Wednesday, 25 May 2011

On Wearing A Dress

There's more value, I guess, in posting stuff that most people don't know. So I thought, as one of the few men who go around wearing a dress, that it'd be good to share something about the advantages and disadvantages of this unusual behaviour. For those not in the know, I ought to explain that this particular dress I wear is technically called a 'habit'.

Advantages of wearing the habit
1.     Visibility: apart from reminding me that I'm consecrated to Christ, the habit also tells other people that I'm set apart to God, even if they don't fully understand in what way. We Franciscans are particularly blessed in having the most widely-recognised habit.
2.    Availability: because of the above, or just out of curiosity, many people feel able to approach me. It may be to ask for prayers, to talk with me about problems, to question me about my beliefs, or simply to ask what and who I am. It all means the habit reaches the people that other clothes don't.
3.    Style: let's face it, long robes are just so cool. And if ever forget the fact, I only have to whistle the theme tune from the Lord of the Rings, brandish an imaginary light saber, or do some kung fu moves. In particular, the resemblance of the Jedi robes to a Franciscan habit is often noticed. Mind you, I take my hood off to the Dominicans, who in my opinion have the coolest habit in Christendom.
4.    Ease: I never have to think about what I'm going to wear when I get up in the morning. It's brown every day, and the only variation is in the colour of the T-shirt to be seen poking above the collar of the habit. And as it's no longer made of rough, undyed wool, the habit is actually very comfortable to wear, and easy to wash. Finally, we Franciscans have a particular advantage in that brown doesn't show stains much.
5.    Football: there may be something against it in the rules, but I've discovered that playing football (aka soccer, for the benefit of North American readers) in my habit does mean that it's almost impossible for somebody to put the ball between my legs. Especially useful if you're playing in goal.

Disadvantages of wearing the habit
1.     Confusion: although most people recognise the habit as of religious significance, I have been mistaken as a Jew, a Moslem, and a Buddhist (once all on the same day!). Some people don't even recognise the habit as religious at all.
2.    Bum-magnet: the flip-side of availability is that I can get approached by confidence-tricksters, angry and argumentative types, drunks, the mentally-ill, and Mormon missionaries. I console myself with the thought that Jesus was also a bum-magnet.
3.    Mockery: many people, alas, fail to see the utter coolness of my clothing, and it is an almost-everyday occurrence to have jokey or derogatory remarks thrown in my direction. (Those who shout, "Hey, Jesus!" aren't too wide of the mark, however.) Actual anger and hatred are rare experiences, but not unknown.
4.    Sweat: in the summer-time I can get very hot, especially as the dark colour of the habit soaks up the Sun's rays. Once I've ensured that I'm wearing minimal underclothing and I've rolled up my sleeves, there's not much left to do except sweat it out.
5.    Impracticality: despite its usefulness in one respect when playing football, the habit isn't ideal for sports or other strenuous activities. I can't run quite so fast in it, and I rapidly get sweaty (see above). The long skirts, wide sleeves, large rosary, and the knotted cord all tend to catch on things or otherwise get in the way. This was brought home to me very strongly the day I climbed a tree to pick apples whilst wearing my habit (although I did get a good homily out of the experience).

Of course, many of the disadvantages can, by the grace of God, become advantages. Mockery, for example, helps to make me humble, and can provide evangelistic opportunities. So I am, after nearly eleven years in the religious habit, very glad to be wearing it.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Rocking The Boat

Many people I know are very dissatisfied with their parish or equivalent Church community. Most of the time the priest is apparently the central problem. He may be nasty, or a heretic, or a wet blanket who stifles everything, or simply dull and ineffective. Occasionally the priest is quite good, but can't do anything with an intransigent community who've 'always done it this way'. But the question is, what is the faithful disciple of Christ to do in such circumstances? There are three main options: 1. hunker down and wait for things to change (e.g. for the parish priest to die or move on); 2. move to another parish or church (Catholic, of course); 3. do something to change the situation.

Option 1 is not really acceptable, although it's a very common approach. When I first started thinking about this post, I was inclined to recommend option 2 as a ruthless but worthwhile way of dealing with problem parishes - vote with your feet and let the parish die. But I've had something of a change of mind, partly because I've heard of what can happen if people try option 3.

Changing the situation isn't easy, of course. Even if you have the nerve to speak to your priest, priests are notoriously bad at listening. Convinced as we are of our superiority to the laity, we blithely carry on as before. And that's why I think that option 2 isn't much of a goer, because the priest won't even get the message if people emigrate from the parish, and he'll just end up going to another parish and doing the same there. 
Of course, you could write to the bishop. But the bishop will probably only intervene if things are very bad indeed. And even then he doesn't have much power, if the priest is intransigent. So what can one do? I can't speak from experience, but I can share what I've mentioned above - that I've heard good things about what happens if people take some initiative.
There are two things that are important, it seems. The first, unsurprisingly, is prayer. Pray for the priest, for the parish, for whatever or whoever seems to be the problem (not forgetting, of course, to pray for yourself, knowing what a problem you are). But to be effective, the prayer has to be communal - a group of the faithful must get together to pray, and perhaps also to fast. I have heard of converted clergy resulting from this. In one striking case, however, when a community of sisters started to fast and pray for their parish priest, he was dead within the week!
The second important aspect is summed up in the well-known phrase, 'Be the change you wish to see'. Again, the 'you' in this case is plural. If your priest is teaching heresy, get together to study the Bible and/or the Catechism, or other worthy material. If he's dull and uninspiring, get together to share and do things that inspire you. If he's uncaring, form a group to provide help and care to those in the parish community who've been neglected. If the liturgy's as dull as ditchwater, then meet together to praise God in more enjoyable ways. You don't need the priest's permission to do these things if you meet in your homes or at non-parish venues.

All of the above assumes the priest is the major problem; but as I said at the beginning, he may be fine and the parish be the problem. In which case you (plural 'you' again) can form for the priest the nucleus of a new community.

Most success, it seems, is to be had if the group of loyal disciples aims to be evangelistic. Only thus does it impact on the wider parish. Moreover, if you're going to evangelise, that necessarily means you have to put all the other elements in place: prayer, community, teaching, and care. Once new members start to come into the parish as a result, this inspires and re-energises the whole community, including the priest – although the process is not without its challenges, of course.

As I said, I don't speak from experience, only from hearsay. So I'll be interested to learn from you, dear reader, especially from your experience. But I do believe there has to be a way to revitalise parishes. The new movements and other lay communities are essential to the Church, and may well be the nourishment and support for those who would renew their parishes. But these parishes remain important for 'incarnating' the Gospel in particular places. Believing this to be the Lord's aim, it must be that He will provide His people with the gifts necessary to bring it about.

Don't abandon ship. Rock the boat.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Brother and Priest?

My first post was an explanation of the title of this blog, but I also think it necessary to explain my own title. Sooner or later, people to whom I've introduced myself as 'Brother Paul' get a little puzzled when they see me celebrating Mass. "Oh, I'm sorry," they'll say, "I thought you were a brother." Then when I say, "Yes, I am a brother", you can see the puzzlement increasing.

I must admit to a little mischievous amusement at subverting Catholic preconceptions about priestly titles. After all, we're all used to addressing a priest as 'Father', and when we meet religious orders we learn that the 'Brothers' are those who are not priests. But then along comes an awkward exception - a priest who goes by the title of 'Brother'. What's going on?

"It's the Capuchin custom", I usually tell people, without going on to quote the relevant passage from the Constitutions of the Order: "in accordance with the Rule [of St. Francis], the Testament [of St. Francis] and the earliest custom of the Capuchins, all of us should be called brothers without distinction." Now, however, I have leisure to explain at greater length the why and wherefore.

It all goes back to St. Francis and his followers, all of whom were called 'Brother'. In fact, the word 'friar' is an English corruption of 'frater' - the Latin for 'brother'. An appreciation of universal brotherhood (and sisterhood) under the universal Fatherhood of God is a key aspect of St. Francis' special charism. His tendency to address animals, birds, sun and moon, and even the elements as 'Brother' and 'Sister' is well known. But of course his brotherly feeling towards his fellow humans was even stronger, and he consistently referred to himself as 'Brother Francis'. Importantly, he linked the idea of brotherhood to that of 'minority' or humility. The title was intended to convey not mere equality, but lowliness.

Over the centuries, however, the tendency to take other titles crept in. So when the Capuchin reform tried to restore the original Franciscan charism, one of the measures was an insistence on this humble title of 'Brother'. This is exemplified by St. Lawrence of Brindisi (pictured), who always referred to himself as 'Brother Lawrence', despite holding posts like General Minister of the Order and Papal ambassador. But fast-forward to the 20th century, and we find that even the Capuchins have fallen in with the common usage whereby priests are called 'Father'. Hence, for example, our most famous saint is known as 'Padre Pio' rather than 'Fra Pio'. But the Second Vatican Council asked all Orders to go back to their founding charisms, so it is now written into our Constitutions that all Capuchins should be called brothers.

So much for the historical background, but I would like to say something about the value of this Capuchin peculiarity. Because I will admit that it does cause confusion, and other branches of the Order have decided to go with the usual Catholic custom of addressing priests as 'Father', partly so that people know who the priests are. But without in any way contradicting this normal practice, I want to briefly point out how it can be appropriate and even helpful to call a priest 'Brother'.

Scripture explicitly links the priesthood with brotherhood: "[Jesus] had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest"(Heb 2:17). Likewise the liturgy, based on Scriptural language, has the priest addressing the people as brothers and sisters; e.g. "Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father" (or, for those of you who prefer the Latin, "Orate, fraters..."). Lex orandi, lex credendi – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief – if the liturgy implies that priests are the brothers of the people, they are.

Pope Paul VI told priests, "We must become brothers to all at the very same time as we wish to be their shepherds, fathers and teachers." It is this brotherly aspect of the priesthood that we Franciscan priests are particularly well-placed to emphasise. The title 'Brother' serves to remind us that our priesthood should operate out of a primarily fraternal attitude, and reminds others that we are their brothers. Important and special though the priesthood is, priests are of the same flesh and blood, of the same stock, of the same nature as anyone else (cf. Heb 2:11,14). And therein lies the beauty of our calling, to make Jesus Christ our Brother, the incarnate Son of God, present among His people.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Blessed John Paul the Great

I have to admit to something of a bias here: for me, as for many others of my generation, John Paul II was the Pope. His twenty-six years as Bishop of Rome may not be that much in the broad sweep of history, but it's a long time from the perspective of an individual's life. Karol Wojtyla was elected as Pope shortly after my third birthday, and died in my thirtieth year. That means I cannot remember any Pope before him, and that he was Pope all the way through my time at school and university and for my five years of initial formation as a friar. Always there in the background, his influence on my Catholic upbringing and development was considerable. He more or less defined what it was to be Pope, and therefore also contributed hugely to my understanding of what it is to be Catholic.
Even from a more objective viewpoint, however, I do believe that Blessed John Paul II deserves to be known as 'the Great'. He did, in fact, redefine the role of the Papacy – bringing it onto an international stage as never before, visiting countries all over the world to make the focus of Catholic unity and identity a more immediate experience for God's people. His other, more specific contributions to the Church are too numerous for me to list here. But of course he'll be remembered – and remembered with gratitude – in the wider world most of all for his role in the downfall of European Communism.
Something of the greatness of the man was brought home to me afresh by watching the film Karol: the man who became Pope (I warmly recommend it). It was truly awe-inspiring to see how his priestly vocation emerged amongst the horrors of the Nazi occupation, and then to see him, first as a priest and then as a bishop, combating with great love and courage the Communist oppression.
Yet when I reflected on my feelings after the film, I found that I was not only deeply impressed – I was also somewhat intimidated. My response to other comparable films, such as those dramatising the lives of St. Pio and St. Faustina, was to feel inspired. But, as I say, watching this version of Karol Wojtyla's pre-Papal life was more intimidating. I realised that it's because he's so great, with so many gifts, that I just couldn't imagine emulating him.
Greatness, however, is not the same as blessedness. Karol Wojtyla could have been great without being blessed, and he could have been blessed without being great. And the kind of greatness that we're talking about is not given to all. As George Weigel, his biographer, points out, "very few of us will enjoy the range of intellectual, spiritual, literary, athletic, and linguistic gifts that God gave Karol Wojtyla." But, as he goes on to say, "all of us share with him the possibility of being radically converted Christian disciples" – that is, all of us can attain to blessedness.
Almost by definition, greatness is not open to all, for 'Great' is a relative term – if everyone was 'Great' the word would be meaningless. But blessedness is open to all, for heaven is not limited in size, and no matter how many Blesseds and Saints there are, there's always room for more.