Catholics for a Changing Church

Catholic Women Preach

A tremendous resource for the church --James Martin, SJ, author of Learning to Pray.

"As you listen with the ear of your heart to the wisdom of women, may you, too, be emboldened to preach the word with persistence at all times and in all ways."--Barbara E. Reid, O.P., from the Foreword

"In this book, Betty Anne Donnelly and Russ Petrus have gathered a liturgical year's worth of wisdom from some of the most insightful, gifted Catholic women of our day. This text will accompany Catholics in prayer and reflection. It will inspire preachers and hearers of God's word. Most importantly, it will remind us all that women's voices have been at the heart of the Christian message since Mary Magdalene first witnessed the empty tomb on Easter morning."--Natalia Imperatori-Lee, author, Cúentame: Narrative in the Ecclesial Present

"From the first Pentecost to our own day, the Spirit continues to pour out abundant gifts on the whole People of God. Central to the gifts bestowed in baptism is the commission to women as well as to men from every nation to proclaim the good news that 'the reign of God is at hand.' This volume of preaching by faith-filled missionary disciples from around the globe is a valuable response to the call of Pope Francis for a 'more incisive role for women' in the Church's mission. The testimony of these women inspires unexpected hope and suggests creative possibilities for a fuller hearing--and living--of the Gospel. At the same time, the collection raises the disturbing question of why we so rarely hear the Gospel preached by women."--Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame
From the Back Cover

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BOOK REVIEW: A Creed for Today

 by Frank Regan

Donal Dorr, A Creed for Today: Faith and Commitment for Our New Earth Awareness, Orbis, (2021),  pb, 258 pp, ISBN-978-1626983878, £18.99 

To write a creed for believers is a delicate task. Creeds are elaborated for a body of people who need clarity and stability regarding the truths they believe and accept. Any deviation can incur expulsion or persecution or shunning.

Donal Dorr, no stranger to readers of Spirituality, does our church a service in presenting in readable, accessible form, a theology and spirituality for our age. Our age has been described as Anthropocene and ecozoic. The former refers to the human beings’ supremacy over the environment and the impact, usually dangerous, they have had upon it. The latter term seeks to convey a respect and esteem for all of life of which human life is one among millions of species. Dorr’s accent is on the ecozoic, where we all should be.

Vatican II and Beyond

Our author reminds us of the legacy of Vatican II. The most important effect it has had on us is that we are developing an ever wider and deeper vision of church which is a People of God in history and creation for the life of the world. We are leaving behind a stale escapist spirituality which distanced us from the world with its struggling humanity and endangered environment.

We have taken seriously the mystery of the Incarnation. This introduces us, so to speak, and at the same time reveals to us a God who is incomprehensible, yet also approachable, personal and trustworthy. Vatican II, inspired by that mystery, situated us in the midst of a humanity which suffers, which strives for betterment and does not lose hope.  Our God is a God whose love for us is constant and steadfast. God’s love is expressed by mercy and compassion since God the Son knows the clay of which we are made. 

In the years since Vatican II, we have gradually become aware of our planet’s delicate condition. Symptoms such as earthquakes, the disappearance of polar and Andean ice, methane escapage, wildfires, desertification, rising planet-wide temperature and other phenomena all alert us to a situation which calls for radical remedial action.

Increasing numbers of Christians have become deeply involved in the life-struggle of the planet. Catholics arrived late on the scene due in large part to political shenanigans within the Vatican. The World Council of Churches is two decades ahead of the Roman Church. It is only with the present Pope that there has been a sharper focus, a deeper commitment and an ecology-driven spirituality to animate, enthuse and energize Catholics all over the world.

The Components of a Creed for Today

That is why Donal Dorr’s project of a Creed for Today, true to the Church’s creedal tradition, is a necessary expression of what Catholic Christians—and others—believe is a faith able to address the planetary concerns of all women and men of good will. Dorr’s method will be to add, at the end of almost each chapter, elements which emerge from the material he has touched on in the chapter. Each line of the emerging Creed will invite to reflection and prayer.

It is an old piece of wisdom that we can measure how much we love God only by measuring how much we love those closest to us. That perspective has been opening out like a morning flower to include the suffering Earth, a living being just like ourselves. It came into existence 13.8 billion years ago. From the moment it exploded from God’s womb into fiery life, God blessed it and saw that it was good. We are born from the womb of Earth, our Mother. We were blessed at birth and that blessing, despite all the evil, has never been rescinded.  

When prose fails, our author recurs to poetry, as we all do when we need help to convey the mystery. He quotes a few lines from the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, one of my favourite bards:

              I have seen the sun break through
              to illumine a small field
              for a while, and gone my way
              and forgotten it. But that was the
              pearl of great price….

I have forgotten who said it, but said it true: “God’s religion is poetry.” Dorr’s text abounds in poetry and psalmody.

Central to Donal Dorr’s creedal statement is what we believe the human being is. The human person is unique and inimitable, and loved by God. Our one humanity expresses itself in a glorious diversity. We women and men, young and old, able and disabled, physically or mentally ill, born and unborn, of every ethnic group, gay or lesbian, transgender or non-binary—all equally loved by God.

He takes up the thorny and delicate issue of sex and gender. We are now beyond the concept of sexual identity being determined by body parts and biology. We now think in terms of hormones and chemistry, genes and chromosomes. There is a newly spoken of difference between sex and gender. We now talk about gender dysphoria, gay rights and marriage, transgender and cisgender et al. Our author cautions the teaching church that it should “hang fire” before pontificating about them.

Modern science is still investigating on the basis of observation, statistics and repeated verification. The church will have to distance itself from its model of an ideal, entirely biological, sexual being. Instead it should be attentive to what science is discovering about the fluidity of biological identity and the uncertain stability of gender.

Most of us know persons who live the drama and confusion of struggling to know their sexual selves. They are as much in need of our support, love and compassion as you or I might be in similar circumstances, or indeed as Jesus himself were he here today.

Dorr reminds us that Jesus was fully human. Though we know nothing of his growth into a sexual human being, we do know he was fully vulnerable, fully fragile, entirely open to relationships, often intimate, with other persons, men and women alike. He was fully limited within his culture and social situation. Like us all, he needed to know and be assured of God’s overwhelming love. This happened at his baptism when he heard the Father’s words: “You are my beloved son…”, and experienced his power and love: “in you I take delight”.

Our Spirituality

I have always liked the description of spirituality as the Spirit energising us to ‘walk and walk’. Spirituality is as much a journey ‘ad extra’ as a journey ‘ad intra’. It is not an out-of-body experience. It is an embodied response and understanding of life as given for the life of the world.

Donal Dorr expands our vision and advances our journey by relating them to the Spirit of God creating our evolving universe. Our universe, our world, our planet and ourselves are in an ongoing process of evolution. The process of evolution “enables the created universe to be a co-creator with the Spirit of God”. He recalls Teilhard’s intuition that love is the very physical structure of the universe. Science informs us that atoms have shape and structure and tend to coalesce into molecules. And the atoms themselves are composed of sub-atomic particles.

All of a sudden, we are in the sphere of quantum theory and quantum theology about which the Irish theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu wrote many years ago. In this sphere energy and matter are different states of the same relativity; space and time take on new meaning; and certainty is much less important than uncertainty, or unpredictability. Even here love is the agent, the energy, the structure and the allure which draws all creation to fulfilment in a new humanity, a new creation: the risen Christ, the Omega where all is transformation and transfiguration.  

Donal Dorr has given us a creed which sustains our faith and commitment to a God of history and a God of creation incarnate in Jesus Christ whose body we are. The book broadens the horizon of an evolving creation. It also deepens our spirituality to incarnate our spirit to immerse ourselves in a process over which we have no control, a process entirely unpredictable and yet, paradoxically, where we exercise our human freedom and human loving.

BOOK REVIEW: The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History

by Robert Weaver

Robert Weaver taught Religion and Philosophy at Dulwich College London for some 30 years; he is now the Keeper of the Fellows’ Library there, promoting the antiquarian books therein.  A practising Anglican, he has interests in monastic history and mediaeval liturgical manuscript fragments.  He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

James, G Clark, The Dissolution of the Monasteries: A New History, Yale University Press, 2021) hb, 704 pp, ‎ ISBN: 978-0300115727, £18.52.

Our current generation has a fascination for things Tudor—witness the fiction of Hilary Mantel, J C Samson and non-fiction steady sellers Diarmaid MacCulloch and Eamon Duffy.  At a five hundred year gap, there is not the supposed remoteness of the mediaeval world nor the almost tangibility of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and perhaps next century it will be the first Elizabethans with all the drama of the Armada years which will intrigue.

Given the plethora of publications, yet another heavyweight volume on Henrician machinations would seem to need justification, but James Clark, not widely known outside academic circles, has produced the definitive analysis to date of the mechanics of dismantling the English monastic landscape 1536-40, as prelude to royal religious reforming principles.  Clark has form, masterminding a little-heralded but superb exhibition at St Albans Town Museum last year on the monastic life of the local abbey, assembling a stunning select range of mediaeval manuscripts from Bodley, British Library, and Oxbridge libraries—a singular achievement for a provincial museum.

The book under review is one for dipping into as reference rather than extended read, for the prose is analytical and fulsome in detail within its 700-plus pages, with a worthy section devoted to notes.  A single page might cite something like 20 references to monastic houses, so that there is a danger of sometimes losing sight of the main thread of the argument.  What is not in doubt is the magisterial sweep of coverage of the physical process whereby something near a thousand years of monastic presence in the English landscape was expunged in one of the largest land-grabs in the nation, reallocation not only to furnish Royal coffers but compliant aristocrats.  What comes across is the lack of objection from the inmates by and large.

The dissolution was certainly a major cause of the biggest rebellion in Tudor times, the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536).  It is with some wistfulness that progressive Catholics will note the paucity of pension awards assigned to women monastics, bar the exceptions at the very top, notably to the Abbess of Shaftesbury, with her estates rivalling those of the extraordinary feudal reign of her counterpart at Las Huelgas near Burgos, where this aristocratic monastic dynasty had powers of life and death across a vast swathe of mediaeval northern Spain.

In some cases, pace Baskerville’s 19th century lament for lost bare ruined choirs of wantonly destroyed abbeys, and the quiet sadness of Dom David Knowles’ third volume of his seminal Religious Orders of England, some religious houses had either dwindled or lost contact with their supporting local lay communities—witness Roche Abbey’s physical pillaging of stone immediately upon dissolution by locals, one desperate inmate pathetically trying to sell off the door to his now redundant cell.  Attendance at major shrines in the care of monks also had fallen off by the late 15th century, e.g. at St Thomas’ at Canterbury, while the initial spurt of 12th century Cistercian foundations in the northern wilds of England had lost their impetus and austerity, witness Abbot Huby’s colossal tower at Fountains (forbidden for Cistercians in former times).

To furnish a fuller picture it is worth noting that dissolution was not an entirely new 1530s reform;  earlier closures had included failing small houses sacrificed for major educational projects (Wolsey at Christchurch and Ipswich colleges) or those with unfashionable links viz. the alien houses with links abroad (e.g. those closed under Henry V during the Hundred Years’ War), although Clark is at pains to insist that the 1530s dissolution was significantly different in scale to anything that had happened before.

To balance this, many major establishments were still recruiting novices right up through the 1530s and were in respectable order, as in Durham Priory where the King’s Commissioners arrived to close it down during vespers.  The fate of monastic libraries can be charted in specialist publications elsewhere, but perhaps a fuller picture than is given in this volume would have guided the lay reader. 

Monastic cathedrals sometimes preserved their capitular book collections surprisingly intact, as at Durham, for it was the texts for study stored in cloister armarius cupboards and spendiment chambers that were more easily dispersed, whether taken by their last readers for their retirement or pilfered, eventually landing up in the London book trade of Paternoster by St Paul’s for later antiquarian-minded Elizabethan collectors (N.B. we curate at Dulwich College one such 14th century survival from the mediaeval spendiment collection from Durham Priory, with accompanying anathema curse).

Canterbury’s two foundations, St Augustine’s Abbey and Christchurch, saw their libraries dispersed, as part of the picture of scattering and destruction.  With Henry’s religious reforms, the first casualties in books were the newly redundant Latin liturgical texts and canon law, based as they were on obedience to Rome.

Of what concern should all this, at a 500-year distance, be to the current  Catholic faithful?  Once again, English monasticism is enduring a more muted seismic change, this time from within, which threatens its continued existence, after being steadily built up and restored over the last 200 years.  The spate of abuse scandals which have brought about severance of monastic communities, primarily Benedictine, from their teaching roles, have scarred the Catholic landscape.  Flagship communities such as Downside, beacons of scholarship and culture, have seen their numbers dwindle to force leaving their Grade 1 listed Abbey and Library for a period of discernment within Buckfast this last year.

James Clark’s volume is a timely, thorough analysis of the dismantling of what was a ‘given’ right up to 1540, affecting a wide variety of laypeople and religious right across the country; it is not an easy text to work through and its cool tone may strike the reader wishing for a more passionate view as rather clinical, but it is still the last word on the material aspects of a fascinating story and within the mass of detail are messages relevant for our own era of change and decay.

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BOOK REVIEW: Becoming a Pastoral Parish Council

Becoming a Pastoral Parish Councilby Jo Siedlecka 

Patricia Carroll, Becoming a Pastoral Parish Council: How to make your PPC really useful for the twenty-first century, foreword by Archbishop Dermot Farrell (Ireland and UK, Messenger Publications), pb, 80 pp, ISBN: 9781788125208, £8.95

This review was published by Independent Catholic News and is reprinted here with permission.

Although the Church maintained engagement with parishioners and quickly pivoted to online Mass during the Covid crisis, one thing that did inevitably suffer was pastoral outreach.  Whilst daily worship continued and some of the sacraments were carried out, the task of nourishing and developing the parish community was beyond the possibilities afforded by continued lockdowns.

A new book arrives at a crucial juncture as the easing of restrictions allows for the return of pastoral engagement with the individuals, families and groups that constitute a parish.  Becoming a Pastoral Parish Council: How to make your PPC really useful for the twenty-first century by Patricia Carroll sets out to clarify and explore the role that PPCs can play in the future pastoral development of a parish.  The book carries a foreword by Archbishop Dermot Farrell and focuses on the purpose of the parish community within the context of the five P's of the PPC: Pastoral, Prayerful, Partnership, Planning and Participation.

Informed by Evangelli Gaudium, the book integrates the pastoral theology of Pope Francis into every chapter with a view to preparing for the challenges and opportunities that are present for the twenty-first century parish.  It will be of interest to and a resource for those working in lay ministry and faith development as well as parish workers, diocesan officers, and those interested in synodality and parish pastoral development.

Originally from Scotland, Patricia Carroll is Director for Mission and Ministry in the Archdiocese of Dublin.  She has worked for over twenty years in the area of developing lay people for ministries both as a practitioner in parish pastoral work and as an educator of lay people.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Spirit of Catholicism

by Frank Regan

Vivian Boland OP, The Spirit of Catholicism, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021, hb, 272 pp, ISBN: 978-1441178022, £16.99.

Apart from the United Nations, the Roman Catholic Church is probably the largest organisation in the world.  It is multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-racial and extended throughout the planet.  It has preached its message to all of humanity.  Its organisation involves, somehow, every one of its 1.2 billion adherents.  Its central government is among the strongest ever known in human history.  The allegiance and loyalty it attracts is almost beyond belief. 

Vivian Boland, Dominican friar and professor of theology at the Angelicum University in Rome, has written this book at a moment of crisis in the Roman Church.  Scandals of sexual and financial nature have disfigured it; political, cultural and theological differences have divided it.  Modern society no longer ‘does’ God.  God’s representatives are out of touch, exhausted, decreasing in numbers and out of step with the younger generation.

Boland’s book, as pointed out in his Introduction, is one in a long line of writings on the Church in culture, history and society.  The author recalls John Henry Newman’s, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.  He points to Karl Adam’s, The Spirit of Catholicism, to Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (1938), and to Romano Guardini, who wrote several essays from the midst of the gloom and despair of World War II.

These authors were quite sensitive to the currents and trends of their time and place.  Vivian Boland offers a new reflection on ‘the Catholic thing’, rooted in the Tradition.  He wants to state once again the wealth of intellect, spirit, imagination and creativity which still characterise the Catholic Church even today.

The book is neither apologetic nor controversial.  Boland seeks to state once again what is at the heart of Catholicism.  He makes use of the latest biblical scholarship.  He dips deeply into the Church’s spiritual riches.  And he makes use of the multi-storeyed theological edifice built up from the early centuries.

The spirit Vivian Boland points to is the fact that it is an embodied spirit.  Since the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, human and divine, the Church has been immersed in earthly realities and in human concerns.  Under the leadership of Pope Francis, for example, the Church continues to reach out to the poor and afflicted, to criticise those structures and organisations which obstruct the growth of the human being, and has now embraced the planet and its life-systems as central to its evangelical mission.

The Church talks about itself through many different images and metaphors.  Boland emphasises three: People of God, Kingdom and Body of Christ.

The image of People of God was the one preferred by the Bishops at Vatican II.  They put the faithful on an equal footing with the clergy, as though in a concentric circle instead of a pyramid.  The late Jeremiah Newman, Bishop of Limerick during the 1970s, explained Vatican II’s preference for the image of People of God by saying that 'everybody in the diocese is equal, from me down'.  Some chuckled sardonically: others frowned: a hierarch always a hierarch.

The image of kingdom recalls the centrality of Kingdom of God in the preaching and practice of Jesus.  He spoke of it as a coming reign of peace with justice and wholeness (or holiness).  He also said that the kingdom was among his followers and also in the invisible depths of each one, where the deep of oneself spoke to the Deep mysteriously inhabiting each one.  The image of Body of Christ points to our Christian anthropology.  We are one in the resurrected Christ as we overcome our divided selves and recognise the cross of Christ as a shared burden and a shared joy.

Boland dedicates chapter 5 to the forms of corruption in our corporate body.  We are carriers of death as well as of resurrection.  We are no angels.  Chapters 3 and 4 of Acts dedicate a few lines to describing an ideal Christian community.  But by chapter 5 there are already signs of an opening fissure.

Pope Francis is very concerned about reforming the Church’s structures.  He has initiated a project called Synodality, whereby all the People of God are invited to voice their experiences, concerns and hopes as they journey in faith.  Clericalism is a great obstacle.  Francis has called it the dark side of our Church.  He has also been critical of some episcopal bodies like the North American, which has opted for a single-issue approach to its contribution to a wider political debate.  Their obsession with abortion has prompted the Pope to observe, with characteristic Italian-Argentine piquancy: they are 'putting their entire theology into a condom'.

The final portion of the book is dedicated to a dense and far-reaching summing up of the Spirit of Catholicism as sacrament and practice of the Trinitarian community.  That community finds its dynamic in mission for the life of the world; in the indwelling Spirit in each of us, and in the never-ending dance of relationship with God, with each other and with all of creation.

This is a book of great theological depth and erudition, of profound biblical insight and spiritual vitality.  It is a book to renew one’s Catholic feeling about identity, a book to ponder, a book with which to pray.

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