Archive for November, 2013


AMDG

I’m giving an advent day of reflection in Gorton today – thought I’d share my reflection below

impatientHave you noticed how quickly technology moves from being a luxury to an essential …..  When Television was invented it for many years it was only to be seen in rich houses, but now we can’t imagine not having a television, often a large flat screen, digital …. So we moved from thinking about television as being a luxury , now it is a necessity.  The same is true about cars, computers,  mobile phones and now not just an internet connection but a fast connection. A modern problem is when can’t connect.  Our mobile phone signal is patchy – and we get angry and frustrated.   Our internet connection is slow and we start clicking the mouse furiously or open new tabs.  All of this incredible digital stuff wasn’t around 20years ago but now our expectations have been raised……    The digital revolution is speeding things up – but the result is this – we are in danger of losing the habit of patience and the practice of waiting…..  Advent is about waiting  ……waiting in hope and waiting in joy………. this is an important part of Christian life.

maxresdefaultThere is a beautiful image in scripture of the watchmen waiting for the dawn.  For millennia, before our scientific age, when we didn’t understand how our solar system operates – there was always this slight nagging uncertainty about would the sun rise again? Panic ensued during a solar eclipse.  In the far north when the Arctic Winter means a perpetual twilight for weeks – when the sun rises for the first time in weeks – communities go out to greet the rising of the Sun .  This is in image that John Paul II was fond of as we approached the third millennium – to be alert waiting for sunrise  – watchmen and women waiting for the dawn of new hope  that Jesus beings afresh every Christmas.  He often called us to be sentinels of the Gospel, turning our eyes to the future, we confidently await the dawn of a new Day… Quoting Isaiah he said “Watchmen, what of the night?” and we hear the answer: “Hark, your watchmen lift up their voice, together they sing for joy: for eye to eye they see the return of the Lord to Zion”…. “As the third millennium of the Redemption draws near, God is preparing a great springtime for Christianity and we can already see its first signs.” May Mary, the Morning Star, help us to say with ever new ardour our “yes” to the Father’s plan for salvation that all nations and tongues may see his glory  (POPE JOHN PAUL II, Message for World Mission Sunday, n.9, October 24th, 1999)

downloadThis waiting is the heart of our prayer.  St Augustine says that God often doesn’t answer our prayers immediately because he is waiting for our hearts to grow so that we can receive all the graces he wants to give us.  Our hearts grow in that silent and joyful, patient ,waiting. So can we prayerfully wait in prayer this advent. Three suggestions – firstly draw closer to the Lord, come to mass more often ( if you are just a Sunday Catholic – than choose one day in the week you can come to) – you are guaranteed the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Secondly in adoration – the faithful silence presence in front of the Blessed sacrament  – there you hearts will grow,  remember that Promise that Moses gives in the book of Exodus (14) –  The Lord will fight for you, you only need to be still, you only need to be silent.  Take all those distraction that prevent you from joyfully waiting – those worries, those wounds and lay them before the Lord in adoration. Thirdly watch and wait with the Rosary – praying your beads compels you to slow down – as you go round in a circle, That rhythm can become a rhythm of hope.  If you drive hang  your rosary  round the rear view mirror – when you are stuck in traffic – instead of getting angry or impatient take it down – keep a list of names of people you can pray for in the car…..

Remember advent is a great opportunity to slow down and rediscover the art of waiting and hoping and growing your heart in expectation.

Debating Atheism

AMDG

The lecture theater filling up

The lecture theater filling up

I was invited today by Manchester Students Debating Union to oppose the motion ‘This house would not believe in God‘.  Speaking for the motion was the Philosopher Helen Beebee, and another atheist philosopher who I forget his name.  Opposing it was myself, Writer and Columnist Peter Hitchens and a professor of Biblical Studies…..  we lost (boo hoo!) … overwhelmingly, it seems that atheism is the new cool.  Anyway for what it is worth I am posting up my speech.  It is interesting to note that 250 students attended – sitting in the aisles – so the question holds great interest to them 

Thank you for inviting me to speak today – I strongly commend the Debating Society for organising this debate.  To believe in God or not to believe in God is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life.  My speech has two parts – 1. God as a concept  …… 2. How useful or dangerous is faith?

1.   God as a concept

I studied philosophy at Edinburgh Uni, before I even considered the priesthood.  We looked at a lot of analytical philosophy, discussions about what could be said and what could not be said.  Famously a school of philosophy called the logical positivists had said that the statement ‘ God exists’ was cognitively meaningless – i.e. saying God exists didn’t tell us anything meaningful about what we can know of the world out there.  Why was it meaningless?  ‘God exists’ could not be empirically tested, nor did it contain its truth within itself, like an analytical statement would e.g. 2+2=4.  It was therefore meaningless…..

How does religion talk about God? Often the starting point is through its sacred texts – e.g. The Bible / The Koran.  Believers call this revelation – revealed truth.  If we don’t accept the idea of revelation then in many ways the Logical Positivists are right – language reaches its meaningful limits when we start talking about God.  This is called the problem of religious language.  Faced with this problem we have two options –either the existence of God is meaningless – which is tantamount to saying God as a concept is irrelevant  (first way) –  or the second way is that we are humble in front of the mystery of our limitations – i.e. just because we don’t know – it doesn’t mean we have to dismiss it.

wittgensteinAt this point in my studies I discovered the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein who would become a hero of mine. What I love about Wittgenstein is his philosophy is based on a deep engagement with the world.  He wasn’t just living in an Ivory Tower – He was a stretcher bearer in the First World War – he taught young children in a rural school.  He published 2 major works  –…. The first one the Tractatus is a masterpiece in Analytical Philosophy – and he gets to that impass I just described, the limits of language and opts for the humble approach. The famous last statement says Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.  He was humble in front of the mystery of what we don’t know.

 The second major book was the Philosophical Investigations and he changed his views radically.  He realised the analytical approach was limited. Because we think in words – We have no access to our own minds, non-linguistically. The meaning of words is formed by what we do, Language acquisition is how we learn to act as we are growing up ….. In the same way we have no access to God, independently of our life and language or ‘language games’ as he called them.  So talking about God only makes sense within a religious language game.  So to answer the question about the existence of God is not about analysing a word or an idea, the existence of God becomes a question of how credible that language game is.

So we can debate God as an idea – it may be intellectually stimulating – but we will never convince each other with way – but maybe very congenial over a couple of glasses of wine…… If we are serious about this question we need to look at how people of faith live and judge that – and I think that becomes much more fruitful.

2. Faith is it useful or dangerous?  

My answer to that is both – there is good faith and bad faith. For me it’s quite simple good faith encourages you to love more – bad faith increases hate and sectarianism.   It’s best if I stick to my faith.  I am 39 years old. When I was 23 I left my girlfriend who I was deeply in love with and started training to become a priest – you know Catholic priests can’t marry.  It was a big sacrifice – and one I made grudgingly. But we both knew that I wouldn’t be fulfilled unless I tried this out.  I joined an order of Catholic priests called the Jesuits –  we are known for our long and rigorous training. Pope Francis is a Jesuit. The first two years I was a Jesuit novice – it is a probationary period.  I was sent to work in Brixton Prison, Teach in a comprehensive School in London & live with Gypsys in Ireland.  The heart of these two years is a thirty day silent retreat called the Spiritual Exercises.  Before then I nearly quit especially during the work in the prison.  During the 30 days of silence I had the most profound experiences of my life – Ever since then I am convinced that God exists. Because of this after my two years as a novice I took perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

I have never yet regretted that decision – not once.  In fact I think I have learnt the meaning of Joy since then, and I have studied 4 more degrees in theology, psychology and education.  I have worked in incredible places. In Tanzania teaching Aids Orphans, in India with the untouchables – training teachers, in North London working with gangs, and in the shanty towns in Manila.   At the heart of this has been my faith in God – God is real to me not just an idea. So it is up to you – to decide whether I am mad or delusional.  But I have seen with my own eyes – on a planet of 7 billion people  religion is increasingly important for the vast majority of them.   Now of course there is good religion and bad religion.

So to conclude – if you want to keep this debate at the level of ideas then we won’t really get  anywhere fast –  its important to realise what a huge influence religion has for good and bad in the vast majority of peoples lives on this planet – and you can judge how important my faith is to me by the decision I’ve made in my life – the experiences I’ve had.  I am a very committed religious person – its up to you to decide whether I am mad or wasting my life.

AMDG

Icon of Pierre Favre by Fr. William McNichols

Icon of Pierre Favre by Fr. William McNichols

There have been many whispers but today it seems to be confirmed in the Italian Press.  Pierre Favre, the first Jesuit priest (he was already ordained when he joined with the group of men who were gathering around St Ignatius in Paris) is to be declared a saint in December.   This is a great joy for many of us Jesuits, he is often quoted as being one of the favourite first companions but relatively unknown outside of the Society of Jesus.  It seem that Pope Francis shares his fellow Jesuits affection for this great man.  In the interview he gave to Jesuit magazines including Thinking Faith  in October the Pope said this about Favre,

“[His] dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”

Pope Francis PrayingPierre Favre (or Peter Faber) was highly esteemed by St Ignatius as the companion he trusted the most to give the Spiritual Exercises.  He had a remarkable skill in what we call ‘spiritual conversation’. a great preacher, and a remarkable ability to reconcile warring factions, particular families that were divided.  This ‘spiritual skill set’ which would be valuable at any time was especially needed in the spiritual fractious times of the Reformation.  He was sent by St Ignatius to be a ‘periti’ (an expert) at the Council of Trent.  His reputation grew so fast that the he was missioned directly by popes and sent into flash points in Germany such as Speyer, Mainz, and Cologne,  where Catholic Bishops were teteering towards Lutheranism.

Antonio Spadaro who gave the interview to Pope Francis provides this commentary As Pope Francis lists these personal characteristics of his favorite Jesuit I understand just how much this figure has truly been a model for his own life. Michel de Certeau, S.J., characterised Faber simply as “the reformed priest,” for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform are intimately inseparable. I begin to understand, therefore, that Pope Francis is inspired precisely by this kind of reform.

Already beatifed, Pope Francis is following a  process for Favre’s canonization called “equivalent canonization” – when he omits the judicial process and ceremonies involved and orders the new saint to be venerated in the Universal Church.  John Paul II, decreed 3 such canonizations, Benedict XVI decreed 1Here is a link to the report http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/favre-gesuita-santo-30065/