Saturday, 31 December 2011

Resolutions for 2012

James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America and author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life." Here he looks at soe ideas for New Years Resolutions

Last year I listed 12 things I knew at age 50 that I wish I had known at 25. Now I'm a year older. And if I'm not wiser, at least I'm a bit more experienced. So here are 12 really stupid things I've done that I never want to do again. Maybe you've done some of them, too. But I'll bet we'd both be happier if we didn't...

1. Compare. Ever heard the saying "Compare and despair"? Comparing yourself to someone else usually means that you imagine the other person is better off, more satisfied -- in a word, happier. But here's the problem: We end up comparing what we know about our life, which is a mixed bag of good and bad, with a fantasy of someone else's supposedly "perfect" life. Why do we do this? Because we know all about our own problems, but other people's problems are harder to see. As a result, our real life always loses out. That leads to despair. Besides, there's probably someone comparing his or her life to your supposedly perfect one -- which shows you how ridiculous it all is.

2. "Should" on Yourself. It's devilishly easy to imagine yourself making a choice that would have taken you to a different place in your life. I should have married this person; I should have taken that job; I should have moved; I should have blah, blah, blah. This is called "shoulding all over yourself." (Say it aloud and the negative meaning becomes clearer.) Reflecting on our choices is an important way to grow, but you can't live your real life if you're busy living in your "should have" life. You'll end up torturing yourself. Jesus of Nazareth once said you can't serve two masters. You can't live two lives either.

3. Get People to Like You. I spent all of my teens, most of my 20s, a great deal of my 30s and too much of my 40s trying to get people to like me. But forcing people's affection rarely works. Plus, it takes too much energy to tailor yourself to what you think people will like (which is impossible to figure out anyway). Your true friends like you already. Be open to change and growth by all means; but treasure friends who love you for who you are. St. Francis de Sales, a lighthearted 17th-century saint, once said: "Be who you are and be that perfectly well."

4. Interrupt. We all think we're good listeners. We're not. Many of us are absolutely terrible listeners, impatiently waiting for our turn to speak, confident that our next utterance is the solution to everyone's problems or the most interesting of all the commentary yet offered. But you can't contribute intelligently to any conversation if you're not listening what the other person is saying. Interrupting someone says, "I have no interest in even letting you finish your thought." As my sister tells her children, you have two ears and one mouth for a reason.

5. Worry About How You Look. I cut myself shaving: Is the blood still showing? I have a zit: Is it getting bigger or going away? I need a haircut: Should I get one today or tomorrow? Are these pants too short? Too long? Who cares? Sure, you need to look presentable for your job and a decent appearance is a sign of respect to those around you. But if your friends are overly concerned about your clothes, and judge you on that basis, they may not be the best friends for you. And who in their right mind cares what strangers think about your clothes, unless you're a fashion model? Spend less time thinking about your outside and more about your inside.

6. Work Constantly. We are immersed in a culture of productivity, which says that we are what we do. That's why the first question out of someone's mouth upon meeting a stranger is often "So what do you do?" We also measure ourselves by how much money we have, or make. Thus, discussions about salary are a big taboo. You can ask someone about their facelift or their divorce, but not what they earn. Why? Because it's the default measure of worth, and it ruthlessly places people on a social ladder. If someone makes more than we do, we may feel "less than." Look, everyone's got to work. But if value is gauged by wealth, then when we make less, we feel less valuable as human beings, which is tragic. Nelson Mandela didn't make much money when he was imprisoned in South Africa; was he less valuable? Plus, if we are what we do, when we're not working we're nothing. This kind of thinking creates a skewed measure of "value." Stop driving yourself nuts with the trap of constant work.

7. Fail to Give People a Break. Hey, surly person behind the drugstore counter: Why didn't you say thanks when you handed me my change? Hey, barista, why are you being so rude? Stop and think. Maybe it's because they're underpaid; they hate their low-paying job; their mother is dying. Remember that behind those frowning faces are full lives. Remember too, that all these people all beloved creatures of God, with their own human dignity, and holy in their own way -- yes, holy. When the Book of Genesis said that God looked at everything and said, "It was good," he meant people, too. Even the angry barista. Give them their dignity by giving them a break.

8. Complain About Minor Illnesses. If you've got a serious or chronic illness, you need to share your struggles and frustrations with your physician, with friends and family, or even a therapist. You need support. But do you have a cold that has hung on for days and makes you phlegmy? When you bend over like this does your back ache because you pulled a muscle in the gym? No one really wants to hear about minor illnesses. Everyone gets sick, for Pete's sake. In the words of the great prophets, suck it up.

9. Be a Jerk. You're tired. You're rushed. You've got a cold. You're late. You're angry about something your boss said. Yes, you're miserable. That doesn't mean you have to be a jerk to everyone else. It really doesn't. Sure, share your frustrations and struggles with close friends, but don't make everyone else's life more miserable by passing on your misery. Once, I joked to a friend, "Boy, my life is such a cross!" "Yes," he said, "But for you or others?"

10. Avoid Doing the Right Thing. It's no fun to call a friend who is in a bad mood because she's lost her job. It's no fun to take responsibility for making a mistake. It's no fun to speak out against racism, sexism or homophobia and stand up for those being mocked. It's not fun, it takes effort; but you know it's the right thing to do. Do it anyway. If you don't, you'll feel terrible about yourself, and that's really no fun.

11. Make Fun of People. Nothing brings me lower than a few minutes of mocking another person. (Particularly if the person is not present.) But the snappy putdown has a high value in our culture, and famous snubs (say, of one famous writer to another) are repeated, and treasured like beautiful jewels. Much of our current political climate consists of politicians mocking people in the other party. (That's been a big help in this country, hasn't it?) Malicious speech is an easy way to wound. If you feel like you're powerless against badmouthing someone, ask yourself three questions when it comes to commenting on another: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true?

12. Be Hard on Yourself. One of my Jesuit mentors used to say, "Be easy with yourself, Jim." If you're reading this list, and taking it at all seriously, you may be beating yourself up about stupid things that you've done in the past. (Believe me, my list is just as long as yours.) But you also want to change yourself, which is good. So be careful to "trust in the slow work of God," as the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin used to say. (He was also a paleontologist, so he knew about things moving really slowly.) Or if you don't believe in God, trust in slow work, period.

If you ever get discouraged about your rate of change, just think about trees -- yes, trees. In the summer they're green. In the fall they're red. And no one sees them change.

Monday, 26 December 2011

A Christmas Homily from Aylesford.

The crib is St Anne's Chapel.

Each year there is a preoccupation about the single that will lead the pop charts over the Christmas period. In recent years there has been a campaign to stop the winner of the X factor becoming the Christmas Number 1. This year has seen the same race to number one, and the winners are a group of army wives whose husbands and loved ones are serving in Afghanistan. The words of that song are taken from the letters of these women to their husbands

Wherever you are my love will keep you safe
My love will build a bridge of love across time and space.

These love letters are marked by tenderness and longing. These words promise a love with depth and certainty. The letters of these women ache with separation and desire.
Words have an incredible power. With words we can affirm and build up, we can belittle and humiliate, we can reach pt or push away. With words we can express our deepest desires and open windows on our dreams. Words have a supreme importance in our humanity.

In scripture God speaks to us. He communicates his love, his plans, his dreams and his concern for his people. When we fall away from God, he speaks through his prophets to bring us back to him. The Old Testament is a continual cycle of God loving us in spite of the fact that we turn away, that we are unfaithful, that we are easily distracted, that we seek fulfilment elsewhere. The words of scripture are full of promise. God promising us that he loves us, that we are his own, that we are cherished. We need to hear these promises but we also need to experience them.
So, are words enough, or do we need something more tactile, more embracable.

The people of Israel wanted to experience the promise that God was speaking to them. They would know God’s favour by experiencing his smile, ‘Let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.’ (Psalm 80.3). When we think of salvation, then it maybe in terms of being let off punishment and having sins forgiven. But for the Old Testament, it was more human. It was God looking at us with love. The oldest Biblical text is a bit of leather on which is written these words: ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace.’ (Numbers 6. 24 – 26).

God’s face became flesh in the face of Jesus. The Word of God becomes flesh and blood and lives among us. At Christmas we celebrate the Word becoming flesh and embracing humanity … and humanity being able to embrace God. To hold him. At Christmas we remember that God became vulnerable, utterly within our power, totally dependant on the love, care and concern of others. But this does not exactly fulfil our expectations
What the world expected was a superstar, someone with the talent, sharpness, and raw muscle-power to out-gun everything that's bad on this planet, someone charismatic enough to make everyone who opposes him slink away in defeat. God's answer to that: A baby lying helpless in the straw!

Why? Why would God choose to be born into the world in this way?

Because you can't argue with a baby! Babies don't try to compete, don't stand up to you, don't try to best you in an argument, and don't try to impress you with their answers. Indeed, they can't speak at all. You, on your part, have to coax everything out of them, be it a smile or a word, and that effort, which demands great patience, usually draws out what's best in you. Moreover, you can't push at a baby too hard, it will begin to cry and the moment is over.

And that is the child who was born in Bethlehem, and that is too how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby, God does not intimidate anyone, threaten anyone, or overpower anyone. Pope Benedict, preaching in 2006 puts it like this

“God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child.”

The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less: innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite in, silence us, teach us patience, and summon what's best in us. We watch our language around a baby in the same way as we watch our language in a church, with good reason.

The power of Christmas is like the power of a baby, it under whelms in such a way so as to eventually overwhelm. There is a greater power than muscle, speed, charism, unstoppable force: If you were to put a baby into a room with the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, who ultimately would be the stronger? The boxer could kill the baby, but, no doubt, wouldn't, precisely because something inside the baby's powerlessness would overwhelm the boxer. Such is the way of God, the message of Christmas.

This Christmas we remember that love letter from God that becomes flesh –

My heart will build a bridge of love across both time and space

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The Nativity of the Lord

"And suddenly, there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the Highest; and Peace on earth to men of good will!"

Christmas is upon us, and in the Christian community our faith mirrors what is happening in the natural world during early winter. We are waiting for the new light of the world to shine upon a darkened planet. This light comes in the form of the child, born to the Virgin Mary, more than 2,000 years ago. With this one child's birth was born the reality that our creator-God loves mankind unconditionally, and in turn, asks us to do the same.

Again, this year, the Christmas moon and stars look down on a scene that looks very ordinary and, in many places, very ugly. There are colorful lights, the exchanging of gifts, holiday meals, the singing of carols - but there are also cries of hunger, the darkness of war, the emptiness of loss, a world in economic crisis. There seems to be very few signs of peace, good will toward men, and God's glory.

Christmas stirs people’s hearts to generosity for those who are in need. The Savior’s humble birth deepens our awareness of modern day refugees, homeless families and hungry children. Even the secular press sponsor clothing and food drives for the needy and inform readers how and where they can volunteer to feed the homeless and drop off warm clothing for those in need. These are wonderful efforts and are to be applauded. But the Christmas season will fade. In most cases, the day after Christmas will find our curbs lined with discarded Christmas trees, decorations and gift wrappings. Radio stations will return to regularly scheduled programming and the sounds of Christmas music will suddenly fade from memory. Society will move on and bundle up for the cold and dreary days of January that lie ahead.

The challenge for believers is to carry the message Luke gives us today into the winter, spring, summer and autumn days ahead that mark our year — our Christian year.

The miracle of Christ's coming in our flesh, of God's taking on our humanity and making it holy seems very hidden indeed. There must be voices that will shatter the darkness and dispel the despair. There must be messengers to reassure suffering people everywhere that God is with us, that peace is possible, that justice is attainable. God's greatest miracles often go unnoticed unless there are messengers and angels to announce them. God's gifts of peace, and justice and reconciliation are hidden in the ordinariness and ugliness of human history; there must be angels to point them out.

The angels do not bring a commandment of what we must do to win God’s favor. Rather they announce that God has manifested glory by favoring us with a savior. Instead, we first hear the "good news of great joy" that tells us what God has already done and is doing for us. First and foremost story of Christ's birth is one of grace. God’s favor rests on us; not for anything we have done, but because God has chosen to be gracious to us.

We who believe the miracle of Christmas must be the messengers. We must announce God's presence and the Saving Word of Jesus to the sick and lonely and suffering people around us. We do this by our words, our acts and our lives. It is our sense of wonder and awe of the miracle of Christmas. It is the song of our love and compassion for others day in the ordinary circumstances of everyday that announce: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to those on whom God's favor rests!" Then, and only then, will the rest of the world know how remarkable Christmas really is!

The truth we celebrate at Christmas is that God's Spirit permeates throughout all human cultures. It moves men and women to greater depths of cooperation and care and generosityοΎ… it assures all of us of hope and healing in the face of the suffering and tragedy of this fragile planet. And it moves all of us to live our lives the best we can, in ways that empower and dignify our neighbors and ourselves.

Christmas is such a powerful, intimate reminder that, once we believe, we are never alone. Once we accept the miracle of God-made-man, then every facet of human life takes on a new dimension ...a Jesus-dimension. Everything is touched by His spirit of love, of peace, of hope.

For a brief moment, we put aside all of the evil and the ugliness, the drums of war, the burden of poverty and injustice, the clouds of sadness and sickness - and we move into the silence of Bethlehem, to gaze upon the impossible-come-true. We see the Child-king, the prince of peace, the long-awaited Messiah, the Redeemer and Savior... the light and the hope of the world.

Christ, the Word become Flesh reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not something unattainable or out of reach... it is not something in the future for which we hope. The Word became Flesh to remind us of the joyful news that the Kingdom is here and now: among us, around us, within us.

Real joy is knowing that each one of us is part of God’s great scheme of things. But it is also knowing that Jesus is part of that great scheme as well. Through Jesus – that human being born into the world the way each one of us is born – earth is lifted to Heaven and Heaven stoops down to touch the earth... and each individual one of us is declared to be meaningful and loved. Christmas challenges us to turn upside down and inside out where we look for the sacred: in the mess of the stable, in events that can go horribly wrong, in the lowliest of people, in people of different cultures, in the love of a man and a woman and their baby.

My prayers for you and your families throughout this special Christmas season and all throughout your journey of faith. Faith makes all things possible, Hope makes all things work, Love makes all things beautiful. May you have all the three for this Christmas.

Let us, together, be bearers of the Christmas message to all. We proclaim and celebrate Emmanuel, God-with-us... the God Who has always been with us, and Who will always be with us!


A Merry Christmas from the Carmelite Community

O little town of Bethlehem.
Alternative ~ Rev. John Bell
 O little town of Bethlehem, how rowdy you appear
as homecome emigrants are buoyed
 by sentiment and beer.
The long haired tearaway returns
grandfatherly and grey,
and former glamourpusses’ pasts
emerge in all they say

 Who knows if Ned the publican
whose rooms could take no more
would pleasantly or angrily
greet strangers at the door?
Who knows if he had cats and dogs
around his cattle shed,
or whether robins twittered on
or even Mrs Ned?

But if he let his stable out
to be a labour room
for some expectant teenage mum
and her embarrassed groom,
the breath and stink of tethered beasts
would set the midwives wild
If keen to minimise the risk
to Mary and her child.

And would poor shepherds, when disturbed
from midnight peace and calm,
presume a newborn baby boy
would want to hold a lamb?
And if the magi from the East
did ‘enter in all three’
were they distinctly Siamese
In bending just one knee?

And did the baby never cry,
and was the mother mild
when Herod sensed that he’d been duped
and let his men run wild?
And was the father pre-programmed
to take a passive part
when one old man foretold the child
would break his mother’s heart? 

Christ was not born at Christmas time
invoked by practised choirs,
embraced by plastic mangers
and fulfilling our desires.
No kindergarten was his home,
no drummer boy his page,
no earth had frozen snow on snow
when God had come of age.

Instead, on the periphery,
eccentric through decree,
the power behind the universe
was born a refugee;
A refugee from heaven above
Is the world’s creator,
and chose an unknown peasant girl
as host and liberator.

A Happy and Holy Christmas to all!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Mass Times for Christmas at Aylesford Priory

Christmas Eve

Saturday of 4th Week of Advent

Mass 12 Noon.

 First Mass of Christmas

Carols 11.30pm
Followed by Midnight Mass

Christmas Day

 8am & 10.15am

Boxing Day – New Years Eve

12 Noon

New Years Day
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

 8am & 10.15am.

This Christmas

Mend a quarrel
Seek out a forgotten friend
Write a love letter
Share some treasure
Give a soft answer
Encourage youth
Keep a promise
Find the time
Forgive an enemy
Apologize if you were wrong
Think first of someone else
Be kind and gentle
Laugh a little
Laugh a little more
Express your gratitude
Gladden the heart of a child
Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth
Speak it again
Speak it still once again. Speak your love

Even if you don’t feel like it, do it anyway

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Newman College School Mission - Some student feedback

On Monday, Martin O'Brien, Clare O'Brien and Fr Damian led a staff inset day for the faculty of Newman College. The aim of the day was to ensure that  the energy and focus of the mission was bulit upon in the cominig months and to evaluate the input, liturgies and workshops. Overall, the mission was considered a success as some of the following comments from students demonstrate.

“Thank you for giving up your time to give us a once in a lifetime experience. This week helped us to gain a better and stronger relationship with God. This week has opened our eyes to see how God affects and guides us on a clear path into our future lives. During the week, we had the opportunity to have the sacrament of reconciliation. This helped us Catholics and non-Catholics to confess our sins to priests and God forgive us for what we have done. We gives thanks to every member that took part in one of the most helpful weeks in the history of Newman Catholic College.” Year 11 student

“Thank you for your generosity towards us and for helping us understand the importance of life. We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” Year 7 student

“It has been a great pleasure for you to come to Newman College. You have shown us some fantastic plays and brought in amazing people like Fr Cyril Axelrod and Barry and Margaret Mizen. Throughout the whole week you brought faith, happiness and we all experienced different emotions.” Year 7 student

“We would like to thank you for the impressive, meaningful mission week you have set up for us. Whilst in form class, each student of 9 Benedict recited what they learnt and discussed it. I did not recall anyone with a negative point. The time you all must have put in to prepare such a wonderful experience for us we will never know! These five days we have spent with you will truly be in our hearts and not be forgotten. We learnt about God! We learnt that God is always there for us and that prayer is not just a fairytale, prayer works, depending on what we are praying for. This was probably one of our best moments, especially at a time where our faith is not as influential as before.”  Year 9 student

“This week we have learnt a lot about God and how much he loves everyone of us no matter what religion we are or if we’ve done anything wrong in life. The mission week was absolutely the best school week any of us have ever had. No doubt about that!”  Year 10 student

“On behalf of Year 9, we would like to thank you for all of the hard work you have put in to make this week successful. The best parts were the acting by Stephen and Sarah, the singing by Edwin and the reconciliation service. The overall best was the talk by Barry and Margaret Mizen which taught students a valuable lesson.” Year 9 student

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Silence reigns! A Christmas Chukle

Not quite the service of 9 carols from Kings, but very funny!

A Christmas Homily

Nothing miraculous, nothing extraordinary, nothing magnificent is given to the shepherds as a sign. All they will see is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes, one who, like all children, needs a mother’s care; a child born in a stable, who therefore lies not in a cradle but in a manger. God ’s sign is the baby in need of help and in poverty. Only in their hearts will the shepherds be able to see that this baby fulfills the promise of the prophet Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder" (Is 9:5). Exactly the same sign has been given to us. We too are invited by the angel of God, through the message of the Gospel, to set out in our hearts to see the child lying in the manger.

God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor. He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practice with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him.

The Fathers of the Church, in their Greek translation of the Old Testament, found a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Paul also quotes in order to show how God’s new ways had already been foretold in the Old Testament. There we read: "God made his Word short, he abbreviated it" (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28). The Fathers interpreted this in two ways. The Son himself is the Word, the Logos; the eternal Word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the Word could be grasped by us. In this way God teaches us to love the little ones. In this way he teaches us to love the weak. In this way he teaches us respect for children. The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the born and the unborn. Towards children who are placed as soldiers in a violent world; towards children who have to beg; towards children who suffer deprivation and hunger; towards children who are unloved. In all of these it is the Child of Bethlehem who is crying out to us; it is the God who has become small who appeals to us. Let us pray this night that the brightness of God’s love may enfold all these children. Let us ask God to help us do our part so that the dignity of children may be respected. May they all experience the light of love, which mankind needs so much more than the material necessities of life....

And so we come to the second meaning that the Fathers saw in the phrase: "God made his Word short". The Word which God speaks to us in Sacred Scripture had become long in the course of the centuries. It became long and complex, not just for the simple and unlettered, but even more so for those versed in Sacred Scripture, for the experts who evidently became entangled in details and in particular problems, almost to the extent of losing an overall perspective. Jesus "abbreviated" the Word – he showed us once more its deeper simplicity and unity. Everything taught by the Law and the Prophets is summed up – he says – in the command: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 22:37-40). This is everything – the whole faith is contained in this one act of love which embraces God and humanity. Yet now further questions arise: how are we to love God with all our mind, when our intellect can barely reach him? How are we to love him with all our heart and soul, when our heart can only catch a glimpse of him from afar, when there are so many contradictions in the world that would hide his face from us? This is where the two ways in which God has "abbreviated" his Word come together. He is no longer distant. He is no longer unknown. He is no longer beyond the reach of our heart. He has become a child for us, and in so doing he has dispelled all doubt. He has become our neighbour, restoring in this way the image of man, whom we often find so hard to love. For us, God has become a gift. He has given himself. He has entered time for us. He who is the Eternal One, above time, he has assumed our time and raised it to himself on high. Christmas has become the Feast of gifts in imitation of God who has given himself to us. Let us allow our heart, our soul and our mind to be touched by this fact! Among the many gifts that we buy and receive, let us not forget the true gift: to give each other something of ourselves, to give each other something of our time, to open our time to God. In this way anxiety disappears, joy is born, and the feast is created. During the festive meals of these days let us remember the Lord’s words: "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite those who will invite you in return, but invite those whom no one invites and who are not able to invite you" (cf. Lk 14:12-14). This also means: when you give gifts for Christmas, do not give only to those who will give to you in return, but give to those who receive from no one and who cannot give you anything back. This is what God has done: he invites us to his wedding feast, something which we cannot reciprocate, but can only receive with joy. Let us imitate him! Let us love God and, starting from him, let us also love man, so that, starting from man, we can then rediscover God in a new way!

And so, finally, we find yet a third meaning in the saying that the Word became "brief" and "small". The shepherds were told that they would find the child in a manger for animals, who were the rightful occupants of the stable. Reading Isaiah (1:3), the Fathers concluded that beside the manger of Bethlehem there stood an ox and an ass. At the same time they interpreted the text as symbolizing the Jews and the pagans – and thus all humanity – who each in their own way have need of a Savior: the God who became a child. Man, in order to live, needs bread, the fruit of the earth and of his labor. But he does not live by bread alone. He needs nourishment for his soul: he needs meaning that can fill his life. Thus, for the Fathers, the manger of the animals became the symbol of the altar, on which lies the Bread which is Christ himself: the true food for our hearts. Once again we see how he became small: in the humble appearance of the host, in a small piece of bread, he gives us himself.

All this is conveyed by the sign that was given to the shepherds and is given also to us: the child born for us, the child in whom God became small for us. Let us ask the Lord to grant us the grace of looking upon the crib this night with the simplicity of the shepherds, so as to receive the joy with which they returned home (cf. Lk 2:20). Let us ask him to give us the humility and the faith with which Saint Joseph looked upon the child that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit. Let us ask the Lord to let us look upon him with that same love with which Mary saw him. And let us pray that in this way the light that the shepherds saw will shine upon us too, and that what the angels sang that night will be accomplished throughout the world: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased." Amen

Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas 2006

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent

This year the Fourth Week of Advent is the full seven days long. Saturday evening is Christmas Eve and Sunday, Christmas.

Perhaps we can use these days to try to heighten our awareness of whatever is going on in our lives these days, and how that can bring us to Christmas. Some examples might help.

So many of us experience the ironic reality that Christmas can be the most lonely time of our lives. Some of these “mixed feelings” or “sad feelings” are difficult to recognize or name.

For some of us, the Christmas we will celebrate this year pales in comparison to wonderful Christmases of our past - perhaps because we were younger or more “innocent” then, perhaps because some of our loved ones who were central to our Christmas are no longer living or not where I am, perhaps because the burdens and struggles of my life or the changes in our world and the war have robbed this Christmas of something that was there before.

For some of us, Christmas will be just another day. Unable to get out to go to church to be with a faith community, and without family or friends to be with, Christmas will be a day we are tempted to ignore.

For some of us, Christmas inevitably means family conflicts. Facing the days ahead, whether it be the last few remaining parties, or conflicting demands of family and friends, or the friend or relative who drinks too much, or the experience I'm having that I drink too much and this season is an easy excuse.

For some of us, Christmas challenges us with terrible financial burdens. Children today become victims of the gross commercial exploitation of the day. For those of us struggling to make ends meet on a day to day basis, feeling the cultural pressure of buying for our children things which we can't afford, can lead us to put more debt on the credit card in ways that simply push us further and further behind.

Some of us, might be really looking forward to Christmas, and not be aware of these struggles with Christmas, yet feel that, in spite of our best efforts to make Advent different this year, there is still something missing, and we still feel unready for Christmas.

For all of us, the story behind these days can draw us in, and invite us to bring our lives to the mystery of how Jesus came into this world and why. Our best preparation for the Holy Night ahead and the Joyful Morning to follow is for us to reflect upon how he came. He came in the midst of scandal and conflict. He came in poverty. He was rejected before he was born. He was born in a feed trough. He was hunted down. And he grew up in obscurity.

He did not shun our world and its poverty and conflict. He embraced it. And he desires to embrace us today, in this day. Right where we are. Right where we are feeling most distant. Right were we are feeling least “religious” or “ready.” If we let him come into our hearts to be our Savior these challenging days, we will find ourselves entering the sacred night and morning of Christmas “joyful and triumphant” as never before.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come and visit your people.
We await your coming. Come, O Lord.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

5 Days in Harlesden.

This week has been one of surprises for Fr Damian. As previously reported he was part of a team of people, including professional actors and musicians, giving a mission to an inner city Catholic Boy’s School in Harlesden, North London. Newman Catholic College is a community of 520 boys. The number of students has been increasing on a weekly basis. The young men attending the school come from many lands, languages and cultures. Leading them is a small but dedicated staff.

Earlier this year, Ten Ten Theatre Company were approached by the school to lead a week long mission. The whole timetable for the week would be handed over to the mission team for input and workshops. The task of planning began. Actors, Stephen Newbury and Sara Winn would dramatically present to the students issues that they currently face – relationships, friendship, social networking and the consequences of our decisions. Edwin Fawcett, a Catholic Singer-songwriter and musician would summon from the school community a voice to express their worship in song and praise. Fr Damian, of the Aylesford community was asked to be the chaplain and to celebrate the liturgies for the week and give a daily input in the assemblies. (He also joined the actors in one drama -  a never to be repeated experience!) The input given centred on the theme – Living life to the full (John 10:10) In living the fullness of life the boys were asked quite simply “What kind of man do you want to be?”

The structure of each day soon became established. Each day required an early start with the team arriving at the school at 6.45am. Coffee, setting the stage and rehearsing the drama before the boys would begin to arrive (the boys began to arrive earlier each day) Mass at 8.15am then the first assembly of the day at 9.10am. Drama, input from Damian and then a keynote speaker. On Monday, lay evangelist David Payne, Tuesday Mime artist Steve Murray, and on Wednesday Ten Ten’s Lizzie Hastings. The boys were to encounter other speakers during the week. Barry and Margaret Mizen showed humanity at its best as they recounted the events around the murder of their son, Jimmy, two years ago. They begged the boys to make the most of the opportunities set before them and to choose reconciliation and mercy, rather than the paths of violence and revenge. Fr Cyril Axelrod, a deaf and blind redemptorist priest had a room full of 12 year old boys captivated as he communicated his own story to the boys through sign language. Both he and his interpreter, Tom, mesmerised the room with their ballet of hands. Fr Cyril inspired those present with his deep holiness and joy.

Fr Richard Nesbit and Monsignor Keith Balthrop of Westminster diocese led discussions around the choices we can make. Ex professional sportsman David Fannon spoke of how faith inspires him. Deacon and accountant Rev. David Palmer spoke of ethics, business and faith. The days were not just about talking. The students were involved in arts, music and drama projects. Workshops were led by the Catholic Childrens Society, Cafod, Life, Pax Christi, Focolare, Pure in Heart, YCW, and AoS. Cartoonists, film producers, poets, vocal coaches and writers also shared their insights and gifts.

Each evening the core team would gather and review the day with the lead staff of the school and then begin the preparations for the next day. This would often involve writing and rehearsing a new drama for the following morning, and building a new set for the stage. Fr Damian remarked that the spirit of co-operation and teamwork was remarkable, as everyone worked together for the success of the week. Fr Damian found himself facilitating discussions around the content of the plays, contributing ideas for the daily assembly drama, ‘striking’ stage sets and moving chairs and setting up the hall each day. As well as the daily Mass and input that he was involved in.

On Thursday the day took on a new shape. The theme of the day was Reconciliation. In a way, there was a movement from “what kind of man do you want to be?” to “what kind of man are you now?” The day took shape around two services of Reconciliation lasting 100 minutes each. The team was joined by a number of priests used to working with young people. Fr Stefan Park, OSA., preached on the gift of confession. Whilst confession was available the school community was led in reflection by Edwin and the Ten Ten team. It seemed that for a day the school was stilled.

Whilst the soul was being nourished, the body needed an outlet. An inter house football tournament also took place. Thursday was also a time of preparation for the Mass that would end the day on Friday.

Friday morning dawned and the team made their way in the dawning light of the morning to the school for the final time. How would they gather the experience of the week in a celebration of the Eucharist? By involving as many as possible, by reflecting on the leassons learnt, by revisiting some of the stories heard, by creating a time capsule containing memories of the week, and by a final drama that would somehow bring the whole experience together. Joy filled the Church of Our Lady of Willesden as the whole school joined together in thanksgiving and praise.

Returning home, Fr Damian said that the week had been one of the most fulfilling of his ministry to date. Then he went to bed and slept for 12 hours!

Mission Week Prayer

Lord of the universe,
we thank you for the wonders of your creation.
As we celebrate the gift of life during this Mission Week
we ask you to guide our steps in your ways.

May your Spirit inspire us with pure intentions
to do our duties of work
and study according to your holy will.
Bless our efforts as we learn to grow in the values of
faith, hope, love, justice and peace
so that we may live life to the full.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

On a Mission with TenTen.

Nest week, Fr Damian will be part of a team leading a Mission in a London School for boys. Newman College in Harlesden, North London, has invited a team gathered together by the TenTen theatre company to lead a week long Mission involving the whole school and taking over the entire timetable.

Each day will begin with an optional celebration of the Eucharist and then the various year groups will have an assembly, a daily keynote speaker and drama performances centred on the experiences of young people and the life of faith. Speakers include Fr Cyril Axelrod, a priest of the Redemptorist Order who is deaf and blind, Margaret and  Barry Mizzen, parents of a London teenager who was killed at the age of 16, and the former Sportsman David Fannon.

Part of each day will also involve workshops led by a variety of individuals and groups including Pax Christi, Kife, Cafod, YCW, THe Apostleship of the Sea. The week will end with a Mass in the Church of Our Lady of Willesden on Friday morning.

Please pray for the success of the Mission, and for the core team, Stephen Newbury & Sarah Winn of TenTen Theatre, Edwin Fawcett and Fr Damian.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Prayers please: SCYS & Carmelite Young Adults Retreat

Fr Damian, Br Neil, & Br Paul
This weekend, three Carmelite friars and the Southwark Catholic Youth Services team at St Vincents in Whitstable will lead a group of young adults in a time of retreat around the Advent themes of longing, expectation and hope. This Sunday being Gaudate Sunday will also bring an added flavour of joy to the proceedings. Please keep us in prayer as we journey together in faith and hope.

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks.

We begin this third week of Advent asking to feel the joy
that comes from knowing our Lord's coming to us is near.
In these precious days ahead, we are praying, longing, hoping
in the background of our everyday lives.

His mission is to the poor, the brokenhearted, prisoners and captives.
His mission is for us. It is “good news,” full of healing, liberty and release.
We can smile today as we imagine the freedom he has won for us
and how liberating it will be to live it, with him, for others.
It is right to give our God thanks and praise.

The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it. 1 Thes. 5

As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations. Is. 61

I lift my heart up to you, Lord,
to thank you for the blessings
you shower on me each day.

You are the 'joy of my soul.'
I know that in your great love,
I am held and protected by you.

I pray and listen to the good news you send;
I ask and feel the healing.
I am freed by you
from the things in this world
that let me hide from you.

I rejoice, I rejoice, down to my soul.
Help me to prepare my heart
to be open and able to receive your immense love.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come and visit your people.
We await your coming. Come, O Lord.

Reflection Source: Creighton University Online Ministries

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Feast of St Nicholas

The 6th December is a day of huge excitement for children across continental Europe. For our European friends and readers, and for all those for whom this is a special day - Happy Feast!

For those who wish to know the man behind the myth, read on.

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian Calendar).

Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.

One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, as not knowing the language, Basilios would not understand what the king said to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy. However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home—with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. St. Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children—which became his primary role in the West.

Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. And so St. Nicholas is the patron and protector of children.

Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. When he was young, Nicholas sought the holy by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus' life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. And so St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers.

Other stories tell of Nicholas saving his people from famine, sparing the lives of those innocently accused, and much more. He did many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Within a century of his death he was celebrated as a saint. Today he is venerated in the East as wonder, or miracle worker and in the West as patron of a great variety of persons-children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, even thieves and murderers! He is known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need.

Sailors, claiming St. Nicholas as patron, carried stories of his favor and protection far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports. As his popularity spread during the Middle Ages, he became the patron saint of Apulia (Italy), Sicily, Greece, and Lorraine (France), and many cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and the Netherlands (See list). Following his baptism in Constantinople, Vladimir I of Russia brought St. Nicholas' stories and devotion to St. Nicholas to his homeland where Nicholas became the most beloved saint. Nicholas was so widely revered that more than 2,000 churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England.

Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics. In the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari succeeded in spiriting away the bones, bringing them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. An impressive church was built over St. Nicholas' crypt and many faithful journeyed to honor the saint who had rescued children, prisoners, sailors, famine victims, and many others through his compassion, generosity, and the countless miracles attributed to his intercession. The Nicholas shrine in Bari was one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centers and Nicholas became known as "Saint in Bari." To this day pilgrims and tourists visit Bari's great Basilica di San Nicola.

Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox and honored by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.

Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor—and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts. Simple gift-giving in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.

Source: The Saint Nicholas Center.