The Sunday obligation

Next Sunday I will find myself leading a prayer service, a so-called Liturgy of the Word, in place of the regular Mass for students at the cathedral. The reason is simple: our parish priest is unable to offer said Mass for us at that time, since he’ll be out of town. But because a decent number of people come to the cathedral for the student Mass, and since we, the committee that I am a part of, want to keep our momentum going, it is good to offer this prayer service instead of nothing at all. But people attending it will not be fulfilling their Sunday obligation. The Church asks them to attend a Mass at another time that same day, or on the evening before. Luckily there are four opportunities for that within the parish.

What’s the reason for this Sunday obligation? Many people feels unjustly forced to go to Church when they hear these words, but it’s not as unfair or pointless as many may think. Our faith in Jesus Christ also includes an obligation to follow His commandments, at the very least because of our gratitude for His sacrifice. Surely, a God who has sacrificed Himself for us, is worth some very minor discomfort on our part? Another reason why the Sunday is a day of obligation, a day when we are required to attend Mass, to be present at the sacrifice that Christ brought, is that it is good for us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (2181).

“Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church. The faithful give witness by this to their communion in faith and charity. Together they testify to God’s holiness and their hope of salvation. They strengthen one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (2182).

Our attendance at Sunday Mass is our way of showing that we have faith in something beyond ourselves: our being part of a community of faithful, and our fidelity to Christ and His Church. At the Last Supper, Christ asked His disciples to “do this in memory of me”. He asked the priests to always make the ultimate sacrifice present on the altars again, and His followers – us – to go out of their way to be present at that sacrifice, to let it shine into their hearts and through them into the world.

A prayer service of any kind is a worthy effort. Gathering for the Lord and taking time out to speak to Him, listen to Him and praise Him builds up our relationship with Him and our fellow believers. That is why I see no problem with an evening gathering on Sunday, where we listen to God’s words and pray to Him (we may even sing). But as human beings, as God’s creatures, we are not able to rise up to meet Him. Instead, He has taken the unprecedented step to come down to us. The importance of that can not be emphasised enough. Out of His love for us, He came down to us, to live among us and take our sins, our wrongdoings, our mistakes, our disbelief, our egotism and all the things we did wrong, wilfully or not, on his shoulders. He let Himself be killed for us, He died on the cross and rose again on the third day. He did for us what we could not do ourselves, because He loves us. He defeated death and opened Heaven for us. That act, that sacrifice, is made present anew in the Eucharist.

There is therefore a very real hierarchy of worship, so to speak. Prayer, praise and singing are all very good, but Mass, the actual presence of Christ, is better. It is the best we can ever hope for in this life.

Out of the same love and care that God the Father had when He sent His only begotten Son, the Church requires of us to be present at the Holy Eucharist on the Lord’s day.

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Bishop de Jong’s painful truths

Msgr. Everard de Jong, auxiliary bishop of Roermond, has written a letter to the members of the Dutch parliament, in which he calls for a full ban on abortion. Media and MPs are giving him a lot of grief for it, of course, but that is the result of such painful truths. He mentions the 1 million murdered babies since the Pregnancy Termination Act was introduced in 1981, the paradox of condemnation of murdered children and acceptance – even promotion – of the death of the unborn, the arbitrary nature of when a human being is a human being, and the fact that new generations are not allowed life.

It is a passionate and confrontational letter, but also an honest and open one. It’s a sad sign of the times that the instinctive response is one of anger and hate instead of an adult consideration of the points raised by the bishop.

Read the original text (PDF) or my translation.

Bishop of Ghent twitters for new faithful

Below is a translation I made upon request for SQPN, about the tentative first steps of the Diocese of Ghent into the ‘digital continent’. The original Dutch text is here.

It’s a positive development, although still on a small scale. Dioceses and movement on Facebook and Twitter are a great opportunity to evangelise and break through the dictatorship of relativism that prevails there. Hopefully, these efforts can soon expand to be fully effective.

Anyway, the text:

GHENT – Twittering with the bishop of Ghent, or becoming a friend of the diocese on Facebook? That should be no problem, Bishop Luc Van Looy himself thinks: “Starting in October, the Diocese of Ghent, as the first in our country, will start experimenting professionally with new media.”

“That’s actually what we’ve been doing for 2,000 years,” Van Looy says. “And also more recent. When I was a missionary I used slides and 12mm films when those weren’t standard yet in schools here.”

But even though the Church was fairly quick at discovering the Internet – the Vatican very soon had a well-developed website – the recent digital developments have somewhat passed her by, Van Looy admits. “There are individuals in the Church who are working with it. But now we want to let our voice be heard as a diocese in these digital meeting places.

On Facebook alone, there are as many users as the population of an entire continent, the diocese points out. “The Church has always had the tradition of going to these people, but we are barely present in the digital community that is Facebook. But there are millions of people there. Especially young people, who we can engage there in their own language.”

According to Van Looy, the diocese does not intend to simply win souls on social network sites such as Facebook, Netlog or Twitter. “That is not how it works. But there are a lot of people there who are curious and interested in what we have to offer as Church. We can reach out to them dynamically. Creating our own Facebook page and post messages there and enter into dialogue: why not? And why not Twitter during and about, for example, Lent?”

Pope in the Netherlands

Well, a pope. It’s not Benedict XVI, but Pope Shenouda III, the head of the worldwide Coptic Church, or officially the 117th Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of Saint Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. He will be visiting the Netherlands from 15 to 17 October, for the consecration of churches in The Hague and Eindhoven, a general meeting in Haarlem, a courtesy visit to the ambassador of Egypt and the opening of a Coptic cultural centre in Amsterdam.

It is a busy itinerary for the 87-year-old pope, who has been at the helm of the Coptic Church since 1971. For the general meeting on 16 October, Pope Shenouda will have the use of the basilica of St. Bavo in Haarlem, cathedral of the diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. Bishop Jos Punt spontaneously offered use of the cathedral when the organisation of the meeting was looking for a suitable location.

The Netherlands has seven Coptic parishes under the direct responsibility of Pope Shenouda in Alexandria.

The mythical blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Tomorrow evening the student parish here is hosting a movie night, and the movie that will be shown is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the story of the man who just happened to have been born in the stable next door to the one used by Mary and Joseph, and who continuously gets mistaken for the Messiah. “There’s no Messiah in here. There’s a mess alright, but no Messiah. Now go away!”, his mother shouts to the masses gathered outside his house.

It seems that in certain Christian circles this movie is at the heart of a controversy. It is blasphemous, many say. But is it really? Does the movie make fun of the person of Jesus Christ, His message or the faith of His followers? I don’t believe so.

Jesus makes a single appearance in the movie. He is shown in the distance during the Sermon on the Mount, in a scene where all the attention is on a group of people who have difficulty hearing Him because they’re all the way in the back. All we hear from Jesus are the words that are in the Gospel: the Beatitudes. True, the people in the back mangle them (“Hear that? Blessed are the Greek.” “The Greek?” “Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.” “Did anyone catch his name?”), but that’s not blasphemous, of course. In fact, in a source I have mislaid at the moment, I read that the makers of the movie tried to write a comedy about Christ, but then realised that there really isn’t anything to poke fun at in His words. Thus the character of Brian was born.

Brian’s life roughly parallels the life of Christ. He too was born in a manger, we only get to meet his mother, Mandy (there’s not even a foster father), the Romans don’t like him and he plays an important part in the Jewish resistance against Roman rule (many scholars in the 20th century also depicted Jesus as a resistance leader). So are the things that happen to Brian blasphemous? Not really. Brian’s adventures are mostly the result of stupidity of the people around him, who mindlessly follow him because he looks like the Messiah (“Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.” “What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right, I am the Messiah!” “He is! He is the Messiah!”), or of his own clumsiness. Life of Brian is, in the first place, the story of a man who tries to live a normal life.

There are also other (post-)Biblical themes in the movie, chiefly the presence of doom prophets. Brian pretends to be one for a while (and fails miserably) to escape the pursuing Romans, and he also makes a desert father break his 18-year vow of silence. Granted, the prophets are depicted as raving loonies, but be fair: how would a prophet like Amos or Ezekiel be looked upon by the general populace in their days? It doesn’t make them any less important or wise.

In my opinion, what Life of Brian pokes fun at is mindless faith. The brainless following of anyone who may seem to promise something better. The crowd that follows Brian around is a great example of that. They positively worship the shoe and the gourd he looses in the chase, one of them claims he is the Messiah, because “I should know, I’ve followed a few!”, and they are taken advantage of by both the Romans and the resistance. And Brian is stuck in the middle, with all his clumsiness and desperation.

Ultimately, the only possible blasphemy is in details. The Jewish faith, for example, is treated no more reverently than any other religious or social construct. Look at the stoning scene, for example. The crucifixion of Brian and others, at the end of the movie, contrast heavily with the sacrifice of Christ in the cross, but He is not the butt of the joke: the Romans and the resistance are. So Brian, in that scene, is redeemed a bit: he prevails over the people who used him. It is these brainless fools, together with the equally mindless masses who followed Brian (and abandoned him when things became difficult), who are made fun of.

And that is not at odds with a healthy Christian faith. On the contrary, faith and reason are both part of a developed human life. Faith without thought is just unmotivated action. The brainless running after anyone who has something to offer, even if they don’t. And that is worthy of pointing out.

Life of Brian will be shown on Tuesday 28 September in the parish house of the cathedral of St. Joseph, starting at 8 pm.

Papal soundbytes, part 4 (19 September)

Below is a selection from the official addresses and homilies made by Pope Benedict XVI during his state visit to the United Kingdom last week. They are a strictly personal selection of passages which I think are either important to consider or which reflect the general topic of the various speeches. A full collection is available via the Vatican website. Below are my choices from the fourth and final day of the visit, 19 September.

An image of Blessed John Henry Newman looms over Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham

Homily at the Mass for the beatification of Cardinal Newman, Birmingham

“Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, or “Heart speaks unto heart”, gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God. He reminds us that faithfulness to prayer gradually transforms us into the divine likeness. As he wrote in one of his many fine sermons, “a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency – prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualizing and elevating the soul. A man is no longer what he was before; gradually … he has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles.””

“[W]hat better goal could teachers of religion set themselves than Blessed John Henry’s famous appeal for an intelligent, well-instructed laity: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.””

Address to the Bishops of England, Wales and Scotland

“In the course of my visit it has become clear to me how deep a thirst there is among the British people for the Good News of Jesus Christ. You have been chosen by God to offer them the living water of the Gospel, encouraging them to place their hopes, not in the vain enticements of this world, but in the firm assurances of the next. As you proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, with its promise of hope for the poor and the needy, the sick and the elderly, the unborn and the neglected, be sure to present in its fulness the life-giving message of the Gospel, including those elements which call into question the widespread assumptions of today’s culture. As you know, a Pontifical Council has recently been established for the New Evangelization of countries of long-standing Christian tradition, and I would encourage you to avail yourselves of its services in addressing the task before you.”

At Oscott College, the pope and the bishops of Scotland, England and Wales pose for a picture evoking a classic shot of Cardinal Newman and clergy of his day.

“Another matter which has received much attention in recent months, and which seriously undermines the moral credibility of Church leaders, is the shameful abuse of children and young people by priests and religious. I have spoken on many occasions of the deep wounds that such behaviour causes, in the victims first and foremost, but also in the relationships of trust that should exist between priests and people, between priests and their bishops, and between the Church authorities and the public. I know that you have taken serious steps to remedy this situation, to ensure that children are effectively protected from harm and to deal properly and transparently with allegations as they arise. You have publicly acknowledged your deep regret over what has happened, and the often inadequate ways it was addressed in the past. Your growing awareness of the extent of child abuse in society, its devastating effects, and the need to provide proper victim support should serve as an incentive to share the lessons you have learned with the wider community. Indeed, what better way could there be of making reparation for these sins than by reaching out, in a humble spirit of compassion, towards children who continue to suffer abuse elsewhere? Our duty of care towards the young demands nothing less.”

“I pray that among the graces of this visit will be a renewed dedication on the part of Christian leaders to the prophetic vocation they have received, and a new appreciation on the part of the people for the great gift of the ordained ministry.”

“[The implementation of Anglicanorum Coetibus] should be seen as a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all.”

Pope Benedict and his personal secretary, Msgr. Gänswein, seen through the airplane window as they arrive back in Rome.

Rigid and one-sided?

A somewhat strange definition of orthodoxy on Dutch news site Nu.nl today. A study by the University of Amsterdam into the Salafi school of Islam – the proponents of which favour a fairly strict interpretation of scripture – and its attitudes towards Dutch society, identifies said school as a “‘normal’ orthodox movement”. And what is a normal orthodox movement then? Well, the news report says, one whose followers have a “rigid and one-sided” world view.

I don’t think that’s a fair description of orthodoxy, be it Muslim or Christian orthodoxy. I consider myself orthodox as well, but I don’t think I’m any more rigid and one-sided than other parts of society. I can generally agree with the description that Wikipedia gives of the word:

The word orthodox, from Greek orthodoxos “having the right opinion”, from orthos (“right”, “true”, “straight”) + doxa (“opinion” or “praise”, related to dokein, “to think”), is typically used to mean the adherence to well-researched and well-thought-out accepted norms, especially in religion.

So an orthodox person adheres to well-thought-out norms, which obviously means that some less well-considered norms are not accepted by that person. Is that rigidity and one-sidedness? Is good consideration of things the same as rigidity? Of course not. The only commonality between the two terms is that neither refers to the automatic acceptance of everything that is humanly possible, as much of modern society tends to do. Is orthodoxy one-sided? I would vehemently disagree with that. Perhaps seen from the outside it may look like it is, but from the inside the orthodoxy of, for example, my Catholic faith, has too many facets to ever be one-sided.

Orthodoxy presupposes a set of norms and values, ideally well-considered and developed over the course of centuries, but around that foundation – because of that foundation – the human being flourishes. Like a house or a tree, people also need a solid foundation to bloom. That, in my opinion, is orthodoxy. A positive concept, not negative like rigidity and one-sidedness.