Trust in God & Scripture in Schools

Taken from the Catholic Universe 13 October 2013

pietro-perugino-tobias-with-the-angel-raphaelHaving shared my pregnancy news with Universe readers in order to advocate breaking the taboo and stigma of early pregnancy, I am now reaping the downside of being upfront following the discovery during a routine scan that our unborn child had died in utero, right at the end of the first trimester.

As we were unable to verify the sex of our baby, born on the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, we therefore chose the name Raphael in honour of the Archangel, who in common with all angels is pure spirit and therefore neither male nor female in the earthly sense. Furthermore Raphael is also associated with the healing ministry of God.

When explaining the reason for our choice of name, I was taken aback by the amount of Christians who while aware of the name of the archangel, associated it more with the Renaissance artist and knew nothing of the Biblical connotations.

 Raphael makes an appearance in the Book of Tobit, one of the books of the Apocrypha, in which he is sent by God to heal, protect and guide Tobit and his son and daughter-in-law Tobias and Sarah. The story of Tobit’s family is one of the hidden gems of the Bible, the message of which is that God is just. Tobit, Tobias and Sarah suffer many trials and difficulties but yet remain steadfast in faith during their time of testing and enjoy God’s blessings and mercy, with St Raphael being sent to them as answer to their prayers for deliverance and making the longest recorded speech of an angel in the entire Bible!

Like Tobit we are called to trust in God and live in accordance to his plan. Suffering is not a punishment but a test, it is not our struggles that define us, but our response to them – do we rail Job-like against God, or put our faith in him, trusting that though he has not willed terrible things to happen, he will work to bring good out of our pain.

 The book of Tobit is a great guide to Catholic spirituality, presenting the sanctity of marriage, angelic intercession, a reward for good works as well as emphasising the importance of prayer, almsgiving and fasting in our daily lives.

Upon re-reading it this week and explaining its significance in the choice of our baby’s name, it once again struck me as what a tragedy it is that so many of us Catholics don’t seem to know our bible as well as we ought. Not only does this mean that we are often left floundering especially when in conversation with our evangelical brethren, but that our faith and knowledge can lack richness and depth. Christianity is a revealed religion, about what God has shown and told us, most of which can be found in scripture.

If our knowledge of the bible is sketchy, as well as hindering and impairing our faith, it also means that we are missing out on a wealth of cultural richness. As a former English literature student, I was frequently taken aback at how much my fellow students were missing out on, by having almost no knowledge of the basic Old and New Testament stories which were a staple of basic education only a few generations ago. Without a good grip on the bible, it is impossible to appreciate staples of the English canon such as Beowulf, Chaucer, Blake and DH Lawrence to name but a few.

 This week the schools watchdog Ofsted have reported that more than half of England’s schools are failing pupils on religious education. A great deal of this has to do with the manner in which RE is now taught, in an impartial and objective fashion, laying out the tenets of different faiths from which children are taught to take a pick and mix approach, drawing out strands of truths from various religions, without being equipped with the basic knowledge to be able to make such critical decisions.

I was lucky enough to have old-fashioned scripture lessons at primary school, which was akin to a period of story-telling, music, art and drama. I remember the class sitting with rapt concentration to tales of King David, singing songs about the walls of Jericho tumbling and drawing vivid pictures of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot, the memories of those lessons remaining with me today, almost thirty years later. Despite attending a Catholic secondary school, my knowledge of the Apocrypha was until quite recently, limited to being purely theoretical, even though it is a key part of our Catholic cultural inheritance.

If Religious Education teaching is lacking, it is time to reintroduce unashamed scripture lessons, which as my experience shows does not need to be an exercise in aridity, in order that all children are not denied the richness of their country’s spiritual heritage, regardless of whether or not they are adherents to what is still, our national religion.

 We cannot be surprised or shocked by the current proposals that the Bible should be removed from courtrooms, how can we swear a serious oath of truth upon it, or how can grieving parents or those suffering with the burdens and trials of life, absorb the messages of  consolation and hope from the Bible, if we don’t know what is contained therein?

Singing of the hidden God: Blessed John Paul II and the mystical power of words

As today is the Optional Memorial of Blessed John Paul II, I have reproduced my feature from the Easter supplement of the Catholic Herald in 2011, celebrating the literary output of one of the greatest popes in modern times.

bl-pope-john-paull-ii

Pope John Paul II is lauded for his contributions to theology, human rights, religious freedoms and the renewal of Catholic spirituality. What is often forgotten, is that he was first of all a poet and playwright, his theatrical roots stretching back to his boyhood. He acted in his first play at the age of eight, and this literary and thespian bent gave his papacy its unique flavour. It was his grounding in and love for theatre that no doubt contributed to his reputation of being something of a showman.

Although he was not the first pope to have written poems and plays, John Paul II was unique in that, unlike with his predecessors, his ordination to the priesthood did not put an end to his literary output. He remained a poet and playwright throughout his entire ministry. His final poem, the Roman Triptych, was written in the 23rd year of his papacy and is considered by many to be his spiritual last testament, contemplating the beginning and end of his reign as pope.

Meditating upon the Michelangelo fresco of the Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, John Paul II notes:

so it was in August, and then in October,

of the memorable year of the two Conclaves,

and so it will be again, when the need arises after my death.

Michelangelos vision must then speak to them.

Poetry accompanied John Paul II his entire life. Poetry became his means of expressing his personal feelings and experiences, his relationship to God, to his fellow man and to the world as a whole. It documents his spiritual journey from school pupil to pope, revealing the process of his maturing spirituality and attempts at self-definition. His poetry deals with a whole range of issues from friendships to problems related to his pastoral duties and obligations as bishop – in short, everything that became part of his experience.

John Paul II’s poetic sentiments were formed under the looming shadow of war and invasion. He was influenced by the revival of Polish Romanticism, which held that history had a spiritual core and that the political collapse of Poland over the 18th and 19th centuries had been caused by the deterioration of traditional national virtues.

Echoing a familiar Christian theme, redemptive suffering as a personal spiritual discipline, the great Polish romantics believed that redemptive suffering was also the national destiny. Poland was a Messiah among nations, whose political misfortunes signified a time on Calvary that would redeem the world and give rise to spiritual renewal. It was under the influence of this tradition and following the Nazi occupation in 1939 that John Paul II began writing his first poems and plays. By the end of 1940, he had written a trilogy, David, Job and Jeremiah, which all re-told a biblical story in the context of a key moment in Polish history. These plays were both examinations of the human soul and acts of resistance towards the occupiers, all three having political undertones.

John Paul drew parallels between the fate of Poland, being punished for losing its Christian roots and the punishments of Israelites for breakingtheir covenant with God. In 1939, he wrote in a letter to a friend: “The nation has fallen like Israel because it did not recognise he messianic ideal, its own ideal. Our liberation lies at the gate of Christ”.

In his poetry of the same era, we see the emerging figure of a man of great prayer and devotion. Over This, Your White Grave is arguably one of his most touching poems, written at the age of 19 and dealing with the premature death of his mother, in which his monologue displaying his feelings of longing, sorrow and melancholy is transformed into a simple prayer for his mother which expresses his gratitude for love. “O Mother, extinguished love… give her eternal peace.”The poem evokes the image of the young poet kneeling in prayer at his mother’s grave, giving thanks for her life and reconciled with the prospect of death. The remainder of his poetry written in the war years is similarly contemplative, displaying a mysticism and a turning inwards to God.

John Paul II responded to the horror surrounding him with a sense of detachment, but that is not to say that he was unaffected by it. In one of the poems from his later period he draws upon the time that he was forced to work as a manual labourer in a quarry. But his early poetry shows that at a time when it must have seemed like the apocalypse was nigh – his beloved father died, his friends were taken to concentration camps and he was risking his life by remaining a member of an underground theatre company –his only refuge in the Lord.

His later poetry, becomes increasingly ambitious in terms of language, further blurring the boundaries between thought and prayer.

Perhaps one of John Paul II’s greatest achievements as a playwright was having one of his plays, The Jeweller’s Shop, written in 1960, under the pseudonym of Andrzej Jawien, turned into a Hollywood movie, starring Burt Lancaster and Olivia Hussey. The story focuses upon the contrast of human relationships, love, marriage and family, encapsulating John Paul’s favourite theme, namely that love is difficult but one must continue to hope as our futures depend upon it. The play explores the concepts that would be later worked out more fully in his famous cycle of teachings that would become the Theology of the Body.

Above all, in his poetry and plays John Paul II showed an awareness of the mystical power of words. The idea of the “living word” both on stage and in poetry could transform reality by summoning the audience to moral action. He saw a correlation between the poetic and theatrical word and the Divine Word by which God created the universe and by which bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Time and time again his work returned to the theme of the Eucharist, in the transformation of the bread and wine he saw the paradox of God continually both hiding and revealing himself.

“The Shores of Silence”, the first part of the poem, The Song of the Hidden God, loses none of its lyrical qualities in translation:

Learn from me, my dear ones, how to hide,

for where I am hidden I abide…

there is a Beauty more real

concealed in the living blood.

To use John Paul II’s own words, in a country wracked by occupation and war, his poetry really did sing of the hidden God, in a regime that recognised that the Catholic Church was the historic custodian of Polish national culture and identity and thus sought to destroy it.

In the New Evangelisation of the world called for by John Paul II, poets and playwrights, along with other artists had an important role to play. “Humanity in every age – and even today – looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny,” he once wrote. Artists were invited to follow his example and use their God-given gifts for the purposes of spiritual renewal, using their artistic quest for beauty, good and truth to transcend the physical and lead them back to their divine origins.

In his final poem, the Pope re-iterated his concept of the living word: that everything around us should proclaim God’s love, a love that was made as a promise before the dawn of time:

the sign of the Covenant

which the Eternal Word made with you

even before the world was created.

It is no surprise that his life ended with the most passionate and inspirational performance of all. He was no longer able to use the power of language but his death conveyed the drama of suffering and the mystery of love, beyond the power of the word to the Word itself.

Catholics and sex – business as usual

An unpleasant type of snobbery seems to be pervading certain parts of the internet at the moment, with bloggers such as Protect the Pope coming under fire for their continued and persistent promotion of life issues.

“Why can’t you widen your focus to include matters of social justice?” goes the refrain. Pope Francis’ recent interview having been interpreted by some quarters that Catholics need to stop focussing on issues arising from matters of human sexuality and instead concentrate their efforts on the poor.

Much ink has already been spilled over this, including my own in the Catholic Universe (apologies, recent events mean that I haven’t been up to date with posting my columns on the blog) but Francis has not said that we must abandon these issues, but that they must not be our only Gospel. Evangelisation does not begin with bashing another over the head for their shortcomings, or lecturing people solely on one area of doctrine while forgetting that the aim is to engender a love of Christ and a desire to focus on His message. Issues such as sexuality, abortion, poverty and hunger all flow holistically from the two main commandments of Christ, to love your God with all your heart and soul and then to love your neighbour as yourself.

This loving one’s neighbour as oneself means speaking the truth with charity. A love of one’s neighbour means attempting to stop them from falling into error, therefore we cannot ignore it when someone imperils their soul, we cannot validate sin by ignoring it, but rather act with love and compassion.

Figures such as Deacon Nick Donnelly and myself who have quite a strong pro-life bent to our output are not being urged to stop, or widen focus, but to remember what it is precisely that we are attempting to achieve. I can’t speak for Deacon Nick, but it’s something that I consider every single day and why at times, my writing can sometimes have a tortuous quality, in that I am trying to consider all angles and not alienate the very many non-Catholic onlookers who pop into the blog from time to time.

To those interlocutors who would urge me to concentrate on other matters of social justice, my riposte would be to “stick with what you are good at”. My particular vocation and charism when it comes to writing, blogging and speaking is that of issues surrounding the family, the unborn, human sexuality and the feminine vocation. In the spirit of Vatican II, if you perceive there to be a gap, then why not fill it yourself? If the wholesale killing of the unborn, the destruction of the family and the exploitation of the sick and elderly are not matters of social justice, then I don’t know what is?

I was someone who was brought up without any sort of understanding of what the Church taught regarding contraception. All I knew was that the Church said you couldn’t use the pill or condoms and not being the most intellectually curious of children, it didn’t occur to me to ask why. My mother used to tell me that the Church’s stance on condoms was wicked and it was a line I swallowed hook, line and sinker, even being so daring as to put it into an RE essay on one occasion, to which Mr Glynn smiled indulgently and said he thought that was a bit strong.

We had the mandatory SRE talk on contraception in what is now called Year 9 (third year in old money) and my thoughts were ‘oh wow, okay this is how it works, the pill seems like a jolly sensible thing, I might go and ask for it’ without any sort of guidance or comment, or even balancing biological information as to the downsides or risks. Of course in my day, the morning-after pill or long acting reversible contraceptives such as the implant were yet to be invented, but I’m sure that had they been, I would have thought them advisable and the Catholic church was just being silly and out of date. We were not even informed of the potential side-effects, contraception was ‘impartially’ presented as being an effective way to avoid pregnancy. There was no discussion about relationships whatsoever, aside from an unspoken sense that if you did have sex, be sure not to get caught.

Despite completing a GCSE in Religion with an ostensibly Catholic syllabus, the subject of contraception was never covered. Sister P once came out with the unforgettable statement that if you were having sex to round off the end of an enjoyable evening then you had no self-respect, a statement that never made any sense as an adolescent and needs further explanation. I would never insult any non-Catholics or leading feminist figures by claiming that a love of sex, or treating it as a recreational activity denotes a lack of self-respect. While I suspect that there are many women whose sexual behaviour does stem from a basic lack of self-respect, it cannot be said of everyone.

Culture encourages us to treat sex as a meaningless recreational activity at the same time as promoting the god of personal autonomy and self-respect. To have multiple sexual partners, to engage in outrageous sexual practices, does not automatically denote a lack of self-respect, rather the opposite. Indulging one’s own sexual proclivities, no matter how deviant or potentially physically and psychologically unhealthy is seen as a good.

So it makes no sense to be telling adolescents or adults that to succumb to their sexual appetites and cravings denotes a lack of self-respect and is not an affective or appealing argument without further exploration. It certainly didn’t chime with me.

But by not being taught about what we should aspire to, because no-one held chastity up to me as a goal or a good, because abortion was never explained in anything more than abstract philosophical terms, and never explored in any detail, I was profoundly hurt and damaged in my teens and twenties and subject to a lot of unnecessary heartbreak and mistakes.

Funnily enough once I embraced the church things turned good and fell into place, but not without forays into co-habitation and an attempt at marriage in which I lacked all understanding of what marriage actually was and what it meant, never having received any guidance or preparation.

A combination of parents’ embarassed silence on these issues and a school whose attitude was ambivalence, indifference and turning a blind eye to the obvious sexual escapades of their pupils, (unless they were caught when sanctions had to be seen to be applied) meant that I was extremely susceptible to the influence of women’s lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan, whose dissonant message has not changed over the past 30 years. Have as much sex as you want, with whomsoever you want, here are some tips to make it spicy, if you’re not swinging from the chandeliers or not wanting to swing from the chandeliers, you are doing something wrong and in all likelihood sexually repressed, besides which you need to make sure you are good at it if you want him to call you again.

These two articles demonstrate the dissonance nicely – a Telegraph columnist deliberates on how soon one can call a relationship a relationship without scaring off a man, but unashamedly admitting that a long-term relationship is the goal, and this piece in the Daily Mail gives women tricks to please men the first time that they have sex, in order to please him and keep him interested. This is really the tip of the cultural iceberg, basically women are expected to sexually objectify themselves, there is an admission that sex makes us vulnerable, we put ourselves on the line, not to mention risking pregnancy and STDs and IF we do things right, look great, are not too emotionally clingy and are sexually pleasing and financially independent, then eventually we might find a man who might want to commit to us. Although be careful not to bore him, if he has an affair, it might well be your fault. Women are being sold a paradox of sexual self-objectification in the name of sexual empowerment with an admitted price tag of physical and emotional vulnerability. Getting naked and swapping intimate bodily fluids with someone does not give us license to claim any sort of romantic relationship or emotional attachment to them, until they deem it appropriate. Having sex no longer entails any sort of responsibility towards the other, an attitude underlined by contraception and the wholesale availability of abortion. Wanting a long term relationship as a result of having repeated sexual encounters with one person is perceived as a sign of weakness or dysfunction, unless the other person desires it too. Women who want to get married are an embarrassing anachronism.

At time of writing, I am engaged in a twitter exchange with the political editor of the Daily Mail and the social media editor of the Wall Street Journal, the latter of whom thinks that sexting amongst teens should not be considered shocking as ‘it’s no longer 1998’. Sexting encourages already vulnerable teens to open themselves up to abuse, harassment and coercion. We should not be normalising it as a harmless adult practice. But by speaking out, one risks being written off as a joyless puritan.

We are marinading in a toxic cultural sewer and unless we have an alternative vision to aspire to, a healthy culture of sex and sexuality, a better vision of equality, based on sound moral principles, then it can hardly be a surprise that so many people sink into the squelchy immoral morass that masquerades as healthy adult behaviour and suffer as a result. I should know, I was one of them. if we stop talking about these things then there is nothing to counter the very powerful lobbies that seek to entrench and profit from a culture of sexual libertinism.

Through the grace of God I managed to turn my life around and I can testify to the joy and fulfilment of living out a female Catholic vocation. Those of us who have been hurt and let down as a direct consequence of not having been passed on the beauty of the church’s teaching in all her fullness and glory, feel a duty to continue to speak out in order that no-one else should have to learn the hard way and it’s precisely love for one’s neighbour as propounded by the Gospel, which motivates us to do so.

Bishop hopes Synod will renew appreciation for marriage

The following is a press release from the Diocese of Portsmouth 

The Rt Rev Philip Egan, the Bishop of Portsmouth, has issued a message about the Extraordinary Synod called by Pope Francis, due to take place in October 2014. The Synod will examine “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation.”

Bishop Egan hopes that, among the fruits of the Synod, there will be new impetus to create comprehensive programmes for marriage preparation, that could lead towards a manual or directory on Marriage and Family Life, giving guidance for the family as “domestic Church”.

He would also hope that the Synod would “give renewed attention to the situation of those Catholics who find themselves in ‘irregular unions’, or are divorced and remarried. Is there some way of affording them mercy, help and reconciliation?”

In expressing his hopes for the Synod, Bishop Egan cited the decline in the numbers of Catholic marriages within his own diocese. While in 1962 there were 1319 marriages, in 2012, there were only 566, despite a 25% rise in the Catholic population.

He said that the Synod would “be a wonderful opportunity for us in the Diocese of Portsmouth to articulate once again the teaching of Jesus and his Church on marriage and family life, and to explore new ways of showing mercy to those in difficulty.”

Here is a full copy of the Bishop’s letter.

BoP Message about Extraordinary Synod (October 2013)

It would be great to see other dioceses follow suit. Well done to the Diocese of Portsmouth and Bishop Egan for being so pro-active and leading the way in the cause of the New Evangelisation

A case of the ‘comedy priest’?

Having written both a blogpost and a feature for the Catholic press on the subject of Fr Ray and his misrepresentation in the mainstream media, I don’t want to over-egg the pudding on this issue, nonetheless the whole affair has thrown up cause for further concern.

When posting the text of my Universe article earlier, I was searching for a flattering image of Father Ray online and found what I thought was a nice photo taken of him in the pews of St Mary Magdalen church. After clicking on the image, I saw that it was copyrighted by the Brighton Argus and lo and behold, linked to yet another misleading article based on the contents of his blog, in which it was claimed that Fr Ray was denouncing the traditional foot-washing on Maundy Thursday as ‘sinful.’

The piece was not penned by Bill Gardner, but in common with his recent feature, it did not link to the original post and gave a false impression that Fr Ray was condemning the practice of foot-washing, whereas Fr Ray once again with typical humility and frankness, described how it was an occasion of sin for him. Read in context, the post was moving and challenging in equal measure, Father’s concern for the homeless is almost palpable, far from de-humanising them as undesirable objects, he wondered whether previously he had unconsciously not treated people with the dignity and respect that they deserve, but rather as a quantity to be exploited.

With all the brouhaha surrounding the election of Pope Francis during Easter week, this didn’t get picked up by the nationals, but it did of course attract the usual anti-Catholic sentiment in the comment section and once again chipped away at the reputation of Fr Ray.

When the most recent story broke, I took at look at the Twitter stream of Bill Gardner, who despite being a local journalist hadn’t previously registered on my radar, even though I do use Twitter to keep up with other local journalists and politicians.

What I found was a little disturbing. On the one hand Bill Gardner is a lively, engaging and clearly very ambitious local journalist who is obviously trying to build his career in the profession, probably in tabloids. He is able to sniff out a good story and put quite a sensationalist spin on events, which is a pre-requisite for any budding journalist. Headlines and features need to instantly attract attention and it’s something that the Brighton Argus seems to have perfected down to a fine art, I am often struck by seemingly fantastic or scandalous local headlines on the sandwich boards outside the newsagents as I walk to school.

Newspapers and journalists are frequently and I think unfairly, described by the commentariat as “trolls” themselves, in that they publish deliberately controversial articles and headlines to attract interest. The internet may have made print and on-line media more cut-throat, but publishing sensational stories and photos to attract readers is not a new feature of the press. Back in the ’80s and ’90s an exclusive photograph of Princess Diana on the front page did wonders for that day’s circulation. The overriding memory I have of my A Level results day is of my mother waking up at crack of dawn to sneak to the post-office lest anyone local might catch her buying a copy of the Daily Mirror, but she was dying to view the photos of Sarah Ferguson having her toes sucked by the Texan millionaire, before they sold out!

So I am not going to criticise either Bill Gardner or the Brighton Argus for wanting to boost readership or interest, nor do I think we should take heed of the many comments I found on Bill Gardner’s feed criticising him for being a ‘troll’ himself following his appearance on ITV’s Monday night show about internet bullying. The Argus have run a good campaign highlighting the effects of online bullying and how ineffectual the police response is to this, therefore it is highly ironic that one of their journalists seems to be engaging in that very activity. Bill Gardner is not a troll, he’s a journalist attempting to further his career, but his methods are unethical. By all means report a story, but do so fairly, accurately and without bias or attempting to mislead the reader or incite hate upon a particular target.

I don’t want to make this a personal attack on Bill Gardner, his feed reflects an obvious left-wing and socially liberal bias, which he is more than entitled to hold, he does seem to care passionately about issues of social justice. I note he spent an afternoon with the police anti-begging squad, whose aims he seemed to sympathetically report, which makes me wonder why he attacked Fr Ray over his perceived attitude, but he does evidently possess some morals, not to mention charisma and has unashamedly and unapologetically borne the storm of criticism from Catholics. Perhaps living in Brighton has given him more front than Blackpool?

But here’s what I think is the crux of the attitude. One thing that is apparent from his Twitter feed is that in common with many of Brighton’s residents, Bill Gardner is a supporter of ‘equal marriage’.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 21.48.27

Frank exchange of views there, nothing for anyone to get upset about. Except it might then explain Mr Gardner’s reaction to Fr Ray’s wholly reasonable comments in response to being rung up and asked about a recent Brighton Bridal Bondage Fair.

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Here’s the piece, despite the hyperbole, I’m not sensing the ‘outrage’, Fr Ray’s comments seem measured enough and indeed the organiser of the event explicitly says that she agrees with much of what he has to say. I can’t quite see what there is to get excited about in the following quote.

“Sexual fantasies belong in the bedroom, not at the wedding altar.

“Marriage is ultimately about building a stable environment for the procreation of children.

“It’s supposed to be about partnership, but this event seems to be designed for the fulfilment of individuals.

“From a Catholic point of view, marriage is sacred and I think dressing up in fantasy outfits risks damaging that.”

I suspect however the key sentence that provoked a reaction is the one with regards to the purpose of marriage being about creating a stable environment for children, given Bill Gardner had previously publicly baulked at similar sentiments.

It might explain why Bill Gardner seems to then go on a bit of a crusade, dredging his blog to find what other ‘damaging’ or ‘scandalous’ quotes or stories could be attributed to Fr Ray. Or maybe I’m being unfair and it was a slow news day, but the timing of the next piece, reporting Fr Ray’s purported disdainful attitude to the poor and homeless is interesting, coming as it did, the following day. I think one can definitely conclude that Fr Ray’s blog was being trawled on an offence-finding mission and may explain why a blogpost that was over a month old was seized upon.

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No need to re-hash the piece or the response to it, but it has been the source of great pain to Fr Ray. For those who may claim that no publicity is bad publicity and that overall it’s done him good, I would point to the response of my mother, who rang me up to ask me all about the affair, presuming we would know the priest, she and her Catholic neighbour (in extremely good standing) having been scandalised and appalled by what they had seen, although they had noted that the Telegraph was more balanced in their coverage.

The Catholic blogosphere is a specialised niche, there will have been many people who were therefore given a one-sided view of the story which is why it was important that the Catholic press could provide a balance.

In the meantime, the following set of tweets from Bill Gardner, definitely seems to be inviting ill-will, contempt and scorn upon Fr Ray and the Catholic Church by association and could be perceived as bullying.

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Fr Ray has been caused a lot of distress, but fortunately he also knows that he enjoys the support of his parishioners, his blog readers and his Bishop has described the piece as “mischief”.

The problem is that the “mischief” on behalf the Brighton Argus, does not seem to be an isolated case, that’s three stories that have misrepresented him in the last six months. I’m loath to accuse the Argus of outright anti-Catholicism, more likely his views on same-sex marriage, have made him a target for criticism in a city that likes to pride itself on its ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’ credentials. Being a local priest, Fr Ray’s blog provides a rich and steady stream of local outrage to boost circulation and hit rates, especially when there might be a slow news day. Nothing that Fr Ray actually says is any more controversial than anything that any other priest blogger has come out with, it’s just that he is Brighton’s very own ‘outrageous celebrity priest blogger’. What is concerning is the one-sided and inaccurate way in which the Argus has presented him of late, which has sought to turn him into a local comedic hate figure, who hates the smelly poor and holds the obligatory ‘bigoted’ view of the LGBT community. Brighton’s very own Fred Phelps if you will.

A complaint to the PCC certainly seems to be in order as does boycotting the Argus as well as their advertisers and informing them why, until Fr Ray receives a formal apology at the very least.

As a final point, it might be worth noting that in his haste to get the story, Bill Gardner and the Argus, have made previous mistakes and errors. It could be claimed that lifting and distorting quotes from blogs, is something in which they have previous form.

Happy to clarify for an important MP
Happy to clarify for an important MP
This tweeter faced a minor twitter storm as a result of misattributed tweets in the paper
This tweeter faced a minor twitter storm as a result of misattributed tweets in the paper
Sounds a bit familiar
Sounds a bit familiar

Trawling local blogs for titbits that can be distorted into a scandalous feature is quite the opposite innovative or go-getting journalism, it’s indicative of laziness and lack of inspiration. If you are going to do it, then at least have the decency to quote in context or do some background on your target.

Trouble is all this enhances Bill Gardner’s reputation as an edgy journalist, he’ll love the controversy, whereas the constant attacks on Fr Ray, could do his important ministry irreparable damage.

It’s all tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, or at least it would be were it not for the permanent nature of the Internet, but following three concurrent occasions of blatant misrepresentation, enough is enough.

A tale of truth – Chris Huhne and Fr Ray Blake

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 15 September 2013

Chris Huhne
Lying – of no great import to the man who cheated on his wife

Chris Huhne, the disgraced former government minister who resigned following his conviction and subsequent jail sentence for perverting the course of justice over persuading his ex-wife to accept penalty points that he had incurred, came out with an astonishingly frank statement this week. Under pressure from the perennially brutal Jeremy Paxman with regards to his blatant and repeated public lies, he defended himself as follows:

 “Anyone who tells you that they have never told a lie is lying, the reality that white lies, small lies help in certain circumstances and avoid you hurting other people’s feelings.”

I was torn between amusement at the delicious irony of a former politician’s impassioned and honest defence of untruths and an instinctive horror, recoiling at the notion that lies, no matter how small, can ever be anything other than pernicious.

Lying, in the context alluded to by Chris Huhne, can never be justified because its purpose is always to mislead and to put it in theological and philosophical terms, lying goes against the God-given purpose of speech, namely to assert a truth about reality in order to communicate or convey the concepts in one’s mind. St Thomas Aquinas therefore describes lying as ‘a statement at variance with the mind’ and the Catechism reminds us that it is a sin because ‘to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error’.

Though Chris Huhne may be correct in observing that most of us will at some point have told an untruth, as human beings we are called to rise above the lowest common denominator. The actions or thoughts of the majority determine neither truth or even morality, which is the main flaw in any democratic system. That many people might have told a lie, does not render the action acceptable. The only person whom lies can ever benefit is the person uttering them, even if they believe that they are doing so with good reason, such as to spare the feeling of another, or for the greater good, but the ends never justify the means.

 It can be argued that in a few limited contexts we do not expect to hear the truth from another and not every literal falsehood is a lie. For example when someone asks ‘how are you?’ the response ‘fine thanks’ is a general pleasantry and not an attempt to deceive, but we’ve reached a pretty poor and dangerous state of affairs, if our cynicism to politicians is such that we always expect to hear untruths and thus they are therefore justified in misleading us.

Perhaps most disturbing is that Mr Huhne’s public apologia for lying seems to have been largely unremarked upon in the mainstream press, indicating that most of our political and media commentators are in agreement with him. A society that condones, accepts and even expects lies is one that is in grave danger and on a personal level, even the tiniest of lies can often spiral into tangled knots of deceit, angst and despair.

On the other side of the coin, this week has also seen Fr Ray Blake, a priest local to me in Brighton, slammed and vilified by the press both nationally and internationally for a searingly honest blogpost in which using the very same language as Pope Francis, he described the poor and homeless of his parish, which is right in the heart of the city and attracts many addicts, as ‘messy’.

 In a shameless misrepresentation of his original post, which was a theological reflection upon how we are called to treat the outcasts in society, a local journalist, who was seemingly already irritated by Fr Ray’s thoughts on marriage and looking for controversy, picked up on a recent article in which the priest had expressed the very specific challenges posed by the homeless with stark candour, describing how he has to clean up blood, excrement and used needles on a daily basis.

Far from attacking the poor as widely reported, Fr Blake was in fact reflecting upon his own shortcomings; the homeless challenge him he said, they shake him out of his complacency, he doesn’t always find the mess and chaos easy to deal with, but this is no bad thing, and reflects the message of the Gospels. We are not called to live comfortable lives of compromise, but to roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty, which Fr Ray and his parish team do, with a soup distribution apostolate that runs 365 days a year.

 Rather than patronising the homeless, with a dewy-eyed romantic view, Fr Ray Blake expounded the issues surrounding their care with his typical mixture of forthrightness and compassion. To pretend that issues related to homelessness such as addiction and crime do not exist, does the very people in need of help a huge disservice. One can only assume that his words pricked too many consciences.

While Fr Ray Blake is now contemplating closing his blog as a result of the unfair press coverage surrounding his brave honesty, Chris Huhne is now reviving his career  as a journalist and commentator, off the back of being a convicted liar.

I wonder what the avowed atheist George Orwell would make of the fact that in 2013, a Catholic priest would prove his maxim, “in a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.

Telling an uncomfortable truth
Telling an uncomfortable truth

Securing a Catholic education

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 8 September 2013

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The row over faith schools has been reignited this week following the British Humanist Association’s successful challenge to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator with regards to the entry criteria for the London Oratory in Fulham, one of the UK’s leading Catholic Schools.

Under its current admissions policies, one of the criteria under which children are prioritised is that of ‘service’ by a child or their parent within a Catholic church or community over at least three years, which could include singing in the choir, being on the flower-arranging rota or some kind of church based voluntary work. The Oratory had argued that this is a religious activity in accordance with canon law, however the adjudicator disagreed, stating that the criterion meant parents who wanted a place for their children would need to start planning three or four years in advance of their child’s admission. This apparently would favour those who were sufficiently well-organised and that it therefore excluded more chaotic and presumably more disadvantaged families.  It is apparently unfair that parents should be need to be thinking about school admissions four years ahead of actually requiring a place.

Firstly, one has to question what right the British Humanist Association has to challenge and interfere with the admissions criteria of Catholic schools, to whom they are vehemently opposed. This was little more than a thinly veiled and intolerant attack upon the rights of parents to be able to give their children an education of their choosing.

What the British Humanist Association and other secular lobby groups fail to grasp, is that though all faith schools enjoy state funding, they are also funded by the Church itself, which currently contributes around £20 million a year towards the capital costs of her schools in England and Wales. It is therefore only right and proper that schools should be able to maintain a Catholic ethos, part of which must include reserving the majority of its places for children from the Catholic community, for whom they were established to serve.

In most Catholic schools, the proportion of non-Catholic students is actually much higher than the government’s stipulated 15%, the proportion of Catholic students is around 75% in England, 65% in Wales, meaning that the non-Catholic students number around a third of the total intake, more than double the official requirements, but obviously there are also some schools, such as the Oratory, who are hugely over-subscribed, which is where difficulty arises.

The Catholic Education Service is opposed to admissions criteria such as those of the Oratory, because as the schools’ adjudicator says, it can disadvantage those of a lower social status or those families where both parents work, making it difficult for them to be involved in parish work, meaning that the Catholic Church falls short in her duty to provide education for the entire Catholic population.

I confess to having very mixed feelings on the topic, speaking in the position of someone who will shortly be applying to our over-subscribed local Catholic primary for a place for our daughter next year. The demands of 4 young children, 2 of whom are little more than babies, does admittedly make it extremely difficult to get involved in various parish activities, reading at Mass for example, would be impossible. Were my husband working long hours as a layman, as he did in the period between being an Anglican clergyman and attending seminary, it would be a Herculean task. But that said, despite working long and irregular shift patterns, he still did what he could. Not because we had an eye on school admissions, (our local school doesn’t require any service element) but because as Catholics we felt obligated to contribute to our community in some way.

The thinking on school admissions seems to emanate from cynicism. Most people do not get involved in parish work due to some ulterior motive, but because they generously want to give of their time and energy and be involved in the work of the Kingdom.

We have to remember that Catholic schools are not solely about imparting a first-class academic education, but also raising our children in the habits of the faith, teaching them first and foremost about their vocation as Christians. Therefore it should be hoped that most Catholic parents are already somehow involved in their local community, even if their commitment can only extend to baking cakes for the parish fair, or occasionally helping out on an ad-hoc basis as required.

Catholic schools are rightly disbarred from probing into the Catholicity of parents, but we all know of cases where parents have turned up solely for the required period of time to enable the priest to sign the school form in good conscience, never to be seen again once the child has started school. It therefore feels innately unfair that parents who have been local parish stalwarts for a period of time, could well miss out as a result of such opportunism. The requirement for service certainly overcomes this particular issue.

Ultimately however, whilst we continue to have over-subscribed Catholic schools, there can be no perfect system, frequent Mass attendance or parish service being imperfect ways of selecting pupils, as they both rule out recent converts or those who may have only just moved to a particular area.

The great injustice of the British education system is that effectively it is only those with the cash to pay for private schools or to move into the right catchment area, or those with faith who are able to access a good education. Catholic schools are regularly applauded as being excellent models of education by the education watchdogs. What we need is more of them, so that places are available, not only for every baptised Catholic to receive the education that is their right, but also for anyone else of whatever religion who feels that a Catholic formation could be of benefit to their child.

The poor and homeless ARE messy

In an astonishing and frankly scandalous piece of ‘journalism’, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have both launched in to Fr Ray Blake for his ‘scathing and un-Christian attack’ on the poor and homeless in a recent blog piece. Neither paper had the courtesy to link to the original post, which makes one wonder whether they bothered to even read it, as it was abundantly clear that far from attacking. blasting, condemning or whatever other hyperbole was used, Fr was actually reflecting upon his own attitude one which is probably shared by many of, us which he believes, falls short at times. What any reasonable or thoughtful reader would have taken away from that, is that the poor are challenging, and if we are to live out Gospel values, then we must be shaken out of our complacency and be prepared to get our hands dirty and help.

I’m not going to launch into a premature hagiography of Fr Ray, not least because he’d undoubtedly be mortified, but there are a few points I want to make. As most people are aware, Fr Ray’s parish is in the heart of Brighton which is beset by homelessness and drug addiction. Fr Ray is therefore in a good position, as indeed are most Brighton and Hove clergy of all denominations to comment on this, because it is the local churches who are doing much to mop up and alleviate the social problems, together with various local charities. Far from attacking the poor, the parish of St Mary Magdalen (I note the Daily Mail can’t even get the name of the parish right), under Fr Ray’s leadership, has a soup run, providing soup and sandwiches to the homeless on a daily basis. Fr Ray frequently joins them and for anyone cynical as to his motives, as he says here, the food comes with no ’emotional conditions’ or devotional element, they feed the hungry because that is what Christ commands us to do.

A brief glance at the comments underneath Fr’s post, shows him passionately advocating for a compassionate attitude to the poor and homeless, specifically even giving money if required, which isn’t a popular attitude in today’s society. Another fact that has not been alluded to is that Fr Ray has given over a substantial portion of the presbytery to house asylum seekers. So this is not a priest who dislikes or attacks the poor by any imagination, quite the contrary, he sets a stunning example by word and deed, from which clergy half his age could learn.

Anyone who regularly reads Fr Ray’s blog will see how his words are always infused with compassion, which is why those of us who know him, either in real life, or simply by virtue of his blog, will be quite so incensed by this misrepresentation. What I will say about Fr Ray, aside from the fact that my 9 year old thinks he’s quite the nicest confessor in the whole wide world (which when you’ve got a daughter happy to go to confession thanks to a kindly priest is some feat), is that he is one of the few people whom I would feel comfortable phoning up in an emergency and knowing that he would do his best to help, regardless of whether or not you are his parishioner.  There is a sense of genuine ‘care’, even if it means sometimes saying the things that one doesn’t always want to hear.

Moreover, Fr Ray is right, when he talks about how the poor are messy and complicated and turn our lives upside down. There is an unhealthy tendency to believe that Christians are somehow immune to squalor, filth, disease and deprivation, by virtue of our faith. It’s almost as if we are expected to walk around with a ‘Ready-Brek’ glow, meaning that we don’t notice the stink of stale urine, or the open weeping sores and that somehow our belief allows us to transcend the more sordid elements of humanity. Whilst ideally we should all wipe the backsides of the poor, elderly and disabled with a beatific and happy smile on our faces, giving thanks that we can be of service, it’s much easier said than done.

This is what was at the heart of Fr Ray’s post, pointing out how physically difficult and challenging the poor and homeless  can be, but this is why we are commanded to love, because it doesn’t come easily or naturally to most of us, particularly when faced with the earthy reality.  There was no element of blame attached, but equally we need to be careful about a glib and patronising characterisation of any group in society, just because people are poor, it does not mean that somehow they are without fault, unable to put a foot wrong, as this clerical blogger points out.

As a fellow Brighton and Hove resident, I also want to point out how the homeless challenge me on a regular basis. This isn’t to attach blame or fault, but to point out the reality, which does force us to respond.

When I moved into the Rectory I was alarmed to discover a bevvy of double locks and panic button by the front door. The reason being that by virtue of being a Rectory, the homeless would come knocking on a regular basis. Robin had previously given money and thus earned a reputation as being a ‘soft touch’, so much so that on one occasion when he genuinely didn’t have any cash in the house, an addict was so desperate for money that he kicked the front door down  in anger.

As a result of living next door to a Church and homeless shelter, we frequently get people knocking on the door, and as Fr Ray relates, the story almost always involves needing a train fare to go somewhere, usually a Catholic funeral. The same person will come and tell you a myriad of different tales, but all variations on a theme. We live on a busy street and often discover people have urinated or defecated in our front garden or against our wall. It’s sometimes troubling when you are trying to leave the house with a multitude of babies and toddlers in tow, wanting to pick up the gravel or cigarette stubs and who can’t play very safely in our front garden. A challenging inconvenience in fact.

Most often the knock at the door comes in the early evening. Usually when the children have just finished dinner, are tired, running about naked before bath-time and a dirty dishevelled, wild-eyed man smelling of urine, stale tobacco and with bleeding sores comes to your door. If I were a good Christian, I’d invite him in and feed him, perhaps even offer him the spare bed in the insulated shed in our back garden. Instead, I panic about the children running out of the front door, worry about him coming in and casing the joint or touching the children, ask him to sit on the bench outside our front door and hastily make him some kind of packed lunch, sandwiches, crisps, fruit, a chocolate bar and a can of fizzy pop to take on his way, rather than actually having to engage. I do what I need to do, but is it out of love, or simply duty? Am I being too comfortable and middle-class, a better woman than I would no doubt invite him in and in so doing act as a model of caritas for the children.

Another example might be having to remind my daughter to step away from the piles of vomit, urine and used needles often found around St Andrew’s Church on Church Road, while walking to school. Or not taking the short-cut, around the back of Tescos, in order to avoid the homeless and drug addicts who congregate there.

I’m not going to defend my actions, I know full well that I ought to take more time than a brief 5 minute chat with the local Big Issue vendor or making a hasty packed lunch or dinner, or giving out the odd cup of tea to the homeless. I need to overcome my natural aversion to dirt and mess and smell. But it isn’t easy, it is challenging, I haven’t yet discovered that regular Mass attendance, prayer life and access to the sacraments gives me a magical imperviousness to either physical or spiritual murkiness. But what it does do is remind me of the example that we are called to follow.

Christ wasn’t afraid to touch the unclean, we have to pray for similar fortitude and rise to the challenge, no matter how much it takes us out of our comfort zone.

Still, Catholic priest reminds us of  our obligation to the poor doesn’t make such a great headline.

NB, Just before hitting publish, I spied Fr Ray has officially responded here. 

Humanae Vitae gave us a roadmap to mankind’s failures

This week’s Catholic Universe column – 18 August 2013

Pope Paul VI
A man ahead of his time.

This summer has marked the 45th anniversary of one of the most important Church documents of the twentieth century, namely the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, that re-affirmed traditional Church doctrine regarding sexuality and marriage and controversially rejected all forms of contraception as being a moral evil.

It was a teaching that proved very hard to swallow by certain members of the Catholic faithful, published when the sexual revolution was in full swing, going against the the tide of both public opinion and views held by many theologians in academe – 600 of whom dissented, signing their names in a public statement, but many of whom later recanted.

Pope Paul VI’s words have nonetheless proved eerily prophetic, as he made four major predictions about what would happen to individuals, families and nations if the widespread use of artificial contraception was allowed.

The first being, “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” 

If anyone were in any doubt about this, according to the latest statistics from the ONS,  it is estimated that 42% of all marriages in England and Wales, are expected to end in divorce. 22% of marriages that took place in 1970 had ended by their fifteenth anniversary whereas  33% of marriages in 1995 had ended after the same period, i.e. by 2010. Marriage figures are an at all-time low, with many couples instead opting for cohabitation. The proportion of children born to unmarried mothers hit a record 47.5% in 2012, up from 11% in 1979 and it is predicted that by 2016, the majority of children will be born to unmarried parents. A study by the Marriage Foundation calculates that cohabiting couples who have children are twice as likely to split up as their married counterparts and that more than half of the children born today will have been through at least one family break-up by the time they are 16. The idea of being ‘unhappily married’ would appear to be a myth – 93% of couples whose relationship is still intact by the time their children are teenagers, are married. The increase  in family breakdown being disastrous for children’s prospects and society as a whole.

Pope Paul VI’s second prediction was as follows; “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” 

According to the charity Women’s Aid, 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, many of these on a number of occasions. One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute. On average 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

The widespread acceptance of the use of pornography is further evidence as to how both men and women have been reduced to mere objects of sexual gratification, with young women forced to sexually objectify themselves to compete for male attention and increasing numbers of young men caught in the throes of a pornography addiction with devastating effects for their future wellbeing.

The third prediction was perhaps the most chilling, warning of what might happen should the power of preventing births, fall into the power of the state: “Careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. . . . Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” 

One only needs to think of the catastrophic effects of the draconian one-child policy in China which has led to forced abortions, sterilisations, increased rates of infanticide and accompanying child-trafficking. China is now facing a demographic timebomb. Lest we think that this is confined to areas outside of the Western World, it’s worth considering, the recent UK government proposals to cap child benefit for two children, a policy which if implemented ,will hit the poorest families.

The final prediction is obvious: ‘Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions   – limits, let it be said which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed . . . .” 

Our hubris has replace natural human reproduction with IVF, cloning, embryo experimentation, creation of hybrid organisms and most recently 3-parent embryos.

Humanae Vitae simply proclaims the messages of nature and the Gospel, that by going against the laws of nature and of God, we inflict almost irreparable damage upon ourselves and society at large. Speaking in 1988, one of the original dissenters, Dr William E. May, said this “I began to realise that the moral theology invented to justify contraception could be used to justify any kind of deed.”

The Church urges responsible parenthood, which means allowing families to prayerfully discern how many children they may be able to accommodate according to individual circumstances. Family Planning is not in itself a sin but Humanae Vitae urges us to find a way of achieving that which still respects our inherent human dignity as created children of God.