Friday, 5 October 2012

Visiting the Portiuncula

The General Chapter turned out to be a great experience: full of ups and downs, inspiring and frustrating, and not boring at all – despite being five weeks long. There will be plenty to share as I slowly digest it all over the coming weeks. But in this post I would like to start with a reflection on just a couple of incidents that gave me particular food for thought.

From small beginnings
On my last full day in Italy we travelled back to Rome from San Giovanni Rotondo – a long coach journey through varied terrain. While passing among the mountains I spotted a ruined chapel in the woods, and it occurred to me that if Francesco Bernadone has not answered his call, such might have been the chapel of San Damiano or the Portiuncula. They would be ruins in the forest, near to the small and unregarded town of Assisi.

Thanks be to God, St. Francis did obey the voice of Christ speaking to him in San Damiano. So now that chapel stands as key place of pilgrimage for the millions who visit Assisi. The Portiuncula, meanwhile, not only remains to welcome pilgrims, but is housed in the middle of a huge basilica. A wise woman, after her first trip to Assisi, remarked that the situation of the Portiuncula – a small, simple chapel enclosed by a grand, ornate basilica – is a parable of the Franciscan charism. And while that was said with a certain amount of sorrow at the lost simplicity of Franciscan beginnings, it helped me to understand some positive implications of the Chapter’s visit to the Portiuncula.

A worldwide brotherhood
The brothers gathered at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels numbered a little less than two hundred; and yet, although we were less than 2% of the whole Capuchin Order, we could not in any way fit into the chapel of the Portiuncula. We had to gather in front of it for the liturgy celebrated there. But at the key part of the liturgy we did enter the little chapel, filing through only a few at a time, and then moving on out again into the vast space of the basilica. And as we passed through that place where the Order had its beginnings, the General presented each of us with a lighted candle, exhorting us to “Relight the flame of our charism!” Slowly, therefore, the church was filled with these little flames, each one coming from the little chapel at its heart.

I found this ceremony deeply significant. For a start, the very fact that we could not all fit into the Portiuncula was a reminder that we could not, as a whole Order, go back to the lifestyle of St. Francis and his first companions. We have grown beyond that – even in Francis’ lifetime we had grown beyond that. The huge diversity of Capuchin conditions and ministries today, and the developments of the world, cannot be fitted into that original manner of living the Gospel.

On the other hand, as the General’s gesture showed, we not only can, but we must enter somehow into that original experience if we are to renew our Franciscan life. The flame of our 21st-century charism must be lit from the flame of the 13th-century. What is needed is that desire for 'ressourcement', for a return to the sources, which the Second Vatican Council asked of religious orders, lest our life be completely detached from our founder and drift more and more into worldly ways. And this return to the sources cannot be merely an intellectual experience, but needs also to be a lived reality, a true entering-into our beginnings.

Living the dream
Just as the friars at the Chapter had to file through the Portiuncula a few at a time, so we in the British Province have to take turns to revisit the life of St. Francis and his brothers. As we are thus renewed, we take our rekindled spirits back into the wider fraternity. In fact, one such recurrent experience is already written into our Capuchin life. I refer to the annual retreat, which is a chance to enter again the Portiuncula of prayer, that prayer so foundational to Francis’ life and the life of the first Capuchins. We light again the flame of our contemplative life, and bring it back with us into our fraternities.

In our Province we have been blessed with more extended and more communal visits to the Portiuncula. The friaries at Penmaenmawr, Hollington, and Preston were returns – although only partial returns, it is true – to the primitive manner of Franciscan life, each fraternity developing a different take on that life. Those of us who lived in or otherwise experienced those fraternities have been granted a fresh vision of what is possible, and have carried this flame into the next stage of our Capuchin life.

Many friars can name experiences which have reconnected them to the primitive charism. Now, however, we will turn our minds to other possibilities, to new ways in which friars can enter – a few at a time – our humble beginnings. These ways may be quite similar to recent ventures, or they may be more innovative. We might take a cue from Cantalamessa’s talk at the 2009 Chapter of Mats and focus on experiences of prayer, poverty, and preaching – which he identified as foundational elements of the Franciscan charism. Or we might take our inspiration from other elements, such as Francis’ service to the lepers, which he desired to return to at the end of his life.

Our ongoing formation programme during these 3 years is an opportunity to renew our basic understanding of our Franciscan life, as we reflect on the first sentence of the Rule. We will also reflect on what lived responses that understanding calls for, what ways we can revisit the Portiuncula and the flame of our charism.

The Lord is in charge
We often lack imagination to see the ways forward and are slow to take up the challenges involved. So it may be that Lord in His mercy will place us in the necessary situations, where our only choice will be whether or not to embrace the experience. I am thinking particularly of an inspiring anecdote in the General Minister’s report, with which I will conclude:

“A few days before Easter 2009, Abruzzo (Italy) and in particular the city of Aquila, was struck by a devastating earthquake which claimed many lives. Many parts of our own friary were badly damaged, and it would have been easy enough for our brothers to find hospitality in one of the other friaries of the province. But the friars of Abruzzo decided to stay put, sharing the same conditions as those who had nowhere else to go. I went to visit them! There they were, living in tents or in the compartment of a railway carriage, lining up to get food from the field kitchen, and never once did they cease to make the Lord present by celebrating Mass in the tent they had been assigned.”

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Society of Pope Paul VI

On the letters pages of the latest edition of The Tablet, a correspondent notes that "There's something for almost everyone [in today's Catholic Church], what with the Tridentine/Latin Mass cohort, the ordinariate, and now the proposed Society of St Pius X personal prelature." She goes on to suggest that other Catholics need to "grab a label or two if they are to be noticed and survive", and she observes that "the Vatican II movement... remains curiously, uniquely, unblessed by Rome."

I think this is an excellent point, and it links with a suggestion I've often made to those who are disgruntled with the current Pope's policies – especially things like his overtures to the Society of St. Pius X or the promulgation of the new English translation of the Missal. I suggest that all proponents of 'the spirit of Vatican II' should come together to form the Society of Pope Paul VI. The English-speaking members of this society would be particularly distinguished by their insistence on preserving the purity of the 1973 English translation, and will hold popular Masses using the Missal of Pope Paul VI, with the congregations defiantly shouting the time-honoured response, "And also with you!"

Hopefully, the leader of this Society will be a bishop; because then, in his concern over Pope Benedict's policy of appointing conservative bishops everywhere, he will unilaterally consecrate a few bishops who can preserve the spirit of Vatican II, and thus be promptly excommunicated. The Society will then spend a few decades on the fringes of the Church, but enjoying a much higher profile than its numbers would seem to merit.

Eventually, a more liberal-leaning Pope will welcome the Society of Pope Paul VI back into the fold, much to the chagrin of mainstream Catholics, who will see this as a backwards step.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Ringbearers


It has been suggested to me that I should write a post on leadership. I cannot help but feel, however, after my grand total of three months in a position of authority, that I don't yet have the knowledge and experience necessary to say much about leadership. But I do know a lot about The Lord of the Rings, so I will share some of what that story has taught me about leadership.

The Rings of Power
"It began with the forging of the Great Rings... For within these Rings was bound the strength and the will to govern over each race."

Tolkien was very insistent that his writings were not allegorical. What he would allow, however, was that the tales were mythological – and deliberately so. Being mythological, they necessarily deal with universal themes, in ways applicable to 'ordinary' life. He also said that the different races of Middle-Earth – most especially the Elves – represent different aspects or potentialities of the human race. With this in mind, we can reflect how the Rings of Power embody different aspects of power and authority.

The One Ring, of course, embodies the "will to dominate all life." In Tolkien's thought, the great evil of 'Magic', as opposed to the 'Art' of the Elves, is that it is about bending people or things to one's will. This is one way in which leadership can be exercised. So it is significant, of course, that this Ring has a twisting and corrupting influence upon the one who bears it.

Another way, however, can be seen in the Three Rings – the Elven Rings untouched by Sauron in their making. The power of these rings is in preserving, healing, and strengthening. Such is the true purpose of leadership.

Tolkien, therefore, allows us to see in distinction the two divergent paths that those in power can take. By doing so, he sketches out the perennial hope that power can be wielded in a pure and noble manner, such as we see in the Elven Rings. That turns out, however, to be a vain hope: not only does the existence of the One Ring provide a constant threat, and at times a temptation, to the bearers of the Three; but the destruction of that One Ring means that the power of the Three also fails. All of which nicely illustrates that the 'good power' and 'bad power' cannot in reality be separated, for it is not the power itself which is good or bad, but the use to which it is put.

Ring-bearers
What, then, can I learn from the example of the Ring-bearers? For as I see it, I too am a Ring-bearer.

Let's look first at the bearers of the Three – namely, Elrond, Galadriel, and Gandalf (this may be a surprise to those who have only seen the films, which reveal the Ring of Galadriel alone). Elrond and Galadriel use their Rings – Vilya and Nenya, respectively – to protect and nurture their realms of Rivendell and Lothlorien. Gandalf, however, rules no place, and uses his Ring, Narya, in his wandering mission of encouraging, strengthening, and guiding the Free Peoples' resistance to Sauron. Gandalf's example is thus more suitable for a Franciscan, because he never takes lasting authority in any place, and has no claim over anyone except those who freely choose to follow his lead.

It is notable that all three of them keep their Rings secret – the threat of Sauron's dominating power means that it is better to keep their own power hidden. And the lesson I draw from this is that even benevolent authority does well to bear itself modestly, or almost hide itself altogether (the 'Messianic Secret' comes to mind here).

Frodo, as the bearer of the One Ring, demonstrates how to handle the corrupting and malign side of power. He exercises true leadership in two ways: firstly, by simply refraining from the use of the Ring; and secondly, by preventing others from using it. For it is part of the service that authority renders, that it prevents power from being wielded to the hurt of others. Very often, it is better that power not be used at all, than it be used in the wrong way. It is an essential part of leadership to sometimes say "No".

A true leader, therefore, restrains and contains the destructive side of authority. But, as in the case of Frodo, this task wears him down – the ever-present temptation to use his power to dominate, to bend others to his will, cannot be humanly (or hobbitly) resisted. So the ultimate mission of the Ring-bearer is to cast away and destroy this corrupting aspect of power. As I noted above, however, this means doing away with power altogether...

So the final example of leadership is Aragorn, who renounces the chance to take and use the One Ring. This enables him to go forward and become a great leader, inspiring rather than forcing others, and to return to Gondor as its king. The destruction of the Ring means that the great temptation to bend others to his will is no longer there, but it also means that the power of the Elven Rings is gone. So the final lesson of The Lord of the Rings seems to be that leadership in the Age of Men can only properly be exercised without recourse to extraneous sources of power.

The Hand of Providence
A few other random lessons that I've gathered from Tolkien's great work may be quickly shared.

"This task was appointed to you, Frodo, and if you do not find a way, no-one will." These words of Galadriel are a good example of the 'divine passive' in The Lord of the Rings. Another example is when Gandalf tells Frodo that he 'was meant' to have the Ring. Who meant him to have, or who appointed the task to him, is left unsaid; but of course Tolkien is implicitly referring to God, Who is guiding the course of events. And in both cases I have mentioned, the further implication is that He knows what He is doing, and therefore Frodo should not doubt that success is possible. So I too can trust in God, that my appointment to this task is no mistake, and that I am under His care.

"You are a Ring-bearer, Frodo: to bear a Ring of Power is to be alone." However much others may help me in my role of leadership, in the end the buck stops with me. No-one can bear that responsibility for me.

That said, although others can't carry the burden for me, they can carry me.

Finally, from Bilbo I learn the lesson of giving up the power when the time comes: when he left Bag End to Frodo, the time had come for him to leave the Ring to him as well. The fact that he gave it up freely, unlike most other bearers of the Ring, is very important. When my time comes, I hope I can do the same, and so live happily ever after, to the end of my days.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas letter to the friars

itinerancy
1. the act or state of travelling from place to place.
2. persons, collectively, whose occupation obliges them to travel constantly.

May the Lord give you peace.

We are entering the season of Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of Christ, Who left his heavenly home to live and move among us. So I want to offer you a few thoughts concerning our ‘movability’.

The Exemplar of itinerancy

One can say that the biggest move of all is the Incarnation. From the heights of heaven the Son of God comes to the lowest places of the earth; from the unlimited life of divinity to finite and fragile humanity. True, He does not lose His divine nature in this ‘self-emptying’; but even in this there is a lesson for us – that we do not lose our true selves when we change our location, whatever else we may lose.

In the Franciscan tradition we contemplate the marvellous humility of God, in that the Lord of heaven and earth is laid in a manger, because there was no place for Him at the inn. Shortly thereafter, His parents had to flee with Him to Egypt. So even from His beginnings, He experienced some of that itinerancy He would model for us during His ministry. "The Son of Man," He said, "has nowhere to lay His head"(Matt 8:20).

Another saying of Jesus is particularly relevant, given our tendency to make the needs of ministry a reason not to move on: 'The people would have kept Him from leaving them; but He said to them, "I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose"'(Luke 4:43).

The experience of itinerancy

As we complete the changes to our fraternities, it is a good time for all of us – whether we have moved or not – to reflect on the place of itinerancy in our Capuchin life. Each one of us has moved from one place to another during his time in the Order – from the novice who’s recently left the postulancy house and expects another move next year, to the old friar who’s moved umpteen times and now just hopes to be left in peace. We’re often told that the three most stressful experiences people can have are bereavement, divorce, and moving house. For us friars, moving house shouldn’t be quite as stressful as for others, because we don’t have so much to take with us. But it’s usually a challenge, nonetheless.

Moving house is an experience of loss: we leave behind friends, established ministries, and familiar surroundings. There’s also the challenge of the new: whether it’s new people, new ministries, or new surroundings. In the particular case of religious life, there’s often the added element that the move is unexpected or unwanted. I, for example, expected to be in Canterbury right now, pursuing Franciscan studies.

Everyone in a friary shares in the effects of itinerancy when brothers come and go. Even if particular individuals don't move, the fraternity moves around them. It’s often remarked that if you change one friar, you change the whole fraternity, the whole dynamic of the relationships in that house. For all of us, then – those who move and those who don’t – the itinerant element of our life involves the challenge of change.

The value of itinerancy

We can appreciate how our movability is of practical value for our ministry, in that it allows us to respond to changing circumstances and to accept new missions at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I have heard of a friar describing the Capuchins as 'the paratroopers of the Church'. We are dropped into a new situation, do our mission, and then get out again.

PCO VII also linked itinerancy together with our formation in poverty and minority.  "Such a choice [of itinerancy] favours our life in fraternity and offers individual brothers the possibility of personal growth by enabling them to make new relationships and to assume new responsibilities"(PCO VII, 25.). Here, I think, we are coming to the nub of what itinerancy offers us. For just as our exterior poverty is worthless unless it leads to and is animated by that inner poverty we call minority, so physical itinerancy is worthless without an 'inner itinerancy', which is conversion.

"The concept of immovability is not simply physical" – and neither, therefore, is the concept of movability simply physical – "Immovability can be more ingrained in habitual ways of thinking and judging, which often become obstacles to genuine conversion"(PCO VII, 24). My itinerancy, on the other hand, provides opportunities for my conversion, and is (or should be) an expression of my desire for conversion.

The place of itinerancy in Capuchin tradition

The preceding reflections may help to solve a little puzzle about our Capuchin tradition. It is often observed, in the context of discussions about Capuchin itinerancy, that many of our great saints spent the majority of their lives in one place – St. Pio, for example, in San Giovanni di Rotondo, or St. Conrad in Altotting. Yet if the concept of itinerancy is not simply physical, but also and more importantly about walking the path of spiritual conversion, then it is evident these saints were very itinerant.

It’s also true that our saints had a deeply missionary spirit, and one practical upshot of my thoughts is this: I am quite willing to consider requests from any brothers who feel inspired to minister among the more newly-established churches – to go on the missions, in other words. We still have a comparatively high religious/priests-to-laity ratio in our part of the world, so we should be willing to help out our brothers and sisters who are not so richly blessed (Constitutions 176).

The Road goes ever on

I hope these reflections will be of use to you, even if only by prompting your own (and perhaps very different) reflections. Let us all, however, go forward in the grace we have received. This time of Christmas speaks to us of beginnings, so let us begin to serve the Lord, for up till now we have done little or nothing.

May the Babe of Bethlehem be born in you anew.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Provincial Chapter: the Elections

It was my original intention to put up a post every day of the Chapter; but the events of the second day blew that plan (plus a lot of my other plans) out of the water. Now, three months later, I can get round to relating what happened.

The day began, as before, with Mass and Morning Prayer. The Mass was a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, asking for Him to guide us in our decisions – most importantly the elections to be held that day. And then after breakfast we were back in the chapel for a time of further prayer. So the following proceedings were well soaked in prayer.

Elections at our Chapters involve all the brothers sitting round the edge of the room along long tables, so that everyone is facing inwards. After a roll-call, the electors take an oath to vote only for those whom they consider in conscience should be elected. Ballot papers are distributed, on which each brother writes the name of his preferred candidate, and these are then collected by the scrutineers, who count the votes. In order for a brother to be elected to the post, he needs to have a majority of the votes. At this Chapter, for example, there were 29 electors, so 15 votes were needed for a brother to be elected. Multiple ballots are usually required before such a majority is forthcoming.

The first round of ballots was, as you might expect, for the position of Provincial Minister. It would not be right for me to reveal everything that went on in the Chapter; suffice to say that when we arrived at Pantasaph less than two days earlier I was nowhere near being the favourite for the elections, but the God of surprises did His customary thing and I was elected on the third ballot.

When the result was announced the President of the Chapter asked me if I accepted my election. For a brief moment of panic I considered refusing; but that would have been disobedient to the voice of the brothers, so I accepted and slipped into a state of mild shock. My fears and consternation were somewhat alleviated, however, by the subsequent elections for the Definitory, which gave me a good team of advisors.

In the evening there was the Proclamation of the Elections, as part of Evening Prayer. As the new Provincial Minister, I then made the profession of faith, and was presented with the seal of the Province, to symbolise the authority I was receiving.

In the Capuchin Order the new Provincial takes up his responsibility immediately, so I had no time for things to sink in before I was making decisions. It's been a steep learning-curve; but there have been several consolations and helps along the way. Firstly, as I mentioned, the Definitory (i.e. my four councillors) are an excellent group, with a good mix of characters and experiences. Secondly, the outgoing Provincial, Br. James, stayed around for a good two months before heading off for his sabbatical; so there was plenty of time to pick his brains and lean on his sympathy. Thirdly, the Lord has been with me all the way. He hasn't always made it easy, but He's shown me how He can work with my mistakes at least as much as with my correct decisions. Fourthly, I attribute the graces thus far to the many prayers that people are sending up for me. Thank you, one and all!

I apologise for the autobiographical nature of this post. I felt some explanation was due, however, for my three months of silence. Now that I'm blogging again I have some backlog of stuff to share. The next post will be a slightly modified version of my Christmas letter to the friars. After that, my sister has told me she expects "a scintillating post on leadership." No pressure...

Monday, 5 September 2011

Provincial Chapter: the Beginning

Last night almost all the Capuchins of the British Province gathered at Pantasaph Friary, the oldest and largest of our houses on this isle, for the Provincial Chapter. Other Provinces send delegates from each house to the Chapter; but we're so small that everyone can participate, with only a couple of infirm brothers unable to attend. The Chapter, I should explain, is a meeting which takes place every three years, at which the friars discuss issues facing them and discern together the way God is leading them forward. Among the decisions to be made, often the most significant is the election of the Provincial Minister and his council (oddly called, 'the Definitory').

The Chapter is also a fraternal occasion, however, so after last night's initial business there was a time to socialise, to enjoy each other's company. Indeed, a lot of 'business' gets done at the dinner tables or over a drink; because our life and our work are always intermingled.

We had an opening liturgy this morning, in which our minds were focussed by some readings from writings by and about St. Francis, and from Scripture. The Provincial Minister then washed the feet of the oldest and youngest brothers, as a reminder that authority exists to serve.

The next two sessions of the day involved 'appreciative inquiry' exercises, led by Ronnie McEwan, a Marist Brother, to get us into the right frame of mind for the deliberations to follow. Thus far, however, the only 'business session' was the presentation of the Provincial's Report, and questions concerning it. I, as the minute-taker, was kept rather busy trying to keep up with the various contributions. Alas, an enthusiastic description of the beautiful view of Greyfriars garden was not done justice in my notes. The list of flowers to be seen out the window of the new chapel passed by too fast to be recorded.

It won't be flowers on the agenda tomorrow, however. Tomorrow we have the elections. Come, Holy Spirit!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Summer Well Spent

It's been quite a while since my last post, as I've been on holiday from Preston – too busy having a good time to set down words of wisdom on my blog. So before getting down to serious business again, I just want to briefly explain where I've been this past month. It'll give me the opportunity to share some of the good things going on in the Church and the world.

First of all, I spent a week in the lovely city of Coventry, my home town. It was a good time to wind down a little and catch up with family and friends. Friars not being a familiar sight in Coventry, however, I had some interesting encounters with strangers - including a pleasant and in-depth conversation with a couple of Sikhs walking round the Memorial Park. I also got a sneak peek at the newly-renovated St. Osburg's Church, and learnt of how a couple of medieval alabaster altar-pieces have been incorporated into the new altar.


Next on my itinerary was Chapter of Mats – not the original gathering of St. Francis and his friars, nor yet the 800th anniversary celebration in Assisi I was lucky enough to attend, but the annual get-together of the Maltfriscans. Highlights of the customarily boisterous week included excellent talks by Ant Towey and Fr. Mark Crisp, a moving drama of the history of salvation from the young 'Friscans, street evangelisation in St. Alban's (with a last-minute flash mob tacked on), and a making of some 'Rocky Road' as an illustration of the Christian life.


As if that wasn't enough, I went on to another charismatic Catholic event – the New Dawn conference at Walsingham. This was considerably larger than Chapter of Mats – the Maltfriscan gathering numbered about 150 people, whereas New Dawn garnered about 3000. The main practical difference this made to me was that more time was spent hearing confessions. But it was very encouraging to see such a large number of Catholics setting aside a whole week to praise God and listen to His Word. Needless to say, there were plenty of good speakers and preachers. I also enjoyed getting to spend time with my sister and her little family, who were also there for the week. Some amusement was caused by the occasional sight of me walking along with a toddler or two hanging onto my cord.


I then got together with the rest of my family for a lovely week in the Lake District, where we stayed in a holiday cottage on the edge of Keswick. The cottage was at the gates of the diocesan youth centre, so there was a ready chapel (in what used to be the stables, appropriately enough) for me to celebrate Mass. Other highlights were paddling a canoe across Derwent Water with my brother Simon, while some others of the family kayaked along, and walking the Coledale Horseshoe with my Dad and my brother Aidan.


Finally, after having been back in Preston for most of a week, I took another couple of nights away for my Dad's 60th birthday celebrations. On this occasion I got down to Coventry and back by hitch-hiking. Yes, I'm glad to report that there are still some people who'll pick up hitch-hikers, although not as many as in my student days.

To finish the summer off, however, I've just been to Walsingham again, for the Youth 2000 festival. Along with the Maltfriscan community, Youth 2000 has been a support and encouragement for my Franciscan vocation since shortly before I joined the Order. This year's gathering seems to have benefited rather than lost out by its proximity to World Youth Day, with many freshly-inspired young Catholics there to spread the love.