the practice of the glossalia talked of in St. Paul. We see apparitions of Our Lady multiplying around the world, with some developing a cult following completely outside the authority of the church. Some movements go as far as to say that those who do not have a personal and emotional encounter with Christ and the Spirit have not been saved.

All of this can be deeply embarrassing to many of us. Nevertheless it is worth bearing in mind that spiritual phenomena like this has existed throughout the history of the church. St. Philip Neri once received the Holy Spirit in his heart at Pentecost. St. Bernard used to heal with the sign of the cross. However they have a tendency to cause problems particularly with authority, and St. Paul himself does not seem to encourage the practice of glossalalia in his Epistles. In our day and age it is a major issue in the church: so how are we to deal with it?

The problem does not so much lie with the unusual and unconventional nature of all this. Let it be granted that this signs, wonders and miracles of the Spirit are part of the life of the mystical body of Christ. The real question seems to be of the desire to seek them. The Transfiguration gives us a salutary lesson: when Peter, James and John saw our Lord transfigured before them they were terrified. Peter's reaction, 'let us make three tents', may be an allusion to the fact that he was treating the figures before him like the Ark of the covenant in the old testament.

James and John were to later ask Our Lord to be seated on his left and on his right in his kingdom. Our Lord's answer is very pertinent: You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism I am baptised? (Mark 10:38) . The reality is we should never seek experiences, the miraculous, the mystical or direct personal encounter with Christ. Those who seek them do not know what they are asking for! A direct encounter with God is an awesome and frightening experience! Not only that: to share his life closely is to drink the cup that he must drink, that is to share in his sufferings.

The experience of genuine mystics, seers and spiritual writers is unanimous: all of them had to undergo the most untold sufferings in their divine mystical experiences. When St. Philip Neri received the Holy Spirit in his heart on Pentecost, he cried out, 'No more! No more, Lord. I cannot bear it!' St. John of the Cross underwent the dark night of the soul where he experienced the complete rejection of God. St. Faustina Kowalska was made to endure the pains of an aborted baby, as well as to experience the apparent wrath of God against her.

But not only that, the experience many great saints is that most of the time they found that their prayer was completely cold and dry. St. Therese of Liseaux for most of her life experienced almost no consolation in her prayers. And more recently it has come apparent how Blessed Teresa of Calcutta suffered so much from her complete sense of abandonment by God. Indeed Our Lord was to say to Thomas, 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.'

The church has traditionally always been very sceptical of emotional and mystical experiences, and for good reason. Quite apart from the fact that they may be false and deceits of the devil, it is very foolish to seek them. In her liturgy she has always downplayed emotion and strictly formalised prayer, seeming as it were to put Our Lord at a distance. It is not because she wishes to cut us off from him in any way. It is because she knows all too well who he is, and great fount of love and mercy he may be, he is also God and is terrifying.

Our Holy Father in Spe Salvi has alluded to this: he describes our judgement and purgatory as a direct personal encounter with the heart of Christ. His gaze seers us and reads into the bottom of our hearts and uncovers all our secrets and our sins. This is the reality of a personal relationship with Our Lord, the word made flesh, the God who has become man.


Scrutator alme cordium,
infirma tu scis virium.
Ad te reversis exhibe,
remissionis gratiam.


From Audi Benigne Conditor, hymn at vespers in Lent.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Concert by Ex Cathedra

Last night in the Oratory we all enjoyed a fabulous concert by the Birmingham based ensemble Ex Cathedra, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. We had a Giovanni Gabrieli mass setting for double choir and instrumentalists as well as a series of motets by him which were composed for the basilica of St. Mark's, Venice. This involved several groups singing from the main body of the church and from the rear gallery, and it was a most impressive sound.


Ex Cathedra is a professional ensemble who use the Birmingham Oratory as a base for their rehearsals and for many of their concerts, and our Fr. Guy sings tenor with them. They perform a wide variety of repertoire, focusing in particular in early and baroque church music from Latin America. Many of their singers also come to sing in the Oratory choir, and hence I have a number of friends who sing with them. They usually sing in our church around six times a year.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

I will give you all this....

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve.” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. (Matthew 4:8-11)

In the final temptation, seeing that Our Lord was unshakable in his desire to save mankind, Satan offered a temptation that went straight to his heart. He promised the whole world to our Lord and the whole of mankind. He knew that Christ longed to bring all men to himself, and how Our Lord was consumed with this terrible thirst, which he was to exclaim on the cross. Satan was offering Christ not so much power and glory, which after all Our Lord already possessed, but acceptance and popularity among all men and the powers of the world.

Unlike the previous two, this temptation is perennial to the Christian vocation, is one that we all face and has been the ruin of the church time and time again throughout history. It is quite simply the desire to be successful, accepted and popular among the elites of the world, and to seek the support and assistance of their power. This rather than being a sign of contradiction that is to despised and hated by the world.

But this can only be achieved by compromise with the mystery of iniquity, and in our day, the culture of death. Yet we cannot do a deal with the powers of darkness, for in doing so, we ruin the soul of our faith. The condition of the tempter is non - negotiable: fall down and worship me. Our Lord was to later teach, ‘You cannot serve two masters.’ If we wish to be Christians, we face the stark choice of social alienation, rejection, poverty and possibly open persecution, or surrender to the culture of death.

If we look at the times when the church has been corrupted, it has always been caused by yielding to this temptation. The spread of the Arian heresy was largely caused by the church seeking social acceptance in the later Roman empire. The Spanish Inquisition was the consequence of the church seeking the help of the secular power to advance her faith, only to find itself to become an arm of the state. The English reformation was the result of the English church identifying and compromising with the establishment of the wealthy, rather than like St. John Fisher making a courageous stand against the unlawful marriage of Henry VIII.

And more recently, the dissent of the sixties and ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ was caused by many in the church, in particular Catholic education, seeking acceptance and legitimacy among the secular academic and media elites. Rather than proclaim the sanctity of marriage, defend the rights of the unborn and show forth the scandal and sacrifice of the cross in the liturgy, many bishops and priests have chosen to follow the path of compromise and silence, effectively turning the faith into a liberal Protestantism if not a therapeutic neo - Gnosticism.

But our answer to this can only be the same as our Lord: Begone, Satan! For it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Throw yourself down

Then the devil took him to the Holy City, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written: He has given his angels charge over you. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone". (Matthew 4:5-7)


Seeing that Our Lord was placing his complete trust in divine providence, and seeing he could not break it, the tempter took a different approach. So he supported the temptation with a quotation of Psalm 90, He has given his angels charge over you. Indeed this applies not just to Our Lord but to all who place their trust in God's mercy. However we can hardly presume on and expect his help if we throw ourselves from a height!

But with Our Lord, he did not just place his trust in the divine help, he is that help. For he is co - equal and co - eternal to the Father, and could quite easily command the angels to do what he wanted of them. He is the incarnate word, the divine revelation that was promised to all the seers of Israel. He knew many would reject him. Couldn't it be easier to work this great miracle to convince all that he was the Messiah?

But just as the temptor foresaw the institution of the Eucharist when he said, 'Command these stones to become loaves', in this temptation he was to foresee the moment when Our Lord was raised up on the cross. The taunt at the crucifixion from the scribes and pharisees, "If you are the son of God, come down from the cross!" was the repetition of 'Throw yourself down!' By his power Our Lord could have saved himself then. But for him to save us, he embraced the fullness of the human condition, and become helpless for our sake.

The temptor knew all too well then that for Our Lord to cling to his equality with God would invalidate our salvation, and make the crucifixion in vain. He would be rejecting our mortal state, and no longer would he be the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Our Lord's answer to Satan is also a rebuke: 'Again, it is written,you shall not tempt the Lord your God.' (Matthew 4:7)

Thursday, 14 February 2008

It is not St. Valentine's day!

Today in the 1970 missal is the Feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the apostles of the Slavs and co - patrons of Europe. It is NOT the Feast of St. Valentine: at the very most St. Valentine is commemorated in the 1962 rite at low masses in Lent. In one of the more sensible reforms of the calender, St. Valentine was dropped.


It is a myth that St. Valentine is the patron saint of lovers: never has the church ever pronounced this even unofficially in devotional practice, and the modern secular festival has far more in common with pagan fertility cults than christian devotion. He was a priest and a physician in Rome who was imprisoned for giving aid to martyrs in prison, and while there he converted his jailer by restoring sight to the jailer's daughter.

While everyone else is sending each other kitsch, we would do far better to ask the prayers of Sts. Cyril and Methodius for Europe's reconversion, in particular the conversion of Russia.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, pray for us.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Man shall not live on bread alone

Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.(Matthew 4:4)

Our Lord's answer to this temptation is very similar to what he was to later teach in his public ministry. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well (Matthew 6:33). We must not worry about our temporal needs, for providence will see to them. Indeed we read that at the end of the temptations, angels came and ministered to him (Matthew 4:11).

But also when he said that we shall live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, we should understand that he is that word who proceeds from the Father. He is not something that is purely spiritual or some great concept, but he has been made flesh in a man: body, blood, soul and divinity. Not only that, he the word incarnate has given us himself to eat under the appearance of bread. Not like the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert, but the bread that comes from heaven, the bread that is the life of the world. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life (John 6:54).


The tempter knew this all too well, and clearly foresaw the wonderful sacrifice of the mass, where ordinary bread and wine is transubstantiated into his body and blood. For just as grace restores nature, this is a miracle where his power completes natural creation, and does not abolish it. Turn stones into bread said the tempter, and all this would have be in vain: creation is not completed, but abolished.

Seeing the tempter could not break Our Lord's trust and hope in providence, the tempter sought to make him presume on it: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down..

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

An explanation of this picture

Recently this picture has caused much mirth among the blogs, but as cold war civil defence is one of my hobbies I feel bound to give an explanation. This was one of a chain of 8 top secret nuclear bunkers from which government would operate in the event of a nuclear holocaust round the country. It is now of course a museum.


It is the tip of the iceberg: for the reality was that in the 1980's we were extremely close to nuclear war: some KGB defectors testify that the Kremlin was getting ready for a pre - emptive nuclear strike from the west. Extensive preparations were being made: some of you may remember the Protect and Survive leaflets, advising what to do in the event of nuclear attack. This did not happen, thanks to none other than Our Lady's intercession!


Right around the countryside are ordinary looking raised manholes to what were shelters used for measuring fallout. These grey speakers below that you might have seen in public buildings as well as the sirens in fire stations existed to warn the population of impending doom. I could rabbit on for ever, but here is a website giving more information: www.ringbell.co.uk

Command these stones to become loaves of bread

What was so significant about this temptation, and what would have been the consequences if Our Lord had yielded to it? There is certainly no doubt that he had the power to work such a miracle, for after all he was God who had become man. The temptor knew this, and also knew that Our Lord was on the brink of starvation.



I believe there there are two ways Our Lord would have been led astray if he yielded. He was certainly God, but in assuming a human body and a human soul he not only took on the fullness of humanity, but also willingly took on the fullness of the human condition with all its weakness. Therefore he had placed himself in total dependence on divine providence for his needs. For him to use his power to obtain food for himself would be for him not to fully share in the sufferings and limitations of humanity, but to cling to his equality to God. In doing so, he would compromise his mission to save us.

But far more serious is the miracle that he was being tempted to perform: it was one completely out of keeping with those he had done before. As St. Athanasius taught, the common pattern to all of them is that they either replicate what happens naturally in creation, or they are acts of recreation that anticipate the resurrection.

As water becomes wine by the vine drawing it up to form grapes, whose juice is fermented by yeast, water became wine at Cana. Two fish together produce many offspring, while from a few grains of wheat many more arise: hence this is replicated by miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Likewise, the healing of the sick and the transfiguration anticipate the great miracle of the resurrection from the dead.

The act of turning stones into bread however is the same as the magic that is described in the Ovid, in Grimm's fairy tales and more recently in Harry Potter. This is a power that is completely arbitary and outside creation, not imitating it or working according to its laws. Hence in Harry Potter a table becomes a pig, in Ovid houses become trees and in Grimm a frog becomes a prince. While Our Lord performs miracles that restore and complete creation, in magic power overturns the natural order and repudiates creation.

If Our Lord yielded to the temptation, our faith would have become an anti - creation gnosis, and the resurrection would have been in vain. The temptor knew and foresaw that Our Lord's miracles with bread and wine where to lay the foundations of the greatest miracle of all that concerns our nourishment: the Holy Eucharist. And he knew all too well that Christ's turning stones into bread would have invalidated it - God's power would not complete creation and restore our fallen nature, but revoke it.

How often may many of us been in a similar situation, when we may have been in a complete desert with nothing but an arid life with no happiness and no joy! If only we could change it, and in our desire for happiness overturn the order around us, and as it were, turn stones into bread! But Our Lord's rejection of the temptation goes to it's very heart: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. I shall continue on that theme tomorrow..

Monday, 11 February 2008

Happy anniversary!

Today is the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, a shrine I have much affection for and have been a regular visitor to. I hope to go there again in August this year with a group from the Oratory. For this feast today our Holy Father has granted a special plenary indulgence to be gained under the usual conditions in all churchs dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. This of course includes the Birmingham Oratory, my beloved parish church.



I promised you some posts on the temptations in the desert yesterday: don't worry, they will start coming tomorrow! I had nearly forgotten this feast today.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The temptations of Christ in the Desert

Well folks, I think I shall inflict a lenten penance upon all of you who read this blog, and I ask that you pay attention! The gospel of the first Sunday on Lent is the account of the temptations of Our Lord in the desert, and in the coming week I shall be writing a series of meditations on them. I will try to explain the significance of each temptation and the implications on our salvation. Some of you may remember I did a similar series of posts on the feast of the Epiphany, and you may find them if you scroll down.

I think I shall start by setting the scene for the temptations.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. (Matthew Ch. 4 Vs 1 - 3)

We may not know exactly where Our Lord fasted, or are we absolutely certain that it was a period of exactly forty days and nights. But I think it is reasonable to say that our Lord was far away from any sources of food and water, and it is not inprobable that he was on the verge of starvation at the end: afterward he was hungry. Led by the Spirit, we can say that he placed all his trust in the providence of his heavenly Father for the needs of his body.

In these circumstances, tomorrow I shall try to analyse the temptation, command these stones to be loaves of bread. There of course are an infinite number of expositions of this temptation, but I shall give you my own spin, a little different from Fr. Guy's excellent homily at High Mass in the Oratory this morning!

Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Knights of Malta mass at the Oratory

Today we had our annual Knights of Malta mass for the annointing of the sick near the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. This year is particularly significant, as it is the 150th anniversary of Lourdes. Yet this year was very sombre as the mass fell in Lent, and news had come in that the Grand Master, Fra Andrew Bertie has just died.


This mass was a mixture of Latin and English, and again it fell to my lot to sing the Gregorian chant propers by myself along with Mass XVIII. I have never known such difficult chant as that for the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. After mass the Knights gave an excellent buffet lunch, and we finished with benediction in the church. Here are a set of photos I took from the choir gallery.


The Procession in



The Gospel



Annointing of the sick

Consecration



Friday, 8 February 2008

The prayers of Good Friday for the Jews

Pope Benedict XVI has rewritten the intercessory prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the Mass of the Presanctified of the 1962 missal. Here are the old and new versions (acknowledgements to Fr. Z):

The 1962 missal:

Oremus et pro Iudaeis: ut Deus et Dominus noster auferat velamen de cordibus eorum; ut et ipsi agnoscant Iesum Christum Dominum nostrum. ...

Let us also pray for the Jews: that our Lord and God take away the veil from their hearts; that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ to be our Lord.

Omnipotens sempiternae Deus, qui Iudaeos etiam a tua misericordia non repellis: exaudi preces nostras, quas pro illius populi obcaecatione deferimus; ut agnita veritatis tuae luce, quae Christus est, a suis tenebris eruantur. Per eundem Dominum.

Almighty eternal God, who also does not repel the Jews from Your mercy: graciously hear the prayers which we are conveying on behalf of the blindness of that people; so that once the light of Your Truth has been recognized, which is Christ, they may be rescued from their darkness.

New version 2008:

Oremus et pro Iudaeis: ut Deus et Dominus noster illuminet corda eorum, ut agnoscant Iesum Christum salvatorem omnium hominum.

Let us also pray for the Jews: that our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men.

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui vis ut omnes homines salvi fiant et ad agnitionem veritatis veniant, concede propitius, ut plenitudine gentium in Ecclesiam Tuam intrante omnis Israel salvus fiat. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Almighty and eternal God, who want that all men be saved and come to the recognition of the truth, propitiously grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Your Church, all Israel may be saved. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.


The change does not in any way alter the substance of the prayers, and removes the apparently polemical connotations of the original. In doing so he has sent out the message that the church still wants and prays for the conversion of the Jews, along with all the gentiles. Also he has set a precedent for any future reform of the 1962 missal, that it be in continuity with what has happened before.

Nevertheless one does not feel entirely happy about this. The original prayers when seen in their original context are not and were never intended to be a polemic against the Jews. They do no more than express what has been taught by St. Paul. If the change was motivated primarily by Vatican diplomacy, it has satisfied nobody on either side, and I doubt very much if the SSPX people will adopt it in their Good Friday celebrations. And one cannot help feeling this is premature, and updating the liturgical calendar is a more important priority.

However as has been said, Roma locuta est: causa finita est. Let us hope that any future alterations be done with the greatest sensitivity and care, because there is still the possibility that the liberal liturgical establishment will seek to destroy the ancient Roman rite from within.

STOP PRESS: I have just been informed that the Transalpine Redemptorists on Papa Stronsay, who are affiliated with the SSPX and whose photo above of their Good Friday liturgy it is, have announced that they will adopt the new prayers.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Cheerful in penance, and in precept winning..

This is the saint of gentleness and kindness,
cheerful in penance and in precept winning,
patiently healing of their pride and blindness,
souls that are sinning.


At yesterday's Ash Wednesday high mass in the Birmingham Oratory, Fr. Paul took as his theme the above words for his homily, a quotation of Cardinal Newman's hymn to St. Philip Neri. He of course was expounding on the gospel, which said that we should not fast with hang - dog expressions and glum attitudes as the hypocrites do. He pointed out how cheerful St. Philip was in fasting and penance, and how he used to play jokes on his penitents to correct their vices.


I know many of these stories as I am a brother of the Little Oratory. Every Tuesday evening at the brother's meetings we read out a passage from the life of St. Philip, which is a rather turgid Victorian translation from Italian. I have to say that most of the jokes he played were not very funny. Nevertheless, his jokes and buffoonery did not end with his death, but continue on in every Oratory, particularly Birmingham.

Yesterday evening was a typical Ash Wednesday mass and the same as last year. We did the Byrd mass for 4 voices, Emendemus in Melius by Byrd at the ashing, In Jenunio et Fletu by Tallis at the offertory, and we finished up with Allegri's Miserere Mei at the end. All very fine music which was much appreciated by everyone. 'How wonderful it must be to be in the choir!' some people think.

But we in the choir don‘t think like that, and in fact much of the time we think 'When is this going to be over?' We have to concentrate on getting the music right and singing in time and in tune, and everyone complains if we don‘t. The notion that we sing with feeling and for God's glory to us is a very romantic one that bears no relation to reality. As for homilies, we sometimes think 'Get on with it!' The fact is we do not have time for much devotion, and most of the time we have to give it up.

As we were singing during the ashing, I couldn’t go down to be sprinkled. At the end of mass, I was itching to get home after clearing away the music, and I forgot to ask for ashing afterwards, until I was some distance away from the Oratory. I dashed back to the sacristy to find that the ashes had all been cleared away. I was very disappointed: it would have been the first time in nearly 30 years that I hadn’t received them.

But not to worry: the spirit of St. Philip is still alive and well in the Oratory. Fr. Guy found some ashes spilt on the side just like plain dirt. So he gathered them up, blessed them, putting a truly authentic smudge on my forehead. The admonition could not have been more relevant: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverum reverteris…

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Remember O man, thou art dust,

and unto dust thou shalt return. So was the curse that was pronounced on the human race in Eden, as the consequence of original sin. And scripture teaches also, 'vanity of vanity, all is vanity!' The sprinkling of ashes is a stark reminder of the transitory nature of our existence, and of the fact that no matter how rich, powerful and successful we may be in this life, death will end everything, for we have no home on earth. Sic transit mundi gloria.

So does this mean that all human endeavour is futile, and as Christians we should make no effort in life and on earth? No, for that is the real attitude of our contemporary unbelieving world. Modernity knows perfectly well that death will end everything, and consequently this leads to a choice of two paths. Some live as if life was everything and death did not exist: to maintain the illusion people will inevitably reject reality and flee into fantasy, drugs and alcohol, and ultimately despair and self-destruction. Others fully acknowledge and accept the apparent futility of life, which ultimately leads them to bitter nihilistic protest against life and the human condition: manifest in the creeds of Nazism, Communism and Islamism.

But what should we do, us who have faith in the resurrection of the body, which this great season is a preparation for? The answer is to use this passing world and all its pleasure and pain as a means for our sanctification and ultimate salvation. The great and wonderful art, architecture and music of the church is the fruit of this endeavour, not to mention the great Western civilisation that surrounded it. Only by focusing entirely on our future glory can life have meaning and purpose, can we be happy in this world, and be happy in the next. The ashes that we receive today are the preparation for the creation of the civilisation of love on earth, and the wedding feast of the lamb in heaven.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

John Paul II: pope idol?


Some bloggers have lamented the fact that the late Pope John Paul II acted too much like a narcissistic pop star, and seemed to revel in gaining fame and popularity and playing to the media. This is to some extent a valid point and does have some justification. However I do feel that I could give a brief explanation why, and to do so we must see his pontificate in its historical context and its consequent implications on the present one of Benedict XVI.

John Paul II was elected in 1978 in the crisis of the aftermath of the second Vatican council. The rebellion over Humanae Vitae had seriously damaged the credibility of the church's teaching and magisterium, and dissent and compromise seemed to have all but gained the upper hand. The prestige of the papacy was at an all time low: the weak and vacilating leadership of an ailing Paul VI had been followed by an elderly John Paul I, who lasted only a month in office. Rome was completely powerless to do anything about bishop's conferences who were acting independently of the Holy See.

In these circumstances with the church and college of cardinals bitterly divided, in no way could anyone of the likes of Pius XII be elected to the papacy. So as always happens in such circumstances, a compromise candidate was chosen, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Cracow. He was a man for young people and culturally progressive, yet he was orthodox on doctrine: so he was acceptable to both sides.

In a church completely without direction and with dissent and doctrinal confusion everywhere, it was absolutely imperative to re-establish the prestige and credibility of the papacy and it's teaching office. With the church held to ransom by the media, John Paul knew that he could not reject the media, but had to use it and in many respects act like a pop idol. It was tasteless and banal, but we must bear in mind that God uses what is crooked to write straight.

Indeed the nineteen eighties was a particular time of pop idols and mass media generated personality cults. The films of that era such as Amadeus and Chariots of Fire focus on the genius and the superman. By profession Karol Wojtyła had been an actor, and he played on this fashion very well, and for good reason. He may have created a personality cult of himself, but it was not for his own glory.

John Paul used the cult following that he gained from the media and from his publicity stunts as a means to affirm the particular church's teachings of which he was a key architect - on the dignity of human life. He is well known as the author of Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, but what is not so well known was that as Archbishop Karol Wojtyła he was the key figure in persuading Paul VI to hold fast and issue Humanae Vitae.

It should also be remembered that it was John Paul's particular charisma and leadership that brought about the eventual downfall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. No other man could have done it - he himself was a Pole and knew Communism inside out, and it was his leadership that was integral of the unravelling of the Eastern bloc.

He may not have been a very good administrator - he tended to delegate as much as possible - and he probably failed to fully appreciate the importance of liturgy to the church’s life. But we must realise that it was largely him who made Joseph Ratzinger such a key figure in the church, and laid the way for him as his successor.



When John Paul II died, as anyone who remembers his funeral and the last conclave will remember, the great following he had among the faithful was effortlessly translated over to Benedict XVI, destroying the whole media propaganda assault against Ratzinger in one stroke. Despite the fact our present Holy Father has downplayed the cult following he achieved from his predecessor, it is stronger than ever.

Whether we like John Paul II or not, one thing is clear. His legacy on the church will be long lasting and irreversible, and the present pontificate could not be possible without him. Benedict would never be able to exercise his authority as he has done without that legacy. The reign of John Paul the Great was clearly part of the great plan for the church by divine providence, of which future generations of the faithful will be eternally grateful.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Earliest Lent since 1913

This year we celebrate Easter Sunday on March 23rd, the earliest since 1913. What this means is we have a particularly penitential Lent, which starts almost immediately after we have slogged through the grim month of January. And not only that, for me Lent this year will not be relieved by five feasts: St. Gregory the Great (March 12th), St. Patrick (March 17th), St. Joseph (March 19th), St. Benedict (March 21st) and the Annunciation (March 25th).


This year all the feasts with the exception of St. Gregory are suppressed or transferred as they fall in Holy Week and Eastertide. And as for St. Gregory, I will not be able to go to Downside Abbey to celebrate it as it falls in mid week on Wednesday: they keep the old feastday instead of September 3rd. This is a season I am not looking forward to...

Sunday, 3 February 2008

A personal liturgical suggestion...

Recently there has been much talk about the revival of traditional liturgical practice in the wake of Summorum Pontificum that is considered stuffy, clerical and elitist. And by the same token, we have heard much comment about interesting and popular liturgical dancing and puppet masses.

I have been thinking carefully. It is the intention of our Holy Father that the two uses of the Roman rite should cross fertilize one another. Perhaps we should consider taking some trendy hymns that aren't stuffy and elitist as chant and polyphony, and translate them into Latin, so some people do not feel so excluded and left out at celebrations the 1962 missal.

We could make a start with taking a traditional old favourite, 'Let us break bread together on our knees.':

Let us break bread together on our knees, (on our knees)
let us break bread together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

Let us drink wine together on our knees, (on our knees)
let us drink wine together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

Let us praise God together on our knees, (on our knees)
let us praise God together on our knees. (on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.


Here is a Latin translation for use in the 1962 rite. (And also are some suggestions for how and where it should be used.)

Frangamus panem in genu, (in genu)
frangamus panem in genu, (in genu)
quando cado in genu ad solis ortu,
O Domine, miserere mei!


(This verse to be sung during the offertory.)

Bibamus vinum in genu, (in genu)
bibamus vinum in genu, (in genu)
quando cado in genu ad solis ortu,
O Domine, miserere mei!


(Sing this verse during communion: to make it particularly relevant, perhaps we can introduce communion under both kinds in the 1962 missal.)

Laudemus Deum in genu, (in genu)
laudemus Deum in genu, (in genu)
quando cado in genu ad solis ortu,
O Domine, miserere mei!


(This verse to replace the Leonine prayers to St. Michael: after all, we should be more optimistic in the 'Spirit of Vatican II'.)

Some will say this is an appallingly bad translation, full of grammatical errors. Also the syllables do not completely fit. Yes, but bear in mind that we must not act in a way that makes anyone who translates, sings and prays in the spirit of ICEL feel inferior...

P.S. As I write this, I have been making the most of the last few days before we enter lent, and having just drunk a whole bottle of wine I am not entirely sober....

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Lumen ad revelationem gentium

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, or the Purification of Our Lady, which is the 160th anniversary of the foundation of the Oratory in England by Cardinal Newman at Maryvale. It is a most joyous occasion for us and we all look forward to it. It is also one of the high masses that involves a lot of choreography between the choir and the sanctuary.

The lighting and blessing of candles with the procession following afterwards is one that ends the Christmas season, and looks forward to the great paschal vigil on Holy Saturday. During all this we in the choir we sing the chants and motets 'Ecce Dominus noster', 'Lumen ad revelationem gentium', 'Adorna thalamum tuum Sion', the Introit 'Suscepimus' leading immediately into the Kyrie and Gloria. Getting the choreography and timing right is notoriously difficult, and for the first time in eleven years we did it without a hitch!

For the Kyrie and Gloria we sung 'Missa Sancta et Immaculata' by Francisco Guerrero, with Hodie Beata Virgo by Palestrina at the offertory and Senex Puerum by Byrd at communion. All very fine pieces - with plainsong Cum Jubilo Sanctus and Agnus. It seems almost yesterday when we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the English Oratory on this day. That day we had a solemn pontifical mass with Bishop Boyce of Raphoe as celebrant, and did the Frescobaldi Missa Sopra 'della Monica for double choir and instrumentalists.

Unfortunately I can't give you any names or pictures of our choir for reasons of discretion. However I can give you this Russian icon of the Presentation. Happy feastday!


Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine,
secundum verbum tuum in pace.
Quia viderunt oculi mei,salutare suum.
Quod parasti, ante faciem omnium populorum.
Lumen ad revelationem gentium,
et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.