George Herbert died before the friction between Charles I and Parliament descended into Civil War. He was a Church of England minister and Cambridge don. This was the time when the King James Bible, sponsored by Charles’ father, was becoming familiar from being read at Anglican Church services. This poem, ‘The Altar’, was written to be printed as shown to represent the silhouette of an altar like that in the Sanctuary in Jerusalem. But more than the altar was broken in the Church and Nation, and we are still looking through the damaged parts to see how best to rebuild a united church, a united nation; and how and when we can share the Eucharist at one table, one altar. May God’s grace continue to help us Christians to be ever closer to each other.
God told Moses to use only uncut stone when building an altar (Exodus 20:25).
A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman's tool hath touch'd the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name
That if I chance to hold my peace
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.
A homily given by Bishop Erik Varden to Confirmation candidates on 14 May 2023 at Kristiansund.
Acts 8:5-17: Many were delivered. 1 Peter 3:15-18: Always be ready to give an account. John 14:15-21: So he can give you the Spirit of Truth.
Dear candidates for confirmation,
A couple of days ago I found myself standing in the centre of Kyiv. There was lovely spring weather there as here. The chestnut trees were in bloom. The city was bustling. I walked past a snazzy café with the same complex assortment we’d expect at Starbucks. I could have been on a long-weekend city holiday. But I wasn’t.
I was, with Cardinal Arborelius, conducting a visit of solidarity in the name of our Bishops’ Conference. And even if Ukraine has a rare ability to live normally in extreme conditions, not to let itself be brutalised, the country remains in the throes of a terrible war. The front has lain frighteningly near Kyiv. The night before we arrived, missiles rained down over the city. We visited Irpin and Bucha, names familiar from the news, names associated with terrible massacres. The towns are only about 30 km from the capital. There’s a straight road from there into Kyiv.
That the occupying force was never allowed to pass that way is a strategic miracle. It is also a testimony to Ukraine’s power of resistance. This power manifests itself courageously still, at the eastern front. We honour it, and do so rightly. But let’s not forget the cost.
While we were strolling in the spring sunshine, in Kyiv, we passed the wall of the monastery of St Michael. The wall is covered with photographs of victims of the war, men and women, many of them barely three or four years older than you are today. I found myself thinking of a reportage I heard on the BBC World Service in March last year, a couple of weeks after the invasion. Jeremy Bowen stood at the station in Kyiv, where the cardinal and I had arrived, and saw youngsters go to war. He described two lads: ‘They were dressed for a camping weekend or a festival, except they were carrying newly issued Kalashnikov assault rifles. One had brand new white trainers. Another had a yoga mat to sleep on’ (see my Notebook for 5 March 2022).
There was something heart-rending about the details. The word ‘soldier’ is so anonymous. We think of faceless, greenclad extras in war films we have seen. Here one caught a personal glimpse of two fellows one might come across in a coffee shop. Are they still alive, the two of them? Or are their faces among the thousands of others on the wall by Kyiv’s Blue Church?
The thought of a major war between European nations seemed absurd until not long ago. With so much binding us together, political and economic alliances, war seemed preshistoric. My generation is heir to the 60s slogan, ‘Make love, not war’. Little by little politics itself has become strange to us. Many can’t be bothered, now, to vote in elections, or see no point in voting. What we want is to be left tranquil, have a good salary and at the same time plenty of leisure to do as we please, and access to 5G internet browsing.
But then a massive crisis can, in a trice, turn reality upside down. Suddenly we stand there, with our new trainers and our yoga mat, faced with existential choices. ‘Fight for what is dear to you, die if need be’, we sing in a song almost everyone in this country knows by heart. Is there something that dear to me? What do I live for, in fact? What stars do I navigate by when night falls and my iPhone is dead? What do I do when others’ future depends on choices I make?
Many are bewildered before such questions. Not so you, my friends. Today you declare yourselves to be Catholic Christians. In the name of Jesus, you stake out a clear direction for your lives. In the sacrament of confirmation you are sealed with the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus, the Gospel tells us, is ‘the Spirit of Truth’. Truth is more than theory. We cannot always think our way to truth — even if the ability to think clearly is of inestimable worth. Circumstances may arise that simply give us no time to weigh alternatives. Then we must know how to act. The sense of what is true must be alive in us and form our judgement.
The Spirit of Jesus helps us to judge rightly. To receive the Spirit is not to be varnished with magic; it is to enter a friendship, to become aware of God’s presence in our lives as a light, a source of consolation, living wisdom. In this way we are freed from fear, freed to act.
The world needs women and men who see clearly, who are not taken in by lies, who recognise sincerity and radiate goodness. This is the task for which you are prepared today. None of us knows what awaits us. With all my heart I wish you a safe and prosperous future. I wish that you may use your gifts fully, that your lives will be fruitful, that you will know love and genuine friendship.
Still I ask you to be prepared to fight for what is good and true. A world order that only yesterday appeared unshakeable is collapsing. This fact places demands on all of us. Simple pragmatism, the attitude that leans back to wait and see, is inadequate in the long run.
‘What is truth?’, Pilate asked Jesus. Jesus answered by giving his life for his friends. He went through death in order to vanquish death.
The power inherent in Jesus’s Paschal sacrifice manifests itself again when ordinary people, people like you and me, transcend themselves and display the boundlessness of the Gospel: when those who have known injustice refuse to give in to hatred, when those who have lost all still rise up to help others, when weakness is transformed into strength. In Ukraine I saw proof of such transformation. That is why I wanted to share this experience with you.
As Christians we are called to live in a new way. We don’t want to merely be spectators of life; we want to enter life consciously, whole-heartedly, as agents. Thank you for saying Yes to this call. Let us help one another to be worthy of it.
Joseph, in this image of the Holy Family, is the strong man, supporting and protecting his beloved wife and baby with ‘creative courage’. We continue learning from Pope Francis about Saint Joseph, foster father of Jesus, husband of Mary.
If the first stage of all true interior healing is to accept our personal history and embrace even the things in life that we did not choose, we must now add another important element: creative courage. This emerges especially in the way we deal with difficulties. In the face of difficulty, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties bring out resources we did not even think we had.
As we read the infancy narratives, we may often wonder why God did not act in a more direct and clear way. Yet God acts through events and people. Joseph was the man chosen by God to guide the beginnings of the history of redemption. He was the true “miracle” by which God saves the child and his mother. God acted by trusting in Joseph’s creative courage. Arriving in Bethlehem and finding no lodging where Mary could give birth, Joseph took a stable and, as best he could, turned it into a welcoming home for the Son of God come into the world (cf. Lk 2:6-7). Faced with imminent danger from Herod, who wanted to kill the child, Joseph was warned once again in a dream to protect the child, and rose in the middle of the night to prepare the flight into Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-14).
A superficial reading of these stories can often give the impression that the world is at the mercy of the strong and mighty, but the “good news” of the Gospel consists in showing that, for all the arrogance and violence of worldly powers, God always finds a way to carry out his saving plan. So too, our lives may at times seem to be at the mercy of the powerful, but the Gospel shows us what counts. God always finds a way to save us, provided we show the same creative courage as the carpenter of Nazareth, who was able to turn a problem into a possibility by trusting always in divine providence.
If at times God seems not to help us, surely this does not mean that we have been abandoned, but instead are being trusted to plan, to be creative, and to find solutions ourselves.
The Gospel does not tell us how long Mary, Joseph and the child remained in Egypt. Yet they certainly needed to eat, to find a home and employment. It does not take much imagination to fill in those details. The Holy Family had to face concrete problems like every other family, like so many of our migrant brothers and sisters who, today too, risk their lives to escape misfortune and hunger. In this regard, I consider Saint Joseph the special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution and poverty.
At the end of every account in which Joseph plays a role, the Gospel tells us that he gets up, takes the child and his mother, and does what God commanded him (cf. Mt 1:24; 2:14.21). Indeed, Jesus and Mary his Mother are the most precious treasure of our faith.
In the divine plan of salvation, the Son is inseparable from his Mother, from Mary, who “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son until she stood at the cross”.
We should always consider whether we ourselves are protecting Jesus and Mary, for they are also mysteriously entrusted to our own responsibility, care and safekeeping. The Son of the Almighty came into our world in a state of great vulnerability. He needed to be defended, protected, cared for and raised by Joseph. God trusted Joseph, as did Mary, who found in him someone who would not only save her life, but would always provide for her and her child. In this sense, Saint Joseph could not be other than the Guardian of the Church, for the Church is the continuation of the Body of Christ in history, even as Mary’s motherhood is reflected in the motherhood of the Church. In his continued protection of the Church, Joseph continues to protect the child and his mother, and we too, by our love for the Church, continue to love the child and his mother.
That child would go on to say: “As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Consequently, every poor, needy, suffering or dying person, every stranger, every prisoner, every infirm person is “the child” whom Joseph continues to protect. For this reason, Saint Joseph is invoked as protector of the unfortunate, the needy, exiles, the afflicted, the poor and the dying. Consequently, the Church cannot fail to show a special love for the least of our brothers and sisters, for Jesus showed a particular concern for them and personally identified with them. From Saint Joseph, we must learn that same care and responsibility. We must learn to love the child and his mother, to love the sacraments and charity, to love the Church and the poor. Each of these realities is always the child and his mother.
I look upon it as a great grace that in spite of my tepid life Jesus has given me an ardent desire to love Him. I long eagerly to love my Jesus passionately, with an intense ardent love such as the saints had; and yet I remain cold and indifferent with little zeal for His glory.
Fr Willie Doyle S.J. wrote these words during the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises, you can read the full diary entry if you follow this link.
Surely most of us remain ‘cold and indifferent with little zeal’ for much of the time. We talk of getting through the week on autopilot. We cannot all give up four weeks to follow the Exercises of Saint Ignatius. We hardly notice Lent is underway; indeed we go to work, cook the meals, get the children to school, change a nappy. We may be so tired, so tepid, that we cannot feel ardent as we go about our duties, but Jesus says we will be judged on what we did to the little ones, not how passionate our feelings were. Sometimes love demands above all perseverance and faithfulness in little things; sometimes getting on with undesirable or dangerous tasks, at risk of injury, infection or insult. Indeed, sometimes we need to be cold and indifferent to get on with the task in hand.
I came across Fr Doyle when reading about sacrifice in the Great War, 1914-18. Some years after this entry he volunteered as a military chaplain and won a reputation as a brave pastor to the men he served with. He would go out into No Man’s Land to bring back the wounded or give them the sacraments. He is considered a Servant of God, and his cause for canonisation has begun. The link will open within the official website of the cause.
More reflections on vocation tomorrow and the following day when we hear Mary’s ‘yes’ and follow where it led her.
Tomas Halik was ordained secretly when the Church was being persecuted in Czechoslovakia, and is still in active ministry as a university teacher. He was asked to give the opening address to the European Continental Assembly in Prague, his home city. This is an extract, the whole speech can be found here.
At the beginning of their history, when Christians were asked what was new about their practice, whether it was a new religion or a new philosophy, they answered: it is the way. It is the way of following the one who said: I am the Way. Christians have constantly returned to this vision throughout history, especially in times of crisis…
[The Synod] is a short portion of a long journey. This small but important fragment of the historical experience of European Christianity must be placed in a wider context, in the colourful mosaic of the global Christianity of the future. We have to say clearly and comprehensibly what European Christianity today wants and can do to respond to the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of our whole planet – this planet which is interconnected today in many ways and at the same time is divided and globally threatened in many ways. We are meeting in a country with a dramatic religious history.
This includes the beginnings of the Reformation in the 14th century, the religious wars in the 15th and 17th centuries and the severe persecution of the Church in the 20th century. In the jails and concentration camps of Hitlerism and Stalinism, Christians learned practical ecumenism and dialogue with nonbelievers, solidarity, sharing, poverty, the “science of the cross.” This country has undergone three waves of secularisation as a result of socio-cultural changes: a “soft secularisation” in the rapid transition from an agrarian to an industrial society; a hard violent secularization under the communist regime; and another “soft secularisation” in the transition from a totalitarian society to a fragile pluralistic democracy in the post-modern era. It is precisely the transformations, crises and trials that challenge us to find new paths and opportunities for a deeper understanding of what is essential. Pope Benedict, on a visit to this country, first expressed the idea that the Church should, like the Temple of Jerusalem, form a “courtyard of the Gentiles”.
We believe and confess that the Church is a mystery, a sacrament, a sign (signum) – a sign of the unity of all humanity in Christ. The Church is a dynamic sacrament, it is a way to that goal. Total unification is an eschatological goal that can only be fully realized at the end of history. Only then will the Church be completely and perfectly one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Only then will we see and mirror God fully, just as He is.
Christianity was the way in the beginning, and it is to be the way now and forever. So it was in the beginning, so it must be now and forever. The Church as a communion of pilgrims is a living organism, which means always to be open, transforming and evolving. Synodality, a common journey (syn hodos), means a constant openness to the Spirit of God, through whom the risen, living Christ lives and works in the Church. The synod is an opportunity to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the churches today.
The photograph shows one of the demonstrations in Wenceslas Square in Prague that led to the overturning of Communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia.
There is a tradition for the Pope to greet pilgrims at Angelus time around midday and share a few thoughts, often on the readings for the day. We are glad to offer a selection from Pope Benedict XVI’s reflections, aimed at a general audience rather than academic theologians. Sometimes there are interesting asides addressed to particular groups of pilgrims, showing Benedict’s human side. This Advent reflection was given in Saint Peter’s Square, Second Sunday of Advent, 5 December 2010
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Gospel of this Second Sunday of Advent (Mt 3:1-12), presents to us the figure of St John the Baptist, who, a famous prophecy of Isaiah says (cf. 40:3), withdrew to the desert of Judaea and, with his preaching, called the people to convert so as to be ready for the coming of the Messiah, now at hand.
St Gregory the Great commented that John the Baptist “preaches upright faith and good works… so that the force of grace may penetrate, the light of the truth shine out, the paths to God be straightened and honest thoughts be born in the mind after hearing the word that guides us to goodness” (Hom. in Evangelia, XX, 3, CCL 141, 155).
The Precursor of Jesus, situated between the Old Covenant and the New, is like a star that heralds the rising of the Sun, of Christ, the One, that is, upon whom — according to another of Isaiah’s prophecies — “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest… the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Is 11:2).
In the Season of Advent we too are called to listen to God’s voice, that cries out in the desert of the world through the Sacred Scriptures, especially when they are preached with the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, faith grows all the stronger the more it allows itself to be illumined by the divine word, by “whatever”, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “was written in former days [and] written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).
The model of listening is the Virgin Mary: “As we contemplate in the Mother of God a life totally shaped by the word, we realize that we too are called to enter into the mystery of faith, whereby Christ comes to dwell in our lives. Every Christian believer, St Ambrose reminds us, in some way interiorly conceives and gives birth to the word of God” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, n. 28).
Dear friends, “Our salvation rests on a coming”, as Romano Guardini wrote (La santa notte. Dall’Avvento all’Epifania, Brescia 1994, p. 13). “The Saviour came from God’s freedom…. Thus the decision of faith consists… in welcoming the One who draws near” (ibid., p. 14).
“The Redeemer”, he added, “comes to every human being: in his joy and his anguish, in his clear knowledge, in his perplexities and temptations, in all that constitutes his nature and his life” (ibid., p. 15).
Let us ask the Virgin Mary, in whose womb the Son of the Most High dwelled and whom we shall be celebrating next Wednesday, 8 December, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, to sustain us on this spiritual journey to welcome with faith and with love the coming of the Saviour.
Holy Father’s appeal
In this Advent Season, in which we are called to foster our expectation of the Lord and to welcome him among us, I ask you to pray for all the situations of violence, of intolerance and of suffering that exist in the world, so that the coming of Jesus may bring us consolation, reconciliation and peace. I am thinking of many difficult situations, such as the constant attacks against Christians and Muslims that are occurring in Iraq, of the clashes in Egypt in which people were killed and injured, of the victims of traffickers and criminals, such as the drama of the Eritrean hostages and those of other nationalities in the Sinai Desert. Respect for the rights of all is the indispensable condition for civil co-existence. May our prayers to the Lord and our solidarity bring hope to all those who are suffering.
* * *
After the Angelus:
I am happy to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present for this Angelus prayer. The Liturgy of the Second Sunday in Advent invites us to prepare our hearts for the great mystery of the Incarnation. May Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, grant us his grace so that during this time of Advent we may grow ever more faithful to his unfailing love. I wish you all a pleasant stay in Rome, and a blessed Sunday!
It will soon be a year since the war began in Ukraine. Here is an article from Missio.org.uk describing some of the ways in which the Church supports refugees in the surrounding countries of Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
In Romania, local parishioners are doing what they can to provide mattresses, bedsheets, pillows, and food, as well as nappies and basic sanitary items.
The National Director for Missio in Romania, Fr Eugen, shared: ‘I recently received two young women with a child. They told me very simply: “We want to stay the three of us in the same room; we do not have any food; we do not have any money; we want to stay until we find a job and get some money to be able to rent a room and to get the basic things for living”. I try to provide what they need, and I also pray for them to get a job to be able to live independently.
‘I try to understand their souls: to understand how hard it is to daily depend on the compassion of others for an undetermined time, to start life from zero and with the family split by the war. May God have compassion on them’.
John* is a Ukrainian currently residing in a Catholic parish house in Romania. When the war broke out in February, John was working overseas. He knows that the government has banned all men aged 18-60 from leaving the country, and fears that he will be forced to join the Ukrainian military if he was to return home. The conflict continues to rage, but John does not want to fight, saying: ‘I don’t want to kill or be killed’. If John was to return now, he fears that he will possibly be arrested, jailed, fined and penalised by having his citizenship stripped. He explained that the conflict is multifaceted; there are political, historical, economic, cultural and social complexities that make a ceasefire almost impossible. He indicated that what we see in the media and the reality of the situation are very different.
‘We don’t know when the war will be stopping. It is very dangerous for everybody… I ask all of the world, for help to stop this war. We need to stop this war so everybody can go back home’.
John is almost completely dependant on the charity of our global Church: ‘I am very grateful to Fr Eugen because he found us this place – to come here and to live here. Not only me, but other Ukrainian refugees have been able to live here. All of us are very, very grateful to the Catholic Church as they have helped us very much, regardless of religion or denomination to which we belong. Really, we cannot forget this experience, this help that we got from the Catholic Church’.
The Catholic Church in Romania and surrounding countries continues to provide accommodation, food and emergency packages containing essential toiletries to those who have arrived with nothing. Trauma counselling, education and employment are also being provided, where possible.
Please continue to pray for peace in Ukraine.
*John’s name has been changed to protect his identity
These lands, situated in the centre of the great African continent, have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the east of the country, suffers from armed clashes and exploitation. South Sudan, wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence that forces many people to be displaced and to live in conditions of great hardship. In South Sudan, I will arrive together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Together, as brothers, we will make an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace, to entreat God and men to bring an end to the hostilities and for reconciliation.
I ask everyone, please, to accompany this Journey with their prayers.
And I wish everyone a good Sunday. And please, do not forget to pray for me. Enjoy your lunch and arrivederci!
I was led to Robert Southey’s poem which follows, by this paragraph from one of Charles Lamb’s letters to him. Lamb offers some observations to his friend:
I think you are too apt to conclude faintly, with some cold moral, as in the end of the poem called “The Victory”— “Be thou her comforter, who art the widow’s friend;” a single common-place line of comfort, which bears no proportion in weight or number to the many lines which describe suffering. This is to convert religion into mediocre feelings, which should burn, and glow, and tremble. A moral should be wrought into the body and soul, the matter and tendency, of a poem, not tagged to the end, like a “God send the good ship into harbour,” at the conclusion of our bills of lading.
The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb
A bill of lading is a list of all a ship’s cargo agreed between the Master of the vessel and the shipping line. A little prayer at the end could be sincere or just a form of words, though there was plenty of peril on the sea in those days. But here is Southey’s The Victory. Lawful violence would be the press gang, a posse of sailors who were allowed to abduct men off the street to serve in the wars against Napoleon and other enemies.
I disagree with Lamb on this. I sense the same anger as in Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est of a century or so later, with the poem building towards its final ferocious prayer which was meant to change human hearts. What do you think?
Hark–how the church-bells thundering harmony Stuns the glad ear! tidings of joy have come, Good tidings of great joy! two gallant ships Met on the element,–they met, they fought A desperate fight!–good tidings of great joy! Old England triumphed! yet another day Of glory for the ruler of the waves! For those who fell, ’twas in their country’s cause, They have their passing paragraphs of praise And are forgotten. There was one who died In that day’s glory, whose obscurer name No proud historian’s page will chronicle. Peace to his honest soul! I read his name, ‘Twas in the list of slaughter, and blest God The sound was not familiar to mine ear. But it was told me after that this man Was one whom lawful violence had forced From his own home and wife and little ones, Who by his labour lived; that he was one Whose uncorrupted heart could keenly feel A husband’s love, a father’s anxiousness, That from the wages of his toil he fed The distant dear ones, and would talk of them At midnight when he trod the silent deck With him he valued, talk of them, of joys That he had known–oh God! and of the hour When they should meet again, till his full heart His manly heart at last would overflow Even like a child’s with very tenderness. Peace to his honest spirit! suddenly It came, and merciful the ball of death, For it came suddenly and shattered him, And left no moment’s agonising thought On those he loved so well. He ocean deep Now lies at rest. Be Thou her comforter Who art the widow’s friend! Man does not know What a cold sickness made her blood run back When first she heard the tidings of the fight; Man does not know with what a dreadful hope She listened to the names of those who died, Man does not know, or knowing will not heed, With what an agony of tenderness She gazed upon her children, and beheld His image who was gone. Oh God! be thou Her comforter who art the widow’s friend!
If you should hear my name among those killed, Say you have lost a friend, half man, half boy, Who, if the years had spared him might have built Within him courage strength and harmony. Uncouth and garrulous his tangled mind, Seething with warm ideas of truth and light, His help was worthless. Yet had fate been kind He might have learned to steel himself and fight. He thought he loved you. By what right could he Claim such high praise, who only felt his frame Riddled with burning lead, and failed to see His own false pride behind the barrel’s flame? Say you have lost a friend and then forget. Stronger and truer ones are with you yet.
Frank Thompson went to war as a young man after his first year at university. He ended up with partisan fighters in Bulgaria, where he was captured by the Nazis and murdered together with his Bulgarian comrades. Irushka was Iris Murdoch, his beloved.
The poem is not about Irushka at all, but about himself, ‘Seething with warm ideas of truth and light’, enough to send him to war in the romantic spirit of Rupert Brooke. It hardly mattered that he would be killed, ‘his help was worthless’. No question in this poem of the rights or wrongs of Nations going to war, nor his duty or otherwise to go there and steel himself to fight against physical deprivation as well as the enemy.
War as romantic but empty of meaning, only false pride.