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AMDG

1102014686_univ_cnt_5_xlI have been thinking a lot about Pope Francis’s ‘Eldest Son Problem’.  If you remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother who has worked hard and kept the rules all the time seethes with resentment  as the dissolute younger brother is forgiven and embraced by the father.  In fact his resentment at the Father (Gods) unlimited mercy and forgiveness stops him from going in and enjoying the banquet.  They appear to be a sizeable group – particularly in The States, often an elite of some type or other, who seems to resent the popularity of Pope Francis outside of the borders of the church.  It;s as if they don’t want the wrong type of people included in their church which has become a comfortable country club. They can seem to dominate the English Language Catholic Blogosphere and so they appear to be many, but in reality they create an ‘echo chamber’  and they are not representative of most Catholics.

private-club-members-only-sign-k-0249_grnrevFrancis’ inspiring model of the ‘field hospital church’ that gets out there in the middle of the messiness of life, that tends wounds and listens to those hurting, is very threatening to some people, even if it may well be very close to Jesus’s vision.  So an alternative ecclesiology is at play – rather than the field hospital church it is the ‘officers mess‘ church. They create an elitist Catholicism,  have an ideological spin on history, often use the labels of tradition and orthodoxy  as weapons  and don’t seem to take into account the reality of many peoples messy lives.  So they create a type of Virtual Gated Community – and their criticisms of Francis are out in the open, relentless and already they are splintering (always a sign of the bad spirit).  What worries me is the effect that these blogs are having on some of my students – perhaps even on some of our bishops.  The less you are pastorally engaged – the more tempting it is to live in these echo chambers, and feel good about your Catholic Identity.

ddeb78bb63620d00e54880ddb8b12536 So how do we bring these dissenters along with us?  I think we can learn something from the Japanese here and how they discharged soldiers.  After the defeat in the Second World War, many returning soldiers were not fit to return to their communities. Their only identity for their formative years had to be a loyal soldier for their country and now they needed a broader identity. So some very wise communities created a public ceremony where they were welcomed back and praised effusively for what they had done.  The community realised that they needed to move on  so they created this ritual for closure and transition for ex-soldiers to return to civilization.  After the praise and thanksgiving, an elder would stand and declare ‘The war is now over – The community needs you to let go to what has served you until now, the community needs you to return as a man, a citizen and something more than a soldier.’ Maybe the Pope needs to do the same with some of our culture-warriors that are finding it difficult to move with him.

AMDG

the-bumpy-transition-from-childhood-to-adolescence-20130110065041-jpg-q75dx720y432u1r1ggcWorking with so many  young people for so long has led me to reflect more on the nature of adolescence, the good, the bad and the ugly!  It seems that the main task of  adolescence  is gaining independence.  Its a journey from a dependent childhood to adulthood, for some it is a long journey, maybe even lasting 20 years or longer. In the UK many factors recently have prolonged the process, expanding higher education, prolonged debt and financial reliance on parents,  marriage happening later (if at all), a globalising job market which is more unstable and temporary.  Adolescences involves a painful trade off – from the comfort of enjoying the benefits of childhood to the uncertainty of emerging into adulthood.  It takes courage and resilience to leave the nest, and a success-addled culture is leaving less space for failure.

Its increasingly obvious that the main task at university, at least at undergraduate level, is socialisation.  Belonging, establishing the more responsible settled patterns of adulthood, this is whats going on at many universities – with 18- 22 year olds.  Lectures, essays and exams, although important really take a back seat to the challenge of leaving the nest.  It is when they start to specialise at masters and postgraduate level that the knowledge acquisition and contribution come to the forefront.  I have observed that the big universities are very poorly equipped to take the pastoral duties of accompanying young people in their quest to become adults seriously.  Often this is reflected in their student satisfaction ratings.  Here in Manchester it is notable haw many of the Chinese students seem so miserable.  The Confucian model of learning is more holistic, with a stress on virtues and the development of character, something that hard pressed lecturers don’s have any time for.

1353088148turkle-alone_together_pbAdolescence in many ways an exciting time, with an emerging creativity often linked to rebelliousness, hope, idealism and a youthful beauty.  But there is a dark side of adolescence which American Bill Plotkin calls ‘pathoadolescence‘.  This is defined by  being hostilely competitive,  violent, superficial,  materialistic,  greedy,  tribal and ultimately self-destructive.  Interesting he argues that it spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are class-stratified, violent, racist, sexist, ageist.  Certainly when one looks back at the political discourse of this last year this analysis seems to ring a few bells.  It also maybe that the speed of our technological change fuels these trends, Sherry Turkles book  Alone Together –  is certainly worth reading.  Her basic thesis is that our digital age of relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void,but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.  Could this lead to a new phenomenon ‘Regressive Adolescence?’ .

AMDG   Homily given at Midnight Mass, at the Holy Name Manchester, 2016

shepherds-seekingTonight as so often before we are invited to that manger in Bethlehem – but maybe after this year of surprises, as our future seems more uncertain than ever before – as we are aware of a terrible persecution and suffering of so many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world – we are coming to the manger with a deeper longing than usual. We have just listened to the timeless words of Luke – the turning point of human history is recounted – the birth of Christ from which we measure time and dates.  Through Luke’s words we are invited to listen to the message of the angels and discover anew an unexpected joy. Obedient to the angels we are invited to accompany the shepherds in leaving the darkness of the night and come to witness that strange scene around the manger.  We are called back 2000 years ago to experience a new light that has come in such an expected way into our human world.

Maybe this year the darkness around the manger seems to press in more.  The world without God – is dark – A world without God is brutal – The world of the powerful were the weak are trampled upon – discarded. This dark world is the world of Caesar Augustus, of King Herod, of Bashar Assad, the world of Game of Thrones, perhaps even the world of the Apprentice.  It is a pagan world –  It is survival of the fittest, mafia gangs – a world saturated with sex without love, a world where so many young people are made to feel ugly and insecure, a world where the old feel abandoned and a nuisance. Where refugees are made to feel worthless and unwanted, we have 7 refugees sleeping next door tonight.

It is into this messy world that God chose to enter – into its messiness and fragility.  And we need Jesus Christ more than ever before – as for so many people – hope seems to recede, anger seems to bubble up everywhere – we need someone to give us Hope and to give us Joy.  Essentially at Christmas we need to find some time to gaze at the crib –  to gaze at this curious way in which hope and joy has come into a dark world.  We need to squeeze some time out from our feasting and partying, from our boozing and box sets – to spend some time look at the crib.

e40e5abaccfc35f4ccf077910302958aWe know a new born human baby is helpless – uniquely in the animal kingdom.  Often primates rely on their parents but no-one is as helpless as the new-born human.  Why out of all the animal kingdom are baby humans so dependent on their mothers?  We are told that this is because of the underdevelopment of our brain after 9 months. So the Almighty -Omnipotent God chose to enter our helplessness.  Because of this vulnerability and this helplessness – at birth neuroscientists tell us that babies have a repertoire of skills to get their Mother to fall in love with them – they are bonding machines.  Let’s imagine Jesus bonding with Mary. We know that human babies love to gaze at Faces –  Jesus would be lying next to Mary and look at her face.   After a while he would develop a seductive sense of timing, knowing when to look to attract her gaze and then when to look away and then when to look back at her to attract her gaze again.

Jesus, like we did when we were little,  would become extremely good at reading Faces – noticing tiny differences in the muscular movements around the eyes and mouth of Mary.  We know that in experiments with babies where they stare at a gallery of faces they usually stop and stare longer at their mother’s face. A famous experiment   demonstrated that 6 month old babies could recognise different features in the faces of monkeys which adults can’t. So in their powerlessness Babies see more than we do in our busyness.  What does the baby Jesus see when looking at your face?   What would it be like standing there in the shadows and watching the infant Jesus stare at his mother – – Jesus would stare at her and she would gaze back…. watch them bond. The mother of God with the incarnate deity.  Maybe then Jesus would stare at you in the shadows, lurking at the edge of the manger … with all of the light and dark of your own life – what would that feel like?

e7576dc944ad965f5e0deb1a1a20fc05We know that equally as important as the power of this gazing – is touch.  In fact Babies will forego food for touch –  Some of our skin receptors have a social function – social touch helps the brain develop, it reduces stress and blood pressure.  God in Jesus needed to be touched – God is no longer so far above us, totally transcendent, distant – but in Jesus Christ he needed the touch of Joseph and Mary. Maybe when we gaze at the Crib – Mary will allow us to hold the Baby Jesus.  Like all new mothers – feeding him – holding him she would have experience a deep sense of fulfilment that she would never imagine before.  Can we watch her feeding God?

Let us be amazed by that – The all powerful God, creator of the galaxies and the universe, needing to be touched by us ….. and He still does as we take him into our hearts in the form of communion – that incredible sacramental self-giving of God.

So as we come out of the shadows with the shepherds tonight – into that unique light of Bethlehem – we are invited to be transformed by that encounter with God made man….  We are invited to live in that light even in the midst of this hurting and fragile world …..  we are invited daily to touch Almighty God who longs to be touched by us …. Something that we can do in a unique way in Holy Mass….  Let this special Mass, Christs Mass change us.